Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

Paul Thomas Anderson | 1hr 35min

Chaos defines Barry Egan’s universe in Punch-Drunk Love, reaching out across every aspect of his environment to diminish his lonely, meek existence. This isn’t world-building in the traditional sense, given that the term is typically confined to high-concept science-fiction films or epic fantasies spanning multiple hours. But what Paul Thomas Anderson accomplishes here in colliding multiple threads of Barry’s life into single moments of pandemonium fits the definition nonetheless, carefully seeking out the presence of some governing logic explaining the assortment of random puzzle pieces that don’t initially seem to fit together. He runs a struggling small business selling plungers out of a warehouse. A phone sex operator and her boss, the ‘Mattress Man’, are extorting him for money. Puddings stack up in his office after he discovers a loophole in a frequent flyer promotion. This isn’t to mention the constant harassment of his seven sisters chastising him for one thing or another. Where is the sense in any of this?

The hope that we might receive answers is conjured in a pair of entrances just as random as everything else in his life. Nothing can explain the sudden, violent car crash in the opening minutes that is immediately followed by a van unexpectedly dropping off a harmonium at the kerb. As its name suggests, this instrument will soon help Barry find harmony among the dissonance, though for now it remains just as much an unexplained mystery as Lena, the woman who later that day walks into his work and encourages him to pick it up off the street. Just as the harmonium arrives in a red vehicle, so too is Lena dressed in similarly coloured outfits, radiating a vibrant warmth that continues to echo through Punch-Drunk Love’s otherwise cool hues.

Forces of a chaotic universe bringing the harmonium and Lena into Barry’s life, shrinking him in the frame as a meek, unassuming figure.

To start discussing the specific palettes that emerge in Anderson’s mise-en-scène though is a slippery slope into lengthy essays on the depths and potency of its symbolism. Punch-Drunk Love stands proudly alongside Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy and Jacques Demy’s pastel-hued musicals as an exhibition of one of the most formally rigid uses of colour committed to film, even if Anderson lands his vividity with a subtler visual impact. While we learn from others that Barry’s blue suit is a new addition to his wardrobe, for us it is virtually synonymous with his character, encasing him in the same melancholy shade of cobalt as the walls of his large warehouse where he is frequently shot as a distant, lonely figure. Indeed, blue seems to follow him everywhere he goes, from the glow of street lamps outside to the pale sky that often dominates Anderson’s elegantly framed exteriors.

Rich blue hues hang in Anderson’s lighting and mise-en-scène, marking a significant formal achievement for Anderson in his use of colour.

As Lena gradually inserts herself into Barry’s life though, her pinks and reds begin to mix in with his side of the colour spectrum, offering a vibrant contrast that ties through virtually every scene. When he first takes in the harmonium and begins to play around on it, Anderson slowly zooms into a close-up from a low angle, and curiously begins to shed a warm, romantic light on his face that visually ties it to Lena. Much like his blossoming love life, he doesn’t know how to play or use it yet, but he knows that whenever he feels as if he is losing control, it will be there to bring him joy and comfort. At a certain point, he even adopts a red tie to go with his blue suit, embracing that striking palette as part of his own outward appearance.

A slow zoom in on Barry from this low angle as he plays around on the harmonium, curiously shedding a pink light upon his face and foreshadowing the relationship to come.
Warm and cool colours continue to echo through even throwaway shots like this, as Barry walks down a blue corridor to these red-dressed flight attendants, representing his destination in Hawaii where Lena is staying.

Perhaps the most formally brilliant use of this colour scheme emerges in the pink and blue lens flares that Anderson flashes up on the screen from time to time, ethereally capturing the film’s wistful and romantic qualities in a perfect tonal balance. When emotions swell to beautiful heights that the lens flares alone can’t capture though, Punch-Drunk Love sinks into vibrantly abstract interludes, hypnotically swirling its two dominant hues around in fluid watercolour patterns exquisitely designed by digital artist Jeremy Blake. Such dazzling visual displays as these are used sparingly throughout the film, but their consistency delivers a formal impact that sees each chapter of Barry’s personal journey culminate in a pure expression of his most passionate feelings.

An isolating opening shot of affecting melancholy, as Barry disappears into the corner of the blue warehouse.
Perhaps one of the best uses of lens flares on film, lightly touching scenes with the pink and blue colour palette.

The duality of chaos and romance that reverberates through Anderson’s narrative and mise-en-scène continues to manifest in Jon Brion’s eccentric musical score as well, with absolute anarchy layering Barry’s world in an eclectic, tactile dissonance. The sound of duct tape, buzzsaws, and combs unusually combine with syncopated percussion, digital synths, and a prepared piano that has had its strings physically altered with small objects, and the result is an incredibly unusual, polyrhythmic texture that never quite moves in the direction one expects. Just as the messy threads of Barry’s life fight for dominance, so too do these instruments drown each other out, at times even threatening the sound mix of the dialogue. Much like the wild musical experimentations by John Cage which influenced Brion’s score though, it all fits together in an offbeat way. When set next to the romantic waltz of flutes and strings attached to Lena’s gentle presence, suddenly everything feels as if it is all falling into beautiful harmony, drawing together all of Barry’s dreams and difficulties into a single, enchanting motif.

Jeremy Blake’s fluid mixtures of light and watercolours make for gorgeous interludes throughout the film, acting as eloquent formal markers.

In this way, there is a balanced coordination across every level of Anderson’s filmmaking, each one pushing Barry’s development towards the realisation that through love he can overcome the disorder and violence of an unruly world. From the director’s perspective though, randomness is simply an illusion created through precise arrangement of every cinematic element into superbly executed non-sequiturs. One conversation between Barry and Lena is perfectly punctuated by a forklift accident in the background, landing a punchline with brilliant comedic timing, while even within the dialogue itself, it isn’t uncommon for topics to jarringly switch from one line to the next like a confused, distracted poem.

The harmonium, the phone, the forklift, Barry’s sister, his love interest – Paul Thomas Anderson crowds a lot of visual information into this shot, colliding each thread of Barry’s life into a complex synthesis of ideas.
Punch-Drunk Love is full of wonderful camera movements keep us on our toes, but this is one of the best, combining a single, direct motion with superb blocking.

Casting Adam Sandler in the buffoonish role of Barry is an incredibly inspired move here, as Anderson isn’t just playing to his actor’s comic talents, but specifically the cultural icon that Sandler embodies. The awkward, emotionally stunted loner character takes on new dramatic dimensions in Punch-Drunk Love that few other romantic comedies have addressed with such self-awareness, as in this tightly composed narrative Anderson offers a sharper insight into the sources of the archetype’s crippling anxiety, as well as the process of developing a confidence that emanates outwards.

A Kubrickian level of perfectionism in Anderson’s colour-coding of these supermarket shelves, but there is also a lightness here in Sandler’s performance that brings it to life as he does a Chaplin dance down the aisle.

It is only when Barry stops passively accepting Lena’s affection and actively pursues her as a romantic interest that he discovers a willingness to take responsibility for his own actions, leading to his brave retaliation against the Mattress Man’s goons when she is caught up in their attack. In that moment, it almost looks as if a new man is born, willing to put himself out into a dangerous world to protect something other than his own ego. When he finally comes up against the Mattress Man himself, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a hilariously volatile shopkeeper, he is virtually unstoppable, conquering the chaos of the world through the sheer power of self-belief.

“I have a love in my life that makes me stronger than anything you can imagine.”

The camerawork which once moved in jumpy, handheld tracking shots now moves with relaxed, decisive resolve, and even the harmonium which Barry could previously only draw out a few disjointed notes from now fluently accompanies Lena’s romantic waltz theme. Perhaps the most singularly affecting visual representation of his newfound peace though emerges in what might be Punch-Drunk Love’s most memorable frame, silhouetting his kiss with Lena in an open doorway against a sunny Hawaiian beach, while a faceless crowd moves past them in both directions. Gradually, the frenzy dissipates, and yet the two lovers remain rooted in position, united by their sincere, selfless love. In that glorious, blissful moment, everything fighting for Barry’s attention sinks away, and there is finally only one thing in the entire, senseless universe that really matters.

An elegant composition moving from chaos to peace, silhouetting Barry and Lena against the blue, red, and green of the Hawaiian beach.

Punch-Drunk Love is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Panic Room (2002)

David Fincher | 1hr 53min

After crafting a magnificently daring crime film in Seven and a gripping thriller in Fight Club, David Fincher is evidently dedicating his talents towards something a little more modest with Panic Room, largely containing its action within the confined quarters of one family’s Manhattan townhouse. It says a lot about his success as a director though that a film as handsomely mounted as this could ever be consider one of his more minor accomplishments, especially given how much it carries through the consistent devotion to evocative, murky lighting that has largely defined his gloomy aesthetic. As darkness infiltrates the corners and stairwells of this claustrophobic home, so too does Fincher send three thieves inside with the intention of stealing money hidden in its secret panic room, carrying out a tightly-plotted home invasion story with exhilarating terror.

The titular panic room is soaked in Fincher’s fluorescent lighting design, and he uses its confined geography well to keep his staging inside it dynamic.

Jodie Foster leads here as Meg, a recently divorced mother looking to start a new life with her daughter, Sarah, played by a young Kristen Stewart. The townhouse’s layout and the functions of the panic room are economically set up during their inspection early on, though more than anything else it is the harsh, fluorescent lighting of this hideaway which establishes it as a grim yet impenetrable sanctuary, setting it apart from the rest of the home. Inside, high and low camera angles often feel like the only way we can possibly fit into the space with the actors, whose faces look even more terrified bathed in its dim, green glow. Throughout the rest of the house, Fincher’s lighting is a little softer in its warmer hues, though his smothering visual darkness remains as much a part of the environment as the infrastructure that all parties wield against each other in a Home Alone-style stand-off.

Fincher is a master of dim lighting and darkness, using it to create some imposing frames out of his walls, doorways, and furniture – this house would probably look entirely ordinary if it wasn’t lit like this.

The levity that came with the 1990 Christmas comedy is barely present in Panic Room though. The closest we get to any humour is a highly-strung, animated performance from Jared Leto as Junior, the grandson of the house’s previous owner now returning to claim his hidden money with two co-conspirators. His gang’s idea to pump propane gas through the air vents into the panic room quickly turns south when Meg cleverly ignites it from the other end, badly burning him and proving her to be a truly formidable opponent. Next to Junior, Dwight Yoakam’s psychopathic thug, Raoul, proves to be even deadlier and more unpredictable than any other character though, and Forest Whittaker serves well as Burnham, the most sensitive and empathetic of the group. Between all three criminals, there is more than enough character drama going on to sustain its own storyline, building tension in their interactions even beyond the primary conflict at play.

With such a rich ensemble of characters and a versatile set to play with, Fincher delights in pushing the creative limits of his camerawork all through Panic Room, angling it from positions that turn the space into a diorama of sorts, using walls to split frames right down the middle and view multiple rooms at once. Even more experimental are his simulated tracking shots, flying through floors, keyholes, pipes, and even the handle of a jug in long takes, probing crevices that no ordinary human or camera could possibly reach. In this way, Fincher playfully lifts us beyond the perspective of any one character, and instead positions us as an invisible, omniscient third party, free to independently roam the environment. Just as time often feels as if it is compressing in these break-neck camera movements, so too does it radically elongate in slow-motion sequences, at one point turning what might have been a mere few seconds of Meg’s brief dash outside the panic room into a nail-biting minute and a half, intensified even further by Fincher’s intercutting with the thieves downstairs.

At times the entire house is shot like a diorama, with the camera entirely ignoring the barriers of walls, floors, and obstacles in its way.

Not every narrative beat is played to perfection, particularly as Panic Room introduces a couple of artificial contrivances here and there to build suspense, but its classical Hollywood conventions are otherwise integrated with superb elegance, beautifully calling back to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a conclusively dramatic shot of the much sought-after money blowing away in the wind. It is in moments like these that Fincher’s manipulation of expressive lighting and pressing darkness thrillingly force the terror of this hellish night upon us, transcending the perspective of any single character to instil in us an even greater dread than any one of them experiences alone.

One of the strongest compositions of the film caught from this low angle, as flashlights and lamps shine down on Forrest Whittaker.

Panic Room is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.

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.

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.

Talk to Her (2002)

Pedro Almodóvar | 1hr 52min

In the first scene of Talk to Her, two men sit side-by-side watching a dance performance in a theatre. Up on stage, two women glide through the space like blind sleepwalkers, while another man hurriedly moves furniture out of their way so as not to disturb their chaotic paths. As the spectator on the right begins to weep, the one on the left silently glances over. At this point in their lives Marco and Benigno are strangers, though this is not the last time their paths will cross. After suffering two strikingly similar twists of fate, twin storylines begin to emerge and intertwine in reflections of the dance that first brought them together, and a friendship takes form over a commonality in their unusual expressions of love.

An opening mirrored in the ending, two lives tangentially crossing over.

There is no doubt something creepy about the way these men dote upon the two comatose women for whom they profess their love. But at times it is also endearingly sweet, as well as self-serving, and at one point morally repugnant – a mix of feelings as complex as the men themselves. Most interestingly, the emotionally expressive dynamics which Pedro Almodóvar typically reserves for his female characters take masculine form in Marco and Benigno, who continue to talk with and care for the targets of their affection. Marco is the more sympathetic figure between the two for several reasons, chief of all being the time Almodóvar spends in drawing out his relationship with his sweetheart, Lydia. Benigno is also prone to emotional sensitivity, but dangerously so, as his delusions around the love of an unconscious Alicia gradually consume his reality. Between the two, there is a thin line dividing love and obsession, and Almodóvar relishes every tiny formal parallel that binds them together.

This Spanish auteur is not one known for his subtlety, and indeed Talk to Her swells with broad strokes of saturated colours, like a Douglas Sirk melodrama with distinctly more flamboyantly transgressive sensibilities. Notions of rape, still birth, prison, and death play significant parts in this narrative, and although Almodóvar isn’t exactly undercutting the seriousness of his subject matter, these plot points always tend to be in service of the film’s expressions of sorrow and grief. Conversely, his bright décor builds out a world where life is still largely worth living in spite of it all, defined by its bold primary colours piercing through sumptuous, often symmetrical compositions. Even within the unusually green and yellow walls of the hospital, there is still a visual exuberance to be found that both complements these characters’ wild emotional journeys and effectively offsets the bleakness of their pain.

Such vivid inner lives spilling out into these beautifully expressive interiors.
It is not just Almodóvar’s colours that lift up this film, but the perfectly curated mise-en-scène in framing, dividing, and providing backdrops to characters. Every piece of decor is arranged with such purpose.

The unpredictable swings of these characters continue to emerge in the narrative’s numerous leaps through time, with titles letting us know we have flashed back “Four years earlier” or forwards “A month later.” The form of the piece is pushed even further in one section that seems to play out a metaphor of Benigno’s story writ large on silent film, though even this pastiche sequence still bears Almodóvar’s gaudy irreverence – a shrunken man crawling across the landscape of his lover’s naked body before slipping into her v****a, like a surreal, Bunuelian dream.

A silent film interlude allegorising Benigno’s emotional journey and undoing.

Almodóvar swings wildly across emotional extremes all through Talk to Her, but being the master of melodrama that he is, each moment remains under his careful control in its complex progression, right up until the final scene. There, we return the theatre from the opening with Marco, though this time it is a recovered Alicia he encounters rather than Benigno. Once again the interaction is tangential, though with both their counterparts missing, there is finally room for a sweet correspondence between them – a man and a woman with renewed abilities to respond to others, who are open to real connection, and are now ready to move on with their lives.

One of the film’s most gorgeous compositions, permanently dividing these characters in small, glass boxes, yet merging them into one with Marco’s faded reflection over Benigno.

Talk to Her is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Unknown Pleasures (2002)

Jia Zhangke | 1hr 53min

In some ways, Unknown Pleasures is Jia Zhangke’s spiritual sequel to Platform, immersing us in the materialistic, hybridised culture of Eastern and Western influences that emerged within China’s cultural landscape at the end of his sophomore film. The rallies we observed marching in support of the one-child policy have finally taken root, so much so that those babies born in the wake of the program have now grown up into the “birth control generation”, and become our focus here in Unknown Pleasures. They are isolated, passive teenagers, whose limited attention spans are dominated by television sets detaching them from reality. 
 
Jia has previously demonstrated his ability to work resourcefully on tight budgets, but as his first film shot on digital rather than film, there are moments here where the footage looks more like a home video in some clumsy movements and over-exposed images. That said, this switch to handheld digital also allows for more lightness and spontaneity in his unbroken tracking shots, and especially allows for more freedom in his panning camera, which still remains one of his best tools. He smoothly shifts between mid and long shots of his characters, letting our attention wander to an arrest taking place elsewhere on the street, or to one of many TV sets they silently watch together. Most importantly, the Rossellini-inspired neorealism seeps through in the derelict, industrial architecture, towering over the bleak landscapes through which these lonely teenagers wander. 

Using architecture as character has always been one of Jia’s strengths, and here he lets the derelict buildings of the Shangxi province dominate the rundown landscape.
There is no faking the natural, blue wash lighting in this attractive shot.

It isn’t until about forty minutes in that we witness the first major disruption to the lives of our three main characters. As Xiao Ji sits at home, drinking his soda while the news plays in the background the next room over, an explosive sound pierces the monotony. Not long after, we discover that a local textile mill has been destroyed, and the object of Xiao Ji’s desire, Qiao Qiao, is in need of his assistance to get her injured father to the hospital. Through this crisis, the two grow a little bit closer, and as they celebrate afterwards Jia draws parallels to the boisterous couples of Pulp Fiction. Xiao Ji first imagines themselves as Pumpkin and Honey Bunny holding up the diner, and then in an uncharacteristically energetic whip pan, Jia cuts to a discotheque where the two perform the famous Jack Rabbit Slim’s dance. 

A great motif here – even when televisions aren’t the primary focus, they are often there in the background, playing out news bulletins and reality shows.

While Jia grounds Unknown Pleasures in real historical events such as the announcement of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Xiao Ji and his friend, Bin Bin, seem to act in sharp opposition through their emulations of movies, even as their attempts fall humorously short. There is no fighting against the messiness of reality, which constantly forces them back into the helpless passivity they are so familiar with. While these young adults find some comfort in Zhuangzi’s philosophy to “do what feels good,” these ancient words ultimately become little more than a despairing assertion of what little agency they really have in the face of this constrained, globalised Chinese culture.

A moving ending, as Jia takes several minutes to slowly pan his camera almost the full way around the room to follow his characters. Then finally he rests on this final frame, with Bin Bin singing a poignant song about spiritual freedom, all while handcuffed.

Unknown Pleasures is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.