Friday 29 December 2023

The Bitter Tears Of Petra Von Kant [1972]

 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant established a radical and decisive shift in Fassbinder’s cinematic form and grammar – from austere, low-budget, experimental films to the kind of flamboyantly conceived, lusciously mounted and heavily stylized melodramas that he’s associated with. During an eight-month hiatus that he took from filmmaking after making a staggering 10 films between 1969 and 1972, he devoured Douglas Sirk’s movies and even met the then retired filmmaker at his residence in Switzerland, which catalysed this transition. It also searingly mirrored his left-wing politics and homosexuality, alongside an intensely auto-fictional evocation of his own relationships with actor Günther Kaufmann and his assistant Peer Raben. The resultant work, consequently, combined formal exactitude, sensational stylistic flourishes and fervid passions with sharp political subtexts – on power, privilege and class – and stirring self-expression, thus making this a ravishing, complex and turbulent accomplishment. Adapted from a play written by RWF himself, it manifested the theatre through its structure – viz. four acts and an epilogue – and by rigorously setting it entirely within the confines of a single room, which interlaced both artifice and claustrophobia into the emotional upheavals demonstrated by its stunning all-female cast. The film’s three central characters were the eponymous heroine (Margit Carstensen), a haughty and famous fashion designer recovering from yet another marital break-down; a strikingly captivating, nubile and icy ingenue (Hanna Schygulla) who the older woman falls crazily in love with; and Petra’s silent and suffering assistant (Irm Hermann). This ferocious chamber drama, that provoked controversy upon its release, was further underpinned by its gorgeous cinematography by Michael Ballhaus, resplendent ensembles, idiosyncratic props, campy dialogues, evocative use of music, and a giant print of Poussin's Midas and Bacchus.

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Romantic Drama

Language: German

Country: Germany

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Dear Diary (Caro Diario) [1993]

 Nanni Moretti’s delightful, drifting and self-deprecating rendition of his ironic and neurotic protagonist – part actual self, part alter-ego, part satiric depiction – in his wry, idiosyncratic and infectious gem Caro Diario, is bound to remind one of the celebrated self-representations by the likes of Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen and João César Monteiro; yet, for all the supposed similarities – even if these were parallels to be proud of – this was a distinctively and uniquely Moretti creation. The loosely structured triptych, filled with deadpan sketches, worked along multiple overlapping forms – an intimate and self-reflective diary film; a disarmingly mordant and subversive satire on vacuous consumerism, market forces and politics (no wonder, there was a stirring nod to Pasolini’s murder); a rich self-referential examination; a freewheeling city symphony and road film; and quirky notes on cinema, pop-culture, friendship and mortality. The 1st chapter, titled “On My Vespa”, sees an impish Moretti riding through the different quarters of Rome on the iconic scooter, observing diverse architectures, quipping on gentrification, making incongruous conversations, lambasting shallow movie trends, and expressing a goofy love for Flashdance. In the 2nd chapter, titled “Islands”, a deadpan Moretti and an austere intellectual friend – who deplores television, only to become obsessed with American soap opera – decide to hop from one oddball island to another, including Rossellini’s Stromboli, in the futile hope of working on their art bereft of urban distractions. The final chapter, titled “Doctors”, sees a flummoxed Moretti visiting a series of conventional and alternative “doctors” trying to get an irrepressible itchiness cured, only to learn – fortunately, before it was too late – that he’s become inflicted with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the chemotherapy treatments that he must then endure.

Director: Nanni Moretti

Genre: Comedy/Black Comedy/Social Satire/Film a Clef/Anthology Movie

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Friday 22 December 2023

A Wedding Suit [1976]

 Can social observations be piquant and compassionate in equal measures? Can there be immersive storytelling with the frailest of plots? Can something carry heft despite being outwardly slight? Abbas Kiarostami’s gently ironic third film A Wedding Suit – at 3 minutes shy of an hour, it’s either feature-length or not depending on whose definition one subscribes to – provided a fascinating early peek into the Iranian maestro’s extraordinary ability to turn a seemingly commonplace scenario into something that’s beguiling and singular. It also demonstrated his love for training his lens on kids and adolescents, which he’d began with his debut feature itself and would pursue almost exclusive for around 16 years via both fictions and documentaries. Its three pint-sized protagonists are teenage working-class boys who, while being employed in low-wage employments at an age where they ideally ought to be in the school, pursue a common fleeting dream of transitioning into “respectable” men. Ali, with his impassive demeanour, works as an assistant to a veteran tailor, and he continuously crosses paths with the talkative Hossein, with whom he’s relatively closer, and the roguish livewire Mamad, who both kids view with considerable suspicion, as they all work in the same trilevel complex. When Ali’s employer takes the order of making a suit for a well-off boy of similar age, both Hossain and Mamad vie for it in order to wear this fancy dress for one evening – something they couldn’t ever afford otherwise, thus representing an impossible dream for them – before it’s handed over. Kiarostami, through this simple premise, crafted a deadpan, satirical and tragicomic examination of class boundaries, along with a poetic slice-of-life portrayal of adolescence, wishful longing and life in Tehran.

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Slice of Life

Language: Persian

Country: Iran

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Monsieur Klein [1976]

 Monsieur Klein, Joseph Losey’s frighteningly brilliant pièce de résistance, provided – as claustrophobic political thriller, darkly surreal fable and bleak historical document – a ferocious examination of French culpability during the Nazi Occupation. It accomplished that through spare and haunting interpretation of Kafka’s prophetic masterpiece The Trial, wherein its eponymous protagonist – a smug, amoral, apolitical, apathetic and wealthy art-dealer who cynically profits from people’s misfortunes, and played with chilling aplomb by Alain Delon – becomes a victim himself on account of mistaken identity; and, spurred as much by his self-destructive obsession as the climate of paranoia and persecution, he’s eventually crushed by the monstrous tyranny of the Nazi bureaucratic apparatus. Losey had himself faced ugly witch-hunts due to his fearless left-wing politics, which’d forced him into exile, and his distressing personal experiences imbued the film with deeper meanings. Two intensely disturbing scenes set the context – pseudo-medical assessment of a middle-aged woman’s Semitic physical features; and Klein’s exploitation of a Jewish man’s desperation by purchasing a priceless artwork at a pittance – which powerfully foreshadowed the subsequent proceedings. The core plot is set in motion when a Jewish newspaper gets delivered to his doorstep. He realizes that there’s another person with the same name – albeit, a Jew, and potentially member of the Resistance too, who remains an enigma till the end – and things go downhill from there with fatalist certainty. The film – magnificently photographed in washed visuals which complemented its existential dread, and also starring Jeanne Moreau in an arresting support role and Juliet Berto in a cameo – culminated with the harrowing Vel' d'Hiv' Roundup in 1942 during which over 13,000 Parisian Jews were deported by cattle cars to Auschwitz for their mass murder.

Director: Joseph Losey

Genre: Drama/Political Thriller/Existential Thriller/Psychological Drama/Mystery

Language: French

Country: France

Wednesday 13 December 2023

The Bride Wore Black [1968]

 While Truffaut loved making crime films as an expression of his love for classic noirs – albeit permeated with poetic sensibility that was distinctively French – The Bride Wore Black was arguably his most Hitchcockian work, and therefore his most direct ode to the iconic filmmaker who he deeply admired. Adapted from the fatalist roman noir of the same name by Cornell Woolrich, it was also a homage to the then-dying crime writer whose books he loved. This pulpy tale of a bride who exacts murderous revenge on the five people responsible for making her a widow on the day of her marriage, in turn, served as a direct reference to the premise, structure and devices of Tarantino’s absurdly entertaining Kill Bill. Though it arguably finds place as second-tier Truffaut – as much on account of the silly backstory and gaping plot holes, as for the differences that he had while shooting with his celebrated DOP Raoul Coutard, with whom he’d worked on three films in the past, that potentially impacted his direction – it nevertheless exuded captivating flavours, not least on account of its magnetic leading lady Jeanne Moreau, in her second collaboration with him. She was arresting as an icy-cold femme fatale who seductress and eliminates her victims in manners that were simultaneously outrageous and deadpan – pushing a lascivious ladies’ man (Claude Rich) off the balcony; poisoning a lonely middle-aged bachelor (Michel Bouquet); leading a cocky politician (Daniel Boulanger) to suffocation; piercing a smitten painter with an arrow while luridly posing for her; and getting herself arrested to finish off a corrupt scoundrel. Coutard’s dazzling cinematography – with its sunny, colourful visuals – imbued the film with a cool, modernist and detached flavour.

Director: Francois Truffaut

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Post-Noir

Language: French

Country: France

Saturday 9 December 2023

Shakespeare Wallah [1965]

Shakespeare Wallah – the sophomore Merchant-Ivory collaboration that earned them international fame – was a rare example of exceptional films focused on travelling performers, alongside the likes of La Strada, Floating Weeds, The Travelling Players, The Puppetmaster, Arekti Premer Galpo, etc. It was loosely based on English thespian Geoffrey Kendel’s diaries, who’d toured throughout India in the 1940s and 50s – along with his wife Laura Liddell, and daughters Jennifer and Felicity – with their travelling theatre troupe “Shakespeareana”. In a fascinating blurring of lines between memoir and fiction, it starred Geoffrey and Laura themselves as ageing Shakespearean artists Tony and Carla Buckingham, and Felicity as their teenaged daughter Lizzie, who, as “The Buckingham Players”, criss-cross through post-Colonial India staging the Bard’s plays – from private performances for wealthy royals (Utpal Dutt) and at boarding schools, to public shows for paying audiences. The rapidly changing social climate and landscape of the newly independent country – intent on leaving behind the shadows of British Raj – has meant a sharp decline in the demand for classical English theatre and therefore the Buckinghams’ finances, further exacerbated by the swing towards popular cinema. While the parents are alternately cynical, nostalgic and resigned, an affecting romance brews between the naïve ingénue Lizzie, and a wealthy playboy (Shashi Kapoor, who was married to Jennifer Kendal), albeit complicated by a fiercely jealous Bollywood star (Madhur Jaffrey). This ravishingly beautiful, bittersweet and evocative representation of an era fading out in the mists of time – embodied by brilliant, nomadic artists converting into fossils – was made particularly memorable by a magnificent and rapturous soundtrack by Satyajit Ray, gorgeous cinematography in hypnotic B/W by Subrata Mitra, and a sensitive script by Merchant-Ivory regular Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

Director: James Ivory

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Period Film/Film a Clef/Road Movie

Language: English

Country: USA

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Story of Women [1988]

 Story of Women, the 2nd of 7 collaborations between Claude Chabrol and Isabelle Huppert, comprised of a radically non-conformist anti-heroine – a historical figure whose crimes are interpreted as an attack on patriarchal norms and bourgeois morality, thus setting her against the society – that immediately reminds one of their stunningly scorching first association from exactly a decade back, Violette Noziere. It was also the French filmmaker’s most frontal assault on the hypocrisy and criminality of Vichy France – when the puppet Nazi satellite that was established during the German Occupation had to, among other things, execute a certain number of people to appease their masters – through this true story of the last women to be guillotined in this country. Marie Latour (Huppert), who faced this abominable punishment, was a working-class woman with two kids who, during her husband’s extended absence on account of being a slave labourer in Germany, embraces two rather murky vocations as means to escape from her squalid existence. She starts performing clandestine abortions – that wasn’t just illegal, but was considered then a grave crime against fascist morality – and also starts renting out rooms for her prostitute friend. Upon succeeding in improving her lifestyle, she continues pursuing these even after the return of her husband Paul (François Cluzet). Ironically, her arrest is precipitated not due to her infractions, rather by her cuckolded husband’s bruised ego at her brash refusal to play the traditional role of a wife. Chabrol presented a cutting commentary on patriarchy, hypocrisy, collusion and culpability of the Vichy government; and, buoyed by Huppert’s riveting turn, Marie evolved into a fierce, edgy and complex person who’s demonized for never trying or wanting to be a saint.

Director: Claude Chabrol

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Feminist Cinema/Docufiction

Language: French

Country: France

Friday 1 December 2023

L'Enfer (Hell) [1994]

 Henri-Georges Clouzot – best remembered for his two electrifying thrillers The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques – had written the screenplay for L’Enfer and began its shooting in 1964, but had to leave it unfinished on account of production woes. Three decades later Claude Chabrol – one of the most caustic and brilliant examiners of middle-class artifice, hypocrisy and relationships – resurrected this unfinished project and adapted Clouzot’s script into a deliriously dark, delicious and demented examination of a marriage that turns not just toxic, but diabolical too, on account of extreme jealousy, unhealthy obsessions, crippling paranoia and pathological insanity. The film began in a mood of sunny cheerfulness, but progressively yet decidedly transformed into a hellish atmosphere – buoyed by elements that were alternatively saucy, parodic, unsettling and disorienting – which made it both a chilling depiction of madness and a scathing commentary on the conformist images of bourgeois domesticity. The jaunty opening sequences breezily capture the peppy romance and bucolic marriage of Paul (François Cluzet), a boutique hotelier in a provincial town, and Nelly (Emmanuelle Béart) who he’s fallen head over heels for. Things, however, start spiralling downwards when Paul initially suspects his sultry and attractive wife is having an extra-marital affair with a virile young worker, and starts surreptitiously stalking her. Before long, the intensely cuckolded and insecure man starts imagining that she’s sleeping around with every man and obsessing about her supposedly insatiable desires. There’s no going back from here, as he – alternating between self-pity, delusion and violence – propels their marriage into a raging inferno and a chilling climax. Interestingly, Nelly’s supposed infidelity is never clarified, while the nightmarish finale left things unsettlingly ambiguous in this work of surprising ferocity.

Director: Claude Chabrol

Genre: Thriller/Black Comedy/Marital Thriller/Romantic Thriller

Language: French

Country: France

Monday 27 November 2023

La Piscine (The Swimming Pool) [1969]

 Nearly a decade after Alain Delon’s character – triggered by fragile insecurity, repressed envy and spurned ego – took Maurice Ronet’s character to his watery grave in the dazzling thriller Plein Soleil, he did it again for similar underlying reasons in La Piscine. Sultry, sensuous and gloriously sun-drenched on one hand, while menacing, ominous and disquieting on the other – accentuated by rippling undercurrents of sexual tension and fervid jealousy – Jacques Deray’s luscious, languid, hypnotic, slow-burn smash hit served as the perfect companion piece to the earlier film. It also witnessed the ravishing pairing of former lovers Delon and Romy Schneider; she was roped in upon Delon’s insistence after Jeanne Moreau had turned down the role. Failed writer, recovering alcoholic and ad-man Jean-Paul (Delon), and his entrancing girlfriend Marianne (Schneider) with whom he’s in a passionate fling, are enjoying a lazy, carefree and steamy summer vacation at a luxurious Saint-Tropez villa in Côte d'Azur – basking in the sun, swimming in the open-air pool under the resplendent sky, and with the Mediterranean Sea discernible in the background – when their idyllic isolation is shattered by the sudden arrival of Marianne’s former boyfriend Harry (Ronet), a successful and insouciant music producer who’s still enamoured by her, along with his coy teenage daughter Pénélope (Jane Birkin). Marianne’s free chemistry with Harry, who’s an old buddy of Jean-Paul’s, provokes intense anxiety and turmoil under the latter’s disconcertingly placid demeanour, which in turn propels him towards seducing the wide-eyed teenager. This superbly performed ménage à quatre inevitably leads the increasingly tense narrative – photographed in lush visuals, with the camera often gazing at the roguishly attractive bourgeois characters, and accompanied by Michel Legrand’s jazz score – to a sinister finale.

Director: Jacques Deray

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Marital Thriller/Neo-Noir

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday 26 November 2023

Eaux Profondes (Deep Water) [1981]

 Three decades before Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert, two giants of French cinema, played father and daughter in Haneke’s devastating masterwork Amour, they had their first onscreen collaboration – and the only one for many years – as a couple conjoined in a toxic marriage in Michel Deville’s saucy, pulpy and criminally under-watched Eaux Profondes. This striking rendition of Patricia Highsmith’s magnificent novel Deep Water mirrored the author’s deliciously warped portrayal of a noxious relationship and closet sociopathy, and consequently emerged as a terrific adaptation of Highsmith, nearly at par with Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, Clément’s Plein Soleil and Wenders’ The American Friend. Middle-aged Vic (Trintignant) is a soft-spoken, well-to-do man of private passions – be it his vocation as a perfumier or his oddball hobby of petting snails in his garage – and lives a sedate life at a provincial French town. His friends, however, are concerned for him due to his placid demeanour despite his striking young wife Mélanie (Huppert) – with whom he has a doting daughter – openly taking young men as lovers. What they don’t know is that, he probably loves being cuckolded by his promiscuous wife who, in turn, teases him with her scorching sensuality and adulteries; what she, however, doesn’t know is that, there’s a violent streak under his sociable persona that’s about to snap. The vivid visuals, jazzy score, lurid carnality and seething violence boldly evoked a touch of giallo and B-movies. Trintignant was stunning in an atypical role, while Huppert was tantalizing as a coquettish seductress in the same year as her similarly sultry turn in Tavernier’s blazing tour de force Coup de Torchon, which too – incidentally – was a powerhouse adaptation of American crime literature.

Director: Michel Deville

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Psychological Thriller/Neo-Noir/Marital Thriller

Language: French

Country: France

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Senso [1954]

 Luchino Visconti’s celebrated fourth feature Senso served as a pivotal milestone for the “Red Count”, as it marked his decisive turn from a pioneering neorealist filmmaker to a practitioner of grand and ambitious historical melodramas. This visually sumptuous, emotionally feverish, vividly operatic and lavishly mounted epic – that exultantly combined Visconti’s love of cinema, theatre, opera and the fine arts – formed a precursor to and therefore one half of a diptych with his gargantuan masterpiece The Leopard, in that both were extraordinarily lush, formally meticulous, and were set against the turbulent backdrop of the radical social and political transformations that swept through the country during the Risorgimento. At its heart is a torrid, outrageously reckless and thoroughly self-destructive love affair that Livia (Alida Valli), a beautiful countess unhappily married to an older aristocrat with a chameleonic ability to shift his allegiances in sync with changing landscapes, gets embroiled in with a much younger, roguish and self-serving Austrian Lieutenant (Farley Granger), which leads her to betray her patriotic principles – viz. the causes of Italian Nationalists who’re battling for independence from the Austrian Occupation – and takes her to complete moral and existential doom. The resplendently designed and crafted film magnificently evoked the arresting architectural and locational splendour of Venice, Rome, Veneto and Verona – rapturously amplified by luscious art décor, ornate costumes and actual artworks; ravishingly shot in muted, fading colours by three different cinematographers (G.R. Aldo died midway, upon which Robert Krasker came in, but conflicts with Visconti’s vision led to Giuseppe Rotunno being asked to step in); and accompanied by a classical score – comprised of a spectacularly orchestrated and filmed battle scenes at par with what Visconti staged in The Leopard.

Director: Luchino Visconti

Genre: Drama/Historical Drama/Romantic Drama/Epic

Language: Italian

Country: Italy

Saturday 18 November 2023

Killers of the Flower Moon [2023]

 Martin Scorsese’s bravura adaptation of the acclaimed nonfiction book of the same name by David Grann – for the 44th feature-length film of his storied career – is a bleak, brooding, engrossing and sprawling meditation on evil, greed and the capitalist excesses. It simultaneously delved into the rotten core of settler-colonialism, and specifically, the genocidal “birth” of a nation-state at the bloody-soaked expense of indigenous populations. This ambitious work – that freely worked in equal measures as revisionist Western, slow-burn crime, black comedy, existential horror and historical epic – delivered a macabre retelling of the serial killings – bordering on extermination – of the Osage people, who’d discovered oil in Oklahoma and became incredibly wealthy upon their forced relocation there, by white supremacists who wanted to seize control of the massive oil money. That Native Americans were patronized as sub-humans, made it easier to carry out the massacre with impunity, braggadocio and untroubled conscience. In a remarkable reworking of the book, which had primarily chronicled the proto-FBI’s investigations into the crimes, Scorsese focused instead on the perpetrators – specifically, the calcified and slimy William Hale (Robert De Niro), an affluent cattle rancher whose seemingly genial attitude towards the Osage community masks his monstrous heart, and his dim-witted and easily manipulated nephew Ernest Bucharest (Leonardo DiCaprio) who enters into a “poisonous” marriage to Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) as part of his uncle’s elaborate nefarious and murderous scheme. Both Scorsese regulars were outstanding in their embodiment of the grotesque underbelly of American history. In a formally blazing and politically audacious finale, the tragic saga is transformed into a lurid radio opera, thus providing a cutting commentary on how popular media cynically repurposes historical injustices into kitschy consumerist fodder.

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre: Revisionist Western/Crime Drama/Docufiction/Historical Epic

Language: English

Country: US

Friday 17 November 2023

The Palestinians [1975]

 Dutch documentary filmmaker and photographer Johan van der Keuken, as an essay in Jump Cut appropriately observed about him, “works on the margins of the film industry and lets those on the margins of society whose voices are not usually heard speak through his films.” That statement is equally applicable to his stirring docu The Palestinians, which was, in parallel, deeply moving and filled with urgency. In this daring example of radical cinema – one that was so politically progressive that many of his fellow left-wing friends were perturbed by it – he boldly took the side of the forcibly displaced and infinitely persecuted Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, amidst squalor, desperation, despair, anger and incessant violence. They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place – or, more specifically, the apartheid settler-colonialism of the Israeli occupation and the callous indifference of the Lebanese power structure – thus making them a tragically stateless people. Keuken punctuated the docu-essay with reflections on the industrialized massacre of the Jewish people by European fascism, which ironically segued into occupation, brutality, injustice and dislocation of the Palestinian people. With the context set and his political position clearly established, the guerilla work – shot on location in 1975, with grainy visuals manifesting the best of underground reportage and a startling sense of here-and-now – he trained his lens on individual and collective stories. We see women lamenting the destruction of their homes and the death of their kids; protesters defiantly displaying solidarity on the streets; old men pensively reminiscing their lost homes and lands; rebel fighters training by the day and breaking bread in the evening; and a schoolteacher cogently ensuring the kids know their history of oppression by heart.

Director: Johan van der Keuken

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film/Short Film

Language: Dutch/Arabic

Country: Netherlands/Palestine

Thursday 16 November 2023

Jenin, Jenin [2002]

Jenin, Jenin, as cinema of resistance, was at once powerful, defiant and lucid in how Palestinian actor and filmmaker Mohammed Bakri used a series of interviews – shorn of peripheral contexts and expositions; disquieting in its recording of blazing emotions; and providing rare agency to the voiceless – to craft a polyphonic memorialization of the oppressed, the dispossessed and the persecuted. The radical treatise, despite its brevity, exhibited a harrowing reminder of repressive settler colonialism being faced by the Palestinian people ever since the occupation, through the devastating crackdown and violence that the impoverished residents of Jenin’s refugee camp – located in West Bank – faced at the hands of Israel’s military during “Operation Defensive Shield” in 2002. It, therefore, emphatically evoked the broader picture through its intense specificity, and, in turn, fiercely chronicled the inseparability of the personal and the political for Palestinians, irrespective of whether they’re rebels, partisans, activists or regular civilians. Bakri’s camera unwaveringly captured the rage, despair and sorrow of the survivors – a broken aged man; a livid grandmother; a bitter middle-aged man; a feisty doctor; a helpless father; a heartbroken mother; a disoriented disabled guy; and an unforgettably furious adolescent girl representing the next generation of resistance – through their testimony of what unfolded. Their stirring refusal to capitulate, even at the face of apartheid and tyranny, powerfully stood out. This therefore served as one of many brutal examples of collective punishment that Palestine have faced in the past, thus making it especially pertinent to the gargantuan monstrosity that’s taking place today. Unsurprisingly, the documentary was censored and banned in Israel, while Bakri faced harassments and became a pariah for his courage and dissidence in challenging the mainstream narrative.

Director: Mohammed Bakri

Genre: Documentary/Essay Film

Language: Arabic

Country: Palestine

Sunday 12 November 2023

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One [1968]

 Pioneering documentarian William Greaves’ formally daring exercise – albeit one that remained undistributed for 23 years, until its stunning “discovery” during a Greaves retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, thanks to its bold curator – blazingly blurred the boundaries between verité and artifice. For this film-within-film-within-film made in NYC’s Central Park, he ostensibly decided to shoot the auditioning process of a short film on marital breakdown, for which he deployed four camera setups – one for the primary shoot focussed on a middle-aged couple; a second one to record the shooting process; a third to provide a peripheral context by capturing passers-by in the park; and finally, the director wielding a mobile camera himself. Meanwhile, the crew are seen growing dissatisfied and potentially mutinous against Greaves – or rather the incompetent, sexist and nonchalant version of himself that he enacts – for his lack of vision and method, and he edits their free-flowing discourses into it, even if it isn’t clear if this was off-screen friction or purposely staged. Alongside its subversion of the lines between nonfiction, direct action and contrivances – reminiscent of the dazzling Moroccan docu-fiction About Some Meaningless Events – and striking use of split screens, this freeform work – jauntily accompanied by Miles Davis’ music – was political too; it was, after all, the time of the New Left, anti-government protests, and Civil Rights and counterculture movements. That an African-American filmmaker was making something as wildly experimental as this, with a predominantly white crew, advocating the idea of dissenting against an authority figure, and openly covering the topics of abortion and closet homosexuality – and thus providing trailblazing manifestations of Black cinema, queer cinema and New Hollywood – made it eminently political, even if not overly so.

Director: William Greaves

Genre: Documentary/Experimental Film/Avant-Garde

Language: English

Country: US

Saturday 4 November 2023

Monica, O My Darling [2022]

 Monica, O My Darling is a heady, devilish and deliriously entertaining joyride, and riotously lurid and pulpy at that. This crackling celebration of lowbrow crime genre was liberally peppered with references – Vasan Bala, who’s as much a cinephile as he’s a filmmaker, doffed his hats to pulpy hardboiled literature, neo-noir capers, cheesy B-movies, crime comics and old-school Bollywood – thus exuberantly underscoring its self-reflexive nature, even though that never came in the way of the enjoyment. Interestingly, amidst the stylistic flourishes, hyperbolic expressions of sensuality and violence, a labyrinthine plot packed with red herrings and outrageous twists, and darkly ironic interjections, Bala also craftily sprayed some pungent social observations into the mix – from ethics of AI and self-serving corporate governance to sharp class commentaries, nepotism and male gaze. Deliciously adapted from Keigo Higashino’s Burūtasu no Shinzō, the narrative hinges around a slew of gleefully saucy characters – the titular Monica (Huma Qureshi), an incredibly voluptuous and promiscuous femme fatale who has no qualms about her desires, wants and needs; Jayant (Rajkumar Rao), who’s made it big as much for his engineering chops as his relationship with his boss’ daughter, but which now hangs in balance thanks to Monica; the boss’ brash son Nishikant (Sikandar Kher) who hatches a preposterous plan to murder Monica, as she’s accused him – among others – of impregnating her; and ACP Naidu (Radhika Apte), a chatty and wisecracking cop. This rollicking tale of lust, greed, blackmail, double (and triple) crosses, and multiple grisly murders, was superbly complemented by a terrific retro soundtrack inspired by 1970s Hindi music – the film’s title is itself a gushing nod to an iconic R.D. Burman composition – created by Achint Thakkar and Varun Grover.

Director: Vasan Bala

Genre: Crime Thriller/Black Comedy/Neo-Noir/Mystery

Language: Hindi

Country: India

Wednesday 1 November 2023

You Have to Come and See It [ 2022]

 Spanish director Jonás Trueba’s deceptively conceived, structured and titled film You Have to Come and See It – a playful post-pandemic work – was laced with Rohmer’s enchanting influences with its lyrical, disarmingly intellectual depiction of two gentle-natured bourgeois couples. It also had a dash of Godard’s impish subversion with its meta, self-referential coda, and a touch of Woody’s deadpan neurosis too with its urban malaise and rambling conversations. I wonder how many filmmakers can speak of such eclectic references! It began with a rapturous opening montage – Chano Domínguez’s “live” performance of his intoxicating new composition Limbo at a jazz bar in Madrid, counterpointed by alternately lingering on the faces of the four protagonists through soft close-ups that provided observant introductions to them – that, with its leisurely evocation of a relaxing mood through the beguiling choice of devoting nearly 8 minutes in a slender runtime of an hour, was gloriously immersive. The strikingly lovely, bespectacled and erudite Elena (Itsaso Arana) and doodling, fidgety Daniel (Vitor Sanz) – who live in the city – and the pretty, friendly Susana (Irene Escolar) who’s expecting and the casual, carefree Guillermo (Francesco Carril) – who’ve recently moved to the countryside – are old friends meeting after a long gap, presumably on account of Covid and the latter couple’s decision to relocate. The former couple make a reluctant trip by train to the exurbs six months later – accompanied by Bill Callahan’s melodic “Let’s Move to the Country” – and the group have a lazy time catching up on their intimate personal developments, having an al fresco lunch, indulging in political/philosophical banter courtesy Elena’s passionate discourse on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life, playing ping pong, and exploring the surrounding environs.

Director: Jonas Trueba

Genre: Drama/Experimental Film

Language: Spanish

Country: Spain

Tuesday 31 October 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin [2022]

 In Irish playwright turned filmmaker Martin McDonagh’s captivating debut film In Bruges, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson had portrayed an oddly fascinating bromance. Made 14 years later, The Banshees of Inisherin reunited the two actors, along with the sense of being oppressively stuck in a ravishing locale, into a darker, nastier and gorier variant of the Laurel and Hardy films – with Farrel embodying a baffled shaggy dog persona, while Gleeson bringing in stolid stoicism – albeit no less absurdist or farcical, and occasionally as funny too. However, its demonstration of an intimate friendship transforming into an ugly, bitter and mutually destructive separation – catalysed by brittle male egos and wounded male prides which reach gothic proportions – ambitiously aimed for profundity, ingenuity and grand Shakespearean tragedy (with sharp satiric undertones and a macabre sense of humour), even if it couldn’t always sidestep artifice and contrivances. The grim fairy tale – articulating the collapse of reasons and morals amidst spiralling madness and violence, wherein a fable playing out in an eerily tranquil and astonishingly beautiful island served as an analogy to the dance of destruction and deaths that was playing out in the Irish mainland – kicked-off on a deadpan note when the dim simpleton and dumbfounded Pádraic (Farrell) is made to realize that Colm (Gleeson) – afflicted with existential anguish – has decided to cut off their seemingly inseparable bond, in order to spend his days composing, playing and teaching music, as opposed to indulging in meaningless banter. This banal premise rapidly escalates into the realms of lurid ludicrosity. The film’s outstanding central cast also comprised of Kerry Condon as Pádraic’s intelligent sister Siobhán, and Barry Keoghan, a troubled guy regularly beaten by his policeman dad.

Director: Martin McDonagh

Genre: Black Comedy/Social Satire

Language: English

Country: UK

Wednesday 25 October 2023

The Fabelmans [2022]

 The gold standard for autobiographical cinematic representations of directors’ coming-of-age as cinephiles and their journeys into filmmaking – across films à clef and docu essays/diaries – would include Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Mészáros’ Diary Trilogy (Diary for My Children, Diary for My Lovers, Diary for My Father and Mother), Mekas’ Lost, Lost, Lost, Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès, etc. Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, as a love letter to the movies, ode to discovering one’s life-long passion, in seeing the world through the camera’s lens, and the myth making capacities of this medium – alongside its quirky humour, self-effacing tone, tender personal anecdotes, and cinema’s ability to display alternative realities – aimed for the afore-mentioned echelon. The brilliant meta reference evoked through a home video that the protagonist makes – fun and bonhomie in the released version vis-à-vis discomfiting forebodings in the director’s cut – was its most representative moment. It was also, however, marked by sentimental approach, largely sanitized exploration of topical particularities – with rare incursions into political contexts – and whimsy intended at easy likeability; and these undid its lofty ambitions. It began with Sammy – Spielberg’s deadpan alter-ego – literally crashing into the world of movies upon seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth with his dad Burt (Paul Dano), a low-key guy and brilliant computer engineer, and mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a deeply temperamental woman and trained pianist. The gradual marital unravelling of his parents – accentuated by physical dislocations and Mitzi’s falling for Burt’s friend (Seth Rogen) – provided an engaging parallel track to Sammy’s obsessive immersion into filmmaking. The film’s standout turn belonged to Williams, and comprised of two striking cameos – by Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s eccentric granduncle and David Lynch as John Ford.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Genre: Drama/Family Drama/Biopic/Film a Clef/Coming-of-Age

Language: English

Country: US

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Rabiye Kurnaz Vs. George W. Bush [2022]

 Turning grim, serious and incredibly tragic historical incidents/episodes into funny and idiosyncratic comedies is either a very brave creative choice or a very stupid one, as they can either turn into blazing, if provocative, works (Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, Holland’s Europa Europa, Menzel’s I Served the King of England, etc.) or films that divide its viewers right down the middle (Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, etc.) or despicable pieces of trash best suited for the garbage bins (Waititi’s Jojo Rabit, etc.). While this docufiction by German filmmaker Andreas Dresen didn’t belong to the inherently complex sub-genre of Holocaust films, its focus on extra-judicial measures, nefarious subversion of due processes, and colossal travesty of justice that the US freely carried out under the guise of “war on terrorism” – which included racial profiling, kidnapping, illegal detentions for indefinite periods, limitless tortures, etc. – did make for a bleak, solemn and intensely sensitive subject. Hence the director’s formal choice – alternating between deadpan and bouncy – could’ve easily led to flippancy and trivialization of the matter. Fortunately, he was careful and empathetic enough to avoid that, and in turn succeeded at making a film worth watching, despite some of its broad brushstrokes and crowd-pleasing flaws. The film catalogued the relentless efforts of Rabiye Kurnaz – a super gregarious and effervescent Turkish-German housewife living in Bremen, memorably played by Meltem Kaptan – in order to get her eldest son Murat released from the notorious Guantanamo Bay hellhole. Over nearly 5 years, and with massive help from soft-spoken but dogged human rights lawyer Bernhard Docke (Alexander Scheer), she must defiantly battle through the opaque, murky and Kafkaesque world of post-9/11 geopolitics if she hopes to achieve the impossible.

Director: Andreas Dresen

Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/Docufiction

Language: German/Turkish/English

Country: Germany

Monday 23 October 2023

Both Sides of the Blade [2022]

 Clair Denis’ Both Sides of the Blade portrays the sequence of events upon the sudden return of an old flame, which leads to a turbulent love triangle, marital discord and eventually emotional collapse for all. The veteran filmmaker structured this along the intersections of grand melodrama and slow-burn erotic thriller, and liberally peppered the narrative with a heady cocktail of messy, chaotic, unbridled, tempestuous and violent emotions ranging from romantic turmoil, sensual enticement and fervid lust to heartbreak, fury and self-destructive outbursts. What made it especially intriguing, aside from its reckless passions and charged atmosphere, was that Denis based it on middle-aged people with their freckled backs, loosening skins and deep wrinkles; the seething, bursting and ravishing allure, desires, pleasures and urges that the ever-magnificent Juliette Binoche, nearing her 60s, so nakedly and boldly displayed – both literally and figuratively – was especially breathtaking. And she, as radio journalist Sara – who hosts a political talk show covering the daily lives of people from former French colonies – whose seemingly happy marriage to Jean (Vincent London) starts unravelling upon the return of her former boyfriend François (Grégoire Colin), added magnetic dimensions to this otherwise conventional story. London was compelling too as a former rugby player with felony record bouncing between his successful wife, increasingly lost mixed-race teenage son (Issa Perica), and the business venture that he gets drawn into with François despite some past baggage. The lack of a murkier and more discomfiting denouement that the edgy but tad muddled script was seemingly leading us towards along the lines of a Chabrol or a Highsmith – albeit, accompanied by hypnotic jazz-based score and moody compositions – made this otherwise engaging film stop short of greatness.

Director: Claire Denis

Genre: Drama/Romantic Drama/Marital Drama

Language: French

Country: France