Sunday, May 29, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Ten

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

Low-Life (Im Kwon-taek)
According to the Internet Movie Database, South Korean director Im has made 99 films, of which I’d seen exactly one – Chunhyang, made in 2000. It’s a great movie – a tale of mythic power, presented with great emotional specificity, carrying a strong political undercurrent. Low-Life could hardly be more different. It’s about the life and time of South Korea from the 50’s to the 70’s, through the eyes of a hoodlum who claws his way up the chain of corruption to superficial respectability – including along the way a bizarre and unsuccessful detour into the potboiler end of the movie business (these sequences, if one knew Im’s career better, are probably full of in-jokes). The film hurtles from one thing to the next, periodically flashing dates up on the screen, cramming in a lot of vestigial history (such as the corrupting influence of the contract-bidding process overseen by the CIA) and engineering some forced juxtapositions (his wife gives birth to their son right as the army takes over in 1961, that kind of thing) but seldom conveying a very substantial sense of anything (for an epic of sorts, it feels oddly claustrophobic). It looks deliberately garish, as though trying to convey the tabloid punchiness of a Samuel Fuller. And it doesn’t end as much as just run out of steam.

The film conveys a grimly judgmental attitude to South Korea’s history, but its analytical prowess pretty much begins and ends with the parallel between government and organized crime. Rather disappointingly, it ends up as one of those festival movies which is anthropologically interesting just by its nature, but which doesn’t make a very compelling aesthetic case for itself. One also suspects this movie gives a better sense of the quality of Im’s other 98 movies than Chunhyang did – still, it’d be good to extend the sample a little further.

Eros (Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, Michelangelo Antonioni)
Depending when you ask me, Antonioni may be my favourite director. I’ve seen The Passenger more than almost any other film (currently unreleased on DVD, it’s number one on my wish list). When I discovered him I was eighteen or so and no doubt susceptible to stylish alienation, so perhaps the impact of something like L’Avventura diminishes slightly with time. But Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point explore the possibilities of their milieu with immense, cultivated intelligence, and The Passenger is an astonishing fusion of form and theme – a film that seems to transcend normal limitations. Antonioni is now over 90, and suffered a stroke over ten years ago that seriously hampered his ability to communicate – even so, his 1995 film Beyond The Clouds contained moments of great eloquence. And now he’s contributed a segment to the three-part film Eros.

His segment, The Dangerous Thread Of Things, is a real throwback. Three beautiful characters lounge around in beautiful landscapes, frequently naked, voicing carefully elliptical dialogue. There’s no pretense of naturalism here – this is plainly one of Antonioni’s classic enigmas, with a mysterious criss-crossing reminiscent at times of Blow-Up (although much more stately, and without anything of that film’s temporal and geographical specificity). The film would probably strike the uninitiated as being vaguely absurd, but to an Antonioni fan it’s a welcome postscript – by far the most beautiful episode of Eros, showing an undiminished belief both in eroticism itself and in its inadequacy as a response to our deep-rooted insecurities.

One of the great omissions of this year’s festival was Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046, which received much praise (and quite a bit of bewilderment) at Cannes this year. After In The Mood For Love, Wong is becoming a masterful melodramatist of enormous scope, and 2046 reportedly continues this evolution. His episode of Eros, called The Hand, is just a minor mood piece though, about a young tailor’s love for an older prostitute (played by Gong Li); it’s atmospheric, but almost could have been constructed out of outtakes from In The Mood For Love.

The third director, Soderbergh, is in danger of executing a woeful career symmetry – the highs of Erin Brockovich and Traffic recently followed by Solaris and Fast Forward, both somewhat interesting but ultimately as forgettable as the product of Soderbergh’s ten fallow years after Sex, Lies & Videotape. The forthcoming Ocean’s Twelve may help him out commercially, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who liked Ocean’s Eleven very much. He’s a director of honest ambition and considerable intelligence, but his big ideas are all purely cinematic – cool cinematography colour schemes (Traffic), shots with ample ‘How did they do that’ quality (the car accident near the start of Erin), imaginative casting (The Limey), or just entire movies that no one else would think to do (Fast Forward). But I can't think of a moment in his films that resonated for long after the lights went up. His frequent homages to Hollywood (Erin seems designed as the ultimate star vehicle; Ocean’s Eleven is the ultimate galaxy of celebs; Ocean’s Twelve presumably will be the ultimate unnecessary sequel) just make his commentaries on any other subject seem even less compelling.

His episode of Eros, Equilibrium, is a curio set in the 50’s, about an advertising man (Robert Downey Jr.) who sees a shrink (Alan Arkin) for help with his creative dry spell and a recurring erotic dream. It’s well staged, and provides the only comedy of the three segments, but it adds up to very little, and the ‘eros’ content is peripheral. Overall, Eros has no coherence, and is just another entry in a long history of failed compilation films, but Antonioni’s amazing and presumably last testament gives it a place in movie history. The final image of his segment, and of the film as a whole, justifies the entire project.

Sideways (Alexander Payne)
I liked Payne’s film, now in commercial release, although I doubt I liked it as much as the critical consensus, which has been quite blissful. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play two buddies spending a week in California wine country before the latter’s wedding. Giamatti is a middle-school teacher, recently failed both at writing and marriage, who displaces his self-loathing into wine connoisseurship – his detection of “passion fruit” and “Edam cheese” in the bouquet seems like an expression of the mastery he lacks over more prosaic life matters. Church just wants to get laid; he’s in perpetual, bargain basement but accomplished pick-up mode. They hook up with two local women played by Sandra Oh and Virginia Madsen, and the movie’s pleasant late-summer feel admits an increasingly clear look at the men’s lurking sediment.

The movie is always thoughtful, but I found it rather too easy to take, bearing aromas not so much of the maturing oak barrel as of the sitcom-office water cooler. OK, I know that was lame, but the film so over-ferments its wine analogies that The Grapes Of Wrath plays on TV in one scene. Anyway, for all its articulacy and introspection, I didn't come away from the film with many new ideas into this complex fermentation we call life. Payne’s best film still seems to me, by a mile, to be the scintillating Election, a construction of such graceful metaphorical and allusive complexity I can’t imagine anyone taking cheap shots at it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Peter Sellers

I was born in the UK, and started to become seriously aware of movies in the mid to late 70s, and it follows that I was aware of Peter Sellers long before I tuned into many other film stars. He started out as a local hero, on radio’s The Goon Show and in a number of family-friendly, unadorned comedies, accumulating a reputation as a masterful stylized chameleon. In the early sixties he became an international star, with an Oscar nomination for Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and a great popular success in Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther and A Shot In The Dark – he married Britt Ekland and branched out into the kind of “international” career you used to see at the time, in which the movies were all sunglasses and boobs, and pretty much all flops. Edwards rescued him (as well as himself) in the mid-70’s with three more Pink Panther movies, giving Sellers a box-office stature he’d never had before, even as his performance became visibly tired and mechanical (which, looking at them now, helps to make the pictures seem more nuanced and complex than they might otherwise).

Behind the Mask

In 1979 he made Being There, which was one of the first “adult” movies I ever went to see in a theatre. It’s a parable of a simple-minded gardener who falls into high-powered circles where his utterances about tending the plants are taken as profound strategic commentary; at the end of the film there’s a suggestion he might go all the way to the White House (it’s no surprise the movie is still cited from time to time, as a reference point for the latest political idiocy). Sellers embodied the character perfectly, with one of his quietest performances, and received a second Oscar nomination for it. Then, as if out of sheer perversity, he made The Fiendish Plot of Dr Fu Manchu, and passed away, at the age of just 54.

Sellers is generally regarded as an exemplar of the largely blank canvas who comes to life only through performing – a book about him was titled The Man Behind the Mask, the point largely being there barely was one. In the mid-60’s he played James Bond in Casino Royale, and insisted on doing it largely as himself, the way Cary Grant would have; the result was merely deadening. A few years later, in his down period, he made There’s a Girl in My Soup, in which his character is meant to be shaken out of his playboy life through a connection with Goldie Hawn – again, Sellers seems inert throughout, as if she merely bewildered him.

The Party

I recently watched Sellers in a couple of his more successful films though – Kubrick’s Lolita and Edwards’ The Party – and it struck me how his entire persona is based on a kind of loneliness. In The Party he plays a colossally incompetent Indian actor who single-handedly messes up a big Hollywood production and is blacklisted; through a mix-up, his name ends up on a list of elite party guests instead, and he basically ends up wrecking the place. The movie - formally fascinating even when it’s not actually funny (although personally I do find it pretty funny) – draws its coherence from Sellers’ grasp of Bakshi as an extreme outsider, someone who simply doesn’t grasp behavioural norms (especially in the pretentious and venal way the Hollywood big-shots apply them), technology, or much of the universe’s physical laws (especially as Edwards subtly bends them from time to time), and who’s aware of that in a way, but doesn’t seem to regard it as a personal limitation. At one point he quotes a “saying” from India: “Wisdom is the province of the aged, but the heart of a child is pure.” In general terms, of course, this contrasts the “pure” Bakshi with the dubious “wisdom” of those around him (prematurely aged in soul if not in body), but Sellers has too much resonance to be regarded as being “pure” exactly, and the character clearly has ambition and a libido of some kind. It’s this sense of lying slightly beyond our grasp that elevates the film, giving it the vague sense of an existential meditation.

Lolita illustrates a very different kind of alienation. Sellers plays Clare Quilty, in this telling at least (I’ve never read Nabokov’s novel) a monumentally strange and resourceful character who torments James Mason’s Humbert Humbert through a variety of schemes and guises. The character never shuts up, overwhelming Humbert with an arsenal of tics, eccentricities and ploys; the final confrontation between the two, which frames the rest of the film, feels so abstracted from the “reality” prevailing elsewhere that you’re tempted to draw a vague parallel with the starchild sequence at the end of Kubrick’s later 2001. The fuel for this twisted sense of lift-off flows directly from Sellers; we’ve never encountered such synaptic wiring here on earth. By comparison, his more famous work in Dr Strangelove almost seems like a day at the beach.

Inspector Clouseau

Quilty builds very obviously on Sellers’ formative British work - the famous “zaniness” of The Goon Show, and his boisterous embodiment of the emblematic union organizer in I’m All Right Jack. But that quality drained from him as time went on, in part because of basic physical limitations: he had a heart attack in 1964 (causing him to lose out on Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid) and another in 1977, and the third one killed him. In the later Clouseau movies, as I mentioned, he’s increasingly stylized and slow-moving, almost swallowed up at times by everything else Edwards shoves in there. The movies evidence a weird mythological ambition, as if the director somehow imagined they could constitute his Lord of the Rings; when Sellers died, Edwards constructed a whole new film, Trail of the Pink Panther, out of leftover footage and doubles and a plot about the search for the “missing” Clouseau (and he didn’t even stop there, going on to Curse of... and then, a decade-and-a half later, ending his film career with Son of...). Although Clouseau would have seemed to belong to Sellers as much as any character could belong to an actor, Edwards seems to have been possessed by the desire to prove otherwise.

Most people now have only seen a handful of Sellers’ films - mostly selected from the ones I’ve mentioned in this article – and his bland status as a “classic” comedian doesn’t really reflect the odd, sad shape of his achievements. I wouldn’t claim he’s among the greatest of screen actors, even if the assessment’s confined to the comedy genre. But his career is a fascinating artifact; it’s a full, multi-faceted story, in a way few actors have the chance to forge now.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Nine

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

This is the ninth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

Stage Beauty (Richard Eyre)
This gala presentation has already opened commercially. Set in 1660’s London, it depicts the era’s leading actor of female roles (played by Billy Crudup) as the times change and a royal proclamation opens the stage to women actors. Coincidentally (the film often feels as if the city’s population can’t be more than a couple of hundred people), his dresser (Claire Danes) is the first woman to become a star, passing him on the way down in Star Is Born style, but then her popularity also wanes as audiences realize her technical limitations. Eventually, of course, the two reach a happy accommodation.

This is a bland film with an indifferent sense of its period. The cultural and societal change it revolves around is surely of interest, but as presented here it’s all a matter of whims and petty interactions. The film has a mild undiscriminating bawdiness that may be its most intriguing and authentic quality, but otherwise it misses out on any kind of depth or distinctiveness.

Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene)
It’s amazing that this year brought a new film by Sembene, the pioneer of African cinema. A couple of years ago, the Cinematheque ran a Sembene season, which left no doubt about his overall achievement. His 1966 debut film Black Girl, about a young African woman brought to France as a domestic, is still as fresh as the best of the French New Wave, and its relative lightness makes its indictment of colonial attitudes all the more potent and tragic. His 1975 Xala, by comparison, is a broadly colourful patchwork of moods and themes, showing the risks to a modern Africa of overreaching, and sharp-eyed about the continent’s propensity for corruption at the highest level; despite its hard-headedness, the film communicates real excitement about the prospect of transformation, which makes it a little sad now. His 1992 Guelwaar muses against another splashy, discursive canvas on the mixed blessing of foreign aid. Now he’s over 80, with an amazing biography, not as well known as he should be, but clearly a towering figure.

His astonishing Moolaade, if it turns out to be his last film, will stand as a triumphant summation of his career. It’s simple in its technique, with the unadorned clarity and straightforward quality of a children’s story, but it exposes both the beauty and brutality of Africa with powerful eloquence. The film’s subject is genital mutilation (or “purification”) – an unquestioned rite of female passage in its tiny village setting where the elders claim it’s required by Islam. Four young girls flee the mutilation ceremony and take refuge with the only woman who opposes the ceremony, and has kept her own child intact. She places them under a symbolic rite of protection, opening up a chasm in the village that brings out all its ugliness and unthinking acceptance of barbaric rituals. It’s a life of poverty but not deprivation, where tradition and legend are as tangible as stone walls; radio is prevalent and TV is trickling in, but the progress is haltering and could easily be reversed.

The film has a hopeful ending, but not a naïve one: it acknowledges that even progress of the most obvious kind may be a matter of some steps forward, some back. It mentions globalization and free markets, and one character knows enough of the world to label the proposed marriage of an 11-year-old girl as pedophilia, but that character pays for his progressiveness with his life. Moolaade has no layered-on artistry or theories or Westernized ironies. It’s entirely a film about Africa – a cinema that almost seems to spring directly from the land.

Cinevardaphoto (Agnes Varda)
I hope this doesn’t sound like damning with faint praise, but Varda strikes me essentially as a decent and pleasant director. She’s not quite on the front rank of filmmakers – maybe she’s too itinerant in her interests, and she hasn’t made that one overwhelming masterpiece that might have sealed her reputation - but her films are hard to dislike. Her 1961 work Cleo From 5 to 7 is still one of the freshest works of the French New Wave, with a vibrant female perspective, and her films Vagabonde and One Sings The Other Doesn’t have a clear place in any survey of feminist cinema. She’s done much to honour the work of her late husband Jacques Demy, making several documentaries on his life and work and leading the restoration of his wonderful The Young Girls Of Rochefort. Her most recent full-length work, Les Glaneurs Et La Glanesse, evoked much affection for its essaying on the act of gleaning in all its variants, mixed in with musings on how filmmaking might belong to the same tradition. To me it seemed like a doodle, if not a winding-down.

Cinevardaphoto is a compilation of three short films. Only the first, Ydessa, The Bears and Etc., is a new work. It presents Ydessa Hendeles, a Toronto-based art collector and gallery-owner whose “Teddy Bear Project” contains thousands of archival photographs, mostly innocuous groupings, each containing a teddy bear. She calls it “a fiction of a world where everyone has a teddy bear,” disguised to look like some kind of documentary. The photos indeed seem to coalesce into an illusion of a vast family, but the installation also threatens to become overwhelming, to render the viewer “suffocated by someone else’s obsession” as one spectator puts it. The film catches the Project on display in Munich, where it’s housed in a museum used during the Third Reich to display Nazi propaganda: Hendeles (herself the child of Holocaust survivors) has placed a model of a kneeling Hitler in the exhibition’s exit hall. The undercurrents of all this are potentially endless, and Varda teases them out lightly. Like all her best work, it’s bright and accessible without merely spoon-feeding the audience with conclusions.

The second film, Ulysse, made in 1983, revisits a photo taken almost thirty years earlier, interviewing the subjects (who disclaim much memory of it) and musing on the production of meaning. More complex, slyly funny and allusive than Ydessa, the film evokes Chris Marker; Varda seems to be pushing here beyond her usual limits. It won a French Cesar for best short film at the time. The third film, Salut les Cubains, goes back to 1963 – it’s a montage of Cuban photographs, celebrating the island’s culture and society and in particular its music. It’s a skillful assembly, moving almost invisibly between subjects, providing a strong visceral sense of Cuba’s raw energy. Taken as a whole, Cinevardaphoto ably demonstrates the immense capacity of photographs to generate meaning, and provides a smart, seductive summary of Varda’s range and longevity. But I think festival audiences will have viewed it as a bit of a trifle, as relaxation between more demanding excursions.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reclaiming Chaos

Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, which came out a couple of years ago, was an achievement rare in any era – a small, highly specific and localized narrative of enormous, terrible implications. In just an hour and a half, it devastatingly illustrated how little validity still attaches to America’s bloated myths of mobility and renewal. At the time I described it here as “a superb exercise in form reflecting content. It’s quiet, precise, careful, and desperate, taking on, without any cinematic ornamentation, a sense of escalating threat.” The film was also beautifully ambiguous though, supporting a multiplicity of readings. Rick Groen, in the Globe and Mail, gave it four stars (it won the Toronto film critics’ award for best picture and actress), emphasizing its upbeat or redemptive aspects and describing its ending like this: “..the weakest among us delivers a lesson in uncommon strength – a pure act of selfless love, with none to bear witness and no reward in sight. Then, alone, she passes through.”

I didn’t see it that way, and responded like this: “Uncommon strength and selfless love…you can call it that, but isn’t it the raw material of survival every day at the very bottom of the food chain, that people somehow keep going, way beyond a point that (to those of us who’ve never lived under such limitations) seems impossible. It’s not selfless, it’s just the best self there is. The ending, I’d say, is a pure tragedy, a capitulation to a horrifying dead end.”

Meek’s Cutoff

Reichardt’s new picture Meek’s Cutoff has a similar kind of effect – virtually everyone agrees it’s a strong film, even a masterpiece, but there’s unusual disagreement on the nature of its achievement. The film, set in the 1860’s, depicts a small group of pioneers heading west, wandering off the main trail after their guide, Stephen Meek, leads them astray. With water running low and anxiety climbing, they capture a lonely native, disagreeing over whether to kill him or whether he might lead them to water. Frankly, that’s about as much of a narrative as the film ever provides.

The debate about the fate of their captive leads some to see the film, in part, as a commentary on Guantanamo Bay, or more broadly on the limits of morality in a time of strain. But I think this only speaks to the eternal and universal nature of uncertainty about making our way in the world. To me, the movie isn’t primarily interesting for its possible specific parallels, but rather for its broad vision of a collective ethos in the process of coalescing. It takes a long time to show us the three women on the trek; they’re filmed in long-shot, or in darkness, or hidden behind big bonnets. They’re also excluded from decision-making; when a vote is taken at one point on the next step, there’s no thought given to including them. We see this as clearly a remnant of the communities they’ve left behind, as ill-suited to the way ahead as the caged canary and grandfather clock they’re hauling along.

Meek says women embody chaos while men embody destruction, an inherently grim view of human capacity, hardly likely to yield much positive momentum. By the end of Meek’s Cutoff though, this inefficient structure is breaking down - you might say chaos is slowly asserting itself over destruction. Groen again senses the divine in his summing up of the ending: “a young country faces a fork in the road, wondering where to put its trust: in the flaws of a familiar leader, in the hope of a complete stranger, or in the love of an invisible God. Coming on to two centuries later, the road may be paved now, but the wondering continues.”

The Wondering Continues

I don’t really see where the invisible God comes in, but it’s true that the superb final moments are mythically charged in a way Reichardt rigorously avoids up to then (it’s the only time I thought of the much more fanciful way a film like Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout engages with the desert). And as Groen describes, those final moments sum up how the deliberate but self-deluding linearity of the opening scenes has been replaced by fundamental, terrifying uncertainty. Also, crucially, the implicit negotiation has become one between a woman and what we’d today call a “minority,” with Meek having explicitly ceded his last vestige of authority. This certainly resonates against the sociological realignment lying far ahead in America’s future, realizing the promise of this strange new chaos, but the big point is that it lies ahead, with no apparent hope of reconciliation in the film’s present. As Groen says, the wondering continues. And the wandering.

Meek’s Cutoff is entirely satisfying as a follow-on to and extension of Wendy and Lucy, confirming Reichardt as one of America’s most important filmmakers. There’s not a strained or ill-considered moment in the film; everything conveys a superbly considered weight, all the more remarkable for its extreme economy of means. It carries the most satisfying kind of complexity, flowing from a gloriously intuitive artistic personality, serious and reflective while avoiding strain and pretentiousness in a way that’s simply beyond most directors, even the good ones.

Mother and Child

For example, take Rodrigo’s Garcia Mother and Child, which was released last year and is now available on cable and DVD: it’s another unusually engrossing and intriguing film, focusing even more specifically on women. Annette Bening plays a woman who got pregnant at fourteen and gave up her daughter for adoption; thirty-seven years later, she’s still tortured by it. Naomi Watts plays the daughter, professionally successful but personally twisted and dysfunctional. And in the third interlocking story, Kerry Washington is a woman wanting to adopt.

Mother and Child is full of the kinds of coincidences, contrivances, twists and self-discoveries we’re used to from such multi-strand narratives, and I can’t say it ultimately amounts to much more than this: motherhood is a strange and wonderful thing, it’s glorious when it works out, and tragic when it doesn’t. Yep, I think that’s about it. But it’s continuously elevated by a psychological daring of a kind you don’t often see in such calculated works, aided by often sensational acting (Bening is once again amazing). Watts’ character, for instance, isn’t just screwed up – she’s flamboyantly so, and her treatment of a doctor played by Amy Brenneman in just two scenes is as deliciously cruel as anything you’ll ever see. At such times, you only wish Garcia took things even further. That aside, you can’t help having some misgivings about a film that, for all its means, seems ultimately less interested in separating women from their traditional biologically-defined roles than does Meek’s Cutoff, despite a century and a half of “progress.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eight

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2004)

Being Julia (Istvan Szabo)
You’d think the artistic and commercial failure of producer Robert Lantos’ Sunshine would have killed off his enthusiasm for Istvan Szabo, that film’s director, but instead Lantos has been bragging in interviews about how he talked Szabo into taking on Being Julia, overriding the man’s insistence that he has no aptitude for comedy. Since Szabo’s sensibility is about as stodgy as it gets, it shouldn’t have been hard to take him at his word, but I guess that’s producing genius at work for you.

Lantos got off a little luckier than he deserved, entirely because of the fine central performance by Annette Bening. She plays a theatrical diva in 1930’s London, married to impresario Jeremy Irons, at the top of her game but developing major ennui until she falls into an affair with a young admirer. When that peters out, the beau takes up with a young actress whom he then engineers into a star-making part in Bening’s latest play, setting the stage for sparks.

Actually, these never quite manifest themselves. The film is pervasively flat, smothering potential themes and nuances, never summoning any visual panache, and seldom allowing the starry (in a B-list kind of way) cast to gel. The ending, in other hands, might have been devastating; here it’s merely academic. But Bening, despite an overdone accent, is extraordinarily vibrant and resourceful, commanding every scene. She makes the film, but also dooms it, because her outsized virtuosity rubs in the drabness of everything else. A more able director might have kept things in perspective, but Szabo seems to have been otherwise occupied, convincing himself he could do funny. Despite the film’s obviously minor status, it dutifully received the festival’s opening gala slot, and is now limping along in commercial release.

3-Iron (Kim Di-duk)
I only know Kim from his film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...And Spring, released here a few months ago. It’s about the life of an aging monk and his young acolyte, living in magnificent isolation; the acolyte leaves, later returns, order resumes itself. Perhaps one of the year’s best reviewed films, Spring… seems slow and meditative by mainstream standards, but it’s actually a knowingly accessible and ingratiating piece of storytelling, artfully tapping a wide emotional register. Kim’s earlier films were apparently very different, more abrasive. 3-Iron, lacking the pictorial quality of Spring…, may not become as great a popular success, but it’s a stronger film overall and actually a wonderful, innovative love story. Once again, it constitutes a dream of redefining the world, this time not by withdrawing from it but by mastering and then disappearing within the spaces woven into and unnoticed by the everyday.

A young man breaks into empty homes; he doesn’t steal anything but stays for a while to absorb the lives of the inhabitants, trying on clothes, fixing deficient equipment and hand washing dirty laundry. In one house he encounters an abused young woman; when her husband returns, he takes revenge on him (using the 3-iron of the title). The woman leaves the abuser and joins him on his journey, easily assuming the same rituals. Once they’re caught and separated, it seems the project must be at an end, but instead it enters a more ethereal stage – the characters ultimately achieve what you might call a highly bearable lightness of being.

The man doesn’t say a word throughout, and the woman says only three – the film’s first half in particular often resembles a deadpan silent comedy. The tone sometimes becomes darker, but doesn’t stay there; even when you think it’s entering madness, or else the supernatural, it keeps one foot in the humdrum and benign, and ultimately plants both feet in sentimentality. I’m not sure that Kim has a truly exciting worldview as yet. The film’s final caption - “It’s hard to tell that the world we live in is either reality or dream” - is unoriginal and then for good measure stated too literally. A film that promises for a while to be both beguiling and bracing ends up being mostly just the former. But that’s hardly negligible.

Zulu Love Letter (Ramadan Suleman)
“How can we hope to heal this land when there are so many restless souls?” asks a character in Zulu Love Letter, summing up the brooding despair and unreconciled sense of loss that hangs over the film. It’s the present day, and a black journalist tries to reopen the case of a missing girl while dealing with her own tortured memories and family problems – in particular a broken marriage and a deaf daughter (whose condition seems like too strenuous a metaphor for a societal “failure to communicate”). The film does communicate its basic point – that South Africa has not come close to realizing the promise of the end of apartheid. But then everyone in the audience could likely have stipulated this point before the film even started.

The meshing of political and private is hardly an unfamiliar structure for issue-oriented films, and although the raw anger here occasionally connects, matters aren’t carried off here with much skill. The swings from (almost documentary-like) images of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to late-night alcohol-laden personal recriminations seem particularly laboured, especially given the clichéd performance of the lead actress (although lines like “I need to end the wake in my head” would surely defeat anyone). And in the end, after dipping into particularly clichéd conspiracy territory, the film merely lunges for a relatively positive reconciliation, leaving earlier issues trailing in the dust.

This particular film was shown as part of a section called “South Africa: Ten Years Later” but otherwise could have fitted into the “Planet Africa” category that’s been part of the festival for over a decade. I don’t know how many attendees seek out the films in Planet Africa for reasons of personal heritage, but I truly doubt that many do so for aesthetic reasons. I know that any demand for an African cinematic style would only cheapen the complexity and breadth of what we sum up as “Africa,” but a director like Abderrahmane Sissako (whose Waiting For Happiness screened at the festival two years ago) succeeds in creating a narrative and visual tapestry that owes nothing to Western preconceptions. It must be acknowledged though that Sissako’s film would not readily qualify as accessible entertainment. Zulu Love Letter seems formed almost entirely by Western norms; the film looks and feels entirely familiar, even when it momentarily shows us something new. “We’re supposed to be in charge in this country,” says the journalist bitterly, and the film shows effectively enough the fallacy of that illusion (albeit on a narrowly personal level that denies us much sense of the broader machinery), but the film’s strongest statement of compromise and thwarted ambition lies in its very conventionality.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Star Images

As many people said, Elizabeth Taylor’s recent death seemed like the end of the line for classic Hollywood. She wasn’t literally the golden era’s last survivor, but she was the only one who retained a high degree of visibility (marriages; illnesses; Michael Jackson friendship) and relative relevance (AIDS activism) while remaining largely untouched by the texture of contemporary cinema: with the exception of Mike Nichols (for whom she won her second Oscar in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and, oddly enough, Nicolas Roeg (in a TV version of Sweet Bird of Youth) she didn’t work with a single important “modern” director. In contrast, to pick a couple of still-living stars of the same general era, Kirk Douglas soldiered purposefully on for far longer, and Doris Day simply disappeared from view altogether.

Elizabeth Taylor

I regularly return to classic cinema, trying to revisit all major corners of the library as often as I can, but I’d only watched two of Taylor’s films in the last eight years, Reflections of a Golden Eye and Secret Ceremony (I’ve seen just about all the other notable ones in the distant past). Coincidentally, they both came out in 1968, and form part of what might charitably be regarded as a brief experimental period (or as it’s more commonly described, a run of hopeless flops which killed off her momentum as a working actress). Although Reflections at least is a fascinating (and remarkably kinky) creation, it’s peripheral to how she was ultimately remembered.

But then, you could almost say that for everything she ever did. The concept of a celebrity (or at least visibility) existing largely independently of any ascertainable achievement has obviously received a boost from reality TV and social media and our overwhelming collective derangement. But there’s always been plenty of daylight between fame and its supposed drivers: most people can recognize Bogart and Cagney, but how many people below the age of 40 have seen more than a handful of their pictures? Maybe in that sentence I should change 40 to 60?

There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s only natural for phenomena to become dislocated from their origins. Most of us don’t know the derivations of words and phrases, or the origins of various customs, or (as newspaper stories seem to point out every few months) key facts in Canadian history, or – in many cases - even why the job we’re employed at has to be done the way it does (except that, you know, it’s always been that way). If we did have that knowledge, of course, our appreciation of language and social interaction might well be richer; you might crack the way to do the job better than it’s ever been done before and earn a promotion (or else it might get you fired for being high-maintenance). But that’s mainly the territory of eccentrics. Most of us just grab onto the rail and try not to lose our footing as the train rattles along.

Playing the Lottery

Compared with those other things I mentioned, having an inadequate grasp of the origins of star images is a pretty minor limitation of course. And unlike words or phrases which have active utility (even if not the one their origins might have suggested), those images, looked at logically, don’t have any value at all if they’re divorced from the activity and body of work that generated them. The problem phrase there, no doubt, is “looked at logically.” Logically, no one should play the lottery (and by the way, I never have) – the expected value (weighting all possible outcomes by the likelihood of them happening) of not playing and keeping the money far outweighs the expected value of the grand prize. But people put a greater weight of course on highly desirable outcomes, perhaps in large part because of the allure (indeed, the necessity) of waking dreams as a component of consciousness. Since cinema is so rooted in fantasy, I wonder if that doesn’t partly explain the mystique of star images long after their natural expiration dates; they carry the promise of lottery tickets, the hint of some form of transcendence, even if it’s entirely beyond our grasp to access it.

Of course, unlike lottery tickets, we all could explore the archives of the classic stars if we wanted to; but I doubt it seems necessary. How many people lapped up the coverage of Taylor’s death without ever feeling a serious impulse to revisit A Place in the Sun or Suddenly Last Summer or any of the others? Most people, no doubt. And indeed, beyond curiosity value, it’s hard to see the point of watching any one or two of her films in isolation, any more than you’d read a random chapter of a specific history book. What more would it really tell you about the nature of her legend?

Staying Power

In a way, the distance between ourselves and the work accentuates the value of her star image, in the same way age and rarity drive up the price of a painting; if we looked closer, we might see how ramshackle a creation it actually is. Nowadays, we’re invited – if not compelled – to look closer at everything and everyone, deconstructing it all to death (of course, it’s gauche to bring too much sincerity to that exercise; the correct tone is an ironic distance, if not a snide sneer). Accordingly, careers flare out with shocking speed, but without ever prompting much collective self-examination on why we ever acted as if we cared. A transient celebrity of today is probably photographed more in a week than Marilyn Monroe was in a year; only a remarkable few can survive such scrutiny (and even then, they likely need some good luck, for example in finding the right movie at the right time).

In a strange way, this all went off in my mind earlier this year when an actor called Alex Pettyfer was simultaneously starring in two Hollywood pictures, I Am Number Four and Beastly. It’s a remarkable achievement, and I was wondering why I never remembered hearing of him before. But then the films both flopped, and I already wonder how much he’ll be heard of again. As best as I can tell, those two movies are disposable even by prevailing standards, embodying the throwaway state of mainstream film culture. But I don’t know if the concept of being built to last has much currency there now, any more than people expect their tweets to have the staying power of poetry.

As I said, Elizabeth Taylor isn’t really central to my approach to cinema (which tends to revolve much more around directors); I don’t think I’ll be delving into her filmography in the near future. Anyway, it hardly seems necessary. Whatever you knew about her, it was plain to all a great star had died. And that we’re in an age where great stars die much more often than they’re born.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

This is the seventh of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

The Ninth Day (Volker Schlondorff)
Schlondorff has had a weird, messy career – starting out as a leader of the “New German cinema,” winning an Oscar (amid a hearty amount of controversy) for The Tin Drum, and then drifting from one thing to another. In 1998 I reviewed his Hollywood film Palmetto, a long-forgotten film noir with Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Shue, and quoted him as follows: “I want to be more like my brothers who are directors – just do the operation.” He said of Palmetto: “It’s unabashed trash, and I’m fully conscious of that, and it’s guaranteed to have no deeper meaning.” It’s hard to feel too warm towards an accomplished director who actually might be pining to steer the latest Britney Murphy vehicle. Well, maybe he was having everyone on, for his next film was The Legends Of Rita, a rigorous return to German politics. And except for a pretty mediocre episode in the compilation film Ten Minutes Older: The Cello, that’s it until now.

His latest film returns to WW2, to the true story of a Luxembourg priest interned in Dachau for his role in the Resistance. He’s sent home on a nine-day leave, perhaps to be released permanently if, against all his convictions, he’ll persuade the local bishop to abandon his quiet but influential antipathy to the Nazi occupiers. The main medium of the priest’s temptation is a local SS officer whose faith is deep and informed but twisted into meaningless pragmatism. It’s a small-scale, somber film, filled with dense theological exchange, pivoting on the parallel with Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (craven treachery, or an instrument of God’s will?) Although the general trajectory is surely never in doubt, the film conveys how the period’s impossible pressures pushed people into wretched tests, rendering the definition (let alone the execution) of God’s will virtually impossible: the murky relationship between the Vatican and the Third Reich looms large in the film’s background. The Nazis’ limited true reverence for religion is illustrated in the Dachau sequences, where the guards carry out crucifixions and knowingly promote prisoner resentment of the priests’ marginally better treatment.

All that said, it’s a very narrowly focused film, and seemingly the work of an old man drawn to poring over his archives rather than breaking new ground. The film’s virtues are primarily theatrical or literary rather than cinematic. Like numerous directors before him, Schlondorff may have become what he rebelled against as a prime mover of New Cinema, and the choice of another Holocaust subject just makes it seem even more regressive. But given the director’s wavering convictions lately, it’s intriguing to read the priest’s moral struggle as an expression of Schlondorff’s own deliberations.

Cafe Lumiere (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls Taiwanese director Hou one of the “two greatest working narrative filmmakers” (the other is Abbas Kiarostami – who had two films at this year’s festival). And yet Rosenbaum’s chapter on Hou in his recent (quite wonderful) collection Essential Cinema is one of the book’s weakest, in that it doesn’t help the reader very much to actually understand why Hou is so great. Rosenbaum doesn’t deny this difficulty, remarking that “part of what makes his work so breathtaking is that he never does the same thing twice.” Ultimately he concludes that “Hou’s movies are about the glory and terror of becoming, and there are few more potent subjects.” It will also be observed that this is so broad as barely to qualify as a coherent “subject.” I’ve seen a number of Hou’s films, but I’ve only seen them once, and this is probably a problem; his films are so densely constructed – narratively, temporally, structurally – that you spend most of a first viewing just trying out to construct a basic mental blueprint of what you’re watching. This complexity seems to reflect Hou’s almost bottomless sensitivity for the tortured underpinnings of Taiwanese society, and his immense psychological intuition.

What a pleasure then that Café Lumiere is the most narratively accessible of the Hou films I’ve seen. It follows a young woman, three months pregnant and just back from Taiwan, as she criss-crosses Tokyo, visiting parents or friends, working on a research project, but most often simply seen in transit. Café Lumiere is, remarkably, a major train movie, and I wonder if the title doesn’t refer in part to the Lumiere Brothers’ embryonic movie of a train entering the station, which (as the legend – apparently wrongly – has it) made spectators flee from their seats. The film watches trains from inside and out, and one character travels the lines recording their sounds or, as someone puts it, recording Japan. The same character creates a digital artwork – a symbolic rendering of the city’s rail system, with a womb and wired-up foetus at its centre.

I don’t think Hou has gone nuts about trains all of a sudden, but their symbolic possibilities as a medium for perpetrating community and human intercourse are clear. The scenes not set on trains are often evasive, marked by silence, contemplative. The film is dedicated to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu (as, coincidentally or not, was one of Kiarostami’s two films at the festival this year), and Ozu’s influence is most keenly felt in a superb dining scene near the end (apparently, for those who know Ozu’s work more closely than I do, the references are copious throughout the film), but it’s not a study of a family like Tokyo Story or so many others.

The woman’s research project, on a composer who also spanned Japan and Taiwan sixty years earlier, suggests the possibility of an entirely different avenue of investigation, which the film doesn’t really take up. A more abstract expression of alternate possibilities comes in the presentation of her friend’s store – we first see the space in a single shot from a particular angle; the next time in another single shot with the camera moved 180 degrees – like a shot/reverse shot separated by half an hour. There’s a complex filmic dialogue here on alternatives and oppositions; both thematically and in its technique, the film seems to be about self-definition and its contingencies and choices. This subject might have entailed Hou’s most diverse, ambitious canvas yet, but he responds instead by honing down to his simplest, purest film. It’s not so much about the glory of becoming as of being.

The last time we see the girl, on a station platform, it’s evident that nothing has been “resolved” – the film could start here as easily as it ends. But any observed train encompasses a mixture of arrivals and departures and points of transition. I mentioned one of the title’s nuances, but more broadly the notion of a café Lumiere evokes something at the heart of cinema, a site where joy and beguilement takes precedence over analysis. I never thought a Hou film would have me writing such a bubbly response, but there it is.


When I revisit the great directors of cinema history, as I do all the time, I’m often disproportionately drawn to what they did later in life, particularly to their very last films. This must reflect some quirk in my own personality, since those pictures frequently lack the raw energy and innovation of their creators’ earlier work. On the contrary, what often intrigues me is the sense of a fully achieved creative personality, still vital but no longer searching for major new directions. I don’t think many of these last films were consciously intended to be that – death or illness or lack of finance usually forces it on them – but it’s remarkable how they draw from that imposed status, as if saying this is what I was working towards all along – this is the essence of what I know about life and cinema.

Final films

For example, Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire is a gorgeous story of thwarted desire, with two different actresses famously alternating between scenes as the woman who’s the obscure object of desire. That wasn’t Bunuel’s original plan - in his late 70’s, he came up with the idea when the original actress dropped out - but it stands as a perfect final wry statement on our captivity to pompous delusions. Another of my supreme favourites, John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (not technically his last film, but the last in which he exercised his creative personality) extends his lifelong exploration of love and obsession into an infinitely mysterious and complex quasi-fantasy.

A couple of years ago, Eric Rohmer finished his career with The Romance of Astree and Celadon (and in this case at least, it does appear to have been a conscious final work): I said here that its “surpassingly beautiful ending confirms the belief and delight underlying his wonderful half-century of cinema.” Not long before, A Prairie Home Companion was a magnificent endpoint for Robert Altman. Other cases, like Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo, are easier to take as a sign of diminished powers, but remain cherishable even if just for the sense of a stubborn veteran insisting on still getting it done.

Jacques Tati

The final film I most recently rewatched is Jacques Tati’s Parade, made in 1974. This is a sadder case than the others I mentioned: Tati made very few films in his career (only five full-length works before this, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday probably being the best-known), and experienced a severe personal setback when his investment in Playtime – his finest picture I think – drove him into bankruptcy. Parade was a work for Swedish television, of all things - a variety show filmed in a Stockholm theatre, with clowns, musicians, dogs and donkeys, and Tati himself reprising some of his old mime routines. His subsequent ideas came to nothing; he died in 1982.

Parade is generally described, not too surprisingly, as a rather sad swansong; Tati made it quickly, and by its nature it didn’t allow the visual and conceptual sophistication of his other work. In his book on Tati, David Bellos says: “From a technical point of view, it is the least good work he ever did, and can be seen as a tragic mistake for a man who for three decades had exhausted all around him in the search for perfection in image and sound.” He also notes that during its making “Tati seemed to some to be a rather glum and confused old man.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, who knew Tati, describes his experience of the movie like this: “A friend at the time who despised Tati had told me it was pathetic, and I felt that it was…beautiful for what it was, yet excruciating in relation to what one knew its director wanted to do and was capable of doing.” Rosenbaum also notes though that the film has since increased in importance for him, noting in particular the lack of the bitterness marking Tati’s preceding film, Trafic.

Similarly, I don’t remember thinking much of the film when I first saw it, however many decades ago that may have been. But this time I found it far more sophisticated than I’d remembered, beautifully ambiguous, and quite lovely. As I mentioned, it takes the form of a quasi-circus show, but it constantly plays games with the formal structure that implies, with action spilling over from the ring into a workshop-type area in the wings, where a group of performers seem to be constructing the show even as it takes place. Sometimes a bit of business starts in this area, as if we were watching behind-the-scenes documentary footage, before developing into something clearly belonging to “the show.” Some moments couldn’t possibly be seen by the audience, and are only explicable as inventions for the camera.

Joy and Sadness

But then the nature of the audience is ambiguous too. Throughout the film, the camera keeps returning to certain people, as though they were points of identification, although it’s hard to see why they should be; a few rows are just filled with cardboard cutouts. Some in the crowd turn out to be planted performers, like a middle-aged business type who breaks away from his disapproving wife and jumps into the ring to try his hand at riding an uncooperative mule, but the initial interplay between the man and wife is again too low-key to be intended for anyone other than the cinema audience. In these respects and others, as Bellos points out, “in the end we do not know if we are watching a show or a film, and that blurring is precisely what Tati wanted. The uncertain boundaries between spectator and performer, between spontaneity and composition, between ‘show’ and ‘film’ add up to Tati’s last real word on the paradox of art that had worried him for more than twenty years.”

To me this far outweighs the caveats about lower technical quality (which in any event seems now rather charming, as coded evidence of the intimacy of what we’re watching). Not least is that Tati’s own presence there, in effect embodying himself, is never explained; why is this legend participating in such a show in Sweden, seemingly without any special billing, perhaps the first among equals but in no sense hogging the spotlight? Once you start reflecting on this aspect of the film, it takes on a gloriously existential undertone, gracefully sidestepping the weight of commercial cinema, even Tati’s own cinema, to reengage with play and creativity in its purest form. In that sense, it’s one of my favourite examples of an old master making lemonade out of lemons; it may not have been what Tati would ideally have wanted to do, but partly for that very reason, it’s an eloquent essay on both the joy and sadness of being held captive to your art.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

2004 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2004)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2004 Toronto Film Festival.

9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom)
Winterbottom turns up at just about every festival, almost always working a new genre or at least a new angle. He’s amazingly talented and facile: last year he made both In this World, a documentary-style examination of Afghani refugees, and Code 46, an enigmatic futuristic semi-thriller. In the last few years he’s also covered war (Welcome To Sarajevo), Westerns (The Claim), social drama (Wonderland), and an archaeology job on early 80’s British rock (24 Hour Party People). Only the last of these feels particularly vital. Winterbottom’s eclecticism and speed tend to seem like an end in themselves, as if his career amounted to some kind of contest entry. I wrote that line last year, and it seems more apposite than ever, because he turned up this year with a hardcore sex film. 9 Songs got heaps of attention at Cannes, and is provoking pages of coverage in its native Britain, where it’s been called “the rudest British film ever,” rather as if it were a Carry On film with really bad doubles entendres.

If only. The film shows the relationship of a British man and a somewhat younger American woman – mostly having sex, but sometimes taking drugs, hanging out, arguing. They met at the Brixton Academy rock venue, and the movie weaves in performances by groups like Super Furry Animals and Franz Ferdinand (nine of them I guess, although it felt like less). Sometimes it shifts to Antarctica, where the man flies a plane over the ice and thinks back to the relationship. This generates the film’s only stab at overt meaning: that the Antarctic is “claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time, like two people in a bed.”

It’s an odd, impressionistic film, running a mere (and rude) 69 minutes. The sex is the only thing memorable about it, but it’s not memorable enough to justify the hype (I know, critics always write things like that and it probably sounds disingenuous, but it really is true). The film has a sweaty, physically authentic intimacy to it, but the relationship never feels particularly real, and the symbolic weight implied by the use of Antarctica coexists oddly with the disposable quality connoted by the film’s brevity and general lack of introspection. On the way out of the screening, I heard one guy say the movie should have had more sex in it, and he might be right – you know what they say, in for a penny, in for a pound (the current version is in for maybe eighty cents). Winterbottom supposedly offered to cut the film down if it avoids censorship problems, which earned him a rebuke from the movie’s own producer. But it probably tells you a lot about how he sees all this – he’s done that now, so on to the next thing.

The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenabar)
After the virtually incomprehensible Open Your Eyes and the inconsequential The Others, Amenabar works in a more middlebrow register with The Sea Inside, a well-handled drama of a paraplegic who simply wants to die. Javier Bardem plays him with great depth of feeling; in bed for 28 years since a diving accident broke his neck, frequently smiling only because, he says, in his state of dependency on others you learn to cry by smiling. Running over two hours, the film paints a detailed portrait of the family that cares for him, and of the “Death With Dignity” activists that work for his cause.

It’s a good movie, but it perhaps sums up its ingratiating approach that during the year or so covered by the film two different women fall in love with the character, and this is despite his tenet that “total dependency comes at the expense of intimacy.” The film is premised on an unimaginable boredom and loneliness, but as a viewing experience it’s mostly warm and comforting, and too polished to feel very natural. Amenabar employs his formidable technical skills to expand Bardem’s claustrophobic environment, taking him on flights of fantasy over fields and shorelines, or vividly recalling the accident. Basically, the film belongs primarily with the big gala selections as the rare foreign film that can take care of itself, commercially speaking; Bardem will very likely win an Oscar nomination (he already won Best Actor at the Venice festival). This is all fine, but the movie’s reception as one of the festival’s best only demonstrates how the consensus notion of film art is watered down.

Mon Pere est Ingenieur (Robert Guediguian)
Guediguian’s films seldom show anywhere except the film festival, where he was the subject of the spotlight section a few years ago. He shoots all his films in Marseilles, with decidedly blue-collar leanings, using the same lead actors from film to film. His most famous work is Marius Et Jeannette, an easygoing middle-aged love story; his best is probably La Ville Est Tranquille, a majestic survey of marginal existence. Marie-Jo And Her Two Lovers, a couple of years ago, was amiable but suggested for once that Guediguian might be in danger of over-mining his narrow vein of material. The start of the new film seems to confirm this fear, with a bizarrely contrived scene of the director’s two lead actors playing a modern Mary and Joseph, wandering through Marseilles on December 24 looking for a place to give birth. For a while after that the film seems to flail around between reality and fantasy, between past and present. But at its heart it’s a fairly simple story about an idealistic doctor who has mysteriously entered a catatonic-like state. Her former partner, now a politician, returns to take care of her, and discovers that she was facilitating a local Romeo and Juliet-like romance between a young white girl and Arab boy. In some way, it seems, the power of her identification with their love, or else the trauma of her family’s resistance to it, has pushed her toward this withdrawal.

“I’m sick of people holding the world back,” she says at one point, “to preserve their own petty lives.” Mon Pere est Ingenieur at times seems ready to leave Marseilles behind – it talks more of global problems, it harbours a sentimental vision of unity and belonging, and it escapes frequently into myth and fairy tale. At the end though, it’s as wedded to the old town as ever. The film is ultimately sweet and warming, but nothing about it feels particularly necessary – much of it is a retread of Guediguian’s previous work, and the bits that aren’t are generally contrived. What holds Guediguian back from moving on?