12.30pm: Me Without You
Sandra Goldbacher's film starts in 1973 with the theme from White Horses, and ends in 2001 with Super Furry Animals playing Rings Around The World. Dammit, she's got my demographic nailed. Written by Goldbacher with Laurence Coriat of Wonderland fame, it covers the friendship of two girls, from their childhood as next-door neighbours in the seventies to the present day.
Holly (Michelle Williams) is the daughter of a respectable Jewish family. She's rather straight-laced at heart, but determined to emulate the adventures of her more glamorous friend Marina (Anna Friel), who lives with her divorced mum and is eager to try all of the experiences available to a 1970s teenager. Marina has an older brother, Nat (Oliver Milburn), who'll turn out to be the cause of most of the friction between the two girls as they grow up.
It's always seemed to me that when blokes who went to school together make friendships, they tend to just drift apart gradually and without too much fuss. But when long-term female friendships break down, it's a much more hurtful and bitter affair: I've had to arbitrate on one or two such breakups in the past. Me Without You manages to get some of that messiness across, and has the ring of painful (and funny) truth in a number of scenes. And, of course, there's the added bonus of a full-on nostalgia trip for those of us who come from the same era as the two girls. Like them, I was a student in the early eighties: so the middle section of Holly and Marina's college years is especially treasurable, with lecherous lecturer Kyle MacLachlan presiding over the largest number of bad hair decisions ever seen in a single shot.
Anna Friel and Michelle Williams play all this more or less to perfection: Williams (best known for appearing in Dawson's Creek) gets the accent down cold with only a couple of lapses into American teen mannerisms, while Friel does smart things with a role which could easily have become completely unsympathetic. Unfortunately, there's only a limited number of things over which the girls can fall out, and towards the end the story does get a little repetitive (the "I'm getting married!" surprise card being played at least once too often). But for the most part, this is a mature and funny portrayal of the pains of growing up, with a killer soundtrack that inspired me to buy the CD of Scritti Politti's Songs To Remember on the way home.
6.00pm: Millennium Mambo
Another tale of teenage angst, this time from Taiwan. Vicky (Shu Qi) is trapped in a somewhat abusive relationship with Hao-Hao (Tuan Chun-hao), and can't leave despite repeated attempts to do so. The best she's been able to do is promise to herself that she'll finally walk out on him when her money runs out. Eventually her friends, and particularly the small-time gangster Jack (Jack Kao), help her to choose the best way forward.
I saw director Hou Hsiao-hsien's earlier film Flowers Of Shanghai in the 1999 LFF. I didn't realise at the time that the style he'd chosen for that film was something he did regularly: but Millennium Mambo seems to work to the same set of stylistic restrictions. The camerawork by Lee Ping-bin is again incredibly lush, for the most part shot in glowing warm tones at night, which gives added impact to a couple of daytime snow scenes. But every scene is covered in a single continuous shot, which slows the pace down dramatically (though to be fair, the camera is a lot more mobile here than it was in the earlier film).
The slowness makes for an interesting contrast with the techno-fuelled youthfulness of the subject matter, but it doesn't make for an engaging film. Unlike the equivalent Hong Kong films of Wong Kar-Wai, there's no attempt made to get beyond the beautiful surfaces of the characters: even Hao-Hao admits that he and Vicky come from different worlds, and we never get any insight as to why they're a couple in the first place. And the uncharacteristically sloppy subtitles by Tony Rayns don't help matters: there's a lot of potentially interesting background chatter going on between the characters that never gets translated at all. Like Flowers Of Shanghai, this is fabulous to look at, but not much more than that.
9.00pm: The Magic Box
Remember I was talking on Monday about Apocalypse Now Redux? About how the remastered picture quality now makes it look as good as the classic Forties and Fifties British Technicolor epics, like those of Powell and Pressburger? Well, the man primarily responsible for that look in the old days was veteran cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Britain's very own Technicolor God.
Cardiff also shot this 1951 film for director John Boulting, and pops up to say hello before this screening of a newly restored print to celebrate its 50th birthday. As ever, he's a mine of amusing anecdotes, and he's still got a cracking sense of comic timing for an 87-year-old guy. He tells us about the original deal made with the cast and crew, whereby they worked for half fees and a share of the profits: big mistake, as The Magic Box failed to find an audience and there weren't any profits worth sharing. So when Cardiff was offered a similar deal on his next film, he obviously turned it down: thus talking himself out of a percentage of the profits on The African Queen...
The behind-the-scenes gossip is appropriate here, as The Magic Box is a film about the technicalities of filmmaking itself. Made as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, it's a biography of William Friese-Greene, Britain's very own movie pioneer. While Edison and The French Guy Nobody Remembers were doing their research into the photography and projection of moving pictures, Friese-Greene was the first one to actually register a patent for the process that's the most similar to what we use today. But of course, Friese-Greene tends to be regarded as a footnote in comparison to the other inventors, if at all: which therefore makes this movie one of those tales of Heroic Failure that we British do so well, dammit.
For a film that was made as part of a full-scale national year of celebration, The Magic Box is surprisingly frank about the failures that Friese-Greene encountered, and doesn't hold back on the way to its somewhat bleak conclusion. Within a tricky flashback structure, we see how his obsession with his work ultimately wrecked his relationships with both his wives, Helena (Maria Schell) and Edith (Margaret Johnston). But Robert Donat plays him as such a quintessentially charming English eccentric, we can more or less forgive him everything.
This fiftieth anniversary restoration looks a treat, bringing out the typical rich detail of Jack Cardiff's photography. Considering the horrors that the original negatives suffered - Technicolor negatives come on three strips of film, one for each colour, and they'd all shrunk over the years by different amounts - this has come out good as new. It's a very sweet celebration of both the positive and negative aspects of the national character: and it's enhanced by a dizzying array of surprise cameos, as everyone from the 1950s British film industry pops up to say a line or two. This is one of those rare occasions when I wish the people behind me had been talking louder, as they seemed to be recognising more faces than I was.
Notes From Spank's Pals
The Cineaste - This was an engaging tender story involving two protagonists thrown together in rather fraught circumstances. The director Ferzan Ozpetek was introduced beforehand to a nearly full NFT1 and led an amusing Q & A session afterwards.
Antonia is a doctor, happy in her career and with her marriage to a successful businessman husband. When he is killed in a freak road accident, it sets off a chain of sequences completely unforeseeable. His office effects are sent to their home, and by chance, amongst them, Antonia finds a clue that suggests that her husband has had a lover for seven years. Intrigued, she tracks down the lover’s address, and pays a visit. She finds out that the lover was a man, Michele, and experiences other eye-opening realisations.
However, although the storyline so far is a rather melancholy one for Antonia, this is really an excuse for her to be introduced to the “community” where Michele lives. It’s a fluid one, of very vibrant and expressive characters, most of them of creative sexual persuasions, and all entirely warm and friendly. Gradually Michele’s hostility is overcome, and the friendship between them delicately and wonderfully develops. The community take Antonia to their hearts. There are some other, equally humorous strands – Antonia’s Mum comes to stay, well-meaning but socially not very adept, which puts Antonia in some amusing, mildly embarrassing situations.
This film has an enjoyable feelgood factor, plus also heartfelt poignancy as well, amongst the young excitable characters in the community. All these strands are drawn together very well. The acting is first-rate, and the very first and last scenes in the film are beautifully telling. Star rating: three-and-a-half.
The Cineaste - This was a very accomplished debut film from 27-year-old director Malgorzata Szumowska, who was attending. I knew nothing about the film beforehand other than from the brochure copy, but a virtually full NFT1 suggested I’d made a good choice. And so it proved.
Jan is rather struggling as a writer. Aged 30, he still lives with his mother, and seems rather directionless in life. The film then unwraps some heartfelt scenes as Jan’s mother has tests for cancer, and appears to have contracted it. She tells the doctor to tell her if she has, but not her son; whilst Jan tells the doctor to tell him, but not his mother. Meanwhile, Jan is in the early stages of developing a tender relationship with a local lass, Marta.
There are eloquent scenes, with sparse effective dialogue, and music creating good music. Jan’s Mum and Marta gently get to know each other. There are some other poignant issues which further add to this film. The whole comes together very engagingly. The acting is very good, and there are some fine night shots of the (unspecified) city. Towards the end the storyline wobbles just a fraction. But it then reasserts itself quickly, and there are a couple of bittersweet twists and revelations, with an underlying comment on how much we do or don’t understand each other. This is a wonderful little pearl of a film. Star rating: four.
Betty Fisher et Autres Histoires
The Cineaste - Ruth Rendell must obviously be quite popular in France. A few years ago one of her novels was the inspiration for Claude Chabrol’s La Ceremonie (Judgement in Stone), and after watching that, director Claude Cantet explained that he became hooked on her novels, and read about six or seven in a row. The Tree of Hands, the most well-known in France, is the basis for this thriller. And, phew, what a wonderful film - this really was a treat to watch. A complex thriller with several strands, all loosely but cleverly linked, and all brought together very classily indeed.
Betty is a successful writer, not long returned to Paris. She’s separated from her husband, who she’s left in New York, and is bringing up their young son Joseph. Soon her Mum, who lives in Spain comes to stay. Mum manages to combine being head-strong, insensitive, and a bit stupid, and Betty has quite a fractious relationship with her. Not long after her arrival, Joseph has a tragic accident and is killed. Betty’s situation is not helped by her Mum not being able to summon up much sympathy or compassion. What her Mum does do, whilst out one day visiting an old friend, is kidnap a young boy to “replace” Joseph, much to Betty’s extreme horror and disgust.
And that’s only a fraction of it. The young boy’s mum, Carole, is struggling, selling herself, hanging out with a shady group of characters. Her tenant/boy-friend is taken in by the police for questioning. One of her shady group of “friends” is up to no good, trying to pull off an outrageous scheme to make several million. Then Betty’s husband appears, having arrived from New York. He’s an unpleasant character, and merely serves to stoke up Betty’s difficulties.
All these strands are told from different people’s points of view, as “so-and-so’s” story, hence the title of the film. There are some moments of clever humour, such as the time when Betty is on the phone to her father. He realises that his wife is returning from her visit, and wishes it wasn’t so soon – “You’ve only had her for three months,” he complains to Betty, “I’ve got her for life.”
There is always compelling complexity, and Cantet gradually ratchets up the tension and intrigue. The acting is brilliant, the suspense always high. There are one or two minor flaws, and the ending has a slight sense of anti-climax, but after what has gone before, this is a very slight minus. Overall this is staggeringly brilliant. Star rating: four-and-a-half.
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