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prevenge

No. 22 –Prevenge  (Alice Lowe, 2016)

I saw Prevenge as part of the London Film Festival with a Q&A with Alice Lowe because I lead a hideously exciting life. Horror films often benefit from the shared experience of the cinema crowd, and this occasion, in a crowded Odeon full of Lowe-aficionados, was no different. Alice Lowe occupies a strange position in British culture – you may recognise her from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, her frequent appearances on The Mighty Boosh, or her most high profile role, as star and co-writer of the dark, strange, humorous Sightseers. Though more likely, you don’t know her at all.

Lowe is at the foreground of the 1970s-influenced cult comedy revival, all English eccentricity, slightly out of step and out of time, defiantly mundane and unglamorous with occasional flashes of gore and folklore – as though their youth was spent flicking between The Wicker Man and Alan Partridge (think League Of Gentlemen, Ben Wheatley, Julia Davis, Matt Berry). Alice Lowe is a favoured collaborator with much of this scene, frequently popping up as grotesques and naifs, performing with a deceptive intelligence and lack of vanity. But rather than being stuck as “the token woman” in these groups, or turning her sensibilities to the mainstream in the mould of Sally Phillips or Jessica Stevenson, Lowe is forging her own path.

Horror and comedy are frequent bedfellows, which is unfortunate because they usually make a terrible mix. The successes (Shaun Of The Dead, The Evil Dead, What We Do In The Shadows) are far outweighed by the failures (Scary Movies, Lesbian Vampire Killers, any Nightmare On Elm Street sequel). Either the attempts at humour castrate the horror, or the horror makes the jokes fall flat, or, more usually, both. But Lowe has been operating in this arena with a deft touch for many years, and her work doesn’t need to hold the hands of the small but passionate following. It’s not necessarily a matter of “getting the joke”, but having faith in the material, which often features hints of the surreal, the uncanny and the ambiguous. Prevenge, Lowe’s directorial debut, is another confident example of her very specific sense of humour and sense of story, darkly funny, surprisingly brutal, and at times psychological and philosophical. Plus it has a catchy elevator pitch: pregnant serial killer.

Of course, that undermines the complexities of Lowe’s film. Lowe plays Ruth, a deadpan, sullen woman who is hearing the voice of her unborn child commanding her to kill. With Lowe’s comedy background, you might suspect a sketch drawn painfully into feature length, but Lowe has made something more unsettling and tragic, both emotionally and physically visceral, but not lacking in dark, laugh out loud moments. The narrative unwinds in unexpected ways, filled with flashbacks and visions, culminating in something between a sensitive mediation on grief and the Alien franchise. It takes its time to reveals answers to its mysteries – why Ruth is killing, what happened her baby’s father, what happens when the baby is born. The film has faith in the audience’s ability to join the dots without spelling things out or a Psycho-esque exposition at the end.

Pregnancy is a familiar feature in the horror genre – either symbolically as a body horror (the Alien chestburster being the most famous example), or as an expression of vulnerability (see Rosemary’s Baby, Inside, Village of the Damned). Usually, our pregnant heroine is being terrorised – in Prevenge, Lowe’s character is the aggressor. Even by cinema’s standards, horror is a male-dominated genre, and the titles listed above are all directed by men. Prevenge demonstrates that a female perspective on pregnancy in horror has been sorely missed. Lowe, herself seven months pregnant during the 11 day shoot, drew upon her own experiences – the unspoken fears and external pressures she experienced, the loss of her own identity, and the shame she was made to feel for expressing that she had other concerns than the supposedly all-consuming business of being a mother.

Even post-partum, motherhood can have a strange performative quality, as parents compete about how much their child is sleeping, the milestones they achieve earlier than average, how quickly they’ve taken to motherhood. In reality this is often a mask to disguise how they are struggling in private. Prevenge subverts this – Ruth tenderly kisses her victims on the forehead after their deaths, and at one point gently guides one victim’s neglected, ailing mother back to bed before doing some light housework that the victim had been ignoring, a perverse display of kindness (which reads as very funny in context). She keeps a “Baby’s first” scrapbook, but it is filled with details of her prey. Similarly, Ruth is playing the grieving widow, but characters allude to her tumultuous relationship. We all perform a role, one way or another.

Ruth’s victims are often wonderfully horrible – populated with British comedy’s favourite grotesques, like Dan Skinner’s slimy pet shop owner and Tom Davis’ odious pub DJ, puking into his afro wig before sticking his tongue down Ruth’s throat. Kayvan Novak plays it fairly straight as a suspicious climbing instructor who repeatedly escapes Ruth’s attacks. It’s easy to stay on Ruth’s side while she cuts down a role call of arseholes. But her other victims seem largely harmless, not least the friendly flatmate of another target who Ruth reluctantly kills to protect her identity. Ruth herself is not someone we celebrate for acting out her revenge fantasies. She is at times barely likeable, but Lowe allows glimpses of humanity and conflict to peer through, rendering her a compelling figure, insofar as we actually get to know Ruth.

She appears in a number of disguises throughout the film – middle class mum, ambitious business woman and aggressive charity worker – but clearly struggles with the role of “mother”. The Pregnancy Industrial Complex insists that motherhood subsumes every woman’s identity, instead becoming a serene, watery-eyed earth mother. Witness Ruth’s primal scream at the yoga class, a scene which comes unexpectedly amidst the killings, and embodies the conflict within Ruth. Pregnancy is hell, and not enough people are willing to admit that. Ruth is more at ease playing her murderous characters, even practising scary expressions in her hotel room, mimicking an old black and white movie.

Ruth as herself interacts most regularly with her NHS midwife, played with incredible sycophancy by Jo Hartley. She is at once patronisingly reassuring, telling Ruth that baby knows best, and coldly threatening, warning Ruth that she will need to contact social services if Ruth keeps having dark thoughts. Everyone treats pregnant women like they’ve lost their mind, slaves to hormones and mood swings, and while we have become marginally more sympathetic towards postnatal depression, there remain embarrassingly low diagnosis rates of prenatal depression, an equally serious condition usually dismissed as the “pregnancy blues” (whatever they are). Ruth is going through a legitimate crisis, but no one believes her. “You have no control over your mind or body any more,” her midwife tells her. And that’s the crux of the film. Lowe has made a funny, dark and surprisingly moving horror, demonstrating precisely the value of new and underrepresented perspectives in filmmaking. Prevenge could very easily have been a hacky gorefest, but Lowe’s intelligent filmmaking has made something much more durable and compelling. Happily, after bouncing around the festival circuit for much of the past year, Prevenge will go on general release in February 2017, though perhaps it would have been better to wait until Mother’s Day.

 

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No. 21 –Viva (Anna Biller, 2007)

So far in this project, I’ve watched some good films, some interesting films, some disappointing films and some legit travesties. Viva is the first film that I really loved. And I really loved it. Like, run out and buy the dvd loved it. Like, drag my boyfriend in from another room and force him to watch clips on youtube loved it. Like, stress about the terrible ineffective ineloquent blog post I’m about to write about it loved it. I’m not sure what I could write that would live up to the beauty and fabulousness of this film. So let’s see how this turns out…

Viva is an extraordinarily dedicated recreation of the 1970s sexploitation movies with a feminist twist. Written, directed and starring Anna Biller, she demonstrates an eye for mise-en-scene that makes Wes Anderson look like an underachieving house painter. Biller plays Barbi, a bored wife recently fired as a secretary for refusing to give it up to her sleazy boss, who undertakes a journey of sexual awakening. Her psychedelic adventures, full of wife swapping, nudist camps and orgies are kitschy more than kinky, and cheeky rather than hardcore, but underneath there’s a chill. Biller’s mission statement is to engage the sexploitation format from a woman’s perspective, with all the dangers that entails. After all, the sexual revolution was far more successful for men than women, who are still fighting the same slut/prude labels to this day.

Barbi is a passive personality, eager to escape mundane suburbia by playing whatever role a more commanding influence suggests. We see her first lounging with her neighbours, blushing as her more daring neighbour Sheila flicks through a copy of Playboy, then talked into a modelling shoot by Mark, Sheila’s lascivious husband. Barbi’s husband Rick is loving but aloof, and often away on business, leaving Barbi to the mercy of her curiosity and attempts to engage wither own desires. Egged on by Sheila, who wants a rich older man who will buy her things, Barbi gradually explores her sensual power, firstly as a model, then recruited as a prostitute, rechristening herself as the cool, confident, liberated Viva.

All of which sounds quite sordid and heavy, but the film is hugely enjoyable. Aside from the look of the film, which is filled with rich colours and extraordinary sets, the film’s dialogue and characters are a frothy delight. Think men in moustaches and speed suits, camp leering at nudist colonies and swinging orgies, Swedish musclemen popping over to borrow sugar and bizarre music interludes dedicated to fine whiskey. Jared Sanford in particular is a joy as the sleazy Rick, all wide eyes and wider lapels. The language is stagey and the acting mannered to the point of wooden, evidence of the film’s dedication to authentically recreating the amateurish sexploitation performances rather than a reflection of the talents of Biller’s cast. There’s little wonder that some people view Biller’s film as a satire on 1970s kitsch.

But there is a more subversive edge to Viva. Dazzled as we are by the look of the film, and the snickering enjoyment of scenes with nudist colonies and camp hairdressers, and the musical number where Sheila frolics with a white horse while shilling whiskey, there are moments – accurate to the sexploitation genre – that turn the stomach of the modern viewer. One encounter sees Barbi drugged and waking up beside another man. Later in the film she is explicitly raped by a partner she has repeatedly refused to sleep with until she is ready, leading to one of the most striking sequences in the film, as the camera’s focus switches back and forth between Barbi’s face and black-red apples in time with her breath, followed by a nightmarish, psychedelic animation of apples and kaleidoscopic imagery, then back to Viva’s face as blood runs down the camera. She wakes up surrounded by naked bodies and leaves, appalled – not what at she did, but that she wasn’t able to do it on her terms. And then the film moves on, and the audience is expected to move on too (as the 1970s viewers would have), but something lingers, not only in us, but in Barbi. None of the men she encounters are any better than her boss at the start of the film. No matter how liberated she is, Barbi is still vulnerable to the whims of men, and their prioritising their own desire over her well-being. Even her husband rejects her after the attack.

Barbi is an unusual character for a protagonist. At first she seems like an innocent, but there’s more to it than that. She has a deliberate blankness (recalling Catherine Deneuve’s character in Belle Du Jour), peacefully existing as a wife and secretary until her husband and boss let her down in different ways. Her attempts at exploring freedom and experiencing pleasure beyond the social norm are similarly disappointing due to the greed of her sexual partners, and so she returns to Rick and their suburban life but now she is cynical and silent, observing her companions with a raised eyebrow and a contemptuous look. Finally we see Barbi preparing for a musical performance, and it’s a celebration that she is at last able to tell her own story in her own terms, but as ever, there’s an undercurrent, as Barbi is fussed over by her male producers. A woman’s sexuality is only acceptable if it can be commodified for the benefit or titillation of men.

All of which makes Viva sound as harrowing a watch as Irréversible. This is entirely untrue. Viva is fizzy and decadent and witty, Biller cleverly playing with irony and meta-humour and just plain silliness. Mark happily exclaims at one point, “there’s never been a better time to be a man,” adding, practically to camera, “enjoy it – it will never happen again.” Rick and Barbi’s biggest fight ends with him flamboyantly, awkwardly exiting with altogether too much skiing gear. And the frequent references to White Horse Whiskey, who is Biller’s 1970s world is clearly funding the film.

Biller objects to the idea that Viva is a sexploitation spoof. We watch with an ironic eye, but Biller in sincere in her love for this era of cinema, its aesthetic and technical styles (the film was made on sound stages with era-appropriate sound recording), and further, Biller is sincere in her concern for Barbi’s journey and her suspicion of the “freedom” of the sexual revolution. Pleasingly, Biller has released her follow-up this year, The Love Witch, an equally lush production with hints of the occult. Hopefully it won’t be so long before Biller makes another film, because we need filmmakers like her. Anna Biller is something special.

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No. 20 – The Invitation (Karyn Kusama, 2015)

I find it very difficult to write about things I love. My passion is very ineloquent. I want to be expressive and enthusiastic, but instead it becomes a dull stream of “that was good, that was good too, it was really good.” On that note, please anticipate next week’s film, which I love love LOVED. Now, onto this. Writing about things you didn’t like is far easier.

Karyn Kusama is a very good filmmaker. Girlfight got excellent notices and Jennifer’s Body is hugely underrated. I wish I had watched Girlfight for the first time, or Jennifer’s Body again. But I didn’t. I watched The Invitation. The Invitation is not a very good film. And I really wanted to like it. It had a lot of potential, and it also had Emayatzy Corinealdi, so luminous in Middle Of Nowhere. And I love films about cults, which I understood this to be from the synopsis, though the film seemed to forget it from time to time. We are very forgiving to low budget films starring non-professional actors with people working together, trying their best with limited resources and still making a pile of shit. When a bunch of experienced LA-based movie professionals do the same and fumble so badly, it’s frustrating. So I’m not feeling particularly charitable.

Logan Marshall-Green as Will, looking like Tom Hardy in Khal Drogo cosplay, drives his new girlfriend, Emayatzy Corineald as Kira, who will have no lines until the last 15 minutes, to dinner with his ex-wife Eden and other friends. On their way, they hit a coyote which Will must then euthanize (with a tyre hammer). (Incidentally, this blog post is dedicated to all the wild animals who are hit by cars in films to make a strained metaphor about the driver being like a lamb to the slaughter.) Eden and Will separated after the death of their young son, and Eden has turned to a vague, new-agey movement called The Invitation to help her through her grief, guided by her new partner David. Will is suspicious of the group and their unsubtle attempts to recruit the rest of the guests, and while initially his friends are embarrassed by his hostility, his suspicions about their nefarious purpose is proven correct.

Will has an almost preternatural sense for danger – insisting on walking one departing guest to her car to ensure her escape, arguing about Eden and David locking them in for safety, intuiting their drinks have been poisoned. The film initially does a reasonable job of making his caution seem like paranoia, but the film is too dry for it to be effective. There are too many characters that we struggle to differentiate so it’s hard to understand who’s on Will’s side, who’s angry, who’s a stranger. Lines seem randomly allocated with no thought to vérité or character – one character says he knows a lot of people who’ve done The Invitation, then a few minutes later asks for more information like he’s never heard of it. Tommy and Miguel transpire to be partners, though this isn’t obvious until close to the end of the film. Most of the characters are basically incidental, which is good because none of them stand out in any way, apart from Michelle Krusaic’s Gina who makes a valiant effort to inject some personality into her character. (There’s an examination to be made of Hollywood’s Asian female actresses, who will at some point all play characters called Gina, Amy and May, because creativity is dead.) Gina’s boyfriend, Choi, begins essentially as Poochie from The Simpsons – whenever Choi isn’t on screen, the other characters are constantly asking “where’s Choi?”, building up masses of intrigue about this character who, when he arrives, is…just another guy.

It’s strange looking back at the film. When considering the plot and various elements, it sounds so promising. There are elements that sound so strong as concepts but in practise fall flat – Will and Eden’s bereavement is more meandering melancholy than relevant to the story, intriguing as the idea of the death of a child driving a mother to a manipulative cult may be. The appearance of a mysterious group at the door suggests an interesting sideplot that ties into the (weak) end twist, but the film ends up retaining focus on our dull bourgeois dinner party. There’s huge potential for a horror film based around the cult of wellness and mindfulness, and Karyn Kusama could well be the director to make it. But the script, so first draft-y and, well, basic, gives the film such weak foundations that the rest of the production struggles to overcome it. Just when things look like they might get interesting, the whole things deflates again. It confuses long stretches of repeating ideas and people making small talk for building tension. The last thirty minutes, where action starts happening, displays Kusama’s skill as a director, but the effect is diminished because of what has gone before. One of the significant players is a character we know nothing about and I had forgotten existed, and the villains are so irritating that by the time they start being threatening, they’ve lost their sense of danger. It’s not that the film is bad, per se. Lots of films are bad, and continue to be extremely entertaining. The Invitation is boring, which is unforgivable. Top tip: watch Jennifer’s Body instead.

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No. 17 – The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears (Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani, 2013)

Sometimes when I’m watching films for this project, I’m so inspired that I’m dying to get writing about it. And other times, I struggle to find an angle to drag out a few paragraphs (I’m looking at you, Desperately Seeking Susan). And then there’s The Strange Colour Of Your Body’s Tears, where I need to turn off all electrical equipment and sit in a darkened room for a while, because I have no clue how to write about this film. Though it does make me feel uneasy in a darkened room.

Dan returns from a business trip to find his wife Edwige missing. He asks around the building and is invited to the seventh floor where a veiled woman tells him how her husband also disappeared after being lured upstairs by strange screams and murmurs, then seemingly being murdered, which she partially witnesses by peeping through a hole he had drilled in their bedroom ceiling. Frustrated, Dan leaves and encounters a naked woman called Laura. The next day he is visited by a suspicious police inspector. This is the last point where the film seems to be interested in making any narrative sense. After that, it’s a free-for-all, with acres of possible hallucinations, hidden rooms and mysterious strangers that emerge in a visually stunning kaleidoscope of moments, few of which seem to relate to (what we thought was) the story before it became apparent that the story was not really worth thinking about. This film is to be experienced, more than understood.

The film clearly has its roots in the Giallo movement, even lifting some of its soundtrack from European horror classics. A number of brutal scenes are rendered irresistible by the astonishing production design. Knife wounds and pools of blood become erotic, their beauty almost dissolving the horror. There is a fetishistic aspect to many of the images, a nipple being teased and threatened by a knife blade, the slick leather gloves of the killer, a man’s naked torso being caressed and tortured with broken glass. Even better is the sound design, the metallic vring of knives being traced along their victim’s flesh, the deep squeak of leather, the heavy wooden roar of furniture being dragged across the floors. The woman upstairs tells her story in an eerie croak, the film suggesting she screamed herself near-mute. Dan’s door buzzer rings interminably through one sequence, to the point of audience distress, as he gets caught in a loop and seems to be spying on himself. Voyeurism recurs throughout the film, with numerous shots of eyes peering through cracks or widening in horror. The characters watch and observe each other without making any meaningful connection – Dan’s voicemails to Edwige go unheard. He follows a lead to a man who admits to travelling through the false walls in the building to live in the apartments of tenants on holiday, but will only speak to Dan through a closed door. The apartments are gloriously designed, the best and brightest of 1970s kitsch florals and dizzying geometric shapes, mustards and reds that distort and confuse the eye. We get lost within the apartment as the walls seem to curve, which is appropriate given the number of false walls and hidden rooms revealed throughout the story, and the scenes of characters hiding behind wallpaper or tearing down the walls to get at the labyrinthine space within.

There is no question that the husband and wife team of Cattet and Forzani are stylish, exhibiting impressive knowledge of cinematic history and enough of their own perspective to twist their references into something unique and memorable. But such strong imagery alone becomes somewhat tiresome when the promising narrative dissolves in favour of a succession of striking but eventually repetitive shots. Perhaps this would be less frustrating without the first twenty minutes setting up a genuinely intriguing mystery (Dan and Edwige’s apartment locked from the inside, the tenants who resist answering his questions, the inspector who suspects Dan but reveals that his own wife is missing). Leaving the plot not only unanswered but essentially ignored seems less like a bravura choice than a missed opportunity. It almost seems that the directors were too enamoured by their mise-en-scene to engage with their story, and you can only imagine how incredible the film would be if they had maintained the narrative tension alongside their aural and visual skills. It’s clear that there is a narrative thread in the film, but myself and many more qualified writers are unanimous in their inability to parse the film. The clues are there – something underlying about isolation, with characters communicating by voicemail, speaking through doors, and repeatedly seeming to have a clear connection with each other but refusing to get involved (Dan’s anger at the old woman’s story despite it seeming to provide clues about Edwige’s disappearance, the squatter knowing about the building’s hidden interiors but refusing to assist Dan). Perhaps the walls within walls represent Edwige’s hidden desires, the intrigue of doppelgangers (a threatening voicemail is revealed to be not a man but his wife, slowed down for a deeper tone, and one review counts the appearance of four different Lauras) tying in with her supposed new identity, itself echoes in the drawing of his wife being revealed as a copy of the painting in the infamous Apartment L.  There’s no doubt that Cattet and Forzani have something in mind, but their film is too dense to reveal it, and the directors clearly want it that way. Maybe the greatest clue lies in the doubling of the film’s title. In the English version, it’s ambiguous as to whether it means “tears” like crying or “tears” like wounds, though the original French confirms the former. However, the film’s end reveals another new title without explanation – “L’étrange douleur des larmes de ton corps”, or “The strange pain of your body’s tears”. Not that it explains things either.

 

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No. 14 –Amour Fou (Jessica Hausner, 2014)

For all the vitriol thrown at the monolith of Europe lately, I thought it was worth considering a more positive tradition, of European cinema. The concept doesn’t really exist, when you consider the diversity between auteurs like Spain’s Almodovar, Sweden’s Bergman, and France’s Godard, and yet we all have a clear idea of what European cinema is – character driven, inherently political, often dense and incoherent to the casual viewer, plus subtitles and tits. After a while, you can draw each country’s cinema in broad strokes – Britain’s kitchen sink dramas, France’s nouveau vague, Scandinavian psycho-dramas – though this is reductive once you look in detail (Ken Russell, Jean Cocteau, Roy Andersson). But I don’t have a stereotypical notion of Austrian cinema.

In some ways, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is typical of European cinema, sort of. The story is ambiguous, the tone challenging and ever-changing, and it does not make things simple for its audience. Long stretches go by where characters talk about contemporary political details, which may not have even been significant at the time, let alone hold any relevance now. The film even looks like a stage play, the camera still and rarely moving, many shots recalling a Vermeer painting. It’s perhaps most surprising that it’s a historical picture, and based on a true story, albeit one not well known outside of German literature. Though we anglocentric viewers think BBC Sunday nights have a monopoly on historical stories, there is a significant legacy of European cinema looking to the past for its biggest box office success – post-war Germany understandably didn’t want to spend much time watching contemporary films. One of the most successful European films is another Austrian history tale, 1955’s Sissi, starring Romy Schneider. But Amour Fou is stranger, dryer, and holds its subjects in lower esteem. At times, the film almost seems to be a parody of its strange tale.

Henriette is a dull woman, who leads a bland life as a wife and mother in early 1800s Berlin, happy to consider herself her “husband’s property” in the age of politeness. Most people find her silly and uninteresting – her attempts to engage with political discourse at dinner parties are met with a dismissive silence, and her husband and mother dismiss the stories she excitedly recounts. At one party, she meets the author of one of these stories, a gloomy young poet called Heinrich von Kliest, who find her to be a kindred spirit, or at least a malleable one. He is particularly depressed of late because his cousin Marie refuses to commit suicide with him. After a few encounters, Heinrich asks Henriette if she will kill herself with him instead, reasoning that her life is loveless and mediocre, which she denies. Henriette then finds herself similarly infected with melancholy and as her condition fails to improve, her doctor diagnoses her with a terminal illness.

Heinrich’s entire identity is built around his melancholic nature, even rejecting Marie’s offer of a doctor because he boasts his sadness is too great for anyone to help. In contrast, Henriette takes on the identity of other people. Early in the film, she watches a performance by a famous singer, and tells her husband that she pities her for her fame, but later gives an awkward recitation of the same song to the polite bemusement of her audience. She is almost giddy when she first falls ill, finally having the concern of her mother and husband. Henriette’s attempts to assert an identity, even if it is an impersonation of someone else, are constantly stifled either by the men around her – her “decision” to kill herself alongside Heinrich is rejected because it is to avoid a slow death, rather than an overwhelming love for him– or by the bourgeois society she is trapped in, which Heinrich rails against. Their first attempt at their death pact is derailed when, after travelling to a secluded hotel together where he will first shoot her then himself, they encounter an acquaintance who implies that they are having an affair. The suggestion outrages Heinrich, but if they were about to die anyway, why should they care what people would think? But Heinrich is as culpable as the social norms he fights against – the appeal is that he would have such control over a person that he could talk them into death, and furthermore, he is to be the one to pull the trigger.

Usually, this historical romance has been told as a tale of great passion, from the point of view of the famous von Kliest, and this is often reflected in the reviews and synopses of Amour Fou. But Hausner flips the story on its head, portraying the events from Henriette’s perspective, depicting Heinrich as an awkward boob, and suggesting Henriette’s illness, usually accepted as legitimate in the historical records, as psychosomatic. Hausner fights to give Henriette’s story the attention that von Kliest always enjoyed – why should she be an afterthought in her own death? The director massages the details somewhat (though 200 years later, who knows what the details were?), and it plays at times like a cringe comedy, with Heinrich finally accepting Henriette’s offer to kill herself, deciding that her reasons for dying are acceptable because she is still choosing to die with him than live with her husband. Even their love is weirdly asexual – they don’t so much as kiss throughout the film, and Heinrich is mortified to have walked in on Henriette as she changes clothes.

In the background of all this, society argues about the new tax laws, thinking they give the poor and uneducated responsibility that they can not cope with. Similarly, a woman like Henriette is not expected to enjoy great passions. It is Heinrich’s story of a woman being raped and impregnated by a man in disguise who is revealed to be her lover that first transfixes Henriette, the story that her mother and husband mock and dismiss for its excessive emotions. She is clearly striving for something more than her current existence offers her, and it is Heinrich’s cack-handed proposal on the grounds that her life is meaningless that shocks her into melancholy. Believing her to be dying, her husband offers to step back and let her enjoy her “affair”, rather than making any attempt to connect with her. When news of their death breaks, her husband gets word that there was no tumour after all, and Henriette did not kill herself as a result of her sickness. “It was out of love after all,” he concedes. The audience can not be so sure.

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No. 13 –The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)

This is the third film from 2015 that I’ve watched in three weeks, and like Evolution and Mustang before it, the third time a film has been heralded as a triumphant comeback for a female director after a decade’s absence. Press reports attributed Jocelyn Moorhouse’s absence to time off caring for her children while her marginally-more prolific husband and frequent collaborator PJ Hogan continued directing. (Mustang’s Deniz Gamze Erguven and Evolution’s Lucile Hadžihalilovic both pointed out their absence was due to difficulties finding funding – in fact, Erguven was pregnant while she was filming – and this is not only a female issue, as auteurs like Spike Lee and Charlie Kaufman have turned to Kickstarter for funding assistance.) But I have no interest in drawing assumptions about mothers in the workplace. Rather I’ll simply affirm the concept of different strokes for different folks, as neither approach has prevented or any of these directors from making yet another cracking film.

The Dressmaker got something close to a savaging by reviewers – “tonally deranged” according to the good good people at the Financial Times. And I can sort of see why. This is a film people will despise or adore – it’s hard to imagine anyone being lukewarm on this festival of grotesque characters, preposterous twists and, sure, a fairly uneven tone. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone about any superhero movie, and Captain America never looked this good in knock-off Dior.

Tilly Dunnage returns from her international life as a dressmaker, to her grotty Australian hometown, ostensibly to care for her feral mother, but really wants to discover the truth behind her troubled childhood which saw her accused of murdering a schoolmate and removed from her home. Her reappearance initially scandalises the locals until they realise her skill with her Singer sewing machine. She costumes them in glorious and extravagant couture, in stark contrast to the dusty, insular little town and the population’s sordid secrets and hypocrisy. But Tilly’s talent doesn’t ingratiate her back into the community. Instead their shiny new façade convinces the townsfolk of their superiority to the murderess with the crazy mother, who live in the shack on the hill on the outskirts of town. Their confidence increases alongside their cruelty, but Tilly isn’t willing to take it lying down, especially once she uncovers the levels of deception and delusion that led to her ostracisation as a child.

Identity is at the heart of The Dressmaker, not just Tilly’s attempts to reclaim her past, and reawaken the tarnished mother/daughter relationship she left behind. The townsfolk themselves have recreated their history, from the cross-dressing police officer, to the mother of the murdered boy, who is kept in the dark about the details of her son’s fate, and the numerous witnesses who prefer to accept Tilly as a murderer than rock the boat with something so inconvenient as the truth. The film itself lurches between romance, comedy, drama and something akin to Jacobean revenge tragedy. Tilly’s first client is the dowdy Gert (Sarah Snook, who proved in 2014’s Predestination that she’s a master of transformation), who is besotted with the son of an upwardly mobile neighbour, and receives a spectacular makeover. As the film progresses, she becomes the groomed and refined Trudy (while Tilly constantly has to remind people she doesn’t go by Myrtle anymore) and gradually Trudy’s new social standing is reflected in her arrogant, sniffy attitude. It’s hard to ignore the class tensions throughout the film – Australia, like the UK, is built on a series of complex and frankly incomprehensible rules about social standing, what you can achieve, how far you are allowed to rise, and who is never allowed to transcend their past. People who live in shacks don’t get to be treated with dignity, no matter how long they worked for Balenciaga. It’s the old cliché of Tall Poppy Syndrome. When someone from a “low” standing achieves something, it’s not a time of celebration but a time to remind them where they came from, in case they get ideas above their station. The film criticises that attitude through mockery, which is the most powerful weapon to use against powerful people.

I do hate to cheapen this astonishingly informed and academic blog with shallow commentary, but Kate Winslet looks incredible in this film. As it should be, given that she’s a master seamstress with a background in Paris and a stopover with Balenciaga, but really. Half the time she’s on screen you have to remind yourself to listen to what she’s saying. And incidentally what she’s saying is in a pleasing accurate Australian accent. (Winslet has always done well in the southern hemisphere – see Heavenly Creatures or Hideous Kinky for a start.) Sure, there’s a problem where Liam Hemsworth (26), Sarah Snook (28) and Kate Winslet (40) are supposed schoolmates. But by my assessment, all the characters are meant to be 35-ish, so they’re all out of sync, thus cheap shots at Winslet are a bit unnecessary. And regardless, it would be hard to swap any of the cast (even Hemsworth, who is inoffensive in a role of an inoffensive man). It is a distraction, until another horrible character or flamboyant outfit appears, and all is forgiven.

At least the cast, regardless of age, all get the film and know exactly what tone to aim for, even if the audience has to put a bit of work in to catch up. But I always admire a film that doesn’t hold its audience’s hand and trusts you. The Dressmaker is a totally refreshing watch – beautiful with hidden depths, light but with a surprising emotional punch, and unpredictable, cutting like a razor just when it seems like it might lapse into sentimentality. And the clothes. Good Lord, the clothes.

desperately

No. 8 – Desperately Seeking Susan(Susan Seidelman, 1985)

I felt reasonably confident of what Desperately Seeking Susan was about. Some films you don’t need to see to have their number – Dirty Dancing won’t put Baby in the corner, Lethal Weapon’s too old for this shit. And Desperately Seeking Susan sees Madonna from off of the 80s dancing into Rosanna Arquette’s dreary life and shaking things up with wardrobe montages and sassy soundbites. Instead, it turns out that the lead characters in this pop-feminism don’t actually meet until late, late in the film, and only by the grace of the convoluted plot become friends rather than enemies, given that they end up sharing each other’s identities and, to some extent, beds.

Desperately Seeking Susan is totally nutty. Set in a New York where Douglas Sirk-style housewives follow newspaper announcements with the same vigour as soap operas. Roberta, bored and mostly alone apart from Julia Child, eagerly reads updates on the mysterious Susan, a free spirit who can only be reached through the personals ads. In a feeble attempt to sum up the plot, I’ll say Roberta ends up following Susan around town, buying her distinctive jacket from a thrift store, finding a locker key with Susan’s belongings, arranging to meet Susan to return it, suffering a head injury and being mistaken for Susan, and believing she must be Susan herself.  If there’s one thing an 80s comedy loves, it’s an amnesia plotline. But that’s not even including the murder by defenestration, the stolen Egyptian earrings, and the magician searching for a new assistant. If you’re confused now, imagine how long I’ve been googling to remind myself of the different plot lines.

I suppose my disappointment is rooted in my strong impression of the sort of film it was going to be. This is a) dangerous and b) my fault, and can result in occasions like the Crimson Peak incident (a whole separate blog post). But I was looking forward to a Thelma and Louise-esque ballad of sisterhood, with less homicide and more and cut off shirts. I wanted a slightly subversive, day-glo jaunt around contemporary NYC, punk haunts and vintage stores, club nights and adventure. And there is that, some of that, a bit of that, but it just drowns under the weight of the plot. The way to survive over-plotted movies is to sit back and just take in the atmosphere (I’m thinking basically any attempt to translate Raymond Chandler), but Desperately Seeking Susan can’t sit still long enough to allow you to take the opportunity. This film should have the merest sliver of a story. But can we really complain when an 80s studio film is too high-concept? This is the era that put robots in Rocky films.

More high-minded critics see this film as a remake of Celine And Julie Go Boating, which I think it precarious but possible. But this highlights precisely my issue with Seidelman’s film. Celine And Julie Go Boating is preposterous nonsense, but hung on the core of the strong friendship between the two main characters, building a good will that means we’re reading to follow them into all their adventures. It is subversive and naughty. Desperately Seeking Susan’s wackiness is based almost entirely in fashion. The opening credits follow Roberta as she is manicured and primped in a beauty salon, later followed by Susan’s low-key rinsing in the station bathroom. Susan abandons her distinctive jacket in exchange for studded boots, and Roberta can’t resist buying it, looking great in New York but out of place in her fancy home. “You bought a used jacket?” her husband asks, “what are we, poor?” Roberta’s attempts to mimic Susan are too successful, resulting in the mistaken identity and the amnesia, and the stint in the magic club. Roberta is trying on Susan’s skin. Susan ‘s wild fashion feels as comfortable in Roberta’s bourgeois suburban home as Roberta’s attempt stuck out. Even the film’s attempts at depth all centre around surface concepts.

Desperately Seeking Susan was a commercial hit and warmly received by critics. Rosanna Arquette won a BAFTA (in the supporting category, oddly enough) and it has remained a cult hit ever since. So where did Susan Seidelman go? She directed a few more knockabout 80s films, worked sporadically in television and made an Oscar nominated short. For all my hesitations about Desperately Seeking Susan, Seidelman does a fine job making a distinctive film, and it’s a shame she hasn’t yet enjoyed a similar opportunity. There’s always room for style in cinema, so long someone’s there to edit down the script.