Monday, October 25, 2010

LFF Review: Patagonia


directed by Marc Evans; written by Laurence Coriat and Marc Evans; starring Matthew Rhys, Nia Roberts, Marta Lubos, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Matthew Gravelle, Duffy

screened on September 21st, 22nd and 23rd

A truck rolls by, a faded name on its side. ‘Patagonia’. Perhaps once a tourist spot, but the guide driving his rusting truck only has these two visitors to look after, so it seems business is as faded as the emblazoned word and the dusty desert plains they wander around. This could, quite easily, simply be Argentina, though perhaps that lack of distinction is the implication in the barely-there advertisement. But it’s unlikely, no, that a film would name itself after something so intriguing and then barely engage with it? For the soap-opera dynamics of the half of Patagonia that actually takes place in Patagonia don’t have any need to be there at all, although I doubt they’d be much more engaging in California or Siberia than they are here. Rhys’ (Matthew Gravelle) actual interest in the architecture of the churches he’s been assigned to photograph is part and parcel of why his girlfriend Gwen (Nia Roberts) engages far too deeply in her flirtation with their guide (Matthew Rhys, not very rugged at all). Gwen is never at home here, and, despite the mistakes she makes, the film never suggests a disagreement with this. Wales is, as for Gwen, where Cerys (Marta Lubos) feels she should be as her life nears its end – so Patagonia, then, is for all not somewhere they are truly happy.

Rather curiously sheathed in half, with two plots that are cleanly unrelated, the film swerves between Patagonia and Wales without much rhyme or reason. The more dominant – and naturally, less interesting – half is drawn rather tiredly in Babel-like colours, from the dusty golden glow of the cinematography to the august plucking of the score, and there isn’t much sense of Patagonia as a place distinct from any of the rest of South America, except that the characters – two of whom are visitors – speak in Welsh. Showing the disconnect that should likely be the point of the film, the characters in Wales speak in Spanish, though this plot is played much more heavily for the cultural tension. Though she provides the inevitably poignant climax, Cerys is mostly an excuse for the coming-of-age arc given to Alejandro (Nahuel Perez Biscayart), though his encounters with European tourists, loutish locals and a sweet Welsh student (Duffy) are hardly the most narratively sharp of experiences.

The film seems to be commenting on Patagonia’s status as more a beautiful artefact than a country in the way it interpolates the flashes and exposures of Rhys’ camera, and its emulation of his painterly shots. But as the soap-opera dynamics crowd the film and Wales is inevitably depicted as a rosy, pastoral landscape, any deeper angles that have been vaguely suggested are shunted aside. By reducing its characters to such familiar arcs, the film can’t give them any more than a superficial depth, and generally isn’t interested in engaging them with the histories of the foreign worlds they engage with. The brief hints of something more specific that we are given make the film’s overall disinterest even more maddening – there are stories here being ignored, snubbed for ones that have probably been written during a deep sleep. Often a failure is more catastrophic when the target aimed at was never high enough in the first place.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

LFF Review: Les amours imaginaires


written and directed by Xavier Dolan; starring Xavier Dolan, Monia Chokri, Niels Schneider

screened on October 21st, 22nd and 24th


I confess. I have a weakness for young, attractive French people giving themselves over entirely to their lustful urges. Xavier Dolan himself is a young and attractive Canadian person, but he’s from Quebec, and I do believe that’s included in Subsection 1B of my confession. After his vaunted J’ai tue ma mere, Dolan again directs himself in Les amours imaginaires (feel free to explain the disastrous English title, Heartbeats), though he can of course hardly cast himself as the object of everyone’s affection. The dark energy of his filmmaking refracts the few moments of possible sexualisation of Dolan himself as instead slightly self-critical, an awkward physicality we don’t see in Marie (Monia Chokri), or the friend both she and Dolan’s Francis fall for, Nicolas (Niels Schneider).

Dolan achieves these moments through techniques he’s rather boldly cribbed from Wong Kar-wai – it may not be accompanied by In the Mood for Love’s striking musical theme, but you can almost see a pot of noodles swinging from Marie’s hand. Yet there’s something strangely effective about these almost exhausting stylisations, particularly a slow-motion entrance to a party matched to House of Pain’s ‘Jump Around’, that undercuts the imagery so hugely that it almost brought me to tears. Unlike Tom Ford’s imitations in A Single Man, Dolan doesn’t merely copy but adapts these techniques, acknowledging his influences but using an undeniably powerful technique in a different way. These moments in Heartbeats aren’t melancholy, and in their proliferation they shift away from being ellipses – they seem at once ironic and directly devastating, emphasising the sexual dimensions so exaggeratedly that it falls somewhere between mocking and pitying the characters they depict. At no point is this attitude clearer than a purposefully prolonged, simply shot scene where Francis, left alone in Nicolas’ house, furiously masturbates over some discarded clothing.

On the other side of this coin, while Francis and Marie are ironically sexualised and depicted as desperate, Nicolas is removed from most senses of the ‘real’. Inevitably slightly human through the mere existence of the dilemma as to just how much aware he is of his friends’ infatuation, he is nonetheless constructed more as an object, a pretty face and a mop of hair. The epileptic lights of a party emphasize his separation from his admirers: while they are grounded in the space, a continuously moving, unbroken image, he exists only in between the flashes of the lights, his movements frozen images. To Francis and Marie, and ultimately to us, he is simply the physical. Dolan’s script affords him only basic characteristics – and hints that these are mostly unattractive ones – and, though a thankless task for the actor, it needs no more than this from him.

When you finally realise how incidentally the collapse of Francis and Marie’s friendship is treated, the film’s odd rhythms begin to make sense. Interspersed sex scenes show Francis or Marie with unnamed partners soaked in one particular colour of light, a kind of sexuality that is so baldly expressionistic that it is more image than reality, a more mystical eroticism. Dolan consumes you in sensuality and focuses you on the mistrustful dynamics of love, so that while you might not match the lust for Nicolas, you lust for this mood in general; you are reduced to the carnal, the basic desire. It isn’t about liking these characters – the sneering ending makes that clear – but about identifying with how low these familiar feelings have made them, and can, have, and will make you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

LFF Review: Meek's Cutoff


directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jonathan Raymond; starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson

screened on October 18th and 19th


Early in Meek’s Cutoff, we watch a carriage rattle out of frame, and see a man on horseback appear on the hill behind it. Except we don’t, because that man is on a different hill, ahead of the carriage, and this is two shots gradually dissolving between each other. For brief moments, the landscapes merge. They are, of course, the same landscape, the same rising terrain that the travellers we follow have to contend with. Seemingly an echo of this comes later: “About the same as the rest of us, I’d say,” Emily Tetherowe (Michelle Williams) utters, about the native man (Ron Rondeaux) the troupe have captured. Meek’s Cutoff isn’t exclusively about Emily, but her fiercely-thought views sparking against those of others in the camp are an integral motivation within the story. This is the mid-1800s, and not only is someone insisting that this unknown native is their equal, but a woman is doing so.

In the hands of the subdued yet purposeful style of Kelly Reichardt (the mysterious Old Joy, the melancholy Wendy and Lucy), Meek’s Cutoff is never in danger of overemphasising these social dynamics, instead playing them out with careful framing and a gradual increase in tension, cleverly achieved through the diversity of acting styles rubbing against each other. Williams as ever plays things with inward subtlety, while Paul Dano ropes Zoe Kazan into his wide-eyed hysterical dramatics and Shirley Henderson frets quietly on the edges. As the film progresses and the situation becomes ever more fractious, Reichardt directs her actors to reveal the delicate imbalances within the group, each character slowly becoming trapped in their own combustible eccentricities.

Meek’s Cutoff feels like the natural evolution of Reichardt’s attitude towards her filmmaking – it is broader than but not indistinct from her previous films, an experiment in how starkly different elements (of plot, of acting, of character) can be understood in the low-key shooting style many admire her for. Instead of simply aligning with the type of character that typifies her film, Reichardt’s approach extends the ambiguity to every character, never answering any questions we have about them and which they have about each other, and even ending at a completely unexpected, yet reflectively perfect, moment.

As she extends her canvas, her style adapts – framing things in such a way that while the sound focalises attention on one area, our eyes are, perhaps, supposed to drift to another occurrence. She rests shots and carefully manoeuvres the characters to form a sense of being inescapably in someone else’s presence, even in this vast wilderness – the travellers need each other, but simultaneously the antagonism grows. The discordant cello notes of the soundtrack accentuate all these tensions – suggesting menace, or melancholy, or merely despair, or perhaps all of these and yet more. Beyond steady, naturally evolving arcs, not least Emily’s growth into a woman who’ll tote a gun at a man, Reichardt’s project is to suggest and not explain, to craft a small world of these travellers, as fascinated and traumatised by the landscapes as the viewer becomes. Meek’s Cutoff is less a Western than a film set in the locale of a Western; it digs into the typicalities of the genre, but its digging seems natural, to unfold from the dilemmas of the characters. The cutoff of the title, if it alludes to anything beyond the obvious, is the disconnect between the characters, separating even as what happens to them necessitates tightening their pack.

Friday, October 15, 2010

LFF Review: Never Let Me Go


directed by Mark Romanek; written by Alex Garland; starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling

screened as the Opening Night Gala on October 13th; also screened on October 15th and 17th


Never Let Me Go. The words float from the cassette recording, an unknowing request through a romantic gift. That the cassette has shifted from being a melancholy emblem in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel to something fleetingly included here seems at odds with the change of project the film seems to pursue. But this short shrift isn’t exactly representative of a film that could be simply described as diluting its source. It seems instead to refocus it, keeping Kathy H’s voiceover merely as a bare framework as opposed to its overwhelming first person presence in the novel, and explaining the secret of these characters’ existence almost immediately, to channel the involvement into the love triangle instead. Perhaps a slight trivialisation of an intriguing topic, but Ishiguro’s novel hardly delved deeply into the wider repercussions of this alternate past either, blocked by the particulars of Kathy H’s ‘human’ experience.

So maybe Alex Garland’s script makes for a more honest approach to Ishiguro’s obtuse disguise by shifting focus, but new weaknesses crack through; Ruth (Keira Knightley), always the least explored and probably least interesting point of the triangle, is almost demonized, hovering menacingly behind doorframes and giving cruel looks to Kathy (Carey Mulligan), a girl who is supposed – and the paucity of conviction in this is the film’s weakest aspect of all – to be her best friend. None of the characters are helped by the child actors who play out the difficult dynamics in the first section – not exactly aided by a script that seems too keen to truncate the school experience (seen most baldly in the terribly expositional role Sally Hawkins is given), but too studied and brash to work against the harsh angles of these early scenes. Ironically, it ends up being Knightley’s late scenes as Ruth that are the most striking, with a heavy weight to her words and physicality that seem entirely unfamiliar from the lithe actress, but by then Ruth has been and has herself let go.

Yet somehow, despite the strength of Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield, the stronger leaning towards character over moral dilemma does not change the approach the story takes in trying to move us. Without really exploring how these ‘clones’ function in this universe – two frissons with strangers they watch during a trip to a seaside town hint at this wider idea – we can only accept them as closed off from the world, and so Garland’s favouring of characters makes sense. But at these same moments, the imagery (a ball, lost over a fence; a panorama of the broken toys the students joyfully ‘buy’) and the ending try to open the film up to the moral dilemmas. It’s something the film can’t let go of, because it singularises it, but it can’t find a way to properly modulate between the two different angles.

It has to, by design, mark out our focus within the segregation – so while they’re all “students of Hailsham”, Tommy wears blue to the white of the others, or Kathy sits outside, disinterested in the excitement of the sale. Naturally, while our characters might be clones, they’re less clones than those around them, and this niggles as an excuse to merely scratch the idea of this society and not investigate it. If I keep repeating this point, it’s only because it seems to be an impossible situation – perhaps it’s the necessary truncation into a manageable length that was never going to be able to finely contain the details of the novel, no matter how much the cinematic treatment might help the story by packing pages of Kathy’s observation into single images. The specificity both gains and loses something. Like the clones, perhaps, the film isn’t inferior; it’s just troublesome in a rather different way.