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 ofSzechwan 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).
I saw roughly 406 films for the first time in 2018.
I say ‘roughly’ because this figure is not entirely accurate, since there are a couple of films that I went to watch only to realise that I had seen them before, or at the very least to suspect that I had seen them before (In Praise ofNothing being a case in point).
What is more, there are some films that I saw at the Strange Days exhibition at London’s 180 Strand, but which are not listed here (Pipilotti Rist’s 4th Floor to Mildness functions as a stand-in for all of the ones that I did see).
On that topic, there are two gallery/installation films that I enjoyed a lot, but which I did not get to see in full, those being Christian Marclay’s The Clock at Tate Modern and Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow at the Strange Days exhibition. Of the former, I managed to see from 10:02 through to about 18:00 – although there is one final all-night session in January 2019 that may allow me to see the film in its entirety provided that I go and that I stay awake for it. And of the latter, I only managed about half an hour, but it was hypnotising and I would like to see more (it is available on YouTube, but I have not had a chance to see it).
Beyond that, I saw 220 films at the cinema this year, making it the most common venue for my film viewing. This was followed by 144 films that I saw online, 22 films that I saw on DVD, VHS or from a file, 11 films that I saw on an aeroplane, 7 listed here that I saw at galleries, and two that I saw on television.
This includes various short(er) films.
The distinction between cinema and online continues to be eroded, in that many films are readily available online at the same time that they are in theatres. I would say that when I see a film like Bird Box, and I can see the image blur as the internet connection wavers, or when I see a film like Mudbound and I can see streaks of grey (as well as my own reflection) in the black of a nocturnal scene as my laptop cannot handle the tonality of darkness… then I feel that the theatre is still the best venue for watching films.
I fell asleep during a relatively large number of films this year, but I did not keep a record. That said, I did sense that I was beginning to fall asleep on occasion during mainstream films, which previously was only a very rare occurrence. Perhaps I need more sleep, or to change my lifestyle in numerous ways (drink less, stop smoking, do more exercise, watch fewer films, not work so hard, learn to be an adult, and so on). All the same, though, maybe blockbusters are having less of an effect on grabbing my attention than they used to.
I also noted that I would check and answer messages on my phone more regularly during film screenings. I am not sure how to stop the endless tide of messages or the insistent compulsion to answer them. In part this may be because watching films can sometimes still feel like skiving.
There are a few filmmakers by whom I saw several films this year, and these include Ingmar Bergman (as part of the retrospective of his work at the British Film Institute), Alia Syed and Kamran Shirdel (as part of events organised through the Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image), and then Philippe Garrel, Krzysztof Zanussi, Mark Cousins, Angela Schanelec, Rick Alverson, Kevin Jerome Everson, Barbara Hammer, Annemarie Jacir, John Torres, Lou Ye, Gérard Courant, John Carpenter, Douglas Sirk, James Marsh and Christoph Schlingensief. These latter are mainly as a result of retrospectives on MUBI, although some are also a result of me wanting to catch various of their films out of a sense of failure at not having seen them already (Carpenter), or simply because they seem to have been productive (Mark Cousins and James Marsh, who, via The Mercy and King of Thieves, seemed this year to begin a trend of Brit-film mediocrity that I hope does not last too long).
Of these, the work of Jacir and Everson was in particular a pleasant discovery, while my engagement with Torres was more a case of finally reaching a destination that I had been meaning to visit for a few years. I enjoy but continue not to be blown away by Garrel, while Schlingensief is (or rather was) perhaps one of the most interesting and subversive European filmmakers of the contemporary era. Indeed, without wishing to sound too much like an arrogant c-unit, Schlingensief and Torres would in particular make excellent case studies of what I term ‘non-cinema,’ and about which I published a book this year.
On this note, I also saw a handful of South African films this year (Love The One You Love, The Wound, We Are Thankful, Revenge,Girl from Nowhere, as well as a couple of experimental shorts not listed below by Jyoti Mistry and Nobunye Levin), some that I preferred more than others… but of which Love The One You Love and We Are Thankful struck me as really strong low-budget pieces of work (and which thus might qualify as what I term ‘non-cinema’). In particular I’d in the future look out for work by Jenna Bass, the director of the former, as well as further work by Mistry and Levin.
Other films that I saw (but which might not necessarily be new), and which might qualify as good examples of ‘non-cinema’ (and which for me were memorable viewing experiences) include Joséphine Ndagnou’s Paris à tout prix, Eric Eason’s Manito, Li Ning’s Tape, Khoa Do’s The Finished People and Josh Appignanesi’s Female Human Animal.
What was also interesting for me was to think about my conceptualisation of non-cinema in relation to the work of Kevin Jerome Everson mentioned above. Briefly put, non-cinema is a way of thinking about low-budget, anti-hegemonic filmmaking (read, work that critiques or offers alternatives to white, heteronormative patriarchy), and which at times is wilfully (but not necessarily) anti-commercial. In particular the argument tries to work productively with the idea that the digital is in some senses not cinema anymore in terms of production (celluloid) and distribution (theatres). And so if for various reasons it is ‘not cinema,’ then maybe we can positively say that it is ‘non-cinema.’
Should anyone ever read the book, one of the issues that they might have with it is that I want or insist that filmmakers who do not belong to white, heteronormative patriarchy somehow should or must produce ‘non-cinema,’ meaning that the wonders of cinema remain the preserve of the powerful.
This is not the intention behind my argument at all and I do try in the book to make clear that ‘non-cinema’ is still (or at least can still be) ‘cinematic’ (whatever that means), while also (perhaps without articulating it in so many words) wishing to encourage film viewers to consider that various of the things that they might consider to be ‘bad’ or ‘not even’ cinema are not necessarily a result of inferior filmmaking abilities (which is to create hierarchies of power), but that they might be positive choices, expressions of difference, perhaps especially expressions of a lack of access to power (especially money-as-power since many filmmakers simply cannot afford to make films that are as pristine as a Hollywood production), and thus aesthetically innovative should we have the eyes and ears to think about them in that way.
In other words, non-cinema is a tool to try to level the playing field of film aesthetics, which in turn might help to level the playing field of our political world, not least because aesthetics play such a central role in our political thinking (the political message is perhaps not as important as how it is presented, i.e. its aesthetic dimension; in cinema, he who makes the most noise and who has the flashiest colour palette is often/in many popular quarters considered to be the winner).
From this, it hopefully would be clear that one can make ‘cinema’ and still be anti-hegemonic (nothing necessarily precludes this, although the closer one gets to cinema there may well yet be a tendency to have to make films that try to make money simply because of how much it costs to make a film). Indeed, to make cinema can still be subversive, and this to me is the power of Everson’s films.
For, by regularly using polyester film stock to portray the everyday lives of working African Americans, Everson surely does ask viewers to consider his subjects to be equally as cinematic/as worthy of cinema as the figures that we see in mainstream, commercial cinema. This gesture is profound and powerful, and I would hope that it works in tandem with filmmakers who embrace non-cinema (low budget digital filmmaking) in order equally to level the playing field. Both are, I hope, working towards creating a more just and democratic world.
Perhaps it does not merit mention in the year after Get Out that African American filmmaking appears to be especially strong, with Black Panther being a necessary film to mention given its status as the first ‘black’ superhero movie (even if I personally had some issues with the film, as I have issues with superhero fantasies more generally, and even if I feel that the Saturday Night Live episode of ‘Black Jeopardy’ with Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa was not only one of the most enjoyable audiovisual experiences that I had in 2018, but also politically one of the most astute and powerful).
Nonetheless, one thing that struck me about the films that I saw in 2018 concerning the African American experience (if I can put it that way) is the legacy of Spike Lee. This is not to disregard other figures in the rich history of African American filmmaking, nor is it to disregard Boots Riley’s criticism of Lee concerning the latter’s BlacKkKlansman. But films like Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting seem to carry strong traces of Lee’s influence, with Lee’s work itself remaining relevant and which, when considered as a whole, is relentlessly brave, even if personally I can sometimes find it derivative and testing. One thing is for sure: he continues to experiment and to push himself as a filmmaker, and in this respect he is nothing less than admirable (if that is not too condescending a thing to say).
Lee’s influence can also be seen in films like Justin Chon’s Gook, which tells the tale of American Korean Angelinos, and the turn to which also helps us to consider how currently there is equally a growing visibility of Asian Americans in contemporary cinema – with John Cho being a central figure in this growth as he begins to hold together films as varied as internet rescue film Searching and architecture essay-film Columbus.
(Can one summarise 2018 without mentioning Crazy Rich Asians…? Maybe this single mention is enough.)
I did also see two films by Steven Spielberg in 2018, those being The Post and Ready Player One, the latter of which was my first 4DX experience, and which ideologically annoyed me quite a lot – but so be it. I was also mildly disappointed by some of the Netflix films that did not get (much in the way of) theatrical releases in the UK, including Alex Garland’s Annihilation and Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox.
But rather than linger on disappointments, perhaps one might instead celebrate achievements, and in this sense 2018 saw a fair amount of what I would consider to be strong American films coming out. Among these I might include I, Tonya (a hangover from 2017), the afore-mentioned Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You, Columbus, Leave No Trace, American Animals, Mid90s, Tully, Lucky, The Old Man and the Gun, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Assassination Nation (which nearly sustained its headfuck aesthetic until the end).
Indeed, while I shall list below my ‘proper’ favourites of the year (these ones that I am discussing currently being points of interest and ever-so-nearly my favourites), I was worried that American filmmaking might run away with it this year, not least because a whole bunch of films by big-name world auteurs (including by non-Americans) were fine, but did not quite do it for me in the way that some of their earlier work has done. By this I mean that while I saw films by the likes of Jia Zhangke (Ash is Purest White), Lars von Trier (The House that Jack Built), Kore-eda Hirokazu (The Third Murder and Shoplifters), Pawel Pawlikowsi (Cold War), Steve McQueen (Widows), Fatih Akin (In the Fade), Corneliu Porumboiu (Infinite Football), Lucrecia Martel (Zama), Ruben Östlund (The Square), Jafar Panahi (3 Faces), Andrei Zvyagintsev (Loveless) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), these did not quite do it for me (even though I liked a good number of these films a lot).
A list of films that really came quite close to doing it for me include Jacir’s Wajib, Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity, Naomi Kawase’s Radiance, Robin Campillo’s 120BPM, Jonas Carpignano’s A Ciambra, Frederick Wiseman’s Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library and Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. I liked Paul King’s Paddington 2. Both Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite are great films that really have at their core magnificent performances by female leads (respectively Yalitza Aparicio and Olivia Colman, although Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz from the latter are worth mentioning, too – with Weisz having also shone alongside Rachel McAdams and the under-rated Alessandro Nivola in Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience).
I might also say that The Favourite made me think that Peter Greenaway’s legacy remains strong, as well as leading me to believe that the film is perhaps the best Grexit-Brexit comment to have been made in the recent past – not least in the face of much ongoing and conservative British cinema (although Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country is also a beautiful investigation into Anglo-European relations up in Yorkshire).
In a year that also saw The Greatest Showman and Mary Poppins Returns saturate our big screens, the legacy of Baz Luhrmann also seemed to loom large, making me wonder what he is up to and why he seems not have any projects along the lines of his best work (William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge!) on the go. Hopefully these would be more enjoyable than the two musicals mentioned above – even if my niece insisted on dancing repeatedly to ‘A Million Dreams’ and ‘Never Enough’ from the former throughout the Christmas period.
Returning to the UK in the era of Brexit, William English’s It’s My Own Invention, which I caught randomly at the Close-Up Centre one night early in 2018, has really stuck with me as a kind of bizarre insight into insanity as it charts the life of Hugh de la Cruz, who claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine. It perhaps chastened me with regard to my own propensity for insanity.
Although a couple of years old, I might mention Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road as one of the best essay-films that I saw for the first time in 2018, with Guy Maddin, Galen Johnson and Evan Johnson’s The Green Fog being a beautiful and very funny video-essay on San Francisco as depicted in cinema (and which thus shares a lot of ground with my forthcoming video-essay on the Golden Gate Bridge).
Finally, out of retrospective films that I saw at the cinema in 2018, I might make mention of Youssef Chahine’s 1969 film The Land, which was beautifully restored and screened at the Ciné Lumière as part of the SAFAR Film Festival 2018.
And so now we can come to my personal favourites of 2018, which number 9 in total and which appear below in no particular order:-
Between Fences by Avi Mograbi, a film (actually from 2016 and which I saw online, but what the heck) about acting workshops with African refugees in a camp in the Negev desert. This made me want to make films like it, while also leading me to read Augusto Boal, who is an influence on theatre director Chen Alon, who with Mograbi ran the workshops.
The Nothing Factory by Pedro Pinho, which is a weird micro-budget musical about workers on strike at a lift factory in Lisbon.
You Were Never Really Here by Lynne Ramsay, which has at its core a towering performance by Joaquin Phoenix, an incredible score by Jonny Greenwood and some of the most taut directing from Lynne Ramsay at the absolute peak of her powers.
A Deal with the Universe by Jason Barker. This no-budget diary film is about a man transitioning from being a woman, but who delays said transition in order to have a child. Tender and beautiful.
First Reformed by Paul Schrader. After The Canyons (which I secretly admire but do not particularly like), this came from nowhere – and is about as impassioned a film about environmental disaster as one can hope to see.
Summer 1993 by Carla Simón. A heartbreaking film about an orphan girl taken in by her aunt and uncle and which left me sobbing.
The Rider by Chloé Zhao, which uses non-professional actors from the world of rodeo to tell the story of the decline of the American west – and which also left me devastated and hiding in the cinema until the credits had finished so that I could have a good cry and time to dry my eyes unseen.
The Flower by Mariano Llinás. A kind of compendium of six separate feature films in one and all starring the same cast, this 14-and-a-half-hour long film becomes completely hypnotic and is a wonderful example of infinite storytelling, of the sort that Llinás’s fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges would endorse, and which keeps alive the Scheherazadean tradition of storytelling as life (it also made me love Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights even more for doing something similar).
The Wild Pear Tree by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which is for me his strongest film. Ceylan continues to edit across different takes in such a way that one gets a sense of not a single story world, but parallel universes that all talk to each other. This film features perhaps the most beautiful scene of love that I can remember, as ne’er-do-well Sinan talks to his old crush Hatice by a tree. Furthermore, I felt chastised by the film for sharing many of Sinan’s faults, such that I really want to change my life and endeavour to be a better person… even if now in the fog outside of the cinema, I continue to feel lost and unsure of what it is that I am supposed to do with existence.
Although the next film is not really among my favourites, this talk of changing my life does lead me to my final thoughts, various of which concern Weeks in the West End, a no-budget independent feature made by Ian Mantgani and which I saw as a result of an invitation from a friend (Hind Mezaina) at the Prince Charles Cinema on the eve of the London Film Festival.
It is a personal story about the filmmaker’s relationship with cinema and the way in which the London Film Festival annually brings about a strange set of rituals as one endures long days of film-viewing and long nights of partying and film discussion.
It is also in some senses a kind of love letter to the filmmaker’s then-partner, as well as an account of the disintegration of their relationship.
What is curious about the film is that I once asked out the filmmaker’s partner for a drink (at around the time that they got together if my understanding of their timeline is correct). However, the filmmaker’s ex turned me down, and so Weeks in the West End became this odd experience of feeling slightly sorry for myself (a sense of inferiority at not being as attractive as the filmmaker, at least in the eyes of his ex; a wonder at how my life could have turned out so differently).
But more than this, the film also became an exercise in seeing how the filmmaker’s obsession with cinema perhaps got in the way of his relationship, maybe even ending it.
Weeks in the West End might work as a piece of non-cinema in many respects, not least because so low budget, even if shot in a wilfully quirky fashion on film. However, the movie is also beholden to cinema, especially as it goes off on numerous tangents that aim to showcase Mantgani’s beautiful turns of phrase as he reviews films that he has seen at the festival.
Firstly, we do not see those films that are described, but just the title and what is written about them in the London Film Festival catalogue from 2017. Weeks in the West End seems desperately somehow to want to be cinema, and this desire to be cinema seems ultimately to be destructive of human relationships. Perhaps we should never love cinema more than we love people. Perhaps I also watch too many films, even if I try to hate and in some senses to destroy cinema in my filmmaking and in my writing about film and coming up with notions like ‘non-cinema,’ which various of my friends would tell me are worthy of Pseuds’ Corner. I must learn to be a better human being and to value others ahead of my stupid fantasies, which I must also try to shed in order to see other humans for themselves and not filtered through my idiocy (I must stop being an idle romantic dreaming of other worlds rather than helping to improve this one).
Secondly, Mantgani is a beautiful writer. The Wild Pear Tree is a contemplation of literature, while The Flower also feels very literary/novelistic in terms of how it is constructed and how long it takes to get through it (the same applies to An Elephant Sitting Still, which is based on Hu Bo’s own novel, to name but one more among various others mentioned above and below).
One of the most important conversations I had this year was about how many of the great filmmakers are also great readers – and about the ongoing and perhaps necessary relationship between literature and cinema (or between text and film more generally).
If indeed we are drifting into a world where people do not have the time or the patience for novels (especially ‘difficult’ novels), then this also will lead to the impoverishment of cinema (and perhaps by extension to the impoverishment of human relationships).
Let us continue to read and write in order to make and to understand films as best as we can.
Some people hate him, but Jean-Luc Godard perhaps still has it and is on point with his latest film, The Image Book, which in some ways is a consideration of the relationship between cinema and language/literature/text, between images and books, and which is also a proxime accessit film for me this year: I loved it, but only as much as other work of his and not as if I had seen something anew (hence not in my favourite favourite list).
But most of all this: if we love cinema and/or literature, then let us also see if we can learn to love each other.
Appendix (featuring all of the films I saw in 2018)
A few brief thoughts (involving spoilers) on Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, mainly in relation to a concept that David H. Fleming and I have been developing, and about which we recently published an essay in the journal, Film-Philosophy.
In that essay, which is on Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2016), we posit the notion of chthulucinema, which is a term that can be used to describe movies that chime with Donna J Haraway’s notion of the chthulucene, an era that follows the so-called anthropocene and which sees the importance of humans wane on planet Earth, if not seeing humans disappear from the planet altogether.
We connect chthulucinema also with the eschatological writing of HP Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu equally signals a threat to humanity, and which is given expression in Arrival by the tentacled heptapods (which arrive not to destroy humanity per se, but which are here to announce an evolution in the human understanding of space, time and, ahem, evolution itself).
This is because the heptapods let humans know that there is other intelligent life out there in the universe (space) and that they have a completely different understanding of chronology (time). What is more, they have arrived because their species and our species are mutually dependent – with all of the drama of the film also being connected to the issue of whether linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) keeps her baby daughter, even if she knows that it will not live long (evolution).
This is about evolution because to reproduce is to evolve: children are not copies of their parents, even as we live in a world in which we seek to live forever, to stay young forever, and never to change through processes such as cloning, cosmetic surgery, and the preservation of the self in data (including the digital data of computer files and the analogue and digital data of images).
If children are not copies of their parents and if to become a parent is to let go of living forever and instead to let a child live – even if it is ‘imperfect’ and itself does not survive past childhood (the premise of Arrival) – then evolution here is also about learning to die and learning to accept death as a necessary part of (cosmic) evolution.
So… if this does not sound too barmy, then the issue becomes: what on Earth does cosmic evolution and the like have to do with Roma?
Well, we can start by suggesting that Cuarón has form in terms of dealing with such issues. To take perhaps his two most famous examples, Children of Men (USA/UK/Japan, 2006) and Gravity (UK/USA, 2013) both deal with the issue of childbirth, in that the former is about a world where children are no longer born and the latter is about an astronaut attempting to recover from the loss of her child.
[Notably, First Man (Damien Chazelle, USA/Japan, 2018) also feels compelled to talk about the conquest of space in relation to the trauma suffered at the loss of a child… as if space travel were the quest for immortality in the face of, and perhaps in a bid to deny, the truth of mortality. As Chazelle whitened jazz in both Whiplash (USA, 2014) and La La Land (USA/Hong Kong, 2016), here, in an era in which cinema tries to explore stories such as the one told in Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, USA, 2016), he also makes space travel white and male – as per the film’s title – as he celebrates the immortality of conquest in contradistinction to the mortality of becoming.]
To return to Cuarón, Roma is indeed at times quite consciously referential to the director’s earlier work – notably during a long sequence shot during riots in Mexico City in 1971, recalling the main sequence shot in the Bexhill riot zone in Children of Men, and during a cinema visit during which Cleo (the astounding Yalitza Aparicio) watches Marooned (John Sturges, USA, 1969), a film from the pre-CGI era that bears a strong similarity in its premise to Gravity.
But if Roma is something of a summation of Cuarón’s work to date (the story of servants also brings with it shades of A Little Princess (USA, 1995) and Great Expectations (USA, 1998), while the portrait of class tension in Mexico equally recalls Y tu Mamá también (Mexico, 2001)), how does it connect with the chthulucene and related issues?
Well, about three quarters of the way through the film, well-to-do Distrito Federal mother Sofía (Marina de Tavira) takes her children and their housemaid Cleo to the seaside.
I say well-to-do, but really Sofía is struggling: she has been abandoned by her husband (Fernando Grediaga) and money is getting tight. Nonetheless, she still runs a household with four kids and two housemaids, including Cleo, who has just lost a child at birth.
Sympathising with Cleo’s loss, Sofía promises Cleo a break on the beaches of Tuxpan, where she will not be asked to carry out any of her normal tasks of servitude.
As the group arrives at a coastal resort, they pass a large image on a wall of an octopus, before then being in a seaside diner where octopus also appears on the menu.
I am not saying that Cuarón included these details because he consciously believes what follows. But from the perspective of chthulucinema, which is a cinema of tentacles and thinking about the world from a non-human, more invertebrate perspective, the presence of these octopus references is telling.
For – and no more than this – they simply are reminders of alternative lifeforms, but whose biology and anatomy is so vastly different from ours that to ponder them does give pause to our everyday assumptions about time, space and evolution… and which does ask us to consider how an intelligent alien (which is how octopuses are often described) might perceive the world in a fashion that is completely different from the human.
(Octopuses and octopus-like creatures are common in Mexican cinema, as Fleming and I discuss in what we hope to be the book-version argument of our Arrival essay, nominally called Kinoteuthis Infernalis: The Emergence of Chthulumedia, which title means with a doff of the cap to Vilém Flusser ‘the squid cinema from hell,’ and which takes in other films like Cefalópodo/Cephalopod (Rubén Imaz, Mexico, 2010), La región salvage/The Untamed (Amat Escalante, Mexico/Denmark/France/Germany/Norway/Switzerland, 2016) and Una corriente salvaje (Nuria Ibañez, Mexico, 2018). I might mention here how Roma also seems indebted at least a little bit to Güeros (Alonso Ruizpalacios, Mexico, 2014), with its long sequence shots and images of civil unrest.)
However, while the presence of the octopus in Roma simply helps us to think about ‘intelligent aliens’ that are not us and which perhaps stand alongside and might help to evolve the contemporary human world, which we might otherwise describe as a patriarchy, it does also tie in with a narrative that is about children/childbirth, and which involves fantasies of transcending the planet (Marooned), changing the current structure of society (civil unrest) and perhaps even creating a matriarchy (Sofía and Cleo bonding) instead of a patriarchy.
It is not that Roma is obvious or mawkish. Indeed, problems remain as at the last Cleo returns to her position of servitude, and the loss of her child is not really mitigated by a weekend in the sun (where she ends up nearly drowning as she tries to save Sofía’s children from getting swept away by tidal currents).
Nonetheless, Cuarón is clearly investigating issues surrounding what another world might look like or be – as perhaps is befitting of someone who shares a culture with one of the great childbirth novels, namely Carlos Fuentes’s Cristóbal Nonato/Christopher Unborn (1987). He does this by studying a period of transition within a family as a nation also undergoes transition. And he does this by exploring what it means to reproduce – or not.
With the heartbreaking loss of Cleo’s child, Cuarón would seem to paint a bleak picture of a world where change may be hard to achieve, and where the poor really are sacrificed for the ongoing benefit (‘eternal life’) of the rich.
But as the octopus’ presence suggests, and as Cleo herself emerges from the sea with Sofía’s children, and as the unrest continues in the streets, if change may not have happened yet, it nonetheless is on the way – and we shall experience new worlds that currently are alien to us.
And this is because while Cleo suffers, she is also indestructible. Not in the sense that she is immortal, but in the sense that – and I am not sure I can overstate the magnificence of Aparicio’s performance here – she cannot be destroyed by hardship, even as she undergoes terrible hardship after terrible hardship. Cleo (and Apricio’s performance) are so strong. They are strength. And even if not now, they are the vision of a more just world.