Turning the Holocaust into filmic material forces one to confront the never-ending debate about the responsibilities and limitations of cinema when it comes to depicting historical atrocities. In 1961 Jacques Rivette wrote a brutal review of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò, criticising the way the Italian director had shown the death of an inmate through a tracking shot which called attention to her dead hand. The review did not declare the Holocaust off-limits to artists, but warned against the danger of fetishizing a horror as unthinkable as the Shoah’s.
A few decades after Rivette’s review, Andrei Konchalovsky arrives at Venice’s 73rd International Film Festival to present Paradise, a moving portrait of the horrors of the Holocaust that is both visually stunning and yet does not aestheticize the Shoah.
Conceived in a way that mirrors a chamber play, Paradise concentrates on the way the Holocaust changes the lives of Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a Russian aristocrat imprisoned for hiding Jewish kids in Nazi-occupied Paris, Jules (Philippe Duquesne), a French-Nazi collaborator who promises not to execute Olga in exchange for sexual favours, and Helmut (Christian Clauß), an SS officer and a former lover of Olga’s who tries to set her free from the concentration camp she is eventually sent to.
Konchalovsky does not depict the Holocaust using the crowded, large-scale violence scenes which had formed the repertoire of other works on the Shoah (arguably the most notable case being Schindler’s List) nor does he take the viewer straight into the lager’s hell the way László Nemes did with his magnificent and revolutionary Son of Saul. Yet he depicts the Shoah in a way that is no less unsettling and thought-provoking. He juxtaposes the idyllic paradises which the three characters long for with the horrors of the Holocaust, so that the full scale of the Shoah’s terror is not depicted through its explicit visual representation but through the way it gradually shatters the characters’ dreams.
Like Son of Saul, Paradise uses a 4:3 screen format, but unlike Nemes’s work, the camera stands still and does not follow the characters around the camp. Konchalovsky’s film opens, ends and is staggered with three monologues which the characters give sitting in front of the camera. It is a brilliant narrative device through which Olga, Helmut and Jules can speak of their lives before and after the war broke out and thus open up to the viewer, and it strengthens the empathy the audience feels for their stories.
Alexander Simonov’s mesmerising photography mimics the aesthetic of the black and white movies of the forties, and the attention to the geometry, symmetries and lights one perceives in each scene makes for some visually spectacular shots. Even so, Paradise never quite turns into a beautiful and yet somewhat cold painting, nor does Konchalovsky’s directing slips into the gratuitous fetishisation of the Shoah’s horror Rivette saw in Pontecorvo’s Kapò. Brilliantly photographed, written and directed, Paradise manages to depict the Holocaust in a way that both moves the audience and honours the victims of an unthinkable tragedy.
Posted in Germany, Russia | Tagged Andrei Konchalovsky, Christian Clauß, Gillo Pontecorvo, Holocaust, Jaques Rivette, Julia Vysotskaya, Kapo, László Nemes, Paradise, Philippe Duquesne, Schindler's List, Shoah, Son of Saul, Venice Film Festival | Leave a Comment »
It is not everyday you watch a female-centric biopic which does not reduce its protagonist to a mere appendix of the man her fame is indissolubly bound with. Jackie, Chilean Pablo Larraín’s latest work, is one of such rare cases. It is a superb character study which does not just show Jacqueline Kennedy as John Fitzgerald’s wife, but a strong-willed woman who both loved her husband and struggled to come to terms with the pressures that being a Kennedy entailed. A beautifully written and directed tale that Natalie Portman’s superb performance as the late first lady turns into an outstanding piece of work – amongst the very best of those presented at Venice’s 2016 Film Festival.
Larraín employs several different narrative devices to reveal Jackie’s persona. We first meet Jackie shortly after John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s death. She is furious at the way the press is handling the story and invites a journalist to her house to give her version of the facts. The interview is the first entry into Jackie’s world, and also a great vantage point to understand the conflict between her tormented private life and public figure. The journalist recalls an old White House TV tour Jackie starred in, and Larraín intelligently juxtaposes the smiley debutant-esque TV version of Jackie with the bitter one she shows to the journalist. But the interview must eventually be published, and Jackie can only reveal a small fraction of the traumas she has suffered. She does so with a priest, whose exchanges with the first lady are among the film’s most touching moments.
Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay is a true gem. The film seamlessly shifts from Jackie’s heart-breaking memories to Bob Kennedy’s frustration with the way the Johnson administration will sideline the Kennedys, while the different entry points into Jackie’s life (the interview, the old TV show and the chats with the priest) help building a multifaceted and magnetic character.
Larraín staggers Jackie with old-looking footage that reconstructs the White House tour she gave as well as some original material from the early 1960s, mimicking a strategy he had already successfully adopted with his best foreign feature Oscar-nominee No (2012).
Yet Jackie is also a testament of Natalie Portman’s talent. Watching the real footage of the White House Tour the first lady gave in 1962, one realises how spot-on Portman’s accent, facial expressions and gestures are. Her moving performance adds strength and credibility to the drama, and the way she becomes Jackie leaves one speechless.
Jackie is not a hagiography of the woman who survived John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination. It is much more than that. It is the vivid and poignant story of a lady whose entry into one of the world’s most powerful families was both a blessing and a curse. It is a tale so exquisitely written and directed that it will move many to tears. It is, above all, a memorable film.
Posted in Chile, France, USA | Tagged Bob Kennedy, Jackie, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Fitzgerald, Kennedy, Natalie Portman, No, Noah Oppenheim, Oscar, Pablo Larraín, Venezia 73, Venice Film Festival, White House TV | Leave a Comment »
Argentinian writer Daniel Mantovani has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is at the height of his career. He gets invited to countless of conferences and readings, hobnobs with ministers and ambassadors, and lives in a majestic Barcelona villa with a library the size one would expect to see in a Borges’s short story. But something is wrong. He has not been able to write for five years, and the Nobel Prize might have confirmed his greatest fear: turning into the sort of writer whose works coincide with the taste of the establishment he so deeply scorns. But what is it that a writer should try to achieve? What is his purpose, and what is it that moves him to write in the first place?
It is upon these questions that Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn build El Ciudadano Ilustre, a moving and thought-provoking tale of homecoming, art and belonging directed with a warm and smart touch that lingers long after the film’s ending credits.
It is, first and foremost, a brilliant character study. When the mayor of Salas, Mantovani’s Argentinian hometown, informs the Nobel laureate he intends to award him the medal for Distinguished Citizen, Mantovani returns to the tiny village he had fled thirty years before and embarks on a Wild Strawberries-like journey that will shatter his aloofness and makes him confront old memories and past loves.
Salas is a tiny rural village, most of whose inhabitants have never read any of Mantovani’s books and yet follow him around the village as if he were a rock star. The mayor himself insists that Mantovani is to be paraded around the city on top of a fire-brigade truck, standing next to the local teenage beauty queen, and the city council puts together a power-point presentation to hail the writer as the nation’s new hero. They are all wonderfully written and superbly funny moments, but they only stagger what remains, at its core, a deeply nostalgic tale.
There is a memorable scene in which Mantovani gives a quick interview for Salas’ local TV channel, and when asked what his job entails he claims a writer is someone who is not satisfied with the way the world is, and wants to add something to it. He, however, has never been able to write about anything other than Salas. Life in Europe did not provide him with the inspiration he was after, and all his tales have been set in the village he ran away from. In the end, the story of his comeback will turn into a novel itself. Duprat and Cohn skilfully structure El Ciudadano Ilustre into five chapters, so that the film looks like the book it ends up inspiring. But when a journalist presses him to reveal whether the book is based on true events, Mantovani bitterly replies asking whether the question matters at all. Does it make any difference whether what one writes is based on reality, or figments of one’s imagination?
All throughout his staying in Salas Mantovani’s fellow citizens ask him the same question, and pressure him to confirm the names of the places and people he got his inspiration from. He keeps reminding everyone that his work is pure fiction, but nobody wants to believe that. To the eyes of Salas’ inhabitants, Mantovani’s writing serves a specific function. If for the Nobel laureate writing adds something to a world that does not live up to one’s expectations, for his fellow citizens it is a way to grant immortality to Salas and its people.
This is what makes El Ciudadano Ilustre a truly remarkable work. Duprat and Cohn’s latest work debunks the act of writing by offering different and at times conflicting takes on its purpose. It is profound and intriguing, intellectually rich and yet written and directed in a way that seamlessly shifts from moments of surreal humour to heart-breaking scenes where Mantovani tries, and fails, to re-establish a degree of connection with the town he escaped. El Ciudadano Ilustre is one of this year’s Venice Film Festival greatest surprises – hopefully the jury will award the Argentinian duo the accolades they deserve.
Posted in Argentina, Spain | Tagged El Ciudadano Ilustre, Gastón Duprat, Mariano Cohn, Nobel Prize, Venezia 2016, Venezia 73, Venice Film Festival, Wild Strawberries | Leave a Comment »
There is a tendency to write off costume dramas as inherently self-referential films, hardly capable of conveying a message that would speak to today’s audiences as much as it would have in times closer to the events it portrays. This is not the case of Frantz, François Ozon’s moving post-WWI tale which the French director presented at the 73rd edition of Venice Film Festival, a film whose timely pacifist message resonates across time and space.
Set against the backdrop of the devastation the first World War left Europe in, it tells the story of Anna (Paula Beer), a young German girl who lost her 23-year-old husband Frantz (Anton Von Lucke) on the French front and cannot let go of her past, at least until a supposed French friend of his, Adrien (Pierre Niney) shows up and the encounter will change her life forever.
We do not know just how close Adrien and Frantz were, and there are moments in which their relationship feels as though it could have been more than a beautiful friendship, but Frantz is a film that is so beautifully written that truths and lies are always inextricably wrapped up, so that every supposition we make gets refuted only minutes afterwards.
Frantz is a humane and delicate tale, centred upon the conflict between the older and younger generations, where the struggle between fathers and sons that makes for some of the most poignant and moving scenes. There is a memorable moment in which Frantz’s old father initially refuses to help Adrien due the grief the French people caused to his family, and eventually asks him to carry back to France his late son’s violin, and another heart-breaking scene in which the old man confronts a group of German nationalists reminding everyone it was the older generation who sent the young to die, and now drinks to the death of their own children.
Ozon chooses to shoot post-WWI Europe in black and white, and it is only during Adrien’s flashbacks or the rare times he will be playing the violin for Frantz’s family that colours fill the screen and the film magically brightens up, as though forerunning the promise of a better future, which never truly shows up. For war destroys cities, corrupts souls and fuels hatred, and Ozon portrays the physical and spiritual devastation of WWI turning Europe into a colourless wasteland.
In a time when the integrity of the Europe we know is under the threat of constant crises, Frantz’s message is a timely reminder of war’s de-humanising character, and a brilliant testament of the ways in which costume dramas can say so much about our present as they do about the past they portray.
Posted in France, Germany | Tagged Anton Von Lucke, black and white, Europe, François Ozon, Frantz, Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Venezia 73, Venice Film Festival, WWI | 1 Comment »
If there were any questions left on Tom Ford’s directorial skills, Nocturnal Animals has answered them all. After his 2009 debut, A Single Man, the 55-year old fashion designer-turned-director comes back to Venice with Nocturnal Animals, a poignant and gripping tale that feels like something in between a thriller and a brutal satire of modern-day Los-Angeles’ socialites, shot with a confidence one would hardly expect from a director’s second feature.
But Ford is known for his ability to take everyone by surprise, and after his memorable entry into the world of film-making, he writes, directs and produces yet another visually mesmerising film that conveys a mixture of angst and nostalgia that stays with the viewer until the very last shot.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a Texas-born thirty-something year-old who works in an art gallery in LA. She is married to a successful business man (Armie Hammer) and lives in a dream-house overlooking Los Angeles’ skyline. Yet we know from the start hers is not a happy life. She hobnobs with LA artists who appear to be more concerned with their latest plastic surgeries than the art they make, a world which, in the memorable words of a colleague of hers, may be empty, but surely feels a lot less painful than the real one. Things change the day she receives a gruesome thriller freshly written by her former husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the novel makes her realise just how much she gave up to live the comfortable existence she now enjoys.
To some extent, Nocturnal Animals is neither revolutionary nor experimental. There are countless of films that deploy the catalyst which Ford uses to set the drama in motion: someone writes a book, that book becomes part of the film, and eventually the characters on the big screen end up relating with what was written, so that the book and the film become two intertwined worlds. But we do not know, and will only found out as the movie goes on, whether the book tells a story that Susan and Tony lived through during their years together. We do not know just what it is that attracts Susan so spasmodically about the novel and whether the book will reveal an abominable truth about her own life.
Ford is deliberately elusive about the subject, and this helps to keep the audience stuck to their seat until the film’s heart breaking ending. The camera shifts from the book to the movie effortlessly, and the transitions make for some visually stunning shots. All throughout Nocturnal Animals, Ford skilfully plays with the geometry of each scene, so much so that there are some that feel like movable paintings, in which the characters’ bodies look like perfectly crafted statues in a museum.
But this does not turn Nocturnal Animals into a collection of beautifully designed images, or – worse still – a celebration of the artificial world Susan inhabits. Far from it, LA’s arts scene and its inhabitants are constantly mocked, as Ford’s screenplay shifts back and forth from thriller to satire, ridiculing the junk-culture which Susan and her colleagues feed upon. It is this eclecticism that helps turning Nocturnal Animals into a remarkable film. Ford has written, produced and directed a film that is a joy to watch, and leaves you longing for more. It took him seven years to come back to Venice with his second feature. Hopefully the third will arrive much quicker.
Posted in USA | Tagged A Single Man, Amy Adams, Armie Hammer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Los Angeles, Nocturnal Animals, satire, Thriller, Tom Ford, Venezia 73, Venice 73, Venice Film Festival | Leave a Comment »
Once upon a time Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, but when he awoke he could no longer tell whether he was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was now a butterfly, dreaming to be a man. The story comes from an old Chinese proverb and nicely fits with the structure of Wim Wenders’ last work, Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez.
It’s a hot summer day in a countryside house in the surroundings of Paris and a lone writer is looking for inspiration. He sits before his typewriter and looks outside the window, when a lady and a man magically appear, sitting at a garden table right outside the house. We do not know whether the duo comes from the writer’s imagination, or whether the writer is a figment of their own.
Wenders does not help to solve the puzzle. Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez develops as a 97-minute long conversation between the couple (Reda Kateb and Sophie Semin), which the writer (Jens Harzer) observes and records. It is based on a play written by Austrian writer Peter Handke, with whom Wenders has worked on several occasions between the 1960s and 1980s, a fruitful teamwork that reached its peak in 1987, with the international success of Cannes’ Best Directing Award-winning Wings of Desire.
Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez marks the fifth collaboration between the two, and earned Wenders a spot amongst the twenty films selected as part of the official competition of the 73rd edition of Venice’s International Film Festival. Wenders chose to present it in 3D, a format which does not seem to add much to the film’s quality, for its strength does not come from its bucolic images, but from the couple’s conversation.
Sitting in front of each other, the two begin their chat by talking about love. He asks her about the details of her first night with a man. She is reluctant to reveal much, but when she does the conversation rapidly turns into a ritual ruled by a number of strictly obeyed laws: neither must answer the other’s questions with a yes or no answer, and no action other than dialogue must take place.
It is a long, somewhat abstract and philosophical conversation which spans from lovemaking to death, from memory to vengeance. The two recite their lines as if on a stage, to the point that one wonders whether Wenders adapted Handke’s play for the big screen, or whether he turned his own work into a play. It is the film’s greatest flaw: the dialogues, never mind how deep and rich their subtext may be, feel cold and overly theatrical, and fail to establish any degree of empathy with the audience.
At the end of Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez, one leaves the cinema with the feeling of having seen something that resembles the flowers that surrounds the two around the garden table, and which the both wax lyrically about: a beautiful and evocative tale, but one whose aura is sadly very short-lived, and fails to convey the emotions and drama which Wenders’ fans would expect from a director of his stature.
Posted in France, Germany, Portugal | Tagged 3D, Cannes, Chinese proverb, Chuang Chou, Jens Harzer, Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez, Peter Handke, Reda Kateb, Sophie Semin, Venezia, Venezia 73, Venice 73, Venice Film Festival, Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire | Leave a Comment »
Seven years after his debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), and only two after the international success of Whiplash (2014), Chazelle writes and directs yet another story where film and music are indissolubly tied together, and sets it in a colourful Los Angeles, the city of stars filled with people who dream of becoming someone they are not.
Sebastian (Gosling) is a thirty-something-year-old piano bar player obsessed with jazz, but forced to play the same repetitive tunes before crowds of vaguely interested customers. Mia (Stone) a girl about the same age who works as a waitress but dreams of becoming an actress. We meet both in a scene that mimics the beginning of Fellini’s 8 and ½. It’s Los Angeles, it’s rush hour, and cars are stuck in traffic. The only way people can escape the jam is dreaming, and dream they do: a jammed bridge turns into a carnival where drivers leave their seats, jump, dance and play around their vehicles. It’s a brilliant choreography, and a faithful summary of what the rest of the movie will be: explosive, vibrant and delightful. The camera follows the drivers-turned-dancers and the whole take feels like a wave of energy and colours that lingers long after the dream ends and people return to their seats.
Stuck amongst them are Sebastian and Amy. They meet when she fails to start her car, they honk and insult each other, then they meet again, they flirt, begin to go out, fall in love. It’s a standard love story, and yet it isn’t: Chazelle divides it into four seasons, and the love unfolds like the weather: it sprouts, blossoms, grows old, fades away. But the director seems to fall in love with them as much as they do with each other, and this is what gives to La La Land the sense of delicacy and empathy which makes it stand out as a love story that not only works – it sticks with you.
Amy and Sebastian’s romance is scattered with moments of sadness, joy, explosive choreographies and tip-tap moves. They are both romantic, and try to find their place in worlds where being so is almost looked down upon. We see Amy coming in and out of auditions where she gets repeatedly humiliated, and there is a scene where Sebastian is told jazz is dying because of nostalgic people like him are killing it.
Chazelle is, implicitly, just as romantic as the two of them. He chose to direct a movie that speaks of an art form which its own performers claim to be decaying, jazz, and did it through a medium which hardly many people would have used, a musical. Yet the experiment works. La La Land is as a film that is danced just as much as it is sung, and the choreographies, as well as the duo’s contagious energy and chemistry, add rhythm to the film as if crescendos in a musical piece.
In a sea where everyone plays the same thing, Chazelle has managed to sing his own melody, the same way Sebastian and Amy tried to create their own. The warm applause La La Land received at the end of his premiere at Venice’s 73rd Film Festival is a deserved prelude to the awards the film will hopefully receive in the days and months to come.
Posted in USA | Tagged Damien Chazelle, Dance, Emma Stone, Fellini, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, Jazz, La La Land, Los Angeles, piano, Ryan Gosling, Venezia, Venezia 2016, Venezia 73, Venice, Venice Film Festival, Whiplash | Leave a Comment »
In a memorable interview given to George Plimpton, Ernest Hemingway coined the “theory of the iceberg”: a writer can only show a very small part of a story – the rest must necessarily remain hidden, unwritten, and it will be up to the reader’s imagination to try to unveil and make sense of it.
Michel Franco, in Chronic, uses the very same trick, and the result is a cinematic gem. David (Tim Roth) is a fifty-something year-old in-home nurse. He works with terminally ill patients: he lives with them, washes them, feeds them and keeps them company. He performs all the above with a dedication which stands in contrast with the cold relationships they have with their own families. The people David takes care of have been left alone, their relatives do not seem able or willing to deal with their forthcoming deaths, and David ends up filling their absence, turning into the patients’ parent, friend, sibling.
But David too has a heart-breaking story of his own. We know he is hiding a terrible past, but we do not know just how terrible it is. We know he has lost the love of his life, but do not know how. We are told a child of his died very young, but do not know why. We know just as much as the strangers he confesses bits of his life to, only to then question what we are told when he talks to other people and the version changes altogether.
Franco hides the full extent of David’s pain under the drama’s surface, as if part of Hemingway’s iceberg. David’s persona is quite literally built before the audience, but only slowly and partially revealed in its full complexity, so that we are forced to question what is shown on screen and fill David’s silences with our own intuitions. We do not just watch the story unfold, we are called upon to take part in the process.
Tim Roth’s performance is outstanding. There is a memorable scene in which David catches up with his daughter (Sarah Sutherland) over coffee, and she asks him about his late partner. It’s a quasi-silent scene: both are filled with stories to share, but she is way too nervous to begin and he is still too hurt to open up, so they communicate with silences and small gestures, and David’s pauses speak louder than the words he mutters with a broken voice.
In some fundamental sense, Franco wants to do more than just showing David’s suffering – he requires our direct involvement in shaping and crafting the extent of his pain. Chronic’s drama (and David’s) is not merely what gets to be shown on the screen, but what does not, and which we can only picture in our heads.
Cannes chose to award Franco the 2015 prize for best screenplay. And for many good reasons. There are films which are happy simply showing a story on a screen without requiring much from the audience. Chronic does much more than that: it asks us to understand, imagine and shape David’s story. This is why the beauty of Franco’s latest work lingers long after the ending credits.
Posted in Mexico | Tagged Chronic, Michel Franco, Tim Roth | Leave a Comment »
European cinema may not only be eye-opening in regard to undiscovered talent and styles, it’s often an educating portrait of different cultures. Mustang, the Oscar-nominated Turkish film about a young sisterhood, highlights a plentiful amount of new young stars, and also striking cultural sensibilities.
Mustang focuses on five sisters who, after a playful interaction with some boys after school, get confined to their guardian’s house. The reasoning behind it is a profound conservatism, one whereby females have a very selective role in society (one that doesn’t include messing around with boys). For a modern-day story, Mustang is quite shocking, yet refreshingly damning of archaic traditions. Humour and heart comes from the girls’ rebellion, along with the ingenious tactics to escape their encampment.
Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s muted direction, along with her and co-writer Alice Winocour’s writing, keeps a relatively wide-spanning story punchy and poignant. The neatness of the film allows the big issues, and kinetic aspects of youth, sink into your psyche as you lay back and enjoy the narrative. Mustang‘s audience is, arguably, the arthouse crowd, yet there is nothing alternative about the style and storytelling here. Ergüven’s drama could easily compare with more established sister stories including The Virgin Suicides, Pride & Prejudice, and Little Women. There’s certainly something most could identify with – what remains unusual is the antiquated treatment of women. Mustang can be enjoyed and deliberated over, like most great art.
The five sisters who carry this film masterfully are of varying age and type. The combination of character allows you to follow five very distinctive plot strands. At the forefront is the young Lale (an extraordinary Günes Sensoy), watching her older sisters get washed up in the societal structures that will eventually leave her alone with her foster parents. The build-up to this prospect is where a lot of the tension lies, and the gradual pacing makes it for a captivating watch. On the side, there is Lale’s football fancy, and her innocent free spirit that defies what is expected of her. Seeing such blithe disregard for the rules is joyous. When the tone shifts, and drama and despair hits, it hits hard due to the playfulness bookending most of it.
Turkey isn’t regularly featured in the foreign film line-up of awards season, but this year has hopefully changed that. Mustang showcases enormous talent, and a culture awaiting further cinematic exploration. Youth, gender and sisterhood hasn’t been profiled altogether this brilliantly in a while.
Posted in France, Germany, Qatar, Turkey | Tagged Alice Winocour, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Güneş Şensoy, Little Women, Mustang, Priede & Prejudice, The Virgin Suicides, Turkey | Leave a Comment »