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An Impossible Love

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Set over the course of several decades, An Impossible Love is a love story told through the words of the protagonists’ daughter, slowly revealing a bleakness underneath the picturesque French scenery and fashion.

Virginie Efira (Elle) plays Rachel, a secretary in 1950s France, who falls head over heels for Phillipe (Niels Schneider). Whilst Rachel is a hybrid of sweetness and naivety, Phillipe is a collection of affectations in a pair of skinny jeans. On their first date together, he takes great delight in Rachel having never heard of Nietzsche, becoming giddy at the prospect of lending her not one, but two of his works. He also sports a fine line of racism running through his core, which Rachel manages to overlook because of her affection for him. When she falls pregnant, however, Phillipe runs away from fatherhood, returning intermittently to see his daughter, Chantal and play with Rachel’s simmering devotion to him.

Directed by Catherine Corsini (Summertime, Leaving), and based on the book by Christine Angot, An Impossible Love follows Rachel as she fights for Phillipe to recognise his daughter. Being a single mother in the ‘60s is never touched upon; Corsini focuses solely on Rachel’s struggle and her constant, almost tragic hope that Phillipe will stay for longer than one night in bed with her. All of this would be enough to fill two melodramas, but a third act reveal rachets up the drama to a point that borders on horrific.

Those familiar with Angot’s book and her other work will know exactly where the film is headed once Phillipe returns (again) to check in on his now teenage daughter. Taking a much darker turn, An Impossible Love charts how Phillipe, hiding in the shadows, continues to flex his dominance over the two women.

It says something of Schneider’s (Heartbeats) performance that his shadow looms heavily over the rest of the film. Estelle Lescure and Jehnny Beth play the adolescent and adult Chantal, both bringing a brooding intensity to the role that echoes Schneider’s earlier scenes. As Rachel, Efira tries to muscle through the darkness, it’s a tragedy watching her realise almost too late where her sights should be set.

Despite all of its strengths, the film’s greatest weakness comes after the aforementioned third act revelation. Both women know of Phillipe’s secret and yet, not realising they both know, they refuse to talk about it. An Impossible Love charges through the scenario with the 30-something Chantal snarling at an elderly Rachel. It doesn’t need to be spelt out that the daughter has become the father, and yet the film feels the need to dress her up as him and talk like him. It just feels a little heavy handed in light of how it tackles other topics.

What is wanted instead is more shared screen time with Beth and Efira as they navigate the weight of 30 years of an oppressive patriarchy. This may all sound like a minor quibble but having spent so long leading its audience to this point, it feels that they, like Rachel, deserve a better send off.

 
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Sophia Antipolis

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This film is set on the French Riviera, but it’s not remotely luxuriant or escapist. The titular Sophia Antipolis is a technology park, and to the extent in which the downbeat story has a focus, it’s the discovery of an incinerated human body – and the mystery of its identity and how the unfortunate person met their doom.

The characters here include a Vietnamese woman who came to France in response to a matchmaking service, a couple of security guards and a young woman who decides to have a breast implant operation. Their paths intersect, sometimes vaguely, and the mundane is intermittently offset by the bizarre in the form of references to peculiar or mystical experiences and apocalyptic possibilities – and a meeting of an organisation which purports to be neither a sect or a cult, but which certainly looks like one. The pace is slow, and the effect is mostly limited, one notable exception being a powerful – and ugly – combat training scene. The cast includes non-actors.

Sophia Antipolis is an odd little movie, as much for what it lacks as for its content: there is virtually no music, there’s not a great deal of plot in the conventional sense, and most of the main characters are unnamed. There are some effective static shots, but the pervasive muted and hollow ambience makes it both diverting and dull in roughly equal measure. Virgil Vernier’s films get praised for their ‘documentary feel’, and the way they supposedly blur fiction and non-fiction, but it’s a mixed blessing at best.

 
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The End of the Track

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Hsiao-tung and Yung-shen are best friends who spend their time wandering the countryside, training for athletics, and hanging out at the dumpling stall operated by Yung-shen’s parents. When Yung-shen suffers an unexpected heart attack on the track field, it shakes his parents to the core – and send Tung into a downhill spiral.

Director Mou Tun-fei’s 1970 drama is a modest affair: shot in a low budget, primarily on location in Taiwan. It is also a somewhat notorious production, having been banned on original release by the ruling Kuomintang government. The ostensible reason for the film’s banning was alleged homosexuality – and there’s little denying the homoerotic subtext between its two teenage leads – but there were also reported concerns that the film was politically incompatible with the government’s own repressive regime. With Taiwan enjoying proper democracy since the mid-1990s, The End of the Track is now released from censorship and makes a fascinating time capsule for 21st century viewers.

While viewers have compared Mou’s style to Italian neorealist, his film also feels remarkably Japanese in tone and technique. This is not a surprise; between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was under Japanese control, and the culture of one country almost certainly rubbed off onto the other in that time.

The End of the Track is shot in black and white, with a large amount of hand-held photography popping up between more static shots. There is a relatively mundane quality to the bulk of the footage, but occasionally a key shot will use a striking angle or inventive framing and make a sudden impression. Moments of trauma are presented as rapid-cut montages that accentuate the sense of panic and confusion. It is all a remarkable achievement: this was Mou’s second feature film – both of them banned by the government – and he made them after graduating from Taiwan’s National School of Art, a college so impoverished that it did not have any filmmaking equipment for its students to train with.

The storyline is a relatively simple one: it establishes a close friendship, and then shatters it with a sudden fatality. The bulk of the film covers Hsiao-tung’s emotional struggle: drawn closer to Yung-shen’s grieving parents and away from his own. It is the cast that sell the film more than the material. They perform in a slightly stylised manner that makes the film feel somewhat older than it really is. It is consistently done, however, so works perfectly well.

This is an imperfect film, but also a deeply fascinating one. The thickly laid homo-eroticism of its first act marks it out as an important work for Taiwan’s LGBTI film history, whereas the resulting drama makes for a valuable insight into the earlier years of Taiwanese cinema.

The End of the Track is screening as part of the Neon Gods film series at the Domain Theatre in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, on March 6 & 10. For more information, check the website here. https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/calendar/neon-gods/

 
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Amanda

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2018 French drama Amanda follows David (Vincent Lacoste), a 25-year-old Parisian who juggles an abundance of jobs to make ends meet, whom after the tragic death of his sister Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) must decide whether to take guardianship of his seven-year-old niece, Amanda (Isaure Multrier).

Paris as a backdrop and the circumstances by which Sandrine passes speaks to the current challenges faced by France and is done-so not to create a mood of despondency but as a showing of resilience in the French spirit.

Relationships and the process of recovering after a loss are at the core of the film, with David and Amanda able to deliver on these themes in delicate performances that range from heart-rending to saccharine.

Use of parks and tennis add subtext to Amanda, with issues relating to mounting prejudice that threatens to derail French culture – this aspect is acknowledged but it never negatively impacts the characters arcs.

Despite tackling heavy subject matter, there is an intimacy that works to the benefit of Amanda, thanks to scenes mostly involving no more than two characters – with this no better on display than in a heart-warming mother-and-daughter embrace.

At 107 minutes in length, Amanda does feel its run-time and where director Mikhaël Hers could have tightened the focus of the film, instead injects an excessive amount of side-characters and stories as if to punish David and create opportunities for him to cry.

Where films focusing on children losing their parents have a knack for being manipulative, Amanda chooses not to wallow in sentimentality but to stand as a message of endurance for a country threatened by external forces that challenge its culture.

 
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RocKabul

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

The sheer crazy-brave lunacy of the affable bandmates as they (quite literally) risk all to pursue their dreams to play heavy metal in such an oppressive and restrictive cultural landscape is so infectious, so immediate, engaging and moving…

There’s a surreal moment in the opening moments of Australian Photojournalist Travis Beard’s new documentary RocKabul, where a masked Taliban judge named Hagmal is interviewed on camera. Beard asks him if he has ‘heard anything about Rock music?’ Hagmal replies: ‘If you listen to this ridiculous music, flames will come out of your ears on Judgement Day. It is permitted to kill people who choose this path’. Such insanity is par for the course for the average Afghan, living with this medieval lunacy on a daily basis though it bears much more significance for the documentary’s subjects, the four members of Afghanistan’s first heavy metal band: District Unknown.

Forming in 2009, the band rehearsed in any number of dark, graffiti covered-spaces in Kabul, honing their (then non-existent) guitar and drum skills. The band members: brothers Pedram and Qasem and cousins Lemar and Qais, ooze unbridled passion for heavy metal music and due in part to his own experiences of being in a band, Travis Beard begins to mentor the group and offers his modest home as a practice space; though they’re soon forced to find somewhere else to jam, as irate neighbours begin to complain about their rehearsal racket.

The band members struggle against their own families (guitarist Qais buys a guitar with the fees allotted for his computer-classes, having to hide it from his music-hating father) as well as struggling against themselves (when Travis organises a gig at a party for ex-patriots in Kabul’s District 3 in 2010,  Qais and Qasem both spend a majority of their set playing their instruments while facing the wall, overwhelmed by the attention.

Beard himself plays in a band with US soldiers and utilises connections with US military and an array of charities, to organise gigs and grow the band’s opportunities.

It’s not long after that, Lemar travels to Turkey to start a new life with his new wife. He’s done with the hard scrabble life in Afghanistan, at one point stating: ‘This is not my country any more. It’s a battlefield for drugs, for mafia, and for money.’

After Lemar’s departure, new lead singer Yousef fronts the band at ‘Sound Central’, a music festival that Beard organises in cahoots with US government liaisons. It’s Afghanistan’s first music festival in 35 years. Security concerns mean the festival is heavily patrolled by local police yet Beard still worries about rogue Taliban attacks.

Despite all the dangers, the day goes off without a hitch. Undaunted, Beard and the band push onwards, though whether you’d term it ‘fearless’ or ‘crazy’ depends on your point-of-view.

They decide to take the band on the road and play a gig in Northern Afghanistan, in Mazar-e-Sharif. This results in a rather uncomfortable confrontation with local authorities, a band member being detained, and the remaining members being forced to leave him there, all despite having gotten permission from local government.

The sheer crazy-brave lunacy of the affable bandmates as they (quite literally) risk all to pursue their dreams to play heavy metal in such an oppressive and restrictive cultural landscape is so infectious, so immediate, engaging and moving, it renders Travis Beard’s mighty ode to the power of human expression something of a testament to the cathartic rage of heavy metal and demands that you defiantly raise your devil horns to the heavens in a salute to the sheer balls it took – to risk everything just to accomplish something that we take for granted, every single day.

 
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Le Grand Bal

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Midway through Le Grand Bal, a French documentary from writer-director Laetitia Carton that covers an intensive eight-day long multi-cultural dance festival held in regional France, two attendees discuss their frustration over the female dancers’ ability to follow tempo; the male voicing concern that his partner’s intense concentration makes her unable to be present within the moment; the other, informing that if her concentration were to stray that it would be of detriment to the collective.

Being very European in attitude, this exploration of ‘being’ whilst living in a totalitarian society is central to the premise of the Le Grand Bal, with the film’s subjects (all undoubtedly of privilege) having the point of view that life ought to be a shared experience of love, passion and joy.

Le Grand Bal sensitively examines the attendees search for connection and is done so in a way that speaks to their spiritual desire for unity and not as a means for the film to pass judgement.

Despite covering a wide scope of themes, including notions of anti-consumerism, the crippling fear of rejection that plagues the human condition, and the prevalent hand of sexism seeping through in a purpose-built utopia, Le Grand Bal never feels overstuffed, with the film comprising largely of dance routines that delightfully show the jubilance in the eyes of the participants.

Narration connects the scenes together though not to discredit the audience’s intelligence but to internalise the feelings experienced by the dancers that are difficult to comprehend at a surface level.

From the all-encompassing joy of a Greek Zorba to the intimacy of a waltzing embrace, Le Grand Bal is optimistic filmmaking fuelled by a contagious spiritual energy.

 
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The Bikes of Wrath

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Published in 1939, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath details the true-life mass migration of Texans after years of drought – known as the Dust Bowl – through the eyes of the fictional Joad Family. It’s a classic American novel, Pulitzer Prize winner and a staple of High School English in the US. It also made an impact on twenty-something Aussie Charlie Turnbull and inspired this travelogue, The Bikes of Wrath.

After a night’s spirited conversation, Turnbull and his friends, including co-director Cameron Ford, decide to replicate the Joads’ journey by cycling from Oklahoma to California in 30 days. What’s more, they’ll film the entire journey. Taking no more than US$420 (equivalent to the $18 the Joad family had for travel expenses), the men agree that they can earn any extra money needed by busking from town to town. Finding a place to sleep, meanwhile, will depend on the kindness of strangers and alleyways. For all of the men, it’ll be an adventure, but it’ll also be an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of America.

Let’s be up front, it’s very easy to read the above and go into The Bikes of Wrath thinking it to be nothing more than cinematic ‘begpacking’; a tabloid fad that saw western tourists – mainly middle class – busking and begging for money in the more impoverished areas of the world. It’s a criticism raised by someone who stumbles across the men outside a corner shop. ‘You look pretty fucking smart,’ he laughs. ‘Why you doing this? I have to do it!’

Fortunately, The Bikes of Wrath is quick to show how fast the five friends re-evaluate their endeavour once they land on American soil. The further they cycle to their finish line, the more they shed their preconceived notions of how they’re going to get there. It’s the little things they didn’t plan on that make the biggest impact. When one of them sprains his wrist, you can feel the air being taken from their sails.

It helps then that everyone they meet on their journey welcomes them with charity and bemusement. In small localised towns, there are people who are willing to help each other, simply so they can help these five crazy Aussies. In a current climate where the US is seen as red hatted, wall builders, The Bikes of Wrath reminds you that you can’t judge many by the actions of the few.

Amidst the group hugs and love-ins, the film echoes the faint heartbeat of a country that is successful in covering its cracks. Perhaps the biggest impact comes when the gang meet a homeless wanderer on the highway who admits to having deliberately left his home without food or water, as he doesn’t expect to come back. It’s one of the most sobering and strongest moments in the documentary.

Whilst the film never really does as deep a dive into Americana as perhaps some audiences would want, The Bikes of Wrath is an uplifting look at human kindness and reminds us that we can all try a little bit harder to be good to our neighbours.

 
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The Image Book

Director, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Jean-Luc Godard helped spearhead the French New Wave movement of the ‘60s that in turn inspired and invigorated an entire generation of filmmakers, most notably the ‘New Hollywood’ generation of the 1970s: Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and particularly director William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist, Sorcerer).

Godard’s a difficult filmmaker to box and label, he’s not content with resting on his laurels and since the ‘70s has continually experimented with new media and formats. Digital has freed him somewhat, allowing him to mess with images in new and interesting ways. In the last few decades, he’s contented himself with producing ‘visual essays’ in preference to just pumping out the standard narrative films.

This, his latest, was awarded a ‘Special Palme d’Or’ at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It’s very much in keeping with his Histoire(s) du cinema, which was an epic 8-part video project that Godard started in the 1980s and completed in 1998. Running at nearly five hours, Histoire(s) du cinema examined the concept of cinema and how cinema reflected the 20th century and indeed, how the 20th century itself is perceived through the medium of cinema.

The 87-year-old Godard’s new film is very much a continuance on those themes. It has ‘sections’ that deal with different ideas, one with the West’s notion of the Middle East, over which Godard’s gravelly, booming voice discusses Albert Cossery’s book An Ambition in the Desert, a fictional story of an emirate that doesn’t produce oil and hence, is untouched by western influence.

During this section Godard assails us with images from Egyptian cinema, ISIS YouTube footage and newly shot street scenes, which are all digitally smeared, distressed and manipulated to intentionally deform and abstract the images. Godard utilises scenes from so many films, it’s almost impossible to recount them all. Imagery from such disparate films as John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard as well as Godard’s own works like King Lear, Weekend, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou, all are grist for his intellectual mill.

Deliberately jarring in its execution and purposefully raw, amateurish and provocative, Godard’s musings and ruminations are certainly interesting and fascinating to a point, yet the grinding assault on your eyeballs reaches Guantanamo levels of mental torture after 90 minutes. Such cinematic naval-gazing may hold appeal for hardcore fans of his filmic essays, but Godard’s deliberate corruption of the narrative form makes this almost indigestible, showing that what might be the toast of Cannes, is simply an inscrutable and pretentious wank. As Werner Herzog once said: “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me, intellectual counterfeit money, when compared to a good Kung-Fu film.”

 
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Consequences

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Slovenian teenager Andrej (Matej Zemljic) is a mother’s worst nightmare. Refusing to go to school or get a job, he has a list of petty crimes as long as his arm. When he assaults a girl for criticising his failure to find her sexually arousing, Andrej’s mother packs him off to a detention centre in the hopes that this will finally straighten him out.

Directed by Darko Stante, Consequences follows Andrej as he gravitates towards the centre’s alpha male, Zele (Timon Sturbej). It’s clear from the get-go that Andrej is not just doing this as means of self-preservation, but also due to an instant attraction he has for the smirking bully. Implanting himself into Zele’s world, the impressionable teen soon joins him in beating up others for money, stealing cars and generally just make nuisances of themselves. All the while, Andrej downplays his sexuality from Zele and his gang for fear of violent reprisal. And then, one grungy rave later, Zele makes a move that suggests Andrej’s feelings are reciprocated.

Don’t be mistaken about Consequences’ intent. Despite the sexual chemistry between the two men, there are no romantic dalliances behind closed doors or pillow talk about a better life. It’s proven early that both men are volatile and amoral, and their relationship is predominantly centred on sex. When someone nearly dies of an overdose, the two men use the ensuing panic to get it on whilst everyone has vacated the room. It’s that romantic. To be fair, Stante does try to convince us that Andrej sees a brighter future in the arms of Zele, but it’s never enough to make you really care. It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone who will happily mug his mates at the behest of his boyfriend.

The film also toys with the notion of toxic masculinity and how it defines both men but without actually saying anything concrete. Largely this is because Stante keeps changing the goalposts on his audience. Zele hides his bisexuality from his girlfriend, except when he’s starting all male threesomes in front of her. Andrej is a wide-eyed innocent cast adrift from his family, except for when he’s beating women at parties. The lack of consistency may also be in part to how broadly written the film’s two leads are. Even considering Strubej’s strong performance, they’re merely tropes in skinny jeans and football shirts.

Much more interesting is how the film portrays society letting down not just Andrej, but everyone in the detention centre. They are nannied by ineffectual wardens who refuse to make them toe the line, whilst the legal system treats them as neanderthals before they’ve even opened their mouths. None of them really have much of a chance to rehabilitate.

Grim and gritty, without really being all that engaging, Consequences is disappointing in its scattershot approach to its subject matter.

 
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Boys

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A made for TV drama about gay life in contemporary France directed by Christophe Charrier. The first part of the film concerns the youth and awakening of the hero Jonas (Felix Maritaud recently seen in BPM). His mum is the more involved of the two parents. His dad is slightly coarse and macho and, we presume, not impressed by the idea of having a gay son.

When Jonas – already a bit of a loner – goes to his new high school he is ready to just survive by resisting the homophobic bullies and keeping his head down. Into his world walks the larger-than-life Nathan (Tommy Lee Baik), whose flamboyance and devil may care attitude captures Jonas’ heart. The boys pair up and all seems fine for a while. Then one day, they try to get into the eponymous gay night club Boys and are turned away for being underage.

Unwisely they accept a lift from an older man who is hanging around outside the club. That ride turns sour and although Jonas escapes, Nathan is abducted. This catastrophic event traumatises Jonas who ends up as an adult on the bottle and eking out an existence as a hospital porter.

The film is told with two different actors playing the adolescent and adult Jonas in two different time periods. The action constantly cuts between the two.

The broken Jonas is not an easy character to like and his self-loathing is in danger of alienating us as much as it does the characters he interacts with. That said, it is a committed and convincing portrait by Maritaud. Lee Baik is also a breath of fresh air, but he doesn’t have long to shine. One of the best performances in the film is that of Nathan’s mother (Aure Atika) and she also has one of the best scenes in the film when she confronts the adult Jonas with his choices.

Beyond showing the shy romance of the teens, the film does not dare to explore the physical side of their love which again is a reasonable choice for the approach, but makes the film a bit bloodless and evasive.