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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.


A state-sponsored fatwa killed the cat

No-One Knows About Persian Cats (Bahman Ghobadi, 2009)

We’ve all done it. We’ve all sat in some pub or café, where our afternoon off is spolit by Coldplay or Robbie Williams or whoever blasting out of the speakers, and joked that it must be nice to live in a hard-line Islamic state where there’s a blanket ban on dreadful pop music. But in those countries you’re not allowed to go to the pub, you’re not allowed to make music without prior vetting from the government, you’re not even allowed to walk your dog.

Mr Ghobadi was refused a permit to film the film he’d been planning. So, without bothering to apply for the permit he went into the streets of Tehran and spent two weeks filming what he saw. The outcome is No-One Knows About Persian Cats, an interesting hybrid of pop video, teen drama and documentary. Its semi-improvised, shot-on-the-fly mood gives it an energy and freshness that recalls the French New Wave (the wide-eyed, endearing  adulation the Tehran kids have for Western rock mirroring the Cinematheque kids’ love of Hollywood).

The fast-and-loose storyline concerns songwriting partners Ashkan and Negar. Ashkan is the muso who slaves over his mixing desk, lyricist/vocalist Negar is going through her Joy Division/Franz Kafka phase (oh to be young!). Like all kids with a dream they’ve put their wares up on MySpace, and they’ve been courted by concert promoters in Britain and France. They have greater obstacles, however, than the usual hurdles of public apathy and label conservatism; Ahmadinejad’s goons tend not to give out the necessary permits to record Western music, nor visas/passports for the young to defect westwards.

People sometimes flourish in the most adverse circumstances, and their outlaw status gives musicians a determination and a solidarity. Our heroes are introduced to Nader (Behdad, apparently the only professional actor involved), a well-connected ligger/bullshitter on the scene who makes it his mission to get them and their music out into the world. Cue a tour of the Tehran Unislamic music scene, as Nader introduces the pair to people who may be able to help in some way- usually an excuse for each group to perform a song.

The variety of styles is surprisingly broad. We see aging jazz men, a metal band who rehearse in a farmshed (“The cows have gone crazy. They won’t eat, drink or give milk”, grumbles a farmhand), a grunge act whose dad turns off the electricity when he worries that people will hear. A singer-songwriter plays his soul-searching melodramatics to the primary school class he teaches, with close-ups of the children listening intently and enjoying; shades of Les 400 Coups. I particularly liked an angry rapper whose song had the chorus “Allah, wake up! Can’t you see we’re all trash?”

Mostly the script is paper-thin. Nader will be giving the kids a piggyback on his motorbike. “Where are we going today?” “We’re going to see this psychedelic folk band. They know a few people and I think they can get you a permit to go into a recording studio”. Then the act take their turn to play a song, which is intercut, MTV style, with montages of street life. Youths doing wheelies on bikes, flower sellers, crowded trams, Ayatollah billboards, rats running through junkie squats. Between scenes we also get some great skyline shots of Tehran.

Where the script is fleshed out a little more, it can be very funny. Two scenes jump out in particular. “Mash David” is a scatty old bloke in an attic room who Nader approaches to obtain fake passports for his pals. On request he can recite his prices. Iraqi visa, $50. Afghan visa, $5. European visa, $1,000. American visa, $8,000. Exemption from military service, $10,000. Nader tries to sweeten the deal by offering him bootleg DVDs, but David didn’t like the last lot. What sort do you like, then? “Action! Action! 100 killings and no romance!” The girl before Negar and Ashkan has come for a passport. “We’ve mis-spelt your surname. But that’s ok, the world is a shambles.”

Another scene sees Nader hauled before the authorities for the bootleg DVDs and possession of alcohol. We see Ashkan’s view of the encounter, peeping through a door ajar in the police station. Both men are cross-legged on the floor, only Nader on camera. His performance is hysterical over-the-top and fabulous. You say I drink alcohol? Smell my breath, then! Lean over! These DVDs are quality European cinema, they’re not blasphemous. Watch some! Here, take this one, I guarantee you’ll like it! His tantrums terrify the offical and get his hefty fine reduced by 90%.

But all these characters need to watch their back for the most trivial offences. Perhaps the worst affront is the policeman who snatches Ashkan’s ancient dog from his car window and rides off (“A dog outside? That’s filthy, brother!”). The cast-and-director Q&A after the film revealed that on his return from receiving an award at Cannes, Ghobadi was locked up for a week. Most of the people involved dare not go back now.

Once the kids have recruited a full band and got them up to speed, they’re ready to play a gig in their rehearsal garage before heading off to Europe and glory. Instead of stage lighting, Negar gives a candle to each of the 200 punters. What they don’t know is that David has been arrested, hence the passports and visas will not be forthcoming. Nader has reacted by going on a huge bender at a drink-and-drugs party. Ashkan finds him as is trying to wake him up when the police raid the building and Ashkan falls out the window.

We’ve been given a premonition of this in the first few seconds of the film, when we see a blurred image of a bleeding figure pushed on a hospital trolley. This scene is reprised at the film’s end. But with most of the film and the people in it so bright, breezy, warm and enthusiastic, this darker turn comes as a genuinely unexpected punch in the gut.

On the whole, Persian Cats leaves the viewer with plenty of food for thought. It’s very immediate, very now, and in years to come it will serve as an excellent document of its time. A lot of people thought we might see a revolution in Iran this year after the rigged election, and the film makes it clear that something’s got to give between the religious fundamentalists and the pop-savvy kids that they’re lording it over. All the girls in the film obediently keep their headscarves on, but they also wear Converse trainers and devour illicit copies of the NME.

In the Q&A afterwards, the director stressed that this was his favourite of his four feature films; because it wasn’t really his film or his art. The film, and the art, was that of the kids in Tehran. This is one country that’s worth keeping an eye on.


Plan 9 from David Lynch

Dune (David Lynch, 1984)

Was having a badly-needed spring clean of the hovel this morning, and I came across a whole stash of free DVDs from newspapers that I’d never got around to watching. One of these was a David Lynch. Eraserhead I found haunting, The Elephant Man a bit too liberals-patting-themselves-on-the-back, but mid-80s Lynch means Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks; i.e. absolute mastery. I’m no sci-fi enthusiast but I was keen to see what David Lynch did within the genre.

What can I say? Dune is bloody awful. Good things are the decor, costumes, some of the visuals, photography from English new wave titan Freddie Francis; even if there’s no fucking chance whatsoever that whatever life forms that are around in 8,000 years time are going to dress like dignitaries of the Hapsburg Empire with lovely blow-dried Nick Rhodes haircuts.

Bad things are… everything else. Here we have a series of epic novels compressed into a two-hour film, and it’s impossible to follow. Characterisation is one-dimensional, lots of ham acting, people are miscast, and worst of all it’s boring. Dog’s dinner of a film. About halfway through I consciously gave up on the film, and from then on I was just waiting for the end.

Apart from everything else, one of the odd tricks employed by the film is to mix up actual dialogue with the articulated thoughts of each character. For example, the Duke’s partner Jessica will ask someone “What happened to your wife?”. Then, her lips not moving, we will hear her say to herself “He’s hiding something from me!”. I can see what they were trying to do- create a multi-faceted world where nobody’s motives can be taken at face value. But the trick is intrusive, very distracting, and doesn’t quite work. Shouldn’t the actors be able to convey their thoughts and feelings through, er, facial expression and body language?

Not knowing what else to say, I’ll try my usual trick of talking you through the film. We start with a head-shot of a pretty girl, dangly earrings and her hair in Princess Leia buns, before an outer space backdrop. In a rambling monologue (“Oh yes, I forgot to tell you…”) she tells us that it’s the year 10191 and she’s the daughter of the Emperor wot runs this universe. More or less everyone depends on the spice of the planet Arakis, which “extends life” and facilitates space travel by allowing people to “fold space”.

Cue neo-classical titles. Gotta love the Albertus font. A robot voice outlines the geo-political situation in 10191 for us; there are four main species on four main planets, each of whom is playing the other three off one another, but they all have unfamiliar sci-fi names and we don’t quite grasp what’s going on. The Emperor supposedly presides over everything, but with the supply of spice under threat he receives a visit from the Spice Guild.

In a lavish, golden room whose decor is a Gaudi-esque imitation of coral reefs, lots of generals in nice uniforms confer. The Emperor (José Ferrer) murmurs to the Reverend Mother (Sian Phillips), a bald lady in Tudor costume, that “I shall want telepathy”. The room empties as the Spice Guild are announced- a lot of chaps in chemical suits surrounding a big black tank. In the tank is a gigantic blob (Geri Halliwell) that exhales red fumes. It resembels a massive brain with eyes, a mouth, and minuscule arms.

Blob tells Emperor that he’s not happy. Emperor reassures Blob that one of the planets was building a secret army to take over the planet wot the spice comes from, but he’s getting their rival planet to occupy Planet Spice. Blob tells Emperor he will be required to kill Paul Atreides, and for God’s sake be discreet about it.

The Atreides live on Caladan, a planet characterised by raging seas hurtling onto ragged rocks. Paul (a young Kyle MacLachlan, as rosy-cheeked as a Tory front-bencher) is sitting in a wood-panelled room, checking an astral map on a laptop, when in walk Patrick Stewart, Dean Stockwell and some bloke in furs with gigantic bushy eyebrows. Without turning he identifies the three by their footsteps. Lt. Gurney (Stewart) puts him through some sparring and we get 80s-tastic graphics, in which their limbs and torsos become encased by blurry, floating rectangles. Paul is going into battle soon and he needs to take his manoeuvres more seriously.

On Arakis, the spice planet, there are worms of up to 500 metres long; that’s where the Atreides lot are headed. Paul is put through his paces against a robot column that comes from the ceiling and has dozens of arms and swords. Lots of ducking and diving from MacLachlan. He steps outside to see his father the Duke. We establish that he’s the Atreides’ best man and much depends on him. “The sleeper must awaken”, urges the Duke.

Paul has a dream/premonition with views of Arakis, Sting laughing and vowing to kill him, and some girl. His mum Jessica lets the Reverend Mother into the palace and gets told off. She was told only to bear daughters to the Duke, so that the Atreides might be linked to their Harkonnen enemies by a political marriage, and she disobeyed. “You were my greatest student and my greatest disappointment”, mutters Phillips. She puts Paul through a test. He has to put his hand into a box that burns his flesh, and if he takes his hand out he will die. Paul passes the test and there’s some vague talk of him maybe being “the one”.

Over to Geidi Prime, home of the Harkonnen. It’s more industrial; scaffolding and lurid green light, rows of stormtroopers in gas masks. Everyone has ginger hair and their leader, the Baron, is a  fat pantomime villain whose face is disfigured by hideous boils (get the feeling that there are goodies and baddies here?). He shouts and storms about like Leo McKern, levitating when he’s particularly excited. His aides are a few fat blokes and Sting, doing a decent pop-eyed Macolm McDowell impression. The Baron wants to control the spice and has a traitor amongst the Atreides who’ll help him.

Paul, his parents and a pug dog are leading a convoy of ships to Arakis. They enter the planet through a baroque golden doorway. Bit of incomprehensible, 2001-ish special effects. The Atreides take charge of the planet and have to contend with all the booby traps and suicide squads left by the Harkonnen. The Duke hears a report about the natives of Arakis, the mysteious Fremen. These are dudes with luminous blue eyes, and there are lots more of them left than they’re letting on and they could be helpful.

Soldiers queue for meagre water rations. Dr Eueh (Stockwell, with a comedy scouser perm and moustache) x-rays captured Harkonnen rebels and has an exhange with Jessica which idenitifies him as unstrustworthy. Paul is attacked by a flying needle that comes out of the wall, and a Fremen housemaid tips him off that there’s a traitor in their midst.

Paul & the Duke meet Doctor Kynes (Max von Sydow, did you really need the money that badly?) who has the blue eyes and shows them “still suits” for outdoor expeditions; they trap your sweat and breath, purify it and make it drinkable. There is no natural moisture on this planet. They go out in a buggy to see spice mining in action. Dr Kynes detects one of the giant worms that defend the spices nearby, and the Duke orders all the miners out. The worm destroys the mine, Dr Kynes is impressed at the Duke’s compassion.

Walking about the compound, the Duke is shot by Dr Eueh, who is our traitor. He’s disabled all their defences because of a personal vendetta. He has nothing against the Duke, and gives him a poison capsule for the inevitable moment he meets the Baron- it will emit a gas and kill them both. The Harkonnen troops attack, there are lots of explosions and battle scenes. Are we bothered?

The Baron shows up, spits in Jessica’s eye and orders his men to dump her and Paul in the desert, where the big worms will eat them. The Duke is conked out and uses his capsule to kill the Baron’s doctor by mistake. Jessica talks with a lion’s growl that hypnotises the toughs who are taking her and Paul away. They get control of the ship and land at the planet’s south pole. After a boring chase by a giant worm, they meet a colony of Fremen that includes the girl from Paul’s dream. Love at first sight.

To further transcribe this bollocks would be to waste your time and mine. Paul becomes a guerilla leader for the Fremen and they disable all the spice mines (“He who can destroy a thing, controls that thing”; is this an argument for the nuclear deterrent?). Jessica gives birth to Paul’s little sister, a telepathic five-year-old who dresses like a muslim woman. There are interminable shoot-em-up battle scenes, in which the obligatory rewrites of Holst’s Mars, The Bringer of War are spolit by grinding guitar solos being laid over the top.

Paul becomes some sort of Warrior Messiah (MacLachlan may be perfect for the unsure boy prodigy, but Warrior Messiah he is Not) who conquers everything and everyone, culminating with his defeat of Sting’s mockney punk rocker in a duel. It’s all silly, pompous, devoid of any characterisation at all, and with no apparent awareness of how meteorically silly it is. That Lynch was able to follow up this catastrophic, epic folly with Blue Velvet leaves me altogether bewildered.

Perhaps I should leave the last words, as does the film itself, to that telekinetic little sister; “And how can this be? He is the Quidzath Zaggurat!” That’s one thing to call him.


Fiddling while Rome Hepburns

Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953)

For a few weeks now I’ve been suffering with a fairly heavy cold, amongst other things, and a light, breezy classic was about as much as I could cope with this weeekend. Audrey Hepburn’s most famous role –Breakfast at Tiffany’s, of course-  had her as a hillbilly pretending to be a socialite. It was a back-to-front variation on her breakthrough role, as here she’s a monarch pretending to be a truant from school.

It’s the stock fairytale, prince & pauper scenario that’s fuelled countless films. She walks through a market, sits at a cafe and other commonplace things that we all do every day. The magic comes from knowing it’s the only chance in her life she’ll get to do any of this. But this film about the joys of absconding is moralistic, and has a work ethic; being sated by a day off, Princess Ann returns to the palace, now ready to accept her lot in life.

Gregory Peck’s hack also goes on a journey of self-improvement. He hangs around “Anya”, hoping to sell the story, until his conscience gets the better of him and he realises he doesn’t have it in him to betray the sweet kid. Unlike Tiffany’s the film goes against our expectations and keeps the love unrequited, each going back to their world and their duties. It’s a dignified, neatly poised finish in the vein of Lost in Translation.

Historically, what makes this neat little comedy important (apart from AH bursting onto the screen) is the extent of location filming. It must be one of the earliest mainstream Hollywood films to get out of the big studio sets and into the city streets. The great cinematographer Henri Alekan shows Rome off at its most touristy and photogenic, but it’s a start. I recently wrote about Carol Reed’s The Man Between, filmed in the ruins of Berlin, and it looks like Rome had a considerably better war than the Jerries. That or Rome was rebuilt in a day. One can only envy the relative scarcity of traffic and/or overcrowding.

After aerial postcard views of Rome and a stirring, Respighi-esque orchestral score, we meet Hepburn’s princess in a newsreel showing her European tour. London, Amsterdam, Paris- her home country is not specified. We catch up with her in a plush ballroom full of footmen in gowns; Ann is shaking hands with an endless procession of Papal representatives, Indians, Hungarians &c.

In a mischievous, slightly Bunuelish touch, Wyler shows her bordeom by repeatedly cutting to close-ups of her feet under her gown; steeping out of their shoes, wiggling toes, scratching her leg. When her shoe falls over, all of her entourage is horrifed. The General helps her stand up, her enormous gown covering the errant shoe, and they waltz onto the dancefloor- the others following their lead. Now that’s breeding.

Ann dutifully dances with all sorts of pallid posh mannequins until it’s time for bed. “I hate my nightgowns. I’m not 200 years old”, she complains as her governess pulls her away from the window. The sounds of music and revellery drift up. The governess reads out Ann’s packed itinerary for the next day; factory visits and all that. Hepburn nibbles on a cracker (and nobody can eat a cracker quite like her), the tears welling up. Eventually she cracks, and screams as she pounds her fists into the mattress. The doctor is called out to give her a shot of morphine.

In bed, Ann contemplates the friezes of Venus in the four corners of her ceiling, then gets changed and sneaks out. From below, the camera shows her traversing the bannister around the edge of the ceiling; then from above, sneaking out of the palace and into the back of a goods truck. Euphoric music and clinking bottles as the truck exits the palace gates, giving a view of young couples on scooters, pavement diners, and Rome’s fountains. Hepburn is thrilled. This is real life!

Meanwhile, Joe Bradley (Peck) is bowing out of a late-night poker game with his American pals. Lots of smoking, loosened neckties. The morphine has hit Ann and Bradley finds her sleeping on a wall outside the Forum. Hepburn is quite feline, nonchalantly quoting Shelley in her sleep as Bradley tries to rouse her. She is, as ever, the vulnerable little girl that men want to take care of. Tough guy Bradley hails a taxi and gives the girl a slap.

“Where do you live?”

“The Coliseum.”

The taxi driver gives us a madcap cameo as both he and Bradley try to offload the sound-asleep girl onto each other (“I have bambino at home. You know bambino? Waah, waah”). When the cabbie mentions the police, Bradley decides to take the girl home as a last resort. Nowadays he’d probably be getting the lubricant out by this point, but this 1953 and Gregory Peck is a Gentleman. His place is a cramped, boho attic room; he demurs when the girl asks for help undressing and makes it clear that she’s on the couch, not the bed (maybe not such a Gentleman, then).

Bradley goes out for some air, allowing Ann a chance to sort herself out. When he returns she’s in bed and he tips her onto the couch. They wake to church bells at noon the next day, and Bradley is horrified- he was meant to be interviewing that princess at 11:45. After drinking coffee from the hands of a typist girl, he goes into his editor’s office and tries to bullshit him. What did the Princess think of European integration? “She said it would have two effects; the direct and the indirect.” The furious editor shows Bradley a newspaper annoucing the Princess’ illness and cancellation of her programme; Bradley realises he’s got the girl in his flat. How much would the editor pay for the most private and intimate thoughts of the Princess?

He has the concierge guard his door and his military drills are attracting kids by the time Bradley shows up. Gentle music as he studies the sleeping Hepburn and lifts her back into bed- the love story is being telegraphed. Half-awake, the Princess murmurs about the man in her dream; “He was strange, and so mean to me… it was wonderful” (she likes it rough). A glimpse of the ceiling, with a boiler instead of Botticelli, wakes her up. Ann realises where she is, how she’s spent the night, takes a few moments to soak up the realisation and consequences; then decides she likes it.

Bradley runs “Anya” a bath then calls his photographer Irving (a bearded Eddie Albert) from a payphone. Fun-loving Irving has a model at his place and protests that he’s “up to my ears in work”. Hepburn gets scolded in Italian by the cleaner and when she makes her excuses and leaves, the concierge spots Peck lending her some cash- he too seems to assume the worst. Peck follows from a distance as Hepburn enjoys herself passing scooters, cyclists and workmen in the streets.

Hepburn steps into a barber’s and has her long flowing tresses chopped off- she looks much better. The barber asks her to come dancing and she’s delighted that people fancy her; they’re seeing the girl and not the title. Buying a gelato, she enjoys her anonymity as much as the camera enjoys panning down the Spanish Steps. Meanwhile, at the Trevi fountain a primary school teacher catches Peck trying to mug one of her pupils for her camera.

Now seems an appropriate moment for Bradley to “bump into” Ann and suggest that they spend the day together. Ann says she’s playing truant and her father is in PR, Bradley says he’s a fertiliser salesman. I suppose they’re both telling the truth in their own ways. They meet Irving at a café and Peck’s face is priceless when Hepburn blithely orders champagne. As Ann smokes “her first cigarette”, Irving produces a hidden camera inside a lighter. They’ve struck gold. We cut to a plane from Ann’s homecountry, from which scores of Thomson Twin detectives emerge. “These men are supposed to be inconspicuous”, moans the general.

Peck and Hepburn ride through Rome on a scooter, he pointing out sights. Her spirits raised, Ann tries to ride off on the scooter herself and there follows a silent slapstick scene as she knocks over street painters, the police give chase, etc. We see the three in the station, gesticulating wildly and trying to mime their way out of trouble. Wagner’s bridal march blasts out as we deduce their story; we were trying to get to the church on time. They make a very gay threesome (in the old-fashioned sense), but it’s delicious to think that the two men are at present duping the Princess.

It’s during a slow dance, at a jazz concert by the Tiber, that Bradley begins to melt; Ann raises her head from his shoulder, gazes wide-eyed and whispers “Hello”. He looks distinctly awkward when she reflects on their day together and how “unselfish” he’s been. Irving is delighted when Ann dances with the barber from earlier, and makes sure he gets plenty of shots. The party is curtailed by a carful of the Thompson Twins detectives and a neatly-choreographed punch-up, where most of the goons end up in the river and Hepburn smashes a guitar over the head of one, beating The Clash and The Who by a good few years.

The two lovers are confirmed as such when they swim to the other shore and kiss. After the first snog they’re both terribly bashful, but it’s back to his place and Ann’s turn to have her conscience pricked. The news bulletin on the radio tells of her citizens’ grave concern at the mystery illness that has kept her from fulfilling her duties. Bradley drives her to round the corner from the palace, and they part amidst tears and kisses. He looks shaken.

At the palace, we see that this assertion of independence has turned the little girl into a woman. When her entourage attempt to give her a royal bollocking, Ann faces them down effortlessly; and she doesn’t want any crackers for supper either. Watching the sun come up in his bedsit, a preoccupied Bradley is visited by his editor. He’s decided that he has no story to tell. When Irving buts in, he is told to “go home and shave”.

The Princess’ appearance before the gentlemen of the press is rescheduled; Bradley and Irving are two of the many who filter through into a stupendous hall with vertiginously high ceilings and walls crammed solid with paintings. Questions from the floor are answered with impeccably impenetrable diplomat-spea, until Ann is asked which city was her favourite. “All of them… no, Rome”. At the end she steps down from the platform, announcing her wish to meet some journalists. The assembled hacks from Japan, France, Canada are touched by her gesture but we know her real motives. Irving sneaks her the many action photos that were meant for the exposé.

The final shots see the camera wobble a little, then pull back through this vast hall as Bradley -having waited for the hall to clear and wondered if the Princess might reappear- strides out, smiling. He turns back at the threshold, hesitates with a forlorn gaze and then walks out of the frame. He’s lost his love, but one senses that it’s been a wholly positive experience with no regrets. A love that is only for one night can never go stale or sour, but can instead be idealised for all time.


What a piece of Werck is man

Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr, 2000)

A weighty adaptation of a weighty novel -both Hungarian- that came recommended by a friend. It’s challenging stuff, very dreamlike and disturbing at once with its own inner logic. I got the sense that if I’d been watching it in a cinema I might have come out raving that I’d just seen a masterpiece.

The most striking thing about the film is its look. The B&W photography is as crisp as an early morning’s fresh snowfall. It’s Anton Corbijn meets Sven Nykvist meets kitchen sink new wave. The takes are very long, very slow, technically brilliant and repetitive to the point of near-hypnosis. The film credits seven different cinematographers, which I guess makes Tarr a proper auteur.

It’s set in a remote Hungarian town. One or two of the household objects suggest that we’re in the present day or very recent past, but really it could be any time in the past 500 years. The location is hermetic and timeless and the story has the feel of a dark fairytale or fable. The people with which Tarr populates the village reflect this too; they have slightly exaggerated features, none more than idiot savant Janos (a sickly, bug-eyed Lars Rudolph) in the lead role.

The logic that the story follows doesn’t really make sense unless you’re living within the world of the film; think of Rivette’s Paris Nous Appartient. Plainly put, everyone is very worried about the circus that’s coming to town and what it will lead to. The “circus” consists of a giant whale in a lorry, and a “Prince” who will at some point make a public appearance; the latter is reputed to bring a “godless, monstrous” message with him. After they come into town, town becomes a battleground between destructive rioters and authoritarian forces.

This being Hungary, one’s instinct is to take it as a crossword puzzle and work out what’s being allegorised. Late communist-era fears about the repressed breaking out? What’s the whale besides a nod to Moby Dick? The DVD extra is an interview with Tarr where he does get asked. He says politics is a “dirty game” (good for him) and there’s no allegory attached. As he went to such pains to give his film a universal, timeless quality, I suppose specific labels are the last thing he wants for it. The whale may be a riddle without an answer, like the 2001 monolith; evidence that there’s something more to life and this world, but that that something is beyond our comprehension.

Poor innocent Janos is rather caught in the crossfire between his uncle Gyorgy, a reclusive composer/musical theorist, and the estranged auntie Tunde (Hanna Schygulla looking, unsurpisingly, more grande dame than the dishy blonde you remember from all those Fassbinder films). It seems that some time ago, it was Tunde or the music and the music won. She fills the void by acting as mistress to the chief of police and trying to set up a quasi-blackshirt organisation that will “restore order”. Gyorgy gets blackmailed into putting his good name behind the movement and canvassing for signatures. He mutters something about “smashing the slut’s skull”, then complies dutifully.

The opening scene is particularly beautiful. We see a coal fire doused by the dregs of a pint, then the camera pulls back to show the landlord of a small, shabby bar announce closing time. His elderly clientele are either wobbly on their feet or falling over. One portly chap slowly walks towards the camera and addresses the off-camera Janos; “Show us.” The tables and chairs are pushed against the back wall. Are we in for some folk dancing?

Instead, Janos picks out three volunteers and demonstrates (as one imagines he is asked to every night) the movements of the sun, earth and moon. The camera slowly circles the four men, Janos choreographing his inebriated yet childlike actors with great care, until he stops them and describes the effects of a total eclipse in poetic langauge. It’s funny, but there’s an awesome mystery to it as the drinkers listen in hushed reverence.

Eventually the barman strides through and holds the door open, the camera focused on his beady scowl. Janos walks home through this sleeping town, down the middle of the road, with the camera before him and a gentle strings & piano score. He wakes Gyorgy from his armchair and puts him to bed, whilst we get a tour of the uncle’s comfortable big house. Thence to the post office, where he makes tea before starting his paper round. Outside,  the circus truck edges slowly down the street and its shadow engulfs every one of the cottages to its left. All the shots of empty streets at night drip with atmosphere and existential dread.

Janos has a second uncle at the post office. As he drinks his tea, we listen to a sorting woman spread gossip about the ill omen of this Prince. Very slowly (of course), the camera nudges closer to her until Janos is forgotten and we’re close enough for the grille the woman is behind to have disappeared. A third uncle in a hotel lobby makes similarly grim prophecies to Janos whilst lighting cigarettes with a flourish.

In the main square the next day, the lorry is ready to open. There are clusters of men all through the square, few of them talking. All is shrouded in dazzling white light and mist. The back door opens noisily, from within we hear Cabaret-type music as an old man brings out a desk, chair and cash box. Janos is the only one who goes in to see the whale. He stops at the eye, does one circuit and leaves with a slight shudder. An acquaintance tells him the whale “will lead to trouble”.

Janos lives with Lajos, his fourth uncle, and his room is like a prison cell. The walls are rotting and there’s a vast map of the cosmos above his narrow single mattress. He boils a tin of stew on a camping stove. Enter Tunde; Janos tries to protect Gyorgy, citing his ill health, but the threat of Tunde’s suitcase is enough to have the old man out on the streets. After an endless shot of Janos and Gyorgy walking into town, the villagers begin to tell the pair their troubles; there’s no heating, no transport, and now this Prince is adding insult to injury. To Janos’ disappointment, by the time the sigantures are collcted his uncle is too tired to see the whale.

As he crosses the square, a man grabs a stammering Janos by the scruff of the neck and threatens him. The clusters of people are now lighting fires. Tunde is with the chief of police, who is in his cups and sits on the bed shouting. She sends Janos on an errand- put this man’s kids to bed then snoop around the square; who’s there, what are they talking about? As Janos leaves, the couple dance to military music, the chief waving his gun aloft.

The chief’s house is a mess, his young sons are playing the same record we just heard at Tunde’s. Janos can’t control them; one screams threats of violence, continuing after Janos leaves, the other spends the entire scene bouncing on the bed and incessantly banging saucepan lids. This repetitive scene is very similiar in feel to Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small and is genuinely horrible to sit through.

The bonfires in the square are raging; Janos slips inside the lorry to look at the whale (“see how much trouble you’ve caused”). He overhears an argument between the circus proprietor and a thug who represents the Prince. The former discovered the Prince and gave him his artificial title, but the latter asserts that the Prince is now much bigger than the circus and cannot be dictated to. Eventually the Prince speaks- we only see a shadow on the wall but he looks/sounds like a dwarf. He’s a Hitlerish megalomaniac who wants to incite his followers in the square to revolution. Janos runs and we see flames, smoke and explosion from behind the houses that line the square’s exterior.

The next extended take is of a crowd marching, all carrying clubs. Over a long period of time the camera ascends above them to show how many people there are, then descends back to eye level. The dreamlike manner in which it’s lit and depicted defuses the tension a little, makes you feel drugged. Eventually the men burst into a hospital, tip patients out of their beds and beat them savagely. Lack of a soundtrack again distances us, but the mindless nihilism is once more akin to Herzog’s dwarfs. The camera looms through the corridors until we meet a naked old man standing up in a bathtub; the theme music starts and the rioters shuffle out with heads bowed. The spell has been broken.

The camera rotates around an ornate ceiling, then descends in a downward spiral to reveal Janos reading a notebook containing the Prince’s speech and an account of all the rioters did (“We didn’t find the real object of despair, so we rushed at everything we came across with wilder and wilder fury”). He sits in a room filled with smashed-up washing machines and fridges- a looted shop? Outside, soldiers and tanks have arrived in town. Tunde is pointing to a map and giving orders to the generals.

Janos emerges and finds the dead body of uncle Lajos. When he gets home, he hasn’t the heart to tell Lajos’ wife. She tells him that the army are after him; leave town and hide. Long shot of Janos running along the train track out of town, until a helicopter passes over, returns and hovers- taking photographs of a motionless, petrified young man. 

Cut to Janos on a hospital bed, wearing a white smock. Gyorgy is at his side, telling him that Tunde and the police have commandeered his house but “if” Janos comes out, Gyorgy can put him up. Janos doesn’t seem able to hear- he stares into space and emits a range of yips and whimpers. Gyorgy walks home and checks out the remains of the whale, leaving us with a deep sense of pity and injustice over the fate of that nice boy.

Having been sacrificed that the largely unsympathetic villagers might recover their own sense of stability, one could perhaps say that Janos is a Christ figure of sorts; but his lot at the end of the film leaves us with a particularly pessimistic brand of catharsis, if any.

July 2018
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