July roundup : Consequences of Love; Nuts In May; A Dirty Shame; Aguirre

Published on: July 18th, 2005

Paolo Sorrentino's 'The Consequences of Love' [7/10]

Aptly enough for a film set in Switzerland, The Consequences of Love starts off with the cool precision of a Patek Philippe watch. From the astonishing opening shot, every aspect of sound and image is precisely calibrated as writer-director Sorrentino brings us into the emotionally-stunted world of bespectacled, immaculately grey-suited Titta Di Girolamo (Toni Servillo). A sleek mid-fifties gent, Titta is one of the permanent residents of a quietly upscale hotel in an unnamed, quietly upscale town somewhere in the Italian-speaking section of the world's most discreetly well-heeled country.

Titta's own clipped narration reveals his secrets: he's an insomniac; once a week he takes heroin; once a week he receives a suitcase full of money which he then takes to a bank elsewhere in the town. He's followed this identical routine for some years, during which time the only contact he's had with his family back in Italy has been via telephone. Why? We find out – eventually – as Titta's regimented ways are undermined by the dawning affection he feels for a hotel worker, the sultry, much younger Sofia (Olivia Magnani).

Having long kept his feelings in severe check, Titta tentatively edges towards liberation – with unfortunate results for all concerned. Sorrentino's script likewise loses its bearings, stumbling over the crucial transition from promise to delivery. The Consequences of Love is absorbing and intriguing for much of its running-time, but the final act comes as something of a letdown: though open to multiple interpretations, this blackly comic denouement is somewhat arch and contrived in comparison with the  the long skilful set-up which has preceded it.

Here, as elsewhere, however, Sorrentino is extremely well-served by theatre-veteran Servillo (looking eerily like Tony Shalhoub) in what often amounts to an intensely focussed one-man show. But what we end up with is, in the end, less like an exquisite Swiss timepiece and more like an exquisite Swiss chocolate: cool and dark in its refreshingly adult flavours, even if the delights it provides are in retrospect decidedly transient and insubstantial.

Neil Young, 19th July 2005.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE : [7/10] : Le conseguenze dell'amore : Italy 2004 : Paolo SORRENTINO : 104 mins : seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 3rd July 2005 – public show

Mike Leigh's 'Nuts In May' (TV) [8/10]

Non-British admirers of Mike Leigh's dour, award-laden recent films are often amazed to discover that for many in the UK he's still most famous for two raucously funny mid-seventies TV plays, both airing in the BBC's much-missed Play for Today strand and starring his then-wife Alison Steadman. Abigail's Party (1977) was an suburban, indoor ensemble piece (based on Leigh's own stage-play) in which Steadman achieved instantly iconic status as Beverley, the hostess from hell with grandeur delusions – and a dress sense – that might give Norma Desmond pause.

Though it made her name, Steadman's turn as Beverley has to some extent overshadowed everything she's done before or since. But watching Nuts In May from one year earlier - in which she plays pretty much Beverley's polar-opposite, the hippy-dippy, meek-and-mild Candice Marie – you realise the full extent of her remarkable range, and wonder why she isn't regularly ranked alongside the likes of Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith when people start talking about our 'finest' female performers. (In a very recent public vote for 'Greatest British Actresses' past and present, she ranked number 30 – not a bad showing, until you realise she finished four places below Liz Hurley…)

Just as Steadman's characters in the plays are emphatically chalk and (fondue) cheese, Nuts in May is a world away from Abigail's Party: rural, outdoor, concentrating squarely – at first – on a single couple: the insufferably pernickety Keith (Roger Sloman) and the drippily compliant Candice Marie. Their hopes of an idyllic break in the countryside are torpedoed when they realise they will have to share their camp site with trainee PE teacher Ray (Anthony O'Donnell), who plays his transistor radio a little too loud for Keith's sensitive ears. Candice Marie gradually befriends Ray, much to Keith's disgruntlement, but the uneasy peace is shattered by the arrival of uncouth, a pair motorbike-riding Brummies known as Finger (Stephen Bill) and Honky (Sheila Kelley). Their drunken antics push Keith to breaking point – and far beyond…

An excruciating comedy of social friction and embarrassment, Nuts In May has an unconventional, deceptively loose and episodic structure – building to a final scene that's startlingly low-key (bravely bathetic, perhaps) given the histrionics (from Keith) which have come before. Drawing out all-too-believable performances from his three main leads, Leigh also makes particularly strong use of music – or, to be precise, songs, Keith and Candice Marie both being enthusiastic folk-singers and song-writers. This sets up the play's most savagely hilarious scene, in which the hapless, anything-for-a-quiet-life Ray is reluctantly corralled into joining in a rendition of a particularly inane ditty devised by his new "friends".

At such moments, as so often with Leigh, there's the slight, troubling sense that he's created a set of unsympathetic oddballs for us to mock and look down upon. And on occasion Leigh's work does cross a certain line to the point where the humour is too corrosive to be actually funny. Nuts In May, however, is a prime example of how good he can be when he gets the balance right – Keith and Candice Marie end up just the right side of daft caricature, and their interactions with each other, and with Ray and the Brummie bikers, feature many priceless exchanges. But the play isn't just a compendium of wry gags – Leigh is making some acute points about Britishness and class along the way, and also exploring more general issues about how we should and shouldn't behave with each other if we want to avoid driving ourselves, and those around us, right up the wall.

Neil Young, 19th July 2005.

NUTS IN MAY (TV) : [8/10] : UK 1976 (made for BBC TV's Play for Today series) : Mike LEIGH : 80-84 mins : seen on DVD in Sunderland (UK), 4th July 2005 – with thanks to Paul Callaghan

John Waters' 'A Dirty Shame' [6/10]

The latest 'provocation' from writer-director Waters – probably better known these days as waspishly informative cultural commentator* than film-maker – is a predictably ramshackle satire of America's current social-political polarisation. Just as the country is divided into red (conservative) and blue ("liberal") states, the population of a certain street in suburban Baltimore are either prissy, repressive "neuters" or uninhibited "sex addicts". And, in a throwback to forties and fifties screwball comedies, all that's needed is as an accidental blow to the head for members of one group to instantaneously 'defect' to the other side.

Cue raucous, relentlessly saucy – but somehow oddly innocent – chaos as housewife Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) finds her long-dormant libido (her "inner whore" in Waters-speak) unexpectedly reawakened – to the bemusement of her hunky-but-square husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak), the delight of her breast-enlarged 'erotic dancer' daughter Caprice aka 'Ursula Udders' (Selma Blair), and the horror of her arch-neuter mother Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd). This being a John Waters picture, the oddball cast includes his regulars like Mink Stole (as 'Marge the Neuter') and Patricia Hearst though, as always, there's plenty of room for newcomers. Johnny Knoxville for once receives free rein to go roaringly OTT as Ray-Ray, a sex-evangelist who believes Sylvia holds the key to the long-awaited discovery of a "new sex act."

This revelation gets such a frenzied build-up that when it finally arrives in the picture's closing moments we expect something amazing – but what Waters delivers is something of a juvenile damp squib. This review won't spoil the "gag" (such as it is) but one suspects that the main reason the British censors slapped A Dirty Shame with an 18 certificate was as much because of fears that impressionable children may be inspired to imitate the knockabout violence of the new 'act', rather than the official BBFC line about the picture's "strong sex references."

It's especially unfortunate that a picture which revolves around characters reaching orgasmic climaxes should peter out in this fashion – although there's an inspired bit very late on involving David Hasselhoff and an aeroplane toilet. But the real jawdropping highlight comes around the middle – an unforgettable rendition of the "hokey cokey" at an old folks' home, into which Sylvia throws herself with increasingly unbridled abandon until she performs a 'party piece' involving her "cooter." Which begs the question – is 'cooter' indeed American (or Baltimorean) slang, or did Waters just make it up because it sounded right and funny (which it does)?

Similar questions can be asked about many of the "perversions" chronicled (along with a whole dictionary of cunnilingus euphemisms) along the way, including the delightful practice of "upper-decking." Waters apparently coined the term – and practice – of "teabagging" in (the 15-rated) Pecker, and one suspects he's out to pull of a similar trick this time. Though a return to form after the slightly substandard (18-rated) Cecil B Demented, A Dirty Shame isn't up to the level of Pecker - Waters most accomplished and enjoyable film since his 1970s heyday. And his handling of basic stuff like cutting, plotting (the script seems very much cobbled together at the last minute), pacing and the handling of extras remains endearingly amateurish. But then again, Waters would probably cut his own throat before coming up with a "well-made picture" and thus stoop to Hollywood levels of 'respectability'.

Neil Young, 20th July 2005

: [6/10] : USA 2004 : John WATERS : 89 mins : seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 10th July 2005 – public show
originally rated 7/10, but downgraded after further reflection, 10th Oct 2005

* Waters is seemingly as well-known now as the stars of his film – he's prominently visible on A Dirty Shame's UK poster. When was the last time that happened for a non-documentary film in which the director didn't himself appear?


Werner Herzog's 'Aguirre – the Wrath of God' [8+/10]

Most of the script was written on a bus going to Vienna with the football team I used to play for. We were a few hours into the trip and everyone was drunk already because we had some beer barrels to give to our opponents, but my team had drunk half of it before we had even arrived. I was sitting in my seat with my typewriter on my lap. Our goalie was leaning over me and was so drunk that he finally vomited over my typewriter. Some of the pages were beyond repair and I had to throw them out the window. There were some fine scenes, but they are long gone. That is life on the road for you.
                        Werner Herzog, from Herzog on Herzog (p88) edited by Paul Cronin

Life on the road? This is life on the river, 16th-century style. Life, and death. A journey into the far reaches of the Orinoco (or is it the Amazon?) in the company of swaggering, continent-conquering, El Dorado-hunting conquistadors, their women and their native servants. A journey into the farthest reaches of three men's psyches: central character and unhinged anti-hero, Lope de Aguirre, loosely based on a real historical figure; the unique actor who plays him, Klaus Kinski; and Herzog, the writer-director responsible for that vomit-stained script. We're a long way from Vienna – or, as someone says in the film's Wizard Of Oz farewell-to-Kansas moment, "We're not in Castile here!"

See Herzog's documentary My Best Fiend, plus Kinski's own deeply-unreliable, scandalously entertaining autobiography Kinski Uncut for chapter and verse on the unique relationship between the pair. This was the first of their five collaborations (later: Woyzeck, Nosferatu, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde) and the creative tension is already electric. Kinski clearly regards the camera – and there was, amazingly, only one camera used, often wielded by Herzog himself – with suspicion and imperious contempt: such a thing does not, cannot, will not exist. I, Aguirre, exist only as I see myself. No other perspectives are possible or even valid. He seldom raises his voice, when he does speak (which isn't very often), above a chilling, growling whisper. Physicality in space – a hole in the air. Iago as hunchback, revolving slowly at the end of an invisible rope.

Aguirre is part of a group sent by their commander on a quest upriver, upjungle – number two in the mission. Remains theoretically subordinate when a coup is staged and the corpulent, decadent, indolent aristocrat Guzman (Peter Berling) is installed as leader. Installed as Emperor of Eldorado. Aguirre writes the script for Guzman's rudimentary coronation (what is a throne, he brusquely asks the 'Kaiser', but a plank covered in velvet?) – which includes the blithe overthrow of the whole Hapsburg Empire. The first independence proclaimed in South America, and it's a nightmare, a parody. Aguirre the mutineer, the great usurper. Of course, Guzman cannot survive – seventy minutes in he dies silently, like all victims of the unseen jungle-dwelling natives' poisoned arrows – and Aguirre takes over.

But the ranks have dwindled, are dwindling by the hour, and Aguirre is the King of Nothing, ruler only of a raft of excitable little monkeys. The watercourse below and the landscape beyond, that great indifference. "I am the Wrath of God!" he exclaims, surveying his riverine domain. "Who else is with me?" The drama ebbs away as the cast of characters is picked off one by one. "Things are not turning out as we expected". Slowing down into a feverdream of madness and silence, the lack of sound a sure harbinger that the unseen foes are close at hand (their cousins excitedly shout "meat is floating by" when they glimpse the Spaniards' opulent raft passing from the shore). Bathos looms and spreads, when what Aguirre (for whom the phrase 'delusions of grandeur' is scarcely sufficient) wants is the glory of an action-heavy climax ("We'll stage history like others stage plays.".

This gratification is withheld by Herzog, who knows how the Aguirre (pron. 'A-gee-rah') story ended and will end again. Less Hitler or Custer or Kurtz, than Gen Westmoreland and his delusional Commander In Chief: "Set the village on fire" the men are coldly instructed. Concurrent with Deliverance, half a decade before Apocalpyse Now. Time-travel through the camera lens: real rough peril on the whitewater raft early on; disturbingly cruel, period-accurate treatment of horse, monkey. .Grotesque, comic absurdities at the sharp end of a blade. A renegade counts to ten – is interrupted by decapitation before he can get to "zehn" – but manages to complete the sequence nonetheless. In German – for Deutsche Rundfunk, Spanish wasn't really a possibility – hence Kinski's very Aryan, Vikingish, Siegfriedish Basque nobleman. His cold, demented commitment.

The timeframe is December 1560 to February 1561. We "know" this because of the narration by a monk, Brother Gaspar (actor known as 'Del Negro'). But the monk's narration, like Aguirre's rant, is not reliable – he seemingly continues recording his thoughts and impressions in his diary, even after one of his fellow travellers has swallowed his ink, mistaking it for medicine. The first scene takes place on Christmas Day – and the initial shot has to be considered in any saloon-bar debate of the best openings in cinema history.

Longshot of impossibly steep cliff (Macchu Pichu?), green-forested and swathed in foggy clouds – a vertical line of people and animals, haltingly descending in uneven caravan, to the accompaniment of an ethereal, restrained score by German prog-rockers Popol Vuh, also responsible for Herzog's Heart of Glass soundtrack. (Like Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Aguirre enters the drama downwards through the clouds.) Popol Vuh, named after the Mayan creation myth – apt, mocking counterpoint as the Conquistadores slowly, painfully meet their match.

Neil Young, 20th July 2005. 

AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD : [8+/10] : Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes : West Germany 1972 : Werner HERZOG : 95 mins :
seen at Side Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 11th July 2005 – free public show – DVD projection
(unsatisfactory that it wasn't 16mm, but better than nowt I suppose- hence the "8+" out of 10, instead of 9)