Monday, November 23, 2015

Orson Welles: One Man Band

In April of 1953, Orson Welles was invited by the BBC to record extracts from Walt Whitman’s A Song of Myself for a radio broadcast. “The BBC recording is the zenith of his poetry reading,” Welles’s biographer Simon Callow notes, “not merely sonorous but deeply felt, a perfect congruence of reader and poet.” In fact, it’s hard to avoid the observation that Welles himself might have written some of these lines.

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

In the preface to his new book One-Man Band, Simon Callow recalls the genesis of his attempt to survey the life and work of Orson Welles in 1989. He planned to write a biography that consisted of three volumes (the third of which, he originally suggested, should be a novel), but over the course of the subsequent quarter of a century that plan has long fallen by the wayside. This is the third instalment of Callow’s monumental project (following The Road to Xanadu and Hello Americans), and there is still more to come, as One-Man Band only takes us up to the completion of Welles’s Chimes at Midnight in 1967. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a biography of Orson Welles should expand so far beyond the scope of the biographer’s intentions; after all, Welles’s singular life and extraordinarily brilliant/eclectic/frustrating/confounding body of work surely merits a biography like no other. “Welles packed more living into his life, pursued more professions, thrust out in more directions and formed more intense relationships, than any twenty men put together,” Callow writes. In other words, he contained multitudes.

Read the rest of my article at Mostly Film

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Every detail and nuance, particularly if it's coming from your object of desire, is a sign to be decoded" - An Interview with Todd Haynes

Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of salt is such a perfect match for Todd Haynes’ filmmaking sensibility it comes as a surprise to discover that this is the rare instance of Haynes directing someone else’s screenplay rather than developing a project from scratch. Ever since he first came to people’s attention with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story in 1987, Haynes has established himself as one of the most interesting and original voices in American independent cinema, pushing himself in a new direction stylistically with each film while exploring a variety of themes and ideas with the same incisive intelligence. Carol might initially appear to be a companion piece to Haynes’ acclaimed 2002 film Far From Heaven, as he again depicts a forbidden love affair in conservative 1950s America, but the removal of a layer of meta-filmic artifice, which he so brilliantly utilised in that film, gives Carol a distinctly different flavour. It is a poignant, intimate and gorgeously crafted film full of tiny moments that linger and expand in the memory, and I had the opportunity to discuss it with Todd Haynes when he was in London for the film’s UK premiere.

The genesis of this film is unusual for you as you came to an already existing project rather than instigating it. What was the point of connection for you with this material?

I was given the script and the novel, which I had not read before and didn't know, in the same moment in May of 2013, and there had already been a long history preceding this project. I had actually heard about it through Sandy Powell who was planning to do costumes and she told me that Cate was already attached to this and Liz Karlsen was producing it, so I knew it existed, but I kind of forgot about it and was working on other things before it came to me. I read the novel and I read Phyllis's draft at that point, and I loved that book. I just thought it was such a beautiful, indelible and acute look at early love, and so interesting in relation to Patricia Highsmith's larger oeuvre of the crime subject, because it made you feel like falling in love was like having committed a murder, and having to recount and examine and all of the evidence stacking up against you to see what your chances are of getting away with it.

They even become fugitives.

Exactly, and separated from society. Every detail and nuance, particularly if it's coming from your object of desire, is a sign to be decoded and you start to fixate on it to try and read what it means, so there's a kind of pathology to it. I thought that was so accurate and unsentimental, and I felt it was something I had never addressed as a filmmaker in a movie before, like really telling a love story. It really made me think about point of view, and how great love stories, or so many of them, are usually rooted in the point of view of the more vulnerable party, the lover. That was absolutely true in the novel, but Carol offered the opportunity to track that very carefully and to watch Therese's point of view ultimately yield to Carol's point of view by the end, when their stations and their relationship, in terms of who is in the more powerful position, changes. So all of that was the way I started to think about it and then watching love stories on film, some I'd loved in the past and others I hadn't seen before, made me think about ways of sharpening that and making that more clear in the writing.

Do you always look at films from the period as part of your preparation for a project like this? Do you give your cast and crew films to watch as homework?

I sometimes look at movies from the period if it's relevant to what we're trying to do with the film, and sometimes not from the period, and sometimes both. It's unique to the project itself, it's not really a rule. For Far From Heaven, which was based very rigidly on movies from a specific time and place, and a language that they had defined and epitomised, yes I shared those very specifically with my actors. In this case there weren't specific films I was saying they had to watch but I shared my image book and the visual references with my DP, designer, the other creative departments and also with my actors, and I think that really did inform them. And then we found this movie called Lovers and Lollipops, which is a docudrama – I guess that's the most accurate way of describing it – made by Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel. They were husband and wife and they are probably best-known for a film called Little Fugitive that was made in New York, and all of these are in black-and-white and were made in the '50s. Little Fugitive is about a boy who runs off to Coney Island for a day, but Lovers and Lollipops took place in many of the locations that are in Carol, oddly enough, so it was really relevant. It had a female character at the centre of the story and the way she moved, and her range of gestures, was quite different from the way actresses from movies in that time behaved, and yet it was still quite codified and very particular to the time. It just felt more like a documentary, like it wasn't filtered through Hollywood language, and that was very interesting. I felt like there were aspects of femininity that had gone away, and that I wanted to be really true to.

To follow on from that point about the film's look, I want to ask you about how you work with Ed Lachman. You've collaborated a number of times now and each of your collaborations has had a very different aesthetic. At what point do you bring him on board to start defining the film's visual style?

Early. We begin these conversations quite early in the process, but in the case of Carol it was less time than I usually have with movies that I'm writing and researching and developing myself. In each case it really is like starting from scratch with a blank canvas. Ed really approaches it like a visual artist and thinks a lot about artistic references, but he also responds to as much specificity as I can give him. I think it's true for most creative partnerships, that they want the director to make them feel that there is a solid foundation upon which we are all standing, we're all in the same space, and then they can bring the specificity of their relevant departments to manifesting that.

I love the fact that you shot this in super 16mm. That grain in the image really brings it to life and looks so beautiful. How did you arrive at that choice?

We shot in super 16mm on Mildred Pierce. We have only ever shot on film but as stocks and lenses get more and more sophisticated and fine-grained, it's not necessarily better, but that's how technology moves. It occurred to me watching stuff on HD TV that had been shot on 35 film, it looks just like digital, you can't really tell the difference, and the grain component goes away. On Mildred Pierce we really want to degrade it and go in the opposite direction, to fuck it up a bit, and I loved the result. I loved also working with the little spring camera. I mean, it's problematic, it's dirtier, it gets dust and hair in it more often than 35mm, and we had some technical problems with lens fittings and focus issues on Carol early on that unnerved Ed, but all of those things are kind of great.

You mentioned Mildred Pierce there, and I'm interested to know how it felt to be making a feature film again after telling a story in a longer format on TV.

It's really, really different. The more open dramatic form of the miniseries was already an exceptionally different and interesting challenge, but you have to shoot so many pages a day for TV and that was the biggest daily challenge, I would say. Everybody I brought to Mildred Pierce came from big screen cinema and nobody had done TV before, so we were all really naïve and cocky that we were making a movie that just happened to be a longform dramatic thing that would be broadcast on HBO. But I loved working with HBO, and once we all agreed on the budget and were greenlit I felt a kind of security under me that I hadn't felt before.

In the current cinema climate, do you see that becoming a more natural home for the kind of stories you want to tell?

There are probably more and more dramatic programmes with female characters. Showtime seemed to specialise in women-driven stories for a while and HBO is catching up a bit, but all of that is helping competition and broadens what we get to see, and that has not been the case in independent filmmaking. It has really narrowed because people just don't go to the theatres to see those movies as much, so financing has dried up, And DVD sales, that whole ancillary part that supplemented independent filmmaking for so long, has now gone away with streaming and the way we watch things today.

You have been making independent films for 25 years now. Is it much harder to get films like this made now than it might have been earlier in your career?

It's different each time and not necessarily easier at any given point. I feel like there are all kinds of internal and external changes that are hard to generalise on, because each of my films and my subjects are different enough that I could say 'Oh, it was the film that made it harder or easier'. Velvet Goldmine, because it had a music theme and a lot of young people in it, was a little bit easier to finance, but it was still a very modest budget and I've never felt that I've had any other than a modest budget for the ambitions of the project.

One of the things that struck me about Carol is that it feels like there isn't a frame wasted. What was the editing process like on this film?

There was a lot that we cut out of the movie that was in the script and we shot, great stuff, nothing that I didn't like per se, it was just more than it ultimately needed. My process in cutting is really determined by screenings that we have and the notes that I get, from colleagues, friends and people I don't know, they're not studio test screenings but screenings we set up ourselves. People give extensive notes on the various versions that they see, and it tells me everything. Of course, you hope to find consensus in the reactions and it made what needed to go, what needed to be pruned, and what needed to be balanced pretty clear.

The whole movie feels like it is constructed entirely from glances, gestures and small details of behaviour. It's such a quietly powerful film.

Yes, I think so. I didn't really think of it as so quiet when I was making it, but I think it's just my preference. I really love the disquiet that Therese would feel in the company of Carol, and that there was not a simple, easy or immediate rapport between the women. I mean, there was a conflict, there was interest and curiosity, but there are a lot of moments that were indecipherable to Therese. Carol came with a complex web of issues in her life and an ambivalence about this relationship that Therese has to keep navigating, so that silence and those moments of indecipherability were really important and loaded. They create anxiety but they also create desire, and I love the tension that produces.

When they first exchange glances in the toy store you can sense a spark and some kind of connection being made. Is the kind of chemistry that exists between Cate and Rooney something you can work on with the actors or is it something that you get lucky with?

It's a question that keeps coming up and one that is always impossible to answer. There is no way to create chemistry, and I don't even know if I believe in chemistry. I feel like it's actually the product of a lot of work and thought, and a balance between yielding to emotion and suppressing emotion, and the audience creates the chemistry. All you can do is provide a conscious series of decisions and specific choices showing who these people are and expressing it at different moments, and to use all the tools of the medium – the music, the visual language, the silences – to inform those things. Then it's up to the viewer, they bring the emotion and they bring what's alive to the film.

So what is your process for working with actors? Do like to rehearse with them?

It depends on the movie, it depends on the schedule. In this case we had two weeks of rehearsal built into the schedule, which I love, not all actors do but these actors did, and it meant a lot to everybody to protect that. People think of the term 'rehearsal' like you're blocking the scenes or moving around on a set and deciding where you're going, but really it's mostly just sitting around and talking, examining the backstory, asking questions, examining certain lines for what they mean and maybe stuff can go: “Let's lose that, we don't need it, it's reductive, it's redundant.” It's an editing process and a process of filling in the kind of history that actors rely on.

Finally, what is it that attracts you to female-driven stories?

I think it's because women bear a unique burden in society that men sometimes get to escape, having to represent and uphold institutions of family and raising children, as well as satisfying male needs. Their lives are intrinsically built into the constraints and trade-offs that we make in our daily lives, which are more about real life. I like movies that remind you of your real life and make you think about the fact that there are no heroes in real life, that we make tough choices, and those are the kind of characters that I'm particularly drawn to.

Carol is released in UK cinemas on November 27th

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Out 1 at The Prince Charles Cinema

Alfred Hitchcock might have felt that “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”, but I've always loved a marathon cinema experience. The opportunity to immerse myself in a single work of art that stretches far beyond the conventional boundaries of cinema is one I'll always try to take advantage of, and some of my most memorable film experiences of recent years have been epics. I'll never forget the experience of seeing Béla Tarr's Sátántangó on the big screen, spending a weekend with Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz on a beautiful 35mm print, marvelling at the scale of Bondarchuk's War & Peace, and watching a significant portion (though not, alas, the full 24 hours) of Christian Marclay's The Clock.

Over the years there has been one title that I've particularly yearned to see in a cinema, but which has proven to be extremely elusive. Jacques Rivette's legendary Out 1, noli me tangere runs for 773 minutes and has rarely been shown in its entirety since it was made in 1971, though not for the want of trying; our friends at A Nos Amours have tried in vain to track down a print on a number of occasions. When we heard about the film's recent 2k restoration and the forthcoming blu-ray set, we decided this was probably the only opportunity we'd ever get to give Out 1 a big screen outing, and so The Badlands Collective has joined forces with A Nos Amours and Arrow Films to present what we feel confident in describing as the repertory cinema event of the decade.

Out 1 will be shown at the Prince Charles Cinema across two days – November 28th and 29th – and with similar events taking place in France and across the United States in November, it feels like we are part of a long-overdue international tribute to Rivette, a filmmaker frequently overlooked and forgotten. The idea of watching a 13-hour film may be an intimidating one, but Rivette's style is playful, beautiful and engaging, and the cast is populated by some of the key figures in French cinema of the era – Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto, Michael Lonsdale, Eric Rohmer, to name a few. Out 1 on the big screen is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we want to share it with as many people as possible, so please help us spread the word. To ensure this event goes ahead we need to sell enough tickets to cover the cinema's running costs for the weekend, so if you are attending we'd appreciate it if you booked your tickets as soon as possible. Join us for what will surely be an unforgettable celebration of unique, challenging and magical cinema. (And for those who share Alfred's bladder concerns: yes, there will be toilet breaks.)

Tickets for Out 1 at The Prince Charles Cinema can be purchased here.

If you have any more questions about Out 1, they may be answered in the FAQ article that we have compiled for the event.

I really hope we see you at the movies!

Monday, October 19, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Distinctive Voices

Even if you didn’t know that Steve Jobs has been scripted by Aaron Sorkin, it wouldn’t take you long to figure it out. Danny Boyle’s film features a number of hyper-articulate and intelligent characters trading zingers and cultural (both classical and pop) references as they race against various looming deadlines, with characters usually walking as they talk. The film could also be seen as a loose sequel to The Social Network, the film David Fincher directed from Sorkin’s screenplay in 2010, as it focuses on the other genius asshole whose innovations have changed the way we live today. The difference is that The Social Network felt like a David Fincher film, with the director maintaining a firm sense of control on the material, while Steve Jobs feels like a much more explicitly written film. In fact, it wouldn’t be out of place on the stage, with the drama unfolding in a very theatrical three-act structure that takes us behind the scenes of three product launches presented by its subject.

It’s a refreshingly non-traditional approach to a film biopic, and the first third of the film is exhilarating. The rat-a-tat verbosity is at fever pitch as Jobs and his team attempt to iron out flaws ahead of the public launch of the Macintosh in 1984, with his engineer Andy Hertzfeldt (Michael Stuhlbarg) being on the receiving end of his anger when the machine refuses to say "Hello" on command. Fassbender's charismatic, shark-like performance as Jobs details his obsession with dominating every aspect of his environment, from making a last-minute demand of his long-suffering assistant Joanna (Kate Winslet) to conjure a white shirt with a breast pocket to insisting that the Exit lights all be switched off to facilitate a blackout ahead of the product reveal. It's dizzying stuff, tightly scripted and perfectly played, and only a few lulls in momentum occur: Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) begs Jobs to give his team the credit they deserve, John Scully (Jeff Daniels) turns up to discuss Steve's adopted parents, and Steve's daughter - whom he refuses to recognise as his own - is present as a constant reminder of his personal failings.

All of this is fine, but when Wozniak, Scully and young Lisa return in the subsequent two chapters - set in the countdown to the 1988 NeXT Cube (the what?) and the 1998 iMac launch events - to do and say the exactly the same things, the contrivances of Sorkin's structure start to look a bit rickety, and attempts at psychoanalysis begin to grate by the time Winslet's Joanna tearfully calls Jobs out on his poor parenting. Steve Jobs is so much more engaging, imaginative and alive when it is simply focusing on the products and the business that went into developing and promoting them, and I'd argue that those portions of the film paint a more revealing portrait of the man than any of Sorkin's attempts to make Daddy Issues the real story here. Sorkin drops the ball badly in the climactic stretch of the film, which labours in an ungainly fashion to give the drama a pat redemptive ending.

Still, there are frequent flashes of greatness within the film. Boyle doesn't have Fincher's mastery but he's a whizz at developing and sustaining momentum, and he orchestrates a number of dialogue-heavy sequences brilliantly here. It's also a hard to pick a weak link among the cast, all of whom relish the opportunity to deliver Sorkin's sharp dialogue. The film offers so many pleasures and such grandstanding entertainment, the more poorly judged moments stand out even more starkly, and on the whole Steve Jobs encapsulates Sorkin at both his best and his worst. By the time it's over I was left wondering if I'd been sold anything more than a empty box that doesn't serve any real purpose. Maybe, but it is a really nice-looking box.
Anomalisa is another film in which the voice of the filmmaker is immediately apparent. Charlie Kaufman has been away from cinema for seven years and Anomalisa finds him working in the medium of stop-motion animation for the first time, but this is still unmistakably a Kaufman film, as he again explores the neuroses of an insecure and miserable character whose experience takes on surreal qualities even as it remains rooted in everyday mundanities. Anomalisa begins on a plane descending towards Cincinnati, which is where Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) – a customer service guru – is going to give a speech on the importance of treating every customer as an individual. The joke here is that Michael can't see individuals, and everybody he comes into contact with – man, woman or child – bears the same facial features and speaks in the same voice (Tom Noonan). Kaufman's development of the idea that Michael's complete lack of empathy has turned the world around him into an amorphous mass is inspired and brilliantly realised, but a glimmer of hope appears in the guise of Lisa, a fan who has come to Cincinnati to attend his conference and miraculously speaks with the voice of Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Michael clings to Lisa like a drowning man clinging to a raft and there is a powerful sense of unresolved pain in their interactions, with Lisa suffering from unexplained scarring on her face and admitting that her last sexual encounter was eight years ago. The stop-motion sex in Anomalisa is certainly a lot more intimate and touching than it was in Team America: World Police, and the animation work in general, created by co-director Duke Johnson and his team, is attentive to the hesitant gestures and awkwardness of lonely middle-aged people reaching out for each other. After they go to bed together, Anomalisa begins its most inspired sequence, but that also proves to be the high point of the whole film, which subsequently starts to narrow towards an ending that I anticipated in advance – how often can you say that about a Charlie Kaufman script?

Anomalisa started life as a staged radio play for Carter Burwell's Theatre of the New Ear, and it sometimes feels a little stretched at feature length, without the gravity of Kaufman's Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Synecdoche, New York. He remains a unique and invaluable voice, however, and the film is full of cherishable details – the way the hotel clerk maintains eye contact while typing, the constant chatter of the cab driver, Michael's ill-advised visit to a 'toy store'. In a year with a variety of extraordinary animation films, it's also another reminder of how rich, ambitious and adult animated films can be, and how they can be a showcase for outstanding acting. The performance David Thewlis gives here is probably his best since Naked, Jennifer Jason Leigh's vocal work is deeply affecting, while Tom Noonan's delivery as 'Everyone Else' is amusing, unsettling and perfect. It is good to have Charlie Kaufman back, even if it is only a slight return.
Athina Rachel Tsangari may not be as recognisable a name yet as Sorkin or Kaufman, but she has already established a distinctive filmmaking identity. In her feature debut Attenberg and her short The Capsule, she revealed a fascination with games, rituals, group psychology and the movement of female bodies, but in Chevalier she shifts that gaze towards men – and the gaze is withering. A group of six men are on a boating holiday together and, bored one evening, some games are suggested. Instantly, the ultra-competitiveness of the men begins to be glimpsed, as they start to argue over the most trivial points of order. A kind of ultimate game is proposed, to decide who is “the best in general” and should therefore get to wear the Chevalier ring. They each agree to award or subtract points from each other based on everything: the way they look, how physically fit they are, the way they dress, sleep, eat; the ring tone on their phones.

The stakes and the challenges quickly escalate, encompassing an erection-measuring competition that puts enormous pressure on a couple of the men in particular, to a race to build some (very phallic) IKEA bookshelves as quickly as possible. The characters all strive to affect a carefree attitude towards this competition but their hunger for victory and their deep-rooted insecurity of being somehow seen as a 'lesser' man is increasingly evident. Chevalier is essentially Fragile Masculinity: The Movie and Tsangari's detached observation of this behaviour highlights the absurdity of their posturing, with the film undoubtedly proving to be the most frequently hilarious entry in the festival. Her actors are tremendous, particularly Efthymis Papadimitriou as the most apparently vulnerable member of the group who is in attendance with his older brother and really wants nothing more than to collect pebbles and sing karaoke.

Chevalier escalates up to a point but the ending of the film is played in a quiet register, without any sense of an epiphany or satisfying conclusion to be drawn from all of these ridiculous games. Perhaps that's the point; are any of these men likely to have a moment of introspection, and to question their competitive natures or their burning need to prove their masculinity and to maintain status as the Alpha in the pack? Probably not.
Finally, any random five minutes of Cemetery of Splendour would surely be enough to reveal that it is a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. His films look and sound like nothing else, and for me at least, they feel like nothing else too. Watching Cemetery of Splendour almost felt like having an out-of-body experience, as the stillness and the steady rhythms of Joe's filmmaking calmed my body and transported my soul. It's hard to describe in words just what the experience of watching this film is like, but I should say it's also beautifully crafted, very involving and funny, and movingly performed by the director's regular actress Jenjira Pongpas. She plays a Jen, a nurse tending to soldiers afflicted by some kind of sleeping sickness, who forms a particularly close bond with one of them, played by Banlop Lomnoi. We are told that this makeshift hospital is built upon the site of a graveyard, allowing the dead to draw upon the spirits of these sleeping soldiers and make them fight battles in the afterlife.

As usual with Apichatpong's films, such announcements are delivered straight and taken at face value. We are invited to believe, just as Jen does when her psychic colleague,while inhabited by another spirit, takes her through the forest to describe the glorious palace that once stood on this site, when two women appear to her and calmly explain that they are long-dead princesses come back to life.  Apichatpong's films create a sense of the magic in the everyday and through the most simple means he can create a genuine sense of enchantment and wonder. Some sequences in Cemetery of Splendour reminded me of previous Apichatpong films – notably Syndromes and a Century and Tropical Malady – but every one of his films also offers a unique experience, and the use of colour therapy in treating the sleeping soldiers almost lulls the audience into a state of somnambulance.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has suggested that Cemetery of Splendour will be the last film that he makes in Thailand, at least for the foreseeable future. His films have frequently been denied a release in his home country and he has spoken out about his frustration at Thai artists having to self-censor their work, so it looks like he will be bringing his unique perspective to South America or elsewhere. I hope this doesn't mean it's the last we'll see of  Jenjira Pongpas, whose performance here is her best and most emotionally wrenching yet, with the leg injury that has left her with a lopsided gait taking centre stage in one of the film's many unforgettable sequences. If this is to be the last film this director makes at home, and this is to be our last sighting of his favourite actress, then they have said goodbye with a masterpiece.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

London Film Festival 2015 Report -- Love Hurts

Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) first lock eyes across the floor of a busy department store, and something intangible passes between them. The climax of the film again rests on these two characters gazing silently across a room at each other, with our knowledge of what has occurred in the intervening two hours filling the space between them with emotion and significance. Carol is a film built on looks, glances, gestures and touches, and the choices made by director Todd Haynes, his actors and his crew contribute to a film in which barely a frame seems out of place. This is the second time that Haynes has made a film about a forbidden love set in the 1950s, but while Far From Heaven was made as an overt homage to the films of Douglas Sirk, this time he has moved beyond pastiche to make a film that feels grounded in reality and is distinguished by a muted palette and quietly powerful underplaying.

The film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which might be seen as a rare non-crime novel from the author but in fact the two women falling in love here are made to feel like criminals. Both have ‘normal’ lives that they are expected to obediently follow: Carol is married with a daughter, but that marriage is a sham and a divorce is looming, with her preference for women being an open secret. The younger woman Therese has plenty of boys always hovering around her, including one who has made plans for them to travel to Europe together, but she hasn’t figured out what she wants or who she wants to be yet, and Carol opens her eyes to new possibilities. The pair take a road trip together in an attempt to find some peace and freedom elsewhere, but the suffocating realities of mid-twentieth century American society aren’t so easy to escape.

Haynes is, of course, so acute in his depiction of the way his characters feel hemmed in by the constraints of the time and place they live in. He doesn’t cast any characters as villains, and Kyle Chandler’s performance as Carol’s husband Harge foregrounds the sense of humiliation that he feels in front of his family and peers as the key motivator behind his treatment of his wife. Haynes’ direction is so sensitive to the emotions of his characters and every detail seems to be imbued with a weight and meaning that gradually accumulates force over the course of the film, and the performances – as usual in a Haynes film – are perfectly judged. Blanchett is as commanding as you would expect but it’s Rooney Mara who really impresses here, bringing a painful authenticity to her quiet emotional breakdowns and skilfully charting Therese’s progress as this insecure girl emerges into a woman ready to make some bold choices about her future.
Arnaud Desplechin, is need of a boost after the frustratingly underpowered Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, is another director reaching into the past for inspiration. His new film My Golden Days mostly takes place in the 1980s and it revisits territory that the director has successfully mined before, being a loose prequel to his 1996 film My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. Desplechin’s go-to actor Mathieu Amalric reprises the role of Paul Dedalus, now a well-travelled diplomat who is stopped at the airport upon his return to France and questioned about the existence of another Paul Dedalus who shares the same date and place of birth. What follows is a long, discursive series of flashbacks that take in Paul’s troubled childhood with a mentally ill mother and mostly absent father, his teenage adventure assisting in an undercover operation in the Soviet Union, and finally his meeting with Esther, his great love, who was embodied in My Sex Life… by Emmanuelle Devos.

Here she is played by Lou Roy-Lecollinet, a first-time actress whose work alongside Quentin Dolmaire (as the young Paul) is wonderfully confident and alive, and they share a chemistry that holds the centre while Desplechin’s storytelling whirls around them. This is a very oddly structured and paced film, consisting of three uneven chapters and bookended by modern-day sequences, and the disparate elements never quite coalesce into a satisfying whole in the way that films like Kings and Queen or A Christmas Tale did. Still, on a moment-by-moment basis the film is gloriously enjoyable, boasting a number of intimate encounters that cut to the heart – notably in Paul’s relationship with his university mentor (Eve Doe-Bruce) and a lovely scene in which his insecure sister Delphine (Lily Taieb) is comforted by their father – and this director still has an uncanny ability to derive an emotional burst from a simple zoom or close-up. My Golden Days might not be peak Desplechin, but it is a film that feels uniquely Desplechin – a film following its own restless spirit and littering the path with split-screens, irises and characters reading letters directly to the camera. That last trope is a particular pleasure when the actor in question is Lou Roy-Lecollinet. She's a natural movie star.
Another star is born in Sunset Song, Terence Davies’ long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s iconic Scottish novel. Agyness Deyn has appeared in a handful of films in her young career but this role marks the sternest test of her abilities, as she has to carry an epic romantic tragedy in a role that puts her through the emotional ringer. She is Chris Guthrie, a bookish young woman from a farming family in the fictional estate of Kinraddie, Scotland. Over the course of the film she survives living with a tyrannical father (Peter Mullan, recalling the Pete Postlethwaite of Distant Voices, Still Lives in his unpredictable explosions of violent rage), she takes control of the estate when he is hit by a stroke, she falls in love and starts a family and then  just when she can see happiness on the horizon  the advent of the First World War tears her life apart once more. It’s a demanding role but Deyn handles everything that Davies throws at her with grace, subtlety and emotional dexterity, her character gradually growing in tenacity and resilience as life takes its toll on her. In fact, from the moment she appears in a golden field of wheat in the film’s opening shot I felt like we were in good hands.

That opening shot is something of a surprise, though. When I think of Terence Davies’ films I always think of interiors, and yet much of Sunset Song takes place outdoors, a move that seems to have breathed new life into Davies’ already magnificent filmmaking. There’s a sweep and vibrancy to Sunset Song that I’ve never seen in his work before, with Michael McDonough’s lush cinematography making the most of the surroundings, particularly when shooting in 65mm. Davies’ films always seem to exist out in their own time, being defiantly out of step with contemporary fashions, and this film is no exception. At times it has the look and feel of a Hollywood studio production from the 1940s – Scotland’s answer to Gone With the Wind – but there’s a real darkness and anger present here too. Sunset Song is not only the story of a young woman making her way in an unforgiving world, it’s a lament for the entire communities that were torn apart by the First World War and an attack against the idea that fighting and dying for one’s country is a noble act. One shot in which the camera floats across the mud, barbed wire and pieces of clothing in No Man’s Land speaks a thousand words.

Of course, Terence Davies’ eloquence with a camera has never been in question, but even so his command of visual storytelling here is frequently breathtaking. The way a simple camera movement can denote the passage of time; the way light fills a church, suggesting the presence of God; the way a man must face his end at the hands of boys barely old enough to hold a gun. He also draws performances of great intimacy and emotional complexity from every member of his cast – notably Kevin Guthrie and Ian Pirie as Chris’s husband and his best friend respectively, who share a late scene together that I found unbearably moving. Sunset Song is a masterpiece in which one of the greatest filmmakers this country has ever produced brings his already astonishing artistry to new heights, and delivers a story that simultaneously moves the viewer to tears while making one’s spirit soar. “He could fair play, that piper. He tore at our hearts.”