Natalie Portman and Carey Mulligan as a hero and a human

Annihilation and Collateral both feature badass women in state-sanctioned roles unerring in their determination to complete a complex task. Reason enough to warrant comparison, surely? (Not to mention the fact that I happened to watch them both last week. My watch-rate is greater than my blog-rate, so I’m reviewing two birds with one stone.)

Following in Stalker’s footsteps, Annihilation is a new take on ‘the zone’: an action movie that calls for a traditional driven-though-slightly-reckless hero, Lena, who is drawn out compellingly by Natalie Portman. Collateral, on the other hand – which follows a police investigation of the murder of a migrant in London – is as much a character study of Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie (Carey Mulligan) as it is a police story and a criticism of modern-day immigration rhetoric.

As often happens in sci-fi movies like Annihilation, Lena is mainly a vehicle for revealing the space. The ‘main characters’ are absent: these are the aliens whose presence created this gene-warping hyper-evolving space in the first place. In Collateral, it would have been simple to use Kip in a similar vein: a two-dimensional tool to reveal the quirks and secrets of the characters in the story. But she is much more complex, with Mulligan chewing on the excellent script to weave a web of Kip’s strengths, foibles and attitudes with the utmost finesse.

 

Motivations are a good example of this difference. Lena is driven by the unexplained loss of her husband Kane to give up everything and embark upon a death mission to the centre of the zone. This motivation, while the action she takes is drastic, is assumed as making innate sense. DI Glaspie’s drive to achieve the goal at each stage of the murder investigation is more intimately constructed. One major aspect of her past, a thwarted sporting background (she was a pole vaulter and crashed out of the Olympics with a broken back), is hinted at with progressively increasing detail throughout the series.

The ‘fatal flaws’ of each character also differ in their complexity. Lena’s flaw is in compromising her own safety to discover what has happened to Kane. DI Glaspie compromises her own safety too, but also that of others. In order to get valuable information, DI Glaspie offers a refugee witness UK residency without the authority to do so. She climbs the stairs to negotiate with an unstable murderer even though she’s six months pregnant. This degree of recklessness would not be acceptable within the confines of the watertight heroism of Annihilation.

According to Mulligan herself, TV shows are an incubator of complex female characters where the big screen is failing. This is why she chose to be in Collateral:

“You can get a TV show like Big Little Lies, which has five or six extraordinary roles for women, while there would maybe be half a good role for a woman in a film. I want to play the most interesting, complicated real person, and interesting, complicated real people in films are really, really rare.” Carey Mulligan to The Independent

Through Collateral, writer-director team David Hare and S. J. Clarkson have certainly helped to bring a fresh vulnerability and complexity to mainstream audiovisual narratives. What put them in the position to move beyond the usual offering for female characters or protagonists in general – was it the small-screen format, somehow? Was it the length of screen time available to TV-writers? The police-show genre? A different gender-relations climate in the UK to the US? Was it a particular drive and vision, which we have seen in ample measure in The Hours and The Reader (both screenwritten by Hare)?

We could ponder over several possible reasons, but the fact is that a hero character in an action movie about a ‘zone’ could be equally complex if enough attention was paid to it. Taking this kind of risk would bring a more honest identification for viewers with the people we see on the screen, a deeper validation of who we are, and greater confidence in ourselves – especially for women, who tend to receive messages from mainstream media that it is best of all to be passive, innocuous, and immaculately manicured. It’s good to have a hero like Lena, but it would be even better if such characters were truly fleshed out, more deeply human.

Hiding (or simplifying) our vulnerabilities is so twentieth-century. With the array of top movie directors overwhelmingly male – as Natalie Portman herself pointed out recently when presenting the Director’s award at the Golden Globes – some serious top-level change is in order before we can reliably find female characters (or, perhaps, characters in general) with the complexity and uniqueness of Kip Glaspie on the big screen.

Annihilation and Collateral are both currently available on Netflix.

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‘Call Me By Your Name’ Review

In Call Me By Your Name, Timothée Chalamet is subtly moving as Elio, a brooding yet well-adjusted seventeen year-old boy from a privileged Euro-American family, whittling away the summer in Italy. He becomes enchanted with his father’s male research assistant and they gradually slip into a romance as Elio discovers his desires and limits.

Luca Guadanigno has built a deep love of Italian pop culture as well as Italian tradition into this film. Brash, swaggering Italian 80s pop mingles with old ladies sitting shelling beans and giving cups of water to strangers. Nevertheless, the fetishisation of pan-European intellectualism is in full force. With English, French, and Italian constantly bleeding into one another, there is one comical moment in which Elio’s mother pulls a book from the shelf. It happens to be in German, which she laments for a moment, before starting to read it aloud and translate it for Elio and his father.

When Elio and Oliver wake up together for the first time, we cut to a shot of the secret pond. It seems to be waiting for them, primed and ready for their joy. Combined with the film’s contemplative ending, this pond and its resting potential symbolise more than just the relationship between the two, but the wide expanse of Elio’s future in general. By moving cautiously towards whatever we are drawn to, and by taking our time, we create space for life to unfold in an organic and meaningful way.

The movie’s softly revelatory ending does not trouble but rather deepens our sense of the wise and kind parenting in the film – a rare exposure of positive familial relating in the movies. The plot’s gentle transitions and the observant, unobtrusive cinematography are crystallised in the father’s message to his son: we must be with – and not cut off – our feelings if life is to be worthwhile. In the 16th Century French romance that Elio’s mother reads out in German, the knight’s question is ‘Should I speak or die?’ The film seems to affirm that this is indeed the question.

 

Review of ‘Frantz’

Frantz, France & Germany, 2017, directed by François Ozon

Post-war romantic saga or clunky assertion of our common humanity? You can almost taste pre-twenties Europe in this well-styled film that could do with lopping off the last few twists in its plot. (And Anna’s hats are quite something.)

Frantz opens with a puzzling occurrence in a German town in the year after the First World War’s end. Anna, who is visiting the grave of her fallen-soldier fiancé, Frantz, gleans that an unknown Frenchman has been placing flowers on the grave too. He tries to visit the home of her former in-laws-to-be, where she is staying, and is kicked out by Frantz’s father for being French. There is some back-and-forth as Anna seeks him out, and eventually introductions are made. The visitor, Adrien, whom it turns out had some form of connection with Frantz, brings new life to the home and we even get the sense that there could be some romance between him and Anna.

Tension cultivated, denouements are tossed at us with gusto for the rest of the film. Halfway through the 113 minutes there is a Big Reveal, a this-man-isn’t-who-you-thought-he-was. This would probably have been enough, but then we are treated to a number of other untie-the-knots, namely: deceit from the protagonist, Anna; an attempted suicide; a you-thought-he’d-died moment; and even a surprise fiancée. (Incidentally, the surprise fiancée is one of the most compelling characters in the movie, despite only having a few minutes’ screen time to show it.) By the end, it feels like the energy you’ve put into suspending your disbelief is being exploited somewhat.

suicide

Édouard Manet, Le Suicidé

Though artistic tropes are rather over-used (poetry-sharing, violin-playing, appreciating paintings, and dancing all feature in both the burgeoning relationship and the lost one), the use of the Manet painting Le Suicidé is surely one of the best things about the film. Appearing repeatedly (in disguise at first) to tie together the different turns of the storyline, the painting depicts a man who has committed suicide lying on a bed. Unfortunately, as Anna stares at it in the ending of the endings, we are lacking in knowledge about what her hopes and dreams might be. Perhaps they lie in the young man next to her in the museum: the one she has a brief conversation with. God forbid she has any hopes and dreams that do not involve marrying fragile young artists. (True, we do see her playing piano a few times; but always as accompaniment to Adrien.)

Pascaline Chavanne’s styling is sumptuous and full of glorious details that feed you that pre-flapper-and-suffragette moment like a plain-looking but surprisingly tasty hors d’oeuvres. Adrien’s hair is always falling in his face, and not in a suave way. His moustache looks like it has just landed and perched on his upper lip: a precarious arrangement, fitting for a sensitive person. Anna spends every second looking immaculate, with earrings glistening out from under carefully tilted pinned-brimmed hats.

Anna’s styling being quite glorious for its own sake, the characterisation doesn’t match it, though Paula Beer’s acting is outstanding. I am left wishing I had a clearer idea of what aspect of her personality her style has been designed to represent. This is surprising in a film from the director of 8 Mujeres. Still, wishy-washy character design doesn’t stop Beer from playing every scene with consistent, sparkling subtlety of movement and expression. Pierre Niney (Adrien), too, holds up a very effective sensitive young artist with a secret. I feel that I type the same comments too often about films: that the script didn’t warrant the outstanding quality of the acting.

If the protagonist could have been more three-dimensional, the theme of common humanity across borders is successfully brought to the front of our minds. Working out how best to take it in (French-German audio; Catalan subtitles) was a labour of love for me. That we can one minute be learning each other’s languages and the next minute killing each other is a point explicitly made by Adrien. Here the sharing of language – the epitome of connection – is contrasted with killing each other: the epitome of disconnection. Multilingualism in films often adds to their universality; here it was effective, if not subtle, in doing so.

 

Film about Egyptian uprising

Before I left London, I went to see In The Shadow Of A Man at the Mosaic Rooms, the Qatar Foundation’s establishment in London. I would recommend that you buy it, watch it, and share it with all your friends. This is an enlightening expose of what life is like for women in both urban and rural Egypt; of their experiences, their needs and desires, the oppression they suffer, and the different ways they are acting for change. Some points from the film that have especially stayed with me:

  • The comment from a leading female Egyptian farmers’ rights activist that ‘women’s problems are Egypt’s problems; we cannot emancipate women until we emancipate the people’.
  • The voracious debate, in a fabric shop, between a woman regurgitating prevailing patriarchal discourse about women in politics (they won’t be able to devote time to politics because of the distraction of their children!), and another women educating and liberating her from these views; their friendliness and sisterhood towards each other; their respect for each other.
  • Powerful shots of women leading chants and marches in the 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak.

A Great Film…with Pauses

I was wholly moved by this film, and I think it may be the best thing I’ve seen at the LLGFF. The concept of a man in his fifties going on a date with a teenage boy while his daughter runs off to spend the evening with a dodgy character is already intriguing. Its execution is delicate and thought-provoking; every shot tells a story and every actor plays with a nuance that strikes the heart. It was the use of dialogue/pauses and the way that they are interweaved with a web of techniques to achieve the film’s goals that especially struck me.

 

The interactions between Abi and Dexter also provide an elegant and triumphant – yet authentic – reversal of the male-seer, female-seen dichotomy. Although we expect Dexter to be ‘persistent until successful’ with Abi in keeping with the prevailing myth of courtship propagated in popular film, it is Abi who has the agency in every scene. It is when she calls him that he is allowed to come and pick her up; she kisses him first; she tells him to take her to his house; and so on until she dictates his final sentiment by refusing the gift of a photograph.

British Pathé and Modern-Day News Reporting

When I heard the wonderful news that British Pathé had released their newsreel archives on to YouTube, I decided to write a blog post. The topic was to be the exciting potential of the comment function to provide a means for ‘common people’ to share their views on the content, thus re-casting the British imperialist narrative of our history in a fresh light.

Have you ever read any YouTube comments?

Most are inane; many are offensive; some are thought-provoking. The ones on the British Pathe videos are no exception.

After watching a good number of the videos, it was a different theme that crystallised in my mind. The selection of content provides a potent reminder of how we should approach the ‘newsreels’ of our present day – the 24-hour channels, the live-tweet sessions, the daily Kindle download.

A notable focus is the ‘freak show’ theme – the subjects are huge babies, dwarves, people of any appearance that is slightly unusual. We are now predisposed to mock the quaintness of these presentations, not only as offensive, but as pointless distractions.

False but ‘amusing’ news, like reports on big babies and short people, serves those in power, as it diverts the reader’s interest from matters of politics, things which actually affect their daily lives.

Their form has changed, but the distractions are still here. Celebrity magazines and ubiquitous football chat, for example. It pays to be aware of this.

Notably absent in the videos are the faces, thoughts, opinions of any African-Caribbean people in the UK. On a separate note, the news reports focus overwhelmingly on the UK, and not outside of it.

These facts of course are not surprising to us in the context of this bygone era. It may seem that I am stating the obvious. Nevertheless, it reminds us of the extent to which all news is shaped by social and cultural conventions and limitations.

It might encourage us to ask ourselves how our current news reporting is shaped by when, where and how it is produced. It may lead us to seek a variety of different news sources; and to think about what is absent from what we see and hear about on a daily basis.