Mar 1, 2021
Feb 21, 2021
Fully in command of every single frame she graces with her presence, Isabelle Huppert brings the inimitable composure, as well as a wide range of trademark micro-expressions and impenetrable glances that speak several languages to the role of the wicked stepmother, Maud, in Anne Fontaine’s naughty modern take on the Grimm Brothers’ most adapted (and my personal favorite) fairy tale. And when she is out of the picture, so to say, utterly magnetic Lou de Laâge as Claire (i.e. this version’s very own Snow White), seduces seven suitors and the viewer not only with her gorgeous looks, but also with an intoxicating aura of overwhelming daintiness, burgeoning desirability and youthful energy, as her heroine – surrounded by an aura of innermost light – explores the newly discovered lust for life.
At turns dark and funny, innocent and sexy, mysterious and mundane, slyly highbrow and deliciously campy, Pure as Snow interweaves the age-old themes of vanity and jealousy with that of female sexuality and liberation, subtly reconfiguring the original story for the post-feminist times. Fontaine’s playful and to a certain degree quirky direction with occasional winks to Breillat, De Palma and Ozon finds a perfect match in Yves Angelo’s striking cinematography which beautifully captures the crimson reds of Maud’s garments and perpetuates breathtakingly verdant vistas surrounding a cozy, inviting mountain town whose men fall under Claire’s spell. As they make love to her, some literally, others through soothing conversation (biker priest) or sensual Bach-playing (hypochondriac cellist), their weaknesses emerge to the surface in quite sympathetic ways, making the girl of their dreams even more ethereal.
Feb 19, 2021
A very human type of deviousness gets an uncanny cosmic boost in an 8-part mini-series Hausen co-written by Till Kleinert of Der Samurai fame and Anna Stoeva whose previous credits include production of several documentaries. Set in a Plattenbau complex - a concrete colossus straight out of a Brutalist hell, it focuses on the dreary existence of its eccentric residents some of whom are addicted to a strange substance extracted from a black ooze that clogs the worn-out pipework. The arrival of a new caretaker, Jaschek (Charly Hübner, playing the role with imposing physicality), and his son Juri (Tristan Göbel, channeling teen angst with sulking conviction), paradoxically accelerates the erosion of both the decaying building and already frail community.
The monolithic skyscraper of a labyrinthine interior where the bulk of the puzzling story takes place is turned into a malicious character linked with a presumably alien entity in a symbiotic relationship. Feeding on fears and suffering of its 'inmates', this highly claustrophobic prison of impossible architecture (The Shining influence, no doubt) seems to be detached from the reality of the outside world which is only sparsely referenced to or glimpsed at - it follows its own whims and (twisted) logic, as it leads the weakened tenants down the path of madness and violence. Such an oppressive environment proves to be a fertile ground for mind games played not only against the protagonists, but vs. the viewer as well, with a bleak, pre-apocalyptic atmosphere increasingly thickening towards a Space Odyssey-inspired conclusion. Speaking of inspiration, Kleinert, Stoeva and Stuber take cues from diverse sources (Lovecraft, Giger, Lynch, J-horror, just to name a few), and yet all of the familiar elements fit so well together, pulling us deep into a whole new universe.
The authors stubbornly refuse to provide answers to the great majority of constantly raising questions, peeling only the most superficial layers of mystery and thus letting the darkness and dread (of the unknown) creep under your skin and then cloak you completely. Although they do touch upon numerous real-life problems, such as drug abuse, depression, pedophilia, neo-Nazism, domestic neglect and institutionalized corruption, they manage to escape the trap of pronounced metaphorization which plagues many recent genre offerings, allowing the very cinematic qualities to shine through. Stefanie Kromrei's flawless art direction and Peter Matjasko's moody cinematography of cold, desaturated colors and dim, often flickering lighting wonderfully emphasize the bizarreness and obscurity of the proceedings, wrapping the series in the appropriately and attractively tenebrous images. Long hallways defined by decrepit walls, apartments that have seen better days, and a vast, dampy basement - an industrial jungle of electrical and heating installations - all come with a strong visual identity, as well as a (putrid) life of their own, making Hausen an equivalent of a vivid nightmare. What elevates this nightmare to the next sensorial / experiential level are a haunting score by David Chalmin and Bryce Dessner, and an imposing sound design by Kai Tebbel who enhances every whisper, buzz and hum to bone-chilling effect.
Feb 1, 2021
31 collages, 42 features and 85 shorts into what seems to be turning into another year of unrest, I present two lists of my favorite January films, both of which are arranged chrono-alphabetically.
1. The Golden Fern (Jirí Weiss, 1963)
“An aristocratic favour can only lead to blood.”
Opening with a wordless eight-minute sequence – a masterclass in setting the thick atmosphere of mystery and enchantment – The Golden Fern is one of the most (visually) poetic fairy tale adaptations since Jean Cocteau’s rendition of Beauty and the Beast (1946). A cautionary fable that warns against macho-egotism, it plays out as an uncommon combination of a gothic fantasy with slight horror undertones, and a war drama which introduces a poisonous romance between an atypical hero, Jura (Vit Olmer, charmingly repulsive as a conceited shepherd turned soldier), and General’s seductive snake of a daughter (Daniela Smutná’s bravura portrayal).
Progressively dark and harrowing, the film puts a powerful spell on the viewer even though the magical aspects of its story get completely mired in the mud of many human weaknesses – and Weiss doesn’t make any compromises. Working along him are composer Jiří Srnka best known for his brooding score for Otakar Vávra’s masterpiece Witchhammer (1970), and Bedrich Batka who makes a mighty impressive debut as a director of photography and will later collaborate with František Vláčil on drop dead gorgeous Marketa Lazarová (1967). The enthralling B&W imagery never loosens its grip, particularly during the vertiginous dancing scene, and in a plethora of expressive close-ups.
2. The White Moor (Ion Popescu-Gopo, 1965)
5. King of the Reindeer (Павел Арсенов, 1970)
In one of the formally boldest fairy tale musicals of (Soviet) cinema, magic lies within the absence of magic, illusion emerges from the decidedly anti-illusionary tactics, and bizarre ‘filmicity’ is rooted in theatrical shenanigans. Frequent breaking of the fourth wall, Arsenov’s self-ironizing meta-approach to storytelling, as well as the deliberate, puppet play-like artificiality of sets and incredibly playful extravagance of costumes are some of the film’s strongest traits. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have gorgeous Valentina Malyavina of Ivan’s Childhood fame jumping into the role of the titular king’s love interest.
6. Pavle Pavlović (Mladomir ‘Puriša’ Đorđević, 1975)
Starring (and co-starring) who’s who of ex-YU thespian scene, with both Bekim Fehmiu (I Even Met Happy Gypsies) and Milena Dravić (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism) unforgettable in their leading roles, Pavle Pavlović is a biting, yet sophisticated social satire which hasn’t lost any of its relevance – banana republics of Balkan have mutated only superficially. Similarly to Đorđević’s masterful war tetralogy (The Girl, The Dream, The Morning, Noon), it blurs the boundaries between poetry and pamphlet, dissolving reality in a half-dream, part Godardian and part Antonioni-esque.
A paragon of fever dream cinema, Beasts brings together Kafkaesque futility, Buñuelian irrationality and Felliniesque ‘circus’ in its boldly surreal, aesthetically refined and stubbornly equivocal portrayal of a moral, mental and spiritual degeneration amidst which Beauty – both a Secret and the ultimate Truth – is sought to be degraded and ultimately, destroyed. The darkest of human desires and most animalistic of urges emerge to the surface, turning the authentic characters into grotesque archetypes, and leaving the viewer defenseless in the disfigured face of their innermost evil. And when the night is gone, the only possibility seems to be the illusion of light...
Although bluntly feminist in tone, this surreal drama is not a misandric tirade – on the contrary, it depicts both Inanna and her beloved Derek (Amy Ferguson and Morgan Spector, equally great in their baring-it-all roles) as flawed human beings lugging the weight of darkness from their past. And it can not be blamed for its most assertively prosaic part – a rehearsal scene turned group therapy – because that deep cut into the meat of patriarchal society has to be felt stronger than the accumulated pain of women victimized through the centuries. Kampmeier’s provocations may seem overly confrontational and even heavy-handed, yet her keen sense of (imperfect) beauty – reflected in Alison Kelly’s crisp cinematography, Eloise Kazan’s neat production design and Leslie Graves’ haunting vocals on the soundtrack – lend this feature poetic gravitas.
Part phantasmagorical neo-noir and part absurd psycho-dramedy, Some Southern Waters recounts a fractured story of young, aimless musician Jon’s decent into the rabbit hole of grief and guilt, following the tragic loss of his girlfriend Mona. Her ‘re-appearance’ as a sideshow attraction, Anna the Mermaid, in a traveling carnival run by a creepy Italian opera aficionado pulls us ever-deeper into the Twilight Zone between the hero’s reality and (waking) nightmares, with the obligatory ‘who or what should we trust’ question ensuing.
What makes the watching experience stimulating is Karim Dakkon’s crispy B&W cinematography of dense, all-consuming shadows which – coalescing with an eclectic soundtrack of indie rock energy, classical music forebodings and doo-wop nostalgia – enhance the film’s dream-logic irrationality. Also commendable are the well-rounded performances by the unknown, yet judiciously assembled cast, as well as Baner’s ambition, skillful genre-juggling, and creativity within the budgetary constraints.
Jan 22, 2021
"Sometimes it's very hard to tell the difference between your conception of the world and the world's conception of you."
Surrounded by an aura of dreamy otherworldliness or rather, magnetic mysteriousness, Deborah Kara Unger portrays Margaret - a free-spirited hustler of a mom to a ten-year-old boy, Phillip (Eric Lloyd), whose cuteness is matched by his brainpower and interest for natural science, particularly chemistry, and exceeded by burgeoning psychopathy. Together, this 'chemotropic' duo travels across the States, swindling their way to make ends meet, until a small accident settles them in the modest home of a kind carpenter and hardware store owner nicknamed Pedro (Terry Kinney). A possibility of idyllic life is undermined by Philip's ever-growing Oedipal complex and the appearance of his father who may or may not be a figment of the kid's imagination...
Narrated from an unreliable perspective of a morally disoriented child (I know my memory's hopelessly flawed and entangled with my imagination, he says at the beginning), Luminous Motion initially appears like a happy-go-lucky road-movie about a couple of sympathetic crooks, only to take a dark turn into a weirdly comical and increasingly surreal psychological drama. Part off-kilter coming-of-age / becoming-of-offender story, and part wickedly poetic exploration of dysfunctional mother-son dynamics, the film sees Bette Gordon's directorial rapier pointed against the patriarchal oppression, with her central female character gradually sliding down the slope of despair. Applying archetypes to three men closest to Margaret - a wayward offspring, stable boyfriend and ex-husband - she keeps subverting their reality until the viewer loses track of when and where the twisted fairy tale comes into play, and what actually happened.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter that we're left bewildered by Gordon's mind-games, because she pulls us into a singular cinematic universe in which a highly atmospheric, predominantly trip-hoppy score composed by Lesley Barber finds a flawless counterpart in captivating imagery of saturated colors often popping out of the screen (many kudos to cinematographer Teodoro Maniaci, as well as to Lisa Albin and Paul Avery for slick production design and art direction, respectively). On top of that, the mesmerizing, hyper-stylized aesthetics go hand in hand with Phillip's distorted and to a certain extent, damaged picture of his childhood, making heavy themes easier to process, yet strangely poignant and illuminating.