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babadook

No. 23 – The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

I was tempted not to do The Babadook, largely because everything that could possibly have been written about it must have been by now. It’s one of the rare films – particularly horror films – to attain instant classic status. (Whether it stands the test of time remains to be seen – remember how loop-the-loop everyone was over Let The Right One In, as though it didn’t have that CGI cat scene?) But then it was Halloween and it had good reviews and I accidentally bought it on DVD a while back. And, well. Fuck it.

Amelia’s son Samuel is a handful. He was pretty bad before, full of youthful vigour bordering on irritating, but now, after the appearance of a mysterious pop-up book, she suspects he has been possessed by the spirit of its main character, the sinister Mr Babadook. Amelia is haunted by her own spirits, however, as she tries to tamp down her grief about her husband’s death as he drove her to the hospital to give birth. Sam’s very existence torments Amelia, and the summoning of Mr Babadook is just another misery motherhood has wrought.

As Prevenge suggested last week, motherhood is a common feature in horror films – see Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho, The Exorcist etc. But The Babadook explores a more taboo concept, turning mother against child. Even before Mr Babadook gets involved, Amelia is at her wit’s ends with her spirited child, and from the start of the film the audience is poised for the exhausted and harried Amelia to snap. Kent is not afraid to present Sam as an annoying little fucker at times, constantly demanding his mother’s attention and tearing the house up with unintentional carelessness. As unsettling as it is to see a mother driven to extreme levels of resentment and distrust of her own child, we can certainly believe how someone as fragile as Amelia could be driven to violence against Sam’s fervour. Amelia gets no breaks from motherhood – he bursts into her bedroom constantly, she has to peel him off her at his cousin’s birthday party. Once he is removed from school, she has no respite, causing her to fracture further. Meanwhile Sam tells her repeatedly that he will always be there to protect her – an honourable sentiment, but just another example of his suffocating love for her. (Full marks to whoever spots the Oedipal subtext – and note that Robbie, Amelia’s flirtatious co-worker who briefly acts as a father figure to Sam, doesn’t make a reappearance for a happy ending – it remains mother and son only…) But gradually, Kent winds back our assessment of Sam. As Amelia’s behaviour gets more erratic, we begin to view Sam as what he is – a vulnerable child, both terrified of and for his mother.

Amelia is at breaking point from the off, dressed in childlike pink dresses, watery-eyed and drawn. She is isolated and under attack from all sides – Sam’s school, her dismissive employers, fellow parents. The TV is constantly on, bombarding her with violent images, and as the film progresses, she compulsively flicks channels with seizure-like speeds. Her support system consists of her sister Claire, who is tired of Amelia’s inability to pull herself together. Amelia is surrounded by yummy mummys, all flashcards, organic food and silent judgement at Amelia’s failure to conform or achieve their façade of parental perfection. The scene where Amelia and Sam are expelled from Claire’s party is as horrifying as any of the jump scares. They raise pretty little girls. Amelia begs her doctor to give Sam tranquilisers. Mr Babadook is only one of many horrors of Amelia’s situation.

There is some question as to whether Mr Babadook is real. With his screaming fits and nightmares, is Sam as disturbed as the authorities seem to think? Or is Mr Babadook evidence of Amelia’s own breakdown? After all, she was a children’s book author before her husband’s death, and there is the potential for self-fulfilling prophecy when Amelia reads about the forthcoming horrors (not to be detailed, but let’s just say the dog doesn’t make it). Or perhaps in the world of the film, as the final scenes suggest, there really is a spooky-ooky kid’s book that unleashes a demon on its readers. But, overwhelmingly, the film explores the apparition as a metaphor for grief. Kent’s film isn’t particularly subtle with this subtext (if someone as dense as I can pick up on symbolism on the first watch, you know it’s not especially delicate) but it is an interesting perspective for the film to ignore. It’s unpredictable when the film appears to about one thing (motherhood – eek!) and is actually about another (bereavement – eek!), and if there’s a characteristic that should be rewarded in the horror genre, it’s unpredictability. So I didn’t mind being beaten in the face with meaning as it was interesting.

Amelia’s life appears externally manageable, but there are cracks within. She peels the wallpaper, finds a huge hole in the structure. Cockroaches pour out. Her life is full of wounds that no one else can see. “You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” the rhyme goes, and indeed Amelia and Sam don’t, instead keeping him in the basement and cautiously nurturing him. As with grief, if I even need to extrapolate. You don’t get over it, as so many people think (including Claire) – you just learn to live with it. The only real support Amelia receives is from their elderly neighbour, Gracie, who tells Sam about her Parkinson’s and seems relatively serene about the hard realities of life. Gracie is the only person who offers Amelia the space to grieve, acknowledging how hard Sam’s birthday, also the anniversary of the accident, is for her. Amelia sees the Babadook invade Gracie’s home, and yet, Gracie seems unharmed – perhaps because she has embraced death as another part of life.

I can see why The Babadook has been such a success. It has a lot more psychological realness compared to so many horror films – as much of the terror comes from real life situations (Sam’s seizure, multiple scenes where it seems like Amelia will hurt him). And this wouldn’t have the same impact without the script and performances, which ensure we find Amelia and Sam’s circumstances compelling. The design elements too are gorgeous – German Expressionism is verging on a cliché for inspiration, but damn does it look good, particularly coupled with the handmade aesthetic of Mister Babadook’s familiars. In truth, the film is more sad than frightening, which makes it all the more effective – it lingers long after the film ends. Not unlike Mister Babadook himself.

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. 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.

foxfire

No. 19 –Foxfire (Annette Haywood-Carter, 1996)

There’s something very appealing about a group of girls. Not in real life, of course. They’re terrifying in real life. But in the media, a pack of feral girls getting up to mischief, stretching the limits of their burgeoning adulthood, scandalising their way out of social expectations of what it means to be a young woman. It makes good TV. I’m talking the Pink Ladies, Spice Girls, the Craft. The car full of maniacs in Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill. Female friendship is a potent force, and teenage girls hold a beguiling power that is often confused with sexuality. It’s not, really. Or if it is, it’s inward-looking, not for the benefit or titillation of anyone outside the group. It’s like they’ve just realised the world is theirs for the taking. And naturally, other people don’t like that.

Foxfire has existed in a couple of formats over the years. Obviously, the book was written by Joyce Carol Oates, an author so prolific that you can be forgiven for never hearing of this particular novel, and in 2012, a more faithful adaption by Laurent Cantet was released, which was very enjoyable. In 1996, Annette Haywood-Carter’s adaptation brought the story out of its 1950s setting (the heyday of girl gangs) and into the grungy, raging against the machine-era 1990s, to apathy and near-silence. In the past few years, the film has experienced a touch of cultish nostalgia, largely based around the early role for Angelina Jolie and, let’s face it, Angelina Jolie’s exposed breasts, though the topless scene in question is not particularly titillating (not that that would prevent the screengrabs of the Messrs Skin of this world). The updated setting works surprisingly well. The post-Riot girl and 90s neo-feminism suits the story, and the violent aspects seem more at home in the contemporary Midwest. There’s still something subversive about a group of 1950s schoolgirls engaging in car theft, kidnap, and gun threats. In the 1990s, it simply seems like an appropriate response to rise up against oppression.

Arty Maddie Wirtz’s life is disrupted by a beguiling drifter named Legs, who poses as a new student and interrupts their creepy science teacher’s class, and his torment of awkward Rita, by freeing the frogs from dissection, a scene which appeared in roughly two thirds of teen movies between 1987-1997 as shorthand for a character’s radical righteousness. The film does occasionally lapse into cliché, and occasionally nonsense (Rita as played by a young Jenny Lewis is supposedly the fat girl, despite…not being any bigger than any other character) but it is sincere. There is something refreshing about a teen move devoid of irony – sincerity is something of a lost artform when it comes to films aimed at a teen audience. (Although I’m not about the watch The Fault In Our Stars to disprove that.) Maddie and Rita encounter Legs in the bathroom, and alongside fellow outsiders Goldie the delinquent and Violet the whore, are convinced to exact revenge on the science teacher for his sexual harassment of Rita, with a plan as complex as beating the shit out of him. After that success, and then suspension, they establish a clubhouse in an abandoned building and share tattoos, booze and frustration at the world.

Their strange friendship provokes anger among the rest of the community, as they are menaced by a group of emasculated jocks and punished by their furious parents. Goldie in particular suffers at the hands of her abusive father, and sinks back into drug addiction. One attempt to escape the jocks’ threats leads to a car crash and Legs being sent to jail, and the whole Foxfire gang drifting apart. When Legs finally returns, she tries to reunite them to help Goldie, and they concoct another plan to kidnap Goldie’s father and hold him for ransom to get her help.

Foxfire is almost good, but weakened by its reluctance to explore its ideas, instead painting in broad strokes. Characters are defined by their types, and never grow beyond that. Their version of fighting the system reads mostly as teen angst, despite the serious topics at hand (including threats of rape, parental abuse, and the school ignoring claims of their teacher’s molestation). The film’s attempts at profundity aren’t really supported by the narrative. It acts as though the girls are fighting for a new world order when really they don’t manage to do much more than stick and poke tattoos and some civil disobedience (and accidentally setting the school on fire). Even the most interesting aspect of the story – that these girls are not friends per se, but outsiders forced together out of mutual desperation, and the tension this creates – is expressed like a brick to the head, with them arguing in one scene and sharing an unspoken link the next. The 2012 film does a much stronger job of demonstrating the gang’s gradual but solid bond, and how the town came to be so threatened by them. The 1996 film is a bit unbalanced, spending more time celebrating Legs’ exotic mystery and her impact on Maddie than building the group’s connection. While Maddie and Legs’ relationship is a vital part of the story (an implicitly romantic dynamic here, though explicit in other versions), at the core is the Foxfire girls, their different backgrounds and different moral codes, choosing to support each other, and the disintegration of that group. In this version, Legs recognises she can not fit in with the gang and drifts back into oblivion, having changed Maddie forever in that symbolic way that the character doing the voiceover is always changed by the mysterious stranger. It’s not particularly new or exciting, but nor is it unsatisfying. After all, it’s always fun to watch a gang of girls tear it up.

 

amour fou

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.

dressmaker

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.

jesus camp

No. 7 – Jesus Camp (Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, 2006)

I read a review of Jesus Camp that described it as hilarious to watch with a group, but deeply depressing to watch alone. That description is utterly accurate.

I watched it alone. Mostly, I felt terrible. Partly, I wondered how I would write about it without lapsing into lazy criticism of religious zealots, despite how often people act like clichés throughout the film. The documentary claims to have taken an unbiased approach to the activities of the Christian summer camp and its staff and attendees, and while, like previous subject West Of Memphis, its directors are entirely unobtrusive and off-camera, I couldn’t help wonder quite how selective the editing had been. And yet, and yet. Nothing in culture convinces me that Charismatic Christianity (all chanting and metaphors and raw emotions) is exaggerated by the film. Intentionally or otherwise, Jesus Camp will only reinforce the stereotypes.

The Jesus Camp itself comes fairly late in the film, which is instead framed by the election of Sandra Day O’Connor’s replacement to the Supreme Court, and the eventual choice of Samuel Alito, himself far more extreme than his moderate predecessor.  It is an appropriate metaphor for the significant split emerging throughout the US in the early 2000s, one that has only become more vivid in recent years. Throughout, a radio host challenges the views of religious extremists, and is the only voice of secular America we hear. The remainder of the film is filled with parents, children and Christian evangelicals. Yes, there are mullets.

Even before the camp, the film has the surreal edge of a mockumentary in places. A mother homeschools her son, where she guides him into an elegant refutation of evolution, wherein he states Galileo was right to turn him back on science and turn towards the Lord. The influence of the Spanish inquisition has somehow escaped from their textbook. A little girl approaches a bemused but polite woman at a bowling alley and gives her a pamphlet, later telling the cameras that God told her to do it. Another asserts how she loves to dance to Christian rock, but is worried that sometimes she dances more for herself than for the Lord. This is, of course, a sin. It is in this aspect that the film churns your stomach – not the religious beliefs, and not the sometimes screwing ways of expressing them, but in the youth of our protagonists, how vulnerable and malleable they seem. These kids, frequently in tears, are really fucking afraid of going to hell.

It’s not for me – or the documentary – to comment on whether such religious devotion gets in the way of children having a childhood. Certainly they seem to enjoy the camp at times, particularly during one laboured lesson on Government corruption which culminates in the children being invited up to smash mugs with a hammer. But who doesn’t want to smash something with a hammer? But even the moments of kids being kids comes with an asterix. Even if God isn’t watching their every move for the hint of sin, the camp staff certainly are. The boys’ bunk, enjoying a boisterous round of ghost stories after bedtime, is interrupted by one guardian, warning that while they might be having fun, God would want them to be truthful, which swiftly dampens the mood. And there’s something sickly at seeing young children being forced into complex and decidedly adult debates – how the Government is a corrupt force, the state of the nation under liberalism, and, naturally abortion (which is, to them, the murder of many possible friends). Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum (and this liberal Catholic feminist is choosing her words with care), it is uncomfortable to watch the range of emotions the children encounter – confusion during the abortion debate, passion when laying hands on a cardboard cut-out of then-President Bush, who, in fairness, did need the prayers, and, repeatedly, fear, despair and sorrow, with numerous scenes of the children sobbing to the point of incoherence, fearing damnation, ashamed of their sins, and told that before they can be forgiven, they will have to “simmer” first.

Regardless of your political or religious views, there’s no doubt the techniques on display are questionable. The kids chant repetitive truisms like “righteous judgement”, are lulled in by friendly pastors whose playful discussions of Harry Potter turn into fire and brimstone accusations of warlocks as enemies of God. The children confess their sins in front of the room. They have masking tape with the word LIFE placed over their mouths to represent aborted children. In the most chilling scene, they take a vow to pray for the end of abortion in American, and warned not to be “a promise breaker” – as though every baby not born is their own personal burden. Who knows how much actual understanding there was – I know at that age I was more concerned with the approval of adults than achieving nuanced comprehension of political touchstones. It feels more like indoctrination than education.

The radio presenter interviews leader Becky, challenging her on the camp’s vigorous methods, but she remains cool, saying they don’t do anything different than any other church. The argument could certainly be made that all churches impress their views on their followers from birth, with various levels of intensity. On the group’s involvement in political causes, including taking the kids to protest abortion in Washington, Becky insists she is not political, since democracy is merely an earthly concern. According to the documentary, 75% of home schooled kids are evangelical, and evangelicals make up 25% of Americans. No matter how much my liberal self recoils, surely the voices of such a chunk of society should be heard? And yet their creationist stance and amateur debate touchstones are uncomfortable to watch.

It’s one thing if the children were guided by honourable people. A late scene takes place at a megachurch, where aspiring preacher Levi meets senior pastor Ted Haggard after a sermon against homosexuality, performed more like a stand up than a religious guide. Ted’s rictus grin is steely when Levi recounts his own experiences, then Ted asks Levi if people listen to him because of his words or because he’s a cute kid. Levi stutters a response. Ted looks proud of himself. Ted Haggard is not a cute kid. For further adventures of Ted Haggard, do Google him, he’s had an exciting few years. But perhaps what Jesus Camp reinforces most of all is that these children, and maybe all children, deserve better leaders than the hypocrites and manipulators on offer.