Opinion

Animal magic: a shorts round-up from the 70th Edinburgh International Film Festival

24 Jun, 2016 Posted in: Festivals, Opinion

Catherine Bray rounds up some of the most interesting shorts from the 70th edition of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Before Love

Before Love

If the shorts I saw at Edinburgh this year had any sort of unifying theme, it might have been the projection of humanity into non-human spaces.

An experimental German short, Anome, from Lena Nissen, opens with a shot of a cat, staring impassively, the way cats do. It is used in a similar way to the cat in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a feature film which opens with a gorgeous, well-fed pet cat staring emotionlessly as its owner (Isabelle Huppert) is raped on the floor of the apartment she and the cat both inhabit. In Anome, voiceover accompanying the image of the unblinking cat, asks:  “What do you think? Are you the evil? Or am I?”

Humans can’t keep themselves from constantly projecting human concepts onto cats, other animals and even inanimate objects – it’s one of those few traits that characterizes us as human. In Anushka Naanayakkar’s moodily affecting animated EIFF short, A Love Story, we find ourselves adrift in a world of textured wool, but the emotional tapestry into which we’re drawn is as resonant as the same narrative would be when played out by human actors. It’s a simple tale: two somewhat abstract woollen faces interact, become close and are threatened by an outside force, perhaps a parasite or simply evil itself. It’s a narrative we infer (or project) from non-human clues: the rich color palette, the eerie music, the reactions of the two faces.

Batrachian’s Ballad, from Leonor Teles, flips this dynamic on its head: instead of alien imagery made human through its presentation, the imagery is largely human and non-narrative – saturated archive footage of faces, gatherings, dancing and so on.

In counterpoint, a narrator relays an animal fable of a frog, shunned by its contemporaries before blowing poison all over them in an act of self-destruction. Among other things, it’s a reminder of the way that sometimes humans can only bear to understand their own behaviour through parables extracted from the animal kingdom.

It reminded me of the cockerel and finch sequences in six hour Miguel Gomes’ masterpiece Arabian Nights (though if you’re in a hurry, Teles’ short might serve you better at under twenty minutes).

Speaking of masterpieces, for me the crown jewel in the shorts programme was Russian animation entry Before Love, which illuminated and interrogated the human behaviours of infidelity, love, jealousy and murder in a murky, animalistic fashion in which an urban landscape (fleshed out vividly with on-point sound design) pulses like a jungle full of suppressed impulses.

A mordant feeling that civilization hangs by a thread pervaded the piece, fulfilling its promise in stormy, beautifully-lit violence as the piece neared its climax. Props to director Igor Kovalyov.

The EIFF runs 15th – 26th June 2016

 

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Cannes 2016: Top Five Picks

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

Catherine Bray rounds up her top five picks from what she saw at the 69th Cannes Film Festival across all strands.

Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade

Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade

Excluding Andrea Arnold’s Jury prize-winning American Honey (which we couldn’t possibly review on the Film4 blog since Film4 Productions funded and developed it – but for the critics’ incredible reactions, click here), here are my top picks from this edition of the venerable French festival. Although these are simply the films I’ve enjoyed the most, selected without giving any thought to trying to represent a broad range of filmmakers, it’s incredibly encouraging that three are directed by women and that they are drawn from the official Competition, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week strands.

 

1. Toni Erdmann
Dir. Maren Ade

This comedy about a father-daughter relationship has stolen the hearts of pretty much every critic at Cannes, with very few exceptions. And it absolutely deserves to: strangely poignant and spikily well-observed, it’s the sort of film that only comes around once in a blue moon.

 

2. Raw
Dir. Julia Durcournau

The most exciting breakout in Critics’ Week, Durcournau’s first feature sees a vegetarian turn cannibal at veterinary school, which premise doesn’t begin to do justice the filmmaking fair and zest on display. The early work of Cronenberg has a new heir.

 

3. Paterson
Dir. Jim Jarmusch

Resting an entire movie on the hangdog charm of Adam Driver’s soulful eyes might sound like a reckless move before you see Paterson, but actually it works. A gentle film about a poet/bus driver, narrative incident is low, but warmth and watchability is off the charts.

 

4. Divines
Dir. Houda Benyamina

A restless, kinetic debut from Benyamina, the emotionally-involving Divines sees a couple of girls from the banlieues attempt to get rich or die trying, embracing thug life in a film that is closer to Celine Sciamma’s widely-acclaimed Girlhood than anything else. Some prizes at Cannes this year were divisive, but the Camera d’Or for this one was well deserved.

 

5. Elle
Dir. Paul Verhoeven

Grappling with difficult, dark and disturbing ideas while remaining an edge-of-your-seat and often very pleasurable watch, Elle is a confounding movie. Brilliantly realised, with probably the finest lead performance of the festival, Isabelle Huppert plays a gaming company founder who is sexually assaulted  – the character’s response is unconventional and a challenge to viewers; I’ve not seen anything like it.

Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog

 

 

Cannes 2016: The Student showcases the ugly side of Bible verses

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

Kirill Serebrennikov’s Un Certain Regard entry The Student boasts a brilliant central performance from Pyotr Skvortsov.

Pyotr Skvortsov in The Student

Pyotr Skvortsov in The Student

Cannes 2016 has been defined by a number of extraordinary performances. Sandra Hüller, in German comedy Tony Erdmann, from director Maren Ade, gave what was for my money one of the finest, outdone by only Isabelle Huppert in the late-screening Competition entry Elle, from Paul Verhoeven. Likewise, Kristen Stewart continues to prove her Twilight-era critics wrong, creating a fascinatingly frosty but layered portrait of a grieving spiritual medium in Olivier Assayas’s sinuous, multi-faceted Personal Shopper.

It wasn’t such an interesting year for male roles – with the exception of Adam Driver’s magical, low-key work in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, the only male lead performance that has truly carved itself into my brain as a standout is (relative) unknown Pyotr Skvortsov as Venya in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Russian Un Certain Regard entry The Student. (I’ve not yet seen Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake.)

The Student orbits around the central pull of Skvortsov’s performance like a solar system around its sun. Scenes often play out as long unbroken takes, with a restless, roving camera weaving and ducking around Skvortsov as he delivers relentless sermons and unambigous, often vicious quotations from the Bible to his classmates. In any other high-school film, this hyper-religious kid would be either be a tremulous Carrie-esque target for bullies or else part of the social elite – a wholesome A-grade student who is also head cheerleader, bandleader and Sunday school champion, a la Amanda Bynes in Easy A.

Venya, with his intense, smug conviction of his own righteousness, dark clothes and lithe movements evokes neither of these stereotypes. Instead, he recalls Alex Frost in Gus van Sant’s Elephant – a powerful yet embittered boy capable of violence. He’s terrifying, repellent and plausible all at once – here’s hoping we see him in more roles of this calibre.

Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe team up for The Nice Guys

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

Playing out of Competition in Cannes, Catherine Bray checks out Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, a buddy comedy about two guys who aren’t exactly buddies.

Shane Black's The Nice Guys

Shane Black’s The Nice Guys

So, time for a total change of pace. After a while, when you’ve mused on the gently poetry of Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) and marveled at the exquisite control and restraint of Cristian Mungiu (Graduation), you want nothing more than to relax with an action-comedy. It’s like being good to yourself and digesting nothing but complex whole-grains rich in vitamins and nutrients for a week – at some point you’re going to crack and kick back with a hamburger.

Playing out of Competition at Cannes, my chosen hamburger is Shane Black’s 1970s set knockabout black comedy The Nice Guys, starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe, and it’s a reasonably juicy one. (I’m going to curtail the hamburger metaphor now because it’s actually making me hungry).

Crowe plays tough-for-hire Jackson Healy, Gosling is hapless private detective Holland March. When March is beaten up by Healy in the course of his work, it’s the beginning of an unlikely partnership as the pair attempt to solve a missing person’s case. The 1970s setting is a good excuse for some ludicrous wardrobe choices (a nice powder blue leather jacket on Crowe, a porn ‘tache on Gosling), and further handily means there’s no need to write around the existence of mobile phones when constructing a plot full of wrong-place, wrong-time happenstance.

Crowe does a decent line in weary cynicism yearning for a better world who would nevertheless be lost in that world were it to suddenly be breathed into existence; he’s a kind of Sam Spade detective dropped into the milieu of Boogie Nights. Gosling is clearly having fun with the kind of “vanity free” performance handsome actors often enjoy, where they play a character who can display the kind of fear or incompetence they’re not normally encouraged to display as leading men.

The Nice Guys the perfect antidote to weightier fare, though doesn’t quite feel like the beginning of a whole new franchise that perhaps the studio would like. But who cares. Not everything has to be a franchise. Some films are just a lark – just as not all food has to be good for you.

Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog

 

 

Cannes 2016: Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation is impeccably constructed

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

Catherine Bray catches Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Competition film Graduation, a minor but riveting morality play.

Cristian Mungiu's Graduation

Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation


For Cannes audiences with hopes pinned on Cristian Mungiu to deliver another knock-out blow of the kind he achieved with Beyond the Hills and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, his latest, Graduation, playing in Competition at the 69th Cannes Film Festival, may qualify as something of a disappointment. I have to say, I was riveted by this slow-burn precision construct throughout, but equally doubt that it’ll be something I’ll return to when making my “best of 2016″ list in seven months.

Focusing on a doctor determined that his daughter must, by any means, take up the scholarship she’s been offered to study at a British university, Mungiu constructs an ethical dilemma involving low-level bribery, whose spiral tightens with every turn of the screw. Where most of the decisions taken in the moment by any given character feel understandable given their context, it’s clear from the outset that the ensuing tangle of deception and compromise is both avoidable and inexorable.

Set in a bleak Cluj housing estate, the environment is one of stagnation, where moral decisions and the location work are both essentially a grey area. Mungiu poses the fundamental question of whether, given that a break with the nation’s compromised past can seemingly only itself be achieved by fresh compromise, this apparent break with the past represents a new dawn worth having, or simply a continuation of the corruption that has cut post-Ceausescu Romania off from fully functioning as a modern democracy.

It would all seem overly schematic were it not for the naturalism of the performances from a superb, un-showy ensemble including Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus and Lia Bugnar. Cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru rarely allows the actors to rely on the luxury of forgiving close-ups to communicate their characters’ emotions – instead they must work with their body language to show how they feel. Since they are frequently concealing their true feelings from whoever they’re with at the time, it’s a doubly tricky thing to pull off, but there aren’t any weak links.

The film I was most reminded of was not, in the end, one of Mungiu’s own, but the work of Michael Haneke on Hidden. There’s a similarly cool analytical perspective at work that neither condemns nor celebrates anyone’s choices – it merely seem to record, to dissect. Of course such objectivity is an illusion, as much a directorial choice as anything more overt.

Click here for more Cannes coverage on the Film4 blog