Film reviews

Talk To Her, dir. Pedro Almodóvar.

Spain is a wondrous place, and it is the crucible of Almodóvar’s imagination. Aspects of each are strong meat, and even with the mellowing of his vision, some people will find part of this story difficult to contemplate. But when Almodóvar shocks, he does it with a playfulness so far removed from the leaden melodramas we usually see that we forgive him. His films have become gentler, ever since the
mellow surprise of The Flower Of My Secret, and we welcome it, but his beast is not tame. In the old days of his darkest comedies, sex and death were explicitly and very Spanishly enmeshed: Matador’s bloodlust is a mad joy, not a dreary SM routine. It is also horrible, and with him we don’t lose sight of that just as we don’t in Titus Andronicus. But we see too that we are in danger of reverting to savagery if only for a minute, as in Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon when the corrida erupts in laughter at the catastrophic gutting of a picador’s horse. Hemingway argued that this was not schadenfreude or sadism; it was more in the line of a pratfall, a harsher slapstick. If you don’t feel for the butt of the joke, it is funny and even if you do feel for the victim, something in you walks as Hyde beside the Jekyll of your pity. In Talk To Her, Almodóvar revisits bullfighting with all the pageantry, superstition and brutality, yet his take on it has matured into something ineffably kinder and broader than in Matador.

The bullfighter in Talk To Her is a woman, Lydia (unforgettably acted by Rosario Flores, above left), and there is something of erotic surrender in the way she faces the bull, kneeling in her suit of lights with thighs spread like a limbo dancer. She is gored and ends up in a coma, tended by her latest lover, Marco (Darío Grandinetti, below left). We have seen Marco weeping at the very beginning of the film, coincidentally seated next to Benigno Martin (Javier Cámara) at a Pina Bausch performance. Benigno is a weirdo, a kind of innocent creep who is there for the woman he tends, a comatose ballet student (Leonor Watling, below right) he had been stalking for some time before the car accident that injured her brain. Echoes of Psycho and even Boxing Helena could be there, but Benigno is benign indeed: his creepiness brings life, not death.

Almodóvar was drawing on actual events when he put this thread into the narrative, which includes genuine humour as well as fate and tragedy.

The risky sequence in Talk To Her is one that will thoroughly boggle Hollywood adaptation committees: how on earth will they present a gigantic vulva to their audiences without seeming to play in the porno sandpit? After all, they ripped off Matador to make the appalling and stupid Basic Instinct, which is an object lesson in how not to approach sex, death or anything at all. Almodóvar, as did Pasolini, defies the porn tag even when he quotes it because he has the Shakespearean compound fly-eye, seeing everything at once, processing seeing, thinking, feeling, hearing and especially remembering, humanely and richly and redemptively in a way that only the greatest playwrights and novelists can. 

Juliette Hughes

Beyond words
The Pianist, dir. Roman Polanski.

Shortly after the Second World War, the German critic Theodore Adorno famously claimed that ‘Writing a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’. He said that to treat such an unimaginable horror as a ‘subject’ for art, to aestheticise it, is to distort it and to betray the truth of the injustice done to its victims. How, then, do I write about Roman Polanski’s new film, The Pianist, which is winning prizes and being hailed as great Art wherever it goes?

It is based on the autobiography of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a classical pianist and survivor of the Nazi invasion of Poland, and of the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. He was one of only 20 to survive the ghetto, out of half a million Jews forced there by the Germans upon seizing Warsaw. It also reflects Polanski’s own childhood experiences of the bombing of the Warsaw and Krakow ghettos. Szpilman’s entire family, and Polanski’s mother, were among the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the concentration camps.

The film is unflinching in its portrayal of the brutality of life in the ghetto—of the systematic violence and humiliation meted out by the Nazis, but also by many of the Poles, and even by the Jewish police who collaborated with the Nazis in administering their program of incarceration, exploitation and murder.
Perhaps the most disturbing moment, however, in a distressing and disturbing film, is when we first see Szpilman’s father forced to comply with the Nazi edict that all Jews must wear the Star of David on their sleeve—to mark him as a thing apart from ‘humanity’, a subhuman, a monster; in short, a Jew. One cannot doubt the truth of the voices behind this film, or their right to be heard, or indeed the
absolute need for such stories to be told.

For all the valuable and important and truthful aspects of the film, I must confess to being troubled watching it. Narrative cinema inevitably deals with individuals, characters—it cannot show us six million.
Such knowledge as we have of the experience of the Holocaust comes largely through its survivors such as Szpilman. It is a marvellous and miraculous thing that he and others like him survived, and that we know their stories, but it’s easy to forget that such stories are truly miraculous and anomalous, and that the ‘truth’ of the Holocaust is that almost no-one who entered its maw survived.

Szpilman’s story (and indeed Polanski’s) is real and true. But it seems too easy, in the uplifting final scene of the film when Szpilman performs once more to triumphant applause, to let slip the memory of all those others who left no autobiography, who made no film—murdered as he would have been but for luck. I do not know if this film is ‘barbaric’, as Adorno might have said had he seen it. Discussing it in terms of its Oscar chances certainly is.

Allan James Thomas

Full metal myth
Ned Kelly, dir. Gregor Jordan.

If Ned Kelly hadn’t lived it would have been necessary to invent him. He is the outlaw legend par excellence, our culture’s pre-eminent survival myth, built on distortions, half-truths and widely agreed misperceptions—a tapestry of lies that spells truth. And now the myth has arrived at a multiplex cinema near you. The Kelly phenomenon continues its rise, absorbing all critiques, critics and admirers in iron-clad embrace, an industry in itself.

In this manifestation the myth starts with Ned (Heath Ledger) kissing a horse on its nose. Then he rides the horse through town with a pretty girl (Naomi Watts) at his back, gets shot at and pistol-whipped by the first of many evil-hearted policemen and we’re away (with an underlying sense of trepidation that it’s going to be all downhill from here). Myth-making being myth-making, there is always going to be time for Ned to undress Julia, dance a jolly Irish jig in a bush pub, declare ‘The land belongs to us’ to rousing cheers from a town whose bank has just been robbed. But the tone has been unequivocally set: innocent boy with Irish brogue is harassed by evil men in uniform, eventually takes up arms to avenge his mother’s unjust imprisonment and seek justice for all who suffer under a tyrant’s yoke.
There’s a breathtaking ruthlessness to the narrative, and in a way, that works. Nothing to complicate the moral clarity of Ned’s vision.

Then Glenrowan. Cue men in armour, downpouring rain, gunfire, Ned making one heroic last stand (after another), orchestral accompaniment, more gunfire, innocent men, women, children, lions and monkeys shot by spineless city coppers. It works. It’s hard not to feel the mythic things grabbing you by the throat. Ned rises at dawn. It’s brave—like the landing at Gallipoli or a Collingwood Grand Final—and doomed.

It didn’t actually happen that way. But that’s not why we go to the movies.

Alex McDermott

Tuned in
Sur Mes Lèvres (Read My Lips), dir. Jacques Audiard.

Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) emerges into focus: stooped, slurping water from her bathroom tap. The sounds, at first distant and muffled, crackle to life as she stands up and puts on her hearing aid. These first glimpses immerse us in Carla’s world, a world isolated by deafness and undervalued by taunting co-workers.

When Carla’s boss suggests she hire an assistant, Paul (Vincent Cassel) shows up. Just released on parole, after a stint in prison, he has to tread carefully or he will end up back inside. A mutual dependency forms between the two, beautifully played out, avoiding the clichés familiar to so many stories of unlikely pairings.

Carla and Paul—each instinctively defensive and selfish through bitter experience—desperately need one another. But the dependency is fraught and could destroy them both. Their chaotic journey together runs hot and cold, but always has a compelling truth to it, making the film’s ending all the more moving.
Sur Mes Lèvres’ sound design is exceptional. Carla’s selective use of her hearing aid is experienced directly by the audience as she tunes in and out of the world around her. In her most private moments Carla experiments in her bedroom, trying on Paul’s clothes, struggling with their merging identities. Sounds are distant and we see her reflection in a dark mirror. Fragments of her body emerge through a mysterious blurred aperture, reducing the field of view to that of her own tunnel vision.

Vincent Cassel is back to his considerable best as the listless, seemingly impenetrable Paul. But it is Devos who commands most attention. Her portrayal of a woman beset by lonely awkwardness, and confusions about whether to go with her instincts or risk all, is extraordinary.
In the penultimate scene, Carla peers through binoculars at a distant window, reading Paul’s lips. He cannot hear her, but through a veil of tears she whispers nevertheless: ‘Oui … Oui …’

Tim Metherall

The Hours, dir. Stephen Daldry.

Bloomsbury, with its triumphs and parings, has turned a handsome profit over the years. Any film that pivots on one of its sacred texts (in this case Virgina Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) is likely to start with its nose in front. Literally, in this case. Nicole Kidman has been lauded for her prosthetically aided portrayal (so brave) of Woolf in a highly wrought crisis. It’s an actorly performance, and all credit to her. But picture a Virginia Woolf unable to twitch her aristocratic nose in disdain. I couldn’t.

The film, based on Michael Cunningham’s novel, with screenplay by David Hare, is lavishly credentialled. Its stars, Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep—box office gold—give us three women, three intercut and interconnected lives riven with a sense of inconsequence. It’s moving, artful, clever. But I’d have settled for so much less—and more. Just the superb Meryl Streep and no literary ballast. And none of Philip Glass’ interminable score.

Morag Fraser



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