Savage Grace

As Eddie Redmayne’s performances travel increasingly down the ‘nice vulnerable dotty guy’ route, it’s worth remembering he could do complex and sinister so well in his early days. SAVAGE GRACE (2008) by Tom Kalin was one such instance.

As glossy and disturbing as a painted fingernail scraping down a polished surface, this beautiful and unrelenting film looks at the life of one super-rich American family which became notorious in 1972 when the disturbed son Tony stabbed his mother to death in their London flat. Julianne Moore once more shows how very very good she is at presenting the calm bourgeois face on a simmering emotional turmoil beneath, not to mention how very very authentic she looks in Fifties clothes, as Barbara Daly Baekerland, social-climbing wife of the heir to the Bakelite fortune.

Admirers of Tom Karlin (important figure in the American ‘New Queer Cinema’) have had to wait 15 years since his last feature, Swoon, also based on a scandalous, decadent crime, the Leopold/Loeb murder (also the basis for Hitchcock’s Rope). To begin with it seems worth the wait. A suffocating but perversely delicious atmosphere pervades the start, as Moore’s odd, upper-class speech and languorous ways gradually reveal a soul ill at ease when at its most apparently confident, detached at its most sensual. Stephen Dillane is icily precise as purposeless, cold-hearted Brookes Baekerland, while Eddie Redmayne as their son, perfect casting for Moore’s offspring, maintains an vulnerable but unknowable weirdness. The rich are indeed different. Their vacuous lives and deep betrayals in the hothouse world where there is nothing to do but spend money and seek intimacy wherever you can find it do not stir the emotions – It’s hard to like or even sympathise with this lot, but at first you are fascinated all the same, as father-son, husband-wife relations are non-existent and mother-son relations warp and evolve into something unspeakable.

A disconnectedness which may be intended but ultimately irritates takes the sting away from much of the middle section where we see the family being bored and in the case of Barbara boorish around gorgeous bits of Europe, as the increasingly disturbed Tony, established in a somewhat clichéed manner as gay from early on, tries out an unlikely heterosexual relationship which is stolen from him by his smooth talking father, and moves on to a three in a bed with his mother and her camp ‘escort’ (Hugh Dancy). The doom accrues like a heavy stale perfume over these beautiful people, and finally the mother/son relationship reaches its consummation in a piece of bravura acting by Moore. As always the banal coexists with the tragic. Oedipus may have put his eyes out, but Tony sits on the floor and orders pizza. The rest of his horrific story is spelled out at the end of the film. A sober end to a cold, sometimes infuriating, but sumptuous film.

Written 2008

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LFF Days 3/4 – PERSONAL SHOPPER, RODNYE, BRIMSTONE, SCARRED HEARTS

The day couldn’t begin better than with Olivier Assayas’s PERSONAL SHOPPER. There’s always been a deliciousness about Assayas’s films, and whether or not they achieve any kind of profundity, they’re compulsively watchable, and this is no exception. A central performance by Kristen Stewart confirms her standing as a young American actress to watch, as she plays American in Paris Maureen, working as personal shopper to a volatile celebrity. Maureen is also a medium. She’s in France to try to get in touch with her twin brother, also a medium, recently dead from a heart defect they both suffer from, after a pact between them that after death one would communicate with the other. The film has so many well-used cinema tropes – the supernatural, gorgeous fashion, dead sibling grief, perilous heart disease, a murder mystery, beautiful Paris… You might think it’s over-egged, but Assayas keeps up the pace and takes every aspect seriously , from genuinely creepy scenes in a classic spooky mansion in the country to the high fashion shops of Paris, even ending on a James Bondy drive to a classy hotel in glamorous Oman.

It may amount to very little in the end, but while it’s happening it’s totally enjoyable, like a good meal, and demonstrates just why the British public loves a good French film.

Next film, over the river again at NFT, was my only documentary this year. RODNYE (Close Relations) is an often painful view of the dangerous mess that is the Ukraine/Russian conflict, seen through the eyes of families on both sides. Director Vitaly Mansky is Ukrainian-born but feels himself a Russian, living in Moscow since his student days in the USSR when it was then his capital, and working there ever since. His family, however, are scattered over the country, some in newly-Russianised Sevastopol, some in Kiev, some in the conflict zone, and have varied views on the situation and their identity. Into the mix comes the fact that Mansky was born in Lvov, once Polish and previously Austro-Hungarian, and we see what a labyrinth Eastern European nationality is. There’s wry humour as the Sevastopol   branch watch two consecutive New Year celebrations (Kiev and Moscow are on different time zones)on TV, half-heartedly joining in with the two national anthems, and old ladies have vitriolic circular arguments about which side they want to be. But war is never far away. The mundane glue that holds a happy life together is missing in so many ways, as a Sevastopol football fan mourns the loss to his team of a league to play in, and two bright young women in a Kiev coffee bar muse about their aspirations for a more western life, while outside the trams stop for a military funeral procession to take place. The war is always there, far away from activists and determined patriots, and the film ends unbearably sadly as a quiet, lanky son is sent off on the dreaded conscription, carrying a packet of freshly home-made treats from home.

My last day and I’m in the delightful Embankment cinema again for the second film in Official Competition (A Quiet Passion was the other), Martin Koolhaven’s BRIMSTONE. A bravura turn from Dakota Fanning and intensely beautiful cinematography give it what merit it has, but in what becomes a pompous, self-important tale of evil, there’s a feeling of wallowing in over-the-top violence and cruelty and suffering that is laid on so thick it eventually begins to pall, and that ‘here we go again’ feeling kicks in.

The evils are mostly wrought by the almost pantomimic figure of ‘ The Reverend’, played with full-on glare by Guy Pearce. The Reverend stalks the simple settler communities of the west unchecked over many years, received into churches without question, though so loopy some church elder would surely have noticed, full of ideas about his rights, conjugal and incestuous, being what God intends, and with a particularly nasty talent for violence. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t just hack a man almost to death, he also half-throttles him with his own intestines. Not necessary. Rape and every kind of murder are his stock in trade, and you sicken at the sight of yet more brain tissue and torn flesh, which would be almost funny in its excess were it not that its visions of cruelty on the bodies of women , culminating in the graphic lashing of a 5-year old girl, feel increasingly gratuitous. To dress it up some kind of feminist fable wrapped in gorgeous scenery and the fashionable minimalist look of settler Protestantism alongside broken bodies and dread is lamentable, and a waste of talent.

SCARRED HEARTS, the last film of the festival for me, introduced by its self-deprecating director Radu Jude, is an odd one. Last year Jude’s Aferim! was one of the best films of the festival, a totally original black and white, expansive take on C19th life in Romania, full of life and melancholy and meditation on society. Now Jude restricts rather than opening up his world. Scarred Hearts is set almost entirely inside a sanatorium on the Back Sea Coast in the late thirties, where we follow a young Jewish student, Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), for treatment of tuberculosis of the spine. Based on the semi-autobiographical writings of Max Blecher, it creates a claustrophobic world by using a starkly containing 1.37:1 format, with a mostly static camera, closing in the perspective rather in the way that a hospital bed limits one’s vision of life around. Many of the patients are totally encased in plaster, as was the procedure then, and are therefore mostly seen at angles only in lying-down positions, the consequence being an uneasy inability to relate to them as people in the way we usually do in films. An exception is the beautiful, successfully cured Solange (Ivana Mladenovic), who revisits the wards like a fresh breeze from real life, and becomes an object of yearning for Emanuel.

With echoes of the enclosed febrile world of The Magic Mountain, conversations are a mixture of erudition, romance and silliness, lively young minds, though Emanuel can be somewhat irritating in the way of a brash sixth former who has just discovered philosophy. But it gradually s dawns on us, though the procedures are breezily described by the ever-optimistic doctor as treatment, that recovery is rare, and slow decline is the norm.

The film follows Aferim! In its meticulous recreation of a historic way of life, the medical procedures, the surroundings, the attitudes, but also uses its audience’s knowledge of what was to come, always subtly aware of scarcely mentioned anti-semitic feeling, and its resonance for the future of the country. And the jokey visits of Emanuel’s wealthy parents bear the burden of what we know will soon come to those families in the outside world just as death might come to the young residents. At 140 minutes it’s detrimentally too long, but hangs around in your mind afterwards to a surprising degree.

Out into the Babylon of the Friday night West End, I passed 8 rough sleepers bedded down for the night on a walk of a few hundred yards to Piccadilly Circus, that old hub of empire, and reflected that tuberculosis, once almost conquered, is now on its way back, along with the other ills we thought were conquered in 1945. So it goes.

 

LFF Day 2 -A QUIET PASSION, DEAREST SISTER, THE REUNION, SMOKE & MIRRORS

First up on my second day, A QUIET PASSION, Terence Davies’s film about Emily Dickinson, showing in the new ‘pop-up’ cinema in the Embankment Gardens down from Charing Cross. A fine structure it is too, well raked (unlike last night’s ICA, where reading subtitles meant dodging your head around the similarly bobbing and weaving head in front), big and comfortable with a spacious foyer providing free iced water, very welcome on this warm October day. The only drawback, if it is, is the intrusive sound of the outside world: traffic sirens, aircraft, and the occasional clatter of a helicopter – the later actually pointing up in a positive way, in fact, the oppressive silences of Emily Dickinson’s enclosed life. After a promising beginning with the spirited Emily and her loving family full of irreverence and wit, her life, and along with it the film, stumble into what becomes something of a monotonous endurance test. Trapped in a provincial, god-fearing household that has lost its youthful zing, writing her poems at dead of night and stitching them into little books, the lively girl for who once declared ‘family is enough’ becomes a bitter and resentful woman.

Celia Nixon is excellent as Emily, a carefully balanced mixture of the vulnerable and the headstrong, self-aware but also self deluding and at times dislikeable. While Davies captures the cornered, repressed life conveyed in her poetry so well, the script is increasingly arch and self-conscious, strangely reminiscent of Walt Stillman’s recent hilarious Love and Friendship, but too stilted to be funny, particularly in the scenes with smart-as-a-whip best pal Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who suddenly pops up from a life beyond Amherst. But Vryling, emancipated though she is, is soon to marry and leave, and the unanswered thought does cross the mind that if she can find a life in the wider world, why can’t Emily? The attempt to bring in some kind of feminist strand here feels clumsily grafted on and a distraction, leading to such gnomic and unlikely statements as ‘any argument about gender is also about war, because it is about slavery’, and the film loses much of its power in the long, static sequences of Emily’s disconsolate middle age, visually beautiful though it is. Davies has the camera sweep around those little rooms at Amherst, as he did in the working class Liverpool interiors of his early films, across faces and furniture and all the dark corners, no bolt holes or ways of escape. And the physical processes of pain and death, a great preoccupation of Emily’s, are frighteningly portrayed. But there’s little sign of the innovative, dazzling quality of so much of her work – with her self-imposed reclusiveness and rudeness, lots of the time I’m afraid she’s just tiresome and not interesting.

Much is redeemed, though, in the final sequence as her coffin make its journey from her home/prison to the churchyard and its grave, all tracked from high above, to the words of her poem ‘Because I would not stop for death…’ But it’s a relief afterwards to get back to the real stuff, the poems, and see how they dazzle.

Next, across the footbridge to the BFI, dodging the selfie sticks, the appalling/gorgeous view of the City curving round to the left in the sun. The tables at the chain restaurants along the South Bank are packed out, and a proper English bulldog is being fed a hamburger beside a fastfood van, surrounded by marvelling tourists.

DEAREST SISTER, is by female US-born Laotian director Mattie Do, the first female Laotian director to make a full-length feature (her previous Chantaly), and this is the first Laotian film to be shown at a festival outside its own country. Described rather misleadingly as a horror movie, it is much more than that, touching on colonialism, corruption, problems of poverty and status, and with its subtle character development more striking than its supernatural and violent aspects. Nok (Amphaiphoon Phomapunya) is a poor village girl who goes to the city to become companion of a wealthy distant cousin Ana, who is going blind.  She’s treated well by Ana and her European husband (Tambet Tuisk), inhabiting an uneasy position between the servants (who resent her) and the smooth social life of her cousin. But no one is as straightforward as they seem, with the husband involved in dodgy dealings with NGOs, the servants full of dark feelings, and Nok herself more complex than her innocent facade implies, leading to a pleasing destabilising of one’s expectations. You’re soon also shaken up by the introduction of the supernatural, all the more creepy because it is presented as an almost run-of-mill occurrence. Do is good at cranking up the unease, leading to an ending that is as unexpected as it is nasty.

My two remaining films of the day are both Spanish, at one of the most comfortable cinemas in London, the Cine Lumière at the French Institute in South Kensington. THE REUNION (La Reconquista) is by Jonas Trueba, whose first feature, Los Ilusos (The Wellwishers) seen here 3 years ago, was a charming if overlong almost documentary style look at a group of young people enjoying being young in Madrid. This, his third tale of a similar group, and again starring Francesco Carril, looks at love among the thirty-somethings, as Olmo’s settled life is thrown slightly adrift by the return of his teenage love Manuela (Itsaso Arana) from Argentina. Again it’s quite indulgent, but impossible to dislike, with some funny and some melancholy moments as the pair comes to terms with the passing of time, and change. The overlong coda which takes us back in time to their teenage relationship doesn’t really work or add anything. How much better would have been a far shorter film, ending with a lyrical sequence as we watch Olmo drive his scooter back home through the early morning streets.

I had great hopes that the final film of the night, from by Alberto Rodriguez, the director who made the excellent thriller Marshlands last year, would be another film of beauty, depth and mystery, but SMOKE AND MIRRORS (El hombre de las mil caras), though an excellent film itself turned out to be a different kettle of fish altogether. Based on the true story of Spanish secret agent Paco Pasa, it takes us through multiple hoops of intrigue, as Pasa gets drawn into the corrupt dealings of a major politician. Rodriguez excels at storytelling, the careful dropping of hints and loose ends that don’t get gathered up until we’ve forgotten about them, double- and triple-crossings, the unlikely characters, but all the time keeping the excellent Edward Fernández as Pasa both superhumanly wily as well as very humanly vulnerable. And it’s fun.