A Year in Film (Part Two)
A Viewing List for Twenty-Fifteen
Marie Antoinette [Sofia Coppola, 2006]:
Coppola transposes her own story - that of a spoiled little rich girl thrust into a position of public notoriety that she cannot comprehend - to that of the title character. In doing so, she exaggerates the naiveté of the real-life historical figure; creating in the process a more piercing feminist commentary on the way young women are often made to suffer for the sins of the husband/father/brother/patriarch; picked on and destroyed (in the case of Marie), not for her own inherently adolescent "decadence", but for the poor decisions of her husband and the generally restricting environment that she's forced to endure. In the title role, Dunst gives one of the great performances of the last decade; maybe even the current century. Unlike so many of the thankless roles she's chosen to play, Marie Antoinette sees her as both natural and radiant; her interpretation of the character arc both subtle and multifaceted; the implications of her final scenes - including the dreamlike moment in which she offers herself up to the braying mob - are haunting and emotionally distressing. Likewise, Coppola's filmmaking is sensitive, full of passion and energy; less a Merchant-Ivory chocolate box piece than a film infused with the influences of Derek Jarman and Sally Potter; specifically films like Edward II (1991) and Orlando (1992). An anarchic, post-modern, but also romantic and painterly approach that like Pasolini finds the past through a reflection of the present (and vice-versa) in order to humanise the central character and to create a political connection to the modern world.
Pigsty [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:
Pasolini's most impenetrable film is also his most beguiling. The work of a true visionary, Pigsty is a film that blends hallucinatory scenes of prehistoric violence with the extended monologues of the bourgeoisie; creating a juxtaposition that suggests parallels between the past and the present, where the relationship between the two posit the idea of history - and more specifically, persecution, exploitation and corruption, essentially referring to issues of class and entitlement - repeating itself endlessly until oblivion. While difficult to know the true intentions of the filmmaker, the suggestion "a story about pigs to tell a story about Jews" - combined with the overlapping of the two conflicting stories and their different presentations of violence and brutality (physical vs. psychological) - hints at the same anti-fascist polemic of the author's later, more infamous provocation piece, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).
Force Majeure [Ruben Östlund, 2014]:
Östlund direction of the film suggests a genial, less hectoring Michael Haneke; the approach falling somewhere between The Seventh Continent (1989) and Caché (2005) by way of a European sitcom. Like Haneke, the filmmaking style is studied and controlled; rigid, but not inflexible. Colour, composition, editing and sound are impeccable, establishing a feeling of antiseptic middle-class anxiety; an empty "going-through-the-motions" depiction of modern life comparable to a film like Archipelago (2010) by Joanna Hogg. Here, the popular and often contentious "comedy of embarrassment" trope beloved by European filmmakers - from Bertrand Blier to Mike Leigh, etc - merges with the spirit of Buñuel; eviscerating the bumbling immaturity of its characters and their self-created problems of first-world malaise, without becoming too nasty or nihilistic.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya [Isao Takahata, 2013]:
For the first time since Michael Mann's derided but exhilarating Public Enemies (2009), the experience of a film and its filmmaking suggested an almost reinvention of the very language of cinema. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but the purely sensory experience of seeing these images explode within the rich cavernous blackness of the cinema space was like moving towards something almost elemental; the imagery seemingly transforming itself from frame to frame, at once ancient and yet entirely modern. It is a style that falls somewhere between an image of a primitive cave painting brought to life by the light of a flickering flame, the 'late' formalist works of Pablo Picasso that embraced unfinished naiveté and the most current and sophisticated style of contemporary animation, which is beyond anything I've ever seen. Although the fantasy plotline is nothing remarkable (and nitpickers might note that the ending is an almost shot-for-shot copy of the final scene from Shyamalan's despised Lady in the Water, repeated here to great acclaim), the actual presentation of the image is beyond words! The moments where the film seemingly breaks free from reality, becomes entwined with the emotions of its central character and seems to soar or disintegrate before our very eyes, is both astounding and unique.
Ex Machina [Alex Garland, 2015]:
1. Part throwback to "mad-scientist" monster movies; with James Whale's classic 1931 variation on the Frankenstein story providing an obvious template. 2. Part 'Bergmanesque' psychodrama; where the intense scenes of two characters enacting a private crisis of existentialism on a secluded island could bring to mind everything from the Hour of the Wolf (1968) to The Passion (1969). Part 'Soderberghian' meditation on style and mood; the cold and clinical design, modernist spacing, intimacy of its performances and minimalist composition of actors and objects within a 2.35:1 frame is as much reminiscent in its filmmaking as the underrated Solaris (2002) as anything by the more frequently associated Stanley Kubrick. As contemplation of the line between man and machine, between consciousness and unconsciousness, Garland's film is up there with the best of Mamoru Oshii, such as Avalon (2001) and Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2004), as well as standards of the genre, such as Blade Runner (1982) and A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). A work connected to the concerns of the modern world, but propelled by themes that are timeless and emotionally germane.
Accattone [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961]:
At the time I couldn't find the words for this one; I'm not sure I can find them now! Suffice to say that a whole sphere of world cinema begins (and ends) with the film in question; more so perhaps than the supposed year zero of Godard's endlessly lauded new wave defining À bout de souffle (1960) (though JLG is still eternal). So many of the scenes, images, aesthetics, preoccupations and concerns presented in Pasolini's film can be found in the work of cinema's great modern masters; everyone from Coppola to Scorsese, Fassbinder to Jarman, Monteiro to Denis, Farrara to Haynes, etc have borrowed from Accattone and its singular approach to character, theme and setting As a first-time filmmaker, Pasolini emerged full formed; his whole notion of cinema as a means of reflecting the past by way of the present (and vice versa) finds an expression in the way he depicts the central character as both lout and loser, but at the same time imbuing him with the kind of spiritual conviction, sympathy and vainglorious nobility of a martyred saint. As such, the methodology of Pasolini, which so often is defined, misleadingly, as "neo-realism", places the author far closer to the spirit of a man like Caravaggio than any of his cinematic peers; an artist who found in the bodies and faces of his local thugs, destitute crones and harlots the most sacred of religious (and later historical) icons.
The Lone Ranger [Gore Verbinski, 2013]:
Pitched somewhere between the pure cinematic spectacle of The General (1926) and the political 'kill your heroes' cynicism of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Verbinski's film wrestle with complex themes, from genocide and corruption, to betrayal and unrequited love, all the while fashioning a big-budget action adventure extravaganza that far eclipses the simple pleasures of his earlier, more successful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). Placing his scenes of wily escapism within a context of inglorious American history (brought to life for a child who knows only of its "heroes" while the reality is something far more cruel) the results are both thrilling and affecting. A rare but perfect example of a Hollywood blockbuster committed to taking risks.
Clouds of Sils Maria [Olivier Assayas, 2014]:
Throughout the film, several layers of interpretation become intertwined. First, a deconstruction of the psychosexual politics of Fassbinder's early masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972); second, a Persona (1966)-like meta-drama about the difficult relationship between women (a stricken actress and her aide); third, a reiteration of Irma Vep (1996) and its playful "anti-Hollywood" rhetoric (replete with faux comic book style blockbuster-sequence occurring during the second act); fourth, a film about the "old wave" being replaced by the new (and through this a personal commentary on Assayas's own cinema); fifth, a film about filmmaking (with several personifications of the director); and finally, a documentation of a natural phenomenon (in this instance 'the maloja snake') that becomes an onscreen miracle analogous to the flickering flame of Tarkovsky's Nostalgia (1983) or the final sequence of Eric Rohmer's The Green Ray (1986). A masterpiece.
Goltzius and the Pelican Company [Peter Greenaway, 2012]:
This dizzying mix of multi-media phantasmagoria - à la Prospero's Books (1991) - and Brechtian dissertation on the nature of voyeurism - recalling remnants of The Baby of Mâcon (1993) - is also Greenaway's clearest and perhaps most personal statement on the nature of cinema and its roots in both picture-making and performance. With this in mind, the character of Hendrik Goltzius, the German-born Dutch painter, printmaker and engraver at the heart of this tale of intrigue and expression, becomes a prototypical-filmmaker, in much the same way that Rembrandt did in the earlier and no less fascinating Nightwatching (2007). He's also a potential surrogate for Greenaway himself, reinforcing the film's personal, crypto-autobiographical elements, wherein the character is presented as an artist struggling against financiers, critics and the scourge of censorship to achieve a vision every bit as daring, creative and revelatory as the film itself.
Medea [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969]:
In the title role, Maria Callas becomes a full force gale; her performance ably demonstrating a level of passion and pain that seems beyond conviction. As she stands rebellious in the flames of her wounded love, she defies the deceitful Jason (and by extension, the apathy of the viewing audience): "it's useless; nothing is possible now!" As a final epitaph, it captures both the sadness of a woman broken and betrayed by circumstances beyond her own control, as well as the overwhelming disappointment of the filmmaker when confronted by the corruption of a modern world closed off to the magic of myth and legend. As ever, Pasolini's depiction of pre-history is never about ornamentation or simply providing a backdrop to a dramatisation; his presentation of the past is more a reflection of the present. The vibrancy, the atmosphere, the jarring culture shock, each evoke a feeling of authenticity; it's as if Pasolini and his crew had actually ventured back in time to a particular period to record it with their handheld camera. However, this feeling of immersion is to ignore the intentional discrepancies, anachronisms and stylisations, all of which are intended to bring the story of Medea out of the world of Greek myth and into the Europe of the 1960s and beyond. The sad tale of Medea's exploitation and destruction by love, jealousy, political deceit and the cruel patriarchy (either as a character, or as a surrogate for something else), is one that continues to reverberate throughout history and in countless different guises. A powerful experience.