It Rains on Our Love (Bergman, 1946)

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The second feature from Ingmar Bergman may seem relatively unpolished and lacking the depth that would characterise his later work, but It Rains on Our Love (1946) is more than just a curiosity plucked from his back-catalogue. The earliest signs of a filmmaker able to align an audience with the plight of highly empathetic characters are on display, in this case two strangers who meet at a train station. Both Maggi (Barbro Kollberg) and David (Birger Malmsten) are down-on-their luck outsiders, heavily-laden with chequered pasts and with little but small change lining their pockets.

Maggi is won over by David’s charm but misery, in a sense, will bind them together. After a tryst in a hotel room that breaks the shackles of mounting frustration, they finally board a train to the country hoping to make a clean break. A rocky beginning awaits, in which a gleefully malicious old man threatens David with arrest, before they settle down in a home he keeps open for rent. However the road ahead is littered with obstructions blocking their progress towards a better life.

Though spliced with whimsical, comedic anecdotes centered on the town’s eccentric characters, the film generally takes a fairly bleak view of humanity. Regardless of the couple’s good intentions, every turn for the better is soon cancelled out by the poisonous suspicion or ill-will of those around them, especially the horrible wife of the man who employs David in his greenery. Her malicious response at the first sign of David’s distress when accepting bad news via a phone call, asking with malevolent glee, “what is it……..something tragic?” represents the nadir of scorn tossed like a bucket of cold water on his reformatory ways.

It Rains on Our Love can also be taken as a pessimistic, anti-authority film; a tirade against the misuse of power of those whose higher social standing affords them arrogance and contempt. These grim figures, portrayed as vampiric agents of faceless tormentors preying on the good intentions of David and Maggi are unrelenting and without conscience.

Conversely, our protagonists are far from saintly figures, with David’s life of crime and Maggi’s loose morals spelt out clearly early on. Yet both have made a pact with the past, to leave it behind and embrace a fresh beginning. Will their love be strong enough to overcome circumstance and human intervention? Or will their dreams tear apart at the seams once more? Malmsten and Kollberg are a great pairing. There’s a commendable earnestness in their portrayals of David and Maggi who are forever bracing for the worst with grim-set expressions which make the flickering moments of joy all the more convincing.

Bergman’s film holds up remarkably well, and though it’s difficult to reconcile this as emanating from the man associated with so many masterpieces of world cinema in the decades to come, there are glimpses of a serious director to keep an eye out for. Certainly the main theme – an acerbic probing of a man’s downfall and loss of faith in humanity – rings true, albeit with less psychological impact than Bergman would become notorious for. Then there’s the roving ‘narrator’, acting like an omniscient overseer mysteriously inserted into the story by Bergman as advocates for the beleaguered pair at crucial junctures. Another notable example is the montage of faces superimposed over the court documents as snippets of their testimony are presented to the jury. It’s a clever touch and seamlessly grafted onto the narrative; indication enough that this young director had the talent already to impart a story with something other than conventional methods.

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You, the Living (Andersson, 2007)

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This astonishing 2007 Swedish film, presented as a series of serio-comic vignettes, is the work of writer-director Roy Andersson. It’s no easy task attempting to categorise You, the Living; simply put it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Each scene is short and sharp and virtually every set-up is a static one, but filled with fascinating, tiny details that speak of a meticulous attention to detail. It allows a painterly, dreamlike through-line to develop, like watching abstract works of art slowly come to life. Only twice in the entire film does the camera move.

The colours are muted and drab in this sunless world of mostly nameless, pasty-faced protagonists whose lives are played out in mournful, incremental advances. Andersson’s deadpan humour provides memorable surreal moments of suffering and joy, the avenging, repeating lines of these hapless, downtrodden souls insisting that “tomorrow is another day” regardless of their proximity to despair.

There’s a randomness of observation that borders on genius, and yet there are moments of perfect clarity too. Though a large ensemble of characters’ lives overlap without rhyme or reason, there is also the irreparable damage caused by acute isolation, more than one person bemoaning the fact that “nobody understands me!”

There are moments of poignant contemplation; in others, characters speak directly to the camera, whilst some seem to be speaking to a person who isn’t there. There’s a lovesick girl who pines for the lead singer of a rock group; an old doctor who’s fed up with unhappy patients he regards as beyond his help; a hilarious sex scene where a wife’s sporadic, ecstatic groans are drowned out by her husband’s continual dispassionate descriptions of the intricacies of his retirement funds.

There are dozens of others too, perhaps a few don’t come off, but nearly every one is a gem in its own way – and ripe for rediscovery in a film that demands multiple viewings to re-assess its subtleties and vagaries.

You, the Living is unique and unconventional, pulled off with such startling precision that I’m tempted to label it a masterpiece, and yet one simmering with barely tangible notions; a film so rich with minute, eccentric detail that it threatens to redefine the very nature of cinematic storytelling. Watch it and, like me, you’ll crave to see it again and again.

Bright Star (Campion, 2009)

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Atoning for a past of artful but turgid films choking on their own bloated sense of importance, director Jane Campion delivered her finest work to date with Bright Star (2009). This intense, impassioned study of the unconsummated, ill-fated love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, works its magic like an ode to the art of poetry and our own love of the English language. Working from only sketchy biographical details, including many of Keats’ letters to Fanny, Campion convincingly transports us back to early 19th century England.

Keats (Ben Whishaw) is an impoverished poet whose publication has yet to translate into financial prosperity. Daily he engages in writing sessions with best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), but a neighbour, the inquisitive Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) soon has him interested in something other than literary pursuits. As a young man mired in poverty, however, he has to fight an instinct within begging him to stay away from Fanny, for his inability to provide for any woman is like a constant lance in his side.

As a kind of love triangle, interesting dynamics emerge from Campion’s gloriously literate screenplay, incorporating a liberal smattering of Keats’ poetry. The gently derisive jabs at Fanny from Brown may be construed as playful, but behind them is real venom. From one angle it may seem that he’s only being protective of Keats and the integrity of the creative process, for it’s a privilege to share ideas with a young man he regards as a gift to the artform. But slowly emerging are deeper feelings that are equally responsible for his barely-veiled petulance as Fanny’s presence begins to inspire a more noticeable and undesirable effect on Keats and his frame of mind.

It’s the underlying complexities of these relationships that enhance the film’s painstakingly-crafted aesthetic beauty and some of its subtle recurrent themes: of creation unhindered by love and its diverse definitions; of a finite existence embraced for the preciousness of every moment.

Despite the exceptional work of Whishaw, so horribly miscast in Perfume (2006), and Cornish who convey a realistic chemical reaction, it’s Schneider who steals the show with an electric performance as the caustic, discontented Brown. Unapologetically condescending, he seems constantly wired, his impregnation of a naïve housemaid coming across as sadly misdirected, a kind of sordid compensation for what he really desires.

Campion has always displayed an innate musical sense at least, her past collaborations producing exceptional work from Wojciech Kilar (1996’s Portrait of a Lady) and Michael Nyman (1993’s The Piano). Her choice of composer here was newcomer Mark Bradshaw whose sparingly used music is saved for maximum impact in perhaps six or seven scenes. It works brilliantly in every one and leaves you wanting more.

I’ve struggled to love this director’s past work, especially the provocative, sleazy In the Cut (2003) and the abomination that is Holy Smoke (1999) – despite, it must be said, an incredibly brave Kate Winslet performance. But her latest film is a real tonic, providing unexpected redemption and wiping away the stain of those past ‘misdemeanors’. Bold, romantic, and genuinely moving as it counts down to its inevitable conclusion, Bright Star glitters with every potent word, every helpless silent gesture, to create something of intoxicating beauty.

Shame (Bergman, 1968)

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Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 masterpiece is one of his finest achievements, probing the caustic, calcifying shame of war and, as if with a blunt instrument, the forces that irreversibly alter our moral perspective and the wavering identity of our own humanity.

On a small, remote island two former concert violinists, Jan (Max von Sydow) and Eva (Liv Ullmann) live in the lengthening shadow of a civil war that rages on across the waters. They exist simply, tending to their small farm, struggling desperately to make ends meet whilst combating tedium. Though they love one another, offhand, antagonistic remarks may be evidence of tiny fissures opening up in their relationship. In Jan, Eva perceives weakness and resistance to fully grasp the enormity of their situation. He would rather retreat and take solace in headaches that seem manufactured to divert attention from his more glaring masculine shortcomings.

The opening half hour is a mundane examination of the couple’s uneventful routine, which includes sojourns to the mainland to sell their modest range of crops. All this is meticulously established, belying the confusion to follow. When trouble arrives it seizes them with fear and uncertainty, upending the secluded domesticity that has cocooned them until now. Fighter planes roar by, explosions sound in the distance, coming ever closer, and Bergman devises a set-piece to rip these people from their stasis, tossing them into an open cauldron where morality becomes blurred and destruction reigns.

There are no cultural or political indicators or side-taking in Bergman’s screenplay; his focus remains universal, intent on exposing the human experience to its instinctive core, throwing ordinary people against an allusive brick wall to see how they cope on a deeper, psychological level.

Shot with typically invasive depths of perception by Bergman’s legendary collaborator and friend, Sven Nykvist, the film burns with the intensity of gripping, realistic sequences that chart the tumultuous first invasion of the island and later, the demoralising turn of events that has far more frightening implications. As with all Bergman films there are a host of indelible images that linger in the mind like banshee howls of agony, and Shame is no exception.

You simply can’t put a value on the contributions Ullmann has brought to Bergman’s body of work. Every performance of hers is textbook perfect and yet informed by a technique that contains little you could ever learn from an acting classroom. Her ethereal beauty is only part of the mystique that surrounds her like an aura. Her haunted, extraordinarily expressive face stunningly encapsulates the horror, fear, joy, and physical surrender of every scenario Bergman sets before her on a page. She may well be the greatest actress of any era, pointed moments of close-up all too often revealing her mesmerising power and the camera’s love for her, whether in silent contemplation or bringing one of Bergman’s brilliant monologues to life.

It must be said that von Sydow is just as sublime, integrating the descent of man into his nuanced portrayal of the traumatised Jan, a man pushed to the point of madness by a mass of complex, seething emotional responses: greed, jealousy, bitterness. Bergman’s vision of disintegrating minds is characteristically dark and uncompromising. The disquieting final section of Shame offers little in the way of hope or relief, enwrapping a few desperate survivors in the muted, wasted shells of their bodies, drifting to nowhere on a sea that is dead in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

Only God Forgives (Refn, 2013)

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With the cool quotient amped up to mega-freeze, Ryan Gosling’s performance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s second most recent film establishes a new frontier for minimalist acting. It’s as though the pair have re-imagined ‘Driver’ from their previous collaboration before bleeding every last vestige of emotion from him – emotion he didn’t exactly possess in spades in the first instance. The result is a vacuous, unctuous portrait of violence and revenge, lacking not in cinematic power but in subtext and delicacy.

Only God Forgives is, predictably, stunning to behold: every frame bears the mark of Refn’s extraordinary gift for stylisation for its own sake, fetishistically inflicting striking reds into intricate, painstakingly arrayed set-ups. It’s a shame then that such remarkable care in sculpting scenes with vivid gradations of light and colour is squandered on a transparently empty narrative that barely registers. Gosling’s Julian is a mamma’s boy, held fast in a rigid psychological grasp by the poisonous Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas). When she decrees revenge for the killing of her other son, a conscienceless murderer in his last moments as well, Julian becomes her pawn.

But revenge takes a while and Julian’s nemesis-to-be, absurdly corrupt and murderous Thai policeman Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), has a few bodies to sadistically add to the pile as well. This slow motion dance of death will have its inevitable denouement to be sure, and whilst the vacancy that fills out Refn’s lacklustre narrative ultimately sinks it, there’s a trail of memorably staged scenes to admire along the way.

Cliff Martinez, seemingly often channelling Vangelis through a retro synth sound, produces a savage musical beast in accompaniment. His score, more often than not pushed to the foreground by Refn for maximum impact, gives the unfolding drama its contrived sense of horror. It’s one of his finest scores, though its life beyond the film may be limited.

Is Gosling even acting here? If so, he’s establishing new borders for what the term encompasses; his lone, abstract expression, monotonously worn, has revealed suggestive subliminal powers in the past – in Drive (2011) of course, and even recently in The Place Beyond the Pines (2013). Here, it becomes a wearying device employed by Refn to deflect any definable human cognisance of what’s to come. These are not to be taken seriously as humans anyway; Julian and Chang are just near-statues being robotically manoeuvred into place for the inevitable final confrontation.

Only God Forgives (2013) is a disappointing step backward for the prodigiously talented Refn; his screenplay is absolutely the worst of his career. Yet, his garish, deliberately provocative intermingling of violence, colour and aesthetic perfectionism still guarantees a feast for the senses, if not the intellect.

I Want You (1998)

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Caught in the amorphous web of Elvis Costello’s song of the same name, with its coy intimations of duplicity, comes a previously unearthed gem from the back-catalogue of British director Michael Winterbottom. I Want You (1998) is a tasty treat too, with a slowly inter-cutting narrative describing the lives of a quartet of oddly dissociated characters congealing in the vanquished surrounds of a blank, wind-stripped English seaside town that time has clearly forgotten.

Martin (Alessandro Nivola) has been released from jail, but he has ties to this place, namely to the beautiful Helen (Rachel Weisz), a local hairdresser. Presumably it’s here in Farhaven that his crime was committed, prefacing his eight-year stretch in the slammer. Helen was once his illicit, very young, star-crossed lover, just in her mid-teens at the time.

What motivation is responsible for Martin’s return trek to Farhaven? Is he here to rekindle an old flame? To make amends for the deed that sent him behind bars? Or is he simply a malignancy creeping back under the guise of someone contrite and reformed?

Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery is a mute teenager Honda (Luka Petrusic) and Helen’s secret admirer, bringing her small gifts when not otherwise absorbed in his favourite pastime – using sophisticated listening equipment to eavesdrop on those around him. Having uttered not a word since the death of his mother, he lives in a seaside shack with his sister Smokey (Labina Mitevska), the local nightclub singer whose carefree lifestyle and uninhibited sexuality seems to entrance the bored locals. Before long Martin, biding time until he works up the nerve to confront Helen beyond wordless phone calls, becomes drawn into their little world.

I Want You is the work of writer Eoin McNamee but its bears many of the traits of previous Winterbottom films. Indeed the elusive Brit’s model is betrayed not a whit; firmly in place are the sense of detachment and vague characterisations in which a tapestry of singular, often peculiar moments are woven into a more expressive whole, only taking on firmer shape over time.

Aesthetically the film has much to recommend it, with a strikingly expressive range of lenses used by Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose past collaborators include Krzysztof Kieslowski on Three Colours Blue (1993). External scenes are regularly consumed by the pervasive tint of pale greens, electrical blues and sunburnt golds. You can sense not only a Kieslowski influence, but that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in visual terms as Winterbottom seeks to expel the murky natural palette of this washed-out world and infuse it with a sheen of unreality.

Another interesting stylistic choice manifests itself in the way crucial moments switch to Honda’s perspective where a version of events seems fed through a distorted lens, each an intensely-portrayed, decolourised refraction. Can we trust what he sees? Regardless, his muteness complements a talent for stealth, allowing him to become a silent, but intrinsic component of the unfolding drama.

None of the characters are rounded wholes; they’re sketchy creations at best but clues deliberately omitted or kept vague bob just beneath the surface, intermittently rearing their heads to contribute more pieces to the puzzle. In the film’s opening scene a body is dumped off a pier, but is it a glimpse from the past or future?

I Want You, though difficult to access on an emotional level, is nonetheless fascinating viewing: distant perhaps, but a somewhat compelling depiction of an obsessive, destructive love. The performances of Weisz and Nivola, leaning more heavily on the suffocating atmosphere of implied danger and the sound of skeletons rattling in closets, are superb without much in the way of explicit avowals to guide them. In a sense Honda acts as both a witness and moral compass; Smokey merely subsides to the background, whilst Martin and Helen keep pace for a collision with unknown consequences.

There’s an ironic circularity to the ebb and flow of these lives, with misplaced love and its attendant misery exposed like an open wound. As for the sobering resolution, what does it prove? Perhaps only that vulnerability is the perfect foil for those most in need of a defense – or outlet to a fresh beginning.

 

Dogtooth (Lanthimos, 2009)

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Director Yorgos Lanthimos offers the ultimate example of parental control gone mad in the subversive, mystifyingly oblique Dogtooth (2009). In this amusingly minimalist work we’re transplanted behind the walls of a remote compound where a father (Christos Stergioglou) and mother (Michelle Valley) have indoctrinated their children to accept a narrowly-conceived worldview of their own creation. This insulated trio of offspring – a son and two daughters, seemingly all in their late teens – has been denied access to the outside world their entire lives, relying on their parents to expand their minds through a very specific form of education.

This has succeeded in providing them with a warped, off-kilter perception of mundane things, often assigning very different definitions to concepts and objects. They have no idea what a cat is for instance and there’s a perversely funny scene where one strays onto the grounds before being beset upon by a fearful son with a pair of garden shears. Cat lovers look away!

Is it all for the purpose of satisfying some wicked sense of amusement? There’s little exposition or motivation imparted, denying us any rationalised justification for this forbidding environment’s existence. Lanthimos simply tosses us down the deep well of his imagination to fend for ourselves. He doesn’t even allow his characters to be humanized on a basic level; other than Christina – the blindfolded young woman the father sneaks from his workplace to ‘service’ his son – the family members aren’t even afforded the familiarity of names.

Dogtooth is inspiringly idiosyncratic, an ambiguous merger of absurdist humour and darkest, probing drama. Sometimes the absurdist vignettes reach beyond their grasp and come off feeling self-consciously excessive or silly. But the director’s aim mostly hits its mark, ensuring a compelling and uncomfortable night at the cinema.

Lanthimos, in a stroke of genius, doesn’t really allow his film, co-written with Efthymis Filippou, to settle into any predictable rhythm; he tweaks its tone like an obsessive, eccentric musician. He even flirts with taboos like boredom-alleviating-incest whilst inserting strangely clinical moments of sexual activity and violence into his evasive, unsettling narrative.

As the external world slowly begins to impinge upon the steady ratification of the parents’ universe and the meticulously manufactured facade becomes more difficult to uphold, Dogtooth makes you laugh and grimace, often in the same moment. It could almost be viewed as a twisted fairytale secluded between the pages of an ogre’s personal collection. It’s never possible to predict where this challenging film is headed and the strangely elliptical ending too revels in being an arbitrary point of cessation rather than fulfilling the conventional expectation of an easy conclusion.