Monday 27 March 2023

India Song [1975]

 Marguerite Duras was a complex, multi-faceted and non-conformist individual, avant-garde artist, left-wing intellectual and defiant feminist, whose eventful life was defined by her diverse lived experiences, progressive politics, activist involvements and polyphonic artist pursuits. India Song, Duras’ most celebrated work – which she herself adapted from her unproduced play, which in turn was based on her novel Le Vice-Consul – provided a fascinating manifestation of her multi-dimensional identity and voice. This was, on one hand, a haunting, hypnotic and aesthetically splendorous work that pulls one in with its beauty, melancholy and mise-en-scène; portrayal of a lavish, decadent and doomed world; tactile evocation of ennui, existential torpor, overpowering memories and oppressive ambiance; and crafted a confounding house-of-mirrors reminiscent of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. On the other hand, it was an abstract, dense, distancing and highly experimental exercise that eschewed narrative elements, radically decoupled image and sound, and interlaced seething critique on the alienating, dehumanizing and rotting effects of colonialism. Delphine Seyrig – in the same year as she starred as a disaffected single mother and reluctant prostitute in Akerman’s devastating masterpiece Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – played Anne-Marie Stretter, the bored, lost, detached and promiscuous wife of the French colonial Ambassador in 1930s India, who’s spent her life across different colonized nations. Set within the premises of the diplomat’s luxurious embassy in Calcutta, she’s seen in a slow, dazed and bemused tango involving multiple paramours who she’s having affairs with – albeit, with real and dreams blurred – including the disgraced Vice-Consul of Lahore (Michael Lonsdale). Carlos d'Alessio’s intoxicating score provided a parallel tango with the magnetic visuals, various voices reflecting on a myriad digressive topics, and the film’s poetic ambiguity.

Director: Marguerite Duras

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Experimental Film

Language: French

Country: France

Sunday 26 March 2023

The Eternal Daughter [2022]

 Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter formed a trilogy of sorts with her remarkable preceding films The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, despite the apparent stark differences in form, style, mood, composition and storytelling. Its incredibly brooding atmosphere, dominant elements of gothic mystery – including an air of horror even –, visceral evocation of a lost Victorian era, and incredibly – even oppressively – compact structure in that there were just four characters worth considering (and six overall), a steadfastly single setting, and a brief temporal scope, made it stand significantly apart vis-à-vis the two latter films. Nevertheless, it unequivocally pursued with the semi-autobiographical context, recursive metatextual aspects – the film being about the protagonist’s intensely personal process of constructing an autofiction film based on lived experiences –, complex mother-daughter relationship, and looming presence of memory as an underlying motif. It’s set in a palatial, uninhabited and eerily secluded hotel – surrounding by deserted, fog-enshrouded environs – where Julie (Tilda Swinton), a middle-aged filmmaker, and her octogenarian mother (Swinton) have come to stay in order to relive old memories of the mother – as this stately mansion was her home when she was a young girl during the WW2 days, before it was hived off and turned into a hotel – which the daughter hopes to know, understand and interpret through her next directorial venture. Its bleak, unnerving construct – the classic haunted house setting, a cold receptionist (Carly-Sophia Davies), a mysterious caretaker, and constant repetitions with small but unsettling changes in each cycle – added compelling layers to its haunting exploration of buried trauma, inescapable ghosts, malleability of art, and the blurring of lines between actual and interpreted memories, and these were filtered through Swinton’s marvellous double turn.

Director: Joanna Hogg

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Mystery

Language: English

Country: UK

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Tár [2022]

 The meticulous precision and magisterial aplomb with which Todd Field composed, constructed and crafted Tár – the punctiliously calibrated and orchestrated narrative progression that built towards dramatic crescendos, separated by controlled contrapuntal stretches, and laced with stunning exactitude, rigorous formalism and subtle tonal shifts – mirrored the self-assured brilliance and performative flair of the “maestro” who occupied its dark and compelling core. It began with its complex anti-heroine Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) at the apogee of her prowess – she’s a globally renowned conductor at the Berlin Philharmonic with a jaw-dropping curriculum vitae; her rockstar popularity and luxurious, globe-trotting lifestyle complement her artistic genius and intellectual heft; and she’s on the verge of scaling her final peak – and then proceeded to chronicle her stunning unravelling brought upon by allegations of misconduct and abuse of power, precipitated by the suicide of a former student at the exclusive foundation for aspiring female conductors that she’s co-founded, and exacerbated by damning videos made viral on social media. The film’s central discourse revolved around ‘cancel culture’, difficulty of separating art from the artist and hubris; Tár, however, is neither a monster nor a martyr – rather, a deeply flawed person – and a gay woman who’s heroically succeeded in a bastion of patriarchy, thus subverting any easy analyses. The masterclass that she holds at the prestigious Juilliard School – shot almost entirely in breathtaking single take – was a masterclass in acting and camerawork too. Blanchett’s ferocious, spellbinding performance – marked by an extraordinary verisimilitude and edgy undercurrents that she brought in – found commendable support from Nina Hoss as her wife and concertmaster, Noémie Merlant as her assistant and protégé, and Sophie Kauer as a Russian prodigy who catches her fancy.

Director: Todd Field

Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Musical

Language: English

Country: USA

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Broker [2022]

 Bittersweet chronicles of dysfunctional families have been the connecting thread in Kore-eda’s filmography, and Broker fell squarely in that bucket. However, what made it a companion piece to his zany and dazzling masterwork Shoplifters was that both were centred on “found families” – bound by choice and chance, as opposed to blood ties – comprising of misfits, outsiders and delinquents who reside outside the margins of social boundaries. While it displayed tremendous empathy for its characters like the earlier film – despite their moral greyness – his second consecutive feature made outside Japan was set slightly apart on two key accounts, viz. the morally complex topic at its core and its toned-down humour. These imbued it with both its strength and pitfall in that, on one hand, the plot was devoid of contrivances and easy answers, and was dealt with nuance and candour, while, on the other, sentimentality at times took precedence where dark humour and irony would’ve served better. Set in Korea, the motley and well-enacted ensemble cast comprised of two friends – owner of a debt-ridden laundromat (the always brilliant Song Kang-ho) and an orphaned worker in a church (Gang Dong-won) – who sell babies in the black market to those who aren’t able to adopt legally; a sassy sex worker (the striking Lee Ji-eun) who’s had to abandon her baby and go on the run; and a cop (Bae Doona) whose desperation to catch the two men in the act leaves her colleague (Lee Joo-young) both bemused and uncomfortable. The film, which alternated between oddball human drama, reluctant crime caper and quirky road movie – in a manner that Kore-eda has made his own – had a strangely satisfying ending despite hardly having one.

Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda

Genre: Drama/Road Movie

Language: Korean

Country: South Korea

Saturday 18 March 2023

Don't Look Now [1973]

 Nicolas Roeg’s acclaimed horror classic Don’t Look Now was suffused with a vivid visual palette, stunning juxtaposition of pulp and desolation, punctuation of ominously calm stretches with jolting hyperactivity, and thrilling evocation of mood and drama through ecstatic use of colours, sounds, editing and characterizations. Its distinctive giallo-inspired style and flavour – which was further accentuated by its atmospheric Italian backdrop – therefore, foregrounded the astute audio-visual stylist in Roeg. At the heart of this baroque adaptation of a short story by Daphne du Maurier is a tragic story of loss, grief and tentative, albeit futile, attempts at moving on, and the horror was built around it by leveraging elements of both gothic and slasher. It begins with the accidental death of Christine – the young daughter of restoration architect John (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie) – while playing outside their English country house. That John had an unsettling premonition just before tragedy struck, but was unable to stop it, formed a key component of the storyline that was brilliantly emphasized at the film’s memorable denouement. Sometime after this event – with Laura still recovering from clinical depression – they relocate to Venice as John has been commissioned by a bishop to restore a dilapidated church. The ancient, crumbling and beautifully photographed city provided the perfect counterpoint to this chilling tale that took a foreboding turn when Laura befriends a pair of elderly neurotic sisters, one of whom – the blind Heather (Hilary Mason) – is ostensibly a psychic who can see the dead Christine. The sensational lovemaking sequence, which was continually intercut with quietly mundane shots of the couple getting ready, provided an audaciously naturalistic depiction of renewed intimacy between a married couple.

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Genre: Horror/Psychological Horror/Marital Drama/Slasher

Language: English/Italian

Country: UK

Saturday 11 March 2023

The American Friend [1977]

 Wim Wenders’ exhilarating adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s brilliant Tom Ripley novel Ripley’s Game – with the script infused with few elements from the preceding novel Ripley Under Ground too, even though he had rights for only the third Ripley book which was an unpublished manuscript at that point – was strikingly laced with melancholic, impressionistic and existential flavours that his best narrative features abounded in. The sense of urban desolation and nihilism that it evoked – through fabulous picturization of Hamburg’s grimy waterfront, New York’s gritty landscape, Paris’ modernist buildings, and bleak interiors – turned this sparse, fatalist, deliberately paced tale of crime and deception into a work of haunting poetic realism, existential disaffection and stylish bravado. While Wenders made multiple creative changes to the novel – impregnation of transnational spirit and industrial grunge, ironic reversal of the principal locations (France vis-à-vis Germany), wryly playful departures at the climax, etc. – none were as radical as Ripley’s characterization, in which a Stetson-wearing Dennis Hopper brought manic impulsiveness and anarchic edginess into the anti-hero’s personable disposition. The other key character Jonathan, too, was subtly transformed – from a despondent, luckless British expat into a solemn, taciturn German picture framer and restorer who has a deadpan and individualist streak, even if he gets swayed by Ripley into committing two murders for money – by Bruno Ganz’s terrific portrayal. The two crime sequences – one at a Paris Metro station and the other in a high-speed train – were masterfully captured, while the sparingly used operatic score accentuated the moody atmosphere. Wenders, interestingly, cast several fellow filmmakers, including Nicholas Ray as an impersonating painter, Samuel Fuller as a henchman, Gérard Blain as a smooth-talking criminal and Jean Eustache as a do-gooder physician.

Director: Wim Wenders

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller/Existential Drama/Urban Drama

Language: German/English/French

Country: Germany

Thursday 9 March 2023

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three [1974]

 Crime capers centred on hijackings are a dime a dozen, but whoever decides to hijack a subway train, given the seeming impossibility to escape from a hard-bound vehicle and out of an underground tunnel! That was the premise of Joseph Sargent’s taut, gritty and zeitgeisty The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which became an instant pop-culture icon. Such was its appeal, in fact, that trains originating at 1.23 pm from the Pelham station in Bronx – the rationale for the film’s title – weren’t scheduled for many years! The action kicked off when four code-named men – the crafty mastermind and former mercenary Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw); former train driver and reluctant criminal Mr. Green (Martin Balsam); the psychopathic Mr. Grey (Héctor Elizondo); and Mr. Brown – take control of a bogey that they detach from the train, hold its 18 passengers hostage, and demand a spectacular ransom of $1 million to be delivered within an hour. Veteran transit cop Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) takes charge of the negotiations and initiates arrangement of the money – notwithstanding the hilarious bureaucracy that the city’s buffoonish Mayor embodies – while intent on nabbing the criminals. Buoyed by the superb jazz score by David Shire, the deadpan and chaotic interactions between and across the different groups – kidnappers, hostages, cops, subway personnel, politicos, administrators – provided for lively drama, while the city’s legendary, throbbing and subterranean subway system was a character in itself. The diverse working-class hostages, in turn, formed an interesting microcosm of the city itself. While the script overdid the humour at times, the proceedings could’ve been moodier and tenser, and the escape plan wasn’t ingenious enough, these didn’t undo the film’s entertainment quotient and cultural currency.

Director: Joseph Sargent

Genre: Thriller/Crime Thriller

Language: English

Country: US

Sunday 5 March 2023

La Ciénaga [2001]

 The stunning opening sequence of La Ciénaga – the spellbinding debut by Lucrecia Martel, one of the most original voices in contemporary cinema – began with a viscerally arresting depiction of torpor, ennui and vacuousness, wherein a group of flabby, lethargic, inebriated middle-aged adults – idling in sweltering weather, beside a pool filled with putrid, brackish water – are in such a stupor that when one of them slips, falls and cuts herself, others barely react. By putting us in the middle of this messy, ambiguous scene, Martel made it clear that the viewers will need to figure out the characters and their inter-dynamics themselves as the intricately orchestrated narrative unfolded, and in turn marvellously set the stage for the film’s brooding, clammy, chaotic, sensuous and hypnotic atmosphere ominously seething with violence. Martel trained her lens on the extended, cash-strapped, upper-middle-class families of the slothful, alcoholic Mecha (Graciela Borges) – comprising of her dazed husband, pubescent daughter (Sofia Bertolotto) who’s homoerotically enamoured by the family’s Indian servant girl who Mecha verbally abuses, handsome adult son whose playful frolicking with his cousin sister is borderline incestuous, and a one-eyed son addicted to hunting – and Mecha’s saner but acquiescent sister Tali (Mercedes Morán) – comprising of her patronizing husband and three kids, including a little son led to believe in phantom cat-eating African dog-rats. Mecha and Tali make vague plans of visiting Bolivia, their kids indulge in meaningless pursuits verging on disaster, and the television relentlessly covers a Catholic miracle. Simmering socio-political critique – bourgeois self-centredness, racial prejudices, class boundaries, religious frenzy, sexual undercurrents and familial malaise – were, therefore, enmeshed into the desultory proceedings, interlaced with terrific use of diagetic sounds, including captivating lo-fi music playing on stereos.

Director: Lucrecia Martel

Genre: Drama/Family Drama

Language: Spanish

Country: Argentina

Friday 3 March 2023

The Pinochet Case [2001]

 Like his haunting homecoming essay Chile, Obstinate Memory – which powerfully foregrounded the theme of political memory and amnesia that would profoundly inform his filmography thereon – Patricio Guzmán’s The Pinochet Case too served as a coda to his monumental documentary trilogy The Battle of Chile. This brilliant and harrowing docu dispassionately articulated the belated addressal of Pinochet’s violent overthrow of Allende’s socialist government in 1973 and establishment of military dictatorship, which Guzmán had recorded in his electrifying opus. Pinochet, despite “relinquishing” his presidency in 1990, had retained military powers till his retirement when he appointed himself “senator-for-life”, lived with state-conferred privileges, and holidayed regularly in London, thanks to the preposterous 1978 Amnesty Law through which the army had absolved itself. However, Madrid-based prosecutor Carlos Castresana – a tireless advocate of international justice who’d witnessed the outrageous clemency accorded to Franco in Spain – had tenaciously built a case over 2 years on Pinochet’s crimes against humanity, which judge Baltasar Garzón upheld and the Scotland Yard enforced by putting Pinochet under house arrest in 1998. Using that as hinge, it solemnly covered two interconnected strands – the sensational political discourse that ensued in the UK which stripped him of his diplomatic impunity while also stalling tangible punishments; and poignant first-hand witnesses of tortures, rapes and disappearances that Pinochet’s enforcers had meted out to left-wing dissenters and activists, which Guzmán would expand upon in his masterful ‘Chile Trilogy’. Despite support from odious right-wing apologists and his triumphant return to Chile 1 ½ years later, Pinochet finally found his immunity stripped there too by judge Juan Guzmán. Its indelible parting shot, showing the unveiling of an Allende statue in Santiago, emphasized the ironic circle of life.

Director: Patricio Guzman

Genre: Documentary/Political History

Language: Spanish/English

Country: Chile