The Ghost Writer (2010)

Roman Polanski | 2hr 8min

There are two defining aspects of The Ghost Writer which distinguish it from the political thrillers of the 1970s. The first is its 21st century setting, far more in conversation with the war in Iraq than the era of Watergate, though examining a comparable mistrust in government affairs. The second is the distinctly British nature of the conspiracies which arise, characterising Pierce Brosnan’s fictional former prime minister, Adam Lang, as a direct surrogate of Tony Blair, drawing parallels through the allegations of war crimes levelled at them. Still, it is telling that so much of The Ghost Writer is set in the USA, and that the CIA’s infiltration of the British government plays such a significant role in its central mystery of assassinations, ciphers, and corruption. Roman Polanski is borrowing a lot from Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy here, and The Parallax View is especially prominent in The Ghost Writer’s pessimistic, circular plotting, leading Ewan McGregor’s inquisitive protagonist right into the mouth of the malevolent forces he is investigating.

Robert Harris’ 2007 novel The Ghost makes a smooth leap from page to screen here, as Roman Polanski infuses the gripping narrative with a wholly cinematic atmosphere of creeping, phantasmal dread. Desaturated blues and greys are painted through the film’s palette, washed out by the overcast skies hanging over windy seasides and rainy cities where McGregor’s nameless ghost writer is hired to pen Lang’s autobiography. This is a man who essentially lives off his own anonymity by adopting the voices of famous figures, and throughout the film much of his character is built on the foundation of ambiguous, obscured identities. His faceless predecessor, Mike McAra, only wrote the beginning of Lang’s autobiography before inexplicably drowning, making him too a ghost of sorts, haunting McGregor with clues that evaporate each time he wraps his fingers around them. Even beyond their shared profession, the similarities drawn between the two are striking, setting our protagonist on a fatalistic path formally mirroring that of the man whose death he is investigating.

A desaturated colour palette cast over washed-out interiors and cloudy skies, setting a tone of drab despair.

Clearly the ghost writer is getting close to the truth too, as while the link between Lang’s political secrets and McAra’s suspected assassination begins to emerge, Polanski continues extending the motif of indistinct identities to a mysterious, black car stalking McGregor through cities and country sides. Just as the ghost writer is nameless and McAra is faceless, so too does the driver here remain completely unknown, acting on behalf of some greater power dedicated to keeping whatever truth killed McAra under wraps.

Even the ferry that ships the ghost writer back and forth between the mainland and the island he is residing on carries ethereal, mythological connotations, beaming a light through the darkness as if carving out a path to the underworld where he is destined to rest. Sure enough, it is upon this giant, steel boat where he is very nearly killed, as the ominous black car follows him onto it right after his meeting with Professor Paul Emmett, a curious suspect mentioned in McAra’s manuscript. This huge set piece is classically Hitchcockian in its construction, staging an exhilarating chase through an uneven terrain, though formally it also serves a narrative purpose in recognising the immense, life-threatening stakes of the ghost writer’s mission.

The ferry is set up in the opening with this ghostly imagery, beaming lights through a pressing darkness.
A brilliant Hitchcockian set piece making the most of the ferry’s unusual terrain, as McGregor is chased through a field of inert cars by faceless assassins.

Beautifully complementing the film’s forward momentum is a lush, pulsating score from Alexandre Desplat, driving restless violins, woodwinds, and percussion through the mounting suspense of clues that don’t quite fit together. One local’s familiarity with the coastline offers an uncertainty as to how McAra’s body could have washed up where it did if he drowned so far away. Another local conveniently falls into a coma after seeing flashlights on the beach the night of McAra’s death. Most significant of all though are the inconsistencies arising within Lang’s own accounts, each one leading us through a labyrinth of twists and reveals that, like Chinatown, keep knocking us over with nihilistic despair.

Obscured identities become an intriguing motif woven through characters, and most prominent of all is the titular ghost writer who never has a name – much like his predecessor who never has a face.

Cruellest of all these plot beats is Polanski’s revelatory finale that almost promises some sort of grand reckoning for the powerful, corrupt elite, before snatching it away in a chilling final shot. At the book’s launch party in London, the ghost writer finally discovers the key to all his questions, though it comes far too late. As his tell-all note is passed through a crowd to Lang’s wife, Polanski’s camera moves with it from hand to hand, suspensefully anticipating the moment that it arrives at its destination and lets all key players see each other for who they are.

A close-up long take following the note passed through a crowd, leading to this daunting low angle.

The only scene that might exceed this one though is the second and final long take which immediately follows, though rather than moving with the action, it is instead planted statically in the dark, wet streets outside. Like McAra before him, the ghost writer is not even given the mercy of his death being depicted onscreen, and as such is effectively reduced to a non-entity. Though his violent murder takes place in full view of the public, there is an unsettling recognition that not even this will threaten the position of those pulling the strings. For what feels like the first time, we notice that Desplat’s dynamic score is entirely gone, and is replaced with the quiet fluttering of McAra’s revelatory, unpublished manuscript pages being carried away on the breeze. Much like the gold in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, these small pieces of world-changing significance are lost to a world that doesn’t realise their value, and are ultimately rendered as meaningless as the lives lost bringing them to light.

A chilling final shot, laying one last twist on us in the final seconds with barely a word spoken or beat of music.

The Ghost Writer is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Incendies (2010)

Denis Villeneuve | 2hr 10min

There are shocking family secrets buried within the Marwan family history that are enough to make your skin crawl. Even more chilling is just how obscured they are – no one living or dead really knows the whole truth until the puzzle pieces come together in the present day, revealing a devastating reality entwined with the very being of its parents and descendants. Simply the process of uncovering these fragments of history is a hefty task unto itself, seeing twins Jeanne and Simon travel back to their deceased mother’s home country in the Middle East so they may deliver letters to a father they didn’t realise was still alive, and a brother they never knew they had. Incendies in English translates to ‘Fires’, plural, but as Denis Villeneuve drives his gripping narrative towards a moment of truth, each of these tiny mysteries coalesce into something far more singular than anyone might have predicted.

Though it is the children who peel back the layers of the past, it is their mother, Nawal, who we stick with for much of the film. Her character is based partially on real-life figure Souha Bechara, a Lebanese communist militant who attempted to assassinate Antoine Lahad, the prominent leader of the South Lebanese Amy. Parallels aren’t drawn too heavily given the creative licence present, and so the Middle Eastern nation in this story goes unnamed, with only the fictional Daresh being named as the city that Nawal must escape from after a civil war breaks out. Right from the start, we recognise her life as truly harrowing – her lover is murdered, she is exiled from her family, her baby is forcibly taken, and this isn’t to mention her fifteen years of imprisonment during which she was raped by a guard.

Villeneuve skilfully weaves in these flashbacks throughout Jeanne and Simon’s search for their missing relatives, tracing paths through old neighbours, nurses, caretakers, and warlords who all seem to hold some piece of the puzzle. Chapter titles also serve to introduce new characters and locations, cleverly interacting with our assumed perspective at one point when we believe we are following Nawal’s son, Nihad, scavenging for food through bombed streets. Suddenly, the boy is shot, and we discover that the real Nihad is perched up in a building with a sniper rifle, training to kill for the Christian nationalists.

All through these flashbacks, Incendies doesn’t let up in its brutality. It is evident that Nawal is only able to get by on her own wits, but even that isn’t enough to save those around her as well. Though she disguises herself as a Muslim to escape a city on a bus, she quickly reidentifies as Christian after the vehicle is stopped by nationalists, and upon being let go free, she pushes her luck by pretending to be the mother of another’s child. Sadly, the young girl doesn’t possess the same self-control under dire circumstances. As the bus burns in the background, Villeneuve captures an affecting shot of Nawal’s profile in the foreground, set against the orange flames and black smoke, and suffering through a tremendous grief.

Given the scope of a single life that Villeneuve covers in Incendies, it is also appropriate for him to blow it up in scale as well, and through the abundant helicopter shots capturing urban and rural landscapes, the widespread harshness of it all sets in. Tied to that harshness is a tragedy that is as equally extensive, and between the two there is a symbiotic relationship, allowing them to feed off each other across war zones and within individuals. As much as Jeanne and Simon would like to believe the conflict of their mother’s past was a case of inherently bad men and victims with pure souls, the lines are revealed to be blurrier and far more disturbing than they would like to believe. The characters of Incendies contain remarkable depths, hidden not just to others, but to themselves as well, and it is only when they are brought light that anyone can reckon with the true root of human suffering.

Incendies is currently streaming on SBS On Demand, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Certified Copy (2010)

Abbas Kiarostami | 1hr 46min

As a French antiques dealer known only as “She” wanders Tuscany with British writer James Miller, a transformation slowly takes place between the two. It isn’t purely visual, though we do begin to pick up on subtle changes in both Juliette Binoche and William Shimmell’s performances. It is more of a metaphysical shift, as if something in the air has moved around them. What starts as a friendly conversation between two intellectual strangers picking each other’s brains gradually becomes a fifteenth anniversary celebration between a husband and wife, sparring over the rifts that have widened between them over the years that have suddenly sprung into existence. Certified Copy might be able to be divided into two halves, but it isn’t so easy to pinpoint where one ends and the other begins.

For Abbas Kiarostami, the thin gap between fiction and reality has always been woven deeply into the fabric of his films, as has his affinity for naturalistic performances and pragmatic cinematography. Certified Copy may initially seem to be not so different. At first it could be read as an alternate version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, studying the burgeoning affection between a pair of romantic intellectuals through long tracking shots and eloquent dialogue. Miller’s recent book theorising that artistic copies and originals aren’t so different from each other is a matter of friendly debate in these scenes, and it is a testament to Kiarostami’s screenplay that such theorising still feels so loaded with emotional intrigue between both characters.

The architecture of Tuscany makes for some beautiful compositions as our couple wind through its stony streets and buildings. Very much influenced by Richard Linklater’s Before films.

Eventually though, these high-minded discussions give way to a copy of their own. The strange period of time which exists between the two ends of this narrative is confounding in its formal shifts, setting up key character and narrative points before swapping them out piece by piece. Kiarostami’s sleight of hand is magnificently subtle, in one scene letting Miller tell a story of the disconnection he once witnessed between a woman and her son many years ago, before She hints that he is talking about her. If they just met, this isn’t at all possible, but soon enough even more contradictions arise that back it up. Miller’s monolingualism disappears to reveal that he in fact speaks French, thereby sharing a language with She, and references to “my child” soon become “our child”.

Are She and Miller merely hypothesising what their lives might be like if they were actually married? Or is the meeting at the start really the lie, meaning they have been together this whole time? If we were to take Miller’s word for it, the differences may be negligible, and both are equally valid. The comparisons to Before Sunrise eventually lead into Before Midnight parallels, where marital arguments erupt from micro-aggressions and silences simmer with mutual frustration. As Kiarostami skilfully and imperceptibly folds two realities in on each other, he continues to ponder the same questions that Miller posed earlier, though in a far more indirect manner. How can a copy lend us a better understanding of its original? Aren’t all artistic renderings a copy of something? And by that logic, must an original necessarily be more or less valuable than the copies it spawns?

For the most part, Kiarostami fights off the temptation to conform to shot/reverse shot editing in dialogue-heavy scenes by instead tracking his camera in long takes through Tuscan buildings and streets, where ancient and modern architecture co-exist. Reflections of our couple are frequently caught in windows and mirrors, creating visual facsimiles that continue to call back to their earlier discussions. In his layering of copies on top of other copies, we are forced to both confront the distance of these characters from reality and, at the same time, accept the emotional authenticity of what we are presented with.

Reflections in mirrors and windows – visual copies of people, who themselves are copies of the truth.

Even when Kiarostami does resort to cutting between both She and Miller in static compositions, the staging is rarely so inert as to be unengaging. In some of their most integral conversations they are shot centre-frame, visually cut off from each other, though also gazing directly into the camera. Again, there is a duality baked right into the formal construction of these scenes, delivering two alternate perspectives of their fifteen-year marriage which has seemingly manifested out of nothing, and yet also appears fully formed in its depth and complexity.

Newlyweds used as a running motif through She and Miller’s journey. Notice the reflection of another bride in the upper left corner – duplicates are subtly present everywhere in Kiarostami’s mise-ens-cène.

In one close-up shot of Miller sitting across a restaurant table from his now-wife, a wedding party is being prepared in its background, setting up a striking contrast with the heated words spilling out in front of the camera. In fact, newlyweds basking in the excitement of marriage can be found dotted all along our passage through Tuscany, and an older couple even takes the time to offer She and Miller some marital advice during a friendly stroll. We may recognise these people as embodying the “real” thing, but they don’t exhibit nearly the same amount of complexity and detail as the two facsimiles at the centre of it all. Copies She and Miller may be, but this is not to the detriment of these compellingly malleable characters, who can barely settle on a single version of objective reality. To Kiarostami, such is the nature of our deepest relationships that they can feel freshly original and frustratingly repetitive at the same time, and it shouldn’t be a huge leap to accept both as equally valid truths.

This is how to make shot/reverse shot interesting. Great framing of both characters, especially in setting Miller against a wedding party being set up outside the window.
A lovely frame as this scene ends, bringing the wedding into focus as She and Miller leave with flowers running along the bottom of the shot.

Certified Copy is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan | 2hr 28min

No doubt a landmark of visual effects, but even if all of these were taken out (and I would hate to imagine doing so), Inception would still be Christopher Nolan’s greatest achievement in mise-en-scène. He had already established himself as a master of experimental narrative form by this point, and he continues to demonstrate that here in exploring the internal dream worlds of his characters through a nesting doll-like structure. But it wasn’t until he combined this with the sort of epic, ambitious visual style he first fully displayed in The Dark Knight that he became a generation-defining filmmaker, shaking the world with this mind-bending exercise in sheer imagination.

Clean, luxurious architecture and lighting. No doubt Nolan’s most beautiful film to date.

The lighting and set dressing of Nolan’s interiors are as sharply arranged as ever, announcing themselves loudly right from the start in a conference room lit by rows of hanging lanterns and translucent golden walls, providing a sullen backdrop to the meeting between Cobb and Saito. The two men and their surroundings are reflected in a giant, glass table, consuming them in this sleek, angular modernist architecture which continues to define the rest of the film’s luxurious aesthetic. It also helps us through some stretches of exposition, demonstrating the complex rules of the dream world in practical, reality-bending illusions not unlike those that Stanley Kubrick innovated in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kubrickian illusions, bending reality to create action sequences unlike anything else in modern cinema.

Nolan doesn’t stop there though. The epic establishing shots of Inception are among the best of his career, if not the decade, and the fact that this narrative just keeps moving from one expansive, detailed setting to the next gives him the perfect opportunity to keep building fully-detailed worlds in large-scale compositions. A military fortress on a snowy mountainside, a high-end hotel, an empty, crumbling city – as disparate as these locations are, Nolan continues to bind them all together with the parallel editing he has always possessed such a fine control over, and yet up until this point had never executed nearly as well.
 
The “kick” is an especially effective conceit that allows his intercutting to reveal the interactions between each dream layer, whereby obstacles in one echo further down the line. Nolan draws a direct line of impact from a car falling off a bridge, to a weightless fight in a hotel corridor, and further along to an avalanche erupting from a mountaintop, formally earning his set pieces by establishing the interconnectedness between them. On top of this, Nolan demonstrates the variable progression of time between each dream layer in playing out some of these set pieces in gorgeous slow-motion, stretching and manipulating time to let some plot threads take a backseat while new ones emerge, and eventually wrap back up in reverse order.

Gorgeous slow-motion, stretching and compressing time between parallel narrative threads.

Just as the smaller, more personal narrative thread concerning Cobb’s deceased wife, Mal, serves the larger story in making his unresolved trauma a constant threat to his team’s mission, so too does it bring personal stakes to the act of inception, revealing the catastrophic damage that can be done in altering others’ subconscious. Nolan hasn’t always poised the personal against the epic so masterfully, but when he strikes that balance we get something just as moving as it is dazzling. As the growing number of plot threads of Inception emerge and intertwine, Nolan continues to keep his surreal vision of worlds existing within worlds all under precise control, thereby crafting the sort of imaginative, ambitious cinematic concept that only he could have pulled off.

Rows upon rows of golden lights in this beautiful opening set piece.

Inception is currently available to stream on Netflix Australia, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.