Slack Bay

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Slack Bay

Directed by Bruno Dumont

France, 2016

HOME, 22 June 2017

Slack Bay

This is a strange film, with a lot to digest.

In part it is about a weird family who holiday at the coast, with everyone being highly strung and suffering from strange nervous diseases. The family has a boy who dresses and pretends to be a girl – so a gender-fluid flavour, that’s another strain. Also, tourists are going missing and in part it is a mystery with a brutal, bloody heart.

A very French fancy.

My Cousin Rachel

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My Cousin Rachel

Directed by Roger Michell

UK, 2017

HOME, 21 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel

Rachel Weisz is Rachel, an older woman and European to boot.

She has been living in Florence (a brief rooftop scene shows the Duomo floating in the sky), she can speak Italian and German too. God knows what she makes of Philip (Sam Claflin), the naive English lad in whose ambit she finds herself.

What is interesting here is how all the stuff that fuels Philip’s desire for Rachel – her mysterious Florentine past, that foreign elegance, her ice-cold and white-hot sensuality, the eyes, cheekbones and lips that are Weisz’s own – also fuels his paranoia. She is a dangerous, beautiful animal. He suspects betrayal. It is as though sex and death, desire and fear coalesces around the figure of Europa, a Europa about which this young Englishman is profoundly ambivalent. And then she is lost.

It is a crisp adaptation of a savage tale, one of the best of Daphne du Maurier’s baroque melodramas.

Churchill

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Churchill

Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

UK, 2017

HOME, 22 June 2017

Churchill

This film is a portrait of Churchill in the days leading up to D-Day.

It has several fine performances – by Brian Cox in the title role and by Miranda Richardson as the wife and by Julian Wadham as that infuriating military genius Monty (Eisenhower called him a psychopath) and others – but is marred by horrendous emotional manipulation.

There seem to be a lot of these ‘Britain fights against Germany and saves Europe‘ films about at the minute, as though to underline our credentials as a European nation post-Brexit: ‘Look, EU, this is what EU’re losing!’ (Oh, we are the one who decided to leave…)

The accusation is often made that Hollywood distorts history; well, they’re not the only guilty party in this respect. On the Western front, America suffered far more casualties than Britain (see Beevor’s books on D-Day and the Ardennes), yet the American soldier’s experience is not represented here. Instead, you’re left with the impression – because the film is about Churchill’s anguish about maybe being responsible for another Gallipoli – that it was a mainly British affair. Well, no, the Americans took the brunt of it – together with the Brits, the Aussies and Canadians, etc. – that was why Eisenhower (here a fine solid portrayal by John Slattery) was put in charge of the Allied forces.

The Art of Rivalry

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The Art of Rivalry

By Sebastian Smee

Profile Books, 2016

ISBN: 9781781251652

The Art of Rivalry

This thought-provoking book could best be called a micro-history of art.

In it, Sebastian Smee casts a forensic eye over four friendships between artists: Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, and Pollock and de Kooning. All were rivals and fellow innovators as well as friends, of course, and while one may have predominantly influenced the other at the start of their friendship, the influence was never going to only flow one way. Artists are ultra-individuals, so there will come a point when they want to shake off influences – seeing them as just another encumbrance – and become more fully themselves; that creates a problem as well. And artists can be dogmatic: what works for them is best.

So to see Matisse and Picasso, two very different personalities, puzzle over each other’s newly minted work and – despite being perplexed – not dismiss it out of hand, is kind of wondrous. There is an element of suspending judgement out of respect, of thinking: ‘For him to do something so silly, well, there must be something to it, though I don’t quite get it at the minute.’

One of the motors here is that one artist covets in the other what he feels he lacks in himself. Pollock’s spontaneity versus de Kooninhg’s measured, careful approach to craft, say, or Degas, the reclusive bachelor, eyeing with envy Manet, married man and man of the world. If a fellow artist values your work, it’s probably OK: that is the constant. Beyond that, each friendship tells a story. As for Freud, it was Bacon’s openness to experience, his willingness to risk all, that was a prime inspiration. He acted as a goad to change. Yet that was also a stumbling block: Bacon’s extreme masochism, the intensity of his relationship with Peter Lacy in particular, was something that Freud just couldn’t get his head around.

There are plenty of intriguing and entertaining quotes in the book, with one favourite being this one from Degas:

A picture is something that requires as much trickery, malice and vice as the perpetration of a crime.

It is an elegantly written book, Smee’s pellucid prose making for a supremely enjoyable and effortless read. There is an important and to my mind convincing (though incomplete) thesis at its heart, mind. That it is the passing of a baton (or rather, a back and forth exchange) between individual artists that is the fulcrum of significant artistic change – not movements, historical eras, schools of art, visionary geniuses and the like. (I thought, while reading the book, of the dialogue between Klimt and Schiele: another instance of Smee’s thesis.) While Smee’s focus is on the modern period (the nineteenth and twentieth centuries), both Rona Goffen and Fred Ilchman have adopted a comparable approach when writing about Renaissance artists, and one could perhaps apply it to contemporary art too.

A beautiful and important book, which the publisher describes here.

Steven Isserlis

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Steven Isserlis

RNCM Concert Hall, 15 June 2017

Steven Isserlis

Steven Isserlis looks like a rock star and he delivers a concert of thunderous splendour.

Here we heard works by Gyorgy Kurtag, a fine composer, framed by two Bachs, the Suite No 1 in G major and the Suite No 6 in D major. It was beautiful, brilliant, beyond compare.

Or, if a comparison is needed, it was as good as the Andras Schiff concert that I saw at the RNCM a few years ago. That too featured Bach, I recall.

This time we had the cello, that extraordinary instrument, its colours bold and bright or shrouded in shadow. Steven Isserlis made it sing and lament, tear its hair out and (you know) ride a bicycle.

A very fine evening’s music.

Der Müde Tod

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Der Müde Tod

Directed by Fritz Lang

Germany, 1921

HOME, 14 June 2017

Der Müde Tod

When a young woman tries to save her beloved’s life, she finds that she must offer Death another life in his stead.

To Baghdad, Venice and China she travels, all to no avail. All those in her small local town are fiercely possessive of their lives too. And she, holding an innocent dumb babe in her arms, is reluctant to part with it. She refuses to sacrifice the babe; the cost of another’s life is too great for her too. She learns that if she wants to save her beloved, she must give up her own life.

Fritz Lang’s early film, this restoration assembled from fragments found all over the world, has a magic still, though in places it now seems slow and ponderous. It would likely improve the film if you could hear the German poem read aloud, rather than it simply being presented with bland English subtitles. Of course some purists, those who prize above all else a kind of contrived authenticity, will see this as a despoilment of a classic silent film. Yet it would help restore the spiritual, ever so slightly sinister menace of the original, eroded by time and cultural difference.

It is an innovative film, yet it builds upon the iconography of Death in German art and poetry – in Totenamt and Der Tod und das Madchen, in Cranach and Durer and in the Nuremberg Chronicle – and is solidly part of this tradition. A landmark in world cinema.

Berlin Syndrome

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Berlin Syndrome

Directed by Cate Shortland

Australia, 2017

HOME, 14 June 2017

Berlin Syndrome

There is this young woman Clare, an Australian photographer, who  travels to Berlin for a ‘life experience’ – as many people do.

She stays in a hostel, roams around the city, winds up in a second-hand bookshop where she flicks through a book of Klimt’s paintings and drawings (which causes you to wonder: perhaps she should have gone to Vienna instead?). Her florid fling with Andi, a German guy, leads to a series of bizarre events – she just wants the sex, maybe a romance to remember, while he wants to keep her captive. And indeed, you are thinking that the film owes a lot to The Collector. The attendant horrors, for the most part suggested in the earlier film, are graphically on show in this effort, mind. It is a very dark shade of grey.

Conclusion: Perhaps not the best film to see on a first date.

The Big Heat

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The Big Heat

Directed by Fritz Lang

USA, 1953

HOME, 6 June 2017

The Big Heat

One of those unfussy, well-crafted films that you come back to again and again.

Lee Marvin, in an early role as a flashy gangster, is in decent form here. His moll is Gloria Grahame, who innocently complains to an upright cop that he is ‘as romantic as a pair of handcuffs’, and she is pretty good too (though In a Lonely Place remains her best film). But it is Glenn Ford as the said upright cop who carries the film. He specialised in a certain kind of character, did Glenn Ford, the unpretentious good man whose virtue is mistaken for weakness. Here bad guys push him, but as is usual they push him a little too far, thereby unleashing a whirlwind.

There are two themes that struck me when watching the film this time out. First off, what you might call exile and renewal: Ford leaving the desolate family home, Grahame clinging to the darkness to hide her disfigurement. Their banishment and return to the human world coming at a cost. Second, the intriguing and on the whole convincing portrait of post-war America: a nation on a crusade. These guys, like Ford’s cop Dave Bannion, had likely fought in Normandy and the Ardennes and liberated the camps (Samuel Fuller, for one, was there at Falkenau). They had fought evil abroad and were not going to turn a blind eye to it at home.

A great film, one which I expect I’ll watch again one day.

The Other Side of Hope

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The Other Side of Hope

Directed by Aki Kaurismaki

Finland, 2017

HOME, 7 June 2017

The Other Side of Hope

This is another film by Aki Kaurismaki about a refugee: Khaled turns up in Finland, not his intended destination, looking for his sister.

He is welcomed, beaten up; helped, stabbed; people are sympathetic and antagonistic  and indifferent to his fate.

We are also shown a shirt salesman who is dissatisfied with his job and who eventually winds up running a restaurant with a diverse, world-ranging cuisine. Khaled works for this guy.

Kaurismaki is able to articulate a view of the world, no mean feat. But is he able to persuade others that it captures some sort of truth? Well, that is a moot point. Perhaps another film about a refugee is the answer.

The Shepherd

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The Shepherd

Directed by Jonathan Cenzual Burley

Spain, 2016

HOME, 8 June 2017

The Shepherd

Do you remember those Westerns, there were an awful lot of them in days gone past, where you had a lone rancher holding out against a predatory cattle baron who wanted – for a pittance – to buy up his land?

Well, you have a modern version of that kind of Western here; and it is a superb film that keeps you on edge throughout. Besides being high in suspense, the film has an ecological thread: Anselmo, a shepherd and a man of the soil, is pitted against capital and human greed. Indeed, there is a sustained and seasonly slowburn quality to it, as in all true tragedy. Violence arises from anger, anger is somehow ineluctable.

A very fine film.