Category Archives: Drama

Filth (2013)

Filth (2013)

In a sarcastic reversal of Renton’s “it’s shite being Scottish” monologue in Danny Boyle‘s Trainspotting (1996), Filth (2013, 97 mins) begins with a Scottish hagiography from Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy). The passion may be there in the voiceover but the images belie the conviction. And that’s how things go through the film, with all appearances being deceiving and nothing quite as it would seem.

As cops go, Bruce Robertson is as corrupt as they come. A thread of hedonism runs through his life as he drinks excessively, takes hard drugs, and, when not indulging his hyperactive sex drive with someone, indulging it alone. If that’s not bad enough for a lawman he’s also partial to a spot of blackmail and intimidation. He knows there’s a promotion to Detective Inspector in the offing and aims to get it, whatever the costs, even if that means playing his colleagues (Imogen Poots, Jamie Bell, Emun Elliott, and Gary Lewis) off against each other in what he refers to as “the Games”. What may help him get that promotion is solving the murder we see in the opening scene.

Like Trainspotting, Filth is also adapted from a novel by Irvine Welsh, however it spends its time away from Edinburgh’s junky class and embeds itself within the establishment. The police, Freemasons, courts, and businessmen take the limelight but there’s nothing rose-tinted about this tier of society. Certainly, with DS Robertson as our guide, there’s no respect afforded it either. This, after all, is a guy pestering the wife of Bladesey (Eddie Marsan), his only friend, with obscene phone calls (in the guise of Frank Sidebottom!) while simultaneously leading the case to uncover the culprit. Situations like this drive the narrative, with Robertson having his nefarious schemes going to plan while at the same time letting them spiral out of control.

Despite the gravity of scenes peppering Filth — underage sex, prostitution, drug usage, amongst many others — it’s all served up with a thick slice of dark humour. It’s hard not to laugh at the casual disregard for everything voiced in McAvoy’s narration. In fact, as roles go, it can clearly be seen that McAvoy relishes the possibilities of DS Robertson’s sheer breadth of character. One minute he’s sneaking out a casual fart, the next he’s all Bad Lieutenant. If he’s not being nice to the boss (John Sessions), he’s furiously masturbating in a cubicle. A role that offers variety to an actor is a gift and McAvoy practically oozes enjoyment here. Making a psychotic, sex-addicted, drug-using, hallucinating alcoholic a likeable character is no mean feat but somehow McAvoy achieves it.

What is perhaps less successful is the occasional trip into DS Robertson’s psyche, personified by Jim Broadbent‘s bizarre psychiatrist with elongated forehead and exaggerated Australian accent. While Broadbent plays it comical, and isn’t to be faulted, these sections don’t quite have the payoff one would hope. What they are is an an attempt to portray an element of the original novel (substituting a tapeworm with a cartoonish psychiatrist) that deserves a high score for effort but something more middling for the result. Someone, somewhere, must have deemed it relevant rather than finding a more innovative way to portray this. A tapeworm does appear in the film, spinning around in the ever-muddled Robertson’s head but, in the film’s context, it’s apropos of nothing.

While the aforementioned cast — joined by the likes of Shirley HendersonKate Dickie, and, in one weird scene, David Soul — perform well, the movie is dominated by McAvoy shouting, laughing, snorting, and sneering his way from scene to scene. With a murder to solve and a promotion to gain, he ploughs on as his world disintegrates around him. All his vices have becomes the filth that covers the truth he would rather not face. The truth about who, under all the bluff and bluster, DS Bruce Robertson really is. And even this, as sad as it is, doesn’t escape the bleak humour that undercuts everything.

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Drinking Buddies (2013)

Drinking Buddies (2013)

Romance on screen usually ends with two mismatched people discovering how made for each other they truly are. They’ll meet, hate each other from the get-go, but their paths are destined to overlap across various set pieces until the inevitable romance blossoms. The central relationship in Drinking Buddies (2013, 90 mins) flies in the face of convention and introduces us to two friends — one male, one female — who are attracted to each other from the start although see themselves as just being friends.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) both work in a Chicago microbrewery. Their working day — apart from work — consists of joking, chatting, and drinking beer. When the working day is over the brewers head on a busman’s holiday to the pub where they play pool and down beers. The chat and jokes go on and it seems obvious, as Kate and Luke gravitate to each other, that the stars have their future all sewn up.

The problem is that both are in separate relationships. It’s early days for Kate and Chris (Ron Livingston), who seem slightly mismatched, his serious nature uncomfortable against her free spirit. Luke and Jill (Anna Kendrick) also appear wrong for each other as their wedding plans are in the process of becoming more concrete. During one weekend they stay at a beach house where these different personalities align themselves. Platonically, of course. But it sets in motion the impetus that buzzes along in the background of this film.

There’s little cinematic about Drinking Buddies. No big explosions. No thrilling twists. Instead it feels an intimate invitation into its characters’ world where we observe their minutiae. It’s a realistic take on relationships, the conversations between friends, colleagues, and partners delving into their thoughts and worries. Throw alcohol into the mix — and barely a chat goes by without a beer in hand —  and we get a loosening of tongues that allow the conversations to go beyond where they would sober. The beer may bring crazy impulses or thoughts to the forefront of minds, but the characters are never too drunk to overstep boundaries. The silences that pepper conversations as they hold back are both reflective,  real, and weighed down with truth.

Perhaps much of the real feel comes from its lack of script. While director Joe Swanberg knew where he was going with his story (scenes, development, etc) the dialogue was left to the actors to improvise. Wilde and Johnson have an obvious chemistry as they improvise and it helps with warming to their characters. Best of all is how we gradually see the disintegration of our expectations. While we expect Kate and Luke to shake off their complications and come together what we are instead given is more information that helps us see how unsuited they actually are (Luke’s life is structured while Kate seizes the day) even if they don’t see it themselves.

While Drinking Buddies may be boring to some, it has enough happening in its story to hold interest. Although billed as a romantic comedy it plays as nothing of the sort, instead coming across as a slice of life (well, lives) at crossroads and the decisions that need to be taken, be they grasped by the characters themselves or forced by circumstance. Its focus on relationships forces us to consider whether men and woman can truly just be friends without the sexual attraction that inevitably bubbles under. That line is definitely blurred but there’s an ironic twist in that, through alcohol, things come to seem much clearer.

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Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)

Coffee & Cigarettes (2003)

In 1986 film maker Jim Jarmusch gave up coffee, presumably why he started obsessing over in it a series of short black-and-white vignettes spanning seventeen years, all collected under the title Coffee and Cigarettes (2003, 93 mins). The premise of the eleven pieces is basically that people sit down at a table and chat. Those involved are drawn from the worlds of music, film, and art; while the subjects they cover leap around, sometimes cross-pollinating across sketches, revolve around dreams, Tesla coils, and of course coffee and cigarettes.

The first, Strange To Meet You, a skit featuring alternative comedian Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni, was originally shot for Saturday Night Live back in 1986. Mismatched in the sense that one is laidback while the other is hyperactive, they are perfectly matched here as two men (with five cups of coffee!) who meet, chat a little about coffee, cigarettes, and exchange a dentist appointment. As a standalone piece — the second, Twins, wouldn’t be shot until 1989 — not much actually happens and nothing is explained. They meet, seemingly arranged, and then go their separate ways. The moment between contrasts the way that coffee affects them. Benigni’s hands shake, he asks non-sequiteurs; Wright is relaxed, if bewildered, throughout.

How can such different reactions come from the same source? Contrasts, therefore, are at the heart of these sequences. Each table shows a chessboard pattern, and the cinematography beautifully captures every instance of black and white, be it the black coffee in white mugs or the black spots on the white dice in No Problem, an intentionally drawn out scene where Isaach De Bankolé‘s repeated questioning of Alex Descas‘s situation gets rebuffed by the assurance that there’s no problem. The chessboard perhaps implies a level of competition between the people involved; the lack of pieces a permanent stalemate.

While some pieces riff on the same themes (Joseph Rigano berates Vinny Vella for his lunch consisting only of cigarettes and coffee, as does Taylor Mead to Bill Rice in the poignant closing story) and perhaps contain subtle points, there are those that are more blatant in their delivery. In Cousins, Cate Blanchett takes on two roles, a version of herself and a fictional cousin. While Cate has all the trappings of celebrity — of which her cousin will never know — she seems eager to please while feigning interest. When we see her hand over a gift of expensive perfumes, we see the irony of a world where the rich can afford everything but are instead gifted it while the poor can only hope to one day afford it.

Attitudes also play a role as the no-smoking hotel lobby where Cousins takes place delivers an unmistakeable case of double standards. These rear their ugly head again in the similarly titled Cousins?, where Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan, over cups of tea, discuss their shared heritage, thanks to the former’s genealogical research. Coogan barely wants to know until Molina gets a phone call that could lead to work. It’s a wonderful scene, nicely played, and the humour comes mostly from Coogan’s disrespectful take on himself, blatantly dismissing Molina’s career while his own is in the ascendance.

Humour comes again in Delirium, with the appearance of Bill Murray, (playing Bill Murray, who else?) working in some cafeteria and not wanting anyone to know. As he swigs coffee from the cafetière the conversation with the Wu Tang Clan‘s GZA and RZA touches on the dangers of both nicotine and caffeine. On learning that nicotine is used in insecticide Bill Murray asks “It’s good if it kills bugs, right?”, his typical deadpan inspiring more laughter than it really should. Notably here the scene recalls both Strange To Meet You and the short Palme d’Or winning, Somewhere In California, where Iggy Pop and Tom Waits cover the topic of quitting one’s addictions, when a refrain about medicine and music is played again.

In Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil, we see musician Jack White do jus that and the phrase “Nikola Tesla perceived the earth as a conductor of acoustical resonance” makes its first appearance. Some degree of its meaning is perhaps in the echoes that appear throughout the tales of coffee and cigarettes, bringing some form of unity. To this end the first few shorts do seem separate from the rest, no doubt because the wider picture had not yet been conceived, but the later episodes make up for this and ensure interconnectedness. The effect is one of wondering where one scene, while having no physical relation to any other, will lead.

The scenes may tackle different areas of conversation, but they all, in some way, cover how coffee and cigarettes are everyday obsessions that people seem unable to function without. In focusing on these, Jarmusch perhaps opens the world up to other obsessions hidden away — gambling, fame, and conspiracy theory, for example. We see Alex Descas confident in his dice, Steve Coogan kick himself at a missed opportunity, and Jack White note how “they” tried to discredit Tesla. These are perhaps bigger, more difficult topics that can play with the psyche and require discussion, but we ignore these as, like the conversations herein, the banal is easier to digest and it enthrals us more.

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The Pornographer (2001)

The Pornographer (2001)

In 1968 civil unrest swept across France, the useless old guard rocked by student sit-ins and workers’ downed tools. For Jacques Laurent (Jean-Pierre Léaud), the subject of Bertrand Bonello‘s The Pornographer (2001, 111 mins), his protest came in the form of making pornographic movies. What started as defiance led to a forty-film career that took him through the seventies and eighties by way of classics such as Schoolgirl Hotel and Perverse Niçoise.

It’s financial difficulties that bring Laurent back into the porno fold to direct another movie. He debates with his colleagues the storyline; he advises his stars on how they should feel; he wants love to blossom from the sex and for his female star to symbolise this by swallowing her co-star’s ejaculate. No moody music, no garish cosmetics, and no faked orgasmic screams. Laurent’s porn, while once protest, is now a means of expression.

Times have changed, however, and the artful pornography of Laurent’s heyday have since been debased, leaving hastily shot, lurid sex that is about pure titillation and quick cash. If we are to contrast the difference between these two visions, then Laurent’s bowed head and sunken heart as he sits watching his actors (real life porn stars, Ovidie and Titof) perform unsimulated sex while his producer calls the shots, captures this succinctly. The movie drifts away from him, much as the genre has.

Straddling Laurent’s professional life, there’s the personal. After years out of the picture, his student radical son Joseph (Jérémie Renier) has got back in touch. They last met when his career as pornographer was outed, the son promptly leaving in disgust. He may be of a new generation, but it’s a new generation that also dreams of protest, although their efforts languish in the shadow of 1968.  As Joseph learns, some protests are without conviction, but what his father knows, based on experience, is that each generation will reject the values of its predecessor.

The one film Laurent never got to make was The Animal, he confesses to a journalist. It would have involved men hunting a woman in a forest as if she were a fox. And through more introspective moments we see it envisioned across his mind’s eye. It looks likely that it will never be made at all. While his wife accepts his work and his son learns to forgive it, and even the industry is bringing him back into the fold, he cannot accept himself. A man of fifty who knows nothing else in life.  As he notes in a passing conversation, obscenity isn’t necessarily base. When people thing of Jacques Laurent they immediately think of his pornography; they never consider his life. And that, he thinks, is more obscene.

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Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine (2013)

Now into six decades of making films, Woody Allen is showing no signs of slowing down. Some recent films have name checked and featured European cities — Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Midnight In Paris (2011), and To Rome With Love (2012) — but Blue Jasmine (2013, mins) sees Allen return Stateside and delivering a story spanning both coasts.

Cate Blanchett plays the eponymous Jasmine (real name Jeanette Francis), a New York socialite who has never had to want for anything in life thanks to Hal (Alec Baldwin), her high-flying husband, more in the Bernie Madoff mould than genuine businessman. However, as the film opens we see her land in San Francisco, moving in with her sister (they were both adopted, although from different biological parents) in order to get her life in order. What has happened between this extravagant lifestyle, funded by the dreams of others, and an almost desperate need to start over is what gradually unravels throughout Blue Jasmine.

Jumping between two timelines (the New York backstory and the west coast present) Allen aligns them not just with Jasmine as uniting thread but through looking at the women’s relationships. While Jasmine had Hal, her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), has Chili (Bobby Cannavale), a loose-tempered mechanic who, were it not for Jasmine’s visit, would be moving in. As if this doesn’t cause tension enough, Jasmine’s class snobbiness comes to the fore, berating her sister for her choice in men, somewhat rich coming from a woman who’s own husband was a crook.

If money corrupted Hal, it has also corrupted Jasmine, albeit in a different way. As someone living a life of parties, designer brands, and never having to worry about anything the descent to Ginger’s level — of poor neighbourhood, hyperactive kids, and actually having a job — is difficult to comprehend and adjust to. Deep in debt, thanks to Hal’s fake companies in her name, she still flies first class without quite knowing how.

Regardless of adaptability to her new situation, she does try — a job as a dentist’s receptionist, with the dentist heavy handed in his amorous after-hours approach; a computer class at college to learn how to study interior design from home (rather than just study interior design at college). Life, when you have concerns, is difficult and, rather than be strong she opts instead to jump on the first chance she gets back into her old life when she meets diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard) at a party who thinks her the ideal trophy wife for his senatorial aspirations.

Almost every scene in Blue Jasmine sees Blanchett’s anti-heroine play some part, and the superlative performance dominates the movie. She flits easily between her superficially smiling socialite, her claws-out disdain of the lower classes, and the broken, fragile woman whose world has spun out of control. Whether it has spun out of her control is one of the many ambiguities Allen provides throughout the movie as much is made of Jasmine’s ability to see only what she wants. Was she, therefore, complicit in Hal’s Ponzi schemes or, like so many others, an innocent victim?

What one can read, if anything, into the eastern-flavoured names of our San Francisco trio — Jasmine, Ginger, Chili — is perhaps open to debate, but what’s certain is that the result is a fragrant broth of light-hearted comedy with darker moments. Interestingly, the comedy comes not from the two stand-ups Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay that take supporting roles, but from its mocking of the superficial elite thrust into the real world and its alien nature. What this new world holds for Jasmine is uncertain, but it’s that way for us all.

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Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

Goodbye, Columbus (1969)

The summer of love — and free love at that — was two years gone but its echoes were still reverberating around the world. It was 1969. The year of Woodstock. The year of Easy Rider. Students protested with sit-ins; musicians with bed-ins. Goodbye, Columbus (1969, 101 mins) may as well have been walking on the moon with its wholesome students and concerns about premarital sex.

Adapted from Philip Roth‘s 1959 debut of the same name, it follows the summer relationship between Neil Klugman (Richard Benjamin) and Brenda Patimkin (Ali MacGraw), two Jewish teenagers in New York. When they first meet it is at a country club; Brenda asks Neil to hold her glasses while she swims he wastes little time in asking her out. The relationship that follows is quick to blossom, although issues of class rear their ugly head with her parents’ probing questions as to what he does for a living.

Neil’s working in a public library is a far cry from the other man in Brenda’s life — her father (Jack Klugman). He was once like Neil but through determination and hard work has pulled himself up into the nouveau riche via his own business. And in moving on up the money ladder (affluent suburb, big house, maids) he finds himself able to look down on others. The ultimate paradox of his family is their attempts to assimilate into wider society. They cling onto their heritage — evident at the wedding of Brenda’s brother Ron (Michael Meyers) — while simultaneously trying to hide it with nose jobs.

Neil, with his background, likewise can’t assimilate into the Patimkin family, partly due to their resistance to him. The mother (Nan Martin) is particularly hostile, questioning him about everything; while the father prefers a more pragmatic approach, recognising the relationship as merely a summer liaison that will end when Brenda returns to school. There’s sex aplenty (don’t let the parents know!) but, as in any coming of age story, some point has to be reached where a lesson is learned. In the case of Goodbye, Columbus it’s the thin line between love and lust.

While the film works well as story of two lovers who come to realise their relationship for what it is, it isn’t without some minor problems. At one point Neil goes to stay at the Patimkin’s for a fortnight. While it’s discussed, it’s never explained why he needs to and therefore disorients the story. Also, infidelity to Roth’s source creates a pretentious cartoon of Ron, the character who in repeatedly playing a recording of his school’s valedictory speech gives the film its title. Although it’s sprinkled with Roth’s original dialogue, it does occasionally take leave from the story, but presumably that’s the challenge of bringing a first person narrative to a third person delivery.

When Neil is at work a young black boy regularly visits the library to stare at Gauguin’s Tahitian paintings. “That ain’t no place you could go, is it?” he asks of the Pacific paradise. Swap Tahiti for the Patimkin family and there’s Neil’s issue foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to see a guy get the girl and lose her, not through any fault of his own, but because he never really had her. There may have been a summer of (free) love, but it comes at a cost.

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Knife In The Water (1962)

Knife In The Water (1962)

Aside from some earlier short films, Roman Polanski‘s debut Knife In The Water (1962, 93 mins) is unique amongst his work in that it’s the only one in his native Polish. Well received, it became the first Polish film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards, although Federico Fellini‘s eventually secured the prize. While both may start in cars, the roads they travel along could not be more different, as Polanski keeps his story grounded in reality.

Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) is a sports writer who, in so far as one can in post-war Poland, appears to have it made; a car, a boat, and Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), a wife many years his junior. One day, when driving out to the boat, they come across a young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz). While Andrzej would happily drive on, he suspects that Krystyna would have shown more compassion. After an ill-tempered rant, Andrzej cedes to his wife’s sympathy, although only because he senses an opportunity to play a game. The hitchhiker first joins them in the car, then on the boat.

The journey that follows sees the two men play a macho game of oneupmanship, which devolves into a serious battle for Krystyna’s affections. For all his physical feats (e.g. shimmying up a mast), the young man is naive and unskilled. Matters maritime lead to derision from his challenger. Conversely, what Andrzej lacks in youth, his experience compensates. His practical, patronising approach is his way of impressing.

In more intimate moments, we see the trio come together, eat, talk, and play more simple games. One of these sees Krystyna perform a song as forfeit to losing. Andrzej concerns himself with the radio, listening in to a boxing match, while the lyrics she sings capture the essence of their marriage (“Joy has faded and our love’s gone sour.”) His lack of interest in what she has to say underpins the unhappiness of their relationship.

Such subtlety is at the core of how Polanski works in Knife On The Water. What the characters lack in verbal interaction, we learn so much more from body language; a quick glance here, a smile there. Even a dearth of subtitles does not detract from what’s being said due to both context and the physical actions that accompany. For the two younger stars, who were new to acting, their turns are well-played (although Malanowicz does appear less youthful than is suggested) and Niemczyk’s older Andrzej flits between smugness and authoritarianism that, by the end, has slipped into confusion and fear.

Away from his actors’ performance, the cinematography is beautiful. Shot in black and white, the composed images capture so many shades of grey. Even on a small boat, where one would expect limited flexibility for a film crew, Polanski manages to provide shot after shot of unique angles; sometimes overly crowded and claustrophobic; other times open and empty. Beyond the trio, we see clouded skies, hints of land on the horizon, but no other glimpse of nature. No fish in the water, no birds in the sky. At times the boat sailing through this barren world is accompanied by Krzytsztof Komeda‘s jazzy score, led by Bernt Rosengren‘s sultry saxophone, which adds spice to the film’s sense of menace.

The titular knife belongs to the unnamed boy. Forewarned by the title, each appearance it makes creates a sense of dread, brought on by not knowing how it will be used. When it hits the water the sexual tension that has been growing on board comes to a head. We do not see the knife actually in the water — Polanski gives us only the splash but it makes ripples that, for everyone, will change their life.

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Amour (2012)

Amour (2012)

In films dealing with love the norm typically sees two different characters collide and, after a number of episodes, realise how suited they are for each other. Michael Haneke‘s Amour (2012, 127 mins.) comes to love later, much later, in life as two (very suited) octogenarian’s face the end of their time together.

Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers living in a Parisian apartment who we first see together in a crowd at a musical concert before heading home on the bus to discover that there’s been an attempted break-in:

Georges: Why does anyone break in? To steal something.

Anne: From us?

Georges: Why not?

The seeming randomness of this burglary — the notion that it can happen to anyone — foreshadows the story’s driving event. At breakfast, as they talk with each other, Anne suffers silently a stroke. When she comes round, she has no recollection of the previous minutes. The family doctor investigates, and following tests and a failed operation,  new complications arise and the comfortable life the couple had together is lost as Anne experiences first paralysis and then dementia.

Apart from a few brief post-credit scenes, the film is set entirely within the Laurents’ apartment. The world outside passes at an unknown stretch. Maids and nurses come and go. A former pupil drops by unannounced, his talk of the past highlighting Anne’s fading memory. And their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), harps on at her father to put her mother into care, a well-intentioned suggestion at odds with her mother’s wishes and an indictment of the younger generation’s proclivity for sweeping things under the carpet. Georges, of his older generation, is invested in his situation to the end — till death do us part, if you will.

The suggestion of love in Amour‘s title steps away from what most other films perceive as love (which is arguably more like romance) and does its own investigation into what love means. Haneke’s take is a far remove from any romantic notions, picturing not only a woman’s physical and mental decline but her husband’s dogged determination to keep her with him to his own detriment.  The question of how one retains their dignity in the wake of everyone’s good intentions is asked, if not answered. The delivery is wholly unsentimental, the camera’s gaze unflinching; neither judging or assessing anything it sees. Visual and spoken clues are left to the viewer. The approach is never didactic. Instead, we watch scenes play out and apply our own meaning.

The performances in the film are superb. Trintignant’s initial lustre fades over the duration, his face always revealing unspoken concerns and hidden depths. He also displays some physical change, brought on by the stress of the situation. But it’s Riva’s role that demands the greater range as she moves through the stages of decline, which she expertly does. Her face is extremely expressive, even when Anne is at her most distant: during the initial stroke or asked to recall something during a conversation that she cannot. In all the pain that Anne experiences, you can believe Riva feels it too.

The conclusion of Amour is one foregone as the film opens with firemen breaking into the Laurents’ apartment and finding Anne’s corpse shrinelike in bed. How it comes to be thus is the thrust of the film. It’s a painful watch, especially with foreknowledge, and Haneke ensures tight storytelling so that, in its two hour running time, nothing feels excessive. It’s a tour-de-force of film making that lingers long on the mind.

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Wadjda (2012)

Wadjda (2012)

It’s not often films get released and automatically write themselves into the history books. Wadjda (2012, 96 mins.) has by default assumed some historical significance as it’s both the first filmed on location in Saudi Arabia and the first directed by a woman. A general cultural awareness should highlight the importance of this as the Arab state is known for its religious repression and female subjugation. Given these circumstances one may be forgiven for expecting a film that conforms to the society it emerges from, however while Wadjda respectfully handles its culture the content tugs at its restraints.

As the film opens we see a pair of Converse amongst many pairs of conservative black shoes. These are the feet of the eponymous Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), a young girl more interested in having fun than taking her religious schooling seriously. In fact, the only time she does take it seriously is when a Quran recital competition at school offers a substantial cash prize. It’s not about the money, per se, but because Wadjda has a dream — she wants a bike in order to race her friend Abdullah. The only problem being that in her culture it is forbidden; bikes, like most things in Saudi Arabia, are for boys only.

Although the film is named for Wadjda, it is not exclusively about her. Instead, director Haifaa Al-Mansour takes us into the enclosed world of Saudi women with Wadjda acting as a bridge between the domestic and wider world. While home is not a million miles from western comfort — pop music, microwaves, and video games — the outside world is a harsher experience where uncovered woman cannot be seen by men. Or, indeed, heard. As hushed schoolgirls are told for laughing: “A woman’s voice is her nakedness.”

Behind closed doors everyone has their problems. Wadjda’s father is considering taking a second wife to provide him with a son, much to the disappointment of her mother (Reem Abdullah). That she can’t voice an opinion on this is an injustice. At school there’s a rumour going around that Wadjda’s teacher, the strict Ms. Hussa (Ahd), may not be practising what she preaches. At the same school a classmate is married off. All such scenarios are played without judgement. If there are to be any questions over the morality of child brides in Saudi Arabia, then they perhaps belong in the same bucket as the sexualisation of young girls prevalent in the west — the imported T-shirt Wadjda wears at home carries the line ‘I am a GREAT catch!’

In a way, she is a great catch: for a debut role, and at a young age, Mohammed’s performance seems to come naturally. Her portrayal is innocent and good humoured — some parity, perhaps, between actress and character. — and it’s easy to warm to her and, in her dream to have a bike, root also. However, Reem Adbullah and Ahd, as mother and teacher respectively, put in the best performances. The former sad in the way her life holds her back, be it from singing or just having a happy family but ultimately happy for having her daughter. And the latter as a cold, harsh mistress extremely devout as to hide her transgressions.

As Al-Mansour shows us these scenarios and invites us to form our own opinions of Saudi mores, what we see in Wadjda is a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, innocent of what’s expected of her and instead having the temerity to reach out and grab what she wants. To have a dream and see it through. While this may be difficult for many women in Saudi culture for now, and unlikely to be a clarion call to rise up since the county’s a cinema desert, it implies that a forward momentum is possible. The motif of a bike suggest the pedals are already turning.

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