Dir. Lucrecia Martel


Argentine director Lucrecia Martel made a significant name for herself as a maker of intimate, often claustrophobic, studies of character and atmosphere in her native Salta region.  Her first three films all made the cramped social and cultural environments of the (upper) middle-class family as a form of pressure cooker, to study their mores and means under the intensity of a dire moment or incident.

What Martel made more important in this loose trilogy was far less what was on screen, but what was not – the ellipsis of both her camera and the characters illustrating what they did and did not acknowledge.  Some eight years from her last film, the critically acclaimed “The Headless Woman”, Martel has turned her cinematic myopia away from suburban bourgeoisie, to delve back in time to the late 18th century.  Has her palette, and lens, expanded on this journey?  Yes and no.

Environment has always been important to Martel’s cinema (any film calling itself The Swamp cannot help but call attention to it), and in this instance she broadens to a few wide shots of the tiny outpost on the shores of an Argentine river.  We hear this all pervading environment before we see it – a device Martel returns to time and again here – with the lap of the river waters and the symphony of insects, trees, birds and natives.  The shot fades up on the eponymous hero, Diego de Zama, a minor official of the Spanish Empire.  He stands in profile, a proud figure in striking attire, staring out to the watery horizon, as oblivious to the frolicking naked natives around him as they are of him.  This one shot telegraphs much of the mood and content of the proceeding 2 hours: the division between colonist and native, the dominance of the environment on the humans and their differing approaches to it (conquering vs inhabiting), and Zama, on the edge of the land, of the empire, of the (in his view) civilised world, gazing endlessly at the horizon, looking for something that will, inevitably, never be seen or arrive.

Zama is stationed at the far reaches of the Spanish Empire and longs for the letter from Europe to confirm his transfer back to his home, his wife and family, to the culture he knows and feels he belongs to.  While being an official, he is forever a victim to this system, always struggling to get his case heard by the Governor, a venal and corrupt Spaniard who holds court with gambling friends and taunts the frustrated Zama with his impotence.  For it is not just social and political frustration hamstringing him – we see him early on being a voyeur on some women bathing in the river, and his entreaties to a blue-blooded temptress who holds court like a New World Marie Antoinette, oblivious to her position if not her effect on men, by her fondness for brandy.  At the local brothel, Zama looks on not with disdain, but fear – he says he does not go with native women – a statement found to be untrue when he later reveals he has an illegitimate child with a native woman.  Like in all things, Zama is frustrated, overlooked, forgotten.  He is a functionary without function, a European without Europe, a man without manhood.

This duplicitous attitude toward native women is part of the colonial politic that is  subtly explored here.  Natives are naked or in rags, Spaniards in European finery; a personal assistant is mute and has to buy her right to marry (though her muteness is used to cast doubt on her power to do so), a black slave is a messenger for the Spaniards, in a loin cloth and dirty jacket.


Hanging over this perpetual world of unfulfilled waiting is a spectre, of a famed robber baron called Vicuna, rumoured to have been killed, then to be alive and murdering and raping.  Years later, in an effort to gain some sense of motion in this swamp-like existence, Zama forms a hunting party to capture Vicuna.  This act of action meant to prove his manhood to his peers, and to the all important but eternally distant and unseeing King.  It is during this last third of the film that one thinks of other such doomed treks upriver in unfriendly jungle, particularly Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God“.  And it is here that some of the surreal, magic realist, elements hinted at earlier come to the fore, as Zama’s mind disintegrates.  Indians dyed head to foot in red paint, warriors in animal masks appearing as if from nowhere and, most hauntingly, an entire tribe that moves only at night, blinded by Spanish forces years before, feeling their way past the Spaniards camp.  Spoiler: when it is revealed that the villainous Vicuna is actually one of their hunting party, the folly and self destructive nature of the colonial project is laid bare.  When one is hunting only oneself, there is only emptiness and the horror at that emptiness to be found.


Twin Peaks – the return.


Twin Peaks is different, a long way from the world.

Never was this more true than with the return to Frost & Lynch’s world of donuts and lumber and damn fine coffee.  Except, this isn’t that world.  Or is it?  It looks familiar, yet its different – older, sharper, under the harsh modern light and HD digital cinematography.  And where is the music, the quirky characters with their fetishes for shoes, food and silent drape runners?  Well, all that is in the past.  And deliberately so.

When it first came out, Twin Peaks shook television to the core; nothing would be the same again after it.  Cinematic, long form, artistically surreal, sexy, violent – in short, a medium that declared itself an art form.  27 years later, Lynch and Frost were to return to television, to Twin Peaks, and both were a very very different landscape.  We are, many have said, in a golden age of television.  From Breaking Bad to Mad Men to Game of Thrones, high quality, high budget, long format series’s without the restrictions of mainstream network tv, are the mainstream.  While Hollywood disappears down its own rabbit hole of superhero effects fests of increasingly dumb returns, it is in tv that the real drama is being made.

And so what of Twin Peaks.  What would be its place in this new terrain?  Much has been made of the fandom, of their passion and commitment being behind its eventual return.  But fans are a strange bunch – some might say none more so than Peakies.  Fandom tends to have a craving for familiarity, while at the same time they bemoan repeats of the same things.  Take, for example, the fan reaction to the new Star Wars films: the return to tropes, locations, characters and plots that are familiar was greeted with mass adoration and acclaim.  So would Twin Peaks go straight back to the RR Diner, order a damn fine coffee, and dance to Angelo’s tunes again?

In short – no.  Nostalgia has always been the province of danger in Lynch’s worlds.  From the picket fences of Blue Velvet to the classic Hollywood dreams of Mulholland Drive, the past is a false refuge, a weakness that lets the darkness in.  They were never going to simply repeat themselves.  And so new Twin Peaks is a very different beast.  It is, after all, 27 years later.  Much has changed: television, technology, Lynch himself, the actors, the world.  And so we have, from the first two hours of this much hyped “return”, an unsettlingly clear, high-definition digitally shot world of older people, strange rooms, murder scenes, roadside diners and motels, and occasionally some of the actual locations of “classic” Twin Peaks.  There is much that is familiar – the real time pacing of mundane events, easily confused law enforcement officials, dirty deeds and alluring women, and the surreal other-world of the Black Lodge.  But, as noted above, they appear almost ultra-realistic under HD digital cameras and plain, stark, lighting and, most noticeably, the deafening lack of Angelo Badalamenti’s famous score.  Classic Twin Peaks is now remembered in the soft, warm hues of late 80s tv, with lush scores and beautiful young actors and every scene too sexy for the screen: it has become the object of nostalgia.  While watching the new episodes, I could imagine many Peakies longing for its cosy quirky familiarity – imagine, a series about the abuse and murder of a high school girl by her father, while possessed by a woodland demon, has become the object of warm nostalgia.  And there is, I believe, Lynch and Frost’s masterstroke, the danger and darkness inherent in nostalgia.

Other aspects contribute to this feel, too.  Twin Peaks is a town, a singular location full of familiar places and soon to be familiar faces.  Never did the series depart from its north-western locale.  And yet new Twin Peaks barely touched on the town.  Instead we see startling vistas of night-time New York and visit a strange tower with a glass cube at the top floor; we see a crime committed in a resident’s block in a town in South Dakota; there’s a luxury office in Vegas, and a dingy motel somewhere in the mid-west.  There is also technology to contend with.  In classic Twin Peaks, we remember tape recordings of secret diaries, Cooper’s dictaphone, clumsy video cameras and earpieces that never worked.  Now we have digital cameras with memory cards connected to what appears to be massive network hubs, an internet and phone connection in a briefcase that seems able to cross time and space, bad Cooper’s digital dictaphone can tap landlines, mobiles calling to police in the depths of the woods, near-instant identification of bodies and recalling of suspect records.  All of this adds to the lack of centre to this new series – a distinct lack of Twin Peaks in Twin Peaks (yes, we do go there, but in brief moments between bigger scenes).  All of this combines to fuel the nostalgia for old Twin Peaks.  This is Lynch’s view of today’s world – disparate, isolated, spread out across continents, connected by inexplicable technology, viewed in cold, clear HD digital images.  And what we see is familiar, but dark, discombobulating, and deeply unexpected.  In a word – unheimlich – the uncanny, and that is the bedrock on which Lynch has built all of his work.

So new Twin Peaks is different.  We should never have expected any different, and yet it is so different as to be unexpected.  In our cosy familiarity of classic Twin Peaks and the golden age of modern tv, Lynch and Frost have once again completely pulled the rug out from under us and taken tv to a completely different place.  A place both wonderful and strange.  And I, for one, could not get enough of it.

Russian Ark


Dir. Alexander Sokurov. (2001)

Russian Ark is a monumental film, a true milestone in cinema history. From its inception, cinema’s uniqueness lay in its editing. And in over 100 yrs, the production of meaning through this procedure has been at the heart of cinema theory. For many, artistic equated with the long uninterrupted take.
In 1948 Hitchcock made “Rope”, a film of long takes edited to make it look like it was one continuous long take. There was a limit to take length, however: the cine camera’s film reel was 12 minutes long, maximum. Physically, there could not be a film with longer takes than this. Godard’s 1967 “Weekend” famously used a full film reel to shoot a single tracking shot. in 2000, Bela Tarr’s “Werckmeister Harmonies” consisted entirely of just 39 long takes.
Not until the advent of digital could this change. On 23rd December 2001 Alexander Sokurov’s crew recorded, on their fourth take, a complete 94 minute film in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, with a cast of 2000 costumed actors and extras, using a steadicam and a hard-drive in a backpack unit.
As a story, Russian Ark follows a mysterious figure (the Marquis) in a wander through 33 rooms of the Winter Palace, going through periods of the museums 300 year history. The voyage is a voyage through time, with characters both real and fictional appearing as we witness moments of Russian history. but it is not as simple as that: at times the marquis and accompanying camera seem to be invisible, passing contemporary museum visitors, other times speaking to them and likewise to the camera.
Past Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, who Sokurov is often cited as heir, wrote a book “Sculpting In Time”, in which he outlays his artistic theories on the nature of editing and the relationship between the cut and time. If editing is the mastery over time, then whence the film without a single edit? A clue may lie in Sokurov’s working title/subtitle of the film “In One Breath”. The film drifts, not just in the way of the steadicam, but its languid journey from room to room uses those doorways as substitute edits. Sokurov equates, or even replaces, time with space. This is the key understanding of the film – and it is completely apt for a film in, and about, a museum. For what is a museum but time gathered in spaces?
Taken in this view, the single take is far more than a gimmick or an over-extended device (a la Birdman), the very language of the film speaks of the defying of time that this remarkable place the Hermitage encapsulates: fluid, dream-like, breathlessly contiguous.
The camerawork aside, the staggering beauty of the Hermitage alone is breathtaking. The costumes of over 2000 actors and extras in glorious period detail is equally stunning. The Marquis is a mischievous, mysterious, guide, conversing with a never-seen figure that is the camera’s POV. Snippets of history, courtly rumour, philosophising on the exhibited art, the nature of art, and the passage of time through, over and around Russia. And as the film progresses, that breathlessness builds in the almost impossible to believe  ballroom scene – with a full orchestra and hundreds of ballroom dancers  perfectly choreographed with the Marquis and camera blending perfectly in. The ball ends and the hundreds file out, the camera joining this endless river of humans, a flow of time and history pouring to – what end? A glimpse outside to a (cg rendered) cold, dark, river shrouded in icy fog – the Hermitage revealed as an Ark, caught in the never-ending current of time and history.

Knight Of Cups



Dir. Terrence Malick (2015)


Taking a director’s films on their individual merits, without referring to their previous works, is tricky.  This is doubly so when the director has such a recognisable and distinct style.  Writing on Ozu, Bergman or Tarkovsky, for example, could hardly fail to refer to the respective director’s approach to pacing, themes, shot lengths, music amongst other traits and their prevalence and evolution in the director’s career.  In the case of Malick the evolution of his style, from the static and painterly approach of “Badlands” and “Days Of Heaven” in the 1970s, to the transitionary return of “The Thin Red Line” which featured impressionistic cutaways to character reveries and a multiplicity of voice-overs.  After this, “The New World” marked a complete shift in style: a roving, restless camera, all natural lighting, associative non-linear editing, a preference for voice over and a rejection of traditional dramatic structure.  In his subsequent features, “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder”, he took this style to either an un-diluted focus on a determined artistic vision, or repetitive self parody, depending on your view.

“Knight Of Cups” follows Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in Hollywood, drifting through the glamour and glitz of Los Angeles, from parties to film sets and photo shoots, various luxurious apartments and hotel rooms, the freeways around LA and the coast of the Pacific.  Rick, like many late era Malick heroes, is lost, spiritually empty and in a state of longing.  He drifts between a succession of beautiful women (Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett), all of whom seem to recognise Rick’s weakness and emptiness, particularly Cate Blanchett’s Nancy, his ex-wife and a nurse, who is scathing about his failings.  Also in his travels are his wayward brother, somewhat prone to emotional outbursts, and their father, who while he admits (finally, one gets the impression) is proud of Rick’s achievements, is less enamoured of his lifestyle.  There are pushy agents, quasi-spiritual drug users, an ageing lothario (played by Antonio Banderas), two armed burglars, a pimp who although a believer admits his weakness for wealth and sin, a zen Buddhist teacher and a tarot card reader on Rick’s Los Angeles odyssey.  None of these encounters are played out in traditional dramatic manner, with dialogue, shot and reverse-shot, character and plot progression.  The vast majority of Knight Of Cups sees Rick wandering as an aimless observer; we hear him speak on camera once, perhaps twice, the camera follows him, spending a lot of time directly behind Bale, glancing around and seeing things at all manner of striking angles and locations.  Voice over is the dominant form of expression for characters here, something those familiar with Malick’s late style will be  aware of.

Malick’s rejection of traditional narrative structure means that searching for a plot, searching for events or direct character dialogue or exposition is fruitless.  This is not story driven cinema, it is purely poetic, with the intention being to deliver emotions via images, actions, montage, mise-en-sene, movement, format and music.  Rick’s life is fragmented, without meaning, surrounded by wealth and glamour, sensuality and scraps of spirituality, thus Malick’s film follows such a path.  Scenes are often joined after something seems to have happened, or just before, leaving us with a collection of traces of feelings and memories suffused with ennui, melancholy and longing.  One is expected to travel with Rick, and Emanuel Lubezki’s searing camera, standing on the shore as wave after wave of imagery and music wash over you.  There are a handful of allegories that the film alludes to throughout, the most obvious being the tarot.  The eponymous card is said to represent change, new excitements, particularly romantic in nature, as well as opportunities and invitations.  The Knight is a bringer of ideas, is constantly bored and in need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. Reversed, it represents fraud and false promises, a person who has difficulty discerning truth and lies.  Seen in this respect, Bale’s character is quite clear.  The rest of the film is divided into eight rough segments, each identified with an inserted title card.  They are in order:

The Moon (the life of the imagination away from the life of the spirit.)

The Hanged Man (life in suspension, but life and not death)

The Hermit (soul-searching introspection, being alone, inner guidance)

Judgement (reflection, self evaluation, judgement, rebirth, absolution)

The Tower (disaster, upheaval, sudden change, revelation)

The High Priestess (intuition, higher powers, mystery, the subconscious)

Death (endings, beginnings, change, transformation, transition)

And lastly Freedom, which is not a tarot card and can, presumably, refer to an escape from the pre-destination and fate of things like tarot.

Then there is The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian dream allegory written in 1678 by John Bunyan.  Like Dante’s venture through Purgatory, we are invited to follow Rick’s quest as a liturgical allegory in the manner of the Pilgrim.  The film opens with the unmistakable tones and gravitas of Sir John Gielgud’s reading from Bunyan’s text.  Indeed with the title and first lines being recited over the opening titles it gives the feel that this is a re-telling of the tale, from the  City of Destruction (the modern City of Angels) to the Celestial City atop Mount Zion, burdened by knowledge of his sin.  The final liturgical layer comes from  an early 3rd Century Apocryphal text The Acts Of Thomas, in particular a passage called the Hymn of the Pearl, described thus:

The hymn tells the story of a boy, “the son of the king of kings”, who is sent to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a serpent. During the quest, he is seduced by Egyptians and forgets his origin and his family. However, a letter is sent from the king of kings to remind him of his past. When the boy receives the letter, he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl and returns.

And yet, despite all of Malick’s allegory and structural devices, this remains a sprawling epic of a detached view of a familiar yet altogether alien world.  Lubezki’s camera sees the LA we have seen in countless films, tv series, music videos, fashion shoots and computer games.  It moves from being populated by interchangeably “perfect” men and women in various states of intoxication and undress, to empty streets and back lots of film studios.  “Do you know anyone here?” Rick asks Freida Pinto at one party, by means of introduction and eventual seduction.  Nothing is real – Rick’s work is the production of fiction, Hollywood being the “dream factory”, reminding one of the similitude of a dream in the title of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  From fake pre-revolutionary French architecture in ostentatious mansions to film sets and the brief sojourn to Las Vegas, with replica pyramids and Eiffel Tower.  Rick’s progress through this hall of mirrors in search of genuine meaning and connection leads to a number of baptismal dips in the Pacific, and a drive out to the desert, isolated and away from the Babylonian trials and temptations of LA.  Just as the structure and narrative are dramatically non-conventional, so there should be no expectation of dramatic resolution.  What to take from this morass of shots and ellipses and rumination ?  Many will find subjects, methods and shot to be similar to those from “The Tree Of Life” and especially “To The Wonder”.  Some have seen it as a reductive retreading of the same ground.  However, his is such a different and unique style, one that is clearly evolving and being taken further and further on a singular vision.  Rarely in contemporary American cinema is there any such reflection, contemplation, honest spirituality and unapologetically unconventional form.  That, alone, makes it a tremendous and worthy achievement.  Even if the stunning cinematography, the masterful editing, the incredible soundtrack, didn’t combine to make a beautiful, engaging and deeply moving cinematic poem.

The Assassin


Dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien

Variance from the norm is such a common feature of auteurist cinema that it almost can become expected.  From Kubrick to Herzog, cinema goers have become used to the phrase “a unique take on the genre”, be it horror, western, gangster and so on.  It has become a game for audience and director alike to show their awareness of the genre conventions, and to note the variances from the norm and how this is in line with the directors own artistic methods and milieu.  Which brings me to Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien and his latest film, the exquisitely filmed “Cìkè Niè Yǐnniáng” (The Assassin).  Ostensibly a Wuxia martial arts film, people would be better prepared knowing they were watching a Hsiao-Hsien film than a genre defined by flashy personal combat.  As such, this film is defined by characteristic long takes, meticulous composition, long periods of stillness and silence, gorgeous cinematography and only fleeting regard to traditional narrative structure and character development.  In many ways, I found myself thinking of this as the “Barry Lyndon” (Kubrick, 1975) of Wuxia films.

The story, such as it is, is set in 8th century Tang Dynasty China and concerns the eponymous Nie Yinniang, a young woman taken at the age of 10 and trained as a deadly assassin by a nun-princess.  Her targets are corrupt officials in the turbulent internecine conflicts of the Chinese empire at the time.  The film begins with a prologue piece shot in crisp, high contrast, black and white that demonstrates  the startling skill of the assassin.  After failing to complete a mission due to her “heart lacking resolve” her master dispatches her to the troubled Weibo province where she is to kill a warlord – who happens to be her cousin.  The conflict of loyalties is further complicated when we learn that the warlord was once betrothed to the assassin.  The film then plays out on these conflicts, political, personal and physical, in a series of stunning tableau’s that are more indebted to Hsiao-Hsien’s elliptical style than the requirements of the Wuxia genre.

Everything seems to float or drift in this film, a gesture that seems to become a device, a representation of the ghost-like presence of the assassin and the brief touch on the pages of ancient history that these characters make.    The camera, while not making Scorsese-esque winding steadicam moves, is always wafting as if on a slight breeze, observing long takes as if from a respectful distance.  Candle flames dance throughout the mise-en-scène, and countless curtains and sheets of gossamer silk flicker and drift in layers within the frame .  On more than one occasion a scene is observed from behind a wispy curtain that drifts in and out of focus, obscuring the characters in a silken mist before, imperceptibly, unveiling them again.  This device echoes the way narrative and character details are dealt out in this film; nothing is presented directly or as a matter of fact.  In the monochrome prologue, we see a warlord watching his child play, first with a ball and then a passing butterfly.  Yinniang drops, ghost-like, from the rafters and we cut to the warlord cradling his child – presumably slain, though we do not see the act, only the reactions from the warlord (a contained mix of rage and grief) and the assassin (again contained, seemingly emotionless and cold, but still with something, remorse, guilt, fear, buried inside).  Containment of emotions is the dominant form for the characters, with codes and traditions observed with such tenacity that one wonders if there is any individuality in such society.  We see this in the way costumes and hair identify people far more than their personalities would, but more importantly in the way Yinniang is a figure under control and duress throughout her life.  She is chosen and given to martial arts training as a child, an act that took her from another choice made for her – that of marriage to her cousin, the warlord.  As a grown woman, the assassin is still controlled by her master, and it is the initial act of disobedience, an expression of free will in refusing to kill, that leads to her involvement with her cousin and the personal and political battles that will ensue.  The combat, which would normally be the centre piece of Wuxia films, are few and fleeting.  She either appears and acts with unerring skill, or one of the zen-like stillnesses where characters, and audience, seem invited to contemplate what has transpired is suddenly disrupted, exploding into the frame.

Hsiao-Hsien places his characters within a natural world not normally associated with his cinema. And his lens pays attention to nature in an almost Terrence Malick like way.  After the first assassination, the film cuts to a shot of leaves in tree branches against the sky.  Later, as a procession of dignitaries on horseback ride through a valley, they remain out of focus and instead the camera focuses on a small, bright, bush in the right hand foreground of the frame.  But, like other aspects of the film – such as the mysterious gold-masked female assassin that is seen walking through a forest and, towards the end, engages in battle with Yinniang – they are there and then gone, like the silken curtains, like a torchlit procession at night, an assassin leaping unseen from rafters to kill and vanish.  Likewise, the film offers no epic conclusion to the political conflicts in which this story is set.  We are there to witness one character breaking the bonds imposed on her by masters, family and warlords.  By film’s end, she travels on like the Ronin of Kurosawa’s epics, her own woman in an uncertain time.

The Three Colours Trilogy


Dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski

Twenty years ago, Krzysztof Kieslowski created what was to become his swan song, a trilogy of films based around the revolutionary concepts of the French flag – liberty, equality, fraternity.  Shot and edited to be released at the Venice, Berlin and Cannes film festivals, this was cinema that bestrode Europe like never before.  Kieslowski, star of the Lødz film school, went from a gritty social realism of his Polish roots and, upon the fall of Communism in his homeland and across eastern Europe, moved to France and developed an aesthetic that was more internal and personal.  With the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the influx of European democracy and capitalism into the former Soviet vassals, perhaps Kieslowski felt that the political struggle was over, not of his concern.  Or perhaps it was a new Poland he did not understand.  Either way he left for France, Poland’s state funded cinema no longer being able to fund his projects.  One suspects the cut throat world of the Warsaw portrayed in White was his satirical view of what had become of his homeland.

Of the three films it is White which spans the two sides of that new Europe.  Karol is impotent in the west, but a feted winner of competitions and diplomas in the east (another self deprecating portrait by the director?).  It is only when he has mastered this beast and become a successful and wealthy businessman that he is finally able to consummate his annulled marriage, and then back in Poland.  But how far do the qualities of the French flag bleed into White?  Liberty involves being trapped in a suitcase, smuggled across borders, and faking one’s death to imprison your ex-wife in a misguided revenge plot.  Fraternity exists in agreeing to kill a friend for money, but firing a blank (literally, not sexually), calling on friends and family to help in the fake death (even so far as getting a corpse – a Russian one with a crushed head, of course).  Equality, too, is questionable – Karol’s trial before French law he feels is biased because of his nationality and language barrier, while Dominique’s arrest and trial is the result of being framed.  Are Poland and France equal?  Far from it.  Poland is seen as a land of spivs, violence and greed, a cheap competitor to France’s cultured society.

I am looking back at the trilogy from a Europe that is far from unified.  Britain, in particular, has become obsessed with the migration from eastern Europe of workers that would have been teens or less at the time of the films release.  The fears that seem to dominate the press and politicians are of Poles that do not fit the portrayal in White of cunning, hard working, entrepreneurial and ultimately successful persons.  The view is that of Karol the vagabond in the underground, begging.  The catastrophe at the end of Red that brings the trilogy’s main protagonists together is a ferry disaster caused by a terrible storm that raged, unpredicted, across the continent.  How apt that the unforeseen financial crash and subsequent social, political and economic storms that have raged across Europe since have indeed highlighted the values of the French flag and our failure to live up to them.  The freedom of people to move across the united Europe is challenged unlike the freedom of capital to evade taxation.  Conversely the freedom of those who caused the catastrophe remains.  This clear lack of equality before the law for the wealthy and the poor means we are a continent of Karol’s before the Paris courts, impotent and unable to consummate the continent’s union.

Red is the one film that relies entirely on technology for its narrative success.  A Europe “united” by telecommunications is the pre-requisite, enabling Valentine to remain in touch with her jealous boyfriend in England (and Hungary and Poland), for a personalised weather forecasting service to exist and the romance that arose from it.  It allowed the suspected organiser of half the heroin trade in Geneva to function, untouched by the authorities; and the secret gay affair of the family man living across from Joseph Kern.  But, as illustrated in the opening sequence, this technology is fallible and throughout the film missed, mis-directed, monitored and un-monitored calls are all key to the web of communications that envelop the characters and the consequent dramas that arise from them.  It seems personal, face to face, contact is impossible, if not extremely uncomfortable.  Valentine’s brother finds it unbearable, others have to lie about their health and their groceries, about their secret love affairs.  All of these scenarios rely on secrets and unwillingness to communicate the truth – something that Kern personally decides is a lack of modesty, a vanity.  Listening to these deceptions he clearly feels his world view validated.  What he lacks is the emotional connection that comes from direct, personal, communication.  Valentine says that people are not bad, only weak.  Kern understands this – he is not the emotionless rock that Julie longed to be in “Blue”; he says that he, too, in their position would lie, cheat, steal.  He has, however, never been in the other’s shoes.  His self imposed exile and isolation, echoing Julie’s in the earlier film, stands as a metaphor for the isolated nations and peoples of Europe.  They may hear the goings on of their neighbours, witness violence but only stand by and let it happen, refuse to sign to evict a sex worker, but they do not involve themselves – for better or for worse.  The unification of Europe, the freedom to cross previously sealed borders, the equality between people and the fraternity of a continent together in peace, is the overriding dream of the social and political parable the trilogy tells.  Come out of isolation, Kieslowski calls out via his characters; do not let your neighbour suffer, do not leave the old woman to struggle to dispose of their rubbish – join with and help.

Such an optimistic and fraternal call seems a distant dream in the economically fractured landscape of contemporary Europe.  In 2015 the lack of equality has brought about the curbing of freedoms and the loss of the sense of fraternity.  The economic powers of Germany, France and Britain look down in horror at the collapsing economies of Spain, Greece, Italy, Portugal.  Migration from former Communist states in the east into the north-western powerhouses is a political issue giving rise to far-right anti-European (isolationist) parties.  New threats are touted – a resurgent Russia and radical Islamism in the post 9/11 and Iraq war world.  While capital is free to be shifted from place to place and thus enable it to be free from taxes that benefit the ordinary population, free movement of people (migration) is a rallying cause for many right-wing parties.  Equality is scarcely a concept, unless it is seen in the American neoliberal concept of opportunity to become grossly un-equal, one way or another.  The state is seen as something not to be involved in the concept of equality, a left wing, socialist, ideal that, in the aftermath of the fall of Communism, was a failure.  The market was to decide, as we saw in “White”.  As Kieslowski left behind the overtly political and social films of his Polish period to take up more personal themes, he seemed to acknowledge that politics was a spent force as far as conflict, drama and change was concerned.  Fukuyama’s “End of History” narrative may have been rescinded after 9/11 launched the “New American Century”, but for the Europe of the 1990s it seemed that capitalism was the end result and everything now would be life style choices of the individual.  Aiding an old woman at the bottle bank or taking an injured dog to the vet may be, as Kern intimated, to stop you dreaming of a dog with a crushed skull, but that was how it would be; there would be no factory strikes, no workers actions.  The trials we see in this trilogy are for divorce and eavesdropping, and a retired judge is a benign and tragic character, far removed from the trials under martial law in Kieslowski’s 1985 feature “No End” or the death penalty so excruciatingly portrayed in “A Short Film About Killing” (1988).

In the end, Kieslowski’s swan-song trilogy exists as a perfect testament of the time, that optimistic hope of survival and fraternity  after the storms of the cold war.  He would never know that the symphony for the unification of Europe would become a desperate gasp of a floundering project, not a bold beacon of  peace and hope as was.  If he had lived, he would be 74 – still able to make films (Godard is 83).  What films might he have made about the troubled continent his art spanned in a way its ideals could not?  He always searched for the feelings that united people, and always gave his struggling protagonists a second chance.  In an interview at Oxford University in 1994 he said:

“There are too many things in the world which divide people, such as religion, politics, history, and nationalism. If culture is capable of anything, then it is finding that which unites us all. And there are so many things which unite people.”

Looking back at his wonderful trilogy 20 years on, the social and political moment has passed, but their artistic perfection remains undoubted.  Indeed given the obsession with superheroes, attention-seeking transgression and the faux-realities of CGI, his vision elevates to something of a treasured height of the past, like Julie’s blue lamp shade, Karol’s two franc coin and Kern’s pen.  Kern’s pen failed and the “error in time” (as Kieslowski described the logic of “Red”) was corrected to pass to Auguste and his pen.  And so what do we write now?  What judgement do we pass on our time?

Clouds Of Sils Maria

clouds of sils maria

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.