Reprise (2006)

Joachim Trier | 1hr 45min

To reprise a creative expression of some sort is to recreate it with the expectation of a similarly rapturous reception, though the reclaiming act that best friends Erik and Phillip attempt to carry out is merely based on some fantasy of success that exists in their minds. As the two aspiring writers sit on the precipice of submitting their manuscripts to publishers, their possible futures play out like novels, with an omniscient narrator framing them as protagonists in stories where personal struggles eventually give way to great literary achievements. Both lives rapidly flit by in a black-and-white collage of freeze frames, magazine articles, book covers, and maps, all while our narrator provides steady reassurance that everything will eventually work out for the two young men.

Reprise’s energy is built on its editing, opening with this playful black-and-white montage of Erik and Phillip’s hopeful futures. Split screens, moving photos, freeze frames – Trier is pulling out all the stops.

And yet, these dreams all rest on a conditional tense – they “would have” come true were it not for some vague, unspecified turn of fate. For Phillip, success is attained but short-lived, sending him to the top of the Norwegian literary scene before he comes crashing down in a psychotic episode. For Erik, failure is the motivation to keep revising his novel over and over until lightning hopefully strikes. Though their paths diverge, a mutual emotional support remains, lifting each other up through personal struggles so that their sparks of creativity may one day be recognised.

It is those energetic sparks which fizzle all through Reprise, tantalising us with vivacious editing that expresses a distinctly Truffautian sensibility, constantly leaping beyond the boundaries of the immediate narrative with playful cutaways and montages. One could even line the film up next to Jules and Jim and draw connections between both studies of bohemian male friendship, as well as the pair of women who dramatically shift their tight dynamics. Time moves fast for Erik and Phillip, but it also seems to fall away all together, distancing them from any arbitrary deadlines and allowing them instead to sit in the lively momentum of their youth.

Kari comes into Erik and Phillip’s friendship like Catherine does in Jules and Jim, inadvertently setting in motion Phillip’s breakdown.

These characters do not simply exist independent of Joachim Trier’s experimental stylings but are rather closely intertwined in formal unity. As one of Erik’s friends encourages him to break up with his girlfriend, Trier intercuts the scene with the leadup to the conversation itself, anxiously anticipating whatever emotional breakdown is about to take place. And then, just as Erik arrives at her door, we are suddenly sent flying into a shameful childhood flashback of a time he was mean to one of his school peers. Later, a side character returning home claims he is heading upstairs to read the Heidegger book he just bought, while a sneaky cutaway reveals the porn magazine in his bag. Such is the nature of Trier’s omniscient perspective that he is free to wander across this timeline at free will and poke into secret corners, examining his characters not as independent beings, but as subjects of their own stories.

The photography isn’t among the film’s strengths, but Trier takes the time to deliver these isolating character compositions.

Through this Brechtian lens, Trier pushes narrative developments which don’t so much unfold organically as they do by strokes of both good and bad fortune. It could very well be the same luck which saw Phillip initially succeed over Erik that also sees the latter unassumingly insult a disabled writer on a talk show, just one of many incidents stringing him along to failure. The comedy here is bitingly dry, though not without catharsis. Hope comes in the form of a miracle that would have almost been entirely unbelievable were it not for the sequence of mishaps which led to that point.

True to the form of the piece, Trier ends Reprise with another idealistic dream of the future, conjuring similarly happy prospects for both Erik and Phillip as those from the start. The subjectivity and elusiveness of success makes any real conclusivity difficult for men like these, who constantly strive for some idea of greatness that never stops changing. Trier empathises with them all too well, even with the distance he keeps. The novelistic qualities he embeds into Reprise seek not to ostracise the young creatives, but rather to understand them in the way they might ultimately one day write about themselves – with sensible hindsight, compassion, imagination, and a good, healthy dose of self-deprecating humour.

Conversations about love, literature, and success – a strong screenplay from Trier.

Reprise is currently streaming on Mubi.

A History of Violence (2005)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 36min

Even after we see the true violent colours of diner owner Tom Stall, we still might struggle to believe the truth. Gangster Joey Cusack is buried so deep in his consciousness that even he might consider it a dream of a past life, surfacing only when he finds himself in high pressure situations. But even when he isn’t taking lives, that viciousness is there. It explodes when Tom engages in violent sex with his wife, when he slaps his son, Jack, in a moment of anger, and then when Jack goes to school and savagely beats up his bully. A History of Violence does not aim for the same visceral disgust as previous David Cronenberg films, and yet in its psychological interrogations of humanity’s ravenous craving for self-destruction we still find traces of the director known for his body horror.

Visiting the sins of the father onto his children, passing on violence from one generation to the next.

It opens with a four-minute tracking shot along the outside of a motel where two thugs, Leland and William, eliminate its owners with chilling nonchalance. Thanks to Cronenberg’s reserved, distant camera, we barely even register it happening at first. Our discovery of the blood-streaked office plays out with equal detachment, treating the bodies as if they are simply part of the furniture. For Cronenberg, they might as well be. The title A History of Violence may refer to Tom’s hidden past, but it also holds implications regarding the merciless foundations of our very society, its brutal inclinations being passed from one generation to next like DNA. That is certainly the case when we see how easily Jack embraces force as means to solve his problems after seeing his father use it, but in the contentious relationship between Tom and his estranged brother, Richie, Cronenberg also calls back to the very first instance of violence record in the Bible – the murder of Abel by his own brother, Cain.

Opening with a four minute tracking shot along the outside of this motel. One of Cronenberg’s finest moments as a director.

Through this approach to allegorical storytelling, Cronenberg imbues his fascination with carnal flesh with spiritual significance. Joey describes his transformation into Tom as a process which took several years of his life, almost like Christ’s own self-exile into the desert. Later when he must make that change again, he kneels in front of a lake and washes himself in the water, as if performing a ritualistic baptism that will see him reborn again as meek, mild-mannered Tom.

Cronenberg keeping his camera detached from the violence in this frame.

Capturing these contradictory facets of a single man’s identity is no easy feat of acting, and yet watching Viggo Mortensen shift between both modes is like seeing a switch flip on and off, instinctually moving from passivity into fierce action. It is a duality that Cronenberg deftly builds into the form of his narrative as well, playing out submissive scenes of harassment, sex, and family time, before turning them on their head later by revealing the violent versions of each that Joey is far more familiar with.

Though the character of Richie Cusack has been built towards through the film, it isn’t until we meet him in the final act and witness William Hurt’s menacingly courteous portrayal that we fully understand the dark past that Joey has been trying to suppress. This is a man who represents every sin Joey has ever committed and tried to forget. Though Richie casually nicknames his brother “Bro-ham” he also delivers his dialogue with an unblinking, penetrating gaze, bringing to light Joey’s violence which, whether he likes it or not, has afforded him his own survival.

A pair of excellent performances – both Mortensen and Hurt are absolutely chilling as these brothers reuniting after many years.

The foundation of violence upon which Tom’s American Dream is built is not one that can easily be shied away from once it is exposed. Cronenberg skilfully stages A History of Violence’s final scene within a terse silence, bringing Tom back home to a wordless family dinner right after killing his brother. Whatever return to ordinary life he was hoping for seems preposterous now given its jarring contrast with what came immediately before. Life may return to some semblance of normality, but the shadow of violence is there to stay, hanging over a family that will very likely continue to keep visiting the sins of its father upon his children.

A masterful piece of direction to end the film, this silence stretching for several minutes as Tom reintegrates back into family life.

A History of Violence is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

David Lynch | 2hr 27min

“No hay banda,” warns the emcee at Club Silencio. “There is no band.” Everything we hear there is an illusion, played as a tape recording while musicians and singers move their hands and mouths. It doesn’t really matter how many times we are told this, or in how many languages. Every time a new piece of music begins, we find ourselves entranced by the haunting melodies reverberating across the theatre, then equally caught off guard when the sounds persist even after their apparent sources are gone.

Most affecting of all in this scene is the heartrending cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish by one club performer, sung entirely acapella. In the audience, our two leading women, Betty and Rita, cling to each other with tears in their eyes, unable to look away. Though it is Rita whose amnesia has kept her character at a distance from us, Betty is just as much of an enigma in her façade of superficial idealism. Here though, there seems to be a break in their reality. What it is exactly we aren’t too sure, but there is a profound sorrow in both the music and their reactions to it, as if they are mourning the impending expiration of something beautiful and fleeting.

Rebekah del Rio singing “Llorando” at Club Silencio. This may be the emotional lynchpin of the film, and yet at this point we may not even fully understand the context yet.

It is a skilful layering of illusions on top of illusions that David Lynch conducts in Mulholland Drive, removing us from reality by several levels until all we are left with is some primal, psychological rendition. This is the true power of cinema, according to him. It is only by studying the worlds that exist inside our minds that we can get close to understanding those feelings we bury deep into our subconscious, including the guilt, hope, love, and anger which aspiring Hollywood actress Diane Selwyn has let fester into putrid resentment. Mulholland Drive can be explained quite simply as a dark and occasionally whimsical nightmare conjured up in the final minutes before her suicide, but to seek hard logic in Lynch’s reason and plotting would be to defeat its purpose. It excels simply as a surreal melting pot of impressionistic images that translate the literal to the symbolic, asserting that such figurative representations are no less “real” than the places they come from.

Lynch smothering Diane in a heavy fog in this foreboding composition as she dreams.

More specifically, Mulholland Drive is Lynch’s own interrogation of the Hollywood dream as an empty, corrupt promise, drawing heavy parallels to Billy Wilder’s similarly street-titled film Sunset Boulevard. In Diane Selwyn and Norma Desmond, we see two women drawn in by the glamour of the movie industry, only to be left devastated when they are thoughtlessly discarded in favour of other more desirable women, forcing them to retreat into dream worlds of fame and glory. There are two key differences between these films though. Firstly, Diane has never had a taste of what it is like to be riding high on praise and adoration, unlike Norma. Secondly, we are not looking in at Diane’s dream from the outside. Instead, Lynch sinks us deep into this absurd labyrinth for two hours before he pulls back the curtain to reveal its source in the final act.

When we do eventually reach that point, we may at first barely even realise that this is what he is doing. But then tiny formal connections begin to arise. In the Winkies diner we have seen several times before, Diane singles in on the waitresses’ nametag, “Betty”, in an almost identical shot to one earlier in the film when Betty notices the name “Diane”. A hitman who amusingly bungled a murder in a standalone dream episode appears once again, meeting with Diane. He carries the blue key that Rita mysteriously kept in her purse, and tells Diane that when the job is done he will pass it on to her as a secret indicator. At that moment, she makes eye contact with another man in the diner. We have seen him before too in an isolated nightmare, confronting a horrific monster that lives behind Winkies. “I hope to never see that face outside a dream,” he fearfully expresses. Those iniquitous thoughts which linger beneath the surface of our consciousness are better kept out of sight, though this is a luxury that Diane can no longer afford.

A jump scare for the ages – fully earned, and not overdone. The appearance of the creature behind Winkies is terrifying, both on a visceral level and for what it represents.

Such an intricate web of parallels across dreamscapes and waking life makes for a wonderful piece of abstract formalism in Mulholland Drive, and one that only lulls us deeper into its soporific grip through hazy, wistful editing that slyly bridges one idea to the next. Long dissolves erode any sense of clear definition between scene transitions, blending them together to find striking collages in those indistinct, liminal spaces. Arguably the most iconic use of this technique in film history can be found here, imprinting a shot of Betty reclining backwards against a low angle of palm trees reaching up to the sky, delivering an illusion of idyllic serenity. Elsewhere, Lynch’s match cuts land on action beats, momentarily dispensing with the dreamy ambience to sharply leap through a broken timeline of incomplete memories.

Jaw-dropping imagery crafted in these long dissolves, dreamily passing from one scene to the next.

The lack of defining boundaries in Mulholland Drive even extends to Lynch’s characterisations of all four main women – or at least, the two women whose identities are as malleable as anything else in Diane’s dream. In the material world, she and Camilla are a pair of ex-lovers looking for fame in Hollywood. Where Diane is struggling to be noticed, Camilla’s star is on the rise, thanks to her winning a role that she may or may not have rightfully deserved.

The construct that Diane builds in her mind from guilt and idealism might as well be some sort of regret-driven wish fulfillment, playing out a fantasy where both women can start afresh under new circumstances, though with a considerable power imbalance in her favour. Diane thus becomes Betty, a bright-eyed actress with genuine talent, and Camilla becomes Rita, an amnesiac taking her name from Golden Age Hollywood star Rita Hayworth. To muddy the waters even further, other characters named Diane and Camilla exist in this intangible nightmare, though only as vague representations – one as a corpse foreshadowing Diane’s eventual suicide, the other taking the appearance of Camilla’s current girlfriend, and stealing movie roles she never earned. With identity-swapping as purposefully confounding as this, drawing parallels to Persona is inevitable, especially when Lynch lines up the faces of both women to appear as two halves of a whole in a Bergman-esque composition.

Very much influenced by Bergman in the identity swapping, beautifully depicted in this blocking of faces.
Multiple mirrors creating the sense of layered illusions as Rita picks out a name for herself.
Secondary to Bergman are the Hitchcock parallels, with Betty modelling Rita into a blonde just as James Stewart does to Kim Novak in Vertigo.

It is a complex pair of performances that Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring put in here, as the pair of them come to represent both the glossy artifice and insidious darkness that underlies the American entertainment industry. The cheesy dubbing of their overdone line readings borders on unsettling, with both acting as if they are being forced into some conventional mystery movie about two girl detectives tracking down hidden truths about their pasts. Watts particularly shines as the duplicate versions of Diane, constantly breaking her identity up into pieces and choosing to play each as if they were individual characters. This also means that we are frequently taken unaware by sudden shifts in her performance, as we witness in the audition scene that sees her read badly written dialogue as a whispery, sensual seduction – an extreme contrast to the overwrought anger with she had previously rehearsed it.

A landmark performance for Naomi Watts playing several different versions of one woman, ranging from artificial to fully realistic.

Given the way Lynch often shoots Los Angeles like some sort of bizarre, alien environment crowded by towering palm trees, it isn’t hard to see why an outsider like Diane might psychologically disintegrate so easily. Though she imagines rooms cloaked with red curtains where nefarious men eavesdrop and pull strings, this is merely something to fill in the blank space of the unknown. In the grand scheme of things, they are nothing more than catalysts. The awful truth of Mulholland Drive’s existentialism rather comes from within, where Diane introspectively carves out new realities from the fragments of old ones, only to find herself arriving back at the same shame and self-loathing that she has tried so fruitlessly to escape.

Fog fills Lynch’s night-time exteriors, turning Los Angeles into an alien landscape of imposing palm trees and empty lots.

Mulholland Drive is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Hero (2002)

Yimou Zhang | 1hr 39min

There is a scene early on in Hero in which our Nameless swordsman confronts the first of three assassins, Long Sky, at a chess house. As the two square up, prepared to fight to the death, an elderly man sits in the background with his violin, restrung with the silk strings of a traditional Chinese sanxian. Through the following combat, he plucks and strums it with as careful a precision as those graceful manoeuvres the warriors in front of him so elegantly perform. Nameless’ reasoning for playing the combat out in such a manner is simple.

“Martial arts and music share the same principles. Both wrestle with complex chords and rare melodies.”

A black chess house sets the scene for the first martial arts sequence of the film, lightly imbued with the texture of dripping water from every roof.

These two schools of art are intertwined all through Hero in Tan Dun’s gorgeous score and Yimou Zhang’s deft choreography, but such refined virtuosity does not end there. Later we enter a calligraphy school where the two other assassins, Broken Sword and Flying Snow, have taken refuge, and where Sword in particular has spent many years of his life refining his craft in the sophisticated writing of Chinese characters. The undercurrent which runs beneath each of these skills is precision, grace, and beauty – the same ideals which Zhang infuses into the very fabric of Hero’s cinematic construction. After all, what is filmmaking if not an extension of those rich, artistic expressions of human achievement?

There is no overstatement in calling Hero one of the most breathtakingly handsome films of this century. Through Zhang’s meticulously detailed production design and staging, he crafts a legend of epic historical proportions framed entirely within one ancient Chinese swordsman’s meeting with the king of Qin. This is his reward for having killed three assassins who had previously made attempts on the monarch’s life, and within the palace’s cavernous great hall several stories unfold to explain how he accomplished this.

Symmetry in production design, camera angles, and quite impressively, the staging of thousands of extras. The definition of artistic perfectionism.

In recounting different variations of a single tale in Hero, Zhang adopts a Rashomon-like structure, keeping the truth of the matter elusive in favour of a more emotional appreciation of history. He also calls in Wong Kar-wai’s frequent collaborator, Christopher Doyle, to bring his own expressive sensibilities to the cinematography, curating dark shades of grey and black within the king’s great hall and notably emphasising the keen symmetry of the magnificent set piece. Even more impressive though is his skilful use of specific colours schemes to define each narrative strand that unfolds here, saturating every inch of Hero’s painstaking mise-en-scène with vibrant visual expressions. It is through these that he also clues us into the specific brand of subjectivity that each unreliable narrator adopts.

Red defines our first flashback to the calligraphy house. In some of these shots, it is often harder to identify any piece of decor that doesn’t conform to this aesthetic.

Red is the chosen colour for the calligraphy house where Sword and Snow are hiding out in the first version, and where Nameless sets in motion a plan to turn them against each other. Both being past lovers, this tale burns with a fierce anger and passion, and in a later conflict between Snow and Sword’s pupil, Moon, their deep scarlet robes make sharp imprints against the yellow and orange leaves of the forest.

It is said that Zhang hand graded the colour of every leaf in this forest fight scene. The red against the yellow makes for a striking contrast, and the colour change at the end to let red take over the whole mise-en-scène is superb.

When the king realises the lie in Nameless’ story, he puts forth his own hypothetical, considering a circular room flooded with a soothing blue palette which sees Nameless working with, rather than against, the three assassins. Even as the swordsmen venture out into the desert, Zhang tints the sand and sky with a pale indigo, letting the mournful heartache of this story reach out across gorgeous Chinese landscapes.

Blue hues flooding the colours and sets, but even in these exterior landscapes Zhang tints the sand and dust with a pale indigo.

The complex politics in this version still sees Nameless go up against Sword in duel, though the conflict is driven far more by sorrow than it is by anger, as the two dance lightly across the top of a still blue lake, disturbed only by the ripples of their swords and feet skimming lightly across the surface of the water. Where other combat scenes in Hero are tightly edited, here Zhang luxuriates in long dissolves of Nameless and Sword’s faces lingering over picturesque wide shots of the scenery, savouring each second with gorgeous slow-motion photography.

One of the great stylistic set pieces in a film already full of them. The fight between Nameless and Sword atop a still, quiet lake luxuriates in long dissolves and picturesque scenery.

Finally, the truth comes out as Nameless takes hold of the story again, delivering a take as pure and honest as the white palette which permeates its aesthetic. The blue room we previously saw in the king’s tale is now a pale, bleached hue, and so too are the sands and sky, untainted by embellishments of subjectivity. And yet even within this flashback emotional bias cannot be escaped entirely as we hear one more historical account, this one from Sword. It was years ago that he faced up against the king in the same great hall Nameless is in now, though in his memory it is lined with large, billowing sheets, rippling a pale green around their duel. So too do we find the once-red calligraphy house cloaked in the same verdant colour that dominates the rest of his recount, within which we discover his turn to pacificism and reluctant support of the king as a means to achieve peace.

An almost identical shot to the one above, though here the set is entirely white – we are getting the honest, unbiased truth.
In this flashback contained within a flashback, we see a bit of Sword’s perspective, cloaked in green hues representing his desire for peace.

Rashomon is evidently not the only Akira Kurosawa influence at play in Hero though, as colour continues to play a part in Zhang’s staging of thousands of extras within magnificent battle scenes, evoking similarly epic sequences from Ran. It isn’t hard for any of our main characters to stand out among the military forces of Qin, whose black armour and red feather crests serve better to identify them as a single cohesive unit moving in tight formations than as individuals. Even as the king’s followers persuade him to execute against Nameless towards the end, they speak as a single chorus under the unified vision of China he is dedicated to advancing.

Establishing shots of colourful armies staged in tight formations echoes similar scenes in Ran.

As Zhang’s narrative winds towards its conclusion, questions around the ideals of a warrior begin to arise in Nameless’ quest. Determining what makes a hero is integral to the martial arts traditions he is so dedicated to honing, and as such, so too is it crucial to the formation of a culture that can thrive. Hero is dedicated to all those interpretations of history that have sought an answer to such questions, and through Zhang’s vibrantly colourful expressions we find the majestic value in each of them.

Hero is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Prime Video.

Public Enemies (2009)

Michael Mann | 2hr 20min

Notorious bank robber John Dillinger is a slippery man, but he at least can’t be faulted for his honesty. The same day he meets his soon-to-be lover Billie Frechette, he also confesses to her the truth of his shady career. He moves fast with no inhibition, knocking down her uncertainty with a suave openness that comes naturally to Johnny Depp, so it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that when he is finally arrested and driven through crowds of Americans in Depression-era Arizona, he finds them cheering for him rather than hurling abuse. In such trying times where masses are suffering beneath the crushing capitalist system, his legacy effectively becomes a success story – not of a rule-follower rising to the top, but rather a criminal who dubiously levels the playing field by targeting the wealthy elite.

Michael Mann is well-acquainted with such urban crimes dramas as these, where criminals and law enforcers circle each other inside sprawling cities and ultimately discover something of themselves in their foe. It is a well-worn convention that he perfected in Heat and resurrects here in Public Enemies with Depp and Christian Bale, chronicling the final years of the real John Dillinger as he is tracked down by FBI agent Melvin Purvis across 1930s America.

Mann using the edge of the phone booth as a practical split screen, shoving Depp off to the left of this widescreen frame and displaying the train station on the right.

The result is a crime period piece that luxuriates in the extravagance and dilapidation of the Great Depression, studying this vast inequality to understand the frustration which motivates Dillinger and his crew of robbers. All of them are so used to the inside of jail cells that escaping almost comes as second nature to them, pulling it off twice in this film much to the frustration of the FBI. The first comes right at the start with Dillinger executing a carefully plotted prison break at Indiana State Penitentiary. The second comes much later and happens entirely spontaneously, proving him to be particularly resourceful in his use of a fake gun.

Architecture dominating Mann’s set pieces, whether it is the looming concrete slabs of prisons or the opulent period decor of 1930s banks.
One of the greatest shots of the film, using one of Mann’s many low angles to catch this light fixture behind Depp inside an old-school movie theatre.

The foundation of Mann’s success in Public Enemies is made up of thrilling set pieces like these, as well as his production design which opens ripe opportunities for marvellously imposing compositions. With a deep focus lens and a penchant for low angles, Mann turns majestic bank ceilings and opulent light fixtures into gorgeous backdrops for Dillinger’s crimes, setting him up as a dauntingly confident figure unafraid to take what he wants. Elsewhere, forest hideouts and concrete prisons become settings for action sequences beyond Dillinger’s comfort zone, forcing him to reckon with the grittier side of his job. Mann achieves a beautiful crispness in these set pieces, and yet in darker lit scenes he also occasionally lets through an ugly digital grain that is difficult to excuse.

This widescreen format lends itself surprisingly well to these close-ups, inviting us into Dillinger and Purvel’s inner worlds while using the background to keep us rooted in the setting.

Even beyond his long shots and excellent staging though, Mann brings an intimacy to his widescreen frame with close-ups of Dillinger and Purvel, their mental fortitude gradually wearing thin. Though their direct interactions are scarce, they are also incredibly revealing, as the two share a common understanding of the heavy conscience that comes with taking a life. With this established, the tension that leads into their final confrontation is immense, as Mann cuts between the FBI’s advance upon the movie theatre that Dillinger is inside, and the Clark Gable film he is watching. Just before he leaves, it delivers some wise words of advice.

“Die the way you lived, all of a sudden, that’s the way to do it. Don’t drag it out, living like that doesn’t mean a thing.”

There might be a roughly equal balance of screen time between Purvel and Dillinger in Public Enemies, but it is clear which one Mann is more fascinated by. As this notorious bank robber is gradually drained of his resources and his allies, he begins to shatter and take even greater risks, at one point walking through a police station in disguise and asking them the baseball game score out of sheer audacity. Public Enemies may not be the intensive study of opposing equals that Heat so effortlessly pulls off, but in Mann’s superb staging and Depp’s magnetic performance, it nevertheless becomes a compelling examination of an unjust system slowly squeezing out its most vocal dissidents.

Deep focus and magnificent staging in shots like these, staggering actors across layers of the frame.

Public Enemies is currently available to stream on Binge and Foxtel Now, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Polytechnique (2009)

Denis Villeneuve | 1hr 17min

The tragic college shooting that takes place in Polytechnique is bookended by two voiceovers, both reading out letters. The first belongs to the unnamed murderer, writing his suicide note that lays out his bitterly sexist motivations. Though he does not speak much throughout the film, it is this pungent misogyny which hangs over the film like a monstrous shadow, stalking victims down hallways and mercilessly taking their lives. The other voiceover which closes the film belongs to a survivor, Valérie. In the letter she writes to his parents she expounds the devastation their son has left behind, but she also speaks of the guidance she will provide to the child now growing inside her belly that they never gave to theirs.

Between the two voiceovers, Denis Villeneuve creates a terrifyingly bleak reconstruction of the 1989 Polytechnique Montreal massacre as seen through the eyes of two students. One of them is Valérie, who is badly wounded in a brutal attack. The other is Jean-François, who may be the closest thing we get to a hero in this hopeless situation. The model of masculinity that he projects exists in stark contrast to the killer’s toxic ideologies, and yet not even his selfless efforts to rescue his peers is enough to conquer the overwhelming despair that the shooter brings inside these halls.

Solid form in the repetition of this shot – before and after the shooting, light and dark, coming from opposing angles.

Villeneuve plays out this massacre twice over from the alternate points-of-view of Jean-François and Valérie. It goes without saying which version carries even greater mortal terror to it, given the killer’s motives. The first time we see him enter a classroom and send the men outside, we carry their guilt for not staying behind and doing more. The second time we watch this play out from the inside with the women, the fear is immediate and inescapable. Such is the impression that Villeneuve captures in this structure that even in repeating it twice over, we never quite feel that it really comes to an end. Just as it plays out in the minds of traumatised survivors for years to come, so to do we feel doomed to live out the same soul-shaking torment on repeat.

Snow white exteriors, almost the exact opposite of Villeneuve’s cramped interiors though no less oppressive. The bleakness is devastating and inescapable.

Outside this engineering school, snowy landscapes set a dismal, unforgiving tone that matches the killer’s cold isolation and bitterness. For these students, Polytechnique doubles as both a place of growth and a comfortable shelter from the icy Canadian winter, and as the lone shooter enters its premises, he destroys both. Those who manage to make it out scatter into the blizzard, looking like small black dots facing an equally dreary world than the one they just came from. For one survivor haunted by the trauma, this snow-white exterior similarly becomes the setting of his own eventual suicide, wrapping the young man up in the same pernicious grip which took away fourteen other students and teachers, and prolonging the massacre long after the killer’s death.

Claustrophobia in Villeneuve’s masterful staging and compositions. Most of all, it is his use of mirrors to create the illusion of openness, and his narrowed frames through doorways and corridors to lead us through his terrifying labyrinth.

Those who remain inside though, whether by choice or because they are trapped, find themselves locked inside a labyrinth. Long tracking shots hang onto the back of our main cast’s heads much like Gus van Sant did in Elephant, his dramatisation of the Columbine High School massacre, though within the modernist architecture of Polytechnique Montreal where narrow corridors and angles trap our main cast in claustrophobic frames, Villeneuve effectively turns the environment into a complex series of passageways to navigate. In one shot he flips his camera sideways to track across a row of bookshelves seemingly rising upwards, and later it turns completely upside down to turn a hallway ceiling into a floor which he unnervingly dollies down.

Unnerving camerawork twisting these university corridors beyond the usual perspectives – it becomes something truly warped and fearsome.

Perhaps the most disturbingly quiet image in Polytechnique though is the overhead shot of the killer lying dead on the floor, next to the body of his final victim. As Villeneuve’s camera pulls back and twists around, their two pools of blood intermingle into one. Had this been shot in colour, perhaps we would have recoiled at the overbearing gore of such a grotesque sight. Instead, his monochrome photography simply considers the light and shape of such powerful compositions, letting the symbolism of this shot arrive at a more psychologically unsettling conclusion – the deaths of all these people will forever be tied to one violent, hateful man.

Symbolism in this overhead shot, merging two pools of blood – the killer and his victim.

With Valérie’s final voiceover looking to the future though, Villeneuve delivers one last piece of hope. For those who lived and died through the massacre of Polytechnique, there may not be any more peaceful nights of sleep, trusting that the world is a good place. But in their children, there is always another chance for women to understand their value, and for men to do better.

The blocking of faces in this shot as both women play dead breaks through the extreme tragedy with a very slight sense of poignant companionship.

Polytechnique is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The White Ribbon (2009)

Michael Haneke | 2hr 24min

Michael Haneke continues his use of unsettling, open-ended mysteries to provoke both his characters and viewers into unresolved frustration in The White Ribbon, sending them on a search for answers that never materialise. It is a large ensemble that sprawls out across its bleak, restrained narrative, consisting of largely archetypal figures – most notably the Baron, the Priest, and the Doctor. These men represent wealth, religion, and intelligentsia, and together they enforce strict rules over the women, farmers, and children of the town.

We are first introduced to the narrative by the voiceover of an elderly schoolteacher describing a parable he isn’t sure reflects the truth in every detail, but which he believes may “cast a new light on the goings-on in this country.” The setting is a rural German village on the precipice of World War I. There is no need for any further contextual elaboration from the narrator.

Haneke’s has always been a formal master and a stylist second – but not so much here. The White Ribbon is his most visually stunning film in its black-and-white photography and impeccable blocking. Stunning compositions all round in these wide, distant shots.

At first the collection of unfortunate, unusual incidents that take place in the town seem like sheer bad luck. Maybe the wire that tripped the Doctor’s horse and sent him to hospital was supposed to be a harmless prank. Maybe the farmer’s wife who fell through rotten floorboards was just being careless. Some events can be more easily explained, like the grieving husband who hangs himself. But still, there is a strange aura of uncertainty around this village that only seems to grow. Suspicion is cast on the children, who exhibit strange behaviour. They leer at grown-ups accusingly, who then in turn deliver cruel, moralistic punishments. One girl seems to possess supernatural premonitions of these events – or perhaps she is really aware of some plot the adults don’t know about.

The children of The White Ribbon are truly chilling – leering quietly, as if biding their time through beatings and lectures.

The Priest resolves that tying white ribbons around the arms of the children will remind them of their purity, a fruitless bid for them to remain innocent. Yet these meaningless symbols are at odds with the adults’ treatment of the children. A boy who steals another’s flute is violently beaten by his father. One boy who confesses to masturbating has his arms tied to his bed. Directly after this scene, we catch the Doctor in the act of adultery with the midwife. In truth, it is these men who are the hypocritical, self-righteous sinners of the town. The children’s innocence is under threat from no one but the men who claim they are trying to preserve it.

As the breakout of World War I marks the final act of the film, we are once again reminded of the larger global catastrophe that is mirroring the smaller ones taking place in this town. This war to end all wars was an act of violence by men in positions of power trying to protect their families and countrymen, but it only ended up hurting the innocent. This widespread destruction of innocence traumatised a generation of German youths who would grow up to cause an even greater conflict. Haneke doesn’t offer specific answers about who has been tearing the town apart from within, but he does suggest that these occurrences are a result of the adults’ corruption. A passage from the bible left at the scene of a vicious beating of a child paints this out clearly.

“For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of their parents’ sins to the third and fourth generation.”

Still, most of the men and women of this town go on in their harsh ways, refusing to accept the possibility that the children are learning cruelty, not discipline.

“Despite the strange events that had haunted the village, we thought of ourselves as united in the belief that life in our community was God’s will, and worth living.”

Haneke frames his setting in The White Ribbon like no other film of his. An immense darkness closing in around the edges, or carving inky black shapes into his compositions.

The few that do recognise the changing behaviours of the children usually go ignored. When the Baroness tells her husband she is taking his children away from these surroundings dominated by “malice, envy, apathy and brutality” and leaving him for another man, his only concern is whether she has slept with this new suitor yet. Later, the midwife learns the truth behind the atrocities, but she quickly disappears. The truth is powerless against whatever is working behind the scenes here. Perhaps we are better off not knowing.

As most of Haneke’s films are, The White Ribbon is formally rigorous in its multitude of motifs. The titular ribbons, the closed doors hiding acts too terrible to see, the parakeets as mirrors of the children’s trauma – Haneke uses symbols to hint at something truly insidious, but just as the film never plunges into the barbarism of World War I, he often leads us up to the doorstep of evil only to cut away at the last second. He keeps us at a distance from his characters. Whenever we do see something horrific, like a mutilated bird or a dead woman, we never get a reaction shot following it. Emotion never immediately spills to the surface, but the cumulative effect of this repression does inevitably burst out in angry, violent demonstrations.

Brutal imagery, but with a cold, detached distance.

Haneke is not known for his striking images, but the stark, monochrome beauty of The White Ribbon leaps out in practically every shot. Though he isn’t averse to close-ups, Haneke’s wide shots are worth marvelling at for their strong compositions of sharp black and white hues battling it out for dominance of the image. In one scene the darkness of the night smothers the frame, only to be pierced with the blinding light of a fire billowing out from the barn. In another, the narration recalls how the snowy landscape “hurt the eyes”, though dark silhouettes of farmers can still be seen trudging through it. There is detail in the mise-en-scène right down to the costumes, as the opposing shades will clutter tableaus of crowds in the village square, balancing each other out.

One of Haneke’s greatest shots – a bright white fire burning in an inky darkness.
Bleak minimalism in greyscale landscapes, a reflection of the austere community.

Though The White Ribbon is mostly without music, the single exception comes in the final scene set in the church, where the children’s choir sings a hymn. It is an appropriate end to a parable that hints at, without ever explaining, how evil is born through puritanical chastisement, hypocrisy, and apathy. Haneke’s masterpiece is full of tension between the pull of innocence and corruption, but its lack of clear resolution is precisely what continues to make it so compelling.

Carl Theodor Dreyer in the immaculate blocking – frigid detachment between character, and a wonderful symmetry.

The White Ribbon is currently available to stream on Beamafilm and Shudder.

Far From Heaven (2002)

Todd Haynes | 1hr 47min

It is a bold move to revise and deconstruct an out-of-fashion film genre within a modern context, but bolder still to dig deeper into its antiquated conventions as Todd Haynes does here in Far From Heaven. There wasn’t exactly a market for tender-hearted melodramas in 2002, and yet within this narrative of 1950s suburban house parties, nuclear families, and neighbourhood gossip he steadfastly proceeds with a film that speaks sensitively to the deep-rooted prejudices of middle-class America. Perhaps this bucking of mainstream trends puts Haynes even more in line with his greatest cinematic influence than ever as well, as in the era of post-war America when Douglas Sirk’s films were being derisively written off as “women’s weepies”, the classic Hollywood director similarly used artistic empathy as a weapon to defiantly challenge social norms. 

As sentimental as Far From Heaven may be and as naïve as his characters are, any accusations of phoniness are unfounded. The heightening of emotions present is not intended to force compassion for Hayne’s characters, but rather to tune us into those repressed parts of their identities they struggle to face, and the subtleties of ordinary life that go entirely unnoticed. Praise must go to Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert who capture that tricky balance between internal worlds and external expressions as closeted family man, Frank, and African-American gardener, Raymond, both of whom rub up against the strict social order. But it is especially in the ways that Julianne Moore relates to them as Cathy Whitaker, a housewife torn between her social duty and genuine love, that we can fully grasp the strain of 1950s suburbia. After catching Frank, her husband, having an affair with another man and growing closer with Raymond, the pressures of her narrow-minded neighbourhood begin to close in, and cracks in her idealistic life begin to manifest. 

Immaculate interior decor and lighting from Haynes, constructing beautifully expressionistic domestic spaces around Cathy and her family.
Canted angles tilting this idealistic world off-centre.

Thematically, Far From Heaven falls right alongside Sirk’s Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows in its delicate studies of class and race, although perhaps the single most transgressive aspect that gives it a modern grounding is its candour in approaching homosexuality – certainly a taboo topic in the days of Hollywood’s Production Code. The only barrier to Hayne’s prodding of the issue is the repression of his characters, who awkwardly stumble around discussions and confrontations with an uncomfortable clumsiness. Beyond the walls of the home, the eyes of judgemental neighbours are ubiquitous in low-angle cutaways, and when social convention is thrown out in sudden developments, Sirk tilts his camera in canted angles, destabilising Cathy’s entire world. 

Autumnal colours dominate the exteriors of this film – greens, oranges, reds, and browns giving suburban landscapes a distinctly earthy feel.
Graceful long dissolves all through the editing, creating entirely new compositions.

Most of all though, it is in Hayne’s long dissolves, saturated colours, and autumnal suburban landscapes where Sirk’s stylistic influence elegantly seeps through, tying its worldly innocence to the emotional honesty and wholesomeness of those characters quietly confronting rigid communal structures. Rich hues burst from manicured green lawns and warmly lit domestic settings with vivid passion, these palettes shifting from scene to scene like expressionistic outpourings of these characters’ emotional states. When Frank grows frustrated with his inability to perform sexually for his wife, chilly blue day-for-night lighting takes over their living room, pierced only by Cathy’s bright red dress standing within it as icon of vibrant warmth. As he explores shady basement bars, a neon green glow drenches him in an unnatural shade of green, pulling him into a new, covert world that, while possessing an entirely distinct tone, remains just as boldly luminous as the rest of his life.

Striking contrasts in these colourful compositions, using vivid bursts of red in dim, blue settings.
Frank’s underground world of basement bars stylistically defined by their neon lighting, matching the visual boldness elsewhere though with a distinctly artificial glow.

It is fitting that this throwback to the 1950s marks the final score for classical Hollywood film composer Elmer Bernstein before his passing, his symphonic orchestra of woodwinds, strings, and piano floating through the film like a wistful, nostalgic dream. This dream though is one which is almost entirely artificial, constructed out of America’s naive mid-twentieth century ideals, and which motivates Haynes to go about puncturing it with sobering recognitions of its limitations. Through windows, Haynes often shoots Cathy within her home like a trapped creature, only beginning to consider her own role in perpetuating the same oppressive barriers she now nervously struggles against, and although she does not succeed in destroying them, she still ends her arc with far more self-awareness and compassion than ever before. Within every frame of Far From Heaven there seeps a beauty that makes an honest effort to understand each of its characters on that same level, drenched in the colourful expressions of a director not so much challenging well-worn conventions as he is playing right into their arms with loving affection.

Cathy shot through the windows of her home , creating these stunning, claustrophobic frames.
A moving finale at the train station, leaving Julia lonelier than ever but also a wiser, more empathetic woman.

Far From Heaven is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and to buy in the Microsoft Store.

Bad Education (2004)

Pedro Almodóvar | 1hr 46min

Like all the best neo-noirs, truth isn’t easy to come by in Bad Education. The way a writer recalls a memory may differ entirely to the artistic rendering of it, and while both might be divorced from reality, unexpected revelations also emerge from the unlikeliest fabrications. This story is further complicated when fraudulent identities come to light, warping the transgressive melodrama of child sexual abuse and corrupt religious authorities into a twisted Hitchcockian tale of murder. Pedro Almodóvar remains as boldly colourful as ever in his patterned wallpapers and vibrant set dressing throughout this film, and yet Bad Education also marks one of his most confident narratives in its leaps between flashbacks, re-enactments, and the present reality.

Pop art production design in the colours and arrangements. Every detail in Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène is placed with purpose, from the red bowl on the coffee table matching the phone, to the green curtains and stained glass window.

The reunion of young film director Enrique with old childhood friend Angel (previously known as Ignacio) right in the opening brings with it a torrent of old ghosts from their days at a Catholic boarding school in 1964. The flame that once sparked between them is one such memory, as is Father Manolo, the priest whose molestation of Ignacio is channelled into the screenplay Angel is now asking Enrique to direct, “The Visit.” As Enrique sits down to read it, Almodóvar pulls his camera back from outside the criss-crossed window bars of his apartment, the striking composition punctured by a vivid red lamp sitting on a coffee table, and we dissolve into this smaller story nested within the larger one.

An excellent composition in the framing through window bars with the pinpoint of red in the lamp, as the camera tracks backwards into the nested story.
The first hints of noir in these flashbacks where a young Ignacio is pulled into the dark orbit of Father Manolo.

Later when “The Visit” is properly produced as a movie, the production appears almost identical to what we witnessed earlier, minus a few extra dramatisations. Quite ironically though, some of these attempts to embellish the truth wind up closer to reality than expected, and Almodóvar’s great artistic ethos regarding the value of artifice emerges in some of the most acutely affecting moments of Angel and Enrique’s emotional journeys.

It is easy to consistently point to the Douglas Sirk inspiration in virtually everything Almodóvar has ever created, but from film to film there has been significant variation in his influences, and the noirish conspiracy which Bad Education eventually takes a turn towards points quite directly to Double Indemnity. This is the film that two covert lovers and murder accomplices choose to watch to pass time not long after completing their dastardly act. “It’s as if those films are about us,” they fearfully mutter, walking by its poster hanging on a bright orange wall while leaving the theatre. Outside, it is dark and rainy, and Almodóvar fully embraces the noir convention here as his characters descend into paranoia, their relationship beginning to crumble.

An inspired dissolve moving from the screenplay to the characters contained within its story.
Murder shot from this birds-eye view looking over the victim fallen upon their typewriter. These extreme high angles are common in Almodóvar’s oeuvre and here it comes with a noir-ish twist.

It isn’t simply in spite of Almodóvar’s magnificent strokes of colour that Bad Education’s murky noir narrative flourishes, but rather because of it, as it is through his extravagant interiors that these elaborate plot developments become utterly believable. Venetian blinds are very much present here in his backdrops and framing of characters, serving a similar purpose to those more classic entries into the genre in creating an uneasy tension in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, bursts of reds in towels, deck chairs, and ornaments continue to spill forth an intense passion throughout this film, like expressions of the rich, inner lives of its characters. This painstaking curation of mise-en-scène rivals the old masters of cinematic expressionism, though the uniquely Almodóvarian trademarks are all there. Through its dazzling swings of tone, plot, and colour, there is a thrill to picking apart Bad Education’s elaborate representations of truth and fiction, and in its self-referential examinations of these very concepts the Spanish auteur’s lovingly artificial cinematic style feels more at home than ever.

Reds all through Almodóvar’s mise-en-scène in Venetian blinds, towels, and deck chairs. Certainly one of his greatest visual accomplishments to date.

Bad Education is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Amores Perros (2000)

Alejandro Iñárritu | 2hr 34min

Amores Perros opens in media res with a car speeding through the streets of Mexico, a wounded dog bleeding to death in the backseat, and a yellow truck right on its tail. At this point in time, we know nothing about the men in the front seat, Octavio and Jorge – who they are, where they have come from, or where they are going. And then all of a sudden, just as we get our bearings in this frenzied chase, there is glass shattering, metal splintering, and smoke filling the air.

The places that Alejandro Iñárritu takes his debut film from here goes far beyond the immediate questions we might have about this car accident. Its effects spread out to strangers from across class boundaries, and bit by bit a landscape of violence, disloyalty, and abuse begins to form in this urban ecosystem of decay and moral depravity.

The same car crash from three different perspectives, a literal collision of narrative threads creating a formal masterwork.

Though it is structured around three separate narrative threads, Amores Perros is not as rigidly segmented as one might initially assume. Iñárritu certainly makes good use of titles bearing the names of his characters to open new chapters where our focus dramatically shifts, but bits and pieces of each plotline also obtrusively bleed into the others. In the first, “Octavio y Susana” which follows an affair between a man and his sister-in-law, it is not immediately clear who the haggard, bearded man is that pursues and kills a stranger without hesitation, nor do we understand why Iñárritu keeps cutting to Daniel, a magazine publisher cheating on his wife with a supermodel. In time, the justification for the inclusion of both will be revealed in their own chapters, within which Octavio and Susana will appear in reduced capacity. But for now these two subplots remain unsolved mysteries, running beneath a more dominant narrative set in a working-class neighbourhood and an underground dog fighting ring.

A superb blocking of faces in this conversation between Octavio and Susana.

When it comes to those depictions of animal abuse, Amores Perros proves itself to be a particularly confronting experience. Sure, there is a lot of vicious imagery to flinch at all across the board, especially in one shot where Iñárritu’s camera closes in tightly on a splash of fresh blood aggressively sizzling across an open grill. But the torture which is continuously inflicted upon dogs through all two and a half hours of its run time is truly testing, and much of the moral substance of these characters can be gaged by who we see inflicting it, who is trying to fight it, and who can do nothing but simply empathise with their pain.

A sizzling trickle of blood dripping down a grill, fresh from a murder.

In Octavio’s decision to let his dog, Cofi, fight another, Daniel’s choice to leave Valeria’s dog trapped beneath the floorboards, and her selfless attempts to rescue it, we witness this running metaphor become the source of some brilliant character work. Especially when considering canines not just as representations of innocence, but also as symbols of loyalty, a broader picture begins to form of a city that places such little value in any of these, with affairs and betrayals running rampant in virtually every relationship.

In reflecting this urban hellhole, the grittiness of Iñárritu’s rapid-fire editing and grainy visual style feels almost entirely inverse to those films from later in his career, Birdman and The Revenant. Both those movies flow smoothly in long takes even as they wrestle with similarly existential questions and, in the case of The Revenant, viscerally violent imagery. The masterclass of filmmaking in Amores Perros is of an entirely different kind though, in which he presents us with an environment of utter chaos, and then dedicates himself to sorting through the madness to find some sense in it. A skilful balance and wide scope is achieved not just in editing between each of the three main storylines, but even in the skilful parallel cutting contained within these individual strands, contrasting Octavio and Susana’s affair with the one her husband, Ramiro, is simultaneously conducting with a co-worker.

We occasionally get these beautiful formal cutaways to the city streets at night, the headlights of cars bouncing off the wet tarmac. A reminder of the physical landscape these characters inhabit.

Through these constant juxtapositions between plot threads, Iñárritu constructs a pattern of deterioration brought about by selfishness and cruelty, which continues to reverberate outwards. Even Valeria, one of our most noble characters, is not immune to this, as her efforts to counteract Daniel’s malice simply worsens her condition, right up until she hits rock bottom with a leg amputation, cutting short her illustrious modelling career. In poignant correspondence, her perfume ads stuck up high on billboards around the city are similarly torn down, her fall from grace writ large in this wretched environment.

And then as Amores Perros reaches its finale act, “El Chivo y Maru”, there is an unexpected shift in Iñárritu’s pattern in the place we least expect. Where Octavio and Valeria are involved in the car crash out of pure bad luck, hitman El Chivo is simply a witness, and chooses to involve himself in rescuing Cofi from the wreckage. The bond that forms between the two is unlike any other human-pet relationship we have seen yet. Like El Chivo, Cofi has been trained to kill, though it is not in his nature – it is a learned instinct as a result of an environment that has told him it is the only way to survive.

A wonderful recurring use of mirrors in the mise-en-scène.

From the great sorrow that El Chivo feels for this corrupted creature there emerges an indignant anger, but also a huge amount of remorse. Unlike Valeria, his deliberate reaction against the decay of the world is not directed outwards in attempts to fix it, but rather inwards to his soul, so that he may fix that which is broken in his own life. After all, it is from there that we have seen reverberations ripple outwards, dictating the paths of lives beyond these characters’ immediate understandings. And with just one extra force of goodness out there in this city, Iñárritu pensively leaves us with some shred of hope for its future.

An ending like Casablanca or Modern Times, only with a man and man’s best friend walking off into the distance, offering a shred of hope.

Amores Perros is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.