Monday 16 May 2016

A Cinephile Diary - Young cinephile Shaun Heenan discovers the classics L'Avventura and Knife in the Water and new films by Godard, Audiard and Ben Wheatley

Serious Young Cinephile Shaun Heenan currently lives at South West Rocks in northern New South Wales. His reviews and reports discovering cinema old and new have been published on this Film Alert 101 blog since November 2015. His other posts can be found by clicking the posts on the side or using the search engine. 

(All photos below of the director round about the time the film in question was made.) 

More to come....  

I’ve been watching some very interesting recent releases this week, including a pair of Cannes prizewinners from previous years and a high-concept romp set to play at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival. First, though, we return to Fandor’s Criterion selection, where this week’s films were all set in and around the water.

Michelangelo Antonioni
Michelangelo Antonioni is one of those important directors we all come to eventually. Like Tarkovsky and Ozu, if you love film for long enough, it is inevitable that you’ll come across his work. L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960) is the third of his films that I’ve seen (after 1961’s La Notte and 1964’s Il Deserto Rosso), and I still don’t really feel like I’m quite in tune with his style of directing. In its first half, the film follows a pair of beautiful young women named Anna (Lea Massari) and Claudia (Monica Vitti) as they join a group of friends on a boat trip to some nearby islands. Anna disappears Picnic-at-Hanging-Rock-style, and the menbers of the group search for her while bickering and displaying their own weaknesses and insecurities. The search continues into the second half of the film, but the main focus becomes a questionable romance between Claudia and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), Anna’s newly-free boyfriend.
Antonioni above all else wants to lay emotions bare, and everything else about his films, plot included, exists only to give him a landscape upon which to do it. Plot still matters, though. I’m not asking for a concrete resolution to the disappearance, but I am asking for the film to find something equally interesting to show me, and I don’t feel like we get that here. I’m sure I’m missing the point, and thankfully this romance is still filled with moments of real interest and beauty. This is one of those films I suspect I’ll return to one day, and fall in love with on a second viewing.

Roman Polanski
Sticking with Fandor’s water theme, I really enjoyed Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, Poland, 1962). This was Polanski’s first film, and it’s an impressively-crafted thriller which takes its time carefully building tension, slowly but confidently. A rich couple speed down the road towards the marina, the older man needling and criticising his quiet young wife. They nearly run into a determined, handsome young hitchhiker, and the husband picks him up out of sheer contempt, saying with a sneer that this is what his wife would have done. The young man has soon been roped into a sailing trip with the couple. We know from the title that something will eventually go wrong with the trip, but the film has plenty to show us first, teasing out the inevitable confrontation.
The rivalry between the two men borders on the comic as they each try to impress the woman they are alone with. Jolanta Umecka gives the film’s best performance, as she tries to meekly discourage the clash, before opening up into the most complex of the three characters as she begins to take charge. I’m saddened to see she had a short and obscure career outside of this film. Polanski’s thrillers have always been my favourite of his films, but I was surprised to see him offering such strong work from the very beginning.

Jacques Audiard
Now we head to Cannes. Not to this year’s currently-running festival, with it’s incredibly exciting line-up of films we won’t get to see any time soon, but to last year’s festival, where the Palme d’Or (to the surprise of many attendees) was awarded to Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, France, 2015). The winner has taken a full year to become available in Australia, but it is now available to rent on most local VOD services. Audiard’s film follows a fake family: a lone man taking the false name Dheepan, a lone woman calling herself Yalini and an orphaned young girl going by Illayaal, who pretend they are related, using the passports of the dead for a better chance at getting a legal transfer away from the violence of the Sri Lankan Civil War. They arrive in France, find themselves in a housing project filled with gang members, and discover they have not escaped violence by escaping their homeland.
The film takes a stark and realistic look at the difficulties faced by refugees in a new country. We see that Illayaal begins to excel in her French classes, and will wind up better integrated than her ‘parents’. We see that this does not help her escape the cruelties of racist children. We see the desperation on Dheepan’s face as he attends his new job as a caretaker, trying to ignore the dangerous situation surrounding him. We see Yalini’s fear as she hopes to continue running, which deepens as she realises she can’t. The film’s climax was the subject of much debate following the Cannes award ceremony, as many felt it betrayed the sober tone Audiard had built up. I disagree. The trauma of the past is not easily forgotten, and its influence on one’s mind not easily escaped. The film closes in the only manner it can.

Jean-Luc Godard
Sticking with Cannes prizewinners, let’s take a look at the 2014 Jury Prize winner, Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2014). I’m a big fan of Godard’s work in the 1960s, but his recent essay/film Film Socialisme (2010) drove me up the wall with its nonsense lo-fi imagery and deliberately obscured philosophical ramblings. Goodbye to Language is more of the same, but only if viewed in 2D. Godard shot his new film in 3D, and his vision-shattering experiments with the format mean that the film can be enjoyed greatly on a visual level, even if one has no understanding of (or even any interest in) the dialogue and alleged story.
Godard seems to be making fun of Hollywood, and its reliance on 3D to sell blockbuster entertainment. He has taken this technology hostage, and spends the entire length of his film showing us the specific things current 3D technology is incapable of doing, by doing all of it himself. Scenes appear with steep, disorienting ground planes. Objects get too close or too far away from the screen and the illusion breaks. There’s a scene which looks dizzying unless we focus our eyes on a certain point, and allow the rest to become peripheral vision. Godard then draws attention to by removing our point of focus. In one scene, Godard’s dog is seen lying on the couch, and its tail keeps getting in the way of the camera, feeling almost like it’s jabbing us in the eyes. Famously, the film contains a pair of scenes where, without cutting, Godard’s camera begins on a shot of two people, watches as one walks away from the other and splits the image. One eye’s vision pans across to follow the movement of the character while the other stays stationary, showing two scenes at once. It’s a striking effect, and I couldn’t help showing it to every person I could get a hold of. All told, the film could mean anything or nothing, but it remains a fascinating visual experience, worth exploring (only) if you have access to the right equipment.

Ben Wheatley
This week’s final film is High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, UK, 2015), based on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian novel from 1975. What we have here is a class-war allegory shaped within the setting of a large tower block. The poor and the families with young children live on the lower floors, while the rich and famous live in luxury near the top. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves in, finding himself somewhere in the middle, and stays unusually calm as ‘society’ begins to crumble around him. The building goes from ‘troubled social experiment’ to ‘burning ruin drowning in debauchery’ in a startlingly-rapid fashion, and then the movie meanders for an hour, since it has nowhere left to go.
There is some fun to be had along the way, with Wheatley showing a great talent for staging raucous party scenes. There’s an electrifying energy to the unhinged revelry on display, and it all becomes very beautiful in slow motion with the right soundtrack. The link to any sort of real-world comparison falls away very quickly, as the film starts to spend too much time looking at disasters, and too little time finding anything to say about them. This is a near-miss from a director I’ve liked very much in the past and a lot of people have liked it much more than I did.

The film will be playing at the Sydney Film Festival next month.

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