Directed by Ari Aster

Hereditary unnerved me, for sure. But I wish it had absolutely terrified me more. Most effective in the first half, before the demons are thoroughly unleashed, as a portrait of a grim family not at ease with itself, once the climactic catastrophic event and its immediate consequences have happened, I found my boring old rationality kicking in so strong that I hardly even jumped as things got decidedly nasty.

A wonderfully disturbing beginning, where the camera roams around a studio of dolls-house-sized room set-ups, resting finally on a bedroom and closing in to reveal it as real, sets the scene of Annie’s (Toni Collette) workspace in the traditional, gloomy, family house, claustrophic even though it’s set in beautiful countryside. She’s an artist who recreates scenes of her own family life with painstaking verisimilitude. Currently she’s working on the deathbed scene of her mother, who died recently after many years of dementia, pretty well unmourned by anyone. A difficult, unpleasant woman, estranged from her family for years, even Annie’s funeral eulogy for her turns out to be more of an apology for a lack of affection. But then Annie herself is not that lovable. She takes control over her family by miniaturising it into art, routinely scrapping viciously with her teenage son (Alex Wolff), and showing love only for her daughter Charlie, a girl of an undetermined oddness, and apparently the only darling of her deceased grandmother. Steve the father (Gabriel Byrne) is a somewhat ineffectual family member, smoothing relations where he can, to some extent a reprise of his floundering inadequate dad in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs.

The first half hour of watching this dysfunctional family is riveting and very troubling – something very nasty is going to happen… And at the centre of this is Milly Shapiro’s amazingly troubling performance as Charlie. Once she’s no longer there the gnawing fear steps down a notch. Toni Collette’s performance is admirably complex – and that’s even before the real funny business starts – in fact I found the family far more interesting and troubling without the arrival of the supernatural, and to be honest it’s a bit of a downer that it’s the old occult favourites that appear: a book of evil incantations in an unknown language, séances, flying through the air, elderly demons…

And it was at this point that my rational self took over. Don’t people with serious allergies carry an Epipen these days? Surely a control freak like Annie would have seen to that. And can we really believe that a teenager known to have suffered recent psychological trauma and then a psychotic episode of violent self-harm at school is patched up and merely goes home to be put to bed without professional intervention? I know I shouldn’t have been thinking about these things, but doesn’t the fact that I did mean the horror wasn’t working? Unlike most people, I didn’t find this the most frightened I’ve been in the cinema lately – It Comes at Night, Get Out, and A Quiet Place all had me juddering in my seat and wishing it would all stop in a way that this film didn’t. Maybe the good old occult has lost out to post-apocalyptic scenarios in this very unstable world – we don’t believe in hell or demons any more, but we do believe in our lives going easily out of control. That said, this is a very impressive debut feature from Ari Aster who shows great mastery of technique and imagination in a genre that can easily fall flat.

I must just mention the absolute delight of the closing credits music – what it had to do with the film I can’t say, but, inappropriately, it sent me out with a smile on my face, to the confusion of the queue for the next screening.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema June 2018





Transilvanian International Film Festival 2018 – Part 3: Winter Brothers; Free Dacians; Infinite Football

Best Directing Award Winner WINTER BROTHERS (Vinterbrødre) by Danish director Hlynur Palmáson is a mysterious, brooding, visually striking mood piece set around a limestone mine, where the workers are coated with pale chalky residue like participants in some mythic ritual, and the graunching boom of the huge digging and processing machines obliterates human communication. We can’t properly see them, we can’t hear them. In the mine, darkness covers all but the dancing lights on the men’s helmets, but coming out into the light after a shift is hardly into any kind of brightness. Its powerful moments of documentary-like images call to mind Glawogger’s huge man-consuming industries, and it’s as if out of one of those a drama of awkward brotherhood is bred. Johan (Simon Sears) is straightforward and liked. Emil (Elliott Crosset Hove) disaffected, intense and depressed, like a dark mischievous northern sprite, who steals chemicals from the mine to make a lethal (maybe literally) spirit which he sells to his fellow workers and village members. When one of his customers fails to pay up he takes a shotgun for payment, which hangs as a threat over the rest of the film, as he enthusiastically follows an instruction video on his living room floor to the amusement of his brother. It’s a very male, comfortless, cold, in all ways, environment, grimy interiors and empty lives, the nearest the brothers come to anything resembling affection being when they have a desultory fight across their living area. Though presumably some kind of family life goes on in the village, the only woman to be seen brings divisiveness. In the normal way of narrative little happens, but in this dire environment anything could, it’s all menace, sorrow, and a huge lack of humanity. A very strange, remarkable film, and a director to watch.

The Last Jedi’s ‘Let the past die. Kill it if you have to’ might well be a sensible message to bring away from the excellent documentary FREE DACIANS (Dacii liberi) by Monica Lǎzurean-Gorgan and Andrei Gorgan. They look at the current enthusiasm for the ancient inhabitants of what is mostly now Romania, about whom little is known other than via Roman and Greek historians. Conquered by Rome under Trajan – the building of Trajan’s Column in Rome commemorates this – there’s little remaining of their civilisation. No written language has survived and substantial archaeological remains are few, other than at the ancient capital, a UNESCO site, run by a pro-Dacian enthusiast with authoritarian tendencies. A model Dacian village blessed by the Romanian Orthodox Church and peopled by a small idealistic group eager to live the simple old-style agrarian life seems charming, but already when revisited a year later it’s almost abandoned. Muddled thinking abounds, as is wearily pointed out by an academic specialising in the early history of the area, and the Dacians are lauded as being both a mighty invincible people and victims of Rome, and alarm bells ring when ideas of a racial superiority creep in. At a conference one speaker claims the words Dacian and Deutsch are closely related, with all the baggage that brings from a fascist past in both countries, and there’s an explosion of derision in the audience when notorious former mayor of Cluj, Gheorghe Funar, who tried to impose a de-Hungarianisation of the city, appears at the same conference spouting unpalatable claims. (He later appears on stage at the Q&A and seems to hold his own – the speed, robustness and passion of the exchanges understandably defeated the interpreter’s powers.) Ask any ethnic Hungarian in Cluj about life in those years and you’ll realise how pernicious these dreamy ideas of Dacian ‘purity’ can turn. It’s brave and even-handed view of how a dewy-eyed nostalgia for an idealised past can be marshalled into something monstrous.

As a great admirer of Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game, I’m very keen to see his documentary INFINITE FOOTBALL (Fotbal infinit). His sense of the absurd is a perfect match for the tragicomedy that is football, and here he goes again. Central figure, if not hero, is Laurențiu, brother of a friend, a man with a passion. As a teenager he suffered a broken leg while being tackled in a school football match. It was never properly mended, leading to a second break, and the athletic future he planned for was not to be. Porumboiu’s films are always talky, and here we have a real person like one of his characters come to life, his eloquent descriptions of the events forming what is practically a monologue, moving on to setting out his ambition to devise a version of football where such a situation – many players tackling one individual – cannot happen. This means, and it’s all meticulously drawn out on a grid, players having to stay in their own areas of the field – alas no more tricky wingers galloping the length of the pitch, no more of those delicious goals headed in by a forward-dashing defender… and as time has passed this has been refined down, by logical steps, to more and more restriction and complication, a reductio ad absurdum of the game, all told with shiny-eyed eagerness that while laughing – and it is funny – at the man you feel for him in his earnestness. We witness how his day job – he’s a council official – goes by the board while he’s too busy describing his latest refinement to deal with old lady come to enquire about a property problem, especially when it falls to Porumboiu to ask the 92-year old to take a seat and make conversation with her. As time passes we realise that what Laurențiu is striving for is a philosophical impossibility, a game, a world where everything is safe, but which has thereby had the life taken out if it. We know he’ll go pegging on to find his perfection, and never be satisfied, and if we found him funny, the tone changes with the masterly final sequence, up there with Porumboiu’s street lights gradually lighting up at the end of 12.08 East of Bucharest. The camera tracks in silence at limping pace along the mundane road that was part of the route of Laurențiu’s painful walk home all those years ago after his second injury, and the man, flawed though he is, becomes after all, through his dogged persistence, somehow, a hero.

Part 1

Part 2


Happy Birthday Malcolm McDowell!

One of our best screen actors turned 75 today. I was lucky enough to interview him 12 years ago at the Bradford Film Festival – a delight from start to finish!

A substantial layer of snow lies over Yorkshire in early March, a chilly welcome for one of its returning sons, Malcolm McDowell, in Bradford all the way from his lemon grove in California for a retrospective of his work at the 12th Bradford Film Festival. He’s gone AWOL, slipping out for a lunchtime curry, on the Saturday morning I hope to interview him, but is back in time to introduce what for those of us of a certain generation remains his finest film, If…. He’s witty, full of panache and soon has the audience in the palm of his hand. Now in his early sixties, full of energy, he’s surprisingly small with spiky white hair, that rather raddled face impish and still attractive in the dangerous way it always was, the blue eyes piercing and fearsomely intelligent as ever. Just after the film begins I’m granted ‘5 minutes’, with him, which effortlessly expands into more than 20 before a taxi arrives to whisk him off to a short rest before watching the Liverpool match (his team) on TV. We sit knee to knee in the comfy chairs of the bar at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, and I begin by asking him how it feels to be back, and whether he still looks on the north of England as home.

‘When I come here I sort of feel at home, but I’m a Californian, because I live there, my children are there… my son’s with me, he’s definitely a American, but he feels at home here too, he’s furious that I sold my house in London. It’s just a case of location, really, if my wife said let’s go and live in England I’d be quite happy. I feel comfortable, but do I feel “English”, do I have a sense of national pride? I’m sort of past all that. I come over at least once a year, if there’s something happening in British film or something, but that’s rare, there’s slim pickings!’

He tells me about a project he’s pursuing at the moment over here, a role as a Yorkshireman, in fact, in a film based on an early C S Forrester novel, Payment Deferred, about a man who is hanged for the wrong murder. I suggest it sounds like a Patricia Highsmith scenario.

It is! Forrester was only 23 when he wrote it, a friend of mine wrote the script, it’s a great script, and the director is going to be Eduardo Ponti , son of course of Carlo and Sophia Loren. I did another film with him and I think he’s an immense talent. But it’s all a question of whether we get the money… blah di blah di blah, all that stuff!’ He waves his hand in the air and flashes those eyes, dismissing the wheeler-dealing that has to go on in the world of films, when all he wants is to get down to the nitty gritty of acting.

We talk about his tendency to play nasties, in fact his latest role in the film Evilenko is one of his worst yet, a Russian child killer. Of all the roles he has played, he says, he found this one so unremittingly bad that he uniquely approached it ‘from the outside in’, keeping himself detached from the character. ‘I’m very proud of it, it was a very difficult part, daunting. But usually I think there’s something redeeming about the characters, even if it’s just a sense of humour or something, or a redeeming action, some human element – the things they do might be horrible, but the people themselves …’

Does he ever see himself mellowing into a gentler, elegiac role, like for example Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian?

‘Oh that was lovely wasn’t it – I’m so full of admiration, it’s a great performance. What’s so great about it is it’s very understated, it’s really from the inside out, you look into his eyes and there’s so much more behind them. A great actor at his peak. I love him, though it’s maybe rather sentimental…’ The eyes take on that look again, and you know for sure ‘sentimental’ will never be a criticism of anything he does.

‘You’ve worked continually haven’t you, you’ve never stopped really?’

‘One thing that can be said about me, is that I’m a survivor – a working actor, that’s me really, thank god! I don’t sit around waiting for the right script, or the right director or something like that – you’d never work!’

I ask him what is it that keeps him wanting to do more – is it the acting itself, is it the company, the life on set? He seems to do far more film acting than theatre.

‘I’ve done a fair bit and I love theatre, it’s just that it’s so difficult with a young child, I can’t, I can’t afford the time – filming is great, you go away for a month then go home, you can take your family… but to go for a minimum 6 or 9 months in New York or London… and it takes up your whole time, you start thinking about it straight after lunch and preparing so it’s actually twice the work really…it’s just circumstances, this is the life I’ve chosen – though of course if I found something that I really want to do on stage… but it would have to be something extraordinary.’

 I’d earlier met his elder son, a less abrasive-looking version of his younger self, who has just trained as a director, son of McDowell’s second marriage to the actress Mary Steenburgen, with whom he remains on friendly terms. There’s now another son, Beckett, a two-year-old, from his third marriage… I was curious about the name. Was it after Samuel Beckett?

Actually it’s not, but it could be – Sam Beckett – I met him once at Jocelyn Herbert’s [stage and film designer and great friend of Lindsay Anderson] house in Portland Place. He was a great friend of hers and she’d done a lot of work with him – he’s quite shy. But no, my grandfather was named Beckett, and my wife said if we ever have a boy, it’s got to be Beckett.’

‘I mentioned it because it made me wonder if you’d ever thought of doing Beckett, because I thought how good you could be, I think you’ve got the sort of stillness, menace, he needs…’

McDowell looks transfixed for a moment‘Yeah, I’ve never thought about that – the thing is no-one’s ever asked me, and, you can only do things that you’re asked, I’m not the sort of one that goes out and pushes … people will say, Malcolm why on earth did you do this, and I’ll say – well because they offered it to me.’

 One film he did push for was his first, If…, and it was during that audition that he has described his ‘Zen moment’, when at the receiving end of an unexpected slap from co-star Christine Noonan, unexpected because he hadn’t read the script through, he felt a great spiritual lucidity and knew what it was to’ live in the moment’. I tell him how much I’m enjoying watching the film, how fresh it still seems.

‘What an entrance, eh!’ he beams. His first appearance in the film, and in fact on screen ever, as a subversive sixth former at a public school, is mysteriously muffled up in scarf and hat, only those eyes showing, promising all sorts of danger. ‘You know I was stopped on the King’s Road by Anouk Aimée, who was a goddess to me – she said [French accent] “Malcurm, (she was going out with Albert Finney at the time, who was one of the producers of If, in fact they married,) she said “I ’ave nevair seen a more staggereeng entrance into a movee”…I went – Really! “- aah, with zee scarf and zee hat and you take eet off, ah, so romantic…”, and she was like going on about it, and I’d never even thought about it!’

I tell him how much the film meant at the time to people like me, first generation university students having their first encounters with public school boys, and how it helped us realise what made them the way they were. ‘You were at public school weren’t you? Not quite that kind, presumably, not quite as rigid …’

‘Not as posh, no, but actually the minor ones were worse, trying to be something they’re not. Actually the one I went to I loved– it made me – I was, er (he hunts for the appropriate word!)… mischievous, as a child, and I loved the discipline, and I had a great headmaster, a fantastic educator, and I really got on well there, after a year or two, I was rebelling all the time and getting beaten, and then I figured it out, and loved it.’

‘So at the end of the film you’re not putting your soul into gunning down the parents and everything!’


We laugh. ‘Because you look as if you are! – but I suppose that’s acting, isn’t it!’

‘The thing about that film, nowadays watching it people go oh my god, Columbine, but it’s not that at all, it’s a poetic statement by the director, he wrote a fantasy, a Bunuelish side of him.’

 I agree that it is certainly that, but also very much of its time, and say how much it’s taking me back to how it was, how we thought we could change the world then.

Yes, it’s maybe what we were thinking – blow away all the bloody lot! Everyone was protesting about something, I couldn’t take my dog to the park without bumping into someone like Harold Pinter – “Oh come and join us!” Of course he’s still doing it!’

Probably McDowell’s most famous, or infamous film, is A Clockwork Orange. Full of shocking violence, led by the ruthless and amoral free spirit Alex played by McDowell, and with a few so called ‘copycat’ crimes in its wake, the film was withdrawn after about a year by its director Stanley Kubrick, adding, of course to its cult status. I asked him about how he felt about this, and whether he had any misgivings about how it affected people.

‘I didn’t realise it was withdrawn at the time – I was out of the country – it opened, it ran for a year – well, it had really run its course, it wasn’t till the 10th anniversary I was aware of it, wondered why they weren’t showing it – and then this whole myth that came out about it – it made it even more desireable. I had no particular feelings – it was Stanley’s decision. But after he died his wife told me how the family had had death threats, and Stanley had withdrawn it on the advice of Scotland Yard. As I see it people really do weird things, and anything could trigger it – could be a film, could be missing a bus… you don’t know.’

 At this point I realise Malcolm’s entourage are hovering around, keen to be off, so I begin to wind up, asking if he’s thinking of retiring to his lemon grove soon.

Well, not until they carry me out! – until then I’ll keep it going. You asked what is it that makes me love acting, it’s, yes, it’s doing the part, the camaraderie of it, but the nice thing is I’ve been doing it so long there seems a wonderful freedom comes with it – I don’t take it too seriously, just enjoy what comes. It’s what I love to do. I did two plays a year at school, one musical, one Shakespeare, and really, I wasn’t trained at all, just had to do it – you were cast and told to do it, and that was it. In a weird way I suppose that was my training. The first play I did on the professional stage was a play called Woman in a Dressing Gown, by Ted Willis, very kitchen sink! I played the son, and it just happened to be a perfect part for me, and so I was very good, but the next week was something quite different where I had to stretch, and I was very bad. So I had to work out through weekly rep how to act, I hadn’t got as clue.’

Nowadays repertory theatre has all but gone, and I wonder if he thinks that’s a big loss for young actors not to have that experience.

‘That’s right, you have to go to drama school now really. I think I was lucky that I wasn’t trained, to tell you the truth, the technique that I came up with from listening to people like Lindsay you know, is as good as any training, in fact a lot better.’

Lindsay Anderson, one of the most influential British directors of the sixties and director of If… and its sequels O Lucky Man and later Britannia Hospital, became Malcolm’s mentor and great great friend. Their mutual affection is palpable and very affecting in the final sequence of O Lucky Man. Malcolm has written extensively about him and the inspiration he brought to him as an actor.

He really took you under his wing, didn’t he?’

‘Oh yes he did. He was a celibate homosexual. That was far too sophisticated a thing for me to understand at the time, I used to say to David Sherwin, our writing partner – did Lindsay never have a lover, and he used to say no – I think he’s neuter. I thought – wow you may be right – because we didn’t know, and it was only when we subsequently read his diaries, how lonely he was – it broke my heart. He loved the people he couldn’t have, Richard Harris and myself, and various other people through his life, he only fell in love with the ones that weren’t attainable, who were heterosexual He hated camp, hated it, you’d better not be camp around Lindsay, he hated it, so he was an amazing mixture, he was truly one of the great great English directors.

I remember just going around with him after If…, he insisted, “No, Malcolm’s coming, the star of the film.” But I wasn’t really the star, there were three of us, but he sort of picked me out. Lindsay would be erudite, funny, provocative, and I’d sit there in total awe while we were making the films, thinking – this man is describing it perfectly, he can see it, how it will be, I was amazed at that – and now I find myself in his position – I was watching then, now I’m doing the same thing, now I know what he knew…’

So was Lindsay, I ask, the greatest director he ever worked with, better than Altman, Kubrick…?

‘Oh yes – though I love Altman.’ Malcolm was recently in The Company by Altman, a film about a ballet company, that had mixed reviews. ‘It’s a lovely film – not the full orchestra, but a chamber work, I’d say. I love Bob dearly. I’ve known him since about 1970 – we partied together, yes we were mates. I told him – it’s not good to be a friend of yours if you’re an actor cos you’ll never get cast! We laughed – every major city we found ourselves in we’d call, have dinner, the laughs, the fun – I tell you he and his wife, they loved a party, they were fifties children, they thought if you go out to a good party all your troubles were over. I just love that about him.’

‘He’s in this country as well isn’t he, just been directing the new Arthur Miller play in London? Will you be getting together?’

‘Ah well, the joke is we petitioned to get him the special Oscar this year, and now the Oscars are on and I’m here and he’s gone back to receive the award…’

The entourage are here again and insistent that the cab is waiting, so that’s it. I thank him for his time, and off he goes. It’s been a delight. Later tonight he’ll hold the floor in the Q&A, slipping into anecdotes about the great names of British and US film, playing H G Wells and Gangster No 1, the comically awful experience of making Caligula, a Roman epic unexpectedly taken over by a porn director (my dear, have you ever seen so much cock!?, asked a shell-shocked Gielgud), and Lindsay, always Lindsay, overrunning by a whole hour because he’s so full of life and the audience love him. For now I go back into the screening of If… and am straightaway confronted up large on the screen by those same uncompromising blue eyes from 30 years ago…

First published May 2006


Transilvania International Film Festival 2018 – Part 2: Las herederas; Manhood; Charleston

May 30 2018

Marcelo Martinessi’s superb THE HEIRESSES (Las herederas) is the first Paraguayan film I have seen – but on the strength of this it’s unlikely to be the last. The heiresses in question are Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) who have lived comfortably together as a couple for 30 years but are now finding their inherited wealth is running out , and are needing to sell off what they can. It becomes particularly urgent when Chiquita is found guilty of serious debt and faces a prison sentence. Practical and pretty unfazed, she takes the lead guiding prospective buyers round their things, counting out the cutlery and glasses and talking up the pictures, while Chela, rather more patrician and more distressed, stays out of sight. But when Chiquita is sentenced to a spell in prison, it’s up to Chela to become more active. Though without a driving licence (Chiquita did all that), she agrees reluctantly to drive a gossipy neighbour Pitoca – played brilliantly by Maria Martíns – to her afternoons of genteel poker, where she sits to one side, solitary while the action goes on around the card table, as she had sat aside from her own house’s disintegration. Meanwhile a timid prison visit to Chiquita reveals she, with her usual down-to-earth practicality, is making the best of her life inside.

But something happens, the dynamic of their relationship is changing, though Chela finds it hard to deal with feelings of her own which will uproot her from the old life. It’s a slow-burning, very affecting picture of a middle-aged woman finding another self inside her, a small window of opportunity to start again, if she has the courage. But rather like Laura in Brief Encounter, the boldness needed may be beyond her. Life will go back to how it was. The car which has become a means to her self-realisation will be sold. The sadness of longing, opportunities irrevocably lost, and a settling for an existence which is no longer satisfactory, they’re all here, shown with such delicacy it’s hard to believe this is Martinessi’s first feature film. And it was a fitting winner of the Transilvania Trophy.

Today is Hungarian Day, and as well as special guest and recipient of Lifetime Achievement Award Márta Mészáros’ classic Adoption, I try Peter Politzer’s MANHOOD (Férfikor), described as ‘rites of manhood from the lives of 3 men living in Budapest’. It’s an odd thing, three separate stories of a boy, a young father and musician, and a lively 91-year-old, one tragic, one comic, and one a mixture of the two. They intertwine but never really come together to make any kind of meaningful whole, and it isn’t helped by the overlay of music by the musician’s double bass. While I’m the last person to enjoy soundtracks that tell you what you should be feeling, this free-wheeling modern-jazzy sound is often irrelevant to the images to the point of annoyance and distraction. Each story is in itself powerful and visually alluring and would have made a great short, but as an ensemble about ‘rites of manhood’ it just didn’t work for me.

My first Romanian feature on this first of ‘Romanian Days’ is Andrei Crețulescu’s CHARLESTON. To those who have seen his series of masterly shorts over the years here it will have come to no surprise that his first full-length film is packed with references and homages to his beloved horror and crime films of the 80s, smart-ass dialogue, humour, violence, blood-deep colour and oppressive interiors. But this time the emotional darkness that has been lurking beneath his gangsters and damaged individuals rises to the surface. Sadness is always present, even as men joke, hurt and insult each other and dance around their true feelings.

The film begins with its central figure, Ilona, scarcely glimpsed by us, meeting a sudden violent end, the only scene for a long time in the film set in bright daylight. Alexandru her husband (Șerban Pavlu), bitter and eaten up with grief, is surprised on the night of his birthday by the arrival at his flat of a dorky young man, Sebastian (Radu Iacoban), who reveals he has been Ilona’s lover for the past few months. After the inevitable fisticuffs, the two very different men, at first rivals to the love of the different woman they each remember, settle into an uneasy almost-friendship. It’s not perfect – for me, who doesn’t revere the eighties style in quite that way, its aesthetic, its violence, its smart chat, and obligatory gangsters, seemed in the first half sometimes overdone and overlong. But in fact the movement of the film is away from that kind of world view to something more human and decent, more feminine perhaps. Even the gangsters try to engage their expertise towards saving a traditional part of the community threatened with destruction. (To no avail – they’re pretty hapless gangsters!).

It’s a far cry from the sombre tones of what we expect of Romanian films, but the customary ambiguity, the sorrow, the surreal humour is there, just as the black and white picture of a quiet undistinguished street that draws the eye in Alexandru’s flat marks a contrast to the loud, overwrought things going on in there. In the end the love each had for Ilona doesn’t seem so divisive after all.





Transilvania International Film Festival 2018 – Part 1: When the Trees Fall; Black Tide

Arriving in Cluj at 2.30 am, and the night is as warm as the unexpectedly balmy South Yorkshire I left in the English early evening. I’m driven by a young Hungarian Clujean opera singer – TIFF is always full of pleasant surprises – and we discuss Brexit, Hungarian/Romanian relations in Cluj, and agree that ‘E lucevan le stelle’ is the best ever tenor aria. And it’s like I’ve never been away.

My lack of sleep probably only adds to the pleasure in my first film next morning, the dreamy, magical realist WHEN THE TREES FALL (Koly padayut dereva) a first feature from young Ukrainian director Marysia Nikitiuk. A stunning opening sequence in the darkening forest sets the tone of doomed, febrile passion between Larysa (Anastasia Putovit) and Scar (Maksym Samchik), a reckless lad from the town who’s been in prison. It’s the last moments of untainted lyricism we’re going to get. We also meet her little cousin Vitka, a fearless observer of nature and the harsh ways of the adult world, played with heart-rending intensity by the remarkable Sofia Halaimova. But this is no rural idyll. The village life lived in this mythic landscape is bruising and ugly, and Larysa’s passion is soon punished. Even darker is life in the town where Scar pursues his underworld life, a petty gang enforcer in grimy surroundings where violence and squalor are the rule, a background reminiscent of the grim scenarios of the late Russian director Balabanov. Hoodlums, gypsies and grandmas alike are primed  and waiting to dish out blows, and apart from Larysa and Scar’s passion, there’s little love on show other than for tough little Vitka, and that comes laced with violence. As a portrayal of Ukrainian life, urban and rural, modern style and traditional, it’s as grim and hopeless as can be, until a magical ending, which seems for a moment hackneyed, evolves into a cry of triumph for survival and freedom. Perhaps for Vitka and her generation things can be different. Not without its flaws in pacing, this is a stunning debut, and Michal Englert’s cinematography renders the forest a place of potent ancient energy.

Second film of the day is Eric Zonka’s BLACK TIDE (Fleuve noir). Nicolas Cage staggering and slouching through Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans…Travis Bickle driving in rage along the sleezy urban streets… these unite in Vincent Cassel’s run-down policeman as he charges and roars his way through in this credulity-straining but entertaining thriller. He’s the best thing in it, second best being Romaine Duris’ prissy, deluded suspect. Zonka hasn’t made a film for the cinema since Julia 10 years ago ,and now here again his marrying of a reckless, self-destructive figure (there Tilda Swinton’s Julia) with an acute sense of place is to the fore. A teenager has disappeared on his way between school and home in a block of flats which abuts an area of woodland. Zvyagintsev’s Loveless can’t but spring to mind, but this child was loved, and his mother is almost catatonic with grief. Still, parenting is very much the theme here. In steps Cassel’s hard-bitten François, at first dismissing the problem – that’s what teenagers do – but soon caught up personally. One reason for this is that his own son of similar age is busy dealing on the streets, and beyond giving him a good smack he doesn’t really know what to do to get him to stop. François’ appetite for the chase is whetted by the odd figure of Duris’ schoolmaster M. Bellaile, whose interest in the case, coupled with what emerges about his relationship with the boy, can only be seen as suspicious. A couple of twists by the end, the second coming when you least expect it, and it’s a (mostly) satisfying and pretty classy thriller.







Antichrist (2009)

All the sound and fury that greeted Lars von Trier’s return to Cannes last week – anger, walkouts, and disgust from some, while from others a grudging, half apologetic admiration – recalled the furore there fover his violent and explicit Antichrist in 2009. Here’s what I wrote after an outdoor screening in the unlikely surroundings of a moonlit university courtyard at the Transilvania Film Festival in Cluj just after Cannes that year:

So much ha been written that it’s now impossible to see this film truly, with innocent eyes – the sting is gone, every transgressive horror is anticipated, the  ‘too daft to laugh at’ moments impatiently awaited. Everyone knows about the genital mutilation, the penetrative sex, the ludicrous talking fox, so it’s almost impossible to see the film as an organic whole, but merely as movement between these anticipated points.  But for what it’s worth, here’s what happens.

A toddler, fascinated by the falling snow, falls to his death through a window, at the very moment at which his parents are experiencing orgasm. The mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is afterwards so guilt- and grief-ridden that she spends weeks in hospital. The father (Willem Dafoe) is a therapist and eventually takes her home to treat her himself. This involves making her do what she dreads most, which is returning to the forest cabin where she spent time the previous year alone with her son. Ominously it’s called Eden. The couple’s relationship begins to unravel. On being apparently cured of her guilt, she embarks upon first a ravenous sexuality then a physical assault on it, in him and in herself. The nature around them is revealed as a hostile force ( ‘Nature is Satan’s church’) and Eden becomes Hell.

Sadly Von Trier’s prediliction to epater les bourgeois and les critiques alike has given many of the latter fine reasons to rejoice in a waning of his powers, and the more ludicrous elements of the film have been joyfully scorned. It’s the unfortunate fate of the prankster to be ridiculed when he decides for once to be sincere, which I think this time he does. And the presence of a  ‘misogyny researcher’ in the credits, in addition to his reputation for hating and/or fearing women, has led many critics to home in on this as the central flavour of the film.  But for once I think it’s a mistake. Rather than condoning misogyny he’s looking at it as a subject for investigation, and the film seems to be rather locating sex itself as the root of evil (which is why the mother, seeing the truth of this in her experience, mutilates both her husband and herself).

This is a hard-line Christian view that sees the pre-lapsarian, exquisitely beautiful prologue torn apart by carnality. (A  ‘fall’, literally.) He’s also invoking the old Apollonian/rationality – Dionysian/passion dichotomy, traditionally viewed as a male/female divide. While much has been made, for obvious reasons, of the wife’s impassioned descent into madness and evil, the husband’s emotional cruelty and devastating inability to recognise his own need for (or lack of) grieving has gone mostly unremarked. Like Pentheus in The Bacchae, arrogantly full of rational wisdom and with an answer for everything, he goes off into the woods full of self-belief and is torn apart by the irrational forces historically and mythically associated with the female. What happens in truth is that the couple both fall apart in their different ways.

But however much this may be the rationale, the real question is, how well done is it? And the answer has to be, ultimately, not very. I was completely beguiled by the gorgeous black and white prologue, with its lyrical montage of domestic images in perfect counterpoint to Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga  (from his opera RINALDO, whose chief baddy, as it happens, is an enchantress). Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s performances are intense and heroic. The cinematography throughout is very fine, with many stunning images. But the film fails to convince on so many fronts – the famous talking fox goes without saying, along with most of the dodgy animal content, there’s too much muddle and darkness, and the mood is, despite the extreme images, never truly horrific.

Extremely gruesome, certainly, but it’s devoid of any real spiritual dread or actual physical feelings of fear that true horror films, even the cheap and nasty ones, deliver. In fact the moment that made me shudder (rather than wince!) most was, surprisingly, the subtle creepiness of shoes on the wrong feet.    It just isn’t enough to show appalling violence, something is missing, and strangely it may be that very male rationality that the film seems to be a critique of that is holding something back – going through the motions without engagement, believing that if you do this, then this, then this, according to the rules, a certain result will happen, a certain effect be made.  Just as the husband’s therapy exercises are useless and barren, Von Trier’s horror by rote is flat and too cerebral and doesn’t touch our core. And so it fails to be potent enough to support the big ideas that he is, presumably, wanting to express. If, as Von Trier has claimed, he is exorcising his own demons here, then he must be at the beginning of a very dark road, which doesn’t allow him to take a step back and be creatively critical of his own work.

Lean on Pete

Directed by Andrew Haigh

Charley (Charlie Plummer) may not be the most desperate of all the troubled young people in the London Film Festival films I saw last year (and there were lots), but he was certainly the most woebegone. He’s a quiet 15-year-old who has suffered from parenting that has been, not exactly bad, but unthinking. His rogueish, rootless father (Travis Fimmel) has carted him round the country following casual jobs, with various women taking half-hearted interest in the lad. Friendless, alone, fetched up in a trailer park beside a racing stables, Charley takes a casual job there. A natural empathy with horses centres on the amiable, ageing nag Lean on Pete, who seems to have a special rapport with the boy, and it look as if Charley has at last has found a world where he fits in, as well as an incipient family substitute with the stables owner (Steve Buscemi) and his partner (Chloe Sevigny).

In so many films we have seen how a dour and irascible bloke with a sympathetic woman have softened towards a needy outsider, but this is Andrew Haigh, who sees things as they realistically are and doesn’t hesitate to show people in all their complexities, and it soon becomes clear that the pair are no sentimental hearts of gold but rooted in their own hard world in which Charley, fond though they are of him, is a mere sideline, and the knackers yard is a sad but rational reality. Buscemi and Sevigny are so very watchable that I felt something of a bereavement when they disappeared.

Unfortunately, though more dramatic, in the second half of the film there’s nothing that quite matches the moving texture of tough lives that’s hooked us up to Charley in the first place. He makes an escape bid for both of them, himself and the horse, crossing an America of unfeeling landscapes, meeting with other marginalised individuals, tracking back to the only time in his life he’s felt properly cared for. It’s never quite sentimental, though maybe Haigh, so good on the interiors and unspectacular spaces of Nottingham and Norfolk is wallowing too much in the novelty of the wide open spaces he’s not dealt with before. He certainly loses us a little bit on the way, with Charley as too much a suffering non-participant observer of the ills of America. I for one never felt convinced by the optimistic ending (how British, by the way, to make a library the warm focus of coming home!), but the fact that I wanted it so much says lots for the investment in Charley that’s been set up.

Seen at London Film Festival, October 2017