No more weekday matinees for me this year, I'm afraid: I've got a living to earn. Luckily [looks down], it seems like the Pals have plenty to say for themselves, which helps to cover up for my reduced contributions. Anyway, I'm down to a mere two movies a day now, and Lunacy is the first one.
Jean Berlot (Pavel Liska) is a young man travelling home from his mother's funeral, who makes the acquaintance of a mysterious Marquis (Jan Triska). Berlot is in a somewhat distraught state, and accepts the Marquis' offer of hospitality: but before long he's witness to an orgy of desecration involving the Marquis hammering several hundred nails into the crucified figure of Christ, three fellatrix nuns, and an edible crucifix made out of chocolate cake. (By now it's apparent that the Marquis is based on de Sade, so I bloody hope it was chocolate cake.) And this is only the beginning: because Berlot has become a prisoner in a madhouse, one that the lunatics have literally taken over.
It's always a bad sign when a director appears on screen at the start of a film to tell you what it's about. Particularly when that director is Jan Svankmajer, the man responsible for some of the most outrageously vivid images in modern cinema: first in his animated shorts, and later in his predominantly live-action features. When you watched a Svankmajer film (and there are plenty on YouTube if you haven't seen one before), part of the joy came from literally not knowing what the hell was going to happen next. Sadly, as Lunacy's characters overact wildly in the asylum, they generally don't show us anything we haven't seen before in more direct adaptations of de Sade. Even the lumps of animated raw meat that pop up between scenes feel more like a reference back to former glories than an integral part of the current film.
Lunacy is a rare disappointment from Svankmajer. His wife and long-term artistic collaborator Eva Svankmajerova died during its production, so that may have had an impact on the finished film. I do hope it's only a temporary setback.
9.00pm: The Family Friend
Paolo Sorrentino's previous film, The Consequences Of Love, was a big success at the 2004 festival: it's one of the ones I missed at the time, but caught up with on its subsequent release. His followup also has a mysterious old man at its centre: this time it's Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo), who's treated by the residents of his local community as the 'family friend' of the title. Not because he's particularly outgoing: he spends much of his time at home looking after his bed-ridden mother. Not because he's a particularly nice man: to be honest, he's rather ugly and frequently horrible to people. But if you need to borrow some money, he's a slightly better proposition than his main rival The Pirate. Which is not to say that he won't turn nasty if, like the young bride Rosalba (Laura Chiatti), you tell him to his face how much you despise what he does.
Having seen two films now by Sorrentino, I like what he's doing a hell of a lot, but I can't quite bring myself to love it. Both films show he's a master of the slow reveal, as they take a long time to unravel the mysteries behind their main characters. The visuals are incredibly inventive, and the soundtrack covers a bewildering span between Elgar and Antony And The Johnsons, via the glitchtronica score of Teho Teardo. But if you're like me, you find yourself noting (and enjoying) the quirks in the storytelling, rather than getting involved with the story itself.
It's interesting to note that when asked in the post-film Q&A whether he's more interested in the images or the narrative himself, Sorrentino firmly plumps for the former: "if cinema wasn't such an expensive medium, I'd do away with the story altogether." So maybe I shouldn't be so picky. But I'm keen to see if, in the future, Sorrentino can somehow find a way of making something that's less of a series of individual great moments, and more of a cohesive great film. He's tantalisingly close already.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - This was a gripping account of a girl in her late teens who leaves the oppressive atmosphere of a suffocating home-life and goes to college – where she steadily goes off the rails. Michaela’s unsettled mental state is set seemingly sparked by a combination of factors – the eye-opening awakening of the freedom of university life after a repressed catholic upbringing, and the frustation of being a sufferer from epilepsy and the need to take medication. If the plot was straightforward and unravelled in a coherent way, the performances were staggeringly brilliant. Sandra Huller is a tour de force as Michaela, utterly believable as the young woman who steadily finds her desire to express herself and confront her inner demons, displaying some breathtaking scenes towards the end of the film. The supporting roles complement her strongly, from her dad, who juggles his love and support for his daughter with concern about her condition, and her new boyfriend, whose delight at having found a bubbly and carefree lass soon turns to doubt and then horror when he realises there’s a lot more there under the surface.
After claiming to hear voices, Michaela is convinced she’s possessed by the devil. She turns for advice and support to her local priest, who, unlike any catholic priest I’ve ever known, is not only not sympathetic but becomes rather angry towards her and chides and berates her for being so stupid. This only serves to exacerbate Michaela’s state, and her downward spiral continues.
The ending was maybe a slight anticlimax, but that’s just a small criticism of a very engrossing film. All in all terrific stuff, highly recommended.
The Family Friend
Suzanne Vega Fanclub - This Italian feature by director Paolo Sorrentino turns out to be the darkest of black comedies. Thus fifty something repulsive hobgoblin Geremia, a tailor by trade, lives at home with his sickly mother in a small Italian town. By nature he is a busybody who is into everyone else's business, but whenever possible takes the opportunity to help others (usually financially) thus earning himself the nickname Geremia - Heart of Gold.
As Spank mentioned afterwards however, this is a film that takes a little time before fully revealing itself. As such Geremia turns out to be something of a ruthless loan shark, who slithers and worms his way into people's lives, in order to find out what their particular weaknesses are. The fact is nobody likes him (not even his pretend cowboy associate or pizza making henchmen), it's just that he has got money, other people need money, and are thus prepared to accept him as some sort of (pretend and repellent) family friend in order to get a loan from him. Yet like many people who are on the outside, Geremia's curse (or gift) is to study other peopl'es lives, because the option of having one himself is never really there. The benefit for him however, is that he always knows what makes people tick.
Thus set out in those terms, this could be almost a modern day Merchant Of Venice, however the genius of the film is that nothing is quite as simple as it seems. Because although Geremia is a bad man, he is also something of a tragic one as well. Thus if you are born to be a runt, rather than one of the beautiful people, your options in life will from the start be extremely limited. Yet Geremia still wants to be one of the beautiful people and have the beautiful unattainable girl(s), but as we all know he doesn't deserve any of that because he is a hobgoblin. As such he can only blackmail and purchase his way to getting the briefest and bitterest taste of a beautiful bride. Yet those around him who borrow his money (rather than from another loan shark called the Pirate) only do so because they believe he is there to be taken advantage of (such as the bingo gambling granny). Their hypocrisy is that they let him into their world and get into his debt even though they despise him, and even though he always tries to dissuade them from taking out a loan.
Unfortunately I am not sure if I really buy the ending. Someone like a Geremia (who I must say at this point has shades of a former landlord of mine) spends their entire life being careful. So although he might lose his head (and common sense) over the unattainable beauty, his million pound loan makes no sense and runs counter to mama's advice about keeping everything small.
That quibble aside this was an excellent movie, with the guy who played Geremia creating an incredible character. Well worth catching (whenever).
The Cineaste - Lady Luck shone on me today, as I decided to call in at the NFT before mid-day en route to the West End – and managed to get the very last ticket (well according to the ticket bloke) for this screening.
Lola is the affectionate term for Dolores – so the title is a bit misleading. Because the film is really all about Leon. Leon is a (late-ish) middle-aged bloke who lives with – and cares for – his very ill mum. She passes away early on in the film, and this puts the focus of attention on Leon. And it’s a fascinating character study – up to a point. Leon lives almost entirely in his own world, totally isolated from, or should I say unintegrated with, society. Living in a block of flats, he gets his kicks from nosily rifling through the mail of one of his neighbours, the Lola of the title, gathering up a whole host of info about her from her social security details to her friend’s gossip back in Spain. This develops to spying on her daily routine (which changes periodically as Lola has no settled career) to the point of following her as she goes on holiday to La Mancha, the region of Spain she hails from.
It’s a character study of an individual who operates in such isolation that he seems to have no companions – spouse, girl-friend, friends or family. And it’s this complete isolation of Leon that’s the film's downfall. Because, since Leon is such a solitary figure, he very rarely speaks. And because he rarely speaks, we never get any proper understanding of him – his thoughts, hopes, ambitions, fears, whatever. Even his body language is neutral almost all of the time. There’s one amusing moment when Lola has attracted the attention of an admirer in a bar, and the two of them are soon necking and snogging. Leon is sitting on his own close by. By now unconcerned about being seen by Lola, he watches them continuously, utterly without expression. After a while Lola’s admirer exclaims “oh for heaven’s sake look away my friend, you’re making me nervous”.
All of this is a shame, because the film developed this theme very well with some fine performances. Director Javier Rebollo creates atmosphere well, using long takes, largely in silence. But because of Leon’s isolation the film didn’t really have anywhere to go, no climax to build up to, and the last part of the film, which needed some drama to build up to a climax, just fizzled out. The early promise didn’t live up to expectations and the film ultimately fell flat.
The Yacoubian Building
The Belated Birthday Girl - This sprawling, epic melodrama takes place in downtown Cairo, and focuses on the lives of disparate inhabitants of the eponymous building: once glamorous and cosmopolitan, housing the upper reaches of Egyptian society and foreign residents, now with its roof-top shanty-like dwellings home to the poor and dispossessed, while wealthy businessmen and journalists live in the still glamorous apartments within. Everything from sex to death, politics and power, corruption, family and religion, is touched on by this film, and the image of a presumably contemporary Cairo is vivid, and often far from flattering.
While most of the characters are largely unsympathetic, they are also complex characters, with human flaws, and reasons for their actions. There are some fine performances from a large cast, most notably from Adel Imam as Zaki El Dessouki - the "Pasha" who finds himself at odds with his sister with whom he shares an apartment, Nour El-Sherif as Haj Azzam - the businessman with humble beginnings and political ambitions, and Hend Sabri as Bothayna - the rooftop-dwelling young woman trying to find a way to make a living to help support her family without having to put up with constant groping from lecherous employers. The film is nicely shot, with a timeless look, and never drags over its 165 minute running time.
Apparently this film sparked much controversy and debate in Egypt, with its more than usually explicit approach to sex and sexuality, and its depiction of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, at the same time breaking box-office records. There seemed to be quite a number of Egyptians at the pretty full screening I attended, and I am sure that they got a lot from this film, which ultimately came across as a kind of plea for a country with an exciting past, difficult present and uncertain future. Although it was perhaps somewhat melodramatic for my taste, The Yacoubian Building gave me, as someone with no experience and very little knowledge of Egypt, an interesting look at a microcosm of the country and people, and was certainly an impressive achievement for a first feature.
The Cineaste - A film that utterly defies adequate description (although I’m sure Spank’s made a damn good fist of it), Svankmajer redefines the scales of creativity, inventiveness, imagination, surrealism and wonder. Off the scale even by the standards of Svankmajer’s largesse, Lunacy was a breathtakingly astonishing two hours that makes you wonder how anyone can think up such imaginative, creative, surreal situations.
In a rural inn the humble Jean Merlot meets “The Marquis”, an extravagant character (based on the Marquis de Sade) with a sinister laugh. The Marquis offers to help Merlot, and the latter becomes ensnared in the Marquis’ fantastic world – a world of surrealism, philosophy, diatribes against higher forces, a grotesque pastiche of a sacrificial religious ceremony, nighmare-ish mad-houses and much, much more. The ideas, allusions, the surreal scenes, the regular (insertions) of animation, almost all of which feature chunks of raw meat come to life – it all transcends rationality.
The film defies comparison with anything else, although whilst watching it it did remind me the creative wonder of Institute Benjamenta.
The lunatics have truly taken over the asylum, and this mesmerising, awe-inspiring wonder is the breathtaking result.