Archive for July, 2009


if you go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

A grieving, traumatised couple go off to stay in a log cabin in deep, dark woods, miles away from any amenities or civilisation. They’re just asking for it, aren’t they?

I should say that I’m not very familiar with Trier’s work. I saw Dancer in the Dark when it came out, but I wasn’t really into cinema then and I think I dismissed it as propaganda and suffering-porn. However, Charlotte Gainsbourg has had a pretty good track record recently (Lemming, Golden Door) and I was made curious by all the fuss. I may draw the line at Bruno, but this blog isn’t going to be terribly interesting if I just watch the same 60s films by the same directors all the time…

Anyway, I digress. I felt that Antichrist might be drawing on certain texts that you need to know to get the full picture, and which I didn’t. People have mentioned Nietzsche and the dedicatee, Tarkovsky, neither of whom I’ll be tackling on Mastermind any time soon. I don’t know my Bible terribly well either, which is unlikely to help. I definitely thought of Brueghel a few times.

People have also muttered darkly about misogyny. But my stab in the dark, which according to the director is a valid as anyone’s, is that he doesn’t much like the therapist or his new religion of analysis. The therapist digs merrily away like a boy given a sandpit in Fred West’s garden; he excavates deeper and deeper, getting in way over his head, determined to get to the core of the matter. Warning signs are shrugged off, he ain’t afraid of no ghost. Doing so unleashes demons he hasn’t bargained for and cannot control. 

At a critical moment towards the end, he’s trying to hide in a fox hole. He lights a match to look around him, and sees a fluttering shape. It’s a sleeping crow. He prods and disturbs it, it wakes, starts screeching, and gives away his hiding place. Seemed significant.

The film is split into a prologue, four chapters and an epilogue. Like Pasolini’s Salo, each new chapter is announced by a title screen which makes your stomach lurch a little; if the last bit was that bad, what are we in for next? It’s like the dread you experience on a tranquil stretch of a rollercoaster ride.


The prologue and epilogue are the only parts with music; a nice soothing Handel, with tinkling harpsichords and a fat lady singing. The images shot in a lush, bluish black & white and everything moves in the slowest slow-mo. It’s terribly stylised. Late one night, He (Dafoe) and She (Gainsbourg) are having sex. The slow-motion makes Gainsbourg’s gaping mouth look all the more ecstatic. As they fuck their toddler climbs out of his cot, passes the open door of their room, climbs onto a desk and, teddy bear in hand, jumps out and glides, slo-mo, to his death. Close-up of snowflakes landing on the teddy bear. Don’t Look Now, Secret Ceremony, so far we’re on a well-trodden path.

One month later, She is in hospital and the doctors are keeping her zonked out with a cocktail of various pills. He is a therapist who disapproves of these doctors, thinks he could do better, and wants his wife back. She comes home, flushes her pills down the lav and submits to his treatment.

Dafoe’s character is trying to do right by his wife and is probably a decent bloke, but we sense that his unshakeable certainty sets him up for a bit of a fall. He is Dawkins-ish and rather annoying. His insistence on the primacy of “rational thought” leaves no room for any sense of mystery in the workings of the world. Also, we wonder about the wisdom of being your own wife’s therapist; won’t it blur a few boundaries? Something slightly incestuous about it? “You were never interested in me before. But now I’m your patient”, she complains.

As she works through the enormous grief and guilt, Gainsbourg wants quite a lot of sex to calm her down. But, she’s told, you can’t sleep with your therapist- unless he can’t find any other way to stop you smashing your forehead against the toilet bowl, that is. Dafoe sees the sex as a sticking plaster, but is determined to pull out the tumor and repeatedly asks his wife what her greatest fear is. The only things that comes to her are the woods where their log cabin, tellingly called Eden, is located. She and the child spent the summer there without hubby, as she wrote her thesis.

He tells her to visualise herself in Eden, walk in the woods and lie down on the plants and foliage. We see her do this in her mind’s eye, her body slowly turning green as she merges withe the grass. It’s very dreamlike and it looks good. When they go to Eden itself, however, it’s all jerky handheld shots and stock horror film stuff. There’s mist everywhere, the bare trees look malevolent, their branches like daggers, they’re walking to their isolated cabin with huge backpacks, etc.

The therapy sessions are making Dafoe more of a dad than a partner. But at night, it’s Gainsbourg who is the cool head and Dafoe who panics. There’s a constant rattle from the oak trees shedding acorn onto the roof of the cabin. One morning, Dafoe wakes with a hand dangling out the window and is horrified to see it covered in white lichen. The sessions continue and he scribbles countless pyramids, trying to work out what sits at the top of her hierarchy of fears. Satan? Nature? Herself?

Dafoe keeps digging and finds some difficult home truths about what happened in the woods last summer. A series of Polaroids show that Gainsbourg had been putting her son’s shoes on the wrong feet every day. A rummage through the attic reveals her unfinished thesis, about the torture and murder of innocent women in the middle ages. The handwriting gets progressively messier and more infantile. Period prints and sketches of torture line the walls. She’s obsessed with a fictitious constellation called The Three Beggars, represented by a fox, crow and deer.


These three animals confront Dafoe in turn. On arrival in the woods, he spots a deer and silently approaches it. There’s a dead baby deer dangling from its womb/pouch. Later, he’s telling Gainsbourg how well she’s responding when a small dead animal, covered in ants, falls from the trees. A crow swoops down to carry it away and eat it. The same crow gets him into trouble later. Then, when CG runs off in a sulk, he encounters a fox pulling out its own innards. The fox gazes up and tells him, “Chaos reigns”. The three animals enter the cabin at the end too. Their significance remains oblique and we wonder if Trier’s having a laugh.

The therapy is steered into discussion of Gainsbourg’s thesis, and it seems that something snaps in her- here comes the misogynist bit. She confesses that the more research she did, the more she agreed with the religious zealots who punished women for being wicked by nature. She gets cross when Dafoe refuses to hit her in bed (“You don’t love me”), and runs outside to lie by the trees and finger herself. In this Savonarola mode, she comes out with some good lines; “A crying woman is a scheming woman”.

Then we lurch into all the gore, and the scenes that everyone is talking about. Ok, the film makes no bones about operating within the horror genre. You could argue a convincing enough case that what happens is a logical conclusion to all the sexual hang-ups and punishment fixation. But something about the gore felt cheap and cynical. We all felt a bit sick and had to look through our fingers; and yes, that sensation is probably enough to send most of an audience home happy. It bypassed the brain to hit us in the gut, and it was a bit like Gainsbourg wanting her fix of how’s-yer-father to get her over the next funny turn.

Gainsbourg doesn’t come out of psychotic mode again. Dafoe enquires, gingerly, “Did you want to kill me?” and is told “No, not yet. The three beggars aren’t here yet.” Whether through self-defence, or as admission that his cure has failed, he kills her by strangulation. It takes an age, Gainsbourg lays on the full death rattle with the tongue sticking out, giving an echo of her face in the opening sex scene. The epilogue has Dafoe limping towards civilisation; Handel and the glossy photography again. Thousands of faceless women emerge in the forest, and walk past him. Don’t ask me.

Most likely the ambiguity is deliberate. Trier may be stamping over consecrated ground, but I got the feeling that he’s a good Catholic boy at heart. If you really want to see a film that’ll make you think a bit about evil and nature and religion and men and women, you could do far worse. If you really want to see Charlotte Gainsbourg cut her clit off with a pair of rusty scissors, you probably need to get out a bit more.


“There’s no need to discuss loneliness. It’s a waste of time.”

The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963)

I thought I ought to dip back into classic Bergman to wipe the memory of that castastrophic “comedy” from my brain, and I cannot quite believe that these two films were made back-to-back. The Silence is a dark film that packs a punch, that sees people at their worst and meets them with a fixed, unflinching stare. Bergman at his most mysterious and troubling.

It has very little dialogue, but lots of people-watching. He lets his brilliant cast improvise their way around the hotel, and captures the magic. The lack of words gave it an oddly novelistic feel, like watching the equivalent of an interior monologue. The focus is on the little things you see, gestures and glances. The abstract settings -we don’t know where they are or why, the locals speak a Balkanish language that Bergman invented- cut you off from your moorings and cause you to share the characters’ feelings of being utterly lost.

Sven Nykvist, his usual cinematographer, ensures it has that recognisable Bergman look. Across the course of the day plentiful crisp, white light gradually gives way to darkness and heavy shadows. Most of the action happens in a hotel that looks like it was once grandiloquent (wide Marienbad corrdiors with chandeliers) but is rather run-down now. You see just enough of the outside world (Anna’s excursion, Ester’s glances out the window at rolling tanks and a starving, ancient pack-horse carrying a cart sky-high with furniture) to sense that beyond the gloomy hotel it only gets scarier still.

They say this film is the third part of Bergman’s “silence of God” trilogy, but these people have forgotten the God question and I felt the title simply meant the emptiness of human existence. Rooms are jail cells of our own construction, we can’t communicate with other people or trust them, the harder we try to more damage we end up inflicting, the certainty of death looms over every move; is this all there is?

The acting is very good indeed, in particular Ingrid Thulin as Ester, a gravely ill translator. Her characters always have an intimidating quality. When she looks at the people around her, contempt vyes with pity for these people who understand so little. But she’s in a dark, dark place where no-one would ever wish to be. The most memorable performance I’d seen from her hitherto was Cries & Whispers, where she shoves a broken bottle up her vagina; you get the general idea. If you met this woman at a party, one look into her eyes and a voice inside you would whisper, “Keep well away”. Gunnel Lindblom is also strong as her sultry sister Anna, and the young boy Jorgen Lindstrom brings a curious, Pinnochio-like features to Anna’s son Johan.

It starts in a train carriage, where the three sit silently with no exposition. Anna’s forehead glistens with sweat and she fans herself with anything to hand. Ester sits impassive in a suit, until she collapses into a silent coughing fit. The yin/yang of life and death, sensuality and formality divides the two sisters from the very start.

Johan is sent into the corridor where he sees a beautiful shot of the sun rising from behind hills. He’s transfixed by the view, soon replaced by rows and rows of tanks. The train arrives at its destination and the noise of traffic jams and newspaper vendors interrupt the revery.

We rejoin the family in a hotel room. Ester is in bed, Anna complaining about the heat. She goes to the bathroom, leaving the door open (a lot of things are glimpsed through doorways in this film). She moves off-camera in her dressing gown, then is visible again as she walks naked towards the bath. Johan is called in to scrub her back. He can’t contain his Oedipal thrill and presses his face against her neck. She lets him hold it there for a few seconds, then sends him out.

Ester smokes, drinks, coughs, tries the radio, makes copious notes in a thick book. When the elderly porter, with huge glasses and a toothy grin, is summoned, he does not respond to French, English or German. She hands him the empty bottle of spirits; a language everyone speaks. The camera tilts back behind her, almost horizontal, as she puts her hands inside her pyjamas and idly masturbates. Her teeth are bared, then she rolls over to sleep. The camera pulls away respectfully.

As on the train, Johan has lots of time to himself and is often banished to the corridors. He wanders, using a child’s imagination to entertain himself; he hides from workmen, gazes at a Rubens painting of a centaur apprehending a nymph, and ‘shoots’ people with his toy gun. Johan walks in on six dwarves and ‘shoots’ them. They welcome and indulge him, dressing him up in their circus costumes. When the boss dwarf comes back, he is politely escorted out as the terrified dwarves rush to clear away the beer bottles.

Anna goes out and has a milkshake in a café, as people browse newspapers in this strange language of theirs. The waiter is surprised to be paid with a banknote that’s almost A4; these tourists are a funny lot. He puts her change onto the table, pushes one coin onto the floor, then kneels to retrieve it and have a very good look at her legs. There’s something slightly monstrous about the absence of any subtlety. At the hotel, Ester and Johan eat. Johan flinches away from her touch. “Only mummy can touch you, isn’t that right?”

From the back row of a cabaret club, Anna watches the dwarves perform acrobatics. To her right, a couple are heavy petting. Her dress unbuttoned, the woman sits astride the man and both lean back horizontally, their faces far apart. Again it looks a little grotesque, reminds us of Iago and the “beast with two backs”. Anna turns to walk the crowded city streets; everyone she passes is male, every fifth person seems to be a maimed soldier. She is heading to the café to see if that waiter is still there.

As Anna has her waiter, Ester has her porter. He calls the wandering Johan in from the corridor as he eats. He swigs from a hip flask and, with great emotion, shows the boy photos of a funeral. This maudlin chap is probably the only one who could put up with Thulin, tossing and turning and falling out of bed and always talking about her imminent death. Anna returns and runs another bath, this time closing the door on Ester; “To think I was ever afraid of you”. Ester follows, scrutinises Anna’s discarded dress, and extracts a confession- Anna bluntly tells her that she picked up a waiter and they fucked in a church. Under her reserve, Thulin exudes a mixture of deeply hurt/rather titillated. They all sit around and listen to Bach; the delighted porter is a big fan.

Later Anna meets her man in the corridor and Johan watches as they disappear into a room together. He stands with his ear to the door. As Anna sprawls naked on the bed and, smirking, slowly removes her bangles, the camera gives a POV of the man looming over her. Cut to a birds eye view of Johan, exiled to the corridors that look far too big for him. Ester is in bed, snoring. Her open hand makes a fist. The water jug and glass at her bedside start to rattle; outside, tanks are rolling through a medieval square.

Anna rests her head on the waiter’s chest, his sholders covered in bloody scratches. “How nice that we don’t understand each other”, she murmurs as she kisses his wounds. They hear Ester, crying at the door; Anna lets her in and returns to kissing the man. Averting her eyes, Ester shuffles to the foot of the bed and asks what she’s done to deserve this.

Anna responds with a full airing of greivances. You’re egocentric, you think everything so important. You talk of love but you’re full of hate. Why don’t you kill yourself? This scene is played out with Ester kneeling in the left of the frame, Anna kneeling above her and holding onto the bedhead bars that separate them. To the far right, the uncomprehending man sits back and looks on, like the furthest satellite to this suffering. 

When Ester walks out Anna is hysterical, pushing her lover aside and smashing a light. She clings to the bars at the foot of the bed and sobs solidly; behind the man paws at her, kisses her, enters her. Sensuality has gone from an expression of will and positivity, to a transaction as empty and unsavoury as any other between two people.

Next morning, Ester is back in bed and Anna announces that she and Johan are leaving. The hapless porter sits with Ester as she rants about her aversion to semen. “But in the end, the forces are too strong. The horrible forces.” We momentarily wonder if she’s going to drag the porter into bed, but Bergman shows us mercy for once. Instead Ester recalls her father, who was “so big and heavy”, until her monologue gives way to manic coughing, thrashing wildly about on the bed, all gasps and gurgles.

When she finally lies back the camera is at the bedhead and we are reminded of her masturbation scene. There is so much white light being flooded onto her face that she looks like a photo negative. She pulls the bedsheet over her face.

Just as we think it’s ended, a tentatively positive epilogue; Johan comes back to say goodbye and she gives him a letter- a short glossary of words from the local language. He reads it on the train back; Anna wants a look but isn’t much interested. The film ends with a close-up of Johan’s face- he’s scrutinising the letter, as if he might find therein some clue about what has become of the women and what might become of him. Two films later, Bergman would take these themes and make something even more extraordinary with Persona; but on its own terms this film is magical.


Franco my dear, I don’t give a damn

Les Routes Du Sud (Joseph Losey, 1978)

My first viewing of a very hard-to-find film by my favourite director. It’s a fairly quiet, twilight film, one of looking back and summing up. All those battles and struggles, where did they get us? It’s nostalgic in the sense that it holds youth up against the old guard in their youth and decides that they don’t meet the mark. It demonstrates an anxiety about the impassable gulf between the veterans and their kids who have “no good, brave causes” to fight for. It’s also, sorry to say, pretty boring for long stretches.

Jean Larrea (Yves Montand, looking a lot like Chris Langham) is an exiled Spaniard who fought in the civil war. Now he’s a novelist and scriptwriter with a farmhouse outside Cherbourg, a doting wife Eve and a son with whom he’s perpetually fighting. To keep his hand in, he sometimes smuggles anti-Franco newssheets into Spain and does little jobs to help out the resistance. His son Laurent reminds them it’s 1975 and mocks the futility of it, and Montand is perpetually throwing him out of the room, the house, or telling him to go to hell.

You feel that the film wants you to share the dad’s/Losey’s Victor Meldrew viewpoint and despair at these directionless, glib youngsters; but it’s hard to disagree with them. “20 years worshipping Stalin, then 20 years wondering how he could have been fooled”, mocks the son. Larrea’s house has all the stock references- a framed photo of the falling soldier above his desk, a large print of Guernica, and we’re supposed to revere his cause. Personally I’ve always been baffled by the romance attached to the Spanish Civil War. Yes, the bad guys won, but were the other side any less bad? When both sides are bloodthirsty lots who suppress criticism, you might as well take the conservative Catholic as Uncle Joe.

Larrea is working on a new script and, as in The Romantic Englishwoman, the images forming in his mind appear on screen. As he sits on the beach, three Russian soldiers on horseback gallop towards the front of the frame. His film is about Korvik, the German soldier who defected to Russia in order to warn them about Hitler’s plans to invade. Stalin decided he was an agent provocateur and had him shot; he dies a terrified boy, with his fist making the communist salute. As in The Romantic Englishwoman, his champagne-quaffing producer would prefer a thriller because nobody will put up the money for such a story. “Unless they are masochists”, remarks Laurent. He does have a point. The prodcuer’s chauffeur empties the ice bucket onto the driveway before taking off.

It’s a visually strong film, with a couple of striking images; such as Larrea mourning his wife by driving to the shore and sitting, head on arms and arms on wheel, as the tide pulls in and waves lap around his wheels. At the last moment he wakes from his reverie, u-turns the car and speeds off. Similarly, a rare moment of communion between father and son sees them play football with an onion in the empty, moonlit food market off Las Ramblas. But it suffers from a soundtrack that jars terribly. Michel Legrand offers a rewrite of his Eve soundtrack; effervescent jazz with an insistent, be-boppin’ double bass throughout. In that film it was perfect, here it feels downright odd.

At the outset Laurent has been dragged back from Paris to spend some time with his parents, when they get a call from Spain. Jean would go, but he’s busy with the script so Eve goes instead. Laurent, clearly a mummy’s boy, is furious and sulks. Terribly oedipal. Father and son try to get on, but every time it ends in animosity and Laurent leaves. Jean and a friend are watching the news, and see the Paris police being heavy-handed with anti-Franco protestors. A close up of Laurent being introduced to Mr Baton, shouting slogans in defiance.

Jean rushes to Paris and gets his son out of trouble. The gesture is not appreciated and his son doesn’t stick around. Instead we meet his friend Julia (the beautiful Miou Miou), who starts following Montand in the street. She’s full of questions and impertinent remarks. She follows him all the way to the door of his Paris flat, which he closes in her face. Then comes a call from the embassy in Spain. There’s been an accident and Eve is dead.

Jean and Laurent head to Barcelona and meet up with resistance contacts in the Joan Miro museum. Eve’s mission saved a resistance leader from falling into the hands of the police. Once it had been carried out, she died in a car crash on her way home. Laurent rages that the Spaniards seem to consider it a “fair exchange” that his mother died so their man might live. He’s told one thing has nothing to do with another.

Larrea Sr is back in his farmhouse -a picture of numb pain, spinning a pistol chamber with one bullet in it- when Laurent and Julia turn up unannounced. Within seconds the men are at each others’ throats. Jean puts the gun to his head and fires, then tosses the gun to his son. Julia pushes Laurent’s hand from his temple and the bullet shatters a mirror. Montand embraces him as they weep and wail, we suspect a fashionable nod to The Deer Hunter.

Laurent flees in the middle of the night, leaving his whimsical floosie to papa. She is offered the train fare home but fancies a few days in the country, it’s been “a torrid year”. There’s a seduction scene which makes The Servant seem like big romance. Jean is changing his son’s bedsheets when, quite abruptly, she flops onto the bed. “My name is Julia. I prefer the guys I sleep with to know my name.” She undoes the button and zip on her jeans. Cut to exterior.

Julia hangs around for a while; airy, sarcastic and seeing everything as a dysfunctional game. Larrea tries to ask about his son, since they seem incapable of talking to one another. At the end of the film Laurent confirms that “I gave her to you so you could talk to me through her, love me through her”.

“You’re blocking his way. He wants to write, you’re a famous writer. There was one woman who really mattered to him, you were sleeping with her.”

“So what should I do, kill myself?”

“Not a bad idea.”

Julia installs two giggling girls from the village into the farmhouse, they eat all Larrea’s food. The typical Losey intruder. Late one night Jean walks in on them sniggering and yawning at an old video of Eve & himself being interviewed on TV. In a rage he drives the girls straight back to the village, the camera showing the view from the windscreen as the car hurtles through country tracks at dangerous speeds. Most likely Larrea wishes it had been he in the accident. Julia is gone on his return; “Didn’t you say I was free? X” scrawled upon the wall in marker pen.

Laurent comes back to return Eve’s handbag, which Julia had taken with her. They found her diary in a secret compartment. Her marriage left her with no sense of self and she found escape in an affair with Miguel, their contact in Spain. Jean tells the kids he knew all about it, and is unconcerned. He doesn’t really believe in family ties or the institution of marriage anyway. We’re not sure- he ends up throwing the diary on a bonfire.

Franco dies, Jean takes Julia to Spain. People walk the streets in stunned silence. He meets Miguel and friends, and expresses anguish that Franco died in bed, a contented old man. What good did they achieve? Will the old guard allow democracy to change the conservative status quo? Julia scoffs at these questions. In Paris, father and son have one last brief, tentative exchange and Laurent walks out as the film fizzles out. Warmer than most Losey films, then, but best forgotten I think.


Dark Rum

35 Rhums (Claire Denis, 2009)

You’re spared yet more Losey (though there’s still one week of the NFT season left) as I got the times mixed up yesterday and missed The Servant. I picked up a free paper and found that if I wanted to catch a mid-afternoon film in the West End, it would have to be 35 Rhums at the Renoir or Bruno at any number of places. As I already have a multitude of very good reasons to commit suicide thank you, I went with 35 Rhums.

I’d seen one Claire Denis film before –Vendredi Soir– which I thought stylish, well-crafted, thoughtful, and amoral to the point of repugnance. Nevertheless I respected her talents and her distinctive style; her films are very spacious and they don’t spoonfeed the viewer, they’re made on their own terms without bending over backwards to accommodate you. This film confirmed me in my opinion of her; it’s the strong, silent type.

Train driver Lionel and his daughter Josephine live together in a Parisian flat. They are cosy and intimate, free with caresses and cuddles- so much so that I took them for a long-term couple to begin with. The pace of the film is at its most relaxed when they get back to their sanctuary at the end of each day. The camera is often static, looking down the hallway, either character wandering on and off screen as they walk from room to room (composition is one of Denis’ strongest suits). Long shots of them taking off their boots when they get in the door. Equally the film takes its time when watching them eat together. Through repetition we learn their little rituals; how Lionel takes off his jumper and t-shirt when he gets home, and puts on his dressing gown.

They’re depicted in an artful yet naturalistic way, and you get the sense that they’re like any of us; except that they talk to their neighbours. Noe and Gabrielle both live alone, they are respectively the same age as Josephine and Lionel, and it’s pretty blatant they are in love with them (their names even rhyme). Noe’s first appearance has him lingering outside their door, Josephine’s music trickling through, several times changing his mind about whether to knock or walk away, so we know he’s amorous before we have a clue who he is. Taxi driver Gabrielle is more overt with her loneliness, always smoking in the communal hall or on her balcony, hoping to run into Lionel or Jo.

The film makes you think about the breakdown of the traditional family, how people are trying to find new structures. As the four head out in Gabrielle’s cab to attend a concert, she (perhaps optimistically) chirps that it’s ages since they went out “en famille”. The car breaks down in torrential rain (shades of Vendredi Soir) and they miss the concert, stopping in an empty bar while they wait for a tow truck.

This scene is very well executed, the acting spot on. When they were leaving the house a fellow student approached Jo with a bunch of flowers and the offer of two concert tickets; Noe senses it will soon be too late to make a move. As Gabrielle and Lionel slow dance, Noe suggests that they follow suit. Jo laughs off the suggestion, but they do eventually. Noe reaches behind her and lets down her hair, they gaze at each other and it is a certainty that they are going to kiss. An eternity passes. When Noe kisses her, Josephine pulls away and sits down. Both sulk as the patronne sets down platefuls of food. Now Lionel dances with the gorgeous patronne, as Gabrielle watches wistfully and wishes it were her.

The next morning, Noe and the ladies drink coffee in his flat. They sit in silence, the atmosphere fraught with tension, slight shame and general morning-afterness. Noe shows them the recently-dead body of his cat, then slings it into a binbag with its squeaky chew toys. He’s leaving. People are forever asking him why he stays on in his parents’ place with its old-fashioned furniture, and now the cat’s dead his last bond is broken. He’s been offered a job in Africa and the flat is up for sale.

A little tension has crept into the lives of Josephine and Lionel too. Lionel starts by earnestly telling her “I want you to feel free”, then snaps at Jo when she insists on ironing his shirts. When Noe announces his departure Josephine throws her anxieties into a huge spring clean. Lionel asserts that they two will carry on “as we’ve always done” but cannot calm her. She finds and pockets a love letter from to Lionel from Gabrielle, written when she was a child.

However fragile the dance of the foursome might be, Lionel’s colleague Rudy comes a warning signal about the lot of those cast adrift on their own. Given presents at his retirement, he cuts a bathetic figure on the bus home clutching his painted African wood carving and his iPod. He predicts with deep despair that he will live to 100. Later Lionel bumps into him in a bar. He’s pissed in the afternoon, talking about “plusieurs projets” but for now nursing a brandy. Later still Lionel finds his body on the train tracks. The moment of crisis is captured by a handheld camera that jerks all over the place. We see pools of tears form in Lionel’s eyes before we see the body.

Things unfold slowly and discreetly in this film; it’s rather like getting to know strangers in real life. We would never be so rude as to ask direct personal questions, but over time we can draw things out of people by talking around the subject. Towards the end, we wonder why on earth Lionel and Jo are suddenly driving a camper van along the German autobahn. At a picturesque village with fairytale spires, they stop off to visit a middle-aged woman and her daughter; when they converse, we deduce that it’s Jo’s aunt. Then they tend to her mother’s grave and sleep side by side underneath the stars.

It gets more and more oblique at the film’s conclusion. Everyone’s in formal dress and preparing for an event. Is it Josephine’s graduation or her wedding? If so, to Noe or someone from university? Lionel finally drinks the titular shots of rum at the function, as “this only happens once in your life”. Back home, he unpacks a new rice cooker and sets it by the one he bought for Jo at the start of the film, telling us all we need to know.

Another thing that I kept on noticing. This film is set in Paris. It takes in crowded commuter trains, lecture halls, nightlife and street scenes. There are no white people, until we meet the German aunt. Even when the railway workers are out partying for Rudy’s leaving do, the barmaid is oriental. This has to be deliberate and I wonder what Denis’ point was. It did have me questioning something I normally take for granted, and wondering what a black Frenchman would be thinking whilst watching Amelie.

Something of a furtive, sideways glance of a film, but an engrossing one. The Tindersticks soundtrack augments its quiet, contemplative feel.


Dites-moi, les Kleins, vous etes francais-francais…

Mr. Klein (Joseph Losey, 1976)

…ou est-ce qu’il y a des juifs dans ta famille? It’s 1976 and everyone’s fleeing Old Labour to go into tax exile. Dirk is settling down in his Provencal farmhouse, Losey is in gay Paree starting a run of four French films with one that came as quite a shot in the arm after a lean period. Or; it’s 1942 and everyone’s doing their best to avoid their German masters, keep calm and carry on. Alain Delon is settling down in his lavishly-appointed townhouse to enjoy his ill-gotten gains as an art dealer, ripping off the Jews who need to sell their treasures at short notice. But when a newspaper for the Jewish community lands on his doormat, it seems that somebody out there has another idea…

Mr. Klein is a film about the occupation with not that much occupation in it. The people to fear are the zealous and merciless French police- whether their actions be right or wrong, they’ll unapologetically tell you “c’est la loi”. Now and again you see a German uniform pass in the streets, but people tend not to discuss it. As people will do, they instead throw themselves into their pains and pleasures, their dramas and melodramas and private obsessions. None more so that Robert Klein (Delon, quite brilliant in a difficult role), who gets drawn into a classic doppelganger mystery.

For somewhere out there, Klein has a double, and he’s determined to track down this ‘other Klein’. His Quixotic pursuit propels the story forward, and it’s engrossing mystery fare- courtesy of Franco Solinas (The Battle of Algiers). People point to the likes of Accident and say that on the few occasions Losey was given a script of geniune substance and quality, he pared down all his excess flourishes. The same could be said about Mr Klein.

It’s a sombre, shadowy picture. The few glimpses of opulence are thrown into perspective by the pallid, wintry, whitewashed look of Gerry Fisher’s photography- all bare trees, overcast skies and tatty courtyards the colour of porridge. Even Klein’s tiffany/art deco suffused house is shot to look claustrophobic; the ceilings look low, the hallway narrow, it has something of the house from The Servant about it. Needless to say, Losey’s camera swerves and glides like no other, utterly assured yet with an agitated feel. One particularly memorable take is a POV shot when Klein enters the stately home of the Jewish aristocrats; the camera follwing the valet round corners and stealing glances to either side.

Klein’s private mission and the wider story of what the police are up to aren’t brought together until the climax, but they are allowed to run in parallel. There’s an anti-semitic sketch in a cabaret club; as the camera weaves through the smiling, happy audience of German officers and fat bourgeoises quaffing Pernod, you almost feel it tremble with quiet, righteous disgust. Whilst Klein runs across Paris on his wild goose chase, we get occasional glimpses of police chiefs scrutinising maps of the city, preparing their fleet of vehicles, workmen setting up the Velodrome d’Hiver for the big round-up of Jews. These scenes are fairly understated, but the film opens with a fist in the face.

After the titles, the first shot is of a naked 40-something woman. For a second or two she looks trusting, yet apprehensive. Then a pair of hands invade the screen and upturn her lips roughly to expose the gums. We’re witnessing a ‘medical’ examination. The doctor pulls the woman’s hair, pulls at her skin as if it were play-dough, shoves a ruler up her nostrils; all the while describing each feature as “judaique” or “non-europeen”. He decides the woman “could well be Jewish, Armenian, or Arab. The case must be considered doubtful”. When the ordeal is over, the woman is shown into a crowded waiting room and asked for 15 francs by the secretary. People are actually paying for this.

We go straight from the clinic to a sleeping Juliette (Juliet Berto), lying on a fur rug in a skimpy negligée as she shows off her long legs. She’s woken by voices downstairs; Klein is arguing with a Jewish client who’s trying to sell his Dutch master. As Juliette staggers into a fabulous bathroom -black and white marble, strip lighting and floor-length mirrors- we hear the man’s disbelief at the derisory sum he’s being offered, a fraction of its real worth. Juliette concentrates on applying her lipstick.

Alain Delon’s Klein is a smarmy arsehole, cavorting in a gold dressing gown and tossing a bag of coins to his client like scraps to a dog. He insists the Jew make out a receipt, the wording of which he dictates. As the Jew writes, Klein scatters the coins onto the table before him, having the nerve to tell him that he finds these transactions ‘desagréable’ and ’embarrassant’. The client bites his lip and can’t wait to get away from this odious man, but has a look of quiet triumph when he sees the Informations Juives newspaper on Klein’s doormat. Dumbstruck, Delon stares at himself in the mirror; from now on he will stop transfixed every time he catches his reflection.

Klein wants this matter cleared up straightaway. However he fails to ingratiate himself with the newspaper staff when speculating that someone might have got him a subscription “as a practical joke”. The list of subscribers has been confiscated by the police, so he hot-foots it to the prefecture. There’s another Robert Klein on the list with a different address, but he’s making such a fuss that they take down Delon’s address too. He’s digging himself a bit of a hole.

That night Klein sits over his desk, trying to scrape off the label on his newspaper and find the original address it was forwarded from. The kittenish Juliette lies on the bed pouting, asking dumb questions about Moby Dick, swinging her knickers on the end of her foot and wondering why the hell her boyfriend is more interested in peeling off an address label than her negligée.

To the address, and here begins the doppelganger creepiness. The landlady is at the door, telling two detectives that she hardly ever saw Mr Klein, her old tenant- but oh, here he comes! Delon denies it and asks to see the flat for rent. It’s disgusting; filthy, mouldy, with rat droppings everywhere. The landlady isn’t very friendly either. But he finds a clue- some photo negatives in a copy of Moby Dick.

The photo developer claims to remember Delon- “your face is hidden in this, but you’re recognisable. Do you still have that car?” Klein II is with a girl and an alsatian dog. Later on in the film, an alsatian dog sees Klein in the street and follows him home- even kicks and shouts won’t get rid of it. The detectives are waiting when he gets home. His best friend, the prissy lawyer Pierre (Michel Lonsdale) is most concerned.

Soon, more mail for Klein II- a love letter from a ‘Florence’. If he doesn’t come this time “you’ll lose me forever, and that would be awful”. Helpfully, the letter tells him when the train leaves and where to get off- so he does. He finds himself at an aristocratic mansion; as we enter via the aforementioned POV take, painting-sized bare patches on the corridor wallpaper suggest the family are Jewish too.

The master of the house, Charles Xavier, receives Klein with bemused cordiality. Florence turns out to be Jeanne Moreau, or the lady of the house, who must get that letter back and barges into Klein’s bedroom in the small hours. She ignores his request to turn around while he puts some pants on. They flirt and have some light verbal sparring (“Is your Klein a Jew?” “Certainly not, I think he’s atheist”). Moreau is pushing 50 and starting to look a bit grannyish, but she’s still got that poise, and that smile, and you still would, just about. Or at least, Delon makes it clear that he would, but she abruptly leaves when a motorbike pulls up outside, and Delon watches them embrace; quite possibly Klein II. She is very frosty with him the morning after. A few days later, word gets to Pierre that their whole household has fled to Mexico.

Klein rushes back to town and into an opulent, gold-leaf cathedral. He’s late for Pierre’s son’s confirmation and everyone is pissed off. As the choirboys sing, he sheepishly nudges his way down the pew to Pierre, who confronts him with the Jewish question. Robert, are you or aren’t you?

This leads on to a little comic relief, as Klein takes a trip to Strasbourg to visit his dad and see if he can obtain his grandparents’ birth certificates; pushing his wheelchair along a canal, the huge gothic cathedral looming behind. Papa (Fellini turned the part down) isn’t used to visits without agenda; he sees through Klein’s vague reasons about “nostalgie de mes originies” and gets to the root of the matter. He’s a tempestuous xenophobic codger -probably very fond of the Maréchal- but fun with it as he furiously declares the Kleins to have been “Francais et Catholique depuis Louis XIV!”.

One of the four birth certificates has gone astray and Pierre is very worried. He suggests one of those medical examinations, but Klein is “not a horse” and dismisses his warnings. For Klein, saving his skin is now a maguffin and finding his double is urgent. He returns to Klein II’s old bedsit and recognises a girl’s boot, as worn by the can-can dancers at the anti-semitic cabaret. The landlady tells him to ask for ‘Isabelle’ at the theatre, where a beaming, sad-eyed chorus girl identifies his photo as ‘Cathy’, last seen at a certain Metro station. The next bleak morning, the station is filled with commuting factory girls. Some identify the photo as ‘Francoise’ and call over a friend of hers, who flatly denies that it’s her and tears up the photo. I vill say zis only vance, these girls know how to cover their tracks.

At home, the police are confiscating all Klein’s paintings. He’s now barred from all public places, “meme plus la pissotierre”. He flies into a rage when they try to take the Jew’s Dutch master, reminding them that it was him who took this case to the police in the first place. “Wouldn’t be the first time a man came forward the better to hide”, they shrug. As they continue their plunder, Pierre’s dumb wife picks up some sheet music by the piano and starts playing L’Internationale, with no idea what she’s doing. The policeman’s blood boils- Klein tells her to keep playing. Your case is going badly, K, perhaps you need a new advocate.

Enter Klein II’s dog, exit a sobbing Jeanine (once she’s actually put some clothes on). Another woman for a rival, she could understand- but not this. Klein barely notices her leave; a newspaper article about five dead resistance fighters catches his eye. Could Klein II have been one? He bribes the morgue attendant for a look but the bodies are disfigured. “I’d do the same as them, were I younger… or braver”, says the attendant.

But Klein is satisfied. Pierre obtains a fake passport, sells Klein’s remaining belongings for 10 million francs (minus a 5% cut) and puts him on a train to Marseille, where he can catch a boat. They say goodbye on a crowded platform and the train takes off. Poor Jeanine turns up and runs alongside the window, only to be told “Look after my dog. I don’t trust Pierre with it”. By coincidence, Klein spots the girl from the photo in his carraige and introduces himself as a friend of Robert Klein. He gets a slap in the face, but also finds out that Klein II never left his bedsit- he goes back every night to hide. Like von Aschenbach executing a U-turn to the Venice Lido, Delon rushes straight back to Paris, his fixation, and his doom.

Klein II answers the phone, they acknowledge one another and arrange a rendezvous (Delon standing before a painting of twin geishas). It’s out into noirish, lamplit streets that tingle with Klein’s excitement and anticipation; but Pierre has sent the police on ahead of Klein and he is denied what he craves. Nothing but a wailing landlady and a police van speeding off into the distance. Pierre’s attitude is no different from that of the police; “I had to do it, he’s a criminal”, he tells Klein stuffily. Klein pounces on Pierre like a panther, throttling him against the wall.

The next morning, the dreaded day of the round-up. Klein is one of thousands called upon and put onto a tram. These trams, crammed with people wearing yellow stars, drive through public squares. People continue to queue for rations, browse the vegetable stalls. One of the most shameful events in their country’s history is, to these ordinary folk, just another day. Klein scribbles a note, throws it out the window to a watching barrow boy, and gestures. The boy can’t decide whether to pick it up.

The trams unload at the Velodrome d’Hiver, people split into groups behind barbed wire fence. There are no violins, no tears trickling down children’s cheeks, no sentimental tricks; it’s more like documentary footage. Cold and clear, with nothing other than the realisation that this is what human beings do to other human beings. As you see families separated, the elderly manhandled, and the sheer number of people, the fate of Mr. Klein doesn’t just seem irrelevant; it’s altogether forgotten.

At the eleventh hour, the cavalry come for that priviliged fellow; Pierre is at the perimeter, waving the elusive fourth birth certificate. But Klein’s name is called out; at the other side of the crowd, Klein II puts his hand up and disappears through the doors. Delon tells his friend “I’ll be back” and runs in pursuit. The crowd swarm into a tunnel, and onto a freight train; the Jew with the Dutch painting is in Delon’s carriage. The dictionary definition of doppelganger tells us that “seeing one’s own doppelgänger is an omen of death, or results in immediate death upon the two coming face to face.”

This week’s NFT screening was followed by a Q&A with Patricia Losey, the great man’s wife for the final third of his life. Most of the talk was raking over the French occupation, but she was at pains to express that in a field full of heroic resistors and wicked collabos, Mr. Klein was a film above all about indifference; and to her credit, she  said any of us would probably have done as most French did. If her own next-door neighbours were taken away, and to protest would put her in danger… One punter said that he was baffled that Visconti pretty-boy Alain Delon should feel so strongly about this film that he should be the one to take on the twin burden of star and producer, plus put the cash up and fight to get it made. Mrs Losey was in full agreement; “and were he here tonight, perhaps he’d tell us why. Or perhaps he wouldn’t”.


Brian, I need you to be Alfred again

Obesssion (Brian de Palma, 1976)

I don’t know Brian de Palma well; one of the New Hollywood lot who jumped down from the arthouse ivory tower to make Scarface and other blockbusters, none of which I ever felt much need to investigate. But I know Hitchcock’s Vertigo far too well, and I’d always been curious to see the above film. Vertigo would be a serious contender for my favourite film of all time, it’s one of those few films we all have that we could quote vasts tracts of dialogue from. The morbidity, the fixation on episodes from the past, people from the past, the complusion to revisit and recreate… even after 30-odd viewings I still find it shattering.

Obsession is a love letter to Vertigo, and one which wears its heart on its sleeve; different plot and location, identical theme and mood. Like Vertigo it is a bit nutty- notorious sociopath scriptwriter Paul Schrader gleefully takes the less savoury elements of Vertigo and runs with them, all the way to incestville. Like Vertigo, if you step back and think about it logically and objectively, the plot doesn’t really make any sense. But to do so runs counter to the spirit of the thing. It’s an over-the-top film that requires you to embrace the silliness, throw yourself into the vortex, suspend disbelief and let the lushness and the high romantic delirium carry you away.

It’s a film where style is everything; diffused lighting gives the locations a misty coating and a dreamlike feel. The fine big hotel-sized houses of the deep South gentry (who still have negro servants) are captured in Orson Welles deep focus. As Cliff Robertson rides a steamboat on the Mississippi, the water and the buildings shimmer in the sunlight like Hitch’s San Francisco, like a mirage. In Florence, Ponte Vecchio and Piazza della Signoria are sodden with rain, and as Robertson courts Genevieve Bujold by night under narrow medieval arches, the look is quite ghostly.

Aside from the theme, at every turn there’s a little reference to Vertigo, a little wink to fellow fans; Bujold transfixed by the painting of her predecessor, trying on her necklace in front of the bedroom mirror, writing a letter of explanation then tearing it up. Robertson pursuing her pathologically, wanting to have lunch and dinner every day from the first date onwards. Bujold complaining that all her suitors seem to be hooked on their ex-wives and “it’s not very flattering”.

The most crucial allusion, however, is the brilliant soundtrack by Bernard Hermann that envelops the film and contributes so much to its atmosphere. He reprises chunks of the unforgettable Vertigo score; the Wagnerian Tristan chords, low, sombre organs, swirling strings and swishing harps. A recurring choral part is a little like Debussy’s Sirenes. The music brings you back to Vertigo like Robertson’s fixation brings him back to his wife’s death, always mulling things over and wanting to retrace his steps.

The camera movements have their motifs too; very slow tracking shots where the camera approaches locations of import, as if nervously, until the buildings loom over you; particularly in the opening credits as we ascend steps to the facade of San Miniato, the church atop Piazzale Michelangelo in Florence. The famous 360-degree rotation from that chilling scene in Vertigo, where Kim Novak bleaches her hair and pins it up to “be Madeleine again”, is employed at key moments- when Bujold breaks into her predecessor’s bedroom, kept up like a shrine; when the pair have their reconciliation at the end. One nice scene has Robertson and John Lithgow eat breakfast in a café looking onto Piazza della Signoria; as each speaks the camera moves as a pendulum, Neptune and the other statues moving into focus, then out, the camera sent back and forth like a tennis ball.

There is much to admire in these technical aspects, which is just as well as the film’s flaws are substantial. The plot is confused and Cliff Robertson is no Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant. Whether experiencing agony or ecstasy, he looks rather wooden and expressionless thoughout. He swans around in Alan Partridge sports blazers, looking like David Hasselhoff and acting like Roger Moore. Still, John Lithgow is enjoyable as his best friend/villain of the piece, a southern gent with an accent that twangs like a banjo. When Robertson’s wife is kidnapped he talks of going to the “POE-leese”. Better still is Genevieve Bujold in the Novak part; sparkling and luminous, she gives a compelling performance as a charming girl who descends into madness. In fact, she had me at buongiorno.

For what it’s worth, the story: it’s 1959. Courtland (Robertson) is throwing a party for his and Elizabeth’s (Bujold) wedding anniversary. As a waiter glides up to the camera, his torso twists to reveal a gun under his waistcoat- an ostentatious touch. La Salle (Lithgow) makes a speech hailing Courtland, his new business partner, as “cream of the New South”. That night, Elizabeth is called from the bedroom by a crying child. She and the child are kidnapped, a ransom note for $500,000 pinned to the child’s bed. Those pesky waiters!

We’re pitched straight into high tension, as with the Vertigo rooftop scene; but we just don’t know Courtland, and Elizabeth dies before she’s said a word. In Vertigo, Scottie’s emotional mutilation is deeply moving because we’ve seen him relaxed and carefree, exchanging banter with Midge. Then we watch him start to fall for Madeleine. But Elizabeth is essentially a mannequin, no personality or attributes. Even later, when Sandra asks Courtland to describe his wife, he mentions only physical aspects- her looks, her gait, her lipstick.

Courtland is prepared to hand over his wordly goods to the kidnappers, but the police advise him to give a briefcase filled with blank sheets of paper and a radio transmitter. This leads them to the hostages; the kidnappers emerge, with guns to the heads of Elizabeth and daughter. A car chase ensues; the kidnappers drive through roadblocks on a bridge, and into an oil truck- all passengers are killed and the Mississippi carries away the bodies.

Stricken with guilt that he chose not to hand over the money and therefore “killed” his family, Courtland erects a huge memorial; a parkland replica of the San Miniato facade (where he met Elizabeth). I wouldn’t have shown the church in the opening titles, when we see it later it would have been more effective had we recognised it only from the memorial. A 360-degree shot and a 1975 caption bring us to Courtland with a few grey hairs.

Business is going well and La Salle takes Courtland to meet some clients in Florence, the city that looms so large in his memory. Arno at sunset, Uffizi and all that. In a late bar, Schrader gives us the rarity of a good joke.  The balding, paunchy Italian businessmen sit with a bevy of glamorous girls in their laps, and Courtland discreetly asks how they found such beautiful wives. The Italians agree enthusiastically, and fish in their wallets for photos of ugly, sagging, bovine mammas. My wife is wonderful, she makes such good pasta and she bore me eight children.

To Piazzale Michelangelo- say Court, ain’t that the chuuur where yew met yewr wayfe? Courtland enters, moves solemnly through the candlelight and exquisite renaissance frescoes. Touching up one of the paintings in a white coat, who other than Bujold. Cue slow motion and Hermann’s siren choir. Afterwards, Robertson lets us know he’s preoccupied by burying his chin in his hands. He’s going to stay in town for a few more days. He introduces himself to Sandra, the young art restorer, and wastes no time in pursuing her. He’s up front about the reasons; “my wife looked exactly like you”. “You still love Elizabeth”, Sandra tells him. He does nothing to contradict her.

Sandra’s mum fortuitously carks it. On her deathbed she tells the two to marry. They fly to New Orleans, Sandra wide-eyed at the skyscrapers and gleaming steel. Courtland’s maid cannot disguise her distaste upon meeting Sandra. Lithgow and friends suggest it might be “premature” to marry Sandra so soon and Courtland shuts them out with cold fury. While he fends them off in the office, Sandra gazes deep into pictures of Elizabeth, reads her diaries, visits the memorial and presses her cheek against it. A San Miniato wedding cake is prepared.

Sandra has been cutting an increasingly preoccupied figure. In an ambivalent “dream” sequence she tells Courtland she is Elizabeth, come back to give him a second chance to prove his love. One morning she flees, leaving a photocopy of the original ransom note pinned to her bed. Courtland gets it immediately; it’s Kim Novak going up the tower again, and this time Scottie’s going to catch her and stop her. This time he has to throw real money from the boat to show that love means more to him and lay his ghosts to rest.

His assets are tied up in the company and an unimpressed La Salle makes him sign them all over to him at the bank; then has a clerk switch the suitcases so he’s once more throwing blank paper. La Salle takes Sandra/Elizabeth to see the suitcase, “Old Court never comes through with the money”.

At this point the curtain is ripped back- a mental flashback shows that- der-der-DER!- Sandra is Courtland’s daughter. She never joined in the fatal car chase, La Salle engineered the kidnapping and packed the child off to be fostered in Italy. He brainwashed her against the man who “killed” her mother and years later, used her to set up Courtland and take ownership of his share of the fortune. Does this wash? For me, not really.

La Salle tells Courtland that he and Sandra duped him. They wrestle. La Salle stabs himself with a pair of scissors. On a flight to Rome, Sandra is stricken with conscience and tries to top herself in the loo. The flight turns back to the airport just as Courtland arrives, eager to shoot her. They meet in a long corridor, Sandra spots the briefcase and is delighted that daddy has put up the money at the third time of asking. He loves her after all. She jumps from her wheelchair and runs towards him in slow motion. We anticipate the gunshot. She embraces her “Daddy” and the camera spins round and round the pair as Courtland’s realisation sinks in.

The film may as well end here, because I can’t think how the loose ends would get tied up. Won’t the police go straight for Courtland when they find La Salle’s body? What will father and daughter do now, having been engaged for some weeks and (it is hinted) having slept together?

As good as Vertigo? You must be joking. But if that masterpiece captured you as it has so many, you should find much to savour in this curio of cinema.


“Look Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this”

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

To write about this film is, I have to say, a slightly intimidating prospect. It looms much larger in our cultural memory than most films. We’ve all seen it, one way or another we’ve all made our minds up about it. After 40 years of debate and dissection, how can I possibly say anything new about it? I’d seen 2001 a couple of times, but had never had the opportunity to see it on the big screen until today’s screening in the gargantuan NFT1. Now, I feel I can confidently say that if you haven’t seen it in a cinema, you haven’t seen it.

My tentative feelings about discussing the film are also caused, in part, by its cutting away of the normal anchors for any punter wishing to sum up their experience- plot is scant, dialogue much more so, and characterisation almost non-existent. This is because it’s a film concerned with scale. Most certainly, it can allow no heroes- Kubrick avoids casting any star actors, a bit part from Leonard Rossiter the most familiar face we see. Man needs to appear very small and petty to keep our attention to bigger questions; where do we come from? Where did the universe come from? What happens when we die? The individual is forgotten, the camera pans way, way back to take in the earth, the moon, the sun and the stars, and the balletic grace of the space shots does invoke a sense of awe. The film opens and closes with panning views of earth set to Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra -it’s familiar enough to be cliché- but in that theatre, as we heard the timpani pounding I felt my heart beat a little faster. 

Indeed, this film’s music is a far more vital component than the sparse, trite dialogue served up. Thrilling as the set pieces where satellites and astronauts swivel around to the strains of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz are, the use of a Viennesse high society soundtrack feels somehow satirical. It roots this astonishing technology, and the assured, natural way that its inhabitants use it, in antiquity. Maybe it’s the many parodies -Homer Simpson et al- but the music gives it a whiff of cheese, of stuffiness. The infamous, astonishing jump-cut where the ape’s bone turns into a spaceship implies a continued lineage. Our boundaries continually expand but at essence we’re still a banal little lot; we’re still apes.

Each time the monolith appears, or when Bowman falls through the stargate, we find ourselves confronted with something beyond our comprehension that blows our minds. Then it’s out with the light, comfortable Strauss, and in with Ligeti, the avant-garde Holocaust survivor. His choral music is a mass of moaning voices, its texture constantly shifting; it’s mournful, disturbing, and clearly signals that we’ve ventured outside of our comfort zone. The one geuninely chilling moment, however, is delivered in total silence- when Bowman’s colleague is jettisoned by HAL, spinning out into nothingness and left to die. The silence of space echoing the utter insignificance of an individual’s life or death; in our self-centred, consumer’s mindset, perhaps the most chilling fact of all. 

But all this is iconic and you know it all already; the apes in the arid deserts, fighting over the watering hole until the monolith and the invention of weaponry. The jump cut, the chit-chat of a scientist commuting to the moon, the monolith on the moon that was “deliberately buried” 4 million years ago. The trip to Jupiter; HAL, the robot with feelings, computers are taking over, The Servant in space, HAL singing ‘Daisy Daisy’ as Bowman pulls out his hard drives.

Then that incomprehensible ending; the light show, the flight over landscapes of purple rocks and green skies, the Regency bedroom with white light disco flooring, the old man eating soup, the big foetus floating above the earth. Is it any wonder that half the people who’ve seen this film get annoyed and dismiss the whole thing as bollocks? At every film the NFT hand out a photocopy of a critical essay, interview with the director or similar- today we got a contemporary interpretation of the film by a precocoius 14-year-old, and quite frankly her guess is as good as anyone’s. 

I felt a tinge of regret that I didn’t know anyone who could supply me with a tab of LSD before seeing this in the cinema, to get that full ’68 experience. I also felt really jealous at the ’68 audience, as I can’t begin to think how impressive the space footage would have looked before CGI and Independence Day and all the magic tricks of today’s miserable shoot-’em-ups.

Nevertheless, I still walked away feeling that 2001 had given me an experience out of the ordinary. Yes, it’s pretentious and you can tell that even Kubrick and Clarke don’t really know what they’re talking about- but they had the guts to try and make a film this ambitious, one that goes beyond the stars and beyond this dimension. And I think it’s a good investement of two hours of your time.

July 2009
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