Classic of the week – Re-enactment (Reconstituirea)

Lucian Pintilie  (1969)

Pintilie is a director little known in western Europe, but one who is named by many of the latest generation of Romanian directors as their inspiration. Much of his work was done in the theatre, but Reconstituirea, his second feature made in 1969,shows an unerringly cinematic eye, and it’s his masterpiece, voted by the Romanian Critics Circle as the country’s best film. Screened sporadically in Romania immediately after it was made but soon banned, it made it to Cannes in 1970. Shot under the strictures of Communism, it succeeds, remarkably, in presenting a critique of its political system with all the apparent verve and freedom and poetry of its contemporary Western European neighbours – and 1968/9 were the years of, for example, Weekend, Blow Up, Teorema, The Shame… Its special, very Romanian, ingredient is a sense of hopeless absurdity straight out of Ionesco.

In a drunken brawl two young lads have attacked and injured an older man. Officialdom has decreed that as their punishment and as a lesson to others it will film a reconstruction of the event with the same protagonists. Officials, film makers and the young offenders arrive at the run-down seaside joint where the event took place, where the good-natured victim is waiting. In contrast to the desperate seriousness of officialdom to get things just right, the total absurdity of the exercise is pointed up by a cheerful group of local onlookers, a kind of Hardyesque chorus, including the classic insouciant pretty girl beloved of the Nouvelle Vague, and a local teacher who philosophises bitterly about the situation, and accompanied by sporadic off-screen cheers from a nearby football game. Inconsequential happenings, including the escape and pursuit of an old lady’s geese, punctuate the action, as the re-enactment draws to its meaningless and ultimately tragic close. A feeling of despair, despite the many comic and playful moments, pervades, as everything turns sour, and the arrival of the jubilant and curious football crowd on their way home brings an emotion which the passing years have made more poignant, as one looks at those ordinary people’s faces and knows what was in store for them. This is a film that certainly deserves wider recognition.

Seen at Transilvania International Film Festival,  Cluj, 2011


Barry Lyndon

Stanley Kubrick

Sumptuous, breathtaking, gorgeous, are words that have been used lately to describe Kubrick’s  film of Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, made in 1975 between A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, and now digitally restored and showing nationwide. And they’re all true. Watching the film is a sensual feast for the eyes and ears, however bitter the message of that sharpest, most unsentimental Victorian novelist. It recounts the picaresque doings of Barry Lyndon, a character in whom we can hardly ever invest much sympathy. Those who have criticised Ryan O’Neill for a rather blank performance just don’t get it.  He’s spot-on. The man is an enigma, whose pudden face (O’Neill doesn’t even look pretty any more) is unfathomable, an almost postmodern figure whom we can observe but are not invited to understand. Devoted son, foolish lover, bolshie soldier, turncoat, cynical gambler, icily cruel husband, violent stepfather, and then all the way round back to vulnerability as a deeply devoted father, like Rob Tichener he’s an utter bastard as a family man, but he does truly love his son.

It’s a life punctuated and determined by three duels, that formalised and insane way of settling disputes that itself embodies the cold and distancing qualities we pick up from much British 18th century art, and which Kubrick triumphantly brings to the screen. Walk through the 18th century rooms of the National Gallery and it’s all there, from Gainsborough’s impossibly coiffeured women, the whitened faces and the ‘patches’, the luxurious landscapes stretching away beyond their smug owners, the huge polished interiors of palaces and Hogarth’s shadowy gaming houses – there’s even the echo of Whistlejacket and his knowing eyes in Barry’s son’s rearing horse.  Kubrick, along with the staggering talent of cinematographer John Alcott, brings  these to us so powerfully that there’s practically no sense of the 1970 when it was made, only of the 18th century – if not of how it actually was, then of our idea of it. The look is infinitely intensified by a haunting soundtrack of Baroque music, and above all Handel, whose stately and sombre Sarabande paces out the moments of what is what would now be called ‘Slow Cinema’.

It’s not as if nothing happens – we follow Barry through a life of adventuring from rustic Ireland through Europe into stately country houses, brothels and battlefields – here a salutary reminder that sending men out to march into almost certain death in a hail of bullets and calling it a battle wasn’t anything new in 1914. But the inexorable passing of time where scenes that are almost tableaux open out to a landscape or a candle-lit interior of people moving into a languid action conveys a stifling sense of the weight of existence. All the more powerful are the moments of sudden intense action, usually prompted by rage.  Even the speech is – not stilted exactly, but as measured as the camera work, and as the music, all of a piece.

As well as Ryan O’Neill making himself un-charming for the part, other cast members are perfectly chosen. Marisa Berenson always did passive suffering well, and here one can only wonder at the research into make-up and wigs which made her so perfectly resemble those society ladies who gaze out of contemporary portraits at us. Murray Melvin’s pointy, puckered face is perfect as a disapproving, fawning clergyman, and Patrick Magee with his unnerving tones and gaunt face, so whitened that it looks on the brink of decay, as an unscrupulous fraudster, couldn’t be better. But it’s the finesse of the film that comes back to you, the sense of being in a truly alien world. These people are not like us, except that they’re doomed, just like us, by mortality.

Seen at nft London August 2016








Henry Joost &  Ariel Shulman

Joost & Schulman were responsible for one of the creepiest films of the last few years, the ‘documentary’,  Catfish, which aroused  compulsive curiosity and then a genuinely spooky fear of where it might lead, centred around the uncertainties of believing what you see  online. Now they’ve brought a zingy cyber adventure to the screen which delivers surprises and  thrills as well as an underlying comment on herd mentality, while tapping into the background buzz of anxieties about the increasing power of the net.  It’s pretty refreshing, even if it doesn’t quite deliver a denouement that lives up to its bright promise.

Vee – short for Venus, how embarrassing is that? – (Emma Roberts),  a considerate, unadventurous student, is egged on by her extrovert friend to have a go on the new wildly successful dark-web cyber game Nerve, a kind of truth or dare, where you win money by taking on challenges of an increasing boldness. Are you a Watcher or a Player, comes the question on her screen, and in a wild moment she taps ‘Player’. Immediately launched into a quest that’s light-hearted but challenging, she’s observed by a small gang of ‘Watchers’, tipped off and ready to video the event. Turns out she has to kiss a man she doesn’t know, and who should she choose but Ian, (Dave Franco), hiding behind a copy of To the Lighthouse in a bar, who by his cheerful smile should be easily sussed out as someone not taking his Eng Lit seriously enough to be an authentic reader.  We soon start to twig that everything could well be rigged, and what seem like free will decisions are no such thing.

Unable to resist Ian’s young-Brando-esque looks, straightaway Vee’s overcome her timidity and is off on a jolly escapade on the back of his motorbike, so outrageous that it grabs them loads of watchers and puts Vee at the top of the popularity rankings. Should she trust him? In time-honoured teen movie style they make a lovely couple, and there’s real chemistry between the two of them. The adventure scoots along at a rare old speed,  involving posh frocks, and a bike ride through busy streets which outdoes all the glitzy car chases I’ve seen lately, mainly because it knows when to stop and doesn’t involve a nauseating glut of flashy, expensive destruction.

Set in New York City, looking in the dark like a digital confection itself, the film has smart ways of  of presenting the cyber world – locations of individuals pop up like computer graphics across the skyline, and we sometimes experience the act of staring at a screen from the inside, the earnest gamer’s face peering through backwards graphics at us, the audience become game-maker. It’s fun, even as the jokiness falls away from the challenges and they become. lethal. But, like most puzzle films, the ending, spectacular though it is, can’t measure up to events leading up to it. But in many ways it’s a pretty superior teen movie, with a multiple happy ending: Ian gets to grin his Sky Masterson grin, nerds triumph and are revealed to be as sexy as the action men,  and the community of  Watchers learns a salutary lesson. And what other teen movie can you think of that offers a succinct critique of To the Lighthouse?

Seen at Sunderland Empire, August 12

Jason Bourne

Paul Greengrass

So now it’s Jason, first name terms at last.  Except of course it isn’t Jason at all, but David, a name and identity our hero is coming nearer and nearer to understanding and reintegrating with. Spiritually lost and anonymous, he’s living a life of the most basic and perhaps most  innocent form of physical, violent survival, bare-knuckle fighting in Eastern Europe. And he seems to keep winning. Meanwhile over at the screens in CIA central they’re still desperately looking for him, with every tracking device known to man and woman and the power to reach out to every form of communication to locate, pursue and catch him. At one end is Alicia Vikander, severe and serious as a grammar school head girl to Tommy Lee Jones’ dead-eyed chief, craggy and hollow as the old oak tree waiting for that last lethal storm. At the other end of the ‘catch Bourne’ trail lounges Vincent Cassell, hanging about in dark hotel rooms watching football on TV waiting for the call, louche and deadly as ever, seemingly the only assassin capable of the job, as he’s flung around the continent, then the world, in pursuit.

It’s on the face of it an intelligent plot that keeps us on board with just enough set-piece perilous encounters and mystery to ensure we don’t really notice how preposterous it all is – what is so very special about Bourne that he can’t just be liquidated in what I’m sure is the time-honoured CIA way? Greengrass is a real whizz at action sequences, breathtaking and realistic in a verité, jolting camera way that makes you think they’re happening in our real world.  Though he’s becoming so enamoured of them himself that that they sometimes outstay their welcome. An interminable 3-way pursuit through the bleak modernistic office landscapes of Paddington Basin loses its suspense down one too many slick grey walkways, and in the climactic chase scene the splintering chaos of multl-coloured, glamorous cars race through Vegas becomes for me, as well as exhausting, eventually, well, boring.  

In the end it’s not the high tech firearms or crashing  metal of gleaming cars that does for Cassell and sees Jason live to grimace another day, but a good old fashioned fist fight, his skills honed in all those dusty corners of Eastern Europe  Look at those cavemen go.

It’s a kind of antiBond. No sex.  No jokes. And Greengrass’s love for resonant contemporary locations means that while the latest Bond opened on a glamorous carnival square in South  America, the first big scene here lands us in a very authentic looking Syntagma Square in Athens in the middle of an anti-government riot. Snowden’s name is dropped, and Riz Ahmed’s Zuckerberg/Jobs cyber prince about to be compromised lends yet another nudge to the relevance of it all. This is relevant stuff, it announces, a kind of action movie for the serious, politically aware audience, showing the contemporary world of those in power as an irredeemably cold and morally bankrupt place.  Not to mention the father/son theme, a staple of fiction from Oedipus to Eastenders. It all adds interesting strands, with Bourne halfway between a real, tight-lipped hero for our times of surveillance and betrayal and a superhero who can dodge a marksman’s bullets and fall from a second-storey and get up to mysteriously disappear in a trice. Very enjoyable as its happening, yes, but not that memorable.

Sunderland July 2016