Archive for November, 2009


L’Éducation sentimentale

An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)

I wonder what it is about contemporary British films. Does familiarity breed contempt? Is there any rational grounding for my preference for European cinema or is it mere orientalism? Even when British cinema is done really well -and it’s seldom done better than it is here- there’s something about it that annoys me. The Tasteful music, the same old faces (Richard Griffiths doing his 226th Uncle Monty), the overly literary script, the middlebrow sensibilities, the general lack of audacity. Maybe it’s just me. 

This film has enjoyed enough gushing reviews to get me out to the local Odeon, but my inner snob was still dubious about anything with a Nick Hornby screenplay, even if has been handed to a Danish dogme director. The former’s presence is more keenly felt than the latter, Scherfig opting to keep her cover with subdued, simple direction and pretty photography; the family house is a dull bottle green, the outside world a little more showy and intoxicating.

It’s a punchy script with lots of barbed dialogue but the satires of period suburban attitudes can get a bit too Abigail’s Party. At one point, Emma Thompson’s icy headmistress actually asks, “Are you aware that the Jews killed our Lord? We’re all very sorry about what went on in the war, but there’s no excuse for that sort of thing”. Alfred Molina’s hapless dad is the butt of most of these jokes; an excellent turn from an underrated character actor. 

The setup is that in 1961, Jenny (Carey Mulligan) is a 16-year-old from Richmond taking her A-levels. Her domineering parents have their hearts set on getting her into Oxford and she is forbidden a life outside study. When grown-up David (Peter Sarsgaard) sets his sights on her, everything changes, even though we gradually deduce that he’s a gangster of some description.

The main thing to be said for the film is that it gives us a new star in Mulligan, and a very, very watchable one at that. Knowing and vivacious, there’s something of Genevieve Bujold in the way she can juggle the duality of her young girl/young woman part. Her eyes have a most mischievous twinkle to them. At times she’s a pretentious wannabe (waffling about Meursault and dropping French phrases into conversation), at times she’s a mature and assertive young woman (wanting everything to be just right on the occasion of her deflowering, she firmly forbids David from baby talk or pet names).

As her counterpart, I found the smug Sarsgaard eminently punchable upon first sight. He charms everyone (including Jenny’s hitherto controlling parents, who apparently are suddenly happy for their little girl to go off on dirty weekends), but his permanent fishy pout and Colin Firth-with-smallpox-scars features irritated me and he didn’t even have the good grace to sing ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ at any point.

We begin at school, where semi-animated titles set to perky music show schoolgirls balancing books on their heads, playing lacrosse and learning Latin. Jenny is shown to be the class swot, and her father Jack a suffocating grotesque (“Oxford don’t want people who think for themselves”). She likes Graham, a nervous boy from the school orchestra, but when he comes home for tea the parents savage him. Good attention to detail as he accepts a slice of battenberg, and the corner he picks up breaks off- nothing goes right for the lad. Jack and Marjorie have given Jenny a very sheltered childhood. As we see her lying on her back and singing along to Juliette Greco, she confides that her wildest fantasies are to “watch French films and look at paintings”.

David presents himself as a “music lover” when he spots Jenny standing in the rain and offers to give her cello a lift home. Flowers follow, and Jenny’s friends are agog when the two meet in the street and he invites her to a Ravel concert and “supper”. Parental opposition is predictable but what isn’t is how easily David charms them; they are wrongfooted when he walks in at the exact moment Jack is shouting “I’ve got nothing against the Jews…”.

At the concert we meet David’s friends, Danny and Helen (a vacant bimbo played by Rosamund Pike). For all her vapidity, Helen is good at pinpricking Jenny’s teenage pretensions; “You have a French conversation teacher? Is that why you keep speaking in French for no apparent reason?”. Over a bottle of champagne in an opulent jazz club, Jenny is persuaded to play truant so she can join the three at an auction of Pre-Raphaelite paintings next week. When she finally gets home her mum is waiting up, pretending to scrub a stubborn casserole dish. The emotional constipation is a little touching.

After the first date and first truancy, the next frontier is a dirty weekend in Oxford- suggested whilst the four are in Danny’s flat, filled with objets d’art. Meanwhile Jenny has started flunking her mock exams and Molina throws a very spiteful, yet curiously controlled and passionless, tantrum. When Jenny dares to venture downstairs, she is as surprised as we are to find her parents getting drunk with David (“Why are you drinking? It’s not Christmas”). David tells a bullshit story about C.S. Lewis being his university tutor and the dirty weekend is in the bag.

It’s all cod-Brideshead scenes as the boys play badminton in Danny’s front room, waiting for Helen to show Jenny the art of silken undergarments. Once in Oxford the boys drive on past the touristy college shots and head for the nearest pub, where they eye up the old ladies and snigger that there is “lots of business here”; our confirmation, if it takes Jenny a while to catch on, that they’re crooked. In the B&B Jenny tells David she wants to remain a virgin until her 17th birthday and he is an absolute gent, merely asking for a glimpse of her tits.

Le lendemain matin, Jenny sees the boys at work and doesn’t like it. In Blues Brothers dark glasses, they make her wait in the car and emerge from a little old lady’s house with a painting under their coat. “You’re so bourgeois”, David tells her when she storms off in tears. His following speech wins her around although we’re struck by how much he’s starting to sound like Jack (“these restaurants and concerts don’t grow on trees”).

After Oxford, Paris. Jenny takes a shopping list from her schoolfriends (Chanel, Gauloises) and her indiscretion earns her a stern warning from Emma Thompson. Her birthday is grim, the parents and Graham both giving her Latin dictionaries, under David turns up with armfuls of flowers, gifts and the news about Paris. Poor Graham slips out and no-one notices.

Paris is cod-new wave shots of the Eiffel, bookstalls, the steps of Montamartre and Jenny is in her element. Again, she is assertive when David makes the weird suggestion breaking her hymen with a banana (“I’m not losing my virginity to a piece of fruit”). She stands away from him, looking down at their view of the Seine, for the post-coital fag.

At school the English teacher declines to accept her gift from Paris (“because I know where it came from”) and pleads with Jenny to go to Oxford, provoking a tirade against establishment values. “I’m sorry you think I’m dead”, replies the teacher, and we cut to the four partygoers at Walthamstow dog track; Oxford is starting to look distinctly distant. The boys meet a gangster, David is jealous when Danny pays attention to Jenny. He drags her outside and proposes.

Jenny’s teacher is devastated to spot the ring on her finger (“It’ll ruin your life”) but Jack chortles that “you won’t need university now”. Time passes, Jenny leaves school without taking her exams, and then a coincidence reveals to Jenny the dark secret that David has been guarding. When required to face the music, he behaves rather badly. The wedding’s off.

Molina makes a fumbling confessional apology to Jenny’s closed bedroom door, a cup of tea and plate of biscuits in his hand. “All my life I’ve been scared, and I didn’t want you to be scared. That’s why I wanted you to go to Oxford.” It’s touching, it made me weep and while it lasted the film had won me over.

Jenny goes back to Emma Thompson; ready to play the contrite fallen woman, in a wrap-around cardigan and an ankle-length tartan dress. The head enjoys her moment of vindication as she tells Jenny a second chance “would be wasted on you”. In her poky flat, the English teacher agrees to give Jenny private tuition and at this point the film jumps the shark.

A montage of Jenny studying like a demon, with sentimental music, culminates in the offer from Oxford sitting on the breakfast table. Jenny cycles round Oxford in blue jeans as a voiceover tells us she went to university after all and dated boys her own age, before going on to presumably have a wonderful and successful life. But if she gets off scot free and goes to Oxford as if nothing happened, why did this story need to be told? Was there any consequence to anyone’s actions?

“This whole country is bored. There’s no life, colour or fun”, Jenny tells her headmistress at one point. A few private lives are put under the microscope to show the tensions bubbling under Western society before the swinging sixties. An Education is a well crafted film with fine acting, lots to look at and some entertaining dialogue. I just feel that the British cinema of that actual time -Richardson, Schlesinger- already said all of this better (and so does Mad Men for that matter). Worth it for Mulligan and Molina though, and if you liked films like The History Boys you’ll aboslutely eat this one up.


Ciao, Ceaucescu

Tales From The Golden Age (Cristian Mungiu, 2009)

If I’m honest I would never have gone to see this film, and I would probably never have heard of it, were it not on the itinerary for a film club I sometimes go to. But it’s quite possibly my favourite film of 2009.

Romanian cinema seems to be hip at the moment. I’m an absolute newcomer but I’m told the boy Mungiu started it by winning the Palme d’Or with 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, and I remember The Death of Mr Lazarescu getting critical hosannahs. This one, however, shows the lighter side of Romanian cinema. Mungiu wrote five short screenplays, each based on an urban myth from Communist Romania, and each was shot by a different director. I expected grim austerity, but I laughed like a drain and came away really fancying a trip to Romania one of these days. Communism gets exposed for the utter sham that it is but the defining characteristic is an evident love for the land and its people.

The opening credits confirm the implicit irony of the title. Names appear on the broken banisters and grubby steps of a high-rise staircase, ironically juxtaposed with a stirring patriotic song. It all looks like a DVD menu and it’s not a promising start, but soon we’re onto The Legend of the Official Visit.

The striking thing about this film is how bright, colourful and appealing the countryside looks. It’s gorgeous sunshine, but it’s a gentle, golden sunshine. In a small village, it’s all hands to the deck as the presidential motorcade is going to be coming through and everything has to be just so. At the village hall people are gardening, washing the windows. An anxious young man, Gheorgita, is on the phone- “We have very nice cows”. He’s told they’ll need pigeons.

The fat man who has brought his travelling carousels for the annual fair is asked what happened to his pigeons? His brother ate them, but he has some canaries. The pigeon problem is delegated and Gheorgita mounts a rusty bike, then heads off to see the Mayor. Shades of Borat as he cycles down the main road, filled with busy villagers. Mend that hole! Clear up that cow shit! Your flag is back-to-front!

The Mayor is more agitated than anyone; he sits with hot towels over his face, dreading the moment he’s put to the test. He snaps at people, he’s in such a panic that his suggestions are desperate. Should we hang some fruit from the trees so they’re not bare? The fairground man shoos away children- he needs petrol to get his carousel running. As his pretty daughter sleeps topless in the caravan, he chases away a peeping tom soldier.

The villagers get choreographed for two party officials, coming to inspect on the eve of the visit. Their utter disdain brings home the Kafkaesque side of the regime; their inconstant whims keep people constantly on their toes and today’s right answer is tomorrow’s capital offence. Why on earth are there cows in the square? Only sheep would be acceptable. Those pigeons should be white. And the carousels have got to be dismantled immediately, we don’t care if the man has travelled here specially.

A boozy lunch for the two officials turns into a bacchanalian supper, and they soften up a little. The carousel workers are called away from their dismantling duties to play folk music for the party. That pretty girl is asked to sit on the head official’s knee and we can see her father fuming as he pumps his accordion. The music stops for a phone call, which brings news that the visit has been cancelled. The officials are very drunk by now, and tell everyone to pile onto the carousel.

The Mayor gets travel sick as they all spin round in the night air, each in his little chair. People call for the ride to stop- but all the operators are on board. We’ll have to wait until the engine runs out of petrol, and I filled it up this morning, says Dad. They’re left all night and we see a shepherd tutting as the sun rises.

People thought the film was like Goodbye Lenin, with everyone propping up a cardboard facade in order to pretend that things were fine and efficient, but this made me think of Fellini’s facsist-era films like Amarcord. Everyone’s stuck on a fairground ride; the system that contains them keeps them living like children. It’s viewed with a subtly critical, yet warm-hearted and sympathetic eye.

More party politics in The Legend of the Party Photographer. Shots of an imposing Stalinist building in the city centre show that we’re moving into the heart of the machinery. Two photographers are in a darkroom, trying to choose the photo which makes the diminutive Ceaucescu looks tallest. They give up and step outside for a fag break. We establish that they’re an uncle and nephew. They see a black Volga pull up across the road and discuss how no-one is ever safe (“They can pick you up at any time”).

The pair meet the newspaper’s editors. Giscard D’Estaing is making a state visit that afternoon and the newspaper must be distributed by early the next morning. Everything will have to move like clockwork. We see a parade of soldiers, flags, and the editor waiting impatiently for photos. Bird’s eye view of the nephew running up several flights of stairs to the darkroom. People bang on their door as the pictures develop.

The editors are dissatisfied. None of these photos will do as D’Estaing is wearing a hat and Ceaucescu isn’t; it looks like he’s doffing his hat to capitalism. The photographers’ solution is to prittstick a little hat onto Ceaucescu. We get dramatic against-the-clock music as the editors decided that the not-yet-dried first attempt will have to do. We see a paper press, distribution vans and bundles of the paper being loaded onto express trains. Then we see a worker stare at the front page. Phone calls, people running around. Stop the press!

What’s wrong? Ceaucescu has a hat on his head and one in his hand. The photographers are accosted as they’re about to clock off, and the uncle collapses when he realises. We see a military van halt one of the trains and confiscate all the papers. When the train is off again, the guard studies the one remaning copy he had been using for a breakfast tablecloth, and he guffaws out loud. They say that Ceaucescu borrowed most of his ideas from Kim Il Sung and the images of people fiddling with the pre-photoshop hat are appropriately Mickey Mouse; it’s a set-up worthy of Gogol.

After these two Kusturica-like political fables, the film zooms to a close-up with an intimate examination of the private lives of people from that era. Our centrepiece, The Legend of the Chicken Driver, is the least comedic and the one that’s shot in a most consciously artsy manner; much silent footage of people sitting still in empty rooms. It also felt like the longest of the five.

The driver is a portly chap in a stale marriage. We get a sense of what his life is through repetitions; the route he drives, his wife sleeping with her back to him as he sits wide awake. It’s drudgery and we’re not spared any of the quietly sad tedium, as his wife washes her hair in a basin of hot water from the stove.

His only treat is to stop at an inn on his drives, which is in a beautiful, thickly-forested area surrounded by snow-capped Carpathian mountaintops. Here he can chat to fellow drivers and the affable but put-upon patroness. The bartering that goes on here makes their lives seem medieval, pre-currency. He brings his family’s allowance of eggs, and bags of chicken gizzards, to the patroness in exchange for sugar or butter.

We realise how fond he’s getting of the patroness when he grabs his pillows and starts sleeping on the sofa at home. He bakes cakes and presents them to the patroness with wine. On the occasion when his tyres are stolen and he’s obliged to stay the night at the inn, he seems quite thrilled but nothing happens, however much he lingers around the kitchen like a puppy dog, watching the patroness prepare the next morning’s loaves (“You can take that wine to your room”, she tells him diplomatically but pointedly).

The driver’s downfall comes when he breaks protocol, unsealing his load to feed and water the chickens. He makes up the patroness a basket from the many eggs his birds have laid, and she wants more. Easter is approaching and she could sell so many eggs, it would be a shame to waste them. We, and the patroness, learn of the driver’s arrest through some young drivers chatting in the inn. The last we see of the driver, he’s summoned out of his cell for visiting time; he looks small behind the glass panel. When his expression turns to disappointment and misery, we realise in advance that the visitor will be his wife.

A return to levity comes with the most out-and-out comic piece, The Legend of the Greedy Policeman. Like the third film, it reinforces the idea that people bartered with food as an alternative to currency. In a classroom, the kids are wild until a teacher enters and they belt out the anthem. We see various boys attempting to win the favour of the class beauty Gheorgiana by sneaking her pieces of fruit and cuts of meat.

One boy asks the lad in front of him for help with his homework; his payment will be a cut of the pig that his uncle is bringing from the country that evening. We see a local man wander into an empty butcher’s shop to be told that there might be a bit of pork tomorrow, and we realise why the pig is such a big deal. Trouble starts, however, when the hapless uncle arrives at the family’s tower block with a live pig in the back of his car.

The pig squeals and screeches as it is carried indoors. How can they kill a live pig without the neighbours hearing? They eventually decide to seal off the kitchen and gas the pig to death. It all goes very well until the father gets out his blowtorch, to burn off the pig’s hair…

The Legend of The Air Sellers ends the film on a thoughtful note; it concerns Crina, a teenage girl who longs to go on a costly school trip. Her parents have been saving to buy a car and the money isn’t there. She’s a confident, assertive girl, sufficiently sure of herself to turn away whoever knocks at her door and laughingly knock back boys her own age. Her friend summons her out to a party at the flat of some local students, who have obtained a precious and fetishised item; a VHS video player.

At the party teens are slow dancing and snogging under a mirrorball. In the back room a few cinephiles watch Bonnie & Clyde. We don’t learn its significance until Crina spots Bughi, the man who had knocked on her door earlier. She’s looking to earn money and wants in on his scam, whatever it is. Bughi likes her and they arrange to meet the next day.

The scam is that Bughi knocks on people’s doors, claiming to be from the government and investigating complaints about the uncleanliness of tap water (quite feasible as the town is home to a vast chemical plant). He asks to take a sample in any glass bottle, then exchanges the bottles for cash at a depot. Soon Crina is his girl and being desperate for ready cash, as well as bolder and more forward, she expands the scope of the project somewhat.

Poultry transport and a student scam may not be glamorous stuff, but this story and Chicken Driver do follow the template of film noir in that it’s a woman -who has a magnetoic pull over the man, who can’t stop and wants more- that kickstarts the downfall of the male protagonist. Crina is a proper femme fatale. We can see Bughi grow amorous but she is fixated only upon her prize of the school trip. In policier convention, the pair get found out and are chased to the rooftops by the cops.

“We can jump, it’s not that far.”

“Your think there’s anywhere to run?”

The stories are comical and often farcical- however the humour is often gallows, and used as a defence from/defiance of the dire straits in which people lived. There are certain things taken for granted within the stories; for instance, the way that nobody ever answers their front door without peeping through the spy hole beforehand. You have to laugh when every day is liable to be your last day of freedom; the triumph of this film is that the people don’t let the bastards grind them down.

One aside- a friend tells me that there are only 19 cinemas in the whole of Romania, all of which are devoted to Hollywood action films, and that films like this are made solely for export. Which seems a tremendous pity.


“No dancing or singing. They just talk.”

The Birthday Party (William Friedkin, 1968)

From the Losey trilogy onwards Harold Pinter’s custom-made screenplays are, of course, cornerstones of cinema. But there are also the film adaptations of his theatrical works, which are by necessity geared more towards the specialist. Losey’s biographer suggested that JL never took on a Pinter play because it would have been an “away fixture”, and certainly the plays, magnificent though they are, are also hampered by what they are.

They’re written for the stage, action almost entirely constrained to one room, with opportunities to “open out” the play severely limited; unless you want to rewrite the play, which would rather defeat the original point. There’s this one, the second feature from the man who shortly afterwards directed The Exorcist and The French Connection; there’s the equally low-budget versions of The Caretaker and The Homecoming by Clive Donner and Peter Hall; there’s a rarer-still film of Betrayal with Jeremy Irons (I think).

The Birthday Party is very early Pinter. These days his mid-to-late period, from Old Times onwards, strikes me as more sophisticated but the early “comedies of menace” were the ones that blasted a hole in the ceiling of theatre. This play is rich, mysterious, affecting and infused with a language that dazzles.

If you can get past the idea that it’s Filmed Theatre rather than full cinema, this version is actually rather stylised and quite cinematic. The opening titles are shown to the driver’s view of a Rolls Royce gliding silently through the ghost town that is Worthing on a 60s Sunday morning, scenes are broken up with panoramic views of the pier and pathos-addled shots of Petey tending to his deckchairs. Once the action’s taking place in Pinter’s Room, composition, lighting and camera angles are set out in a fairly interesting way too.

Our set up is that the stoic Petey and the warm-hearted but simple Meg are ostensibly running a shabby boarding house. Stanley (Robert Shaw) appears to have been hiding out with them for some months and a girl called Lulu (rent-a-dollybird Helen Fraser from Billy Liar and Repulsion) sometimes pops round, though most of her scenes have been cut. A suave London Jew and an Irishman, Goldberg and McCann, come to the house. They interrogate Stanley, provoking a nervous breakdown, then take him away.

After the titles, we find ourselves in Meg’s filthy kitchen. As she hums to herself, the cornflake box is aimed at the bowl and most of them go over the table; an early indicator that she’s not all there. Petey comes home and for the first few lines of trite dialogue the faces are off camera, emphasising that their conversation is not a form of communication but a barrier to it. When we first see Meg’s face, the camera is in the living room and peering through the serving hatch. People are boxed in, confined.

Petey reads his paper, they chit-chat, the camera steers around the fried bread as if it’s likely to bite. When Meg ventures upstairs to see Stanley, the camera zooms out from a detail of the wallpaper. We rejoin Petey as clatter and laughters drifts down from upstairs. Robert Shaw gives Stanley his trademark rasp and air of dormant aggression. His clothes are filthy and he looks a little like Céline.

As Stanley eats his breakfast, he teases Meg and there seems to be a sexual undertone to all their interactions- she tickles him whilst trying to get a cigarette. He steps outside to smoke, but a plane overheard drives him back inside. It’s clear that the boarding house is a hideout for him when news of two newcomers makes him so agitated (“They won’t come, it’s a false alarm”). The big monologue about his past as a concert pianist is played without tricks; just a slow, gradual zoom into Shaw’s face as it leans on his hand.

The worldly Lulu and her Sandie Shaw bob make a brief appearance from the outside world, opening the window and curtains before declaring Stanley a “washout”. He flees through the back door at the arrival of Goldberg (Sydney Tafler) and McCann (Pinter/Losey favourite Patrick Magee).

McCann is sombre and pessimistic, always peering fearfully at the backyard and disgusting kitchen, whilst Goldberg has an air of relaxed authority in his grey tailored suit. He’s got the gift of the gab and his voice has a musical, yiddish twang (“Whadda lahvly flighta stairs”). Meg is enchanted. When the pair have popped out she gives Stanley his toy drum, and as his tension boils over the first act ends with his primal-scream banging.

Cut to McCann in the front room, tearing his newspaper into strips. It’s done with enervating slowness and the noise is heavily amplified. Stanley comes downstairs and tries to impose himself. McCann does not react until he declares his intention to leave, which causes a bit of brinkmaship. Why don’t you stay in? We’re having a party in your honour. Stanley now tries to establish his credentials as a harmless, obedient recluse, before pleading and making desperate attempts to ingratiate himself (“I know Ireland. The people have a wonderful sense of humour”). McCann’s poker face doesn’t flinch. Petey tells them he’ll miss the party as he has a chess match- more of a life of the mind than his wife.

Enter Goldberg. As he sits and delivers a monologue, the camera slowly circles him to reinforce that air of authority. He speaks with eloquence but there’s something not quite right about it; as he tells us about a bygone romance with a Sunday school teacher, we hear that “walking home, I’d tip my hat to the toddlers, give a hand to a couple of stray dogs”. Stanley tries the aggression with Goldberg too, refusing to shake his hand and posing as defender of Petey and Meg (“They’ve lost their sense of smell. I haven’t”).

Goldberg and McCann spring into action, coercing Stanley to sit down. The interrogation is shot with quirky angles, the two men standing either side of Stanley. From a top corner of the room, the camera will swoop down and around the armchair before zooming back out. There are rapid cuts between the three men. Once Goldberg and McCann manage to build up a rhythm, their speech flows like music. When they take Stanley’s glasses we see his POV, fumbling through a blurred field of vision until he falls. The interrogation seems largely concerned with sex, religion and guilt, culminating in a refrain of “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (sounds daft, but as a whole the piece is very poetic with plenty of word association and its own internal logic).

Stanley reaches his breaking point just about now. He screams and we see the interrogators’ faces before the camera, looking like the reflection in a spoon. There are jump cuts and weird angles aplenty as the three fight, brandishing chairs. It’s interrupted by Meg arriving in a red party frock, which has Goldberg gurgling with laughter. Meg is asked to deliver a toast, and McCann to shine a torch on birthday boy Stanley. Photography turns an oddly psychedelic sepia as the lights go out. Told to “say what you feel”, Meg ends up crying and not noticing that Stanley is still reeling.

Lulu arrives at the party. Goldberg does some more oratory and she clearly fancies him (“You’re empty, let me fill you up”). We zoom back from those two to see McCann vigilantly topping up Stanley’s whisky. Everyone focuses on getting drunk, there are lots of intrusive close-ups on perspiring faces, snatches of multiple conversations and it’s all mildly hallucinogenic. Lulu and Goldberg start snogging on an armchair whilst Meg and McCann talk at cross purposes.

“Have you ever been to Carrickmacross?”

“I’ve been to King’s Cross.”

Now in high spirits, the ladies decide that they would like to play a parlour game and someone suggests Blind Man’s Buff- perfect for the purposes of Goldberg and McCann. Meg is first to wear the blind- a soundtrack of heavy breathing and she caresses McCann before the blind is lifted “Oh, it’s you”. McCann’s POV next as he takes the blind and trashes the room. His hands grope, his arms flail, the camera jerks all over the place. The breathing is quite canine until he finally catches Stanley.

When Stanley becomes “it” we see a bird’s eye view of the room, Goldberg orchestrating the others’ movements, then the camera is level with the floor as Stanley is tripped up by the drum. McCann breaks his glasses. There’s a sudden blackout, gasps and a scream in the dark. More groovy sepia negatives when McCann finds the torch. It turns on Stanley, his hands around Meg’s throat. He whimpers and moans.

Cut to golden lamps on the pier and that almost still-life shot of deckchairs. Petey has finished his early morning shift and is heading home. The third act is very morning-after, giving the film a symmetrical feel (before/during/after). Meg has a headache and frets over the broken drum. Goldberg gives Petey a diagnosis of Stanley’s breakdown and dissuades him from calling a doctor. McCann comes down from the patient’s room, his sleeves rolled up, muttering that “I’m not going up there again”. He sits to polish his shoes as Goldberg ushers Petey back out to work.

For once it’s Goldberg who is tensed up. When McCann speaks out of turn he lunges at his friend with venom and throttles him. He tries to cheer himself up with more speeches and rhetoric, but it’s as if he’s realising their hollowness for the first time. Try as he might he cannot complete his sentence, “Because I believe that the world…”. It’s Pinter giving the boot, however unsubtly, to any ideologues in this world, anyone pretending that they know the solutions (an attitude we need to hold onto now the PM-in-waiting is telling us that removal of ‘big government’ will make everything perfect).

Goldberg falls back on tradition (“Who came before your father? His father!”) before going weird again and asking McCann to blow into his mouth. When Stanley reappears he is a zombie in a smart suit. This time the pair give him a “nice”, motivational version of the interrogation which appears to be all about religion. This time Stanley is dumb, obedient, and Petey’s climactic call of “Don’t let them tell you what to do!” falls on deaf ears as he is led into the car. The car speeds off into town and the camera swings back to Petey twitching his net curtain; a nice note of ambivalence from the director.

I first read The Birthday Party at the age of 16, loved it and went on to devour all Pinter’s plays- they had a profound influence on me. When I watched this film, I was no longer so sure about his stance. Is living in a starving artist’s shabby pit really so superior to wearing a suit and conforming to tradition? I suppose that the young wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they didn’t scrutinise and challenge everything that was handed down to them.

Anyway this version of The Birthday Party has the limitations of being designed for another medium, but it’s been assembled by Friedkin with not a little skill and in a way that only augments the sense of dread. There are some genial performances (particularly those of Goldberg and McCann) and it’s still far more of a film than something like In the Loop. It deserves to be better known.

November 2009
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