Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Edinburgh Film Festival 2003

Published on: March 23rd, 2003

FEATHERS IN MY HEAD

5/10

Des Plumes dans ma tete : Belgium 2003 : Thomas DE THEIR : 100 mins

WARNING CONTAINS SPOILERS

After an unpromising preliminary voice-over (kiddie narration seldom a good sign) director De Their socks us between the eyes with amazing first shot: ZAMM! From underwater and in slow-motion, we see a fish snatched out of the water by a diving bird. Amazing nature stuff is hallmark of the first section no surprise to hear De Their started off as a wildlife documentarist. In a rural backwater, nature is all around : shades of Terrence Malick and/or Hukkle as humans interact with others species.

Also touches of Bruno Dumont as in La Vie de Jesus and LHumanite, were in that Franco-Belgian zone of low-key industry: factories on the horizon. We aren’t told why this area should attract such an exotic selection of birds, however in fact, due to presence of sugar plant. Avian visitors observed at a distance (through binoculars) by geeky birdwatcher Francois who chronicles his various experiments in a notepad (tests his resistance to cold/wet etc). Also observed: small child.

This turns out to be main dramatic focus. Early stretches effective: ominous tensions as child ambles around. World of wonder for kid surrounded by creatures and hazards. Adults more closed-off: only senile old bloke responds to childs cheery greetings. But though images striking, score much less distinctive: conventional mournful piano stuff. Somewhat arty feel to proceedings (someone scrutinises a jigsaw that has two pieces missing!). A flickering lightbulb makes too much noise only David Lynch can get away with such gimmicks. Also worrying that the only dynamic character, a hot-headed scooter rider, is killed very early on.

Then there’s a second death, and the film changes gear. Focus shifts to mother Blanche (Sophie Museur), devastated by death of the curious child. Things go downhill very rapidly for her and for the audience. She starts having visions of the boy her thoughts/fantasies become visible for us. Tangible for her, as mental instability takes control. De Their includes too many of these sequences: as with visualised dreams, they don’t count in narrative terms. A capella selections on the soundtrack don’t help (the village has a male-voice choir) just as the frivolous title doesn’t match what becomes a very downbeat film.

De Their seems to suffer from Lynne Ramsays problem in Morvern Callar: can create moods and images, but can’t sustain narrative to feature length. Feathers bogs down into repetitive scenes of Blanche going off the rails. Performance and film become increasingly mannered just another slow, arthouse depiction of grief. She does some gratingly hackneyed madwoman stuff playing with the scummy bubbles in the water outside the sugar plant; eating very quickly; stumbling into an unbearably corny, tentative, mute relationship with Francois.

The directors eye isn’t enough to get away with some very daft moments Blanche visits a supermarket, acts weird, is stared at by shoppers who stand in implausible neat tableau (though there’s a neat pay-off to this sequence during the end credits). Ropey score sounds like temp track of music from other films. Low point is a rape scene featuring another unwelcome blast of the a capella male-voice choir. Ensuing suicide attempt is cliched stuff she imagines herself floating off onto the lake on a huge paper boat (a nice touch), only to be jolted back to life and gasp for air. Picture feels like a series of shorts cobbled together some strong moments, but audience will probably feel too annoyed/disappointed to be carried along on the emotional tide.


IN AMERICA

5/10

Ireland (Ire/UK/USA) 2002 (released 2003) : Jim SHERIDAN : 102 mins

Semi-autobiographical, semi-successful fable of Manhattan. As in Chocolat, fact that film is narrated from childs-eye perspective is used to excuse all manner of sentimental excess. Hard to be too critical, however, as film is largely inspired by real tragedy: death of Sheridans own young son before end titles, dedication to his memory appears (cathartic for Sheridan, but audience may feel as though they’re eavesdropping on private agonies).

Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton both fine as Johnny and Sarah, a young Irish couple who relocate (illegally) to New York though both have been better elsewhere. Considine always seems to work well with children (Strelniakov in Last Resort, Shim in Romeo Brass) and here the show is stolen by Sarah and Emma Bolger as their kids. Beyond precocious, these two – and never less than totally believable, effortlessly transcending the Irish moppet syndrome of Evelyn, etc.

Theres one terrific scene early on in which family visit funfair, and dad gets slowly suckered into staking all their meagre funds on a con-game its almost unwatchable as jovial mood spirals into claustrophobic nightmare. Nothing approaches that level afterwards, though Sheridan captures the maddening frustration of day-to-day American life fairly well in the early stretches. Things only become rocky when the requirements of plot kick in, and the kids make acquaintance of screaming man Matteo (Djimon Hounsou) – an artist neighbour who happens to be a prince from Africa (cue woozy tribal music on the soundtrack when he comes on screen). Turns out Matteo is terminally ill. Cue melodramatic finale as Sarah gives birth prematurely and kid hovers between life and death while Matteo does likewise (grindingly appropriate a time to be born, a time to die from the Byrds on the soundtrack).

Film never really gets to grips with the experience of immigrant families like the one depicted here. After tense border-crossing opening, nothing is made of their status as illegal immigrants even after they have dealings with local schools and hospitals. Why don’t they make any contacts with New Yorks huge Irish-American community? Why don’t they live in Brooklyn rather than crowded, dangerous, pricey Manhattan (Johnny is an aspiring actor interesting to see In America as a low-rent, non-satanic variation on Rosemarys Baby)? Most pressingly of all, was it really necessary to have the familys problems almost literally solved by magic? End credits feature standard-issue inspirational emerald-isle ballad Andrea Corr steps in for Sinead OConnor, who must have been busy that week.

For an interview with star Paddy Considine click here.


IN MY SKIN

7/10

Dans ma peau : France 2002 : Marina DE VAN : 93 mins

In My Skin is this year’s Irreversible only those in possession of a strong will and a strong stomach need apply. At Edinburgh, despite stern warnings that This film contains images and explores themes that some viewers may find disturbing, there was a steady stream of walkouts as soon as said images and themes started to manifest themselves. Becauseit’s the first stalk-and-slash film ever made in which the victim and assailant are the same person. Admirers of Mark E Smith may well recall his lyric from ‘The Man Whose Head Expanded’ about someone who “practised cut-up technique, literally, on himself”,

Writer-director-star De Van was the psychotic back-packer in Francois Ozon’s See The Sea, acted in his Sitcom, and co-wrote his Under The Sand. And she looks like a vampire: pale skin, sharp teeth, a chic nosferatu. Tod Browning, Carl Dreyer and Terence Fisher would have fought to the death (and beyond) to cast her as Dracula’s bride. The surrealists would have worshipped her. And shed have joined in: close-up after close-up lengthy makes it clear that, if she was chocolate, she’d eat herself.

Her character Esther isn’t made of chocolate, but she eats herself anyway bits of herself, at any rate. Esther is a successful businesswoman who cuts her leg, very badly, at a party one night. At first she doesn’t notice which is scarcely plausible, given the severity of the wound. Finally she does notice – and notices that being cut makes her feel good. Cue slow slide into dementia, as her bosses lose patience and her nice-guy boyfriend (typecast Laurent Lucas) looks on in bewilderment.

In My Skin is the latest in a long line of films analysing the French workplace and its discontents. But this time the journey is very much internal, full of jarring visualisations in which Esthers alienated view of her own body are presented as hallucinatory fact (such as the terrific restaurant-dinner sequence where her hand appears neatly and bloodlesslt severed).

Despite the odd grisly moment, and the inevitable walk-outs, however, In My Skin never actually delivers anything truly grotesque. De Van always seems to be about to show us something awful as Esthers decline accelerates, and this adds an electric edge to even the quietest scene. But viewers expecting conventional narrative closure will be disappointed: towards the end, we venture further into performance-art territory as De Van retreats behind split-screen and a rotating camera culminating in a deliberately baffling shot which seems to capture Esther in a moment of what? Transcendental personal apocalypse? Belated coming-to-her-senses?

The director has, it seems, by this stage backed herself into something of a cul-de-sac or rather entered a state of Repulsion, with Esther a close cousin of Catherine Deneuves shut-in, delusional schizophrenic from the mid-sixties Polanski film. But there’s no shortage of stuff to chew on (ahem) on this most graceful and poised of skin-flicks if nothing else, the remarkable scene in which Esther slowly threatens various parts of her body with a knife makes In My Skin the first stalk-and-slash film ever made in which the victim and assailant are the same person.

It all comes down to issues of control, of course self-control; the woman asserting control of her body in an environment that so often reduces her to an object of male regard (as in Secretary, scarification is a direct response to reification); and the control of a director to head down transgressive, dark mental corridors. Because, while De Van isn’t actually the films editor – Mike Fromentin wielded the scissors – she’s the one who says action and, of course, the one who says cut.

For the standalone rewrite of this review click here


KAMCHATKA

6/10

Argentina (Arg/Spain) 2002 : Marcelo PINEYRO : 103 mins

Kamchatka brings together the two Argentinian performers best known to arthouse audiences in the rest of the world Ricardo Darin, the older con-man from Nine Queens, and Cecilia Roth from Almodovars All About My Mother. And both get plenty of dramatic meat to sink their teeth into here, in a film that traces the very painful intersection of the personal, domestic and political in the aftermath of Argentinas military coup in 1976. Darin and Roth play a left-leaning couple who quickly realise they and their two young sons are in grave danger of being disappeared by the military junta, so relocate to a safe-house where they plot their next move which involves assuming new identities.

For the older child, this means becoming Harry in tribute to Harry Houdini, whose escapist feats endow him with heroic status for the boy. The focus is at least as much on the children as the adults as the opening and closing narration makes clear, this is a retrospective story told from his perspective. Its really about Harrys education from his actual parents, and other figures of authority and experience he meets along the way his normal life having come to a very abrupt halt.

Not a great deal actually happens as in Michael Manns The Insider, the threats from external sources remain shadowy as the parents always manage to stay a step or two ahead of danger. Its rather like what Christian Petzold did with The State I Am In, although in that movie which presented a rather less harmonious family in flight from the authorities the slow-burning drama eventually led to a shattering twist payoff. Kamchatkas script co-written by director Pineyro and Marcelo Figueras instead relies on implication and inference, including the eventual fate of the parents. The mood is much more elegaic and nostalgic though there isn’t much attempt made to replicate the fashions and hairstyles of mid-seventies Argentina.

Kamchatka whose title refers to the Siberian peninsula which, for the boy, comes to stand for an impregnable retreat from the worlds pressures works very well as an intimate chamber piece on universal themes. Apart from a slightly over-intrusive score, its nimbly handled by Pineyro, who explores ideas of escape and resistance in an engaging, very heartfelt manner. Is it, perhaps, his own story, taken from life? If so, this might explain the slightly episodic, dramatically underpowered aspects of what is an effective, but sometimes too low-key film.


LETTERS IN THE WIND

6/10

Namehay Bad : Iran 2002 : Ali-Reza AMINI : 76 mins

Not to be confused with the concurrent Bulgarian film of the same name, Letters in the Wind is an incisive mini-feature chronicling the first few weeks of conscripts doing their national service in the Iranian army. Amini deploys a matter-of-fact documentary style as we see the motley bunch put through their paces there’s no music, but the barracks features plenty of piped, suitably military tunes including, slightly surprisingly, Colonel Bogey. Adding to the slightly old-timey feel are subtitles which translate various insults as knavish, ruffian, rascal and dandy. The only female presence is a recorded womans voice on a dictaphone which one resourceful conscript smuggles into the remote, icily mountainous camp. The machine is passed from bed to bed in the dormitory, the men listening to the banal phrases as if they were the most seductive poetry.

Ennui, of course, is a fact of life for the soldiers and, given the lack of dramatic pep in the first half-hour or so, it also becomes something of an issue for the audience. Which is why were so keen to see Taghi (the resourceful dictaphone-smuggler) succeed in a trial of endurance the prize for which is a furlough to the nearest big city. Taghi pulls it off, and we follow him into town where, once again, the dictaphone becomes crucial. He calls up his colleagues relatives and plays back various messages they’ve recorded before his departure the letters of the title. Taghi then records various street sounds for the benefit of his fellow conscripts setting up a bittersweet finale back at base, although, refreshingly, not quite the one were led to expect. Its a nice touch, typical of what is a tidy little vignette of a film even if it does at times feel like an overextended short.


THE MAN OF THE YEAR

6/10

O Homem do Ano : Brazil 2003 : Jose Henrique FONSECA : 116 mins

Flashy hit-man comedy-thriller from Brazil that rather nakedly wants to be the next Amores Perros or City of God. Falls short of the latter, mainly because of the unsatisfactory dramatic arc. Opening stretches are fast, audacious and funny as a Rio De Janeiro joe schmoe type named Maiquel (Murilo Benicio) dyes his hair blond, is mocked by a local street-punk, and responds in a violent manner that sees his neighbourhood popularity unexpectedly rocket. Before long, he has a pet pig and two women on the go and his talents bring him to the attention of big-wigs whose businesses are coming under threat from the citys out-of-control crimewave.

Theres a very serious subtext here the failure of the police and government to deal with Rios spiralling crime and social injustice (the Bus 174 case is even mentioned at one point, as is City of Gods Ze Galinha). In Man of the Year, the resulting vacuum is filled by a private company with Maiquel as its figurehead which imposes law and order, and also curfews. Their justice is rough, and it comes at a price which only the rich can afford to pay.

Various strata of Brazilian society are exposed, as Maiquels progress brings him into representatives of business, the police and the church director Fonseca and scriptwriter Ruben Fonseca (adapting Patricia Melos novel O Matador the killer) bite off rather more than they can chew. Though it barrels along for a while on breezy energy and invention, the film starts running out of steam at about the same time as Maiquel becomes disillusioned with his new-found status as gun-toting vigilante for hire.

The second hour is notably less successful from the first things are perhaps never the same after the unexpected demise of a major character (in a distressing development that will be familiar to audiences who have seen the Australian comedy-drama La Spagnola.) And perhaps were now getting to the stage where this much-hyped Latino wave of violently self-aware, apparently amoral, urban-hip pictures risks becoming an over-familiar series of retreads over the same barrio turf.


MY ARCHITECT

7/10

aka My Architect : A Son’s Journey : USA 2003 : Nathaniel KAHN : 116 mins

Entertaining documentary in which film-maker Kahn traces the history of his late father the internationally esteemed Estonian-born, US-raised architect Louis Kahn. The subtext of so many American fictional movies these days is the son in search of the father, and here its brought right out into the open. With contributions from the likes of Philip Johnson (a delightfully acerbic nonagenarian who deserves a movie all to himself), Frank Gehry and I M Pei, the film is must-viewing for anyone interested in modern architecture not least because we get to see so many of Louis Kahns completed works, culminating in his masterpiece Capitol at Dhaka, Bangladesh. The experts also serve to put Louis Kahns work into its correct historical perspective sketching in a context which Kahn Jr isn’t equipped to provide.

But even non-aficionados of the subject will probably find plenty to keep them interested here the scenes where Nathaniel Kahn interviews his own mother (who never lived with Louis Kahn) and, separately, her sisters, are respectively touching and hilarious. More peripheral figures also provide good value, including a cabbie who drove Kahn around his adopted city of Philadelphia, and a Bangladeshi passer-by who confuses Louis Kahn with Louis Farrakhan.

The film successfully presents Louis Kahn as a visionary whose idea were far ahead of their time, so devoted to his craft that his private life dissolved into an ongoing chaos. Nathaniel Kahn, while a competent enough documentarist, is clearly nowhere near the same league in terms of the mastery of his craft and he knows as much, incorporating footage where he’s made to borderline buffoonish (his prayer hat keeps blowing off at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; he’s startled when the fog-horn on the Music Barge his father designed unexpectedly starts up).

Where Kahn Sr was remorselessly, instinctively innovative, Kahn Jr falls back rather too often on the well-worn cliches of the documentary trade luckily, the subject matter is strong enough to compensate for the conventional manner in which its told. It is annoying, however, that he incorporates so much tangential material that there’s only ten minutes at the end to savour the glories of Kahns Dhaka buildings. When a local eminence is informed about the necessarily fleeting nature of the Capitol footage within the whole movie, he blurts Then I think the film is very useless! Hes way off the mark, of course but you do understand where he’s coming from.


NED KELLY

4/10

UK (UK/Australia) 2003 : Gregor JORDAN : 110 mins

Plodding hagiography of the 19th century antipodean icon. A world away in every respect from Jordans last movie, the flip, wannabe-iconoclastic Buffalo Soldiers, this is a grindingly old-fashioned biopic that elevates Kelly (Heath Ledger) into an implausible shaggy-saintly combination of William (Braveheart) Wallace and Robin Hood: I won’t take this injustice he rants through his increasingly bushy beard.

Ledger isn’t a bad age fit for Kelly, who died young, but he struggles a little with the Irish accent (Kelly was born in Australia among a dirt-poor family of recent immigrants). Much stronger performers like Geoffrey Rush (as his steely colonial nemesis) and Naomi Watts (aristocratic love-interest an invented character) are wasted on the sidelines and the less said about Rachel Griffiths bizarre cameo as a Scottish woman, the better. Sappy flavour-of-the-month Orlando Bloom, meanwhile, turns in yet another lukewarm, forgettable performance as one of the cheeky, chirpy Kelly gang (knoights in shoinin armor!).

Klaus Badelts inspirational music seldom lets up, all the way to the bullet-ridden conclusion as Kelly grunts, bellows and trudges his way towards martyrdom (Wasnt this about protectin the ones I loved?!, etc). Its all thoroughly one-note, by-the-numbers stuff, simplistic in its stark division between its goodies and baddies and didn’t anybody notice that all these penniless scruffs have such gleaming complexions and teeth?


films seen at Filmhouse, Cameo and UGC cinemas, Edinburgh, between 12th and 23rd August, 2003
Edinburgh Film Festival

reviews written 15th September, 2003

For the full list of every Jigsaw Lounge reviewed film at this 2003 Edinburgh Film Festival click here

by Neil Young