A review of Francois Ozon’s latest film Frantz for Wales Arts Review
Oscillating between pure, unadulterated visual cinema and a high-falutin’ intellectual treatise on the nature of performance and cinema itself, Holy Motors is very probably director Leos Carax’s best work thus far. Denis Lavant, his regular collaborator (and arguably as much of an auteur on Carax’s work as the director himself), plays a…businessman(?) who travels from appointment to appointment in a limousine acting out various scenarios, all of them seemingly unrelated. Lavant is his usual batshit insane and brilliant self. There are moments of mad visual genius—the musical intermission, the mo-cap sequence, monkey family, Kylie Minogue singing—and some scenes that sag and lag, but damn. When Holy Motors runs smoothly, it is a glorious work of pure cinema
Of the three main figures to emerge from the French ‘cinema du look’ movement in the 80s, the others being Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson, Leos Carax is easily the most interesting, enigmatic, and fascinating, as borne out by his recent successful return to filmmaking with Holy Motors (2012). Bad Blood (or as it’s sometimes called in English, The Night is Young) is his second feature film, and it’s certainly the work of a young director, headily in love with the form and aesthetic possibilities of cinema, much like his contemporaries, but adopting a more philosophical viewpoint of those possibilities, a viewpoint clearly indebted to Jean-Luc Godard, whose fingerprints are all over this film.
Now, that might be a problem for me. I am no fan of Godard whatsoever. I can appreciate his contribution to cinematic history in terms of breaking down boundaries and rules, but he’s always produced films that are desperately convinced they of their own meaningfulness, when in reality he has nothing at all of interest to contribute. His lauded 60s films contained characters who were never more than ciphers for him to show off what he was reading or watching that month. His leftist politics were always weak and felt more like a put-on rather than a genuinely analytical belief in the possibilities of humanity’s progress. Indeed, for all the plaudits lavished on him, it’s noticeable how ignored his contemporaries over in Eastern Europe were and still are.
In particular, the Czechoslovak New Wave and the Yugoslav Black Wave took the boundary-breaking of Godard’s work and turned it into something genuinely revolutionary, something genuinely political, genuinely brave, not the toy-gun political pissing about we see in Godard’s cinema. The collected works written about Dušan Makavejev, Miloš Forman, Věra Chytilová, and all the other great filmmakers from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are probably about equal to all the claptrap written about Godard. The lack of attention on these filmmakers, compared to the overblown importance of Godard is aggressively annoying at times and realistically ought to be challenged.
But with that minor rant over, I cannot deny Godard’s influence. When better filmmakers picked up his ball and ran with it, the results were often astounding. In Bad Blood, Carax is perhaps still a little too indebted to Godard for it too feel like truly his film, but yet there are still flashes of the gloriously brave filmmaker who would go on to make Holy Motors.
The story is as elliptical as one might expect from such a student: in a near-future infested with an AIDS-type STD that kills off anyone who has loveless sex, a gang of criminals convince the young Denis Lavant to steal a potential cure for the virus and pay off his father’s debts simultaneously. Whilst the heist is planned, Lavant dumps his teenage girlfriend Julie Delpy for Juliette Binoche, despite the fact that Binoche is already involved with one of the elder members of the gang. What follows is a lot of introspective, moody close-ups and ruminations on the nature of love and precious little of the action that such a plot summary suggests, not necessarily a bad thing.
Bad Blood is certainly a gorgeously shot film. The streets are depopulated, as if the disease has killed off the entire population already, and all that’s left are greying empty skylines and concrete, blocking off the remaining inhabitants from connecting, only rarely splashed with blocks of bright, primary colours. There’s an inherent vapidness to the characters’ musings on love; an especially long middle-stretch of the film is little more than Lavant and Binoche discussing romance, but they devolve into confused platitudes, both too young to truly understand it, a potentially fatal ignorance in this quickly emptying world.
Lavant in particular comes across as a young man barely able to hold his thoughts together, bursting at the seams with youthful vigour, hormones and energy, but precious little wisdom: the film’s greatest moment comes when he suddenly runs into the street, dancing to David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’, a man teetering on the edge of sanity. Who better for such a role than mercurial Denis Lavant, one of the most unique, interesting, and fascinatingly complex actors around. It should be noted that Binoche and Delpy are no slouches here either, both contributing brilliant performances. If nothing else, Bad Blood is a brilliant opportunity to watch three of France’s best ever actors at the very dawn of their careers, and let’s not forget that the film also provides central roles for other major French actors like Michel Piccoli.
Yet, Bad Blood feels like less than the sum of its parts. Its slow pace is at turns both relaxingly languid and frustratingly opaque, and it seems to me that Carax had yet to figure out how best to pace his work at this point. Much like Godard, there’s a lot of aimless meandering here, and some particularly on-the-nose symbolism, but thankfully it’s also lacking in his pseudo-political ramblings (although some of the film’s comments on the nature of romance are shallow). There are some bright moments in Bad Blood, but its patchwork of ideas, flaws, and strengths ultimately does not coalesce into a genuinely excellent work, remaining interesting rather than fulfilling, the work of a student still under the spell of his master rather than breaking free.
Or: We Need to Talk About Fascism. Brady Corbet’s debut feature film is a finely-constructed work, rooted deeply in the annals of intellectually challenging European arthouse cinema, though it is hampered by not attaining quite the same level of intellectual clarity as its best peers. Corbet, who has been acting since his teenage years—his first leading role was in Gregg Araki’s masterpiece Mysterious Skin (2004)—has recently moved towards scriptwriting with Simon Killer (2012) and Sleepwalkers (2014). Now with The Childhood of a Leader he finally takes charge behind the camera as well. The results are interesting, even if the film is at times patchy and overly oblique for its own good.
Set in the immediate aftermath of World War One in a country home near Paris, we are introduced to a pre-adolescent boy (Tom Sweet), whose father is an American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) in France to start negotiations for the Versailles treaty and whose mother (Bérénice Bejo) is a German-born missionary’s daughter, world-travelled but deeply religious. The action is broken up by title cards announcing three ever-increasingly aggressive tantrums by the boy, as well as an overture and an epilogue, set in some unclear future by which time a fascist leader has taken charge (Robert Pattinson, although he also has a role earlier in the film as a young friend of the boy’s father, leading to questions over whose childhood exactly we are seeing).
As the boy’s tantrums get ever more violent, moving from minor childhood transgressions, such as throwing rocks, to pseudo-sexual ones to full-on violence, the film muses throughout upon the psychological background of extremist leaders. This is confirmed as much by the film’s end credits, which includes a list of intellectual influences, including Jean Paul Sartre, whose short story of the same name this film is loosely based on, certainly in intention if not entirely form and structure.
Cinematically, the film’s closest cousin is probably the work of Michael Haneke (unsurprising as Corbet acted in Haneke’s 2007 remake of his legendary Funny Games). The Austrian auteur’s preoccupation with the origins of evil are very present here, especially his Palme d’or-winning The White Ribbon (2009). Both films are set in a similar time period, Haneke’s work dealing with increasingly bizarre and darkening circumstances in a German village, whilst Corbet focuses similarly on a French country house. Corbet especially seems to have picked up Haneke’s long-take focus, in which the exacting lens of his camera zeroes in on his characters, trapping them, following them, suffocating them.
In Tom Sweet’s brilliant performance, with angelic, androgynous appearance—his long locks lead to him frequently being mistaken for a girl, much to his anger—contrasting with an undercurrent of manipulation and coldness, one could also draw a parallel with the classic horror The Omen (1976), in which a demon child wreaks havoc upon those around him. Hell, even his adopted father there is an American diplomat.
Indeed, The Childhood of a Leader often plays like a horror without any of the horror, preying on the sense of foreboding and darkness engendered by its title, setting, and mood: the dark shadows of the musty French country manor in which the family lives are pierced only occasionally by the cold winter sunshine. There are some incredible images here, courtesy of the excellent work by cinematographer Lol Crawley, and they are aided by the film’s greatest asset, its soundtrack. A furious, thunderous string-based orchestral score by Scott Walker, one of the greatest composers/songwriters/singers/maniacs of the past fifty years, the score arguably threatens to overtake the film, but as far as the film’s throbbingly dark mood goes, the score sets the atmosphere with such a forceful sense of purpose that it’s hard to complain.
The problem is that, despite all these strong elements (the supporting performances too are excellent), The Childhood of a Leader ultimately feels a too stiflingly academic to truly work. It comes across more as a thesis than as a film, with layers of metaphor and analogy, in debt to Europe’s intellectual history, but little to say of its own. Perhaps a second viewing will open up the film, so dense is it with allegory and suggestive implication, but it may well be a case of a young filmmaker making things oblique as a result of a lack of confidence in his ideas rather than as a way of challenging audiences to come to their own conclusions.
What results is an exquisitely-constructed film that is less than the sum of its parts. This is after all, the work of a first-time feature director, and an admirably ambitious one at that. For that, Corbet ought to be applauded, barely 28 and attempting a work of complex intellectual promise, even if that promise remains unfulfilled. The Childhood of a Leader isn’t quite a success, but it is an interesting and worthwhile work.
Since the great commercial and critical success of Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn’s films seem to have become more and more concerned with pure unadulterated aesthetic, dividing critics and audience. In truth, he has been stretching towards pure a cinema of pure aestheticism for a while now; I’ve not seen his early Pusher trilogy, but the excellent Valhalla Rising is evidence enough that here is a director primarily interested in creating cinematic moods rather than any commercial interests of looking cool, although cool is exactly what The Neon Demon looks like. Elle Fanning stars as an underage beauty model trying, like so many others, to make it in LA. Her innocence and beauty encourage extreme jealousy from her co-workers, with things going awry quickly. Though Refn’s imagery is a bit on-the-nose at times, The Neon Demon is more tableaux than moving image. There is a good deal of black humour here, which does wonders for the material: what could have been insufferably smug becomes pulpy, allowing the utterly staggering cinematography and throbbing electronica score to speak on its own.
A film with a very special place in my heart…because it was this film I watched with my girlfriend on our very first date together. Whilst I might have been edging close to that scene in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle takes Cybil Shepherd to a porn cinema—the sex scenes really are too long and narratively uninteresting—as far as films detailing the growth and collapse of a relationship go, few are as epic or in-depth as Blue is the Warmest Colour. Director Abdellatif Kechiche keeps most of the entire three-hour running-time in close-up, drawing us closely into Adéle’s (Adéle Exarchopoulos) world. Just as well then that her performance and that of her co-star Léa Seydoux, are astounding in their emotional honesty, lighting up the screen and holding the baggier parts of a flawed three-hour movie entirely together.
As far as films about disintegrating marriages and the ever-increasing distance between former lovers goes, Possession is certainly one of the most intense and terrifying, evidently a big thematic influence on Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Isabelle Adjani’s lead performance is a thing to behold, but so is Sam Neill’s more subtle, introspective performance, easy to miss amongst the sheer batshit madness of Andrzej Żuwalski’s imagery and disentangled, ever-shifting camerawork. It’s all a bit too much to take in at first viewing, especially given the film’s heavyweight reputation, but Possession remains like few other films out there.