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My reviews include:
* Selected movies post-2014;
* Favorite movies (see my lists).
Ratings without reviews focus on some recent movies.
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Here is the indicative breakdown by country (disregards director's nationality and co-producing countries): USA: 49 Canada: 2 Latin America: 11 (Mex 3, Bra 3, Arg 2, Chl 1, Col 1, Cuba 1) Italy: 13 France: 9 Germany: 8 UK: 6 Spain: 5 Scandinavia: 8 (Nor 2, Swe 2, Fin 2, Dnk 2) Other Western Europe: 7 (Prt 1, Grc 1, Bel 1, Nld 1, Aus 1, Swi 1, Irl 1) Former Yougoslavia: 4 Eastern Europe: 14 (Pol 5, Hun 4, Cze & Svk 3, Rou 2) Former USSR: 7 Africa: 10 (Egy 2, Alg. 1, Tun 1, Sen 2, Zaf 1, Mli 1, Mrt 1, Bfa 1) Middle East (excl. Egy): 6 (Isr 2, Tur 2, Irn 2) India, Bangladesh: 9 Other Middle Asia: 3 (Pak 1, Afg 1, Sri Lka 1) Japan: 9 China, Taiwan: 9 (Chn 5, Twn 3, Hkg 1) Other East Asia: 8 (Kor 2, Idn 1, Phl 1, Vnm 1, Cam. 1, Tha 1, Mal 1) Australia, New Zealand: 3 (Aus 1, Nzl 2)
How does one discover and embrace one's identity?
"Maurice" is arguably James Ivory's masterpiece, better than his most famous movies such as "A Room with a View", "Howards End" or "The Remains of the Day". It was long underrated probably because the original novel was considered as a minor opus in E. M. Forster's biography, published posthumously decades after his other works. It is more than a movie about homosexuality and coming-of-age (Bildungsfilm, of sorts): it is a touching introspection supported by strong aesthetical themes.
Water is associated to gay love. It opens and closes the movie. At the beginning, the young Maurice and Ducie walk on the seashore. As the latter puts it, it is a very important period for the boy, when body and mind undergo permanent and radical changes. Ducie sketches explicit "heterosexual" drawings on the sand... and the tide wipes them out: metaphorically, it eradicates Maurice's potential heterosexual desires.
Many years later, Maurice is still a virgin. In Penderleigh when heavy rain pours, he opens his window and leans outside to get drenched, which has a double effect: directly, the image seduces Alec; symbolically, it unleashes Maurice's desires. That night, they make love for the first time. In London, Maurice and Alec walk together during another heavy rain, under an umbrella: they will make love in a hotel.
When Maurice goes to bid farewell to Alec on the boat sailing to Argentina, the latter is not there, indicating to Maurice he is staying in England with him. Their parting could not have happened on sea: water prevents them from being separated. At the very end, they spend the night in the boathouse situated on the pond. It is the last time we see them together, implying their future is still placed under the sign of water.
Introspection is a key element. Clive goes to Greece, allegedly the root of Western civilisation, to find his own roots. (As a side note, the scene was actually shot in Segesta, Sicily.) He is alone there; there is not a single tourist; he is facing himself and his homosexuality, as hinted by a previous scene about ancient "Greek manners". However, frightened by the Risley affair, he rejects his gay part. On the contrary, Maurice progressively assumes his identity. (As a side note, there seems to be a parallel between Clive's trip to Greece and Maurice's visits to the antique department of the British Museum, but the latter is the Assyrian section.) There is something unspeakable about his experience since he lives his desires instead of articulating them like Clive does.
In Cambridge, the Dean asks the student to skip the reading about the "UNSPEAKABLE Greek manners" (i.e. homosexuality: the word is not uttered). Later on, Maurice twice goes to the hypnotist, yet nothing is expressed: the first time was a trial, the second a failure. Doctor Barry twice says to Maurice "I don't want to talk to you" precisely at key moments of Maurice's life: when he is expelled from Cambridge and when he comes out to him. Again, his experience is beyond wording.
Also, there seems to be telepathic energy flowing between the lovers Maurice and Alec. They play cricket very well together just by looking at each other and not talking. When Clive replaces Alec, he messes up, talks and they lose the game. Later on, Alec comes to Maurice's room uninvited because he knows without speaking to him that he will be accepted; afterwards, Maurice tells him it was a bold move. The hypnotist burns Alec's letter to Maurice: words are misleading, a source of misunderstanding since Maurice thought Alec was blackmailing him. When in the Museum Ducie asks Maurice's name which he has forgotten, he answers "Scudder" (Alec, who is next to him), signifying they are fully in communion. At the end, Alec sends a telegram for Maurice to meet him in the boathouse; without even receiving the telegram, Maurice goes there.
Clive asserts love between men must remain platonic, while Maurice longs for everything including physical contact. Nonetheless there can be no doubt about Clive's identity: he very much resembles Maurice. Notably, we never see his father (Maurice's is dead); he has no brother, just a sister (Maurice has two); he eventually grows a moustache like him; as a boy, he locked his sister in the pavilion for a whole day, removing a female symbol from his sight (this removal happened for Maurice during the above-mentioned seaside scene).
Clive is just trying to protect himself after Risley is arrested. He resists his own desires: while Maurice accepts the rain to get soaked, water leaks through Penderleigh's ceiling but is eliminated in a bucket; the above-mentioned gay symbol does not invade Clive's home. At the very end, Clive methodically closes all his bedroom shutters: he blocks his aspirations outside.
The last scene is compelling, showing him looking down outside: he remembers Maurice calling to him in Cambridge, looking up as if he were really addressing Clive situated on the first floor. The flashback is all the more impressive than it is the only one in the movie. It summarises the relationship between the two characters: Maurice longing in vain for Clive and eventually going away. But is it actually a flashback? We never saw Maurice calling out like this. In fact Clive remembers an event undisclosed in the movie, or imagines it: either way, with this new insight we intimately visualise how remorseful he is; we are close to him as ever precisely when he shuts himself up in his safe castle. He deeply regrets the period in Cambridge when he could have chosen a different path. We then wonder who the victim is: Maurice taking considerable risks by living with Alec, or Clive sacrificing his true self. It is the main question of the movie: how does one explore and assume one's identity?
Maurice's father is dead. He has no brother, just two sisters. He is expelled from Cambridge by the Dean, a fatherly figure. He is twice rejected by Dr Barry, another fatherly figure. He rejects religion and hence God, yet another fatherly figure. He is rejected by Clive. This masculine void will be reversed by his relationship with Alec.
At the beginning, Ducie tells Maurice they will meet in ten years, both with their respective wives. They do meet again in the Museum, after approximately ten years. Yes, Ducie is with his wife... however Maurice is with Alec: the prophecy has been fulfilled, in a way.
Everything that could oppose Maurice's aspirations fails: Dr Barry refuses to talk to him instead of helping him getting rid of his gay tendencies; his treatment with the hypnotists fails; Clive misses the cricket game, hence Maurice and Alec are paired together; Alec does not sail to Argentina despite insisting he will; even the elements (rain) favour their relationship.
CONCLUSION "Maurice" is delicate throughout, supported by splendid cinematography. Look for instance at the stunning shot after Risley is sentenced: with a sharp camera movement and a vertical high-angle view, we see him walk down narrow stairs from which emerges an intense yellow light. This is reminiscent of two previous lines from Clive: "It was hell" about his holidays and "It's hell" about his relationship with Maurice.
The limit of the movie is that it does not fully show the repressive context of the period: we only witness Risley's downfall; the happy ending between the lovers is not obscured by clouds. Also, social inequalities and oppositions are evoked yet not fully addressed. The reason is the movie deals more about personal choices than social context, as did the original novel largely based on autobiographical elements. As such, it is almost timeless.
Sweet-and-sour Christmas gift from the North
"Echo" belongs to two rare genres: vignette movies and non-narrative cinema. Non-narrative, to an extent, since there is no overarching story, no hero (a character never appears twice), no real beginning and no real ending, although this needs to be nuanced as we will see below. Also, if some vignettes depict a small story, some of them do not and most of them are in between (does a action, e.g. a phonecall, without beginning and/or ending represent a story?). With 56 different vignettes, how does the movie ensure consistency throughout? And with such short vignettes (on average a minute and a half), how does it deliver content? We'll answer the two questions jointly, since they are partly related.
1. Season. Scenes occur at year-end, from the period before Christmas to the beginning of the following year. There is a clear linear progression hinted by Christmas rituals, shown with humour: buying gifts, buying a tree, Christmas eve, Christmas day, offering the gifts, throwing away the tree. Then by New Year's Eve rituals, also humorous: buying fireworks, firing them, celebrating. Some scenes are not dated: they could take place anytime during winter or even the year when occurring inside; however many scenes provide a clear dated reference.
2. Style. All shots are completely static, generally with large frames. There never is off-screen music, except at the very beginning and very end. There sometimes are two actions in the frame (foreground/background or left/right), which have distinct meanings, enhancing the content of the scene. Overall, it feels like a documentary despite being a fiction: we are immediately immersed in the scene without any foreknowledge; yet thanks to the director's talent we understand the context.
3. Tone. Some scenes are sweet, some are bitter, some are both, these being the most remarkable. A few examples of the latter kind: a nice girl wants to please her father by playing a piano piece... but the daughter of his new partner shows her she plays better. A man is alone on Christmas eve; he opens a bottle of wine just for himself and microwaves dinner... yet seems to have a good time by sending and receiving pictures. A man is having a tough business conversation on the phone... while his two children are having fun in the background. Two men bitterly argue about politics when watching the Prime Minister's speech; we see their body, not their faces... and when an exasperated man leaves, we see he is wearing a party hat!
4. Themes. Some are recurring during the whole movie. One of the most obvious is how smartphones invade our lives: countless scenes where people talk on the phone, take pictures or films, send or receive them, post them on social networks, chat, etc. It becomes most ridiculous during the children's play, as parents are more focused on filming than watching the show. Eventually in the front row two parents stand up, blocking the view and forcing parents behind to stand up as well! Another ludicrous example: a woman who thinks she is being insulted by a man films the scene to post it live on Facebook.
More deeply, the movie makes us think about the special period of Christmas and year-end, as well as related topics: family, partners, friends, celebration, time off. It is supposed to represent a time of gathering, sharing and happiness, yet is only partly so: we also witness loneliness, conflicts, inequalities, death. Other themes creep in to remind us that behind the celebration, life goes on as usual: ageing, work, health care, emergencies, refugees, etc. Hence apart from a few landscapes, it is not strictly speaking a movie about Iceland but about our societies in general: it could almost have been shot in any developed country (this said for potential viewers expecting to see Icelandic specifics, which are limited).
5. Correspondences. Apart from the season, scenes seem unrelated; however the movie sometimes introduces subtle correspondences. Two refugees are harshly expelled from a church; later on, a priest delivers a sermon of compassion notably towards refugees. A son, his mother and his grandmother visit the tomb of the grandfather; later on, a girl visits her grandfather in an institution and says: "We went on grandmother's tomb today." A young girl fought with a boy who was bullying her (or worse); later on, an adult woman apologises to another one for bullying her with her friends when they were in school. Elderly watch the Prime Minister's speech on TV; this speech is continued during the following scene. A family buys a Christmas tree; later on, a man throws a Christmas tree on a huge pile of wood and other trees; later on, this stack burns. Still later, after New Year, garbage bins are removed which is reminiscent of throwing away the tree.
6. Contrasts. While correspondences can link separated scenes, consecutive scenes sometime display striking contrasts. The best sequence is probably constituted by the three following scenes:
- A dependant drug-addict is helped by two health-carers. He has nobody to talk to, so the two women propose to call him on Christmas day; they are very friendly and offer him a Christmas gift. This scene is intense: sad because of the addict's situation yet gentle thanks to the conversation.
- Children perform a Christmas play. The ambiance is radically different: people are gathered; children apparently enjoy performing and their parents watching (or, rather, filming); it is funny and somewhat ridiculous (the sheep, Santa Claus with a Coke arriving after the Three Wise Men).
- Female bodybuilders are exhibited on stage. Again a radical change, highlighted by the fact the scene is shot from the back of the stage while the previous scene was shot from the audience. The children's play was a joyful mess; this show is a vulgar stiff parade ("Turn right!").
The movie ends with another compelling sequence:
- Just after New Year, a baby is born. The scene is also intense since the woman is actually giving birth, a very rare occurrence in fiction. It provides optimism to this sometimes bitter movie: despite harsh situations, conflicts and ageing elderly, life moves on.
- A road sign saying "15 persons were killed on the road this year" is changed to "No persons were killed on the road this year", which is doubly ironic: we visualise death after life; the post is obvious and not comforting since it is the beginning of the year.
- Garbage collectors remove an impressive amount of large bins from just one building. Again doubly ironic: this trivial scene contrasts with the two previous ones; people had a nice time (of sorts) during Christmas and New Year, they now need to clean up and resume their "normal" lives.
These last three scenes perfectly close the movie because they at the same time refer to the previous period and announce a new period. Then comes the last shot from a boat sailing on a rough sea, while beautiful off-screen music plays for the first time, enhancing our emotions before we too resume our normal lives.
In summary, "Echo" is a peculiar and thoughtful movie. It displays some brilliant vignettes, which is remarkable enough considering their brevity, and binds all of them together in a social depiction full of acuteness, humour, joy, sorrow and thought-provoking situations. To be honest, not all vignettes are convincing, but many really are and even those that are less so fit in the overall insight.
Alexis Zorbas (1964)
Partly successful adaptation of a major novel
"Zorba the Greek" is not only Michael Cacoyannis' best known work by far, it probably is the most famous Greek movie ever, even more than any of Theo Angelopoulos' films (arguably the most prominent Greek director, considering that Costa-Gavras mainly directed "international" pictures).
It is based on Nikos Kazantzakis' masterpiece. Despite the immense reputation of both the novel and its author, the movie is even more renowned than the book, thanks to the Greek folklore it exhibits, Mikis Theodorakis' alluring soundtrack and Anthony Quinn's performance. Just have a look how many Greek restaurants are called "Zorba" in any part of the world...
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS (INCLUDING OF THE ORIGINAL NOVEL) ***
The title of the original novel is "Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas". The movie's title insists on the "Greek" aspect of the main character and hence his environment. Does it mean it constitutes a postcard view of Greece, as it is sometimes considered? To some extent, it appears full of clichés: sun, sea, beach, white village, typical costumes, music, dance, traditions. The place looks like a paradise: it is almost always sunny (while on the continent at the beginning it is raining); villagers are welcoming to Zorba and Basil; we rarely see anything from the outside world, even from the rest of Crete; nobody worries about having food or shelter; the final fiasco of the mine opening is taken lightly. It ends with Zorba and Basil dancing Sirtaki on the beach, a traditional Greek dance that was adapted for the movie. By comparison, the novel's story continues after that scene, with a bitter tone: the narrator's closest friend (Stavridakis) dies; the narrator goes away; after a few years he loses contact with Zorba; the latter eventually dies; he bequeaths his cherished instrument (the santuri) to the narrator. In the movie, Basil says he will leave but we do not see it.
Insisting on Greek folklore is a deliberate choice since it is only partly present in the novel, and then with greater distance. It is somewhat intended to seduce international audiences: most dialogues are in English (because Basil is an Englishman) whilst in the novel they naturally are in Greek; the four main actors are celebrities and three of them (excluding Irene Papas) are not Greek.
However this seducing aspect is only apparent: the movie also adopts the pessimistic view of the novel, written in the midst of World War II and published in 1946. Beneath the surface, the cruelty of human condition and mankind is revealed: the villagers are poor; the village idiot is a sad figure; the young boy commits suicide; the widow is savagely murdered; Madame Hortense's mourners are hypocrites; her house is looted just after she dies; Zorba's comments about people are bleak; even children are heartless. Cinematography, with its sharp black and white, illustrates this two-sided vision (easy-going impression versus harsh reality): the bright landscapes and village intensely contrasts with dark costumes and shadows. The effect is striking after the grey tones of the beginning on the continent. Also, in opposition to frequent plain views, some shots emphasise oppression: for instance image is saturated with people when the widow is lapidated.
Nonetheless, despite its ambition, the movie lacks the novel's philosophical depth. There are many penetrating thoughts in the book, about life, death, soul, love, mankind, religion, history, art, etc. The narrator articulates them intellectually; Zorba voices them in a basic yet astute way. This generates another dimension: the narrator's transformation. The latter is smart, but Zorba understands more about life than he does: he is close to people, nature, beauty; he teaches him to be in contact with his emotions instead of with his brain, to enjoy life, to give everything he has got. There is an "external" Zorba, simple and lively, and an "internal" Zorba with a compelling insight: he is a witty fool while the narrator is a foolish wit, as Shakespeare would have said. The narrator, who is intellectually trying to find the path of the Buddha, emotionally finds it by his experience with Zorba. Eventually, after finishing his book about Buddha, he writes Zorba's biography.
All of this is mostly missing in the movie. Granted, it is not easy to transcribe ideas on screen: a constant voice over would be tedious after a while. However thoughtful dialogues are limited; we do not see Basil's transformation; Zorba remains simple without much depth. Concerning the last point, the responsibility is partly the director's, partly Antony Quinn's who overacts the exuberant side of his role. With limited interesting lines, he still could have shown the "internal" Zorba, by being for instance more mysterious and meditative, instead of fully tilting towards the "external" Zorba. Quinn's performance is generally deemed outstanding, yet it is only so regarding one part of his character: he seems to miss the full potential of the role and its link with the overall far-reaching message. Lila Kerdova's performance as Madame Hortense, for instance, is more to the point.
Finally, there is some humour in the movie, but not to the extent of the novel where wit frequently mixes with the above-mentioned philosophy. In summary, if "Zorba the Greek" is not as penetrating as the novel, it goes deeper than a postcard view of Greece and remains a valuable piece of art, full of contrasts: white and black, exuberant and intriguing, amusing and tragic.
Morally dubious and superficial: Kubrick's worst movie?
A great novel from one of the greatest 20th century authors adapted by one of the greatest directors... must produce a great movie, right? Wrong.
First, let us not undervalue the novel, a reference in world literature: for instance, it is included in the Norwegian Book Club's famous list of the 100 best books of all time and in Nobel laureate Vargas Llosa's selective list of his 9 favourite novels. Amongst many qualities, it is a moral opus on humanity and monstrosity: Humbert is a paedophile, yet he is also intelligent, seducing and pathetic. We understand and pity him, to an extent, regarding his shattered childhood love for Annabel, his mother's early death, his divorce, his stays in psychiatric hospitals, etc. On this perilous path, Nabokov treads carefully by avoiding two opposite pitfalls: depicting Humbert as a complete monster, which would be of limited interest; finding excuses for his behaviour, which could represent a justification for any crime. Hence everything in the novel is put into perspective: Humbert's mental illness, his thoughts about this, his intelligence, his humour and, most of all, his narration.
Indeed, Nabokov remarkably handles first-person narration: we slowly realise Humbert is unreliable, not about actual facts (we could not say if they are accurate or not, since he is the only narrator), but their interpretation. For instance, he depicts Lolita mostly as greedy, vulgar, selfish, insensitive, cheating... but we progressively realise it is largely inaccurate. Hence we question narration itself, down to its style: it is very articulate and humorous, but too much so. Isn't Humbert fooling us, as well as himself, with his neat "Confession" about his otherwise despicable self?
Back to the movie. Kubrick makes two unfortunate major artistic decisions.
1. The movie barely criticises Humbert. Granted, it is not easy to represent unreliable narration on screen, but Kubrick does worse: he adopts Humbert's point of view. Lolita is just a little brat, Charlotte a brainless dragon, Quilty a devilish manipulator. Notably, essential elements about Lolita are omitted or downsized. Lolita feels miserable only once, when she learns about her mother's death, but it is short; in the novel it lasts longer and there are other depictions of her despair. We do not see how sincerely she loves her disabled husband at the end. The tennis coach's important comment saying Lolita is talented but loses because she is "so polite", is discarded. The fact everybody calls Dolores "Lolita", while in the book only Humbert does so, is revealing: his perception of Dolores as a nymphet invades the whole story. Hence characters are not only shallow: they fit Humbert's vision.
Humbert himself is rarely shown committing fiendish acts, as opposed to the novel: Lolita seduces him in the hotel (in the book it is less clear); there are no other innuendos about their sexuality; there is no account about Humbert's plans to rape her (in the book he tries twice, by giving sedatives to Charlotte and then Lolita); he does not blackmail her; there is no indication about his attraction to other young girls, so he almost appears as a person truly in love instead of a paedophile; he just considers shooting Charlotte but quickly dismisses the idea (in the book he comes very close to drowning her); after Charlotte dies he gets drunk (in the book he gloats with joy). Eventually he is not arrested, as if the director's verdict were "not guilty". Granted, there are naturally other omissions, yet the above-mentioned constitute important choices because they exonerate Humbert. Also some alterations, notably concerning sexuality, might have been necessary because of censorship; but then, is it excusable to film such dynamite without the full possibility to do it ethically?
Apart from omissions, the original story is marginally modified in other ways: Quilty's role is expanded and minor differences are introduced (e.g. Lolita is a 14 year-old blonde instead of a 12 year-old brunette). However these changes have no effect on the movie's ethical ambiguities. Critic Greg Jenkins said: "A story originally told from the edge of a moral abyss is fast moving toward safer ground." As a direct consequence, the movie lacks depth. Indirectly, instead of being scrutinised, monstrosity becomes unchallenged, almost acceptable.
2. The movie mainly focuses on action. Kubrick could have gone down a morally perilous path by compensating with other qualities, for instance dark humour or strong themes. However there is little more than a simple account of events without perspective. Artistic direction is straightforward. Social satire is limited. Mental illness is not investigated. The US road trip remains abstract: we see little of the 50,000 km the main characters travel, probably because most was actually shot in England. The few humorous elements are only partly convincing: ironic music is sometimes added; Quilty's character is expanded and provides somewhat funny but unnecessary scenes; humorous lines extracted from the novel lack impact. The multiple sarcastic remarks, wordplays, witty literary references and the intriguing puzzle to find Quilty are mostly discarded. The only scene worth mentioning is when Humbert kills Quilty, which is grotesque enough but far from the novel's level.
Even the tragic dimension is absent, for instance Lolita's above-mentioned despair or the eventual deaths of Lolita, her baby and Humbert (disregarding Quilty's ludicrous death): the atmosphere remains very tame, without asperities. All this emphasises the moral issues mentioned in point 1, since they are not offset by interesting features.
What can be saved in the movie? Acting is excellent, notably James Mason in the lead role and Peter Sellers in three impersonations: himself, a policeman, Dr Zempf (this incidentally inspired the idea to have him play different characters in "Dr Strangelove" two years later). Action unravels seamlessly, despite the fact the last scene where Humbert kills Quilty is placed at the beginning for no valid reason (in the book it is towards the end since narration is strictly chronological). It is sometimes comical. If it can console Kubrick's fans, "Lolita" is arguably his only failure ("Spartacus" being debatable).
Downton Abbey (2019)
Good series = Good movie? No.
With scores of millions of fans worldwide, "Downton Abbey" series (2010-2015) is already a classic. Why not produce a movie? The issue is we are more exigent when going to the theatre than when watching TV at home, and rightfully so.
At home, we do not move, we do not pay, we watch a relatively small screen with lights on, we talk with our partner, we search for information on a tablet, we look at our mobile, etc. In short, we are not very attentive. And we unconsciously compare the series with others that roughly have the same downsides, regardless of potential qualities: action is sometimes repetitive since it runs for hours; a few events are far-fetched to maintain attention on the long term; characters are frequently two-dimensional; plot and style trigger easy emotions.
When going to the movie theatre, we need to move, we need to pay, we watch a large screen in the dark, we are attentive, we expect to get our time's and money's worth. And we unconsciously compare the film with others that can be quite elaborate. To summarise, series are mostly about entertainment whilst movies are more about art.
In this context, "Downton Abbey" movie feels like Episode 7.1 of the series, happening in 1927 hence just two years after the end of Season 6, instead of a full-scale picture. It delivers absolutely nothing new.
1. There are significant plot holes. How can the Royal Butler (sorry: Page of the Backstairs) and Chef be sequestrated a whole night without consequences? And the entire Royal Staff lured away without investigation? Which mother would keep her own child as a servant for years without telling her the truth, and then continue doing so? Which determined killer would blunder away his scheme to a complete stranger just because he is Irish? Why doesn't Tom warn the police instead of risking the King's live in a ridiculous rescue? How can Andy destroy the boiler and hence ruin the house's reputation just out of misplaced jealousy? How can the Royal dressmaker steal so frequently without ever triggering suspicion? What evidence does Anna display to confound her? None, so blackmailing her makes no sense.
2. There is nothing new about the usual characters. Everybody is sympathetic as always and reacts as expected: it is like seeing old friends. Of course, there are a few new characters but apart from Lady Bagshaw (played by the great Idelma Staunton), none is interesting. Some are a pure caricature, for instance the harsh Lascelles.
3. Situations and emotions are shallow. The relationship between Daisy and Andy is laughable: "You destroyed the boiler... then I love you!" The love between Lucy and Tom develops too quickly and superficially, only consisting of a few puerile dialogues, cheap smiles and silly gazes. The bickering between Downton servants and Royal servants is overacted, notably Elsie with the Dresser. The "drama" of Edith potentially giving birth while her husband would be away takes gigantic proportions before deflating in a snap. The message from Tom to Princess Mary is utterly futile ("Try your best to make it work"), yet the Princess is moved and follows his advice by trying to convince her stiff husband during the final dance, of all moments. The King's compliment to Tom that he has "more than one thing to thank him for" is supposed to impress, but does not. Generally speaking, many dialogues and gazes are too conspicuous. The announcement of Violet's fatal illness vainly tries to compensate for the overall merry-go-round.
4. As the series, the movie mostly shows early 20th century as good old times and aristocracy as a benevolent power. Servants seem to have a relatively enjoyable life. We do not see poverty, inequalities, hardship, even in the village. There is just one comment from the Royal dressmaker about inequalities, but the character is so unfriendly that it is meant to be rejected as indecent. We do see homosexuality repressed, but Thomas escapes unharmed. What happens to the other homosexuals arrested? We will never know, they do not seem to matter. We are in an enchanted bubble. Oh no, actually aristocrats do manage to complain about trivial matters, for instance receptions, the poor creatures.
5. The love between Lucy and Tom as well as Violet's illness ensure the studio can produce a sequel, conveniently renewing the series concept on large screen. Let's squeeze as much cash as possible out of the franchise.
Let us pause and think for a short while. Reassuring predictability, happy life, friendly main characters, cheap emotions, fake issues, happy ending: it is a fairy tale for children. I must be too old for that. Granted, settings are magnificent, cinematography is lush, there are no lengths, dialogues are sometimes witty notably between Violet and Isobel, some scenes are funny... exactly as in the series. Yet the movie's quality is probably even lower than the series' because of the downsides listed above, condensed in two hours' time. So if you loved the series, feel like seeing exactly the same in a theatre and are not inconvenienced by blatant flaws, you will be delighted. If you wish to see an original and elaborate piece of art, you can pass.
Here I must confess I am not a huge "Downton Abbey" fan. Season 1 was excellent, Season 2 was interesting because of the WWI context... and then it turned around in circles for an extra four long seasons. Yes, it was enjoyable and there were new characters and situations, but it was always similar: secrets, revelations, announcements, loves, weddings, deaths, preparing the dinner, the party, the event, etc. Eventually the series culminated in silliness with final Episode 6.9 ("Christmas special"), drowning in rose-scented perfume, where everybody was nice and happy. Interestingly, the same director is responsible for that Episode and the present movie (as well as three other episodes of the series). In this regard, the movie feels like an appropriate continuation.
Les enfants du paradis (1945)
Theatre, life, love: contrasts and symmetries
Considered as one of the best French films ever and as a worldwide masterpiece, "Children of Paradise" is a milestone: first French movie released after the liberation of Paris in 1945, it is pivotal between pre- and post-WWII cinema. On the one hand, it pays tribute to silent pictures (there are more than 20 minutes of pantomime) and represents the culmination of 1930s "Poetic Realism": poetic dialogues, archetypal characters, enhanced drama (it just lacks social background). On the other hand, it announces post-WWII modernism: strong thematic structure, mix of styles, reduced action.
The movie is a homage to theatre and pantomime. If the overall connecting thread is the love story between Garance and Baptiste, the main theme is the contrast between theatre and "real" life: to what extent do shows imitate life... or conversely? This thematic axis is reinforced by symmetries between other elements, associated by pairs.
STRUCTURE & STYLE
The movie is divided into two Parts of approximately equal lengths. It opens and closes with a shot on the same street, yet with contrasting moods: joyful at the beginning, sombre at the end.
On the one hand, the style is scenic: acting, dialogues, settings, lighting, music. Notably, all major actors had an important theatrical career beforehand. It seems the action could take place anywhere, anytime since no outside event is evoked, even though in 1830 (around which date the action takes place) a major revolution occurred. We always are on the main street, or inside or near buildings, as in a play (only short exception: the duel between Frederick and the playwright).
On the other hand, it is a realistic movie. Baptiste, Frederick and Lacenaire are based on actual 19th century celebrities; even the names are accurate. Montray and Garance are inspired by existing persons. The shows are authentic, although altered. Personalities are complex. For instance, Lacenaire is at the same time a murderer and a poet, without scruples but not without values: after wanting to kill Frederick out of jealousy, he becomes found of him because he was generous; hence he murders Montray (and quietly awaits his own execution) to prevent the latter killing Frederick in duel.
Characters are opposed by their belonging to the theatrical world or not. Of the two main female roles, Nathalie is an actress while Garance is not (she only plays shortly in Part 1). This contrast is reinforced by their opposite personalities, as well as Garance's changing mood: in Part 1, she is always smiling as she points out herself, but in Part 2 she is sombre, until the very end when she leaves in the carriage. To illustrate this duality, she is first shown looking in a mirror and afterwards frequently uses this device.
The four main male roles are divided into two groups: actors and others. In each of these, antagonisms are accentuated: pantomime (Baptiste) versus spoken theatre (Frederick); crime (Lacenaire) versus aristocracy (Montray). To enhance contrasts further, each of these men love Garance in a different way: idealised (Baptiste), physical (Frederick), intellectual (Lacenaire, character with homosexual innuendos), venal (Montray)... even though all are jealous of the other ones.
Many events are duplicated: once in a theatrical mode, once in real mode, and frequently once in each of the two Parts. Just a few examples... Baptiste loses Garance to Frederick / The same happens in a staged pantomime. The show "Chand d'Habits" / is directly inspired by Jericho, for which he blames Baptiste's father. Frederick reads "Othello" in his bedroom / then plays it on stage. Frederick rehearses a cheap play / then massacres it live, both scenes mixing theatre and reality. Montray offers Garance a huge bouquet in her dressing room / Frederick, while playing Othello, offers the same in her theatre box. Montray toys with a stage prop chicken and throws it / Frederick eats a real chicken and throws the bones. Some dialogues are repeated. Etcetera.
THE BIG COMBO
However oppositions are only apparent. In the end, everything blends together: theatre and reality, characters, comedy and tragedy. Revealingly, the two main female characters never meet, except at the very end of each Part. At the end of Part 1, it is in a light mode while at the end of Part 2 it triggers a drama: Baptiste leaves Nathalie for Garance, who goes away.
Similarly, the main male characters are never seen together, they only meet by pairs, except at the end when all four are climatically gathered after the representation of "Othello". It causes a crisis: Lacenaire shows that Garance cheats on Montray and Frederick with Baptiste. Remarkably, this revelation is made through a spectacular mix of theatre and cinema: Lacenaire opens a curtain on Garance and Baptiste kissing (theatre), while the camera dramatically pans to the left (cinema).
This triggers a tragedy: Montray challenges Frederick to a duel, who is willing to die as he realises Garance loves Baptiste; Lacenaire will murder Montray and be executed. All this happens after "Othello", a play about jealousy naturally, but ironically where the main female character (Desdemona) dies: in real life, Garance survives after Montray & Lacenaire die and Baptiste & Frederick are left shattered. Ironically also, these tragic events occur while a frenetic carnival invades the streets. It overflows with white, a characteristic colour that Baptiste, now lost in the crowd, always wears on stage: the above-mentioned blend is also visual.
Even dialogues brilliantly mix theatre and everyday life. Jacques Prévert was an eminent poet and specifically created the lines for the actors he had already selected. This is why dialogues, like in all the movies he participated to, sound so just: as a tailored suit, they perfectly fit the actor's diction and style, which can be quite peculiar like Arletty's. As a result, they feel at the same time poetic and simple, theatrical and real, witty and natural. Many quotes are now part of history.
Se rokh (2018)
Another tour-de-force by banned director
"Three faces" seems realistic but this realism is an illusion: the movie is metaphorical. The form itself looks simple but is finely designed. Just two simple examples: nightfall is accelerated, there is complete continuity between day and night; the path leading to the old actress Shahrzad's home is lit at night, which is incredible outside this small village but allows to see characters going to and from the house. The reason for these two choices, amongst others, is to convey continuity in everything we see: situations, characters, emotions (on this, more below). Another example: there never is off-screen music (realism), except at the very end, which increases the emotional impact by its uniqueness.
Regarding content, "Three faces" is structured as a classical tragedy: unity of time (slightly more than 24 hours: two nights and a day), place (a small village, except at the beginning) and action (searching for a girl who committed suicide... or not). Unity of place is especially notable: the village encompasses a whole universe. Granted, at the beginning we are on the road, yet remarkably we never go out of the car: even when actress Jafari or director Panahi walk out of the car, the camera stays inside to follow them. Hence the car is already a transition to another world: we do not see where both characters come from or travel through. There is just one exception: when Panahi fetches water; however then we already are in the village environment. Note how he then symbolically washes his windshield before arriving: we will have an immaculate, unprejudiced view of a new environment, since many shots occur through the windshield.
The village is a universe in itself: nobody apart from Jafari and Panahi arrive or leave. We hear cars blowing their horn but, remarkably, we never see them (only exception: the final ironic shot of the trucks carrying cows to be inseminated by a legendary bull... who is dead). It seems we cannot leave the place: a dying bull blocks the unique narrow road; the final shot is completely still on the road as if Panahi's car were not moving out. During this final shot, beautiful off-screen music rises for the first time: the specific environment reaches a universal dimension.
Ever-important events happen in the village: birth (the circumcised son, insemination by the bull), death (the potential suicide, the old lady in her grave), a wedding, philosophical talks about life. All generations are present, notably represented by the three generations of actresses: the young Marziyeh, the famous Jafari, the old Shahrzad. There are mysteries: did Marziyeh really kill herself? Where is she? What will happen to her at the end? Why is her brother so violent, is he insane? Who is Shahrzad? The latter remains mysterious: we will only see her from far away. There are many ellipses, the last one being ironical: at one point Marziyeh's brother carries a heavy stone close to Panahi's car... and a few shots later we see the cracked windshield from inside. Last, villagers mostly speak Turkish, not Farsi, which Jafari cannot understand. All these mysteries have a meaning: we can only understand little of this recluse world.
Behind the depiction, the movie delivers a political message: these remote places are abandoned by the state. People complain about utilities failures and lack of doctors and veterinaries. Mentality also is backwards: women cannot do men's work; they cannot study what they want; they mostly stay home; Shahrzad is an outcast; a man has several wives. But the movie does not stigmatise villagers: they are also welcoming. At the beginning, an old man blows Panahi's car horn many times: we think it is a joke... but discover afterwards if was precisely to let the car pass easily. Villagers offer tea, food, telephone call, shelter, etc.
Which bring us back to the above-mentioned continuity: the movie flows with the two main characters going from one place to another, by car or walking. It actually is a road-movie even though most of the action occurs in one place. The flow is also ethical: we cannot decide if the villagers are to be blamed (for their backward ideology) or praised (for their friendliness). We move from one feeling to an opposite one. For instance, three men come to Panahi by night to offer him shelter, clothing and a blanket. This is kind... yet when they go away after he refuses, they say without compassion: "If there is hail, that will teach him (...) These townspeople, they think they know better." Another example: the old man's superstition about his son's prepuces is at the same time eccentric and respectable (there are worse beliefs). More importantly, we hesitate between blaming Marziyeh for her fake suicide or pitying her for having to go to that extremity: Jafari also experiences both feelings. The movie carries neither prejudice nor definite judgement.
Nonetheless, despite all its qualities, the movie is not a masterpiece. Notably, it is too literal: we stick to the action and the cinematography could be more compelling. Just one example: when the bull is lying on the road, we see him from far away. Closer shots would have rendered the scene more gripping: we could have been closer to the bull not only as a metaphor but also as a being. The movie shows obvious references to Abbas Kiarostami, who died in 2016 and for whom Panahi originally was an assistant director: quasi-documentary style, road-movie, remote village, life and death, unusual encounters, etc. Yet we can imagine how the master Kiarostami would have taken the same plot to another level.
Probably, the limited resources and clandestine shooting the movie was forced to adopt partly explain the sometimes lack of bigger-than-life dimension. Considering the filming ban Panahi has to compose with, "Three Faces" remains an impressive esthetical tour-de-force. Let us hope he will still be able to shoot and, hopefully some day, to do so without constraint.
Has the Saga reached its limits?
Sorry fans, we need to face it: the SW saga might have come to a dead-end, and it is not a once-off consequence of the latest Episode's failures (on this, more below). It is rather the opposite: the failures are the logical consequence of the saga reaching its limits. Yes, the arguably most famous franchise in the world (and not only in cinema), after creating a mythology that fascinated millions of fans over the last forty years, has demonstrated that the universe is finite.
Quick flashback. In Episodes 1 to 6, George Lucas created a simple but strong concept, uniting three themes: filiation, the Force and good versus evil. (As a reminder, Lucas directed four of the six Episodes and wrote all of them.) In summary, how a father Anakin and his son Luke dealt with the bright and dark sides of the Force. The main character of Episodes 1-3 is Anakin, while in Episodes 4-6 it is Luke, with Anakin's strong presence despite his relatively limited appearances.
All other themes are secondary, notably the struggle between the Empire and rebels: it is a background story. For instance, we never see how inhabitants of the galaxy live differently before and after the Empire seized power. SW is not about politics, the marginal exception being the Senate debates in Episodes 2 and 3.
This strong backbone built on the three themes provided unity and progression to the six original Episodes, as we followed Anakin's iconic story throughout: childhood, training, relationship with Padme, marriage, turning to the dark side, Luke's and Leia's births, discovery of filiation, parent-child relationship, redemption, death. These events echoed everyday life, transposed to an epic level: for instance, everyone has a bright and a dark side; here it is dramatically depicted in the flesh (detractors will say naively). With Anakin's death, the destruction of the Empire and Luke being the ultimate Jedi defending the bright side, the saga was over.
WHERE ARE WE NOW?
The main issue with Episodes 7 and 8 is they recycle the original concept, developing no new form or, if they do, overplaying it. Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is the new Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vador (note they both have two names), moving between the bright and the dark sides. To a large extent, Rey is the new Luke, orphan wondering about her parents, learning about the Force and being unsuccessfully appealed by Kylo to the dark side. Rey and Kylo distantly communicate as Luke and Anakin did in Episodes 5 and 6 (note the similarity between the names Rey and Ren). Luke is the new Yoda, exiled on a remote planet and teaching Rey about the Force. Even side themes are similar: First Order is the new Empire; Snoke is the new Darth Sidious; the good guys struggle but eventually win or escape at the end.
Even scenes are similar. Darth Vador brings Luke to Darth Sidious in Episode 6: Kylo brings Rey to Snoke, down to details (e.g. Snoke undoes Rey's handcuffs, for no reason actually). Battle on the white planet Hoth where the Empire's AT-ATs face the rebels' stronghold in Episode 5: battle on the white planet Crait where First Order's AT-ATs face the rebels' stronghold (the only difference is snow is replaced by... salt!). Ewoks from Episode 6 are replaced by other silly animals (porgs, fathiers, crystal wolves). Etcetera. And then of course space battles, ground battles, lightsaber fights, etc. but that is part of the standard SW catalogue.
However copying previous Episodes does not prevent from gaping plot holes. Luke is just a grumpy old man, while Yoda was an intriguing character, funny yet powerful. We don't know anything about Snoke, while we followed Palpatine/Darth Sidious for a long time. So when Snoke goes down, we don't feel it is an important victory. Regenerating a saga requires more than a lazy script. Side stories don't fare better, for instance the lengthy yet shallow relationship between Rose and Finn.
To be fair, Episode 8 does have a few qualities. Landscapes are gorgeous notably Luke's island. The final battle on Crait in white and red is spectacular although flawed. When Holdo crashes her spaceship into the First Order spaceship, the resulting images and silence are stunning (silence at last as it should be, since there are no sounds in space). The connection between Rey and Kylo is convincing. Some dialogues are good. CGI is better as ever, but then it is not a sufficient quality nowadays.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Strategically, the studio only has three options to expand the saga:
1. Continue in the tradition of the former six Episodes. This will likely result in going around in circles, because we have pretty much exhausted the original three themes.
2. Find a new style, for instance political fiction, comedy or tale. But would it still be SW or something else?
3. A combination of the two above, which Episode 8 partly is: on top of reprocessing the saga, it includes some politics (casino, arms business, female hero), comedy (dialogues, situations, porgs) and tale (fathiers, crystal wolves, the ending with children). Yet cinematographically it is very difficult to successfully mix styles, as the relative failure of Episode 8 proves. Commercially however it is a smart move, because the studio can target new audiences, notably children with comedy and tale, thus ensuring long-term revenues, like the original SW fans provided for the last forty years.
Apart from expanding the saga, the studio can deep-dive into former Episodes with spin-offs on how the rebels found the plans to the death star ("Rogue One"), about Han Solo's life, etc. So instead of going broad, they can go deep. Naturally to make money by seducing new audiences without repelling the original fans, they will do both. The former SW created a myth and a business; it now is a business about recycling the myth.
Nos années folles (2017)
Ambiguous movie depicting ambiguous characters and period
A general crisis (war) triggering a personal crisis: the original title "Nos années folles" ("Our wild/crazy years") illustrates this dichotomy. On the one hand, "années folles" (equivalent of "Roaring Twenties") refers to the 1920s since the movie spans from WWI to 1929. On the other, "our" refers to Paul/Suzanne's wild and crazy personality, taking his wife Louise on a no-return journey ("folle" also being a pejorative word for gay): the general crazy years are also their own.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
If it were not based on real facts, the story would be unbelievable: a man deserts the army and dresses as a woman to escape the law. The most incredible part is: it succeeds even though under his new identity he becomes almost public by having sex with anybody. The movie is gripping because it does not only focus on that catching story: Paul's psychological ambiguity, the main driver of the plot, spreads to the whole movie, which constantly plays on ambiguity.
1. The story is at first non-linear, with numerous flashbacks. It takes some time to understand what is present and past.
2. The flashbacks are either real, either staged in a cabaret. Yet it is sometimes unclear what is staged or not. For instance the WWI battle is supposed to be real but is very stylised, with artificial lights and noises. Also, staging and real life sometimes alternate, for instance when we see Paul's sexual encounters in the forest.
3. Characters are ambiguous. Paul not only because of his gender and sexual transformation: he can be at the same time generous (he has sex with a disfigured soldier for free) and abominable (how he treats Louise and their child). Louise seems very steady and sane, yet because of her love for Paul she copes with his incredible, unfaithful and increasingly violent actions: she goes very far in acceptance and behaviour. The Count Charles looks like a mundane and affected aristocrat; yet, as opposed to Paul, he loved fighting in the war: his speech to Louise sounds like a warmonger's and a patriot's. However it was mainly because he had lost interest in life, that war provided a meaning to his existence. Hence it is difficult to judge who was a hero or a coward: Charles who ran away from life or Paul who took enormous risks to come back to Louise?
4. Apart from the general plot, events are sometimes "crazy". In the basement, Paul makes love to Louise while he is dressed like a woman. When Charles tells Paul he leads a ludicrous life, he is wearing a comical dressing gown and plays a small saxophone (sopranino) producing high-pitched sounds. The exuberant sexual party at Charles' is over the top.
When Paul asks Louise to sing for wounded soldiers in the hospital, we expect a song such as "Auprès de ma blonde" ("Together with my blonde girl"), which appropriately is a military march, yet also charming, and which is sung at another moment in the movie. But Louise sings a bawdy song: first surprise, since it is completely uncalled-for and the doctor asks her to stop. Second surprise: the wounded soldiers thoroughly enjoy it and applaud. This simple scene is one of the best in the movie, funny and touching.
5. Events can be interpreted in different ways: they are two-sided. When the cabaret stages Paul's first sexual encounters in bois de Boulogne, it is a beautiful scene, with glowing lighting and music: Paul is worshiped and carried like a god(ess). When it is staged a second time, it is sordid: Paul is treated like an object and left unconscious; the foulness is emphasised by also showing the scene in the actual setting.
Paul meets a handsome soldier, seen from his left side; however he is actually horribly disfigured on his right side. When Paul loses a finger at war, it is not clear if he did this himself to avoid fighting or if it was a real wound (historically, this point is still doubtful, even though Paul was trialled and acquitted regarding this event).
6. Most paradoxically, the movie depicts various extreme situations (war, horrible wounds, cross-dressing, prostitution, group sex, conjugal violence, etc.) in an elaborate and temperate style. The film is challenging but never vulgar.
We are hence immersed with the characters in this ambiguous story. The director introduces two additional elements for this immersion:
1. It is not strictly speaking a "period movie" with imposing reconstitutions (war, scenery, costumes, etc.): it is shown at human level, with minimal effects. There have been many movies about WWI, but rarely such a one focusing only on characters, their personalities and relationships. For instance, there is an intense scene where Paul and Louise (as well as other couples) meet at an inn close to the battlefront just to have sex: the war does not even seem to exist; people are quiet and healthy; we do not hear the distant cannons.
The war is not depicted in itself, but as the impact it has on people: the wounded soldiers, Paul's transformation, Louise's involvement, Charles' personality.
2. There is no off-screen music that could introduce a distance. We hear what characters hear since all music comes from actual scenes: people singing, cabaret, band, instruments, etc.
The fact "Golden Years" is based on a true story is of little relevance, especially since the movie seems to embellish Paul's personality, who apparently was a vile person in real life: style is more important than content. André Téchiné again demonstrates his talent. "Golden Years" is one of his most stylised movies, doubly putting into perspective the story: by staging it in a cabaret and by creating an elaborate atmosphere throughout. Yet far from generating a distance, this style brings us closer to the characters' ambiguities and instabilities. Some fine art, subtler than it first appears.
Selfies, selfishness and sex: a pessimistic view on society
"Nelyubov" ("Loveless") starts as a psychological movie about a divorcing couple, then evolves into a thriller after their child disappears, focusing on the search. Yet overall it is a critical view on modern society, notably Russian.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
The tone is pessimistic. The story focuses on a few individuals, however news heard on the radio or TV are depressing: the end of the world, corruption, war (Ukraine). Characters are confronted to a harsh environment: at work, bosses impose their arbitrary views to employees (no divorce, religion); the police cannot assist to find a missing child; missing children are commonplace.
The main victims of society are children. They are not desired: Zhenya wishes she had aborted; none of the parents want to keep Alyosha; we understand Boris' girlfriend got pregnant "by accident". They are not taken care of: Zhenya did not have any milk for Alyosha when he was a baby (a revealing metaphor); Zhenya and Boris only realise after two days that their son is missing; at the end, Boris removes the crying baby instead of taking care of him.
All this is a repetition of the past: Zhenya was not desired by her mother either and now has harsh contacts with her. Hence we feel that eventually children will grow up to be like their parents, forever perpetuating the lack of love within families. This perpetuation is emphasised by similar shots at the beginning and end of the movie: empty snowy landscapes with the same tense music.
The "loveless" context spreads to all relationships: Zhenya tells Anton she loves him but he does not answer; at the restaurant, a young lady easily gives her mobile number to a complete stranger before sitting down with her date. People only care about themselves: what matter most is wealth (Zhenya's comment about Anton), appearance (the beauty parlour) and social media (various selfies). Symbolically, when the coordinator questions Alyosha's friend at school, the blackboard in the background shows cold mathematical formulas instead of words or drawings (detail emphasised afterwards when the teacher erases the board).
The atmosphere is not only bleak: it deteriorates progressively, noticeably after Alyosha's disappearance. This evolution is illustrated in different ways:
1. SITUATIONS. At the beginning, Zhenya and Boris are separating cruelly, but are hoping for a fresh start in new relationships. These are shown in parallel, always in the same two apartments, highlighting their similarities and hence developing a systemic view on couples. First, the vision seems positive: the two new couples each have dialogues and a long erotic scene. However, couples then slowly drift apart: dialogues are reduced, doubts about the relationship emerge, there are no erotic or tender scenes any more. Finally, couples are physically separated despite being in the same home: Anton watches TV while Zhenya practices on the balcony; Boris watches TV while his girlfriend talks to her mother in the kitchen.
2. IMAGE. To start with, shots highlight the tension between Zhenya and Boris, living together unwillingly: the camera uses long focals (sharp foregrounds, blurred backgrounds); frames are saturated (Boris in the crowded elevator, Zhenya in the crowded metro, close shots on the tray at the canteen, etc.). After Alyosha disappears, characters seem lost among high buildings, deserted places and endless forests. They increasingly bump against elements: cold and wet weather, metal fences (twice), large river, gigantic radar in the middle of the forest. Noises are menacing: barking dogs, traffic, planes, etc.
3. PLACES. After Alyosha disappears, cosy apartments are replaced by Zhenya's mother's neglected house, then a huge derelict building, then a dreadful mortuary. The sequence in the derelict building is pivotal: it used to be a pleasant place of gathering (room with many seats), music (standing piano) and enjoyment (beautiful art deco bar); all is now destroyed. The schoolyard, where children ran at the very beginning of the movie, is now empty, just filled with snow. At the very end, Alyosha's bedroom is torn down and completely reworked: the little that remained of the boy's soul is definitely gone.
4. ALYOSHA. The boy actually is the main role: he opens the movie and is very present in the first part; after he disappears the entire plot revolves around his search. Yet we never see him again: this vacuum becomes the icon of a soulless society. The only elements that eventually remain from him are the posters with his picture, scattered in empty places, and the tape he threw into the tree at the beginning: two derisory reminders of his existence. (Side note: the tape is striped red-and-white for safety, announcing the forthcoming tragedy.)
The overall message is: we could have built a convivial society, but instead brought void and selfishness. Economic conditions can only partly be blamed since characters belong to middle or upper class. At the end, Zhenya is running on a machine, outside in winter, wearing a training suit proudly showing "RUSSIA": this cold society seems to be moving, but it is standing still, going nowhere. Meanwhile, Anton and Boris are watching propagandist news on TV. The allegory could hardly be more explicit: it is common knowledge that Zvyagintsev is very critical towards his country in general and the present government in particular.
That said, "Nelyubov" has a few downsides. First, it is almost too skillful: messages and codes ooze from every situation, with minutely crafted images. Also, the vision is hopeless: nobody is truly positive, except maybe Alyosha who precisely disappears and the volunteers who mostly remain anonymous (the exception being the coordinator, who is nevertheless severe). Last, characters are somewhat stereotyped: to summarise, women are hysterical and men autistic. All these elements render the movie relatively one-sided, almost cynical: everything is thrown overboard.
Nonetheless, "Nelyubov" remains an aesthetically impressive movie, to the extent that it never feels long despite its minimal action. Zvyagintsev again demonstrates he now is one of the leading Russian directors. His mastery seems to increase with every movie.
Moby Dick (1956)
A great cinema classic based on a great literature classic
It requires considerable audacity to adapt such a masterpiece of world literature, all the more so that the novel's quality greatly relies on its inimitable style: how can one transpose this on screen? John Huston succeeds by creating a distinctive visual style, cinematographically compensating what he loses on the literary side.
Also, he builds a forceful story from beginning to end. The scenario was written by famous author Ray Bradbury together with Huston: a successful synergy between literature and cinema creators, despite tensions between the two men.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS (INCLUDING OF THE ORIGINAL NOVEL) ***
The first quality of the movie is its efficient selection of scenes and dialogues. This is a real challenge: the novel is long, even after disregarding its "documentary" parts about whales, whaling, sea, etc. (cumulated, as many as 40 chapters out of 135). Hence the scenario had to make drastic selections. For instance, in the novel the Pequod comes across nine other ships (of which four encountered Moby Dick), while in the movie there are only two. Yet these represent the most striking meetings, with captains who respectively lost an arm and a son to the White Whale.
Essential scenes are almost all present, without feeling like a "reader's digest" of the novel: the movie perfectly holds together, with a balanced pace.
Also, the movie follows its own logic, which sometimes triggers a change in plot structure. Notably, Moby Dick first appears after 75 minutes (out of 110), which is early compared to the novel where he only appears in the last three chapters. This highlights the different internal logics of literature and cinema: in the novel, the late appearance is powerful because the White Whale remains a mystery until the very end. Herman Melville could compensate this delay with other scenes: encounters with ships who came across Moby Dick, dialogues and considerations about him, documentary-like descriptions of whales in general and that one in particular, etc. However, since the movie had to disregard most of these scenes, showing Moby Dick at the end only would have been anti-climatic.
Conversely, the movie transfers the tempest to the penultimate scene while in the novel it is slightly before: cinematographically, it typically is a highly climatic scene, while literarily it is less so, especially considering that Melville uses the tempest as a counterpoint to other scenes.
Last, the movie operates pertinent changes to the story, notably:
- Queequeg rallies from dying to save Ishmael from a dangerous fight (novel: rallies by his only willpower): it is visually more dramatic and credible;
- Ahab gives the gold coin to a shipmate (novel: first keeps it for himself): since the movie is shorter than the novel, it cannot emphasise Ahab's negative aspects, which are offset elsewhere in the novel;
- Starbuck wants to kill an awaken Ahab (novel: while he is sleeping): it is visually more dramatic and allows a following dialogue between the two men;
- Ahab's body is tied to Moby Dick at the end (novel: it is Fedallah's): visually, it is compelling since Ahab is a major character and his arm seems to incite his men to continue attacking the whale;
- After Ahab dies, Starbuck urges the men to continue attacking (novel: stays on the ship): it seems Ahab's lust for revenge has spread like a disease, even to rebellious Starbuck.
First, image has a special texture close to pastel, produced by adding black-and-white and silver layers on the usual colours. This has multiple impacts: it creates a unique tone, fit for adapting a masterpiece; it gives an "antique" feeling on line with the diegetic period; it looks like a painting, similar to the ones shown during the opening credits. All this has a purpose: "Moby Dick", amongst other things, is a tale where narrative distance is essential ("Once upon a time "), which Melville masterly rendered by his unique style. Hence the movie re-activates the exceptional sensation generated by the novel: narration sublimes the fable; it creates a legend by itself.
Additionally, shots are frequently saturated: close-ups, frame filled with faces, sails, ropes, etc. It is a paradox since most of the action occurs outside: broad shots are rare; we seldom see the sky. The movie opens in a forest and closes with a shot on a floating coffin. This saturation has multiple impacts:
- It aligns to the novel theme that the ship is a world in itself, with different ethnic origins and professions: we are immerged in the sailors' environment;
- It reinforces the fable-like feeling, since tales unfold at individual level ("They lived (un)happily ever after"). For instance the close shot on Moby Dick's eye echoes the one on Ahab's;
- It provides a baroque "thickness" to the opus, comparable to Melville's dense, ornate style.
Last, acting perfectly illustrates the story. It is emphatic, on line with the novel's tone and themes. Most actors' physique and approach completely fit characters: we feel Ishmael, Queequeg, Stubb, Flask, etc. could not be different. Gregory Peck as Ahab is convincing, but probably not as much as Orson Welles would have been, who was initially envisaged for the role and eventually gave a memorable performance of Father Mapple.
The novel "Moby Dick" altogether encompasses adventure, epic, documentary, tale, parable, myth. The movie takes all these aspects on board, bar the documentary parts. Yet, it is not a masterpiece: it could have been a longer, full-scale epic three- or four-hour long, to better render the sheer magnitude of the novel and include some revealing scenes (for instance, other ship encounters or when sailors erotically wade in the oil). Also, the dated special effects somewhat reduce awesomeness: Moby Dick is not quite impressive and the ship sinking at the end looks like a model siphoned into a bathtub. Nonetheless, the movie remains a rare successful adaptation of an eminent classic.
Sanma no aji (1962)
Post-war shattered dreams
"An Autumn Afternoon" is Ozu's last picture and probably his most bitter. In his other movies, sorrow was generally compensated by some caring characters or an affectionate relationship. Here, nothing really positive emerges. The plot is similar to the one of "Late Spring" (1949), where the same actor also played a widower persuading his daughter to marry; however, "An Autumn Afternoon" is darker, with more social insight.
The original title ("The Taste of Mackerel Pike") is low-key, mysterious and meaningful, somewhat like Ozu's films. It refers to a fish that is widely eaten in Japan, especially in autumn when it is abundant: its taste is bitter (if eaten whole as Japanese frequently do for this species); and autumn evokes a world that is changing, possibly decaying.
It is a post-war movie, even though it was shot 17 years after WWII, in the sense that an emerging society tries to find its path within a modern world. There are many references to the war: Hirayama went to the Naval Academy; Hirayama and Sakamoto were on a warship; they discuss about war, as well as other customers later on; a jukebox plays a patriotic song twice (the Navy Hymn) and Hirayama sings it at the very end; Hirayama, Sakamoto and the waitress imitate the military salute; we understand Hirayama's wife died during WWII. The country faces mourning, humiliation of defeat, development challenges. Yet the society that emerges is void: it displays solitude, acrimony and materialism.
Solitude is a dominant feature. Characters talk about professors and spouses who disappeared. Hirayama and Sakuma are widowers; a barmaid reminds Hirayama of his late wife. Hirayama, Kawai and Horie make jokes about death and refusal (see below). Hirayama is left alone at the end, drunk and depressed; his last words ending the movie are: "Lonely in life". Michiko is turned down by the man she loves. The plot then tends towards her marriage with another man, which should be good news; however we never see the ceremony and not even the bridegroom at any point: we just see Michiko in her wedding dress, silent and sad. Symbolically, she is still alone. After he comes back from the wedding, the barmaid asks Hirayama, "Were you at a funeral?" to which he tragically answers: "Sort of". It could be his own funeral since he is now lonely, or his daughter's, buried in a marriage that could turn out as the other couple's (see below).
Even when characters are not alone, relationships are cruel. Koichi and his wife Akiko always argue; there is not one single sweet moment between them, despite the fact it is the only couple we see (Horie's wife only appears briefly). Hirayama is frequently scolded by his children, even though he is a decent man. Koichi lies to him about the money he needs to buy a fridge. Tomoko despises her father Sakuma. Sakamoto says about Sakuma's noodle bar, right in front of him: "It's ugly here, let's go elsewhere." People frequently leave gatherings earlier than expected, spoiling the atmosphere; notably, Horie unexpectedly leaves the dinner with Hirayama and Kawai, despite the fact Kawai cancelled a baseball game to attend. These so-called friends play nasty jokes to each other: Hirayama and Kawai make the waitress believe Horie is dead, while he is only late; afterwards, Kawai and Horie make Hirayama believe his daughter will not be able to marry the man they recommended, which saddens Hirayama, but it is a lie.
And when relationships are not tense, they are shallow: conversations are mostly pointless; people drink a lot when they are together. Worse: left to their own fates, individuals have nothing valuable to hang on to. Knowledge is not praised any more: the former respected professor Sakuma is now obliged to run a cheap noodle restaurant to make a living. Lifestyle is disrupted; many activities relate to Western culture, not Japanese: Sakamoto complains American culture has invaded Japan... while drinking a whisky in a bar with a Western name! Characters also watch baseball or play golf with American branded clubs. The main exception is the aforementioned patriotic song, but that scene is highly ironic since Japan lost the war.
The only tangible element that dominates is materialism. Koichi and Akiko mostly think about buying a fridge, golf clubs, a handbag... Akiko covets a vacuum cleaner at a friend's home. Notice how overall the movie is smooth: there are no loud noises, nobody shouts, we barely hear the city despite the fact we are in the middle of Tokyo. Precisely, the only exceptions are loud noises coming from material elements symbolising consumption: golf balls against the practice metal net, a jukebox, a syrupy off-screen music ironically playing when people go out to drink. Likewise, the most striking images are void of persons: the movie opens with shots on a huge factory with fuming chimneys; throughout the movie there are repeated "empty" shots, notably of bright neon signs outside the bars; we do not only hear the golf balls striking the metal net, we see them distinctly; the movie ends on other "empty" shots.
As a result of all above, persons are frequently sad: Hirayama, Michiko, Sakuma, Tomoko. The only relief is getting drunk. Amid this vacuity, only does the main character Hirayama understand his country has taken a wrong path. In a stunning remark that must have thoroughly shocked Japanese 1960s audiences, he admits to Sakamoto: "It is maybe better we lost the war" (instead of invading the USA with their culture if Japan had won instead). Nobody else seems to mind. For instance two customers in the bar shockingly laugh when they mention Japan was defeated: who cares as long as we can drink, they seem to think.
With "An Autumn Afternoon", Ozu asks: where have we gone? We could have built a brand new society with values, solidarity, hope; yet exactly the opposite happened. A bitter testimony that could still be valid nowadays.
The Wire (2002)
One of the best series ever... and grimmest
"The Wire" is widely considered as one the best series ever, and by many critics as the best. Despite its title, its topics are much more varied than wiring criminals and fighting drugs: criminality in general, law, ethnicity, crisis, politics, education, media, etc.
On all these issues, the tone is pessimistic. First about narcotics: the war on drugs is useless; new dealers replace those who are imprisoned; kids are enrolled young in illegal activities; addicts are not really helped out of their dependency. Other problems are numerous: murders, human trafficking, corruption, poverty, foreclosures, etc. The depiction of Baltimore is representative of decaying post-industrial cities, even though the entire series was shot before the 2008 crisis. As such, it exposes the failures of our so-called modern societies.
Echoing the grim context, individual lives are generally not joyful. We rarely see couples and families enjoying themselves together; they essentially argue. Happy scenes, if any, are short. None of the jobs is really exciting; professional relationships are regularly tense. Having a good time is usually getting drunk.
Regardless, "The Wire" has many qualities, some of which are briefly described below.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
- The series adopts a convincing documentary style, based on factual experience and extensive research: actual events, overlaying plots, linear stories without flashbacks (only two minor exceptions), authentic settings, credible characters, great attention to details (notice for instance the constant realism of background noises). Important and/or charismatic characters are purposefully eliminated, because plot consistency is more important than role continuity.
- There essentially is no soundtrack, accentuating the documentary genre. However, at the end of each Season summarising the main characters' fates, music climatically emerges with an all the more compelling impact.
- It shows appearances are misleading: knowledgeable and apparently respectable persons can be felons. Levy skilfully uses the law to protect murderers he knows are guilty. Stringer follows business classes and develops a legitimate business to launder money. By contrast, D'Angelo has values despite his limited education and crimes. Additionally, the series progressively evolves: for instance the honour code respected by the Barksdale clan and the co-op falls apart when Avon and Stringer betray each other, then explodes as Marlo imposes terror.
- It highlights ethical ambiguities and compromises. McNulty uses Omar's false testimony to convict a killer (Season 2). Bunny reduces crime by creating Hamsterdam, a drug heaven... or hell? (Season 3) The school improves education by segregating students (Season 4). Symbolically, policemen and criminals present many similarities: they speak the same language with numerous f-words; they sometimes interact like accomplices; officers go undercover in the streets; they have resembling activities (drinking, loitering, assaulting, meetings with a chairman, pressure to improve results, trailing suspects).
- It is not Manichean. First, there are "villains" in every category of the population: inhabitants, policemen, felons, politicians, etc. Also, main characters are complex. Dedicated policemen usually have a flaw: McNulty is arrogant; Daniels has a shady past; Carver steals money; Herc eventually helps Levy. Most guiltlessly beat up suspects. The police hierarchy is cunning but cynical and manipulative. Conversely, most criminals have class, notably Stringer and Omar. Bubbles is friendly but pathetic. Carcetti is greedy but wants to improve the city. Editor Gus is bullying but righteous. At the very end, Marlo fights: we understand he is not just a show-off, but grew up in the streets. Characters evolve, notably children in Season 4 who have very different outcomes in Season 5.
- It illustrates the struggle between individuals and the system: how mostly decent people are oppressed by economic conditions and heartless organisations, of which hierarchy is only the visible part. Money is a persistent issue. To react, individuals sometimes go rogue. Dockworkers smuggle to compensate for the lack of activity (Season 2). Policemen use tracking devices without authorisation. McNulty and Freamon forge evidence to increase resources (Season 5). Eventually, nothing changes: the powerful and corrupt are rewarded (Carcetti, Nerese, Davis, Rawls, Valchek, Templeton, Marlo, Levy); the powerless and virtuous are punished (McNulty, Freamon, Daniels, Bunny, Gus, children). To carry on, the system requires truth to be manipulated, not exposed.
- To partly offset the permanent tension, humour is omnipresent. Dialogues feel at the same time real and to the point. Some are quite philosophical, even in unexpected places (e.g. the literary club in jail in Season 2, Episode 6).
- The series develops a powerful overall structure. Each Season is dedicated to a topic (respectively drugs, docks, politics, education, media) and integrates as well previous topics (except the docks which are specific). This culminates with Season 5 which condensates them in a final climax. The last Season also loops with the first: Season 1 showed a code-breaking wire that failed to indict the Barksdale clan; Season 5 shows a code-breaking wire that succeeds in capturing Marlo's gang. Yet at the very end, we go backwards: Valchek is the new Burrell; Michael is the new Omar; Duquan is the new Sherrod with another Bubbles; Marlo is loose; Levy will protect other criminals. The only good news are Namond succeeding and Bubbles being accepted by his family.
The limits of "The Wire" are those of most series. Action is sometimes repetitive, since it runs for hours, and a few events are far-fetched, to maintain attention on the long term. Mostly, editing is fast, which is paradoxical for such a long series: instead of fully developing a scene, it frequently switches to another one; even in the same scene, shots are brief. This is somewhat an easy solution to maintain pace. The fact there were 27 different directors for 60 episodes probably did not help: it sometimes feels as if they wanted to stick to a set style instead of developing a personal vision, which partly relies on creator David Simon who wrote 51 of the episodes.
Nevertheless, "The Wire" is now a major classic among series. Not a feel-good watch, but definitely engrossing.
Downton Abbey (2010)
Convincing illustration of two contrasting worlds (Season 1)
"Downton Abbey" has many qualities, which have already been highlighted: splendid period reconstitution, mix of historical events and individual stories, consistent central plot with ramifications, multiple character focus, witty dialogues, excellent acting, etc.
This review (based on Season 1) analyses just one of them: how aristocrats and servants evolve in two parallel worlds that do not connect, yet present troubling similarities.
The series manages to show two physically close environments as if they were on different planets. This underlines the disparities between social milieus in early 20th century Britain.
- Servants frequently go from the basement to the ground floor, however we never see them arriving there or leaving. This disconnection is first spatial: they sometimes start climbing the stairs, yet the camera never follows thoroughly (there are travelling shots following characters, but they always happen on the same storey). It is also temporal: we suddenly see servants on the ground floor without a link to previous action in the basement. Granted, there is a technical reason for that: all action on the ground floor and above was shot on site (Highclere Castle, UK), while action in the basement was shot in Ealing studios, since the castle's basement was not suited for period settings. Nonetheless, it would have been easy to film the servants going up the stairs in the studio and then edit their arrival on the ground floor (or conversely), which the series never does.
- Likewise, we see servants in above floors (aristocrats' bedrooms and servants quarters), yet never witness them arriving there. We do see them in the side staircase, but never going from there to the different levels: it is as if these stairs were separate quarters disconnected from the rest of the castle. Stairs could represent the possible link between servants and aristocrats (below versus above), but are denied their symbolic connection since they seem to lead nowhere. Here the reason cannot be technical as for the above topic, since the stairs are effectively located in the castle.
- Lighting on the ground floor and the aristocrats' bedrooms is generally bright, while in the basement and the servants' quarters it is always dim. Naturally, this can be explained by the windows sizes, however the contrast is pushed to the extreme: on cloudy days, the aristocrats' levels could be grim which rarely happens, while on sunny days the servants' levels could be bright which never occurs. Moreover, in the aristocrats' levels, colours are generally warm (yellow, red, white), while in the servants' levels they are usually cold (grey, brown, blue).
- Camera movements in the aristocrats' levels are fluid, poised, lengthy, while in the servants' levels they are brisker, faster, shorter. In the basement, the camera is frequently hand-held, highlighting the intensity of the work performed. Also, there sometimes is a character or an object in the foreground while action occurs in the background: we seem to bump into elements. The use of long lenses (foreground is blurred, background is sharp) increases this sensation of confinement. By contrast, in the aristocrats' levels, image is generally sharp.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
Despite the symbolic gap between them, aristocrats and servants sometimes experience similar events. The message seems to be: regardless of social differences, we are all humans, with joys, grieves, qualities, flaws and secrets. Here are just a few examples (I will refer to characters either by their first or last name, depending on what is most common in the series).
- Servants are all decent, with two notable exceptions, who are real "villains": O'Brien and Thomas. Aristocrats are all decent, with two notable exceptions, who are real b**ches: Edith and Mary (although Mary reveals herself as more complex towards the end of Season 1).
- Servants cannot marry because of their function: Mrs Hughes turns down her lover; Carson is a long-time bachelor; the love between Anna and Bates remains chaste. The Crawley daughters cannot marry: Mary turns down pretenders including Matthew, who then turns her down; Edith is turned down by Anthony Strallon; Sybil is still young.
- William loves Daisy, who loves Thomas who prefers men. Edith loves Matthew, who loves Mary who does not love anybody. Both settings progressively evolve, however they occupy most of Season 1.
- Bates has a complex and shameful past: war, alcohol, thievery, jail. Mary has sexual relations before marriage, which was scandalous at the time, especially for an aristocrat; and it provoked the death of her lover Kemal Pamuk. All these terrible secrets will progressively be revealed.
- Various lesser intrigues between the aristocrats are echoed with the servants, and conversely. For instance: Thomas sends a letter to compromise Bates; Edith sends a letter to compromise her sister Mary. Gossip is widespread between the two milieus and within each.
On both above topics, "The Rules of the Game" (Renoir, 1939) greatly influenced the series as well as "Gosford Park" (Altman, 2001), written by Julian Fellowes himself. Yet "Downton Abbey" manages to create a specific atmosphere, distinct from these two movies.
If I had to rate Season 1 compared to a cinema feature, I would probably give it 7/10: despite all its qualities, it does have some downsides. Characters are Manichean. It triggers easy emotions. Some events are far-fetched (e.g. the feud between Mary and Edith, Kemal's heart attack). It mostly shows early 20th century as good old times and aristocracy as a benevolent power. The worst villains are all non-aristocrats: O'Brien, Thomas, Carson's ex-stage partner, the drunken mob at the suffragette rally.
However, most of these drawbacks can be explained by the series format, which generally requires simplification to maintain attention on the long term. Hence as a series it probably rates 9/10 for all the qualities briefly described at the beginning of this review. The final rating 8/10 is an average of the two: entertaining and convincing but not essential.
Shin Heike monogatari (1955)
Splendid epic and personal tale about oppression
"Shin Heike monogatari" ("The New Tale of the Heike") is considered as very specific in Mizoguchi's filmography: it apparently does not have an intimate style; women are reduced to secondary roles; it is in the classic form of Jidai-geki (period representations) with an epic story, action scenes and stylised characters. As such, it is slightly underrated. Nonetheless, Mizoguchi's touch is always present: it alternates epic and personal stories; psychology is important; the style is delicate.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
There is a perpetual movement between general and individual focus, as notably shows the alternation between overall and close images. The opening is outstanding: the movie starts with a high, general shot on a crowd, then pans down near different characters. High shots are repeated throughout the film.
Granted, it is an epic movie about the struggles between samurais, nobles and monks. However, it is always embedded in personal stories, so we feel directly concerned. The main hero Kiyomori was raised by the samurai Tadamori, but could be the son of the former emperor or of a monk: the outer conflicts between these three forces are also internal. Until the very end, this inner tension is not solved: he still loves Tadamori, although the latter was not his father, and we are uncertain if the final revelation on the fan is genuine or not (did Tadamori hint the ex-emperor was Kiyomori's father in order to smooth his grief?).
The most symbolic scenes are individual, not collective. For instance in the last scene, a courtesan dances with geishas in the countryside, disdainfully watched by Kiyomori: nobles are lost in sterile activities and intrigues while samurais are on the rise. Earlier, Kiyomori manages to drive away all the monks on his own, by just shooting two arrows on the sacred palanquins: a man with a right cause shall overcome hundreds with a wrong one. In the fabulous shot that follows, Kiyomori is sitting alone on stairs in front of a huge gate that seems to crush him: oppressive traditions still represent a danger.
In intimate scenes, the camera moves discreetly to highlight emotions. When Kiyomori begs his mother to stay, the camera follows them as she moves away; yet when he throws her down, it stops to stress how shocking this act is. At the end, when his mother reveals to Kiyomori who his father is, the camera slowly tilts towards him (an apparently useless move since both characters are in the frame).
There is another difference with "standard" epic films: if there are fights, they are always low-key. The ambush on Tadamori never occurs. When the monks attack the two men, the "battle" mainly consists of random weapon movements, seen from far away. When the Taira clan faces the monks later on, they just move and don't fight. When Kiyomori clashes with the monks at the end, he shoots two arrows on objects.
Remarkably, there is not one single death during the entire movie (warrior bodies are vaguely seen at the beginning, but the action took place beforehand and in a remote place). Tokiko's brother is only lightly wounded in the fight. The only exception is Tadamori committing suicide (probably), because he was dishonoured: we do not even see this act and it is related to psychology, not pure action. Hence the most violent scenes are psychological more than physical: Kiyomori throws his mother down; a minister pushes Tadamori with his foot; samurais, nobles and monks argue fiercely.
To illustrate the conflicts between the different parties, Mizoguchi beautifully uses colours (despite the fact the studio imposed its own technical process, which resulted in these being somewhat faded and yellowish). Soft colours are reserved for samurais (blue, beige, brown, grey, off-white). If they wear red it is usually pale. Interestingly, we will never see Kiyomori wear the vivid red kimono that Tokiko is weaving for him. At the end, when we see the fan on which Tadamori wrote the all-important revelation about Kiyomori's lineage, the colours are soft white and blue.
By contrast, nobles of the court and monks wear flashy red, bright yellow and intense white. The huge gate dominating Kiyomori at the end is naturally red. Previously, in a dazzling scene, the monks walk at dawn carrying flaming torches: they are associated to red again. Yet when their leader makes his speech afterwards, another high shot shows these flames produce a dark smoke: their seemingly appealing ideology actually obscures minds.
We witness an evolving world: power is still in the hands of despotic nobles and monks but is shifting towards samurais, as well as merchants. To illustrate this change, the movie insists on ambiguity and, here again, shows it at individual level. Here are a few examples, apart from the uncertainty regarding Kiyomori's lineage noted above: a merchant tells Kiyomori he must be rich, however the latter must sell his horse to buy sake; Kiyomori's "noble" mother is actually a former geisha; Kiyomori first thinks Tokiko is a servant dyeing cloth, while she is a noble; Tokiko's brother likes cockfights, which is undignified for a noble; Tadamori's carriage is imposing yet squeaks horribly when it moves.
To accentuate ambiguity, Mizoguchi uses very different music styles: epic-like during action scenes, intimate during personal scenes, dream-like during the two flashbacks. Regarding the latter, it is to the extent that we doubt these two scenes are real or not. Indeed, the flashback told by the merchant differs from the one told by Kiyomori's servant: where is the truth?
In summary, "Shin Heike monogatari" is a visually splendid tale that is more modern than it looks: it depicts the eternal struggle between oppression and rebellion that aims to change the world. Monks and nobles could be compared to fascists willing to manipulate and murder in order to preserve their power. The determined hero, regardless of his origins, will target their symbols of oppression: righteousness shall prevail as surely as a precise arrow shot.
Rogue One (2016)
Solid Episode 3.9: an extra brick in the SW edifice
After all, it is not so complex to make a good action movie.
DON'TS. No Jar-Jar Binks. No ridiculous Ewoks. No Muppet Show, as in Jabba's lair at the beginning of Episode 6. Don't cast the worst actor of the galaxy in the main role, as in Episodes 2 and 3. Don't uselessly plagiarise previous Episodes, as Episode 7. No gratuitous and/or inflated action. No awkward situations. No idiotic dialogues. No blabbering about the Force. No pseudo-Freudian heaviness about being one's father, about killing one's father, about finding one's path.
DO'S. Keep it simple, at last. Build a solid plot without inconsistencies. Maintain pacing, alternating fast and slow scenes. Justify action scenes with coherent reasons. Edit effectively. Insert funny dialogues. Cast talented actors (Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, etc.). Use efficient special effects for a valid point. Show gorgeous landscapes. Pay attention to details (examples: the broken glass falling into the vault highlights how imposing the place is; when Darth Vador emerges from darkness with his lightsaber at the end, the effect is striking). Renew the soundtrack and only hint at standard SW themes instead of recycling them throughout (although this can feel underwhelming for real fans). Resurrect late actors with CGI (Peter Cushing, Carrie Fisher), even though the result is not entirely satisfying. Have a mixed ending, where the mission is fulfilled but at the cost of many casualties.
Also, solve Episode 4 flaws. I have been wondering for almost 40 years: why the heck did the mighty Empire allow such a dangerous weakness in the powerful Death Star, which they built with great care? And how did the Rebels manage to get the secret plans? Now we know. "Rogue One" convincingly links with Episode 4: it purposefully stages situations and characters of the latter; it probably ends a few minutes or hours before Darth Vador jumps into an Imperial spaceship to chase Princess Leia who just flew away (regarding this, it would have been even better to see R2-D2 in her ship, in order to fully reconcile with the beginning of Episode 4, when she gives the plans to the droid). Nonetheless, the movie is more than just a spin-off: it is a full-blown Episode per se, with a developed story, credible new characters and real qualities. References to Episode 4 are not invasive: there is a fair balance between connection to the saga and autonomy.
WHAT IS MISSING? The movie is not very original, it feels rather formatted; but then is it possible to completely overhaul a franchise that already has 7 episodes? There is not much character depth; actually the most touching role is K-2SO and we almost feel sorry when he goes down. Apart from Chirrut's fighting skills, action scenes are standard. Some emotional scenes are a bit silly, although they are limited. This is why I can only rate the movie 7/10. Good, but not amazing.
STILL "Rogue One" is for me the best of the franchise to date. Here, I have to confess I am not a huge SW fan (sincere apologies to the real fans, the Force is not given to everybody). Second best would be Episode 4: pleasant, not too serious, sets a mythology, however the style and special effects are dated. Third best would be Episode 5: truly great scenes, yet there is too much talk about the Force and Darth Vader's revelation he is Luke's father falls flat (sorry, fans). Then Episodes 2 and 3: some good scenes but mostly over the top. Episodes 1, 6 and 7 have already fallen into oblivion.
"Rogue One" reviews are very contrasting. Some fans find it great, others feel cheated, which I can understand: the movie is not overwhelming and does not renew the saga. Yet it is entertaining, no-nonsense and visually impressive.
Indeed, appreciating action movies is very subjective because the border is thin between good and terrible. There is a subtle balance to find in dialogues, pacing, action, emotions and music: too much or too little of an ingredient, and it flops. Also, impeccable acting is paramount: the same role can feel awesome or awful depending on who plays it. For instance in "Rogue One", Chirrut and Baze are credible, individually and as a pair; however with less good actors they would just have been laughable. Likewise, the same dialogue can feel right or inane depending on how it is said (for instance between Galen and Orson or when Jyn and Saw meet again). Hence appreciation can easily fluctuate from one side to the opposite.
The main reason for this volatility is that action movies essentially rely on form with limited content, and form alone is always on the edge since it cannot be compensated by interesting substance. To me "Rogue One" passes the test, to an extent.
Polina, danser sa vie (2016)
Dance, art, personal achievement: uneven yet gripping
This is one of the most underrated movies of 2016: reviews were mixed; box office was reduced. Nonetheless, it is a great film about dance and art, even though it is not pleasant with just pretty dancing scenes: its ambition is greater.
Based on the graphic novel by Bastien Vivès ("Polina", 2011), it was directed by acclaimed choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and his partner Valérie Müller. It contains autobiographical elements: Preljocaj's parents were poor Albanian refugees (Polina's parents are lower middle class Russians); when he came to France he first lived in a modest suburb (Polina struggles financially after she leaves Aix); he studied classical dance before moving on to modern (just like Polina). Yet the aspiration of the movie is not to depict a specific story, but to illustrate the difficulties and beauty of dancing.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
"Polina" shows the evolution of its heroine through different fields: classical ballet, modern dance, improvisation, choreography. Every time she challenges what she learned before: she needs to strip off her previous knowledge to progress in a new field. Actually she even sometimes needs to perform the exact opposite: "You have light movements from classical ballet, but my postures are rooted into the ground", the modern choreographer Liria tells Polina. It is a constant search for beauty, perfection and exceeding one's standards.
That comes with hard work, injuries, failures, dead-ends and humiliations. Yet technique is not the ultimate goal of art, but only its basis: essentially, it requires a complete and disturbing challenge of one's own personality. Liria tells Polina: "You only focus on yourself, you need to be in harmony with your partner." Also: "An artist looks at the world." A great artist is not just a skilled, he/she must be open to his/her and others' sensations: he/she searches for truth, not just beauty. This is the profound meaning of what Polina tells her father in the bar when he asks her what she wants to do: "Discover the world."
The movie is frequently elliptical, which increases its enigmatic atmosphere. We don't see some of Polina's key moments, for instance her audition for the Bolchoi or what happens just after she leaves Aix. Her decisions remain unexplainable: she quits the famed Bolchoi to follow her lover to Aix, where she will start from scratch and perform modern dance she does not know; she leaves Aix because she is jealous, without any prospects; we don't know why she goes to Anvers, of all places renowned for modern dance. The end is mysterious (see below).
Most ellipses regard her family. We vaguely understand they smuggle clothing to pay for Polina's ballet studies, but it is not explicit. Later on, what is the Afghanistan route the father will take to pay the criminals? Who wrecked the family's apartment and why? Where does the father go afterwards? What does he eventually die of?
Regarding that, there seems to be two parallel movies: one about Polina's artistic progression, one about her family. However, this division is only apparent: the harsh parts with her family stress Polina's difficulties to progress personally. And far from trying to provide an easy background to the character, the family scenes increase the overall sense of loss, both for Polina and for us viewers through the ellipses and uncertainties noted above. We are lost as she is, in a materially and emotionally unstable environment.
This said, what are the limits of the movie? First, the structure is unbalanced. We spend a long time on ballet teaching (including when Polina is a child), less on modern dance, even less on improvisation and choreography. The latter part is not credible: one does not create such an outstanding performance without experience, only relying on "Let's try that" and "It looks good". Of course, the purpose is symbolic to show Polina's transformation, but it could have been introduced more progressively.
Second, the parts with Polina's family, despite the symbolic purpose noted above, are somewhat exaggerated. Certainly the action depicted does happen in real life, but we see little of her family apart from hardships. Last, there are many clichés (the poor child who succeeds, the frightful villains, etc.), even though they efficiently support the main themes.
In summary, "Polina" sometimes feels awkward and amateurish. Despite this, it is a challenging movie about art, emotions and personal accomplishment. If you are sensitive to dance, notably modern, it is worth viewing. Choreographies from Preljocaj are superbly conceived and performed as expected, although they only appear in the second part. Music is varied (baroque, romantic, modern, contemporary, techno), highlighting the importance of expression and energy over form. Remarkably, talented dancers emerge as good actors: Anastasia Shevtsova now performs in Saint Petersburg's famous Mariinsky ballet; Jérémie Bélingard is a first dancer at Paris Opera. Conversely, professional actors impress by their dancing skills, notably Juliette Binoche and Niels Schneider.
The end is compelling, mysterious and rather joyful compared to the general dark tone. Polina and her partner dance on stage, in fake snow. Apparently, they brilliantly managed to produce their work. It loops the loop with the beginning, when Polina was dancing outside in the snow. The contrast is striking, revealing her evolution: at the beginning, she was a child from a modest family, dancing randomly among tall dark buildings; at the end, she is a talented adult, performing on a stylised stage a stunning choreography of her own (actually created by Preljocaj himself of course).
We then see Polina quietly walking towards her former ballet teacher Bojinski. She smiles: she finally found her vocation and peace of mind. He smiles back as recognition of her achievements. However, it is unclear if these last two scenes are real or fantasised (Polina has a tendency to fantasise, for instance when she sees the deer in the snow). The movie ends on this beautiful uncertainty: art remains a moment between reality and dream.
Absurd parable on the absurdity of tyranny
"Repentance" is part of a trilogy produced on the long term, together with "The Plea" (1968) and "The Wishing Tree" (1977). Nonetheless, it can be watched as stand-alone. Its originality, outstanding aesthetics and compelling themes constitute a landmark in former USSR cinema, as well as worldwide. It is a fascinating metaphor on power, tyranny and ideology.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
The structure of the movie is as of "Russian puppets" (this comparison is of pure form, since it is Georgian): stories are imbricated in one another. There are six sequences, organised on four different levels.
1. PRESENT. A woman, Ketevan, and a man learn the death of Varlam.
2. IMAGINATION. (We first think it is a continuation of present action. The true nature of this sequence will only be revealed at the end.) Ketevan imagines she unearths Varlam's body and faces trial.
3. PAST. Ketevan during the trial describes how her childhood and family were destroyed by Varlam. It is hence an "imagined flashback" since it is included in part 2.
4. FANTASY. Four scenes are included in parts 3 and 5: Nino dreams (she and Sandro try to escape Varlam), Abel daydreams (he talks to a devilish character who is actually Varlam), Merab fantasises twice (he sees Varlam is crazy, Guliko dances near Varlam's body).
5. IMAGINATION (same level as 2). We come back to the trial.
6. PRESENT (same level as 1). We understand parts 2 to 5 were imagined by Ketevan.
This "Russian puppets" structure generates a sensation of confinement, on line with the environment: the story is limited to a town without any news from outside; time seems suspended although the action takes place over decades; we are lost in a indefinite period between modernity and Middle Ages (the horse carriage, the medieval armours). The confinement materialises an allegory: the focus is on symbols, not proportions nor accuracy.
Another trademark of the movie is its unique mix of reality and fantasy. For instance, Abel daydreams he sees Varlam eating a fish: when he comes to, his hands actually grasp fish bones. When Merab imagines Varlam is crazy, the scene seems real, and is probably based on actual facts: Varlam was somewhat lunatic, a feature that might have worsened with age. Conversely, many supposedly "authentic" scenes feel unreal. When Sandro comes back, he meets a man in suit and a blindfolded woman (Justice) playing piano outside. When Nino and her young daughter Ketevan look for Sandro's name on logs, the atmosphere is dreamlike or, rather, nightmarish: outstanding images, pace and music make this scene one of the most compelling of the movie, and of cinema in general.
The confusion between reality and fantasy even casts doubt on the movie's structure and credibility. Did Ketevan imagine all this, or only partly? What is true or not? Metaphorically, this incertitude illustrates the absurdity of tyranny: everything is irrational. Power is unpredictable: Varlam is grotesque but omnipotent; he suddenly changes from sympathy to repression; stupid accomplices become powerful. Nobody is safe: rules are arbitrary; people can be arrested or released randomly; a centuries-old temple is destroyed for no reason; opponents confess stupid acts (digging a tunnel between London and Bombay) and denounce everybody to weaken the system. Power transits from one generation to another unchanged (the same actor plays Varlam and his son Abel) until it destroys itself: Merab, unable to embrace the system or change it, commits suicide; Abel eventually unearths Varlam and throws him to the crows, exactly as Ketevan said she wanted to.
To carry on, despotism will use reasons that look logical but are arbitrary: scientific "progress" overriding everything else (the experiments endangering the temple), a minority presented as "the people" (the letter denouncing Sandro), external threats (repeated a few times), necessity of hardships that will bring better tomorrows (on the glorious music of "Ode to Joy"), senseless quotes celebrated as Gospel ("We will catch the black cat in the dark room, even if there is no cat"). The references to USSR regime are obvious. However, "Repentance" also delivers a general message about dictatorship: Varlam looks at the same time like Beria (glasses), Hitler (moustache) and Mussolini (black shirt, braces). Deep down, all tyrannies rely on irrationality that pretends to be rational.
On top of power, "Repentance" is a reflection about ideology. Varlam is cultured: he knows about painting and religious art, he sings, recites Shakespeare, quotes Confucius. So is his son Abel, who plays the piano. Yet knowledge is nothing, and even dangerous, if it is used for wrong reasons. Culture turns against itself: Sandro's paintings are confiscated; the artist Sandro is deported; the temple is destroyed; Varlam promotes precisely what Shakespeare's sonnet criticised. To save the world, we do not need brains but a heart.
A heart, granted, but how? Crushed by oppression, people are powerless. Ketevan, whose family was destroyed by Varlam, now feeds a ridiculous little man who supports the dictator; she can only imagine what she could do. Varlam's grandson commits suicide. Opponents collaborate and/or are deported. People fantasise to escape reality.
Nevertheless, for a heart and to escape oppression, one can turn to religion. As a reminder, religion was heavily repressed in USSR. Allusions to this repression include: the man at the beginning eats cakes shaped as churches; Varlam in Abel's dream eats a fish (reference to Christ: ICTUS); the temple crumbles and is finally destroyed. Yet as a sign of hope, the movie closes on the wise words of an old lady: "What good is a road if it doesn't lead to a temple?" Spirituality will carry on regardless.
In the end, what is the "Repentance" of the title? Merab's who realises how evil his grandfather was? Abel's who throws away Varlam's body? Ketevan's who regrets being unable to perform her imagined revenge? Others' lack of repentance? As the movie, the title encloses different levels of interpretation and remains partly mysterious.
La captive du désert (1990)
Contemplative and moving. Desert as an artistic subject
As a director, Raymond Depardon is renowned for his varied and excellent documentaries (he also is a photographer and journalist). He did direct a few fictional features, yet they are based on real facts or they have a documentary style.
"Captive of the desert" is fictional but based on the true story of a woman, Françoise Claustre, who was held hostage for almost three years by rebel tribes in Chad during the 1970s. Depardon actually met and interviewed Claustre while she was captive. The resulting footage had an important impact on public opinion and Claustre was liberated a bit less than a year afterwards. (For more information, see the Trivia section on IMDb.)
Fourteen years after meeting her in Chad, Depardon directed "Captive of the desert". These events almost constitute a case study of how life and images interact: on the one hand, his filmed interview partly triggered her liberation; on the other, the actual facts nourished his movie.
Nevertheless, Depardon's ambition with this movie is not exactitude, but art. Notably, it is a stylised metaphor about time. Also, the captive is shown in an isolated environment with limited communication, while Claustre had regular contacts with villagers. Last, there is a focus on magnificent landscapes, contrasting with the harsh captivity. Let's review the respective themes: time, solitude, nature.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
TIME. We lose track of time. First, there are no indications of the period: day of the week, month of the year. Second, transitions between scenes are elliptical: is a scene happening on the same day as the previous one, or the day after, or more? Third, we frequently have no clue of the time of the day: the sun is generally high, we rarely see dawn or sunset.
It seems time has stopped: the captivity feels endless. Shots are still like time: there are no camera movements. They stretch to their limits. Dialogues are extremely reduced. The rare sounds are repetitive: music on the radio, soldier playing an oud (small guitar), songs, wind.
There are two notable exceptions to this setting: the captive tries to escape; a plane comes to fetch her at the very end. Both scenes are all the more compelling as they contrast with the rest of the movie: they happen at night, noises are aggressive (the captive's footsteps, the plane engine), there is a time indication (before the last scene, the rebel chief says: "Tonight the plane will fetch you"). These breaches in the overall stillness highlight the captive's emotions during both scenes: as spectators we are excited as she is.
SOLITUDE. There is an implacable cultural gap between the captive and the surrounding environment. Discussions between natives are not translated: as the captive, we do not understand what they say. There are a few talks between the captive and others, however they are one-way and limited. We see some events (dance, song, ritual), yet they remain mysterious. Because he knows Africa very well, Depardon avoids both a dry ethnological vision and, reversely, a neat "postcard" view: these events are naturally shown, as the captive sees them.
Conversely, the captive is a subject of curiosity for the tribe. We do not know how she is called: she is reduced to her captive status. A soldier looks at her book, but reads it upside-down: obviously, he does not understand what is in there. Bewildered women look at the captive's belongings (magazine, notebook, postcards, etc.).
While the captive can establish some contact with women, the relationship with men is conflicting. There is a remarkable scene when she sits in the shadow and is chased by the soldier who silently takes her place: he imposes his power by his only presence.
NATURE. Images of the desert are superb, highlighted by overall silence. Depardon demonstrates his immense talent as a professional photographer. It is the best filming of this element since "Lawrence of Arabia" (Lean, 1962). However, while the latter was an epic using the desert as a dramatic setting, here it is shown at human level.
First, we understand the difficult conditions of a person not used to living there. Every object and activity becomes important and complex: water, food, recipients of different sorts, heat, cold (the blankets), washing oneself, washing clothes, etc.
Second, the desert is at the same time magnificent and menacing. Characters are frequently shown as small elements lost in its immensity. When they are close, they sometimes are dominated by nearby rocks or distant mountains, for instance when the captive sings with the two young girls: mountains perfectly surround them. This children song is also symbolical: the lyrics tell the tale of a "small ship that has never sailed". Later on, a scene illustrates these words: after she escaped, the captive walks in the dunes that look like waves. As the ship, she has "never sailed" in the desert. Hence, shapes and words are echoed by the desert, which encompasses everything.
The movie surprisingly closes on the plane fetching the captive: we do not see her going away. One cannot escape the desert: this experience will stay with her forever.
"Captive of the Desert" is beautiful, contemplative and moving. If you are sensitive to the poetry of desert landscapes, it is a definite must-see. Be warned, it is very slow. You need to be absorbed in its atmosphere to appreciate it: hence it probably needs to be seen in a cinema theatre rather than at home.
Regardless, a movie with such empathy for its character is rare: we feel what the captive feels, we perceive her dire conditions, we are immersed with her in the desert. What Depardon gives away in historic accuracy, we find back in emotions. Sandrine Bonnaire playing the main role is one of the best actresses of her generation and admirably supports the entire film. "Captive of the Desert" is more than a movie: it is an experience.
Poetic "Groundhog Day" without the fun
First of all, I kindly remind IMDb users that, if you want to click on "Yes" or "No" at the bottom of this review, the question is: "Was the above review useful to you?", NOT "Do you agree with the above review?", nor "Do you agree with the rating without reading the above review?". Thank you.
Second, just to explain where I stand, I do like artistic movies, even slow ones, and even some of Jim Jarmusch's. They are offbeat, contemplative and somewhat poetic. In "Paterson", poetry is obviously his chief ambition: the main character is an amateur poet, there are talks about (more or less) famous poets and it relies on "everyday poetry", if this makes sense.
- One poetic component is repetition: the main character has the same name as the city he lives in; we see many twins (thus a "double repetition"); events occur repeatedly; there are a few correspondences (for instance Laura has the same name as Petrarch's muse); the camera focuses on leitmotifs (watch, cereals, lunchbox, mailbox, beer glass, etc.). All this creates "internal rhymes" that, interestingly, are missing from Paterson's poems. What about these poems, by the way? They are sort of nice in their genre, however do we really need to hear them two or three times each, and see them written on top of that? It would have required an outstanding style, which I think is lacking.
- Another poetic ingredient is oddity: strange elements slowly spill into an otherwise ordinary life.The black and white motifs created by Laura progressively invade the house: curtains, painting, carpets, clothing, and even the spare wheel cover of their car. When Paterson and Laura go to the cinema, they watch a horror movie which is, echoing Laura's motifs, in black and white (an additional correspondence). Small objects have a magical touch, notably the matchbox. Everett draws a gun in the bar. There are uncommon encounters, for instance the young poetess, the separating couple and the Japanese tourist. Entertaining, in a way.
- Another phenomenon is the "enchanted bubble" sensation. It is a happy life: Paterson and Laura have a relatively easy time (although he seems on the edge, yet nothing wrong happens); they love each other; everybody is friendly; it is always sunny. There are no news from the outside world. The couple is isolated from family, real friends and neighbours, if any; they have no TV, no computer; he has no mobile phone. The rare issues are trifle: gang youngsters in a convertible just provide a fair warning; the Indian driver's problems are not so dramatic (especially considering how he describes them); Everett's gun is fake; the bus breaks down without consequences. The only drama is the loss of the secret book, however Paterson continues to write on another notebook given by Providence. Moreover, it is comforting to see hidden talents behind apparently simple personalities (writing, cooking, decorating, chess, etc.): it demonstrates we all have something to express.
- Last, there is some form of humour, notably with the above-mentioned invasive motifs, the grumpy dog and the contrast between Paterson and Laura. She is enthusiastic, eccentric, willing to try all sorts of activities; she dreams of fame and actually is rather talented. He is reserved, quiet, slightly puzzled by her; he just wants a peaceful life and is talented as well, as a writer. She always is onto something new (and sometimes weird) while he is stuck in routine. Amusing, to an extent.
And then? Well, that's about it. The movie mainly relies on these bits and pieces. It is enough for a short film, however here it drags on for almost two hours. In the end, the ensemble feels somewhat pointless: this is partly intentional, of course, but it did limit my appreciation.
So what is missing? Probably, "Paterson" does not go far enough in its ambition. For instance, the bizarre touch could have been pushed further, to explore a different dimension. Or the humour. Or the elaboration of a stronger poetic structure. Or a progression of some sort. Or the inclusion of themes, adding depth and triggering another emotion than just having a pleasant time.
I cannot rate the movie lower than 5/10 because it is not terrible. There are a few interesting ideas, characters are likable, it is laid back, it changes form the standard blockbuster. Yet I cannot rate it higher because it did not appeal to me: it doesn't have much substance, doesn't evolve and doesn't provide a lasting impression, unlike exceptional films that linger in the mind for days. Not bad, not great, just in the middle. Half-baked.
But then, appreciating poetry is very subjective. Hence it is understandable some persons find the movie captivating and rate it 10/10 (which is easier to defend than the same rating for "Police Academy 6"). On the other hand, it also is understandable persons find it utterly boring and rate it 1/10 (which is easier to defend than the same rating for "Citizen Kane"). Question of personal sensitivity to this style.
"Paterson" tries to illustrate James Tate's brilliant quote: "Poetry is everywhere; it just needs editing." Unfortunately, I missed the editing part. Maybe I am narrow-minded.
Hable con ella (2002)
Paradoxical, puzzling, enriching. Almodovar at his best
Almodovar's movies are generally strange, with eccentric characters, complex pasts, dark secrets, traumas, gripping revelations and dramatic changes. His message is: life is made of surprises, be open-minded, do not judge, appreciate people and events for what they are, not for what you think they are or what you want them to be.
On the one hand, "Talk to Her" is more moderate than most of his previous movies: the story makes sense, characters are apparently "normal", provocations are reduced, the music is lovely. On the other hand, what Almodovar tames in plot and roles, he unleashes in form and symbols. It is a peculiar movie, turning values upside down: our thoughts and emotions are puzzled.
*** WARNING : CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
MALE/FEMALE. Lydia is a bullfighter, a traditionally masculine activity. Benigno is a nurse, a traditionally feminine activity. Marco frequently cries (six times in total). There are homosexual undertones in the friendship between the two men.
Almodovar is fascinated by women. This movie is a tribute to them. Alicia and Lydia are the main characters, which is paradoxical since they spend a long moment in a coma.
PAST/PRESENT. The movie disintegrates time. It suddenly jumps ahead ("A few months later"); a "present" scene is repeated during a flashback; there is a long flashback ("Four years earlier"), which surprisingly ends as if Benigno were narrating it. The movie inserts five texts indicating periods, but this adds to the confusion since three other flashbacks are not indicated (Marco remembers an evening and a wedding with Lydia, Benigno writes a letter in jail).
LIFE/DEATH. The two comatose women seem alive. Alicia is treated like a living person: Benigno talks to her, cuts her hair, massages her and eventually makes love to her. When Benigno tells Marco he saw him crying at the theatre, he puts drops into her eyes: symbolically, she weeps as Marco did. When the two women are next to each other in their armchairs, their heads are tilted so that they seem to watch each other, and Benigno says to Marco: "It seems they are talking about us." After Lydia is hit by the bull, there is a subjective shot of people carrying her: we see what she sees as if she were alive.
The flashbacks noted above also "resuscitate" the two women, since we alternatively see them comatose and alive.
SANE/INSANE. Marco is reasonable, but achieves nothing: his former girlfriend left him, Lydia was also about to leave him, she dies, his best friend dies. Conversely, Benigno is somewhat deranged but kindly dedicates his life to other people: his mother, Alicia, Marco.
GOOD/EVIL. When characters make a good deed, it can have negative effects, and reversely. At the jail, Marco does not tell Benigno that Alicia is alive because he is uncertain how he could react; however, Benigno afterwards commits suicide to reunite with Alicia since he thinks she is still comatose. As an opposite example, Benigno rapes Alicia when she is unconscious, thinking it is a demonstration of love. It is a horrible act yet because of this Alicia will awaken.
BEAUTY/HORROR. Two comatose women, two deaths (Benigno's mother, Lydia), a suicide (Benigno), a rape, a stillborn baby: apparently, it is a sombre movie. Yet it is always decent and delicate. Also, out of these hardships, life emerges and hope blossoms: Alicia awakens and meets Marco.
COUPLE/LONELINESS. Relationships are either doomed (Marco separates from two girlfriends), either strange (Benigno loves a woman in a coma). Dialogues within couples are rare. Lydia barely talks to Marco and after her accident, he is unable to speak to her as Benigno urges him to. In the car, Lydia tells Marco they need to discuss after the bullfight. We await an important revelation, especially since we see this scene twice but Lydia falls into a coma (another bullfighter will reveal the secret).
By contrast, emotional experiences are mainly linked to friendship (Marco and Benigno) or individual connection to art. There are five key artistic scenes: three choreographies by celebrated Pina Bausch (one opens the movie and two close it), a fake film, a live song by celebrated Caetano Veloso. Interestingly, three of these five scenes are silent and two are sung: it highlights the superiority of art over articulated speech to communicate emotions and meaning.
- The movie opens on a choreography where two women blindly move while a man removes chairs so they won't bump into them. This announces the two unconscious women and Benigno taking care of Alicia.
- At the end, another choreography shows a woman carried in the air by men, while a glamorous song plays. It symbolises resurrection: of the two women shown at the beginning, only one remains alive (Alicia).
- The movie closes on a simple yet beautiful choreography, where couples slowly dance from left to right on the rhythm of a sensuous music. Their regular and tranquil pace reinstates the linear movement of time that was disturbed during the movie. In the last shot, a woman and a man are left alone on stage. It shows the seduction game will carry on with Alicia and Marco.
- The fake silent film extract is funny, erotic, incredible, gently caricaturing old cinema style. It reveals the desire of Benigno, who is a virgin, for Alicia. After seeing it and telling her about it, he makes love to her, which will bring her back to life. It also symbolises the desire to return into the mother's womb: a reference to Benigno previously being very close to his mother, permanently taking care of her.
- The live song is about a love story which, naturally, is desperate.
"Talk to Her" can be disconcerting: it feels topsy-turvy, it sometimes is bleak, some scenes are intimate physically or emotionally. Yet Almodovar enchants us, once again, by his graceful style, the touching personalities and his vision about art.
Madame de... (1953)
"It is only superficially that it is superficial"
At one point, André tells Louise about their couple: "It is only superficially that it is superficial." The same could be said about the movie. Initially, it is essentially seducing, glittering with stylish settings, elegant images, finely crafted dialogues and charming characters. It feels like a precise mechanism, paced by the movement of the earrings going from one hand to another, regularly coming back to the same persons (Louise possesses them four times, André and the jeweller each three times and Fabrizio twice). There is something comical about this movement, notably when André bewilderedly discovers them the second time.
But progressively, the smooth surface cracks open, revealing an outbreak of passions and eventually tragedy. Frequent mirrors already indicate we are seeing an artificial environment that is about to give way.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
Louise falls madly in love then becomes gravely ill, André loses control, Fabrizio switches from love to disdain, there is a duel. The futile movement of the earrings becomes increasingly dramatic: Louise sadly gives them to her niece; they trigger the separation between Louise and Fabrizio; she ruins herself to buy them back; she donates them to a church to avoid a disaster, that seems inevitable anyhow. These earrings are more than a McGuffin opening and closing the movie: they illustrate its evolution from a bright to a dark tone.
We build up certitudes during the first part of the movie, and they slowly fall apart.
- Louise first appears as a lovely, mundane, frivolous, deceitful lady, only absorbed in fancy clothing, jewellery, parties and dances. Yet we start feeling sorry for her because she is suffocating in her couple: symbolically, all scenes with her husband occur inside, while in exterior scenes she is alone or with Fabrizio. We then understand she is capable of boundless love: she becomes ill when she realises Fabrizio is turning away from her, she humbles herself in front of him. In a compelling shot, contrasting with her previous gorgeous images, she appears before him exhausted, in plain clothing, without jewels.
- André first does not seem to love Louise deeply: he is chiefly preoccupied by social conventions and appearances. However he finally admits he did everything for her: "To please you, I forced myself to play a role I do not like." He is hurt when he sees her devastated by love: he loses his temper and provokes a duel that will make him either a criminal or a dead man. This apparently dominating and arrogant character is actually touching.
- Fabrizio first looks like a superficial Italian seducer, only attracted by Louise's looks. Yet he genuinely gets to love her. He is hurt when he understands she lies to him. His resulting disappointment and sorrow are so intense he is willing to die: when André asks for a duel, he is not surprised or frightened. He calmly refuses to apologise, knowing he will probably be killed since André is more experienced.
Aesthetically, form evolves to reflect the downfall of the atmosphere and the characters. At the beginning, the movie is poised, with slow, long, fluid shots. Towards the end, the rhythm accelerates: shots are shorter, they lose control for instance by showing Louise in church with an inclined image. Then the movie ends brutally, without revealing the outcome of the duel (Fabrizio could just be wounded) and Louise's probable death (which is not certain). After an abrupt ellipse, it confusingly closes on a shot of the earrings in the empty church. The precise mechanism has jammed.
To emphasise the contrast between the first and the last part of the movie, Ophüls associates events that occur once in a light mode, once in a dark mode: the seeds of tragedy are sown from the start. A few examples, on top of the earrings mentioned above:
- At the beginning, Louise prays in church for a futile motive (she wants the jeweller to accept the earrings). At the end, she prays again in church for a more dramatic reason: she wants Fabrizio to survive the duel.
- At the opera, a friend tells André someone demands an apology because he stared at his wife: potentially this could turn into a duel, but André wittingly avoids the trap. At the end, André calls for a duel with Fabrizio precisely because he seduced his wife (although the official reason is different) and precisely asks the same friend to be his witness.
- At the dinner, Louise and Fabrizio sitting next to each other speak two different languages to other persons. This announces their future misunderstandings.
- During the hunt, Louise faints when she sees Fabrizio falling off his horse. Nothing serious: Fabrizio is safe and André jokes about his wife's ability to faint. At the end, Louise collapses again, but it is much more dramatic: Fabrizio was possibly killed, and she will probably die.
- At the club, André and Fabrizio argue politely while two swordsmen practice in the background. No harm done, yet these two fake duels announce the real one at the end.
- Louise repeats to Fabrizio "I don't love you", to express the opposite. This announces their future separation.
Fundamentally, "Madame de " is a tragic story about relationships destroyed by miscommunication: Louise and André could have been happy if each had not played a role drifting them apart; Louise's and Fabrizio's passion could have lasted if she had been sincere to him and to herself. The tragedy is all the more gripping as the movie starts in a light, delightful mode.
A last note: the movie is based on the short novel by Louise de Vilmorin written two years earlier. The movie roughly follows the same plot, also ending with Louise's death, although it sometimes diverges: notably, there is no duel in the novel. Regardless, the movie gives an altogether superior dimension to the story by magnificently illustrating the dramatic evolution.
Life of Brian (1979)
Satirical and cunning farce: you either love it or hate it
"God created man in His own image" (Genesis, 1:27). He gave him humour, and saw it was good. Later, God created cinema, and saw it was good.
Still later, God created the Monty Python, but was not sure it was good. It got out of hand, because this disrespectful bunch used God's creations, man, humour and cinema, to turn them against religion.
So the story goes: some believers think "Life of Brian" is blasphemous. It was banned on its initial release by several UK councils, Ireland and Norway. However, non-believers think this aspect is trivial. Let's try to neutrally assess how provocative the movie is.
In any case, the religious satire needs to be tempered by two caveats: the movie not only mocks religion, but almost everything MP can lay their hands upon; the blasphemous parts are not hostile nor gratuitous. Let's explore both elements. I won't discuss humour, because it is subjective (for me the movie is hilarious).
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
1. What do MP target apart from religion?
- People. Except Brian, humans are stupid and/or ridiculous morons. Brian's mother is greedy, vulgar and simple-minded. Persons quarrel foolishly precisely when Jesus voices his Sermon on the Mount, a message of love. Even Brian's girlfriend, brainwashed by ideology, abandons Brian on the cross when he asks to be freed.
- Crowds. If individually people are pathetic, when they gather, they also are ugly. Women cruelly regroup at the beginning to lapidate a poor lad whose crime is trifle. An insensitive mob plays with prisoners' lives by asking for irrelevant pardons to make fun of Pilate's pronunciation. Crowds blindly worship Brian: "We've got to work it out for ourselves", they repeat like brainless zombies. The suicide squad, well, commits suicide without freeing Brian.
- Oppressive power. Romans imprison, crucify and execute. Yet the powerful are laughable. The mighty Pilate and Biggus Dikus are grotesque. A Roman patrol, instead of arresting Brian for a graffiti, makes him copy a hundred times "Romans go home" in Latin (a reference to the slogan "US go home" during the Vietnam War, which ended four years before the movie was released).
- Vain ideology that delivers no results (a possible reference to left-wing politics). To resist oppression, the rebel group displays an impressive incompetence. They spend more time fighting each other than against Romans (People's Front of Judea, Judean People's Front, Judean Popular People's Front). They just talk pompously and don't manage to perform one single effective action during the entire movie: only does Brian graffiti the fortress. The rebel leader is cynical, cowardly and short-sighted.
- Themselves. Like a schoolboy bunch, MP make fun of everything including their own movie. Each of them plays different roles, some completely silly. Graham Chapman appears in frontal nudity, very rare in cinema at the time. They introduce an absurd and useless scene parodying Star Wars (WTF?), whereby a spaceship captures Brian (FWTF?) and crashes after a battle (FWTFF?).
2. The movie iconoclastically tackles various religious fundamentals. MP argued their movie is heretical, not blasphemous, because it mocks dogma but not God: granted, even though the representation of Jesus is ambiguous (see below). Also, it sometimes feels as if it does not criticise religion as much as the usage people make of it, since they are dumb as noted above.
- The Nativity. The three Wise Men mistake Brian for Jesus, implying the Latter was a man like any other.
- The Crucifixion. Brian ends on the cross like Jesus: the loop with the initial confusion is looped. Crucifixion, which was actually widespread, is not shown as horrible but as a relatively minor punishment. The final scene is not tragic but comical: the crucified sing "Take a look on the bright side of life", one of MP's best songs. Understandably, this sequence was highly controversial.
- The Messiah. It is easy to become one like Brian: a few words, some mystery and crowds will follow senselessly. Faith, as love, is blind.
- The Sayings. Jesus's Sermon is misunderstood ("Blessed are the cheese-makers", "Blessed are the Greek"). Yet it is unclear who is being made fun of: people who miss the point, or Jesus who accumulates the "Blessed are". Jesus is surrounded by a halo, but this positive view could be first or second degree.
- Relics. When Brian drops a gourd and a shoe, his followers absurdly split into two groups, each worshipping a different relic. And that is how sects are born...
- Fear. Religion is based on fear (Hell, Judgement Day, the deadly sins, the ten commandments, crucifixion representations, prohibitions). In the movie, would-be prophets distil fear with dreadful predictions... until a lunatic turns this rhetoric upside-down ("A friend shall lose his friend's hammer"). Again it is not clear if the target is religion, or people who need to be frightened in order to orientate their deeds.
- Wows. A hermit breaks his silence wow... because Brian stepped on his foot. Wows appear as a useless and easily reversible commitment.
In summary, "Life of Brian" is farcical yet meaningful, richer than its simple blasphemous reputation: it blends MP's unique style into a consistent and funny satire. Historically well documented, it arguably is the best of the three movies they directed, less gratuitous and nonsensical than "Holy Grail" and "The Meaning of Life".
Behind the farce, the movie delivers a hedonistic message: even if life is bleak, let's have fun. People are idiotic and cruel, but also laughable. Oppressive powers can be ridiculed. Humans are condemned, but show resilience by singing. Ideology can be a risible delusion. We don't know if religion is right or wrong, but it can be caricatured.
You will not like this movie if you are hermetic to MP's humour or if your religious beliefs are hurt, both being understandable reactions. But then, isn't comedy always irreverent?
Det sjunde inseglet (1957)
A fable about life, death, religion and salvation
"The Seventh Seal" is a fable and, as all fables, encloses an allegory and a final message. The allegory is: life on this earth is precarious, harsh, aimless. People err, fight against elements and each other, hesitate between religion and profane, look for God. The movie explores different reactions. The knight Antonius searches for a purpose, questions his faith and God. His squire Jons became atheist and cynical. The former devout Raval profits from ambient chaos with theft and violence. The silent girl is mystical, as we eventually discover. Priests impose a radical version of religion (see below). The artists enjoy a simple life.
The message is: enjoy as the artists a life of love and simple pleasures. While the context is pessimistic, the ending is optimistic: Jof, Mia and their son survive and in the last image walk quietly towards the sun. Note the additional religious symbol: Jof's full name is Joseph, Mia's is Mary and their baby appears as the young Jesus. This echoes the vision Jof has the beginning of the movie, when he sees the Virgin with the Infant. The underlying point seems to be: revert to the authentic learning of Christ, do not follow religious propagandists who impose their power with fear, useless crusades, masochist rituals, purification by fire and executions.
Religion is omnipresent: scary frescoes, clergy, procession, dialogues, rules and, of course, the biblical quote repeated at the beginning and the end that gives the movie its title. Death also is omnipresent: at the beginning on the beach we think Antonius and Jons are lifeless; Death appears in person; people succumb; Skat's death mask shows at different moments; in the inn there is a live pig, while a dead one roasts in the middle; when Skat seduces a woman, they eat chicken, before a live chicken appears.
The artists overcome both death and the drastic version of religion. This opposition noticeably shows during the village feast. Jof and Mia stage a ludicrous and blasphemous song that is actually quite well performed and funny: we are sometimes unsure if animal noises are coming from actual animals or humans; the images of Skat seducing a plump woman, while the song unrolls, add a peculiar comical element. A religious procession then interrupts the song; a monk frightens and insults the crowd; the procession resumes. This moment constitutes one of Bergman's most powerful scenes. We are shocked by the image, impressed by the music, can almost smell the thick incense. Berman's view on this ritual is obviously negative: at the end, the procession is filmed in despising high-angle shot where characters are reduced to miniatures and shadows, then dissolved leaving an empty image on a dusty road.
Conversely, the view on the artists is positive. They trigger all good moments in the movie. They are generally associated with bright lighting, while other scenes are mostly dim or hazy: the beginning on the beach; inside the church, the inn and houses; the procession; the forest; the execution at night. And even though Jof is somewhat ridiculous, he is the only one to have meaningful visions: the Virgin Mary and Death.
Scenes with the artists are of simple poetic beauty, for instance at the beginning or when they share fresh milk and strawberries with the knight. All five senses are fulfilled: the food is delicious, the sun is shining, Mia says the baby and the strawberries smell good, Jof plays calm music, characters feel the evening breeze in their hair. The artists manage to expel Antonius's dark thoughts: when he asserts that "To believe is to suffer", Mia proposes strawberries and he relaxes. Dialogues are poetic: "I will remember our talk and carry this memory in my hands, as if it were a bowl of fresh milk", Antonius says as he drinks from the bowl.
He is transformed after meeting the caring family. Thanks to them he eventually finds a purpose: saving them. At the end he scatters the chess pieces so Death will not notice they are going away. Probably, he even loses intentionally so Death will take his life and not theirs: he is willing to sacrifice his meaningless life for their happiness.
To show he is on the artists' side, Bergman does more than exalt them: he adopts their style. Notably, the movie has a burlesque humour that resembles the artists', for instance when Skat elopes with the blacksmith's wife or when he dies. Even Death is ridiculed: it is outplayed by Antonius at chess and has to use a subterfuge in church to discover his plans; it has to physically saw the tree on which Skat is perched to kill him; it does not notice Antonius's ploy to save the family; when Antonius asks for the truth, it confesses: "I know nothing."
Another illustration of the complicity with the artists: some scenes are filmed as in a play, for instance when Skat and the blacksmith argue about the latter's wife. The rest of the group is watching and commenting as for a performance.
Staging the story during Middle Ages allows Bergman to inflate allegory, farce and detachment. As such, it is a unique movie in his extended filmography, and one of his best. ("The Virgin Spring", shot three years later, also is a medieval fable, but it is much darker.)
Moreover, Bergman introduces references to our modern world that increase the impact of the fable. Jons says about the procession: "Is this what is offered to modern men? Do they believe we will take this seriously?" Deaths and the looming plague are references to WWII that ended just 12 years before the movie and the cold war that was at its height. There is a universal message about finding scapegoats (the alleged witch) in dire periods.
Yes, we can prevail in this sombre world, provided we have love, humour and a poetic vision.
Vera Drake (2004)
Realism transcended by art and exceptional acting
On the surface it looks simple: a "realistic" movie depicting 1950 London and portraying a kind character fighting unfair anti-abortion laws. But is it just that?
REALISM TRANSCENDED BY IMAGE...
Granted, the historical reconstitution is convincing. Exteriors and interiors are life-like. Social types are well outlined. However Mike Leigh sublimes this realism, providing an archetypal rendering.
Colours and lighting have a purpose: showing the opposition of living standards. On the one hand, cold colours and dim lighting for middle and lower classes: dwellings, workplaces, etc. On the other, warm colours and bright lighting for upper classes and institutions: homes (including Frank's), doctor, psychiatrist, clinic, courtroom, jail, etc. This contrast is by no means "natural": notably, the brightness in jail is surprising.
The camera emphasises this opposition: we seem to bump into walls and persons at Vera's home; shots are close, camera movements are rare as if we could barely move. In contrast, in the bourgeois' home, shots are more distant and the camera moves as if to benefit from available space.
This sublimed vision has an objective: going beyond the description of a period to deal with universal themes, i.e. social classes, money, abortion, justice, values.
... AND BY ACTING
Main actors rehearsed extensively before shooting started: lengthy discussions about script and characters, thorough documentation about the period and personalities, improvisation of scenes that were afterwards used in the movie or not. This largely explains the "real life" feeling of the movie.
However, just as noted above for image, this acting method transcends roles: actors do not just portray historical persons, they enrich characters with their own personalities and emotions. Immersion is a two-way street: actors grow into roles and inversely characters are modelled on actual individuals. This provides extra depth to characters and makes us feel closer to them: they are just not bygone persons, it seems we could meet them nowadays.
It has been said many times, nonetheless let's repeat: Imelda Staunton's performance is absolutely outstanding and explains to a large extent the quality of the movie. Other actors are also excellent, even in minor roles.
CHARACTERS WE CAN CONNECT TO
All characters are sympathetic with only two exceptions: Lily who immorally profits from abortions and black market; Joyce who is rigid and greedy. This approach is intentional: we understand how everyone thinks. A doctor informs the police, but has no choice. The police arrest Vera, but are decent. A mother gives Vera away, but only after undergoing pressure from the police. A doctor and the psychiatrist benefit from the abortion "business", but are confined by the system. The magistrate is ruthless, but complies with the law.
Conversely, if Vera is kind, she is not a saint, which prevents the movie from being one- sided. She means well, however her methods are dangerous: because of her a young woman almost dies. Technically she "helps young girls out", yet fails to deliver an essential psychological support: once finished she goes rapidly, leaving the despaired women alone. She is so naive she does not understand her "friend" Lily is exploiting her. She does not evaluate the consequences of her action, notably for her family who at the end is left morose.
ABORTION: IS THE MOVIE PRO-CHOICE?
The movie is not a straightforward pro-choice manifesto. We hear arguments from both sides. On the one hand, the friendly Sid cannot understand nor forgive what Vera has done. Even the fair Stan and Frank do not take sides. There is a general condemnation of abortion.
On the other, wealthy families can bypass the law, while poor or even middle-class families cannot. Because abortions have to be illegal, a woman almost dies. Reg delivers a powerful quote: "It don't seem fair. Look at my mom: six of us in two rooms. It's all right if you're rich, but if you can't feed them, you can't love them, can you?" Hence the message is pro-choice in the context of social inequalities. Is this message universal? Each spectator will decide for oneself.
We witness seven abortions (of which six performed by Vera) in different contexts, which illustrates the complexity of the topic: rape, inability to raise another child, infidelity (probably), prostitution (probably).
I believe every major movie has at least a prominent scene, condensing its main qualities. "Vera Drake" has two. The first one is when the police arrive at Vera's home. We go through a roller-coaster of emotions: surprise, incredulity, fear, despair, resignation. The dialogue between the inspector and Vera is exceptionally intense, highlighted by sharp reversed shots.
The other scene is at the police station, when Vera reveals to her husband Stan what she has done. At first, two officers are in the background. Slowly, the camera zooms in Vera and Stan: one officer moves off-screen. Then Vera bends over to Stan, hiding the other officer: Vera's action has turned from unlawful to personal. There is an incredibly tense moment when she cannot voice what she did while he eagerly waits for the revelation. Finally she whispers to his ear something we cannot hear: her action is beyond audible words.
The movie progressively moves from a light to a dark mood. It first depicts the modest but happy life of a woman and her family. There are a few humorous moments: Sid tailors a suit for a half-wit, the family gathers, they go to the movies. Increasingly, sad events disrupt this ambiance: Vera takes care of a poor family and her ill mother, she performs illegal abortions, a woman is raped, Vera is arrested. It then goes completely downhill... until the final twist: in jail, Vera realises that illegal abortions are commonplace and that the horror of being imprisoned seems trivial to many women.
In summary, "Vera Drake" manages to reconcile opposites: simple yet powerful, realistic yet artistic, meaningful without propaganda, intense without exaggeration.