Adieu au Langage

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Dir. Jean-Luc Godard

It would be impossible in an article of this size to discuss the career of Jean-Luc Godard, from critic to Nouvella Vague iconoclast, to Marxist video-collective, to Brechtian film essayist, videographer, and now digital 3D innovator.  In over six decades of devotion to cinema he has never ceased in finding the new, eschewing the norm, even if it is one he has established himself.  His is a cinema of constant revolution, to use Marxian terminology and, at 84, his latest film has carried on his search.

If there is one thing that has driven Godard’s work throughout his remarkable career, it is his belief in the primacy of the image.  Cinema, to him, had to surpass its origins and become a truly unique art, with the cinematic image being more important than the word.  To this extent he regarded the screenplay with some scorn, as the word dictating the image.  Whilst not advocating total improvisation (something that was frequently posed to his early films), Godard would famously only have notes, or write the scenes on the day of shooting.  Further, he would construct his films more in the editing stage than anywhere else, notably the incredible work of collage and montage that made up “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” , a(nother) turning point in his career that marks his output after this as recognisably so.

All of this is cursory and prologue to what could be seen as the culmination of this direction so far, and yet another step into exploratory waters.  Many were surprised when Godard, the arch-outsider, announced he was shooting his next film in 3D, a device normally reserved for big budget sci-fi, fantasy or action films laden with special effects.  Godard took 3D (using a low budget, home-made set up rather than high end Hollywood effects) and made it a part of the film’s vocabulary, not as a spectacle of impact.  I am not technically savvy enough to discuss the methods he and his cinematographer Fabrice Aragno used to break down and re-write the rules of 3D filming, my concern is with the effect and import that the finished result creates, and the overall result of the film.

The film, however, discards traditional narrative almost entirely, thus rendering most approaches to criticism redundant.  In classic Godardian way, he demands a new discourse with cinema and with the images we see on screen.  While he has made video and film essays before, this is far less didactic and dry in approach.  The best way I could describe this, then, is as a cinematic poem and as such I will review it as a work of poetry, as opposed to a work of narrative fiction.  In poetry, the author works to create emotions through the imagery and style of the writing.  People approach poetry with different expectations than narrative fiction.  For example, when Wordsworth wrote

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.,”

One doesn’t ask where he was wandering, what he was doing, where those hills and vales  were, where the lake was, how big it was, why he was there.  What is important is that we see, in our mind’s eye, a person wandering alone, a solitary cloud in the sky, and then a host of yellow flowers beside a lake and under some trees in a breeze.  Such a description may be used as the opening of a screenplay, the setting for the action to take place, but for this film, what we see and hear serve as emotional and intellectual stanzas, elements of the text just as a sentence or use of rhyme or metre are in poetry.  So what do we actually see?

There are two similar (and very loose) narratives that concern a couple having an affair.  Both of these take place in the Geneva municipality of Nyon, on the lakeside and are labelled “1Nature” and “2 Metaphor”.  The actors for each couple bear a great physical resemblance to each other, and they both are connected to another character who seems to be one of the character’s professor.  They live at a house, and have various conversations, often unclothed.  Seasons change as we switch between 1 Nature and 2 Metaphor, and their actions and dialogue echo and reflect each other.  Further connecting  the two couples is Roxy, a dog (not just any dog, but Godard and his partner Anne-Marie Miéville’s dog) who is taken in by each couple in turn.  Roxy also acts as a kind of third part to the film, as a fair chunk of it consists of shots of her wandering around wooded pathways, walking in the snow and rain, standing by the lakeside and a jetty or sitting on the sofa.  We hear a voiceover that seems to be expressing Roxy’s thoughts, a display of un-ironic emotion and sentimentality from the infamously grumpy old soul.  This being a late-period Godard, there is substantial use of archive footage and clips from other films interspersed with the rest of the film.  All of this is shot on a variety of cameras, from Canon 5D dslr’s, GoPro, flip-cams and a phone camera, with slow motion, over-saturation, cuts to black, title cards and grainy barely lit night time footage all creating a vivid arrangement of textures.

But what does all of this mean, reviewers and critics have asked.  “Adieu au Langage” draws attention to its subject immediately, by its very title: language.  And like the film itself, the title bears further scrutiny.  Adieu, in the region of Switzerland where Godard lives and works, means hello as well as goodbye, and so immediately we are awakened to the duality and complexity of communication and language that is to be explored herein.  3D involves two eyes, dual images, and this film duplicates and echoes itself throughout its succinct 69 minutes. As for the text as a whole, I would bring up the comparison to poetry when trying to approach such a dense and unconventional film.  Looking for character, exposition, psychological motivation, plot arcs, denouement and conventional chronology will lead the viewer nowhere and end only with bafflement and frustration.  I approached this looking at each image, each sequence, each piece of dialogue, each quote (both spoken and from use of archive) as a poetic element.  For example, early on there is reference to Tom Thumb and communication, and we cut to three people (framed so that we see no faces or heads, just body and hands, a recurrent device) feverishly using their thumbs on their smart-phones.  This kind of association exists in the editing, where a shot of rain in a muddy puddle cuts to close up of black paint stroked onto a canvas, and then to the black wet hair on the head of the dog, Roxy.  There is a rhyming structure, too, between the actions of the two couples, as Godard cuts between them with gleeful disregard for chronology.  Although they seem to be almost the same person, this similarity and similarity of actions, is clearly meant as a hook to connect the scenes to each other in the minds of the viewer.

All of this and I have not mentioned the use of 3D, which will have to wait for another time as I have difficulty seeing 3D video and as such have only seen the 2D.  There is much discussion elsewhere online about the remarkable “Separation Shot”, truly a new entry in the lexicon of cinematic grammar, all the more remarkable when one thinks that is has taken an 84 year old to produce something truly innovative from the latest technological fad.  I found “Adieu au Langage” to be opaque, elliptical, confusing at times, surprising, and yet equally unforgettable and containing a vivid joy of cinema that is genuinely rare now.

Clouds Of Sils Maria

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dir. Olivier Assayas.

Assay’s latest, his fifteenth feature, would appear on the surface to be in the vein of the well shot, comfortable and assured work he has produced since leaving behind the “b-movie trash” of the new french extremes of “Boarding Gate” and “Demonlover” with his 2009 tale of middle class Parisians dealing with their mother’s death.  Continuing with “Carlos” and “Apres Mai” the former Cahiers du Cinema critic appeared to be taking a semi-nostalgic view of French life and recent history – specifically the decade that followed the tumult of 1968 and the revolution that almost happened in the summer of that year.  The notion of nostalgia is taken up in this film, embodied in the form of iconic actor Maria Enders, played by iconic actor Juliette Binoche, who is asked to return to “Maloja Snake”, the play that launched her career.  Maria was on her way to Zurich to collect an award on behalf of the play’s author Melchior, when she learns that he has died suddenly – suicide as his widow confides.  While dealing with this shock, she is approached by a popular young theatre director who wants to put on the play once more.

The play concerns the stormy love affair between 18 year old Sigrid and middle-aged Helena, who is eventually driven to suicide.  Previously Maria played Sigrid,  only this time she would play the older woman to the ingenue that she portrayed in her youth.  Sigrid, then, would be played by a young American actress (played by Chloë Grace Moritz) who seems to be a stand in for a Lindsay Lohan-esque character, a shimmering spiral of drink and parties and celebrity website gossip.  Alongside Binoche’s Maria throughout the film is her PA Valentine, played by Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame.  Valentine is the first person we see on screen, juggling Maria’s life on two mobiles while the camera juggles with the train bouncing along the tracks.  Maria is never away from Valentine (barring one brief scene), and it is between these two that the majority of the film’s scenes take place.  Persuaded to take up the role of Helena, Maria is offered the use of Melchior’s villa in the eponymous region of Sils Maria in the Swiss Alps by his widow, to prepare.

Here the drama engages in the central conceit of duality and the meta-narrative of a play within a play (or in this case, film).  Valentine reads for Sigrid as Maria rehearses her part as Helena – Binoche trimming her hair to a lesbian-chic close crop for the part.  The dynamism and chemistry in these scenes are riveting, not just from the (melo-)drama of the play’s dialogue, but the clear on screen chemistry between the two.  Perhaps as might be expected from such a scenario, the question of wether the lines are coming from, and referring to, the characters they are playing in the play or in the film becomes an intriguing riddle.  Further, we as an audience cannot escape the on screen spectacle of arguably the pre-eminent actress of her time turned 50, opposite a young star recognisable to all of her generation.  That these two spar over dialogue that demonstrates the generational difference between both characters and actors brings out a tension that sparkles more than any tweenage vampire could.  There are some fantastic moments, particularly after they go to see the latest (3D) sci-fi superhero spectacular starring the 18 year old star that will take the role of Sigrid this time.  Over beers afterwards, Stewart’s Valentine tries to argue that there is depth in the, mainly ludicrous, spandex clad tale of evil enemies and space-spanning love.  Valentine is genuine and heartfelt, while Maria can only erupt into fits of laughter and spits of beer.

It is not without cause that I mentioned “Persona” earlier, as Bergman’s film of complex personal psychology bears some relation to this.  In both an actor’s sense of self and identity is questioned, a period of isolation accompanied only by another woman who balances between servitude and adoration.  In Persona, the dissolution of one personality into the other becomes the subject of the psychological crisis; in Assayas’s film it is Maria’s self that wavers around the characters of Sigrid, her own past, and Helena.

MAJOR SPOILER: And one instance toward the end of the film throws into question all that we have seen before.  While on one of their hikes through the Alps that their fiery relationship and repartee seems to turn into a genuine argument.  They are looking for the actual Maloja Snake – a weather phenomenon where a river of cloud, like a snake, pours down a valley into the lake; like Rohmer’s “Rayon Vert” this hard to see phenomena takes on a symbolic role, a “you have to believe” concept that, Valentine argues, the young and angry Maria, like the young snd angry Sigrid, would see.  And then, after crossing a hill, Maria thinks she sees it, or is it mist, or maybe  – and then she turns and Val is gone.  Maria screams for her, wide shots show she could not have ran away.  The camera lifts to the horizon, Pachabel’s Canon resumes as the Maloja Snake drifts with an eldritch majesty, unaffected and unwitnessed.  We fade to Epilogue, London, a few weeks later.  Maria is in another hotel room, skyping her agent, seemingly able to handle her professional and personal life.   Valentine is never mentioned again, Maria has a PA (with the same boyish short haircut Maria adopted for her role) but their relationship doesn’t have the spark that excited the air with Val.  Obviously, the question remains: did Val exist?  Is she as much a fiction as Helena and Sigrid?  The on-screen manifestation of 20 year old Maria, channeling Sigrid.

En route to a dinner meeting with the director he tells her that a friend of Jo-Ann had made a suicide attempt and was in the hospital.  The director is devastated as is Jo-Ann, he relates..  Maria makes one of her frequent turns to Google (something Valentine always told her to do when short of knowledge about current pop culture) and can already find a paparazzi photo of the young woman being taken into hospital.  Over their dinner the director Klaus and Maria discuss the play and the writer as to what he may mean, and how to interpret their new performance.  Jo-Ann and Kris and Klaus engage in a feverish drama of phone calls, texts and fear of the paparazzi that Maria can only watch, bemused and faintly horrified.

By movie’s end Maria is reading lines in a hotel room with her (new?) PA.  She appears willing to take a role in just the sort of effects-laden show that she laughed at with Val.  In final dress rehearsal, Maria offers a suggestion to Jo-Ann about how to play Sigrid, based on how she played her.  Jo-Ann replies that Helena is washed up, a wreck – “the character, not you”; Jo-Ann doesn’t take her advice and this stuns Maria somewhat – she says she is “lost in old habits; I guess I’ll just have to break them”.  In her dressing room she meets the director of the blockbuster she is considering.  They discuss the character’s age, her modernity, with Maria suggesting a younger, more modern, actress – Jo-Ann but, to her surprise, he dismisses her and the era they both inhabit as one of Jo-Ann Ellis and viral internet scandals.  He says he wants someone outside of time, a concept Maria says is “too abstract”.  And yet as the camera cranes through the glass offices set on opening night we rest on a mid-shot of Maria, her gaze distant and her visage of dignity in resignation – or is it acceptance?  An amalgamation of youth and age, of Sigrid and Helena.

IDA

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dir. Paweł Pawlikowski

Ida is one of the most exquisitely shot films to come out this year.  With its moody, monochrome cinematography and the unusual 4:3 format, Polish born director Pawel Pawlikowski has made this film as something of a hark back not just to his Polish roots (having spent most of his career in Britain) but to the past of the 1960s of the film’s setting.  “Ida” is a relatively simple story of Anna, an 18 year old orphan raised in a nunnery about to take her vows, when she is told by her mother superior she has a surviving relative, and to go and see her.  The woman Anna meets is an aunt called Wanda, a stern faced woman who we first see dismissing a younger man from her bed.  She is a magistrate who drinks and smokes relentlessly, who issues forth that she has sent many enemies of the party to death with a cold distance that might seem at odds with her solitary, pained, drinking .

Wanda’s revelation, with customary acidic amusement, that Anna is Jewish and her name is actually Ida, prompts a road trip to find out what happened to her parents and where their remains, if any, are.  While the set up of a journey to uncover a lost past, with two figures of contrasting backgrounds, morals and outlooks, might sound like any number of road movies (particularly Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”) there is an economy of writing and direction and a startling power of composition that makes Pawlikowski’s succinct 80 minutes something uniquely precious.

Atmosphere and mood are things much talked about in cinema, but rarely are they understood and conveyed so well with cinematography; Antonioni’s “La Notte” came to mind, which was shot at the same time as this film was set.  Characters (particularly Ida) are positioned low in the frame, leaving the space above their heads to dominate the screen, be it the grey of crumbling 1960s Polish interiors or a haze of fog or cigarette smoke that drifts above.  Frames are composed with brightness in the distance, off screen or in the far corner, with perspective lines of trees, roads or telegraph wires leading into, or away from, this distant hazy light.  There is more than a hint of Dutch painter Vemeer to the compositions which, combined with the almost universally static camera, gives  a stony sobriety to the proceedings.

The pair pick up Lis, a handsome young saxophonist, who is playing in a band playing at the hotel they are staying at.  Immediately there is a palpable sexual tension between the younger pair, something Wanda notices (much to her amusement) but Ida does not at first.  This does not last, however, and Ida soon has to deal with emotions and feelings that she has never dealt with before.  This is dealt with in a manner so understated, it characterises the entire film.  Outside the bar, in a cold winter’s night, Ida leans on a railing.  Lis joins her, leaning close enough that their forearms touch ever so slightly.  But neither react, and nor does the camera.  It simply exists there, and then is gone.

The journey takes Ida and Wanda into a greyness that is not just a cinematographic device – there is a palpable unease at their enquiries as to the eventual fate of Ida’s family, which is the same fate as many other Polish Jews during the 1940s.  Notions of guilt and redemption hang over this beautiful drama like the grey clouds or smoke hanging over the characters, framed in sharp focussed monochrome.  The last reel provide a few surprise twists that, likewise, are played out with reserve and yet not detachment – you are never not involved in the undercurrents of these characters and the era of the country they inhabit.

WINTER SLEEP

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dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Winter Sleep is that bizarre seeming contradiction – an epic of deeply intimate proportions.  Ceylan’s love of Tarkovsky is worn on his sleeve throughout his oeuvre, and the painterly shot composition and glacial pace of the Russian master are both present here.  But in his new film, the Turkish auteur has constructed his most verbose and literate screenplay that quotes and recalls Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare and Voltaire, but also more cinematically, Bergman’s intimate and claustrophobic personal dramas.

The over-riding metaphor here is one of hibernation, another meaning of the Turkish title.  The grizzled, bearded old bear Aydin is a retired actor who owns various properties, including the Hotel Othello (an obvious reference to his cultured, thespian, past), built into caves in the Anatolian Steppes.  He pads around his domain, hunched against the encroaching winter, guests leaving the hotel to the members of his close family and the conflicts within that spark and flicker to life when the winter sets in, like a Chekhovian Overlook Hotel.

When an angry young boy, the son of an indebted tenant, breaks the window of his land rover we are taken into a cold world of class, privilege, anger, pride and shame.  This gulf between the struggling, impoverished family’s raw emotions and their direct contact with the harshness of life and the elements, and the privileged, entitled pontifications of Aydin and his wealthy family in their heated hotel, are at the heart of this drama.  Aydin spends his days ensconced in his dimly lit, cavernous, study writing extraneous articles extolling his bohemian values and aesthetics for a small local paper that, as his captious and clearly bored divorcee sister Necla points out, no-one really reads. It is from Necla that the first of several lengthy dialogue scenes comes.  She questions if evil would exist, or be so strong, if those who represented good did not rise to oppose it; her logic being that by not resisting, it gives the evil doer the chance to feel shame and to stop.  Aydin dismisses this in a manner that becomes familiar as the film progresses: he is arrogant, controlling, pompous, dismissive.  But this is not portrayed in the manner of soap operas that Aydin proudly proclaims he did not once lower himself to during his 25 year career.  “Winter Sleep” is a film of long looks, pauses, minute gestures and unhurried movements.

Aydin’s other main relationship is with his younger, beautiful, wife Nihla.  Nihla plays as a kind of damsel in distress, her every material need provided for by the wealthy husband, but their marriage is clearly dying in the remote wintry steppes.  Her only joy in life is organising fundraisers for local charitable causes with other wealthy elites.  However even this her husband cannot allow her, his desire to control and his arrogance intrudes and tries to take over her little venture, a move he cannot see as anything but right and what his superior experience must do, even if it means destroying the last of their marriage.  Her last act of defiance brings her into the home of the poor tenant family who’s young son hurled a rock at Aydin’s vehicle in anger at his father’s shame. Here we see the poverty stricken aesthetic Aydin wrote about so disparagingly in his ivory tower article.  Here Nihla sees both a simple, homely pride and a fierce pride in a shocking scene of such brilliantly conceived tension that it could almost serve as the climax of the film. But this is a film of Aydin’s inner turmoil, about the slow autumn of love becoming winter until both participants are frozen, trapped in place, without the momentum to leave or change.

The morality plays of this masterful film play out like pages from an epic novel – a fact some may find daunting.  But the honesty and intensity of the lead performances take you and hold you through their troubles and strife.  From the towering centre of Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) to pained and trapped Nihla (Melisa Sözen), cat-like sister Necla (Demet Akbag) and the ever smiling imam Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç) who is the only person who actually tries to like Aydin, the cast are uniformly superb.  These are characters, deftly painted, not two dimensional mouthpieces of a single, unchangeable, viewpoint.  In one scene Aydin is criticised by his sister for never grieving over their parents.  In the next scene, we see him sat by (what we must assume are) their graves, alone on a mist shrouded hillside.  Permanently smiling imam Hamdi tries to broker peace between his fiery brother and Aydin and his assistant, but then on one occasion we catch him curse about Aydin under his breath as he turns away.  As a political tract, a view of modern Turkey, we see the issues and matters that Aydin and his family pontificate over in their wealthy, more European and secular bohemian lives are met in cold hard reality by the suffering, poor, religious, family that endure what Aydin convinces himself is his benevolent authority.  The ever-present matter of pride and shame, of resisting evil or letting it act to recognise its own flaws, runs through the very blood of every scene, manifesting between the dying love of a marriage, the bored intellect of a divorced woman, the struggle to survive of a poor family and ultimately if dignity has a price, a cost, or is only the province of the wealthy.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL

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dir. Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson has become a staple, a mark of artistry and independence in American cinema.  His creation of a completely self contained world that seems to expand with each new release, yet still abide by these self sustained rules, brings to mind other American auteurs like David Lynch or Tarantino.  Yet none, I think, have ben so meticulous and persistent with their construction.  A Wes Anderson film is instantly recognisable, perhaps quicker than any other director’s work today.  Be it the framing, editing, the colour scheme, the fetishistic attention to a sickly sweet wealth of details to set, clothing and property, Anderson’s world is expressed without restraint onto the screen.

In his latest outing, Anderson tells the story of Gustave H, played with delicate finery by Ralph Fiennes, the former concierge of the eponymous establishment  during the 1930s, as told through a (somewhat needlessly multi-layered) plot device of flash-back via ageing owner Zero, played by F Murray Abraham in a recollection to Jude Law in the late 1960s.  Zero, in the flashback, is a hapless bellboy and sidekick to Gustave H.  When one of Gustave’s favourite guests (one of the many elderly blonde women he was intimate to in their twilight years) dies and leaves a priceless painting to him in her will, her suspicious and angry son (Adrien Brody) cries murder to the solicitor (Jeff Goldblum) and the authorities (Ed Norton).  There then begins a hair-brained chase across the snowy landscapes and streets of the fictional Eastern European Republic of Zubrowka that involves incarceration and subsequent escape (thanks to a gang of prisoners led by Harvey Keitel) and a chase through an empty winter olympics course by blood thirsty henchman (Willem Defoe).

If it seems like there is a stellar cast filling all manner of roles, it is because the cast are used like the endless details in the set and props and costume department: they are pretty and amusing details that are there, however momentarily, to catch the viewers eye and give the impression that the screen is crammed with detail, information and substance necessary to the plot.  Unfortunately, much like many of his other affectations, I found it to be a case of too much and yet not enough.  Let me explain.

Anderson shoots his films, it seems, with only one lens and one filter – a wide angle lens that, when combined with the director’s penchant for framing all of his shots so completely central and symmetrical, give everything a Point Of View, curved distortion and forced perspective effect.  Similarly, use of filters to give everything his much beloved yellow hue while vignetting round the edges of the frame means that every shot has a familiar feeling.  Camera moves, too, are taken from a very limited playbook which consists of horizontal whip-pans, dollies (to maintain the perfectly centred framing, usually) and meticulously measured zooms and little else.  As such, and youtube users have proven this, anyone could take these simple instructions and recreate the Wes Anderson look for themselves.

What, then, would raise the director above the sum of his parts?  Perhaps script and performance?  Unfortunately, the script exists as a collection of scenes and shots that serve as demonstrations of the director’s personal foibles and obsessions, and very little else.  All performances are the same – a monotonous deadpan with actors as statuesque clothes horses of their quirky wardrobe with barely a recognition, acknowledgment or eye contact with anyone else in the scene.  Dialogue consists of rapid fire delivery in the same monotone full of quirk and kook and detail that flies out to try and substitute for substance (and fails).  Scenes are whizzed past in an eagerness to reach the next prettily decorated set and star cameo which, while in other circumstances could be understood as screwball comedy but here feels hurried and aloof.

There are things to like in this film that has garnered critical praise seemingly across the board, but unfortunately for me they were in isolation and did not work as a coherent film.  For most of the film I felt I was watching a flicker book of heavily filtered instagram photos for a deeply hip publication.

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT

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dir by Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne almost completed an unprecedented hat-trick of Cannes wins earlier this year with this simple premise that allows a complex unravelling of emotions and conflicts to play out over its titular period. Although it came away without the prize (won by Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s “Winter Sleep”), it nevertheless received a deserved fifteen minute standing ovation. Much of the praise focuses on Marion Cotillard’s mesmerising central performance, but it must be remembered that the directors rigorous method and uncanny ability with actors produce such brilliance.
The premise then is that Sandra (Cotillard) is a young wife and mother who has returned to a small factory after a nervous breakdown. Unfortunately the management have decided they don’t need her and initially sack her; but some wrangling manages to get a barbed compromise – the other workers get to vote on whether to take her back. Management try to sway the decision by offering a €1000 bonus if she is made redundant. And so the film unfolds as Sandra and her husband travel to the sixteen colleagues to try to persuade them that solidarity is worth more than self interest.

Cotillard may be more familiar to multiplex audiences from her roles as a glamorous or exotic femme but here she is stripped of any such pretence and gives a nuanced and arduous presentation of a woman struggling with depression. One of the keys to this is repetition. Once we see her walking to the front door of a yet another colleague, we understand that there will be no contractions, no music video montage, we will instead follow Sandra’s footsteps and, feel her growing exhaustion without being tired or bored ourself. Cotillard is never a victim, nor is she the plucky underdog. But over the course of her repetitive appeals we see a gradual and perceptive rise of nervous exhaustion, despair and emotional fatigue without melodrama or histrionics. Sandra is ably supported by her determined and understanding husband, played by Dardenne regular Fabrizio Rongione. The scenes between the husband and wife tell of a strain in their relationship brought on by her breakdown. Sandra’s fear is not just losing her job; to her, she could lose her marriage and even, at her darkest moments, her life.
The Dardenne’s method is well known – to go for multiple takes, as many as 50, until the dialogue and action become utterly ingrained in the performer in a manner that recalls Robert Bresson. The understated and contained drama from films such as “A Man Escaped” or “Diary of a Country Priest” manifest here in Sandra’s appeals and in the varied responses from her colleagues. Each one is aware that “they might be next”, but each is also in such financial straits that they are held to a policy of self preservation. The film orchestrates the ebbs and flows of emotions, the highs and lows, the characters and their arcs, masterfully. While the exact details of the premise may seem a tad contrived, nothing about the performances or the drama that unfolds ever leaves a degree of honesty so rarely found in cinema. And right to the end, where one might expect a twist or the non-Hollywood ending, the Dardenne’s harbour a surprise that is fully in line with what we have experienced.

LEVIATHAN

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dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Andrey Zvyagintsev has carved a solid niche in world cinema as a purveyor of intense relationships in a dark and pitiless world.  His style of  exquisitely painterly shot construction and stately pace has drawn inevitable comparisons with older Russian masters Sokurov and Tarkovsky.  But with his latest feature, Zvyagintsev has turned outward to create a scathing portrait of contemporary Russia, something his two forebears shied away from.

Leviathan tells the story of Nikolay, a somewhat hot headed handyman, who lives in a house built with his own hands, with his beautiful second wife Lilya and simmeringly resentful teenage son Roma from his first, now deceased, wife.  The house stands on land that the town mayor wants for a redevelopment project, and it is this clash of Nikolay against the corrupt leviathan of the mayor and all the powers of law and disorder he can bring to bear that is the centre of the film.  Nikolay’s last hope is to call on his old friend from their army days, Dmitriy, who is a successful Moscow lawyer.  But this is no plucky underdog tale.  Zvyagintsev’s screenplay is a modern reworking of the Old Testament book of Job, and bears a title that recalls the implacable beast of the Old Testament as well as the 17th century work on the structure of society and government by Hobbes.  His film aims for no less, with a sophisticated and layered dissection of a small community that clearly stands for wider Russia as a whole.

Despite the dire trials Nikolay is sent through, the film also carries scenes of dark humour – usually the result of incredible amounts of vodka consumption.  From errant boys to family friends, local police and the mayor himself, no-one is free from vodka, Russia’s spirit, with effects that usually result in violence.  Equally, no-one is free from corruption and immorality.  Each character is finely drawn and portrayed (the acting throughout is outstanding), their flaws arising from weakness, desperation, loneliness, a woeful sense of being utterly lost in this broken down village on the end of the world.  There is no white knight to the rescue, either: lawyer Dmitriy’s tactic is not to rely on the law, but to threaten the mayor with a folder of evidence of his past dirty deeds.  And out here, not even the eyes of God seem to reach the venal mayor or the Orthodox primate who advises him from his luxurious position.

Leviathan was shot in and around a couple of villages and towns in northern Murmansk and it truly looks like a last (or lost) outpost beyond the end of the world.  Roads are roughshod and carved out of the bare rock.  Streets and plazas are overgrown, cars are held together with rope, buildings are half abandoned and dilapidated, ruined churches serve as drinking spots for local youths.  The leaden ocean roars and crashes against the jagged coast under the grim sky, as if trying to demolish the crumbling human society and reclaim it to nature.  And yet, despite this setting seemingly beyond the reach of civilisation, Zvyagintsev makes this parable about God and politics and morality at the very heart of Russian society.