Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

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Director: Woody Allen

Writer: Woody Allen

Country: USA

Runtime: 95 mins

Cast: Joaquín Phoenix (Prof. Abe Lucas), Emma Stone (Jill Pollard), Parker Posey (Rita Richards), Jamie Blackley (Roy)

In a directorial career as long as Woody Allen’s it is inevitable that there will be a few misfires between the hits. After the well-deserved success of 2013’s Blue Jasmine, I’m afraid Irrational Man is a bit of a dud. Joaquín Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a star philosophy professor who finds that his lingering depression disappears the moment that he decides to murder a corrupt judge for no other reason than that it will make the world a better place.

Lucas’s turn around happens when he realises that he is being held back by his endless philosophising. Action is what matters, and action is only possible if you embrace your intuitions. Later, when his student lover Jill figures out that Lucas murdered the judge, he insists that he did what he believed to be right. There  are echoes here, perhaps, of certain politicians’ justifications for authorising military action against Iraq. Does Allen intend a coded message for us?

Phoenix himself is fully believable as the anguished academic and receives solid support from Emma Stone and Parker Posey as his love interests. However, the film is too much of a one-tone piece, for which the blame must fall upon Allen’s screenplay. It lacks any real tension and drama. Neither Abe Lucas or Jill Pollard are particularly likeable or sympathetic characters, which makes it hard to care too much whether or not Lucas will get away with his crime. This is a shame as the film’s basic idea holds quite a lot of promise, but it feels like an idea that was never fully developed, and so ultimately Irrational Man just doesn’t deliver.

Rating: 3/5

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The Maltese Falcon

Director: John Huston

Writer: John Huston (from the novel by Dashiell Hammett)

Country: USA

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook Jr.

Taking film-noir to a whole new level

If the superior 1940 B-movie Stranger on the Third Floor can lay claim to being the first true film noir, then John Huston’s first directorial film, The Maltese Falcon, decidedly an A-movie, took the genre to a whole new level. A distinct visual style, a complicated plot, a hard-boiled private eye, a femme fatale, a cast of colourful supporting characters, and crackling dialogue, this film has them all.

The story (actually the third filmed version) is based on the novel by former Pinkerton agent, Dashiell Hammett, and features Humphrey Bogart as private detective Sam Spade. This prefigured by five years Bogart’s performance as Raymond Chandler’s private eye, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep.  There are resemblances between the two, not least because Chandler himself was undoubtedly influenced by Hammett, and wrote approvingly of his detective fiction in the 1950 essay The Simple Art of Murder. However, Sam Spade is actually a grittier and more cynical character than Philip Marlowe. When, at the start of The Maltese Falcon, he learns that his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) has been murdered, Spade barely reacts; shortly after this we discover that he is having an affair with Archer’s wife. The day after Archer’s death, Spade tells his secretary to have his partner’s name removed from the office signage.

The story begins with Spade being hired by beautiful Brigid O’Shaughnessy (a.k.a. Miss Wanderley) to find her missing sister. However, she is really hunting for the Falcon. Whereas femme fatales typically cause disaster for the leading man, in this instance Spade has her measure right from the start, taking her money but not believing her story. This does not stop him falling for her, and she apparently for him. The combination of love and lying makes for an intriguing cat-and-mouse game between the two.

Also hunting for the Falcon are Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). Lorre gives another superb performance as the (understatedly) gay Cairo, and probably relished this role, coming as it did in the wake of his nine performances as the Japanese detective Mr Moto. Lorre’s opening scene is a masterpiece in how to grab an audience’s attention. It was Greenstreet, though, who got the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. At the age of 61, it was the first screen role for this 20 stone performer. As Kasper “the fatman” Gutman, Greenstreet is a perfect combination of urbanity and amorality. Gutman is what economists would call a rational actor. He is only interested in what is good for himself. Other people matter only insofar as they have something to offer him and, consequently, he is continually weighing advantages and disadvantages, and is willing to shift alliances when circumstances change. Moreover, he is quite open about all this. When the time comes for him to sacrifice his hired gun, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), he tells the young man “I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But, well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon”.

Lorre and Greenstreet aren’t the only actors turning in top performances here. All the key figures are superb. For Bogart, the role of Sam Spade was an opportunity to break away from the bad guys he had been so used to playing, and to portray a rather more nuanced character; Spade is tough and flawed, but beneath it all there is a kind of rough integrity. Mary Astor is delightful to watch as she acts the innocent, vulnerable woman, whilst spinning a bunch of yarns to Bogart. Also turning in a fine performance is Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer, the young tough who is continually undermined by Sam Spade (Cook would later appear with Bogart in The Big Sleep).

Rating: 10/10

Shown as part of the BFI’s Peter Lorre season, September – October 2014.

Secret_Agent

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Alma Reville and Jesse Lasky Jr.

Country: UK

Runtime: 86 mins

Cast: Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, John Gielgud, and Robert Young

Secret Agent is something of a hiccup in Hitchcock’s development, but entertaining nonetheless

Loosely based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories (but also drawing on other sources), Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1936) came a year after his classic The 39 Steps and two years later than The Man Who Knew Too Much. It features actors from both those earlier films, Madeleine Carroll from the former and Peter Lorre from the latter. However, whilst entertaining enough Secret Agent fails to match either of those previous efforts.

Set in 1916, it is a story of three British spies who are sent to Switzerland to locate and assassinate a German agent. This is somehow crucial to the success of the British campaign in Palestine. The three agents are Richard Ashenden (John Gielgud), Elsa Carrington (Madeleine Carroll), and a Middle Eastern character called The General (Peter Lorre). Ashenden and Carrington are to pretend to be married, though there is a sort of subplot concerning an American (Robert Marvin, played by Robert Young) who is trying to charm Elsa Carrington. However, Ashenden and Carrington fall for each other in reality and then start to have moral qualms about the job they are doing, especially after The General kills a man they believe to be the German spy, only to find that he was innocent.

In the preface to his screenplay for North by Northwest (1951), Ernest Lehman describes how that story was devised as a way of linking some set pieces that director Alfred Hitchcock already had in mind (the United Nations, crop-duster and Mount Rushmore scenes). Many Hitchcock films also revolve around set pieces, and Secret Agent is no exception, but in this instance the linkages seem somewhat mechanical and some of the scenes themselves do not ring true. For instance, the film’s opening scene has a group of dignitaries paying their respects before a flag-draped coffin, watched by a one-armed veteran. Once the dignitaries have left, the veteran attempts to lift the coffin from its mountings only to have the box crash to the ground, revealing that it is empty. That is obviously what Hitchcock wanted to show to us, but why would a one-armed man be trying to lift a coffin?

Likewise, there is a later scene where Ashenden and the General visit a remote Swiss church to make contact with the organist, supposedly a friendly agent but one whose loyalty is in question. Upon arrival they can hear that a single continuous note is emanating from the organ. You might think that they would quickly have suspected the truth – that the organist is lying slumped, dead, over the keyboard. Yet it takes them a good two minutes before they make their way across to him.

In terms of the actors’ performances, Madeleine Carroll is fine but the relationship with John Gielgud completely fails to achieve the magic of Carroll’s pairing with Robert Donat in The 39 Steps. The weak link is Gielgud himself, who just doesn’t work as a romantic lead or an action hero. He also suffers in the scenes with Peter Lorre, as the latter acts Gielgud off the screen in his role as the womanising, ruthless, and slightly crazed General. However, apparently audiences in 1936 also had some difficulty with Lorre’s character, as his performance as one of the “good guys” was not very different from his performance as the villainous Abbott in 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Rating: 6/10

Shown as part of the Peter Lorre season at the British Film Institute, London Southbank, September 2014.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2)

Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

Writers: Nikolaj Arcei (from the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen)

Country: Denmark / Germany / Sweden

Runtime: 97 mins

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Ernst Boye

A taut, efficient police thriller, but hardly original

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a rather curious film. It is enjoyable enough (though not for the squeamish), but doesn’t really offer anything more than you would expect from television dramas such as Wallander or Waking The Dead. Based on the first of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s “Department Q” detective series, the key characters are an odd-couple pair of cops who are the sole operatives in a cold case unit (whose status is indicated by its location in a dusty basement).

Nikolaj Lie Kaas plays Carl Mørck, a taciturn former homicide cop who no-one will work with, following a disastrous operation. He finds himself relegated to Department Q, where he is expected to do no more than shuffle through cold case files and to close three of them every week. Mørck’s partner is Assad (Fares Fares), a big friendly Muslim of middle-Eastern origin (in the book he is a Syrian refugee). Aspects of these men’s lives are hinted at but not developed, presumably allowing scope for treatment in any sequels. For example, Mørck has the obligatory family problems (separated from wife; a wayward stepson), and we never discover what misdemeanour has led Assad to be assigned to Department Q. 

Rather than simply closing the files as directed, Mørck begins investigating a case that he is familiar with. This concerns the disappearance, believed to be suicide, of politician Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter). However, Mørck’s boss is far from happy to discover that his officers are going round upsetting people with their questions, not to mention exceeding their meagre budget. Thus, drawing on another familiar trope of cop movies, our men are suspended but carry on anyway, before the ultimate redemption. 

The one pleasingly novel element in The Keeper of Lost Causes is the inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim character (as opposed to the usual crazed villains of Hollywood movies). On the negative side, however, is the lack of any significant female characters other than the victim (Wallander and Waking The Dead managed to create significant parts for women).

Presumably this is meant to be the first of a series of Department Q book adaptations, but really this is television rather than cinematic material.

Rating: 6/10

Frank

UK / Ireland 2014

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Writers: Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan

Runtime: 95 minutes

 

For anyone seeking an alternative to (or respite from) the relentless onslaught of summer blockbusters (so far: Pompeii, Spiderman 2, Godzilla), there can be few better recommendations than the decidedly oddball Frank. As a story this is almost impossible to categorise, but ultimately it is a kind of paen to outsider art. The idea was developed by journalist/writer Jon Ronson (The Men Who Stare at Goats) and draws upon his experiences as sometime keyboard player for the real life Frank Sidebottom, a fictional stage character created by  Chris Sievey.

As Sidebottom Sievey would take to the stage wearing an outsized round mask with big wide eyes (literally an “odd ball”) and adopt a relentlessly cheerful, optimistic persona, whilst he and his band delivered the audience an unpredictable show that might include some ramshackle music, stand-up comedy, and even lectures. But whereas many of the artists in Sievey’s orbit would go on to achieve great fame and success, he not only seemed disinterested in reaching for such a goal but appeared to actively sabotage opportunities that might have led in that direction. As described by Jon Ronson, Chris Sievey was undeniably eccentric but essentially normal. The movie Frank does not pretend to be a biopic of Sievey/Sidebottom, but instead imagines a fictional Frank who never removes his mask, and explores the relationship between Frank, his bandmates, and the tensions between artistic originality and commercialism.

The story begins with Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a young man wandering along a seafront and struggling to compose lyrics based on the things he sees around him. He witnesses the police and an ambulance crew trying to prevent a man from drowning himself in the sea. This would-be suicide turns out to be the keyboard player in a band with the unpronounceable name Soronprfbs. As the wretched keyboardist is taken away to have the seawater pumped from his stomach, Jon strikes up a conversation with Don (Scoot McNairy), who is the band’s manager. When Jon mentions that he plays keyboards, Don disappears back to the band’s van and then returns to say that Frank (Michael Fassbender) has invited Jon to play at that evening’s gig. On stage, Jon is momentarily discombobulated by the sight of Frank’s enormous fake head, but soon finds himself enjoyably settling into their eccentric musical groove.

Soon afterwards Don tells Jon that Frank has invited him to play with the band in Ireland. Thinking that this is just an overnight gig, Jon – who has a regular day job – is startled to discover, once in Ireland, that they are there to record a new album (“I’ve only packed one pair of underpants!” he complains). Worse, with the exception of Don and Frank, the various band members take an inexplicable dislike to Jon and his presence among their group,  especially the theremin player Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who seems to ooze contempt from every pore. The tension is not improved by Jon’s attempts to nudge Frank in a slightly more commercial direction.

Frank is one of the few modern films to fully recognise the ubiquitous presence of social media in our everyday lives. The narrative is regularly peppered with Jon’s Twitter updates to a slowly increasing audience of followers, and unbeknownst to the rest of the band he circulates YouTube clips of their rehearsals. When they eventually become aware of this there is outrage among everybody but Frank, who is naively thrilled to discover that twenty-seven thousand people are apparently following the band.  On the strength of this he agrees to the suggestion that the band should play at an American music festival that has a slot to promote interesting new groups. However, once in America all the tensions within the band, and between artistic integrity and commercial realism, come to a head.

If the film can be said to falter at all, it is towards the end where it feels the need to explain the character of Frank. This is not badly done, but it is perhaps just a little too pat. Maybe it would have been just as satisfactory for Frank’s character to remain a mystery. Nonetheless, in its tribute to those who wish to plough the lonely furrow of their own unique artistic vision, come what may, I thought the finale was emotionally satisfying. There are fine performances all round, especially from Gyllenhaal and Fassbender.

Rating: 8/10

OXV

Is your life determined by your frequency?

UK 2013

Director: Darren Paul Fisher

Writer: Darren Paul Fisher

Runtime: 105 mins

Retitled as Frequencies in the USA.

 

**Mild spoilers included**

Since time immemorial young people have had to negotiate obstacles to their relationships. Typically, these come in the form of parents, love rivals, class barriers, or just lack of interest from the object of one’s desire. Now, in possibly the most cerebral boy-meets-girl movie you are ever likely to see, writer/director Darren Paul Fisher has found a new way to keep young couples apart. He has imagined a world very much like our own, except for one thing. In this world scientists have discovered that people differ in the types of “frequencies” they possess. Not only are high frequencies associated with higher levels of intelligence, but with higher levels of luck too. For it turns out that people’s frequencies are also linked to the physical environment, and good things just happen to fall into place for the lucky ones possessing high frequency. Moreover, a low frequency and a high frequency person are not allowed to spend more than one minute per year in each other’s company, because to do so would be to disrupt the natural order of the physical world, whereupon bizarre events occur.

Crew and cast members at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival

Parents, of course, want their children to be high frequency but there is one drawback: the higher the frequency, the lower the empathy possessed by the person. Young schoolgirl Marie (Lilly Laight) is high frequency and possesses an astonishingly high IQ, but lacks empathy and so cannot have feelings for others. However, she has learned to display facial expressions that convincingly mimic the expression of actual emotion. Zak (Charlie Rixon) thinks Marie is lovely, but although his IQ is (merely) above average he is low frequency. In an arresting opening scene, we see the school’s children lined up in a corridor, all wearing school uniform, and all clutching shiny green apples. As Marie stands at the front of the line on the left, an apple rolls up beside her foot. It is Zak’s apple, and as she hands him it back she flashes a beautiful smile that quickly vanishes as she faces forwards again.

We later learn that the rolled apple was no accident, but a deliberate action engineered by Zak’s friend Theo (Ethan Turton). As time passes Theo and Zak work together to figure out a way for Zak to be with Marie. In turn, Marie is willing to meet Zak for brief periods as part of her own experimentation with the effects of frequencies. During one such meeting as teenagers, Zak (Dylan Llewellyn) and Marie (Georgina Minter-Brown) extend their meeting – in the school field – past the course of a minute. As they do so, a bunch of suitcases from a passing airplane crash surreally into the grass, illustrating just what can happen when there is a clash of frequencies. But whilst Marie lacks empathy, and so cannot feel anything for Zak, she wishes that she did have feelings. This spurs Zak on in his attempts to find a way to be with Marie.

Director Darren Paul Fisher answers questions at Sci-Fi-London 2014

Later, Zak – now a young adult, played by Daniel Fraser – turns up at Marie’s house (Eleanor Wyld plays adult Marie) and announces that he has found a way for them to be together. He only partially explains to her how this works, but it transpires that certain two-syllable non-words can affect the physical surroundings, preventing the usual disastrous effects of two mismatching frequencies meeting. Zak’s and Marie’s frequencies move closer to each other and she falls in love with him. However, because – unknown to Marie – her feelings are the result of his manipulation, can her love be real? On the other hand, she wanted to be able to have feelings, so isn’t it just an expression of Zak’s own love that he gave her what she wanted? Where does free will enter into all of this? Is there such a thing? Philosophical questions about the manipulation of frequencies become especially pressing when Theo publishes “The Manual”, a book that enables people to engineer events in ways that suit themselves.

The dangers of creating a complex set of intellectual problems in a movie are that the eventual solutions aren’t entirely convincing. OXV: The Manual is no exception, and the way matters are resolved is possibly a touch clichéd. However, by this point I had enjoyed the story, and the very impressive performances by the entire cast, so much that my goodwill towards the film allowed me to not mind the slightly obvious nature of the ending. Speaking of the cast, there were two particularly notable things about the performances. Firstly, the actors who played the characters as children were superb. Their performances were very natural and assured, which is quite a feat when so much depended on facial expressions. Secondly, with different actors portraying the characters at different ages it was remarkable just how consistently those characters behaved in their different incarnations.

Rating: 9/10

USA 2013

Director: Josh Feldman

Writers: Josh Feldman & Britton Watkins

Runtime: 84 mins

Another low-budget entry at Sci-Fi-London 2014, Senn is an ambitious visually impressive movie with echoes of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Senn is the name of the main character (played by Zach Eulberg), a lowly production line worker on some godforsaken planet owned by an oppressive corporation. Senn regularly finds himself drifting away into bizarre waking dreams, to the point where his girlfriend Kana (Lauren Taylor)  is concerned that he will be “delisted” and assigned the lowliest possible job – sifting waste.

One day, as Senn’s waking dreams are threatening to get out of control, a vast alien spaceship arrives. Realising that this is an opportunity they must take, Senn and Kana are whisked away to the Polychronom, an ancient object that has somehow chosen Senn for a purpose unknown. Senn and Kana’s alien host is a called We (Wylie Herman), a being that appears in human form, like an eager-to-please butler, but who is actually the manifestation of some kind of dimensional energy. We and his fellow beings wish to understand the Polychronom, but in order to do so need to study Senn. However, Senn turns out not to be the first organism to be chosen by the Polychronom, and it seems that others have met unfortunate fates. What will the future hold for Senn?

Director Josh Feldman, whose background is in graphic design, brings a great visual sensibility to Senn, providing the kind of images you wouldn’t normally expect to see in a low budget production. There is also a good soundtrack by Cubosity Music.  The film has some nice flashes of wit, too, especially in the person of We, who is depicted brilliantly by Wylie Herman. Lauren Taylor gives a solid performance as Kana, as does Taylor Lambert playing Senn’s friend Resh. Unfortunately, I was less convinced by the performance of Zach Eulberg himself, whose acting seemed a bit awkward at times.

Despite the film’s various good points, it is rather let down by the writing. There is the nugget of a good idea in the basic story, but there is barely any dramatic tension, no conflict to keep the viewer’s attention. Everything just kind of rolls along until the end. No matter how good the visuals and music are, it is good writing that is at the heart of any movie. Partway through the film I realised that just as Senn’s thoughts were drifting away again, so were mine.

Rating: 5/10

Soulmate (1)

UK: 2013

Written and directed by Axelle Carolyn

Runtime: 104 mins

Axelle Carolyn’s Soulmate is an atmospheric gothic chiller that entertains but ultimately fails to deliver on its initial promise. The story begins with a very graphic suicide attempt by Audrey (Anna Walton), a beautiful young musician who – we later learn – has survived a car crash in which her husband died. Audrey likewise survives the attempted suicide but, finding that friends and family cannot understand her feelings, she retreats to a remote country cottage in order to reassess her life.

Upon arrival Audrey is greeted by the rather over-friendly owner, Theresa (Tanya Miles), who lives just down the road with her husband Dr Zellaby (Nick Brimble). When Audrey later reports strange noises coming from a locked upstairs room at night, Theresa and Dr Zellaby appear strangely reluctant to investigate. Eventually, the ghost of the cottage’s previous owner, Douglas (Tom Wisdom), manifests himself to Audrey. Over successive days, Douglas and Audrey get to know each other. As they become closer Douglas begins to take an increasingly physical form. So far, so The Ghost and Mrs Muir, but where is this relationship actually going to go? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is: into soap opera territory.

There are no real scares in Soulmate, although writer-director Carolyn does a good job of creating a gothic atmosphere in the first half. But for one thing, this seems like the kind of film that you would watch over the Christmas season, with a glass of whisky or mulled wine to hand. However, it is hard to imagine the TV programmers showing the ghastly suicide attempt that opens the film. In fact, I felt that this opening sat somewhat uneasily with the rather traditional fare that followed.

The actors all turn in solid performances and Anna Walton is very watchable as the pale, introspective Audrey. However, someone should have pointed out to her that when you play the violin your fingers should actually move over the strings.

Shown at the Sci-Fi-London Film Festival

Rating: 6/10

Berberian_Sound_Studio

Berberian Sound Studio is the second directorial outing for Peter Strickland, who also wrote the screenplay. It is interesting and entertaining, what I guess could be considered a postmodern horror movie. Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a British sound engineer, who arrives at an Italian film studio believing they are making a film about equestrianism, though in fact they are making a giallo – a pulpish horror movie. Gilderoy, who is short, drably dressed, rather meek, and lives with his mother, finds himself being pushed around by two tall sharply-dressed Italians, Francesco the producer (Cosimo Fusco) and Giancarlo Santini the director (Antonio Mancino).

The film they are making is supposedly an historical drama about the mistreatment of women who were believed to be witches, but Gilderoy is uncomfortable with the scenes that he is creating the sound effects for. Nonetheless he gets on with it, and we get to see the mechanics of sound production for this kind of film. There are intricate sound maps, indicating the sounds that are required at particular times, and for which scenes. Microphones are positioned and swapped, dials are turned and buttons pressed. All manner of fruits and vegetables are recruited for the purpose of creating the sound accompaniment to torture and gore. We see blades slicing through melons and being twisted in marrows, roots being pulled from radishes, and some sort of red-coloured item being pulped in a blender (the sound of a chainsaw). At no time, however, do we see any of the actual visuals for the film.

Santini tries to convince Gilderoy of the serious intent of the movie, emphasising that the horrific scenes are necessary for historical accuracy. However, the concern about the historical mistreatment of women seems to be at odds with the way that Francesco and – especially – Santini treat the female voiceover artists. There are perhaps two events that represent a significant turning point in the narrative. Firstly, Gilderoy balks when asked to create the sound effect of a red hot poker being inserted into a woman’s vagina. Secondly, after being given the runaround over his expenses one of the voiceover artists, Claudia (Eugenia Caruso), tells him that being rude and aggressive is the only way to get what you want at the studio.

From this point on the narrative becomes increasingly disorienting and the barriers between fiction and reality start to dissolve. There is a definite influence of David Lynch in the way things develop, and I was also reminded a little bit of the Ealing classic Dead of Night. As is appropriate for a story about a sound engineer, sound is used effectively throughout. At various places, whilst Gilderoy is trying to sort out his expenses, or whilst we are contemplating the sound maps on the wall, the audio accompaniment makes these mundanities seem like the background to something mysterious and terrible.

For all its accomplishments, Berberian Sound Studio does not pack the punch of a David Lynch movie, but it is enjoyable enough and a fun deconstruction of the unseen elements of a horror movie. Toby Jones is excellent as Gilderoy and has been justly rewarded at several film festivals.

Rating: 8/10

Strange Colour (1)

Original title: L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps

Director: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Screenplay: Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet 

102 minutes

 

I so much wanted to like this film, having read in advance about how it harks back to the Italian giallo cinema of the 1970s. Sadly, I ended up resenting the fact that I had actually spent money to watch it. The opening scenes are promising, delivering both visual style and intrigue. We see a white man, Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) waking from his sleep as his plane comes in to land. In his hand he holds a book of matches showing a woman’s legs and the words “Table Dancing”. Later, in his taxi he looks out of the window at what appears (out of focus) to be a woman in a red window display. These images are intercut with some black and white sequences showing a black woman, dressed in black leather, engaged in some kind of bondage activity involving a knife. Whether these images are flashback, dream, or real-time activity happening somewhere else is never made clear.

The woman in these sequences is apparently Kristensen’s wife, Edwige. When he arrives home she is not there, but the chain on the inside has been put in the locked position. We learn that Kristensen has been phoning his wife during his absence on a business trip, but she has not been responding. Kristensen has a smoke and a drink (or a few), then goes searching for his wife. From this point onwards, the film gradually takes on the appearance of some hallucinatory trip. Kristensen follows some mysterious man out of the building, and then starts ringing the bells of all the occupants.  He takes tea with the woman upstairs, all dressed in black, but whose face we cannot see, who tells a strange story of her husband’s disappearance in the same building. He meets a detective who also recounts a story, which appears to involve keeping one of the inhabitants under surveillance. These stories are told in flashback.

I very much enjoyed the opening scenes of the film, simply because of the promise they seemed to offer. The mid-section, where Kristensen talks with the woman upstairs and with the detective also held some interest but with diminishing returns. Increasingly, there is a nagging suspicion that the directors are too much in love with the visual style of their movie and that the story is never going to make any sense. Unfortunately, this turns out to be exactly the case. By the time we get to the final third of the film Kristensen is ripping away the walls of his apartment (there is some bit of nonsense about a possible intruder using hidden passages), chasing his own doppelgangers around, and there is a gratuitous and equally baffling slasher sequence.

If only the directors could have attached their visuals to a narrative that even remotely made sense, then this could have been a very enjoyable film. They clearly do have a sense of style; in fact, the musical soundtrack is brilliant and works well with the visuals. But in the end it is all style and no substance, resulting in the kind of dismal self-indulgence that gives “art house” a bad name. I watched this on my computer via Curzon Home Cinema. On the first viewing, I fell asleep several times and, by the end, had no idea what I had just seen. Feeling a bit guilty that perhaps I had been too tired to watch, I viewed it again a day later, this time buoyed by some strong tea. On this occasion the film made just as little sense as on first viewing. We never really know if there is a real “story” at the heart of the movie or whether the whole thing is just some dream, psychotic delusion, or hallucinatory trip. It would not surprise me if the film has a future as cult viewing among students who have just discovered mind-altering substances, but I can’t imagine who else could possibly enjoy this.

Rating: 2/10