Wednesday 31 July 2019

Never Look Away [2018]

Donnersmarck, who’d debuted with the magnificent The Lives of Others, made the sweeping and ambitious historical drama Never Look Away based on the complex and fascinating life of renowned German visual artist Gerhard Richter (though, however, he’d distanced himself on account of the difficult memories it evoked), whose coming-of-age as an individual and self-discovery as an artist paralleled his country’s turbulent history – fascism, war, devastation, and a painful split due to two irreconcilable political ideologies. The film opens with visit to a modern art gallery – young Kurt, in company of his sensuous, unpredictable aunt Eisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), is transfixed by a Kandinsky painting, while a Nazi official derides the artworks as demented. Before long, he experiences Nazi monstrosity as his psychologically troubled aunt is made to undergo forced sterilization by indoctrinated high-ranking SS doctor Seeband (Sebastian Koch), and put into a gas chamber on the night of the Dresden bombings. Memories of his aunt haunt Kurt throughout his life and her advice – which gave the film its English title, though the German title (viz. ‘Work Without Author’) better captured Richter’s signature style – formed a recurring motif. As an art student and artist (Tom Schilling) in East Germany, he’s compelled into Socialist Realism – though he’s exceptional at it, he longs for a freeform style – and falls for Ellie (Paula Beer), who bears resemblance to his aunt, and, ironically, is the chameleon-like Seeband’s daughter. They escape to West Germany, where, despite the creative freedom, he faces artistic crisis as he struggles to find his inspiration. Despite some popcorn contrivances, the personal elements of the broad-canvased narrative, and, in particular, a chillingly brilliant turn by Koch, made this an evocative watch.

Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Romantic Drama/Biopic
Language: German
Country: Germany

Sunday 28 July 2019

Faces Places (Visages Villages) [2017]

Agnès Varda’s extraordinary ability to find and portray fascinating human stories – with stirring political and feminist defiance – and beautifully mix them, in subversion of the conventional form, with personal elements (memories, musings, banter, self-deprecatory humour) were on delectable, playful display in her penultimate work Faces Places. She truly remained a hipster and anarchist – unwilling to be pigeonholed, eternally curious and disarmingly subversive – till her death, as evidenced by this whimsical, infectious and poignant joyride made just 2 years prior to her demise. She collaborated here with street artist JR – the young, gangly, fidgety guy always in shades made for a hilarious contrast with the aged, pint-sized, slow-moving lady with dreamy eyes – as they embarked on trips, in the latter’s camera-van, through the French countryside, encountering people defying norms and creating massive public art on them. The last tenant in a former mining community, a woman dairy farmer who refuses to cut off goats’ horns to make them more pliant, a group of dockworkers’ wives, a solitary farmer who works in isolation in his 2000-acre farm, an eccentric postman who’s more than just that, a group of factory workers – the docu is filled with such heartwarming, non-conformist stories. And these were endearingly juxtaposed with self-reflexive, personal anecdotes – the palpable warmth between the two idiosyncratic artists; a photo by Varda of Guy Bourdin flyposted on a surrealistic former German bunker, highlighting the ephemeral nature of JR’s works; a revisit to JR’s adorable centenarian grandmother; a pilgrimage to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s nondescript grave; and, in the film’s most affecting sequence, a visit to the house of her idol and former friend from Nouvelle Vague days, the ever radical and unpredictable Godard, ending in disappointment.

Director: Agnes Varda
Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Road Movie
Language: French
Country: France

Sunday 21 July 2019

45 Years [2015]

Depiction of something as banal, blasé and bourgeois as a seemingly successful marriage shaken to the core, and even shattered, by complex undercurrents – or, ‘crisis in relationship’ as one may classify it – can make for terrific cinema. Though it’s tough to surpass Bergman, Antonioni, Woody, Cassavetes, Farhadi, Rohmer, etc. on this theme, one can still expect to be left impressed by British filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s exquisitely chiseled and emotionally charged marital drama 45 Years. The ageing Mercers – Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) – are the ideal picture of a long, happy marriage; well-read, comfortably-off and contented in their space, their relationship is a perfect counterfoil to the serene Norfolk environ surrounding them. They’re also 5 days away from celebrating on a grand scale – tad unlike their unpretentious natures – their 45th wedding anniversary. The delicate status quo, however, is unsettled by an innocuous letter informing Geoff that Katya, his fiancée from half-a-century back, who’d died in the Swiss Alps in the summer of ’62, has been found due to a thaw in the snow. Geoff, through this unforeseen blast from his half-forgotten past, becomes erratic and reckless – he resumes smoking, attempts rekindles his former preferences, starts getting irritated by the hypocrisy in their friends, and even considers planning a trip to Switzerland; Kate, despite being an unflappable, prosaic and level-headed person, is profoundly ruffled, unraveling a rare vulnerability, by this sudden appearance of Katya’s ghost; more so, when she realizes while going through Geoff’s stashed boxes – something which is contradictory to her nature – that she might have been pregnant when she’d died. Rampling gave a stunning turn in particular as we see their heartwarming marriage on a potentially tragic freefall.

Director: Andrew Haigh
Genre: Drama/Marital Drama/Romantic Drama
Language: English
Country: UK

Tuesday 16 July 2019

Elle [2016]

Dutch provocateur Paul Verhoeven, always known for pushing boundaries, had initially planned to adapt Philippe Dijan’s novel in Hollywood, but couldn’t because of its incendiary script. Hence he switched to the original French setting instead, and the result was Elle, a work of such extraordinary assuredness and maturity – despite the theme of sexual violence, this was diametrically removed from his earlier brand of pulpy thrillers – that it heavily reminded me of Chabrol and Haneke. Admittedly, that was amplified by the presence of the irresistible Isabelle Huppert, in a performance blazing with icy demeanour and simmering sensuality which she so memorably portrayed in movies like Violette Nozière, La Cérémonie and The Piano Teacher; that she played such a daring role at the age of 63 speaks volumes of her audacity. Michèle, the proprietress of a risqué video-game company, is a woman who loves to be in control and exudes command in her relationships. At office, she’s both despised and fantasized by her male subordinates; outside work, she toys with the men in her life – her emotionally weak son (Jonas Bloquet), her melancholic ex-husband (Charles Berling), and the infatuated spouse (Christian Berkel) of her best friend (Anne Consigny) with whom she’s having an affair. And she’s haunted by memories of her mass murderer father incarcerated for life. The eerie and delicate placidity of her bourgeois existence, however, is shaken upon being raped by a masked man – the film starts with this disturbing sequence – and more so when, upon finding out that her rapist is her seemingly mild-mannered but twisted much younger neighbor (Laurent Lafitte), she embarks on an unsettling game of sexual one-upmanship with him which is sure to end horribly.

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Genre: Thriller/Psychological Thriller
Language: French
Country: France

Sunday 14 July 2019

Neruda [2016]

Having earlier watched Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s fabulous ‘No Redemption Trilogy’ – the lacerating Tony Manero, the intensely disconcerting Post-Mortem and the incisive No – I, admittedly, was expecting in Neruda a work simmering with political vitriol; the Nobel Laureate, after all, was allegedly murdered – his death had formed the starting point in Jose Donoso’s masterful novel Curfew – by Pinochet’s henchmen for his left-wing affiliations. What Larraín created, instead, was a hypnotic, delightfully digressive and playfully modernist mock-biopic from an earlier period in the celebrated poet’s life – viz. the purges against Communists that the then government had initiated in 1948, which had forced Pablo Neruda, a firebrand and non-conformist Senator then, to go on the run and ultimately into political exile. Neruda (played with hyperbolic flourish and comic élan by Luis Gnecco) is presented here as a person with fascinating contradictions – his bent for decadence, hedonism, amoral preferences and supercilious air courtesy the effect that his poetry had on people, formed striking contrasts to his socialist ideals, doggedness and inner machinations which could produce such verses to begin with. The film’s other protagonist was Óscar (Gale Garcia Bernal in a muted, deadpan performance), a fictitious cop and the tale’s unreliable narrator who’s assigned the task of apprehending and arresting Neruda – his officious demeanour and faux self-importance, as he embarks on a near-mythic albeit hapless odyssey in pursuit of the poet, added wry humour and a deliberate sense of metafiction into the narrative, as he’s possibly a figment of Neruda’s imaginative powers. Mercedes Morán, as Neruda’s sensuous, melancholic wife, completed the triad in this fantastical, satirical, genre-bending and quietly anti-fascist road movie, filled with moody cinematography and a low-key score.

Director: Pablo Larrain
Genre: Biopic/Political Drama/Road Movie
Language: Spanish
Country: Chile