MIFF 2009 reviews – 35 Shots of Rum (2008), The White Ribbon (2009), Shadow Play (2009)

Reviews of film screening during the 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival.

35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008) ✭✭✭✭
The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Michael Haneke, 2009) ✭✭✭✩
Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn (Josh Whiteman, 2009) ✭✭✩

35 Shots of Rum

Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas)
Joséphine (Mati Diop) and Lionel (Alex Descas)

Claire Denis’s (Beau travail) portrait of the affectionate relationship between a father and daughter living in an apartment in the Paris suburbs is one of the highlights of the Melbourne International Film Festival this year. 35 Shots of Rum is a simple film that is part observational filmmaking, part gentle domestic drama and part cinéma vérité. While watching it you almost resist anything that feels like plot development because you are content to simply be in the company of these two characters and their friends, colleagues, neighbours and love interests. It is also refreshing to see a film that almost entirely contains actors of African descent as the representation of Paris’s large African community is rarely depicted in French cinema.

The White Ribbon

The latest film by the provocative Austrian director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Caché, The Piano Teacher) is The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d’Or for best film at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Set in a small German village just before World War I, The White Ribbon is about a series of suspicious accidents and how the villagers respond to them. Among the villagers are various class, gender and generational conflicts that escalate when the Baron, the village’s main landowner and employer, discovers that his son has been kidnapped and tortured. Haneke’s films are notably very formal and intellectual works – dismissed by his detractors as overly didactic – and The White Ribbon is certainly another exercise in exploring the violence and brutality at the heart of society without ever allowing the audience any moments of catharsis or voyeuristic spectacle. However, it also contains a lot more humanity than some of Haneke’s previous films and there is even a romantic subplot. Nevertheless, this slow building film, in true Haneke form, becomes increasingly disturbing, especially as the true natures of many of the adult characters are revealed.

The White Ribbon at times feels like a diluted Haneke film and its sins-of-the-father theme feels a little tired. The authoritarian priest, who embodies classic Old Testament morality, is the type of obvious character you expect to see in the first film of a well meaning but inexperienced filmmaker, not in the film of somebody who has previous tackled far more complex representations of repression, guilt and social culpability. Having said that, there are some remarkable scenes and Haneke hasn’t lost his power to confront the audience with his skilful handling of dialogue and strategically knowing what to show and what not to show for maximum effect. Visually The White Ribbon is startlingly brilliant with some of the crispest black-and-white cinematography you are likely to ever see. Much of the film is shot in deep focus with no grain present on the screen whatsoever. The focus, exposure and contrast in the cinematography are the work of pure genius. The White Ribbon may be Haneke-light thematically but it is a great technical achievement.

Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn

This rather patchy documentary about rock-and-roll photographer and Control director Anton Corbijn, has plenty of interesting content but never gets beneath the surface of its subject. Perhaps Corbijn is simply just not that interesting as a person and his work should simply be allowed to speak for itself. Issues such as the nature of celebrity and how the relationship between photographers and the music industry has changed are touched upon but never satisfactorily explored, and too many promising anecdotes go nowhere. The filmmakers have also unwisely attempted to mimic Corbijn’s dark and gloomy photographic style by frequently filming Corbijn almost completely covered in shadows, and it doesn’t work. Nevertheless, Shadow Play does stand as a testament to how essential Corbijn was in defining the look of Joy Division and later U2 and Depeche Mode. Unfortunately the material in Shadow Play about the making-of Corbijn’s brilliant Ian Curtis biopic Control feels more like the type of video-diary footage that you are used to watching as a DVD extra.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Saw The White Ribbon on Tuesday night and was completely engrossed in it until the non-ending. Call me shallow but I wanted some catharsis (or at least an ending that wasn’t so freaking abrupt), dammit!

  2. Hi Claire. I don’t think you are shallow at all. In fact, I suspect that your response is exactly what Haneke intended. He often likes to undermine audience expectations in order to comment on how we have become accustomed to certain cinematic norms such as the cause and effect relationship, and closed resolutions. Caché concluded in a similar way to The White Ribbon and both the Funny Games films are exercises in frustrating the audience.

    I think Haneke is a great filmmaker but his films can become very academic and demand a level of intellectual engagement that you really have to be in the right mood for. The White Ribbon is tricky because for the most part it is so engaging and fascinating but you are then expected to get all analytical and detached right at the end!

  3. The White Ribbon is all about the journey, not the destination. It’s a whodunnit where whodunnit isn’t important. The culture of the time is what’s on show, how people relate and react to the violence around them. I found it thoroughly engrossing and having just returned from my last film at MIFF, I can confidently say it was my festival favourite.

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