for this week’s TRIBUNE : ´Cléo from 5 to 7’, ‘Revanche’, ‘Valhalla Rising’, ‘The Milk of Sorrow’ and ‘A Boy Called Dad’

Published on: April 30th, 2010

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Cleo from 5 to 7    [8/10]    Director: Agnès Varda
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Revanche    [6/10]   Director: Götz Spielmann
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The Milk of Sorrow  
[5/10]    Director: Claudia Llosa
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Valhalla Rising   [5/10]     Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
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A Boy Called Dad   [4/10]   Director: Brian Percival
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NOW in her eighties, Belgian-born doyenne of European post-war film-making Agnès Varda has recently been enjoying a welcome return to the limelight thanks to the success of her lovely autobiographical documentary The Beaches of Agnès (2008). Retrospectives and re-issues are starting to pop up all over the place, including this week’s reappearance of Varda’s minor masterpiece from 1962, Cléo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7.) Nearly 50 years, on, it remains perhaps the most delightfully feather-light film to take mortality as its central preoccupation.
   As she waits to hear the results of a medical exam – and strongly suspecting she’s about to be diagnosed with fatal cancer – a successful, beautiful singer (Corinne Marchand) navigates the streets, cafes and shops of Paris.  It’s late afternoon on the longest day of the year; the day is sunny, the pavements crowded, but no matter where she goes, Cléo is haunted by superstition and fate. And the inescapable importance of destiny is indicated from the outset: though film is in black-and-white, there’s a prologue in colour in which our heroine is shown visiting a tarot-reader.
   Marchand is luminous and radiant – most of the time. But the bulb of instinctive, self-satisfied optimism within her has a faulty, flickering filament that sends frowns spreading over her “doll-like” features. Cléo isn’t the deepest or most articulate of protagonists – of all the characters in the picture (Dominique Davray is splendidly direct as her no-nonsense maid/PA Angèle), she’s in some ways the least interesting on view. 
  She does, however, go on some kind of halting internal journey towards self-knowledge, in tandem with her speedier physical peregrinations around the various arrondissements. The latter are staged as documentary-style sequences of giddily atmospheric street-life, during which writer-director Varda (and her three cinematographers) captures hundreds, maybe thousands, of Parisians going about their business – their propensity to look directly into the camera excused by Cléo’s considerable fame and head-turning loveliness.
   These semi-aimless wanderings make Cléo a not-so-distant cousin of Jeanne Moreau’s somewhat more driven flaneuse from Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958). Indeed, it’s a little surprising that Varda didn’t have Moreau pop up in character as an in-joke – this would certainly have fit with the silent short-film-within-the-film Cléo watches from a cinema projection-booth, which rib-nudgingly features several key Nouvelle vague figures (Godard, Karina, etc) as very game slapstick participants.
   Although it’s usually labelled as part of the parallel Rive Gauche movement rather than strictly being an example of Nouvelle vague, Cléo does feature a couple of NV touches – most notably its somewhat arbitrary division into short chapters via titles that flash onto the screen, identifying the precise time and identifying key characters. It’s debatable whether this technique adds very much, rather it serves to lift us out of an airy experience which is at its best immersive, intoxicating – and occasionally even ecstatic, as when Varda closes right in on Cléo’s face as she tries out a sad new chanson in her opulent apartment, and the spare solo-piano accompaniment imperceptibly gives way to a full, heart-rending orchestral score.

THE week’s newer releases aren’t really in Cléo‘s league – indeed, a couple of them aren’t really very new at all. Having world-premiered at Berlin in February 2008, Austrian writer-director Götz Spielmann’s tense character-based neo-noir thriller Revanche bumped around the film-festival circuit for months, picking up largely positive reviews and a handful of awards. Its belated appearance on our screens is largely due to its surprise inclusion among the five nominees for last year’s Foreign Language Oscar – a surprise, as the Academy voters usually don’t warm to such gritty fare (it duly lost to Japan’s tearjerking Departures.)
  Shot in muted tones by star Austrian cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (also responsible for Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes, currently on release in UK arthouses), it’s the somewhat self-consciously grim tale of Alex (Johannes Krisch) hapless small-time Viennese criminal who flees to the countryside after a botched bank-heist leads to his girlfriend  Tamara (Irina Potapenko) being shot dead by police.
   But rural settings can prove just as dangerous as urban ones, as Alex discovers to his cost – thanks to a series of plot-developments which plot pivot rather too insistently on coincidence (taken near to ‘cosmic joke’ levels in the latter stages) to really come off.
   Whatever his failings on the scriptwriting front, the poised, controlled direction by Spielmann (now 49, he’s been making movies since 1984) gives Revanche a classiness that compels – and he elicits an absolutely crackerjack performance from Krisch in the central role of a dim-bulb bruiser who’s nowhere near as smart, or as tough, as he believes.

WE’VE had to wait well over two years for Revanche – and such delays are, unfortunately, far from uncommon these days – so it’s perhaps unreasonable to get too irate over the 14-month gap that’s elapsed between The Milk of Sorrow (La teta asustada) winning the top prize at the 2009 Berlin festival, and the film’s arrival in selected arthouses. And while Revanche can be packaged as a steely Euro-thriller – British audiences seem to be finally warming to German-language films that aren’t about World War 2 or the Stasi – this second feature by Barcelona-based Peruvian writer-director Claudia Llosa (niece of Mario Vargas Llosa, no less) is a bit of a tough sell, Berlin gongs notwithstanding.
   It’s inspired by sections of Professor Kimberley Theidon’s non-fiction book, Entre Prójimos, detailing a folk belief whereby the daughters of women raped by military and paramilitary forces during Peru’s 1980-1992 of civil strife inherit mental trauma via breast-milk. This is the situation endured by Fausta (Magaly Solier), whose aged mother dies in the film’s opening moments. Believing that she is afflicted by the “milk of sorrow,” Fausta is terrified of being raped – and so inserts a potato inside herself as a rather crude form of contraception. Taking a job as a maid in a rich woman’s house, Fausta finds herself involved in some tricky relationships – with her employer, and with a gardener – while the vegetable inside starts, somehow, to grow…
   As this synopsis indicates, Llosa is dealing with some powerful and weighty subjects here – the enduring power of superstition, women’s fortitude, war crimes, class conflict – and she does so in a manner which nods to the magical-realist traditions now firmly established as part of Latin American storytelling. But what works poetically on the page can come across as unhelpfully concrete and prosaic on celluloid, and developments which should be evocatively symbolic and delicately sombre come across as heavy-handed, baldly explicit in allegorical intent, po-faced and occasionally even absurd. “Chips with everything!” one is tempted to heretically mutter as Fausta reaches down and slices bits off that increasingly-cumbersome tuber.
   It’s all a distinct come-down after Llosa’s highly promising 2006 debut Madeinusa - which also starred Solier (her mournful, mask-like beauty is always engaging on the eye), and which explored intriguing sociological and anthropological concepts within the framework of a deft, cracking, darkly humorous thriller. Needless to say, despite winning numerous awards, Madeinusa never managed to obtain UK distribution: “sorrow” indeed.

A similar gap between ambition and execution can be found in Danish writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising - but otherwise we’re half a world away, quite literally, from Llosa’s modern-day Peruvian fable. A speedy, change-of-gears follow-up to Refn’s engagingly Ken Russell-like true-crime biopic Bronson from last year, this is a ponderous viking-era mini-epic set in the wilds of medieval Scotland, in which a one-eyed, battle-brutalised, mute Nordic warrior (Mads Mikkelsen) seeks a return to his long-forsaken homeland.
   A promisingly violent, mud-splattered, bone-crunching first reel quickly gives way to protracted, pretentious, nebulous sequences – reminiscent of Lars Von Trier at his most mannered – which see Refn unwisely groping towards spiritual and psychological significance. 
   Morten Søborg’s cinematography is consistently striking, but problems really kick in when ‘One Eye’ and his Scots chums set off on a sea-voyage, only to be becalmed for what seems like an eternity. The becalming of a ship has long been a particularly tricky business to depict on celluloid, as it’s so easy for the audience to share the torpid ennui that envelops the characters. Let’s just say that Refn has no more success than, say, Andrzej Wajda in his 1976 Joseph Conrad adaptation The Shadow Line, and after this extended sequence of inactivity Valhalla Rising never threatens to get back into gear.
   Refn, of course, would never claim to be a Wajda. Previously responsible for the Pusher trilogy, he’s long been one of Denmark’s more unapologetically commercially-minded directors – which makes this picturesquely elemental wrong-turn into leaden mysticism all the more head-scratching. And while Mikkelsen has proven himself pretty much bomb-proof in a career that has stretched from obscure film-festival-only enterprises to Casino Royale (he was the “crying” villain”) and Clash of the Titans, to deprive him – and us – of his expressive vocal talents seems decidedly perverse.

ANOTHER busy week film-wise, and so not much room for the eminently missable British kitchen-sink drama/misery-memoir A Boy Called Dad – in which a 14-year-old lad (Kyle Ward) from New Brighton gets a girl pregnant and, months later – and following a string of unlikely developments – goes on the run with the resulting baby. The very early, clumsily implausible introduction of a firearm is the first sign of scriptwriting problems, and this sets the scene for pretty much all that’s to follow. 
   Though ostensibly Ken-Loachian in its depiction and dramatisation of a very real problem that’s far from uncommon in modern Britain (where teenage pregnancy rates are notoriously among the world’s highest), the movie quickly spirals into melodramatic absurdity. Then again, such deficiencies are frequently to be found in Loach’s own output in recent years, since the venerable director ill-advisedly hooked up with writer Paul Laverty.
   There’s nothing wrong with the performances in A Boy Called Dad – Ian Hart, as our youthful hero’s own dad, mines every scrap of humour and pathos from his role, while Ward is quite a find as the title-character. Fingers crossed that Shane Meadows will find him a role in his next project – he certainly deserves much better than this.

Neil Young
20th April, 2010
(written for the 29th April edition of Tribune magazine)


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A BOY CALLED DAD : [4/10] : Brian PERCIVAL : UK 2009 : 80m : seen at Cineworld cinema, Edinburgh, 20th June 2009 – Edinburgh International Film Festival (complimentary ticket). {9/28}
….. original review …..

CLEO FROM 5 TO 7  : [8/10] : Cléo de 5 à 7 : Agnès VARDA : France 1962 : 93m (BBFC) : seen at The Star and Shadow cinema, Newcastle, 12th November 2009 (£4). {21/28}
….. original review …..

THE MILK OF SORROW : [5/10] : La Teta asustada : Claudia LLOSA : Spain/Peru 2009 : 98m (BBFC) : seen at Berlinale Palast, Berlin, 12th February 2009 – Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) — press show. {14/28}
….. original review …..

REVANCHE : [6/10] : Götz SPIELMANN : Austria 2008 : 122m (BBFC) : seen at CityKino, Linz (Austria), 25th April 2008 – Crossing Europe Film Festival (complimentary ticket). {17/28}
….. original review …..

VALHALLA RISING : [5/10] : Nicolas Winding REFN : UK/Denmark 2009 : 93m (BBFC) : seen at KinoDvor, Ljubljana, 20th November 2009 – Ljubljana International Film Festival (complimentary ticket). {12/28}
….. original review …..