The Man Who Sold His Skin

Sam and his Schengen visa tattoo

“Sometimes I think I”m Mephistopheles,” guyliner-wearing conceputal artist Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw) tells Sam (Yahya Mahayni) near the beginning of The Man Who Sold His Skin. Sam is the Syrian refugee Godefroi is about to sign up to be a living art work, and Godefroi’s declaration is as clear a reference as you need that this is an update on the Faust legend, albeit with a clever retooling for a more secular age – men no longer sell their souls, it’s their ass or, more decorously, their skin that’s in this game. The Arabic original title – translated as The Man Who Sold His Back – gets things a touch closer to that ass-selling.

Writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania’s film starts out in Syria, where Sam was happily courting the love of his life, Abeer (Dea Liane), when he fell foul of Bashar al-Assad’s thugs and had to flee the country. He winds up in Beirut as a starving refugee and is made an offer he can’t refuse by Godefroi – I tattoo your back, you become a living artwork, and when I “sell” you to some wealthy collector, you’ll get a percentage of the take. Along the way, because Sam is now a valuable piece of merchandise rather than a worthless human being, he gets to travel the world, instantly gaining access to the Schengen Zone (the 25 European countries that have abolished borders for internal travel) that is the dream destination for millions of displaced Syrians like Sam. The fact that the tattoo on Sam’s back is of a Schengen visa is, of course, all part of the high-concept joke.

It sounds fanciful and yet the plot is drawn from real life. In 2006 a man called Tim Steiner agreed to let the Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye tattoo his back (Delvoye had previously been tattooing live pigs). The resulting finished artwork, titled TIM, sold for €150,000 to an art collector, who will get Tim’s skin when he dies. Look out for a cameo by Delvoye as an insurance agent.

Sam’s life post-tattoo isn’t a straightforward one. At one level he’s being exploited, clearly, but he’s also now part of a select world of entitlement. He’s caught in a web of competing powerplays. Sam is a brown man in a largely white world, a poor man in a rich one, a refugee trying to court the lost love who’s now gone and married someone else.

If Faust is the most obvious reference point in terms of plot, Lindsay Anderson’s satire O Lucky Man! is closer as regards tone. That’s the one where young, innocent Malcolm McDowell has the naivety kicked out of him by a series of encounters with a “real world” beyond his wildest imaginings. This is a similarly supremely jaundiced view of the world of art, a realm full of people preoccupied with calculations about their own self worth and whose connection to the nuts and bolts of everyday life is not even a distant memory.

Monica Bellucci and Roger Vadim flank Dea Liane and Yahya Mahayni
Monica Bellucci and Roger Vadim flank Dea Liane and Yahya Mahayni



It beats O Lucky Man! by avoiding Anderson’s tendency to heavy-handedness and by paying careful attention to segments of the audience who might not be overly surprised to discover that the art world is full of assholes – or might not care either way. To this end, the casting of Monica Bellucci – entitlement a specialty – as one of Godefroi’s flunkies is a great idea, and so is Christian Vadim (son of Roger Vadim and Catherine Deneuve) as Godefroi’s lawyer, the pair of them saying it all without having to say anything at all, but also delivering the sort of reassurance that white, subtitle-averse audiences (and distributors) might need.

Ben Hania also takes care not to neglect the will he/won’t he aspect of Sam’s pursuit of Abeer, even after she’s married. A spoonful of love-story sugar really helps the medicinal satire go down. As does Christopher Aoun’s cinematography, clean and crisp with just enough attention to colour to suggest that he might be a fan of Benoît Debie. And Amin Bouhafa’s chilled synths-and-strings soundtrack beautifully fills the spaces when some Baroque cantata by Vivaldi or his 17th-century ilk (reassurance again) isn’t on the soundtrack.

The Man Who Sold His Skin is the first time a film from Tunisia has been nominated for an Academy Award and at least some of the credit for that has to go to Yahya Mahayni, who plays Sam as a mix of the smart and the naive, the gullible and the desperate, the biddable and the resistant. He’s a good actor but more importantly a likeable one and a good reason why this dense movie bounces along at a beguiling speed.



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Le Samouraï

Alain Delon

Jean-Pierre Melville’s stylish 1967 hitman flick Le Samouraï has danced down the decades, leaving its mark on everything from William Friedkin’s The French Connection, to Walter Hill’s The Driver (and, by extension, Nicolas Winding Refn’s homage, Drive), Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, Anton Corbijn’s The American and the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. Even John Wick can trace its ancestry back to Le Samouraï, Keanu Reeves being a 21st century update on the lone wolf operator going into battle against forces known and unknown.

The opening shot alone makes Le Samouraï noteworthy. A darkened room, a man lying on a bed. The camera does one of those perspective-altering Vertigo zooms, gets about halfway into it before reversing out, then in-out again, very quickly this time, the whole effect designed to elicit a “what just happened?” response, which it does.

The plot is unsettling too. A hitman called Jef Costello (Alain Delon) walks into a busy rinky-dink nightclub, walks into the owner’s office and shoots him dead. Unlike everyone else, who’s dressed in nightclub-appropriate clothes, Jef is wearing a hat and trenchcoat. He sticks out like a fire on an icefield. Nor has he tried anything fancy. He came in through the front door, did what he came to do, and then left, giving a good half dozen of the staff and guests a chance to see what he looked like, in particular the club pianist (Cathy Rosier) who gets a full close-up of him in a corridor.

Jef doesn’t seem overly bothered about being hauled in by the police either, and at the copshop, what do you know, no one can quite get a proper ID on the killer, until one witness hits the bullseye so square on that… and even here there’s a wriggle and Jef is free.

Cathy Rosier as the pianist
Cathy Rosier as the pianist



Melville is playing with us. He understands what we’re expecting and then teasingly gives us some of what we want, along with something quite unexpected. Jef also gets something he wasn’t banking on – the pianist flaty will not identify him, even though her eyes confirm she knows damn well it’s him, which propels Jef into as much of a funk as an ice-cold, dead-eyed existential hitman can muster. What if the hunter has somehow, in among all this kerfuffle, in his too-cool-for-schoolness, become the hunted?

This was Melville’s first colour film and he plays with his new toys in a way that’s also unexpected, sticking as close to a monochrome palette as he can – some outdoor scenes necessarily involve Parisian street colour. But when Delon is on the screen and the action is taking place in a studio, almost everything is shades of white/grey/black. The pianist gets her own separate colour palette, too, her brown skin reflected in the monochrome cream/beige/coffee of her surrounding.

This hitman genre was pretty new ground in 1967 and so what’s even more remarkable about this film, in retrospect, is how pared back it is, as if Melville knew he was designing a template as well as a standalone art work. There’s scarcely any dialogue – Delon speaks barely a word. Movement is kept to a minimum too. In scenes with a number of people it’s rare that anyone is moving except for the protagonist (often in the shape of François Périer, as the cop on Jef’s tail). Similarly, master photographer Henri Deaë uses pools of light to light characters selectively. If you’re not involved in moving the action on, chances are you’re in the shadows.

The whole effect is super stylish, dreamlike almost. But Melville reserves one surprise for the end, when Jef hits a bump in the road. He’s dressed in black and wearing white gloves, like an update on Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Those silences, the aversion to daylight, those long reposes in darkened rooms, Jef’s hold over women (notably Nathalie Delon, Alain’s wife, as Jef’s booty call and alibi). Is this not a hitman flick at all but a vampire movie?

There are a couple of decent versions of this film out there. The 2K Pathe restoration isn’t bad, and is sharper in places than Criterion’s version, but Criterion wins overall – there’s just more shadow detail and it really makes a difference in Le Samouraï to be able to see some way into the murk. So that’s what I’m linking to below.



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The Many Saints of Newark

Dickie (far right) and family

The pre-publicity for The Many Saints of Newark made much – all, actually – of the fact that this was the origin story of Tony Soprano, fictional mob boss and kingpin of the TV show The Sopranos. Take a quick look at the IMDb page and there, at the very top, the blurb says – “Witness the making of Tony Soprano.”

The casting of Michael Gandolfini, son of James (who played Tony Soprano in the TV series), reinforced the idea – here’s how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano.

But. But. But. Whatever The Many Saints of Newark is, what it isn’t is a film about Tony Soprano. He’s only peripheral to the action, which actually focuses on Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony’s uncle. In fact the name Moltisanti translates as Many Saints, so even the title of this movie is telling us that this isn’t the story of Tony Soprano.

This is wise. After all, when it comes to “making of a mafia don” movies, there is already The Godfather II, and who wants to go head to head with that?

On the other hand, if this isn’t the story of Tony Soprano’s progression from callow youth to made man, it runs the risk of being just another mob movie, and there are already plenty of those.

Michael Gandolfini as young Tony
Michael Gandolfini as young Tony



To head that accusation off at the pass, big guns have been wheeled in. The show’s creator and main writer, David Chase, abetted by frequent contributor Lawrence Konner, are joined by director Alan Taylor (who directed Chase’s favourite episodes, the publicity claims). And a roster of big talent joins Nivola as the story of Dickie Moltisanti’s rise and rise is told. How he coveted Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi), the sexy young wife of his mob dad, Hollywood Dick (Ray Liotta), and how the mantle passed, brutally, from Dick to Dickie, with a challenge from Harold (Leslie Odom Jr), a rival in the numbers game from across a racial divide that might as well be the Iron Curtain.

Echoing Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in the original Godfather, Dickie is the mobster who isn’t sure he wants to be a mobster. And echoing Dickie is Tony himself, drifting at the edges of this story, starting as a kid in the 1960s and becoming a long-haired guy with a love of rock music in the 1970s. Tony has no interest in the family business and wants to go to college. His woes go no further than failing to get respect from his peers, and having difficulty buying booze because he isn’t old enough. Teenager stuff.

Liotta gives it some punch, and is interestingly also cast as his own, more thoughtful, cultured jailbird brother, Salvatore. And Vera Farmiga is fascinating as Tony’s mother, Livia. How remarkably like Edie Falco’s Carmela – Mrs S in the TV show – her Livia is. It suggests psychological avenues waiting to be explored. They remain unexplored, Chase and co instead opting to set much of the action against ongoing race riots, perhaps hoping for contemporary relevance.

Nivola looks the part and brings a certain dash to the role of Dickie, but there’s not much of a character to put his stamp on. And as for all the media noise about Michael Gandolfini being the spit of his dad, he actually looks more like the son of John Cusack.

In many respects this is a generic mob movie – the veneration of family, food and the church, the accordions on the soundtrack, a reference to Frank Sinatra and a snatch of Ain’t That a Hole in the Head. There’s the obligatory unpleasant torture scene, with a novel use of an air impact wrench on someone’s face, and the Joe Pesci prize for psycho malice goes to Jon Bernthal as Johnny Soprano, father of Tony.

Nicely enough made to pass muster if an Italian mob movie is what you must have, but in terms of essential viewing, fugeddaboutit.



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The Woman in the Window

Alice and the professor meet

Not to be confused with the 2021 movie of the same name, 1944’s The Woman in the Window is the second of three film noirs Fritz Lang made with Joan Bennett and the first of two he’d make with Edward G Robinson. It’s a queer beast – noir with a plot trick picked up from The Wizard of Oz, a trick used so brilliantly it rescues what looks like a film that’s gone weirdly off the rails.

Robinson plays the tweedy psychology professor called Richard, Dick to his friends – Sigmund Freud bubbles around beneath the surface of this plot and that name is no accident – who, while admiring a portrait of a hot babe in a gallery window, turns to see that Alice, the babe herself, is standing in the street beside him. Rapidly leaving his comfort zone, Dick is soon improbably in a club having a drink with Alice, a femme so fatale that you can see her nipples through her sheer top.

It’s all too good to be true, of course, and the fact that the prof is bathed in the sort of gauzy lighting usually reserved for female stars, while Alice is not, suggests that he’s more the quarry than the hunter, an impression only emphasised when she invites him up to her place to see her etchings (sketches of her, in fact).

One death later and the dream has turned to a nightmare, the professor has a body to get rid of and the cops are on his tail. More to the point, though no one actually suspects him, he’s almost giving the game away repeatedly with a series of blunders that the professor’s old friend and drinking buddy, District Attorney Frank Laylor (Raymond Massey), cannot help but have noticed, surely?

The plot is a light lift from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and its theme of self-incrimination would later be used week in, week out in the Columbo TV series (which also acknowledged its debt to Dostoevsky). But in 1944 it was more likely 1930’s The Blue Angel – professor loses head to a nightclub singer – that came to mind.

Heidt blackmails Alice
It’s blackmail: Heidt and Alice



The casting is interesting. Both Bennett and Robinson had started out with completely different screen images than the ones on display here. She’d been the breathy blonde ingenue in a string of films, but after dying her hair dark, pitching her voice a bit lower and swinging the equipment around a bit more, became a classic (and hugely popular) screen vamp. Robinson, by contrast, had risen to fame as a gangster in movies like 1931’s Little Caesar, but then stayed at the top by broadening his range, often playing men like the professor – quiet, unassuming guys with hidden depths.

Playing to type, on the other hand, is Raymond Massey as the DA, Massey’s bark and gimlet eye suggesting he knows that the professor is guilty of something even though the script insists he doesn’t – it’s the tension between Massey’s performance and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay that give the film much of its fizz.

A technical whizz, Fritz Lang’s fluid camera slides in and out of scenes, often on a crane even on low shots, which is how he’s able to glide over obstacles and get right up into the fact of the professor or Alice at key moments. The dialogue, too, is taut and there’s barely a line in Johnson’s screenplay that isn’t the setup to a later payoff.

With half an hour still to go, it all seems to be a case of not if but when will the professor finally expose himself. And then Dan Duryea (again, playing right to type as the “heel with sex appeal”) turns up as a blackmailer trying to shake Alice down.

In the weird finish alluded to in the opening paragraph, Heidt (Duryea) is dealt with in a way that satisfies none of the rules of storytelling, or film noir, or anything at all, until, in a bravura reverse, Johnson’s screenplay brings the whole thing to a conclusion with a twist that is not only satisfying but asks us to look again at some of the storytelling twists and turns we were doubtless only too happy to go along with earlier in the film.

The end. Lang, Bennett, Robinson and Duryea would be back the following year with Scarlet Street, in which something like the same characters run through another satisfying noir scenario featuring silly Edward G, mercenary Joan and bad Dan.

I’m linking to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, a decent version (there are some bad ones out there).



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The French Dispatch

Bill Murray as the editor of the Dispatch

A middle finger to the haters, The French Dispatch finds an unrepentant Wes Anderson doubling down on the whimsy and pastiche of films like The Grand Budapest Hotel or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. There’s more. An artist’s statement, done early on in Owen Wilson’s laconic voiceover, vouchsafes that “All grand beauties withhold their deepest secrets.” Secrets? Deepest? Anderson is all surface, surely?

Anyhow, on to the Dispatch, which is an American magazine/supplement of New Yorker stripe run in the old way – a liberal institution headed by a steely eccentric (played by Bill Murray), never short of money and with enough space to contain at least one writer who doesn’t write, enough time on its hands to worry excessively about dangling participles and house style. People have expense accounts. The assignments are exotic. It’s fun. People are dying to work there. This is an indeterminate French city called Ennui-sur-Blasé, but is essentially mid-century Paris by way of Clochemerle, as depicted in Gabriel Chevallier’s sweetly satirical novel of sleepy, petty French France.

And from here, framing device established, Anderson gives us three separate stories, each fronted by a different writer. In the first Tilda Swinton gives us another of her big-teethed, big-haired eccentrics, relating the story of a jailbird (Benicio Del Toro) who becomes a great artist thanks to his muse, who’s also his jailer (Léa Seydoux), and a conman gallerist (Adrien Brody, best thing in the whole film). In the second Frances McDormand plays the writer of a piece about how she befriended and bedded a student radical (Timothée Chalamet) in an Andersonian version of 1968 Paris, before he ran off with a woman closer to his own age (Lyna Khoudri). And in the third Liev Schreiber plays a TV host talking a story out of a celebrated journalist (Jeffrey Wright) about how a chef of the molecular gastronomy school (Steve Park) – he’s called Nescaffier, which is the film’s only really good joke – thwarted a kidnapping.

The artist and his muse/jailer
The artist and his muse/jailer



It’s arch, all of it. At this point in Anderson’s career that kind of goes without saying. But the level of pastiche is what’s really remarkable, and the fact that Anderson never, ever stops laying it on. In one micro-scene that’s emblematic of the whole thing, he fast-cuts between various recipients of a radio broadcast, each one of them listening to it on a different mid-century transistor radio straight from kitsch corner. Inside each doll another doll, fractalling away in a pastiche universe stretching off to the limits of time.

Shot in that dead flat, absolutely shadowless way by Robert Yeoman, who’s been with Anderson ever since his debut, 1996’s Bottle Rocket, the effect is Carl Theodor Dreyer meets a mid-century-modern furniture catalogue, every single aspect considered, every item teased and tweezed. Everything just so.

As with the films of Peter Greenaway, there’s an obsession with symmetry and a tendency for the elaborate production design (by Adam Stockhausen) to become the star of the show. The frame outshines the painting it contains. The “movie” stops moving.

If there are “deepest secrets” then it’s Anderson’s abiding love of the mid 20th century. When the US venerated French culture, and Ernest Hemingway might be found drinking with Lee Miller in the Café de Flore. It’s the era of the triumph of democracy, of pop culture, New Journalism, continental philosophy and the European arthouse movie. Boomers might recognise themselves.

The cameos are fun – Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Christoph Waltz, Mathieu Amalric, Cécile de France, Saoirse Ronan, Elisabeth Moss, Willem Dafoe, Edward Norton, some on screen for mere seconds.

To reach for another comparison, it’s Jacques Tati without the jokes and if, like me, you’re not a Tati fan, it’s a slog to watch. 45 minutes from the end I was wondering if the dry-humping of the picturesque past was ever going to stop. I was never entirely sure if it was meant to be an entertaining whole, or just a series of brilliantly executed “sketches”? Like a dinner of exquisite individual courses that never really hangs together as a whole, The French Dispatch is easier to admire than to enjoy.



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La Bête Humaine

Jean Gabin and Simone Simon

In Emile Zola’s story La Bête Humaine, the “human beast” is train driver Jacques Lantier, a man whose family line is full of fuck-ups, alcoholics and brutes. He keeps his passions in check, just about, by focusing rigidly on his job, and in particular on his locomotive, which he calls by the female name Lison.

There’s an intertitle card telling us all this at the start of Jean Renoir’s brilliant 1938 adaptation of the story. However, the “beast” of Renoir’s version might actually not be Lantier at all. Instead it could be Séverine, the lusty wife of a plodding stationmaster in Le Havre, where Lantier is forced to spend some time when his engine breaks down.

Renoir blocks out his characters at speed. Lantier the bluff, masculine type, played by Jean Gabin in the sort of role you could imagine Robert De Niro playing in his prime. Fernand Ledoux as Roubaux, the principled, decent but stolid stationmaster with a much younger wife, Séverine (Simone Simon), who’s introduced in wowsers style – wanton pout, fancy clothes, a toy dog. Séverine can lay claim to be the first femme fatale. In some parts of the world this film went by the more obviously film noir title Judas Was a Woman.

And then some background, sketching in hidden reefs of psychology for both Lantier and Séverine. His visit to see his godmother while he’s stuck in Le Havre, where he almost rapes the godmother’s daughter down by the river. Time were different etc etc and the exact nature of the relationship between Lantier and Flore (Blanchette Burnoy) is unclear, but even down he decades it’s obvious something inappropriate is going on. Meanwhile, Séverine’s visit to her godfather, Monsieur Grandmorin, a Mr Big of the railways, reveals another strangely transgressive relationship. Were Séverine and Grandmorin once lovers? Is he her father? Is he her father and her lover?

Lantier at the controls of his train
Full speed to destruction!



These two emotional disaster zones intersect when Séverine’s husband, Roubaud, is driven to murder Grandmorin on a train and Lantier sees enough of the deed to finger Roubaud and his accompanying wife trouble. To keep Lantier’s mouth shut, the wife decides to seduce him. And here Simone Simon, turning all the seductress knobs to 11, demonstrates why she was a massive star and the movie moves firmly into the realm of tragedy.

You cannot imagine Hollywood in 1938 (the year of Bringing Up Baby and Boys Town) going anywhere near material this dark. Fritz Lang got about halfway there with 1954’s Human Desire, his version of the same source material. Renoir, rather than sensationalise it, just lays it all out in a matter of fact style. Strangely, it just makes things even darker (and more enjoyable).

Over the top of it all he also delivers one of the great train movies of all time, with enough detail of driving the iron beasts to satisfy the inner train nut. The film has clearly been plundered by John Frankenheimer for The Train, which is perhaps the train movie to beat all others.

Gabin is to this movie exactly what Burt Lancaster was to The Train and delivers a Mount Rushmore performance as Lantier. Gabin learned how to drive a train for the film, and handles all the various knobs and levers like a man who’s done it a thousand times.

You could ignore the murky story of sexual transgression, betrayal and death, and the trainspotter aspect, and Gabin’s and Simon’s world-weary yet passionate performances and the film would still be delivering, thanks to lighting so lustrous you could bathe in it. It’s by the brilliant Curt Courant and its high Hollywood style (key lights, hair lights, shadow fills etc) complements Renoir’s painterly command of the frame (he was the son of the famous impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir and the talent seems to have been inherited).

You could even watch it for the clothes. Gabin’s tweed suit is so solid and well made it looks bulletproof. Or for the film’s influence on Martin Scorsese. With adjustments for period etc, this could easily be a Scorsese film.

I watched the Studio Canal version of the film, which even though unrestored is largely in great shape (the odd slight degradation here and there). There is also a restored Criterion version, and since Criterion seems to be the failsafe way to go it’s what I’m linking to below.



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The Worst Person in the World

Renate Reinsve

The Worst Person in the World is not about the worst person in the world, though it’s a good catchy title and so why not? Instead it’s about something that’s far less of an easy sell – how to live the good life.

The latest in a 20-year run of collaborations between director Joachim Trier and regular writing partner (and a director in his own right) Eskil Vogt, it follows dense, layered and intense films like Thelma, Louder Than Bombs and Blind with more of the same in a 12-chapter story about a smart, pretty young woman called Julie. At the end of each one Julie has traded in what she had for that’s slightly less good, but which, she thinks, will make her happier.

Julie starts out as a medical student, before rationalising that what she’s really interested in is human psychology. And so switches into studying that. Then she discovers photography. She’s an artist. Suddenly she wants to be a writer. Julie winds up working in a bookshop.

In an early montage her personal life is presented as something similar. Though Julie changes horses every time another horse arrives in midstream, the film focuses on a pair of emblematic relationships – one with a talented, driven creator of graphic novels (the yin to her yang), the other with the man she leaves him for, a guy who works in a coffee shop.

Eivind and Julie flirting
Blowbacks aren’t cheating, right?



It would be unbearably tough viewing, watching this life slide out of view (©Jarvis Cocker), if individual scenes weren’t so brilliantly written. In one of the key chapters of the film, Julie gatecrashes a wedding and gets talking to Eivind, the coffee shop guy, and they embark on a protracted night of flirtation, having already established that neither of them is going to cheat on their respective partners. But what exactly is cheating? Where’s the line? As Julie and Eivind push it to the max, the effect is like being gripped by a Richard Curtis romcom – smart and romantic though not as funny or cute. Later, in a fantasy sequence you could also imagine Curtis coming up with, Julie runs across town to meet Eivind for a night of romantic connection and time stops for the entire duration.

There are other little quirks – like Julie and Aksel (the graphic novels guy) hashing out the breakup Julie has just told Aksel she wants, while a voiceover more or less repeats exactly what Julie and Aksel are saying. The effect is dislocating, beguiling and vaguely amusing, a Brechtian alienation effect brought bang up to date.

Julie is a woman who has almost all of what people want – she’s clever, fun, good-looking and has any number of bright futures in front of her. Except she isn’t fully engaged in the process of her life. Julie is hard to read, and yet from a viewer’s perspective needs to be worth the journey. It’s a big ask for an actor, but Renate Reinsve pulls it off brilliantly.

For the others, it’s Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel, and this role is meat and drink to him – he was also recently an intense, brooding creative type in Bergman Island. Eivind is played by Herbert Nordrum, who graciously doesn’t try to make barrista-guy Eivind into something he isn’t.

Thanks to chapters that vary in length from only a couple of minutes to something much chunkier, and a tone that switches from light to dark, funny to sad, playful to political, matter-of-fact to fantastical, Trier and Vogt keep the ball in the air, their characters always on the verge of dissolving into something else in scenes where what’s not said is often much more important than what is.

That it isn’t bewildering in the slightest says a lot about the sureness of Vogt and Trier’s attack and the riveting performance of Reinsve as the woman not waving but drowning.











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You Only Live Once

Joan and Eddie on the run

Fritz Lang’s second Hollywood picture, You Only Live Once, was released in 1937, three years after the death of Bonnie and Clyde, and was the first movie to tell their story – sort of. A tale of bad luck and trouble rather than one of bad people doing bad things, it stars Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney as a couple in love – she a sweet girl who works for the Public Defender, he a threetime jailbird determined to go straight and make an honest woman of his wife-to-be but finding that society won’t give this sucker an even break.

Blocked at every turn, Eddie (as Clyde is called here) turns back to crime, gets caught, winds up on death row, then shoots his way out of jail just as – the fickle finger of fate – he’s about to be pardoned. Hitting the road in fugitive style, Joan and Eddie then end up in the shootout finale which Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway immortalised.

It’s often credited as being the first film noir. But its emphasis on difficult material meant that its passage into the world was problematical. Lang had left Germany in 1933 and arrived in Hollywood just as Hollywood was upping the ante when it came to censorship. The Supreme Court had unanimously decided in 1915, in Mutual Film Corporation v Industrial Commission of Ohio, that the right to free speech did not extend to motion pictures. As a result, censorship boards had started springing up in various states. To ensure its films would be acceptable to all the various boards, whether it was New York or Ohio, Hollywood decided it needed to bring in its own code.

Though this was a half-hearted and patchy implementation at first, 1922, 1927 and 1929 were all ratchet years. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Production Code Administration started rigourously enforcing standards. It’s for this reason that there is about 15 minutes of missing material in You Only Live Once, much of it from the bank raid that’s the centrepiece of the film, and which results in Eddie winding up back in jail.

So the film plays at about 86 minutes rather than the original 110. Even butchered it both makes sense and works well, though without the violent, excised material it probably comes over as more moralistic than Lang had originally wanted and far less nuanced.

Eddie with a mirror full of bulletholes
Mirror mirror on the wall



Lang tells his story visually. Look at the scene where the verdict on Eddie is about to come in and a newspaper editor is sitting with three different versions of the next day’s front page (Guilty, Not Guily and Undecided) up on the wall behind him. A word or two would have sufficed but Lang does it all as a silent movie director would do it (which he originally was, of course), right down to the editor indicating with a finger which front page the printer should run.

He’s aided enormously by ace DP Leon Shamroy, who bathes the romantic scenes between Eddie and Joan in a romantic glow and the jail scenes in the harsh geometrics (light slanting through bars etc) that connect this film up with Lang’s earlier, more Expressionistic output.

Fonda is good as Eddie, though that much-mentioned natural nobility isn’t really working in the film’s favour – again, that excised material would have worked as a counterweight. Sidney, who gets top billing, is a sweet and effective Joan, though her damascene conversion from public-spirited gal to fugitive’s moll in the final scenes makes little sense.

The censor’s cuts have robbed the movie of moral heft, which is ironic, but Lang’s intention is clear. Made in the teeth of the Depression, which drove decent people into doing things they wouldn’t normally do, this Bonnie and Clyde wind up in situations that are completely out of their control. Bad luck or bad decision-making on their own can be dealt with, but Eddie’s on the back foot to start with, and Joan’s bad luck (or bad decision-making) is to have fallen in love with Eddie. “You only live once” is another way of saying “tough shit”.

I watched the ClassicFlix restoration, which isn’t as crystal-clear and eye-popping as you might want, but is a marvel when compared to the original elements it was restored from (watch the accompanying special feature, if you get the Blu-ray or DVD, and be amazed).



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Staudamm

Friedrich Mücke and Liv Lisa Fries

Unspectacular in an almost nonchalant way, Staudamm tells its story slowly and poetically, which is all the more remarkable when you consider its subject matter – a high school shooting.

This one took place in a sleepy village in Bavaria and proceeded otherwise in classic US style – kid stalking the corridors letting off rounds in a slow and methodical fashion, killing many, before he too was brought down by a police bullet out by the dam (The Dam is the English language title) where he’d fled, in what looked like a pre-planned bit of suicidal “come and get me, suckers” bravado.

Staudamm is about the aftermath rather than the event itself and picks up the story at the point where a prosecutor is about to go to trial. In what’s essentially a two-hander, the plot follows Roman, the prosecutor’s assistant/factotum to the scene of the crime where he’s meant to pick up some legal documents, then follows him some more as he gets to know Laura, one of the witnesses to the shooting. And then a bit more as one administrative delay after another forces Roman to spend more time in the village than he’d anticipated.

Roman is played by Friedrich Mücke, a handsome, German-TV leading man type well suited (and I mean this in a nice way) to playing blank slates on which experience is about to be written (he was something similar in the gothic mystery series Weinberg). Laura is played by Liv Lisa Fries, 23 or so in 2013 when this was made, a touch puppy-fat-y still, and though not the sleek creature she’d become by 2017, when the Netflix show Babylon Berlin transformed her fortunes, already about 90 per cent towards becoming a magnetic presence.

Laura is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who in familiar fashion transforms the life of the largely passive and sulky Roman, though this being an altogether moody piece of film-making maybe a Disturbed Goblin Nightmare Girl is a better way to describe her.

Roman and Laura at the dam
At the dam: Roman and Laura



Either way, Laura knocks on Roman’s car window while he’s at a filling station in the village, tries to cadge some money off him, before the two of them embark on a Before Sunrise-style night of hashish, booze and chat, which culminates in Laura revealing how close she is to the case.

And that, really, is about all there is to this strange little film that’s a tiny bit about survivor’s guilt, a little bit about the way people cope with trauma, a touch about angry smalltown conservatism, and ever so quietly is also a love story about two people whose characters are sketched rather than painted.

All of it is sketched rather than painted, in fact, but the marks are enough and they’ve been made with skill and thought. There’s a sparing use of music, occasional mood-setting cutaways to the snowy scenery in this wintry locale, and some rather unusual scenes – like the one where Roman and Laura have something that could be construed as a lover’s tryst in the abandoned school where the shooting took place.

Who sets a boy-meets-girl movie at the scene of a mass shooting? The answer is writer Christian Lyra (more usually a comedy writer) and director Thomas Sieben (whose thrillerish CV contains Kidnapping Stella, a German-language remake of The Disappearance of Alice Creed). The pair of them also worked together on 2009’s Distanz, another thriller with an offbeat relationship at its core and, being about the making of a serial killer, could almost be seen as a prequel to Staudamm.

It’s the genre-collision aspect that make this unusual movie worth the effort, plus Sieben’s careful establishment of mood and the chance to watch the interaction of the understated Mücke with Fries, an actor on her march towards stardom.



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Benedetta

Bartolomea and Benedetta

How funny is Benedetta meant to be? Is it a serious film examining the mindset of religious people of a different time, or a nunsploitation flick straining every sinew to get its stars out of their clothes and comically at it?

It’s an adaptation of Judith C Brown’s book, Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Reinaissance Italy. But tellingly, Gerard Soeteman, who worked on the original, never-realised adaptation with director Paul Verhoeven in the 1980s, had his name removed from the credits when he realised which way Verhoeven and new screenwriter David Birke were taking the material for the 2021 version.

In bawdy, winkingly vulgar style, not unlike Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, the story follows a clever, self-possessed young girl into a convent in 17th-century Italy. Eighteen years later and fully grown (and now played by Virginie Efira), the young Benedetta’s austere life of poverty, chastity and obedience is regularly being punctuated by visions of Jesus Christ. In one, as she runs towards him ecstatically, she shouts “j’arrive” (“I’m coming”). In another, Jesus slays snakes threatening Benedetta and then kisses her on the mouth. No need for Freudian interpretation of these dreams, Verhoeven and Birke have done it all for us.

Benedetta’s dangerously sublimated sex drive – “your worst enemy is your body” she is told on first arriving at the convent – is cranked further into action when new novice Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) arrives and is put in her care. A sexual relationship is soon in full swing. As if that weren’t enough, the stigmatic wounds of the crucified Christ also start appearing on Benedetta’s body. Whether sent by God or inflicted by Benedetta herself is left half open.

These wounds are the meat in a stew of intrigue involving the convent’s abbess (Charlotte Rampling), the abbess’s jealous daughter (Louise Chevillotte), a local provost hungry for power (Olivier Rabourdin) and the regional papal nuncio (Lambert Wilson), who on learning of the goings-on at the convent – and he doesn’t know the half of it – decides to come down hard on Benedetta and bring the nonsense to a stop.

The nuns at work, weaving
The nuns at work, weaving



As if this weren’t enough, bubonic plague is ravaging the land, and is threatening to arrive at the convent of Pescia at any minute. Oh, and there’s a comet in the sky, which is surely a portent for something. Baroque and roll!

This story is all told with a typical Verhoeven focus on bodily functions. A fart here, a pregnant woman squeezing milk out of her tit there, a statuette of the Virgin Mary carved into a dildo, Benedetta and Bartolomea sitting side by side on the earth closet taking a dump together… plus more naked flesh than seems strictly necessary, even to tell a story about two nuns ravishing each other each night while their fellow sisters sleep.

Even for the director of the notoriously nudy Showgirls, it all comes over as excessive. But while the visuals tug in one direction, the screenplay heads in the other, insisting that this is an earnest undertaking. The acting, too, is straight-down-the line-serious, and while Virginie Efira and Daphne Patakia get most of the camera’s attention, Charlotte Rampling is impressive as the haughty-to-humbled abbess.

The same cannot quite be said of the cinematography, which hangs somewhere in space unsure whether it’s meant to be a hard-focus depiction of an actual reality, or the ambiguous soft focus of soft porn. Anne Dudley’s score is also all over the place, devolving regularly to little more than religious vamping… a de profundis from the heart of a bewildered composer.

At one level it’s all great fun, even if the balance of the film is upset by the nudity, some of which is straight-up ridiculous – why, for example, are Benedetta and Bartolomea out wandering naked in a field towards the end? This isn’t the nudity-as-power of other Verhoeven films like Basic Instinct, Showgirls or Black Books, but something else. And while it’s possible to see the whole thing as a big satire/pastiche of the 1970s arthouse/soft porn crossover, there’s also the strong suspicion that Verhoeven’s dirty old man has simply won out over the serious (if playful) auteur.



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