Sunday, 27 April 2008

Happy Go Lucky (2008, UK, Mike Leigh)

Critics have been surprised by Leigh making a comedy as if that wasn't his normal routine. One might point to the fact that Leigh usually blends comedy and tragedy in equal measure, but Happy Go Lucky has just as much darkness and social insight as many of his previous films, despite the superficial optimism and lightness of touch. Leigh films contemporary London through the eyes of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a primary school teacher who observes the world around her with wide eyed wonder. Dedicated to helping others, Poppy tries to make everyone else as happy as she is but discovers that you can't make everyone happy.

Leigh first shows Poppy cycling around London, completely carefree but her world is turned upside down when her bicycle goes missing (a reference to de Sica's 'The Bicycle Thief'' perhaps?), which encourages her to take driving lessons from Scott (Eddie Marsan). Leigh then explores the differences between the two teachers. Poppy encourages creativity, spontaneity and personal fulfilment whilst Scott encourages order, taking instructions and doing as one is told. The complete opposite of Poppy, Scott is obviously troubled and angry (as well as displaying racist tendencies). Poppy tries to reach out to him but can't; her sunny disposition might work for her flatmate, sister and colleagues but this only makes Scott more frustrated and angrier, culminating in a vicious final driving lesson.

Leigh throws in social commentary about parenting issues, bullying and upward mobility, which rings true to varying extents. Poppy and her colleagues discuss problems that children face; lack of green space, past times that go no further than playing video games or the Internet as well as parents juggling many responsibilities. These are all very relevant, however I found the next two sets of social commentary a bit too contrived. The bullying angle serves solely as a means for Poppy to meet a handsome social worker with whom she begins a budding relationship by the end of the film. After the first meeting with him at the school, the whole issue disappears - we never see the children again. Leigh concedes though that bullying itself is usually caused by some trauma of sorts and that's handled sensitively enough but it just feels a secondary issue. Satirising upward mobility is something Leigh seems to add to every film of his and by now it's starting to get a little tiresome. Poppy's pregnant sister lives in the Essex suburbs with her husband and seems to have no interests outside her garden and flat pack furniture, contrasting with Poppy's hectic and energetic life. It's not very subtle and just feels like it's been done before.

'Happy Go Lucky' has been roundly praised and has already won the Best Actress award at Berlin. I don't know whether there's an innate tendency for British critics to shower half decent domestic films with more praise than they deserve because I really don't see this as the masterpiece some would have you believe. I found it incredibly uneven; very funny in places but not very subtle in many respects. The success of the film rests with Poppy and whether you like her as a person. She's sparky and lively but when you hear Scott tear into her near the end of the film with everything he despairs about her, you can't help but agree with some of what he says, even though the whole diatribe is supposed to reflect upon him and his personality. She just gets a little tiresome, not with her optimism as such but the lack of roundness of her personality. It's a good film but never a great film. 3/5

Saturday, 12 April 2008

La Grande Illusion (1937, France, Jean Renoir)

The first foreign language film to be nominated for the Best Picture award at the Oscars, 'La Grande Illusion' is a war film that is barely concerned with the practical matters of war or the reasons behind them (we see now actual fighting), but uses war as a reason to look at the changing social orders in the Western world at the time. The First World War was that watershed moment in which the relationships between the social orders; the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat was ever shifting and resisting the natural order of things. After the war, the position of the working classes in the countries most involved; France, United Kingdom and Germany was better than ever before; greater chances of employment, voting rights and so on, which mirrored the relative decline of the aristocracy who had been surpassed as a political and economic force byb the more dynamic middle classes.

Renoir highlights the class differences amongst the ranks of the French army, with two soldiers, the working class Marechal (Jean Gabin) and the aristocratic de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) captured on a spying mission by the Germans. There are also minorities; black soldiers and Jews, notably Rosenthal, from a nouveau-riche family (the one social class really on the move), yet de Boeldieu seems unable to interact with his social inferiors. Despite being a prisoner, he also rebukes the manners of his German captors. However, the class issue is explored more deeply within the relationship between de Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), with Renoir suggesting that class loyalties transcend national loyalties. These are two men with very much in common; shared acquaintances, shared codes of ethics and behaviour, they speak to each other in English so other soldiers cannot understand the conversation etc, and who would very much be likely to be friends in other circumstances. What's very evident is the solidarity of the upper classes across national borders.

Both are however aware of the changing world, which is being accelerated by this war. The social orders are in upheaval and they do not belong in the new world that's been constructed. The defining moment in the film which typifies this is the escape that the French have been developing. Knowing that only two of them can escape, de Boeldieu allows Rosenthal and Marechal to do so, leaving him behind, symbolising the shift in the social orders. By causing a distraction, von Rauffenstein is forced to shoot with equal, as unwilling as he is to do so. In a poignant exchange as de Boeldieu is dying, the latter explains "I would have done the same. France or Germany, duty is duty". He also states he should not be pitied because of the two, von Rauffenstein is the one who must live in a world where their education, behaviour and privilege is no longer acknowledged as important.

At this point, Renoir becomes concerned with the growing brotherhood between Rosenthal and Marechal, despite an initial mutual loathing, as if he is denoting that these men offer the hope for the future. As they flee, they are taken in by a German widow. Despite not sharing her language, Marechal falls in love with her, and though they have to return to France (via Switzerland), he promises to return. As they cross the Swiss border, pursued by German soldiers, they refrain from shooting in what is almost a last hurrah to the old world code of ethics.

Throughout 'La Grande Illusion', Renoir uses war as a device to explore class and racial themes. It's an anti-war film in the sense that the French soldiers of the lower classes become disillusioned about being pawns in the games of politicians, and his acceptance of it as a futile exercise, which is reflected in the title which references an essay by Norman Angell, a British historian. However, the prevailing feeling in my mind is biased towards the analysis of race and class; of looking towards a new world. At the time the film was made though, the Second World War was close at hand and Hitler's plans for German expansion were evident. Though this had been a futile war, the war to end all wars no less, history was about to repeat itself. 5/5

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Teorema (1968, Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

"No matter what the bourgeoisie does, it's wrong".

Pasolini's parable is one of his most complex and moving films. Terence Stamp visits a Milanese bourgeois family, arriving as if from nowhere; none of the family personally know him but there he is all the same at a party that is being held. This episode is preceded by several incidents that increase the significance of his arrival; first, a journalist commenting on a factory boss giving his factory to his workers, in which the above quote is used to refer to his actions. Then we have a direct quote from Ezekiel 20:35, narrated, "and I will bring you into the wilderness" over the recurring motif of a scorched desert. We also witness the bourgeois family is question going aboutb their business, though this is filmed in black and white, with the Morricone score muting any dialogue. Of course both colour and sound return with the first glimpse of Stamp. But who is he and what does he represent? Some have stated that this visitor may be interpreted as either God or the Devil, but either way the impact he has upon the family is immeasurable.

After making love to each of the family in turn, they all experience separate revelations or epiphanies and they subsequently feel the need to confess and talk about this experience with him. It changes each person too for better or worse. The young son, an aspiring artist rejects his studies after succumbing to self doubt. The mother in a moment of self-awareness acknowledges the emptiness of her life and lack of interest in anything. The father's entire identity and self-image is called into question, whilst the daughter finds that his arrival has cured her fear of men.

And then like that, the visitor leaves, which creates a void in each of their lives; an emotional and spiritual bankruptcy. The daughter becomes catatonic, an illness that the doctors fail to comprehend. The son's artistic pursuits become more abstract and radical. The mother has a series of sexual affairs with young men who bear a resemblance to the visitor. The father strips himself naked in a Milanese train station, which has a metaphorical as well as physical significance. The maid, who too had slept with the visitor, achieves sainthood, curing a disfigured childhood in a low-key miracle. That the proletariat are the sole social class capable of doing so reflects both Pasolini's own radical politics and the above quotation.

Though I've never seen it mentioned before, I can't help but feel as if Pasolini's film influenced two further pieces of work at least; Harold Pinter's 'Brimstone and Treacle', in which a Christ or Devil figure upsets the balance of a middle class family, and Francois Ozon's 'Sitcom', in which a mysterious stranger, e.g. a rat throws a middle class family into chaos though with more farcical results. Though the latter perhaps maintains the theme of sexual repression that is present in 'Teorema' (in that Stamp's visitor helps the family overcome their comformist and repressive behaviour), it doesn't have Pasolini's overt political intentions. Some have alluded to the quasi-Freudian aspect too, which would reflect the Freudian angle of Pasolini's retelling of the Oedipus myth, in that the family members' sexual lust for the visitor displaces and reflects their own incestuous desires. 'Teorema' uses a theme that wasn't unique to start with; the repressiveness of bourgeois respectability, but Pasolini gives it a philosophical and sexual dimension which ultimately results in one of his finest films. 4/5

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Chinese Roulette (1976, West Germany/France, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Relatively minor Fassbinder, but no less effective than many of his more prominent features in its satire upon middle class conventions, notably marriage, and the manipulative relationships between individuals. Gerhard (Alexander Allerson) and Ariane (Margit Cartensen) are a typical Fassbinder married couple; where superficially everything seems together, but there is always something going on beneath the surface which is far more sinister. They are both about to travel on business; he's going to Oslo, she's going to Milan. Of course this is just a ruse to deceive each other as both are about the meet up with their lovers. Gerhard collects Irene (Anna Karina) at the airport and whisks her off to their country retreat, where of course they stumble upon Ariane and her lover, Kolbe (Ulli Lommel), a business associate of Gerhard's.

There are no arguments, no histrionics, no violence. What follows is very much in the bourgeois tradition of holding one's own and maintaining one's grace. All four are embarrassed and unsure how to react. They laugh and shake hands, and Gerhard's response is very measured and sensible, explaining that he should ask the housekeeper, Kast (Bridgitte Mira) to cook more food. They can't fathom how this misunderstanding occurred; how both sets of lovers managed to commit their infidelity in the same place at the same time. It all becomes clear with the arrival of Gerhard and Ariane's daughter, Angela (Andrea Schober), a young girl on crutches. She evidently set this entire situation up and clearly has some issues to resolve with her parents. She mentions to the housekeeper's son that her illness coincided with her father's affair, and that her mother started her affair when Angela was told she would never walk again. She thinks they both hate her for ruining their lives. Is this set up Angela's revenge?

The light-heartedness of the lovers' exposure takes on a darker, more sinister twist, initiated by Angela. She wants to play Chinese Roulette, a game in which there are two teams and one team asks questions along the lines "what would you be if you were a coin?" or "what kind of animal would you be?" whilst the other answers. The answers each provides is no doubt supposed to revelatory. Even in these simple questions, Angela's guardian Traunitz (Macha Meril) provides answers with unsettle. The questions that become more disturbing, culminating in one asking "who would you have been during the Third Reich?", which Angela answers as the commander of Belsen. At this point the film takes a more tragic turn albeit with a fairly unresolved climax.

As is always the case with Fassbinder, one of the main plus points is the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus, later the DoP of Martin Scorsese. The 360 degree rotations of the camera that were very evident in the likes of 'Martha' (1974) are used frequently. Used in Hollywood melodrama usually to symbolise moments of great romance, Fassbinder subverts this notion, utilising this technique for moments where romance takes a darker or more uncertain twist. Always elaborate and roaming, the camera follows the protagonists and often captures them in close up during moments of great shock or crisis. Ballhaus and Fassbinder use the camera to propel the narrative as much as dialogue or plot does. By placing marriage vows on the screen at the film's climax, Fassbinder reiterates his position of marriage as an emotionally restricting and unfulfilling institution which the bourgeoisie desperately seeks to hold together despite undermining it at every opportunity. That Gerhard and Ariane don't know how to react when caught out by the other shows their mutual emotional stuntedness and inability to deal with emotional crises. Fassbinder had tackled these type of relationships before, so it was hardly new ground for him, but one can never deny how successful he was more often than not doing so, which is more notable considering his ridiculous productivity as a film maker. 4/5

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Rocco and his Brothers (1960, Italy/France, Luchino Visconti)

Visconti's epic film about family, loyalty and the forces of economics is a perfect combination of the neo-realist traditions of his past ('Ossessione') and the more conventional melodramatics of the future ('Death in Venice'). In many senses, it's a film of two halves - the first half is Visconti in full-on neo-realist mode as he traces the journey of the Parondi family from a poor Southern village to the industrialised, more prosperous Milan in the North. The second half is infused with melodrama though, reflecting the director's interest in theatre and opera, as events take a more exaggerated and extravagant turn. Still, it's a fascinating balancing act from Visconti, and one can only suggest that he passes with flying colours in terms of keeping the film together.

The Parondi family, led by a widowed matriarch (Katina Paxinou), and four of her sons travel to Milan to join up with the oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Facos), who is expected to take care of them until they're able to make their own way. However, they arrive during his engagement party to his fiancee (Claudia Cardinale in a small role), which causes a great degree of friction with her family. Ever proud, the mother leaves with her sons not before reminding Vincenzo of his responsibilities since his father died, and whilst he wants to take care of his family, he is naturally torn, and we sympathise with him for this. Thereafter, the family find life a struggle, and the optimism that was felt upon their arrival; their fascination in the shops, the lights, the city as a contrast to their village, now turns to sober realism. Work is hard to come by and the family share a small and cramped apartment. Surely this was not the future they expected?

Their fortunes take a turn for the worse with the arrival of Nadia (Annie Girardot), a prostitute both admired and desired by the almost saintly Rocco (Alain Delon) and the brutish Simone (Renato Salvatori). It's a simplistic polarisation in some ways, not especially subtle and not much complexity about characterisation, but it's necessary. Their infatuation with Nadia is what ultimately threatens to tear the family apart and causes tragedy in the long run. Simone, a promising boxer becomes something of a local success, encouraged by Nadia, but he is ultimately too reckless to make the grade at a higher level. Always borrowing money from Rocco, he abuses his trust to keep hold of Nadia, a girl of expensive habits. In one telling scene, he seduces Rocco's manager, symbolically caressing her expensive brooch; a sign perhaps of the desire for wealth and the good things in life. When Rocco starts seeing Nadia, Simone goes off the rails completely, lashing out at both her and his own brother. In one act of supreme jealousy and contempt, one of the most famous scenes in the film nonetheless, he forces himself on her in front of Rocco. This is the ultimate act of revenge, even more so knowing that Rocco is helpless to do anything to prevent it.

Ever the saint though, Rocco still tries to help his brother despite his hatred for him. He is aware of the poisoning effect Milan has had upon the family, confident that had they remained in their village, they would have all stayed together despite the poverty they were trapped by. But there is no helping Simone. His downfall coincides with Rocco's success, which includes fighting for Italy at the Olympic Games; an event that brings the entire neighbourhood together, including Vincenzo's fiancees family. This is the moment at which the entire family's dreams have come true, that they have succeeded in making lives for themselves. However one moment of recklessness by Simone jeopardises this.

Visconti's expansive epic raises issues about the North-South divide in a country that had been united for about a century at this point. Simone is harassed by members of the crowd during a boxing match for being Southern, and these prejudices seem to run throughout the film. Was there resentment towards migration to the North, leading to competition for jobs and so on in what was already a difficult economic climate? The rural-urban divide is shown by just how difficult a transition the family makes from one way of life to another. Whilst Rocco is undoubtedly the film's 'hero', you wouldn't say he achieves this. He dreams of returning one day to the village, the entire family intact and even he is compromised by Simone's recklessness. Instead, one of the younger brothers. Ciro, is perhaps the best example of this transition being made. He is the most pragmatic, the most self-assured, the most responsible - aware of the changing world and able to cope with it too. He gives hope for the future for the family.

Though his masterpiece 'The Leopard' was soon to follow, 'Rocco and his Brothers' doesn't fall far short of this, and remains a rare beast - a neo-realist epic. The lack of subtlety in the characterisations of the two main characters is perhaps the only flaw, as well as the disinterest in the lives and perspectives of the other siblings. On the other hand, this is the work of a film maker totally hitting his stride, and reflecting upon an Italy that was both economically and culturally divided with confidence and astuteness. 4.5/5