Latest from Catherine Bray

(29 articles)

Toni Erdmann at Cannes 2016: a comic triumph from Maren Ade

14 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray is tickled pink by Maren Ade’s German comedy Toni Erdmann, playing in Competition at Cannes 2016.

Toni Erdmann, by Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann, by Maren Ade

Yesterday was only the third day of Cannes but it’s quite possible I’ve already seen my favourite Competition film. We’ll have to see how things shake out, but Toni Erdmann, from German director and producer Maren Ade, is currently leading the field. Of course, that could all change tonight, when Andrea Arnold’s American Honey takes a bow.

At 162 minutes runtime, Toni Erdmann is unusually long for a comedy, and yet it rarely drags. Focusing on a father-daughter relationship under strain in part due to the daughter’s hectic schedule as a consultant to an embassy in Romania, it also doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs on paper. In fact, it contains some of the most effective comedy I expect to see all festival. Without spoiling anything, I can say that one set-piece involves surprise nudity, but that it’s earned surprise nudity – they’ve put in the character groundwork first, which makes it all the funnier. (It’s absolutely the opposite of when a screenwriter, backed into a corner, resorts to a contrived bit of nudity to jolly things along.)
It really shouldn’t work. But it did.
It was such a treat to sit in the Salle Debussy, feeling the film’s spell gradually envelop the audience. A bloke next to me didn’t laugh for the first half hour, a tough nut to crack. Then he began to titter. A chuckle slipped out. By the time the film’s comic climax rolled around, he was helplessly gripped by uncontrollable belly laughs.
It’s a real feat to get an audience composed largely of thousands of critics run ragged by deadlines to laugh properly, from the depths of their abdomens, rather than politely, or in recognition of a cultural reference, but Maren Ade pulled it off. I can’t wait to see whatever she makes next.

Stiff Competition at Cannes 2016 with Staying Vertical

12 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray enjoys Stranger By The Lake director Alain Guiraudie’s return with Staying Vertical, in Competition at Cannes 2016

Staying Vertical by Alain Guiraudie

Staying Vertical by Alain Guiraudie

This morning’s Competition film was not what you’d call a crowd-pleaser, although perhaps that depends on the crowd. An off-beat, funny, but calculated queer-picaresque, the film follows Leo (Damien Bonnard), a kind of itinerant screenplay writer, as he encounters three different forms of parenthood, literal and metaphorical (and enjoys some explicit sex along the way).

A trinity of parenthood might sound rather highfalutin’ a concept, but it’s a retrospective realization: in the moment, what we’re watching is firstly a man forming a relationship with a woman who protects sheep from wolves, followed by the literal birth of their child (filmed in frank, wince-inducing, leg-crossing close-up), followed by his flight from two hectoring metaphorical midwives: a man and woman desperate for him to birth his overdue screenplay.

The concept of acting as a parent to a large group is perhaps most familiar from religion, with sheep a recognized Christian trope, while the idea of a piece of art as the creator’s baby has probably been knocking around since the first cave paintings. But it’s Leo’s literal fatherhood that gets the lion’s share of the narrative, with a father-baby relationship that feels askew somehow, Leo’s attachment muted yet sincere. In keeping with the film’s ambivalent reproductive instincts, sex is viewed as a generative act until the film’s final half hour, when its potential as an agent of – wait for it – euthanasia is explored in a way that will challenge even generally open-minded viewers. We’ve been warned by the film’s title, of course, which refers to maintaining erection but also to staying alive.

Despite some outré subject matter, everything is played very casually. Leo barely betrays surprise during any of his unlikely adventures, all of which are the result of his own often counter-intuitive choices. When he does affect shock, it feels performative. I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp persona, often expressing wonder that his actions would result in such unforeseen consequences – and leaving the audience to ask: what did he expect?

Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog

First Impressions: Sieranevada at Cannes 2016

12 May, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray sees her first Competition film at Cannes 2016 and is reminded that the conversations around films are sometimes the most enriching part of the experience

Sieranevada, by Cristi Puiu

Sieranevada, by Cristi Puiu

And so it begins. The Competition proper has just kicked off with Romanian writer-director Cristi Puiu’s Palme d’Or tipped Sieranevada, an almost three hour contemporary epic whose story begins three days after the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

Shot by Barbu Balasoiu, the photography will receive much attention in reviews, with the camera functioning as an unseen spectator, roaming intimately through the life of an extended family in Bucharest – but for me, the editing paradoxically deserves credit as well, given the restrictions imposed on editor Ciprian Cimpoi by Puiu’s decision to let theatrical, dialogue-heavy scenes run long, with cuts as undisruptive as possible.

It’s not a film that I found myself responding to much as I watched it. It consists of conversations playing out in close to real time between members of a family, largely in a single apartment, during the run up to a meal honouring a recent death. The conversations range from the politics of 9/11 to the ethics of marital infidelity and more besides. In a dramatic high point, soup is spilled off-camera on an elderly woman, who is upset. It comes off like a combination of Chekhov and EastEnders.

However, this is a talky film that in itself inspires talk, and I’ve greatly enjoyed subsequent conversations about the film with colleagues. Some loved it, some hated it, and some shared my fairly neutral feelings, but in their different readings and responses I was reminded that one of the greatest pleasures of cinema is the joy of the different perspectives the same film can create. (One colleague suggests Balasoiu’s roving camera may be embodying the ghostly perspective of the unseen, recently departed character – not a reading I would have arrived at myself, but one of my favourite takes.) There are commentators online both professional and amateur who seem deeply troubled by differences of opinion, but I think they’re missing out.

Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog

Cannes 2016: 10 picks

14 Apr, 2016 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion

Catherine Bray runs her eye over this year’s line-up and selects ten films she can’t wait to watch at the 69th Cannes Film Festival

The official line-up is now locked and loaded, so time to have a rummage and work out what we’re keenest on seeing at Cannes this year. Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week have yet to announce, and as ever, it’s undoubtedly the case that I’ll walk away after the festival with favourites that came nowhere near my radar at this stage. Equally, it’s possible and indeed probable that some of what I’m currently salivating over will belly-flop spectacularly. Therein, of course, lies the excitement…

Sasha Lane as in American Honey

Sasha Lane in American Honey

American Honey dir. Andrea Arnold

In Competition

American Honey is a Film4-backed film, and perhaps since you’re reading this on the Film4 website you may be able to work out that we have a stake in this one, but I’d be excited even if that wasn’t the case: Arnold is quite simply one of the UK’s most gifted filmmakers. Word has it she has marshalled extraordinary performances from her young ensemble (including Sasha Lane, pictured above) in this director’s first US-based drama.


It’s Only the End of the World dir. Xavier Dolan

In Competition

Love or loathe Xavier Dolan (and there are certainly plenty who fall into the latter camp), his filmmaking is always undeniably arresting, whether it’s for a 1:1 aspect ratio, unconventional take on sexual tension or costume design fit to make established designers retire in despair. The Marion Cotillard-starring It’s Only the End of the World marks Dolan’s second film to premiere in Competition at Cannes, and, following a shared Jury Prize for Mommy in 2014, could be a good bet for a prize in 2016.


Apprentice dir. Boo Junfeng

In Un Certain Regard

A prison drama from the Singaporean director Boo Junfeng may not sound all that exciting on a first read, but the rumour is that this will be one of those films where we critics reel out clutching our pearls. Fingers crossed.


Sierra-Nevada dir. Cristi Puiu

In Competition

With a formidable tally of around 50 international festival prizes for his second feature film, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (including the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes), expectations are sky-high for Romanian auteur Cristi Puiu’s family drama Sierra-Nevada.


The Handmaiden dir. Park Chan-wook

In Competition

As a passionate defender of Park Chan-wook’s Wentworth Miller-scripted Stoker (whose semi-camp, semi-serious, all-delicious sensibility certainly didn’t click with everyone), I can’t wait to see what the man who brought us Oldboy has in store for the Croisette this year. Lashings of the old ultra-violence seem the likeliest call.


Elle dir. Paul Verhoeven

In Competition

Paul Verhoeven (Spetters, Showgirls, RoboCop) is a filmmaker capable of everything but good taste, and pairing him with one of our greatest living actors, Isabelle Huppert, is surely a recipe for dramatic fireworks. When the Verhoeven-directed erotic thriller Basic Instinct played Cannes in 1992, it generated controversy aplenty; it could be time for history to repeat itself.


Personal Shopper dir. Olivier Assayas

In Competition

Kristen Stewart is shaping up to trace one of the most interesting career trajectories of any of her contemporaries, leveraging her promising early childhood roles and subsequent Twilight exposure into career choices that speak to a genuine engagement with world cinema, assisted by directors able to look beyond the vamp-loving shadow of Bella Swan. Credit for a major part of that assist goes to Oliver Assayas, who cast her in Clouds of Sils Maria, resulting in the first ever win for an American woman of a Cesar award.


Money Monster dir. Jodie Foster

Out of Competition

Jack O’Connell tore up the screen with Starred Up and ’71 in 2014, so it should be fun to see him as a sort of Rupert Pupkin figure opposite George Clooney, who plays the host of a television financial-advice program taken hostage by O’Connell’s character.


The Neon Demon dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

In Competition

I wasn’t personally a fan of Only God Forgives, which took a divisive bow in Competition at Cannes in 2013, but Nicolas Winding Refn remains a filmmaker of considerable style (leaving aside for a moment those Grey Goose vodka ads), and as a self-confessed genre fan, I’m keen to see what the billing “Los Angeles-set cannibal film about models starring Elle Fanning” adds up to in the hands of the man who brought us Drive.


Staying Vertical dir. Alain Guiraudie

In Competition

Alain Guiraudie set pulses racing in the Un Certain Regard strand in 2013 with homoerotic killer-thriller Stranger by the Lake and, on that basis alone, I’m here for whatever he wants to show us next.

Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog

Berlin 2016: Strike a Pose

20 Feb, 2016 Posted in: Berlin, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray finds Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s doc about Madonna’s Blond Ambition-era dancers moving and enjoyable


Look around everywhere you turn is heartache
It’s everywhere that you go
You try everything you can to escape
The pain of life that you know

These oh-so-familiar lyrics, from one of Madonna’s all-time bangers, ‘Vogue’, serve as a compressed description of the lives depicted in documentary Strike A Pose, though like the song, there’s a lot more fun to be had here than the literal angst these words suggest.

Goodness know how many documentaries, from the respectable to the cheap TV cash-in, have been made about Madonna. Strike A Pose, from Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, instead smartly takes as its focus the less-documented subject of her backing dancers from the Blond Ambition era.

At their most prominent in the ‘Truth Or Dare’ video (featuring an unscripted gay kiss, radical at the time), over which some of the dancers subsequently sued Madonna, they have largely faded from the limelight since. Even at their height, for many fans, they were viewed collectively, rather than as individuals. This film aims to correct that.

Since the dancers are virtually all gay, virtually all classically trained, and boast an intimate familiarity with the New York drag-ball scene, the chap who initially stands out is Oliver Crumes III, who never trained as a dancer, instead growing up dancing to hip-hop, and, as he admits, scorning gay culture. A flamboyant dresser, one of the other dancers recalls wondering at the time of this odd-man out: “How can you be homophobic? You look like a parrot.” His adjustment to being the only straight in the village makes for a heartwarming journey.

Indeed, heartwarming journeys are the order of the day, as each dancer gets their moment in the spotlight, 25 years on from their heyday, to connect with the camera and share their memories and an update of where their lives have gone since.

Tragedy is abundant – not everyone survived, and some are coping with illness, or have had to fight addictions – and yet the tone is also sweetly comic. That’s largely due to the charm of these open-hearted former peacocks, now chastened by life post-fame, but still able to flash the charisma that secured them the gig in the first place.

Formally unadventurous, the film is largely comprised of talking heads and archive footage, until arguably the most moving scene, where the lads are reunited, a couple of decades after they all drifted apart. The absent figures of dancer Gabriel Trupin, who died of AIDS at just 26, and of Madonna herself, are felt, but in the case of Madonna it feels right that she is not present – we sense the absence of this mother figure in their lives more keenly than if it all ended with contrived hugs and smiles.





by Catherine Bray

Catherine is a film journalist and Editorial Director of Film4 Online. She is also the producer of feature documentaries Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself and short film Blackout.

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