Friday, 2 January 2015

... And Everything Nice: Part Five

Say something nice, or nothing at all. This is the fifth instalment in a review of 2014 releases begun here (and here the concept is explained), and continued herehere and here. Spoilers abound, large and small. I also clearly don’t apply too strict a notion of what “2014” is.

Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski) – Few films in the last year require as much active leaning forward on the viewer’s part. And the more knowledge you can bring to fill in the many ellipses of the story, the better. Some basics on the shifting positions of Jews, the Church and socialism in twentieth century Poland won’t go astray. A bit of background in the films of Bresson and Dreyer wouldn’t hurt either – this film will stoke the untended fires of their fans in much the way Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty could be called sustenance for malnourished Fellini fans. (Which is not to speak ill of either film.) By the time art film’s favourite Bach selection – BVW 177 – is needle-dropped, as ever a superb formal signal that a film is coming to a close, cinephiles of the right generation should be amply wooed. With time, everything becomes fashionable again.

The aesthetic journey is unique amongst recent films. Stoic use of the Academy ratio with ample ceiling room is a reminder of how rarely filmmakers reach outside received wisdom of classical visual language. (We might argue about what that open-top framing is about, but its ubiquity makes it an essential, and beautiful, part of the package.) The central performances of Agata Trzebuchowska (Ida) and Agata Kulesza (Wanda) place two different acting approaches alongside eachother, and the effects can be felt in how we attach to the characters. Ida is the Bressonian model par excellence, a Kuleshov face hungry for an image either side of it, and even then we wonder what’s on that mind. Wanda is more complete in her detailing and sense of inner life. It's no coincidence that viewers tend to consider this character, not Ida, as the film's richest. The discrepancy of depth in the two is well suited to where this film wants to take both. (Perhaps there's something about the mentor-antagonist figure in coming-of-age stories in that.)

If there is such a thing as visual storytelling, it’s probably at its purest here. The sequences where Ida tries on her aunt’s shoes, or her mid-film return to the convent, are exemplars of this. The soundtrack is minimalist to say the least (and I don’t just mean the absence of music). Dialogue is scant, and increasingly as the film progressed we’re asked to deduce what must have happened, rather than witness it happen. This extends to what might be considered the most important aspect of any narrative film – the evidence of whether the world or characters have changed as events come to a close. There’ve been some strong coming-of-age / personal growth narratives in European art film these last two years – Beyond the Hills and Blue is the Warmest Color among them – but of those I’ve seen, Ida’s growth is the most inscrutable. Has she been changed by what has happened around her, or not? If you believe that the best surrogate is a palimpsest, Ida is the girl for you.

Night Train to Lisbon (Bille August) – The anti-Ida? Merchant Ivory Ida? (These could be both positives and negatives depending on your tastes.) If Ida is committed to inferring events with the barest of dialogue, and edits that teach us to search for what is left out, this adaptation of Pascal Mercier’s novel is more committed to revealing its secrets through dialogue setpieces. But unlike Ida, this film will verbally fill in any historical gaps you might have about post-war Portuguese history, so you can lean back in your chair a bit more. And it’s a strong cast, reminiscent of Euro-pudding glory days. Irons makes much of a role that could have been played like Ida – an inscrutable listener – but which probably would have harmed this film.

One of the strongest ingredients is Annette Focks’s score, a classical epic score appropriate to our bombast-shy era. (Maurice Jarre by way of Rachel Portman, you could say.) She gives melodic presence to the ghosts and secrets that the film slowly unveils, and when the truth is set free, you can feel it in her arrangement of the main theme. The ‘piano scene’ (viewers will know it when they see it) is a nice example of how easily score and diegetic music can – at a moment’s notice – switch places and serve as the other.

The Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) – A coward dies a thousand deaths. While this original sci-fi property has an interesting collection of symbols (World War II feels like the last significant war that happened), it offers something few of Cruise’s starring vehicles have offered: using that stunning smile as the shield of a coward. Somehow Cruise as snaky coward is more believable than Cruise the Innocent (his last sci-fi dabble, Oblivion), Cruise the Deadbeat (War of the Worlds) or Cruise the Griefstricken (Minority Report).

Perhaps the only shame here is that more isn’t made of the personality clash that should exist between a marketer in soldier’s clothing and Emily Blunt’s Joan of Arc figure, particularly the comic possibilities. The thousand deaths are inventively mapped, but was he a coward for enough of them? By the time he makes a good woman of Joan of Arc, the terrain has regularised into something a bit blander than what it could have been. (But I forget myself. This isn’t entirely nice.)

A lot of what works and doesn’t work here is useful for anyone writing a replay structure to study (e.g. Run Lola Run) - something that will become more importance as more films emerge from video games and those that play them. It’s less repetitive than you’d think, given the premise, and in part that’s a function of the amount of story ground it needs to cover. The film also has a ton of exposition to convey about its world, and the opening faux news montage does an impressive amount of heavylifting. (Although a later verbal exposition dump flew a little more over my head.) And there’s got to be something said about getting the most out of your shots. Has any film this year more frequently referred to one of its images than the way this film returns to Emily Blunt, transitioning in slow motion out of a plank position into a cobra stretch?

Tracks (John Curran) – The filmmakers’ commitment to rendering ethereal the journey of Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) across some of Australia’s most punishing terrain cannot be doubted. (I’ve experienced Australia’s inner challenges only in the lightest possible sense, and it’s a truly transformative art that can make those conditions ethereal.) I was struck by the clear direction of the film’s soundtrack’s composition – both in the use of Garth Stevenson’s New Age compositions and the delicate sound design arranged around them. If the film consistently moves away from gritty immersion towards a different sense of time and place, it’s in that soundtrack.

You don’t watch this film for the drama, nor for stoicism. Its handsome aesthetic journey is almost reason enough to take the trek. The shift of colours from red to orange to brown to white and finally blue, as Davidson disappears into a frame of aqua, is carefully plotted and achieved. Our surrogates are amenable enough that human interest isn’t forsaken either.

There is a scene that has always made it into a class of mine. The opening montage distils the essentials of the narrative, planting the idea that Davidson’s famous journey began with a pivotal parting in her childhood. We tilt up from a passing child’s feet to see, far away, the shape of a growth woman running into a desert heat shimmer, her footsteps coagulating into the shunting of a train. And then, in one of the loveliest cuts of 2014, we find ourselves in the now, looking at the face of a dog, sitting on a train. And then we meet our protagonist, asleep on a train, still facing in the direction she was running. That’s what film can do.

Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry) – I’m told I’ve seen the shorter version of this film. Even then, it’s a film that will try your patience by the end, but that’s by no means a reason not to see it. There’s a madcap, uncontainable visual energy to Gondry. True, it rarely sees you through a whole film, but if it means 40 minutes of excellence before diminishing returns set in, there’s no shortage of nice trinkets to meditate on. The whirlwind romance section is giddy and inspiring, even if the slide to despair is too linear and emphatic to work. Almost every scene is alive with visual trickery that suggests another path cinema might have taken if we hadn’t gotten so hung up on making special effects integrate naturalistically with other narrative elements. The cocktail of Etienne Charry’s score and Duke Ellington selections helps with both the giddy magic (the former) and the sense that beneath the hullaballoo, something real is in contention (the latter).

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) – Did I say Ida was the most inscrutable character of 2014? Allow me to politely withdraw that statement. (Just kidding, I think Scarlet Johansson’s arc is more apparent here. ;) ) Despite all the talk of this film’s opacity, it seemed to me if you just looked at what was happening, it was fairly apparent. Because we’re held at an emotional remove for some time from the main character, the film relies on negative capability more than most. I found its twist on fairy tale motifs thought provoking, and the fate of the main character enough of a payoff to the journey.

The fusion of filmmaking styles – observational, almost candid camera sequences alternating with the most abstract of effects-augmented imagery – is fascinating. Nobody makes movies this way, and that can't help but affect the way it comes across. While master craftsmen shoot HBO coverage in IMAX, this filmmaker is searching for a new way to look at a story. Highlights include the opening sequence (sort of a modern of Persona) and the layering of observational footage over itself mid-film to form Johansson’s spectral likeness.

Mica Levi’s compositions come from another place to most film scores. They’re not an instrument of empathy, or not at first anyway. They rumble away orthogonally to the film, as strident as Johnny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood, but even more resistant to familiar forms and emotions. We’re well past the halfway mark by the time the music lets us in, and it’s not until Scarlet herself has begun to thaw. The fusion of the composition ‘Love’ with its accompanying sequence works largely because of the distance we’ve been held at for so long, feeling cathartic in comparison.

I like to think of the film as a fairy tale told from the point of view of a character that would normally be the ‘nameless other’ that we fear. It’s telling that it takes a ‘monster’ amongst humans to draw her out of her predatory pattern. And once capable of empathy, she weakens. The pitiable image of seeing her suffering a medieval fate – practically tarred and burned at the stake, like so many women before her – ultimately moved me.

Part 6 follows here.

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