Sunday, March 25, 2018


When Steven Soderbergh makes a movie, he never just makes a movie. Last year's comeback film Logan Lucky acted as the test case for a new means of distribution, and he followed that picture with Mosaic, a six-part HBO series that also functioned as an interactive app-based experience. The goal for Soderbergh in all of his post-retirement filmmaking appears to be to innovate, to experiment, and also – crucially – to have fun doing it. He has often spoken about his lack of interest in making anything that could be deemed an 'important' film, and his latest effort Unsane is about as far from prestige filmmaking as one could get. Apparently shot in ten days for $1.5 million, Unsane is pure B-movie pulp in the Sam Fuller mould, and it's Soderbergh's most invigorating work in years.

The experimental component of this film is Soderbergh's decision to embrace the iPhone and to shoot the whole film using that device. This isn't exactly a major artistic breakthrough in itself – Sean Baker's Tangerine set the standard for iPhone cinematography in 2015 – but utilising this shooting method has given Soderbergh what he always seems to be chasing: liberation. Soderbergh gets close to his actors, circling them, shooting them from unexpected angles and utilising the camera's depth of focus purposefully to accentuate the paranoia of his anxious protagonist Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). She's a bank analyst in Pennsylvania, having moved there from Boston with the intention of starting a new life. Her old life had been all but destroyed by the determined affections of a stalker, and a restraining order hasn't done enough to heal the emotional and psychological wounds that David Strine (an excellent Joshua Leonard) left behind him. She still thinks she sees Strine in every bearded male who crosses her path, and when a casual Tinder hookup leaves her shaking with fear in the bathroom, Sawyer decides she needs professional help.

The paperwork snafu that sees Sawyer voluntarily committing to 24 hours under psychiatric observation initially seems like a bad joke – how many of us happily sign 'boilerplate' agreements without reading the small print? – but as one day extends into two, and then a week, Unsane starts to feel like an endless nightmare. She tries calling 911 to report that she is being held against her will, but a nurse informs her that they receive such calls every single day – “But those are from crazy people,” Sawyer responds, her eyes wild with panic. Claire Foy's eyes tell us a lot in Unsane, particularly as the director frequently asks her to stare directly into his lens. Sawyer is an abrasive, forthright character and it's a struggle for her to play nice, to be the good, docile patient that everyone tells her is the key to her release. We can always see her calculating her options, looking for ways to manipulate those around her to her advantage, while struggling to maintain her increasingly fragile grip on her own sanity. It's an electrifying performance, and one that's crucial for keeping us invested in a film that is always teetering on the edge of absurdity.

Is Unsane a silly movie? Yeah, it kind of is. You need to swallow a lot of implausibilities and look past a number of clunky plot details to enjoy it, but then the film offers so much to enjoy! Unsane has some of hysterical energy of films like The Snake Pit and Shock Corridor (the character played by an affable Jay Pharoah feels like a nod to Fuller's film), and Soderbergh is firing on all cylinders here. I loved the simple but brilliantly effective use of multiple exposures to share Sawyer's subjective experience of a hallucinogenic, while a climactic confrontation between Foy and Leonard in a padded cell is intense and brilliantly acted. The film slips gleefully from comedy to horror, and while it perhaps teeters too far into traditional slasher movie tropes in its overextended final moments, Unsane always feels thrillingly alive.

Those final moments take place in the woods as night falls, and a deep blue pall is cast across the film. Soderbergh's iPhone camera sometimes struggles to make out the distinguishing features of the actors in such an environment, and while the director has been full of praise for this gadget as a filmmaking tool, its limitations are often glaringly evident. Unsane is full of crude, overexposed lighting and flat colours, but I found it refreshing to see a digital film that actually looks like a digital film. I've always had a fondness for the digital cinema of the late '90s and early 2000s, films that had their own distinct look and texture, before digital cinematography evolved to become a cheaper, lesser substitute for celluloid, and Unsane feels like a throwback to that visually fascinating era. iPhones won't replace movie cameras, but they will offer an alternative method of production that has its own aesthetic virtues and flaws, and it will be fascinating to see how more directors utilise it. By the time they do, Steven Soderbergh will surely have long moved on to his next experiment.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Night with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

According to Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2009 essay The Memory of Nabua: A Note on the Primitive Project, “ghosts will appear under certain conditions, when it is not quite dark and not quite light (at the break of dawn and twilight).” That twilight zone – where dreams and reality become indistinguishable, and ghosts walk among the living – is where Weerasethakul’s cinema exists. His work seems designed to lull us into a hypnagogic state, inviting us to readjust the rhythm of our bodies and completely surrender ourselves to the film; in fact, when he introduced his last feature, 2015's Cemetery of Splendour, at the London Film Festival he told the audience, “It's okay to fall asleep.”

With that in mind it makes sense that Weerasethakul favours nocturnal outings for his work, and an environment that encourages viewers to relax into his films and loosen their grip on consciousness. In 2016 he presented a 16-hour retrospective of his body of work at Tate Modern, beginning at 10pm on a Saturday night and ending just before 2pm the following day. Last month in Rotterdam, he curated SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, an immersive experience in which guests checked into a fully-functional pop-up hotel and spent the night in beds that were surrounded by images he had filmed, none of which would be repeated over the course of the five-day installation.

Read the rest of my article at The Skinny

Monday, March 12, 2018

"All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me." - An Interview with Robin Campillo

120 BPM is a film 25 years in the making. In 1992, when he was thirty years old, Robin Campillo joined the AIDS activism collective ACT UP-Paris, protesting the government’s inaction as the epidemic devastated the gay community. He subsequently forged a career as both a successful screenwriter (working primarily with Laurent Cantet) and as a director, but his past experiences have never left his thoughts and he has finally exploited his memories for his most ambitious feature to date. 120 BPM follows a group of young protesters as they fight to make their voices heard, with the relationship between HIV positive Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and his HIV negative lover Nathan (Arnaud Valois) giving this sprawling ensemble film an emotional through line. Recipient of the Grand Prix at last year's Cannes Film Festival and a big winner at the recent César Awards, 120 BPM is a powerful, passionate and exhilarating piece of filmmaking, and I met Robin Campillo during the London Film Festival to discuss it.

Are you enjoying the experience of revisiting your past as you're doing all these interviews?

It is interesting. I've been talking a lot about this film but as I am talking I still find new things that I didn't realise a month ago, so that is interesting. I think I did this film to close a door on my youth, and also a door in cinema, to do something else. I have this feeling that I had finished a phase of my life. Maybe I won't have anything to do now – I hope I have some new ideas! But I had this feeling that I had to do this film, and for 25 years I was trying to do this film.

So all the way through the two films you previously directed, you felt you were working towards this one?

A little bit unconsciously, but for instance, when I did my first film Les Revenants it was a kind of allegory of what I lived in the '80s when the epidemic started. It's a film about not living your own life as a ghost, and also from a directing point of view, it was the only film I did with 35mm and I didn't like it. For me it is an old filming process, you know, the fact that you put the camera down and you know exactly what you want in the frame, you know exactly what you want the actors to do, you know the light, everything. You are in control of everything and when you do a take everyone is silent, everyone stops breathing, and for me I don't want to make a film like this. My second film [Eastern Boys] is about my way of thinking that cinema is the art of metamorphosis. How do you go from this point to that point? From this character to that character? From this form to another form? I tried to do that. I decided to make a film where I could breathe normally, and after the experience of The Class – that was the first film we did with digital cameras and multi-cameras – I did it like this. In Eastern Boys, the main character Daniel, who is played by Olivier Rabourdin, is like me. I decided that I was not making a film against the other but I let the other invade me, and I filmed this invasion as something that is a little bit frightening but also a little bit fun. Because my way of directing was more fluid I decided I could do a film about this.

I think I recognise that impulse in Eastern Boys, because the film does have an unusual shape and rhythm, and it goes in so many unexpected directions. It ends up feeling like a very different film than it was at the start, and it seemed like a narrative that was just unfolding spontaneously.

Yes, that is exactly what I meant. You say it much better than me, which is a shame for me! [Laughs] Even for BPM, I think if you read the script you would say it's quite the same thing as the film, but it's really not. I think the characters are not at all what I was thinking of when I was writing the script.

You feel like you are discovering the movie as you make it?

Yes, and I liked to be open to what was going on during filming. If you are constantly fighting against the weather, because this scene is supposed to be sunny and it is raining, you are going to die doing films, you know? Maybe rain is a good thing and you have to adapt. You have to do a lot of mutation, and there are so many details I changed. It takes a lot of energy during the shooting, I never worked so much, but I really worked here just to be able to stay open to what was happening. That is actually easier for a director because you don't have this stage fright, you don't have this tension, and I wanted my actors and my crew to feel the same way. When I went to the set with my cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie, we had three cameras and we tried to make the first take twenty minutes long because we wanted to go fast. We would do the scene in one take, and the actors might look a little bit lost or you can see the other cameras and a microphone, but it's not a problem because we are using digital cameras and we are not afraid of the price of the 35mm film. After that one take, you realise all the problems you have to solve, and you just do it naturally. You change the places of the actors, and after a moment the actors understand that everything is a mess – it's not just them – and they forget there are cameras around. We tell them they can take all the time they want because we will fix it in the editing. Don't rush, do it as you want. For me and for all of them, it's better that way. I'm sorry, I don't know what was the original question!

That's OK, it was an interesting answer! Actually, to follow on from the idea of the script changing and evolving as you filmed, I wanted to ask you about your writing process because your co-writer Philippe Mangeot was also a key figure in ACT UP. How did you collaborate and use your memories to build this story?

You know, it's very difficult for me because when I'm writing I need to write alone, but I also need someone to talk to very often, at least once a week, to have a long talk about things. I have all these memories and I did the film out of my memories, I didn't go through many documents. I created these characters and sometimes they are close to real characters and sometimes not, so I needed to have this talking process to be sure of what I was trying to do and to put it in perspective. It was very important for me to have this dialogue, and obviously Philippe was a very strong personality in ACT UP and very influential in the group. I'm not talking only about the script when I'm talking with someone; for instance, we were talking about the representation of the disease, and because we were talking about that I said the main character had to get thinner and thinner. Philippe said to me, please don't go too far with this kind of presentation because after a while it is embarrassing, you know, to put a lot of lesions on the skin. For things like that, you need to have a dialogue with someone who has been involved in this disease. I said to him that we have to stay realistic, we can't do nothing with the body, but it's true that because we had this dialogue I realised the stigmata is not the topic of the film. You already have a lot of films about that; you have a film like Silverlake Life: The View from Here where a guy is filming his boyfriend dying, for example.

I knew at this moment that when I was thinking about Sean as a character – and when I found Nahuel Pérez Biscayart it was so obvious – I was thinking about a character who is not protecting himself in front of this disease. It is consuming his last strength in the political struggle; he incarnates so much his own political struggle that he dies of it. That was the main thing. Nahuel is obviously a very baroque actor and we see that Sean is very theatrical and has a little bit of a theatrical distance from his disease, but when he gets really ill and goes to the hospital I told the actor, "At this moment you stop playing, it's over." For me, that was the most melancholy thing in the film. He has no distance anymore with the disease, and this distance is important when you want to have a political struggle. It cannot be political anymore if you are caught in the intimacy of your disease. That is the subject of the film and that happened because I was talking to someone about a very small thing, and it made me realise that I didn't want to see someone with a lot of stigmata, I just wanted to see someone playing less and less and less.

I think one of the most moving aspects of the film is the relationship between Sean and Nathan, and the way that you present a sexual relationship between one character who is HIV-positive and another who is negative. I can't think of many other films that have explored this kind of material with such frankness and intimacy.

It was so common at this moment, I didn't realise that I was showing something strange! People are talking about this as a beautiful love story and I think...hmm...I mean, love story? I can accept the expression if we agree on the fact that the most important word is 'story,' because 'love,' I don't know what it is. We had a lot of sex in this group and in our lives, but you had couples that just existed for five or six months, because one of them was dying. It was very weird. Nathan and Sean, they are not together for ten years, they just have a few months, or one year tops. I wanted to talk about that, the fact that you have this quick intimacy, which is very strong, and I think Nathan is more in love with Sean than the other way, but I think Sean doesn't feel his love so much anymore. All of these things are in the sex scenes. First of all you have to find good actors, that's the main thing, and then I told them that I didn't want the sex scene to be like a performance. I don't want people to do the Karma Sutra, to make the spectator feel guilty that they have such dull sex! [Laughs] I told them, it's a scene like the other scenes, you have to play things, it's not a pornographic film.

In fact, the sex is of secondary importance in those encounters because these are the moments when they reveal themselves to each other, sharing very intimate memories and stories.

Exactly. I started with this. What I'm interested in when I do this kind of scene is what is beneath the scene. I don't like a film when you see a sex scene and it's just a sex scene; people don't talk, they just have sex and they do amazing things that you would never do in your life. For me that doesn't exist. When you have sex, you have this first phase when you have to get naked, and all those details are important to me. Then because we are talking about a film about the AIDS epidemic, you have to put on a condom, you have to put on gel, and when you are finished you have to take the condom off. All of the things that are a little bit swept under the carpet in other films are fiercely important for me. And when you have sex, it happens that it's a little bit too quick, and just one of them is having an orgasm and the other is not, so you start talking about your life, and I love to film this. The fact that they have sex, and then they stop and start talking, and then they start to have sex again, and then you have the ghost of the one he had sex with years ago, I love to shoot this kind of intimate scene. This scene is like a continent by itself, it is such a big landscape. They are talking about their past and you realise that Nathan is talking about politics and that makes Sean a little bit glum because it's not the moment, all those details are very important. That's why I tell my actors not to focus on the sex thing, because you have to play something much more difficult. For me, Nathan is in love with Sean because he is in love with the group, it's important for me to feel that, I have to feel the fact that Nathan is very naïve about all these things, I have to feel that Sean is protecting himself from this love, and all that. It is a lot of work, in fact.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is when Nathan is talking about reading the magazine article about AIDS, and he says something like "I'd never seen a gay couple in a magazine before and now they were telling us that we're going to die." It's a very powerful moment and a reminder of how invisible gay lives and gay culture was in mainstream society, until this epidemic shone a very harsh light on it.

As I said, when Nathan is talking about his past it's really my experience, it is very close to me. When my first boyfriend died I had this feeling that we never happened as a couple, we never existed. That's why I was really angry, I think. It was such an obsession for me that I put the face of my first boyfriend in the film, you know, when they are talking about the guy who died. It's his name and his face. I don't mind if his family is cross about that, I really don't mind, because it's my story with him. Weirdly, I didn't have any photos of him so a friend sent me a photo of him via the post, and all the other photos had been lost, so the last photo of him is in this film. For me, that was so important because I didn't want to put a sentence at the end of the film with a dedication, I wanted him to be in the film. When I was writing the screenplay, I remembered that first time I saw a picture of a gay couple in a newspaper. ACT UP exists because we didn't exist for the first ten years of the epidemic.

You know, I love the film Freaks, and for me it was very close to what ACT UP was. In Freaks you have this group of abnormal people, and during one hour the director explains to you that even if they don't have arms or legs or they have all these disabilities, they are human like us, they have the same lives, they have love stories and everything. But at the end because they are threatened by normal people who try to get money out of them, those people who are seen throughout the film as being more human, they become like monsters in order to terrify the normal people and get revenge, or justice. So for me ACT UP was exactly the same thing. If you are afraid of us because of the disease, we are going to frighten you; if you are not OK with gays, we are going to become the evil fags. That was something we accepted, to not be lovable. Today there is a generation that has gay marriage and all this vindication, but this is important for them to know, and I think for young people it's important. When we were in this group we were not even thinking about gay marriage or domestic partnership, but at the same time we had a lot of cases in a couple when one of them was dying and the other was being kicked out of the flat by his family. So it has always been connected.

It must be interesting to work with all these actors in their twenties and thirties, who surely have a very different perspective on gay rights and AIDS and all of these issues.

Yes, it is. For instance, they are mostly gay, but I realised that nowadays we tend to say that young gay people are not afraid anymore, but they are afraid, they are really afraid. I have this feeling that they think they cannot express themselves, they cannot complain, and they should just be happy to be in a world with rights and medication, etc. But they are still afraid of many things, like taking a lot of drugs, and it's not fun. It's a really problematic thing. We talked a lot when we were working with these young actors because I realised they didn't understand a lot of the words we were using. I realised I had to change the dialogue because if they don't understand then the public will also be lost. I mean, I like the public to be lost but you can only lose them to a point, you know? So we talked a lot about that and when they read the screenplay they were very touched because they didn't know about any of this, they really didn't know.

Did you think about younger people watching BPM and how they might relate to the activism in the film? We are currently living in a time of mass protest and resistance, but it takes a different form to the actions of ACT UP.

No, I was really making the film in a very selfish way, but I knew of these movements. We have a lot of groups in France, like anti-racism groups about black people or Arab or Muslim people, because the Islamophobia in France is very, very strong. I said in a few interviews that these groups – like we have Les Indigènes de la République in France – I don't always agree with them on a lot of points, but they exist. You have to stay a little bit more open to what is happening now, because if these groups are very radical it's because there is a lot to fight against. I have this feeling that people think they are very dodgy, but it was exactly the same thing with ACT UP, so when people are very welcoming to the film today we have to think and remember that we were not so welcome 25 years ago.

120 BPM is released in the UK on April 6th

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Red Sparrow

There's a gulf between the kind of film I imagined Red Sparrow would be, and the kind of film it is. This is the story of a young Russian woman forced to enter into a secret training programme, from which she will emerge as a sexy super-spy, proficient in using her body to seduce and control any man the state declares an interest in. She engages with an American CIA agent in an attempt to discover the mole he has been working with, but her interactions with him have a flirtatious edge that may or may not amount to more than mere subterfuge. Whose side is she really on?

It sounds like fun, doesn't it? A twisty, adult thriller with shades of Hitchcock and Verhoeven. So why is Red Sparrow such a dud? A lot of it is down to the film's tone, which (aside from a much-needed late cameo from a sloshed Mary Louise Parker) is resolutely ultra-serious. There's something inherently ridiculous in much of what we see in Red Sparrow, but Francis Lawrence and his screenwriter Justin Haythe (adapting a novel by Jason Matthews) refuse to acknowledge it. I can imagine another filmmaker getting his hands on this material and having a ball with it; in fact, I couldn't help thinking of Verhoeven's World War II romp Black Book, a tale of a double-crossing femme fatale that delivered wild entertainment with a sly sense of humour without short-changing the dark heart of the material. The inability or unwillingness of anyone involved in Red Sparrow to crack a smile or even raise an eyebrow only serves to make the whole enterprise look even more ridiculous, and not in a fun way.

For example, take the secret training camp where Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is sent by her uncle, um, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) to learn her trade. Run by the stern “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling, barely bothering with a Russian accent), the tasks faced by the young recruits here involve getting undressed on command, seducing soldiers, watching BDSM porn videos and – in the case of one unfortunate young woman – being forced to perform fellatio on a prisoner known for his preference for young boys. The goal is to mould them into unfeeling sexually potent robots, capable of seducing anyone, anywhere at any time. Dominika refers to it as “whore school” and you can see her point; one would think that some of the finer points of spycraft would be on the curriculum here, but the focus seems to be entirely on sex. When Dominika is almost raped in the shower by a fellow cadet (already the second such attack she has faced in the movie), Matron orders her to give her attacker what he wants in front of the class. Dominika's body no longer belongs to her, it is the property of the state, and the only value she has is her ability to use that body to gain information for the powerful men above her.

There’s a kinky weirdness about this whole section of the film that is relatively interesting, but too much of it consists of grey-clad characters in grey rooms giving grey performances. Jo Willems’ cinematography is handsomely mounted but drab and murky. There’s not a single memorable image in the movie. I could feel the life draining out of the film before the first hour had elapsed, and I started getting antsy waiting for the plot to kick in, but when it did it hardly improved matters. Red Sparrow’s slow-burn narrative largely consists of Dominika playing both sides, building a relationship with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) while attempting buy time and find a way out from under the system that is using her sick mother as a means of control. Francis Lawrence displays no aptitude for generating and sustaining tension, and so the film just plods from one plot twist to the next, as we wait to see which side of the geopolitical divide Dominika will end up on. When the mole finally reveals his identity by inexplicably walking up to her and announcing his duplicity, one suspects he has grown as bored with the film as we have.

It’s easy to see why Jennifer Lawrence took this role, but it doesn’t really work for her. She has to suppress her natural charisma and brash spirit, and her performance comes off as stiff and opaque, while the complete lack of spark between Lawrence and Edgerton ensures the film’s romantic angle fizzles out instantly. (Their one sex scene is hilariously perfunctory.) By the time I was watching a gleeful sadist torture a character by tearing thin strips of flesh from his body, I began wondering why I was still there, watching such a hollow, po-faced and nasty piece of work. Jennifer Lawrence has used Red Sparrow’s promotional tour to reveal that the film’s sexual scenes help her feel empowered after having nude photographs of her stolen and published in 2014. I'm glad the film has been such a positive experience for her, but what value does it have for the rest of us?

Saturday, March 03, 2018

An Interview with Daniela Vega

A star is born in A Fantastic Woman. As Marina, the transgender nightclub singer ostracised and humiliated by her late lover’s family, Daniela Vega is the driving force behind Sebastián Lelio’s absorbing drama. Her passionate and moving performance is one of the year’s most memorable pieces of screen acting, as well as marking another breakthrough moment for transgender representation in cinema. We sat down with Vega to discuss it.

Do you remember the first conversations you had about this film with Sebastián Lelio?

Of course, how am I not going to remember that? That process of research is a little bit more private. I can tell you about what you see in the film, but the process I think belongs to us.

So what was your reaction when he asked you to play the lead role?

At first he told me that he was doing the research on something so I started working with him as a consultant. Two years went by, and one day I received a package at home, containing the script. On the cover it said ‘UMF [Una Mujer Fantástica] – TOP SECRET’. I started reading it, but because it only said UMF I didn’t know exactly what that meant. So I started reading and the first 40-50 pages were all about Orlando, and then suddenly Orlando died, so what are we going to do now with the protagonist dead? When I carried on reading I understood that there was a female character who takes over the film, and she was looking very much like me. I finished reading it and I didn’t understand much, so I called him. He told me, “I want you to be the protagonist of my new film.” I said, “You’re mad!” He said, “No, I’m not mad. I’m completely sure.” Then I accepted.

Read the rest of my interview at Little White Lies