A Little Princess (1995)

Alfonso Cuarón | 1hr 37min

Like the fanciful stories that Sara tells her fellow students, her entire life within the context of A Little Princess takes the form of a fairy tale, as if wished into existence by her own imagination. The kind young maiden, her dashing saviour, the cruel monster that has imprisoned her – this is a fable of classic archetypes conjured up in a 1910s New York boarding school, and Alfonso Cuarón skilfully draws a light thread of magical realism through it all, adopting the fantastical point-of-view of his young, inventive protagonist. Lingering on the edges of her consciousness is a fear for her father’s safety while fighting in World War I, and through some clever intercutting it is evident that her stories aren’t just a form of escapism, but an indirect sublimation of that concern. For as long as she lives under the rule of cruel headmistress Miss Minchin, they are all she has to fight off the despair.

Being a film that focuses so heavily on child actors, it is not surprising that there are often awkward contrivances in their performances, and it doesn’t help that some of their lines tend to repeat the same mantras in ham-fisted variations. This is not a film of great subtlety or complexity in its construction though, nor is it pretending to be. Above all else, A Little Princess aims for bright, bold fantasy, evoking a nostalgia for childhood where even the worst evils can be overcome by the sheer power of will, and where evocative colours are weaved through emotional and artistic expressions with vivid, soothing elegance.

Fine detail in the set design make for some elegant compositions, drawing out the sensitivity in Sara’s closest relationships.

Throughout most of Cuarón’s films, it is often assorted shades of green which dominate his mise-en-scène, whether in the lighting, colour grading, or production design. Here in A Little Princess, his delicately curated period décor is steeped in them, not so much taking on a symbolic representation of any fixed idea than calling to mind abstract associations of fantasy, youth, nature, and perhaps in the case of the repressed Miss Minchin, even envy. In a way, what Cuarón does with colour here is comparable to what Ingmar Bergman accomplishes in Fanny and Alexander, crafting vibrant, plush interiors that insulate the imagination of their young inhabitants from those heartless grown-ups looking to force it out of them. Based on his superb world-building and classical narrative structure as well, it also isn’t hard to see why Cuarón was selected to direct Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban nine years later, given that both incidentally share a good number of the same fantasy conventions.

A distinct Ingmar Bergman influence in the Fanny and Alexander production design and narrative, crafting colourfully plush interiors around our imaginative young protagonist.
As the distance between child and parent widens, the sets become noticeably harsher – and again, this shot of Sara lying on the floor of the attic looks strikingly similar to a similar scene in Fanny and Alexander.

Certainly some credit must also go to Bo Welch, Tim Burton’s regular production designer, whose first and only collaboration with Cuarón here stands among his finest efforts. The girls’ olive-green school uniforms beautifully complement the building’s painted and wallpapered interiors, and within its carved, wooden doorways and high ceilings Cuarón often finds the most evocative angles from which to frame his actors. His gorgeous green motif continues to run through the tiniest props of balloons, candles, apples, and flowers, each arranged with care in scenes of birthday parties and meal times. When we move outside, this ambitious artistic vision only continues to reveal itself, with the building exteriors lining the Manhattan streets conforming to the colour palette as well.

A formal dedication to the colour green in every scene – the uniforms, the decor, even the food on the table at meal times.

A Little Princess does not just signal a promising career for Cuarón though, as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is also at work here developing his own distinctive style of gliding cameras and long takes, running along breakfast tables and through rooms with a graceful sweep. The effect is distinctly fantastical, even in those scenes which are otherwise grounded in reality, enthusiastically engaging with Sara’s mind that finds wonder and excitement in even the barest of environments. Within her tales of Indian gods and demons, Cuarón uses a strange, colourful mix of practical and computer-generated effects to create an expressionistic sort of artifice, visualising the wild imagination that has captivated her peers.

An even greater artifice in the design of Sara’s fairy tale interludes, carrying through the green motif in the surreal sets.

Quite significantly, Sara’s brilliant creativity is given tangible purpose in the parallels between her whimsical tales and her father’s fight in the war, finding a lighter, more digestible spin on uncomfortable truths beyond her comprehension. At the end of the day, she wins her freedom in the exact same way the heroes of her stories earn theirs – through courage, imagination, ingenuity, kindness, and love. In short, all those things that fairy tales value so highly, while sneering critics like Miss Minchin call them naïve. She is not disengaging from society, but rather making sense of its troubles in her own way, and it is through this empathetic curiosity that Cuarón paints out his own expression of wonder, recognising the creative potential of stories to inspire hope, bridge connections, and liberate prisoners of a cynical world.

The streets of New York have never looked so green as they do here, brimming with life and fantasy.

A Little Princess is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon 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.