Philosophical Screens: Professione: Reporter/The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy/Spain/France, 1975)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Italian Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Spanish film, Uncategorized

This is a written version of sorts of the analysis that I gave on 17 January 2019 after a screening of The Passenger, a film featuring as part of the British Film Institute‘s Michelangelo Antonioni season, and which analysis was part of their ongoing Philosophical Screens series.

The discussion involved contributions from John Ó Maoilearca from Kingston University, and Lucy Bolton from Queen Mary, University of London, as well as from many audience members.

I shall try to stick only to what I said, even if this means foregoing some of the wonderful comments and ideas expressed by those other participants, including a brief if fruitful discussion of the relationship between the philosopher John Locke and the film’s lead character, David Locke (Jack Nicholson).

For, if the former represents something like a dualistic world view, then the latter comes to represent something of a progression away from that, not least as Locke leaves behind his identity as Locke and assumes the identity of David Robertson.

For, The Passenger tells the story of a journalist, Locke, who encounters Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) at a tiny hotel in a small town in an anonymous African country, where they get drunk – in spite of the doctor’s advice for the latter not to.

After a relatively fruitless day of looking for rebels whom he can include in his documentary, and after getting his Land Rover stuck in the desert, Locke returns home to find Robertson dead – apparently from a heart attack.

Seizing his opportunity (not least because he looks a bit like Robertson and the locals will not be able to tell them apart), Locke assumes Robertson’s identity and says that it is Locke who has died.

Former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) and estranged wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) mourn Locke back in London, where the latter goes to pick up some stuff from his home and to check out Robertson’s world.

Indeed, before going to his Notting Hill home, Locke visits the Brunswick Centre, where he passes a girl (Maria Schneider) whom he will again encounter in Barcelona.

But Locke will not get to Barcelona before using Robertson’s ticket to head to Munich, where he discovers that Robertson was/is an arms dealer, and who was/is involved in supplying arms to the rebels in the nameless African country where the opening sequences of The Passenger took place (and which generally are thought to be based on Chad, about which more later).

As implied above, this is the first of several scheduled encounters between Robertson and the rebels, who are led by a man called Achebe (Ambroise Bia). However, after Achebe is abducted by presidential agents in Barcelona, that meeting does not take place.

Nor do the subsequent meetings that Robertson was supposed to have – at least according to the schedule in Robertson’s diary – in a (fictional) place called San Ferdinando and then at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna.

For, and here are some SPOILERS, after discovering that Robertson was with Locke the night before the latter supposedly died, Knight and Rachel both decide to try to track Robertson down.

As a result, when Knight nearly discovers in Barcelona that Robertson is in fact Locke, Locke has to go on the run – and where better to go than to the meetings that Robertson had scheduled, not least because they have led to him receiving a substantial sum of money from the African rebels?

What is more, Locke does this with the girl from the Brunswick Centre, who by seeming coincidence also happens to be in Barcelona when he is – supposedly looking at architecture as part of her studies.

Indeed, it is at what appears to be Antoni Gaudí’s Palau Guëll that Locke encounters the girl for the first time in Barcelona, before then catching up with her again at La Pedrera after spotting Knight on the Ramblas near his hotel.

Locke has chased the girl down to ask her to get his stuff from the hotel. This she does, and after the girl has evaded Knight, the pair travel on south towards Osuna via San Ferdinando.

Hearing that Robertson is being evasive, a curious Rachel also goes to Spain – but not after visiting the embassy of the African country in which Locke and Robertson were both working.

Knowing that Robertson is a gun runner for the rebels, the ambassador has his men follow Rachel, which ultimately results in the government forces finding Locke at the Hotel de la Gloria, where they assassinate him before Rachel can arrive with the local police.

Faced with Locke’s body, Rachel says that she does not know this man, while the girl identifies him as Robertson – and the film closes.

But beyond this synopsis of the film, what is also crucial is the film’s style, which I hope to explore in more detail in what follows – not least by picking up on numerous details that Antonioni features in his mise-en-scène.

My basic suggestion is that – however problematically – Locke has a primordial encounter in Africa, and this means that he can no longer remain who he was, in particular a dispassionate image-maker and reporter who is not directly with, but who rather observes the world. As Knight says of him in a televised discussion of Locke’s work: he had ‘a kind of detachment.’

The reason why this encounter is problematic is because it runs the risk of mythologising Africa, a mythologisation that might be as much my invention as I read it as being Antonioni’s.

That said, I hope that the evidence I present will suggest that this is at least as much Antonioni’s as it is my invention, while at the same time not necessarily being wholly unjust from a political perspective.

Twice in the film, Locke is asked whether he finds the landscape beautiful – once towards the start of the movie when Robertson asks him about the desert landscape by the small-town hotel, and once towards the end of the movie when Locke’s hire car has broken down and he looks at the desert landscape with the girl.

Notably, Locke’s answer changes in the interim between these two questions. For, the first time that he is asked, Locke shows little interest, suggesting that he prefers men to landscapes, to which Robertson replies: ‘There are men who live in the desert.’

The second time, meanwhile, the girl asks Locke whether he finds the landscape beautiful, to which Locke responds: ‘Yes, it’s very beautiful.’

In other words, Locke’s attitude towards the landscape has changed. What has happened?

Well, for one thing, anyone who has lived in, or even visited, a desert knows that sand gets everywhere (indeed, as I suggested at the BFI, Locke’s stuff is remarkably clean when it is returned to Rachel by the ambassador).

That is, the sand of the desert demonstrates that humans are incapable of controlling the space in which they live. For, try as they might to keep things like sand and dirt out, it always creeps in.

Now, architecture plays a prominent part in The Passenger, as the prominence of spaces like the Brunswick Centre and the Gaudí buildings makes clear.

Architecture is thus in some senses an attempt by humans to control space – to create a space that is free from the ravages of the desert, and of nature more generally.

Certainly, the London architecture of the Brunswick Centre would suggest this… while in Africa and in Spain, The Passenger is full of what I would call ‘porous’ architecture.

I call it porous architecture because repeatedly we see open windows and doors, and/or we see through open windows and doors, which themselves suggest not a shutting off of the outside, but a continuity between inside and outside (or, thinking of the reference to the philosopher Locke above, not a duality but a singularity of space).

Furthermore, in Africa in particular we see people wander into and out of frame from strange angles – appearing where we thought there might previously be nothing, as if the frame of the film is itself porous, and open to unexpected intrusions. Such unexpected intrusions might be called chaos.

And chaos can interrupt anywhere: for example, a pink rose extends largely into frame as Locke stands outside his own London home – as if nature cannot help but extend into the supposedly controlled world of men.

Furthermore, when Locke discover Robertson’s body, the fans in the room causes his hair to move, just as the towels that hang from pegs on the wall also twitch under the power of the breeze.

This is a universe of constant movement – one that is beyond our control as even humans move about after death.

And yet, men try to control the world – as can be seen by the inclusion in one shot of a speed limit sign in the desert. What is the point of a speed limit sign in a place where there are no roads? The asphalt may not have been laid down yet, but in order to stop the desert constantly from shifting shape and eluding control, the speed limit sign suggests that it will be coming.

It seems that Locke has, or at one point certainly had, a propensity for chaos, or for breaking down barriers and losing control, as is suggested during a flashback when we see him burning tree branches in his Notting Hill garden, an action that prompts Rachel to call him crazy – a moment to which I shall also return.

But somewhere along the line, Locke also lost this propensity for chaos – with Rachel subsequently suggesting to Knight that ‘David really wasn’t so different’ to other people, and that ‘he accepted too much’ – in particular referring to an interview with the African president, in which Locke did not challenge him about his policies, especially his treatment of the rebels.

Indeed, while an adventurer of sorts Locke seems to have become a human who has bought into the world of control – and yet who may still come back to accepting and understanding the world of chaos.

(This transition from control to chaos is the Jack Nicholson persona par excellence, from Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper, USA, 1969, to Five Easy Pieces, Bob Rafelson, USA, 1970, to Chinatown, Roman Polanski, USA, 1974, to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman, USA, 1975, to The Shining, Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA, 1980, to Batman, Tim Burton, USA/UK, 1989, to A Few Good Men, Rob Reiner, USA, 1992, to As Good as It Gets, James L Brooks, USA, 1997, to About Schmidt, Alexander Payne, USA, 2002.)

As the Land Rover gets stuck in the desert, Locke starts to whack it with a shovel, breaking down in tears as he can no longer cross space in the way that he wants to.

In other words, he has lost control – and this infuriates him. Locke cannot cope with entropy; he cannot, if you will, cope with the idea of his own death. To quote another famous Achebe, he hates it when and cannot stand the fact that things fall apart.

And yet, Locke changes, or at the very least reconnects with his propensity for chaos, and after finding Robertson he decides to embrace chaos and to become someone else.

For, even to have a name (David Locke) is in some senses to seek to control one’s identity, and/or to be controlled. By becoming someone else, Locke enters into a world of becoming rather than a world of being, a world that goes with the flow, allows things to fall apart, is okay with entropy, allows in a little death (perhaps this is even an orgasmic existence, as petite mort, or little death, comes to mean orgasm in French).

But it is not just finding Robertson’s body that produces this change.

There are two sequences interpolated into The Passenger that bear discussion. The first is an interview that Locke shot with a man referred to typically as the Witch Doctor (played by an uncredited James Campbell).

Since the Witch Doctor has been educated in France and Yugoslavia, Locke is surprised that he has not abandoned his superstitious beliefs and instead adopted a more ‘western’ or ‘rational’ perspective on the world: ‘Has that changed your attitude toward certain tribal customs? Don’t they strike you as false now and wrong, perhaps, for the tribe?’

The response: ‘Mr. Locke, there are perfectly satisfactory answers to all your questions. But I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them. Your questions are much more revealing about yourself than my answer would be about me.’

That is, Locke here demonstrates that he projects on to the world a western perspective that is closed-minded, much as westerns try to close the outside world off from their architecture, and much as many filmmakers try to close their frame off from any unexpected intrusions.

Notably, though, the Witch Doctor soon takes the camera from Locke and starts to film him.

In other words, there is a transition from Locke as ‘detached’ (as per Knight’s reckoning) to Locke as implicated – not someone beyond the frame, but someone as part of the frame.

What is more, at a later point in time we see footage, supposedly real, of a man being shot by a firing squad.

Knight, who is looking at this footage, responds in a blasé fashion – as if he had seen such images a hundred times before, while Rachel is appalled.

This suggests – perhaps again problematically – that a ‘female’ perspective is more implicated than a ‘male’ perspective, even if the latter is the one that is associated with image production and power, as per Knight’s job as a television producer.

But more than this, one can imagine that Locke, who recorded this footage, was himself so shocked by it that it ended his ability to be detached.

For, in presenting to us footage that supposedly is real – rather than being staged for the film – Antonioni provides us with an encounter with something real, much as Locke, too, encountered real death.

There are a couple of issues to pick apart here. For, we are still seeing a recording of death and not death itself when we watch The Passenger, and within the fiction of The Passenger, we are led to assume that Locke still recorded this moment in addition simply to observing it.

To say that the moment involves an encounter with what psychoanalysts might refer to as the Real, then, is problematic; the real life taken here is still reduced to an image.

And yet the documentary nature of this footage does in some senses mean that the fiction of The Passenger comes face-to-face with reality.

But is this not still then to render aesthetic something that is supposed to elude the aesthetic and to be instead real – a real encounter that leads Locke to give up on a life of detachment and to embrace chaos, such that ultimately he embraces death?

So the question now becomes: can film picture the real, or will it always only render or reduce the real to an image?

Perhaps film cannot, but the documentary image at least points to the real – to a beyond the frame that is in accord with Antonioni’s desire for his frame also to be ‘open’ to outside encounters via his filmmaking style as discussed above and as I shall explore in more detail below.

In this way, we might charge Antonioni with being unethical by interpolating into The Passenger a seeming snuff movie the provenance of which remains unknown, its participants anonymous?

For, by not telling us where this sequence comes from, Antonioni runs the risk of simply saying something problematic like ‘violence like this happens in Africa’ – a generalised Africa that is essentially violent and not riddled with violence as a result of specific histories and concrete circumstances?

And yet one might also contend that Antonioni, knowing that this footage exists, cannot not show it, since that might be more ‘unethical’ yet (to know that such things happen and not to acknowledge as much).

More than this, to ‘reduce’ issues such as African contemporaneity (corruption, postcolonialism, violence) to specific concrete histories would potentially be to make them manageable. Indeed, they might as a result lose their power as the Real – because like Locke himself, it would give an anthropocentric identity to a reality that has no name and is entirely chaotic.

And even if Antonioni cannot name or explain the footage, since it is, like reality itself, inexplicable (to explain it would be to conquer it, to control the uncontrollable), there are nonetheless hints as to the political reality to which Antonioni alludes.

For, we see that Robertson is reading, for example, a book about or by Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader, while the film was shot in a Chad undergoing political turmoil in the mid-1970s as well.

What is more, the film takes us beyond Africa when we read in Robertson’s diary that he has a meeting with ‘Daisy’ (presumed by Locke to be a codename for Achebe or other rebels/guerrillas) at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna on 11 September 1973.

This is of course the date on which General Augusto Pinochet bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, in the process killing president Salvador Allende.

In other words, The Passenger potentially links to not just an African but to a global repression of independence movements that are not in thrall to the colonial powers from which they were trying to liberate themselves.

Indeed, Locke/Robertson dies on this day, with The Passenger thus potentially suggesting on the one level a pessimism with regard to liberation movements, while at the same time Locke learns to embrace chaos and to let himself die.

Is there any other way out of this labyrinth? Or are humans condemned to fail in their bid to work with rather than against chaos, in that this always leads to death – perhaps especially at the hands of those who seek only to control?

Perhaps this is Locke’s tragedy. He can escape Locke; but he is still restrained by/as Robertson. Or, as Locke himself puts it, ‘it stays so difficult to get away from your own habits.’ And: ‘I’ve run out of everything. My wife. The house. An adopted child. A successful job. Everything except a few bad habits I couldn’t get rid of.’

Those habits might include the need for an identity, even if not ‘his own.’ This is his tragedy, perhaps the tragedy of western man… but perhaps western man must understand that a future is coming in which he does not play the starring role – even if Antonioni cannot make that film since that is not who he is. He, also, is the dying western man and not the (post)human of the future.

Perhaps the best that such a man can hope for is an angel who turns up in the form of Maria Schneider (who may well be Daisy?), who will guide him towards death.

Or perhaps the best that humanity can hope for is that they will be replaced by a new intelligence, one that may indeed be a human who is a bit more like cinema.

This is a curious assertion, so let me work it through. By this, I do not mean cinema as it most commonly manifests itself, with its strict demarcations between characters and actions, but a cinema that is itself far more like, or in tune with, or even a manifestation of the chaotic flow of the universe.

Instead, this is a cinema that refuses to recognise boundaries and which does not necessarily prioritise human action over anything else, instead locating the human as simply another part of space and time.

In Barcelona, we see Locke walk past a cinema called Cine Eden as he flees from Knight. Cinema might indeed present to us a new Eden. And we can see how this is so in Antonioni’s film in various ways.

Gaudí’s curving, chaotic and African-inspired architecture seems to announce Locke’s transition, a shift away from the rigid and into the flow, much as the journey south that is the film’s road trip also signals a motion towards a different reality beyond the hard lines of the global north.

The camera drifts away from Locke and focuses on a fan. It wanders up some electric wires and looks at some insects. Some cars drive past Locke and the girl, and the camera pans right, then left, and then right again – dancing with the passing cars rather than focusing on the film’s protagonists.

Famously, the camera pans around Locke’s hotel room and suddenly we see Robertson alive again, talking to Locke at an earlier point in time, even though there has not been a cut.

So not only do we see insects, cars and other machines take on a life of their own, as even the hair on a dead body can dance in Antonioni’s film, but time itself dances around, with the past co-existing alongside the present, and perhaps with an imagined future if in fact Locke is the one who died, but it takes him until 11 September 1973 and with the help of angel to realise as much.

Maria Schneider may (problematically) herself come also to signify such a cinema. She can turn up in Barcelona having been in London – as if by magic. She can anticipate Locke’s arrival at the Hotel de la Gloria by signing in ahead of him as Mrs Robertson. She can be a Daisy, a flow-er that many disregard as a weed, a force for chaotic revolution, as Věra Chytilová knew.

Indeed, as is made clear in Torremolinos 73 (Pablo Berger, Spain/Denmark, 2003), Spaniards would flee the repressive, controlling regime of Francisco Franco and head to France in order to see Schneider in Ultimo tango a Parigi/Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, France/Spain, 1972), surely a problematic film, but one that nonetheless signalled a desire to flow with cinematic desire rather than repress it.

As mentioned, Rachel calls Locke crazy for starting a fire in his Notting Hill garden. What is also worth pointing out here is that this is not Locke’s memory, as per the earlier sequence shots that see involving Robertson, but Rachel’s memory.

That is, the film has transitioned without signalling it from Locke’s memory to Rachel’s, out of his brain/mind and into hers as if cinema knew no identity, no boundaries, but is only a force for chaotic flow and becoming.

And then of course we have the film’s famous final shot, a seven-minute sequence in which we see Locke lying on his bed before we see various cars arrive through the open window beyond.

The camera tracks slowly, slowly forward before then passing through the grille that otherwise blocks the window, circling around the dusty yard outside.

Locke is killed – notably offscreen – during this sequence, before the camera slowly, slowly returns to show us, now through the grille, Rachel, the girl, the hotel owner and some police officers standing over Locke’s body.

In other words, the camera – and by extension cinema – can pass through borders. It is a porous medium that embraces chaos and which flows; it is a flow-er, which takes us out of this world and into Eden, or a world without, beyond, and after humanity.

(At a push, I might provocatively add that the recent documentary, Nae pasarán, Felipe Bustos Sierra, UK, 2018, which tells the story of Scottish Rolls Royce workers who refused to do repairs on the engines of Pinochet’s Hawker Harrier jets in 1970s, also suggests that humans are at their best when they, too, defy borders and control. That is, cinema and socialism alike point to the flowers that humans can become, and as which we might bloom.)

It is perhaps only a series of chaotic coincidences that sets in motion the plot of The Passenger: Robertson dies in Locke’s hotel, the girl is in London and Barcelona, Rachel leads the government agents to Locke.

‘You work with words, images, fragile things,’ says Robertson to Locke back in the hotel. Images are fragile things, and they are not the concrete things that Robertson claims ‘people understand’ (and what he sells).

The world of hardness and borders is a world of war. Perhaps cinema is a world of love, even if it is a world of death,  a world of loving death, which loving is to deprive death of its fear-inducing power.

Westerners may condescendingly characterise Africa as being a continent stuck in the past. But Antonioni’s film perhaps also shows us that, in knowing that all things fall apart, it inevitably is also an image of our future. Cinema may show us images of the past (by definition, since what we see when we watch a film must be something that has already happened). But in what lies beyond the human, and what lies beyond the frame, perhaps this is where we find once again a future without humans, our future, cinema itself. Death itself. Flowering.

La villa/The House by the Sea (Robert Guédiguian, France, 2017)

Blogpost, Film reviews, French Cinema, Uncategorized

I have enjoyed the films of Robert Guédiguian for 20+ years now, with Marius et Jeanette (France, 1997) being at the time of its release a singularly pedestrian pleasure – not pedestrian in the sense of inferior, but in the sense of how Guédiguian seems to make gentle films that progress pleasantly at their own pace, as the French title to The Last Mitterand/Le promeneur du Champ de Mars (France, 2005) would suggest (since it literally means ‘The Walker of the Champ de Mars,’ the latter being a park near the Eiffel Tower in Paris).

It is not that I have seen all of Guédiguian’s films, a good number of which do not get released in the UK, and the back catalogue of which stretches much further than Marius et Jeanette, as La villa itself testifies – since in a wonderful ‘flashback’ moment, the film features footage of three of its leads (Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan) in his earlier Ki Lo Sa? (France, 1986).

As such, I am not a Guédiguian ‘expert’ (I have seen six or seven of his 21 films, with my brain not being certain as to whether I have seen Au fil d’Ariane/Ariane’s Thread, France, 2014).

But it does seem clear that Guédiguian almost always makes films about socialists living in and around his native Marseilles, and almost always featuring the same ensemble of actors, with La villa being no different, as the footage from Ki Lo Sa? also testifies, in that 31 years later, here are Ascaride, Darroussin and Meylan in another film set in exactly the same location, namely the Calanque de Méjean, a small inlet that lies across the bay from Marseilles.

La villa is not a sequel to that film (which at this point in time I have not seen, but which naturally I am curious to), with the three actors playing different characters. Nonetheless, La villa is about the passage of time between those eras, and in particular how the world has changed – and left more or less destitute small communities like Méjean, with its tiny restaurant, the Mange-Tout, being not just a business run by Armand (Meylan) in the film, but also a genuine restaurant to be found in that location.

The film tells the story of three siblings: Armand, Joseph (Darroussin) and Angèle (Ascaride) who return to Méjean following news that their father, Maurice Barberini (Fred Ulysse), has had a stroke. Leftist intellectual Joseph comes with his much-younger fiancée, Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier), while Angèle is a successful stage and television actress who remains the crush of much-younger local fisherman Benjamin (Robinson Stévenin), who when a youngster saw her on stage in a version of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan and never forgot her.

Armand, meanwhile, has remained all of his life in Méjean, running the Mange-Tout with his father and living opposite Maurice’s old friends, Martin (Jacques Boudet) and his wife Suzanne (Geneviève Mnich), whose son Yvan (Yann Trégouët) is a successful doctor about to move to London to open a new lab.


What ensues are in some senses the usual confrontations with the past that are to be expected from the family return film. Angèle is mad at her father for allowing her daughter Blanche (Esther Seignon) to drown while in his charge, while Joseph realises that he is losing Bérangère to Yvan – much as Angèle must struggle with being the fantasy of Benjamin.

Armand must work with the idea that Méjean has increasingly empty houses, inhabited only on occasion by rich holidaymakers and not by permanent residents who live and make a community there. Indeed, Martin and Suzanne are being priced out of Méjean by landlords that will make far more money from schemes like AirBnB (not named in the film) than they will from permanent and long-standing tenants.

The film repeatedly shows the viaduct over the calanque, and which carries the Transport express régional (TER) trains that bypass Méjean, taking commuters and tourists instead to other coastal resorts in and around Marseilles.

In other words, while very beautiful, Méjean has kind of been left behind by progress – at least for the time being. For, we see tourist prospectors visiting the small harbour in a motorboat as the film progresses, while Bérangère, who seems to work in PR, also can see great things happening in the village.

Such get-rich schemes, however, run counter to the ethos of Armand, Joseph and also their father, who set up the Mange-Tout in order to offer cheap but good food to honest, working French people – and not exclusive restaurants and resorts for only the rich.

Indeed, Martin discusses at length how the Barberini family home, the villa from which the film takes its title, was built collectively by the whole village, including its impressive balcony that overlooks the bay and on to which Armand and Joseph daily move their father so that he can observe its happenings in his quasi-catatonic, post-stroke state.

In this way, the film offers up the usual pedestrian Guédiguian fare, as we see the characters walk around the bay and up in the surrounding hills, leading an ‘honest’ and socialist life in the face of the trains, cars, motorbikes and other modes of transport that we see people use to get in and out of the village, or simply to pass it by.

However, where the film gets particularly interesting for me is a sequence in which Angèle dips her foot into a rockpool, holding it there deliberately so as eventually to lure out…

… an octopus, which clings to Angèle’s leg and which later the family will eat at a dinner between the three siblings, Bérangère and Benjamin.

Now, I have written recently in my blog concerning Roma (Alfonso Cuarón, Mexico/USA, 2018) about how David H Fleming and I are writing a book about cephalopods and cinema (cephalopods being octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and nautiluses).

We have provisionally called our book Kinoteuthis Infernalis: The Emergence of Chthulumedia. ‘Kinoteuthis infernalis’ means ‘squid cinema from hell,’ not least because we are looking at films, often horror and science fiction movies, that feature cephalopods and/or other tentacular aliens/monsters that come to destroy (human life on) Earth – or at least this is what the protagonists of the films suspect.

‘Chthulumedia,’ meanwhile, means media in/as the chthulucene, an era that Donna J Haraway theorises as replacing the anthropocene. If the anthropocene is the era in which humans have basically altered their planet such that they have brought about mass extinction and the creation of conditions that might well see humanity’s own demise, then the chthulucene is a ‘posthuman’ era in which humans may not necessarily go extinct, but in which certainly we shrink in population, learn to live more harmoniously with our planet, or perhaps go extinct and/or evolve into (or with) new/other life forms.

Cephalopods and the chthulucene are connected because HP Lovecraft famously called his world-ending monster Cthulhu, with that creature being tentacular and octopus-like. And so while Haraway does not much like Lovecraft, the connection between cephalopods and the similarly-named chthulucene remains.

More than this, though, is the fact that cephalopods are often considered to be ‘intelligent aliens,’ a lifeform so different from humans and yet with which we share our planet, that it challenges our anthropocentric belief that we are the be-all-and-end-all of intelligent life (although if we do consider ourselves the only really existing lifeforms [we are all that be], then we probably will bring about the destruction of the planet [we will end all]).

Furthermore, the cephalopod is a key metaphor for the tentacular reach of capitalism in the era of digital technology and globalisation. Much like the octopus, which does not so much have separate organs as have its whole body perform all possible functions at once (apart from ingest and egest), everything in the contemporary era is connected.

In other words, our globalised planet sees techno capital itself emerge as a kind of intelligent alien (the birth, if you will, of the singularity/artificial, digital intelligence) that may well replace humans, or at least play a part in our evolution, while perhaps also literally signalling the destruction, or at least a resetting of the planet, as the oceans quite literally rise (as Cthulhu rises from the ocean) to drown humans and to replace us with other lifeforms.

Perhaps the main issue raised by the chthulucene, then, is whether we as humans are willing to let ourselves go – be that by evolving into new lifeforms or by simply allowing ourselves to die – or whether we will take our whole planet with us as we seek not to die but to live forever.

In this way, cinema in the chthulucene is often about children and childbirth, as I have mentioned in several other blogs (including the one on Roma), since it is about whether we want to have offspring, which by definition are different from us, or whether we want ourselves to remain as we are forever.

With this brief description of the theories that David and I try to develop in mind, hopefully it is clear how La villa might similarly be reflecting on such themes as capitalist development, globalisation and childbirth – even if it is nothing like a big budget spectacle along the lines of Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), about which David and I have written already, and which functions as a film also about tentacles, aliens and childbirth.

But where are the aliens in La villa, you might be thinking?

Well, crucially, La villa also has as one of its central premises the intrusion into the Barberini’s restaurant of some soldiers who are on the lookout for illegal immigrants whom they suspect as having arrived on the shores of France after discovering a wrecked boat in the vicinity of Méjean.

Joseph in particular is frosty towards the soldiers, and before long he and Armand discover three Arab children (played by Haylana Bechir, Ayoub Ouaed and Giani Roux) hiding up in the hills around the village.

They take in the three children, crucially clothing them in garments still in the Barberinis’ possession following the death of Blanche.

In other words, and as is fitting for a socialist like Guédiguian, the trio are invested in welcoming aliens, or what Haraway would call ‘making kin’ with others. Indeed, the Barberinis treat these aliens as they would any human, i.e. as they would treat themselves, which in turn leads us to understand how all-too-often humans treat each other not as kin, but as precisely aliens, monsters, or lifeforms about which we do not have to care or for whom we do not have to take care.

Guédiguian’s film is in some ways straightforward: Angèle becomes a kind of angel who will help these children, while the father figure (Maurice/God) can only look on silently and without intervening as his children learn to live according to his socialist principles.

In other ways, the film is complex, in that the lead soldier is played by Diouc Koma, an actor born in Mali and whose character Joseph berates for not appreciating the work that he did as an old socialist – presumably in helping to push the postcolonial message and to establish the equality of French citizens from its former colonies (an ongoing problem in French politics and daily life).

That said, the soldier does seem to express some shame at the treatment of refugees, especially children, once they have been found – telling Armand over a coffee that they are either sent home or put into orphanages, a fate that in either case is sub-optimal at best. That is, while he has a job to do, his politics may not align wholly with the results that his job achieves.

It is not simply a case of ‘oh, there’s an octopus in this film and therefore it must be about globalisation, the death of the local, the arrival of aliens, the future of humanity, childbirth, the relationship between the land and the sea, and learning perhaps to accept death’ – even though this is true of La villa, especially as Martin and Suzanne end up committing joint suicide for reasons that I shall discuss below.

Rather, the octopus arrives precisely at a time when Angèle and her brothers ruminate on their father’s legacy, with the soldiers first arriving at their house during the octopus meal, during which we also hear Benjamin sing Angèle’s praises for her performance in the Brecht play, and explain how theatre allowed him to understand that the world need not be only as it is, but that new worlds can be created.

In other words, the octopus appears at the moment when the characters express an openness towards a new world – that of making kin with aliens and the way in which theatre (and by extension cinema and art more generally) is itself a kind of alien that expands our horizons and perhaps even helps us to evolve… which stands in distinct contrast to those who would try to keep our world as it is by reaffirming borders and not letting aliens enter to change it.

Even though Benjamin has lived all of his life in Méjean, and even though he fishes and fixes nets for what must be a pretty meagre living (even if he is in harmony with the sea?), he nonetheless is open to change.

This is perhaps why he desires Angèle, who is much older than he is. For, at least as far as Guédiguian might push it, this desire for the older woman is ‘queer’ enough for La villa to suggest that making kin is also to love against the grain – to love what the law forbids, if the law also is about maintaining fixed and strict boundaries.

Joseph’s love for Bérangère would express something different, but as he learns that he must return to writing in order to create another world with ink, so must he let go of Bérangère and allow her to go with Yvan, who himself will meet her in London (i.e. on alien terrain).

Notably, Yvan rides a fast motorcycle that Bérangère takes for a spin early on in the film – during an initial dinner in which it is clearly signalled that the two younger adults have an attraction for each other. Bérangère, meanwhile, is often making work calls on Skype or equivalent on her laptop. That is, both Bérangère and Yvan are equated with new technology.

But Guédiguian does not dismiss these ‘millennial’ behaviours outright – much as the suicide of Martin and Suzanne is not necessarily a case of ‘learning to die,’ not least because part of what spurs them on is their impending homelessness and their refusal to let Yvan take care of them financially (although mainly this would seem to be because they want him to lead his own life, and do not want to live forever, even if in some senses they are also destroyed by a cruel and relentless capitalist system).*

Change is coming and as a new world emerges, an older one dies. Guédiguian’s use of footage from Ki Lo Sa? suggests his personal nostalgia for that older world, even as he hopes that many of its (romanticised) principles will remain in the new one (evolution is not complete abandonment, after all).

That new world may be heartless and cruel in its bid for money and the separation of the luxury-filled rich from the poor, who are excluded increasingly from those luxurious places (Méjean as increasingly a holiday resort and not a local community, whose beauty becomes privatised, implicitly by the cost of access if not explicitly by putting up a wall around it, as opposed to being a commons that is open to all).

However, that new world could also be generous and kind towards aliens, and open to those who come to our shores seeking help as a result of war and trouble in their own land.

By remembering the better lessons that the older generation can teach us, we may yet be able to cultivate the latter, even as new technologies that promise connection in some ways also hasten division.

As Maurice’s children and the refugee children shout their names under the viaduct and create echoes, La villa shows us the father sat watching the harbour, and turning his head towards the sound as the camera pans up to the sky.

To be childlike and to find wonder in echoes, subverting the viaduct by enjoying its sounds rather than it being simply a tool for loudly carrying the moneyed over Méjean, bypassing it for the sake of speed and convenience. Perhaps this is how to create a commons, even if under threat as capital comes to fill in the gaps that this calanque at present remains. And perhaps that lesson will echo for a long time to come, being a sound that we can all hear and from which we can all learn.**

* A plot hole that is never explored is the consequence of Martin and Suzanne’s suicide. Assuming an autopsy, it would be clear that they die from an overdose. It would then not be too much of a step to work out where they got their drugs from, that being Yvan, their doctor son. Even if inadvertently, one wonders, then, that Yvan might be struck off and/or have his career destroyed for assisting in the death of his parents (although I am not sure how this would work under French law).

** I am still troubled by the way in which the protagonists of the film eat the octopus. That is, they lure the alien in only to kill and to consume it, even as the film wants to be about welcoming aliens (the children are not similarly consumed, e.g. by selling them into slavery). The octopus totally fits the film and turns it into an example of what David and I call ‘chthulucinema.’ But at the same time, the film’s carnivorousness does mitigate somewhat some of the kin-making that I have tried to suggest above and which the film otherwise embraces – including at least land-based animals as Armand sets up a post that delivers grain and water for rabbits and birds to consume, and at which he finds the eldest refugee, as if refugees were indeed not human but animals – at least in the eyes of the law. Notably, Armand is also invested in protecting the environment from fire, giving to the film a sense of ecological care, too (even if Armand achieves this by creating pathways that divide the land).


Philosophical Screens: Le Corbeau/The Raven (Henri Georges Clouzot, France, 1943) and the abortion film today

Blogpost, Film reviews, French Cinema, Philosophical Screens, Uncategorized

I am writing this post ahead of/as a companion to a discussion of Le Corbeau that will (have) take(n) place on Tuesday 22 November 2016 at the British Film Institute in London as part of the Philosophical Screens series organised by Kingston University and the London Graduate School. It contains my thoughts only, and not those of my co-panellists Lucy Bolton and Catherine Wheatley (except where credited).

The post will explore how Le Corbeau is in part a critique not uniquely of the fascist era in which it was made (France under occupation), but of a more lingering everyday fascism, perhaps even the fascism of the everyday, the everyday fascisms that are part and parcel of the human project – and which when they become dominant lead to death. I shall also relate this to the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau today.

Le Corbeau focuses on Dr Germain (Pierre Fresnay), a surgeon recently arrived in a small town called Saint Robin in France. In a series of anonymous letters, he is accused of having an affair with Laura (Micheline Francey), the younger wife of psychiatrist and work colleague, Dr Vorzet (Pierre Larquey). He is also accused of carrying out abortions and, latterly, of sleeping with Denise (Ginette Leclerc), the coxalgic sister of one-armed school master Fernand Saillens (Noël Roquevert).

Germain is not alone in receiving these anonymous letters; in fact, everyone in town seemingly receives them, since we are told at one point by Vorzet that the person sending the letters, who signs off as Le Corbeau/The Raven, has sent some 850 such accusatory epistles. Each letter either lays bare or accuses its recipient of a scandal that has taken place – with Germain also being accused of sleeping with Denise’s younger, 14-and-a-half year old niece, Rolande (Liliane Maigné).


While the town at first suspects (and drives away) Laura’s nurse sister, Marie Corbin (Héléna Manson), after the suicide of a hospital inmate, François (Roger Blin), who is dying of cancer, Germain begins to suspect Denise, especially after she breaks down during a handwriting test set up by Vorzet, who happens to be an expert in detecting supposedly anonymous handwriting. Indeed, Germain discovers in Denise’s digs a letter from Le Corbeau to Germain announcing that Denise is pregnant, thereby seeming to confirm his suspicions.

However, when Denise tells Germain to look her in the eye, she explains that this is the first and only letter that she has sent. Germain becomes confused – and goes to see Laura, on whose hands he finds some ink, leading him to suspect her.

Vorzet intervenes and says that his wife did indeed begin the letters, hoping to lure Germain into an affair as a result of his old age and his inability sexually to satisfy her. However, he explains,  when Germain did not reciprocate, she went insane and started to send out many such letters to everyone in Saint Robin.

Laura denies that this is so – and says that Vorzet himself has been sending (most of) the letters. Germain goes back to Denise, who has fallen (deliberately) down some stairs – affirming that he wants (‘needs’) her to keep his child, a decision that lays to rest the ghost of his former wife who, along with his first child, died during a botched delivery (Germain’s real name is Germain Menatte, a well-known brain surgeon).

Denise then says that Laura could not have sent the letters because she was too scared about violence that might be done to her if she revealed the true identity of Le Corbeau. Germain realises, therefore, that it must have been Vorzet – but arrives too late to prevent Laura from being carted off to a mental institution, the details of which he gave to Vorzet.

However, Germain steps into Vorzet’s office only to find him killed at his desk – his throat cut with the same razor blade that François used to take his own life. We see the mother of François (Sylvie) leave the premises and walk away down the street. How she found out about Vorzet’s guilt we do not know, but she has made good on her promise to use the François’ razor in order to avenge the premature death of her son.

Having got this synopsis out of the way, I can now turn to my analysis of the film.

In the first anonymous letter that we see/hear, Le Corbeau announces that (s)he has an œil américain, or an American eye. The term supposedly comes from novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who in The Heidenmauer, or The Benedictines (1832), which is set in sixteenth century Europe, writes to his American readers about how ‘an American eye would not have been slow to detect its [the landscape’s] distinguishing features from those which mark the wilds of this country [the USA].’

Interestingly, the differences that the American eye would spot are the small signs that would announce Europe to be occupied by humans; the trees in Europe ‘wanted the moss of ages,’ Cooper explains, before suggesting that the landscape offered ‘certain evidence that man had long before extended his sway over these sombre hills, and that, retired as they seemed, they were actually subject to all the divisions, and restraints, and vexations, which, in peopled regions, accompany the rights of property.’

I shall return to how Cooper’s American eye would spot how the sculpted landscape of Europe might seem natural but that it does not contain the truly natural ‘mouldering trunk’ or ‘branch [that] had been twisted by the gale and forgotten’ or ‘any upturned root [which might] betray the indifference of man to the decay of this important part of vegetation’ (all Cooper quotations are from page 2 of this edition).

For the time being, though, I should like to stress how Cooper’s term soon made it into French literature, where it came to take on the sense of an all-seeing eye. As soon as 1835, Honoré de Balzac’s arch-villain Vautrin accuses Eugène de Rastignac of scrutinising him with ‘the American eye’ in Le père Goriot, while Gustave Flaubert also uses the phrase in Madame Bovary (1856), where Lheureux, the pernicious merchant who causes Charles and Emma to go into debt (and Emma, ultimately, to kill herself) also claims to have an ‘American eye.’

Reworked within French literature to convey a sense of omniscience and a sense of evil, the term is an apt one to reappear in a film about secrets and affairs like Le Corbeau.

However, for most viewers of the film, to hear about an ‘American eye’ cannot but also bring to mind that most American of eyes on to the world – the cinema. That is, the cinema is an American eye.

Let’s be clear: the French have as strong a claim to the invention of cinema (the Lumière brothers) as the Americans (Thomas Edison), but by 1943 it is the American cinema that dominates globally. For Le Corbeau to claim that it has the ‘American eye’ might also imply, then, that the film is an attempt to rival American film productions – as might also be suggested by Judith Mayne‘s assertion that the absence of American films in Occupied France during the Second World War led to filmmakers trying to make more ‘American’ movies. This is not to mention how the famously troubled history of the film, in that it was produced by Continental, a German-backed and German-led production house, also suggests a German desire to rival American cinema. Which is not to mention still how the noir style that Le Corbeau more or less adopts is not unique to the USA, but that it has strong roots in both Germany and France. In other words: cinema as a whole, and the film noir style of Le Corbeau more particularly, are not necessarily American.

However, at least for the purposes of discussion, I should like to propose that in Le Corbeau the ‘American eye’ does speak of cinema – and perhaps especially of the kind of cinema-eye that Cooper describes. That is, an eye that can see a world without divisions, without property, and in some respects without man, as opposed to the European eye that only sees divisions, property and the human.

While Le Corbeau (the anonymous letter writer) claims to have an American eye, then, Le Corbeau (the film) also adopts an American eye, the American eye of cinema – not simply for the purposes of mimicking a Hollywood style, but in order to lay bare the very European way in which space is divided up into segments of property, with the human at the centre of this exploitation of space.

We can see how this is so in the film’s treatment of space.

Le Corbeau contains a very fluid camera, with the second shot of the film seeing the camera moving along a cloister that lines a cemetery, before then moving through a gate that seems to open of its own accord. In other words, from its beginning, Clouzot suggests that his camera moves and is alive, even as humans die. Furthermore, his camera can pass through gates – something that we also see humans do regularly in the film.

Indeed, I counted 419 shots in Le Corbeau (giving to the film an average shot length of 12.24 seconds given a running time – excluding opening credits – of 85 minutes and 28 seconds). Over the course of the film, we see people walking through doors or gates 64 times, with people opening but then not passing through doors twice. We hear doors opening and closing offscreen a further 7 times, with characters also passing through car doors twice. We see people walk through curtain partitions three times, while characters open cupboards, postboxes, bureaux, drawers, and/or a trunk a further 9 times. Furthermore, we have 2 POV shots of characters looking through keyholes and/or windows, and we see characters (generally Germain) open or close windows 4 times.

In other words, Le Corbeau features c93 instances of thresholds being crossed and/or reaffirmed. Since many of the moments featuring characters passing through thresholds are shown over the course of two shots (with a cut as the character or characters pass from one room to the next), then we can see how there are 100+ instances in the film of threshold crossing and/or container opening, meaning that likely one quarter of the shots in the whole film features the crossing of boundaries.

However, where Le Corbeau opens with the camera passing through a gate, and while we see humans pass through gates and door themselves, Clouzot’s otherwise mobile camera does not pass itself through gates or doors after this initial transgression.

In other words, a tension is set up between the mobile camera that can go anywhere irrespective of boundaries, and humans who also travel, but who are very much restricted by boundaries. If the second shot of the film tells us that the camera is mobile and alive while humans are immobile and dead, then the enclosed rooms and containers that humans inhabit and use in some senses move humans towards immobility. The creation of divisions, the creation of property, the creation of those things that Cooper’s and Clouzot’s American eyes can see as arbitrary, and yet which to the European are real, these are moving humans towards death.

(This is not to mention the walls of the town, or the grilles and other objects that seem strongly to delimit space in the film.)

This tendency to create divisions can also be understood through the importance of letters in the film, the postal service, and the way in which all letters are sent to an address. The term address originally in the early 14th century meant

“to guide, aim, or direct,” from Old French adrecier “go straight toward; straighten, set right; point, direct” (13c.), from Vulgar Latin *addirectiare “make straight” (source also of Spanish aderezar, Italian addirizzare), from ad “to” (see ad-) + *directiare “make straight,” from Latin directus “straight, direct” (see direct (v.), and compare dress (v.)).

As philosopher Alan Watts can be heard explaining on the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ ident, wherever people go, they want to straighten things out – to ‘set right’ rather than to let wiggle, with nature itself being full of wiggly things.

In other words, the notion of the address is an attempt to ‘straighten’ humans, with the idea of addressing someone being the idea also of straightening out their identity. This is also linked to the idea of dress – as reflected in the stiff costumes that nearly every character wears, from Marie and Laura to the men who claim to run Saint Robin.

One’s address, forms of address, dress: all in effect ‘straighten’ humans. But as the division of space is in some respects unnatural, so, too, are these linked concepts of dress and address unnatural – and Le Corbeau tells us so.

For, while Marie and Laura and the men are all buttoned up and repressed (or unable to repress desires that perhaps otherwise might be celebrated), it is Denise who from her initial appearance takes her clothes off/gets undressed and who, most notably as a result of her coxalgia, cannot walk straight (as well as being horizontal a lot of the time while other characters, but in particular by contrast Laura, are vertical – as Mayne also points out).

Germain is attracted to Denise – but he cannot bring himself to admit to loving her for reasons of decorum and social pressure; she is too lower class for him, and he (in Denise’s words) is bourgeois. He closes her window when they first meet, and he addresses her as vous (instead of tu, much to Denise’s displeasure) after they have slept together.

And yet, those who address Germain as Germain are not addressing him quite correctly, for his name is not Rémy Germain, but really Germain Manotte. That is, Germain has a repressed, or rather a fluid, identity. It is only through loving Denise that he can let go of the memory of his first wife and his lost child and learn to be himself again. It is only through accepting his own lack of straightness that Germain can move forward, or be alive. This is signalled most clearly in his impending fatherhood: to be alive is to create life in the universe of Le Corbeau, as we shall discuss in more detail shortly.

There is another side to the division of space that the film creates through its insistent depiction of doors, walls, gates, barriers and other containers. This is seen in the regular shots of characters speaking, but not looking at each other. Sometimes (such as when Laura and Germain meet one evening by the walls to Saint Robin) they positively look away from each other.

It is as though the characters in Le Corbeau do not look at each other, preferring instead to read about each other and/or to address each other formally – but not to address each other properly. We see each other not as people, then, but as symbols – as what we are supposed to mean as opposed to who we are. This is also made clear by the gendered spaces of the film: the all-male club in which most of the men hang out in the evening, and the all-female shop from which Germain is excluded at one point.

If Denise is honest in her lack of straightness (her limp and her desire to get undressed), then she also is honest in her interactions with Germain. For it is only with Germain that we specifically see prolonged exchanges of gaze, with Denise proving her innocence to Germain not through anything other than a remarkable exchange of looks into each other’s eyes.

(Addendum: Germain and François’s mother also look in each other in the eye in an important scene where she announces that she will take her revenge; the old lady also is hunched and thus not ‘straight.’ My thanks to Catherine Wheatley for pointing this out.)

In some senses, then, this is also the ‘American eye’ of cinema: it takes us into a world beyond language and consisting of direct connection via looking into the eyes of another human being. Language itself, then, is part of the ‘straightening’ process of the human world – with the tension between the written text and the visual ‘language’ of cinema also making this clear.

Perhaps it is also important that at one key moment in the film we see Denise from an impossible angle as she lies in bed with Rolande putting cups on her back. In other words, this impossible, ‘American eye’ angle suggests that Denise is a key to a world beyond division and a world beyond conventional notions of property.

It is not that Denise or Germain are heroes in the film. Indeed, Germain causes Laura to go to the asylum (although hopefully he will be able to recall her once Vorzet’s guilt is discovered), while he also literally has blood on his hands from the start of the film: he literally cannot save the life of a baby (and this, we are told, is the third such instance of a miscarriage with which he has been involved). Clouzot is, indeed, too smart a director to make a film that can read in such a straightforward way; for the film to be straightforward would be to contradict the film’s critique of straightness.

Nonetheless, Germain is, ultimately, a figure who respects the crooked and un-straight path that is life, and which irrevocably involves death as a part of life. This can be contrasted with the character whom we assume to be the main culprit, the ‘real’ Corbeau, Vorzet.

As Mayne has pointed out, Vorzet does not sound too dissimilar to the verb avorter, meaning to abort. And while he claims that Laura at first aroused him as a partner, nonetheless his relationship with her is sexless, straight-laced (as per Laura’s costume, but not necessarily as per her desire) and sterile. Furthermore, before marrying Laura, Vorzet was also engaged to Marie – who herself has become sexless, perhaps as a result of her rejection by Vorzet.

(If this play with Vorzet’s name sounds unlikely, we can again see how such wordplay with names is used by Balzac: as Christopher Prendergast points out in The Order of Mimesis, Vautrin’s name could mean vaut rien, or ‘worth nothing,’ which Prendergast associates with Vautrin’s role as a deceptive cipher in Balzac’s Comédie Humaine/Human Comedy. There is possibly also an oblique reference to Balzac when the post office workers discusses la splendeur et décadence postale, possibly a reference to the latter’s 1847 novel, Splendeurs et misères des courtesans.)

And so, Le Corbeau seems to suggest a world in which straightness (walls, fences), the division of space, and the idea of property all are related to the antithesis of life, all are a kind of death. Fascism, as the manifestation of straightness and control, is thus a kind of death that the film critiques in its depiction of space. Human desire, meanwhile, cannot – and perhaps should not – be controlled. It is not that the fascism of German National Socialism is specifically the target of Clouzot’s critique, then, but the fascisms that involved in everyday human life as we button ourselves up, straighten each other out and address each other with fixed names (Denise at one point calls Germain Joseph – as if identity did not matter to her).

This straightness can, finally, be related to the roundness of balls in the film: Rolande, on the cusp of womanhood, regularly is seen bouncing a ball, signalling both her childishness but also her discomfort at being socialised into the straight world (and this ‘neurotic’ behaviour – as Vorzet describes it – is acted out by her regular theft from the till of the post office where she works). At one point, a ball arrives suddenly from off screen, with Germain having to deflect it; the round has a habit of destroying the straight (the ball has of course been thrown by a child – a human not as yet socialised into straightness).

Not only might we think of the round chaos that is Melancholia swallowing up Earth in Lars von Trier’s film of the same name, but the insistent presence of a globe in Fernand Saillens’ classroom also reminds us that the world itself is not straight – as Cooper observes in The Heidenmauer thanks to her American eye.

An aside of sorts: being about the Benedictines, Cooper’s American eye is perhaps also reflected in Le Corbeau, which potentially also offers an oblique critique of the Benedictines. Not that the denomination is anyway made clear, but the town name of Saint Robin recalls the origin of the name Robin, St Robert of Molesme, a Benedictine who founded a series of small communities in the 11th century.

In The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (1967), Lewis Mumford writes about how

The Benedictine Order, instituted by Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century, distinguished itself from many similar monastic organisations by imposing a special obligation beyond the usual one of constant prayer, obedience to their superiors, the acceptance of poverty, and the daily scrutiny of each other’s conduct. To all these duties they added a new one: the performance of daily work as a Christian duty… the Benedictine monastery laid down a basis of order as strict as that which held together the earliest megamachines: the difference lay in its modest size, its voluntary constitution, and in the fact that its sternest discipline was self-imposed. (264)

In other words, the Benedictines constitute (for Mumford) a society of control and scrutiny, an early instantiation of the ‘megamachine’ that is modernity, especially as brought into being through the globalisation of capitalism.

And so, finally, if Le Corbeau offers us a critique of the death that is (everyday) fascism, proffering in its place a celebration of life – even if not straightforward and even if including physical death as an inevitable part of its imperfect, everyday existence – then what does this tell us about today?

It is notable that in the past few weeks various films have come out that involve childbirth, child death and abortion. A short list would include Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, USA, 2016), The Light Between Oceans (Derek Cianfrance, UK/New Zealand/USA, 2016),  Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor, USA, 2016) and, in its own way, Bridget Jones’ Baby (Sharon Maguire, Ireland/UK/France/USA, 2016).

It would seem that abortion becomes a key theme in relation to fascism – and that the rise of films dealing with the issue of life and birth bespeak both the way in which fascism certainly has not left us in contemporary times, and thus also of the ongoing relevance of Le Corbeau nearly 75 years after it was made.

Adventures in Cinema 2015

African cinema, American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Canadian cinema, Chinese cinema, Documentary, European cinema, Film education, Film reviews, French Cinema, Iranian cinema, Italian Cinema, Japanese Cinema, Latin American cinema, Philippine cinema, Ritzy introductions, Transnational Cinema, Ukrainian Cinema, Uncategorized

There’ll be some stories below, so this is not just dry analysis of films I saw this year. But it is that, too. Sorry if this is boring. But you can go by the section headings to see if any of this post is of interest to you.

The Basics
In 2015, I saw 336 films for the first time. There is a complete list at the bottom of this blog. Some might provoke surprise, begging for example how I had not seen those films (in their entirety) before – Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, France/UK, 1985) being perhaps the main case in point. But there we go. One sees films (in their entirety – I’d seen bits of Shoah before) when and as one can…

Of the 336 films, I saw:-

181 in the cinema (6 in 3D)

98 online (mainly on MUBI, with some on YouTube, DAFilms and other sites)

36 on DVD/file

20 on aeroplanes

1 on TV

Films I liked
I am going to mention here new films, mainly those seen at the cinema – but some of which I saw online for various reasons (e.g. when sent an online screener for the purposes of reviewing or doing an introduction to that film, generally at the Ritzy Cinema in Brixton, London).

And then I’ll mention some old films that I enjoyed – but this time only at the cinema.

Here’s my Top 11 (vaguely in order)

  1. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France/Germany/Switzerland, 2014)
  2. El Botón de nácar/The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, France/Spain/Chile/Switzerland, 2015)
  3. Eisenstein in Guanajuato (Peter Greenaway, Netherlands/Mexico/Finland/Belgium/France, 2015)
  4. Bande de filles/Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, France, 2014)
  5. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania, 2014)
  6. Saul fia/Son of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary, 2015)
  7. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK, 2015)
  8. Force majeure/Turist (Ruben Östlund, Sweden/France/Norway/Denmark, 2014)
  9. The Thoughts Once We Had (Thom Andersen, USA, 2015)
  10. Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany/Poland, 2014)
  11. Mommy (Xavier Dolan, Canada, 2014)

And here are some proxime accessunt (in no particular order):-

Enemy (Denis Villeneuve, Canada/Spain/France, 2013); Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2014); Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014); Jupiter Ascending (Andy and Lana Wachowski, USA/Australia, 2015); The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland, UK/Hungary, 2014); Catch Me Daddy (Daniel Wolfe, UK, 2014); White God/Fehér isten (Kornél Mundruczó, Hungary/Germany/Sweden, 2014); Dear White People (Justin Simien, USA, 2014); The Falling (Carol Morley, UK, 2014); The Tribe/Plemya (Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, Ukraine/Netherlands, 2014); Set Fire to the Stars (Andy Goddard, UK, 2014); Spy (Paul Feig, USA, 2015); Black Coal, Thin Ice/Bai ri yan huo (Yiao Dinan, China, 2014); Listen Up, Philip (Alex Ross Perry, USA/Greece, 2014); Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, USA, 2015); The New Hope (William Brown, UK, 2015); The Overnight (Patrick Brice, USA, 2015); Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse/My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2015); Manglehorn (David Gordon Green, USA, 2014); Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, USA, 2015); Hard to be a God/Trudno byt bogom (Aleksey German, Russia, 2013); Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2015); Trainwreck (Judd Apatow, USA, 2015); Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, USA/Brazil, 2015); While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, USA, 2014); Marfa Girl (Larry Clark, USA, 2012); La Sapienza (Eugène Green, France/Italy, 2014); La última película (Raya Martin and Mark Peranson, Mexico/Denmark/Canada/Philippines/Greece, 2013); Lake Los Angeles (Mike Ott, USA/Greece, 2014); Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, France/Belgium/Italy, 2014); Taxi Tehran/Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015); No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 2015); Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, USA, 2015); Umimachi Diary/Our Little Sister (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2015); Tangerine (Sean Baker, USA, 2015); Carol (Todd Haynes, UK/USA, 2015); Joy (David O. Russell, USA, 2015); PK (Rajkumar Hirani, India, 2014); Eastern Boys (Robin Campillo, France, 2013); Selma (Ava DuVernay, UK/USA, 2014); The Dark Horse (James Napier Robertson, New Zealand, 2014); Hippocrate/Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (Thomas Lilti, France, 2014); 99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani, USA, 2014).

Note that there are some quite big films in the above; I think the latest Mission: Impossible topped James Bond and the other franchises in 2015 – maybe because McQuarrie is such a gifted writer. Spy was for me a very funny film. I am still reeling from Cliff Curtis’ performance in The Dark Horse. Most people likely will think Jupiter Ascending crap; I think the Wachowskis continue to have a ‘queer’ sensibility that makes their work always pretty interesting. And yes, I did put one of my own films in that list. The New Hope is the best Star Wars-themed film to have come out in 2015 – although I did enjoy the J.J. Abrams film quite a lot (but have not listed it above since it’s had enough attention).

Without wishing intentionally to separate them off from the fiction films, nonetheless here are some documentaries/essay-films that I similarly enjoyed at the cinema this year:-

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, USA, 2015); National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA/UK, 2014); Life May Be (Mark Cousins and Mania Akbari, UK/Iran, 2014); Detropia (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, USA, 2012); Storm Children: Book One/Mga anak ng unos (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2014); We Are Many (Amir Amirani, UK, 2014); The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, France/Brazil/Italy, 2014).

And here are my highlights of old films that I managed to catch at the cinema and loved immensely:-

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis/Il Giardino dei Finzi Contini (Vittorio de Sica, Italy/West Germany, 1970); Il Gattopardo/The Leopard (Lucchino Visconti, Italy/France, 1963); Images of the World and the Inscriptions of War/Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges (Harun Farocki, West Germany, 1989); A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, USA, 1974).

With two films, Michael Fassbender does not fare too well in the below list – although that most of them are British makes me suspect that the films named feature because I have a more vested stake in them, hence my greater sense of disappointment. So, here are a few films that got some hoo-ha from critics and in the media and which I ‘just didn’t get’ (which is not far from saying that I did not particularly like them):-

La Giovinezza/Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy/France/Switzerland/UK, 2015), Sunset Song (Terence Davies, UK/Luxembourg, 2015); Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, UK/France/USA, 2015); Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, USA, 2014); Slow West (John Maclean, UK/New Zealand, 2015); Tale of Tales/Il racconto dei racconti (Matteo Garrone, Italy/France/UK, 2015); Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK/USA, 2015).

And even though many of these feature actors that I really like, and a few are made by directors whom I generally like, here are some films that in 2015 I kind of actively disliked (which I never really like admitting):-

Hinterland (Harry Macqueen, UK, 2015); Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, USA/Germany/UK/Canada, 2015); Pixels (Chris Columbus, USA/China/Canada, 2015); Irrational Man (Woody Allen, USA, 2015); Aloha (Cameron Crowe, USA, 2015); Point Break 3D (Ericson Core, Germany/China/USA, 2015); American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, USA, 2014); Every Thing Will Be Fine 3D (Wim Wenders, Germany/Canada/France/Sweden/Norway, 2015).

Every Thing Will Be Fine struck me as the most pointless 3D film I have yet seen – even though I think Wenders uses the form excellently when in documentary mode. The Point Break remake, meanwhile, did indeed break the point of its own making, rendering it a pointless break (and this in spite of liking Édgar Ramírez).

Where I saw the films
This bit isn’t going to be a list of cinemas where I saw films. Rather, I want simply to say that clearly my consumption of films online is increasing – with the absolute vast majority of these seen on subscription/payment websites (MUBI, DAFilms, YouTube). So really I just want to write a note about MUBI.

MUBI was great a couple of years ago; you could watch anything in their catalogue when you wanted to. Then they switched to showing only 30 films at a time, each for 30 days. And for the first year or so of this, the choice of films was a bit rubbish, in that it’d be stuff like Battleship Potemkin/Bronenosets Potemkin (Sergei M Eisenstein, USSR, 1925). Nothing against Potemkin; it’s a classic that everyone should watch. But it’s also a kind of ‘entry level’ movie for cinephiles, and, well, I’ve already seen it loads of times, and so while I continued to subscribe, MUBI sort of lost my interest.

However, this year I think that they have really picked up. They’ve regularly been showing stuff by Peter Tscherkassky, for example, while it is through MUBI that I have gotten to know the work of American artist Eric Baudelaire (his Letters to Max, France, 2014, is in particular worth seeing). Indeed, it is through Baudelaire that I also have come to discover more about Japanese revolutionary filmmaker Masao Adachi, also the subject of the Philippe Grandrieux film listed at the bottom and which I saw on DAFilms.

MUBI has even managed to get some premieres, screening London Film Festival choices like Parabellum (Lukas Valenta Rinner, Argentina/Austria/Uruguay, 2015) at the same time as the festival and before a theatrical release anywhere else, while also commissioning its own work, such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junun (USA, 2015). It also is the only place to screen festival-winning films like Història de la meva mort/Story of my Death (Albert Serra, Spain/France/Romania, 2013) – which speaks as much of the sad state of UK theatrical distribution/exhibition (not enough people are interested in the film that won at the Locarno Film Festival for any distributors/exhibitors to touch it) as it does of how the online world is becoming a viable and real alternative distribution/exhibition venue.  Getting films like these is making MUBI increasingly the best online site for art house movies.

That said, I have benefitted from travelling a lot this year and have seen what the MUBI selections are like in places as diverse as France, Italy, Hungary, Mexico, China, Canada and the USA. And I can quite happily say that the choice of films on MUBI in the UK is easily the worst out of every single one of these countries. Right now, for example, the majority of the films are pretty mainstream stuff that most film fans will have seen (not even obscure work by Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard, Fritz Lang, Terry Gilliam, Robert Zemeckis, Frank Capra, Guy Ritchie, Steven Spielberg, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Wes Anderson). Indeed, these are all readily available on DVD. More unusual films like Foreign Parts (Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, USA/France, 2010) are for me definitely the way for MUBI to go – even in a country that generally seems as unadventurous in its filmgoing as this one (the UK).

I’ve written in La Furia Umana about the changing landscape of London’s cinemas; no need to repeat myself (even though that essay is not available online, for which apologies). But I would like to say that while I have not been very good traditionally in going to Indian movies (which regularly get screened at VUE cinemas, for example), I have enjoyed how the Odeon Panton Street now regularly screens mainstream Chinese films. For this reason, I’ve seen relatively interesting fare such as Mr Six/Lao pao er (Hu Guan, China, 2015). In fact, the latter was the last film that I saw in 2015, and I watched it with maybe 100 Chinese audience members in the heart of London; that experience – when and how they laughed, the comings and goings, the chatter, the use of phones during the film – was as, if not more, interesting as/than the film itself.

This bit is probably only a list of people whose work I have consistently seen this year, leading on from the Tscherkassky and Baudelaire mentions above. As per 2015, I continue to try to watch movies by Khavn de la Cruz and Giuseppe Andrews with some regularity – and the ones that I have caught in 2015 have caused as much enjoyment as their work did in 2014.

I was enchanted especially by the writing in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip, and then I also managed to see Ross Perry acting in La última película, where he has a leading role with Gabino Rodríguez. This led me to Ross Perry’s earlier Color Wheel (USA, 2011), which is also well worth watching.

As for Rodríguez, he is also the star of the two Nicolás Pereda films that I managed to catch online this year, namely ¿Dónde están sus historias?/Where are their Stories? (Mexico/Canada, 2007) and Juntos/Together (Mexico/Canada, 2009). I am looking forward to seeing more Rodríguez and Pereda when I can.

To return to Listen Up, Philip, it does also feature a powerhouse performance from Jason Schwartzman, who also was very funny in 2015 in The Overnight. More Schwartzman, please.

Noah Baumbach is also getting things out regularly, and I like Adam Driver. I think also that the ongoing and hopefully permanent trend of female-led comedies continues to yield immense pleasures (I am thinking of SpyMistress AmericaTrainwreck, as well as films like Appropriate Behaviour, Desiree Akhavan, UK, 2014, to lead on from last year’s Obvious Child, Gillian Robespierre, USA, 2014; I hope shortly to make good on having missed Sisters, Jason Moore, USA, 2015).

I don’t know if it’s just my perception, but films like SelmaDear White PeopleDope and more also seem to suggest a welcome and hopefully permanent increase in films dealing with issues of race in engaging and smart ways. It’s a shame that Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (USA, 2015) may take some time to get over here. I am intrigued by Creed (Ryan Coogler, USA, 2015).  I was disappointed that Top Five (Chris Rock, USA, 2014) only got a really limited UK release, too. Another one that I missed and would like to have seen.

Matt Damon is the rich man’s Jesse Plemons.

Finally, I’ve been managing to watch more and more of Agnès Varda and the late Chantal Akerman’s back catalogues. And they are both magical. I also watched a few Eric Rohmer and Yasujiro Ozu films this year, the former at the BFI Rohmer season in early 2015, the latter on YouTube (where the older films can roam copyright free).

Michael Kohler
During a visit to Hartlepool in 2015 to see my good friend Jenni Yuill, she handed me a letter that she had found in a first edition of a Christopher Isherwood novel. She had given the novel to a friend, but kept the letter. The letter was written by someone called Michael and to a woman who clearly had been some kind of mentor to him.

In the letter, Michael described some filmmaking that he had done. And from the description – large scale props and the like – this did not seem to be a zero-budget film of the kind that I make, but rather an expensive film.

After some online research, I discovered that the filmmaker in question was/is British experimental filmmaker Michael Kohler, some of whose films screened at the London Film Festival and other places in the 1970s through the early 1990s.

I tracked Michael down to his home in Scotland – and since then we have spoken on the phone, met in person a couple of times, and he has graciously sent me copies of two of his feature films, Cabiri and The Experiencer (neither of which has IMDb listings).

Both are extraordinary and fascinating works, clearly influenced by psychoanalytic and esoteric ideas, with strange rituals, dances, symbolism, connections with the elements and so on.

Furthermore, Michael Kohler is an exceedingly decent man, who made Cabiri over the course of living with the Samburu people in Kenya for a decade or so (he also made theatre in the communes of Berlin in the 1960s, if my recall is good). He continues to spend roughly half of his time with the Samburu in Kenya.

He is perhaps a subject worthy of a portrait film himself. Maybe one day I shall get to make it.

And beyond cinema
I just want briefly to say how one of the most affecting things that I think I saw this year was a photograph of Pier Paolo Pasolini playing football – placed on Facebook by Girish Shambu or someone of that ilk (a real cinephile who makes me feel like an impostor).

Here’s the photo:


I mention this simply because I see in the image some real joy on PPP’s part. I often feel bad for being who I am, and believe that my frailties, which are deep and many, simply anger people. (By frailties, I perhaps more meaningfully could say tendencies that run contrary to mainstream thinking and behaviours – not that I am a massive rebel or anything.) And because these tendencies run contrary to mainstream thinking and behaviours, I tend to feel bad about myself, worried that others will dislike me.

(What is more, my job does not help. I often feel that the academic industry is not so much about the exchange of ideas as an excuse for people to bully each other, or at least to make them feel bad for not being good enough as a human being as we get rated on absolutely everything that we do – in the name of a self-proclaimed and fallacious appeal to an absence of partiality.)

I can’t quite put it in words. But – with Ferrara’s Pasolini film and my thoughts of his life and work also in my mind alongside this image – this photo kind of makes me feel that it’s okay for me to be myself. Pasolini met a terrible fate, but he lived as he did and played football with joy. And people remember him fondly now. And so if I cannot be as good a cinephile or scholar as Girish Shambu and if no one wants to hear my thoughts or watch my films, and if who I am angers some people, we can still take pleasure in taking part, in playing – like Pasolini playing football. And – narcissistic thought though this is – maybe people will smile when thinking about me when I’m dead. Even writing this (I think about the possibility of people remembering me after I am dead; I compare myself to the great Pier Paolo Pasolini) doesn’t make me seem that good a person (I am vain, narcissistic, delusional); but I try to be honest.

And, finally, I’d like to note that while I do include in the list below some short films, I do not include in this list some very real films that have brought me immense joy over the past year, in particular ones from friends: videos from a wedding by Andrew Slater, David H. Fleming cycling around Ningbo in China, videos of my niece Ariadne by my sister Alexandra Bullen.

In a lot of ways, these, too, are among my films of the year, only they don’t have a name, their authors are not well known, and they circulate to single-figure audiences on WhatsApp, or perhaps a few more on Facebook. And yet for me such films (like the cat films of which I also am fond – including ones of kitties like Mia and Mieke, who own Anna Backman Rogers and Leshu Torchin respectively) are very much equally a part of my/the contemporary cinema ecology. I’d like to find a way more officially to recognise this – to put Mira Fleming testing out the tuktuk with Phaedra and Dave and Annette Encounters a Cat on Chelverton Road on the list alongside Clouds of Sils Maria. This would explode list-making entirely. But that also sounds like a lot of fun.

Here’s to a wonderful 2016!


KEY: no marking = saw at cinema; ^ = saw on DVD/file; * = saw online/streaming; + = saw on an aeroplane; ” = saw on TV.

The Theory of Everything
Le signe du lion (Rohmer)
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Au bonheur des dames (Duvivier)
Il Gattopardo
Daybreak/Aurora (Adolfo Alix Jr)^
Eastern Boys
The Masseur (Brillante Mendoza)^
Stations of the Cross
National Gallery
American Sniper
Fay Grim^
Tokyo Chorus (Ozu)*
Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza)^
Wild (Jean-Marc Vallée)
La prochaine fois je viserai le coeur
Pressure (Horace Ové)
La Maison de la Radio
L’amour, l’après-midi (Rohmer)
The Boxtrolls^
A Most Violent Year
The Middle Mystery of Kristo Negro (Khavn)*
Ex Machina
Die Marquise von O… (Rohmer)
An Inn in Tokyo (Ozu)*
Big Hero 6
Images of the World and The Inscriptions of War (Farocki)
Corta (Felipe Guerrero)*
Le bel indifférent (Demy)*
Passing Fancy (Ozu)*
Inherent Vice
Mommy (Dolan)
Quality Street (George Stevens)
Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune (Rohmer)
Jupiter Ascending
Amour Fou (Hausner)
Fuck Cinema^
Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis)*
Broken Circle Breakdown^
We Are Many
Duke of Burgundy
Love is Strange
Chuquiago (Antonio Eguino)*
The American Friend*
Set Fire to the Stars
Catch Me Daddy
Two Rode Together
Patas Arriba
Relatos salvajes
Clouds of Sils Maria
Still Alice
The Experiencer (Michael Kohler)^
Cabiri (Michael Kohler)^
White Bird in a Blizzard*
Love and Bruises (Lou Ye)*
Coal Money (Wang Bing)*
Kommander Kulas (Khavn)*
The Tales of Hoffmann
Entreatos (João Moreira Salles)^
White God
Insiang (Lino Brocka)*
5000 Feet is Best (Omer Fast)*
Bona (Lino Brocka)*
Aimer, boire et chanter
May I Kill U?^
Bande de filles
Appropriate Behavior
The Golden Era (Ann Hui)+
Gemma Bovery+
A Hard Day’s Night+
The Divergent Series: Insurgent
De Mayerling à Sarajevo (Max Ophüls)
Marfa Girl
When We’re Young
Timbuktu (Sissako)
La Sapienza (Eugène Green)
Serena (Susanne Bier)+
22 Jump Street+
Undertow (David Gordon Green)*
Delirious (DiCillo)*
Face of an Angel
Cobain: Montage of Heck
Wolfsburg (Petzold)
The Thoughts Once We Had
El Bruto (Buñuel)*
Marriage Italian-Style (de Sica)*
Force majeure
Workingman’s Death*
The Salvation (Levring)
The Emperor’s New Clothes (Winterbottom)
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Life May Be (Cousins/Akbari)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
The Falling (Carol Morley)
Far From the Madding Crowd (Vinterberg)
Cutie and the Boxer^
Samba (Toledano and Nakache)
Mondomanila, Or How I Fixed My Hair After Rather A Long Journey*^
Phoenix (Petzold)
Cut out the Eyes (Xu Tong)
Producing Criticizing Xu Tong (Wu Haohao)
Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)^
Accidental Love (David O Russell)*
The Tribe
Unveil the Truth II: State Apparatus
Mad Max: Fury Road 3D
Abcinema (Giuseppe Bertucelli)
Tale of Tales (Garrone)
Tomorrowland: A World Beyond
Coming Attractions (Tscherrkassky)*
Les dites cariatides (Varda)*
Une amie nouvelle (Ozon)
Ashes (Weerasethakul)*
Jeunesse dorée (Ghorab-Volta)^
La French
Inch’allah Dimanche (Benguigui)
San Andreas
Regarding Susan Sontag
Pelo Malo*
The Second Game (Porumboiu)^
Dear White People*
Spy (Paul Feig)
L’anabase de May et Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi et 27 années sans images*
Punishment Park*
Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (Miguel Gomes)*
Black Coal, Thin Ice
Listen Up, Philip
Future, My Love*
Lions Love… and Lies (Varda)*
De l’autre côté (Akerman)
Les Combattants
London Road
West (Christian Schwochow)
Don Jon*
Mr Holmes
The Dark Horse*
Slow West
El coraje del pueblo (Sanjinés)^
Scénario du Film ‘Passion’ (Godard)*
Filming ‘Othello’ (Welles)*
Here Be Dragons (Cousins)*
Lake Los Angeles (Ott)*
Amy (Kapadia)
Magic Mike XXL
It’s All True
I Clowns*
The New Hope
The Overnight
Sur un air de Charleston (Renoir)*
Le sang des bêtes (Franju)*
Chop Shop (Bahrani)*
Plastic Bag (Bahrani)*
Love & Mercy
Terminator Genisys 3D
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief
The Salt of the Earth (Wenders/Salgado)
Mondo Trasho*
Le Meraviglie
True Story
Eden (Hansen-Love)
A Woman Under the Influence
River of No Return (Preminger)
Love (Noé)
Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse
Ant-Man 3D
Today and Tomorrow (Huilong Yang)
Inside Out
Fantastic Four
99 Homes
Iris (Albert Maysles)
52 Tuesdays*
La isla mínima
Diary of a Teenage Girl
Sciuscià (Ragazzi)
Hard to be a God
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Mistress America
Precinct Seven Five
The Wolfpack
The President (Makhmalbaf)
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
45 Years
Straight Outta Compton
Osuofia in London*
Osuofia in London 2*
Idol (Khavn)*
Diary (Giuseppe Andrews)^
American Ultra*
La última película (Martin/Peranson)*
Pasolini (Ferrara)*
Les Chants de Mandrin^
Odete (João Pedro Rodrigues)*
Hermanas (Julia Solomonoff)*
Taxi Tehran (Panahi)*
Mystery (Lou Ye)^
Lecciones para Zafirah*
Ulysse (Varda)*
Excitement Class: Love Techniques (Noboru Tanaka)*
Speak (Jessica Sharzer)*
Image of a Bound Girl (Masaru Konuma)*
The Color Wheel*
Jimmy’s Hall*
Shotgun Stories*
El color de los olivos*
Fando y Lis*
La Giovinezza
The Lego Movie+
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone+
Ruby Sparks+
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To)+
La loi du marché+
OSS117: Rio ne répond plus+
Irrational Man
Une heure de tranquillité (Patrice Leconte)
The Lobster
Goodbye, Mr Loser
Fac(t)s of Life^
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman)
Legend (Brian Helgeland)
Mia Madre (Moretti)
Mississippi Grind
Sangue del mio sangue (Bellocchio)
Botón de nácar (Guzmán)
Storm Children, Book 1 (Lav Diaz)
Umimachi Diary (Hirokazu)
Lamb (Ethiopia)
Saul fia
Ceremony of Splendours
[sic] (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Makes (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Martian
Anime Nere
Crimson Peak
The Lady in the Van
Steve Jobs
Manufraktur (Tscherrkasky)*
Lancaster, CA (Mike Ott)*
The Ugly One (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Program (Stephen Frears)
Everything Will Be Fine 3D
Agha Yousef
The OBS – A Singapore Story
Eisenstein in Guanajuato
Letters to Max (Eric Baudelaire)*
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
My Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung)+
Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen)+
The Crossing: Part One (John Woo)+
John Wick^
Junkopia (Chris Marker)*
The Reluctant Revolutionary*
How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?*
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga^
The Shaft (Chi Zhang)^
Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974*
Um lugar ao sol (Gabriel Mascaro)*
The Story of My Death (Albert Serra)*
Juntos (Nicolás Pereda)*
¿Dónde están sus historias? (Nicolás Pereda)*
Golden Embers (Giuseppe Andrews)^
Cartel Land^
Outer Space (Tscherkassky)*
L’Arrivée (Tscherkassky)*
It Follows*
At Sundance (Michael Almereyda)^
Aliens (Michael Almereyda)^
Woman on Fire Looks for Water*
Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso)*
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation*
Adela (Adolfo Alix Jr)*
Point Break 3D
Another Girl Another Planet (Michael Almereyda)^
The Rocking Horse Winner (Michael Almereyda)^
Foreign Parts (Paravel and Sniadecki)*
Star Wars Uncut*
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)*
Evolution of a Filipino Family^
Lumumba: La mort du Prophète^
The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner^
L’échappée belle+
Legend of the Dragon (Danny Lee/Lik-Chi Lee)+
Magnificent Scoundrels (Lik-Chi Lee)+
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens 3D
Devil’s Knot (Egoyan)^
Anatomy of a Murder*
Two Lovers^
Elsa la rose (Varda)*
My Winnipeg*
Surprise: Journey to the West
Mur Murs (Varda)*
In the Heart of the Sea
Sunset Song
Il se peut que la beauté ait renforcé notre résolution: Masao Adachi (Grandrieux)*
Black Mass
Mr Six


Blogpost, French Cinema

Curiosity and a lack of judgment. Those, Mathieu, are the two things that you bring to nigh every role I have seen you play.

Combined, these two things open up a world of joy, a world of passion, a world of love.

Only the curious will be ready to engage with whatever is placed within their path. Only the curious will, by engaging with it, constantly be changing, opening themselves into the realm of new experiences, new becomings, new ways of being.

And only those who are ready to look at whatever they find without judgment will discover in those things that they find a sense of what those things truly are, rather than what the uncurious person wants them to be (and in finding only what they want to find, thereby reaffirming their lack of genuine curiosity).

The curious looks. Those eyes, Mathieu, which caress and penetrate like all of the best lovers should, knowing when with those eyes to show anger and contempt at being shut out of the other’s life, knowing when to shine when the joy begins to happen – the joy that is the becoming of commune, of being with others and with the world around us. Those eyes, Mathieu, with their curved, slightly bulging openness – that is where it all starts.

You don’t love like a romantic, Mathieu. You don’t see in the women that you meet onscreen some idealised version of womanhood, even if some creatures are for you more beautiful in appearance than others – the cause of a besottedness that, being curious and without judgment, you will follow in order simply to see where it leads. You have to and responsibility can go hang because you only have one life and there is no option other than to lead it with all of the passion and folly that it merits.

Not like a romantic, you love without prejudice, Mathieu. You love and will not be afraid to call out – precisely because you do love – those aspects of your partners for which we reserve the lowest terms: bitch, cunt, salope.

And where the rest of the world uses these words as reasons not to look at people properly,  at reasons to judge, you see these words as what they really are: a celebration of life to be led as it must and can only be, as opposed to how other people think it should be. These are not words with which to judge and thus conceal others; let us love bitchiness, let us love cuntitude and let us love saloperie, because along with sacrifice and warmth, these are equally real.

A whore, a doctoral candidate, someone else’s wife, and even when your relationship with the other person has turned to hatred and you are no longer together: you, Mathieu, still love the people that you are with and your eyes grow and shine with joy as you discover yet more about this person. When in their rancour they hiss at you, this is still the source of joy, because even though it clearly is often infuriating for others that you cannot but bring them to painful, restless life, you still bring them to painful, restless life.

And the same goes for yourself: you get high on finding a new bitterness to stutter out, a new connection – good or bad, it’s all the same, since this also is simply the joy of living: through a curiosity to learn, and without judgment fearlessly to become – this is how one lives.

We see this in the way your head tilts down at moments of joy: you look down and find the earth to be a chthonic as you inhale, raise that smoking hand in the air with an excited finger wag, and pace – pacing and prowling because the brain is fizzing over with ideas, and your body cannot contain it, and your sentences start with those stutters, because new sensations, new thoughts, new meanings must all start with stutters – because if they came out perfectly, whole, sedately and not in the throes of joy, then clearly these would not be moments of the new, of becoming.

No wonder yours is a screen life littered with doomed relationships. Who can put up with the intensity of constant, unprejudiced scrutiny and curiosity? Such charge cannot be endured for too long – and so perhaps works better in intense bursts and fits, the stuff of memory, fondness, the best experiences lived even at the moment as fit for memory, relegated from the present to the past straight away – we must separate and only have memories of each other – because it is just too exciting to be with you in the present. The impossibility of life: an overwhelming sense of reality must be killed in order to cope with it. But bring on that life again and again, compulsively, convulsively, because there is no tomorrow.

Maybe sporadically you must play cripples, then, Mathieu. A twin logic is at work: the handicap functions as a signal of how the life that you bring to the screen is just too much for the world of prejudice to be able to bear, but by God do you also show that a handicap is, like being a salope, not just something to celebrate, but a means to gain access to different, more intense joys than any able bodied person could achieve.

When I am with your spectral screen presence, Mathieu, I feel alive. Or rather, I feel obliged to write that I feel like I want to live. Which must mean somehow that I am not alive. Because I know that I hold myself back out of fear; I am curious, but I fear the judgment of others so do not have the courage you have. But I shall try always to follow your example and to try to have your courage – to put my body, my mind, my spirit into any and every situation that I can, and to find in there what patently, abundantly, and always is only ever there: life. And to offer to life the only thing that I have to give: all of the love that I can, wide-eyed, curious, judgment be dispelled, becoming and in looking at life and with life looking plainly back, thanks to you, Mathieu, and your example, I can begin to feel the joy.

Grand Central (Rebecca Zlotowski, Austria/France, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, French Cinema

This blog posting serves as a written form for what I shall say by way of an introduction to Grand Central at Brixton’s Ritzy Picture house on Tuesday 16 September 2014 at 6.30pm.

The film tells the story of Gary (Tahar Rahim), a young man who has dropped out of formal education and who takes on a job with two friends, Tcherno (Johan Libéreau) and Isaac (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), at a nuclear power plant in the Rhône-Alpes region of France.

In part the movie is a work of social realism, as is arguably made clear by the choice of Olivier Gourmet to play Gilles, the man who takes Gary and friends under his wing and who trains them in the job at hand: the maintenance of the plant and the disposal of radioactive waste. For, Gourmet is a stalwart of films by the Dardenne brothers; indeed, an eagle eye might have spotted him in the similar (if less pleasant) foreman role in their latest film, Deux jours, une nuit/Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, 2014).

The social realism is also in evidence via the use of locations, the mumbling acting styles, and the film’s concern with outlining the dangers of working in a nuclear power plant. Getting the so-called radioactive ‘dose’ is not simply something that could happen as part of this job; it is something that inevitably will happen at some point. Furthermore, Zlotowski takes care to detail the petty corruptions that take place almost daily: cheating one’s radiation exposure measurements, stealing equipment from the plant, turning a blind eye to ‘malpractice.’

However, while it is a fascinating insight into the life inside a nuclear power plant (Homer Simpson this is not), the film also takes on a poetic, as opposed to social realist, dimension, both through its love story and, as I shall discuss below, through its imagery.

Gary falls for Karole (Léa Seydoux), who is engaged to be married to Gilles’ friend, colleague and neighbour, Toni (Denis Ménochet). However, while Karole and Toni’s relationship has little wrong with it, she cannot but be attracted – somewhat animalistically – to Gary. An affair begins and, avoiding spoilers, they are on a timeline towards disaster – even if the Karole/Toni relationship is signalled as ‘unnatural’ in some respects both by Toni’s inability to have children – an inability brought on by his job at the nuclear plant – and, in a more meta-cinematic fashion, by the casting of Ménochet as Toni. For Ménochet played Seydoux’s father in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009). To play now her fiancé seems a step towards the unnatural.

As an itinerant worker, Gary seems to be updated version of a different Toni – the one played by Charles Blavette in Jean Renoir’s early social realist classic, Toni (France, 1935). Indeed, where Renoir is concerned not just with realism but also with poetry via symbolism, so, too, is director Zlotowski in this her second feature film. Perhaps this is also implied by the fact that Zlotowski’s film ends with a shot of Toni (and not of Gary or Karole), a shot that I shall discuss below.

At present, however, let me explain what I mean by the film’s symbolism via what seems to be another – at least implicit – reference point to Zlotowski, namely the work of nineteenth century French naturalist novelist, Émile Zola. In a letter to fellow writer Henri Céard, Zola writes:

Nous mentons tous plus ou moins, mais quelle est la mécanique et la mentalité de notre mensonge ? Or – c’est ici que je m’abuse peut-être – je crois encore que je mens pour mon compte dans le sens de la vérité. J’ai l’hypertrophie du détail vrai, le saut dans les étoiles sur le tremplin de l’observation exacte. La vérité monte d’un coup d’aile jusqu’au symbole.

A (relatively loose) translation of this might read as follows:

Basically, we [writers] all lie at some point, but what are the mechanisms and the mentality behind this lying? Now, perhaps I am exaggerating here, but I still think that I personally lie in order to achieve a sense of truth. I gorge on true detail, and I leap to the stars on the trampoline that is exact observation. The truth suddenly takes wing and flies up into the realm of the symbol.

What more evidence need we have of Zola’s use of symbolism than the ending of his great novel, Germinal (1885)? This book, which details at length the lives of French miners, ends with the image of grass growing, pushing up from underground – a symbolic insistence, then, that the miners will themselves emerge from the ground and become once again a part of nature.

And it is in particular in her juxtaposition of nature and the man-made that Zlotowski’s film, like Zola’s novel, becomes most poetic, most symbolic, in spite of its otherwise naturalistic/social realist approach. This is of course signalled in that most Zola-esque of fashions, in the afore-mentioned animal attraction that takes place between Karole and Gary. However, it is also there in the imagery that we see.

Water, for example, plays a key role in the film. Gary demonstrates great thirst early on when he drinks all of Gilles’ water (this is a man who is ‘thirsty’ for success, who has large appetites and so on), while Gary is also associated with the lake next to which the characters live in their trailers. Water is what is used to hose down the characters when they have been exposed too much to radiation; here we see it explicitly take on a ‘cleansing’ role in opposition to the unnatural life in the nuclear power plant. Finally, torrential rain will of course also play a key role in conveying to us the ‘natural’ attraction that exists between Karole and Gary.

At one point early on, Karole compares the sudden loss of vision and the sense of confusion that is raw desire to the exposure to radiation that is what the characters call a ‘dose.’ Desire, it seems, is similar to radiation – but one is healthy and (re)productive, while the other is noxious and damaging.

The greenery of the countryside – the fields where Karole and Gary repeatedly walk and make love – is also juxtaposed with the grey of the cooling towers that we see looming almost consistently in the background. In the framing and the colour scheme, then, we have a clear comparison between nature and modernity – an almost painterly eye that sees (for want of better examples) the rurality of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-1852) combined with the industrial urban landscape of The Pond (1950) by L.S. Lowry – with the human remaining also a key component to both images, and to Zlotowski’s.

The soundscape also ‘symbolises’ the possibility of the plant’s threatening nature: its ominous siren calls tell us if someone has had an accident in the plant – with the obligatory and ‘unnatural’ loss of hair that this inevitably entails. What is more, the haunting score by Rob (Robin Coudert) also plays an important part in the film, itself signalling a leap into the heavens as it creates a sense of foreboding throughout.

Finally, there is also a strong emphasis on shoes in the film: Gary carries his shoes around early on in a bar scene, while changing shoes takes place every day at work as the crew steps into the zone where they must wear their protective uniforms.

I am not certain of the ‘meaning’ of this – but it perhaps signals the constraint of the human in clothing. This may seem a bit far-fetched, but the French for shoe is chaussure, which comes from the Latin calx (foot) and calcāre (to tread, but also to crush). Not only does the shoe itself tread and crush, but the shoe might also do this to the foot. The word inculcate, meaning to tread down/stamp in/force upon, comes from the same root: Gary will not be downtrodden.

I have only offered a brief sketch here of Zlotowski’s film, but it is a rich and engaging film, featuring performances from a handful of French cinema’s finest talents, telling a fascinating story not just about the perils of nuclear power, but also about the impossibility for human nature to be extinguished. Nonsensical desire will always dictate our lives more than empirical science can possibly hope to achieve.

As mentioned, the film ends with a fascinating double exposure of Toni, of all characters, on an electronic rodeo bull – the same bull that we have seen Gary ride and defeat near the start of the film. Mysterious and beautiful, it suggests that perhaps even impotent Toni will not be vanquished. It is not that he conquers desire – in the form of a bull; it is that he conquers the mechanisation of desire – in the form of a mechanical bull. The doubling of his image through the double exposure/superimposition suggests multiplication, too, as he is set out twice against a black background: not only will Toni not go away, but there will be of him, more people like him.

Like a ray of light in the darkness, Toni has become the star in the heavens – into which the film has leapt via precise observation. Perhaps if Zola were alive to make films today, this would be the sort of movie that he’d produce.

Alceste à Bicyclette/Cycling with Molière (Philippe Le Guay, France, 2013)

Blogpost, Film education, French Cinema, Ritzy introductions

This blog post is basically a summary, or even a detailed version, of my introduction of Cycling with Molière at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London, this evening (9 September 2014).

Cycling with Molière tells the story of an actor, Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini), who has gone into self-imposed exile on the Île de Ré, near La Rochelle in France. A former colleague and successful television star, Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson), tracks him down in order to persuade him to take part in a new stage production of Molière’s Le Misanthrope – a play about a man, Alceste, who becomes disillusioned with the hypocrisy of French society and who decides to be entirely candid with everyone with whom he interacts. Naturally, Alceste’s ‘honesty’ leads him to become ever more alienated by society, a kind of alienation that Alceste perhaps even craves, as he tells people precisely what he thinks of them.

Le Guay’s film takes place over more or less a week, during which time the two leads rehearse and/or spar, swapping the roles of Alceste and his best friend, Philinte, who in Molière’s play is the raisonneur character, or voice of reason, who tries to convince Alceste that being more economical with ‘the truth’ can in fact lead to finding a comfortable place in the world and, perhaps, some sort of happiness.

During this period they also meet an Italian divorcee, Francesca (Maya Sansa), who is planning on leaving France; a young porn actress Zoé (Laurie Bourdesoules), who potentially aspires to become a stage actress; and a taxi driver (Stéphan Wojtowicz), whose mother has broken her femur and for whom Gauthier promises to find a doctor.

Broadly speaking, the film sees Serge as Alceste, the man who refuses to be a part of society, and Gauthier as Philinte – and it is these roles that the two for the most part adopt in their rehearsals of Le Misanthrope. However, the film explores how Serge equally has elements of Philinte about him, as Gauthier does Alceste, too. Serge, for example, can be entirely dishonest at times, as seen in some of the tricks that he plays on Gauthier (taking a phone call and loudly saying that he is not doing anything as he watches an episode of Gauthier’s House-style medical drama, Le docteur Morange, with Gauthier and Francesca). Meanwhile, it is Gauthier who at times expresses disappointment at the world of today – for example, gawping at house prices on the Île de Ré.

In other words, both characters have elements of both Philinte and Alceste about them. This is not to say that Molière’s characters are one-sided (and it is certainly not to say that the film is superior to Molière’s play), but it is to say that the film tries to bring Molière’s characters a new context – namely contemporary France.

Indeed, in addition to the character study that the film predominantly is, with two fantastic performances from two of France’s strongest actors, it is the asides on contemporary France that are perhaps a prime focus of the film.

As mentioned, property prices – together with discussions of money in general – loom large in the film, as does a disappointment with the ubiquitous nature of the mobile phone: Serge and Gauthier argue about the latter’s addiction to his phone, while Zoé seems more concerned with her phone than with watching Serge and Gauthier perform Molière’s play.

‘We live in an extraordinary age,’ says Serge at one point. And it seems as though this is a world in which good old-fashioned values have been lost. This becomes clear during a discussion of Molière himself: Gauthier wants to do a more up-to-date version of the text, while Serge insists that one must respect the original text, particularly its Alexandrine poetry (each line is composed of 12 syllables).

Serge wants to preserve the past, in effect, while Gauthier wants to move with the times (and arguably he is of the times as his prime motivation seems to be to make money – hence his work as Dr Morange – for €200,000 per episode). This is also signalled by the way in which Serge wants to ride a bicycle everywhere on the Île de Ré – the construction of a bridge to which Serge also laments.

Gauthier initially rides a bike and falls off. However, he soon is taken in by the charms of the bike, and by the end of the film, it is Serge who falls off his bike and into a canal. Tables turn in the film, such that by the end we somehow want both to resolve their seemingly irreconcilable differences, but are worried that somehow they won’t.

What we do have, though, is both characters kind of stuck in their ways – which is indeed a very Molière-like trope. In play after play, Molière presents to us a monomaniac: Alceste who believes he must always speak the truth, Dom Juan who must chase after women, Orgon in Le Tartuffe who insists that his family must obey him. And in play after play, the monomaniac is not quite cured by the end, but still somehow in search of what they want to find – Alceste goes off into the wilderness; Dom Juan refuses to repent; Orgon seems to suggest that while Tartuffe may have been outed, he still wants total control over his family.

And so it is in Alceste à bicyclette that we have neither Serge nor Gauthier as necessarily having learnt anything. Serge is on the Île de Ré as Gauthier realises that he still cannot get right a line from the first act of Le Misanthrope. ‘You wish an evil to befall humanity,’ says Philinte, to which Alceste normally replies: ‘Yes, I have conceived horrifying hatred for humanity.’ Except that Gauthier repeatedly says ‘Yes, I have conceived an unspeakable hatred for humanity.’

The difference between horrifying and unspeakable, effroyable and indicible, are important, says Serge. And it perhaps points to the way in which it is Philinte who is the real pessimist – believing that since humans cannot and will not change, then it is just worth playing along with the mores of a society in order to succeed. This means being insincere, as we see in Gauthier’s faux concern for the taxi driver’s mother, a concern that leads Gauthier to be in a fight at one point in the film.

It is Alceste, then, who is the optimist of the pair, because it is he who believes that humans can do better and who refuses to compromise in his bid for humans to be better, less conniving and more honest. Wayward as this quest may be (because it perhaps overlooks some of the benefits of dishonesty – a dishonesty that both Alceste and Serge at times share), it is in some ways admirable.

And in saying that his hatred for humanity is unspeakable, Gauthier in fact speaks precisely of his hatred for and cynicism concerning humanity – a fact also revealed subtly by his womanising, while Serge dreams of/idealises a more pure and innocent love, one that ultimately is not forthcoming (though we do not have Serge decry Francesca or the other female characters as Alceste decries Célimène in Molière’s play).

Serge plays at the idealist – but like the pipes in his garden, they cannot but burst at some point. While Gauthier plays at the realist, but whose underlying idealism is undermined when he comes into contact with reality – a jacuzzi that does not work, a fight with a cab driver. As such, Le Guay offers us a complex and thoughtful study of two characters, inspired by one of the great works of French and world literature.

‘On rît dans l’âme,’ said Molière of Le Misanthrope, though the phrase might apply to his plays more generally, since they are often described as comedies, but in the telling of which tragedy is never very far at all (indeed, when there is a comic/happy ending, as in Le Tartuffe, it normally happens via an unlikely deus ex machina device). We laugh in our souls, but not out loud. Alceste à bicyclette is a comedy, but not one full of belly laughs (though there are a couple of those). It is a comedy to provoke thought, some sort of nourishment for the soul, and for the mind. I hope that you enjoy it and get as much food for thought as I did.

Notes from the LFF: Abus de faiblesse/Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, France/Germany/Belgium, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film reviews, French Cinema, London Film Festival 2013

Catherine Breillat’s latest, very personal film tells the story of a filmmaker, Maud (Isabelle Huppert – remarkable as ever), who suffers from a stroke and who, in her recovery period, starts to work on a new project that will star gangster and seeming millionaire Vilko Piran (Kool Shen, of French rap group NTM, and also remarkable in this film).

However, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Vilko is milking Maud for all that she is worth – taking cheque after cheque from her for variously large sums of money, until Maud gets a visit from the bank and runs the risk of losing all that she has.

The dilemma at the heart of Abuse of Weakness, then, is who is abusing whom. Is Maud willingly being taken for a ride by Vilko, or is he really the heartless character who is prepared to take advantage of an inform stroke victim in order to line his own pockets?

As is perhaps to be expected from Breillat, there is no easy answer to this question, and this is particularly signalled by the way in which Vilko keeps on reappearing in Maud’s life. He could easily have taken Maud’s money and run – but instead seems as tied to her as she becomes to him.

As such, the film becomes an exploration into the seductive nature of power and, of course, the seductive nature of images – for one gets the sense that it is his chance to become a star that keeps Vilko hanging around as much as does any attraction to Maud. And similarly, one senses that Maud falls for an image of Vilko from the outset – spotting him on television for the first time during one sleepless night at home.

It is perhaps also about the way in which social change – the myth that persists in Western/capitalist societies that those who come from nothing can, with supreme will, make ‘something’ of themselves – is in fact a by-word for bourgeoisification. That is, Vilko becomes rich, but he does not become bourgeois, or ‘well mannered’ (from the bourgeois point of view) – and while we as viewers are hoping/expecting Vilko to suddenly develop more of a conscience, he seemingly does not, with Maud seemingly also aware that to expect the leopard to change its spots is futile. Instead, he is like the scorpion on the frog’s back; he’ll sting the frog that takes him across the water. And why? Because he is a scorpion, of course.

Except that Vilko is perhaps not really rich (we don’t know this – but we’d wonder otherwise why he needs to take Maud’s money). And thus he is in fact already bourgeois, in the sense that his wealth is really based upon the (criminal?) exploitation of others – Vilko perhaps exploiting Maud precisely because she feels bad about how her own wealth – and the wealth of those of her kind – is based upon a history of exploitation. This intricate film, then, is a kind of modern day Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961).

What is also of interest about Breillat’s film is the way in which it is about property – the film at times seems a paean to Maud’s amazing apartment and the fact that she perhaps does not want or deserve such a luxurious pad.

And also Abuse of Weakness is about sleeping, and in particular sleeping with – and having sleep being interrupted by – mobile phones. This is a repeated image throughout the film. And while – to the best of our knowledge – Maud and Vilko never have a sexual liaison, one gets the sense that the phone is the fetish that stands in for their desire for one another. It functions, however, as an illusory, unstable bridge between them – perhaps as unstable and as unreliable as any image.

In other words, Breillat suggests how technology seemingly plays a part in humans’ inability to connect – humans instead seeing each other as images and not as people. And outside of our relationship(s) with technology, it seems as though we are otherwise asleep, lost in our own thoughts and dreams.

Abuse of Weakness, then, is perhaps about our abuse of our own weaknesses, especially our propensity to hide from the world (in our beds, in our apartments, behind a mobile phone), and to avoid encounters with that world as much as possible. Indeed, we’d rather shell out all of our money rather than really to engage with that world. Perhaps it is wealth that makes us weak, then, and not a stroke. And Vilko is right to be profligate with his money – for after all, if it is a crutch for the weak, who really needs it?


The We and the I (Michel Gondry, UK/USA/France, 2012)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, French Cinema, Transnational Cinema

There is a moment in Michel Gondry’s The We and the I when the kids on the bus that is journeying across New York all seem to stop what they are doing and to look in awe at a beautiful white girl cycling on the sidewalk in a floral summer dress.

The film switches determinedly to slow motion as we see the girl cycling, heads turning, and one kid, Jacobchen (Jacob Carrasco), leaping up from his seat to fix a closer look at her.

This will perhaps sound odd, but at this moment what I shall call the cinematic manifests itself in full force. This no doubt sounds odd because The We and the I is, of course, a film. That is, the whole film is cinematic – and so it is strange to say that this moment is particularly cinematic, because it implies somehow that the rest of the film is not.

The point that I wish to make here is not that the rest of The We and the I is uncinematic; but it is interesting that a technique as cinematic as slow motion manifests itself at a moment when these kids – otherwise stars of their own movie(s), as I shall discuss below – become spectators in another movie, the movie of the beautiful white girl on the bike.

Not only does this moment powerfully suggest that New York is a cinematic city, but also that it has more stories to tell than the one, or the many, that are being told on the bus that takes these kids towards their homes on the last day of school.

But this moment also suggests the way in which these kids aspire to be cinematic; the straight boys, the gay boys, and the straight and arguably gay girls, all seem to look with desire at the white girl – wishing, it would seem, to have her life, to be able to move in slow motion, carefree and easy, rather than cooped up on this bus with its interminable journey through a New York that passes from sunny to rainy and from day to night.

It is perhaps important that Jacobchen shouts out to the girl a derogatory remark along the lines of ‘great tits, gorgeous’ (forgive me, I cannot remember the exact line). For, Jacobchen perhaps subverts the notion that he is in love with this girl as an image to behold, but that he is also rebelliously determined to possess this girl.

It would then also be important that Jacobchen gets into a quasi-fight with Jonathan (Jonathan Ortiz), who also has clamped eyes on and lays spurious claim to the girl: they both want her.

However, forasmuch as their objectification of the girl on the bike and their dispute over her might seem to undermine their aspirations to have her – in that they are acting out the impossibility of having her – the slow motion moment nonetheless seems to suggest that all of the kids want her and/or her lifestyle, even if their way of expressing it is coarse and futile (the bus drives on; the girl is perhaps never even aware that she has been regarded in this way).

Even when Messiah-like Kon (Konchen Carrasco) upbraids his brother Jacobchen for speaking to the girl in this derogatory fashion, he also corrects him and says that she did not have big tits. In other words, even if Kon demands better behaviour from Jacobchen, he also still saw and watched the girl intently.

The reason that I wish to talk about this moment in the film is because it raises the intertwined issues of race and class that run throughout the film. In short, the kids on the bus are all of black, Asian or Hispanic origin – or a mix of these. And they all seem to come from working class families – kids who look after their mothers, what the rest of the world might term a broken home, etc.

For the film to suggest that they all aspire to middle class values, or even wealthy values – as signalled by their collective adoration of the girl on the bike – is where the film becomes interesting.

It is not a young person’s fault to aspire to the images of success and beauty that surround us day in and day out from birth. But The We and the I also suggests that while these kids seem to want to live in the white, middle class world, it is somehow closed to them.

This is most forcefully signalled by the way in which the film’s numerous flashbacks and fantasy sequences are not the ‘cinematic’ slow motion of the girl on the bike, but predominantly on mobile phones.

Take Kenny’s (Kenneth Quinones) elaborate fantasy about striding into cool bars, being told what great taste he has, and hanging out with Donald Trump: this mobile phone section undermines the splendour of Kenny’s fantasy by lending to it a grain and pictorial dirtiness that is the opposite of the slow motion sequence with the girl. That is, the mobile phone footage actually is, almost, uncinematic. These kids can dream, but their dreams are banal (as perhaps most kids’ dreams are) – and they are not the full-on brightly lit slomo of the girl on the bike.

In other words, the film seems to suggest that ‘real cinema’ is impossible for these kids: their fantasies are minor fantasies played out on minor, smaller screens, and recorded with minor, smaller filmmaking devices. And by ‘real cinema,’ we are really talking about social mobility: what are the prospects for these kids? How will they get to be, or to be with, or to have what the girl on the bike has?

However, while we might be moving towards an assertion along the lines of “The We and the I not only reflects upon the lack of social mobility for young ethnic Americans, but it also arguably reinforces it – by beatifying the girl on the bike so much, only to deny such beauty when we see their more sordid, grimy fantasies and memories played out on mobile phones” – I’d also suggest that this is can only tentatively be the case.

Let’s work this through a bit.

For, while the bus contains bullies, introverts, drama queens and, well, just teenage kids, they on the whole seem okay. Even the bullies seem not really to be too bad, or to be taken too seriously. That is, their boisterous insults and supposed nastiness carry with them a sense of fun, or at the very least liveliness, that in itself is empowering thanks to its expression of libido. That is, the energy of the kids is a sign of potency, of potential power, be that in the kids who are smart mouths, the kids who can play music, or the kids who can draw.

In short, Gondry seems to cut his kids enough slack that we do not dislike them as much as all that, even if they are part-time bullies and even if they do some gleefully irresponsible things on this bus journey.

Since Gondry cuts the kids this slack, the modesty of their ambitions – rendered in modest mobile phone footage – suggests in some sense a sort of dignity. In other words, there is tension between the film making out that mobile phone ambitions will never be fully cinematic and the other approach to this issue, which is that mobile phone images are equally if differently cinematic – and for these kids more powerfully so, because it is the mobile phone that allows them to express themselves most forcefully.

Nonetheless, we are still faced with the notion that these kids are aspiring to be white. This is also figured in Teresa’s (Teresa Lynn) blonde wig. Teresa has been bunking school after drunkenly molesting one of peers, Laidychen (Laidychen Carrasco), who is also on the bus. In a bid to make herself over, she wears a blonde wig. Immediately she is harrangued about it: appearing, or aspiring to appear, white is in some respects selling out on who she and the rest of these kids really are. But even if the kids – Teresa, too – accept that she is not white and should be proud of who she actually is, this ambition still remains.

Importantly, the kids continually repeat watching and send to each other a video of Elijah (Elijah Canada), a kid not on the bus, who may or may not be one of the Chen clan, and who – *spoilers* – is announced as having been stabbed dead near the film’s climax.

We can contrast this with the footage and images of Teresa molesting Laidychen taken by Michael (Michael Brodie) and Big T (Jonathan Scott Worrell). Here, Michael has erased all images and footage (even though the film itself shows this to us – Gondry able to pass into deleted territory that the kids no longer can).

If Elijah’s fate as the ‘star’ of a viral video (it features him falling on his ass as he slips up on butter placed on a kitchen floor) is to be killed, while Teresa is allowed to live on thanks to the suppression of the footage that shows her at her worst, then The We and the I might suggest that it is by precisely avoiding becoming cinematic – by not falling into the trap of wanting to be white? – that one can survive in this world. Seeking and wanting one’s own fantasies, one’s own secrets, perhaps, is to retain and/or develop independence, while to aspire to the dreams fed to us by the white and middle class-dominated media is to not be independent at all.

And yet, the fact remains that Gondry can still show to us the images of Teresa and Laidychen, even if the other kids on the bus do not see it. That is, Gondry as white, middle class filmmaker has access to all areas; his films pass across all of the registers, from the supposedly cinematic to the supposedly uncinematic, as if he were fluent in everyone’s fantasies. That is, it is the privilege of the middle class to imagine the fantasies of the working class, to be able to hang with the non-white kids – while at the same time being able easily to swing back by into the white, middle class world and to reflect upon what one has seen.

Although Gondry would seem to express solidarity for his characters – perhaps, romantically put, he has a love for a common humanity – he still is demonstrating his ability to speak to and with all peoples, a skill that the subjects in his film do not and perhaps cannot possess.

Gondry’s fantasies of being able to cut across all divisions are marked by his trademark shots of simultaneous moments in different locations being played out on the screen at the same time: a swish pan takes us from inside the bus to a different location as if they were in fact the same space; kids in a pizza parlour can be seen in the bus window, even though they are not physically visible to the people on the bus.

These surely are visually arresting moments – and they are part of the package that has quickly singled out Gondry as a filmmaker with a notable, auteurist style.

But they also reinforce the fact that Gondry’s romanticism is a middle class fantasy.

It is not, at the last, that Gondry is at fault somehow for being limited in the kind of film that he can make. And perhaps I am misguided in effectively arguing that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, when in fact humans do share common ground and a common humanity that links us all.

But when biology – our common humanity – is married with culture – by which I mean the social and ethnic divisions that are the offshoot of a capitalist society – are put together, the tensions between the two come strongly to the fore (even if culture and biology are more intimately linked than we would like to think).

We might all aspire to become light or to become cinema – to be, to be with, or to have the girl on the bike. And we might all bar the very exceptional few fail in this and only have mobile phone fantasies. And we should be proud of our mobile phone fantasies, even if they are gritty and ugly to those who have been indoctrinated by the so-called ‘cinematic’ (only white girls on bikes are beautiful; the rest is somehow sordid). We should be proud of our mobile phone fantasies, because they are ours and not the expression of us pandering to be something we are not.

But can Michel Gondry be the person to tell us this?

My only answer is that I wish that the kids themselves had made the film. Correction: the kids themselves do make this film. But I wish they’d been credited more clearly for it. But then that is just me hoping in my white,  class way to find an ‘authentic’ expression of ethnic, working class America – something that probably does not exist.

There is no way out of this conundrum. I cannot offer any answers. But without any answers, maybe we can begin properly to think about this matter (if I am in a position to make such a declaration, to assert in any way whatsoever what thinking is).

Amazing how a moment in a film – a girl on a bike – can trigger a reading of that film that sends ripples throughout the rest of its fabric.

Notes from the LFF: Hors Satan/Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont, France, 2011)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, French Cinema, Uncategorized

Are we living in the end times?

Personally, I don’t think so.

But, then again, while I will be sad to die (this is a lie – I won’t be anything except dead), and while I’ll be sad (and pretty excited) to see some other planet crash into Earth, or whatever fate awaits humanity and the rock we float on, this will not be the end of things.

I view it pretty simply: molecules, matter, light, and all of that ‘primary’ stuff that goes to make up the universe will still be around. They will never not be around. Perhaps they cannot not to be around. So an absolute end to all things? No, I don’t think so.

Hors Satan is one of a small bunch of recent art house movies that features a miracle (more than one in this film, in fact).

Miracles are relatively common place in the mainstream – impossible things happen the whole time, whether or not these are given a religious context and whether or not they are recognised as being miraculous.

Given that the mainstream peddles in impossible/miraculous illusion on a day-to-day basis, miracles there are not as interesting as when they appear in art house cinema.

Why? Because art house cinema is ‘for’ and ‘by’ ‘intellectuals’ – which stereotypically might have overlap with what I shall call agnosticism. Here, I don’t quite mean agnosticism in the sense of ‘I am not sure what or whether I believe in God or not,’ although it’s linked – hence my choice to use this word.

What I mean by agnosticism is a certain suspicion with regard to miracles: people do not get up from the dead and walk in everyday life (not without the help of defibrillators, anyway). Or if they do, there might well be a ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ explanation, to which we do not necessarily have access.

Now, just to be clear, I think that you can believe in God and still be agnostic if we accept this definition. And note that this agnosticism is not meant to rule out miracles – it’s just to want thoroughly to question the evidence for them.

This in and of itself might place too great an emphasis on ‘science’ – but my point is not that such a ‘scientific’ view is without potential flaws. It is simply that, according to this view, miracles would push the bounds of credibility.

A second – linked – reason why miracles in art house cinema are more remarkable (and push the bounds of credibility) is that art house cinema – a very problematic generalisation, I confess – often (but not exclusively) is made in what we have come to accept as a ‘realistic’ style. That is, few elements are obtrusive, be that the acting, the mise-en-scène, the cinematography, the editing, or the soundtrack.

Instead, everything plays in seemingly real – and not stylised – locations, with the camera retaining some distance from events, not moving in an ostentatious fashion, and with edits taking place when they perhaps ‘need’ to, rather than ‘for the sake of it’. Since these films try to look like everyday life, and since miracles do not take place in everyday life, it is intriguing – and all the more surprising – that art house films would choose to portray miracles in this style.

Art house films might be weird as far as their status as a film is concerned. To give an example, Hors Satan itself has long takes, in which little happens and in which there is little dialogue as the unnamed lead character, played by David Dewaele, walks around the countryside of the north of France, seemingly praying to the countryside, and taking away and giving life as he sees fit.

But, even though we seem increasingly to find our real lives intolerable if they are filled with silence and little movement, such silence and stillness in a film might yet be thought of as realistic – because reality is not the crash bang wallop of the mainstream movies.

That is, as far as films go, Hors Satan is ‘weird’ because it does not conform to the norms of mainstream filmmaking – which bring with them an implicit contract whereby the audience ‘expects’ miracles to happen. But this ‘weirdness’ for a film might still be termed realistic, because life itself is slow and often quiet. And so when a miracle happens in a ‘weird’ and slow and supposedly ‘realistic’ film, it seems as though something even more weird must be going on.

Along with Stellet licht/Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, 2007) and Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, Austria/France/Germany, 2009), then, Hors Satan is one of a handful of high profile and recent art house ‘miracle movies.’

Why is the story of a miracle, as happens in Hors Satan, linked to the ‘end times’ I evoked at the outset of this blog?

My proposed – and admittedly general – answer would be that we live in times when it is hard to find something to believe in. Almost any religious belief is – especially beliefs held so strongly that one would want to share that belief with others and perhaps even try to persuade them of the truth of those beliefs – quickly derided as ‘fundamentalism,’ as is the seemingly irrational and rabid refusal to believe in capitalism.

In other words, ‘realists’ are supposedly atheists, as the religion bashers such as Richard Dawkins aim to make clear. Being realists, there would be little space for miracles in films made for ‘intelligent’ and ‘realistic’ people, and also made by ‘intelligent’ filmmakers who shoot using the technical and formal conventions of ‘realism’ (realism as a style of filmmaking).

In the postmodern era, in which the so-called ‘grand narratives’ that previously could explain the world and our position therewith have been overthrown but not replaced, it would appear that there is nothing to believe in anymore.

And yet with mankind’s fragility ever more thrust in our own faces, it is perhaps natural that humans would turn back to religion – or at least the belief in some power/force/energy/design/divinity – in order to have some rationale behind the human project, and perhaps also to convince us that we do not need to be out there in the streets murdering and stealing simply because we know that no punishment – either Earthly or divine – awaits us.

(I am intrigued by the fact that the day on which the human population on Earth reached seven billion in number, the news seems to mourn our demise – not enough food, not enough warmth, not enough oxygen to keep us going. That is, the human race is numerically at its strongest, and yet the discourse seems overwhelmingly to emphasise that we are at our weakest.)

Now, I personally think that none of Silent Light, Lourdes or Hors Satan actually believes in the miracles that they depict – and also believe that none of them is a ‘Christian’ film attempting to woo its viewers back to the church because if we don’t pray now, then, Pascal-like, we might lose our bet with God.

The reference to Pascal is perhaps apt. For Pascal himself argues – in the same section (233) of his Pensées in which the wager appears – that we cannot have access to the infinite, or to God, because we are finite – and the infinite is not just a ‘big number’; rather, the infinite is without number.

That is to say, Pascal is talking about a faith without proof – precisely, a faith. Ostensibly, then, a miracle – as ‘proof’ of God – eliminates the wager; once you’ve seen a miracle, you just believe because you have seen God and don’t need to, nay cannot, doubt anymore.

Here is where what I perceive to be the failure of these three films to believe in their own miracles perhaps becomes interesting. For the miracles in each film function for me not as proof of God, but as evidence of our need for beliefs as a whole.

There is nothing stopping anyone from reading these films – perhaps Lourdes especially – as being literal accounts of miracles. However, for me these films are about the need to fill a void that has been created by the drive to render the world scientifically comprehensible (even though science itself remains full of mysteries, with the Higgs-Boson itself sometimes even referred to – even if jokingly – as the ‘God particle’).

In other words, Gödel notwithstanding, our comprehension of the universe is incomplete – and this is in part perhaps because of the lack of anything to believe in. Belief, then, might yet (even if not forever) remain a vital need for humans, a meme of such power that we cannot ignore it.

Although I have not discussed Hors Satan or any of the films mentioned in much depth, I just wanted to get across these brief thoughts.

And as a brief add-on, I found it interesting that We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011) dared to look precisely at our belief-less, postmodern society from the perspective of a mother whose love for her son is only ambivalent (and vice versa) at absolute best.

Not only does this for me confirm Ramsay’s status as one of the leading lights of British cinema (my top quartet typically would be Winterbottom, Meadows, Arnold and Ramsay), but it also stands in stark contrast to the ‘king’ of postmodern pop, Quentin Tarantino.

In a very informative book about film and ethics, Lisa Downing writes that Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (USA, 2003-2004) ultimately offer up the myth of motherhood as, for Tarantino, a final ideological barrier that for him is absolute – and not a social/cultural convention that is contingent (i.e. need not necessarily be true or real under different circumstances).

Kevin is prepared to take a step in that direction and to question even this myth.

Dumont’s film has a set of concerns entirely separate from Ramsay’s – and perhaps from all of the films mentioned here.

But if nothing else it is an interesting – and beautiful – meditation on what the times are such that they might be ending.