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Berlin: Taking the High Ground

The Berlinale is in full swing, with German language films, Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio, the Johnny Depp-starring Minamata and Australia’s High Ground impressing.
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Guillaume Canet’s Belle Epoque

The actor/director is in a very good place in his life, about to embark on his most ambitious film yet, and with three films playing at the 2020 Alliance Francais French Film Festival.
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Suicide Tourist

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Suicide remains one of the more taboo subjects in media, which ironically is what makes it such fertile ground for artistic exploration. Of course, it’s easy to skew into the maudlin, or melodramatic, if the artist in question isn’t up to the task. In the case of Jonas Alexander Arnby’s Suicide Tourist, we’re certainly looking at a valiant attempt, even if the message ultimately seems a little muddled.

Suicide Tourist tells the tale of Max (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an insurance agent who is going through an existential crisis. It soon becomes clear this isn’t just a midlife indulgence, rather Max has an inoperable brain tumour. He’s looking at a potentially very painful, undignified, death and he’s understandably not delighted by this development and wants to spare his partner, Lærke (Tuva Novotny) the horror of it all. So Max contacts a clandestine assisted suicide facility called Hotel Aurora. At first it seems a superior, merciful option, however, like Hotel California, at this joint you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.

Suicide Tourist benefits greatly from the gorgeous direction of Arnby, who gave us 2014’s When Animals Dream. It overflows with gorgeously composed shots and striking imagery. It’s also extremely deliberately paced, delivering an experience that on occasion verges on the somnambulistic. It’s not an easy watch either, dealing with themes of futility and mortality, although pretty much everything that occurs at Hotel Aurora is gripping in a slow burn way. Suffice to say, Suicide Tourist won’t be for everyone, nor is it trying to be.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau delivers an extremely effective performance as poor Max, and is capably supported by Tuva Novotny and a stunning turn from Kate Ashfield who plays a “fake mother”, roleplaying for patients to help them accept their deaths. This is a dark tale indeed, and while its conclusion doesn’t quite satisfy, it’s certainly compelling in a grim, icy, existential sort of way. If that sounds like your jam, have at it, but perhaps bring along a nice stiff drink.

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The fascination with the true case of Lizzie Borden, involving the violent hatchet murder of her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892, has persisted throughout the years to a surprising degree. Perhaps it’s the violent nature of the crime, or the fact that Lizzie, while almost certainly guilty, was acquitted of the murder and no one else ever charged. Regardless, it’s rich material for the right storyteller and with Craig William Macneill’s Lizzie, we have the tale reimagined as a slowburn, simmering queer romance.

Lizzie Borden (Chloe Sevigny) is a smart young woman, frustrated by her lack of agency in society and very dubious of her father, Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and his ongoing fiscal mismanagement of her inheritance. Lizzie is a bit too forthright for her own good, and finds herself alone and mostly friendless. That is, until the arrival of Irish housemaid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), whose gentle manner and innate kindness have the pair bonding and then becoming faltering but passionate lovers.

Lizzie works best as a romance, with the forbidden love between Lizzie and Bridget providing an extremely engaging throughline. Slightly less deft is the handling of Andrew, stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) and Uncle John Morse (Denis O’Hare) all of whom are so cartoonishly evil you’ll be yearning for them to cop a hatchet to the bonce within the first fifteen minutes. While it’s fine to have an unpleasant antagonist or two in your tale, their complete lack of literally any redeeming qualities means there’s very little room for character development or nuance, which leads to some awkward pacing issues particularly in the second act. The always-welcome Kim Dickens fares better as Lizzie’s slightly more sensible and practical sister, Emma, who seems to sense her sister’s growing rage and tries to calm it.

Director Craig William Macneill’s direction is deliberate and may, for some audience members, be just a little too slow for its own good. However, the central performances from Sevigny and Stewart anchor the piece and the eventual reenactment of the bloody crime is certainly visceral and effective.

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Chained for Life

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Introduced by a quote from critic Pauline Kael, opining on the topic of actors being “more beautiful than ordinary people”, Chained for Life opens with a scene set in a creepy hospital in the 1940s. Freda (Jess Weixler) feels her way through unfamiliar surroundings, stumbling into an operating theatre where an all-too-Germanic sounding surgeon performs cosmetic surgery on a patient.

Suddenly, a loud noise distracts them outside, a film crew member yells ‘cut’ and it’s apparent we’re watching a film being shot, on location at the very same huge, creepy old hospital.

The Werner Herzog-esque filmmaker overseeing the production is referred to only as ‘Herr Director’. He’s portrayed by Charlie Korsmo (who starred in Dick Tracy and Hook as a child but hasn’t acted on screen for twenty years). His strangled Bavarian accent impatiently berates performers as they struggle through take after take.

The film Herr Director is making seems to be something of a B-picture that features Nazi-type doctors performing weird medical procedures on patients, while prattling on about how aberrant human deformities and afflictions can be fixed by his amazing surgical expertise.

Mabel/Freda (Jess Weixler) is a well-established actress who’s taken a role that’s beneath her talents, solely to work with the lauded and (apparently) talented ‘Herr Director’. We follow Mabel as she prowls the set in her downtime, relaxing with cast and crew members, overhearing conversations about actors ‘getting facial work done’ or lamenting her own superficial shortcomings as she languishes in the make-up chair before a scene.

This concern towards performers’ perception of their appearance and indeed, people and their perspective of ‘beauty’ and symmetry in the world at large, is the primary concern of the entire film.

These sequences feel very Altman-esque in their sound design, as conversational chatter overlaps in waves. Mabel contends with the unwanted attention of sleazy co-star Max (Stephen Plunkett) but is enthralled and fascinated by an indefinable attraction to her co-star Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a man afflicted by neurofibromatosis, which is a condition that causes non-cancerous but highly deformative tumours, much like ones John ‘The Elephant Man’ Merrick endured.

Rosenthal has been hired, along with a cast of other people born with natural deformities, to perform in Herr Director’s film because the filmmaker desires ‘authenticity’.

Seemingly influenced by Tod Browning’s Freaks, it’s this ‘carny’ infused element of the film that lends the most pathos. One scene in the film-within-the-film is lifted completely from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, further emphasising the tonal shifting and referential trickery deployed by Writer/Director Aaron Schimberg in order to subvert audience expectations, playfully throwing a wrench into the mechanics of cinema and revelling in wrong footing us as viewers.

Whether Mabel’s feelings towards Rosenthal are genuine is open to interpretation, she could well be ‘method’ acting as part of her performance as an actress in the film’s production but it’s another layer of interpretation on top of the metaphor already in play.

As a visualist, Schimberg’s stylistic leanings tend towards a seventies-inflected surrealism bordering on dread-laden psychological horror. He’s unafraid to deploy a zoom lens for dramatic intensity and experiments with sound design, which recall UK auteur Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy.

As a meditation on our perception of beauty and how much it infuses our psyches, Chained for Life is an intriguing effort; structurally it’s playful and enthralling, though ultimately falls short of being greater than the sum of its parts.