Month: August 2009

Nous, les Vivants

Du levande

Roy Andersson :: Sweden, France, Germany :: 2007 :: 1h34

A fluid succession of minimalist static-camera scenes exposing the human condition in an abstracted Swedish city. The scenes do not make up a coherent story-line, but rather combine to show different sides to our existence. And that existence is not a particularly joyful one. It is Nordic-ally absurd. Theatrically comical. But mostly, we are portrayed as painfully selfish and self-centred. There are many characters, but after an introduction you will never know if you will see them again. Perhaps they will even talk to you if they come back, or some of them come back as side-characters in someone else’s scene. Dream and reality alternate indistinguishably in Andersson’s sterile pale green-beige modernist world.

To take the opening scene: A man is sleeping on a couch in an office, his back turned to us. We hear a train ride by outside. Nothing happens. We have the time to look around the room. The colours have all faded into what will be the film’s dominant beige. Everything looks as if it has been drawn with colour pencils, especially the dreary urban view from the open window. Some confusion installs itself in us, when we realise the table must be real, but the computer on his desk could actually be drawn on. Our confusion takes us to the opposite wall, where we prophetically find a  reproduction of Picasso’s Don Quichotte.

Just as we are developing our taste for the absurd, we notice that the sound of the passing train must be related to the blowing of the curtains. But is the train then passing through the street? The proximity of the sound and the view from the window do not seem to coincide. Is this even possible? But as we are wondering about the correlation, all of a sudden, the man on the couch wakes up startled by a dream. The bolding, moustached man is out of breath. Visibly distressed, he tells us that he had had a nightmare. He dreamt that bombers were coming.

From one scene to another, we are taught a lesson in humility before life, as a plea for a little more understanding for our fellow human beings. We are obliged to take our lives as it is presented to us, which is filled with imperfections as is so poignantly expressed in a scene of a woman praying for the forgiveness of others. But the sins of those which make up our society are not only exceptionally well identified, but also so many that the priest is obliged to get her to stop so that he can up close the church for the night! As you will have understood, this is a gem of a film. Make sure you are ready for it so that you can grant it the attention it deserves. It is one of those films which can change your life.


Les Derniers jours du monde

19136432_w434_h_q80Les Derniers jours du monde

Jean-Marie Larrieu, Arnaud Larrieu :: France :: 2008 :: 2h10

The world is coming to an end and does not do so quietly. Amid the chaos, we follow Robinson (Mathieu Amalric) who has just separated from his bourgeois wife Chloé (Karin Viard). While everyone is running, Robinson is searching, desperate to spend another night with the fantasy of his life, the extravagant Laetitia (played by the Dominican model Omahyra Mota). As world, morality and life crumble around him, he lungs himself forward in the unknown to be able to hold her once more.

This is a very curious film, mixing genres like they do not exist in a permanent flirt with the absurd. Even before entry. Consider the title -Last Days of the World- together with the slogan -Finally free!- and you know that you are in for a controversial ride. But where to? What are we to be freed of? The film definitely takes you places: from a chic Biarritz to a mythical Pamplona and from a refugee-filled Toulouse to the nightlife of Taipei. This is a road-movie in its true sense. You never know where they are taking you and what will happen next and with who.

In that moral emptiness provoked by the chaos of the end of the world, the characters discover an egoism they never before had the chance to reveal. This egoism leads them to be pulled along by desire rather than boxing it in for a conjugal peace. The pain and disappointment of separation are softened by the sentiment that nothing matters anymore, as suicides and deaths go by as the first passengers to board a flight. But none the less, rating sexual experience or desire as higher than self-preservation or a developed love is strange. Perhaps the idea originally sounded credible that, if the world ends you would pursue your unfulfilled desires. But would you, honestly, not rather be with the people you love? In real life, the answer would be related to how honest your life and love is. But in the film, most of the characters around Robinson seem to have chosen death or are fleeing in a desperate rush of self-preservation, but we are not encouraged to care about them.

It is Robinson who is our subject of interest. Swimming against the current, near oblivious to the crumbling world around him, he feels free from the conventions which bound him. And then we come to a sublime moment. He is walking with Laetitia, in a deserted post-apocalyptic Paris, when she takes off her clothes. Because she can. He does the same thing and they run through the empty streets happy in their back-to-nature state. And then, for just a few seconds, we see them crossing a busy boulevard with people and cars, as if nothing had changed, as if we are still in the here and now. Was that their imagination of convention shining back at them, or is the whole world-ending actually in his mind?

The film is filled with symbolic imagery to discover, dreamy eroticism and original locations. It is a mysterious road movie through the absurd which is really best watched late at night, when reasoning powers are looser and the adventure of an unpredictable world can welcome you in. A daring piece of cinema.

The Reader

The ReaderThe Reader
Stephen Daldry :: USA, Germany :: 2008 :: 2h03

Germany. 1958. The bright Michael Berg is only 15 when he meets a woman in her mid-30s, Hanna (Kate Winslet). She is an introverted, distant, sad character who takes advantage of the presence of the young man to start a sexual relationship. Their meetings are quickly transformed into a reading-for-sex exchange, which brings some emotion into Hanna’s empty life. But one day, she is gone without a word. Years later, when Michael is studying law at Heidelberg, he finds himself in a courtroom where he sees Hanna again: but this time, accused of an atrocious war crime.

The movie mostly brushes over Hanna’s exploitation of Michael, although her inappropriate relationship with the impressionable young Michael destroyed the rest of his emotional life, as is often the case with the abused young. He managed to build up a relationship years later which turned into a failed marriage, followed by an incapacity to be a real father to his daughter. But as the tragedy of his vacuous love life unfolds, he never points a accusative finger at Hanna, as he unhappily lives in the Stockholm syndrome. Partly because she has done worse. Much worse.

In contrast to the indifference the film shows with regards to the ruins of Michael’s life, the brutish Hanna is placed centre stage. Half way through the film we are already in the courtroom, to hear what she had done during the war. The proud, unsophisticated Hanna naively answers the questions as if from a confused post-war generation. As with the abuse of Michael, she is not only unrepentant, but seemingly oblivious to the damage she has done. The only reason we can find for her motivation, besides her cold simple character, is her covering up of her secret.

Hanna holds a secret, which is given to us already in the first quarter of the film, which determines most of her actions. This superficiality hidden behind her pride, she defends with her life. In fact, when pushed, we see that it is more important to her than her life itself, or, for that matter, the lives of others. Why this is so important to her, or from whence this comes is never answered. The unveiled secret is, by itself, too superficial to explain anything.

But there is another twist. As we too know her secret, as does Michael (although for such a bright young man it took him surprisingly long to figure it out). During the trial, he considers shedding her secret despite her explicit will to keep it hidden. In betraying her, she would have received a considerably reduced sentencing. In staying silent, she would live in prison with her pride intact. Michael respects her decision, which is very noble, but we still do not know why she is putting herself though all this, other than the most likely thesis that she is just stupid.

Hanna, who has spent her life with literature, is peculiarly enough incapable of any poetic words above the painfully simple. And that is what you are watching. I would not recommend sitting through two tedious hours of this only to be left depressed and empty at this unfinished, awful story. See what else is playing.

Girlfriend Experience

Girlfriend experienceThe Girlfriend Experience
Steven Soderbergh :: USA :: 2009 :: 1h25

Chelsea (Sasha Grey) is a young escort prostitute who is working on her business of draining as much money out of men she can manage, while keeping them company through the credit crunching storm, pretending she cares for them. Surprisingly enough, she is in a relationship with personal gym trainer Chris, who has supposedly managed to accept her promiscuous ways.

The film has a dreamy aesthetic, swinging in and out of focus with dito music and shuffled chronology. Chelsea waltzes through the scenes of her supposed life almost without touching the ground. She tells us candidly, as if we are following her, that she adapts to each of her clients, hiding her real self, to show only that which the clients want to see. But what we see, are ordinary men treating her in an ordinary way. Would anyone pay for having someone “fake caring” for you? Perhaps, but these are “normal” men with time on their hands, and not the cliché hotshot lawyers in need of a human fix between deals. The client meetings, which take up most of the film, are just them talking about money. All the time. The clients are talking recession or protective investment as her prostituting “business” is supposedly untouched. If you consider discussing money bad taste, this movie offers you no mercy.

As you watch all the financial banalities being exchanged, you just patiently wait till they finish talking. When they ARE finished, you realise that the movie is over. You never get to know Chelsea, why she is a prostitute at all. You never get to know Chris either. He is shown in a few side scenes selling his personal trainer services, suggesting a superficial parallel with Chelsea. So why does he accept her sordid life? Would it not have been interesting if he was a small town character who was fascinated by the big city and voyeuristically lived off her stories of the intimacy of others? Or perhaps someone who has had an endless stream of failed relationships, and finds comfort in her promiscuity, in her endlessly returning to him? As it stands, we can not sympathise with them because we do not know them. Worse still, I suspect that the main problem is that they are actually as empty as their conversation. This in turn hollows out all the relationships they are in, including their own.

In true American tradition, this is a film about sex which is all talk. None the less, it managed miraculously to scrape together an “R rating”, for some reason, to protect the American teenagers. Unfortunately, abroad we are not as lucky – our teens still risk to be exposed to this profound senseless boredom. We will just have to warn each other.


Roger Vadim :: France/ Italy :: 1968 :: 1h38

40,000 AD. The innocent and sensual Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is drifting through space in her fluffy shoe-box spacecraft, when she receives a call from the President. He needs her for a special mission to track down a potentially dangerous character called Durand-Durand, who has a developed a weapon in a universe which had become completely peace-and-love pacifist. She sets out to find him, leading her from one encounter to another, all of which are influenced by their attraction to the naive, accommodating young Barbarella.

When you consider a film which opens with Barbarella taking a call with the president in the nude, you know you are in for a ride. By the time the conversation ends, he closes with a flirtatious suggestion that they meet “in the flesh”. The tone has been set, so that when her first encounter on a foreign planet actually asks for sex directly(!), Barbarella is not remotely surprised. Although… she explains that on earth people have not made love for centuries, preferring a kind of pill induced psychedelic mind melt. To reply to the man’s disorientation, Barbarella explains that sex “was proved to be distracting and a danger to maximum efficiency”. And if you think that is the last absurdity you are going to hear, wait for some other little gems to come along: when was the last time you heard this phrase in a film: “De-crucify my angel” ?

The humour and visual spectacle -primarily focussed on the beautiful Barbarella and her revealing outrageous space clothes- carry the film well, breathing the atmosphere of the sexy comic book series by Jean-Claude Forest. The movie version could hardly have been anything other than camp, with psychedelic lava lamp special effects and clumsy models blowing up, but the sunny side of camp saves it: the extravagant sets and costumes which change from one encounter to the next (she keeps losing her clothes!), the out-of-this-world exchanges and the sexy naive 60s fantasy atmosphere which, in our current society, seems light years away. If it was not for Barbarella.

NB It was recorded simultaneously in French and English. (A good fansite)