Edinburgh Film Festival pt.IX (Fri 26 Aug) incl. ‘The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael’ [7/10]

Published on: August 26th, 2005

Bernard Rose's SNUFF-MOVIE [6/10]
Derek Yee's ONE NITE IN MONGKOK [6/10]
Prum & Kremer's TOUR DE FORCE [7/10]
Juan Solanas's NORDESTE [6/10]
Thomas Clay's THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL [7/10]

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The latest instalment in the weird career of writer-director Rose, the Romania-shot Snuff-Movie marks his first return to the horror genre since what remains his best-known work and his biggest hit, 1992's Candyman. Not that the DV-shot Snuff-Movie is really a horror film, however: it's a deliriously daft, breezily gory post-post-modern comedy-of-terrors, so packed with smart-alecky cinematic in-jokes that, as Rose himself admits, is made for "genre aficionados" rather than general audiences. 

Jeroen Krabbe strikes just the right classy/hammy note as Boris Arkadin (first name a nod to Karloff, surname a nod to Orson Welles' Mr Arkadin aka Confidential Report) – a horror director/star devastated by the distinctly Charles-Manson/Sharon-Tate-style killing of his pregnant wife in 1975 (you don't have to be Roman Polanski to find this sequence tasteless).

A recluse for three decades, Arkadin is now embarking on a new project – and invites a quartet of attractive young thespians (including Rose's real-life wife Lisa Enos) to his country mansion where they are to be "auditioned". The actors realise they're under constant surveillance from hidden video-cameras, the results being broadcast (My Little Eye-style) on a pay-per-view website. Bloody – and increasingly demented – shenanigans ensue, culminating in a ludicrously banal Jesus-Franco-style crucifixion sequence, and capped by the requisite nothing-was-what-it-seemed mindf*ck coda.

Rose is aiming to have his cake and eat it with Snuff-Movie – mocking the genre's conventions while milking them for all they're worth – and while he's clearly enjoying the feast (given the prevailing self-referentiality, it's a surprise Rose doesn't appear on camera himself) the fare won't be digestible for all. There's something off-puttingly self-satisfied about the prevailing atmosphere of ostentatious nastiness (the FX are queasily convincing), although this is all cast in a rather different light by the final twist. 

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Film-festival fatigue prevented me from fully engaging with the cool cops-v-gangsters Hong Kong drama One Nite In Mongkok, and from sharing my Slovenian critic-friend Jurij Meden's vast enthusiasm for the film. Maybe I need to see it again when I'm not quite so knackered and hung over (Stewart Lee DJ'd a night of Fall music at the Cafe Royal till after 3am the previous night). It seems to me a competently-handled picture with touches of real flair, though too over-complicated and over-long to be an outstanding variation on what's by now over-familiar genre material. The subtitling didn't help – the two main feuding gang-bosses original names were Anglicised into the incongruous "Tim" and "Carl", and I was intrigued by a passing reference to one "Chadwick". The title is a touch misleading: the plot takes place over three days in Mongkok, the HK district which is, an end title-card informs us, the world's most densely populated area.

Two factions fall out; a hitman is hired – he turns out to be a bespectacled, earnest young chap from a rural village. Arriving in the bewildering city, he befriends a shapely, youthful tart-with-a-heart, all the while evading the attentions of the opposing gang and the clutches of the police – though the latter seem to spend more time filling their faces with noodles etc than in crime detection. There's no shortage of easygoing droll humour in the early and middle sections – but the final act is largely given over to crunchingly bloody violence, and to the grim machinations of cruel fate. Watchable and nicely shot, One Nite in Mongkok - named after the police's catch-the-hitman operation (except they spell night correctly) – is this year's Infernal Affairs: beloved by certain critics, and a fixture at the world's film-festivals. Don't hold your breath for a Martin Scorsese remake, however…

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Easily the best film I've ever seen from Luxembourg – on reflection, the only film I've ever seen from Luxembourg – Tour de Force doesn't quite live up to that hostage-to-fortune moniker. But it is nevertheless a well-above-average documentary, and one of my more unexpected discoveries from Edinburgh '05: I'd gone in planning to watch the first reel (20 mins) and then see how I felt. I was well and truly hooked by this stage, however, and stayed happily in my seat till the end – a brisk 78 minutes later. The premise is engagingly offbeat: we follow Georges Christen, who may well be the World's Strongest Man, as he tours Moscow and the surrounding region.

Accompanied by an earnest young translator/guide, Andrei Volfson, he stages a show for Moscow's birthday celebrations, tugs a barge along the Volga using his teeth, is modelled in clay by a sculptor and is greeted as a celebrity at every step of the way: as the crowd (and us) are repeatedly informed, he holds over 20 entries in the Guinness Book of Records (the exact figure is a matter of some debate). Through it all Christen himself is (fortunately) a most engaging subject: a balding, moustachioed Belgian who looks like he might be in his early forties, he's a multi-lingual but down-to-earth bloke who, though hefty, is by no means the mountainous bodybuilder you might be expecting.

As he himself points out, he's carrying on the circus-strongman traditions from previous centuries – traditions about which Werner Herzog has often been volubly enthusiastic. But is the film, like the sculpture, a portrait of Christens? Yes and no – Tour de Force's two directors, over the course of numerous discrete, deadpan chapters, are as much concerned with the state of modern Russia (where bread-and-circuses distractions are seemingly the order of the day), though they thankfully avoiding making any particular didactic point. There's no narration as such: events, people and places are allowed to speak for themselves, and the carefully-edited result is a low-key, consistently entertaining and thought-provoking delight.

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After Tuesday's Up and Down, the international co-production Nordeste is the second Edinburgh '05 title whose plot hinges on a woman so desperate for children that she resorts to illegal, drastic measures. But while Up and Down entwined the child-need theme among a sprawling, often comic urban tapestry, Nordeste is bracingly serious, tightly focused and picturesquely rural. After a prologue in Buenos Aires and a detour to Graham Greene's beloved Corrientes, we follow forty-something French medicine-sales executive Helene (Carole Bouquet) to the far north-east of the country: most of the film was shot in and around the economically-depressed town of Formosa.

It's here that she hopes to obtain – via cash, if necessary – a baby. This proves a less than straightforward affair, and in the meantime Helene becomes friendly with a poverty-stricken single mother, Juana (Aymara Rovera). Things are looking bleak for Juana: she's being kicked out of her shack of a home; her bright young son Martin (Ignacio Ramon Jimenez) is falling in with the wrong crowd and missing his vital schooling; and she's pregnant again. Perhaps the problems of these two very different women may find a mutual solution?

Perhaps… and perhaps not: the climax is nicely ambiguous, with a powerful final shot (mirroring the first) that leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions. This is a heartfelt, mature film dealing (at a calm, measured pace) with serious, complex subject-matter. At its heart are two outstanding performances – from veteran Bouquet, looking great and seemingly un-botoxed at 47; and Rovera – an auspicious screen debut. Young Jimenez does his best to steal the show, however, as the sensitive Martin: he has a lovely little scene with a alligator that's one of many instances where Solanas (cinematographer and director as well as co-writer with Eduardo) shows a real feeling for landscape and environment.

A shame, then, that his script should become more predictable and schematic as it goes on, featuring a very two-dimensional villain in the form of a landowner's cruel henchman, and taking a couple of unfortunate detours into melodrama just when it should be reaching a proper emotional climax: just for once it might be nice if we could have a film featuring a child and a gun in which the latter did not happen to end up in the hands of the former, and in which a humble but noble dwelling did not meet a fiery demise…

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The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael… 

Hmmm…

Well, um… ah…. OK. 

I suppose I have to write something about this film. Not sure what, to be brutally frank. Brutal certainly that describes the astonishing climax, in which a 'home invasion' by a trio of drug-crazed south-coast teens ('bombed in Newhaven' indeed) on the residence of a TV chef and his American wife reaches a sickeningly horrific conclusion. This scene has been the controversial talking-point of Edinburgh '05, and with justification: it's several degrees more shocking than even the notorious sequences of violence and rape which made Gaspar Noe's Irreversible the big noise here a couple of years back.

I don't think that Thomas Clay is yet a Gaspar Noe – but Great Ecstasy is evidence of what might possibly be a major talent. With this particular film – whose first and second acts follow the three teens at home and school, paying special attention to middle-class, introverted cellist Robert (Dan Spencer) – I spent much of the time wondering whether what I was watching was a audacious masterwork or the pretentious outpourings of an immature pseudo-auteur.

I'm still not sure about the answer to that one, what with the punningly, perhaps arbitrarily Herzog-quoting title (Robert takes the drug 'Ecstasy'), the slow, not-much-happening pace (which wasn't as "boring" as I'd been warned), the stately, slowly-circling camerawork by Theo Angelopolous's regular collaborator Yorgos Arvanitis (reminiscent of his work on one of EIFF '04's standouts, Process); the preponderance of classical music (poncily credited to 'Purcell – Harvey – Elgar' at the start); the sudden detour into headline-grabbing ultra-violence; the Gus Van Sant-ish black-and-white war-footage montage which follows; the eastern-mystical quote that accompanies the incongrously bucolic, sunset/last-of-England fade-out image.

In terms of cinematic reference-points: of course A Clockwork Orange is in there, but for me the basic recipe is Tracey Emin's Top Spot (anomie of south-coast teens) plus Gus Van Sant's Elephant (glib red-herring 'explanations' for the climax are present throughout)plus Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, with dashes of James Toback's Fingers (a proficiency for classical music no bar to violent psychosis) and, for the revolting digestif, Pasolini's Salo and Bret Easton Ellis's book of American Psycho (not the awful film). The two music-heavy rape scenes, meanwhile, strongly reminded me think of the remarkable 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' party-from-hell sequence in Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre (1998; still unreleased in the UK).

Whatever my nagging doubts about Carmichael, it's encouraging to see Clay and co-screenwriter Joseph Lang incorporating an explicit political element alongside their socio-economic portrait of a town whose fishing industry has seen better days. The story takes place in spring 2003, with Bush and Blair all over the TV itching for war with Iraq – and it's evident that the horrors si nakedly displayed here are intended to parallel events taking place a very long way from sleepy Newhaven.

This topicality was explored by Clay and Lang (well-spoken, neatly turned-out, earnest young chaps both) at the Q+A following the late-night screening at the Cameo – a session notable for the atmosphere of genuine tension created partly by the extremity of what we'd just witnessed (there were apparently some walkouts) and partly by the presence of a young woman in the audience who brazenly lit up a cigarette, took text messages and calls on her mobile, and asked a series of ramblingly incoherent questions before exiting mid-session. For the record, she'd sat in front of me during the film and had audibly chatted to her companion throughout, so it's debatable how much of the movie she'd been able to absorb.

A proper film-festival experience, then, though seeing such disturbing fare so late meant that I did have a somewhat restless night and was still thinking about it first thing next morning. The film has been picked up for distribution in the UK, and I'll write about it again when it comes out – by that time, I will hopefully have my thoughts in something more approaching a proper critic's order. For now, suffice it to say that The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael is so extreme that it really should be seen by anyone interested in current cinema: but beware.

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Neil Young
27th/29th August 2005

* SNUFF-MOVIE : [6/10] : UK (UK-Rom) 2005 : Bernard ROSE : 92 mins
* ONE NITE IN MONGKOK : [6/10] : Mongkok hakye aka Wong Gok hak yau : China (Hong Kong) 2004 : Derek YEE (aka YEE Tung-Sing): 110 mins
* TOUR DE FORCE : [7/10] : Luxembourg 2005 : Antoine PRUM & Boris KREMER : 78 mins
* NORDESTE : [6/10] : aka Northeast : France (Fr/Spn/Fr/Bel/Arg/etc!) 2005 : Juan SOLANAS : 106 mins
* THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL : [7/10] : UK 2005 : Thomas CLAY : 98 mins

Press shows: Snuff-Movie seen at Filmhouse; Mongkok - Cameo. Public shows: Tour de Force - Filmhouse; Nordeste – Cineworld; Robert Carmichael - Cameo. Edinburgh International Film Festival

CLICK HERE FOR COVERAGE OF THE FINAL DAY, SAT AUG 27TH

or HERE for A-Z and rankings of all films seen at Edinburgh  '05

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A READER WRITES (13.9.05)
REGARDING
THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL

Dear Neil
> I read with interest your review of the above film since I have some =
> connection with the producer and director.
> I was, however, very disappointed in a factual error you made.
> The fade-out image was dawn, not sunset.
> This is of vital importance.  The implication, of course, was that the =
> perpetrators are seen sauntering off into a bright new dawn, having =
> committed a horrendous crime, when we as viewers know, of course, that =
> it is only a matter of time before they will be apprehended and =
> incarcerated for what they've done.  It is the False Dawn of their =
> lives.
> That this shot was achievable was a terrific plus for this low-budget =
> film.  It was technically very difficult and they were lucky to get the =
> opportunity to shoot within their timescale.  They could not have =
> afforded to re-group and "have another shot".
> Please, next time you see the film, watch the end carefully and you will =
> the catch the significance of what I'm saying.  It is anyway not =
> "incongruously bucolic" since the film is set in and around the Sussex =
> countryside.
> Yours sincerely
> xxxxxx xxxxxxx [name deleted]
>
>

Dear xxxxxx xxxxxxx

Many thanks for your e-mail re this fascinating film, and I am sorry that you were so disappointed with my review. However, I must ask the question: is there anything in the shot itself which indicates this is a dawn, and not a sunset? I took it as a sunset, though of course it "works" both ways. I'd suggest my "error" is one of interpretation rather than "factual" – as far as I can recall, the shot is too brief to ascertain whether the sun is rising or setting.

As regards my use of the word "incongruous" re the bucolic nature of this shot: I would suggest that the film's plot plays out in and around Newhaven, which is emphatically -not- a rural locale: the appearance of the countryside at the end did seem to me, as a humble viewer, decidedly surprising – and, in its placidity, a jolting contrast to the indoors horrors we in the audience had just experienced. Or am I just splitting hairs?

Neil