Sunday, November 30, 2008

"People who saw me holding the seal like a baby must have thought I was a looney" - An interview with Arta Dobroshi

When I watched the Dardenne brothers' new film The Silence of Lorna, I was struck by the astonishing performance by the unknown actress in the lead role. When I met Arta Dobroshi a few days later, I was even more impressed by her achievement – it was hard to believe the beautiful and light-hearted woman sitting in front of me was the same person who convincingly played such a tough, withdrawn character on screen. After winning her part in the Dardennes' fifth picture through an open audition process, Dobroshi has experienced an extraordinary rise to prominence this year, and one suspects this is just the start of an exciting career. I met the actress in London recently to talk about her remarkable performance, but as this discussion does reveal certain unexpected plot developments, I would advise readers to avoid this interview until they have seen the film.

To begin, could you tell me a bit about your background and experience before this film?

I finished the Academy of Arts acting and drama course in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, which lasted for four years. It's acting in general for film and theatre, and when I was studying I played in theatre and short movies all the time. In fact, the first time I took a drama was when I was 15 in America, because I lived there for a year as an exchange student, and then when I was 17 I played in this performance with young people, still non-professionals. I loved it so much, rehearsing for eight hours or more, and I said something must be wrong with me because everyone else was tired and I was saying, "I want more, I want more!" [laughs]. Also, my older brother is a director so I learned a lot from him, and when I finished the Academy I got a role in a feature film in Albania, which was a co-production with Germany and France, and then I got a second feature, a third feature, and then I got this one. When I got The Silence of Lorna I was in Sarajevo doing a play in Bosnian. The casting agent for the Dardenne brothers called me said they had seen some of my movies, and there is an open casting in Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia, all places where Albanians live. I went to Pristina, and the audition was open for everyone else, it was five minutes, and I just had to say, "I'm Arta Dobroshi" in French, but I didn't speak French. After that they called me again in two weeks and said they wanted to see me, and I was in Sarajevo, so they came and we shot all day long, and then they asked me to go to Belgium to do two more scenes in French with Jérémie Renier and Fabrizio Rongione. I learned the two scenes phonetically, and after I finished the two days of shooting they said, "Congratulations, you are Lorna".

How much time did you have to learn French before shooting the film?

I went on a two-week intensive course, it was eight hours a day, but I was also learning in the hotel doing double the work, and not going out at all. After two months I had to speak French, and I also had to cut my hair, because it was very long. It was the first time I cut my hair so short, and we cut it shorter and shorter, because they wanted to see my eyes and face, so they cut it really short, almost bald [laughs]. It was nice because I always wanted to cut my hair but I didn't dare, so this was my chance, and I wore a wig in one movie that was like Lorna's hair, and I liked it, but when I was getting my hair cut for real I thought, "Be careful what you wish for". Now I'm growing it, I haven't cut it since the movie, so I'll let it grow and we'll see.

Were you familiar with the Dardennes' work before you got this role?

Yes, because of the academy, but I hadn't seen their films. Just before I did the audition, I found a movie on DVD, because in the Balkans they aren't shown like in Europe, and the only way to find them in Pristina was on pirate DVDs. I mean, it's bad, but at the same time it's the only way to see the more arty movies, because we only get more commercial movies. I saw L'Enfant, and when I got the part I was so happy, because the character of Lorna is so good, and she's in every sequence. Nowadays there are more leading roles for males than females, so when you get a role like this, I had the feeling it was like Monster with Charlize Theron. She is very strong, and the whole movie is on her shoulders, so it was great.

As well as being exciting, was that an intimidating prospect, to be carrying the whole film?

No, it was just exciting. I think it's better if you're in every sequence and shooting every day, because every day you are Lorna, you don't have a chance to have a week off, and the movie was shot chronologically, so every day I could experience what Lorna experienced. The way I work is to be as close to the character as possible, so I tried to spend five months alone, I didn't go out, I didn't party or drink, and after shooting I went home or just walked on the streets that Lorna walks on. That doesn't mean I didn't have fun, we laughed a lot while we were rehearsing and shooting the movie, but I just tried to keep that rhythm that she has.

To shoot a film chronologically is a very rare opportunity in movies.

Yes, definitely, usually you shoot the last sequence the first day and everything is mixed. Maybe there were ten scenes we didn't shoot chronologically, but we started with the first scene in the bank and the last scene was the last scene, and it's great because the evolution of the character goes in a natural way. At the end you don't even have to communicate, everything goes so smoothly because you are so into it. When you wake up in the morning you are Lorna, and it was only Saturdays and Sundays I went to the pool to relax, but that's it.

Lorna's a fascinating character because she goes through so many changes, from assisting with a murder at the start of the film, to having a change of heart and possibly losing her mind at the end. What's it like to go through all of those emotions?

In the beginning she is like a robot, she does things very automatically, even the way she makes a sandwich. Then she starts to change, but I never thought about it, I just went with the flow, because I was so into the character that things went naturally. When Claudy died, even I as Arta was sad, but then you didn't have time to even think about Claudy, because I had new problems to solve, and things were changing without even realising that it was changing. The first time I saw the movie I saw these changes, but when you are so far inside the character you are not aware of it. That's how I work, I cannot work any differently. There are many scenes in the movie that are emotionally difficult to do, and after a scene sometimes I just felt like crying, but Lorna keeps her emotions inside, she does not let them out.

When you're doing such an emotional role, is it hard to switch off from that and forget those feelings when you go home at the end of the day?

No, I cannot switch off. Actually, I try to keep those feelings, that's good for me, because I keep the feelings and I can think ahead to the next day for Lorna, so purposely I was trying to save that mood. I could have gone out and had fun, but that was fun for me, the research is fun for me, and I always write the biography of the character – where was she born, what does she do, who were her parents – until the first scene of the movie.

If you were so in tune with Lorna's emotions, I suppose you had to believe in her baby as well.

Yes, I believed in it totally. For me, speaking as Lorna, I believe in it, and from the first moment we started shooting the scenes where Lorna thinks she's having a baby, I had this... how do you say it... a stuffed animal, a white one that lives in cold weather...

A polar bear?

No, she lives in cold water...

A seal?

A seal! Bravo! [laughs] A white stuffed seal, and the moment we started shooting, I psychologically needed to keep that as my baby, until the movie was finished. I kept it like a symbol and whenever we were going out to shoot I would think, "Oh, I forgot my seal", it was crazy, and people who saw me holding the seal like a baby must have thought I was a looney [laughs]. But you have to believe it or the audience won't believe you, and I believed it so much I was worried that my belly would start to grow. I read once that it exists, that women really believe they are pregnant and their belly starts to grow, so I thought, "Arta, you have to stop". I was a little afraid in that moment.

And how do you feel about that final scene? What does the future hold for Lorna?

For me when I was doing the scene, I had a feeling of peace, and I feel the ending is more positive. After everything that happened, she found her peace, and it is sad that she found peace with a baby that doesn't exist, but at least she found it. That's how I felt, and maybe I'm totally wrong, and the beauty of it is that the audience can decide. That was just my ending, and the audience may understand it in a different way. Maybe they will be wondering, "What's going to happen, will there be Lorna Part II?" [laughs]. We were thinking in Part II we should have Lorna with a Porsche, with three children, she has escaped all the trouble and finally she can party [laughs].

In this film, you're working with a number of actors who have already worked with the Dardennes before. Did you find it easy to join that group, and get to grips with their working method?

When I arrived the most important thing was how to develop Lorna in the best way possible, and then I met Fabrizio and Jérémie, and later Morgan who played in Le Fils with Olivier, and it was like we had already worked together before. We all sat down together and had coffee, just like we are now, and it was so cool. I have to thank them for being so open.

What's it like to work with two directors?

It's great, I think. It's better because for your character there are three minds working, yours and the two directors', and they go together so well. Sometimes I needed to ask Jean-Pierre something and sometimes I spoke to Luc, depending on the scene, but I really think it's great to work with two directors. They are saying the same thing but in different ways, and they fill you with so many emotions and ideas. I actually worked with two directors before, it was a father and a son for an Albanian movie that was shot in the Czech Republic, and that was the same thing. The father was 70 years-old and the son was 35, so it was two different points of view, but it was very good. It doesn't matter how many people are there, we are all just trying to do one story – the lighting guys, the cameraman, the decorators – it's for one story. So when you think about it, it doesn't matter how many directors there are.

They once described themselves as "One person with four eyes".

Yes, it's true! And then you become one person with six eyes or eight eyes because there are other actors working with each other. Sometimes Luc will be behind the screen and Jean-Pierre will be with us on the set, or vice-versa, it's never the same. People think it's divided and somebody will always stays behind the camera, but it depends on the situation.

What have you got planned next?

For the moment I'm travelling a lot for the movie, I haven't stopped travelling, and I have one more month of that. Then I'm reading scripts, and it's very important for me to choose a good script and to have patience rather than to hurry up just to do something. I would love to do something in English now, so we'll see. And French also, because now I speak French. It's good that you do a movie and you learn a language.

How many languages do you speak?

Only four.

Only four? That's not bad, you know.

[laughs] It's only four, but you learn then so naturally you don't even know you're learning them. I'm Albanian from Kosovo, and it's so complicated with the new states over there now, so our language is Albanian, and I speak Bosnian, which is the same as Serbian and Croat. I understand Macedonian because it is Slavic – I can't say I can speak it but I can understand it – and I speak English since I was little, from the movies and cartoons, and it was natural.

Will The Silence of Lorna be released in Kosovo?

Yes, it will come out. I don't know which month, It will be next year, but I'm not sure. It will be crazy, because when The Silence of Lorna was chosen in Cannes, people were really following the story every night on the news, it was "Cannes, Cannes, Cannes" as the main news. It's great because every time you always have bad news, like politics or the banks going down, and then you usually have Cannes at the end, so it was great.

And how have you been handling experiences like Cannes, and all of the interviews and travelling you have been doing for this movie?

It seems very normal, to be honest. Since I was 15 I travelled everywhere and lived all around the world, and when I started acting I always said, "I am a citizen of the world and I want to work everywhere". People said it would be very hard because I am from Kosovo and it doesn't have any real status in film or theatre, but the world is very small and I cannot wear blinkers. Everything is normal when you are an actor, you do movies or theatre and then you travel, you do festivals, I have already done festivals with other movies, so it feels very natural. I am very lucky to work in this profession because it is not easy to be working all the time, so for that I feel very lucky, and very happy.

"To enter human nature, that is what we like to do" - An interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are two of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers in contemporary cinema. The duo made their breakthrough in 1996 with La Promesse, and the realistic, starkly powerful style that would later win them such acclaim was already in evidence. Their tales of ordinary working-class Belgians forced to confront huge moral dilemmas have tackled themes of poverty, trafficking, love and revenge, but these themes are never the main issue, as their work is always focused on the complex and vivid characters at the centre of their stories. After La Promesse, Rosetta, The Son and L'Enfant, the Dardennes have now directed The Silence of Lorna, a gripping study of a young Albanian immigrant involved in a green card scam, and I met the two directors recently to discuss it. This discussion reveals a number of large and surprising plot developments (from the first question onwards), so I would recommend avoiding it until you've seen the film.

You often put us into straight the story with very little information, and we gradually learn who the characters are and what their situation is. When you are writing the film, do you imagine histories for your characters, more than we see in the finished product?

Jean-Pierre Dardenne
No, when we begin we have the general structure of the story, but it takes a long time and we are always changing things. The one thing we knew in this script was that when Claudy died, the story has to carry on, but we didn't know where she was going or what would happen to her, will she be killed in the end or not? We had always thought that even if she was going to be killed, it would be while protecting her child because she believes in it. Of course, by the time we are filming we have already worked out those scenes, but when we are writing we have to talk a lot, it takes several months.

And when you have finished the screenplay, does that ever change during the filming process?
Luc Dardenne After we have finished the structure we make the script, scene by scene, several versions, and then we film. We always film chronologically, and the script normally doesn't change that much, but in Rosetta, for example, we did cancel a character. By filming in chronological order we feel what we can and cannot do, it's the same for the actors as well, and maybe we take out one line, and then we work on the editing. The script stays the same, and there might be different versions in terms of mise-en-scène, but in general, I don't know why, we always have around 15 minutes less than we had in the beginning. When you see the film, you can allows yourself to make more abrupt cuts and perhaps throw the audience by losing certain things, and that's something you can't get on the page where you feel obliged to explain a bit more. Already with La Promesse, there was a producer reading the script and saying, "It's too fast", and we took even more out because we felt we were explaining too much.

At the start of the film Lorna is ready to help somebody be murdered, what do you think changes her mind?

LD There are several things. There's the fact that she lives with him, and the simple fact that Claudy asks for her help, if he hadn't done that I don't think she would have gone towards him. From the moment she does go towards him, she is going against all of her coldness and the plan she had established in her head. Of course, human beings don't go in just one direction, she can reverse her steps as well, and she sees him in the hospital, and also asleep. What's interesting is that no one helps her to go in that direction, Sokol says "he's just a junkie" and Fabio doesn't give a damn. Maybe the fact that she's alone helps her to find that moral ground, sometimes you need that solitude to think about where you want to go.

A number of your films feature these characters who are alone and have to make these life-changing decisions. Why do you like to explore these situations in your films?

It would be really stupid to respond "because we're interested in that and we can't do anything else" [laughs]. We are interested in the different possibilities and attitudes that are within a human being, and how do you deal with evil, because that's what she's doing. Her life is determined by a number of conditions which she can't master, and how do you work that out? How do you do it in relation to the desire you have to better your life? It's not just a little chat in a coffee shop, it's a real alternative, "I can have a better life, but in order to have this better life I have to participate in a murder of someone". So that's what we're interested in, how do our characters deal with such a situation, and when they realise they're facing another human being, do they realise too late? That's what happened to Lorna.

LD She lacks courage, that's the silence.

And because of her lack of courage she is left with a feeling of guilt. Is the guilt the reason she invents this baby in her mind?
LD I think so, yes. I think the return of the ghost of Claudy in her belly is guilt. She tried to forget him, with the dance, and the fact that Fabio gives her the money that she refused previously, she takes it from him now like the earlier Lorna would have done, but in doing so she is also calling the spirit of Claudy because she makes herself even more guilty. In the scene afterwards her happiness is broken.

That scene of the happiness being broken took a lot of people in the cinema by surprise, and nobody knew what had happened for a while. When you made that decision, did you intend to throw people off in that way?

Originally our challenge as filmmakers was to not show his death. How do we make the audience feel the disappearance of Claudy without showing that he has been killed? It seemed to us more interesting to make him come back very gently through Lorna's gestures, through the objects she touches, before we know what has happened. At the same time she confirms what we have already guessed, the feelings she has for this guy. It's true at that point, like the characters, the spectators are a little bit lost by the fact that we have dug this hole in the middle of the film. When we made the decision not to show Claudy's death, we hadn't yet made the decision about the baby, that's something that came later when we made him disappear so abruptly.

How do you work with your actors on the set, do you rehearse a lot?

Well, take this particular film for example. In this situation we have worked with a lot of the actors before, and then there is Arta, who is a professional actress, and who has worked in theatre a lot as well. We rehearse with Arta, Jérémie and Fabio, for a month to a month and a half before shooting, sometimes we work with them together and sometimes just Arta alone. We work in the actual sets where we will shoot the film, and these rehearsals are more kneading the dough, really. It's not a round table discussion on the psychology of the characters, it's more the movement, the gestures, how they will get from A to B, just mixing these things and trying them out. It's like a football team, where you need to train and repeat certain situations, so by the time you get to the match you are at your most free and available. We need the actors to be free, open and available. In the case of Arta Dobroshi, it helped her to see how we work with Jérémie, and to see how he worked with our approach. It helped her approach it a different way, not from a psychological angle, although there is psychology there, it comes from the roots upwards until she embodies the character.

Arta is amazing in the film. When you first saw her did you know she was Lorna?

LD No, there were many other actors. We were looking for an actress who speaks Albanian, and if we hadn't found her we would have looked for another language that isn't spoken in Western Europe. Lorna could have been blonde, tall, brunette, short, with glasses... we didn't really have an idea, except we needed her to be mysterious, and we needed in her face a coldness but also a gentleness coming through. She can be cold, but then she has a smile that can make her close to you. In cinema innocent faces can hide other things.

You do show a lot of Lorna's face in this film, and throughout the film the camera is much more still than it has been in your earlier films.

It was necessary to watch and look at Lorna and not be present in her energy, it was important for the different plotlines to resonate, there needed to be space for the meetings of Lorna with Fabio and Claudy. It was also necessary to watch Lorna in the city among other people, and to see her dancing with Sokol next to other couples, so the camera was further away, just observing.

I noticed a few other differences in this film compared to your previous work. In the final scene we hear music, and I don't think you've ever used music in any of your films before. Why did you make this choice?

LD It is true that this is the first time we've used music in a film. I think we felt we couldn't leave the spectator alone, and at the same time it was also not leaving Lorna alone. It's not a music that would bring some general conciliation, but it's music that enables you to share her thoughts at this point, and I find there's something that redeems her to some extent. You think, yes, she has changed, she has accessed her humanity, one could say.

Although you said the ending is redeeming, do you think it's an optimistic ending? She is also losing her sanity a little, so what does the future hold for Lorna?

LD I think her "madness" is a proof of her humanity. She becomes totally naive, there is no other solution than to become the mother of this child. At the same time, what she has done has been done, and she can't deal with it in any other way than to lose her mind like this.

You also moved from Seraing, where you made all of your previous films, to Liege for this one...

It's just ten kilometres [laughs].

But does filming in a capital city give you a bigger canvas to work on?

Seraing is an industrial town which has lost a lot of its power, so I don't think somebody coming from a country like Albania would wish to go to a place like Seraing if they wanted to make their dreams into a reality. Liege is not a huge city like Paris or London, but it's a city where you can meet other people and have the opportunity to find a job. Also, being a city, it's alive at night, and we needed that nightlife. The three characters all live at night, and we needed the artificial lighting, from the car lights and taxis, and to see people going out for a drink after work, so we could have Lorna in the middle of all these people. We couldn't do that in Seraing.

You started making documentaries before making fiction films, and your films often deal with very topical issues like poverty, immigration and human trafficking. Do you think fiction is a better tool to explore these themes than documentary?

One must never want to generalise, for example there is a very beautiful film coming out in France which tells the history of peasants in France, so what we're saying here only applies to us. For us, fiction is a way of telling things we wouldn't be able to tell in a documentary, there are human possibilities that we can explore in drama, like in La Promesse when a father convinces his son that it is better to let this guy die. We also love working with actors, and we create these people that don't exist. They exist with us during eight weeks of shooting, it's fantastic, and when it's finished they're all dead [laughs]. Every member of the crew and the team has given life to the characters, and we like that. I think the main reason is that, apart from the fact that we were getting frustrated with documentaries, we just love working with actors, professional and non-professional, to create the existence of people.

LD To enter human nature, that is what we like to do.

What filmmakers have influenced you?

There are a lot, but it always changes. We want to remain humble and modest, so don't compare us to this filmmaker, but there is a Fritz Lang movie...I don't know the English title...about the assassination of Heydrich...

Oh, Hangmen Also Die.

That's it. It plays with the false and the real, and I think his mise-en-scène must have run through our minds. There are a lot of filmmakers I appreciate, earlier on we were mentioning Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, but I can't say that's a direct reference, and we like Bresson as well.

Ever since La Promesse, there has been a three-year gap between each of your films. Should we expect another Dardennes film in 2011?

I hope so. Each time we finish a film we say the next one will be quicker [laughs], and maybe it will next time, but you are correct, since La Promesse there has been a rhythm that has installed itself. We will see in three years if your bet is right or not.

Review - The Silence of Lorna (Le silence de Lorna)

The start of a Dardenne brothers film is always a rather disorienting experience. They like to cut straight into the story, spending no time on preliminaries or introductions, and leaving us to gather details and learn more about the characters in a gradual process, until we are fully involved in their experiences. Their fifth feature, The Silence of Lorna, opens in a bank, with money being handed over the counter and a young woman telling the clerk that she will soon be a Belgian citizen. This is Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), who has come from Albania to live in Liege, and who has earned her citizenship through a marriage to Claudy (Jérémie Renier). The pair live together in a small flat, but there is little warmth in their relationship, despite Claudy's best efforts to win over his frosty wife. For Lorna, this is strictly business, and that business is a green card scam that she has become involved in at the behest of her real boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj) and local gangster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione). The plan is to get rid of Claudy as soon as he has outlived his usefulness, by forcing the junkie to overdose on heroin, and that will leave the way clear for Lorna to remarry and pass on her citizenship to another, with a Russian gentleman already standing by brandishing a big cheque.

At this point, Lorna starts to get cold feet, and she suggests a quickie divorce as an alternative to murder. We can see now that her feelings for Claudy are much more complicated than they first seemed to be, although it's hard to get an exact reading on those feelings. Has she fallen in love with Claudy? Does she simply feel sympathy for him? Or perhaps she has simply woken up to the monstrousness of the plot she is involved in, and she suddenly feels compelled to act for fear of losing her soul? In this respect Lorna finds herself in a similar situation to Bruno, the character Jérémie Renier played in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant – being guilty of committing a terrible crime and desperately searching for a way to make amends – and her steely determination recalls the heroine of their first Palme d'Or winner Rosetta. But Lorna is very much her own character, a figure as complex and compelling as any the Dardennes have given us, and in Arta Dobroshi, they have unearthed another extraordinary new star.

Dobroshi's face doesn't reveal emotions easily. There's a guarded quality about her countenance, which she only drops occasionally, but those moments are enough for us to see a mixture of conflicting feelings raging inside her character. Dobroshi attacks the role with a sense of conviction that drives the movie forward, and we completely believe that everything she does is coming from somewhere deep inside herself. Whether she is banging her head painfully against a wall – in the hope that an accusation of abuse will speed up the divorce procedure – or suddenly lighting up as she imagines her future running a small café, she is a luminous presence. She also works brilliantly with Renier, a Dardennes regular, who gives a stunningly empathetic display as Claudy, which shouldn't be overlooked. He makes his lovelorn junkie feel desperately real, there's a powerful tenderness about the way he yearns for Lorna's companionship, and a sex scene between the pair – the first the brothers have ever shot – is unexpectedly moving.

I feel we should tread carefully at this juncture, and I will make a great effort not to discuss any more plot specifics to ensure the film's biggest surprises remain undiminished for the viewer (be warned, some other reviews have not been so conscientious); but there is one sudden development that occurs during The Silence of Lorna, which I must bring up. The interesting thing about this twist is not so much the shattering event itself, but more the manner in which the Dardennes handle it, allowing it to occur off-screen and simply moving the film on without exposition, until we slowly put the pieces together. It is a truly daring move, and it threw the whole audience for a loop at the screening I attended, but it also had something of a jarring and counterproductive effect, taking us momentarily out of the drama, as we struggled to comprehend the story's new direction.

This film is also taking the Dardennes in something of a new direction. Although The Silence of Lorna appears to fit neatly into their oeuvre at first glance, the brothers have taken a number of risky narrative and aesthetic decisions that mark this as something new. They've toned down the restless camerawork, which followed the characters at close quarters, in favour of a more objective, classical approach, and it's probably a smart move from the filmmakers, whose style was in danger of growing repetitive by the time they made L'Enfant. This film is a little more detached than the brothers' earlier work, which is perhaps why it has received a slightly cooler reaction from critics, but it still displays their exquisite control of mood, and their ability to explore complex moral issues with an incisive and unerring eye.

The Silence of Lorna is more reliant on plot than previous Dardennes efforts, although the brothers' handling of this narrative is typically unconventional. Aside from the audacious ellipsis I mentioned earlier, they take the film into a number of surprising and hitherto uncharted areas, with Lorna's fragile mental state becoming increasingly unsound as the picture progresses. This is ultimately another rich and nuanced character study from two of the most valuable filmmakers in world cinema, and the fact that the Dardennes are trying to spread their wings with this feature – to shake up the old formula – is an exciting prospect that we should embrace. The Silence of Lorna might lack the immediacy of something like Rosetta or their masterpiece The Son, but it offers a different kind of satisfaction, and the film's unbearably tense final fifteen minutes leads to a beautiful and deeply haunting climax, which is among the finest moments they have ever given us. It has been weeks since I saw The Silence of Lorna, but I find my thoughts drifting back to it again and again.

Read my interview with Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne here.

Read my interview with Arta Dobroshi here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review - Blindness

My eyes! My eyes! It's all too easy to make jokes about Fernando Meirelles' Blindness being an eyesore, but unfortunately such a term is the most appropriate way to describe his inexplicably dismal new feature. This adaptation of José Saramago's highly acclaimed 1995 novel tries to find a suitably cinematic method to depict the sudden outbreak of sightlessness that spreads like wildfire through a nameless city, but whereas something like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly found a perfect visual scheme to place us in its central character's situation, Blindness overdoses on similar techniques until the movie becomes nigh-on unwatchable. The first character to go blind in the film is a Japanese gentleman (Yusuke Iseya) who suddenly loses his sight while sitting at a set of traffic lights. He describes the experience as "like swimming through milk", and Meirelles chooses to visualise this for us by flooding the screen with light, until we too can only make out the most indistinct shapes and blurry outlines in a sea of white.

Such camera trickery is not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself, but Meirelles and his cinematographer César Charlone return to the same gimmick again and again, repeatedly giving us confusing point-of-view shots and even marking scene transitions with a glaring whiteout. The approach extends to the production design as well, which is almost exclusively painted in shades of white and grey, and even Julianne Moore – one of cinema's most vibrant redheads – looks like she has been dipped in bleach before the cameras started to roll. She plays a woman married to the Ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo) who treats the Japanese man at the start of the film, and who is baffled by the apparent lack of symptoms he displays. When he wakes up in the morning, the doctor can't see either, and he warns his wife to stay away from him for fear of catching what is clearly a highly contagious disease. Bizarrely, she seems to be immune to the outbreak, and she seems to be the only one, as we watch a chain reaction of people who have interacted with each other losing their sight one by one. In case you are wondering why I haven't provided any character names in this summary, it's because there aren't any, which I guess we're supposed to take as a sign that this story could represent any group of people anywhere in the world.

So, if the ghastly cinematography doesn't drive you from the cinema, then perhaps the crushingly unsubtle allegory will. When Ruffalo is carted off to a quarantine facility for the blind, Moore decides to feign blindness in order to go with him, and the pair end up being the first inmates in a disused hospital that will quickly descend into a living hell. As the wards fill up with the newly blind, people start tripping over themselves, pissing and shitting in the corridors, losing their clothes and ultimately losing any sense of dignity. As the only sighted person in the building (a fact she keeps to herself), Moore does what she can to maintain order, and soon she and Ruffalo have set up a semi-stable society within Ward One, but some new arrivals in Ward Three upset the applecart. Led by the gun-toting, self-appointed "King of Ward Three" (Gael García Bernal), these inmates begin hording the food supplies and demanding payment for any rations. At first, the payment involves any jewellery and other valuables that people may still possess, but when that supply is exhausted, Bernal begins demanding women for food, and soon the female contingent of Ward One are lining up to be raped in order to secure some much needed sustenance.

The basic lesson of Blindness is obvious. This unexplained loss of sight is a simplistic metaphor for our inability or unwillingness to engage with – to really see – our fellow man, and in true Lord of the Flies style, a regression to a primal state leads to anarchy and savagery. Meirelles doesn't display much insight on this subject, however, and instead he just spends the bulk of two hours pushing our faces into the filth of human misery; showing us scene after scene of depravity without giving us any good reason to endure the endless barrage of nihilism. I suspect this kind of allegorical, heavily symbolic storytelling worked better on the page than it does on the screen, and in adapting Saramago's work, screenwriter Don McKellar has corralled the themes and incidents in a blunt fashion that leaves the film feeling didactic and preachy. McKellar actually serves double time in Blindness – he plays the thief who steals the Japanese man's car at the start of the film, before losing his sight soon after – but like most of the cast, he is given little to work with. Alice Braga (prostitute), Maury Chaykin (accountant), Sandra Oh (Minister for Health) and Danny Glover (wiser-than-thou sage) are among the name actors who inhabit the supporting roles, but all of them give shapeless, one-note performances, stumbling (literally) through the movie with no development or direction. The fact that none of the characters have names means we never really view them as characters at all; they're just a bunch of recognisable actors, playing blind to little effect.

Even Julianne Moore can't rise above the murk. As you'd expect, she throws herself completely into her role, but her character doesn't make much sense (as the only sighted person in the prison, why doesn't she stop Bernal before the mass rapes take place?), and her considerable efforts are ultimately wasted. After wallowing in despair, Blindness finally ends on a hopeful note with its deux ex machina finale, but this climax feels rushed and tacked-on, and hardly worth wading through the previous two hours for. It really is something to see such a collection of talent and resources coming together to produce a film that's so relentlessly alienating and misguided, but it isn't entirely a surprise given my reaction to earlier Fernando Meirelles films. He has always appeared to be a filmmaker more focused on the aesthetic value of his films than anything else, and when I reviewed his 2005 film The Constant Gardener I wrote: "In almost every scene the prime motivation seems to be visual impact over narrative soon starts to distract the attention from what’s being said in a scene when the director insists on flooding your eyes every few seconds". Blindness is simply the director taking this style to indulgent extremes, and his frantic over-direction completely overwhelms the story and pushes its audience further away at every turn. Meirelles wants his film to explore the darkest aspects of human nature, but he leaves the viewer stranded in the same desperate state as his characters, hopelessly lost without a guide, and blinded by the light.

Review - Gomorrah (Gomorra)

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," says Ray Liotta at the start of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, and in Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, two young wannabes share the same sentiment. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) quote Scarface, fire guns for kicks, rip off local drug gangs and dream of toppling the local boss. For 13 year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), the lure of a life of crime is just as strong; he spends his days delivering groceries for his mother, but he watches gun battles and dealers operating outside his home, and he wants to be part of it, even if the initiation involves taking a gunshot to the chest ("Now you are a man", he is told). These are the aspirations of young Italians living on the bullet-scarred streets of Naples, but Garrone's outstanding film shows us where those ambitions lead – to violence, betrayal and death. Gomorrah is based upon Roberto Saviano's non-fiction book that laid bare the inner workings of the Neapolitan crime organisation known as the Camorra, which rules the area and controls its inhabitants through fear. After exposing the Camorra in his book, Saviano now lives under constant police protection.

In attempting to provide an overview of the ground covered by Saviano, Garrone and his team of screenwriters (six in total, including the director and author) have drawn up five separate stories that take us into different areas of the Camorra's operations. While Marco, Ciro and Totò are on the outside looking in, other characters show us the reality of mafia life; such as Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), the meek, middle-aged accountant who travels around a local estates handing out money to those who have relatives serving time and have stayed loyal to the cause. The housing project he frequents is one of the focal points of the picture; a hive of both legal and illegal activity (we see a wedding being celebrated on one level, while drugs are exchanged on a walkway above), and the enormous, labyrinthine structure feels more imposing and prison-like as the encroaching gang wars close in on the reluctant Don Ciro. Another, similarly mild-mannered character who finds himself being dragged into a war he wants no part of is the tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), who accepts a large job from mafia-linked dealers, and whose decision to moonlight as a tutor for a Chinese-run factory has tragic repercussions.

The key thing about these narrative strands is that they show us the banality of the criminal underworld, taking care to avoiding clichés and stripping away any sense of glamour from their subject. There is violence, of course, but the violence pops out of nowhere and is over in seconds; sending a sudden jolt through the audience (it often made me jump out of my seat), and emphasising the constant, lurking spectre of death that stalks behind anyone involved in this world. Gomorrah is unflashy and direct, tackling its subject matter with documentary-style rigour, and Garrone's pacing is expertly judged, giving each of his disparate story strands time to develop in a satisfying way, and ensuring the film always remains balanced. I did spend much of Gomorrah anticipating the moment when all of the narratives would suddenly start to collide (it seems de rigueur for any multi-stranded movie to follow this pattern these days), but although the stories do brush against each other (Totò and Don Ciro both have dealings with a woman named Maria), they never come together in the expected fashion. That decision is another one to be applauded, as instead we are presented with a much more expansive view of mafia life; a film that broadens its horizons as it progresses rather than drawing narrowing dots between its players.

Garrone's direction is direct and lacking in ostentation, but he has an eye for inventive compositions that result in some supremely memorable scenes. The film opens in a tanning salon, with a group of mobsters basking in a blue neon glow that lends the sequence a surreal quality as they are ambushed and gunned down. Another striking sequence shows Marco and Ciro shooting their stolen guns at an abandoned boat as they stride up and down the river in their underwear – the image is both funny and unsettling – and the aftermath of one shootout is shown from above, as the camera follows a dazed Don Ciro through a path strewn with bloodied corpses. Marco Onorato's cinematography is beautifully controlled throughout, and the film refrains from using a musical score unless scenes are accompanied by the cheesy pop tunes the film's characters listen to, tunes that provide an unusual counterpoint to the drama. Garrone also has a real knack for casting – a number of the actors here are non-professionals picked from the local community – and he draws great performances from everyone, particularly Imparato and Cantalupo, who both bring a powerful sense of understated emotion to their roles.

Another great performance can be found in the fifth of Gomorrah's five narrative strands, one which I haven't touched upon yet. In this segment, the ever-excellent Toni Servillo plays Franco, a sharp-suited, smarmy businessman who represents the higher end of mafia operations, a world away from the street-level antics of Ciro and Marco. Along with his wide-eyed young protégé (Carmine Paternoster), Franco travels around the country securing disposal contracts for barrels of toxic waste that are subsequently buried deep in a massive quarry. This is where the big money is, but Gomorrah shows us all of the bloodshed and crime that this empire has been built upon, and how the Camorra's influence seeps into every aspect of life; their profits from illegal activities being invested into legal enterprises around the world (such as the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre). 'Twas ever thus, perhaps, and Gomorrah offers little hope that things will ever change, but rarely has a single film provided such a vivid and engrossing portrait of an organised crime network.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Review - Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir)

There are many different types of documentary, and there are many ways in which filmmakers subvert or manipulate the documentary form to get their point across. Some use reconstructions to better illustrate the stories being told, some wilfully use fictional elements to get closer to the essential truth of a subject, while many are less objective than they purport to be, with the director's own beliefs and prejudices often coming through in the picture's point of view. Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir is a particularly daring reinvention of standard documentary techniques, with the director using animation to explore his own memories of the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which Lebanese Phalangist militia forces murdered thousands of civilians. Waltz with Bashir is, as far as I know, the world's first animated documentary, and as such, it's a curious viewing experience. Folman and his team of animators have utilised a style that conjures some supremely arresting images – be they recreations of war, or imaginative flights of fancy – but when this same approach is applied to the more mundane, talking-heads portion of the picture, Waltz with Bashir's shortcomings are quickly exposed.

The film starts in stirring fashion, with a horde of savage, snarling dogs racing through the moonlit streets to a pulsing soundtrack. These are the dogs that regularly haunt the dreams of a man who Ari Folman served with during the war, representing the 26 dogs he shot in that period, and when he calls Folman to discuss these traumatic recollections, the director realises he has repressed his own memories of that time, pushing them into some deep corner of his subconscious. This conversation, we are told, was the starting point for Waltz with Bashir, the spark that prompted Folman to go on a journey of rediscovery, interviewing friends and fellow soldiers in the hope that their reminiscences would help trigger his own memory. The thing is, we watch this conversation take place in a bar, with an animated Folman and his friend discussing it over a late-night drink, and I couldn't help wondering if this was just a scripted segment of the film, to help kick the narrative along. Folman's film has a tendency to throw up niggling little questions like that, and these instances caused me to question the value of the film's aesthetic, which often seemed to be interfering with my involvement, and causing me to question what I see.

Take the interview segments, for example. These should be the most powerful scenes in Waltz with Bashir, as a number of contributors sit in front of the camera and simply relay their first-hand accounts, but Folman's decision to animate this aspect of the film completely nullifies their effect. The film's animation of people slightly resembles the technique we saw in Waking Life or A Scanner Darkly (Waltz with Bashir wasn't rotoscoped, however. Footage was shot and then animated separately), but these visuals lack the refinement needed to express subtle emotions. The people's faces are flattened out, their movements are oddly stiff, and as well as it stripping any sense of weight from their words, there's also something undeniably disquieting about the fact that their testimonies have been processed through an intermediary before we get to hear them. These portions of Waltz with Bashir would have been so much more involving and emotionally rich if they had been presented just as they had been shot, but the appallingly ill-suited animation saps all life from them.

Conversely, the animation is also Waltz with Bashir's greatest asset. Parts of the film are beautiful and striking, notably the oft-repeated shot of a young Folman and other soldiers rising out of the sea as the sky is illuminated by flares, and in sequences such as this, the bold colours and simplistic nature of the visual scheme creates some haunting images. Often, they contribute towards vivid recreations of Folman's war experience, from timewasting on the beach to watching a fellow soldier collapse after being struck by an unseen sniper, and Folman introduces an unexpected note of bawdy humour into the film, when an officer watches a cheesy porn film. The film's most memorable use of its aesthetic occurs in its more fantastical sequences, though; such as Folman wandering in a daze through an abandoned Beirut airport, the giant blue woman who mysteriously appears at sea to rescue him from a blazing boat, or the sight of an Israeli soldier "dancing" amid gunfire, in a sequence that gives the film its title.

These are great individual moments, but I'm not sure they really cohere with the sketchy narrative line Folman has chosen to pursue. As he drifts from one unilluminating interview to the next, he explores both his own role in the war and the unreliable nature of memory itself, but these explorations fail to really unearth anything particularly insightful on either subject, and Waltz with Bashir too often feels like a contrived and shallow piece of navel-gazing on the director's part. The film is slack, vague and disappointingly dull, and it never seems to get to grips with its central subject in a sufficient manner, although one sequence does successfully ram home the horror of the massacre Folman skirts around. Late in the film, the director inserts a piece of archive footage that shows the aftermath of the massacre, and we see bloody bodies lying in the streets, while inconsolable local women wail and weep in front of the camera as they mourn their loss – and at this moment, for the first time in the picture, I started to feel something. It is telling that it took the insertion of original, unadulterated news footage to finally probe deep enough to touch my emotions, and this is the ultimate paradox of Waltz with Bashir. So much care has been lavished on its visual style, as it attempts to tell us a powerful story in a unique way, but the film only does justice to that story when Folman strips away all of the layers, removing the obstacles that prevented our complete engagement, and simply allowing us to stare directly into an open wound.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"He always had this innate sense of live or die, minute by minute, second by second in the ring" - An interview with James Toback

When Mike Tyson visited the set of James Toback's film The Pick-Up Artist in 1985, the pair struck up a friendship that has endured to this day. While dealing with the extraordinary ups and downs that have marked his tumultuous life, Tyson has also taken small roles in two of the director's films – Black and White and When Will I Be Loved – and now the pair have collaborated for a third time, but on this occasion the fighter himself is the star of the show. Tyson is a one-man film, a fascinating documentary in which Toback allows his subject the time to tell his own story in his own words. It is a remarkable piece of work, and I met James Toback recently to discuss it.

I see a lot of documentaries and most of them are structured in the same way, with various interviews cut together to offer different perspectives on a subject, but you've chosen to give us this single monologue. When you first thought about making a film on Tyson, did you always intend to follow this format?

Well, I thought I had two options. One was to be part of it myself and to make a movie about the two of us, but given the history of our friendship and how personal it has been, you'd either have to go all the way in that direction or not at all, and to just pretend that I'm an interviewer would not have worked. I toyed with that idea for a while, but I thought it would be much more powerful if I just went all the way and tried some of these technical things that I wanted to do, like split-screens and overlapping voices. That just seemed the best way to go. You know, I love Kusturica's films and I saw his film about Maradona, and he is very much in that. You could almost say it's a movie about his relationship with Maradona, and even though I love Kusturica and I like Maradona, I have to say it made me glad I hadn't done that. I guess you have to ask who's the subject, and how much can you get from this one person, and Tyson is a massively fascinating person. There is a movie to be made about the two of us, but that's a different movie and it would have been a less impressive one and ultimately a less challenging one for me.

In the film, Tyson talks about how hard he finds it to trust people, but this is a remarkable show of trust in you, to open up to your cameras like this.

I couldn't have done it otherwise, and if I had any doubt whatsoever that he wasn't ready to go 100% I wouldn't have gone ahead. But listen, I've known him since the first night we met 23 years ago, and I know what our relationship is, so it never crossed my mind that he would be coy or resistant. I knew he wouldn't do it unless he was ready to go right in.

Did he take any persuading when you first came to him with the idea?
No, we had been talking about doing it for quite a while, and it was definitely the right time for both of us. At many other junctures along the road it would have been difficult to work it out, but this was just one conversation and we were shooting two weeks later.

Were there any subjects he was reluctant to talk about?
He was ready for anything. There was one story, which I promised him I wouldn't tell, for the same reason he wouldn't tell it in the movie, because it was sort of embarrassing to Brad Pitt, and Mike said, "I like him, there's no reason for me to embarrass him".

Were you worried about getting Brad Pitt's lawyers on your back?
It wasn't the lawyers, he wouldn't have given a fuck about that, he just felt there was no reason to embarrass him. He had told me this story privately and I asked him to elaborate on it, and he started to but then he said, "I don't want to do that, he's a good guy and it's embarrassing". But that was his only inhibition in the whole 30 hours we did.

We're so used to seeing Mike Tyson as a figure of pure aggression, but when we see him so vulnerable and open here it's almost hard to believe he's the same man.

There's that great phrase of André Gide's, "Don't understand me too quickly", and there are certain people of whom that is powerfully true. Tyson is one of them. There's no question he has a very complex, fascinating and contradictory nature, so the minute you think you have him pegged you find something that subverts it. Certainly the conventional notion of him is completely misleading – partly because of certain things he's done, partly because of his physical appearance and presence, partly because of his profession – but he's a very sensitive, articulate and psychologically shrewd person.

One of the most revelatory parts of Tyson is when he talks about his penchant for violence stemming from his incredible fear of humiliation.

Absolutely, and you can see the direct correlation. You can also feel it within; it's a very human response to be driven to either rage or cowering fear by humiliation, fear or negation. You either take it and get whipped by it, or you rebel against it homicidally, and clearly that was his natural response. What comes as a surprise, of course, is the source of it, and seeing him in a very vulnerable state. Then you see him in prison under these very reduced circumstances and the effect that had on him, and how his whole life afterwards has been coloured by that humiliation. I don't know if anybody has ever made prison seem more horrifying than he does in his description of it. Basically, after seeing the movie you'd rather go to a labour camp in Siberia than a regular maximum-security American prison.

He is very moving when he talks about Cus D'Amato, and his death appears to be the major turning point for Tyson. When he died, Tyson no longer had anyone to guide him, and to show him the right path.
Right, and I think some people are never fortunate enough to have anybody who's as ultimately reliable, who will always be there for them, and who always has their best interests at heart. Anyone of exceptional skills is tremendously aided by that, because it gives you a field in which to develop, when you have someone behind you who is basically saying, "Don't worry, everything's covered, I'll take care of everything, just become what you need to become". Clearly he had it with Cus D'Amato and he took advantage of it, he flourished as a result of it, so when Cus died, there was a void and that's where his future was forged, both positively and negatively. It enabled him to succeed in a way he never would have succeeded otherwise, but on the other hand his early death and absence almost guaranteed the fall that there was as well.

It's as if he's a classical tragic figure, destroyed by his own flaws and doomed to repeat his mistakes.

Absolutely, and in his case it's a kind of double tragedy because he starts at this incredibly low point, then through his ambition he becomes unimaginably successful, he destroys himself through hubris, and then he is resurrected again through will and determination. You think "OK, this time he'll keep it", and then of course he subverts it a second time. You basically say, "How did I get this chance? How did I come from that and develop into this?" It's almost unreal, and something about the unreality of it drives one to destroy it, as if to say "I knew that was too good to be true, I knew I should really be down here", and then getting furious at being down there and striving to get back, before falling down again. It leaves a kind of shellshock, and the Tyson you see at the end of the movie is almost like someone who is a veteran of two world wars, and is now in a kind of post-death syndrome, like he went into death and came back.

The film ends on a very ambiguous note, with Tyson saying, "The past is history, the rest is a mystery", and we wonder where he will go from here. He's at the crossroads again.

It's literally on a day-by-day basis, he doesn't know. Obviously everybody is subject to fate, and I was noting with no small degree of satisfaction the sudden and untimely death of Jörg Haider, who had just shown up very well in that election in Austria. He was in his 40's [note-he was actually 58], and he certainly looked to be in physically good shape – and then boom! Dead. Do you know where he was headed? His mother's 90th birthday celebration. So what are the odds? He's in his forties, she's 90, and if one of them is going to die in the next 48 hours, what are the odds that it's going to be him? One in 5,000? It's not even a price. So there is this sense of ongoing uncertainty in everybody's life, but people make assumptions, like he's in his 40's, she's 90, so she's going to die first. But with Mike Tyson it's almost an asterisk case, because you can't make any assumptions, anything is possible, and if I made any statement imaginable about his fate you would almost nod in acceptance at whatever that may be.

You talked about Tyson living on a day-by-day basis, and I assume that's an effect of his rehab programme. How is he handling that?
Everybody in these 12-step process is taught to say and believe "One day at a time", so you never stop and think, "I'm great". As of today, everything seems to be ok, and you're going to say the same thing tomorrow and that's as far as it goes. I don't know what kind of fragility is there with him, but there's certainly some, and this sense of fragility of time and the potential of dying by some self-inflicted wound or something all made him such a liberated, great fighter psychologically. He always had this innate sense of live or die, minute by minute, second by second in the ring. To a degree, every boxer does, but he did it in the spirit of that and there wasn't any of the calculation or strategising that there is in most fighters. He talks about early knockouts and his bronchial condition, and he knew he had to get rid of them right away, he had to intimidate them and terrify them before they got in the ring, and he expected a knockout right away so every second is heightened. If it goes too far down the road he loses that advantage, and having that mentality is a way of overcoming fear, which is the underlying imprisoning notion that's lurking there all the time.

When you mentioned him intimidating opponents before he got in the ring, you reminded me of one of my favourite moments, when he narrates over his fight footage and we see him staring down an opponent, waiting for him to flinch.

Yes, we did that editorially. I had a great collaboration with my editor Aaron Yanes, who was my assistant editor on When Will I be Loved, and he totally got what I was up to and what I wanted to do, and he was a really terrific editor. I would almost say I'd never use anybody else.

It must be a major challenge to do that, to boil down all of those interviews and the hours of archive footage into a single coherent 90 minute feature.

First of all it was difficult to get a balance between the unique stuff that we shot now and the older footage, and we ended up having around an hour on him and 25 minutes of fights and stuff, so that was part of the task. Also we had to know what was great, as when you have a movie like this with so much great stuff, both archival and present, you want to avoid ever needing some dead weight. There's a phrase in movies which is "Shoe Leather" – we need this for exposition; we have to show that; this isn't the best part and I can't wait for it to end so we can get to that. You didn't need anything like that in this movie, it's all just highlights. We went through everything at the beginning and weeded out anything that didn't work, so there's literally nothing in the movie where you say "alright, this is 45 seconds I could do without, but we have to have it". There's really nothing like that and it keeps the movie at a certain pitch.

Having worked with Tyson on both Black and White and When Will I be Loved, what's his take on the filmmaking experience? Is it a process he enjoys?

He says he does. I think he enjoys the moments in it, and we've had a lot of fun doing all three movies at different times, but he also is restless and impatient, and I was lucky to get him as concentrated as he was during this movie. I mean, we did some great stuff in Black and White, but it was an hour here and an hour there, and this time we basically went non-stop.

We see in the film that Tyson was a keen student of the game, who studied footage of older fighters to improve himself. Has he any desire to get back into boxing at some point, perhaps in a coaching capacity?

No, he has none. That would be very easy for him to do, and an easy way to make money, but his boxing life is over. You know, he was offered a huge amount of money to fight Klitschko and Holyfield, but he doesn't want to do it anymore, and he doesn't want to do what a lot of old fighters do, like commentary and stuff.

I read a quote from you where you said Mike's plan was always to sell DVDs of this out of the back of a car...

[laughs] Yeah, on street corners in Harlem.

At what point did he realise this was going to be something bigger than that?

I think not until we got this ten-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, which he was totally unprepared for. I was not prepared for it; I thought we might get two minutes, but to get people to stand for ten or eleven minutes, you can't pay people to stand that long. Right up until the end of the movie he didn't know they were going to like the movie, he thought they might dislike both it and him, and even though I told him I'd screened it for a lot of people and there was no chance that was going to happen, he was not convinced. In fact – I didn't know this until his manager told me – he and a bunch of people had gone to dinner while the movie was on, and they were standing outside the theatre where they could hear it was coming to the end. Mike turned to his manager and said "Do you think Jim would be angry if I just went back to the hotel? What if they don't like it, what if they don't like me?" and his manager said it wouldn't happen. But you know the history of the Cannes Film Festival is littered with walkouts and booing and all kinds of negative displays, and had there been that kind of reaction, he would have just bolted. I think if there had been a tepid response he might have gone, he was literally waiting for the response, and when he heard this raucous applause and people yelling "Bravo!" that was it. Because they were responding to him and not his knocking someone out, I think he was genuinely moved, thrilled and shocked.

On the subject of France, your work is very popular over there, and I was wondering what you thought of The Beat that my Heart Skipped?

I thought it was very well directed, very well acted, and flattering to make a movie that has such an impact on someone, so he still has it on his mind thirty years later and feels a need to do his own version. The only two caveats I would have is that he changed a few things that I didn't believe. I didn't believe that he could have beaten up that Russian gangster and cried instead of killing him, and if he does cry you know that gangster's going to have him killed the next day. I mean, come on, what's he going to say, "Well, I've just got to live with it", you know the guy's dead in 24 hours. You see him a year later at the concert, but what happened to the Russian gangster, did he become a pacifist overnight? [laughs] The other thing was the scene in the bathroom with the girl, and the point of the scene in Fingers with Tanya Roberts is not to fuck Tanya Roberts, it's to fuck over her boyfriend – like, "Tell your old man I fucked you". She didn't know he was doing it out of some perverse payback, so there's an added dimension in that dynamic, it wasn't like "I think I'll take a break and fuck this girl in the ladies' room of this health club". So those are the two things, particularly the first one, that bothered me, but other than that I think it's very well done. I think Romain Duris is terrific – I mean, Keitel is the guy – but Duris does a very good job, and overall I like the movie. It's a weird thing to watch a movie that is a re-enactment of all the characters, the world, the relationships, the psychology that you devised, it's a strange experience.

I'd just like to finish by asking what you're planning on doing next.

There's a movie I'm trying to finish now that I'll hopefully be shooting in Paris in the spring with Alain Delon. You know, I've wanted to work with Delon for so long. The British Film Institute publishes this Projections series, and Projections 4 asked all these directors what actor they wanted to work with most, and I had Alain Delon. My three-page paean to Delon started with the sentence "I am not to my knowledge a homosexual..." [laughs]. So I met him in Paris about three weeks ago and he's a phenomenal guy, so I really hope this works out.

Shooting in Paris with Delon is probably as good as it gets.

I know, that's the way I feel. To me, from the first time I saw him I just thought, "That's the guy", and he did The Leopard, Le Samouraï, Le Cercle rouge, L'Eclisse, Purple Noon, Mr Klein, The Sicilian Clan, so many movies where he wasn't just good, he was memorable. Then you meet him and you know why – it's real, as it usually is with people who are really good over a period time at what they do in some exceptional way. It's not just that they happened to click at a given moment, it's a sustained thing in their life and their work.

Do you feel like you're following in the footsteps of Jean-Pierre Melville?

You know, the greatest thing anyone ever said to me about film, it was Henri Decaë who shot Exposed and who also shot Melville's films. He said to me after we worked together "You remind me very much of my favourite director" – and I was hoping he'd say it – "Jean-Pierre Melville". I gave him a big hug and said, "You couldn't have said anything to make me feel better".

Monday, November 03, 2008

Review - W.

Just what is Oliver Stone trying to accomplish with W., his perplexing study of current US president George Walker Bush? Should we take the film as a straight drama, a parody or a satire? Stone flirts with various approaches throughout the picture without ever settling on one. And what are we to make of the timing? W. was rushed through production this summer to arrive in American cinemas just a few weeks before the nation goes to the polls to elect their 44th president (by the time it appears in the UK, the matter will already be settled) and whenever discussion turns to the 43rd, most people are just glad to see the back of him. Perhaps W. is best viewed as a curiosity, as a document of an odd American story, when an under-qualified man inexplicably rose to the highest office in the land, and made a complete hash of things when he got there. For the average cinemagoer, however, its value is more recognisable – this is the most dramatically coherent and entertaining work Oliver Stone has produced for many years.

That's not to say W. is Stone's best film, it's not even close. For all of their flaws, pictures like JFK, Nixon, Any Given Sunday or Born on the Fourth of July have a bombastic sense of daring and complexity that shames W., and this picture lacks the kind of emotional thrust the younger Stone brought to Salvador and Platoon. But after disastrous missteps like Alexander and World Trade Centre, we can take pleasure in the simple things W. gets right; the fact that it is competently directed, highly enjoyable and supremely well acted throughout. Josh Brolin is Stone's Bush, and the film follows his development from the black sheep of the family – a drunken, directionless youth – through his spiritual awakening and governorship of Texas, his first term in office, and right up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That's the period W. covers, but what's possibly more interesting are the events Stone has chosen to ignore. 9/11 takes place off-camera, the 2000 election barely merits a mention, and the film ends before Hurricane Katrina, which is arguably as damning an indictment of the Bush administration as Iraq.

Instead, W. plays as one long oedipal conflict, between Bush and his domineering father (played by James Cromwell). In Stone's thesis, Bush's rise to the top has been propelled by the need to prove himself to the old man, and even to exceed him, with Bush Snr.'s failure to finish Saddam Hussein off in the first Gulf War being a key motivation behind his son's invasion. W.'s early scenes see Bush drinking and carousing and failing to hold down any of the jobs his father's contacts set up for him. "Who do you think you are, a Kennedy?" his dad asks during another angry dressing-down, "You're a Bush. Act like one", and Dubya's situation isn't eased by his brother Jeb, whose steady rise seems to constantly put him in the shade. This relationship, between father and son, forms the backbone of W. – Stone keeps returning to it again and again, as if it holds the key that will provide all of the answers to the Dubya conundrum – and he even stages one late dream sequence, wherein the elder Bush appears in the Oval Office and picks a fight with his now-president son. If these scenes succeed, and they mostly do, it is because Stanley Weiser's screenplay contains some sharply written confrontations, and the actors are excellent, but this narrative thread is far from W.'s most potent element.

W. is at its most compelling and incisive whenever Stone focuses on Bush's time inside the White House, and the film opens in the Oval Office, where Bush and his advisors are meeting to discuss potential terms for the countries they have deemed a threat to America ("How about Axis of Weasels?" Karl Rove, played by Toby Jones, wryly suggests). Most of the best moments in W. occur in scenes like this, that depict the inner workings of the administration, which Stone has re-imagined in a plausible and intriguing way, and the level of performance in these sequences is top-notch. Stone has assembled a first-rate cast to portray these figures, with the actors often bearing an eerie resemblance to the people they're playing, while rarely slipping into easy mimicry. Richard Dreyfuss is great as a sinister, shark-like Dick Cheney; Thandie Newton nails Condoleezza Rice better than anyone could have expected; while the always-great Jeffrey Wright draws a real sense of pathos from his performance as Colin Powell, depicted as calm voice of reason who goes against his own beliefs, and eventually follows orders like a good soldier. Not all of the casting decisions pay off – Ioan Gruffud is an awkwardly unconvincing Blair (where was Michael Sheen?) – but taken as a whole the ensemble work in this picture is remarkable.

As good as these supporting turns are, however, Josh Brolin is astounding. Just as Anthony Hopkins did with Richard Nixon, Brolin overcomes the lack of physical resemblance to the man he's playing by delving deep within himself to pull out a real performance, not an impersonation. He builds the character from the inside out, ensuring there is a sense of depth and development underneath the vocal tics and mannerisms that he has mastered. His relationship with wife Laura (Elizabeth Banks, excellent if underused) is warm and touching, and he is particularly impressive in the private moments: watch him just after he loses the Texas congressional seat to Kent Hance, for example, or the "Road to Damascus" moment just before renouncing drink and finding God. Late in the picture, Stone present the press conference in which Bush was asked to name his biggest mistakes, and we watch for an agonisingly long period as he gropes for an answer. "I don’t want to sound like I haven’t made no mistakes, I’m confident I have, it’s just that I haven’t... you really put me on the spot here, John. Perhaps I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one... but... uh..." Bush mumbles and sputters, and Stone's tight camera angles make us share in his queasy embarrassment. The scene isn't played for laughs, though, and instead the effect is one of sympathy for a man totally out of his depth. Such a sense of empathy will undoubtedly come as a major shock to those who expected Stone's Bush biopic to be a hatchet job, for W. takes a surprisingly even-handed view of its subject. It depicts him as a well-intentioned but hopelessly naïve goof, who was easy prey for the warmongers among his inner circle. Throw in a dollop of daddy issues and that's as far as the psychological portrait of Bush goes, but at least Stone has genuinely tried to get to grips with this character, to flesh him out, and to find out what makes him tick.

Perhaps W. is ultimately defeated by its lack of perspective, and one can't help imagining the picture Stone might have made a few years down the line, when he could take a breath and assess the whole of Bush's presidency at a distance. The film bears all the hallmarks of a picture made in a hurry, with much of it being painted in broad strokes and plenty of areas in which the editing could have been tightened; and without the great Robert Richardson behind the camera, W. lacks the expressive visual scheme of JFK or Nixon. But W. does feel accurate and honest – unlike the revisionist approach to history Stone has been accused of in the past – and if it achieves anything, it makes us take a fresh look at the man who will shortly be departing office after a bewildering eight years. George W. Bush's legacy as president has been defined by war, unrest, financial meltdown, skulduggery and general incompetence, and W. stands as a flawed but fascinating record of a very weird period in American history. Weird, with a capital Dubya.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

LFF Update: Part 4

My final round-up from the 2008 London Film Festival...

Synecdoche New York
Charlie Kaufman is one of the great creative minds currently at work in cinema, but I'm not sure he's the best person to direct screenplays written by Charlie Kaufman. The acclaimed screenwriter's directorial debut is an astonishingly ambitious film that starts promisingly before losing its way in its second hour, and one wonders if an objective director with a more disciplined approach to storytelling and editing may have been able to draw out the masterpiece that is surely buried in here somewhere. Philip Seymour Hoffman (in a committed performance that isn't allowed to go anywhere) is a neurotic, hypochondriac theatre director who sets about staging a play inside a cavernous abandoned space, a play that involves building a life-size reproduction of New York and hiring actors to play himself and those around him. This project gradually consumes him to the point where he (and we) can't tell reality from fiction anymore, and Kaufman continues to pile on fresh, bewildering layers until it becomes almost impenetrable. There are brilliant moments throughout the film, and so many ideas you're just dying to see developed to their maximum potential, but the lugubrious pacing sucks the life out of the thing, and the film lacks the kind of emotional resonance that distinguished Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine. Credit must go to Hoffman for toiling away manfully in the lead role, and Kaufman has surrounded himself with an impressive array of female acting talent, in which Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Emily Watson and Hope Davis are the standouts.

There are few things more upsetting in cinema than watching a film as adventurous and imaginative as this implode in the way Synecdoche does, particularly when Charlie Kaufman was so gracious and polite during the Q+A after the film. He certainly deserved better than some dick shouting out "Rubbish!" as he walked past, or to face idiotic questions like "Why don't your films have any proper structure?" Mike Leigh, who was sitting a few seats away from me, clapped loudly and vigorously when Kaufman explained that his films actually have a very intricate structure, but the whole atmosphere in the cinema seemed to be one of disappointment, frustration and awkwardness, and it was a sad way to end one of my most eagerly anticipated screenings.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S Thompson
I was originally supposed to see this at the 10am press screening on Sunday morning, but when I woke up and saw the torrential rain outside my window, I decided my bed was a much more enticing proposition. Instead, I made time to catch Gonzo at its afternoon screening later in the week, and I'm very glad I did, because this is a fantastically enjoyable film. An eclectic collection of interviewees – including Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe and Sonny Barger – all have funny anecdotes or interesting perspectives to offer, while extracts from Thompson's work, read by Johnny Depp, provide the narration. Director Alex Gibney blends these elements brilliantly with a wide variety of archive footage, and some clever reconstructions, and the film is perfectly paced as it zips through Hunter's remarkable life. As someone who doesn't know a great deal about Hunter S Thompson, I found much of it terrifically funny and surprising (particularly the segments involving the '72 election campaign, which prompted me to seek out his book); and while the film pays tribute to Thompson's idealistic vision and his gifts as a writer, it doesn't ignore his darker, more difficult moments. Gonzo is a very conventional piece of documentary filmmaking, and the soundtrack choices are disappointingly rote, but I had a great time watching it, and it's another hit for Gibney, one of the most interesting directors currently at work in America.

Lion's Den
Towards the end of the festival, I always like to take a leap of faith on a couple of films that I know nothing about, and after Lion's Den was recommended to me by Silence of Lorna star Arta Dobroshi, it seemed a good place to start. Pablo Trapero's film opens with Julia (Martina Gusman) waking up in her upturned apartment covered in blood, and with two lifeless bodies lying on the floor. Charged with the murder of one of them, Julie is sent jail, but as she is pregnant she is consigned to a separate section of the prison set aside for mothers and pregnant women, and that's where she stays for the next couple of years, giving birth to her child and raising it within the confines of the jail. As Julie learns how to cope with both prison life and her child, Trapero directs in an understated fashion, quickly undercutting any scenes that threaten to get too hysterical. The film is raw and authentic, with the relationships between the prisoners (particularly between Julie and Laura García's Marta) being convincingly written. At its core, however, the film is elevated above the ordinary by a supreme performance from Martina Gusman, the director's partner, who is stunningly forceful and empathetic throughout.

This haunting Austrian thriller starts with the build-up to a bank robbery, before moving into a surprising new direction halfway through, and developing into an absorbing study of revenge and guilt. Johannes Krisch is excellent as the ex-con working for a pimp, who is in love with Ukrainian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko), and at the start of the film, the pair are making plans for a new life together. Alex's plan involves robbing a bank, which Tamara reluctantly goes along with, but when the robbery is botched, the film shifts gears, and brings Alex into contact with a local cop (Andreas Lust) and his wife (Ursula Strauss). From this point, the drama becomes more about what these characters know about each other, and how they intend to exploit that knowledge, and director Götz Spielmann moves the story forward at a measured pace, allowing the tension and intrigue to steadily develop. Martin Gschlacht provides cold, crisp cinematography that adds considerably to the film's atmosphere, and the performances are outstanding. I'm not sure about the way in which Revanche finally resolves itself – it felt a little neat to me – but this is still a complex and engrossing thriller, that's driven by the emotions and needs of its characters.

Victoire Terminus (Winner of the LFF Grierson Award for the Best Feature-Length Documentary)
Shot in Kinshasa, Congo during the summer of 2006, this fine documentary follows a group of women who have taken to boxing, and who train in the bowels of the stadium that hosted the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. They do it for sport, and to stay fit, but more important is the fact that for many of these women, this is the only way they can achieve empowerment and assert themselves in a male-dominated society, and there's a real feeling of solidarity among these fighters. Filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent De La Tullaye create a sense of intimacy with their subjects, encouraging them to speak with candour about their lives, and they keep an astute eye on the bigger picture too, with the tumultuous presidential elections becoming an increasingly important element of the story as it progresses. "Any Congolese man who takes power instantly becomes corrupt" a woman says during the film, and all of the interviewees seem to be hoping for the best while expecting the worst. Considering the horrific images that we're currently seeing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one wonders where these women are now.

Slumdog Millionaire
I've never been a huge fan of Danny Boyle. His best work came early in his career, with Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but those two pictures were very much of their time, and his subsequent output was of a very inconsistent quality. So it's safe to say I wasn't altogether enthusiastic about Slumdog Millionaire (despite, or perhaps because of, the adjectives like "crowd-pleasing" or "heart-warming" that had been attached to it) as I made my way towards Leicester Square early on Thursday morning, but whatever cynicism I had was quickly washed away – the film is a stunner. It is the story of 18 year-old Jamal (Dev Patel), a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, who is on the verge of answering the final big-money question. His progress unsettles the show's producers who immediately smell a rat – how can a kid from the slums know so much? – and the police drag him in for questioning, determined to find out how he is cheating. It turns out that each of the questions is linked in some way to a specific incident from Jamal's past, and in this manner we see his story unfold in a series of flashbacks, that follow him, his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the love of his life Latika (Freida Pinto), from the slums to the present day. This set-up initially appears contrived and clumsy, but I was delighted by the clean, ingenious methods that screenwriter Simon Beaufoy found to slip seamlessly between the narrative strands, while developing a sustained level of tension that pays dividends at the climax. The three main characters are portrayed by different actors at the ages of 7, 13 and 18 – supplying flawless performances across the board – and the film is stunningly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, with Boyle bringing an invigorating energy and panache to his direction. By the time the exuberant, emotionally satisfying ending came round, I was fully convinced – Slumdog Millionaire is easily the best work of Boyle's career, it's one of the best films of the year, and it's the perfect way to close this year's London Film Festival.

Review - Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace is the new James Bond film, or is it? For much of its truncated running time the film feels more like the latest instalment in the Jason Bourne franchise, with many of the tropes that made Bond the character he is having been coolly stripped away from this hard-edged picture. This transformation began in Casino Royale, with Daniel Craig being introduced as a tougher, more complex Bond than his predecessors, but it is taken a step further in Marc Forster's film, which jettisons the quips, love scenes and catchphrases altogether to focus on non-stop action. Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily, as the action scenes in Quantum of Solace do occasionally get the pulse racing, but it does make one wonder where this series of films is going. Have the Bourne movies so revolutionised the mechanics of action filmmaking that cinema's longest running franchise feels the need to completely overhaul its own identity to keep up the pace?

Another alteration made to the series for this film is the fact that it acts as a direct sequel to the last picture, picking up mere moments after the credits rolled on Casino Royale. When we last saw Bond, he was heartbroken by both the betrayal and death of his lover Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and he was determined to avenge her by finding the man she was working for. To that end, we now find him speeding through the tight streets of Siena, with Mr White (Jesper Christensen) bound and gagged in his boot, and trying to shake off a few gun-toting pursuers before he and M (Judi Dench) can interrogate him. That's the brief, hectically edited opening sequence in a nutshell, and after the unimpressive credits (complete with another dull song), we can settle down into the story itself, although the film won't give us a minute to rest. M has barely had a chance to question White before Bond is off again, clambering over rooftops and swinging from the rafters in pursuit of a gunman. Once that skirmish is over, he darts off to Haiti where he encounters the villain of the piece, Dominic Greene, who is played by Mathieu Amalric (great!), but who has been handed a bit of a dull part (shame).

Quantum of Solace is a bit like that all the way through – Bond turns up in a variety of exotic locations (add Austria, Bolivia, Russia and London to those listed above), gets involved in a fight or chase, and then there's just a few minutes left to cram in some plot details before the film moves on. It's relentless, in other words, and it becomes a little wearing, although Forster's handling of the large action element improves throughout the film after a poor start in which he shreds rather than edits, creating confusion where there should be excitement. Forster is an odd choice to take the reins on this movie. Having carved out a niche for himself as a maker of decent, middlebrow entertainments, he would presumably be better suited to the kind of character-driven interludes that occur between explosions, but the screenplay – again by Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – is light on such moments, so he is given little opportunity to stamp any personality on his direction. Quantum of Solace is competently directed and handsomely – occasionally spectacularly – filmed, but that's about par for the course on a major production like this.

What Quantum of Solace needs, and fortunately possesses, is a solid centre, which is provided by Daniel Craig's confident embodiment of Bond. Having grown into the role in Casino Royale, Craig seems completely at home in the part now, and he does well to suggest levels of depth and feeling in a character who, as written, is little more than a brutal, unstoppable killing machine. It's a commanding, introspective piece of acting, although Craig would be capable of giving more if it were asked of him. The film is littered with good actors who are adept at doing a lot with little (Judi Dench, Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini fall into this category), and the main female cast members meet with mixed results. Olga Kurylenko is a big plus as a tough, engaging Bond girl with her own agenda, who convincingly helps OO7 fight his way through film's latter half; but Gemma Arterton is given practically nothing to do (introduce yourself, have sex with Bond, then disappear), and her credibility as an MI6 agent isn't helped by the fact that she's called – I'm not kidding – Strawberry Fields.

The film flirts with an intriguing subtext about the British and American government being complicit with dictatorships for their own end, but there's no time to explore such avenues when the film is spinning from explosion to explosion at such a rate. Quantum of Solace is OK for what it is. The final set-piece is the film's best: a shootout in a bizarrely designed desert hotel that – you've guessed it – is falling apart around the characters' ears, and it's efficiently entertaining stuff, but the film as a whole is lacking in the kind of advancement that was promised by Casino Royale. One is left to ponder where Bond stands in this new post-Bourne world – many of the sequences here are so similar to scenes already played out in The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, it's impossible to ignore the influence – but while the extra grittiness and realism is welcome, it shouldn't come at the expense of the series' hallmarks. We can appreciate that Bond needed to move away from the camp silliness of the Moore era, or the bloated emptiness of films like Die Another Day, but in reinventing the franchise from the ground up, shouldn't they remember that certain elements – the wit, the style, the gadgets, the catchphrases – were what drew many fans to this character in the first place? Can they maintain the essential ingredients while delivering a plausible action hero for the 21st century? These are thorny questions, and there are no easy answers, but we'll find out where Bond is going from here soon enough. As the final credits promise, James Bond will return.