Thursday, October 25, 2007

ACMI Focus on Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat stands out, not just as a female auteur, but one who embraces challenging material. Her films are mostly explorations of female relationships, stories that depict the transformative and transgressive nature of sexuality. Some find her films obscene, while Breillat herself questions the meaning of obscenity.

À ma souer! (For My Sister, 2001) is a gritty family story about two sisters. Anatomie de l’enfer (Anatomy of Hell, 2004) was particularly challenging for audiences with its depictions of female perversity. Romance (1999) was originally banned in this country, but received an R rating upon appeal. It’s a mystery, then, why her latest film, Une vieille maîtresse (An Old Mistress) has received an R-rating, as it bears little in common with her earlier works.

An Old Mistress apparently marks a new point in Breillat’s career. She claims to be leaving the coming-of-age stories and sexual explorations of her earlier films behind her. Her latest film is a lavish period piece (set in 1835, and based on a novel of the same name by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly [1808-1889]) whose budget was greater than her previous ten films combined. Says Breillat:

All my previous films were judged nefarious or scandalous, but they did not represent the real me. I think this film really corresponds to my personality. I'm free at last. It represents the me that does not rise up against the world and its taboos. When I'm at peace, I'm actually terribly romantic.

Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) is a notorious womaniser who has had a torrid relationship with Vellini (Asia Argento) a woman of dubious morals herself. Ryno visits Vellini to tell her their relationship is over and that he truly loves another woman, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). The Mistress in the title is Hermangarde’s grandmother and guardian, the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), the woman to whom Ryno must convince of his genuine love for her charge. The film's story unfolds as he frankly divulges the details of his affair with Vellini to the Marquise.

In many respects, this is a fairly conventional period story though, as I have mentioned in previous posts, the French seem much more capable of working in this genre than their English counterparts. While the English get bogged down in staid caricatures and theatrics, the French are able to breathe life into their characters with a much greater sense of naturalness and a fluidity of narrative that more readily engages an audience. I found this with Patrice Chéreau’s Queen Margot (1994), Pascale Ferran’s recent Lady Chatterley and it’s certainly true with Breillat’s An Old Mistress, in which she has assembled a fine cast that both look good and play their parts most competently.

Not unsurprisingly (for Breillat), the film depicts some nudity and sexuality, but, it’s quite passé, hardly any more risqué than Pascale Ferran’s recent Lady Chatterley, which received an M-rating. Maybe the censors (because that’s what the OFLC are) automatically assume a Breillat film is going to offend. This is unfortunate, because this is a beautiful and inoffensive film that should get the exposure that an M or MA rating would allow. The sex and nudity is a very minor aspect of the film.

Part of my respect for Breillat’s films are their ability to challenge my own sensibilities. I find it perverse that a film’s depiction of graphic sex or nudity should cause such moral outrage when violence is both ubiquitous and considered entertaining. And when one looks at a film like Tarantino’s hugely violent Death Proof (due for release on 1 November) with an MA-rating, one wonders about the consistency of the OFLC.

An Old Mistress will probably attract fans of Breillat’s films, and I’m intrigued to know what they think of it. I liked it a lot, though I prefer the grittiness of her more social-realist films. The film will also appeal to an audience that may have previously avoided her work. It is definitely a more accessible film, that will likely appeal to those who liked Lady Chatterley, yet it still has that little extra edge.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat, which opens tonight with the premiere of An Old Mistress. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Romance, which I missed when it was released in 1999, as well as other titles such as Brève traverse (Brief Crossing, 2001), Sex is Comedy (2002), Sale comme un ange (Dirty Like an Angel, 1991), Tapage nocturne (Nocturnal Uproar, 1979) and 36 fillette (1987).

ACMI’s Focus on Catherine Breillat opens today and ends on 4 November. The screening dates are also in my Calendar of Film Events (in the sidebar).

Links: Interview re: À ma souer / Interview re: Anatomy of Hell / Senses of Cinema

Photo: Fu'ad Ait Aattou as Ryno de Marigny and Asia Argento as Vellini in An Old Mistress

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Week in Review

  • Das cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1919, Robert Wiene, Germany, 1919)
  • Spione (1928, Fritz Lang, Germany, 1928)
Melbourne Cinémathèque was my only cinema attendance this week. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was accompanied by a newly commissioned live score by the Ang Fang Quartet, while Spione was screened from a brand new print - the film has recently been restored. I have often expressed a sense of inadequacy in critiquing older films, often because I don't have a strong sense of historical context. I enjoyed both these silent films, particularly Spione (in spite of its length), but I didn't feel a strong sense of engagement.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

A film’s adornment with the Cannes Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) brings considerable expectations by an informed audience. When I saw Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, other than knowing it tackled the subject of abortion, and that it had won the Cannes top prize, I knew nothing about it.

The film is set in 1987, towards the end of the communist era, in Romania. Two women, friends sharing a university dormitory are planning something that is not immediately obvious. Gradually, we learn that Otilia is making arrangements for Gabita's clandestine and illegal abortion.

The opening scene’s use of shaky hand-held camera (a pet hate) gave me reservations that thankfully proved unfounded. The cinematography is generally excellent, and the cinéma vérité style produces a strong sense of reality and immediacy as we follow the characters. The apparent use of a digital camera allowed the flexibility to film within small rooms as if one were a fly on the wall witnessing the action. There are fabulous long takes in which we witness the unedited talent of the main actors who display excellent emotions and timing. Mungiu has selected an excellent cast and extracted remarkable performances that are both naturalistic and convincing.

There are various themes that the film covers or depicts:

  • pregnancy as the natural consequence of sex
  • the tendency of youth to disregard the consequences of sex
  • the corrupt nature of communism and how social repression pushes various activities underground
  • how impersonal was life under communism
  • most importantly, the terrible consequences of removing the availability of abortion as a legal option for women

As a youth, I remember my mother talking about the days when women risked death and abortionists risked jail (up to fifteen years in Victoria). Baby boomers and older may recall the name Dr. Bertram Wainer who campaigned for legal access to abortion in the 1960s and ‘70s. It all began in 1967 when he provided emergency treatment for a woman who had a backyard abortion.

Regardless of the morality or ethics of abortion, the social and other consequences of lack of access to it are just too great. This film clearly illustrates this point in a matter-of-fact manner without moralising or proselytising. Mungiu is neither promoting nor denouncing abortion. The film could even be used by so-called pro-lifers to attack abortion. Overwhelmingly, though, a reasonable person seeing this film would conclude that the social cost of banning abortion is too great. Those who would turn back the clock to those pre-Wainer days should go see this film and remind themselves what barbaric options women will take should abortion go underground again.

The only other film I can recall that tackles similar territory to this film was Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. Both films are very different. Leigh’s film takes the perspective of the abortionist, a caring woman who performs what she considers an important social function for which she is punished. Vera Drake is more stylised than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It is a powerful film, but is topped by this newer film.

Mungiu’s film is more realist, and takes the perspective of the pregnant woman (or rather the friend assisting the pregnant woman). The abortionist in the film, Mr. Bebe, is portrayed dispassionately and reasonably objectively. Some may see him as a pig of a man, greedy and uncaring. Some I have spoken to got that impression. I like Mungiu’s use of ambiguity. Mr. Bebe saw himself as a nice enough person and, while I don’t think he was as nice and altruistic as he may have like to convince himself, I do think there was some honorable intention there. Each viewer can ponder this.

The cultural aspect of the film is fascinating. The way individuals interact with each other, particularly on a professional level, affirms many films made in different communist countries at different times, by different directors and of different genres. When one person serves another in a shop or hotel, there is at best indifference or at worst contempt, rather than the service mentality that we expect. Bureacracy is everywhere and with it, distrust and demands for identity papers for nearly every trivial transaction.

The black market is everywhere in the film. People trade with a nod and a wink. Kent cigarettes are high in demand, and people go to great lengths and pay a small fortune to get them (it cost more for a packet of Kent as it did for a hotel room for a night). Perhaps it was an image thing.

Mungiu has stated that his film is not a critique of communism, but just a backdrop for a very personal story – the film depicts the experience of a friend of his. The credits in the film refer to Tales from the Golden Era, which seems at least a little sarcastic about life under communism.

Having seen the film twice (and it was at least as compelling on the second viewing), I found it interesting to note the way the relationship between the two women changes over the course of a day. The closing dialogue was one of the most poignant yet quietly understated endings I have seen in a film for a long time.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a profoundly moving and physically affecting film. It is social-realist film making at it’s very best. This is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is screening exclusively at the Palace Como cinema and opens on Thursday.

Monday, October 15, 2007

French Update

Taking up a new language is, of course, not a trivial commitment. I have an ambition to be able to speak French with reasonable proficiency within two years (I started at Alliance Française in April). Term 3 just started and I felt a little flat in Term 2, so I've taken up some one-on-on conversation classes with Stéphanie, a française I met via another local blogger. Coincidentally, I met Stéphanie when she was volunteering at MIFF, and gave her my card, but didn't hear back from her. While I find these classes quite tough and draining (Stéphanie's game is "I don't speak English"), it's forcing me out of my comfort zone and I'm feeling much more positive and confident about learning the language. As time progresses, I'm finding myself picking up more and more from the French films I go to, particularly the differences that occur between the spoken words and the sub-titles.

The Week in Review

  • Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, UK, 2007)
  • I Walked With a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1943)
  • Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1942)
  • The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, USA, 1943)
  • Money Movers (Bruce Beresford, Australia, 1978)
  • Belle de jour (Luis Buñuel, France, 1967)
  • Les amants criminels (Criminal Lovers, François Ozon, France, 1998)
  • Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1966)
  • Regarde le mer (See the Sea, François Ozon, 52 mins, France, 1997)
  • Action vérite (François Ozon, 4 mins, France, 1994)
  • La petite mort (Small Death, François Ozon, 26 mins, France, 1995)
  • Une robe d'été (A Summer Dress, François Ozon, 15 mins, France, 1996)
  • L'homme idéal (The Ideal Man, François Ozon, 5 mins, France, 1996)
  • Scènes de lit (Bed Scenes, François Ozon, 25 mins, France, 1998)
  • X2000 (François Ozon, 8 mins, France, 1998)
  • Dekalog: 1 (Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1989)
Eastern Promises
A separate review will be posted.

The Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings of films by Jacques Tourneur
I wasn't over-awed by these three films. I liked them as under-stated horror films, and they certainly looked nice. Maybe I don't have enough historical context to appreciate them fully.

Dekalog: 1
A bright father has an even brighter son who meets a tragic end. Classic Kieslowski. I like the way he raises questions of religion and spirituality but without overtly taking a position. I glean from his films that he is at least agnostic and humanistic, if not a covert spiritualist (quite distinct from religious faith).

Money Movers
An overlooked classic Australian heist film by Beresford that is edgy and captures some of the cultural aspects of the day. Apparently a favourite of Quentin Tarantino who used a similar torture scene in Reservoir Dogs.

Belle de jour
It's a pity I didn't see this before Belle tujours at MIFF this year. I'm keen to catch up on the back catalogue of Buñuel films, and while I enjoyed this one, it didn't overly grab me. It screened as a companion to François Ozon's 5 x 2.

Criminal Lovers
After making over a dozen short films for a decade, Ozon finally debuts with this very chilling story that seems not entirely original. A schoolgirl convinces her boyfriend to murder a fellow student who has been pursuing her sexually, and things don't go according to plan.

Ozon uses the screen masterfully, with beautiful naturalistic visuals, great characterisations and edgy story. It was interesting to see both leads early in their careers who have gone on to become very recognisable - Jérémie Renier (L'enfants and Nue propriété) and Natacha Rénier (Les amitiés maléfiques and La raison du plus faible), and both performances were very strong in this film.

Ozon has shown himself to be a diverse film-maker, and not unlike some of his other films, inserts a light-hearted and understated love scene at the end of what is otherwise a very taut thriller.

Having read Filmnut's nice review of this film, I feel much of this film went over my head and I might watch it again on DVD one day. Visually stunning, and tackles some strong themes of identity and reality.

See the Sea
At 52 minutes, this is not feature-length material for Ozon, but substantial enough to tackle a gritty yet understated story. Visually it has much in common with some of his later films, particularly Under the Sand, and has a dark side somewhat like Criminal Lovers with strong resemblances to some of the dark films of Michael Haneke. There are no comedic or melodramatic devices in this, no outbursts of song. The end is chilling.

The film screened with the other short films by Ozon. Other than a handful of other shorts that did not screen at ACMI's Focus on François Ozon, and Sitcom (which I missed), I have now seen the remainder of Ozon's oeuvre. I definitely prefer his more understated and naturalistic films such as Under the Sand, as well as his dark thrillers like See the Sea and Criminal Lovers. I like the way he includes sexuality, nudity and homosexuality in a non-self-conscious manner and his films have a humanistic aspect that connects with me.

The Short Films of François Ozon
There were quite a few of these films at the one session at ACMI, which predominately explored relationships and sexuality. One or two I had seen previously, perhaps on SBS television.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Week in Review

With the school holidays I've been home - what a great opportunity to catch a few films, including the Focus on François Ozon at ACMI. Ozon's one of my favourite French directors and I'm expecting to catch everything I haven't already seen that ACMI is screening from this retrospective, though I did unfortunately miss Sitcom. It's been a phenomenal week with some really historic compelling films such as Loach's Family Life, Klimov's Come and See and Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which just gets better on repeat viewings (I've seen it twice now).


  • Une vieille maîtresse (An Old Mistress, France/Italy, Catherine Breillat, 2007)
  • Family Life (Ken Loach, UK, 1971)
  • Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Tarkovsky, USSR, 1961)
  • Idi i smotri (Come and See, Elem Klimov, USSR, 1985)
  • 4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 2007) - 2nd viewing
  • Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, USA, 2007)
  • Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1973)
  • Gouttes d'eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops on Burning Rocks, François Ozon, France/Germany, 1999)
  • Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1959)


  • Vicious Cycles (Len Janson & Chuck Menville, 7 min, USA, 1967)
  • Tales of the Riverbank: Autumn (Paul Sutherland, 14 min, Canada, 1960)


  • Dekalog: 2 ("Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain", Krzysztof Kieslowski, Poland, 1989)

An Old Mistress
Catherine Breillat's latest film, very different from anything she's done previously. A very nice period drama with edge and a separate review is on its way.

Family Life
What can I say about Ken Loach? The man is a fucking genius. This gutsy family drama depicts generational family conflict with such realism and insight. The performances are amazing, and while psychology and psychiatry has evolved in thirty years, much remains the same (and I know this from first-hand experience). The film has an almost documentary-type realism to it.

This was Loach's 3rd feature film after Poor Cow (1967) and Kes (1969). The latter screened at ACMI last year and brought my young son to tears (he loved it, as did I). It's great to see this great director's early work, even if it was on Splodge's small makeshift screen at the Empress of India pub in North Fitzroy. I attended for the first time, and by chance it was Splodge's tenth anniversary. The screenings take place on the first Monday of each month and I can highly recommend it based on this month's experience. The seating is not the best, but it's a terrific opportunity to see some rare cinema. Check the Splodge! site for more details.

Vicious Cycles
This short film uses stop-motion and is dated, but that's much of its appeal. The film in its entirety can be found below.

Tales of the Riverbank: Autumn
A bit of frivolous fun. This is pretty bent as adult entertainment. It was made for children's television. The actual episode (which screened at Splodge) can be viewed below.

Ivan's Childhood
This is an excellent film, and a good companion piece to Come and See. Both depict willing teenage protagonists who join the partisans in the fight against the Nazis. Other than that, they are completely different pieces of work. Ivan's Childhood is in most respects a less ambitious film, but less disturbing and more enjoyable.

Come and See
I don't like war, and I generally don't like war films. Generally. I've got to say, this is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen and possibly the best war film I have seen. I have been debating with others about the horrors of war, and why we should not be in Iraq. This film documents why we should not be sending young men into the theatre of war, except as an absolute necessity. Sure, WWII was different to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and every other war. They all have their individual differences, but the brutal side of human nature that is unmasked under the cloak of war, and the criminality that is allowed to take place with little consequence, is a given.

The politics of war aside, the film is a very physical experience. It affected me for hours after. Through the eyes of a teenage Belarusian partisan (Flor, played impressively by Aleksei Kravchenko), we get to vicariously experience the horrors of war. When he narrowly misses being bombed, the sound reflects his experience of shell shock, which permeates much of the length of the film. The sound design and music throughout the film is excellent. The cinematography, including much Steadycam camera-work was thoroughly absorbing. The film was visually spectacular, taking in the most amazing landscapes as well as extreme closeups of people's faces that capture the emotions of the moment.

Flor's family (along with most of the village) is butchered in his absence and we become emotionally absorbed in his struggle to come to terms with his predicament, indeed for his very survival. Wading through sludge to an island retreat must have been a gruelling experience for the actors, and it was taxing to watch it.

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, Flor finds himself in another village that also comes to grief (we are informed at the end of the film that 628 Belarusian villages were destroyed under the Nazis). The Nazi contempt for Russians at the time is well-known. This film realistically depicted that and how it physically manifested.

While the story is specific and local, the themes are universal. This is a film that every serious film-lover should see. Absolutely.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
I saw this for the second time and liked it even more. I hope it does well and Kojo films import some more prints. This is a serious and important film that deserves to get good distribution. A separate review is on the way. There will be advance screenings at the Como this coming weekend, and it opens the following Thursday. Go see it! One of my strongest recommendations for the year.

Michael Clayton
I went into this film with hopes but not expectations. I have a lot of admiration for George Clooney in particular, but also Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. In actuality, their performances are not too bad at all, and for lovers of conventional Hollywood thrillers this film should provide some entertainment with a little more edge than most. Tony Gilroy scripted all the Bourne films, and fortunately the editing and cinematography are not so frenetic as those films.

For me, the film's narrative was too incoherent, and deliberately elusive in a contrived manner. I don't think a film's meaning should be spelt out excessively, but Michael Clayton feels a little too manipulative when we are deliberately kept in the dark. I can almost see the levers and pulleys being pulled. I realise that this is often the norm for thrillers these days, but I don't think it needs to be. This aspect seemed to drag on, contrasting with an ending in which everything came together just too neatly and conveniently in just five minutes or so.

Fear Eats the Soul
This is the second Fassbinder film I have seen. The other was Effi Briest, a very different film. Fear Eats the Soul is much more a social realist film, though stylised and at times just a little surreal (particularly at the start). It depicts an elderly German woman who invites a Moroccan immigrant, 20 years her junior, to her apartment and the subsequent scandal. The cinematography has a rough naturalistic look to it, reflecting the bleak story which, in spite of its genuinely touching moments, has a sense of inevitable doom.

The story is universal, and applicable in all places and at all times. It is as relevant now in Australia as it was in Germany in 1973 when the film was made. The ignorance of society and how racial intolerance is manipulated is especially relevant when one considers the recent racial remarks by our Immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, or past remarks by the likes of Prime Minister Howard or Pauline Hanson. It also reminds me of the scandal that Boris Becker caused when he married a black woman.

Water Drops on Burning Rocks
I found this an interesting piece for Ozon as it integrates different genres he likes to work with. It depicts the seduction of a 20-year old man (Franz, played by Malik Zidi), planning to marry his high-school sweetheart (Anna, played by Ludivine Sagnier), by a 50-year old man (Léopold, played by Bernard Giraudeau). From the outset, Bernard is revealled as a manipulative and self-assured control-freak. He beguiles the vulnerable and keeps them spellbound, largely with his expertise in the area of sexual pleasure. The relationship between Franz and Léopold is very convincing, and Ozon demonstrates much expertise in his depictions.

Things get complicated when Anna turns up on the scene, and the film takes a turn towards melodrama and parody. This might turn off some, but I found it unexpected, amusing and original. There are some twists, some expected and some not. Léopold's former long-time lover also appears on the scene adding to the mayhem, comedy and drama.

It was interesting to see a very young Sagnier (who later appeared in Ozon's Swimming Pool) and Zidi (who was impressive in Emmanuel Bourdieu's very chilling Les amitiés maléfiques). The performances were very good, especially the two male leads. Ozon mostly depicts female stories, and the only two films of his that I have seen with male stories have been about gay men (the other being Le temps qui reste).

Water Drops on Burning Rocks is visually aesthetic and Ozon uses the frame effectively. The entire film is set in Léopold's apartment and at various times the characters are framed individually within windows as if imprisoned. I enjoyed this film a lot. It screened as a companion piece to Fassbinder's Fear Eats the Soul (and was selected by Ozon for the retrospective). The common ground I see between the two films (which are stylistically very different) is the sense of loneliness.

Imitation of Life
This is the first time I've seen a Douglas Sirk film and I can't say I'm a big fan of the melodrama genre. There's no doubt the film was well made, and it appeals to my sense of colour, but the narrative and lack of emotional realism leaves me cold. I'm not writing off the genre or Sirk, as I'm still exploring, and clearly there's something about the director's work that has inspired the likes of Ozon and Fassbinder, so he can't be all bad (can he?).

I was pretty pissed off that this film screened at ACMI from a DVD - the picture quality (ie pixellation) was terrible.

Dekalog: 2
Kieslowski's Dekalog was filmed around the one set of apartment blocks, which was depicted in the Cinémathèque screening of A Short Story About Love earlier in the year. A Short Story is actually a longer version of one of the episodes of Dekalog. Kieslowski is a master of moral conundrums and complexity where there is no black and white, but many shades of grey. Decisions must be made and, while there is no right or wrong, each decision will produce a vastly different outcome. What to do? This is Kieslowski's world, and I love it.

Dekalog: 2 is not as strong as some of Kieslowski's stories, but is still compelling viewing. The characters are all well-developed, ambiguous and mysterious. The film requires some patience to understand what is happening and what is to happen.

While watching this film (well, actually it was made for TV), I felt I could see some parallels with Alkinos Tsilimidos' work. I recently asked Tsilimidos if Kieslowski was an influence. While their styles and apparent world views are quite difference, they both started with documentary which appears to inform their fiction work, and they use bleak social realism in combination with high levels of stylistic devices. Contrary to my theory, Tsilimidos cited the Maysle brothers as an early inspiration to his work.