Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Flanders (2005)

Dir: Bruno Dumont, France, 87mins

Cast: Samuel Boidin, Adelaide Leroux, Henri Cretel, Jean-Marie Bruveart

 After US art house horror Twentynine Palms (2003) Bruno Dumont returns to the rural north French town of his upbringing and the setting for his previous two ventures, debut Le Vie de Jesus (1997) and the Cannes Grand Prix decorated L’Humanite (1999).  Flanders focuses upon stoic farmer Demester (Boidin) and the promiscuous Barbe (Leroux).  After his public denial of their physical yet emotionally ambivalent relationship she gets involved with another local, Blondell (Cretel) who, like the central protagonist, has been conscripted for national service.

The narrative may sound like one dealing in Hollywoodgeneric concepts, potentially The Deer Hunter (1978) crossed with Jules et Jim (1961), but as such this isn’t really a traditional war film.  The war, shot inTunisia, remains unspecified, lacking any political, social or geographical context although looks to have currentMiddle East origins.  Opening with a lengthy fight between Briche (Bruveart) and an African colleague, the section shows the brutality of modern warfare acting as a catalyst to release dormant but instinctive, primal urges.

The director’s breadth leads him to aspire towards an Italian Neo Realist ideology, emulating Rossellini and Pasolini’s meditations on human nature and that of simply “being”.  Like the aforementioned, accusations of little occurring in terms of story could be applied validly to Flanders.  Refuting linear dynamics to drive the plot on, matters unravel at their own pace. Stylistically this pared-down tone is complimented via sumptuously composed long shots where the landscape seemingly holds more gravitas than its inhabitants.  Psychological foundations for character motivation are never alluded to, dialogue scenes occasionally shedding rare chinks of light but the overwhelming tone is of pained detachment.

However, it would be grossly unfair to derideDumont’s film solely on these grounds and condemn it as a richly shot yet empty canvas.  His is a film where an anguished brief glance reverberates due to the air of alienation.  The use of non-professional actors enables such moments to deliver a cutting potency, their raw instincts capture an unforced purity, best represented in a close-up on the face of a young boy, bullet in the head, the camera cutting to Blondell and Demester’s reaction. Dumont’s visual arts background is apparent in the stark bruised-beauty he invests in close-ups, the most commanding being the clenched fist of a raped female soldier.

Briche says to Demester “There are innocents in every war”, a comment that functions not only in its general guise but as an analogy of Flanders world view perspective.  In the final scene Demester lies maternally next to Barbe, a moment of physical contact that goes beyond the mechanical perfunctory sex of before, one that appears to offer some form of solace, but this is a hollow hope.  The war will never end. Dumont’s film is impenetrable at times in its austerity, powerfully emotive in others.  A clinically provocative treatise on our ambiguous existence that raises as many questions as it attempts to answer.


Beyond Hatred (2005)

Dir: Olivier Meyrou, France, 85mins

Cast: Jean-Paul Chenu, Marie-Cecile Chenu, Aurelie Chenu

13th September 2002, Leo Lagrange Park, Reim:  Skinheads Michael Regnier, Fabian Lavenus and Franck Billette brutally assault openly gay Francois Chenu, dumping him into a nearby river where he drowns.  Meyrou’s raw yet empathetic documentary begins 730 days after Francois’s murder and follows the Chenu family and their search for an ever elusive answer to what should be a painfully simple question: Why?

Preparation for the project began through contact with the respective attorneys of both sides.  The Chenu’s became involved a year later.  Without their direct interaction it would be hard to envisage Meyrou’s film as conforming to nothing more than a traditional, signposted talking heads format, bulked out with factual, political and social assumptions, but crucially lacking the requisite central figures.  The full co-operation of the latter enables a dignified and frank portrait of the grieving process to be gradually unveiled.

Beyond Hatred’s most affecting moments centre around the three family principles, father Jean-Paul, mother Marie-Cecile and sister Aurelie.  Meyrou’s relaxed, unobtrusive style grants his candid subjects room to breathe and explore a complex mixture of emotions, a self-cathartic journey from confusion and anger through to remarkable forgiveness.  Amidst these heavy dialogue scenes, there are sequences of nuanced, haunting lyricism.  Time-lapse photography of the park where the incident occurred are recurrent, people obliviously going about their everyday business, Aurelie’s narration recounting how she learnt of Francois death and broke the news to her parents.

The opening lines of the film illustrate perfectly the humanistic ethos of the Chenu’s and the tone that runs throughout the piece.  Over shots of Jean Paul playing in the snow with his grandchildren, he states “It’s a failure of the society I live in and am part of, because I am part of it”.  Access to the accused was not possible but a delicate balance is struck through interviews with Billette’s father, auntie and the group of defence attorneys.  A deftly sketched portrait emerges of dysfunctional family units and lost souls whose misplaced abhorrence, born out of circumstances derived from their working class environment, is harnessed to and exploited by far right political movements such as Bruno Megret’s National Republican Movement.

Francois remains somewhat enigmatic throughout the film.  A sense of character is never presented and no pictures of him used.  This is a deliberate measure and one of Meyrou’s greatest virtues, a refusal to use sexuality as an overriding issue to launch a moralistic crusade, a venture that in-turn would have placed the departed into a victim category.  On that September evening anyone of a particular ethnic or political persuasion would have found themselves facing a similar fate.  Homophobia was not the basis for this act.  An amalgamation of disillusionment fused with class and politics formed the genesis of this social void.  It is this compassionate tone that reverberates most pertinently in Beyond Hatred through to a truly moving coda of sincere absolution.

The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

Dir: Werner Herzog, UK/France/Germany, 81 mins

Cast: Brad Dourif, Franklin Chang Diaz, Roger Diehl, Ted Sweetser, Martin Lo, STS-34 crew

Myth, chaos and an ambiguous meld of fact and fiction have habitually come to define eccentric, visionary German director Werner Herzog’s work, and the man himself.  Concerning the latter, Herzog tales have ingrained themselves into film folklore; being shot during a BBC interview, diving into a cactus field and a bet that resulted in short documentary Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe (1980).  However, it would be unfair to let any dwarf the oeuvre of this resolutely independent and single-minded film-maker.  From sensitive documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) through to the epic, histrionic journeys of Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982), Klaus Kinski’s megalomaniacal protagonist in both playing surrogate to the directors own instinctive pandemonium ethos, Herzog has worked tirelessly since the early 1960’s demonstrating an eclectic range.

The Wild Blue Yonder adds further weight to the oft quoted adage that Herzog can make a film out of anything.  Here he combines documentary footage from NASA’s STS-34 mission and diving footage fromRossSea,Antarctica.  A backbone is granted through monologues delivered by an alien (Dourif) who recounts the arrival, on a now desolate, defunct earth, of his species from water planet Andromeda after a severe ice age forced them to leave.  Inside access from a job at the CIA enables him to tell of a subsequent space mission by the ailing human race to find his home planet in the hope that it will prove inhabitable.

Any initial preconceptions and vague narrative similarities to other aquatic sci-fi fare such as The Abyss (1989) are quickly dispatched.  Herzog’s “science-fiction fantasy” is a slight shaggy dog tale that toys with footage and history for its own purposes.  The historical aspect takes in a fantastical journey encompassing the Roswell incident and heavy but plausible science spiel is provided by NASA boffins.  A tongue-in-cheek air resides throughout; the unassuming, straight-laced Franklin Chang-Diaz is introduced as a “rogue mathematician who kept the secret of a breakthrough invention to himself”.  Dourif provides an engaging, neurotic turn, punctuating each revelation in the tale with “I could have told them, I knew all about it” and rightly bemoaning the concept of shopping malls being constructed on Andromeda.

In terms of the director’s back catalogue it can be seen to reiterate the same aesthetic ideals as the Gulf War orientated Lessons in Darkness (1992), which also splits itself into chapter headings.  This had a more traditional documentary edge, but whilst aiming for the political Herzog’s preoccupation with nature, a central theme throughout his work, remains resonant.  The Wild Blue Yonder takes the power of nature full circle from a possibly post-apocalyptic planet, space, the aquatic Andromeda and back to an earth replenished to its original prehistoric genesis.

Henry Kaiser’s diving footage works sublimely within the film’s narrative boundaries truly evoking an awe which CGI could never replicate.  An otherworldliness is rendered with a synthesis of greens and blues, bright pockets of light splitting through murky clouds.  The sequence of the astronauts dissolving into particles and passing through the tunnel of time is particularly affecting, the scene filmed in close up, bubble’s rushing towards the camera as a blinding white light bleaches out the individual.

Herzog thanks NASA “for their poetry” but the on-board space mission footage feels over stretched.  The isolation and mundanity of space travel is evoked and this links in with the narrative thread of insanity setting in.  Regrettably this still feels like footage used to fill a void in the middle section.  Ernst Reijseger contributes a haunting, ethereal score throughout with collaborations from African artist Mola Syall and a Sardinian shepherd choir.  An ecological warning, a chronicle of mankind’s need to explore, poem to the power of nature or an elaborate practical joke?  The Wild Blue Yonder is an experimental, ramshackle patchwork of arguably all the above, Herzog’s scattershot, improvisational approach ensuring that limited means need not affect the realms of imagination.

United 93 (2006)

Director/Writer: Paul Greengrass

United 93 is one of those all too rare humbling experiences.  You know the type.  The credits roll. Lights fade up. People leave.  However there is no discussion by fellow audience members, simply silence and awe struck contemplation on what they have just witnessed.  The last time this reviewer can remember being part of such a moment was after a screening of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003), his take on the Columbine high school shootings.

Like Van Sant’s intense, superbly crafted picture, United 93 had already acquired hot potato status prior to its release due to the controversial content inherent.  In retrospect it is easy to see why.  A minefield of questions arise surrounding ethics and sensitivity towards subject matter.  Was it necessary to recreate the final hours of the 44 people on Flight 93?  If so how accurate could a recreation be?  Would this be a gung ho, flag waving endeavor, demonizing and stereotyping the terrorists?  Thankfully such presumptions proved false and director Greengrass has successfully navigated the high wire act he set for himself, making a film that acts as an epitaph to those involved and their spirit in the face of unforeseen, uncontrollable circumstance.

Knowledge of what is to come plays on your mind as a seemingly average day is played out.  Aside from the opening scene taking in the terrorist’s preparation, time is split between the air traffic control rooms and the airport lounge before boarding.  The semi real time structure makes the first half of the film an unnerving experience; the calm before the storm.  As tension increases and events spiral out of control it is the small details that resonate the most, a blip on the radar screen suddenly disappearing or a final, uncomfortable phone call home.  Greengrass’s use of a loose, documentary-esque aesthetic, derived from his earlier TV outings The Murder of Stephen Lawrence (1999) and Bloody Sunday (2002), enable him to at first gently play out the normality of the situation and then cut loose in a frenzied and erratic style as the situation erupts.

The use of an excellent, non A-list cast aids proceedings greatly.  We have no preconceived baggage of them from other roles, their very ordinariness enabling an instant connection to be made.  If an Affleck style square-jawed type were to be included this would merely undercut the whole point of the film, and Greengrass’s biggest virtue, which is simply to play out a reconstruction of the incident focusing solely on the human element with no aspirations to politicise, condemn, judge or throw conspiracy theories into the mix.  For the participants of Flight 93 that day this was a fight for survival.  Any thoughts regarding country, as US propaganda merchants have played on, were rightly second to that of themselves and family.  It is this element that concerns Greengrass, one which he invests with astounding integrity throughout until the hysterical, gritty final reel.

Family Life (1971)

Dir: Ken Loach, GB, 108 mins

Cast: Sandy Ratcliff, Bill Dean, Grace Cave, Malcom Tierney, Michael Riddall, Alan MacNaughton

With a career spanning the best part of fifty years few British directors have chronicled the hardships of working class life as astutely and comprehensively as Ken Loach.  Taking on the baton of social realism from his Kitchen Sink contemporaries, such as Lindsay Anderson (This Sporting Life, 1963) and Karel Reisz (Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, 1960), Loach has stayed true to his roots and beliefs, vehemently highlighting political and social ramifications that impinge on his everyman protagonists.  His oeuvre stands alone as testament to a strata of society fighting for survival against an unjust, unsympathetic establishment.

Family Life was Loach’s first feature after the critical and commercial success of Kes (1969).  Technically it is a remake of In Two Minds (1967), one of a cycle of BBC backed Wednesday Play episodes which also brought about Cathy Come Home (1966), infamous for sparking a public and parliamentary debate on homelessness.  TheLondon based narrative focuses on Janice Baildon (Ratcliff), a confused nineteen year old unable to hold down a job and gradually losing mental stability.  Her parent’s (Dean and Cave) rigid attempts to come to terms with the situation result in them seeking psychological help for their daughter.

Janice’s bewilderment arises out of her family’s expectations of her as a working class woman, at a time when notions of traditional English values are being usurped by a seventies counter-culture that offers another path, one that doesn’t necessarily lead to a husband, children and a mortgage.  She has mental health issues, but understands and desperately fights against the indoctrination process that passes from generation to generation.  As they look out the window at endless rows of terrace houses set against a dull, grey sky, Janice’s boyfriend Tim (Tierney) encapsulates the predicament perfectly as he comments on her parents “So they can go out to one of those factories and do a days work, that’s what its all about, that’s all it is, that’s what families are, bloody training camps, to get you to do the same thing”.  Janice is intelligent enough to recognize the predicament she is in and wants to break this cycle, but the structure of the class system and the ideology that has been ingrained upon it is determined to control, moderate and keep her in place.

Loach’s film is a brutal indictment on the mental healthcare system of the period.  Under new unorthodox counselling sessions with Dr. Donaldson (Riddall), who does not believe in medication to solve the issue, Janice opens up and makes progress, talking through her feelings.  Donaldson interviews each family member separately and a dysfunctional profile of the unit is unveiled, one founded on a marriage of obligation and emotional repression.  However, due to “administrative reasons” the stuffy, conservative board disbands this project.  Janice is then placed into the care of Dr. Carswell (MacNaughton) who favours electro-shock therapy and she rapidly deteriorates.  The final scene of the film where Carswell brings her out as a case study for a group of bored med students evokes a disturbing throwback to the archaic methods of a less enlightened era.

By fusing documentary aesthetics to a fictional form, the realism of the former enhances the latter.  Performances feel naturalistic; a key trait of Loach’s is to employ non-actors, as is the case with Riddall who actually worked for the NHS, or actors with some emotional connection through relevant life experience.  Scenes have a vitality and unpredictability to them with overlapping dialogue which compliments the camerawork to achieve the desired overall effect.  Family Life regrettably failed to find an audience due to its controversial subject matter, but remains a fiercely intelligent, confrontational insight into the mental healthcare system and the psychology of a working class family from Britain’s only truly committed, political filmmaker.