Thursday, 1 May 2014

Calvary (2014, John Michael McDonagh)


John Michael McDonagh's Calvary is a mixed bag of ideas and executions; on one hand it's a higher reaching and higher serving film than 2011's The Guard yet the simple pleasures of its predecessor are lost here in a conflicting battle of existentialism and broad humour.

At one point Brendan Gleeson's priest - Father James Lavelle - says to another offended priest, "you just don't have integrity, that's the worst thing you could say to someone". Integrity is certainly something McDonagh and his brother Martin don't lack but here is an example of a filmmaker trying to have his cake and eat it. We know the brothers' penchant for the crass, but they're also capable of great pathos (most expertly shown in Martin McDonagh's In Bruges). To quote another famous priest - Robert Mitchum's Robert Powell in The Night Of The Hunter -  is a clear battle of "right-hand-left-hand". On one hand is the introspective, brooding cinema of Ingmar Bergman, the transcendental formalism of Robert Bresson, and the equally formalist Carl Theodor Dreyer. On the other is an onslaught of obvious humour that offsets this drama asking what it means to be a priest today and what place God has in modern society.

Brendan Gleeson carries the film as effortlessly as one would expect. He makes Father James instantly recognisable and gruff, a man generally liked by the community and yet ostracised for his collar. His recovering daughter (Kelly Reilly) comes to stay with her family in this small Irish community as she gets over an attempted suicide. We never see the arrangement of her staying yet she is embraced with the calmness you might not expect from a father who's nearly lost his only child; we later find out they have lost their wife and mother, respectfully, in the past. Loss has permeated both their lives in different ways and so when death hangs above them they remain neutral as if in the company of a strange local in a dark pub. There's something beautifully serene and yet unsettling about this.

It's accurate to say that Calvary begins and ends with its most powerful and poignant scenes; the opening - a shocking confessional filmed with Gleeson in tight close up - is a straight faced and threatening scene as a formerly clergy abused child now adult vows that the Father will die in 7 days. The Guard had a sense of an impending showdown yet here the tone here is increasingly grave from the offset. The closing scene is a profound sweep over the lives of the film's players and their problems brought forward by the unfurling drama that shows the necessary impact of someone like Father James, believer or not. 

Calvary ends up being two films trying to operate simultaneously and never really gelling. The comedy even when on target (it's not always) feels more like comic relief for the films larger overarching themes. On one hand it brings to mind Bergman's Winter Light and of Bresson's Diary Of A Country Priest - yet the drama omitted form these clear reference points are diluted and off-set by the periodic crass humour, never really allowing the film to fully consider its comedy or more importantly its questions of faith and its placement in the world today.

Out of the two films it tries to be, the one that works really works. John Michael McDonagh has followed in his brother's footsteps in that he's made a rather conflicted second feature, however unlike his brother there are elements within this follow up that take this beyond his debut. Some more direction might be needed for his third feature as the talent up on screen is undoubtable, though hopefully next time making a film with a clear path instead of making two films concurrently. 

Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky)


The Western genre is generally seen as the most 'out of date' or 'wavering' genre - a consistently unfair viewpoint as each decade harbours enough examples of such a film often complete with progressive artistry. The western as a maintaining populist genre? No, but relevant none the less. The Biblical epic, however, certainly can't be professed as such things at all. Interesting is the room in this sub-genre for reinvention on such a sweeping, fantastical stage. Even more interesting or rather baffling (for positive reasons none the less) is that this $180 million film exists in an arguably increasingly secular society where forwarding technology and social mores are suffocating artistic freedom in cinema.

Awe inspiring in its beauty and bare brutality, Noah is a cinematic experience unlike any other. At times a marvel and at others confounding in its ambition, Darren Aronofsky's long gestating take on the Old Testament's parable of a man missioned by God to undertake his destroying of creation doesn't hang together as a whole but holds within it sequences of sheer astonishment. Some of the most beautiful sequences of film to contest any example before it.

Beginning with a thumping musical introduction that's almost comical with intimidation, the story of Man's fall is glided through with the first murder of Abel by brother Caine. More fleeting is the murder of a young Noah's father, also by Caine (Ray Winstone), that begins an intertwining battle between the fallen brother and an adult Noah (Russell Crowe). Given the short nature of the source material - the story of Noah is a mere four paragraphs - Aronofsky and his team have endless room for artistic licence in bringing the pre-flood Earth to life. Characterisation is at a minimum with the film feeling very much like an adaptation of a parable (Noah is simple described as "righteous" in scripture without further divulgence) and so the players of the film exist more as archetypal figures than fully drawn ones. This certainly adds to the often direct style of acting brought by both Crowe and Winstone, however when the film reaches for higher emotional notes others, such as the brilliant Jennifer Connelly as Noah's dedicated wife feel out of sorts with the film, of course not to their own detriment.

The world building and visuals are without doubt the strongest element of Noah, with this desolate landscape coming somewhere between Middle Earth and science fiction - think Game Of Thrones by way of David Lynch's Dune. Angels cast down by God are consumed by the Earth and live tortured existence as hobbling rock creatures, these fallen rock angels help defend Noah and his family in the Ark against the sinful army of Caine. This is one of the wild moves in the film that have to be seen to be believed.

There is a certain elliptical style to the film that doesn't lend itself to the gruelling, cumbersome challenge of building an Ark of such grandeur. Aronosky's central characters have nearly always been characterised by an achilles heel, an ambition that pushes past the realm of the physical that enters them in the arena of impossibly realised dreams. Here is the first time that through divine intervention (God is referred to as The Creator throughout) the impossible can and is achieved. It's in the psychological despair, or rather guilt, of mass genocide and of this chosen family's survival that the film's dramatic arc (sorry!) hangs on and it does so well with a paranoia bringing to mind early Polanski.

Noah's apocalyptic visions are fantastically realised as he drowns in his sleep surrounded by the souls of a thousand 'sinners'. But it's in the waking reality of these visions as they come to life before him that truly strike a chord; such as the harrowing screams of those clung to rock faces just outside of the floating vessel, Noah's family know they could help save some one but their father dismisses any such action. He knows what he's been destined to carry out and Crowe's wearing eyes project the torment.

Aronofsky's films have always had a weakness in how direct and undiluted they are, yet this dually has also marked his main strength as a filmmaker too; honing in on a theme and intensely gripping it without losing sight. This has made for a career of brash and rather blunt films made majestically operatic thanks to a long lasting collaboration with composer Clint Mansell. One must never forget that despite his subjective viewpoints and often surreal nature, Aronofky is a director of melodramas. Here, Aronofsky and his team have settled on an ecological message that sits well against a parable of destruction and mankind's inability to change. This clear righteous message may frustrate many viewers more than the fears of a religious story; Noah certainly has strong explorations of faith, especially during the film's strongest sequence aboard the arc where the family fall apart due to Noah's unwavering loyalty to what he believes his mission is. Overall it is undoubtably the work of a team of non-believers but also the work of someone clearly passionate about a timeless, boundless, story that has found its way into just about any culture on the face of the planet.

Noah is hindered by being bookended with its weakest scenes and the regularly visceral Aronofsky is obviously working in 'safer' territory than before given the source material and the biggest budget of his career. This results in a slightly awkward film that although never shying away from the inherent darkness of such a story, never quite feels like it can let loose despite the sheer levels of ambition and vision on display. It's a miracle this film exists.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)


Wes Anderson's film have nearly always harboured in them a sad sense of loss, a melancholic glance at an enterprise and/or person fallen from great heights and majesty. Just think of the departed mothers and fathers of Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited, the flailing dynasty of The Royal Tenenbaums, and Steve Zissou tragically looking to regain past glories, literally cast out in a sea of bereavement. Anderson's latest further looks into these themes while divulging once again the director's fascination with the art of storytelling, entering further into his own painfully designed fantasy world perhaps more than ever before. 

Spanning many decades but largely told over the span of two fictional versions of the First and Second World Wars, the story centres around the fine Grand Budapest Hotel and its concierge - Mr. Gustav H - played by Ralph Fiennes on barnstorming comical form. The happenings of the once legendary hotel and its passionately loving high servant is told from the aged eyes of Mr. Zero Moustafa, once a young lobby boy trained under the scrutinous command of Gustav. But that's not all, as even the frail Moustafa's account of his youth is recounted by a young writer (Jude Law) who goes on to publish a book on these memoirs. The film opens with the older author (Tom Wilkinson) reading from his praised work of the man's life he was once lucky enough to have access to. Anderson's penchant for theatrics and the joy of storytelling has never been felt more than here in this multilayered recounting of a past-era and a man whose greatness lies in the memory and heart of a once young upstart.

Mr. Gustav H is a professional at heart and in the hands of these storytellers is held up as if the greatest concierge whom ever existed; his work treated like a dance as he swans from room to room, seeing to needs before they've even arisen in the guest's minds. But he's not quite the professional one presumes from the start, he harbours a 'playful' streak that involves the seduction and obtained adoration of the hotel's various rich (and elderly) female clients. It seems innocent enough through the light nature of Gustav's charms yet this dark vice, or materialistic streak of his, is never fully explored and is merely a subjective footnote we're left to mull over.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a strange mix of tones and it's in the marvellous use of shading that marks its biggest success. The wafer thin plotting of a will left by one of Gustav's matrons and the subsequent war waged by her enraged son goes hand-in-hand with the audacious Python-esque slapstick humour. This is counterbalanced by the cut aways to the aged Moustafa as he recounts the events, his love and loss of both his loves - Gustav and the spritely young baker, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan). Such moments are rife with mourning and become the film's most anchoring scenes that make for the heaviest moments in what from the offset could have been Anderson's lightest outing yet. The humour is pitch perfect, largely thanks Fiennes's turn in a truly inspired character such as Gustav (his effortless reciting of poetry throughout never loses its comic hold) yet this is again neutralised by the oppressive darkness brought by the murderous hitman Joplin (Willem Defoe) who's out for Gustav's blood. This brutal turn from Defoe's hitman and the swan song like recital from Moustafa are harmonised in the arrival of a Nazi-like militia that casts a shadow over the golden years told thus far. This malevolent force destroys this way of life personified by Gustav and buries it forever much like the fallen aristocracy in Visconti's The Leopard (1963).

With an ensemble cast to rival all casts assembled before it The Grand Budapest Hotel is an uneven affair due to its vast attention span but one that manages to retain a dark and sad resonance thanks to a finely built mythology weaved in throughout. And, of course, the ghost of Kumar Pallana, the Anderson regular and dear friend who was sadly lost last October who's lack of presence looms over this tale of pain and awe. 

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014, Joel & Ethan Coen)


Joel and Ethan Coen have always been accused of lording it over their characters with a disdained manner, jeering at their shortfalls and downwardly spiralling lives thanks often to their creation's common stupidity. Whereas their plots do often deal with failure, this critic doesn't share such an opinion and it certainly doesn't apply to their Inside Llewyn Davis that follows the daily trials of a talented (yet sour) New York folk singer in the cruel pursuit of success. The film feels like a swan song thanks to the dedicated, morose central performance of Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, and its steely,withered photography matches the harshness given and received by its titular anti-hero. In fact, and this depends entirely how you want to look at it, the film is actually one of hope as with history on its side we know that the folk boom is just around the corner in 1961. All out of hope, can Llewyn continue the good fight and not compromise with this musical shift so near? Perhaps settle on mediocrity, or a more morbid fate hinted at throughout.

History is of course on our side in this case and not on Llewyn's, which is what makes most of the film such a gruelling experience as what little resilience on his face at the start is wiped off through constant hardship. Like Lebowski's 'The Dude' we have another man out of step with his time - the product of another era. Here however, unlike 'The Dude', Llewyn is a step ahead of the game in the Universe's grand plan yet is perceived by the music business as dated; as a producer says coldly after one of Llewyn's heartfelt renditions, "I don't see any money in it".

Llewyn is a prickly character and it can be argued is responsible for much of his detriment, whether that be in his personal or professional life. Though within this tale and with much thanks to Isaac's complete understanding of his character he is also a sympathetic man; he takes a beating for heckling another act without much complaint, receives a bombardment of vitriol from a past lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), because on his face you can see he agrees with her, and upon upsetting a dinner party hosted by a couple who've been his biggest supporters, realises he overstepped the mark and does indeed apologise later. His caring for a neighbour's cat which he managed to get locked out is also endearing as well as redeeming and reminds of the touching relationship between man and dog in Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (1952). Here is a man who will continue to apologise his entire life because he will continue to upset people - why? Because he cannot and will not change, though this is softened by his acceptance of what an"asshole" he can be. 

With the 60s in its infancy, still blooming and with these players inside the eye of the storm and without a removed perception of this developing counter culture, Llewyn is rebelling against the bourgeoisie (despite resting on it when he really needs a sofa) and either stifles or enriches himself because he refuses to dilute or add others to his act. This is a film about integrity but not only that one about loss and grief too.

Bruno Delbonnel's photography brutally and yet beautifully captures the unforgiving winter, the smoke filled bars where the folk acts play - most famously The Gaslight. You're able to feel these places, taking and placing you in the comfort of the front row or in the blistering cold as Llewyn embarks on a surreal-tinged road trip to Chicago, accompanied by a near mute Garrett Hedland and a Jazz informed John Goodman. The look captured by the Coens and Delbonnel is almost anaemic, with the image seemingly drained of life to match Llewyn's doleful gaze; a dolefulness explained by the suicide of his musical partner and friend, Mike. Much is explained in this loss, this man who wasn't there hangs over the film and torments Llewyn who struggles to carry on alone.

It can be argued that since 2007's No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen began a new elegiac chapter to their career that seems natural given as the duo are approaching their sixties; even the rather spritely Burn After Reading dealt with marital breakdown and midlife crises amidst its broad strokes. This has continued through their True Grit which also dealt with a loss of innocence and the passing of time, a touching story under its steely heroine. With their latest feeling like a funeral procession of sorts despite its sporadic moments of hilarity and a soulful soundtrack that will surely go on to rival even O' Brother Where Art Thou?

A typical Coen protagonist tends to be one of pretension, or one who misjudges their station. They also tend to be passive, or at least ignorant to the consequences of their own actions. Inside Llewyn Davis presents us with another man who gets whipped by fate and boxed by life due to his unfortunate action, or lack of it. It presents us with questions and avenues of which Llewyn could head but leaves us to answer them for ourselves in the same way the similarly pitched companion piece A Serious Man did. 

It's 1961 and the situation in Vietnam is escalating, Bob Dylan is about to burst the folk scene open, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy not too far off in the distance; will America ever get over that loss? Will Llewyn ever get over his? For a man who can't seem to think ahead by barely a day no one can see what's actually around the corner. So whether Llewyn reenlists as a seaman, continues his plight as a musician (untainted or not), or follows a similar fate to his partner Mike, we're left to ponder. Life's unknowable nature is at once petrifying and yet in its infinite possibility should be more exciting and hopeful than we ever give it credit for, the cynic in us so often wins. If only we could view our own lives like we view Llewyn Davis's existence, a fantasy if there ever was one.

Head over to Kubrick on the Guillotine for part one, two, and three of my Coen Brothers career retrospective.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Wolf Of Wall Street (2014, Martin Scorsese)



There are copious amounts of drugs consumed during The Wolf Of Wall Street. At one early point the titular Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) boasts of his day-to-day consumption that makes his job as a successful stockbroker possible. His everyday is a whirlwind of cursing, stress, and complete expenditure only made possible by the counteracting cocktail of drugs swooshing through his veins at all times. Of course, when he says with utter hubris of his favourite drug while snorting up a line of cocaine, he isn't speaking of the narcotic itself but the instrument used to consume it - money. This epic tale of greed and mayhem is directed by the 70+ year old Martin Scorsese with the same youthful vigour and passion he's always brought to the fold, written with the same attention to detail we'd expect from Terrence Winter (The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire) and acted so fearlessly by DiCaprio this might well be his finest performance to date.

When Jordan Belfort shows up in New York City in the late 80s to make his way up the financial ladder, he's not so much baby faced and full of innocence, no. Such broad strokes of character would be dishonest but the young professional who clearly wants to make a dollar and a cent in life is earnest enough. He's married and wants to provide, admirable, but as he ascends the corporate ladder thanks to the 'kind' jump start of a higher stockbroker played by Matthew McConaughey, whatever moral code lived by before gets destroyed almost over night.

McConaughey's Mark Hanna gives Belfort a prep-talk over lunch, or rather Martinis; this perfectly pitched scene reveals the inner workings of a stockbroker's mind, the environment they inhabit, their code of conduct. This scene echoes throughout the film and acts so well as an anchored reference point so effectively thanks to McConaughey's remarkable screen presence. He impacts on us as much as Belfort, he impresses with his hypnotising speech, lulling us in with a twisted poetry of sorts like a charming devil.

For all of The Wolf Of Wall Street's narrative vigour that continues the trademark sweep of Goodfellas and Casino, not to mention its mammoth run time, the film is perfectly pitched while it drastically changes tone and speed. Scenes such as Hanna's prep-talk feel at ease in a film that constantly pushes forward to match the overbearing ambition of its characters. Other lengthy dialogue scenes such as Belfort and his new employee Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) are equally well placed despite not actually moving the 'story' but by setting us uneasily in the psyche of the film's players. This has always been one of Scorsese's main strengths. They talk about Azoff's marriage to his first cousin, a humorous conversion set in disbelief and perversion before ending with the two smoking crack cocaine round the back of a bar. Like so many of the film's unsavoury acts it causes awkward laughter because in cases such as these you've got a choice to do either that or cry instead.

 As Belfort's own enterprise flowers with the help of Azoff and an assortment of streetwise cronies from Belfort's own past, he rises to great fortune and power in an almost Charles Foster Kane like ascension, losing bit-by-bit his perception of the real world outside of great wealth, falling into delusions of grandeur. There's a moment in Goodfellas when after living the high life and losing everything, Henry Hill looks into the camera to complain to us how horrible his working class life has become, how he misses fine food, women, drugs, and power. That seminal crime film was Scorsese's guilty pleasure as despite its rise and fall structure it doesn't actually provide redemption as Hill is only sorry for getting caught and nothing else. This attitude and radical point of addressing the audience is where TWOWS jumps off from, with Belfort at one point even stopping mid-sentence as he explains one of his scams doubting we the audience can follow him, so he dumbs it down. This cocky demeanour flows throughout as Belfort serves as our guide through this epic, sordid affair, but never does it itself talk down to its audience. This is fine filmmaking from a master director still with gas in the tank; the film is about detestable people which on this occasion doesn't equate a detestable film like some detractors have put forth. With La Dolce Vita, Fellini delved into the shallow lives and excesses of the paparazzi, the film's moral centre left aloof as finding one amongst the rising rubble of postwar Italy seemed impossible to Fellini within that time and subculture. This was the film's point and it doesn't make it any less of an important work for it.

Belfort's downfall comes not only in his ego, his belief that he's a king, but in the form of FBI Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), and as the film descends into anarchy as the seams of Belfort and Co's company comes apart from this added heat and their inability to function on the cocktails of drugs do we really see the film for what it is - a story of addiction.

The film leaves a bad taste in the mouth but remains wholly worthy perhaps only due to the creative team behind it. It's a shameless divulgence into the lives of the shameless as Belfort's memoirs are re-inacted on screen, giving us a snapshot into his absurdist excess through success. How reliable these accounts are can be left up to the reader or viewer, though one thing is sure, it's one hell of a ride and one that has left many irate. It's been argued that the film grants Belfort and his many cronies a pardon of sorts as their lives are explored (the press have been arguing this about crime pictures since Howard Hughes's Scarface 1932), but its purpose is to look into the dark heart of money (the root of all evil) and if anything The Wolf Of Wall Street is one of the more affective representations of addiction of recent years. 

As well as an historic snapshot into the precursive events that helped the economic crash of 2007-08, and the inner mechanical workings of those who helped these events transpire through sheer greed, TWOWS acts as well as any film i've seen in recent years as a looking into addiction. For all the drugs taken they only truly serve as a platform to accomplish the real insatiable accomplishments of the stockbrokers. These are shark-like men after blood, always hungry, never content with what they've got. Belfort tries to justify the lifestyle of the rich, saying that the rich can live well while helping charities; he seems to believe these words but we never see him help anyone but himself and whatever money (if any at all) is given to the poor will be nothing on the excess riches lavished on themselves. 

When Denham's FBI look set to take Belfort down he threatens to go legit on the advice of his father (Rob Reiner), he announces it to the company and in this scene it looks for a second like the film is siding with 'The Wolf' himself, feeling pity as he steps down from his throne as others weep. But Belfort cannot leave, denounces his retirement and puts on an egotistical show as usual. Unsurprisingly this leads to his downfall as a result. It's in this moment that you see the addict, not to a substance but to a lifestyle. In the film's remarkably powerful final scene, now out of prison and supporting himself in tours of 'how to get ahead' like business seminars, he hands out a pen to his audience and asks individual members to sell it back to him. Echoing an earlier scene in which he did the same to his cronies before their business venture, DiCaprio's sad and sullen eyes reflect the disappointment of this audiences's pathetic attempts. His time as king has past, he walked (or so he thought) with the best of them, lived like the best of them. He's desperate for that high again, that inspiration, that energy to lead to that rush of riches but now he's surrounded by schmucks. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

American Hustle (2014, David O. Russell)



With an ensemble of performers that will be a hard push to beat throughout the new year, David O. Russell crafts an entertaining and tightly conceived caper out of the real events of the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970s. Surprisingly touching and featuring (unsurprisingly) an array of oddball characters, American Hustle sacrifices its historical background to tell a resonant story of regained love and second chances to great effect.

The film drops us into the middle of the story as a group of as yet unidentified misfits attempt to pull off a job amid a backdrop of hidden cameras and microphones. We know the stakes are high but to what end and for why? We're not yet indulged. The audaciously hilarious opening images of an overweight balding Christian Bale gluing his hair into place is sidesplitting in its silence; it's tough to imagine a more effortlessly shocking opening image coming along in cinema this year.

As Irving Rosenfeld's (Bale) voice-over takes us through his origin as a conman and his meeting with equally cunning true love, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams),  and their successes and eventual downfall through FBI agent Richie DiMasso (Bradley Cooper), it's clear form the offset that we're in safe hands as the film lulls you into its cool pacing and confident direction.

The cinematic chameleon of Amy Adams is smartly cast as Rosenfeld's right hand woman and lover; in a film featuring characters who deal in deception for a living, as the FBI's grip tightens on the couple and their secret counter attack is left ambiguous at best, Prosser's intentions are never to be trusted as Adams retains a strong level of danger from a character who could be a best friend or worst enemy at the drop of a hat. This of course works as the film's dramatic arc due to it being on a kilter with Bale's endearingly frumpy turn; as the couple are forced to give the FBI 'crooked' politicians through financial dealings while juggling their own lives - mostly the firecracker that is Rosenfeld's wife played memorably by Jennifer Lawrence - its impossible to not want this man, played so gently by Bale to succeed.

American Hustle is entertainment through and through, with evenly paced and wisely placed humour throughout. It's hard to remember a film that gets more mileage out of its humour in hair, make-up, and costume changes alone. The drama naturally flattens as the plot strands and motives take over in the final stages, this is due to Russell being more interested in the characters and their predicaments rather than the historical context and to an extent this pays off as it avoids the history with a capital H look at the story. Though a standout scene involving a welcomingly intimidating supporting turn from Robert DeNiro certainly cranks up the heat as lives begin to hang in the balance. 

Everyone is clearly having fun here and thanks to the human emotive elements being brought out so well it really pays off as intelligent popcorn fare of the highest order. Bringing the key actors in from his last two films (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook), Russell tells (albeit entirely on different ground) another story of reinvention and second chances - a universally powerful theme if there ever was one. Like his performers, the director is also having a back as he makes his throwback to 1970s American cinema. In one scene Richie DiMasso listens to Rosenfeld speak at a gallery of how the forger of art can be argued as being just as talented as the artist themselves. There's some mirroring here as Russell shoots and edits with the energy and passion of 70s greats Scorsese and Lumet to name but a couple, respectfully forging his own film successfully out of the mould left by these acknowledged masters.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Young & Beautiful/Jeune & Jolie (2013, François Ozon)


Belle De Jour is perhaps the most iconic film made about prostitution. A 1967 French production made by Spaniard Luis Buñuel, it told the story of a young bourgeois housewife's ambiguous foray into high class prostitution, commanded by Cathrine Deneuve's ice queen persona and its director's penchant for  surreally tinged, subjective viewpoints. 

François Ozon has worked with Deneuve more than once himself and here has crafted his own sexual odeyssey with an equally removed turn from his leading lady - the stunning Marine Vacth - who more than lives up to this film's title.

The 17 year old Isabelle (Vacth) is an enigma from start to finish. Beginning in the summer at her family's beach resort she celebrates her birthday and loses her virginity one night to a handsome German-teen who she's made a strong impression on but seldom returns. He later comments to her brother that he's never met a girl like Isabelle, his voice filled with a loose concern, not of his own but for the world. His concern is well placed. In the middle of losing her virginity she imagines herself looking on at her display of love-making - a sign of regret? It certainly seems so at first but later it's clear this imagined apparition comes from her need or want to be desired, even desiring herself in this ultimate narcissistic fantasy.

Ozon divides his film into four segments, four seasons that chronicle Isabelle's life. It's a shock then that a mere 15 minutes in we're already dropped into autumn (the fall being no accident here) and following this young girl into a life as a call girl. No signposts have appeared to suggest such a drastic decision  and as she meets clients in between school classes we're left to wonder her motives for such an experience; the money flows in and yet she was already of privilege and wants for nothing, she is mistreated and yet she keeps returning. This first half of the tale is shrouded in mystery that only lets up slightly within the second half as the family deal with such news in the wake of a revealing tragedy. It's then that Isabelle's sexuality becomes something much more monstrous with Vacth's engulfing presence recalling the nymphette of Kubrick's Lolita

Ironic music is used throughout the film, mostly within sexual montages that highlight almost comically the emotional remove from the psychical acts. Even as the young Isabelle appears to be moving into a relationship with a classmate she terminates it after their first sexual encounter, resuming the ice cold exterior so damaged, unable or unwilling to connect. This seems to be an issue honed in by Ozon here, sex being clinically dissected into two parts and kept separate. This perhaps more evident in the internet age and the accessibility of pornography, something mentioned within the film on several occasions. The search for pleasure, for sexual gratification, can now more than ever be viewed in a light far removed from emotional bonding. The two dangerously regarded as separate entities. 

For such a sexually overt career it's surprising Ozon hasn't taken on prostitution before now with his high work rate. Jeune & Jolie propels ones interest thanks to the assured central performance; a damaged soul, a sexual abyss, a largely unreadable woman whose beauty keeps you fixed on her blank page. It's a largely cold affair but a point immune to criticism, after all, for such a profession inspected here emotions must be left at the door and the money asked upfront. However, while impressive this isn't top tier Ozon and feels strangely less evocative than say Swimming Pool