In the House

Claude and Esther

If you’ve seen 5X2, you’ll already know that François Ozon makes immensely clever and highly entertaining films, and that there’s a point to the cleverness; he’s not just showing off. In the House, aka Dans La Maison, is Ozon to the bone, another very clever piece of work. This time, however, the point he’s making is far less immediately obvious.

5X2 was a love story played out backwards, the point being that, “forearmed” as we were with the knowledge that the relationship would crumble, we saw the couple in question’s first stirrings of love, courtship, marriage, honeymoon and so on through entirely different eyes. Here Ozon plays a similar trick, taking a Cuckoo in the Nest plot and wrapping it up in an examination of fiction and truth.

Fabrice Luchini plays Germain Germain, a jaded teacher of French who is wading through the marking of “what I did at the weekend” essays one night when he comes across something submitted by one of his pupils. It’s a startling story of how Claude, one of his teenage charges, courted fellow pupil Rapha, so he could gain access to the boy’s house, where he seems to have been leering after the kid’s mother Esther, (played by Emmanuelle Seigner). Unsettled, the teacher shows his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) the unusual and seemingly confessional essay. She is as intrigued as he, but also appalled. Next day the teacher upbraids the boy for his stalking, who instead of backing down hands him the next instalment of the story, which ends, like the first one, with “A suivre…” (to be continued).

Aagainst his better judgment, the teacher reads on, and becomes completely, becoming not just an avid follower of the boy’s increasingly lurid exploits (is he going to seduce the mother? the son? surely not the father?), not just his literary mentor, but also, bit by bit, an agent provocateur. Ozon symbolises this brilliantly, by having Luchini suddenly popping up inside the boy’s retelling of his story to offer pointers.

Claude and Germain
Claude and Germain?

Inside this vicious circle or feedback loop, on the one hand there’s a Damien tale of a monster inside a humdrum middle class family’s life. On the other there’s the teacher’s reactions to that story, and the effect his reactions have on the development of the boy’s story. And all the while the boy’s story is progressively taking over the teacher’s life. Fact and fiction become hopelessly intertwined, with the only seeming certainty being that, as is said several times, “the world needs stories”.

There is a student essay in here for someone with an interest in structuralism or deconstruction (both of which more or less take the view that nothing is certain or natural and that everything is made up – it’s all a big story).

For those of a more pragmatic, empirical nature, this is also a highly entertaining bit of farce, with Luchini perfectly cast – all hangdog one second, raised eyebrow the next – as the teacher in beyond the elbow, an invert of the Lolita figure of Humbert Humbert having rings run around him by an “innocent” kid. Ernst Umhauer plays the teenager, cleverer by far than his teacher, an inspired bit of casting – creepy, smooth skinned, attractive, with a hint of a smile that could be amusement or malice. Bisexual? Maybe. Unsettling is Ozon’s intention, I suspect, and Umhauer is certainly that.

Everyone else, including Scott Thomas and Emmanuelle Seigner, is a footnote. Apart, that is, from the father of the dolt, also called Rapha, played as a man so charged up with manly testosterone by Denis Ménochet, as so “natural” and unmediated in his actions and reactions that he stands in complete contradiction to the fey “everything is fictional” posturing of everyone else. And that, surely, is the point of Ozon’s film – there is fiction, there is fact and if we lose the distinction, we’re lost. French philosophers of the post 1968 tradition take note.

In the House – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

A Hijacking

Pilou Asbaek as Mikkel

London Film Festival, 2012-10-22

Stories of Somali pirates hijacking ships and holding people hostage for months regularly make the news bulletins but rarely seem to make it to the big screen. Which is odd considering that foreigners waving guns about in front of frightened innocents’ faces is a staple of cinema.

Enter A Hijacking (original title: Kapringen), a Danish offering that welds a cast familiar to viewers of Danish TV sensation Borgen to a twin-track plot – one half takes place on the high seas, the other back at base where negotiations for the hostages’ release are taking place. The result is a drama so involving that, though I’d dragged myself to the cinema with a heavy cold, for just over 100 minutes I didn’t care a bit.

The writer/director, Tobias Lindholm, also has Borgen previous, and he’s working to his strengths. A Hijacking is a strongly procedural drama in which human interaction and the divination of character is the driver. It’s probably best to say right now that there’s no Steven Seagal Under Siege business, just in case you were hoping for a knock-off Die Hard with eyebrow-raised “I also cook” payoff dialogue.

The plot is simple. Out on the Indian Ocean a ship is preparing to head back home when it’s boarded by a gang of gun-happy pirates. With them they’ve brought a negotiator who can speak English. Back in Copenhagen company boss Peter Ludvigsen (Søren Malling) – a ball-breaking businessman with take-no-prisoners negotiating skills – is suddenly presented with a situation he has no experience of. Except, in his estimation, he has. He’s a deal-maker, after all. So, ignoring advice to get in a go-between who does this sort of thing for a living, Peter decides to go it alone and get his men out alive, but at a price that won’t hurt the company.

As I said, the film has a double focus – out on the high seas, where the ship’s cook Mikkel (Pilou Asbaek), an affable bear, is our increasingly faltering surrogate, and back at base, where Peter is trying to screw down the price without screwing up entirely.

The double-focus procedural is a tricky act to pull off – Apollo 13 does it memorably, but most films that try it fail doubly. A Hijacking succeeds because it decides early on which of its two locations is key – and it’s the boardroom. This puts all concerned in familiar Borgen territory, of personal drama, procedure and millimetre-precise acting, rather than running, gunplay and “move, move, move!” dialogue.

That’s a wise decision. In the film’s favour, is the fact that as viewers we’ve no problem at all working out where we are, hairy Norwegian sailors in vests being instantly distinguishable from suited-and-booted steel-haired chaps in wire-frame spectacles. The natural colour palette – tweaked by cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s unshowy filtration – makes things doubly obvious. All is cool and Nordic back in Denmark, bright and warm out in the Indian Ocean.

One odd bit of casting turns out to be in the film’s favour too. Gary Porter playing Connor, Peter’s advisor in Copenhagen is, it turns out, not an actor at all but a real-life negotiator in “hostage situations”. I’m not sure he intended this to be the case but he’s killingly believable early on in meetings when he’s gleaning information from the ship, intel which he then translates back to Peter and his team in management-speak, having, in the process, added no value whatsoever.

Søren Malling as Peter
Søren Malling as Peter

There’s a parallel advisor/negotiator, out on the ship, a shifty Somali (possibly) named Omar who is all wide-eyed claims that he’s as much a hostage as the crew, that he’s a man brought in by the pirates to do a job. Whether he is or isn’t is one of the real masterstrokes of the film, and the acting of Abdihakin Asgar as Omar is also one of the film’s real joys – what a plausible silver-tongued piece of work he is.

This film works because it avoids the Seagal-style stuff entirely, opting instead for realism which would verge on the boring – men lying on bunks, sleeping and so on – if it hadn’t set up its tense throughline so well.

You could take issue with the passing of time in A Hijacking. Some people on the way out of the screening I was at certainly did. We’re at three days into the hijacking, then a couple of weeks, then three months, then six months and so on, without any real sense of time passing. The men’s beards don’t seem to grow much, for instance.

It didn’t bother me. I was too tightly held by the film’s basic coin-flip premise – will Peter, by playing hardball with his insanely low offers of ransom money, get his men killed? Or will the Somalis take a much much lower price than they’re asking for – they want $19 million, Peter’s offering $250,000?

On this question of the price of men’s lives the whole film turns. And what a tense, realistic turn it is.

A Hijacking is released in the UK on Friday 10 May 2013-05-10

A Hijacking – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

Kiss Me Deadly

Critics continue to argue over whether this is the best film noir ever made but all seem united on one point – Kiss Me Deadly is the best adaptation of one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels. Now 50 years old, the film opens with a scene that still packs a punch – cynical private eye Mike Hammer picks up a girl hitchhiker who is wearing only a mac. Within minutes his car has been run off the road and a brutal gang is torturing the girl before killing her.

The stage is set for Hammer, one of cinema’s great anti-heroes, to become avenging angel, visiting bad men in places high and low to find out whodunit and why. Ralph Meeker is a perfect Hammer, a dirty, lowdown man full of animal cunning, snide one-liners and little else, the ideal operator in a world gone to the bad.

Director Robert Aldrich and ace cinematographer Ernest Laszlo back Meeker every frame of the way in a succession of blowsy, jaundiced nihilstic set-ups designed to bring out the worst in every place and every person. And how do you finish off a film set in a world rotten from top to bottom. With a cleansing dose of nuclear apocalypse of course. That’s better.

Kiss Me Deadly – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2006

Amores Perros

Gael Garcia Bernal in Amores Perros

The film which announced the rebirth of Mexican cinema in 2000, Amores Perros was adored not just by cinephiles but also those who “don’t do subtitles”. The reasons are many and continue to make it a film worth seeing, or seeing again.

Shot on film which has been deliberately processed in the “wrong” chemical to produce distorted colours and bleached out highlights, it’s got a look which suddenly was everywhere – from hip adverts to films by old-schoolers such as Steven Spielberg (see 2005’s terrorist thriller Munich, for example). The multi-stranded plot which zips backwards and forwards from a pivotal moment – in this case a car crash – is now a Hollywood default for any film which doesn’t have enough plot or character.

Not an accusation to be levelled at Amores Perros. It’s about dogs – fighting dogs – hitmen, crazy love, Latin excess, fertile women, warring brothers, men with fussily trimmed beards. In fact debut director Alejandro González Iñárritu plunders Brazilian soap opera and pumps the cliches (a nod to Tarantino here) to pulp fiction proportions. And let’s not forget that the movie delivered to the world its first big Hispanic star of the new millennium – Gael Garcia Bernal.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Amores Perros – at Amazon

Confidential Report

Orson Welles in Confidential Report aka Mr Arkadin

The prevailing wisdom on Orson Welles has changed in recent years. It used to be: “Poor Orson, his masterpieces (such as The Magnificent Ambersons, It’s All True, The Lady from Shanghai ) butchered by the studios”. Now it’s: “Lazy Orson, got most of the way through a film and then lost interest”. Certainly Welles subscribed to the former view, and broadcast it widely wherever he went in Europe during his exile (or extended flake-out, take your pick).

Confidential Report fuels the debate. A shadow of both his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (in which Welles played the similarly gnomic Harry Lime), the film jumps around the world excavating the past of a mysterious megalomaniac and is either a masterpiece re-edited to destruction by the studios, or a series of brilliantly melodramatic vignettes which Orson couldn’t quite be bothered melding into a whole.

Whichever it is, and seven different versions have done the rounds over the years, the version I watched recently certainly seemed to have been edited by a man with a grudge. Maybe this was the same version that Cahiers du Cinema saw in 1958 and declared a masterpiece, in spite of the fact that all of Welles’s flashbacks and other chronological trickery had been ironed out.

Whichever version you are offered there’s good stuff in it – all that deep-focus photography and Expressionistic Euro-angst – and the always engaging, lovably preposterous figure of Welles himself, who plays the mysterious Mr Arkadin, by which name this mad, gothic/baroque fruitcake of a film is also known. See, you can’t get a straight answer even on the title.

© Steve Morrissey 2002

Confidential Report/Mr Arkadin – at Amazon