Kino Keeno

"Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates…"

Carol

by Ben Diamond

Carol

Carol (Haynes 2015, 118m)

I liked Carol, but I’m not sure I liked it as much as everyone else did.  In fact, I’m sure I didn’t like it anywhere near as much as everyone else seems to have done. The levels of hype on this one seem to have snowballed to such an extent that it stikes me as odd, the amount of noise generated for what is really a quiet, reserved piece, a mood piece, really.

It reminded me of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, the adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel.  Here, director Todd Haynes has adapted Patricia Highsmiths’s novel The Price of Salt, which takes place exactly a decade before A Single Man, in 1952.  It still has the Mad Men feel, the revelling in the period details.  It does look fantastic.

But beneath the surfaces, the detailed interiors, through the windows, in the car, through the cigarette smoke, I was left with nothing to hold on to.

Rooney Mara plays Therese – young, nervous, introverted, sort of into men. Cate Blanchett’s Carol – the older, more experienced of the two, who has been in a relationship with a woman before – strides into the department store where Therese works, the two fall for each other, and we go on from there.

Why do they fall for each other, though?  I wasn’t sure, even by the end.  I wasn’t satisfied that the two were ever really in love.  In fact, they never really seem to have a direct conversation about their own relationship. Which I suppose is the point, partly.

The relationship hits the rocks when Carol realises that her (soon to be ex-) husband is using her relationship with Therese as leverage in the divorce settlement, where he is pushing for sole custody of their child.

I found the character of Harge, Carol’s husband, to be something of a cardboard cutout, not properly fleshed out.  The divorce proceedings metastasise and dominate the plot as the film goes on.  Meanwhile, the story of Carol and Therese by this point seems weirdly cold, distant, fast-forwarded, too much shorthand and not much to go on.  The agonised scenes at the lawyer’s office seemed to clash with the subtlety of the rest of the piece.

I must admit that I drifted through this one, slightly bewildered throughout, admiring the craft of the scenes, the photography, the way things looked, but not managing to delve much deeper than that.  There’s a moment where a character is projecting a film and claims to be looking for the discord between what someone is saying and how they’re really feeling.  I sat through Carol trying, and failing, to do much the same thing.

Bridge of Spies

by Ben Diamond

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Vous sortez du secteur Américain… Bridge of Spies (Spielberg 2015, 141m)

Only when you analyse Bridge of Spies after you’ve seen it do you realise what a strange beast it is.  It’s a thriller with no plot twists, or any real thrills per se.  But you simply don’t notice.

What, then, is keeping it chugging along?

Well, that would be Tom Hanks.

I shouldn’t have liked this film.  I shouldn’t have liked the clunking patriotic message of ‘let’s treat our captured Russian spies better than the Russians would treat our spies, because we’re America and we’re the best’.  I shouldn’t have liked the same diffused-light atmospheric setup Spielberg uses for every tense conversation in every room.

It’s 1957, the height of the Cold War, and Tom Hank’s character, a New York lawyer named James B. Donovan, is given the task of defending the indefensible – a Russian spy captured by the FBI. After striking up not quite a friendship, but a respectful relationship with said spy, Rudolf Abel, and managing to limit his sentence to 30 years in prison, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, he is sent on a diplomatic mission to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Francis ‘Gary’ Powers, CIA spy shot down during a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace.

At the beginning of the film Donovan sets out his moral stall for a rival lawyer whilst they are discussing an insurance claim they are both involved in. Donovan’s client has driven into several motorcyclists.  The lawyer representing the claimaints says Donovan’s client is responsible for paying insurance claims for five separate incidents – the five injured parties.  But Donovan isn’t having any of it – using the analagy of knocking down ten pins in a game of bowling, he says that that is one event, not ten separate events.

On his trip to Berlin, Donovan continues this holistic approach to cause and effect by deciding to take matters into his own hands by negotiating for the release of two prisoners, not one, by dragging Frederic Pryor, a wrongly-imprisoned American economics student into what is now a three-way negotiation between the GDR, the Soviets, and the USA.  It’s all one big bowling game, and Donovan isn’t coming away with anything fewer than both pins.

This is no John Le Carré adaptation.  No double-crossings or moral ambiguities. It’s clear what Donovan wants.

Which brings us back the original question again.

If Tom Hanks is the reason why the film works, and Hanks plays it straight down the line, what is he doing that’s so special?

I don’t know.  It’s the Spielbergian magic.  It has something to do with his understated way of playing a character with such decency and moral seriousness.  He really shines in a very tense scene after he’s crossed over into east Berlin where a gang approaches him and tries to steal his coat.  Just by being Tom Hanks, he comes out of the situation intact.  It’s Catch Me If You Can Hanks we’re talking about here – decent man doing a difficult job, in the most decorous way possible.  There is something completely charged and magnetic about his onscreen persona, without even the whiff of ham.

I must confess to having a similar feeling leaving the cinema that I had with SPECTRE – that it didn’t all quite add up, a sense of dissatisfaction at how things had resolved themselves by the end.  Except, with SPECTRE, the whole film didn’t add up and the individual set pieces weren’t all that either, and in Bridge of Spies, without much actual action going on, individual scenes have a real sense of momentum to them.

Bridge of Spies strings its disparate parts together like Picasso’s Guernica.  In this corner we’ve got an action sequence where Powers’s plane gets shot down.  In that corner we’re watching Abel be pursued by the FBI on the New York subway (despite the obvious conclusion of this scene, it is a compelling opening).  Over here we’re witnessing the revulsion which the public feel towards Donovan for defending a spy.  And over there, there’s a runny nose, being passed from a Soviet spy, to Hanks, to others.  Spielberg tries to spin a lot of plates at the same time.  But it all adds up to something rather good.

Güeros

by Ben Diamond

Güeros

Who are you calling a Güero? (Ruizpalacios 2014, 106m)

Young lad Tomás has been a bit naughty – dropped a water bomb from the roof of his block of flats onto an unsuspecting mother and child below – and so has been packed off by his mum to stay with his brother, Federico, who is living with his flatmate Santos in a state of semi-squalor. Federico and Santos are straddling the line between being diligent students who should be working on their respective theses and being conscientious student-protestors, occupying their university campus.  They end up being neither.  As Federico says, they are on strike from the strike.  Their efforts are more fruitfully employed in stealing electricity from the flat below them, utilising a complex system of tin-can-on-a-string communication with the little girl whose bedroom window they use to ferry the power cable up in a bucket.  Problem sorted.

I loved the stark black and white photography of Güeros.  I loved the concept of a road trip that isn’t a road trip.  The protagonists never seem to cover much ground.  I loved the ‘fuck it, let’s give it a try’ attitude towards innovation and invention in the film.  A particular highlight being when Federico & co. create their own traffic jam simply by coming to a stop, a riposte to the statement ‘No one would care if we died’ – well, they would, but only because you’re blocking their way.  Certainly, getting stuck in traffic isn’t a common feature of the empty open stretches which dominate the genre.  This is road trip, Mexico City style. Federico’s panic attack in the back of the car, feathers flying and tinnitus ringing, was especially well done.  Mentions of Veracruz and the 90s feel of the film situated it firmly in my own head in the same shared space occupied by Roberto Bolaño’s epic work of fiction 2666.

Güeros is a film of two halves, though.  Although in part the gang are on the trail of the legendary musician Epigmenio Cruz (once supposedly made Bob Dylan cry), who they learn through a newspaper is ill and in hospital, a large part of the film is dedicated to the ins-and-outs of student politics during the university occupation, which I must admit I found a little tiresome, especially the hackneyed discussions about revolution, whether it should come Now or Later, what kind of an active role people should play in it, etc etc.  The political points were perhaps unsubtle, but maybe important in terms of Mexican history – my own fault for being ignorant of any form of university-based activism beyond clocking students selling copies of the Socialist Worker on the Strand during my own tenure at university.

I liked Güeros most when it was at its most aimless – Tomás, Federico and Santos sat on a car bonnet in the sun listening to Epigmenio on a tape walkman. One pair of headphones between three.  No sound for the cinema audience – just a look of bliss.

Black Souls

by Ben Diamond

Black Souls (Munzi 2014, 109m)

Black Souls (Munzi 2014, 109m)

Black Souls is a Sopranos-style tale of power struggle and revenge, but with an anthropological, analytical, plodding approach, as opposed to a high-octane, flashily-edited package of drive-by retributions.

Giuseppe Fumo plays Leo, with a huge, serious bloodhound’s face.  Bored with the agricultural life, he leaves his dad’s farm and takes off for Milan to get involved in his uncle’s less wholesome ‘ndràngheta business.  Before he leaves, he shoots up the shutters of a bar owned by a local mafia boss who (I think) was involved in killing his grandfather.  This unwittingly sets a chain of events in motion which ultimately has dire consequences for his own family, who get dragged back into an old feud where perhaps it would’ve been best to let the dust settle.

I got the feeling that these tensions that have been stirred up by Leo were actually revelled in by other members of the gang, simply because modern mafia life is really boring.  The most exciting thing these associates get up to in the film’s prologue appears to be stealing some goats for their dinner, hastily stuffing them in their car boot and speeding away from a farm.  There are other scenes where goat-herding plays a part, reminiscent of another recent Italian film, Le Quattro Volte. The film alternates between tension and boredom, almost mocking its audience for wanting some sort of quick-fix or burst of violence.  Munzi goads us with goats.

Fabrizio Ferracane plays Leo’s dad, Luciano, looking like a Jeremy Corbyn-Jose Mourinho hybrid.  Starting from a position of reluctance to get involved in his family’s violent business, he slowly gets dragged back towards the fray, leading to some brilliantly tense stand-offs between himself and Leo.  As they tussle for the reins to control the narrative of the developing mafia war, Luciano tries to grasp onto a fading notion of parental supremacy, whereas Leo appears to be wielding a more masculine, alpha-male power, which he enjoys lording over his dad.

In the world of Black Souls, goats, farming, the beautiful Calabrian countryside – all have some purpose, fit in to the natural order.  The human beings in this film really do represent the titular Black Souls – the living dead, serving no purpose other than to finish each other off with their bitter feuds.  A ‘don’ from a neighbouring clan makes his way up the mountainside to facilitate some interspecies breeding, bringing a young granddaughter in the hope that she’ll hit it off with Leo.  Ancient breeding rituals amongst a dying breed, doomed to extinction.

A large portion of the film is devoted to the process of mourning, and the rituals surrounding it. These people are living on the fringe of the land of the dead, devoted to ushering their kind from one world to the next.  Marking out the time until it’s their own turn to go.  This is an anti-Goodfellas, where the rewards of the lifestyle never yield, as the members of the clan dig their own graves.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.

No Home Movie

by Ben Diamond

Chantal Akerman lurking in the shadow of her mother, Nelly

I’ve already tackled a holocaust-themed documentary before on these pages – the more direct Night Will Fall – but here is something altogether different.  No Home Movie is a slow, thoughtful documentary about Chantal Akerman’s mother, Nelly Akerman, nearing the end of her life.  I was aware of Chantal Akerman’s work only through her 1975 three-and-a-half-hour epic Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, but I could draw parallels between the two, in particular the presence in both films of brutally drawn out still-frame long takes, which force the viewer to go through a sort of protracted inner monologue, and at the same time try to work out what these silent pauses mean for the filmmaker.  In the 40 years since Jeanne Dielman, Akerman appears to have kept her edginess, and her ability to challenge audiences.  It even crossed my mind to directly consider Nelly as a real-life Jeanne Dielman, especially as Chantal appears to have been heavily influenced, if not defined, by her mother, and her mother’s past.  Is it just me, or was there something in the kitchen tiles, reminiscent of that 1975 apartment?

Not much about the holocaust is revealed when Chantal talks to Nelly.  The one piece of concrete information is that Nelly and her husband escaped Poland and arrived in Belgium, only to be recaptured and sent back to Poland, where the horrors of Auschwitz awaited them.  And that’s about it in terms of directly related holocaust conversation in No Home Movie.  The rest is done through introspection and insinuation.  Chantal Akerman chooses to largely be absent in the film, as she is either behind the camera, with her back to the camera, or obscured by an object in the apartment when she chooses to create an impromptu mise-en-scène with objects having the effect of naturally occurring points of abyss in Nelly’s apartment.  Akerman is most present in the film when she’s behind the camera, crafting disturbing ambient-visual metaphors, such as long takes in the car, out of the window, of desolate Oaklahoman landscapes (reflecting the vicissitudes and the disquiet of her own mind), or running round Nelly’s apartment at night, with the lights off, Nelly out of the frame, desperately trying to retrace her steps and find something, or recapture something.  The apartment space itself is turned into a memory vortex with its own warping qualities, the air thick with nostalgia, but also stifling, as we are reminded with a long take chronicling Nelly’s respiratory problems, the pathology her demise already being mapped out.  In another shot Chantal simply gazes into a body of water.  Still waters run deep.

I see the film as an extended goodbye to her mother.  She says goodbye over and over when they finish their Skype conversations, or when either Nelly or Chantal leave the apartment.  These goodbyes often take minutes because each time is as if they are saying goodbye forever.  When Nelly is led out of the apartment by her carer, and Chantal is left their on her own, it felt like the grim reaper had come to finally lead Nelly away and finally separate the two.  By the end of the film I realised how often they’d been saying goodbye to each other throughout.  Is this film Chantal Akerman’s way of letting go?  By erasing herself from her documentary and instead focusing on her mother, is she in fact saying: this is who made me; this is who I really am?  I was reminded of WG Sebald’s novels in that the holocaust always present but rarely spoken about, explored instead through trauma and metaphors, scarred landscapes.  At one point Nelly’s condition is obliquely explained away by and off-screen interlocutor thusly: ‘She’s that way because of the holocaust’.  Need we any further direct storytelling?  Much more interesting to explore the everyday, and the effects the holocaust have had on the quotidian and mundane.

Of course, Chantal Akerman – directly, indirectly, whatever – is, or was, saying goodbye to us as well.  This is her last film.  Her mother died after this film was made, and Chantal took her own life a few weeks ago.  The screening, scheduled by A Nos Amours, was due to be the crowning piece at the end of a 2-year complete retrospective of Akerman’s massive, and massively influential, body of work.  Akerman herself was due to be there for a post-screening Q+A.  Tragically, that was not to be.  It was good to see so many Akerman devotees in the audience – the event was sold out.  An exhibition of Chantal Akerman’s video installation work is currently on at the P3 gallery and runs from 29 October to 6 December – http://www.p3exhibitions.com/.

People think it’s easy to point a camera at a landscape and shoot a static bit of footage and call it art.  With Chantal Akerman – it really fucking was art, though.  There is something wholesome and truthful about landscapes.  Her conversations with Nelly are edited and allude to greater truths, but landscapes cannot hide anything – their truth is evident in every pixel onscreen, gloriously unedited, a visual stream-of-consciousness.  I loved the long, still takes which bookended the film. The opening is simply of a tree blowing in the wind.  So much meaning in such a simple metaphor.  I can’t really describe one of the final long takes of the film, except to say that after puzzling over it for several minutes, it came to uncannily resemble another troubled landscape of sorts – the one on the cover of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures LP.  I don’t quite understand how much depth, both visually and in terms of meaning, Akerman managed to squeeze into a 2D image.  But she does.  Over and over again. In another take, a bucolic setting is in the foreground. A city, barely recognisable, hovers at the top of the frame.  As if to say – ‘forget about where the people are. All you need to know about what I’m trying to say is right here.’

Chantal Akerman – 6 June 1950 – 5 October 2015

 

LFF 2015: I Am Belfast

by Ben Diamond

I Am Belfast (Cousins 2015, 84m)

Belfast is a ten thousand year old woman.  At least, according to Mark Cousins she is.  He has recruited Helena Bereen to embody the spirit of the city and to tell its story, from its beginnings of co-mingling of sweet and salt, to its recent Troubled history, and finally looking forward to the future.  The closest I can recall watching anything remotely like this was Terence Davies’s love letter to his Liverpool childhood, Of Time and the City, although the two really only bear superficial similarities – Davies’s work is constructed entirely out of archive material, whereas I Am Belfast is as much about the ‘now’ of Belfast as it is about ‘then’.  Or, perhaps, looking at the ‘then’ through the frame of the ‘now’.

Cousins and Bereen engage in a dialogue, literally – the two discuss Belfast, a co-voiceover to complement Bereen’s wanderings around the city, from the textile mills (once once of Northern Ireland’s strongest exports, the success built off the back of female labour), to the docks, and to the murals.  A well-chosen piece of footage from the early ’70s shows British soldiers using a water cannon unnecessarily on a group of justifiably angry women.  I think I caught a smirk from one of the soldiers just as the cannon is turned on, and I felt a flicker of rage, perhaps only a thousandth of the feelings of humiliation and injustice that, in one way or another, infected all the residents of this city during the Troubles.

Mark Cousins has an admirable talent for finding beauty in a city which has sort of faded away, left to lick its wounds.  Perhaps beauty is the wrong word. Perhaps it’s better than beauty, perhaps it’s simply something unique, an essence of Belfast – a combination of colours on a building that once stood tall and proud but has now been left unoccupied, the way the cranes at the dock frame what’s behind them, or simply the play of shadows on a residential street.  And, to go with these visuals, which tell a story of greys and browns, (nothing is a simple chiaroscuro in Belfast), a story of murky puddles and blurry images (fogged through the filter of Bereen’s cateracts), we have the voices of Belfast, which, in their lyrical and eloquent way, tell their own story.

I Am Belfast has bite to it too.  I admired the will to make things better, rather than to simply recoil in horror at the recent past.  The tale of three off-duty Scottish soldiers, lured from a pub and shot in the back of the head whilst taking a piss (‘two fluids leaking out at the same time’, very graphic, very shocking), a key incident at the start of the Troubles, is counterbalanced near the end of the film with a staging of the last bigot in Belfast, celebrated by the weird and the wonderful, who form the funeral procession.  A unique take on a unique city.

LFF 2015: Heart of a Dog

by Ben Diamond

Heart of a Dog (Anderson 2015, 75m)

“This is me, but it’s not me.  It’s my dream body.”  So Heart of a Dog starts, with an animated Laurie Anderson in a dream sequence, narrated by the real Laurie Anderson.  Ah, bloody hell, I think.  It’s one of those.  And whilst it was one of those, I got completely behind this film.  Poor old Laurie Anderson.  She’s had a sort of triple-whammy of death – her dog, her mother, and of course, the late, great, Lou Reed, her partner.  So it’s a documentary, a very creative documentary, about death – how we deal with death, and what happens when we die.  But it’s more than that.  It’s about time, it’s about how we tell stories, and it’s about life in a world of surveillance, post-9/11.

Laurie Anderson appears to be a bit of an all-rounder.  Clearly an accomplished filmmaker, we are also treated to musical compositions, her narrative, delivered in a captivating style (it actually reminded me of the slightly sinister voiceover in Desperate Housewives) reading like a long-form poem, and her elaborate paintings which imagine her dog in the various stages of the Bardo, the Tibetan equivalent of a sort of purgatory.  There’s oodles of invention and daring concept in this film, including interludes of pure text on the screen, run out of order and flashing up very quickly, a see-what-sticks approach.  What, in the hands of some, might have ended up as a whimsical mélange of ideas, in Anderson’s, becomes an enlightening and perceptive essay.

Some of the connections she draws might sound silly, but in the film become utterly thrilling and convincing.  She takes you one way, and then steers you in completely the other direction, then draws things together that make you marvel at her skills of perception, her unique worldview.  She talks about the moment her dog, Lolabelle, was attacked by hawks when they were out for a walk – they mistook her for a rabbit.  The hawks realise their mistake and retreat – but the dog is left with a new fear – they can come from the air, too.  A whole 180 degrees of extra threat for Lolabelle, who, although territorial before the incident, now looks up at the sky constantly as well as scouting on the ground.  Anderson then swerves back to 9/11.  We, too, realised that they can come from the sky.

Some bits of this film worked for me and some didn’t.  I have to admit I got slightly lost during the extended Tibetan instructions for what to do when you die.  I think the film succeeded best when it was simply Anderson telling a story – something which she clearly has a gift for.  And she has important things to say, too, about how we tell stories, and the things we leave out.  Heart of a Dog never feels didactic.  It feels more like the musings of a wise elder, which you can take or leave.  At one point Laurie tells us that she tries to feel sad, but not to be sad.  I’m not even sure what that actually means, or how you could achieve it, but it sounds significant, and I’m going to give it a go.

LFF 2015: High-Rise

by Ben Diamond

Cold, detached and airless.  Tom Hiddlestone in High-Rise (Wheatley 2015, 112m)

Oh dear oh dear.  I was really looking forward to this.  Ben Wheatley has been rising in stature over the last five years, starting with his debut, Down Terrace (his best), shot on a shoestring budget, and following it up with tales of the darker part of the English psyche – Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England.  Now he’s been given a proper budget and has chosen to adapt JG Ballard’s treasured novel High-Rise, which concerns the breakdown of social order in a block of flats for well-to-do professionals, who revolt against each other, and the building itself, which possesses its own sinister qualities and acts as a sort of superego for the collective hive mind of the residents.  A bit sci-fi, but not that sci-fi really, considering similar incidents were occurring at the time Ballard was writing the novel.  For someone with a fearsome reputation for pre-cog, including making the prophesy in the 1960s that Ronald Reagan would one day become president, this was more a reflection of what was happening, rather than what could happen.

Which all sounds like it might translate into a brilliant film.  I love Ben Wheatley but I feel he has simply picked source material that is too difficult to put onto the screen without losing Ballard’s intellectual verve.  I applaud his ambition.  But it simply doesn’t work.  Wheatley’s early work has been characterised by his gift for characterisation and dialogue, and his ability to create real menace and tension onscreen with nothing but a conversation.  In Ballard’s book, I feel most of the interesting ideas come from characters’ internal dialogues, not from external actions, which are actually fairly violent and repetitive.  Given a big budget, Wheatley appears to leave behind all the ideas about how the atmosphere of violence and jealousy of the High-Rise itself came to be, assuming it’s a given, and that we have all read the source material and understand it anyway, instead focusing on elaborate set designs and set pieces, which admittedly look stunning, but feel hollow without the ideas behind them being explained properly.

I really wanted this film to work.  In the end I feel Wheatley may have panicked and come to realise that, indeed, much of the message of the novel had been lost in the heady mix of visual flair and violent montages.  All of the characters from the book, (importantly) all living in different parts of the building and with different agendas, perspectives and attitudes, are thrown into a melting pot where they all blend into a homogenous, violent whole.  Perhaps this is why an audio clip of a Thatcher speech is shamefully tacked on to the end of the film, to give it some sort of intellectual weight which it had been lacking for the previous hour and forty minutes.  That might have been acceptable in This is England, but for a film devoid of social and political context up to then, it felt like a shortcut.  Even The Fall’s ‘Industrial Estate’, which plays over the end credits (in many ways the perfect track full stop, but certainly the perfect track for this film) couldn’t save this one.  The less said about the montage where Portishead cover ABBA’s ‘SOS’, the better.

LFF 2015: Entertainment

by Ben Diamond

Entertainment (Alverson 2015, 110m)

When is a film not funny?  When its subject is a stand-up comedian.

Entertainment seems to owe a debt to Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon, both looking at the business of comedy.  But whereas there is some sort of prankish genius at work in the Andy Kaufman construct in the latter, it soon becomes apparent in Entertainment that there’s absolutely nothing funny whatsoever about its main character (played by Gregg Turkington, simply ‘The Comedian’ in the credits), who drives alone through the desert, performing terrible and offensive jokes to the few nonplussed stragglers in each new bar he reaches.  I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s brilliant book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, about his years toiling on the road, playing upstairs at pubs, misunderstood and underappreciated.  But at least in his book there is eventual redemption (success), and the confirmation that Lee really does possess some sort of comic genius that is just too sophisticated for the masses.  Here, although I desperately wanted some sort of an equivalent to a wink from Turkington, letting the film audience in on the joke, there was none.  Instead, there is just a slow-burn realisation that this lone figure is doomed to perform piss-poor comedy (if it can even be called that) for the rest of his life.  That he turns nasty when his audiences lose interest in the performances belies a lack of self-awareness, and gives the whole piece a razor-sharp edge.

The Comedian’s deranged onstage performances differ completely from his quiet demeanour offstage.  The set-up to his jokes often start with a pained and drawn-out “Whyyyyyy?”, almost as if he has been forced onstage against his own will as some Inferno-style punishment, questioning his own torment.  In his hotel rooms between gigs, he phones his wife and speaks to his daughter.  “Hello sweetie,” we often hear him say.  After a while one wonders if this family even exist.  It’s strange to watch a comedian at work and failing miserably.  It’s not as if he’s a misunderstood genuis – he’s just not funny.  And it’s not funny watching him fail, either.  And therein likes the horror.  This is a film so bleak, the comedy so pitch-black you can’t even see it, that when the credits roll you just close your eyes and take deep breaths until the house lights come up again.

The things The Comedian encounters as the film goes on become more and more surreal, extreme metaphors for his alienation and descent into madness.  Michael Cera, in an inspired piece of casting, completely against type, plays a desperate driver at a gas station with a buzz cut.  The effect is disorientating.  At one point The Comedian witnesses a woman giving bith by herself on the floor of a truck stop bathroom.  All his performances are mirrored by his support act, a young man who puts on makeup and clowns around silently, jumping on tables and pretending to masturbate, defecating in his own hat.  It’s a great and innocent (if equally shit) comedic counterpoint to Turkington’s abhorrent nastiness onstage.  The film is full of slow-burn moments of absolute existential horror.  I thought it was wonderful.

LFF 2015: Virgin Mountain

by Ben Diamond

Virgin Mountain (Kári 2015, 94m)

Sometimes film festivals throw up the odd gem and you are rewarded for being adventurous.  Whilst many people’s rosters for festivals are studded with big-name previews which are due to go on general release within the next few months anyway, it’s good to throw some wildcards into the mix.  And by wildcards, I basically mean Weird Foreign Shit.  The BFI LFF page had a good filter option where it listed films by country, and so I decided that I simply wanted to see an Icelandic film this year, checked under ‘I’, and, lo and behold, one film, and one film only, bearing the Icelandic flag this year, and that film was Virgin Mountain, or, as it has been titled natively, ‘Fúsi‘, the name of our protagonist.

I feel like Virgin Mountain strikes the perfect balance of humour and sadness, whilst at the same time keeping its subject at arm’s length, as if this is a nature documentary, tracking Fúsi as he searches for a girlfriend, the camera looking on with indifference. Fúsi isn’t actually that keen to find a girlfriend and is under pressure to do so from his mum, and in this set-up we find the perfect comic balance – a loner half-heartedly looking for a partner, partially coerced into doing it against his own will, and perhaps finding himself in too deep when he achieves some success in the dating game.  Tinder does not appear to have reached Iceland yet.  Curiously, at one point some of Fúsi’s workmates ask him if he’s up for going to the pub to ‘watch Fulham play Aston Villa’ – I didn’t realise Icelanders were that into the English Premier League.

Fúsi is actually happiest when he is looking after his next-door neighbour’s daughter, who is often left alone by her negligent father.  The two strike up an unusual relationship, like a docile bear becoming friends with a mouse.  The two share an interest in toys – Fúsi being interested in battle re-enactment, Hera (played by the director’s daughter) being more of a Barbie kind of person.  There is something tragic about an adult man playing with miniature tanks, but when he’s playing with Hera, something is transformed, and it was quite wonderful to watch this relationship unfold.  I appreciate Dagur Kári tackling the subject of adult-child friendships that most directors seem to shy away from, because of the obvious taboos surrounding it (also dealt with in the film).  I was reminded of Miranda July’s (great) film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which also dealt with the subject in an original and challenging way.

There was an excellent tragicomic moment in the film when Fúsi’s mum is talking to Fúsi and her new boyfriend (for Fúsi’s mum is outperforming her own son in the dating/mating game) and she is trying to remember someone famous dying, and the effect it had on Fúsi, who, we learn, was very upset when he heard the news.  Various people are suggested – John Kennedy, etc. Eventually Fúsi’s mum has found her answer. “Kurt Cowbrain.”  And just for a moment we catch a glimpse of what it feels like to be an outcast in a freezing-cold place where you’re the only person to have heard of Nirvana.