Happy End

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Review by © Jane Freebury

There are probably plenty of exceptions to the adage that happy endings belong in fairy tales, so it may not be fair to pin it all on the stories we tell our young kids. Lots of characters do get their just desserts, or worse, in fairy tales. Just think of the work of the Brothers Grimm.

Fairly or unfairly, the movies have long worn a reputation for stories with a happily-ever-after ending long since the practice stopped being stock in trade, and filmmakers have left the last act of their stories fashionably open, or with the next sequel in mind. Reputations do, however, have a habit of sticking…

Since Hidden, The Piano Teacher and Funny Games, we definitely have not expected a happy ending in anything directed by the filmmaker, Michael Haneke, the scion of misanthropic cinema. An Austrian with a reputation for bleak, uncompromising, brilliant films, he knows this, we get it, and he plays up to it. On this occasion his film is, however, also surprisingly wickedly funny.

For his latest film, the Cannes Palme d’Or and Oscar winner gives us the Laurent family, who live in Calais. They run a thriving business in construction that was established by the patriarch, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They are wealthy and unremarkable.

On the face of it, Georges and his two adult children, Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and Thomas, a doctor (Mathieu Kassovitz), are pillars of society in the city by the sea. Underneath the surfaces, however, there are murky, disturbing things going on. So it’s business as usual for Haneke.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) has an inconvenient drinking problem and isn’t doing a competent job at work in the family business either. The ageing patriarch Georges is developing dementia and confides in his granddaughter that he wants to die. He had better watch out because Eve, the film’s main character, cheered on by elements she has found online, appears to be developing the characteristics of a psychopath.

On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet

A critique of social media from Haneke is timely, and consistent with the position he has taken in his films on recording devices, film and television, and mass media generally.

His view that audiences watch the screen uncritically, seems rather dated now that unpicking film texts for what they really say is common practice.

Eve has just entered the family home after her mother, Thomas’ first wife, suffered an overdose. On the brink of adolescence, she is at a tender age, but has already joined the shock troops of the Internet. She talks into her mobile about her mother in ways that give you the creeps, and then observes the effects of antidepressants on her pet hamster. It is a stunning, chilling performance from young Fantine Harduin.

The Laurent family drama plays out against real-life events in Calais, which is, of course, the last stop before the tunnel to England. There is a large encampment there known as ‘the jungle’, a way-station for refugees from Africa and the Middle East. While not foregrounding this situation, writer-director Haneke has deftly inserted the plight of refugees into the narrative tapestry.

French cinema has a long and venerable tradition of shocking the bourgeoisie that Austrian writer-director has gleefully and energetically signed up to. The family event that concludes the film truly is a gem. It takes place at an elegant restaurant beside a sparkling sea, with a palette uniformly white, beige and pale blue—until unexpected guests arrive. This also provides cover for the elderly guest of honour to leave.

This is a clever, dark satire but what has endeared me to  Michael Haneke’s latest film most is the black humour.

If it is, as they say, that the only thing that improves with age is one’s sense of humour, then at 75 years Haneke must be at his peak.

Rated M, 1 hour 47 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

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Phantom Thread

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Review by © Jane Freebury

High end fashion is not a place to expect to find the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Over his long career he has fought on the American frontier alongside the Mohicans, he has led a vicious gang in 19th century New York and he has done ruthless business as an oil tycoon. Yet here he is, overseeing rippling lengths of silk and lace that are gathered into gowns for the rich and famous, a fastidious couturier.

The time is the 1950s, the place is London. Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is the go-to designer of modish and extravagant gowns for high society customers. His tough-minded sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) is in charge of the business, and to some extent she also runs her brother’s love life. When it becomes apparent that his latest conquest is boring him, she asks whether it’s time to have the lady move on.

With a sister prepared to do the dirty work for him, that whiff of danger in the Day-Lewis screen persona is kept in check in this role. Though Woodcock has mastered the sneer, and he doesn’t hold back when the tranquility of his creative space is interrupted. Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a portrait of creative genius, after all.

In the final reveal, Phantom Thread is a sly, darkly comic study of intimate relationships

The designer cannot abide the sounds his companion makes at breakfast, just buttering and munching her toast is enough to set his teeth on edge. Early morning is the best time for him to sketch out his ideas, so the racket – so subtly amplified by the sound department – is intolerable. In short, for all his suave charm, Woodcock can be a right pain in the butt.

An expose of the brittle character of genius is not new, and not so much the point here as the issue of control. Phantom Thread is about a new relationship that he embarks on, with Alma (Vicky Krieps) who is someone a bit different from the usual compliant and subservient woman, and someone whose character is not that easily read.

In the final reveal, Phantom Thread is a sly, darkly comic study of intimate relationships, the co-dependency and the give and take.

On a visit to the country, Reynolds is smitten by a willowy waitress at a local restaurant. He is more interested in Alma for her modelling potential than he is in her as a conquest. He likes certain qualities, the hint of a tummy and the small breasts. She will inspire him. She has the faintest accent – where is she from? – and she speaks her mind. Without exactly talking back, she refutes the control he tries to exercise over her, and maintains his interest.

As her appeal finally does begin to wane, Alma musters resources in the dark arts that we could have never guessed she had to fall back on and the film drifts into the murky territory of intrigue and betrayal in romantic relationships where the master Alfred Hitchcock loved to work. Just where was it Alma said she came from? The film deftly touches on 1950s’ xenophobia and its fear of the unknown, with its echoes today.

The film doesn’t falter at the strange and unexpected turn in events in its resolution, because Day-Lewis and Krieps are both so good at maintaining the fiction. No doubt, it’s also due to writer-director Anderson, who directed Magnolia, There Will Be Blood (also with Day-Lewis), and The Master, keeping a firm hand on things.

There are some surprising moments of naturalism, in what looks like improvisation between the lead actors when the couple argue heatedly. Again, Day-Lewis and Krieps are so good they hold this risky new tonal register in check too.

Phantom Thread is an intriguing title for a film with one of the screen’s most successful and most elusive actors. Day-Lewis carries three Oscars under his belt. It is said it may be his last performance on the cinema screen, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Rated M, 2 hours 10 minutes

3.5 Stars

Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Country

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Review by © Jane Freebury

There’s a burning intensity to Sweet Country, a tale of revenge in the Australian outback where men turn against each other with guns and are violent with women and children. Although much of the violence is not shown in the frame, it is not this that gives the film its intensity as much as it is the passionate outrage that director Warwick Thornton brings to his work.

It was the same with Samson and Delilah, the breakthrough feature for the Indigenous writer-director, a film that took the breath away with its exquisite and forlorn beauty. It won Thornton the prize for best first feature at Cannes in 2009.

Although the focus in Samson and Delilah was on the impact of social dysfunction and neglect on two teenagers in Alice Springs, it spared its young people from despair. Sweet Country is a tougher film and the mood less compromising.

In the far reaches of the outback, Harry March (Ewen Leslie), a veteran of the Great War, is struggling to get his cattle run established – and to pull himself together. A kindly neighbour, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), sends his Aboriginal farm hand Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) to help him out with his cattle yard. If only the neighbourly act could have turned out as it was intended. Kelly’s wife is raped.

While Smith, a mild man of god, is away in town, March arrives at his neighbour’s house in search of an mischievous Aboriginal boy he chained up, suspecting him of theft. March fires into the house several times. The boy is hiding nearby, but Kelly is inside and he shoots back in defence of himself and his wife, killing March outright.

Kelly has shot a white man and knows he is doomed. It was the ultimate sin in the outback even late in the 1920s. Like the popular folk hero whose name he shares, he heads into the wilderness all the same, as he and Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) make a run for it.

They remain on the run until they realise that Lizzie is pregnant with March’s child (the result of the rape) and they return to town to submit themselves to white justice. One of the film’s most powerful scenes captures this return, as they sit in the dust of the main street waiting in the early morning for the police sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) to arrive at work.

The space between words was so powerful in Samson and Delilah too. Here again, the Aboriginal people have little to say in their own defence, the sad fact being that they expect to be ignored.

Working from a script by David Tranter and Steven McGregor, Thornton tells another 20th century story of the impact of white Australia on the Aboriginal people. It is drawn from fact and took place within the lifetime of people who are still with us.

Rolf de Heer’s brilliant film, The Tracker (2003), with David Gulpilil covered similar territory, also drawing attention to the hunting parties and retributive justice on the frontier early last century.

In the mythology of the American western, justice is won through the gunman, sheriff or outsider. Here we see it won through due process, only to be lost.

Although the red centre can be appreciated in all its glory through Thornton’s images – he is also cinematographer – ‘sweet country’ is not so much a place as a state of mind.

The title could mean several things. It is heavily laced with irony. As a place where one can find sanctuary or solace, it exists only in the imagination. As a place that could be great, maybe it ain’t just yet. Not until some things are fixed.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 50 mins

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

Other films to catch this week:

I, Tonya showcases an outstanding performance from Australian actress Margot Robbie. Made in faux documentary style it is loosely based on the story of an American Olympian figure skater who had all the moves, but never quite made it. The film shows why, taking us behind the scenes into the dysfunction and disadvantage of her family life and marriage, the circumstances that betrayed her shot at fame. 3.5 stars

All the Money in the World is among the best work ever by the veteran director Ridley Scott. Based on a vicious 1970s kidnapping and extortion, it is a great example of the kind of serious drama that Scott excelled in before he succumbed to the lure of digital possibilities and CGI armies, undermined by weak narrative and characters. No such problems here. 4 stars

The Shape of Water

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review by © jane freebury

Guillermo del Toro had the actor Sally Hawkins in mind for this sensuous dark fantasy from the beginning. Once, when he bumped into her at a party, he told her he was writing a film about how a woman falls in love with a fish. She said ‘great’, though she might have wondered what this director famous for gothic horror could have possibly have been planning.

The director has conjured up some dark fantasies, like the political allegories The Devil’s Backbone and the very wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, but this time it’s different, as he says himself. And surely, Hawkins has no regrets at all about signing on to this dazzling adult fairy tale. It is outstanding on many levels, reflected in the number of Oscar nominations.

The Shape of Water is set in a shadowy, green-tinged world – that is, early 1960s America in the grip of Cold War paranoia – where everyone, from the janitor to the boss, has a secret. The mood is perfectly rendered in expressionist chiaroscuro though the palette warms when Elisa (Hawkins) is on screen.

Elisa has her own sweet approach to life even though she had the misfortune to grow up an orphan and she cannot speak. A creature of habit, she cleans her shoes every day before work and takes a bath. She times this – she is obviously a water person – but is regularly a little late in clocking on for work at the research facility where she is a cleaner, for reasons that will become apparent.

In her life she has her loyal friend at work Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a kind neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), and in between she can romance herself with Hollywood musicals and absorb the ambience of the cinema downstairs. The sensitivity of Hawkins’ performance and del Toro’s skills orchestrate the utterly plausible—she falls in love with a scaly creature from a lagoon in the distant Amazon. The amphibious man has been captured and is a ‘top secret’ asset in a tank at the lab.

More man than fish, the hunky creature she falls for has a humanoid face, arms and legs and can live on land for limited periods. Inside his skin-tight scaly suit, with webbed, clawed hands and dorsal spine, the actor Doug Jones creates a marvellously imposing figure, frightening but obviously terrified.

Showing little interest in this extraordinary creature and treating it as a threat, CIA officer Strickland (Michael Shannon, performing even more extreme than usual) wants to beat it into submission and then dissect it. That is before he has worked it over with a cattle prod.

His attack on ‘amphibious man’, fuelled by irrational fear, is the complete antithesis of Elisa’s approach. From the very first, even when the creature lashes out at her from behind the glass of his tank, she doesn’t seem to have the slightest fear—which is rather surprising, really. They have things in common, and with boiled eggs and a bit of jazz from Glenn Miller, she brings him round.

The Shape of Water becomes a love story that transcends difference, and we are all in raptures over the gorgeous monster from the deep. Glorious to look at and experience as an integrated sensory experience, the film leaves behind an afterglow, even if the good and evil binaries of the fairy tale leave little to mull over after the closing credits. It’s all about feeling, and is a swooning, romantic experience that is rarely seen on screen.

Although del Toro does not let us off entirely lightly in the few moments of savage violence here, it is only as a brief interlude. There is wit and humour and other means of seduction to show that this master of gothic horror and dark fantasy, who cut his directorial teeth on monster movies, knows exactly how to keep his audiences under his spell.

Rated R,  2 hours 3 minutes

4.5 stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Darkest Hour

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Review by © Jane Freebury

If the impression we get is really true, rather than chosen for dramatic effect, Winston Churchill behind the scenes was not the type of person who was exactly inspiring. He was prone to being intemperate and disinhibited, an unabashed eccentric who it is hard to imagine could survive today’s social media.

Darkest Hour, from Joe Wright who directed the wonderful film Atonement, is about a low point at the beginning of WWII when Britain was at its most vulnerable.

Who would be leader? Should the country broker for peace? The film focuses on how Churchill became Britain’s Prime Minister in the dark early months of the war, when how he led it to victory over the next five gruelling years is the more familiar story.

Churchill had always been a controversial figure, dividing political opinion, until he spoke of course, or wrote. There were numerous books and newspaper articles as he languished in the political wilderness while Hitler rose to power.

His appointment as PM seemed like an act of desperation, in the absence of anyone else prepared to take the job. While others were unwilling to take the lead, he could at least unite parliament.

Appeasement appeared to be the only option in 1940 and a peace treaty was possible, brokered through Mussolini. It even seemed an attractive safer option, as the British people could hardly be expected to give up another generation of their young.

It is fascinating to see in this fine film how difficult it was for Churchill in the first weeks of office to actually turn down the offer of a peace deal with Hitler. Darkest Hour concentrates the mind on that moment at the crossroads when Britain very nearly went under the wave of the fascism that was engulfing Europe.

The dedication and zeal that we have become accustomed to from actor Gary Oldman dominates the screen in his central role, as it should. It is a remarkable, immersive performance, and a feat of endurance to appreciate when we understand how long it took to apply the prosthetics in the morning and carry the weight for the rest of the day’s shoot.

But does the performance provide much more insight into Churchill’s personality? Perhaps not. Albert Finney also portrayed Churchill very convincingly in the recent The Gathering Storm.

The appearance of Ben Mendelsohn, however, as King George VI, that other wartime leader who was also loved, was a welcome surprise. Mendelsohn once again shows range and depth.

To move the action out of dusty rooms and corridors of power full of indistinguishable men in suits, Wright takes the camera into London’s streets. Some signature long tracking shots capture the daily life that must go on: the commuters, the shoppers and the vendors—and the three boys larking around in Hitler masks.

A shorthand for showing how Churchill understood the mood of the people was his relationship with his staff, especially those intimately connected with events that he had a hand in directing.

However, in the fictional sequence in which he nips down to the Underground and takes the train to Whitehall to gauge public opinion or, more to the point, to confirm his understanding of it, the film makes an awkward turn. Churchill musters a straw poll that today’s politicians would die for, but the film suffers a minor lapse in credibility.

Leaving off where the recent Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk begins, Darkest Hour closes around the time a little armada of citizen boats sets out across the Channel to rescue hundreds of thousands of troops trapped on the beach in France. It’s a stirring sight against a background of white cliffs that signifies a general resolve, and worth contemplating that the event might quite easily have never taken place.

Rated PG, 2 hours 5 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Review by @ Jane Freebury

When a grieving mother in rural Missouri tries shock tactics to get results from police investigating the rape and murder of her daughter, she takes things into her own hands. It’s understandable. She has been waiting for months for the police to trace the person responsible and they haven’t come up with anything and don’t seem motivated to solve the case.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) tries to stir them out of their inaction by hiring a set of billboards on a remote stretch of road near her home. In big bold letters on red background, they read: ‘Raped while dying.’, ‘Still no arrests’ and ‘How come, Chief Willoughby?’ It’s a brilliant move, and the film begins in outstanding fashion as the billboards are revealed one by one.

In bandanna and blue denim, Mildred combines the image of battle-scarred vigilante and embattled working class, and she owns the role. While Mildred doesn’t set out to take the law into her own hands to begin with, she will eventually, in the tradition of American cinema whereby things are sorted out single-handedly, often with a gun.

Except that here, the tale of an individual going it alone is delivered here through the medium of Irish playwright and screenwriter, Martin McDonagh, who had us holding our sides with his hilarious black farce, In Bruges.

 

 

 

 

Naming and shaming Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) makes for a promising setup, a contest between a righteous, angry mother and a law enforcement officer at death’s door. Essentially good people they have each been pushed to the brink. I don’t know why McDonagh had to end things so abruptly for Willoughby when these two sparring partners could easily have carried the movie.

When Willoughby leaves the sceme, his passing strikes a sudden sentimental note in a game that has been played fast and hard, strictly for laughs and probably at everyone’s expense.

During In Bruges, two hit men hide out in Belgium’s perfect medieval jewel, creating pure amoral mayhem. In Three Billboards, there is a strange impulse towards a kind of redemption.

Does McDonagh want to say something serious about the American condition? We are pushed up then down as the gears shift, anticipating but never quite comfortable in the humour, the laughs dwindling as the plot advances and morphs into a story of redemption.

Our attention turns to police Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim-witted racist bigot who lives with his awful mom. The joke is that for all the swagger, he is actually quite ineffectual and possibly harmless.

Either way, he is no match for Mildred who seems to get on everyone’s wrong side, including those who are sympathetic – her son (Lucas Hedges) and the young man who rents her the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones).

Just about everyone is taken down here. From the lackadaisical, loopy police to the excessively dim-witted zoo attendant that Mildred’s ex has taken up with (Samara Weaving), to Rockwell’s reformed racist goon, to Mildred herself. She doesn’t think twice about kneeing a couple of teenagers in the groin to teach them a lesson.

The self-inflicted humour in scenes with Peter Dinklage (everyone’s favourite Lannister) is somewhat toe-curling. Yet another instance of how Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a high percentage of terrific actors, but the characters writer-director McDonagh has created for them are close to cartoon.

If Three Billboards were anything like as funny as In Bruges, all might be forgiven. But it ain’t, and veers closer to McDonagh’s heavy-handed Seven Psychopaths from 2012 that I was unlucky enough to review on release.

Although he shows the same cinematic tendencies, McDonagh is no match yet for the brilliant Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan – and their incomparable oeuvre that includes Fargo, Burn After Reading, and The Big Lebowski. They are still the masters of neo-noir black comedy set in middle America.

Rated MA15+, 1 hour 55 minutes

3 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

The Florida Project

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Review by © Jane Freebury

It’s summer holidays in Orlando, Florida. Disney World is just over the road, and out of reach. What is there to do when there’s no money to spend? It does not present any problem for three young children who are living at the Magic Castle motel, because they make their own fun.

There’s a holiday ambience in the backdrop of cheery, candy-coloured structures that dot the neighbourhood outside the Disney precinct. An orange juice dome, a gift shop in the shape of a witches’ hat and a soft-serve kiosk supposed to make you think of a dollop of ice cream. The names of places like Futureland and Enchanted Inn help impart a bit of holiday zing too, confected as they are. The images are especially apt with jaunty angles and fish-eye frames to accentuate a child’s point-of-view. Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) is superbly sensitive to the innocence and magic of childhood.

One of the buildings is a long, low three-storey motel that looks like a slice of layered lilac cake with cream trim – Magic Castle is home to six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) is struggling to make ends meet but at the same time determined that her daughter should never want for anything or feel she is missing out.

Halley’s one great skill is shielding her young daughter from their seriously disadvantaged predicament, teaching her how to turn a dismal situation on its head and find joy in things. Whether it’s celebrating a birthday with cupcake and candle on a picnic in a field while watching Disney fireworks, or cheering a helicopter as it takes off on a joy ride, something they could never afford.

They are far from the minority at Magic Castle, which appears to be home to low-income and no-income individuals and families, many single-parent units. Some of them bond by helping each other out, minding each others’ children, pilfering food at work or turning a blind eye. Motel manager Bobby, a principled, patient and caring man, becomes surrogate parent to the children. It is a wonderful role for Willem Dafoe, who shows the other side of his chiselled-jaw persona.

The centre of her mother’s world, Moonee has confidence in spades. She is never short of a good idea either as she and her little gang roam around unsupervised all-day long. Miraculously, and unlikely as it seems, they stay safe and never get into serious trouble beyond a telling off from Bobby when he catches them on CCTV entering the amenities room before the power goes out. He doesn’t take kindly to ice cream spills in motel reception either, or to staking out an observation point when a guest sunbakes topless at the pool.

While inventive, cheeky Moonee is a rascal, and we enjoy hanging out with her, the film is of course underlining its point with this delicate material. That childhood is a special time, and each child has a right to experience the magic, to be free-spirited and give flight to the imagination.

Unfortunately, there are limits. Halley is a product of a system but she also has responsibilities as a mother. The idyll cannot last. Baker’s film offers a tranche of life, a last stand at the inn, as it steps back from making any judgement.

However, it is Bobby who takes action when enough is enough. Halley turns on a friend, a fellow struggling mother, violently and then turns to desperate measures that put Moonee in moral danger.

A young mother, barely an adult herself, without life skills or life options, or much sense of responsibility, Halley is certainly trapped. Her daughter runs around without supervision but Halley is the first to lash out and blame others when Moonee runs away.

In the end, her sense of entitlement and sense of grievance leave Halley isolated, stuck in a cul-de-sac where fantasy is the only sanctuary and the only way to escape.

Rated MA 15+, 1 hour 51 mins

4.5 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Teacher

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Review by © Jane Freebury

This is a film that shows what’s possible on screen with a good idea that is well thought through and delivered in a confined space.

Clarity of purpose can make for some engrossing drama. Even the necessary period detail here that makes a drab contribution to production design, doesn’t get in the way. In fact, the clashing varieties of 1960s wallpaper are rather funny.

As it happens, The Teacher is based on the lived experience of the filmmakers, director Jan Hrebejk and writer Petr Jarchovsky, who grew up together behind the Iron Curtain in eastern Europe.

It is set in a school in Bratislava, now within Slovakia, when the Communist system was ticking away and the fall of the wall in Berlin was still seven years off. A new teacher has arrived and she is making herself acquainted with her class.

Maria Drazdechova is plump, bespectacled and looks friendly enough. As played by Zuzana Maurery who won an award at Karlovy Vary for the role, she is bright and brisk. Compared to the other two teachers we see, she is vivacious with a tendency to make the most of her allure. The head teacher and her assistant look far the more likely contenders for the role she occupies as chair of the Communist Party at the school.

In my experience, teachers in films tend to be inspirational figures, the Robin Williamses and Denzel Washingtons of this world, especially if they understand how their charges tick. But it’s not always the case, and this film has to belong in that dubious category.

To kick off the introductions, Drazdechova flips her notebook open to take down details about each student. First salient fact is what their parents do for a living. Always on the lookout for an opportune angle, she takes notes as she goes around the class.

This scene is cut into a later event, a meeting that the head teacher (Ina Gogalova) has convened for parents to see if there is enough support to mount a petition and oust the controversial new recruit. Cutting backwards and forwards, we weave around the room, filling in the backstories behind the students’ families with deft camerawork and editing.

It would be funny – and it is, mildly – if it weren’t also serious.

Drazdechova exchanges a free session at the hairdresser for some advice in passing on where the hairdresser’s child can improve in tests. Another parent can fix her washing machine, and another could smuggle a cake into Moscow for her.

Worse still, she gets her students to do chores for her after school, robbing them of the time they need for their extra-curricular activities and their homework. When it is revealed that student attainment in her class is poor, no one can be surprised.

The airport accountant (Csongor Kassai) declines the mission to smuggle cake only to find himself ensnared in an even more compromising position. Though not as tricky as the place that diffident, former astrophysicist (Peter Bebjak) finds himself in when he becomes a twinkle in Drazdechova’s eye.

When the promising young gymnast tries to take her life, the message about the pernicious influence of the teacher on her students’ well-being is brought home.

Further to that, the difficulties the parents have in speaking up, in making a complaint and thereby extricating themselves when they have bought into such a system, is clearly demonstrated.

Czech director Hrebejk shows a remarkably deft hand and he has a superior cast to work with, including young Richard Labuda as  the principled and conflicted son of a man who beats him.

Screenwriter Jarchovsky and director Hrebjek also created the excellent, Oscar-nominated Divided We Fall, set in Nazi-era Czechoslovakia. Here they set out to demonstrate how the ‘if you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ mentality, the antithesis of a meritocracy, is ruinous for student educational attainment, not to mention how it distorts social relations.

It’s really the system that Hrebejk and Jarchovsky take aim at, rather than its said representative, the unsinkable Ms Drazdechova.

3.5 Stars

Rated M, subtitled, 1 hr 43 mins

Also published by the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Midwife

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Review by © Jane Freebury

Two well known films by writer-director Martin Provost, Seraphine and Violette, are about creative women who suffered for their art. The French filmmaker gives us another version of this woman in his latest film, The Midwife, about a woman committed to practising her profession according to certain principles, against trend.

It is also known by its French title, Sage Femme, referencing the rare skill that women in labour have depended on since  antiquity. In passing, it takes aim at how the new techno-language has transformed the secret women’s business of midwifery into the ‘birth technician’.

Claire (Catherine Frot) is a highly experienced, committed and competent midwife managing the precarious birthing business on a daily basis. Professionally, she has arrived, and is in no need of validation.

She is a single mother who has made a modest success of her life, however Provost has decided to play the devil’s advocate with her. Maybe there’s a thing or two that Claire could learn from her father’s former mistress, Beatrice (Catherine Deneuve), who is a very naughty girl indeed.

What fun it is to watch the ice queen Deneuve as an unrepentant life-long smoker, a drinker, and a card sharp. She reaches out to the daughter of one of her former lovers – a swimming champion who shot himself when she left him – when she is in need of a friend. It’s the first contact the women have had in 30 years.

They meet at Beatrice’s place, or where she is camped temporarily. Looking as much a fright as it is possible for Deneuve to look, she greets Claire in her dressing gown, lights up her first cigarette of the day, and offers her guest whisky and peanuts. How old are you now, she asks. ‘Forty nine is the answer. ‘Ooh la la, you always did look older than your age!’ We get the picture.

When they go out for a snack together Beatrice orders an omelette, fries and red wine for lunch, and proffers an expensive ring signalling she wants to make amends for the hurt she once caused. She is really trying to buy her support. Beatrice has discovered she has brain cancer.

The scene looks set for an inter-generational battle, between the freewheeling Beatrice and the uptight and serious – one might say, humourless – Claire. Her abstemiousness (no drugs, no alcohol, no television, and no fun), is tinged with a certain unbending, moral superiority. Beatrice believes in the power of pleasure while Claire feels she doesn’t need or have time for intimacy.

An icon of French cinema, Deneuve, has for decades maintained her sang-froid as a unattainable beauty who seems remarkably in control. A part she played in Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way a few years ago was similar in some ways, but she is less in control here and cries a number of times on screen, which is most unusual.

Filmgoers may be feeling a bit emotional themselves. The film starts with some real-life birthing scenes with plenty of close-ups. Instead of the naturalism he maintained in Seraphine, Provost peppers the narrative with actuality images of births, including the administration of an epidural.

Beatrice brings chaos into the younger woman’s orderly, clinical life. Claire allows herself to be plied with vodka and caviar by the amorous truck-driver working the neighbouring allotment, she adjusts well enough to her son dropping out of university, and she even undertakes to get rid of her sensible trenchcoat.

The writing is both sharp and wise, and the key characters  very well-observed as Provost gives us all something to reflect on.

From the birthing clinic, to the gambling den, from the spare apartment where Claire lives, to the allotment where she grows her flowers and veges, this surprisingly engaging drama weaves its way along the highways and the byways to its inevitable conclusion.

Rated PG, 117 Minutes

4 Stars

Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loving Vincent

Standard

Review by © Jane Freebury

It seems there is no end to the ways to express love for van Gogh. Buy the print, wear the jewellery, wear the watch (!), write the song, make the film, or go on a pilgrimage to the museums dedicated to his legacy.

This animated feature joins the list of varied tributes, and is also the first-ever animated feature film overpainted in oils. Whether or not this bold experiment in animation is a fitting tribute to the post-Impressionist artist considered the father of the modern painting, will depend on where you are coming from.

The plot is sketchy, trying – not that hard, it has to be said – to piece together the fragments of the artist’s life in the months before his death.

Loosely framed as an investigation of the death of the elusive artist, it involves the son of the local postman who is sent on a mission to deliver van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. Postman Roulin (Chris O’Dowd) and his son Armand (Douglas Booth) and the other characters who are interviewed by Armand are the recognisable subjects of van Gogh’s paintings. As are the fields, trees, flowers, villages and night skies of the French countryside to which the artist returned for the last two years of his life.

The British accents of the actors, O’Dowd, Saoirse Ronan and others, are a bit incongruous, but it’s not a critical issue.

Young Armand, at first begrudging the task he has, becomes keen to uncover the facts of Vincent’s death. As he talks to people who knew the artist, each has their particular view about what happened and why, so he takes it upon himself to uncover the mystery that surrounds the artist as he furiously painted his life away in the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise.

The brief, intense life of a troubled creative artist is a familiar subject for cinema, but there’s a paradox here in how the late work of van Gogh brims with life on screen.

And the lines read from the letters drawn from the trove of written material that he left behind – many written to his younger brother, his confidant and patron – are elegant, engaging and thoughtful.

The filmmakers, writer-directors Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela, who based their production in Poland, commissioned a small army of around 120 artists who each became responsible for painting a few seconds of film.

The frames capture the creative process of painted images that pulsate and spin with energy, like the stilled turbulence of so much of the artist’s most famous work. At times the effect is intoxicating.

Resistance to such an unconventional tribute as Loving Vincent does not perhaps bode well. Early this year and before the film was released, a British arts reviewer trashed it after watching an early trailer. Such entrenched opinion is unlikely to be moved by the experience of the film itself.

To see Loving Vincent and appreciate it involves something like an act of surrender, a laying down of one’s prejudices and preconception, to what is really something like a graphic novel on film, lavishly rendered in the artist’s uniquely expressive and exuberant visual style.

Against the odds perhaps, this unusual tribute becomes a moving evocation of a man who deserves to be remembered for his astonishing body of work, rather than for any predisposition to self-harm.

Yes, it’s the work of painters creating a pastiche of van Gogh’s famous works. The plot is sketchy and as a quest to find out what really happened during the artist’s last months, inconclusive, but necessarily so. As an artistic group effort it may seem to fly in the face of the individuality, direct voice and authenticity that van Gogh strove for.

Yes, but it works.

Rated M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

Also published at the Canberra Critics Circle, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7