The Last Photograph

Danny Huston on the River Thames

For a good third of The Last Photograph, Danny Huston’s first directorial effort for nearly 20 years, there’s a distinct impression that something’s not right. The acting is wonky, some of the artistic choices are confusing (why has he put a soft filter on the camera at just this moment?), the narrative is playing out to a staccato rhythm which seems designed to confuse rather than enlighten. It’s all a bit chaotic.

Huston also plays the lead character, a grouchy guy who owns a bookshop concession inside Chelsea Farmers Market, London, whose dealings with his fellow humans all seem to end the same way: the middle finger, either at him or from him.

But then there’s the flashback stuff, to dad Tom (Huston) and son Luke (Jonah Hauer-King) driving out to the airport, en route having the sort of awkward conversation dads have with sons when matters of great intimacy are involved. Luke is going to spend Christmas with new girlfriend Bird (Stacy Martin), and dad would really rather Luke spent it with him. He’s hurt, but he’s not saying.

And there’s flashbacks to further back, when Luke met Bird at a party, and the fact of her hit him like a brick in the head, their courtship (an old-fashioned word, but it is an old-fashioned wooing) and their delicious falling-in-love.

Luke and Bird
So in love: Luke and Bird



The elements fall into place suddenly, as by a magician’s reveal, and yet there hasn’t actually been an obvious one. The “wonkiness”, the odd acting, the strange choices are all deliberate, they’re manifestations of Tom’s state of mind.

No matter what else is obscure in The Last Photograph, what is abundantly clear from the first moment is that Luke is now, somehow, dead and his father Tom has lost his grip on the world. He’s unmoored, unmanned.

Things come to a head after Tom’s briefcase is lifted from almost under his nose in his shop by two very obvious thieves – he’s obviously not fully functioning – and with it goes not just Tom’s money, house keys etc, but also the last photo he had taken with Luke, a Polaroid snapped at Christmas of a proud dad and his handsome son, poised on the threshold of his adult life.

And off Tom goes, blundering around the streets of London looking for the case, almost certainly chucked away by now, a copper tells him, on the way leaning for support on Hannah (Sarita Choudhury), the woman who runs the cafe next to his shop and who until now has thought of him as an “arsehole”.

This is an exploration of grief, more specifically male grief, a dad’s grief, and it’s a particularly effective one, unusually and sensitively done and never tipping over into mawkishness. Why it doesn’t is mysterious, though Huston’s acting has something to do with it, his intimate camera also, and the montage work done in the edit suite, where flashes of hazy, beautiful dream sequences suggest Tom isn’t the “arsehole” he superficially seems to be.

The luminous Stacy Martin helps too, though it’s actually Huston’s presentation of her that’s important: we get enough to understand that Bird is an individual and yet Huston’s camera is also non-specific enough that Bird is also everygirl to Luke’s everyboy, beautiful young people, a romantic couple in uppercase.

In letters from grieving dad to grieving girlfriend we get more texture, more emotion, more revelations about the state of Tom’s soul.

How Luke died is spelled out clearly, and the imdb summary spells it out clearly too, but I’m not going to go there. It’s the element that finally pulls the film together, explaining why the character of Tom is such a grouch, and why director Danny Huston is futzing around early on in a way that seemingly borders on the incompetent.

I will just say that it’s something familiar from TV news, a catastrophe from out of the blue, of the sort where helicopter news cameras hover and viewers gawp almost uncomprehendingly, re-assembling bits and pieces into what was once a familiar whole.

It’s a tiny film – one camera maybe, a handful of actors, most scenes one on one, probably shot in chunks on the fly whenever Martin or Hauer-King or Choudhury’s diaries synced with Huston’s, and then magicked together in an edit suite, where Ximenez Alvarez Mascio and Francisco Forbes have assembled footage shot by DP Ed Rutherford (Joanna Hogg’s DP, and we are in similar, emotionally subterranean territory). Peter Raeburn’s score of low rumbles and screamingly high notes perfectly catches the mood too.

Fabulous, and worth watching twice to fully get what Huston is doing in a film a lot bigger than its budget and also managing to make a very particular grief ring with a universal resonance.




The Last Photograph – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Archive

J3 is revealed


Here’s Archive, the debut by writer/director Gavin Rothery, who deserved better than for his film to slip between the cracks, which it did a bit thanks to the Covid restrictions. Instead of getting the big-screen release that was on the cards, it slunk out onto streaming months after it was due to be seen.

Rothery’s CV is full of art department gigs. He worked with Duncan Jones on Moon and Archive at first looks like it might be operating in the same territory. Lone guy marooned somewhere, taking orders from a stern voice back at HQ, possibly going mad in the process.

Except George (Theo James) isn’t in an off-world location, he’s in Japan, inside an aged retro-futurist tech facility, working on his own to create a robot to replace his wife, who died in a car crash.

He’s had two goes at it already. J1 (his wife was named Jules) is a big lumbering, silent, armless hunk of metal. J2 is talkative and TV-loving, a proper metal companion, albeit one with sharp edges and a screen where the face should be. J3, however, is different, a slinky humanoid who, once George has given her a mid-show makeover, becomes even more sensual – eyebrows, soft skin, silk clothes. Apart from the odd seam here and there she’s the spitting image of his dead wife. And once he’s downloaded his dead wife’s consciousness into her, the process will be complete.

What happens when you give a tech machine so much AI and machine learning that it develops empathy? One unintended consequence is that the two older robots get jealous of the new, Stacy Martin-shaped J3, J1 expressing herself via a series of disgruntled (concerned?) shuffles, while J2 more overtly pouts and sulks. Trouble is brewing.

So, three women fighting over Theo James (he’s also a producer) – check your privilege etc. At one point Rothery considers the notion of the perfect robot wife in terms of eating (J3 can eat though derives no sustenance from it), leaving other bodily considerations as shadowy suggestions. A box better left unopened, perhaps.

Stacy Martin and Theo James
Meeting the wife



Expertly grabbing hold of sci-fi tropes and design cues from sources as various as Metropolis, Star Wars, Ex Machina and Westworld, Rothery welds together the old-fashioned looks of “hard” sci-fi, all shiny surfaces and whooshing doors, with the grunge of the post-Alien era – in space no one can hear you take the trash out – a modern/postmodern melange.

The story itself is something Isaac Asimov might have come up with for his I, Robot collection, which considers the ethics of possible robot futures and the tricky relationships to be had once machines become super smart.

As you might expect from a man with an Art Department background, Archive looks great. George’s Bond-villain-esque remote lair is a confection of tech in various stages of disrepair. The robot design in particular is very good, each machine having its own personality, even the big lumbering J1, and each capable in a different way of being sinister.

Theo James has grown a beard for the film, which makes him less irritating and more plausible, somehow, while Stacy Martin is (again) perfect, entirely in character both as a warm human being entirely in love with George (all this in flashback) and as a bewildered robot learning the ropes of what it is to be human.

AI taken to the point of empathy, what could possibly go wrong? Sci fi’s focus is more often on the cold robot future (Skynet becoming self-aware in Terminator, for instance), but Archive tugs at a different thread, the warm robotic future. The perils of hanging out with empathic robots – that is very Asimov.

The ending is a bit of a cheat, satisfying in its own way but arriving from left field and explaining a few details, like the sudden arrival about a third of the way through of Toby Jones and a sidekick as a pair of sinister, black-clad gents claiming to be from the company where Jules’s post-mortem consciousness is stored. All is revealed.

A familiar film in many ways, but with a high concept that makes it worth a detour, on a big screen or small. I suspect Archive will develop its own cult following.




Archive – watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021







Amanda

David and Amanda


Amanda uses the Islamist terror attacks in Paris in 2015 as a springboard for a quiet drama about loss. Since the focus is resolutely on the human rather than the political, it might be a bit too quiet for some, but co-writer/director Mikhaël Hers appears to be deliberately trying to make this a case of less heat more light.

Hers takes time building up his characters. Amanda (Isaure Multrier) is the shy, sweet daughter of bright, kind teacher and lone mother Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb). Sandrine’s brother, David, is a young man working two jobs and always running a bit late. Busy busy. Too busy, in fact, to take his responsibilities as an uncle as seriously as he should.

And then Sandrine dies, just as we’re getting to know her, the victim of a terror attack that is never dealt with explicitly. It, like shit, just happens, and there, on a green space on a sunny day in Paris are suddenly a lot of dead, dying and wounded people who seconds before were enjoying life in the city. It’s so understated, in fact, that it’s easy to mistake all those people on the grass for an outdoor yoga class, until you spot the blood.

From here the film’s outcome remains a mystery but the direction of travel seems set in stone – David is going to be asked to take over the raising of his neice. How he’ll do that, how Amanda will react to it, whether he’ll bale out are the questions it seems certain the film will ask and answer. And it does. There are no real surprises here but then surprises aren’t what Hers is about.

It takes a village to raise a child, as the saying goes, and there’s definitely a touch of that going on in this film as various friends and relatives rally round to help, particularly David’s aunt Maud (Marianne Basler, an effortless fit into the slot marked “chic mature Parisian woman”). But again Hers does not seem too fussed going down that avenue either. In fact the film is barely about Amanda. It could just as easily have been called David, since Emotional Aftermath of a Traumatising Event is a bit of a mouthful.

Stacy Martin
Stacy Martin



Things that would be big in other films are small here. At one point we see Muslims in a park being upbraided by a white Parisian, presumably being accused of complicity in the outrage. But it’s off to the side and we can’t hear what’s being said. At another an old friend of Sandrine’s bumps into David accidentally. She doesn’t know Sandrine is dead, and David doesn’t say anything when Sandrine’s name comes up. Then the friend walks away and David chases after her to tell her what’s happened. Out of earshot.

Stacy Martin arrives early on as a potential love interest for David. Possibly a future mother figure for Amanda? Again, Hers plays coy, but Martin is a welcome figure in any film and she adds a touch of screen sparkle to a film in the main avoiding highs and lows.

All Hers’s films to date have been been set in, and have been to some extent about, Paris. Released in 2019 but not seen by many until the pandemic had got hold, Amanda acquires an unintended extra dimension as a story about life in a big, busy cosmopolitan city. At some level city life is a vote in your fellow human beings – that they won’t infect you, or shoot you, or blow you up – a point reinforced when David and Amanda head to bustling London to watch the tennis at Wimbledon and David reconnects with his estranged English mother Alison (twinkling Greta Scacchi).

So both Amanda and David have an absent parent in the mix. A connection. If you’re expecting Hers to make a big deal about this, as Amanda, David and Alison sit quiety on Primrose Hill overlooking London while trying to heal emotional wounds, you’re watching the wrong film.




Amanda – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


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© Steve Morrissey 2021






Godard Mon Amour aka Redoubtable

Louis Garrel and Stacy Martin

 

Le Redoutable aka Redoubtable aka Godard Mon Amour is another exercise in period spoofing for Michel Havanicius, the French film-maker who made his name with pastiches – notably winning an Oscar for The Artist, the faux silent movie having followed two 007 spoofs, the OSS 117 movies.

In all three a fictional character was held up for mild ridicule while Hazanavicius and his team sweated the small stuff, getting thousands of details just so in an attempt to conjure a world back into existence.

As with the OSS films the period this time is again the 1960s but this time the central figure isn’t fictional, it’s director Jean-Luc Godard, the hippest man in 1960s cinema, the Bob Dylan of the big screen.

Hazanavicius’s story picks up Godard (Louis Garrel) just at the point where he’s married the star of his latest film, La Chinoise, beautiful waif Anne Wizniewska (Stacy Martin)– she’s around 20, he’s mid 30s – and follows them through the “events” of 1968 and out the other side, when their relationship collapses.

En route we see an eminently reasonable, fun and accommodating (and frequently naked) Wiazemsky contending with a difficult, withdrawn, argumentative, aggressive, needy, cold Godard. Beauty and the Beast, one representing cinema as entertainment, the other cinema as revolution at 24 frames per second.

Echoing Marx’s remarks on history repeating itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, Hazanavicius replays the events of 68 – Godard and Wiazemsky on the streets, attending debates with students, disrupting the Cannes film festival – each time putting a lightly farcical spin on things. If Godard was the hero of his own narrative back then, he isn’t here.

 

Bérénice Bejo and Micha Lescot
Rosier (Bérénice Bejo) with Bamban (Micha Lescot)

 

Nor is he entirely at the centre of things. His not-so-glorious passage is seen through the eyes of Anne, and her sister in combat Rosier (Bérénice Bejo), another glamorous trophy of a successful artistic male, Bamban (Micha Lescot).

With a number of intervening decades between him and his subjects, Hazanavicius appears to be tentatively offering two real criticisms of the man. Godard fails to realise that he’s too old to be part of a youthquake, even with a hot young wife at his side. Perhaps even more to the point, he’s actually a member of the bourgeois class he’s railing against (as, for that matter, are the students tearing up the cobbles to throw at the police, but that’s another matter).

As soon as I saw those dark prescription glasses and thinning thatch I knew exactly who Louis Garrel was meant to be and that I wanted to see this film. He’s perfect as Hazanavicius’s fallible version of Godard. I’ve got no reference point for Wiazemsky but Martin (after Nymphomaniac another heroically underclad role for her) plays her as a smart, untutored young woman in thrall to a maestro she’ll eventually outgrow.

Godard hates this film. “A stupid, stupid idea,” he called it, and while it’s never going to have the mass appeal of The Artist, and there’s only so many impetuous sulks you can watch, there’s sport to be had watching Godard’s legend being adjusted – each of the chapter headings alludes to one of his films, for example.

You’ll be bored if you’re not into Godard, most likely, but Hazanavicius does try to head resistance off at the pass, with several scenes of pure Godard pastiche, fourth-wall this and meta-that, including the memorable one where Godard and Wiazemsky discuss the dramatic justification of on-screen nudity (“if the role demands it” etc) while both being naked for no reason except to poke fun at this sort of artistic piety.

Godard was wrong about cinema and revolution in the 1960s. The decade got its rocks off to music not pictures, though Godard continued up the cul-de-sac of “non-bourgeois” film-making to the point where his films became products of participatory democracy, with everyone involved having a vote on every artistic decision. Hazanavicius closes his film at the point where Godard, at work on a film, is forced to go along with one such democratically arrived-at decision, one he disagrees with. Close-up on the face of a man who who’s theorised himself into a dead end, hoist on is own farcically tragic petard.

 

Godard Mon Amour aka Le Redoutable – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Nymphomaniac: Vol. I

Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac Vol 1

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 April

 

Serge Gainsbourg born, 1928

On this day in 1928 Lucien Ginsburg was born, to refugees from the Russian revolution who had fled in 1917. Later, he would change his name from Ginsburg to Gainsbourg to reflect his admiration for the British landscape painter Gainsborough, and from Lucien to Serge to honour his Russian heritage. Originally intending to be a painter, Gainsbourg wound up supporting himself by playing piano in bars and so entered the world of music more by accident than design. However, once he realised he had something of a knack for chansons in the Jacques Brel style, he became a prolific composer and singer, mixing what he called hack work (he wrote two Eurovision songs, one of them a winner in 1965) with experimenta. He became notorious for the 1966 song he wrote for the teenage France Gall, “Les Sucettes” (Lollipops), a song about oral sex, though the singer herself claimed not to realise it. In 1969 he released “Je t’aime… moi non plus” with Jane Birkin (originally recorded with former lover Brigitte Bardot), a song with sexual lyrics, lots of heavy breathing and plenty of quasi-orgasmic groans. It was banned in many countries. Among his other artistic achievements are Histoire de Melody Nelson, an orchestral concept album telling the story of a Lolita-like affair; his Rock Around the Bunker concept album about the Nazis (as a Jew, Gainsbourg had been forced to wear the yellow star as a child); his reggae version of La Marseillaise (which inflamed public opinion until he won the argument by pointing out that the French national anthem is meant to be revolutionary); his co-writing/production on Alain Bashung’s cult album “Play Blessures”. On one of his final albums, Love on the Beat, he sang another controversial song, Lemon Incest, with his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg, then aged 12.

 

 

 

Nymphomaniac Vol I (2013, dir: Lars Von Trier)

Lars Von Trier’s films are often provocations. In Manderlay he gave us the sight of slaves better off under slavery than as free people. In Antichrist he gave us genital mutilation. In Melancholia we had a Michael Bay style armageddon picture done as psychoanalytical study. With Nymphomania he’s up to his old tricks, the film being the story of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a nymphomaniac who recounts her life story to the man who has found her beaten up in the street one evening. The form is clearly the Victorian picaresque adventure, with Stellan Skarsgård playing the sort of figure who, in another film, might say “your story intrigues me, please continue”, while Gainsbourg’s Joe recounts lurid incidents from a life of what seems like relentless fucking. Perhaps the style is even older – Pilgrim’s Progress, maybe – because, and here again Von Trier is definitely tickling our expectations, the journey is not about sex at all. It’s about love. This might come as a bit of disappointment for those hoping to consume hard-core sex under the brown wrapper of European arthouse. But that, again, is a target trope that Von Trier is seeking to invoke – at one point towards the end of Volume 1 of Nymphomania he presents us with a triply split screen, in each third of which some soft-focus guy is banging away at our sexual pilgrim, as clear an echo of early 70s sex-house as you could want (if you want to see it as a religious triptych, that is there too). The strength of Nymphomania is that it works without any of this referential stuff too, Gainsbourg’s delicate yet defiant performance anchoring it steadily, though Stacy Martin does much of the heavy sexual lifting in Volume 1 as the young Joe. Some of the “guest” performances are truly remarkable – Uma Thurman as a scorned wife confronting her husband and the nymphette Joe is so astonishing that it took me five minutes to realise it was even her; you will forgive Shia LaBeouf for his entire career when you see him as Joe’s peevish earnest lover; Christian Slater is genuinely heartbreaking as Joe’s loving father. It is a remarkable film, which, as great love-making sessions do, pauses playfully here and there for disquisitions – on the Fibonacci sequence, fly-fishing, the music of Bach – before plunging on to the next blowjob or biffing. And yes, you see LaBeouf’s cock.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Von Trier’s best film to date
  • The remarkable and daring performances
  • Part 1 of the last, with Antichrist and Melancholia, of Von Trier’s “trilogy of depression”
  • The best Uma Thurman performance you’ll ever see

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Nymphomaniac Vol 1 – at Amazon