Thursday 29 April 2021

The Human Voice [2020]

 For his first English-language film The Human Voice, Almodóvar adapted Jean Cocteau’s renowned monodrama, and collaborated with Tilda Swinton who – with her deadpan pallour, restrained theatricality, and something unhinged on the brink of imploding – was apt for the Spanish auteur’s form and style. Almodóvar, interestingly, had loosely and freely adapted this play earlier in his wild, comical, gleeful Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and hence it’s quite fascinating that he returned to it – even if with hugely contrasting brushstrokes – over three decades later. Running at just shy of 30 minutes, this tantalizingly structured short is steadfastly centered on a wealthy middle-aged woman (Swinton) whose lover has gone for three days now from both her apartment and life. Though she’s packed all his stuff in black valise, she craves to see him one last time before he disappears forever. And in this mental state – an amalgamation of panic, fear, anger, self-pity, pain, depression and desperation – she purchases an axe, gulps down sleeping pills, and then engages in a long, rambling, emotionally volatile conversation ostensibly with her former lover, though it’s never really clear if it’s indeed him or a manifestation of her crumbling sanity. Swinton gave an arresting turn with some of her self-deprecatory comments eerily close to her actual persona, and that, along with the histrionic monologue, added satirical and darkly funny touches to the melodrama. The quintessentially vibrant art décor, lush score and use of Brechtian elements (perhaps as an alternative to pandemic-related restrictions) made this quite delicious at times, even if its brevity and ambiguities made one feel that a longer runtime would’ve done fuller justice to its thematic and narrative arcs.






Director: Pedro Almodovar

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Short Film

Language: English

Country: Spain

Wednesday 28 April 2021

Paris Calligrammes [2020]

 There’s something beautiful about a young person breaking free and carving out an uncharted path, and then her older self looking back years later. Ulrike Ottinger – experimental German filmmaker, painter and photographer – left home at 20 for Paris in 1962, making this city her home instead until the end of the 60s; and during these heady years she’d immerse herself in its throbbing cultural scene, become part of its rich émigré circle, befriend intellectuals and trailblazers, witness the political hotbed, and find her voice as an artist. Paris Calligrammes, her absorbing, eclectic, vibrant memoir is a portrayal of this unforgettable period from her life. It’s therefore packed with memories, experiences, nostalgia, anecdotes, adventure and bittersweet reflections, even if recollected and posited from a vantage point, as the director and the protagonist – separated by five decades – were surely two very different individuals. But it wasn’t just that; it was also an intoxicating time capsule, an ethnographic study of a city with myriad shades during an epochal period, and an engrossing mosaic of people and moments. This diary film comprises of diverse interconnected facets – Fritz Picard’s bookshop Librairie Calligrammes, a legendary melting pot, where she loved hanging out; Johnny Friedlaender’s studio where she lmearned lithography; indulging the flâneuse in her while exploring the city’s locales, from Saint-Germaine and Latin Quarter to Bouquinistes, cafés and jazz joints; becoming an avant-garde painter by dabbling in pop-art, Dada and surrealism; falling in love with cinema at Henri Langlois’ Cinémathèque Française; and her tryst with Holocaust remembrances, the Algerian War and 1968 student protests. These enthralling, impressionist, kaleidoscopic vignettes were vividly evoked through film clips, news reels and photographs, accompanied by her serene voiceover.






Director: Ulrike Ottinger

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Diary Film/Biopic

Language: German

Country: Germany

Sunday 25 April 2021

DAU. Natasha [2020]

 The scale, faux-authenticity and ambition behind the DAU project – conceived by Ilya Khrzhanovsky initially as a biopic of Soviet physicist Lev Landau, before it grew to gargantuan proportions – operated in the realms of unbridled megalomania. This massive replication of clandestine Soviet-era research institute as a microcosmic representation of Stalinist totalitarianism, involved a colossal 12,000 m2 set built in Ukraine where hundreds of cast members lived 24/7 for years under constant surveillance, shrouded in secrecy and cut-off from the outside world. DAU. Natasha – one of the 13 films that’ve emerged so far out of this project which has been likened as a real-life evocation of Truman Show and Synecdoche, New York – is a relentlessly grim, intensely harrowing and unapologetically provocative work; and, while it works well as a standalone film, the context, behind-the-scenes machinations, and overlaps between “real” and enactment made it even more viscerally disturbing. Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya) is a middle-aged woman who works at the institute’s cafeteria – frequented by physicists and military personnel working there – along with the much younger Olga (Olga Shkabaryna). They share a volatile relationship – Natasha is disdainful of Olga’s callowness and laziness, and jealous of her youth and beauty; Olga, in turn, yearns for acceptance from her older compatriot while also, upon provocation, mocking her hardy appearance and prudishness – and hence they alternate between sentimental conversations over alcohol and scorching hostility when drunk. However, when Natasha has a brief but graphic fling with Luc (Luc Bigé) – a visiting scientist conducting bizarre human experiments – post a night of drunken revelry, she’s summoned by the clinically ruthless security head (Vladimir Azhippo) for a grotesque session of interrogation for the transgression and enlisting her as a spy.






Directors: Ilya Khrzhanovsky & Jekaterina Oertel

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama

Language: Russian/English

Country: Russia

Friday 23 April 2021

Hopper/Welles [2020]

 It’s rare when two non-conformist artists, rebels and icons – representing two different American generations – engage in a freewheeling on-screen conversation; it’s rarer still when one (Orson Welles) is a maverick trailblazer who’d made his monumental debut with Citizen Kane and had just returned after a decade-long exile in Europe, while the other (Dennis Hopper) had become the devillish face of New Hollywood and counterculture movement with his smashing directorial debut Easy Rider a year back. Shot over a booze-fuelled session in 1970 at Welles’ Beverly Hills home – finally restored a whopping 5 decades later – Hopper/Welles was made in the form of an interview; hence, possibly, the tad derivative – if posthumously provided – title, referencing the likes of Frost/Nixon and Hitchcock/Truffaut. Welles – offscreen, articulate, razor-sharp, sardonic and pugnacious –, and Hopper – rambling, disarming and guarded, while chain-smoking and drinking gin-and-tonic – engaged in a fascinating chat covering a multitude of topics, including cinema, filmmaking, news, television, politics, rebelliousness and the American military-industrial complex; and the more Welles grilled Hopper into revealing his left-wing opinions, the more Hopper – visibly in awe of Welles’ towering personality – became self-deprecatory and fidgety since he was being regularly hounded by the FBI. These were filmed with an avant-garde touch, what with the grainy B/W photography, improvisational structure, jerky close-ups, low artificial lighting and the crew freely sauntering around. Welles’ just-underway passion project The Other Side of the Wind – Hopper often chucklingly called him Jake, his protagonist’s name there – which too finally released in 2019, would also deliciously focus on two hugely contrasting filmmakers, while Hopper was then editing The Last Movie which would bomb commercially –; these aspects, on hindsight, added absorbing layers to this interview here.






Director: Orson Welles

Genre: Documentary

Language: English

Country: US

Wednesday 21 April 2021

Malmkrog [2020]

 If the Romanian New Wave filmmakers – of which Cristi Puiu remains a singular voice – would have us believe, Romanians are an irascible, dry-as-bones and loquacious people; now, while that might’ve been a deliberately cultivated stylistic choice, it added strikingly discernible flavours to their movies. Puiu’s astounding previous feature Sieranevada was filled to brim with rambling, ironic, deadpan, free-flowing and deliciously eclectic conversations amongst dysfunctional family members who’ve assembled at a cramped apartment. He took that formal thread – viz. a group of people conversing indoors on interconnected subjects – to boldly modernist but also oftentimes exasperating levels in Malmkrog. The similarity, however, ended there considering the lush period setting, spacious interiors, largely static shots (filmed using customary long single takes) and overtly literal diatribes demanding an attentive mind and patient nerves, as opposed to everyday people and intricately staged tracking shots in the previous film. The conversations were especially pertinent given its adaptation from a Vladimir Soloviev text – which Puiu referred for an earlier experimental endeavor as well – and that served as the basis for dense, crisscrossing and verbose discourses around religious wars, Christian morality, ethnicity, European-ness, “End of History”, etc. The narrative, which bounced across multiple languages, focused on six individuals at a lavish, snow-shrouded manor house in Transylvania – a garrulous, cynical aristocrat (Frédéric Schulz-Richard); a general’s war-loving wife (Diana Sakalauskaité); a devout, staunchly pacifist woman (Marina Palii); a mock-serious nobleman whose sophistry barely conceals his Euro-centric racialism (Ugo Broussot); and an enigmatic, articulate woman (Agathe Bosch); and, they were counterpointed in passing with the domestic help. The rigorously structured and framed 200-minute film, interestingly, started with underlying levity, but grew increasingly heavy, serious, and ultimately edgy, sarcastic and confrontational.




Director: Cristi Puiu

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama

Language: Romanian/Russian/French/Hungarian/German

Country: Romania