Let’s kick the new year off with an inspirational look at one of the world’s most creative bundles of energy, the Danish architect Bjarke Ingels. You might never have heard of him but you know his work. While the moral centre of the world doesn’t seem to want to hold right now, at least we can look to one person’s astonishing contribution to built culture as an example of what civilization is capable of achieving. Ingels is pretty compulsive about transforming our landscapes in arresting ways. Have you visited 2 World Trade Centre in NY City? The Danish National Maritime Museum? Those are his. Check out the web site of Vancouver House to give you an idea of what this guy is all about. Playful-smart doesn’t begin to describe it. This is an intimate portrait of a dreamer whose visionary, sometimes irascible, character points a hopeful way for 21st century living. Bring it on.
Okay, so the director is controversial (The Lobster) and not to everyone’s taste, but you are not attending this Series to wallow in sentimentality. We are in the cinema of abstraction here—more about ideas than character, although sometimes these categories are hard to separate. Farrell plays a well-respected surgeon, Dr. Murphy. Married to a beautiful doctor, Anna (Kidman), with whom he has two kids, he would seem to have it all. But we are in a Lanthimos film, and nothing is quite as it seems or as we would want it to be. Dr. Murphy has an odd relationship with a young boy, Martin, the roots of which are obscure and troubling. If Murphy is god, then Martin is devilishly demanding—to put it mildly. The plot, and that relationship, follows a cinematic path of destiny in keeping with the force of Greek Tragedy, which is the director’s cultural legacy. Modern drama has aggressively cleaned up—one could say buried--the horror and brutality of Euripides and that crowd, and so Lanthimos gives us a cinematic representation of Greek tragedy, instead--by turns extreme and punishing. For pre-screening homework, read Iphigenia at Aulis.
We follow Lanthimos (see Killing of a Sacred Deer) with Michael Haneke, definitely one of the most important directors of our time. Haneke has taken home all the good prizes at Cannes since he first started making films. Happy End is, however, a departure from his auteur-heavy parables of the human condition and a refreshing shift towards satire with more smile than sneer. It helps if you know your history of French film, but, never mind, sit back and absorb the multiple-viewpoint approach. There are quite a few characters here, but you will focus on two giants of French cinema, Huppert and Trintignant, each of whom dominates both the screen and the family dynamics. It doesn’t get any more bourgeois than these folks. They live large and take their privilege for granted, but what they have in riches they lack in purpose, meaning, and, at times, dignity. Indeed, a life of privilege, in Haneke’s view, inevitably leads to a loss of humanity. No one offers satire in such witty, biting doses.
This marvelous, life-affirming slice of Swiss history zooms in on the emergence of feminist consciousness in the late ‘sixties. The central character, Nora (see Henrik Ibsen), has a handsome, loving husband. They are living happily enough in their small farming village, although somewhat troubled by a miserable, autocratic father-in-law. When Nora’s niece runs away to Zurich with her boyfriend, Nora goes after her, only to run into a bunch of pamphlet-toting women promoting a lot of social change with a side of Betty Friedan. Nora is eventually deeply influenced by what she sees and hears, and she returns to her village with a shaken sense of the natural order of things. The film marks her gradual evolution from complacency to feminist awareness, and all the consequences of such a transition. Obviously, the men in Nora’s life don’t take too kindly to this feminism stuff, but there’s no going back on this Swiss watch. Did you know women couldn’t work in Switzerland without their husband’s consent until 1984? Based on a true story, The Divine Order illuminates a hugely important moment of social history, a moment we are obviously still trying to realize.
Following the amazing success of Carol, director Haynes packs another emotional wallop in this highly original adaptation of a well-known young adult novel. Twelve-year old Benji is on a quest to find his father after his mother is struck dead in an accident and he loses his hearing. It’s New York in the ‘seventies. In another story set in the late ‘twenties, a deaf girl, Rose, heads out on her own journey. The film alternates between these two periods and the stories they tell until we finally come to see their connection. With so much silence to play with, Haynes focuses on the gift of sight—what film tells us by showing, not necessarily speaking. The result is a tour de force of story-telling, as only Haynes can achieve it.
If you haven’t already heard of this film then you need to get out more. All the critics adore it and for so many reasons. First, it’s a lavish visual feast for the eyes, bathed in the seductive summer light of northern Italy. Second, this is a coming-of-age film, a coming-out film, a love story, and one with stunningly good-looking young men as the focus of our gaze. Elio is a 17-year-old Italian who falls for a student visitor to the family estate, the twenty-something American-Italian named Oliver. The film rolls out their inevitable attraction in appropriately slow and delicious fashion, as the heat-soaked days sensually slide into one another. It’s the early ‘eighties, easily imagined as a golden age when people held books in their hands and actually read them, talked about art, indulged in the art of speaking, and had attention spans that lasted more than a tweet. You’ll be bathing yourself in beauty. Don’t miss it—and line-up early.
Inspired by and modeled after the life of screen star Gloria Grahame, this film centres on her late romance with a much younger English actor, Peter Turner. She was an Oscar-winner, he was a struggling unknown, but their differences made for an intensely magical connection, one the screen captures with full persuasion. Their love was challenged not by society or convention but rather by fate. Grahame became ill quite suddenly and required a lot of care, passing away in 1981. The film chronicles the ups and then downs of their destiny with close attention to the cultural differences between Hollywood and the UK. Superb supporting roles are offered up by Redgrave and Walters at their finest. Based on Peter Turner’s own memoir of his time with Grahame, the film is a moving love story as well as a tribute to an often overlooked star of strong ‘fifties film, when women were often as saucy and independent off screen as they were on. Those were the days.
A fabulous cast carries this excellent drama about an old man confronting his mortality as if forced to greet an unexpected guest. Harry Dean Stanton was one of the iconic actors of the last many decades. At 90 (!), he turns in one of the finest performances of a long and brilliant career. That says a lot, if you have followed his stellar filmography. As the title character, he plays a largely lonely, defiantly non-believing, routine-bound grouch, set deeply in his ways and habits. But when the big sleep starts to loom closer than expected, Lucky is compelled to deal with life differently, challenging his own routine and complacent identity. The film treats the truth of his character with a thoughtful grace, underscoring the director’s admiration not only for the role but also for the actor paying the part. Indeed, Stanton died only a few months ago, Lucky being a final and fitting swan song of a remarkable artist’s life.
This trans tale has been the darling of several important film festivals for good reason. Star Daniela Vega holds the screen in the palm of her talent, playing the young, feisty, beautiful and determined Marina. This is wholly her story, a trans woman at once grieving the sudden loss of a lover and facing the most grotesque social prejudice imaginable. When Orlando, her passionate older lover, falls ill and dies, Marina becomes the official target of suspicion. There’s no good reason to question the cause of death but reason’s got nothin’ to do with the hateful ignorance Marina encounters. The phony murder plot is a brilliant analogy for the way trans people are generally treated, and Vega’s performance is an almost irrefutable cry for empathy. It is skilfully nuanced by Marina’s own struggle to claim an identity she is still working through to being. In other words, this is also a complex study of how to solve a problem like Marina.
This is a powerful, lyrical study of modern Russia, no matter how you look at it. It is at once unsparingly harsh and totally persuasive. In the eyes of masterful director Zvyagintse, and as the title asserts, modern Russia is missing its heart, beset as it is with corruption, consumerism, a history of repression, fear, anxiety, religious adherence, and a conspicuously uncertain future. The plot thickens around the disappearance of a young boy, Alyosha, who flees the recriminations and self-absorption of his divorcing parents. The search for him is by turns urgent and indifferent, depending on which element of Putin’s Russia is doing the looking. Ultimately, through its intensifying scrutiny of the sad, sorry state of the State, the film asserts its higher purpose, prodding us to recognize just how much the personal is political. Raw and bold, Loveless is as unflinchingly honest as it gets.
If Loveless (see above) dissects modern Russia with a scalpel then In the Fade examines modern Germany with explosives. Kruger took home the best actress prize at Cannes for her portrayal of Katja, a woman grieving the sudden loss of her Turkish husband and son, both killed by a bomb. Deliberately structured in three parts, the film’s second section focuses on the trial of the couple accused of the bombing, a neo-Nazi couple who avail themselves of all the legal privileges of modern democracy. The third section shows the aftermath of the trial and Katja’s own resolve to set things right. To say more would be criminal, and so best to see for yourself how In the Fade takes us on a journey we are starting to recognize as the well traveled one of our time. Provocative, unforgettable—what more do you want?
At the time of this writing, actor Dafoe is being rumoured for an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Orlando Florida motel-owner Bobby. But he shares the screen with some stiff competition, notably the irrepressible six-year-old Moonee as played by Prince, a wild child with a lust for life and a little mischief. Moonee and her band of pals drift through a lazy Orlando summer with restless curiosity. Poor and largely neglected, they roam the edges of a town best known for its upscale hotels and the material kitsch of Disney World. This is not that Orlando. It is the one tourists don’t see. The film lives comfortably in the neorealist tradition of the French New Wave or of auteurs like Rosselini, capturing the same joy and pleasure in small life-affirming behaviours. Director Baker lets the kids do the leading, never judging so much as showing what life is like in the pastel-coloured materialism of a culture built on excess. Particularly poignant is his treatment of Moonee’s relationship with her young, wily mom. After seeing this film, you may never see the Magic Kingdom the same way again.
The Winter Cinema Series ends raucously with a smart, biting satire of our beleaguered times. Potter brings her familiar caustic wit to the screen, especially as expressed through the characters assembling for this drawing-room comedy. Shot in real-time, the film is a highly entertaining piece of theatrical bravado. The guests arrive at politician Janet’s townhouse for an intimate celebration of her recent promotion. She’s clearly on the rise. Her husband is an academic and the guests include a banker and others of the educated elite. Obviously, these people know how to banter. As with all good parties, secrets are revealed, sometimes by accident, slights are earned, insults simmer, laughs prescribed, and it’s only a matter of time before it all skids towards farce. Arguably, what’s even better than attending a noisy party of the chattering class is sitting in the dark watching one play out. Enjoy!