Things to Come

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                          Review by © Jane Freebury

The future? Impossible to predict, we know that at least. There’s no way to escape it. And now  something they call disruption is taking place at every level. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? No way. It’s the more things change, they don’t remain the same.

What’s to be done? Whatever the answers are, French writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve shows that she is an old and wise head on young shoulders, unusually good at exploring the complexities and nuances of intimate relationships. Her second feature film, Father of My Children, told of a family tragedy in a bracing and unsentimental style and it still packed a wallop. Incisiveness is a distinctive trait of this filmmaker, and in Things to Come it is enhanced by the powerful presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Huppert has been indomitable lately, maybe for as long as we can remember. Her character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle was a no-nonsense businesswoman who determined that a violent rape by a stalker would not knock her off course.  In White Material, in which her character represented some of the last vestiges of French colonialism in Africa, she gave director Claire Denis her complex, understated best. Here in Things to Come, Nathalie (Huppert) is facing the future at a difficult time. After suddenly discovering that her husband, a fellow philosopher, is leaving her, she carries on as usual, dealing with the decline of her demented mother and the demands of her job as a high school teacher.

As in Elle, the response of Huppert’s character is brisk and decisive. The sound mix ensures that we don’t miss Nathalie’s brisk, clipped walk in her apartment as she consigns her husband’s conciliatory bouquet of flowers to the bin or prepares Christmas dinner for her remaining family. The sound of Nathalie’s heels hitting the floor is an intentional, or unintentional, motif which is, somehow, amusing. Hansen-Løve and Huppert work perfectly in sync.

Nathalie once participated in the massive student demos of ’68 and was for three years a communist, like most of the French intellectuals at the time. But where does she stand now? Inter-generational philosophical exchanges in Things to Come give the film scope to comment more broadly on the state of French politics and society. Fascinating, and very much du jour. Both parents of the filmmaker are philosophy professors, and her mother contributed directly to some of the dialogue.

Events develop in surprising and satisfying ways, a tribute to the thoughtful and intelligent writing that underpins it, and the deft and fluid direction. An opportunity develops for Nathalie to explore her friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student of hers. A little frisson of recognition there for French audiences, one supposes? The friendship leads to time spent in a remote corner of the beautiful French countryside, open spaces where anything is possible, but Nathalie’s journey is neither radicalised nor is the outcome quite as we might expect it. Only it’s better.

The trailer may have encouraged us to anticipate a certain kind of film, but Hansen-Løve has presented us with something else. It is a special experience, and there’s no also reason why this voyage of re-discovery to the inner self can’t appeal to everyone who has lived a little.

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

 

 

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     My Cousin Rachel

Handsome, lush, gorgeous to look at and not nearly as over the top as the trailer suggests. Romantic obsession has been plausibly updated, as a young man who is used to male company – Sam Clafin excellent in the role –  falls hard for the allure of the unknown.     3.5 Stars

 

       Neruda

A playful, stylish portrait of the Chilean hero, poet and politician who led the authorities a lively fandango when he found himself an outlaw. Not exactly informative, but a fictitious, bumbling assassin in hot pursuit is a clever device that points to future real-life events.     3.5 Stars

 

    20th Century Women

An utterly charming film about messy ordinary lives, gifted with a delicious performance from Annette Bening as a single mum whose teenage son at 15 is at a dangerous age. Two young women are co-opted to help out and nearly steal the show, but Bening, sunshine and showers, holds her own.     4.5 Stars

 

 

     Don’t Tell

A modest drama, with a compelling central performance from Sara West. It relates the events that led to Australia’s commission into child sexual abuse within institutions, like the church, that tried to blame a few bad apples, but didn’t own the problem and tried to cover it up. Small film, big topic.     4 Stars

 

 

    Their Finest

A spirited romantic comedy set during the London blitz when scriptwriters at the Ministry for Information (read propaganda) had to deliver movies the British public could feel good about despite being down to the wire. Sweet characters with sharp dialogue plus some British farce at its silly best, and one for the forgotten women who helped win that war.    3.5 Stars

 

    Colossal

Everything is connected. The premise that underpins this tale of small-mindedness in small town America, gets a bold workout here, weaving the lives of a bunch of slackers with the supernatural threat in a foreign city. Improbable at the very least, but it works. Cutting across genre boundaries, it’s witty, clever and really different.    3.5 Stars

 

    Beauty and the Beast

Everything has been thrown at this, but for all the talent, the  SFX and CGI, and motion capture to nail the Beast’s facial expressions, it isn’t as thrillingly entertaining as it should be. Over-produced, and not as good as its original, the animated version from 1991.    2.5 Stars

     

     Loving

If US civil rights history makes us think only of freedom marches and passionate speeches, then this understated story of an interracial couple in 1950s Virginia makes us think again. Inarticulate or reticent characters aren’t always compelling on screen, but the loving couple whose story this is based on never wavered, finally won the day, and it’s moving and impressive.   3.5 Stars

 

    The Eagle Huntress

A tale of equal opportunity for Kazakhi girls set against the beautiful Mongolian steppe stretching to infinity. It’s a grand vision, but let down by clumsy handling. Occasional voiceover directs us towards the big finish, with ‘you can do anything’ lyrics over final credits, but the doco seems put together as a crowd-pleaser rather than for the authentic deal.     2.5 Stars

 

       Toni Erdmann

Goofball, unhinged antics abound from a dad desperate to re-connect with his daughter, a corporate professional who has lost touch with him, and herself. Although some improv work needed a stern edit, it is funny, sad, touching, and one of the most unusual films you’ll see all year.    4.5 Stars

 

             Moonlight

It finds something lyrical, beauty and poetry, in coming-of-age for a young man who is gay, black, poor and without prospects. It’s no American dream and it finds a role model where you’d least expect to, a bit of a stretch. Naturalistic dialogue sometimes hard to understand, but feelings unmistakable.   4 Stars

 

     Hidden Figures

Plenty to feel good about in this traditional Hollywood quest with radical and such surprising outcomes. Based on historical facts, loosely assembled, the uplifting story of the first ‘computers’ at NASA, the African-American women who knew their math and helped get the US into space. A hearty 3.5 Stars.

 

 

Lion

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Review by © Jane Freebury

A little boy lost with no way home. As he wanders through throngs of strangers in the streets of Kolkata, several things can happen. None of them is good.

Saroo (Sunny Pawar) had clambered onto an empty train, fallen asleep and woken up a thousand miles from his village. Alone, he is at such risk, it is, for anyone who recognises that heart-stopping moment when a child disappears, hard to bear. At five years of age, speaking Hindi not the local Bengali, mispronouncing his own name, and without any clue of the name of his village, what are his chances?

As we watch his unfolding nightmare, it is a relief to see he has a sixth sense attuned to danger. He knows when to run. And he can run like the wind from the dangers that try to coax him with false comforts or grab him and carry him off.

Eventually he is taken to an orphanage, only to escape those particular horrors when an Australian couple adopts him and takes him home to Hobart. A cloud hovers over the family, when it is clear that Saroo’s new brother, the second child that John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley adopt, was a victim of institutional abuse. As we see, a home in paradise does not necessarily bring out the best in everyone.

To be spared such a fate, to be adopted and taken to a life of privilege in Tasmania, what incredible luck. And then to re-unite with his birth mother 25 years later. It is almost too much of a good thing to be true.

I wonder how Lion would have survived out there had it been a fiction feature movie, without its grounding in reality. I doubt it would have lasted long in cinemas. Suspension of disbelief would have been at issue. The second and third acts are so improbable. Yet, as is well-known, it is based on the facts in the book, A Long Way Home, written by the real-life Saroo Brierley, who lived to tell his tale.

It is the telling of the tale, as much as the tale, that audiences are responding to.  Director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davis, the excellent cast, and Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Bright Star) on camera, have achieved, in deft and understated ways, a big, bold, good hearted film.

Davis recently worked alongside Jane Campion on Top of the Lake. He has also worked in commercials. It has all served him well, and he is in good company like director Ridley Scott, Ray Lawrence, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Sophia Coppola who also have track records in advertising.

And Lion is another great career choice for Dev Patel, who has played a bit part in other contemporary feel-good charmers like Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

If I had a problem with this supremely uplifting film, it is a minor one. The brisk way it deals with Saroo’s transition to awareness. It is difficult to accept that he only began to wonder about his origins when he moved away from his idyllic coast home and went to study in Melbourne. It seems unlikely. Interesting that the filmmakers chose to change the location where Saroo studied. It was actually Canberra.

I didn’t mind the long search via Google. Had Saroo’s life not straddled the digital revolution he would have been plodding through all the villages of India that were located 1,600 km from Kolkata, the distance he calculated he had travelled on his fateful journey.

The reason for the title of the film remains one of its best kept secrets, only revealed after all is over, beyond the final frame. The timing is all, and you take it away with you and enjoy the luxury of its significance by reading it back into what you have just witnessed.

There has been the odd cynical review of this outstanding film, but it has, in the main, met with the tsunami of goodwill that it deserves.

 

4.5 Stars

Also published at Canberra Critics Circle

La La Land

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La La Land poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Why this? Why now? A singing-dancing entertainment brimming with optimism to close a tough, unruly year and open a new one that will take us who knows where? What timing.

It is curious that Hollywood musicals first blossomed in the 1930s along with gangster films, so James Cagney could cross genres and play either a gangster or a tap dancer. They coincided with times of social upheaval in the US and in Europe, enjoying a good run until they were seen off in the 1960s. Not that the musical has ever disappeared. Viva Las Vegas, Saturday Night Fever or Moulin Rouge anyone? While in Bollywood, the musical has long been part and parcel of the mainstream.

La La Land could usher in a new generation of musicals. While a single film doesn’t a revival make, we can expect to see more of them in the wake of this exuberant, uplifting new film from Damien Chazelle, who announced his arrival with Whiplash a few years ago. Light and airy until things become a bit serious, La La Land demonstrates how a 21st century musical can be contemporary, honour the classic tradition and still have a life of its own. And this is an original musical, not a film of a stage production. Terrific as they were, Les Miserables and Chicago of recent times had already proved their worth on the stage.

At the start, La La Land is determined to be upbeat and take us with it. We lurch into an improbable set piece at the start with the camera swooping through and around dozens of singing, dancing commuters during gridlock on a Los Angeles freeway. We could be forgiven for thinking the film is playing back-to-front, and the spectacle is the final curtain. After this, things settle down, as the set pieces are largely integrated and advance the narrative.

As jazz musician Sebastian and aspiring actor Mia, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make a very appealing and plausible 21st century couple. They begin as the classic screwball mismatch, but there is common ground. Both are rigorous in their standards and look with nostalgia to the past, as Seb adheres to jazz traditions while Mia reveres the character actors of the Hollywood golden age. In the flat she shares with girlfriends, her room is dominated by a huge close-up of the actors’ actor, Ingrid Bergman.

LA may be the city of sun as the opening number declares, but it’s also a conduit to something else—a career. Mia’s job in a café on the Warner Bros lot allows her to eyeball some of the stars who drop by for takeaway, and to duck out when she gets a call from casting. Seb wants his own jazz club to showcase the music he admires, but he eventually bows to compromise when he joins a jazz-funk band that gives him steady pay, even agrees to bite his lip and look moody for photo shoots.

Dancing may be the vertical expression of horizontal desire, but their relationship looks charmingly chaste, so contrary to today’s mores. That emerald green dress than Mia wears on the couple’s first date recalled for me Cyd Charisse in green when she performs a smouldering showstopper with Gene Kelly in the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain. Nothing like that happens here.

It may be unfair to compare, though hard not to, the singing and dancing in La La Land with the work of Kelly, Astaire, Rogers and the set pieces Busby Berkeley created. Stone and Gosling are very talented dramatic actors who dance and sing well, and it’s great to see how accomplished Gosling is on keyboards, but it’s more story and less spectacle here and where we have singing and dancing sequences, they are spectacular because of the staging, production design and the beautiful cinematography.

Of course, La La Land is also an ardent love letter to the movies. To mount this terrific production, the American movie industry has mustered generous resources and assigned them to a relative newcomer. Faith rewarded.

It is easy to point to a certain self-regard in this homage to the dream factory, but writer-director Chazelle, the son of  professors, doesn’t treat us as mugs. He reminds us we can still be lulled into fantasy with the brilliant ‘might have been’ montage that flashes before Mia’s eyes five years later. It’s not exactly an alternate ending, but the film is having a bit of fun with the wishes and expectations that we unconsciously create at the movies, anyway.

4.5 Stars

Also published by Canberra Critics Circle

 

Goldstone

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goldstone poster

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

In the space of the three years since we saw Mystery Road, detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) has buckled a bit under the pressures and contradictions of his job. The hair is lank, the shoulders slumped and the look vacant. Being an Indigenous police officer appears to have taken its toll, and more in gesture than in words, Pedersen makes us feel it.

As a stranger on official business, Swan drives into Goldstone drunk as a skunk and is deposited in the clink until blood alcohol levels recede. The town’s only policeman, young Josh (Alex Russell), is pretty new to town himself.

Swan is on assignment to locate a missing person. Had it been an investigation into a missing Aboriginal person, then this would have probably been an altogether different film. Indeed, it would have been Mystery Road 2, but here the filmmaker Ivan Sen has extended his themes of cross-cultural relations ambitiously. After the opening montage of black-and-white photographs from the gold rush era that depict the exploitation of Asians and Aboriginal people in the early days, he brings the issue to front and centre. Young Asian women are being deprived of their passports, held hostage to pay for their fare to Australia and forced to work in prostitution. Like the stunning drama, The Jammed, that hit the big screen a while ago, human trafficking is at the core.

It’s no stretch locating the root cause of evil in Goldstone. It’s the town’s power couple, mine boss Johnny and Maureen the Mayor, industry veterans David Wenham and Jacki Weaver, respectively. Maureen’s penchant for baking wholesome apple cakes and serving them up to those she intends to compromise makes sly mockery of homespun hospitality, while Johnny’s penchant for neat beige shorts and long socks belie the darkness within. More nuance written into these characters, like the treatment of Tom E. Lewis’s character, the corrupt head of the Land Council, would have served the film better.

Like Mystery Road and Toomelah before it, and his first feature Beneath Clouds before that, the new film from writer/director Ivan Sen is magnificently photographed and really impresses with its sense of place, a place that means freedom to some, entrapment to others, like the women at The Ranch. Goldstone occupies land that the Indigenous community call home, but there are others who are just passing through, like the fly-in-fly-out miners who sleep in temporary accommodation and Pinky the self-employed prostitute who sees clients in her mobile home. Inhabitants of demountables and caravans who are all set to move on the moment that vast hole in the ground, the Furnace Creek open cut mine, stops production.

In what is one of the most interesting and unexpected aspects of this strong, stylish and confident film, Jay and Josh slowly form a partnership as they find themselves covering each other’s back. Not one but two solitary western heroes putting things to right. Two lonely cops pitted against a technologically superior elite, doing corrupt business deals over the heads of ordinary people. A story for our time?

Sen sent his camera into the air, sometimes aboard a drone, as though segueing from wide shot to aerial shot was the most natural thing in the world. The very talented Sen was the film’s editor and composer too. No wonder the stringed instruments and the editing rhythms contribute to the organic whole.

Had Sen been unable to balance the intended social critique with what audiences expect of the generic conventions he has deployed, Goldstone might not have come together so well. However, like Mystery Road before it, the film is a superior fusion of outback noir thriller and contemporary western—and another story to lay down on an ancient land.

Goldstone could become a classic of the Australian screen.

4.5 Stars

Youth

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youth-movie-poster  Review by © Jane Freebury

Either you have it or you don’t. And is there nothing in between? Poised at the age of 45, the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino may well be asking himself this question in his new film, a lushly orchestrated sojourn in a retreat in the Swiss Alps that only the old can afford and the young can manage if they are rich and famous. The director took us into similar territory in The Great Beauty with an older man contemplating his younger years, yet this gesture across a much broader canvas, is different and better.

Here in Youth are two old friends united by age and stage of life. They have met up at a luxury establishment encircled by snow-capped mountains, a grand old pile from the time when there was prestige in building wide rather than high, and intend to rejuvenate physically and intellectually. Film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel has returned to the screen, at last) is at the resort and health spa with his team of collaborators workshopping his next work. He wants it to be his testament. His friend, retired conductor and composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine, now 82), only wants peace while he goes through a thorough health check. Even an emissary from the Queen cannot compel him to accept an invitation to perform his own work in the royal presence. In their different ways it seems Mick and Fred search for solace in each other’s company along with some fresh, new direction from well-trodden paths.

So, there’s just two old geezers one step away from an old folks’ home…? No, even though the trailer give this impression, Youth casts widely across the micro-culture of hotel guests with vignettes of other much younger lives. As disaffected Hollywood actor Jimmy Tree, Paul Dano appears to have something in common with his elders, wishing he could change his legacy, that of robot ‘Mr Q’, the only role he seems to be remembered for. While Fred’s daughter and personal assistant, Leda (Rachel Weisz), is there her husband – who also happens to be Mick’s son – leaves her for another woman, a pop diva. Like the soprano Sumi Jo who sings a stunning ‘simple song’ of Fred’s at film’s close, Paloma Faith plays herself in a key role in which the known world intersects with Sorrentino’s narrative, bursting into the rather chilly, ascetic fictional world with passionate promise. A Maradona look-alike lolls around when he’s not signing autographs across the perimeter fence or kicking tennis balls, and a stunning girl who would do perfectly well for Miss Universe is in there too.

There is much to surprise and enjoy as the laughs creep up on you and the ravishing images hold you in their spell. Instead of confining itself to masculine angst, Youth gives voice to women like Leda and a young girl who speaks up in a cuckoo clock shop. Although my mind kept wandering back to The Lobster, Weisz has a fairly straight role among the quirky ones here, and the way her unlikely relationship develops with the mountaineer is a deadpan delight. Jane Fonda appears as an aging diva (not herself) who visits to turn Mick down, although his film was written with her in mind, and gives him a piece of her mind. Despite the promise, the scenes with Fonda worked least well.

Yet a niggle here and there doesn’t take away from this meditation on life and personal endeavour, told with wit and skill. The blending with surrealistic sequences show Sorrentino a master of his craft and Keitel and Caine are a delight together. Sorrentino has involved himself with similar themes before, and even if he has taken a leaf from the cinema autobiographies of the masters like Truffaut and Fellini, here he has excelled himself.

4.5 Stars

 

 

 

Far from Men

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Review © Jane Freebury

Far from men but not entirely without company, a teacher lives and works alone at an isolated school. There are children, girls and boys of mixed ages, who happily attend his lessons, even though the content is set by distant colonial masters. In the Atlas Mountains of north Africa, a geography lesson on the major rivers of France smacks of irrelevance, but it is 1954 and Algeria is still in French hands. Though not for much longer.

Like some of the best movies, this was inspired by a short story. The Host—the title is a play on a word that in French can mean both host and guest—is the work of the great French-Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus. It is also interesting to hear that this project has a family connection for the film’s writer/director David Oelhoffen. His father once worked as a teacher in colonial Algeria.

A peaceful, neutral existence is ruptured when Daru is ordered to deliver a young Arab man, Mohamed (Reda Kateb), to French justice in a nearby town. The unfortunate prisoner stands accused of the murder of a cousin, but he admits the crime and accepts his fate. Daru is put out by this unwelcome intrusion and impatient with the young man’s pitiful state, and also understandably wary of him. On their journey through the mountains, the prisoner explains that it is better to be dealt with by the French and put a stop to the endless cycle of revenge. It is a startling revelation, on which the narrative turns.

With its desert wilderness location and minimalist action, this is a film that might have emerged from the same existential 1970s roots as Antonioni’s The Passenger in which Jack Nicholson is a journalist – or perhaps an arms dealer – trying to lose himself in the African desert. Despite the guns and men on horseback in a struggle over right and wrong on the frontier, this is less a western than it is existential drama set in the shifting sands of the last days of colonialism. And it’s not a gun that has the final say.

As the two men travel together, mutually dependent in a hostile landscape, they inevitably bond, and sometimes even find a joke to share, albeit a rueful one. Details like those of the life that Daru (Viggo Mortensen) left behind emerge only when they must be revealed in this slow-paced, magnificent and timeless drama.

The ending of the film diverges from Camus’ story, making way for muted hope though Daru finds that neutrality, however strenuously sought and however one is distant from the fray, is not necessarily an option. Nevertheless on the empty spaces of the frontier far from men and their fractious tribal loyalties, it’s possible to find a shared humanity.

4.5 Stars

The Grand Budapest Hotel

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Review by Jane Freebury

‘Who wouldn’t want to be a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest? It’s an institution.’ The answer that nails it for the new lobby boy shows that even if he doesn’t have any experience, or any education or family, he can show a deft hand. The guests at the grand old hotel, once a jewel of a seat of empire, can be a cranky, touchy lot, difficult to please and their secrets must be carried to the grave.

This madcap comedy, the latest from the very talented Wes Anderson, is set in a fictional European country called Zubrowka, which, although a republic, is stratified by class. At the centre of the grand old hotel is M. Gustav, played by Ralph Fiennes in very silky form—no shades of Basil Fawlty here. This concierge of unknown background and indeterminate gender preferences knows exactly how to be all things to all people. Daubed with six or seven different kinds of scent, one for every eventuality, but always wearing his l’Air de Panache, he is a marvellous creation, and perfect role model for aspiring lobby boy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori).

Zero isn’t long in the job before Gustav drags him off to say goodbye to Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, what can I say?), an 84-year-old who enjoyed his hospitality regularly. The dear old dame has already died, but her will is about to be read. Gustav is bequeathed a priceless renaissance painting, the only thing of any worth in the estate, and it sets the picaresque narrative rolling. Gustav and Zero sequester the art treasure to protect it from the woman’s greedy children, led by Adrien Brody’s Dmitri.

Complete with brush back and a moustache with waxed ends Dmitri cuts the perfect figure of a villain in amongst the stylistic touches that are a hommage to cinema at its start – iris in, intertitles, a squarer framing ratio and music to match.

Gustav is subsequently arrested by an incompetent military (Edward Norton’s Henckels is in command) for Madame D’s murder instead. His imprisonment and subsequent escape set in motion madcap pursuits involving estate lawyer (Jeff Goldblum), an inmate with an escape plan (Harvey Keitel), a scary private detective (Willem Dafoe), a monastery of complicit monks who try to help Gustav prove his innocence. All the while, Anderson keeps everything working smoothly like gloriously calibrated clockwork.

This film is a wonderfully inventive experience, bursting with ideas, light and deft, and graced by cameos by some of the best actors around. How does director Wes Anderson do it? Why do actors like Lea Seydoux, Bill Murray and Owen Wilson, actors who could easily command a film by themselves, agree to take part in his vision? Maybe, like the rest of us, they just want to have some fun.

In a capsule: A delightful, inventive comic experience told with distinctive panache. Brimming with ideas and with terrific cameos from some great acting talent.

4.5 stars

Le Week-End

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Review by Jane Freebury

It’s some time into this remarkable film about a lived-in relationship that we actually find out what the couple who’ve been married for ever actually do. He’s a philosophy professor, she’s a teacher. Not that we couldn’t have guessed, but it says something about how irrelevant the trappings are in relationships. Roger Michell (Notting Hill) and his screenwriter collaborator Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette) are trying here to get at where we live here with results that ring uncomfortably and pleasurably true.

Recent empty-nesters Meg (Lindsay Duncan) and Nick (Jim Broadbent) travel to Paris to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in the city where they spent their honeymoon. Indeed, in the very same hotel, until Meg takes a turn over the decor—beige—and they veer off to an establishment they can ill afford. In no time at all it’s clear that the niggling and surface tensions mask deep underlying dissatisfaction that needs to be worked out. What better time than a romantic weekend set aside for rejuvenating the marriage?

The precise reasons for their marital difficulties are vague. Have they just been married too long? The film is not saying that either. Lack of physical intimacy is clearly one, brought to a head in a rare awkward scene when Meg gets into dominatrix mode in black stilettos.

If this were set back home in Britain, it could have been a tiresome domestic as Meg and Nick air mutual resentments then laugh them off, and bicker and make up. Sometimes you just want to look away, but the writing is so brilliant and the observations so acute that it’s impossible to. Besides, the Parisian ambience is a counterpoint to any of the gloom that Nick occasionally lets slip and it works on Meg, a fluent French speaker, like a tonic.

Who doesn’t love Paris? The city and its people float by, tantalising the senses and rich in cultural memory with its Haussmann facades, beckoning bistrots, and shimmering tower of light.

The turning point involves an old university friend of Nick’s, the unctuous Morgan (Jeff Goldblum), who has left his old life in New York behind and set up with a much younger new wife and entourage who idolise him. It’s a reality check, and the beauty of the moment is that it doesn’t resolve as it might be expected to. Like life.

That grand old cineaste, Jean-Luc Godard, made a film called Weekend in 1964, but the references imported here are largely from another of his films, like Bande à Part. It’s a bit on the self-conscious side, but at the same time the line dance at the end hints at new beginnings and other possibilities and leaves you with a spring in your step.

In a capsule: A terrific film about a couple who reach their 30th wedding anniversary. Sensitively observed, beautifully written and brought to life by very impressive performances.

4.5 stars

The Past

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Review by Jane Freebury

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has a gift for offering an apparently simple premise only to tease it apart, strand by strand, and reveal it in all its glorious complexity. Two years ago, A Separation wowed audiences and earned Farhadi some glittering international awards, including an Oscar for best foreign language film. Although there were detractors on twitter it was popular in his home country too, so everyone was happy. An excellent result in a country where cultural expression is severely censored and filmmakers can find themselves under house arrest and their work banned for decades, like the estimable Jafar Panahi.

The Past is another superb, finely wrought drama about one of life’s great mysteries, the married couple, with a hint of cross-cultural stuff thrown in for good measure. It is made with French money, and represents the first time the director has worked in France, but it is hard to dismiss the hunch that a secret to Farhadi’s success, and the success of many highly-regarded contemporary Iranian filmmakers today, is their creative response to the particular political environment in their home country.

On this occasion the couple has agreed to divorce. Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) has just flown in to France from Iran for the settlement. His estranged French wife Marie (Berenice Bejo, you will remember her from The Artist) is picking him from the airport to drive him back to what was once their home, but has failed to let him know in advance that she now shares it with another man. Samir (Tahar Rahim),who is of Arab descent, and his young son. More revelations will unfold.
Like Ahmad, we experience a slow dripfeed as important background information about the various characters trickles in, but this journey of surprises is told with great skill. Whoever said ‘what’s past is past’? Certainly, if there’s any equivalent saying in farsi, Farhadi would beg to differ. I wonder what his take would be on the concept of ‘closure’, a cliche that is so overworked in our conversations today?

Farhadi has suggested that A Separation and The Past are ‘siblings’, one male the other female. He consistently shows respect for the positions of all his characters but it tends to be Ahmad’s story, if it is anyone’s. No sooner is Ahmad back than he assumes a paternal role, getting along with the kids, resolving disputes, shopping and cooking dinner, and there is clearly still affection between himself and Marie, although she will gradually reveals her shortcomings.
This is slow cinema, a subtle, elegantly handled exploration of relationships between adults and their children. The conflation of past and present in a final scene in the hospital ward is quite a punchline.

In a capsule: Past and present conflate in this subtle, elegant study of intimate relationships from the Iranian filmmaker who impressed us with A Separation.

4.5 stars