Monday, November 11, 2019

Luce

“I just wanted a normal family,” Peter (Tim Roth) tells his wife Amy (Naomi Watts) towards the end of Luce. “Our lives didn’t have to be a political fucking statement.” Unfortunately for Peter, Luce is the kind of movie where everyone’s life is a political statement. Julius Onah’s film tackles questions of prejudice, privilege, code-switching, sex and race in 21st-century America, and the characters spend much of the running time declaiming the script’s themes at each other in lieu of having genuine conversations. Luce was adapted from the 2013 play by J.C. Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay with Onah, and the pair can’t disguise its stage origins, though there are enough intriguing hooks here to pull viewers in.

Read the rest of my view at the BFI

Friday, November 08, 2019

The Irishman

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster” Henry Hill states at the start of Goodfellas. “To me being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.” Martin Scorsese has often shown us the seductive glamour of a life of crime; the wealth, the status, the power that draws his characters to it like a moth to a flame. One of the most iconic sequences in his work is the tracking shot in Goodfellas that follows Henry and Karen as they are led through the back entrance of The Copacabana to be seated at a prime table while all the schnooks wait in line. Scorsese played a similar game in Casino, dazzling us as his camera weaves through the backrooms where an unimaginable amount of cash flows daily, much of it into the counters' pockets. Both of these films end with violence and death, but before the crash, Scorsese invites us feel the vicarious thrill of the criminal lifestyle, allowing us to understand these men through the lives they've chosen to lead.

The Irishman is a different proposition from the start. There's little glamour here, the style is restrained and the environments are more mundane. The film may begin with a trademark Scorsese tracking shot, but the location we’re gliding through on this occasion is a nursing home, which is the place where the film begins and ends. It slowly makes its way through the corridors until it settles on Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), who then tells us his story over the course of the next three and a half hours. Steven Zaillian's screenplay is structured like an old man's memories, drifting back and forth in time, from one anecdote to the next, until it coalesces in its final hour into a staggeringly moving portrayal of grief and guilt, but despite the length and the measured pacing, The Irishman never drags. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker are in complete command of this material, and there's hardly a moment that isn't captivating.

This is a film about a tumultuous period in American history with The Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy assassination, Watergate and more unfolds in the background, and with Jimmy Hoffa (brought to life with ferocious and hilarious bluster by Al Pacino) being a key figure, but at its heart, it's a story about friendship and betrayal. The spine of the film is a road trip taken by Sheeran and crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) as they travel to a wedding in 1975, making stops along the way so Bufalino can settle some business and Sheeran can reminisce. The road is dotted with markers, like the truck stop where he and Bufalino first met, some time before the older man took Sheeran under his wing and drew him into his criminal network as a loyal soldier. In Pesci's previous collaborations with Scorsese, the actor has played livewire characters with hair-trigger tempers; from the minute he appears we await his foul-mouthed, violent outbursts with trepidation. His Russell Bufalino is a different beast, and even more chilling. Watchful and quietly authoritative, he never loses his temper and never raises his voice. He's this film's equivalent of "Paulie might have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn't have to move for anybody," and he's a man who can pass a death sentence as easily as uttering the simple words “It's what it is.” One telling detail is the wariness Frank's daughter Peggy (played as a child by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin) exhibits towards this family friend. She can see the bottomless darkness behind his avuncular facade.

Peggy has no such qualms with Hoffa, seeing him as both a kindle uncle with whom she can share an ice cream, and an inspiring figure, fighting for a better deal for the working man. Although The Irishman is very much a film about men, Peggy quietly emerges as a key figure for giving us a different perspective on Frank. From the moment she sees her father beat a man in the street as a young child, Peggy acts as a silent witness throughout the film. She watches him leave the house at strange hours, she sees the kind of company he keeps, she reads about brutal slayings in the news and connects the dots. It might seem strange that an actress of Anna Paquin’s calibre has been handed a background role with no dialogue, but her silence is what lends the role its enormous power, and when she does finally speak her few words they cut Sheeran to the core. Her simple act of asking “Why?” is the moment when The Irishman shifts gears and delves deeper into questions of death, sin and mortality than Scorsese has ever gone before.

Throughout The Irishman, minor characters are introduced with title cards, detailing the date and method of their death – “shot four times in the face in his kitchen” or “blown up by a nail bomb under his porch.” They are already dead men when we meet them, and this is ultimately a film about confronting the inevitable, however it comes. Most of the men who choose this way of life get gunned down, blown up or meet their end in some similarly grisly fashion, but those who don’t end up wasting away in prisons; once-intimidating figures now physically and mentally diminished. I can’t stop thinking about one particular gesture in this film, a palsied hand raised as an elderly character says “You’ll see…you’ll see…” before being wheeled out of the film for good. The climactic forty minutes of The Irishman are as pitiless a study of ageing as you’re likely to see, with every scene being marked by death and the lingering weight of a failure to make amends for past misdeeds.

It’s in this final hour that Robert De Niro does his best work in the film; in fact, it’s hard to recall the last time he gave a performance this rich, nuanced and powerful. For much of the film De Niro seems willing to act as a quiet anchor for this epic; a self-effacing straight man for more attention-grabbing turns from the likes of Pacino, Pesci, Stephen Graham (wonderfully pugnacious, sharing two killer scenes with Pacino) and Ray Romano. But as the film moves into its closing stages, and these figures start to disappear from Sheeran’s life, De Niro’s performance as a man haunted by guilt and regret is revealed as a monumental piece of work. At times, the tormented emotions inside him seem to leave him incapable of speech, the words haltingly stumbling out of his mouth in one gut-wrenching scene as he attempts to make a phone call. 

This is every inch a Martin Scorsese picture, a true late-career masterpiece, but perhaps we should regard De Niro as a co-auteur on the film, a driving force in the same way he was with Raging Bull. It was him, after all, who brought the material to his longtime friend and collaborator in the first place, and it’s tempting to view The Irishman as their Unforgiven; a melancholy reflection and recontextualization of their previous work together in this genre, which has now spanned more than 45 years. From the young punks of Mean Streets, through the flashy and ruthless gangsters of Goodfellas and Casino, to the weary old men of The Irishman; it’s a Four Seasons-like quartet that explores propulsive thrill and ultimate emptiness of criminal life with a staggering clarity and force, with the sobering and haunting ending to this film feeling like a perfect final statement. We leave Frank where we found him, in the nursing home, but this time it’s after hours. He has nobody to comfort him, nobody to hear his stories, nobody who remembers the men who defined his life. He can do nothing but sit and get lost in his still-painful memories while he waits for the end, all alone in the still of the night.

Friday, November 01, 2019

Sight & Sound December 2019

In the new Sight & Sound, I wrote about two films that made their UK debut at the London Film Festival recently. Wash Westmoreland's Earthquake Bird is a mildly engaging but ultimately underwhelming thriller that will be released in UK cinemas on November 1st, before landing on Netflix a few weeks later. Julius Onah's Luce is a provocative thriller with a terrific cast, and it arrives in UK cinemas on November 8th. You can read my full reviews in the December issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale now.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Muscle

Stuck in a depressing telesales job, spending every night in the pub, and slowly drifting apart from his frustrated girlfriend, Simon (Cavan Clerkin) is a man in dire need of a change. “You’re happy to moan and groan instead of changing things. You’re pathetic,” his girlfriend Sarah (Polly Maberly) complains, which might be what prompts Simon to walk into the Atlantis gym on a whim one afternoon, paying up front for a six-month membership in the hope of getting fit.

“Fuck fit. You want to get big, and you want to get strong” is the no-nonsense advice he receives from Terry (Craig Fairbrass), the personal trainer who takes Simon under his wing and is as good as his word, transforming the tubby Simon into a burly, bearded beast. But Terry’s influence over his new friend won’t end there.

The song Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I over the opening credits sets the tone. Muscle is a film about the gap between the man Simon is and the man he thinks he should be, and Gerard Johnson’s third feature is a welcome change of pace after the stylish but hollow violence of Hyena (2014). Muscle is a twisted black comedy exploring questions of masculinity and insecurity, with echoes of Fight Club (1999) in the central relationship, as alpha-male Terry takes over and destroys Simon’s life and his sense of self.

Read the rest of my review on the BFI website

Friday, October 25, 2019

By the Grace of God

François Ozon’s career has zig-zagged in so many different directions it’s impossible to anticipate what kind of movie we’re going to get each time this prolific director returns with a new offering. His previous film, Double Lover, was wild, sexy and ludicrous, so it makes sense that he’d follow it with something more sedate, but you might be surprised at just how dry and sober By the Grace of God is.

It’s a film which explores the subject of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, detailing the very recent exposure of Father Bernard Preynat (Bernard Verley), who used his position as a scout master in the 1980s and ’90s to prey on dozens of boys. One such victim is Alexandre (Melvil Poupaud), a still-devout Catholic whose repeated pleas for justice made to Preynat’s superior Cardinal Barbarin (François Marthouret) are the focus of the film’s opening half-hour.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Friday, October 04, 2019

London Film Festival 2019 - Colour Out of Space / I Lost My Body / Matthias & Maxime / The Report

Colour Out of Space (directed by Richard Stanley)
Maybe a mad Nicolas Cage freakout movie is going to become an LFF tradition? In the past couple of years we've had Cage going off the deep end in Dog Eat Dog and Mandy, and this year he is lending his distinctive line readings to Richard Stanley's long-gestating HP Lovecraft adaptation Colour Out of Space. I'm glad to see Stanley finally making his way back to the director's chair, more than two decades after the fiasco of The Island of Dr Moreau, but sadly this is not a very good film at all. Colour Out of Space is the story of the Gardner family, which has relocated from the city to rural Massachusetts, where they now run an alpaca farm. If you think that Nicolas Cage shouting about alpacas is inherently funny, then this may be the movie for you! The problem with Cage these days is that audiences are primed to laugh as soon as he appears on screen, which gives Stanley a tonal problem that he never really overcomes.

Colour Out of Space is amusing and goofy, but it never amounts to more than that, and it feels like a key ingredient is missing: dread. When a meteor crash-lands on the Gardners' farm and begins warping time and matter, making Cage's Nathan Gardner and his family (wife Joely Richardson, kids Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard) behave in inexplicable ways, it never feels like we're watching a family genuinely fall apart, and instead we're just seeing a bunch of disconnected random incidents punctuated by Nicolas Cage attacking tomatoes or putting on a sneering voice. The second half of the film primarily consists of a lot of tedious and incoherent noise, and after all that the ending feels like a shrug. There are some appealingly trippy colours on display and a few fun practical effects that briefly reminded me of early Carpenter and Cronenberg films, but that's where such comparisons end.

I Lost My Body (directed by Jérémy Clapin)
If Thing from The Addams Family had ever earned his own spin-off movie, it might have looked something like I Lost My Body, the bizarre French animation directed by Jérémy Clapin. The film follows a severed hand as it escapes from cold storage and embarks on a perilous journey across Paris in an attempt to be reunited with its owner Naoufel, with this odyssey being interrupted by flashbacks to the time when The Hand and Naoufel were one and the same. I Lost My Body has been adapted from Guillaume Laurant's book Happy Hand, but the change of title is appropriate, as there is little happiness in this melancholy tale.  Even before he loses his hand, Naoufel is a despondent teen, orphaned as a child and now living in cramped conditions in Paris, where he works as a (perpetually late) pizza delivery man. It's during one of these deliveries that he meets Gabrielle – or rather, he doesn't meet her, instead just having a conversation with her over the building's intercom. Nevertheless, this encounter is enough for Naoufel to try and change his fortunes, ditching his job and attempting to engineer a face-to-face meeting with Gabrielle.

There are three strands to I Lost My Body's structure. As well as The Hand's adventures and the flashbacks to Naoufel's story, we have further black-and-white flashbacks to Naoufel's idyllic childhood before the loss of his parents, but Clapin weaves through these narrative threads with great dexterity, orchestrating some beautiful and imaginative transitions. The animation throughout the film is incredibly expressive, particularly in the way it makes The Hand such an empathetic character. It becomes a determined and courageous protagonist worth getting behind, and you might feel genuine fear and excitement as it engages in a series of life-and-death struggles, notably a vertiginous encounter with a pigeon or a fight with a gang of subway rats. These are some of the most inventive action sequences I've seen in a movie this year, directed and edited with a thrilling sense of dynamism and fluidity, but the overall mood of I Lost My Body is more melancholy and ruminative. It's a film about the moments that change our lives, the choices we have to live with, and the mysterious hand of fate or destiny that's guiding us all. It's a one-of-a-kind picture, and at the start of the film it's hard to see how its disparate elements will cohere, but it comes together beautifully and a lot of credit for that must go to composer Dan Levy, whose soaring score is among the year's best.

Matthias & Maxime (directed by Xavier Dolan)
It has been ten years since Xavier Dolan made his debut as a precocious 20 year-old with I Killed My Mother, and the general consensus on him seems to have cooled considerably in that period. I hated It's Only the End of the World and have yet to see the still-unreleased The Death & Life of John F. Donovan, but I'm still on board with Dolan because when he's good he's really good, and he's often very good in Matthias & Maxime, on both sides of the camera. He plays Maxime whose decades-long friendship with Matthias (Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas) is sent into a tailspin after they share an ill-advised kiss in a student film. The two suddenly stop talking and hanging out, with Matthias becoming sullen and aggressive, as he begins to question his sexuality and masculinity. The problem is, I just didn't entirely believe in this central conflict, and Dolan is guilty of letting a lot of morose sulking take the place of the real psychological specificity that a story like this is calling for. Dolan has skimped on this in the past, pushing past psychological depth to go straight for the big emotional peaks, but in this case the dramatic meat of the movie starts to feel a little overextended and thin at two hours.

But, as I said, when Dolan's good he's really good. He's typically excellent with actors, and he draws fine work from his cast here, especially in the group scenes where he generates a compelling energy as he pinballs between the various participants. Dolan himself gives one of his most impressive performances – delivering a phone call scene towards the end that's genuinely heart-rending – but it's the supporting actors who really shine; I particularly enjoyed Marilyn Castonguay, Harris Dickinson and Micheline Bernard. It's also directed with great confidence and intelligence, with beautiful 35mm cinematography by André Turpin, and ultimately there's always a clear sincerity at the heart of Dolan's work that I find hard to resist. Although some of his writing can feel a little glib, the key moments of confrontation and reconciliation do pack an emotional punch. I might not have been entirely convinced by Matthias & Maxime, but I was moved by it, and that's what keeps me coming back to Xavier Dolan time after time.

The Report (directed by Scott Z. Burns)
Did The Report really have to be delivered like a report? This dramatisation of the years-long attempts to investigate the CIA's use of 'Enhanced Interrogation Techniques' (or torture, in other words) in the War on Terror, and then the subsequent fight to release the findings, is a dry and dutiful drag. Scott Z. Burns is a talented writer, and he has done a fine job of laying this complicated story out in a straightforward and digestible manner, but he brings little to the movie as a director. The film consists of a series of flat scenes in grey rooms in which dialogue consists of nothing more than stodgy exposition, and Burns can't energise these static encounters in a cinematic way. He relies on the actors, primarily Adam Driver as Dan Jones, who loses countless days and nights to the report – sticking with it even long after his team quit – and then grows increasingly frustrated as it looks like the fruits of his labour won't see the light of day, at least not in a form that isn't heavily redacted. In the second half of the film we often see Jones ranting at Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) as she stares at him over the rim of her glasses, and then registers shock at his revelations before leaving the room. That's about the extent of what Bening gets to do; none of the fine actors in this cast are given the space or the material to create a real performance or a three-dimensional characterisation. They're just delivery systems for information and outrage. Of course the substance of The Report is enraging, but Burns seems to be relying on the inherent emotive quality of his subject matter to grab the audience, and it's not enough. This film is so didactic and lifeless. I found nothing to connect with.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

London Film Festival 2019 - The Antenna / Axone / Beanpole / Öndög

The Antenna (directed by Orçun Behram)
The installation of a state-sponsored television antenna in a crumbling tower block is the catalyst for all manner of strange and disturbing occurrences in this slow-burning Turkish horror film. When the man hired to install the dish plunges from the roof to his death, it's a bad enough omen, but soon a mysterious black substance is emanating from the antenna and oozing its way into the residents' apartments. Initially I admired the way writer/director Orçun Behram was unfolding his narrative at a steady pace, but that pace never wavers, and given the way The Antenna is allowed to bloat to a two-hour running time, it's astonishing how little we learn about these characters. Our protagonist is Mehmet (Ihsan Önal), the passive and morose building superintendent who – in a move viewers may empathise with – keeps falling asleep on the job. The only person who gives Mehmet the time of day and treats him as more than an underling is Yasemin (Gül Arici), a teenage resident, whom Mehmet has encouraged to leave and start a new life elsewhere, even going so far as to buy a train ticket for her. What she is supposed to do after leaving her family is never fleshed out, and this relationship feel like nothing more than a narrative seed planted so Mehmet will have somebody to care about when things go awry.

The Antenna is obviously intended as a commentary on the pervasive power of authoritarian control, with the aerial in question being installed expressly for the function of government announcements, but this metaphor is obvious and feels tired long before Behram bluntly hammers it home in the third act. As a horror movie, The Antenna is a total bust. Behram sets up a few set-pieces that feel like classic genre death traps – such as the ooze seeping into a woman's bathtub shortly before she steps into it – but the staging and editing is way too slack to generate any suspense, and Behram leans too heavily on musical stings, pumping the score up to an ear-splitting crescendo every time something supposedly shocking is taking place. There's simply nothing to cling onto with this collection of paper-thin characters and haphazard threats, and while Behram does serve up some of his more interesting imagery in the last twenty minutes, most viewers will surely have checked out by then.

Axone (directed by Nicholas Kharkongor)
Axone (pronounced as akhuni) is an ingredient created from fermented soyabeans and is most readily associated with Naga people of northeastern India, and Wikipedia also tells me that it is judged to be ready when it “smells right”. The smell of axone is a running theme in Nicholas Kharkongor's film, with a group of friends trying to make a special dish for a wedding, only to be run off from one location to the next when the pungent aroma of their food becomes too much for the neighbours to handle. That's about all the plot there is to speak of in this low-stakes comedy, which trundles along amiably enough without ever being particularly funny or exciting. Given the race-against-time narrative – with the wedding set to take place that evening – it's strange how lacking in energy and forward momentum Axone is. The film has a stop-start, episodic rhythm that involves the central group running from one location to the next before some new obstacle drops in their path. There is comic potential in some of these situations – such as the attempts to deceive an old woman who keeps a keen eye on all all comings and goings – but the central narrative keeps getting disrupted by soapy theatrics, including attempts to explore the racism experienced in Delhi by those from other regions of the country. The writing is too trite and the acting too uncertain (although Sayani Gupta is an attractive and charming lead) for these dramatic scenes to have any weight; consider the late scene when one character is angrily called a “fucking Indian” only for the two people involved to apparently be on cordial terms a couple of scenes later. It all feels a little too slapdash and glib.

Beanpole (directed by Kantemir Balagov)
Beanpole is an unnerving experience before any images have even appeared on screen. Under the opening credits we what sounds like a person choking and gasping for breath, and our imaginations might immediately leap to worst-case scenarios, but when we the film opens on Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko) we see that she is standing alone in a catatonic stupor. These PTSD-related episodes got Iya sent home from the frontlines of WWII and now, with the war a painful recent memory, she works in a hospital in Leningrad, where her lapses are so common her colleagues just let them play out and continue to work around her. Strikingly tall, blonde and pale, Iya also goes by the nickname Beanpole, and she is one of two central characters in Kantemir Balagov's astonishing film, the other being her close friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who is still at the front when the film begins. Both of these women bear visible scars, and Beanpole is a film primarily about the scars of war  the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds  and an exploration of what it means to survive and live in the aftermath of an immense trauma.

It's a bleak film and often hard to watch, and one might be tempted to dismiss Beanpole as a grim exercise in Russian miserabilism; but this is a film made with a disarming sense of tenderness and compassion, and a stunning level of artistry. The long takes expertly choreographed by Balagov and his brilliant director of photography Ksenia Sereda draw us into the world inhabited by these characters, and almost every scene of this film is visually striking, particularly the interiors in which the muted colour palette of the décor is offset by the flash of a green dress or a red jumper. He also uses his actors brilliantly, contrasting Iya's awkward and introspective demeanour with Masha's more vibrant and passionate approach, and the performances he draws from the whole cast are flawless. Aside from the two wonderful leads, I loved Kseniya Kutepova as the wealthy mother of a young man infatuated with Masha, who shares one brilliant scene with Perelygina that gets to the heart of one of the film's central themes. This is a film about women in a time of war – the roles they are expected to play, the things they have to do to survive – and the men in Beanpole primarily exist for what these female characters can get from them. Beanpole is a stirring examination of grief, guilt and solidarity, and an exceptional achievement from a very exciting young filmmaker.

Öndög (directed by Wang Quan'an)
Öndög begins with a startling discovery. As a jeep speeds through the Mongolian wilderness at night, with its headlights illuminating the treacherous path, a naked corpse suddenly appears in view. If this sounds like the beginning of a thriller, you might want to recalibrate your expectations. In the build-up to this discovery, we listen to two of the occupants of the vehicle as they have a rambling conversation about hunting, and it is this discursive chat rather than the discovery of the dead body that sets the tone for Wang Quan'an's film. The film gradually shifts its gaze away from the body and from the culprit (who is quickly apprehended) to give us more of an overview of the characters and their way of life. Much of the first half of the picture tales place at night, with a naïve young police deputy (Norovsambuu Batmunkh) being assigned to stand guard over the corpse until his colleagues return with reinforcements, and a rifle-toting local herdswoman (Dulamjav Enkhtaivan) is ordered to stand by and keep an eye out for wolves. This pair spend one night together before going their separate ways, and Öndög is largely viewed from their disparate perspectives.

Meanwhile, our perspective on the action is usually a distant one. For Quan'an, the barren landscape is as important as the characters, and he often makes them small figures silhouetted against the endless horizon and the ever-changing sky. From that headlight-lit opening sequence, this is a visually hypnotic piece of filmmaking, full of imaginative and witty widescreen compositions, but despite frequently keeping us at a distance from these people, Quan'an allows us some intimate moments with them too. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film consists of Batmunkh and Enkhtaivan (and her camel) keeping watch by a roaring fire, with the utter blackness of the Mongolian night surrounding them. Quan'an lets these scenes run for as long as they need to, and the pacing throughout the film feels attuned more to the characters' way of life than any conventional notions of filmic storytelling, but I was never bored or felt like the film was dragging. Öndög is a beautiful meditation on life, love, death and birth, and aside from all of that it also manages to be unexpectedly hilarious.

Friday, August 30, 2019

“A sense of otherness is important” - An Interview with Mark Jenkin

At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking Bait is a newly discovered lost film, the print having languished for decades in the recesses of an abandoned cinema. The black-and-white footage is scratchy and prone to flaring, and the sound has obviously been post-dubbed, but Mark Jenkin has deliberately used archaic filmmaking techniques to explore very modern concerns. Set in his native Cornwall, Bait centres on the tension between the struggling fishing community and the influx of holidaymakers who have changed the face of the area, and while Jenkin’s images may evoke names like Robert Bresson or Roberto Rossellini, his debut feature is a true British original.

What have the reactions been like as you’ve travelled with this film? Stylistically and culturally it seems like a niche object on the surface, but there’s a fundamentally classical narrative underneath it.

When I started writing the film 20 years ago, I thought it was very local, very specific to Cornwall, and in the 20 years since I’ve put it down and picked it up again, it now seems that everybody can pick their own relevance out of it, and their own significance to their lives. It’s not even their own lives, necessarily, and from the Q&As and stuff people seem to recognise the state of the world in microcosm. It’s that old cliché about something very specific being very universal. Somebody came up to me in the Walter Reade at Lincoln Centre after the American premiere, it was this woman who was American but whose dad had been a fisherman in Barbados, and she said, “This is the story of my dad.”

Read the rest of my interview at the BFI website

"I've just got to go for it and push everything as far as I can, most of all myself" - An Interview with Joanna Hogg

Three films into her career, Joanna Hogg had already established herself as one of the most distinctive and exciting artists working in contemporary British cinema, but even by her own high standards The Souvenir is something extraordinary. This portrait of a young film student's relationship with an troubled older man in 1980s London is both her most nakedly autobiographical film and most ambitious project to date. The film as it stands is a singular and perfectly crafted gem, but for the director it’s only half-complete, with The Souvenir: Part II set to continue Julie’s story. She had just finished shooting the second instalment when we met in London recently to discuss The Souvenir.

We've spoken in the past about how you often begin your projects with a particular location in mind and then develop the characters within that space. With The Souvenir you've got a different starting point, drawing on your own memories and experiences. Did that make it a very different process for you?

I'm not sure in the end if it did change very much, but I suppose the starting point was different, which I was aware of. It concerned me in the beginning when I was first thinking about doing it because, you know, what was going to be the place? At that point I hadn't really thought about the reconstructing of the apartment and the film school, but it quickly became clear that I also needed a place to set this film. That place became the aircraft hangar we found that has ended up being – both for part one and part two – the container for everything, in a way. There are locations outside that hangar, but it is the centre of it. So in a way it is no different from the others, but then as the container for a lot of scenes and ideas it challenged me into making formally different choices with this film, and I was aware of that and aware of wanting to push myself. With those three previous films I felt there was a pattern emerging that I consciously wanted to break and confuse and destroy.

This is a memory piece and I'm fascinated by the way it feels like a memory. The moments feel very specific but the whole feels more elusive and fragmented.

[Long pause] You know, I was actually going to preface our meeting by saying that I feel completely emptied out after shooting the second part. It's a strange thing – and I will try to answer your question – but for the shoot it's such an intense moment. As a filmmaker you don't get to shoot that often, so I think I've got six and a half weeks here, I've just got to go for it and push everything as far as I can, most of all myself. At the end of it I'm sort of an empty vessel, and that's exactly where I am right now. [laughs] Now there's a little bit of a confusion between part one and part two, because I've been completely immersed in part two, and I have to try and remember what part one is and what I wanted to do with that and how to talk about these two separate things. For me it's all part of one piece of work.

With Exhibition – although that fits into the pattern of the previous films – I wanted to challenge myself with that in terms of trying to tell a story in a non-linear way, in a more fragmented way. I think Exhibition is more fragmented than The Souvenir; the first part, anyway, I don't yet know if the second part will be more fragmented. The first part seems quite linear in a way, and when you talk about the precision in one sense but the fragmented nature in another, I suppose just by the nature of the way I work and what I'm searching for there are...it's so hard to articulate right at this moment, to be honest. I don't want something too loose even though the way I work seems very open and allows a lot of things to come in, but that has to be very tightly controlled, so it's a mixture of extreme control on the one hand and letting things go. The result of that is something between those things.

It has an ellipical quality, like we're just getting these snapshots of a relationship.

It's interesting, because I didn't set out for it to be those snapshots, and I thought maybe this film would be less elliptical, because I'm aware of that with the other films. This was my attempt to tell more of a conventional narrative but I guess it's hard for me to do that

Your work often withholds things from the audience and leaves things unsaid, but I felt that aspect was particularly potent here. What's unsaid is often hanging heavily over every scene.

Yes, well, I think of the other films and maybe my experience in life is often people not saying what they mean, and speaking for myself, I don't think I'm very good at saying in everyday life what I want or what I think. I guess that opaqueness sort of washes over the films. I'm interested in depicting a scene and just letting it sit there. It's not even something I talk about with Helle [le Fevre], the editor I work with, but we're very interested in editing scenes together but letting the effect of them sit there and not wanting to spell too much out, even though I did think I was going to spell out more with this film. [laughs]

I was just thinking about that scene where they're having the birthday meal and Tilda is talking about taking a course at the Courtauld and everyone's having a nice time, but right behind them we see the broken mirror from when Anthony had his withdrawal meltdown. I kept wondering, have they discussed this? Do the parents know what happened? Are they all choosing to ignore it?

It's funny, because I remember my perspective on that when we shot it and edited it was, is it too obvious having this broken mirror in the background?

Do you talk about that kind of thing with the actors?

I do remember a certain amount of conversation around that. It was interesting because James Spencer Ashworth, who plays Julie's father, he's not an actor, he's actually a farmer in life. He would often ask those questions as someone who wasn't coming from an acting perspective. He would ask me, "Should I know that?" or "What would I know in this situation?" so some of those questions came interestingly from him just because he put himself into this new situation and had a natural curiosity I wouldn't encourage him to work out too much or think too much about the situation, but as a person he just wanted to understand what things meant. Tilda and Tom, and even Honor, were happy to just be in that situation, and Honor wasn't party to the story so she wasn't questioning anything because she really didn't know what was going to happen from one moment to the next.

You've often cast non actors. How do you know someone with no experience is going to be able to handle a role? Is it just gut instinct?

I think it's a gut instinct and – talking about James, for example – knowing that he didn't have to stray too far from who he is as a person, so I'm not asking him to play a pawnbroker or something. When I cast a non-actor I won't push them to stretch too far from who they are in life, and I think that helps a lot. But to answer your question about whether I know how it's going to be, I really don't. Even though I might take those precautions, the excitement for me is not knowing how it's going to be on the day. Someone might be playing who they are in real life but they might be very uncomfortable or self-conscious in front of the camera.

Do you screen test them?

No. I think I just create a comfortable environment for them to be in and that's maybe half the battle, having a calm set and creating a certain atmosphere that they can be themselves in. That's the same for the actors, actually, I want to create that atmosphere for them too.

Tom Burke is a remarkable actor. He has such a distinctive presence and delivery. What drew you to him for this role?

Again so much is instinct, but knowing and having seen him perform brilliantly in certain things I had more evidence of his ability as an actor. He just had some qualities that reminded me of the original character and there was just something about his physique that is so different from the physique of a lot of young actors now, who are going to the gym all the time. There's a sort of body consciousness that I find off-putting sometimes. I want their mind to be connected with their body, I don't want this concern of looking right, and that's not where Tom is and that's not what he's interested in. I thought he reminded me a little bit of a young Orson Welles, he's not off to the gym every five minutes.

Anthony feels very specifically constructed as a character but he's also very enigmatic. How did you work with Tom on developing this?

I cast him quite early on and I gave him a lot of materials to use as foundation for the character, so he had voice recordings of the original character, letters, photographs. He's an incredibly intelligent actor and from these materials he was able to build a picture of someone that in the end was spookily close to the person I knew. That happened over weeks and months. It was a wonderful thing to meet Tom and spend that time with him in the lead-up to the shoot, because often I'll cast quite late in the day and won't have that opportunity, but it seemed so right with this character that he was carefully constructed. The person was very carefully constructed, in a way, and it needed that time and energy and focus.

The fact that he was so well prepared and Honor wasn't helps create that unbalanced power dynamic between their characters.

Yes, that's true. She came in very late and didn't know where she was going.

What I loved about Honor's performance is the way it shows how being in love can make someone so vulnerable. She doesn't hold anything back, she doesn't protect herself in any way. Did you discuss that with her or was that something she brought to the character?

I think a lot of that is Honor. She was party to some materials but in a very different way to Tom, and in a very sped-up way because she was cast so late in the process. I did show her some of my diaries from the time. I didn't show her so many letters but I showed her some materials so she could get an idea of who this young woman is at this point in her life. As well as diaries I showed her some of the screenplays I attempted to write and the film I did. I didn't want her to know anything about the relationship because that was going to happen during the filming, when she was going to meet him; in fact she didn't even know it was about a relationship. She knew it was about a young film student and I just wanted to have an idea of the projects and the impetus of a filmmaker and photographer. It was the creative and artistic side I wanted her to inhabit.

I know you like to put your actors into a scene with little preparation and to capture their spontaneous reactions. Can you maintain that sense of spontaneity when you're doing multiple takes?

Of course there's always a risk that after the first take the innocence has gone in a way. It always surprised me actually, even with Honor who had never acted before and never had a desire to be an actress, how she was able to repeat that surprise and that feeling of not knowing after a number of takes. That has continued to surprise me in shooting part two as well, her ability to perform.

This is the first feature you've shot on film. Did that change your process?

It did, it changed a lot because I can't have such long takes. I really liked having that disciple. I really liked having something telling me that a take could only be so long, the economy of it, how many rolls of film we were getting through. I found that very exciting actually, having those limits. I decided to put those limits on myself even more in the second part. So part one is partly shot on 16mm, partly digital and super 8, and the second part the ratio is more towards film. There are some digital moments but most of it is shot on film, and I absolutely loved that.

You're using close-ups a lot more too.

Yeah, and I feel like I'm pushing that even more in the second part, in terms of where to put the camera and how to shoot scenes. I'm trying to move the camera around a bit more too.

It's interesting that you've had this big gap between shooting the two parts. Was there ever a thought of doing them as one production, or was it the money factor that dictated that?

It was a money factor. I wanted to, actually, and in the lead up to shooting part one there was always the possibility of doing both back-to-back. I didn't want to have a break and certainly not a break of two years, but we just weren't able to get the commitment and raise the money for shooting two at the same time. I think in the end it's probably a good thing, actually, because I had much more time to construct part two. At first I thought what  a shame to lose momentum, but there are certain ideas that I hadn't come up with then that I'm really pleased I got a chance to do.

The Souvenir is in UK cinemas from August 30th

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Souvenir

Joanna Hogg has evolved as an artist with every film she has made, but her fourth feature is a memoir of her first faltering steps as a director and the toxic relationship that almost derailed her. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a 24-year-old film student in 80s London who is captivated by Anthony (Tom Burke), the older man who saunters into her life and stays there. Anthony is worldly, enigmatic and charismatic, and we can see why she falls for him, but he's also prone to mysterious disappearances and erratic behaviour. He's harbouring a destructive secret that Julie is too naïve – or too smitten – to see.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

"I read an article the other day that claimed the world's weather is changing" Cary Grant tells Ingrid Bergman as they discuss the unseasonably muggy atmosphere in Indiscreet (1958), which screened from a vintage Technicolor print at year's Il Cinema Ritrovato. The line got a laugh from viewers frantically fanning themselves inside the Arlecchino Cinema because the encroaching heatwave had been a prime topic of conversation in Bologna all week, as it had been across much of Europe. "Hell is Coming" was a headline that confronted me as I read The Guardian over breakfast one morning. It's not really the kind of thing you want to read on your holiday.

The stuffy atmosphere inside the Arlecchino can threaten to make even a brisk trifle like Indiscreet feel like a slog, especially when the cinema is packed to capacity with viewers even sitting in the aisles, as it often the case for these Technicolor screenings; Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), hardly one of his most popular films, was similarly oversubscribed. Fortunately, the star power on display in Donen's film cannot be dimmed and it was a real treat to experience it with such a huge and appreciative crowd, particularly the increasingly farcical and funny second half of the movie. David Kossoff's perfectly timed appearance at the door following his protracted rehearsal towards the end of the film brought the house down.
The heat only defeated me on one notable occasion. When I watched the German film Der Ruf (1949) on my last evening in Bologna, I just couldn't focus on the movie. My energy had been completely sapped by the oppressive weather and I couldn't connect with a film that everyone else seemed to love. Perhaps it wasn't all down to the heat, though. I wonder if the film's steady pace and muted drama made it feel a little stodgy after the imaginative and zippy German films I'd enjoyed earlier in the week. The “We Are the Natives of Trizonia” strand focused on the immediate postwar period of German cinema, when filmmakers began contemplating the country's traumatic recent past and uncertain future. The methods they used to do this were frequently surprising. Helmut Käutner's In Jenen Tagen (1947) is narrated by the wreck of an old car, recalling its seven previous owners as it is stripped down in a scrapyard. Through these vignettes, which begin in 1933 and end in 1945, In Jenen Tagen attempts to tell the story of life in Nazi Germany from the perspective of ordinary citizens. In the hands of many filmmakers it may have felt gimmicky and clunky, but Käutner is such an elegant director, and so good at developing characters in a few swift strokes.

Käutner's touch was also evident in Film Without a Title (1948), with his ingenious screenplay being directed with great verve by Rudolf Jugert. The film begins with three filmmakers (including Willy Fritsch, hilariously spoofing himself) debating whether it's possible or even right to make a lighthearted romantic comedy in these dark times, and as they continue to argue the point we see the romance between a professor (Hans Söhnker) and his maid (Hildegard Knef) rewritten several times, with elements of social realism bleeding into the comic storytelling. What's so striking about these films is how they steered clear of the neo-realism or 'rubble films' that one might expect from a nation emerging from a destructive war. Instead they are slick, stylish entertainments made with great confidence and wit.
It's easy to imagine someone like Käutner crossing over into Hollywood and becoming one of the great studio directors. Il Cinema Ritrovato tends to put one Hollywood figure under the spotlight every year. In previous editions we have celebrated Leo McCarey, Carl Laemmle, Jr. and John M. Stahl, and this year Henry King was the main man, with eleven of his films (a fraction of his long career) being presented. I'd already seen two of the films in the programme – Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and The Gunfighter (1950) – and I caught another of his collaborations with Gregory Peck in Bologna with the riveting western The Bravados (1958). This is a shockingly dark and violent western, with Peck on excellent form as a man consumed by his need for vengeance, but the King films that really captivated me blended emotional complexity with a deceptive lightness of touch. State Fair (1933) and Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie (1952) displayed King’s gift for recreating a nostalgic, idealised vision of American life and investing it with a melancholy undertone.

Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie in particular is an extraordinary piece of work. Shot in dazzling Technicolor by Leon Shamroy, the film follows fifty years in the life of both a town and the barber (David Wayne) who was one of its original inhabitants. His willingness to placate his frustrated wife through a series of lies and his determination to dictate his son’s ambitions drives them both away from him, and there’s a fascinating tension in this film between the colourful, high-spirited surface and the bitterness and regret that haunts its protagonist. Wait till the Sun Shines, Nellie is a very strange film that shifts direction three or four times, even incorporating a gangster subplot and a musical number into its decades-spanning narrative. That strangeness is a key part of its appeal, though, and while this programme may have presented some Henry King films that feel more cohesive and complete, none of them got under my skin and lingered in my thoughts in quite the same way.
The question of what constitutes a filmmaker’s greatest achievement is an interesting one to consider. When introducing one of the Felix Feist screenings, programmer Eddie Muller described Tomorrow is Another Day (1952) as this director’s masterpiece, and it certainly is a fine film; Steve Cochran and Ruth Roman are excellent as the ex-con and the dame he gets mixed up with, and the film moves into morally ambiguous territory in its third act. It’s unquestionably a classier piece of filmmaking than The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), but give me the choice right now and I’d choose to re-watch the scrappy hour-long B-picture instead. This is a drum-tight noir with a hint of screwball comedy in which Laurence Tierney (on brutish, swaggering form) hitches a ride to make his getaway and causes all manner of problems for the driver and two women they pick up along the way. Within its limited boundaries the film is nimbly plotted and directed, and Feist finds room for several eccentric supporting characters who relish the hard-boiled dialogue (such levity was notably absent from The Threat (1949), the second half of this double-bill). Feist was a director capable of great elegance when required – I loved the understated, unnerving climax of The Man who Cheated Himself (1950) – but the title of this strand was ‘Brutal Nasty and Short,’ and no film lived up to that billing better than The Devil Thumbs a Ride.

Both Henry King and Felix Feist enjoyed long careers and varying degrees of success, but what happens to a director when a film just disappears? Spring Night, Summer Night (1967) has a fascinating ‘what if?’ story to tell. The film was programmed in the 1968 New York Film Festival before being dropped to make way for John Cassavetes’ Faces (1968), and that was pretty much it for Joseph L. Anderson’s film, which largely slipped out of public view for the next five decades, although it briefly emerged re-cut as an exploitation film entitled Miss Jessica Is Pregnant. Now it as been restored for Nicolas Winding Refn’s ByNWR streaming channel and it should finally earn its place as a major work of American independent cinema. It’s a tale of incest between two siblings (Ted Heimerdinger and Larue Hall) who come from a broken, bickering family in a rural Ohio town, but the film proceeds with no judgement and respects the complexity and ambiguity of each character. It’s a stunningly evocative piece of filmmaking, with crisp black-and-white photography and a haunting sense of place; it’s as vivid and moving a portrait of small-town American life as The Last Picture Show (1971). The performances are so naturalistic and affecting (particularly Larue Hall, who is jaw-droppingly great) it’s hard to believe that these actors have such few credits to their name, and I was glad to hear that a blu-ray release is currently in the works which will hopefully shed further light onto this overlooked masterwork.
Seeing forgotten directors be rediscovered is one of the great joys of this festival, particularly when those filmmakers are present to receive their long-overdue applause. I witnessed such an occasion two years ago when Med Hondo was present to give emotionally charged introductions to his films, and Hondo – who died in March – was a spiritual presence at this year’s festival with his film Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins (1974), an imaginative and provocative examination of colonialism, capitalism, socialism, immigrant labour, exploitation and racism that unfolds in a series of arguments and sketches. This is the fourth film I’ve seen by Med Hondo and every one of them has been audacious, original and powerful. He wants to activate his audiences, to provoke questions and action, and in this is perhaps his most directly confrontational work.

One of the central questions Hondo poses in Les Bicots-Nègres vos voisins is to ask what exactly constitutes African cinema. It’s a question that the festival has attempted to answer in recent years in collaboration with the African Film Heritage Project, which aims to restore and distribute fifty African films over the coming years. The latest fruits of its labour were presented at this year’s programme, with the best of them being Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa’s Muna Moto (1975), a riveting portrait of misogyny and exploitation within an African community. The film has a raw emotional force but Dikongué-Pipa brings lyrical touches to his direction – his use of direct point-of-view shots is particularly potent – and it’s brilliantly structured, opening with a dramatic confrontation and then flashing back to show how a young couple in love reached this moment of crisis. A film made with great passion, anger and artistry, Muna Moto deserves to be rediscovered by a new audience, and it was a privilege to be present as Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa shared this moment with us. As the director told festival curator Cecilia Cenciarelli: "You didn't restore my film, you restored me."
Many of the themes touched on in Muna Moto were reflected in Baara (1978), another of the African films presented in Bologna. The film’s title translates as Work, and almost every scene focuses on labour or capital; a series of negotiations through which Souleymane Cissé details a whole social and economic fabric of this patriarchal society, and the cycles of exploitation and corruption inherent within it. Like Muna Moto, Baara feels incredibly alive and resonant, but much discussion in the post-film Q&A focused on the quality of the presentation rather than the knotty themes of the film itself. Cissé was very unhappy with the quality of the 35mm print screened (which was the best the festival could locate after a months-long search and having rejected even worse prints), and in fact he said he would rather see this print destroyed than be shown again. It felt like an overreaction to me – the print certainly was far from the worst I’d seen, and it in no way diminished the film’s power – but I can understand his frustration at seeing his rarely screened film presented in sub-optimal conditions. One hopes this exceptional piece of work is next on the World Cinema Foundation's restoration list.

Director Q&As are a rarity in Bologna. The filmmakers who do attend usually introduce their films rather than take questions after them, and sometimes that’s more than enough; Nicolas Winding Refn’s antics during his pre-festival intro to Drive (2011) caused a full-body cringe from anyone who recalled them over the following days. Sometimes an impromptu Q&A session can break out in an unexpected way, though. "I don't want to disrupt the event... well, maybe I do" Francis Ford Coppola said as he began to question why an event billed as a ‘masterclass’ was in fact a staid onstage interview and expressed the desire to speak directly to aspiring filmmakers and students in the audience instead – to talk to them "student to student" as he put it. Soon a long line of young admirers was lining up to ask their questions with Coppola eagerly answering every one of them, resisting his interlocutors’ attempts to get the event back on track and refusing to leave the stage until he had addressed each question, even as the event overran.
But it wasn’t just his rebellious, disruptive spirit and passionate engagement with his audience that made this such a special event, it was the tone of his speech. He was full of earnest advice for the next generation, encouraging them to find new ways of making films, to form collectives and write from the heart and take advantage of modern technology to bypass the traditional cinematic structures. Coppola has always been a forward-thinking artist – remember his “one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father's camera” line from Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991)? – and it was thrilling to see how insatiably curious he remained about the potential of this medium. Il Cinema Ritrovato is a festival that celebrates cinema’s past, but its most invigorating spectacle was provided by a great filmmaker looking with boundless optimism and excitement into its future.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Apollo 11

Fifty years on, what’s left to be said about the flight of Apollo 11? The eight-day mission that fulfilled President Kennedy’s eight-year-old pledge to place a man on the moon before the end of the decade is one of the most widely documented events in human history. We all have the fuzzy, black-and-white footage of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface etched into our collective memories. We know their words by heart (“The eagle has landed…It’s one small step for man…”), and in 2018, Damien Chazelle recreated the journey from Armstrong’s perspective in the meticulously crafted First Man.

So how can Todd Douglas Miller, the director of Apollo 11, offer us a new perspective? First of all, he has the benefit of using footage that we’ve never seen before, thanks to the discovery in 2017 of a wealth of materials in the NASA archive, including more than 60 reels of 65mm film related to the Apollo 11 mission. Miller is a smart enough filmmaker to know that this footage is his trump card, so he gives it to us straight; no explanatory voiceover, no talking heads, just captivating images that remind us of the awesome scale of this project.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Monday, June 17, 2019

"It's very important not to be surreal for the sake of it, everything has to be grounded in some kind of reality." - An Interview with Peter Strickland

Peter Strickland’s fourth feature is the director's most ambitious film, his most extravagant and his funniest. After making films that have focused narrowly on a small group of characters, and often set largely within a single environment, In Fabric sees him telling multiple stories about disparate characters, all of whom are connected by a haunted red dress. This dress – which is listed as ‘artery red’ the the Dentley & Soper’s department store catalogue – floats from one owner to the next, seemingly a perfect fit for their bodies until it renders those bodies lifeless. Pitched somewhere between Suspiria and Are You Being Served?, In Fabric is another singular film from one of the most distinctive artists currently working in British cinema, and I met Peter Strickland to discuss it during the London Film Festival. This conversation covers some surprising plot developments in the film, so I’d advise people to read it after watching In Fabric.

This feels like a more expansive vision from you, in that we're getting a look at the world that surrounds your characters. Is that something you had in your mind when you were developing the film?

Not really, but it makes sense now. For me it was just that the habitat was a high street, which involves lots of habitats within that, and I guess stuff came out of that organically. There was no conscious decision to open up the world, that's just what the story needed. The high street, a dress causing havoc, it was very difficult to do. We had more money than my previous film and I thought, "Wow, this is great!" but then we had more than triple the amount of actors, more than triple the amount of locations and so on, so that money doesn't go far at all. Plus we shot it in London whereas the last film was shot in Hungary, which is cheaper. It was tight, very tight, but you just have to make it work somehow.

Did you always see it as a two-part story?

No, there were many variations. There were some with six stories, there was one story, but in the end I settled on two halves. It could have been a TV series, quite easily, it could have had sequels and so on - it's still open to that, the dress will continue - but ultimately money decided it for me. I was a bit sad about it initially but I realised with hindsight that I wouldn't have time to be with those characters and then you don't get attached to them. The important thing was to not want them to die. I didn't want to it be like a slasher film where you don't care about the characters dying, or even worse this tacit understanding that they deserve to die because they've fornicated, which has always perplexed me. So it was very important that you see characters with all their frustrations, their dreams, hopes and motivations, and hopefully you can see that this dress is random in its power, it's not judgemental.

I guess there is a risk there in the fact that we get so attached to Sheila and her story...

Yes, I've noticed this...

It's a bold move to replace that character we've grown fond of with a guy who keeps delivering monologues about washing machine repair.

Yeah, I've paid the price for that. I've been told off quite a few times for the second half. I mean, that's the way it is and I wouldn't change it in hindsight. It's tragic that she dies, and to be honest I'd be more concerned if you weren't bothered by it, because that would mean I'm not doing my job with Sheila's character. The fact that there is such a strong reaction to her death means Marianne has pulled it off, she's really inhabited that character. For me, it always had to move on to other people.

But the shop still gives it all a sense of unity.

Yeah, and Stash and Clive. It's the high street. Originally I was going to have Reg fix Sheila's washing machine but that felt too connected, too fatalistic. It was important that they'd never met each other. There are hints, you know, when Bananas Brian is wrapping up the baubles in newspaper and you see that headline. That's one of my favourite moments in the film, just how cheap death can be, someone else's bauble wrapping. It's tragic, but there you go.

Another piece of connective tissue between the two halves is this idea that neighbours and co-workers are constantly snooping and reporting on each other. Where did that idea come from?

[Laughs] From real life! Well, maybe not neighbours, but you've never been grassed on at work?

I was just struck by how prevalent it is here. It seems like everyone is at it and it creates this paranoid Kafka-esque atmosphere.

I think it's because I lived in Eastern Europe too long. In Eastern Europe Kafka is regarded as a social realist, and I think it's very important not to be surreal for the sake of it, everything has to be grounded in some kind of reality. It is exaggerated but there's still a link to real life, that managers can behave like that and people are...I mean, you must know people at work who get jealous because somebody's going to the toilet and then clocking off. It's this petty mindedness. So much British humour comes from one-upmanship and making people look stupid, that's just a British thing and you don't get it so much in Hungarian humour.

Do you feel like your time in Eastern Europe gave you a different perspective on that kind of Britishness?

It's stuff I never noticed until I lived abroad. English euphemisms, the way Fatma's character speaks and all this kind of stuff, and how common acronyms are. And class hits you like anything. I guess because I'm middle-class I'd never really thought that much about it, and it's only when living abroad that I really hits you how class seeps into everything in this country.

Does it feel like a more personal film in the sense that you're back to where you grew up and exploring the shops you remembered as a child?

They're all personal, all the films. They're not autobiographical but they're all personal. It's weird because living in Reading I really craved escapism and I was obsessed with Herzog and Tarkovsky and the exoticism of Eastern Europe or Germany, and so on. I craved that as a filmmaker. But living for quite a long time in Eastern Europe, in Slovakia and Hungary, Reading became exotic for me. I would bring friends over to Reading and I could see it through their eyes as something wonderful rather than how I looked at it as a kid. So yeah, I guess I saw Reading with fresh eyes and I guess you try to combine your childhood perception with the perception of someone who is new to Reading, and that's how In Fabric ended up, as a merger of these two things. A Euro-pudding, I think we call it.

There's a nostalgia for a lost era of retail too. Going to a big department store which is this grand palatial space, and the tactility of sifting through objects and looking at catalogues. It's a stark contrast with how we shop today.

Yes, I think it's very sad. I think online shopping is great for people who can't get to the shops for whatever reason, but it's kind of taking over and very soon we're only going to have one mode of shopping. It's good to have both worlds. I like entering another space, especially independent shops, which always have a unique atmosphere, and I like the interaction. I also don't like having a record of what I buy online. I buy a lot of dodgy DVDs, that's no big secret.

And then you get a lot of weird recommendations.

Oh, the algorithms! They drive me mad. I just want to speak to a human being and flick through a rack, there's something physical about flicking through records and that process of discovery, and talking to people. I think something would really be lost if we only did things online. You know, we all shop online and we have to sometimes, but when I go into DVD stores they're just empty now, it's just tragic. So yeah, I see it as much as a celebration of the shops as I do a light satire on consumerism, because I don't regard the lead characters as consumerists but that is in the background of it with the fighting and the queues and so on.

And the people working at the shop being personified as vampires.

Yeah, and this idea that once the dress is out it should never come back, so they always freak out when someone comes back with the dress. The vampire thing came very naturally, it just kind of made perfect sense in a way. And this idea of humans looking like mannequins and mannequins looking like humans. And this idea of bodily fluids; is the menstrual blood of the mannequin acting as some kind of dye?

The dress in the catalogue is listed as being 'artery red'.

Absolutely, yeah. Actually it's a shame because there was a scene that we just didn't have time to shoot, it was an extension of the scene where Mr Lundy ejaculates, and in the script the cum lands on a blouse and creates this beautiful splatter pattern. The next morning it dries into this kind of crystalline silvery thing and a woman sees it and says, "Ooh, that's nice!" and buys it. I really wanted to explore this idea of bodily fluids on clothing because, you know, all clothing has bodily fluids, sweat, blood, cum, whatever. It's very taboo but it's such an everyday thing, and there's something haunting in that, I mean, Vince is so obsessed with it that he wants his face printed on Gwen's underwear, but Sheila is disgusted by the same underwear, she won't even put it in the washing machine. Objects have a power, a dead person's clothing can make someone cry, so objects are not just objects, they're very powerful things that create human emotions. I think the film is just using the haunting as a device to explore ideas about...not about fashion - which I'm not very interested in, as you can probably tell - but about how we feel when we wear clothing and how we feel when we see clothing.

How do you work with your design team - your cinematographer, and your costume and production designers? Do you present them with a lot of photographs and references materials, or do you give them a sense of what you want and have them present ideas to you?

I give them stuff and they give me stuff, so it's like a two-way thing, and through trial and error we discover things. It was interesting with this film in particular, because the dress in The Duke of Burgundy was very heightened and not realistic at all, and there was a great chance to do something really beautiful, but these characters have to work on the high street. Reg has a fleece jacket, Marianne has an ordinary coat, and what I loved about working with Jo Thompson in costume is that she's not afraid to put those on a character. Sometimes people are like, "It doesn't look good on my portfolio!" but she was so good like that. She didn't care about the portfolio she just cared about the character. Yeah, Reg looks really, really plain in jeans and a fleece jacket, that's as plain as you can get, but that's his character. So I was really liberated by that and I think what's good about having the plain clothing is that it really contrasts with the staff in the store. My favourite moments are when you've got Marianne's very plain jacket with Fatma's very flamboyant costume. But yeah, I think with all these elements we spend a lot of time on details you don't see much, like the catalogue, that was a huge job.

Tell me about working with Fatma Mohamed, because I think I've only seen her in your films and she's incredible. Her presence, her delivery, everything she does is remarkable. When you create a character like this, I assume you're creating it specifically for her.

Absolutely.

Do you already see the character very vividly at that point or is it something you work with her to develop?

I do see it in my mind. It was written for her, clearly, and it's developed together in the sense that, when she did The Duke of Burgundy that was her take on my script, that delivery. That was very much her, and I really enjoyed it and I wanted to extend that into another character, so to that degree it was taking her cue from that film. I feel like we can't do it again, that's it, we need to put it to bed and find a completely different part for her on the next film, in a different look. But I love working with her, she's a chameleon, and it's an incredible privilege to find an actor you can trust, feel comfortable with and work with again and again, so I can't imagine not working with her. I was very lucky to find her. When I cast my first film Katalin Varga, she was in it purely because she was in the same theatre as Hilda [Péter] and Tibor [Pálffy] and everyone else, they all came from the same theatre, pretty much, in this small village in Transylvania. I loved all of the actors in Katalin Varga so I'm not trying to prioritise one or the other, but there was something about Fatma. Normally when I write a character I don't know who is going to play that character. When I wrote Sheila, in the first few drafts, I didn't know who would play that.

Because Marianne has mostly been off the scene in terms of cinema.

Yeah, thank God she accepted. I had no idea how she'd react to the script because I think she hasn't done genre before. She did Robocop, but not as a lead. Thank God she said yes because I can't imagine it with anyone else now, she's perfect.

Thinking about Fatma's performance also got me thinking about line readings. It's not just Fatma, but there's also the washing machine monologues that induce a trancelike state, the repartee between Julian Barrett and Steve Oram. The characters all have very specific ways of delivering their dialogue. How closely do you work with actors on that aspect of their performance?

It depends on the actor and the scene. Some actors I was very free with, like Hayley [Squires], I trusted her. Marianne as well, I was pretty hands off. With Reg it was a bit more about modulation, there's no high and no low. I know a few characters like that who just don't get excited, which I really respect, they're just not emphatic at all, everything's alright. So we talked a lot about people we knew, we both have friends like that, and we were just trying to find that tone. The whole mantra came from these guys called the Bowler Brothers who would read stuff from DIY catalogues. I mean, Fatma was the most specific. It was a weird one because it was written with her voice in mind but it had to correspond with how I had imagined her voice.

The sound in general is fascinating. I think I'm right in saying that we hear a different emotion in Sheila's voice every time we hear her answerphone message?

That's correct! Very good, you're the first person to say that. It was very important to do that, it's as if the machines are emoting with the characters, and it also happens with the fire alarm, the pre-recorded voice by Fatma, which changes.

It made me think of the old Preston Sturges gag with painting changing its expression.

That's a good point, I didn't think of it like that. It's true. The answerphone just seemed the perfect way to show how tragic it was. I didn't want to show Vince crying, I mean, he's masturbating upstairs, he's completely unaware and that's tragic. This is what happens, you know, you get a phone call that somebody close to you has died and you're masturbating upstairs, it's terrible. It's absurd and ridiculous, but it's kind of real life as well. I was not trying to make light of her death at all, I was just trying to show how fucked up real life can be. The answering message is completely unrealistic, of course, but that seemed the most effective way to show how sad it is that she's gone.

Sound design is obviously a key part of the process for you. Is it a process of discovery?

Yes, I'm very involved. There are discoveries, of course. The big discovery in sound design was the muttering in the store. We struggled a lot to make it work. It just didn't have that 'otherness' which I really wanted that department store to have. Martin Pavey, who did the sound mix, suggested bringing in six or seven women into the studio, to improvise and do muttering, just as plain background, not to the extent that we used it. They came in, stood in a semi-circle in the dark, and improvised, and I kind of fell asleep to it which is always a good sign. It was like a eureka moment for me, that this is more than just filling, this is like a chorus. So after that I had the confidence to take off all the foley and all the atmos, and have a really barren mix. Everything just floated after that, but again that was  a collaborative thing. It was Martin's input and my input, and it was all chance, so a lot of things in the sound mix are from discovery. Even the graphite, the pencil against the paper, we did a mid sweep on that which makes it sound like it's sucking in. You can only do that by being there in the studio with someone. If you're doing it remotely, these things don't happen. In a way it's one of my favourite processes, I think writing and sound design are my favourite parts of making a film.

I was reading an interview you gave around the release of The Duke of Burgundy and you said your next film was going to focus on gay life in the pre-AIDS era. Is that still in the works?

That's going to be my next film! [Laughs] It was going to be my next film after Berberian and then after Duke, it's on and on. It's just so difficult to get money for that kind of thing, just because of what it is. You can't sell it to many countries, hence you can't make the money back. If it was cheap I reckon we could do it, but because we have to recreate a lot of nightclubs, it's really difficult. We've got Christine Vachon now on board, she's been really great, she and David from Killer Films, and Tristan Goligher from the Bureau. We're trying now to make it work but it has been six years that I've been trying to make that film. I guess it's just the way it is, someone else will say to me "I've been waiting twelve years to make my film," so I'm not complaining.

You mentioned Querelle as a reference point. Is the idea still to go for that kind of heightened, artificial style?

That's still the idea. Since then I've really got into '70s gay porn, specifically Wakefield Poole. There's one film called Bijou, which blew my mind, it was so strange and psychedelic, and vaguely similar to Pink Narcissus; completely underground, self-made sets, with dry ice and mirrors, and multi-projections. I thought, "Wow, this is the key!" I mean, I can't recreate the clubs because I wasn't there, I was in my school shorts in Reading, so you might as well go completely the other way and make it into this cinematic netherworld, which has its own logic. I'm trying. The cynic in me suggests it's just going to go on like this, but I hope not.

In Fabric is released in the UK on June 28th