Films I loved in October 2016

31 October 2016
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Isabelle Huppert as Michèle LeBlanc in Elle

I’ve previously never really embraced the non-science-fiction films by Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, but his latest film – Elle – is one of his best. A lot of the credit for why it is such a triumph needs to go to Isabelle Huppert who is essential in making lead character Michèle LeBlanc such a complex and intriguing character. The film begins shockingly with Michèle being raped and from there it continually goes in unexpected directions as she reacts in ways that often seem at odds with how the audience may expect her to behave. It’s dangerous and provocative material, made all the more so by how enjoyable and frequently humorous the film is. But there is nothing flippant or exploitive about Elle and within all its unexpected moments there is a biting satire about class, gender and moral hypocrisy, all held together Huppert’s commanding performance.

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Giorgos Pyrpassopoulos as Yannis and Efthymis Papadimitriou as Dimitris in Chevalier

I haven’t been engaged with the current wave of frequently absurdist films coming out of Greece, but after The Lobster last year and now Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier I am becoming a convert. This deadpan comedy about six men on a fishing trip, who begin to compete with each other to find out who among them is The Best in General, is a perceptive and funny satire about middle-class masculinity. What I liked the most is that while the film ridicules competitiveness and pack behaviour among men, there is something very gentle and kind about it as well. Tsangari provides plenty of examples of bad behaviour by the various men and a few moments of superb cringe comedy, but with a sense of affection that I found both endearing and clever.

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Jerome Meyer as Joe Cinque and Maggie Naouri as Anu Singh in Joe Cinque’s Consolation

I was unfamiliar with the story of the death of Joe Cinque, which resulted in Anu Singh, his girlfriend at the time, being convicted of manslaughter. This didn’t prevent me from finding Sotiris Dounoukos’s Joe Cinque’s Consolation to be horrifying and riveting viewing. What sets the film apart from other true life crime films is the almost mundane build-up to Cinque’s death. Singh was open about her plans to kill Cinque with many of their mutual friends, most of whom were educated university students living in Canberra, Australia, and from middle-class backgrounds. The film conveys the collective rationalisations and  complicity of the characters by successfully portraying them as being slightly removed from reality as they play-act at being adults in the bubble of university life. It’s confronting and revealing in a way that for me felt closer to the films of European filmmakers such as Michael Haneke rather than other Australian films.

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Avin Manshadi as Dorsa in Under the Shadow

Set in a Tehran apartment during the 1980s Iraq-Iran war Under the Shadow is an effective horror film where the supernatural threat articulates anxieties over the devaluing and oppression of women in Iran post the Iranian Revolution and the ever present threat of being killed during a missile strike. The scares are effective and unsettling, and the film uses its premise and allegory to full potential.

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Kim Min-hee as Lady Hideko and Kim Tae-ri as Sook-hee in The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is one of Park Chan-wook more light-hearted films, but it is enormously fun and decadent to watch. An adaptation of Welsh writer Sarah Waters’s Victorian novel Fingersmith with the setting changed to colonial Korea during the beginning of the last century, it is a tale of con-artists, double-crossings and forbidden love. Many of the techniques Park has used previously for bodily horror – especially the heightened use of sound – is used here to full effect for accentuating the sensuality of the film.

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Dudley Williams in Winter at Westbeth

Ever since his debut feature film T is for Teacher, Australian filmmaker Rohan Spong has excelled in making deeply humanist and entertaining documentaries. In Winter at Westbeth Spong profiles three aged residents from a New York housing project for arts practitioners. Dancer turned filmmaker Edith Stephen, dancer Dudley Williams, and writer and poet Ilsa Gilbert light up the screen as they discuss their lives, reflect of their pasts and interrogate the work they are doing today. Charming, warm, sincere and ultimately deeply moving.

Thomas Caldwell, 2016
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Film review – Stoker (2013)

2 September 2013
Stoker: India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) and Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode)

The gothic fiction genre, where horror and romance come together to define and sometimes undermine the moral sensibilities of the era, originated in England and was most popular throughout Europe. Originally a literary genre, its global popularity and influence across all art forms, especially film, has been such that one of the greatest gothic fiction films of recent times is Stoker, an American written and produced film, directed by a South Korean filmmaker and starring an international cast that includes several generations of Australian talent. And like so many of the best genre films, it undermines and takes the conventions into new territory.

The title Stoker alludes to Irish author Bram Stoker whose 1897 novel Dracula is one of the definitive gothic fiction texts. Dracula is the story of a predator, using vampiric violence as a metaphor for sex, and depending on interpretation it explores a variety of sexual anxieties of the era concerned with men, women and mysterious foreigners. Stoker is not a vampire film, but it shares some of the eroticism and bodily horror that director Park Chan-wook explored in his previous film Thirst (2009), which provided its own spin on the sex/violence symbolism of vampire mythology. In Stoker, violence as a trigger for sexual awakening is a major theme and like Thirst Park relies on the sound design to convey desire making every breath of air or sip of wine the soundtrack for lust and bloodlust.

The predator character in Stoker is Charlie Stoker (Matthew Goode), who on the day of his brother’s funeral turns up to stay with his dead brother’s wife Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) and her daughter India (Mia Wasikowska). There is no doubt about Charlie’s sinister intent as when India glimpses him standing in the distance he looks like Norman Bates from Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) standing in silhouette next to the hotel. As Charlie ingrains himself into the lives of his brother’s widow and his niece, and starts digging up the garden, the film sets the stage for the oncoming nastiness.

The figure at the centre of the film is India who like many female heroes of gothic fiction is a young woman on the cusp of sexual awakening. The film and Charlie are obsessed with her age, reminding the audience that she turned eighteen on the day her father died. She always receives an identical pair of black-and-white schoolgirl Oxford shoes for her birthday, which increasingly become fetish objects that define her youth. She appears tiny against the large furniture in the house she lives in. As Charlie opens a bottle of wine he comments that it is young and ‘not ready to be opened’ at a stage in the film where it is clear he has plans for India now that she is of age.

India’s sexuality and how Charlie influences it is a central theme in Stoker. Initially India is portrayed as conservative and puritanical while Evelyn is sexual and open to Charlie’s seductive presence. However, like Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), Charlie is using the mother to get to the daughter and manipulates every moment to sway India from repulsion, to jealously to forbidden desire. Much is made of India’s sexuality from the mystery of what happened to the shoes she was supposed to receive on her eighteenth birthday to the close-up of the water dripping between her feet after having come in from the rain. She unlocks a box full of family secrets, which possesses all the symbolism of Pandora’s Box in terms of it containing both the evils of the world and female sexuality. And then there are the repeated shots of a spider crawling up her leg and in-between her thighs at precise moments in the film. Meanwhile, Charlie is frequently associated with the buzzing sound of a fly.

Not everything is what it seems in Stoker and its strength lies in how much it undermines expectations by taking a revisionist approach to gothic fiction conventions. The film never pulls the rug from beneath the audience, but it gently slides it out so that the audience can go along for the ride and accept the film seems to be one thing, but turns out to be something else. A key line of dialogue occurs early when Charlie comments that India has the advantage by physically standing on the stairs below him. Throughout the film India does physically appear lower than other people, just like her status as a young virginal girl makes her of traditionally lower status in gothic fiction. However, her uncle is right, she has the advantage and throughout Stoker it becomes apparent that a lot of generic conventions are being turned upside down so that the young virginal girl is not the victim she is often cast to be.

Stoker is about an awakening within India; an awakening triggered by Charlie, but not in the way he anticipates. The film begins with a flashforward where India narrates that she is wearing her father’s belt, mother’s blouse and uncle’s shoes and by the end of the film it is clear what these objects mean and how the different members of her family are part of who she is. Stoker almost feels like an origin story or a prequel to another popular genre, while remaining a more subversive than usual spin on gothic fiction conventions.

The blend of sexuality and violence of gothic fiction is right at the forefront of Stoker even if it mostly exists off-screen or through implication. Similar to the way that David Cronenberg’s films have moved from the visceral to the psychological, Stoker heralds a similar transition for Park. His meticulous framing and visual composition are more than evident in Stoker, but the transgressive thrills mostly occur under the surface in the psychological realm. This interior focus is effectively alluded to in the art class scene where instead of painting flowers in a vase, India paints the intricate pattern on the inside of the vase. And throughout Stoker the audience is in her intricate, violent and sexual interior world. It is a disturbing place to be in the most wicked and wonderful way possible.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

MIFF 2009 reviews – Thirst (2009), Like You Know It All (2009), The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

26 July 2009

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

Thirst (Bakjwi, Park Chan-wook, 2009) ✭✭✭✭
Like You Know It All (Jal aljido mothamyeonseo, Hong Sang-soo, 2009) ✭✭✭✩
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 2009) ✭✭✭

Thirst

Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) and Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho)

Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin) and Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho)

South Korean director, and festival favourite, Park Chan-wook (Old Boy, Lady Vengeance) can always be relied upon to provide a film that is unique, daring and challenges all sorts of conventions, and his stylish horror/comedy/romance Thirst certainly does all that. After dying during a medical experiment to develop a vaccine for a deadly virus, the Priest Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho from The Host) is resurrected as a vampire when some unidentifiable blood is transfused into him. Having lived a moral life up until now, Sang-hyun not only has a blood lust awakened within, but a lust of the more conventional kind for Tae-joo (Kim Ok-vin), the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. The sex/violence metaphor is nothing original, particularly in a vampire film, but with its amplified sucking and squelching sounds and sheer audacity, academics will be lining up to discuss Thirst’s brazen use of the abject and its approach to bodily horror. As weird and gruesome as Thirst gets, it is also very playful and Park demonstrates his great ability in creating moments of visual comedy. However, the most distinguishing element of Thirst is its love story component and as the forbidden lovers, Song and Kim generate an incredible amount of chemistry. They perform one of the most intense and erotic sex scenes ever captured on film and their movements together throughout the space of this film is akin to dancing. Their violence towards one another is tender and their tenderness for each other is violent. At first glance Thirst draws many parallels with The Fly and Let the Right One In but its true reference point are the films of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

Like You Know It All

Audiences who caught Night and Day at MIFF last year will have an idea of what to expect from South Korean director Hong Sang-soo, whose easy-going and naturalistic approach to filmmaking results in enjoyable and leisurely paced films. Like You Know It All follows an up-and-coming art house film director. He is the guest of a film festival during which he delivers a seminar to a group of critical students and later discovers that his old mentor is now married to a woman he once proposed to. Through various low-key drunken evenings and awkward social encounters Hong depicts that various insecurities, insincerities, fawning, soliciting and rivalries take place under the guise of polite conversations. Like You Know It All is pleasantly entertaining, frequently funny and very understated. While dialogue and situations from later in the film mirror events from earlier, the film still feels as if it was developed in an almost stream of consciousness style with little interest in creating an overall sense of cohesion. It’s an enjoyable film but if you, for example, left five minutes before it ended so as not to miss the start of another screening, you probably won’t care about the lack of closure.

The Girlfriend Experience

Typical of the type of low budget and almost experimental films that director Steven Soderbergh often likes to make between his bigger projects, The Girlfriend Experience is a film about transactions and commodities. Starring pornography star Sasha Grey in her feature film debut, The Girlfriend Experience is an interesting curiosity piece but it is hampered by an initially confusing narrative and an over use of alienating cinematography techniques such as shooting scenes in wide shot with the characters in the background.

(Read Cinema Autopsy’s full review of The Girlfriend Experience)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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