Léon: The Professional (1994)

Luc Besson | 1hr 50min

What does it take for a man who surrounds him with death to develop a taste for life? For hitman Léon, it is an image of innocence tainted by the world’s depravity, trying to become an adult at age 12 without realising how much of a childhood she is missing out on. Mathilda has never particularly cared for her abusive, drug dealing parents, but when her little brother is tossed aside as collateral damage in a bust by corrupt DEA agents, she becomes fixated on a mission of revenge, particularly directed towards the sinister, deranged Norman Stansfield. 

Léon may be the perfect man to help her manifest these goals, but Luc Besson does not condescend to his audience with such straightforward characterisations in Léon: The Professional. The dramatic interactions he delivers are instead equal parts thrilling, heartfelt, and thorny, unfolding a complex relationship between a hitman and orphan that ultimately offers them both steppingstones towards greater self-realisations. 

The cinematic high that Besson captures in his opening set piece may not be reached again, but the dexterity with which he directs Léon’s invisible takedown of an entire gang is nevertheless a captivating introduction for a man who lives life on the fringes of society. Rather than placing us in his point of view, Besson looks through the eyes of the thugs being taken out one by one in a grand hotel. The whole scene may as well be a short horror film with Léonas the shark from Jaws, going completely unseen and leaving merely the handiwork of his murders behind as the only evidence he was ever there. Eventually as he approaches the last one still alive, he emerges from the darkness like a bogeyman, striking an intimidating figure in his circular sunglasses and short, black beanie. 

It is a sudden shift in perspective that takes place immediately after this. The fear and tension built around the Léon we met at the hotel dissipates the moment we see him in broad daylight from his own viewpoint – a man living on his own, going to the grocery store like anyone else, and leading a meagre life.

It shouldn’t speak to the quality of Jean Reno’s involving performance that he comes off third best in this superb cast. There is something both tragic and magnetic about 12-year-old Natalie Portman when she first comes onscreen as Mathilda, holding onto a cynical wisdom that far transcends her years. Beneath the young girl’s talk of sex and murder is a mournful bitterness about her own lost childhood, activating a survival mechanism that forces her to live in a world of adults. 

It is evident though when she does come face to face with Gary Oldman’s chilling DEA agent that it is not something she is ready to handle at all. She may see herself as ruined, but Stansfield is a truly insidious and unpredictable force. He will pleasantly speak of his love for Beethoven as he murders a family in cold blood, before flying off the handle in uncontrollable fits of anger. Every so often, Oldman will pause to crack his neck mid-scene without explanation, and the effect is unsettling. Our two protagonists may be corrupted to some extent, and yet in placing them next to a villain as unredeemable as Stansfield, Besson thoughtfully lights up their individual paths to redemption. 

Even beyond the thrillingly staged action set pieces, Besson proves himself to be a skilled director of quieter dramatic beats, crafting a healthy balance of drama and dark comedy in montages that see Leon and Mathilda break into strangers’ houses to harmlessly practice assassination techniques. As the two social outcasts walk the streets of New York City, Besson’s telephoto lens compresses them against a blurred urban environment that barely pays them a scrap of attention, insulating them inside a bubble of both sharp pain and tender support. 

The pot plant metaphor which Besson closely identifies with Mathilda may be a little over-explained, but it nevertheless builds to a gratifying pay-off by the time she recognises her need to grow roots in an environment that can properly nourish her. It similarly holds symbolic significance for Léon as he grows to understand the value of tiny, delicate things which possess neither brute force nor indomitable will-power, but which hold great potential in their youth and malleability. A heavy aura of death may hang heavily over Léon: The Professional, though it is in Besson’s quiet celebrations of life where he lands his greatest emotional punches.

Léon: The Professional is currently streaming on Stan and SBS On Demand, is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

La Haine (1995)

Mathieu Kassovitz | 1hr 38min

The explosions of violence that take place in La Haine are not cathartic releases of tension. Even after they are set off in riots and beatings, resentment continues to simmer between police, immigrants, and skinheads, so lacking in focus and direction that the inciting motivations seem to be entirely lost. Its momentum is unstoppable, like a man falling from a building, reassuring himself “So far, so good”, yet failing to see the ground rapidly rising to meet him. This is the metaphor that bookends La Haine in voiceover, describing a modern society blind to the inevitable consequences of its own actions. This, along with the time stamps marking key points within the 20 hours this narrative takes place, instils it with an urgency that might as well be a countdown to the final collision between the falling man and the earth.

La Haine comes only six years on from Do the Right Thing, and yet the influence of Spike Lee’s fervent cinematic politicising can already be felt in its thematic and stylistic composition. The wrestle between love and hate that Radio Raheem described seems to be resolved even before this film opens – the French title directly translates to “Hate” in English, and it is that ideal which eats away at the remains of civility and compassion in these projects just outside of Paris. It fizzles with an indignant energy infused right into Mathieu Kassovitz’s dynamic camera movements, at its most vigorous flying through the sky around apartment buildings, and at its quietest restlessly panning around a discussion between characters at its own pace, anxiously anticipating the turning point. As the disillusioned immigrants whose paths we trace through this story stand atop a balcony, Kassovitz even warps the space around them in a mind-bending dolly zoom, compressing them against the streets and city buildings in the background.

A dolly zoom overlooking the city, compressing our main characters against the background.
Skilful camera movements all through La Haine, among the most prominent being its flight above the apartment buildings of this French suburb.

This electric energy extends to La Haine’s editing as well, frequently punctuating harsh transitions with the sound effect of a gunshot or punch, and thereby emphasising the raw brutality of such violence. The effect it has is severe, separating the vicious attacks exacted by and upon our main characters from those which define the broader French society, as sketched out in the opening montage of archival footage which lands us in the thick of furious riots. It is there that expressions of outrage coalesce with the naturalistic urban scenery, instilling the film with an organic authenticity that continues to flow through its wandering narrative.

Because in spite of Kassovitz’ wild flourishes of style, the aching social realism of La Haine just keeps bleeding through, disengaging from any traditional notions of plotting so we may instead sit in the mundane conversations that separate one burst of climactic anger from the next. It is especially there where Vincent Cassel excels as Jewish immigrant Vinz, seeking out vengeance for his friend, Abdel, who has been hospitalised from beatings he received while in police custody. The young actor is a loose cannon in this role, always appearing to be a few seconds away from flying off the handle. When he is alone, he squares up to a mirror and recites the unhinged “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver, like a wannabe Travis Bickle trying to prove his own toughness. And yet there is also a deep tragedy to Cassel’s performance, exposing a wounded man who knows no other way to deal with the awful hand society has dealt him, and who gradually realises the futility in his directionless anger. Like an addict though, Vinz keeps falling back on that rotten hatred, pulling him closer to the ground that he will inevitably meet with full force.

Cassel reciting the “You talkin’ to me?” scene from Taxi Driver, an image of toxic masculinity.
Vinz hides his wounds with shows of toughness and strength, but those moments where we see his vulnerability are deeply affecting – a real accomplishment of acting from Cassel.

Along with his friends Hubert, an Afro-French boxer, and Saïd, a North African Muslim, Vinz becomes a primary subject in Kassovitz’s monochrome portrait of disillusioned youths, whose most hopeful prospects are that they might eventually be able to escape the projects where they live. His blocking of them all across layers and levels of the frame forms some affecting character compositions, and he especially forges a tight emotional connection with them in those shots where they direct lines right into the camera.

There is always a sense of isolation between the friends in these compositions – as much as they share common experiences, they are also emotionally segregated from each other, these divisions captured in Kassovitz’s blocking across mirrors, levels, and layers of the frame.

Even while we watch them aggressively provoke strangers, we still can’t help but feel attached to them through their plights, as well as great concern for their safety as tensions ramp up. A literal Chekhov’s gun is established early on when we discover that Vinz has stolen a gun from a police officer at a riot, and each time he pulls it out as an assertion of his own masculinity we feel even more certain that it will be fired before the end of the film. When the time comes for our suspicions to be answered though, all we are left with is an ambiguous stand-off that refuses to reveal which side is on the end of the bullet’s trajectory. On a broader societal level, it may not even matter. With each senseless killing only going on to spur more of its kind, the rundown French suburbs of La Haine become a breeding ground for bitter hostility, perpetually plunging towards the ground, and blindly, vainly reminding itself – “So far, so good.”

A continued despair through Kassovitz’s staging. La Haine is a violent film, but it also lingers in those quiet moments where characters wallow in sorrow and contempt.

La Haine is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Three Colours: Red (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 39min

The final part of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy would also be the final film of his career. He announced his retirement after Red’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994, and then two years later he passed away, leaving behind a confounding masterpiece that pays off on stylistic fascinations and fatalistic meditations threaded all through his work. The set of circumstances which bring young model Valentine to the door of Joseph, an elderly retired judge, are about as arbitrary as those which keep her separated from Auguste, the law student whose life is locked in a tangential criss-cross pattern with hers. Formal parallels abound between characters, and Kieslowski lays heavily into the dramatic irony of their hidden interconnections. Fraternity is his focus here, the third part of France’s national motto, and it is undoubtedly a powerful force within this small ensemble, pulling individuals together into an invisible club they don’t even realise they are part of.

Out of all Red’s characters, it is perhaps Joseph who possesses the clearest understanding of this fraternity. From his living room he taps the phone calls of all his neighbours so that he may spy on their private affairs, and as such it is reasonable to consider him the closest thing to an omniscient God figure, bridging gaps between strangers. At the same time though, Joseph is decidedly flawed, and just as prone to the whims of chance as anyone else. The story he tells Valentine of how he passed his studies after his dropped textbook opened to the page that would be relevant in his final exam directly mirrors what we witness happen to Auguste earlier in the film. In fact, the similarities that emerge between both men might as well make them the same person separated by a few decades, so that Valentine’s friendly relationship with Joseph essentially becomes a stand in for her potential relationship with his younger counterpart.

Irene Jacobs returns from The Double Life of Veronique to collaborate with Kieslowski once again. She plays kind and compassionate wonderfully without ever being dull to watch.
Two men associated with telephones, spending time inside these dark red offices – a superb formal connection between Joseph and Auguste.

In Kieslowski’s fluid tracking shots, he traces the gaps between both Valentine and Auguste’s paths, elegantly craning and panning his camera to observe their unwitting entwinement through the streets and shops of Paris. Virtually everything that he is formally setting up here points them in the direction of a fated relationship, and while we eagerly anticipate their eventual collision, such gratification does not come easily. In fact, it is arguable whether it comes at all. There is no logic in assuming that just because the two share similar qualities and frequently rub shoulders that they should eventually fall in love, just as there is no logic in Valentine and Joseph being born several decades apart. Perhaps if he was younger their relationship would blossom into something romantic, as it might with Auguste if she knew of his existence. Such is the nature of life’s fickle obstacles keeping us apart from our potential futures that they go entirely ignored until the right paths happen to line up, and we wonder “Where would I be if that one small thing never happened?”

A breath-taking dedication to a colour scheme – red lighting and decor dominate this film.

Despite all these missed connections between individuals, Kieslowski still delights in imbuing his film with an abundant warmth. Shades of red saturate his mise-en-scène with a deep passion, uniting each character inside the cosy embrace of his décor and lighting. In the very first shot as we speed along red telephone wires running through the ocean and ground to connect complete strangers, the colour is immediately associated with the hidden interrelations ridden all throughout the film, and it doesn’t end there. In brake lights, slot machines, wallpaper, and theatres, scarlet hues continue to dominate Kieslowski’s gorgeous compositions, and in the most striking visual display of colour in the film, it becomes the visual foundation of Valentine’s bubble gum ad, plastering her face up on billboards around the city. In returning to this image several times she becomes more than just the protagonist in our story, but also in her surroundings, unconsciously touching the lives of virtually everyone who passes by.

People passing Valentine’s poster every day on the streets, including Auguste. Fate and chance are threaded all through Kieslowski’s direction and screenplay.

Slowly, the scope of consciousness for these characters begin to expand, and as they do we find Kieslowski returning to the motif of glass, often intact when barriers remain up, and broken when individuals reach out to lives beyond their own. Specifically, it links Joseph and Auguste via smashed windows, fractured beer glasses, and broken ornaments, often being given specific focus in Kieslowski’s symbolic diversions from the main narrative. Rather than his usual cutaways though, instead he will often drift his camera away from his characters to linger on these thoughtful representations of broken boundaries.

Still, it is almost impossible for anyone living inside Kieslowski’s world to fully understand the complex connections that link them to each other, spanning beyond the peripheries of the film to glimpse characters from the rest of the Three Colours trilogy, united in the final minutes by a freak accident. Whether it is chance or fate, seeing the full structure of this interconnected fraternity might take the perspective of an all-seeing God – or at least a philosophical filmmaker with a pensive, wandering camera.

Kieslowski’s camera often dollies away from Valentine to other characters and tiny symbols – the broken glass here at the bowling alley, for example.

Three Colours: Red is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi, and available to rent on iTunes.

Three Colours: White (1994)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 32min

At Karol’s lowest, white is the colour of bleak desolation, encasing him in a snowy garbage dump flooded with seagulls. What changes in Three Colours: White is not Krzysztof Kieslowski’s stylistic palette, but rather our perception of it. As Karol claws his way back up the ranks of society that his ex-wife, Dominique, banished him from, an alabaster bust bearing a likeness to her becomes a reminder of his end goal, a pale hotel room becomes an image of privilege, and when the two make love, Kieslowski fades to white right over her orgasm. The middle colour of the French flag, as it stands in the second instalment of Three Colours, is equality – a neutral mix of hues that restores balance where justice cannot be found, and which lends itself perfectly to the softer tone of this relatively light-hearted narrative.

An alabaster bust is the key symbol in White, carrying through a reminder of Karol’s past and future in its resemblance to Dominique.
Bleak snowy landscapes infested with pollution and dirt at Karol’s lowest.

Kieslowski calls back in Zbigniew Zamachowski and Jerzy Stuhr from Dekalog: Ten as brothers once again, playing to the former’s comedic strengths in scenes that see him resourcefully make use of what little he has to overcome obstacles. To get back to Poland from France, he smuggles himself inside a travel bag, and yet awkwardly finds himself being stolen by a group of thugs looking for money. His plot to finally get back at Dominique pays off on this ingenuity as well, involving a complicated fabrication of his own death that frames her as the murderer.

Given the vaguely comic sensibilities of White, Kieslowski does not indulge so frequently in those symbolic cutaways that he often uses to momentarily remove us from the immediate narrative, and yet when they do appear they leave a mark. Most gratifying of all is the close-up image of Karol and Dominique’s grasped hands, finally making contact again after months of separation, and this time very much as equals. It sets an even playing field for Karol’s final power play, sending her to the pits of society where she once left him to waste away. Even so, there is a sense in the final shot of Karol’s teary face that this exile may only be temporary – vengeance is only so useful in restoring balance before reconciliation organically emerges between both parties.

Kieslowski cutting to this key image of equality – two people finally on an even playing field, shot against white curtains in the background.

As we glimpse in flashbacks to Karol and Dominique’s wedding day shot through a dazzling, bleached filter, there is a pure happiness that once existed between them, as Kieslowski’s point-of-view shots gaze at her smiling face with adoration. It is misty, dreamy, and far removed from the modern day where Kieslowski’s colour scheme emerges in the architecture of train stations and courtrooms, each location carefully selected for its visual impression upon Karol’s journey. In expansive snowy landscapes, even the sun shines a plain white light across the clear sky, mirroring the pale ground in an image of equal counterparts.

Kieslowski carefully selects his locations for their decor and architecture, as they conform to his stunning white palette.

Whether through retribution or through exoneration, Kieslowski seeks a similar balance in Karol and Dominique’s contentious relationship. He deals out justice in his narrative not with emotional passion, but rather with a cool, fair judgement, finding poetic irony in the eventual reversal of fortunes. Wedged in between two more serious films in the Three Colours trilogy, White can easily be overlooked for its lighter thematic material, and yet as the centrepiece it also appropriately offers the same balance that it examines, holding them all together as a comical yet uniformly profound equaliser.

Even the sun and sky is completely white in these wonderful establishing shots.

Three Colours: White is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Three Colours: Blue (1993)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 39min

The Three Colours trilogy is not the first time Krzysztof Kieslowski has woven cultural ideals deep into the structure of his cinematic work, and nor is it the first to shift styles so dramatically between each part. But where his Dekalog series took the Ten Commandments as its the foundation, it is the French values and flag colours which he takes particular interest in here, centring his first instalment, Blue, on the virtue of “liberty” as laid out in the motto of the French republic – Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”. This is not a revolutionary or political liberty, overthrowing some oppressive elite, but rather an emotional liberty seeking independence from the chains of past trauma. The blue palette that pervades this film in every shade imaginable sinks it into a deep melancholy, as one woman, Julie, tries to build an entirely new life to move on from the loss of her husband and daughter in a fatal car accident. 

Kieslowski’s blue hangs in the evening sky, gently tinting it with a pale shade of indigo. It artificially lights up an entire swimming pool, encasing Julie in a royal azure that leaves her paralysed with grief. It is also suspended in tiny sapphires that dangle from a mobile her daughter once owned, refracting light through its shards. While she goes about destroying every remnant of her old life, trying to free herself from the depression, she can’t quiet bring herself to part with this glittering memento. She is entranced by it, and in close-ups Kieslowski obstructs her face entirely by its delicate beads. 

Kieslowski uses the full spectrum of blues in his lighting and decor, exploring their subtle distinctions and emotional implications.

The use of glass as prisms through which light is distorted is infused with Kieslowski’s filmmaking right down to his lens flares, dancing flashes of blue around Julie at her lowest moments. In one moment that seems to hit like an epiphany, he even passes a close-up of Julie’s face through an intense cobalt filter. Such skilful manipulation of colours makes for a sensitive framing of Juliette Binoche’s devastating performance, within which we witness a swirl of powerfully conflicting emotions that can’t quite break through the all-consuming numbness. Sleeping with her husband’s old musical collaborator, Olivier, doesn’t do much, nor does she find success in trying to erase memories that only bring pain. 

A quick, sharp flash of blue, hitting like an epiphany.
Blue lens flares delicately dancing around Julie’s face. Even when it isn’t in the production design, it is there in Kieslowski’s lighting.

But every so often, something does find its way through to move her on some level. Kieslowski’s trademark cutaways to tiny symbols of larger ideas flourish in Blue, not just in those representations of the distinct colour scheme, but in small displays of Julie’s overwhelming emotional state. In one shot as she tunes out of her immediate surroundings, she lightly dips the corner of a sugar cube into her tea. Kieslowski only holds on this for five seconds, but it is enough for us to see it absorb the brown liquid before she drops it into the cup. Perhaps Kieslowski is painting out an image of Julie’s gradual succumbing to her depression, or perhaps it is more positive in elucidating her need to re-join society. Either way, these impressionistic close-ups draw us into a mind disconnected from the larger world, searching for meaning and beauty in the smallest, most fragile objects we typically look over. 

Shallow focus in these extreme close-ups of significant symbols – both Kieslowski and Julie’s focus on these objects are intense and purposeful.

The motif of incomplete orchestral music composed by Julie’s late husband, Patrice, also cuts through to her closed-off soul, though rather than wilfully applying her precise focus to it, it haunts her everyday life like a stubborn ghost, arriving at the most unexpected times. The reminder is enough to cripple her physically, and often Kieslowski will also fade his screen to black as if mentally blacking out before returning to the exact same scene, disorientating our perception of time. It mostly manifests in her head, though there is something fatefully mystical in the way it emerges within the melody played by a random street busker who claims to merely be improvising. 

The glittering blue mobile continuing to hand over these scenes even when it isn’t the focus, a reminder of Julie’s deceased daughter.

It would seem that Patrice’s half-written choral composition cannot be put to rest until it is finished, and for as long as Julie denies her connection to the music, she cannot find peace with it. Although Olivier is the one taking the lead on this project, it is evident only she, the one who was married to Patrice and knew him better than anyone, who can understand his legacy in a meaningful way to let it keep on living. 

Wonderful form in the use of Patrice’s orchestral music like a ghost that needs to be put to rest, returning at unexpected times and mentally destroying Julie.

This is but one level of her reintegration back into society though. While Julie runs from the past, she also meets new people in need of emotional support much like her. The boy who witnessed the crash and now needs closure from its sole survivor, a neighbour who has been ostracised from others in the apartment block due to her sex work, Patrice’s mistress who is pregnant with his baby – the ways that Julie touches these lives is not always fully planned or conscious, but in the small ways she has turned her grief into compassion, she incidentally obtains a healing within herself.

The graceful montage that ends Blue drifts the camera past all their faces, finding completion in their own stories as Patrice’s finished piece of music plays out operatically over the top. In finding reconciliation with the colourful and musical displays of melancholy that Kieslowski embeds intohis film, there is still ultimately some closure to be found for Julie – not in banishing these ghosts entirely, but rather in making wistful companions out of them.

An elegant montage of all the people whose lives Julie touched to end the film, luxuriating in blue lighting.

Three Colours: Blue is currently available to stream on Mubi and The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Rushmore (1998)

Wes Anderson | 1hr 33min

There may not be a single Wes Anderson character more suited to the director’s mannered, self-assured affect than Max Fischer. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given how much of the ambitious underachiever is based off a younger adolescent Anderson, both being meticulously focused in their passionate endeavours, and perhaps a little misguided in their intentions. Bottle Rocket was where it all started for him as a comedic filmmaker, but Rushmore marks his first major breakthrough success as a genteel stylist setting up artificial barriers and then breaking through them to find the sensitivity inside his lonely, deadpan characters.

With its noticeably minimalist budget compared to his later films, Anderson’s roots in the 1990s American wave of independent cinema are abundantly clear. His artistic voice is pure and idiosyncratic, dedicated to the organised style and form that so clearly belongs to an off-beat world just slightly adjacent to our own. That so much of Rushmore is shot on location at a real school makes this feat even more surprising, as even with this element of realism there is still a curated symmetry and neatness to Max’s life. His camera almost never moves in curves or diagonals, but rather dollies in straight lines across his frame and towards his subjects, maintaining the air of civil decorum that Max holds about him.

One of Wes Anderson’s greatest characters, up there with Monsieur Gustave and Royal Tenenbaum. Max Fischer is an underachieving perfectionist, dreaming of being adored and respected by his peers, and is naturally based off a younger version of Anderson himself.

Also integral to Rushmore’s visual style is the self-conscious, theatrical blocking that seems to take its humanistic drama and force it into the artificial shape that Max so desires it to conform to. Though he does not yet fully understand the emotions and principles of adulthood, he at least believes he does, and so there is a humorous overcompensation in his sophisticated presentation that continues to manifest within Anderson’s methodical staging of characters in lines and geometric patterns, much like the stage plays that Max directs. Such a distinguished manner continues to define Rushmore right down to the chapter breaks marking the months of the school year, opening curtains to formally introduce new stages of Max’s coming-of-age journey and closing at its end.

Max’s love of theatre is crucial to Rushmore’s form. Curtains open up to each new month of the school year like chapters, and close at the end of the film.
Close-ups and fourth wall breaks – very French New Wave.

Jason Schwartzman carries a self-assured yet purposefully stilted conduct in his performance that matches Anderson’s own fastidiousness, and yet in both the acting and direction, the artifice is always very carefully applied, refraining from impinging on an otherwise realistic emotional arc. He is a teenage boy who carries business cards and goes about executing elaborately vengeful plots on those who have done him wrong, but he is also suffering deeply from the wounds left behind by his mother’s death. There may even be something a little Freudian about the way he transfers those unresolved feelings upon a schoolteacher, and when he discovers that she has lost her husband, he sees the absence as a gap waiting for him to fill.

“So we both have dead people in our families.”

Anderson is doing The Graduate in this shot, except with Bill Murray – drowning in isolation.

Perhaps the greatest difference between Max and Anderson is the maturity the latter displays in understanding those other, slightly less eccentric people in his life. The isolating shot of Bill Murray’s disenchanted businessman, Herman Blume, within a cold, blue pool evokes a similar image from The Graduate, revealing a loneliness within him that is at least equal to Max’s. Perhaps the most obvious reference to the Mike Nichols film though comes in Anderson’s narrative study of a boy’s lust after an older woman, escaping from the narrowed perspective of adolescence and enticing the notion that adults don’t necessarily have life figured out either.

Montages of superbly blocked compositions and Anderson’s iconic overhead shots. This is his second film, and he already possesses a fully developed artistic voice.

In that sense, there is a recognition that “coming-of-age” is not a thing that happens once and is then left behind. Anderson’s vivacious style of editing and visual comedy is drenched in the jubilant energy of youth, underscoring much of Rushmore with the songs of John Lennon, Cat Stevens, The Who, and The Rolling Stones among other British bands from the Swinging Sixties. He especially leans heavily on montages that do more than simply bridge gaps in time, but rather develop character in sequences that flash through immaculately constructed tableaux of Max’s various social clubs and vengeance-driven exploits. Even Anderson’s visual gags serve a similar purpose, using a shot as brilliantly simple as Max dressed in a fencing outfit being overrun by basketball players in the gym to let us know everything about his place in the school.

One of the best crafters of visual gags currently working. The lineage stretches back to silent comedians such as Buster Keaton who would set his camera back in wide shots and create a world that only exists within the boundaries of each frame – Anderson is doing exactly the same here.

It is in the Vietnam War-inspired play that Max stages in the final act of Rushmore that we see perhaps the most acutely captured vision of Anderson as a young storyteller, creating extravagant dioramas complete with pyrotechnics and clearly artificial designs to bring his own eccentric artistic expressions to life. Together, both embrace the transitory affectations of young adulthood, and yet as they look towards the future where they might meet grown versions of themselves, they also acknowledge those bizarre characteristics that are intrinsic to their identities. For the juvenile creative types, middle-aged cynics, and grieving widows of Rushmore, there is no point shirking one’s most honest nature – just an understanding of how it can mature into something more mindful and compassionate with time.

Without the highly stylised production design that would define his later films, Anderson instead shoots on location and picks out these marvellously symmetrical structures to shoot against. Fantastic mise-en-scène as character.
A gorgeous finale, tying off the film with one of its many slow-motion sequences.

Rushmore is currently available to stream on Disney Plus, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 38min

The mystical coincidences that bind French music teacher Véronique and Polish choir soprano Weronika together in an elusive, causal relationship beyond immediate comprehension reveals layers to these characters that neither can fully understand on their own. The Double Life of Veronique moves in such a lyrical way that while we can distinguish both women as separate individuals, we also can’t help but perceive them as two parts of a single consciousness, split right down the middle like the film’s own structure. The moment one passes away, we immediately shift to the other sitting up in bed several hundred kilometres away, struck simultaneously with an unexplained grief and a fresh sense of purpose. Irène Jacob plays both with a deep sensitivity, prone to blissful elation in musical sequences and profoundly affected by the tiniest shifts in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s bewildering cosmos.

Within the omniscient perspective that Kieslowski offers us across Véronique and Weronika’s lives, he carries on the ambitious form of his epic Dekalog series, where he watched his characters like an all-seeing God while still holding the utmost empathy for them. The interrelation of isolated segments similarly reaches across The Double Life of Veronique in the most unexpected places. There is the obvious parallel of both women being deeply involved in musical professions, but the orchestral piece that they share a soft spot for also emerges as a counterpoint between them, as does their common heart condition that gives us cause to worry about their health.

Both women share the same superstition of rubbing their gold rings on their lower eyelids to prevent styes. Tremendous form in repetition with these character traits.

The singular point upon which these paths converge comes during Weronika’s section of the film before we have been properly introduced to Véronique. From Weronika’s perspective, it is a tangential meeting of two fatefully identical women, as she catches a glimpse of her counterpart snapping photos of Kraków while touring on a coach. Before she can think of what to do, Véronique is speeding away, none the wiser about what just occurred. In the aftermath, Weronika smiles, as if finally receiving an answer to a question she never knew she had. Later, Véronique will experience a similar sort of epiphany when reviewing her photos and noticing her doppelgänger. “All my life I’ve felt like I was here and somewhere else at the same time,” she reflects. “I always sense what I should do.”

Coloured filters over the camera lens tinting the sky with a distinctly green hue.
Kieslowski layering patterned silk curtains over his shots, creating these exquisite compositions.

Through ethereal lighting and lens filters that soak both women’s lives in tints of green, yellow, and orange, Kieslowski transports them into a dimension that seems ever so slightly separate from our own. Complementing these palettes are the reds that bleed through his production design, appearing in couches, flowers, and costumes that radiate a vibrant passion inside staggeringly gorgeous compositions. Also key to the beauty of Kieslowski’s cinematography and the formal notion of parallel lives are the visual manipulations of light through glass, whether they are catching reflections of characters or refracting visions of the world around them. As Véronique sits on a train gazing through a glass orb that turns the passing city upside down, we too feel as if we are looking into an inverted dimension, much like ours though recognisably distinct. Kieslowski employs such cutaways with symbolic contemplation, entering microcosms of reality that offer emotional insight where hard logic does not suffice.

Kieslowski employs beautiful cutaways like these with symbolic care.
Reflections and refractions of light in Kieslowski’s cinematography through windows, mirrors, glass orbs, magnifying glasses, even spectacles, these prisms creating doubles and slightly distorted views of the world.

As cryptically focused as The Double Life of Veronique may be, Kieslowski still has the grace to let his film zoom out a little in scope by the final act, introducing Alexandre Fabbri, the puppeteer and writer who draws Véronique’s eye. His marionette is a delicate instrument of expression, moving with elegance and fluidity, though unlike so many others in his profession he does not wear gloves and he handles the doll manually. Just as he does not hide his physical manipulation, neither does he hold back from revealing to Véronique that he is the one behind the assortment of items being sent to her in the mail as a test to see whether she would come to him. He too is the one who uncovers the image of Weronika among other photos from the trip to Kraków, and goes on to narrate a story of two women causally linked since they were born at the exact same time – when one burned her hand on a stove as a little girl, the other instinctually learned to recoil from the danger.

Red through Kieslowski-s mise-en-scène, occasionally overtaking these stunning compositions from the greens and yellows that dominate the film.

Much like Artur Barciś’ silent witness of the Dekalog, there is something supernatural about Alexandre that doesn’t entirely belong to this world. It only makes sense that he owns two identical copies of the marionette he performs with, moving them around like some powerfully transcendent being understanding more than he lets on. Or perhaps he is merely a puppet used by some higher power to contact Véronique and reveal the answers she has been longing for. As confounding in its formal complexities as The Double Life of Veronique is, Kieslowski’s absorbingly ethereal meditation on fate is also a magnificently moving piece of cinema, edging us towards an emotional understanding of humanity’s interconnectedness without ever fully letting us in on its mystical secrets.

The doubles of these puppets reflecting the doubles of Weronika and Véronique.
A tremendous dedication to the production design of the piece, combining colour and blocking to craft these delicate images of isolation and sensitivity.

The Double Life of Veronique is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Mubi, and to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

James Cameron | 2hr 17min

Few filmmakers can lay claim to making a movie sequel that matches its revered predecessor in pure cinematic audacity, and fewer have succeeded in doing so twice. If Terminator was James Cameron’s breakthrough and Aliens solidified him as a magnificent director of franchises, then Terminator 2: Judgment Day follows through on the promises of both, and this alone puts him in rarefied air. Those moments where the film slows down to pensively consider one character’s internal thoughts in voiceover are some of the weakest given the lack of setup or follow-through, but their mere existence also points to where Cameron’s strengths truly lie. It is in the spectacle of his action set pieces, dynamic camerawork, and his narrative’s creative basis in deep-rooted archetypes that Terminator 2 reveals itself as a raw cinematic experience, concerned less with musings over what it means to be human as it is with the immediate, visceral impact of such questions.

It is eleven years after the events of the first film that Cameron picks his narrative back up, bringing us in with a ten-year-old John Connor living under foster parents. Once again, Skynet has sent back a Terminator to kill the future leader of the human resistance, and a protector has also been sent to save him. The setup of these figures calls directly back to the first film – both the T-800 we recognise as Arnold Schwarzenegger and another smaller man manifest around the same time, and immediately go about tracking down their target.

Bringing back this justly iconic image from the first film, though under a new context – this is the Terminator’s birth into a new, more human life, crouched naked in a fetal position.

Where the T-800 invades a bikie club and steals an outfit of black leather and sunglasses, Cameron gives the other man the identity and appearance of a police officer, immediately setting up a conflict in archetypes. Almost everything about these characters is mirrored, from the T-800’s use of intimidation and blunt force to the more manipulative, covert strategies of Robert Patrick’s time traveller, whose use of facial expressions and vocal inflections to manipulate strangers displays a cold comprehension of humanity that Schwarzenegger deliberately rejects in his masterfully stoic performance.

The T-1000 employs an entirely different set of skills to the T-800, shape-shifting and creeping through environments in an under-handed, deceitful manner. As brutal as Schwarzenegger may be in this, he is the more honest, up-front Terminator between the two.

This is a film so soaked into pop culture that it is hard to separate the twist from our foreknowledge of it, and yet even then it remains an astounding subversion of Cameron’s established archetypes. All at once, the man dressed as an authority figure is revealed to be a more advanced Terminator, a T-1000, and the ruthless hunter who we have already seen kill multiple people is now our hero. Even in Cameron’s character design of the T-800 as a robotic endoskeleton concealed beneath human skin, he is tied to a vulnerable humanity that the shapeshifting, metallic T-1000 can only ever imitate, remaining as deceptively flexible in its tactics as it is in its physical appearance. Meanwhile, the T-800 is bound by its word, serving the young John Connor like a loyal, unwavering servant, and through this tight bond he slowly grasps notions of sensitivity and casual slang until he himself begins to exhibit both in the film’s magnificently rewarding final act.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best performance put to film, transcending his work in the original with a more complex and engaging character arc of an android discovering its humanity.

And then there is Sarah Connor, who has been arrested and sentenced to a mental hospital following the events of the first film which have left her with severe PTSD and, from the perspective of her doctors, wild delusions. There is a dramatic shift in Linda Hamilton’s performance between both films, turning Sarah into a hardened prisoner resolved to escape and save the world from the impending apocalypse known as Judgement Day. Beyond the T-800 and T-1000, Cameron’s archetypes begin to seep into her characterisation as well, as she too becomes a Terminator of sorts in her dogged pursuit of the man prophesied to invent Skynet’s world-ending technology, losing a bit of her own humanity along the way. Just as we will later see sensitivity become the saving grace for Schwarzenegger’s T-800, so too is Sarah pulled back from the edge by her own innate compassion, similarly building her character over the dangerously thin line that separates machines and men.

It is worth noting the innovative power of Cameron’s visual effects in Terminator 2 to construct these characters and much of their world, and yet this alone isn’t integral to his artistic success. He is a skilled crafter of action set pieces and images that reach deep and draw out instinctive responses from his audience, not so much developing a consistent stylistic device like Michael Mann does with his neo-noir lighting or George Miller with his rapid editing, but rather playing to whatever suits each individual moment. As the Terminators individually search for John in the local shopping centre, Cameron’s editing and camerawork skilfully move between both characters in a suspenseful balance, emphasising their hulking presences in weighty low angles. And then, at the moment of their confrontation, every movement lands with extra weight in Cameron’s absorbing slow-motion photography, bringing the opposing archetypes together in their first major stand-off.

Cameron is constantly creative with his camera angles – the Terminator may not have been as iconic a character as it is without the air of reverence and fear that surrounds him in the filmmaking.

From here, each subsequent struggle takes a step up from the last, until Cameron bombastically crashes a truck of liquid nitrogen through the gates of a steel mill at the film’s climax. He fills the air with a warm, orange glow emitted from the heat of the fiery sparks and molten metal, and in vibrantly clashing this against the blue vapor of the spilt liquid nitrogen, the lighting takes on the humanistic duality of both Terminators. On top of this, its colours also call back directly to those fiery flash-forwards of Judgement Day, within which Cameron crafts some truly devastating imagery of an obliterated playground, its darkness lit only by a few spring horses left burning by the nuclear wipe-out. With such a holistic approach to both visual storytelling and stylistic filmmaking, Cameron effectively crafts a blockbuster for an era, using his thrilling narrative urgency to arrive at surprisingly sentimental considerations of our own humanity.

Cameron’s set pieces are unforgettable, here in Terminator 2 being lit beautifully with high-contrast colours and violent fires.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day is currently available to stream on Binge and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

King of New York (1990)

Abel Ferrara | 1hr 49min

It is hard to tell at first how genuine drug lord Frank White is in his desire to “fix” New York, but we can at least gage that he is resolute in his ambitions. In his transition from prison back into society, a luxurious limousine is his ferry, and coinciding with this return is his second-hand assassination of past associates, evoking the climactic murders of The Godfather. Frank is our Michael Corleone figure here, though he evidently has far more years of experience in the criminal underworld behind him, commanding an aura of intimidation and respect in his imposing presence. As Christopher Walken stares out the window of the limousine with a stoic gaze, the radiance of passing street lamps fade up and down upon his face, and immediately Abel Ferrara brings us into King of New York with a deep, fearful reverence for this man.

There is also something so solemn and poignant about Walken’s eyes that speaks volumes about Frank’s love of the city. As he admires its beautiful lights and architecture from afar, we begin to believe that his motivations might go beyond mere selfishness. Perhaps it was those years he spent behind bars that has made him reconsider his own place in the world, as he searches for ways that he can contribute something positive, eventually latching onto a struggling children’s hospital in desperate need of private assistance. Still, it is difficult to remove the man from his ego, as it is in these aspirations that he also misguidedly sets his sights on becoming the Mayor of New York, viewing the office as his chance at some vague sort of redemption.

“If I can have a year or two, I’ll make something good. I’ll do something.”

A landmark performance for Christopher Walken. His tired, anguished eyes serve this character perfectly as he gazes out at views of New York at night.
Ferrara creating a wonderful frame here capturing Frank’s love for this city, though also his immense loneliness.

The gritty realism of Ferrara’s location shooting in real New York streets and hotels is a perfect fit for this character study of urban grit and power plays, with The French Connection especially coming to mind in the use of this imposing city as a set for the thrilling cops-and-criminals battle at its centre. The authenticity of Ferrara’s style especially takes hold in his dim lighting, gorgeously diffused through the smog and mist of dark exteriors, and in one pivotal club shootout, drenching the room with a dark blue neon glow. A diegetic hip-hop track underscores the slow-motion deaths of criminals and police officers here, until eventually it spills out into the streets in a high-speed car chase.

Gorgeous mise-en-scène and lighting within this nightclub, setting a moody scene for the imminent shootout.

It is within this extended sequence of moving the violence from one location to the next that King of New York reaches its stylistic apex. As Ferrara’s heavy rain beats down upon cars speeding down wet roads and their headlights beam through the deluge, the combination of his lighting and weather elements effectively heighten the dramatic stakes of this spectacular set piece. Eventually this loud, bombastic showdown turns into a cat-and-mouse contest of stealth and reflexes, with the few straggling survivors from both sides seeking refuge from the rain in a fenced-off construction site beneath a bridge. As it continues to pour down buckets in the background, Ferrara brings a visual texture to the muddiness of this confrontation, pulling both sides of the law into a dark, drab underworld of corruption and bloodshed.

Ferrara reaching the stylistic apex of his film in this dark, rainy car chase and shoot out. The heavy rain brings another layer of texture to the action, lit beautifully by the harsh street lamps of New York City.
Cops and criminals facing off beneath this bridge, both brought to their knees in the mud and rain. Ferrara’s choice to shoot on location and capture these magnificent structures in the background is integral to this set piece.

Though we spend more time with Frank and his associates than the police officers, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for both. The antagonism they hold towards each other is devastating, obliterating each other’s dreams in a feud of mutual destruction. It is this hopelessness which settles in Frank’s minds in his last moments as he is faced with two options, both of which he realises will ultimately lead to the same result. Bleeding out in the back of a taxi with swarms of cops closing in, he could choose in this moment to go out fighting. But with his hopes of bringing something positive to the world dashed, perhaps it is his love for New York that holds him back from wreaking further destruction, recognising that a quiet exit might be the best thing he could really do for it. Really, Frank was never going to be the one to reform this city. It is rather in Ferrara’s skilful twisting of a traditional redemption arc that we see the true tragedy of this man bound by choices he made long ago, and who only is only willing to accept his true purpose when it is his turn to join the list of people killed in his name.

Ferrara bouncing the city lights off windows and surrounding Frank.

King of New York is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Orlando (1992)

Sally Potter | 1hr 34min

Orlando slips through identities with nonchalant grace, about as effortlessly as Sally Potter flits through the centuries that her narrative is set over. Time barely leaves a scratch on our young protagonist, and so rather than marking years solely with numbers, themes are instead embedded in chapter titles as a means to separate one period of Orlando’s life from the next. “1600 Death” delivers a lesson in mortality with the passing of Queen Elizabeth I. “1650 Poetry” sees a blossoming interest in the writing of sonnets and verses. “1750 Society” is the period within which they fully comprehend the gendered politics of human civilisation, when they suddenly transform from a man into a woman. While it is a change that causes great confusion within the rigid boundaries of English society, Orlando’s reception of it goes by with little fanfare.

“Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.”

Tilda Swinton’s androgynous presentation has never been put to as brilliant use as it is here, playing both male and female identities of a single character.

It isn’t hard to see why this particular Virginia Woolf novel was considered nearly impossible to adapt to the screen. The difficulty isn’t just in the need for intricate and elaborate production design that shifts dramatically with each new chapter, but also in the lead actor’s ability and confidence to convincingly pull off the many layers of Orlando’s characterisation, including that pivotal sex change. Potter accomplishes the former with magnificent flair, collaborating with costume designer Sandy Powell to curate the deep, royal reds of Queen Elizabeth I’s bejewelled court, as well as the many colours of Orlando’s dynamic self-expression. The achievement of the latter though belongs largely to Tilda Swinton, whose striking androgynous style has rarely found a better fit than it does here.

Potter curates superb production design in each era, starting here in Queen Elizabeth I’s court with the rich red and gold colour palette, and crowding out the mise-en-scène with flowers and candles.
Even without relying on the period decor Potter crafts some some stunning compositions, here emphasising the blacks and whites of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.
The use of colours always feels like an expression of Orlando’s shifting identity through the decades and centuries.

It is a wonder why so many other directors she has worked with haven’t recognised the great potential of close-ups in capturing her sharp facial features as well as Potter does here, as she always seems to find the most perfect meld of lighting, angles, and framing to form a direct connection between Swinton’s face and the camera. Every time she whips her eyes towards us, the impact is electrifying, as with each new incarnation there is a change in her iris colour that pierces the fourth wall with blues, ambers, browns, and greens. This fixation on Orlando’s physical appearance continues to extend to the rest of their body as well, as in one scene Potter’s camera traces the outline of their naked legs, hips, and torso in tight close-up against a black background, studying each curve with utter enthralment, as if trying to decipher the key to their eternal youth.

Swinton’s face seems meant for Potter’s close-ups, always using the lighting and framing to emphasise her striking eye colours.

Perhaps we might find more answers in Orlando’s direct addresses to the audience though, which contribute addendums to their own voiceover, revealing a person fully conscious of their unique place in history, though lacking any desire to assert themselves as anything more than an open-minded human. They move through time like an embodiment of time itself, though one that is trapped in a human body and subject to the petty judgements of society.

Orlando’s journey through the film is largely defined by its restlessness and acceptance of an unpredictable future, forever living like a young person with their whole life ahead of them, and Potter’s energetic synth score blends tremendously with this characterisation, invitingly beckoning them into the future. As they run into a magnificent hedge maze after rejecting a proposal, her music propels them down its narrow, green trails, this set piece becoming a tremendous visual metaphor of their navigation through the complicated labyrinth of human history. They disappear around corners and into clouds of fog with great urgency, trying to find an exit, but even in the frustratingly limited options laid out for them there is a still joyous freedom in the ability to choose their own path. Orlando may be a being of fluidity with an indestructible youth and vigour, and yet through the ever-shifting annals of human history that Potter so smoothly flips through, they are also ironically the only constant.

A labyrinth of endless corners and thick fog, an apt visual metaphor for Orlando’s navigation through human history if there ever was one.

Orlando is currently available to stream on Stan and Mubi.