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Une histoire compliquée

Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

I haven’t written about any Godard films yet, and it’s probably about time. Two or three years ago I had a big Godard phase during which I watched most of the films from his golden age, but he made so many in the 60s that there are still a few major ones I’ve yet to see. His stuff is so packed with content that it can dazzle and I needed to view this one twice before I got a grip on it.

Pierrot le Fou would be a good introduction to Godard as it bridges his early and later stuff; it’s simulatenously a farewell to the pulpy pop stories and an indication of where he was heading to. The film is bursting at the seams with ideas and it conveys a sense of tension. Its range of references are voraciously diverse; people are always recounting anecdotes, spouting cod philosophy. Narrative cinema about a murder, robbery or other maguffin is no longer big enough to contain his curiosity, his restless impatience.

The references to Céline might be a clue towards the form of the film. No doubt it seemed odd to namecheck a persona non grata fascist novelist in 1965, but the defining character of Céline’s books was always their avant-garde style. Chatty, digressive, cut-up, he embraced argot and paid less heed to plot -or basic sentence structure- as he went on. They said that he had “blown a hole in the ceiling” of stuffy classical literature. With his vaulting ambition to experiment and push out boundaries, Godard was trying to do something similar to cinema.

The film does still (just about) employ a criminal-couple-on-the-run storyline, but in the loosest sense possible. The interest is elsewhere and when the plotty action bits take place, poetic voiceovers and jarring soundtracks are placed over the top; it’s easy to miss what’s actually happening. Like Le Mépris it has lovely photography of the Mediterranean coast; sunshine, bright primary colours, lots of beach hotels and motorboats. It also resembles said film in that it’s preoccupied with the end of a love affair, the impossibility of a man and a woman getting on with each other long-term.

The film casts Godard’s most iconic actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, just as his marriage to the latter was ending. This is another cause of the restless feeling; in moments of tranquility the two leads agonise over the unknowability of one’s lover, their failure to truly understand one another.  Amidst all the culture and politics some personal stuff is being worked out here. 

One could say that it’s a clash between Old Godard and New; Marianne (Karina) throws herself into the Bonnie & Clyde routine and wants intrigue, action, dancing and music. She rows with Ferdinand (Belmondo) because he’s put aside childish things and wants peace and quiet in which to read, write and think. She suggests Monte Carlo, Vegas or Miami for possible destinations, he prefers Athens or Florence. 

Politics don’t quite dominate the film, but they are already barging into places we wouldn’t normally expect them and throwing their weight about. Although it has nothing to do with the characters or the story, there’s a tourettes-like compulsion to talk about the Vietnam war. Politics would soon take centre stage for my two favourite Godard films, La Chinoise and Weekend, before the tension between his Maoist callings and the set-up of commercial cinema got too much and he had to pack it in. It’s when the tension was at its greatest, though, that he produced his most thrilling work.

We begin with playful credits, an alpahbet soup of neon letters as mournful, noirish music with a touch of Bernard Hermann plays; this theme will recur throughout. Belmondo reads a poetic voiceover about Velazquez as we see girls play tennis, JPB in a bookshop, a sunset over a harbour.

Ferdinand is disclosed sitting in a bath, reading about Velazquez to his little daughter. The painter lived in a blighted time- at the King’s court he was “surrounded by idiots, dwarves and invalids”. One senses that Godard is inviting us to draw comparisons. The flat is luxurious. Ferdinand’s nagging wife tells him he must come to her parents’ tonight to meet a man from Standard Oil who might give him a job. Her friends bring Marianne, the babysitter- a schoolgirlish Karina with her hair done up. Ferdinand starts ranting to the bemused couple about Balzac and Beethoven; with a quick blast of the Fifth, they head out.

At the party, suave guests (almost Marienbad dummies) recite bland advertising blurbs about different products in lieu of conversation. Everything is put through filters of blue, red, green. In a famous cameo, Samuel Fuller tells Ferdinand that cinema is “love, hate, action, violence, death- emotions”. A couple of women with cocktails and fancy necklaces are topless. All look languid and bored, but none more than Ferdinand. “You speak too much, listening to you is tiresome”, one of the ladies tells him.

Ferdinand goes home early and offers the doe-eyed Marianne a lift home. We see them sit in a fake car on a stage set and we learn that years ago, the pair were lovers. Ferdinand tells her he’s been “too lazy” to divorce his wife. Marianne doesn’t want to recount her life story and turns on the radio- atrocities in Vietnam. She confesses her love, Ferdinand plays it cool; fag in mouth, eyes on the road.

The next morning, Marianne is walking around her bare flat and cooking breakfast for Ferdinand, who’s smoking in bed. There are prints of Modigliani and Renoir on the wall, plus magazine photos of African soldiers, rifles everywhere and a bloodied corpse in the other room. In a dressing gown Marianne sings a love song whilst Ferdinand struggles to look tough and indifferent.

Most of these more conventional scenes are linked by voiceover segments; a piece of dramatic music, Belmondo and Karina sharing fragments of conversation or some abstract poetic images, and action shots interspersed with a mélange of classic paintings, cartoon strips and other random images flashing before us. One such segment appears here; we see a man discover the body, Marianne concuss him with a bottle, and the lovers flee Paris. We’re able to discern from the voiceover that Marianne is somehow mixed up in arms trafficking to Angola, and needs to find her brother Fred (like Holly Golightly). On the road the pair embrace their newfound outlaw status by punching out three petrol station attendants.  

Now Marianne is driving and Ferdinand looks redundant. “Have you ever killed a man? You won’t like it,” she warns him. In a voiceover segment we see them stop in a small town and learn that the police are in pursuit. They need money and decide to tell the townspeople stories about some esoteric historical subjects, such as William of Orange’s nephew. The villagers introduce themselves to the camera; a Hungarian refugee, a redhead shopgirl, an old man who’s working as an extra in a film.

To throw off the police, they want to get rid of their car by faking an accident. Fortuitously they come across a capsized car with two corpses and decide to set fire to their own. “It must look authentic, this isn’t a film”, scolds Marianne. The soundtrack is filled with birdsong as we see a long shot of smoke from the car filling the sky, Ferdinand and Marianne disappearing into a field of crops.

Next is the surreal image of the two, in a suit and a dress, wading down the middle of a river. They’re carrying a comic book and a toy monkey (because we’re all big kids?). They steal a sleek convertible from a garage and soon they’re at the south coast. The radio plays sprightly baroque music, Karina’s hair looks blondish in the sun. She accuses Ferdinand of missing his wife; he smells death “in the landscape, women’s faces, cars…”. They sleep on the beach. Marianne points to the Man in the Moon, whom Ferdinand tells her is off; the space race has got him pestered with Lenin and Coca-Cola and he’s going to leave both “to shoot it out”.  

At this point, Godard decides to turn the film into Robinson Crusoe. They have a cabin, Ferdinand keeps a journal of their “hunting and fishing” and they indulge in light agricultural work. He has a parrot who sits on his shoulder, Marianne has a baby fox whom she lets lick her plate. The camera trained on her, Marianne looks away guiltily as she promises never to leave, then gives us a shy smile. Ferdinand reads Céline to Marianne then addresses the camera with a rasping old-man’s croak, talking about the novel he’s got planned. He tells her off for bringing home a record; “You’re only allowed to buy one record for every fifty books. Literature is above music”.

Ferdinand is thriving. On a forest walk, he asks to borrow Marianne’s lipstick and uses it to jot down his ideas. Marianne feels estranged and moans about her boredom whilst stamping along the beach (“You talk to me with words and I look at you with feelings”. “Feelings are no good, you need to have ideas”). As well she might, Marianne soon gets fed up with all of this and tries to change the film back to Old Godard. She’s bored of living in “a Jules Verne” story and longs to go back to being in “un roman policier”. To do this, they’ll need to raise money from the tourists (“ésclaves modernes”).

To entertain the American tourists in Nice, they put on a little play about (what else?) Vietnam. With a bottle of bourbon and a general’s hat, Belmondo points a gun and shouts “Oh yeah! New York! Oh yeah! COMMUNISTE!”. Her face painted bright yellow, Karina snaps and whines in mock-Chinese speak. The watching American sailors declare this to be “damn good”. Afterwards each confides to the camera. Marianne wants to go dancing; Ferdinand doesn’t understand her and she just wants to live a bit. “Who cares if we get killed?” Standing amidst tall crops, Ferdinand muses on this “age of double men” and how he’s never quite sure what his girlfriend is thinking. Welcome to our world, pal.

After this interlude, the nominal story rears its head in the form of a dwarf who has something on Marianne. In blazer and tie, carrying a walkie-talkie and a bottle of Coke, he trains a gun on the camera and threatens her with a napalm bath “comme a Vietnam”. Ferdinand visits a café where a familiar-looking chap tells him, “Last year I loaned you 10,000 Francs and you slept with my wife,” before walking off grinning. I’m guessing it’s a reference to a Belmondo film I have forgotten or never seen. When he walks into their flat, the dwarf is dead; Marianne has stabbed him with scissors. Two gangsters show up and torture him in the bath-tub; we see details of a painting as we hear him being overpowered and beaten.

Ferdinand sits down on train-tracks, but jumps away at the last moment. A Karina voiceover informs us that he couldn’t find Marianne anywhere. We see him in a cinema, with J-P Léaud and a sailor. There’s a newsreel of Vietnam and Ferdinand dozes off, then starts reading. He only gains interest in the cinema screen when Jean Seberg shows up; now that’s definitely a reference to an old film.

In Nice harbour, Ferdinand chats to the exiled Queen of Lebanon (don’t ask me). When she leaves, Marianne turns up and professes delight to have found both him and her “brother” Fred. He reminds her they are wanted for murder, then reluctantly agrees to rejoin the “tale of sound and fury”. They board a speedboat; the adoring camera is fixated on Karina, sunlit sea and a flapping French flag behind her, as she answers Ferdinand’s practical/banal questions about the truth of her background and all this gun-running stuff.

On a beach, Marianne tells Fred that “he’ll do anything I want”, then the film drags itself through the rushed motions of plot/action in an extended voiceover sequence. Belmondo and Karina comment on the images and compare them to stock clichés from novels as the two gangsters drive around, a suitcase is exchanged, and Belmondo has another skirmish with them. “There’s no reason why soft thighs and breasts should stop you from killing everyone”, Marianne tells us as she shoots the gangsters with a long-distance sniper gun. We see her grin in satisfaction.

They meet in a bowling alley; Ferdinand has two plane tickets for Tahiti. Marianne agrees but we don’t quite believe her. Soon she’s back on the speedboat kissing Fred; they pull out from the harbour just as Ferdinand arrives, and he’s left to hear some crazed random tell a very funny story about the record that has haunted him all through his life. It’s playing in the background; Ferdinand insists to the man that he can’t hear a thing, but he hums it to himself as he hitches a boat ride to the offshore island.

He shoots Fred and Marianne (Le Mépris again), then carries the girl to bed and tells her “It’s too late, you brought it on yourself.” Her face is covered in blood. Crazy with grief, a bawling Ferdinand paints his face blue then ties two bundles of dynamite around his head. After the fuse is lit he has a moment of clarity (“Shit, what an idiot I’m being!”) but cannot see to stamp it out. The camera pulls back and we see an explosion on the coastal rocks. The camera calmly moves right to take in the sea, the horizon and finally the sun. There is silence, before our stars share one last whispered voiceover; “It’s ours again. Eternity.”

The film is slightly overlong and Godard can be like Herzog in that you have to sit through an amount tedium to get the inspired bits of brilliance that one just doesn’t see most films; and it is a quite brilliant ending, with images that will stay with me. However it’s belligerent, it points a great big arrow towards my favourite period of Godard and it’s a film with one hell of a lot on its plate- and more still to say, if you listen. I watch stuff like this and come away thinking what a travesty it is that A bout de souffle is his best-known film.

One aside- I remember that one of Kenneth Williams’ more angst-ridden diary entries describes a visit to the cinema for Pierrot Le Fou. He was deeply wounded that when asked “Who are you?”, Belmondo jokingly replied “un homosexuel” and got a big laugh from the crowd. At one point in the film, Karina does indeed ask Belmondo who he is. I’m fairly certain he answers, “un homme sexuel”.


Eight layers of sub-soil

Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972)

Apologies to hypothetical readers for my recent absence; dearly as I wish it wouldn’t, Stuff Happens.

Now, to Fellini’s sprawling, riotous portrait of Rome. As one might expect it’s neither wholly one thing or another, and you can never be quite sure what Fellini makes of the city; most likely because he isn’t sure himself. Like all those Luke Haines records about Englishness, once can discern attitudes of affection, pride, disgust, despair, pathos, pity, admiration all mixed up together without there ever being one overriding view.

A few weeks ago I wrote about his Amarcord, which was made shortly after this, and they’re very much of the same stuff. There’s no plot, or story, just a few episodes from the life of the city. Roma is bigger -skipping back and forwards in time- but harder to get into, as it dispenses with recurring characters. Watching Amarcord you felt like you got to know the townsfolk, you felt like one of them. Roma is not concerned with people (or at least, not with individuals).


Instead it’s a meditation on the city, Fellini’s own relationship with it, its own relationship with its past. When you’re living in the streets that once housed Julius Caesar, Cicero, all the Popes, how do you fill those boots? The city to which all the known world once bowed is now a provincial capital whose people are earthy and gaudy with a relish for the vulgar. On every street corner stands a reminder of their majestic ancestors; they just amble along and make the best of it. What else is there to do?

It’s very Italian of course, everyone shouting and gesticulating at once as the camera circles an outdoor restaurant table. Often the subtitle doesn’t bother trying to pick out a phrase from the cacophony of familial shouting matches, screaming babies, boisterous kids and singing street minstrels. You really do need to be in the mood for all of this, and I’m not sure I was. The bulk of the film, once it’s got into its swing, is a series of unconnected set pieces; although lush and technically impressive, they had a tendency to go on a bit.

After sombre neo-classical titles with a sombre neo-classical Nino Rota score, cyclists cross a bleak winter landscape and the camera hones in on an ancient road sign informing us that Rome is 340km away. The following sequence is absolutely a dummy run for Amarcord; a flash through brief scenes from Fellini’s provincial childhood. We have the wide-eyed trips to the local cinema, the tempestuous left-wing father, the bumbling/authoritarian teachers with a crucifix and framed photo of Mussolini on the wall.

We may still be in Rimini at this point, but Rome looms large in the imagination. A long-winded history teacher tells children of the geese who saved Rome, and leads a caped & capped class across the Rubicon on a field trip (muttering ‘alea jacta est’ to himself all the while). At the dinner table, the father throws a fit when everyone else stops to kneel; the radio is broadcasting a Papal blessing. At the cinema, the family are open-mouthed at a film recreating gladiatorial combat.

One woman in the crowd has a big hat and furs- soon we see a dreamlike sketch, autumn leaves swirling in the wind, as she peeks out of a car and sees a long line of clients waiting their turn. There’s a fair bit of location in the film but it’s mostly big studio sets which give it the feel of one of those old Hollywood musicals. As a result, like most Fellini it’s a film that’s suffused with a love of film. The final shot dealing with the hometown has men gathered around a bar raconteur, listening with eagerness. “Tell us all about Roman women, Carlo…”.

Cut straight to a chaotic crowd scene at Termini station; film posters, soldiers, sailors and con-men waiting to greet the gullible visitors. We follow the young Fellini, a pretty boy in a white suit, as he picks his way through the boisterous crowd. He boards a tram and the camera shows off churches, fountains, imperial ramparts; then butcher’s vans, singing housewives beating rugs. It’s a vibrant city and an open-air museum at once. Our boy enters an apartment block and introduces himself at the house where he will be staying; the first of the extended set pieces.

A maid shows the lad around a flat which seems never to end; there are any amount of grannies huddled in drawing rooms and any amount of screaming children and babies. As the maid gives a tour, a boy sitting on the toilet keeps calling “Come quick mama, I’ve done it!”. We meet a laybout son, a Chinaman, a few actors (one of whom repluses Fellini with a jingoistic speech about war, Abynissia and the Mediterranean), and the terrifyingly obese Signora, who receives her new guest from bed. “Don’t get any ideas about the maid”, he is warned.

That evening Young Fellini steps into the street, where all the locals are dining at restaurant tables; they insist that he joins them. Waiters carry heaped plates of pasta; the menu is all offal, intestines and snails. Street musicians serenade the diners -an old lady follows with a collection plate- and little girls sing ribald songs safe in the knowledge that their parents can’t be bothered to give them a clip round the ear. Later it’s silent; a flock of sheep led past a palace, and damaged statues standing in the fog as whores get in and out of cars (very Almodovar).

Fellini now catapults us into contemporary Rome, with a cut to a toll bridge and a voiceover asking “What of Rome today?”. Rota spins some jazzy organ as we watch a film crew setting up a crane mechanism on a busy Roman M25. There follows an elaborate traffic scene with an obvious debt to Godard’s Weekend. It’s raining heavily and the film crew drive along, encountering cars, tanks, a coach of Napoli supporters, horses, men carrying wheelbarrows. Hippies and whores thumb for lifts at the roadside. As night falls there are dead cows, an upturned lorry in flames, firemen cordoning off the scene. The lens is smudged with rain as the camers peeks into diverse car windows. Things culminate with a huge traffic jam beside the Colosseo.

As the camera reaches over a cluster of trees to reveal the city skyline on a sunny day, we see the very cameramen hoisted into the sky, communicating via loudspeakers. In the park, middle-aged American women spill out from a tour bus and a medallion-sporting predator offers to take their pictures. The film crew are pestered by an old man who lecures them on how old Rome has disappeared and they must not indulge “filthy hippies, perverts or trash”. When he’s said his piece, they are beseiged by students; “We don’t want another film with the same banal, usual views of old Rome”. Not liking what he sees, Fellini turns back to the 1930s.

Garishly-dressed chorus girls perform in a music hall. In the stalls a boy hits a fat man on the head with nuts, then feigns sleep. The acts are rubbish and bored men alternate between heckling and reading the newspaper. A child pisses in the aisle and his mother dismisses complaints (“they’re only little angel drops”). As a particularly woeful mime struts his stuff, the men throw a dead cat onto the stage. The next act is interrupted by a propaganda newsflash concerning the successful defence of Sicily against the Allies; no-one seems very bothered. An air raid signal sends them packing into a bunker, where Young Fellini chats to a blonde German singer who shows him photos of her husband and child. As they are sent out at dawn, she invites him back to her place.

The following set piece is the best; in 1972, the film crew watch workmen are building a subway. The job has no end in sight, as every time they come across a potential historical find work has to halt for two months whilst the archaeologists have a sniff around. There’s a hollow behind a wall, which they gently prod at with their drills, uncovering the interior of a perfectly preserved Roman house- Augustan or earlier. There are beautifully coloured frescoes, busts and sculptures. The workers and filmmakers gingerly step inside and walk around, awed by their discovery. Contact with the air from outside causes the frescoes and sculptures to disintegrate before their very eyes, a fag-ash white spreading across the walls. It’s heartbreaking but it’s the one moment of undisputed magic in this film. Cut to a sea of hippies with acoustic guitars, topless girls bathing in fountains and snogging their black boyfriends.

Next up is a 30s brothel, which two pissed soldiers identify by its red door. The camera turns the corner into a tiled corridor, where a mass of men watch prostitutes come down the stairs, each leaving with a customer. The best ones go quickly and soon it’s a procession of old, ugly women strutting their stuff. “Can’t you get it up, boys? Are there no real men here?” A lot of the men seem to be content with a browse. At closing time, two madams turn to the camera and smile; a nice touch. Making post-coital small talk in a fancy red bedroom, Young Fellini asks his whore if she’ll come on a date with him.

Pointedly placed after the brothel is perhaps the weirdest scene in all of Fellini; a sad old Princess welcomes a Cardinal and other aging society types into a dusty old hall, which is the setting for an “Ecclesiastical fashion show”. Nuns and priests sit around a catwalk and watch ever more ridiculous models; monks on rollerskates, priests with bikes, bishops whose robes and hats are covered with flashing mutlicoloured bulbs and look like disco flooring. A harsh, dramatic score is heard as the show climaxes with a Charles Hawtrey lookalike done up as the Pope, on a throne with enormous kaleidoscopic effects on the wall behind him. It’s all played with a straight face, so the belly laughs aren’t outright and there’s something unsettling about all the silliness.

Christmas in Rome; lights everywhere, markets, music, a boxing match, crowd scenes in the streets. Gore Vidal is disclosed amongst outdoor diners and tells us that between the church, government and cinema industry, Rome is “the city of illusions”. Soldiers with batons drive the hippies from the piazza, as one diner laments the “permissive laws” that have allowed such “lazy scum” to flourish. Fascism has left its mark and Fellini is decidedly sitting on the fence as regards ’68.

The film ends with twenty or so youths on motorbikes; at night they speed round Rome’s fountains, the camera spinning to take in all the architecture.  Past the Spanish Steps and statues of emperors, past the Colosseo, and out of the city. The contrast is striking but what to make of it?

Roma is an odd film which feels sad yet celebratory. The (lack of) structure gave it a flabby and undisciplined feeling, but perhaps Fellini wouldn’t have been able to conjure the sequences that do astonish (such as the ruined frescoes) if he hadn’t given himself such a free hand. With no regard for characterisation, the film needed to have a lot to say about Rome and I’m not sure we were given enough. Compared to Amarcord, it was meandering and disappointing.


Chav a nice day

Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)

Roll up, roll up, for Ms Arnold’s whistlestop tour of Broken Britain. Next stop, Essex (I do hope Wooster and Wooster are taking notes).

This is the follow-up to the director’s first feature. Red Road was a thoughtful and absorbing mystery film; set in Glasgow, it saw a nice respectable woman get drawn into the murky goings-on around a horrid council estate of Dante’s Inferno proportions. Having thus tested the water, this time we are plunged straight into Chav Central. Our heroine is a fearsome girl from an estate (sample line: “Your eyes are looking pretty rough, did your dad miss your mouth?”). She senses that there’s more to life than Special Brew, flick-knives and chart hip-hop, but is unable to access it.

There’s something slightly confrontational about the fact that Arnold sets her films amongst the underclass. They are rigorously artsy, low-budget indie films with scant circulation that will be seen primarily by the middle classes. Not that the films are overtly didactic or preachy, but Mia’s inner life is shown to us and on the whole the portrayal is sympathetic. The System despairs of her and wants to put her in a referral unit; her lack of opportunity is writ large throughout. We could argue about the causes of delinquency ’til the cows come home but I’m more interested in whether or not it’s a well-crafted film.

The film is very well-photographed and has the odd knack of making the dreary look almost exotic. It’s a world of wizened weeds poking through concrete wasteland, where 15-year-old Mia (débutante Katie Jarvis) has to walk along the side of dual carriageways to get anywhere. The lighting is beautiful; see the first appearance of Conor (Michael Fassbender), when he enters the kitchen and the sunlight falls just so on his sculpted torso. It’s like a renaissance fresco.

The look is augmented by a sort of Thomas Hardy pathetic fallacy going on in the use of nature. Arnold slots in some understated, quiet shots, the effect of which is largely subliminal but creates mood. Before an important sex scene we get evocative shots of dark clouds looming over the estate, the sound of thunder. As Mia is finally meeting a boy her own age (with whom she goes off at the end), their coming together is preceded by a huge swarm of migrating swallows.

One guesses that the fish tank is the estate; people packed into close quarters, quarrelling and coming to blows. It’s also puberty; the frustration and anxiety of being half-formed, stuck between childhood and adulthood. Mia is at the centre of the lens in almost all her onscreen time and she has a vibe of immense energy, boxed in and kept on a leash. When we watch her sitting in the back on a long car journey she can’t sit still, sticking her head and arms out the window. Her passion is dance; we see her transfixed by youtube clips in an Internet café and she practices in an empty flat at the top of her block.

There’s a bit of fish imagery going on; one of the scenes that brings Mia and Conor closer together sees Mia help him to catch a fish with his bare hands. We are shown the fish lying on the ground, gasping and terrified, before Conor impales it on a branch. Mia’s mum doesn’t cook the fish; the next time we see it it’s on the kitchen floor, being eaten by Tennents the dog. At crucial moments the film is full of amplified heavy breathing (mostly Mia’s or Conor’s) that recalls the fish.

Indeed the film opens with Mia’s heavy breathing as she leaves a voicemail for a friend. As she walks home we see her call her friend’s dad a cunt and headbutt a girl, who is left with a bloody nose. We see also 10-year-old girls sunbathing, topless teenage boys walking pitbulls. At home she throws many a teen tantrum. It’s pure Vicky Pollard but the camera persists; it’s intimate with Mia, following her upstairs and into her bedroom, with a close-up of her huddling up in bed. We’re stuck with this girl and we’re going to get to know her whether we like it or not.

Mia’s mother cannot control her and has altogether given up parenting as a bad job. She prefers to play reggae at wall-shaking volume and walk around the flat in her knickers and thin tops with no bra; she’s like a child herself. The girls are banished upstairs when she throws parties, at which drunken adults dance and grope around in each others’ pants (Mia sneaks downstairs to pinch a bottle of vodka). Mia’s little sister is a fantastically foul-mouthed greek chorus; she and her pre-pubescent friends drink beer and smoke fags as they watch pop videos in her bedroom. She is quick to shout “AIDS! AIDS!” when Mia cuts her foot in the fish-catching scene.

The first evidence that there is more to Mia than stereotype comes with her repeated visits to an emaciated horse, kept by some caravan-dwellers on the side of the motorway. The horse is an idée fixe for her; even when two of the boys molest her and snatch her bag, she’s still compelled to go back to the horse, hoping to break its chains with a hammer. One of the boys is somewhat nicer and they strike up a bit of a friendship.

One day Mia’s mum brings home Conor, the charismatic Irishman, and from that sun-kissed first shot there is immense sexual chemistry between Mia and he. “You dance like a black”, he tells her; we see Mia ogling his body as he makes tea and disappears up the stairs. She looks through his wallet, finds £35 and only takes the fiver. It must be love.

Her scenes with Conor sizzle. It’s obviously very dodgy -an under-age girl with her mum’s boyfriend- but the forbidden fruit aspect is probably what makes the sexual tension so effervescent. When she passes out on her mum’s bed, he carries her to her own room, lays her down and takes off her shoes. We hear him breathing heavily and we can tell that Mia is now awake, eyes closed but eyelashes fluttering. He takes off her trousers, then sanity takes over and he tucks her up before leaving.

The next morning, her mum scolds her for coming downstairs in her knickers; it’s plain why mum’s suddenly taken an interest. Soon Conor has moved into their house- shades of James Mason in Lolita. Mia gets up in the middle of the night to listen to, and then watch, Conor having sex with her mum. She slams her door loudly when the show is over- twice. Conor promises Mia a camcorder to film herself dancing; she walks in on him getting dressed to ask for it, and an intimate scene ends with Conor spanking her.

By the night Mia’s drunken mum goes straight to bed post-pub, it has an air of grim inevitability. His eyes are twinkling, he compliments her hair, and coaxes her into dancing for him. When they sit together she rests her head on his shoulder, he plays with her hair and one thing leads to another. She’s been seeing a lot of the boy from the caravan (to get a reaction from Conor as far as we can tell), and it worked. He whispers that it’ll be much better with him as they screw on the sofa.

The trouble with all of is that Mia really needed a father figure. Conor could have done that -he bandaged up her foot when she got injured, it’s him she goes to confide in when she applies for a dancing audition- but he’s been weak and irresponsible. And the next morning, he does a runner. Mia walks all the way to the address she found in his wallet. He promptly drives her to the station but he’s all mixed messages, kissing her again but telling her “Mia, you’re 15 years old”.

At this point, the film takes a sharp turn into Haneke territory. Red Road had us guessing what its central mystery was all the way through, and it was a pretty meaty one. Fish Tank‘s surprise is less so. Mia breaks into Conor’s house and finds that he has a wife and kid, from whom her mum was a little vacation.

She abducts the little girl, drags her through fields of crops to the coast, and throws her into the sea when the girl won’t stop booting her in the shins. The handheld camera is jerking wildly all over the place and your stomach follows suit. Once we’ve had a thorough scare Arnold pulls back, Mia gets the girl out of the water and takes her home. These scenes are the climax of the film and I was surprised that it didn’t end very shortly afterwards. Having been shown, however, that she cannot get out of her poverty trap through love, there’s another dream of Mia’s that needs shattering.

The dance audition is a biting satire of suburbia and there’s something of Phoenix Nights about the middle-aged couple doing the auditioning. Mia turns up in a tracksuit and trainers, ready to show off her hip-hop moves, and finds that all the other girls are pneumatic blondes performing overtly sexual wiggles. “Don’t you have a pair of hot-pants with you, love?” ask the couple. Mia climbs down from the podium and walks out.

With no better options, Mia accepts caravan boy’s invitation to go to Cardiff. As a coda, she has a grudging reconciliation with her mother and sister as the three share a synchronised dance to ‘Life’s A Bitch & Then You Die’ by Nas, with Tennents sitting in his basket and looking perplexed. Mia’s goodbye to her sister is well-played and quite affecting (“Hate you”. “Hate you too”). The film ends with the dismal cliché of a heart-shaped balloon floating into the air and away from the estate.

Fish Tank is a feisty film about youth, containment, the getting over of disappointments. It’s feisty and funny, with watchable characters and strong dialogue. It should probably have ended earlier than it did but its direction is assured. Less idiosyncratic than Red Road, more realism than classicism, it still makes a strong impression. Would make a great double bill with Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love.


Drop the Dead Donkey

Donkey Punch (Oliver Blackburn, 2008)

Funny, the exploitative trash you’ll end up watching when you’re staying at your parents’ house, flicking through the cable channels and looking for something to lull you to sleep. I am plainly not the target audience for this film, nevertheless I watched it so I’m going to claim my pound of flesh.

The shame about this film is that there’s the germ of a really good idea in there. For a brief window it dangles this idea before us, tantalisingly, but not knowing where to take it, it instead chooses to be a cynical/ridiculous addition to the already saturated market of teen horror spoofs.

To start off, we’re in Majorca and looking at a higher-than-usual budget Hollyoaks episode; Christmas special, perhaps. Pretty young people, golden beaches, glimmering blue sea. Three public school lads persuade three girlies from Leeds to step onto their enormous yacht for “one drink”. One of the girls isn’t sure about the idea, nor is the fourth posh boy who’s looking after the yacht.

The party have the excellent idea of sailing out of the harbour and far from shore, so that they can play their dance music really loud. They all swim in the sea and are given some E by the absurd faux-gangsta boy who talks like Ali G. As he tries to out-macho his friends, the bravado-addled conversation turns to urban myths about absurd sexual practices. These connoisseurs speak in hushed tones of the donkey punch; suffice to say that any woman feckless enough to sleep with any man that immature doesn’t merit much sympathy. 

For dessert, Ali G passes around some sort of crack pipe and the more adventurous holiday makers smoke something called Russian Ice. Sensible Boy and Sensible Girl go off on their own, have mature conversations and share tentative kisses while they gaze at the sunset. The other five film each other having an orgy. Ali G lets the youngest male, Sensible Boy’s little brother, have a go on his steed and encourages him to execute the aforementioned punch. The girl dies.

At this point, it’s an interesting conundrum. There’s no serial killer, just six idiots on holiday who have a corpse on their hands. Existing alliances are quickly discarded as the party split along lines of gender and class. The toffs keep reiterating that they’ve “worked too hard” (!) for their privileged existences to go to jail. Their solution is to throw the body overboard and say that the girl fell off; after all, she’s just some Northern slag. Trouble is that it would require the collusion of the girl’s two best mates. 

There’s some Hitchcock-esque fun as they struggle to get rid of the corpse. Initially it floats, the head bobbing up out of the sheet it was wrapped in. One of the boys has to dive underwater and tie a heavy metal object to the body before it will sink. These shots are probably the prettiest in the film.

The tension is not sustained. Everyone plots against each other; the boy who deployed the punch murmurs that the skipper is responsible for everything which happens onboard, people fight for possession of the camcorder tape. But there’s no reason to care about any of these spolit cardboard kids and we view proceedings with a jaded, detached eye as they go bonkers on their isolated yacht and tear strips out of one another.

There’s a stabbing, a suicide, a chainsaw murder, and one boy bursts into flames when he receives an SOS flare to the stomach. Whether you chuckle or yawn will depend on your mood and temperament, either way it feels like a cop-out. If gore is actually your thing you’ll probably find this to be the Lighthouse Family of horror films. By the end the sole survivor is Sensible Girl, who only had half an E and didn’t take part in the orgy; nice to see that public morals are still in ruddy health.

The actors try, direction is decently paced and it’s photographed well enough. The real problem is the pedestrian script and thoroughly daft storyline, and the sort of film it chose to be after the early catastrophe; I thought it was going to say something and it decided to play dumb. Then again, what did I expect? Sex and drugs and panto, I suppose; there’s plenty of all three.


Could ye go a chicken supper?

Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

I picked out this film to watch because I thought that it would probably set me a challenge. It’s been lavished with praise for its artistry, but I strongly suspected it would be a hagiography of someone who disgusts me. If you’re an Irish American, thousands of miles away, I’m sure it’s natural to think of the IRA as romantic outlaw heroes; but as a Belfast Protestant I can’t really see them as anything other than the people who blew my neighbourhood up, who tried to kill us and who on hundreds of occasions succeeded.

Happily, although it wasn’t a completely objective rendering, it was cool, distanced and stylised enough to keep me watching, interested and even impressed at times. The particular conflict at stake in the film is whether the IRA should be recognised as political prisoners or mere criminals, but the director is more interested in the individual than the politics or the background. What was it like for these people, what is it like to spend all day shut up in a prison? How do they cope, what makes them tick? The wardens are not faceless operatives of the state, they are humanised and given as much attention as the prisoners.

The style is slow and very minimal, the focus on the minute details; a prisoner at his window bars, trying to coax a fly onto his finger. As an officer eats toast for breakfast, the camera sits under the table to give a close-up of the crumbs bouncing onto his napkin. The prisoners frequently flood the corridors with urine, a stream flowing from under each cell door. Several minutes are dedicated to the warden cleaning the mess up with a mop and a bucket of disinfectant. He slowly, thoroughly works his way down the corridor and after a while it’s hypnotic to watch. The white striplights are reflcted in the puddles of piss and it even resembles an MTV video. Such scenes give a sense of time passing terribly slowly. 

The film is airless, claustrophobic and deprived of natural light. We are spared none of the filth of a dirty protest. The prisoners confront us with the filth that we, civilised animals, like to convey out of sight with toilets, pipes and sewers, but that is nevertheless produced by our own bodies. On the walls, the prisoners use their shit to paint spirals that look like possible Turner Prize winners. The unhappiest we ever see them is when they are moved into nicer cells with clean clothes and proper beds. They howl with rage and immediately set about smashing their cells up.

The depiction of Bobby Sands’ death through hunger strike leads the film into  morally dubious terrain. Death through voluntary starvation: being an extreme that none of us will ever experience, the phenomenon is clearly a compelling subject for drama (Kafka’s Hunger Artist springs to mind) especially in this age of consumerism, fast-food and obesity. But McQueen so clearly gets off on the squalor and the emaciated bodies that I felt he got drawn in to admiring the prisoners. Bobby Sands was a terrorist, who martyred himself in an attempt to confer legitimacy upon the murders of civilians. By giving him all this attention, isn’t the film colluding in that?

Thatcher merely pointed out that these men had chosen to die, a choice which their organisation did not extend to their many victims. In Hunger the Iron Lady is set up as a straw man. During interludes we’ll hear voiceovers of her condescending, Victorian Governess’ voice from Commons speeches. We are to infer that the powers that be are light years away from all of this, understand nothing, &c. Yet she was voicing the feelings of a significant majority of Northern Ireland. Murder is a crime. I don’t see that as unfair comment.

The treatment of the wardens is more interesting. I came away from the film with the sense that the prison officers were the real prisoners, having to face all the horrible stuff that the IRA’s methods of resistance threw at them, and unable to switch off at the end of their working day. Like Rorscach tells the prison toughs in Watchmen, “I’m not locked in here with you, you’re locked in here with me”.

The first character we meet and follow is a warden; a gaunt and miserable chap looking into the mirror. He dresses and eats breakfast in silence, and I thought of those late-period Bill Murray films like Broken Flowers. He’s isolated from his fellow man; as the other officers chat and joke, he sits on his own in the changing room and is left to play with a piece of tinfoil when he goes to the staff room. He stands over a sink, breathing heavily, with bloodied knuckles and a pair of scissors at his side. Then he smokes in the snow- looking like an Anton Corbijn/Ian Curtis photo session.

It isn’t until later that we see the provenance of his injury or his scissors. The prisoners who refuse to wash as part of the dirty process are dragged from their cells. One spits on our warden, then ducks his punch- the knuckles go straight into the wall. The prisoner snarls and fights like an animal as two other men hold him down that they might cut off his straggling beard and hair. He is forced into a bath and again held down as our man tries to scrub him with a sponge on a broom handle. What a job these guys have.

The warden is abruptly killed off as he visits his mother at an old folks’ home. Again, the sense of his isolation- all around him are octogenarians eagerly chatting to their children, but his mother sits rigid in a catatonic trance. A gunman swaggers in and shoots the warden in the back of the head. His mother is still immobile, neither seeing nor comprehending; blood across her face and her son’s body sprawled across her lap. Just as well.

The IRA men, on the other hand, are forcing this confrontation & conflict, making it as hard as they can for the wardens. You rather feel that they are eager to be brutalised in new and ever more horrific ways, because it will confirm that the authorities are the bad guys and they are righteous. After the destruction of the cosy cells, a squad of riot police are sent in to beat the prisoners with batons. As they file through and line up, the camera focuses one apprehensive-looking youngster. Whilst the prisoners are beaten, this man is disclosed hiding on the other side of the wall and crying. Contrast this to the expression of a man tossed into his cell after his beating; with blood pouring from his nose and mouth, he has a proud glimmer of ecstasy in his eyes.

The film is very short on dialogue, save for it’s centrepiece; when Bobby Sands informs a priest of his intentions to begin a hunger strike. Fassbender plays him brooding and charismatic but it is to the film’s credit that it pits a voice of equal articulacy and intelligence against Sands; one also from the Republican community, that accuses him of choosing to play James Dean in a fit in nihilism when he could have done something constructive.

The scene takes up some 20 minutes; the camera is static, facing their table side on. Sands leans forward, the priest leans back. Their conversation takes a lesiurely route before getting to the bones of the subject, initially discussing priestly business at length. From the outset it’s on-your-toes, slightly adversarial stuff, Sands teasing the priest about his “Ballygobackwards” origins.

When they get down to business the priest tries, and fails, to reason with Sands; the argument is gripping. Sands has 75 volunteers for the strike. He sees negotiation as a sideshow and will settle for nothing other than total surrender from Thatcher. The real freedom fighters, says the priest, are the ones doing  work in the community. That’s where we need you most. He calls the strike suicide, Sands calls it murder. Sands goes on to liken himself to Christ. We don’t see the priest face-on until the very end, when they have run out of words.

After this confrontation, the film ebbs away rather. There is no dramatic orchestral score, no high-tempo voiceovers by newsreaders or indignant politicians, no table-thumbing arguments about the rights and wrongs, not even any struggles to get baby food down a funnel. We instead see the hunger strike through Sands’ eyes in a sequence of spaced-out, slightly blurred scenes. 

To start with a doctor gives a voiceover telling us the effects of starvation on the body; weakened bones and heart, wasting muscles, internal ulcers. Then it’s all wordless vignettes; a skeletal man falling in the bath, a visitor whose lips move but to whom we are deaf, a nurse applying cream onto open, weeping sores. A succession of meals are put down at the bedside, and then taken away.

Viewed purely as a piece of cinema Hunger is stylish, artsy and thought-provoking; visually very strong and, for its subject matter, oddly hermetic. It walks a tightrope as it tries to stay ambivalent about a group of men by whom it is fascinated, and however much that tightrope wobbles I don’t think they ever fell into pure propaganda.


The Secret Life of Arabia

Il fiore della mille e una notte (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1974)

I’ve never felt that I altogether got Pasolini. The Gospel According To St. Matthew passed me by rather; Salo I found very good indeed (if a bit unfair on the old Duce), partly because of its stylised manner and partly because the original text was probably closer to my wavelength.

An Italian friend tells me that the Italians are at base a peasant nation; that the intellectual wing of Italian cinema -Antonioni, Fellini- are really just trying to pass themselves off as French and earthier directors like Pasolini are the real deal. Watching this film actually put me in mind of Herzog; choosing amateur locals over professional actors, showing little interest in a plotty plot or flashy camera tricks, instead choosing to create a space and an atmosphere that takes you out of Europe and shows you a different environment, a different culture, a different way of thinking.

His take on the Arabian Nights is, of course, his own; there’s no Sinbad, no Open Sesame, and no Scheherazade either. I count six stories; a main framing narrative, and one story each side of three tales-within-tales, of which the main one is the best. They are enigmatic. They deal with young love/lust, the women have a much higher level of understanding than the men, and they try to direct the men but the men mess things up anyway. Often the women sacrifice themselves for their hapless lovers. There are prophecies, fulfilled despite themselves, and much talk of destiny.

If the stories are not to one’s liking, the location footage could not fail to be. The action primarily centres around the desert, and walled desert citadels in Iran; but there are trips to Ethiopia, Somalia, and Nepal. Just seeing the camera take in the buildings, artwork, people, costumes and food is a feast of Orientalism- all are astonishing, you feel as if you’ve been there. Desert processions raise wispy clouds of sand, swarms of rowdy little boys follow our protagonists through the streets of their towns.

The use of amateurs, their perpetual giggles and their stilted delivery of lines has a further distancing effect, makes it feel slightly like watching a puppet show. It feels improvised. Many scenes call for supsension of disbelief and enhance the fairytale feel; a pretty girl with a girl’s voice is mistaken for a man by the hundreds of people who meet her, and a dude with dyed red hair and stripey gold/black bell-bottoms passes for a demon when he looks more like a glam rock wrestler. Pasolini just gets away with it because it’s delivered with an utterly straight face.

There is plenty of nudity (especially male) and the sex scenes are puzzling. People couple off in a very casual, up-front manner and it looks much more real than it usually does in films (no saxophones, glossy photography or ecstatic moans) yet the act itself is totally stilted and awkward- flat missionary with the boy flapping like a fish and no-one seeming to enjoy themselves very much.

In place of Scheherazade, the main story is that of an East African girl, Zumurrud and her lover Nuredin, an Arab boy. Zumurrud is a bit of a stunner and twice she gets kidnapped due to the neglience of Nuredin. She’s also cunning and resourceful, and escapes both times. After her second escape, she is the first person to ride into a particular city whose king has just died without an heir. Therefore she is made king, and given a golden beard to go with her crown. Nuredin wanders the land sobbing, looking for her, and being seduced by countless girls (usually three at a time). These Islamic fellas have not always been as puritancial as they like to let on. The pair are reunited at the very end.

A story in an Ethiopian village has a boy and a girl drugged asleep by two adults. The adults stand over them, smiling, and wake the boy who has sex with the comatose girl. When he sleeps they wake the girl, who does likewise; their bet is a draw. There’s a poet who brings home three eager boys for sex. It’s quite Gauguin. Camels, stone huts, embroidered umbrellas.

As well as the sex there’s punitive violence, delivered in an equally matter-of-fact way. When she is king, Zumurrud has her two captors crucified. We see just a couple of seconds’ footage each time, of a man on a cross outside the city walls. We see a sleepwalking man stab the young boy he’s vowed to protect, in fairly homoerotic fashion. We see a castration, and the aforementioned demon chops off the hands, feet and head of his prisoner/ girlfriend when she encounters another man.

The Nepalese scenes (which I mistook for China at the time) come along when the demon turns his love rival into a monkey, who is adopted by some African pirate lads. The local king reads the monkey’s writing; bowled over by this wisdom, he wants to make the author his Vizier. The monkey is carried through the town in a sedan chair, at the centre of a fabulous procession. All the villagers are ringing chime bells, including two chickens and a naked toddler.

The most effective (and well-acted) story is that of Aziz and Aziza; on what was to be the wedding day of these two cousins, Aziz falls in love with a girl he sees at an upper-floor window. Concealing her hurt, Aziza interprets the girl’s hand-signals for Aziz and guides him on how to go about courting the girl.

After Aziz sleeps with the girl each night, they have a proverb-like dialogue and each morning Aziz runs back to Aziza, asking how he should respond to last night’s line. It’s like Cyrano, Aziza and the girl talking to each other through the dim-witted boy. Aziz is a pig who never stops to consider his cousin’s broken heart and is quite indifferent when she kills herself. It isn’t until much later that he appreciates what he’s lost.

Some stories, it must be said, are better than others. The flow of the stories is quite elusive; they overlap, it’s difficult to keep track of which story you’re in and I’m not sure how much you would gain by doing so.  A key line is that “one dream does not ever tell the whole truth. The truth is many dreams”. My impression is that Arabian Nights is a collage and a mood piece. You’re better off sitting back and going with the flow, letting the vivid images and landscapes wash over you.

If there’s a unified message coming from the actual stories it evaded me, nonetheless I was very happy for Signore Pasolini to show me all those places and people, and remind us that there’s so much more to this world than three-piece suits, drawing rooms, and other Western trappings. For me, the content was to be found in what was around the stories.


“I always think of my murderers as my heroes”

Suspicion (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941)

This film may well have been on Almodovar’s list of antecedents when he made his new film about a director’s vision being thwarted by meddlers. It was ticking along enjoyably enough, picking up pace and suspense as it hurtled towards its ending- until the ending rather turned everything on its head and left me feeling bewildered and short-changed. Is that it? Straight to imdb, where I learnt that Hitchcock was made to provide an alternative ending at short notice; America couldn’t stomach Cary Grant as a murderer. Their loss.

This is minor Hitchcock, one of his first from across the water, but a lot of the themes and signatures are in there somewhere. They’re just waiting to be dragged out, developed upon. Cary Grant gets up close to Joan Fonatine by insisting he must fix her hair, put out of place by the wind; she’s made him into a “passionate hairdresser”. Not much is made of the scene but he has a transfixed look as she lets him fix it and run his fingers through it. It’s hard not to think of Vertigo, the re-shaping of a woman to fit your particular idée fixe.

The film starts, daringly, with voices in total darkness. “I beg your pardon, is that your leg?”. We soon establish that Grant has wandered into a lady’s compartment whilst the train was going through a tunnel. As they sit, the camera focuses on Joan Fontaine’s feet, then slowly moves up to her stockinged knees, thighs hidden under a tweed skirt… when we are stopped in our tracks by a hardback book on Child Psychology. Pervy goings-on in a train compartment, again it’s Hitch’s milieu.

Lines like “Have you ever been kissed in a car before?” may be museum pieces today, but it’s still surprising how much sexuality Hitchcock manages to pack into the film. In Hollywood in 1941 this was as far as one could possibly take it. Grant and Fontaine are avariciously lustful in their getting-it-on scenes. At the outset, when Fontaine pulls away from Grant’s first attempt to kiss her, the camera gives a close-up of her handbag being snapped shut. Grant’s friend Binky tells an anecdote of how he once picked up a girl on Champs Elysées, and “it wasn’t until much later that I realised…”- Grant interrupts him here with a discreet cough. They can’t say it so they’ll leave it to our filthy imaginations.

There are three phases to the film; the depiction of young love, Fontaine infatuated and rebelling against her old-fashioned parents. Then, after elopement and a whirlwind honeymoon (we see stock footage of the Arc de Triomphe, the Grand Canal, as stickers are added to a travelling trunk), it becomes a comedy of manners. Fontaine realises she’s married a compulsive liar who’s addicted to gambling and has no apparent sense of responsibility. The third phase is when it really hots up, as Grant gets desparate for ways to repay his creditors and Fontaine sees cause to fear the worst.

Lina (Fontaine) may be dazzled by his lust and charm, but we’re warned that Johnny (Grant) is a rascal from that first encounter on the train. He’s travelling first class on a third class ticket and hasn’t enough money to pay the difference. After trying every avenue to talk his way out of it, he thrusts the conductor some change and some stamps he’s asked Lina for (“Legal tender, old boy. Write to your mother”).

The tricks continue as Johnny infiltrates a group of ladies come to invite Lina to church (“You’re not going to church, are you? You’re coming for a walk with me”). She resists initially, but at her door Lina overhears her parents discussing how their “spinsterish” daughter is unlikely to ever marry. She turns back and kisses Johnny passionately. She fancies him, but it’s clear that most of her ardour originates from the desire to rebel against the folks.

Johnny disappears for a week or so and we see Lina lovesick; looking him up in the phonebook, pestering the post office, lying in a swoon. They are reunited when Johnny gatecrashes a society ball and ushers Lina out the back door, into her car. “I love you”, she blurts out. “I love you,” replies Johnny, “and I don’t quite like it”. Back at her place he masks his unease by engaging in repartee with a huge portrait of her father (in military garb with a severe frown). The portrait falls off the wall at the mention of marriage.

After registry-office marriage and honeymoon, the couple wind up in a smart big house with a cheerful maid, Ethel. Who’s your telegram from, dear? Oh, it’s nothing- the bloke who loaned me £1000 for the honeymoon wants it back. I’ll just borrow more money from someone else. No you won’t, you’re going to get a job. “A job? Darling you’re a dreamer, be realistic”. Marry in haste, repent at lesiure. 

The following scenes are funny in an anarchic way. Lina reels in disbelief at her new husband’s flippant disregard for the puritan work ethic which she takes for granted. He and his nice-but-dim friend Binky are a pair of big kids. When she cries over Johnny’s dishonesty and immaturity, they try to cheer her up (or push her over the edge?) by pulling funny faces and quacking like ducks.

Johnny obtains a position and pretends to still go to work every day, some two months after he gets sacked for the small matter of £2000 going missing. In fact he’s up at Newbury, losing even more money. He gets found out every time, and Lina is on the brink of leaving him when her father dies. Johnny is put out that she is the only relative not to receive a lump sum in the will; instead they are bequeathed the portrait (it’s as if he knew).

We sense further mayhem when Johnny decides that the secret for success is “to start at the top”. Binky will borrow £30,000 to start a company in Johnny’s name and they will build a coastal resort. We’re also wondering, this being Hitchcock, where all the murders are. Just be a little more patient. Binky seems to know nothing at all about the practicalities of this venture and we see Johnny angry for the first time at his wife’s probing questions.

He decides to call the whole thing off; but he must take Binky to the cliffs to show him exactly why. As they play a variant of Scrabble, Lina uses the tiles to spell ‘DOUBT’, ‘DOUBTFUL’, ‘MURDER’ and ‘MURDERER’. Binky is oblivious. In Lina’s mind’s eye we see Binky pushed off a cliff, plummeting to his death. She faints.

Binky makes it as far as Paris to cancel the loan arrangement, with Johnny accompanying him to London. The police turn up at the house, investigating Binky’s death- witnesses say that another Englishman made him drink a large brandy (we’ve already seen what brandy does to Binky, Johnny remarking that “it’ll kill him one day”). The portrait of Lina’s father is in the frame as she hears the police’s story. When they leave she is tormented, shouting “He didn’t go to Paris!” at the portrait. A nice little touch is that on the way in and out, one of the inspectors is boggle-eyed (and a little unsettled) at the cubist painting in the hallway.

Lina visits their friend Isobel, a prolific crime novelist with a library full of court cases. Isobel blithely likens Binky’s death to the activities of a C19th serial killer who used poisoned brandy. She has the record somewhere… oh that’s right, I loaned it to your husband a few weeks ago.

Johnny receives a letter from an insurance company. Lina rushes to retreive it from his pocket whilst he’s brushing his teeth in the en-suite bathroom; the tension is mounting in all this furtiveness. The letter says he will only be eligible for the payout “in the event of your wife’s death”.

More comedy as Isobel gives a dinner party. Her brother, a home office doctor with a bald head and coke-bottle glasses, is quite a fellow. The camera focuses on his knife cutting a turkey as he deploys ice-breakers like “a very interesting corpse dropped in today”. The dining-table conversation is quintissential Hitchcock; people plainly titillated by the topic of murder. Johnny quizzes the pair on the least traceable methods of poison.

At home, Ethel and the cook are both on leave. Lina is terrified and she faints again. In near-total darkness, wearing a black suit, Johnny glides up the stairs with a glass of luminous white milk on a tray. He walks towards the camera until the glass is in the foreground. Cary Grant can never have looked so evil.

Lina wants to stay with her mother for a while, as well she might. Johnny insists on driving her. They speed along a winding cliffside road. The camera keeps switching, nervously, between a view of the sheer drop to rugged rocks, the steering wheel in Johnny’s grip, the ever-increasing readings on the speed dial, and Cary Grant’s frozen, psychotic expression. It’s unbearable and Lina almost falls out of the car off her own bat.

They tussle, the car stops, and finally the couple have it out. Johnny was in Liverpool when Binky died, trying to raise money. He was researching the poison because he wanted to kill himself, but now he’s decided to face up to his problems. He’ll go to prison if he has to. The final shot is of the car turning around and the couple going home to work through their problems. He’s not a murderer after all. Or is he?

Suspicion is a jolly jape. It picks up the premise that you can never be 100% sure what your husband/wife is doing or thinking, and runs a mile with it. The jovial appetite for a murder mystery sweetens the pill with black humour; he’s teasing us and we love it. That problematic ending, however, still jars with the rest of the film. Funnily enough, finding out that Cary Grant was actually innocent denies us the climax we had been craving.

The film could therefore be grouped with Rear Window, as one of those films that throws the conundrum back at the viewer and makes us question what we’re watching for. All Hitchcock’s tics and motifs are present, even if they’re yet to be fully fleshed out. In time he would have better stories to harness them to.

It’s an RKO production but it’s set in Southeast England, proper Horse & Hound territory. Cary Grant drifts in and out of his English accent. The DVD offered colour or black & white; the crude Technicolor was making my eyes stream so I switched to B&W after about five minutes.

July 2018
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