I am reviewing six films screened this year that I found engaging and appreciated seeing. There are several others, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Three Monkeys, Jia Zhang-ke's 24 City, Rithy Panh's The Sea Wall (see Florence Jacobowitz's review), that I thought were impressive works. As for disappointments, there were Amos Gitai's awkward and unsatisfying One Day You'll Understand and Terrence Davies's self-indulgent Of Time and the City.
35 Rhums (Claire Denis)
35 Rhums is a genteel and loving account of a group of working class blacks living in a French suburb. The film doesn't deal with racial tensions although one of the central black characters, a young woman named Jo, played by Mati Diop, is romantically involved with a white man played by Gregoire Colin. (Late in the film, it is revealed that her mother was white.) Instead, it's centred on the close daughter/father relationship between Jo and Lionel/Alex Descas. In the opening scenes, Jo is waiting for Lionel to come home to his dinner after a day's work (he is a subway driver), and, upon his arrival, it is difficult to tell whether or not they are meant to be taken as a married couple. It isn't until the conclusion of the sequence that their relationship is made clear. 35 Rhums isn't about a potentially incestuous relationship, in fact, unlike most other Denis films, there isn't anything of a controversial nature in it.
Claire Denis was present at the screening of 35 Rhums I attended and, when asked about her reasons for making the film, she said it was intended as homage to Yasujiro Ozu (the film is loosely based on Late Spring) and that Lionel was fashioned on her grandfather who reminded her of Chishu Ryu. In the context of Ozu tributes by contemporary filmmakers, 35 Rhums makes a fitting companion piece to Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Cafe Lumiere.
While 35 Rhums includes a subplot involving a recently retired male coworker of Lionel's who, when no longer having a job, discovers that his life has lost its purpose, the film concentrates on domestic life. Jo is forced into acknowledging the depth of her feelings for the Gregoire Colin character when he tells her that he is leaving to take a job abroad. In contrast to the seriousness of this relationship, Lionel shows no romantic and/or sexual interest in a mature attractive black woman, a taxi cab driver (perhaps a reference to Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, a film on which Denis worked), who clearly is in love with him. As these four characters live in the same apartment building, the film offers, through the depiction of their daily professional and personal lives, something of a communal existence that is, despite its positive energies, fragile and precarious.
As in Late Spring, the dramatic weight of the narrative resides in the recognition by Jo and Lionel that her decision to make a permanent commitment to another relationship means the end of their life together as they know it. Denis's film isn't as poignant as Ozu's and its conclusion isn't as bleak but 35 Rhums does, nevertheless, make palatable the difficulty both characters have in letting go. The film shares with Late Spring sensitivity to the unspoken intimacy that a familial bond can produce and the fear of losing a loved one.
35 Rhums is consistently a graceful and elegant film. Denis, with seeming effortlessness, integrates image, music/sound so that, on numerous occasions in the film, an emotional moment is expressed through the miseen-scene and not by what is being said by the characters. And, once again, she is working with cinematographer Agnes Godard who provides a colour palette that services the emotional tenor of the film while working within the restrictions of a naturalistic portrait of a working class environment.
Denis's screenplay remains faithful to the sentiments of Ozu's film while taking in account the vast differences in the cultural and period settings of the two works. Perhaps 35 Rhums won't be considered one of Denis's more significant achievements because of its low-keyed tone and more conventional material, but it is an excellent film.
Four Nights with Anna
Four Nights with Anna is Jerzy Skolimowski's first film in seventeen years and it's a compelling study of obsession, alienation and loneliness. The film, set in a small Polish village, is centred on a middle-aged man, Leon/Artur Steranko, who is in charge of a crematorium at the local hospital. Leon spends a great deal of his time spying on Anna/Kinga Preis who, a student nurse, lives in quarters that are adjacent to Leon's house which he shares with his dying mother. Although set in the present day, Four Nights with Anna seems to take place in a world that belongs to the past, an expressionist environment suitable to a horror film. (That the environment and Leon's experiences are, at times, his subjective reality, seems to be implied by the film's final shot.)
Four Nights with Anna contains a masterful depiction of obsession with Leon's increasing need to be ever closer to his object of desire. To this end, Leno enters, by climbing through an open window, Anna's living space as she sleeps. Prior to the nocturnal visits, the film showed Leon, while spying on Anna, being present when she, in a day light encounter with an unidentified man, is dragged into a shed and raped. The rape, which Anna reports to the police, is eventually what Leon is accused of doing and imprisoned for, although the film, from the information given, makes this impossible. In addition to the fact that the viewer sees Leon being a bystander to the rape, there is no suggestion, when Leon enters her room, that he wants physical contact with her. Instead, Leon's goal seems only to be in her presence, to touch objects that she uses, to watch her as she sleeps. (Leon's voyeuristic behaviour with Anna is not unlike that of Robert Forster's with a sleeping Elizabeth Taylor in Reflections in a Golden Eye.)
Skolimowski creates mood through both stylistic elements and by the performance he solicits from Artur Steranko. Steranko, from his initial appearance onward, makes Leon a complex and fascinating figure whose every action seems to imply the sinister but, in fact, leads to something that reveals his timidity, gentleness or loneliness. As a character, he is a protagonist suitable to an expressionist film, to be read as victimizer (perhaps) and a victim.
Considering that Anna is but briefly more than a person observed from a distance, the lack of any other significant characters and its emphasis on the night, gives the film an oneiric quality. As with Deep End, Skolimowski, with this film, again illustrates his profound understanding of and empathy for the outsider, the person who lives apart, who lives in his imagination. (The entry on Four Nights with Anna in the TIFF catalogue aptly mentions that the film's title evokes Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer.) Of the works I saw at TIFF this year, Skolimowski's film was the most impressive, disturbing and emotionally complex.
Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)
The film's title refers to its main protagonist, Poppy/Sally Hawkins, a thirty year old teacher of young children. What makes Poppy distinctive is her positive attitude towards life and the people she encounters on a daily basis. Contrary to the impression given by the film's title, Poppy isn't merely an optimist whatever the situation. While she tries to enjoy herself whether on her own, with friends or strangers, she is, in fact, an intelligent, aware person who is in touch with her surroundings and society at large.
Happy-go-Lucky is an episodic film that features Poppy in a range of encounters, some of which being more eventful than others. For instance, Poppy, after her bicycle is stolen in the film's opening scene, decides to take driving lessons. She meets Scott/Eddie Marsan, a man about her age who prides himself in being a good driving instructor. He tells her that, as a driver, safety is the thing; it's about concentration, discipline and control. Poppy initially attempts to make light of Scott's self-seriousness while he, as the lessons progress, continues his rants that include racist thinking and a negative attitude about the future of the world. Poppy, realizing that Scott won't change, instead of dropping the lessons, becomes cynical in dealing with him. To complicate matters, Scott becomes attracted to Poppy and begins to take an interest in her personal life. Their encounters become increasingly strained and lead to a showdown in a highly unsettling scene. (Sally Hawkins and Eddie Marsan work together beautifully and their scenes are the highlights of the film.) Scott, it seems, doesn't think being happy is possible. (In a very different context, Poppy's inability to connect is also demonstrated in a brief encounter with a homeless man. While she tries to communicate, it soon becomes evident to her that their respective worlds are too far apart to breach.)
Poppy's visit to her pregnant sister is equally relevant to the film's concerns with the reactions she solicits. Her younger sister takes the visit as an opportunity to counsel Poppy on her lifestyle, telling her that she needs to be an 'adult,' that is, get married, have children, and save her money for the future. Like Scott, although to a lesser degree, Poppy's sister professes to value the worth of human life but, in actuality, she is a fearful person who sees control and tradition as a means of self-protection.
In her professional life, Poppy comes in contact with another manifestation of what Scott and her sister embody when she sees one young boy repeatedly harassing another. In confronting the boy, Poppy learns that his anger is due to being unhappy with his home life, an environment in which he, as a child, is disempowered.
Happy-Go-Lucky balances the above-mentioned encounters with Poppy's friendships with women, particularly her flatmate and best friend, Zoey, who, while accepting Poppy as she is, tends to take a protective attitude towards her. In addition, Poppy meets Tim, an attractive and good-natured young man who also works in the school system. The film suggests that they might have a future together although the character isn't developed sufficiently to be relevant to the narrative.
Poppy's appeal is her refusal to commit to the status quo, to internalize and live with anger, fear and alienation. Happy-Go-Lucky is an uplifting film but its primary concern is to make us aware of the dark undertow of contemporary society.
Le Silence de Lorna (Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne)
Le Silence of Lorna is centred on a young Albanian woman who lives at the margins of society and has become involved in shady activities to economically survive. Lorna/Arta Dobroshi has married a junkie, Claudy/Jeremie Renier, to gain Belgium citizenship. Her plan is to eventually marry her Italian boyfriend and open a small cafe with him.
Early on in the film we discover that Lorna is being pressured by Fabio/Fabrizio Rongione, a gangster who sets up illegal immigration scams, to get rid of Claudy so that she can marry a Russian who needs to relocate in Europe. Fabio wants to kill Claudy whereas Lorna is trying to obtain a quick divorce from him, claiming abuse.
Lorna initially seems to have no feelings for Claudy but, as the narrative advances, she develops a regard for him and, in doing so, becomes aware of her humanity. Le Silence de Lorna deals with Lorna's growing realization of her usage of another person for personal gain. By the film's conclusion, she abandons her present life and is in the process of seeking a spiritual redemption.
The film's success depends on great part on Arta Dobroshi who must be in nearly every scene of the film. In Le Silence de Lorna's opening scenes, Lorna is seen as being a strong-willed, efficient person who does what she needs to in order to keep Claudy under control and maintain her daily routines that include a job in a dry cleaning establishment. The film positions the viewer as an observer of Lorna's experiences, and doesn't provide information on who she is or where the narrative is going. It isn't until the storyline develops that we begin to understand her anxiousness and become involved with her and her situation. As the film doesn't technically encourage viewer identification with Lorna, our engagement with Lorna depends significantly on Dobroshi's screen presence and performance. Being a film by the Dardennes, Le Silence de Lorna employs a 'naturalistic' aesthetic and Dobroshi's performance remains within its confines. As becomes evident in watching the film, performance is a crucial element in the works of the Dardenne brothers although given their aesthetic, its existence, while acknowledged (for example, in 1999, Emilie Dequenne won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in Rosetta), tends to be subsumed under their identity as filmmakers dedicated to social realism.
Arta Dobroshi gives a good performance but her greatest strength is her screen presence. Such factors as her facial features and her body language contribute to making Dobroshi a compelling presence whatever she does (or doesn't do) onscreen. Clearly, the Dardenne brothers are fully conscious of the impact of Dobroshi's presence and enhance it through her appearance. More specifically, this can be seen in the color choices made in the clothing she wears. For example, Dobroshi, with her fair skin, black hair and dark eyes, is seen wearing, early on in the film, an outfit that includes a red sweater under her wine red jacket. (These colors also function to reinforce Lorna's strong sense of determination.)
Le Silence de Lorna, structurally and thematically, is in keeping with the previous Dardenne films I have seen. This doesn't lessen its effectiveness in offering a disturbing portrait of contemporary society and the way in which people are forced to choose between survival and self-respect.
Miracle at St. Anna (Spike Lee)
The most striking aspect of Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna is its elaborate narrative structure that, in addition to a present-past-present framing device, includes numerous flashbacks and, in settings, international locations. The film's screenplay is by James McBride who adapted his own novel. Perhaps the book version functioned as a fluid text but, when translated to film, it becomes somewhat cumbersome, calling attention to the narrative's elaborate set of storytelling conventions and its numerous characters and situations.
Miracle of St. Anna deals with WW II and the army's all black 92nd Division, known as the Buffalo Soldiers. The film's war time action takes place in Tuscany, 1944, and is centred on several issues: the interactions of four of the division's soldiers, each diverse in identity; the racial tensions that erupt when the black soldiers are forced to deal with higher commanding white officers; the contacts that occur between the black soldiers and the Italians living in a rural village.
Lee's film is highly ambitious in its agenda and Miracle at St. Anna runs 166 minutes. Its epic nature is acknowledged indirectly in the film's present day opening scene, taking place in 1983; we see an elderly black man watching a television broadcast of The Longest Day that features a rugged John Wayne giving orders to his men. Most likely, the film and the clip used are Lee's way of commenting on Hollywood war films: in their writing of American history, the war was fought solely by white hero figures. Yet, in its scale and socially conscious concerns, Lee's epic film is in the liberal tradition of the late '50s and '60s Hollywood cinema which, at it most impressive, was exemplified by Otto Preminger with works such as Exodus.
From another perspective, Miracle at St. Anna's Italian footage functions as a tribute to the Italian neo-realist cinema and, in particular, to Roberto Rossellini's Open City. Lee, in dealing with WW II, also connects war (fascism/racism, Germany/white America) and religion.
In Lee's film, the miracle involves the relationship between a black soldier, played by Omar Benson Miller, who has a strong belief in the power of religion and a young Italian boy, played by Matteo Sciabordi, who is a Catholic, but, also, like the black soldier, is a believer in omens and magic. Their story is at the heart of the film and ties together, somewhat awkwardly, the bond the film constructs between blacks and whites.
Miracle at St. Anna is Lee's first film that employs extensive out-of-door shooting and its battle scenes are extremely well-staged and shot. Although not a totally successful work, when dealing with the Benson Miller and Sciabordi characters (both actors give excellent performances) and in depicting the experiences of black soldiers in the Italian village, the film is very good.
$5 a Day (Nigel Cole)
$5 a Day is a comedy-drama 'road movie' in which Christopher Walken plays Nat, a small-time hustler who, upon finding out that he is dying, attempts to repair his damaged relationship with his son, Flynn/Alessandro Nivola. Some years earlier Flynn spent time in jail because one of Nat's schemes went wrong and he, not his father, was the one prosecuted. Nat, reenters his son's life, tells him that he is ill and asks Flynn to accompany him on a cross country trip so that he can get medical help.
$5 a Day is, first and foremost, a vehicle for Walken. The film provides Walken with a role that isn't typical of his latter-day work that has him playing supporting roles in which he comes across as being either weird and/or grotesque. (Even in Hairspray, his characterization of the heroine's father is more unsettling than comforting and/or attractive.) While he makes Nat alternatively appealing, idiosyncratic and exasperating, he sufficiently humanizes the characterization to make us care for Nat and about his scheme to unite with his son. In addition, Nivola makes Flynn a strong counter-balance to Walken's Nat, conveying the character's ambivalent feelings towards his father and resisting Nat's not-so-subtle attempts at manipulation. And, like Walken, Nivola, when he wants, has good looks and charm to spare.
On their way across country the two men visit Dolores/Sharon Stone, who also hustles. In addition to being at one time Nat's protege and possibly his lover, she was Flynn's babysitter. Stone, on her first appearance, is a bit startling, wearing a bikini and having a hairdo and make up that borderline on the overwhelming. But as Dolores begins to relate to the men, she becomes a more humanized figure and, at their parting, her farewell (merely a smile) is eloquently touching. In a small role (it can be seen as a companion piece to her role in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers), Stone takes a part that could have been played as a caricature and creates a character of substance.
$5 a Day is a more sophisticated work than its formulaic premise would suggest. Its pleasures reside in its intelligent performances, good writing, solid direction and a slightly off-beat nature. As a road movie, its trajectory is predictable but the film is never sentimental.