No End (1985)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 49min

Even for Krzysztof Kieslowski, No End is an exceedingly sombre affair, exhuming the voice of a recently departed lawyer and haunting his widowed wife, Ulla, with visions of his apparition. It has been four days since Antek’s passing, as he informs us in the opening minutes, and he has borne witness to all of it, from the immediate aftermath of his heart attack right through to his funeral. Behind him, Ulla lies motionless on their bed, incapacitated from the grief. Elsewhere, his final client sits in prison awaiting trial, having illegally organised a factory strike after the introduction of martial law. Along two parallel paths, Kieslowski follows both the personal and political implications of Antek’s untimely death, binding them together under the shadow of Poland’s Communist authoritarianism.

Though he is our entryway into this story, Antek steps to the side right after his monologue, from this point on only appearing as a mysterious presence vaguely interfering with the lives of those he left behind. His impact is ambiguous, implicitly leaving a red question mark on a legal document and making a fellow lawyer drop his watch. Even when we do see him, his appearances are often only fleeting. While Ulla meditates, his hand slips into the foreground to pick up a glass before retreating, and later when she is describing his presence to someone else, Kieslowski cuts away to his hands playing with the holes in her stockings.

The longer she mourns, the greater her love for him grows, but she also evidently has trouble expressing this to anyone. In one scene that sees her sleep with an English tourist, she is driven to tell him of the powerful union she shared with Antek, though only in Polish so that he cannot understand. Perhaps Kieslowski himself is making a point here about the inherently unique and honourable qualities of Poland’s Solidarity movement, which Antek embodies. The crushing loss of this Polish push for workers’ rights and social change simply cannot be comprehended by anyone not directly affected by it.

It is in the courtroom drama side of No End that Kieslowski elucidates this metaphor a little more, centring Artur Barciś and Aleksander Bardini respectively as a political dissident and his new lawyer. Both men would later go on to play significant roles in Kieslowski’s Dekalog series, particularly Barciś who bears witness to each individual episode as a silent, supernatural entity. In the role of No End’s Darek, that neutrality is exchanged for fervent passion, trying to make himself a martyr of the suppressed Solidarity trade union that was rapidly terminated by the Polish government’s imposed martial law. Here, the ghost of Antek serves as an even greater reminder of that pacifist resistance movement, physically absent yet still active in the minds and memories of Poles.

Though Darek’s lawyer, Labrador, possesses a warmth and genuine desire to help his client, his convictions are not as strong as his predecessor’s. He wins Darek’s case, and yet it doesn’t feel like victory. There is nothing brave or impressive about a Solidarity leader getting off with a slap on the wrist. As Antek stands in the courtroom with them, the insignificance of this entire trial gradually sets in.

In constructing an allegorical narrative with so few direct representations of Poland’s political landscape, Kieslowski often keeps No End at an intellectual distance from audiences wishing to grasp its historical details. Due to censorship, the word “Solidarity” is not even mentioned anywhere in this screenplay. Where it does connect is in its solemn representations of devastating political defeat, likening it to the death of a loved one and the hopeless depression that follows.

It sinks in very subtly, but this despair does take root in this ensemble of subdued performances and Zbigew Preisner’s slow, grim music. If No End is a eulogy, then his church choir, strings, woodwinds, and organ make up a liturgical underscore, ploughing along in grave unison as if brought together under a common cause of shared melancholy and reverence. Just as these musical instruments move as one through haunting minor progressions, too does this overwhelming sense of loss spiritually unite Kieslowski’s characters throughout the film, together commemorating a death that carries demoralising implications across multiple levels of society.

No End is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

A Zed and Two Noughts (1985)

Peter Greenaway | 1hr 55min

A Zed and Two Noughts opens and closes with two pairs of deaths, its very structure marked by a symmetry that Peter Greenaway is compelled to tease out in meticulous detail. It is a fixation which extends to the pair of co-dependent twins at the film’s centre, both zoologists who bury themselves in their experiments to cope with the recent losses, attempting to reckon with the very nature of birth and death that spells out the fate of every life on Earth. The other obsession which carries them through is Alba – the woman whose car collision ended both their partners’ lives, and who is now recovering in hospital after having her leg amputated. It is a disturbingly twisted sort of love which forms between the three of them, driven by the same desire to understand that which has ruined their lives.

Opening with a sequence of gorgeous compositions, painting out images of loss and grief as the “ZOO” sign in the background gradually turns off, letter by letter.

But for Oswald and Oliver Deuce, none of their studies or affairs are attempts to achieve some greater power over their own mortality. It is knowledge they crave, sorted by neat labels and classifications. The zoo they work at is the perfect setting for this taxonomical compulsion, where creatures are kept in cages and examined like objects. The zebra becomes a powerful running metaphor for Greenaway, representing the duality of all life in its black and white patterns, as well as in its very name reaching from one end of the alphabet to the other. Later in the film it falls victim to the twins’ experiments, embodying both life and death in its decay, but that isn’t before we watch several other living organisms suffer the same fate in the name of science.

Therein lies the basis of the Deuces’ primary experiments: observing the decomposition of organic matter through time-lapse photography. Greenaway returns to these sped-up sequences over and over, and beneath the decay of plants and animals Michael Nyman’s jaunty score of baroque strings, woodwinds, and harpsichord playfully underscores it all, like a crazed dance growing more frantic with the Deuces’ growing ambitions. Each new subject is a progressively more complex life form than the last, and thus Greenaway sets in motion a formal evolution that we anxiously anticipate will end with the most biologically advanced animal of all.

Excellent form in the repetition of these time-lapse sequences, watching creatures decompose. Also, very confronting as they gradually become more advanced life forms.

In fact, there is very little at all separating these humans from the creatures they pick apart, but it is evident that the Deuces take great comfort in this, using their studies as a way they can understand themselves. It is with this in mind that Greenaway builds an artificially gorgeous world of colour and symmetry around his characters, where they live within perpendicular lines and patterns of duality like zoo animals in enclosures. It is worth drawing comparisons with Michael Powell, another British director who preceded Greenaway by roughly 40 years and who similarly innovated the use of colour in film to draw out the perverse fascinations of his characters, though Greenaway’s designs are a little more ostentatious with their confronting depictions of nudity and body horror.

This is one way to make a background character stand out – dousing them entirely in red costuming and set dressing.

The hospital is one such setting we return to frequently where Greenaway’s visions manifest on a grand scale, enveloping a one-legged Alba in a cavernous white room of clinical curtains and bare furniture, though breaking up the sterility with flower bouquets on a table directly in front of here. Often accompanying these florals are Oswald and Oliver, and even when she eventually moves back home into her spacious pink bedroom Greenaway continues to block them in similarly balanced compositions. Each time we return to this set it is always a little more symmetrical than the last, as these twins gradually merge their styles into one indistinguishable look and Alba eventually decides to have her remaining leg amputated.

The exact same blocking arrangement repeated all through the film – Alba centre frame, and the twins on either side, forming perfectly symmetrical compositions.

Greenaway possesses the sensibilities of both a painter and a scientist, and although this strange mix often creates a cold distance between him and his characters, its precision allows for an intensified focus on their disturbed psyches. It is especially mirrored in the expressionistic laboratory where pulsating pink and blue lights create off-beat visual rhythms with the flashing cameras, each one illuminating an exhibit of decomposing organisms. In one of the few tracking shots present in the film, Greenaway speeds his own camera down a row of these displays, overtaken by the same frenzied excitement as that of our mad scientists.

It can’t be captured in a single image, but the flashing strobe lights at different tempos and colours create a sense of organised chaos in the laboratory.

To them, it is the observation of life and death which gives it meaning, and it is through this reasoning that they try to ensure that they do not live or die in vain, turning one of their cameras on themselves. Greenaway is sure to emphasise a contrarian position here in an ironic twist of fate that sees their camera destroyed, maintaining that while the rules of nature remain unyielding, they serve no spiritual purpose other than the propulsion of its own existence. A creature put on display in a zoo or exhibition is a lonely thing indeed, but as we come to recognise in the final minutes of A Zed and Two Noughts, even lonelier is a creature with no spectators at all.

Greenaway has a painter’s eye, capturing perfectly staged tableaux with often absurd visual imagery and a good dose of nudity.

A Zed and Two Noughts is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Woody Allen | 1hr 22min

The story of The Purple Rose of Cairo is so simple it might as well be a fairy tale, or perhaps a fable for twentieth century America. In such dire times as the Great Depression when jobs were being lost and poverty was widespread, the escapism of the movie theatre could let that all fade away for a few hours. Down-on-her-luck waitress Cecilia is no exception. Hollywood gossip is her matter of expertise, and the cinema is where she falls into a dreamy daze, consumed by fantasies acted out by stars who never acknowledge her in return. That is at least until she catches the eye of archaeologist Tom Baxter, a character from the other side of the silver screen. All of a sudden he is walking out of the frame and into reality, much to the shock of her fellow theatre patrons and his fellow movie characters.

A literal breaking of the fourth wall within our own fourth wall as Tom Baxter climbs out of the screen.

At this point in Woody Allen’s career, The Purple Rose of Cairo was about as childishly whimsical as he had gotten, but as much as he indulges in the fanciful imagination of the piece he is also in complete control of this delicate balance of conflicting tones. It is namely the incongruities between reality and fantasy that come to a head as Cecilia herself tries to sort one from the other, painfully considering how she can live a life of bright idealism while trapped in an abusive marriage. The touching vulnerability that Mia Farrow summons up in this role is of an entirely different kind to that which she displayed in Rosemary’s Baby. It is both naïve and disillusioned, seeing the world as it is yet choosing to turn away from it to absorb another where people are “consistent and always reliable.” How crushingly magnificent she is as well in simply sitting and letting her reactions tell entire stories, moving between smiles and tears as Allen dreamily dissolves between her face and the movie screen, forming a bond between the two that cannot be destroyed by anything that happens outside that darkened room.

Long dissolves binding Cecilia to the screen, an inseparable relationship.

But at the end of each movie session the lights inevitably turn back on and Cecilia must once again return to a life where happy endings are rare, and where the most one can really hope for is a bittersweet reconciliation with misfortune. As she discovers, the idealism of fiction can provide an aspirational standard that may inspire positive values and self-confidence, but this is not always enough to wrestle with any issues of real substance. “Where’s the fade out?” Tom asks as he and Cecilia begin to kiss passionately, unfamiliar with a world where sex is not simply implied. His chivalry and romance are certainly desirable, but his claims that he only possesses those since they were “written into my character” suggest that anything that was not instilled in him at conception is not something he can grow to understand.

In this self-aware layering of film conventions within other film conventions, Allen’s comedic writing and directing is simply superb, and demonstrative of the depth of his talent even when not crafting an all-time great screenplay such as Annie Hall. Fourth walls are broken in the most literal manner possible, characters within the ‘fake’ movie reference their own artificial existence, and then every so often he punctures the lightness of the story with a stab of black comedy, addressing the potentially disastrous consequences of both real and fictional worlds meeting. As we learn at one point, the black-and-white characters up on the movie screen are damned back to an empty void of nothingness each time the projector is turned off, and in a narrative twist further along the actor who plays Tom also gets tied up in the farce, complicating the matter with cases of mistaken identity.

Allen lovingly recreates a 1930s style Hollywood montage using the silent film technique of multiple exposure.

This rather simple premise doesn’t outstay its welcome either, as within the film’s brief 82-minute run time Allen keeps the narrative moving in exciting directions, turning his lovingly stylistic construction of a classical black-and-white Hollywood movie into a transgressive artistic choice when the fourth wall is spun around and Cecilia enters Tom’s fictional world. The film grain and slightly tinny sound quality is authentically rendered in detail, but even greater is the montage of their “night out on the town” that affectionately plays into silent film techniques in tremendous ways, creating gorgeously layered collages through multiple exposures. The Purple Rose of Cairo is just as much an ode to the world of movies and moviemaking as it is a fable warning against the temptation to use them as a replacement for living, though it is through its intelligent, enthusiastic screenplay and one of Farrow’s most touchingly sweet screen performances that it transcends its already imaginative premise.

No doubt one of Mia Farrow’s greatest performances, playing this sensitive soul prone to bouts of great joy and heartbreak.

The Purple Rose of Cairo is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

After Hours (1985)

Martin Scorsese | 1hr 37min

There is a version of After Hours which might play out more as a straight farce or screwball comedy, as we follow corporate yuppie Paul Hackett along a twisted journey through a bad night that only keeps getting worse. He has two simple objectives in mind: get home, and, if he can find the time for it, get laid. He wanders through the apartments, clubs, and streets of New York, ingratiating himself with strangers who might offer him solutions to one or both of his goals, though oftentimes when we get our hopes up, they are quickly dashed by some extraordinary turn of events, each one more utterly absurd than the last. After Hours is truly Kafkaesque down to the very fabric of its premise, dragging us through an oppressive nightmare that erodes our faith in a chaotic universe that only ever cooperates with itself at the worst possible times.

A chaotic labyrinth with seemingly no physical destination in sight.

But Martin Scorsese’s pointed critique is not aimed at some metaphysical force that exists entirely beyond the control of humans. This trap which Paul has worked himself into is one devised by industrial America, setting up an inefficient system that rejects nuanced judgement in favour of clumsy, automated assumptions. Of course, much of After Hours takes place outside the sterile offices where such bureaucracies are created, but beyond those walls, corporate culture continues to shape urban life in its own awful likeness. It is omnipresent and inescapable, even when the lights are turned off and everybody has left the building. For Paul, there is no existence outside work – there is simply eight hours of soul-sucking fatigue, and then another sixteen hours of the same thing.

As such, it isn’t the setting of New York that feels like its own character so much as it is the society, made up of artists, bartenders, businessmen, cab drivers, and burglars. The extent to which coincidences underlie each of Paul’s interactions with these people is rigidly formal in its development, as unrelated misunderstandings and minor accidents from early on later interweave in a series of increasingly unlucky diversions, to the point that it isn’t just the whims of fate holding Paul back from getting home, but the active efforts of an angry mob operating under the misguided belief that he is a criminal who must be brought to justice. Even as After Hours traverses dark territory including suicide and drugs, Scorsese’s screenplay remains wickedly funny, particularly as Paul grows self-aware of his own ridiculous situation, and at one point, after witnessing an entirely unrelated murder, bleakly muses:

“I’ll probably get blamed for that.”

A murder entirely unrelated to anything else in this film, but it does paint out New York as a city of corruption and sin lurking beneath images of clean, corporate offices.

Early on a horrific plaster sculpture evoking Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’ is used to foreshadow the sort of torment nightmare that awaits Paul, but by the end of the film this comparison is fully literalised as a shell within which Paul is trapped, unable to move, speak, or even scream out in pain. It should be no surprise that the woman who moulds this sculpture around him is just another false ally in a long line of them, and yet her betrayal does pack an extra sting given the moment of tender understanding the two shared. “I just want to live,” he tells her honestly, cutting through the miasma of confusion that pervades the streets of New York outside the bar where they slow dance to Peggy Lee’s hauntingly existential rendition of ‘Is That All There Is?’

Strong visual and narrative form, turning Paul into a powerless, objectified sculpture like the one set up earlier.

The subtext is potent all through the film, but in this moment as Paul becomes objectified in the most literal sense of the word, Scorsese’s metaphors rise to the surface in an overwhelming wave, washing over and incapacitating the young upstart. It only makes sense that with his eventual escape from his physical encasement comes the rising sun, and an all too convenient drop-off out the front of his workplace just as his colleagues file in. With no other choice but to sit back down at his desk and start another day of work, he remains a feeble commodity, lacking any ability to achieve his most basic personal goals. In a mirror of the very first shot, Scorsese’s camera hurtles through the office at a breakneck pace, frantically turning corners with no destination in sight, damning Paul back into the crowd of suits he came from. There is no end to the modern-day nightmare that After Hours so dismally paints out – it is defined by the absence of anything that gives life meaning, isolating Paul in a limbo with no partner, no friends, and no home.

The camera rushing through the office in formal bookends, starting the corporate cycle all over again.

After Hours is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam | 2hr 12min

Describing a piece of fiction as Orwellian has become some sort of vague platitude to acknowledge a scathing attack on totalitarianism, yet few films fit the descriptor better than Brazil. The very concept of a man and a woman escaping an authoritarian government, making love, and falling right back into the government’s clutches is no doubt a familiar narrative to those familiar with ‘1984’. But where George Orwell’s Airstrip One was ruled by the indomitable force of Big Brother, Terry Gilliam’s bureaucratic dystopian city envisioned in Brazil is hilariously incompetent.

Overhead shots, always turning an eye of surveillance down on Sam.

Jonathan Pryce’s protagonist Sam Lowry is introduced in a dream as a winged knight, soaring through clouds and seeing visions of a mysterious woman. Later, he dreams of monsters roaming city streets, and a large robot used to subdue citizens. Though these dreams indicate an imaginative man out of step with his surroundings, their manifestations in reality also suggest something more surreal at work. Is Sam prophesising the future? Do his dreams actually have power to shape reality? Perhaps if this city could put its mind to something other than blunt commercialism and nonsensical data he might actually get answers.

The machines that have been built to assist the humans in their quest for rigidity are barely efficient themselves. Sam’s coffee machine swings around wildly, pouring boiling water over his toast. The elevator at his work malfunctions at the worst possible time. And the catalyst for Brazil‘s entire plot stems from a fly falling into a teleprinter, causing it to stamp an incorrect name on a form. Few people are able to look past this clerical error and see the truth. Whatever is printed on a form becomes law.

Nothing signifies the distortion of something meaningful into a consumerist spending spree like the birth of Jesus, and Gilliam is all too aware of the implications in setting this story at Christmastime. Tinsels, trees, and fairy lights are pathetically scattered around this depressingly grey city. Even a sign that hilariously reads “Consumers for Christ” suggests a society that has become self-aware of its own vapidity.

It is all one giant distraction though, and the utter disconnection between the citizens and the very real social issues that surround them are milked for all their comedic value. There are terrorists on the loose, and early on an explosion in the background of a restaurant is nothing but a mere annoyance to the patrons who keep chatting away. As a string trio play a rendition of Hava Nagila, emergency responders gather quickly to put out the fire and rescue the wounded. All the restaurant manager can think to do is place a partition between the patrons and the fuss going on behind them.

Maximalist clutter through the foreground and background, all in the name of absurdist comedy.

This absurdist comedy was perfected by the Monty Python troupe, but Terry Gilliam simply extends on that in Brazil with his audacious visual gags and balls-to-the-wall maximalist production design. In cluttering his frames with clunky machines, metallic pillars, and ducts, he traps Sam like a prisoner behind these enormous constructs.

In its city scenes, Brazil often seems like Britain’s response to Blade Runner, building on the cyberpunk noir aesthetic with a heavy dose of surrealism and comedy. Like Ridley Scott’s 1982 film and Metropolis that set a precedent almost sixty years prior, the square block miniatures of the futuristic civilisation are so intricate that it is easy to forget these buildings aren’t hundreds of metres tall. That is, until Gilliam plays his own trick on the audience by pulling the camera back to amusingly reveal the falsity of one of these miniature sets.

Surrealism and visual gags through miniatures – this is Metropolis, Blade Runner, but also distinctly Gilliam.

This maddening, unnerving mise-en-scene fills Brazil from start to end. Most impressive of all is the torture room, a large, cylindrical space that drops down into jagged, metal spokes fanning out from the centre. To lift this lunacy into the realm of complete insanity, Gilliam’s wide-angle lens distorts everything that little bit more. Jonathan Pryce’s face is the perfect canvas for these warped, low-angle close-ups, as everything around him seems to spread outwards from his bulging eyes.

From here on Brazil descends further into surrealism, with Sam making his eventual escape to live a content life in the countryside with Jill. It is suspiciously rushed and unearned, though everything falls into place with the crushing reveal that this entire sequence has only unfolded in his lobotomised dream state. As incompetent and witless as the state is, their blunt power more than makes up for it, leaving Sam to happily indulge in his own imagination. Terry Gilliam’s construction of a futuristic Britain is visually daunting, but Brazil never shies away from the dark comedy of a government desperately out of touch with reality.

Maddening wide angle lenses only intensifying Gilliam’s formidable production design.

Brazil is currently available to stream on Mubi Australia, and to buy or rent on iTunes and YouTube.