Over the past two weeks, I’ve finally found some time to rent some DVDs and catch up with some films I had intended to see in the cinema over the last six months or so.
Notes On A Scandal is a frosty, intelligent film elevated by superb central performances from Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett and, especially, Bill Nighy, who makes far more of an underwritten role than might reasonably be expected. Dench revels in her creepy obsessions, both in dramatic, tense on-screen moments and in her manipulative and sinister overdubbed narration. The film (and presumably also its source material, Zoe Heller’s novel) has a sophisticated grasp of its central issues, and remains morally complex throughout. We are not invited to condemn naïve schoolteacher Sheba for her futile affair with an underage schoolboy (although I wonder whether the film would have been this brave had the genders been reversed), neither do we really know whether to detest or pity Judi Dench’s unloved, scheming and controlling obsessive. For me, there were two problems undermining the film though – there are a couple of plot elements that really strain credibility, and whilst certainly dramatic, the film has little in the way of visual invention – ultimately it feels better suited to TV than cinema.
Admirers of the revenge thriller may feel the genre has at last been given a new lease of life by Denis Dercourt’s superbly subtle film The Page Turner. The film is icy and brilliantly restrained. It has only one shocking moment of grizzly violence, but comes with a world of resentment, rage and frustration seething underneath. Deborah Francois, who already proved her acting mettle in the Dardennes brothers’ Palme D’Or winning ‘L’Enfant’, gives an even more sophisticated and meticulously controlled performance here, and with her steely beauty is absolutely sublime casting.
At just 80 minutes in length, here is a rare film with absolutely no excess whatsoever, and where meaning and intent are frequently communicated through glances and unuttered thoughts. I am not sure how intimate the relationship between concert pianists and their page turners generally is, but there’s something utterly convincing about the need for trust and dependence on which this film’s devastating plan hinges. There’s also something plausible in the intense emotions that accompany serious artistry, and in the bitterness that comes with Francois’ character adopting a role she perceives as beneath what was once rightfully hers. Apparently, Dercourt is himself also a musician as well as film-maker, and found how ‘similar the mechanisms of suspense’ were to those of music. He’s extrapolated these similar tensions brilliantly with this film.
Francois’ performance is matched by that of Catherine Frot, vulnerable (and therefore sympathetic in spite of her original injustice) as Ariane Fouchecourt, a renowned concert pianist struggling with confidence and anxiety following an accident. Francois’ Melanie, taking a role as live-in childminder in their stately family home, shocks her out of her hermetic shell, encouraging her to find aspects of herself perhaps previously concealed, whilst all the time scheming and engineering her downfall. Everything hinges on a tragic disappointment in Melanie’s childhood, captured during the film’s prologue, for which Ariane was ultimately responsible. The film deals with many issues surrounding prodigious musical talent – the difficulty in gaining access to formal musical training in a world which is still somewhat elitist, the casual arrogance and insouciance that serious performers sometimes carry with them and the difficulty in sustaining musical brilliance through advanced years and personal trauma. The film’s conclusion is unremittingly nasty, and brilliantly executed, the look of callous and malevolent satisfaction on Melanie’s face providing the icing on the cake.
Gabrielle, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novella The Return by that wayward and unpredictable director Patrice Chereau, is another fine and well executed piece of French cinema, although there are moments when it feels self-consciously stagy. The intervention of inter-titles and loud, clamorous classical music under the dialogue are techniques borrowed from silent cinema. I’m not sure they add as much to the picture as Chereau clearly intended, but the two central performances (for the film is essentially a two-person chamber piece) are so superb as to turn these reservations into minor quibbles. Isabelle Huppert is characteristically wonderful as Gabrielle, a sophisticated woman part of a cultured bourgeois set but locked in an entirely loveless marriage with Pascal Greggory’s complacent Jean.
One evening Jean arrives home to find a letter from Gabrielle informing him she has left for another man, but she returns a mere four hours later, confused by conflicting emotions and guilt. The ensuing series of confrontations between the two reveal complex power dynamics within the marriage, suppressed frustration and resentment, considerable self-deception and loathing. Greggory is superb as Jean, who seems to regard emotion as a demeaning excess to be constrained at all costs, almost matching Huppert’s compelling iciness (she is perhaps the only woman alive who could deliver a line like ‘the thought of your sperm inside me repulses me’ and still retain her composure). The period locations are superb, and this modest but successful film appears to have been somewhat overlooked.
Guillermo Del Toro’s acclaimed and popular film Pan’s Labyrinth no doubt works much more effectively on a bigger screen, but it’s easy to see why this has been a rare foreign language film with broad appeal. The attention to detail and spectacular audacity with which Del Toro and his effects team have conjured young Ofelia’s private fantasy world is a marvel to behold. Some have questioned the film’s success in placing a fantasy landscape on an equal footing with an historical one (the film is set during the Spanish Civil War), but it’s worth noting that that the historical element of the film is very much in microcosm, focussing on one Franco-ite compound surrounded by groups of Republican Guerillas. Del Toro doesn’t really attempt to explain the wider context of the Spanish Civil War. In some ways, the private and brutal world of Sergi Lopez’s villainous Vidal is very much a parallel to Ofelia’s escape into the extraordinary underworld. I found Vidal a little caricatured as a tyrant – an evil stepfather capable of barbarous cruelty and unfailingly self-righteous. The fantasy element of the film, which is very much presented as ‘real’ rather than a dream or an illusion, can essentially be reduced to a series of episodic confrontations with bizarre and frequently threatening creatures, and these scenes resonate gloriously in the mind long after the end credits have rolled. There are problems with execution – and the film’s interweaving of alternate worlds is not always entirely successful. Still, I found the film’s conclusion surprisingly moving, and the whole film is dominated by an outstanding performance Ivana Baquero as the intrepid, imaginative Ofelia.
John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus has been somewhat patronisingly dismissed in some quarters as a ‘sex comedy’, with many feeling that it is not as profound as it thinks it is. All I can say is that these critics must be very self-satisfied and smug in their own insights into the mysteries of life (as well as being sexually satiated) as I felt this film had daring, provocative and incisive things to say about private lives. Real sex has now become quite commonplace in movies (although not, it must be conceded, in American cinema), so there’s little offensive or shocking about Shortbus’ inclusion of fellatio (some of it, staggeringly, self-administered), penetration, erections and ejaculation. The scenes could certainly be viewed as pornographic if viewed entirely out of context, but Shortbus is by no means a porn film, as it very carefully plots the tensions and interconnections between its characters’ sexual journeys and their emotional lives. It asks questions about the role of its audience. In much the same way as Michael Haneke’s ‘Funny Games’ satirised movie violence, the film suggests that ‘voyeurism is participation’. As one of the characters films an amateur film intended as a suicide note, we wonder whether this is material we should be watching. In the end, the voyeurism at the heart of the film is proved to be essential, as it is a voyeur character who jolts the movie back to celebrating life.
Whilst move movie sex exists in a world of idealised eroticism and is frequently wholly unconvincing, the sex in Shortbus (both straight and gay) is adventurous, quirky, sometimes absurd, entirely genuine but not necessarily arousing. This not only serves to distance the film from that most obnoxious of genres, the erotic thriller, but also from the pompous, indulgent sexual commentaries of Catherine Breillat. The sub-plot of a frustrated woman (herself ironically a sex therapist) in search of an orgasm may well be a direct reference to Breillat’s infinitely more pretentious ‘Romance’, but mercifully the film has none of the outrageous superiority of ‘Sex is Comedy’ or ‘Anatomy of Hell’, films with which it will inevitably be compared. The latter was particularly offensive in its casual homophobia, arguing not only that all men hate women, but that gay men inevitably hate women more, because of their innate inability to understand the mysteries of female genitalia (personally, I can’t understand anyone, gay or straight, who hates women). Mercifully, Shortbus is less preening and self-conscious in its unpicking of the psychology of sex and sexuality.
The film is certainly very funny, as any film containing such a painfully hilarious demolition of the Jackson Pollock school of painting inevitably must be. It’s the sort of film that can get away with a line like ‘I’m sorry, but I have a vibrating egg between my legs!’. What’s most impressive about the film, aside from the real demands it places on its excellent cast, is the exquisitely moving material it draws from it. Yes, the movie is full of sex, but it is characterised as much by snappy and intelligent dialogue and ingenious editing. Those who dismiss the film suggest that its chief insight is that its characters sex lives and emotional lives are not one and the same thing – but I think it actually achieves far more than this. It is a film that dares to suggest that we often struggle to find what we’re looking for in love and lust, and that when we do find it, it might actually be too heavy a burden for us to bear. The characters are all in some way unfulfilled, whether in relationships or not. The candid ‘dare’ meeting between dominatrix Severin (who hides the fact that she is actually called Jennifer Aniston!) and depressed James in a small cupboard may be the boldest and most moving scene in American cinema since River Phoenix confessed his love for Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho. I’m baffled by those who have argued that the film offers no insight into its characters’ emotions or psychology and in its emphasis on honesty above deception, the film may have a moral centre that even those most offended by its explicitness could perhaps accept.
The film centres around Shortbus parties, polysexual orgiastic dens of hedonism and free love in an underground New York club. The parties revolve around the outrageously camp Master of Ceremonies Justin Bond, who brilliantly undercuts the hedonistic ideal by saying ‘just look at it – it’s like the 60s, but without the hope’. This quite brilliantly sums up the underlying sadness at the heart of the movie, although Cameron Mitchell bravely concludes everything with a ray of light (‘we all get it in the end’).
The film benefits considerably from a superb soundtrack, with incidental music from Yo La Tengo, as well as songs from Animal Collective and The Hidden Cameras (whose Lex Vaughn has a brief acting role). It has a real independent spirit, which has misled the likes of Philip French into dismissing it as ‘amateurish’. It’s actually very carefully put together, with a narrative arc that moves from humorous satire to emotional trauma, before a visually stunning cabaret finale. John Cameron Mitchell has reinvented the ensemble piece with this enjoyable and very clever film.