Friday, February 13, 2015

174. Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s francophone film “Two Days, One Night” (Deux jours, une nuit) (2014): Ethics and self-interest in a job-insecure world















The Dardenne brothers’ work Two Days, One Night is typical of a movie that makes you think beyond its apparent light-hearted positive ending that closes a tense and bleak scenario of sudden impending unemployment. It is a film that makes the viewer ponder if a positive ending is indeed so beyond what the film’s official ending suggests for the viewer’s benefit. More importantly, the film presents a grim situation that could be universal in democratic environs.

The facts are stacked against the film’s protagonist Sandra (Marion Cotillard) in Two Days, One Night. Sandra, a factory worker, has been hospitalized for depression and has now been discharged to resume work. While she is on leave getting treated, her employer who runs a solar panel manufacturing plant, realizes that his company needs to tweak its workforce to stay profitable and a sick employee like Sandra is not helping matters. One way out for the employer would be lay-off Sandra and ask the other employers to work more hours and compensate them with an attractive bonus for their additional sweat. The small company could then stay afloat and make profits and share some of it with the employees.

Now the Dardenne brothers, who write their own original scripts, when presenting the tale of a mentally fragile lady worker in Two Days, One Night, are also presenting the fragile Belgian economy (or for that matter, the world’s). That’s the charm of the directors who are in their sixties and perceptible of changes in their own neighbourhood. What you see is a lot more than what you think you are viewing. The film is more than the depiction of 2 critical days and 1 night in Sandra’s life. The larger perspective the film offers is the dilemma of Belgian industries that have to trim their costs to remain competitive in a global economy. And in a democracy, it ought to “appear” that the workers are increasingly a part of the decision-making process. And the decision the workers make is to bring in more money for their own stretched monetary household budgets by working more hours. That decision results in the employer giving the pink slip to the worker Sandra recently hospitalized for depression. Thus 16 families stand to gain from the promised bonus; the employer presumably spends less on the gross salary outgo for his healthy 16 employees; and his factory remains financially viable. Only the 17th family, the family of Sandra with her caring husband and two school-going kids are to face a financial tsunami, with Sandra unemployed. The ethical question is whether a sick employee, vulnerable on several fronts, physical, financial, and isolated by her guilty co-workers, can be shown the door.  At the same time a sick employee reduces the profits of the company, which in turn cannot be expected pay bonuses to its healthy workers due to decreasing profits.

The Dardenne brothers seem to be attracted to the subject of unemployment and its ripple effect on society, both social and psychological.  An early Dardenne brothers’ work Rosetta (1999), which also dealt with unemployment, not merely won the director-scriptwriter duo the coveted Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival but the film had the honour of being associated by the Belgian Government to a bill already in Parliament which ultimately became the Rosetta law (after the movie’s name), a labour law protecting young workers similar to the movie’s protagonist Rosetta. Two Days, One Night, is yet another delectable film that looks at unemployment in Belgium or rather the fear of unemployment for employed workers universally.


Absence of solidarity: A scene that captures it all--the sadness, the guilt,
the empathy, and the self interest

While the script and direction of the Dardenne brothers lead the viewer to gently slip into the viewpoint of Sandra (so often in the film the camera is either behind Ms Cotillard or facing her) so that we are led to empathize with Sandra, a sick lady who is almost forced to beg her 16 work compatriots to forgo the bonus that has been assured, which understandably would make a big difference in their quality of lives with Sandra’s exit and their extra hours of labour at the plant. While the viewer is cajoled to see 16 different views to the options before the workers, ethical issues are cleverly reversed on the victim. Sandra is forced to see a dozen or so viewpoints of her co-workers about the choice she would have make if she were in their shoes.  The overall brilliance of the film again rests with the scriptwriting-director duo who are able to bring on the table differing reactions. One reaction is of fear of losing his/her job if Sandra is retained in the plant. Another interesting reaction is the nagging emergence of guilty conscience of voting against Sandra when she had hid a co-worker’s mistake to help him retain his job and covered it up by saying she was responsible instead for the mistake.  Yet another reaction comes from another co-worker who wants to flee a spouse who forces her to make decisions as he wants them made. Subtleties of the Dardenne brothers’ cinema are many: parents don’t want their children to hear as the adults make their unethical decisions, employers like to pass on the brunt of their unethical decisions on the most vulnerable of their workforce at each given time.

The Dardenne brothers have stated that they always wanted to make this film but the global economic upheaval that began in 2008 spurred them on. According to their interview given to Larry Rohter in the New York Times, the seed of movie germinated when they read a sociological book called The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society edited by Pierre Bourdieu. Apparently one case study in that book dealt with a non-productive worker. The idea of the managers influencing the workers to push such a worker aside with the carrot of bonuses for the productive workers in Two Days, One Night comes from that case study. To have built the complex tale of Two Days, One Night from a sociological case study is a creditable feat, especially when the viewer is privy to the interesting twist the employer provides Sandra in confidence towards the end of the film. It reverses Sandra’s position so dramatically.

The vulnerable and the more vulnerable worker

The importance of Two Days, One Night lies in two distinct departments of the movie: the scriptwriting and the acting. The scriptwriting reveals the importance the brothers give to psychology of the personalities in the film. The honest conversations are always in the open space. The unethical conversations are in closed environments, with no witnesses. The Dardenne brothers allows for the discussion on the lack of sex between Sandra and her husband to be discussed in the open areas but in stark contrast Sandra’s employer makes his final deal with Sandra in closed space.  In the final moments of the film, there is an awkward optimism. But is it real? We always tend to believe the employer is a villain but in the evolving management scenario the co-worker can be an equal villain--all for self-interest and self-preservation.

The best and most effective role of the script is pushing the viewer to make choice at each stage of the film as what he or she would do in that particular situation when Sandra meets up with each of her 16 co-workers rather than the viewer making value judgements on each character. That is what makes this film remarkable.

A sleepless night spent to seek support from co-workers

It appears that Ms Cotillard was approached by the Dardenne brothers for this role while they were produces of Ms Cotillard’s earlier work Rust and Bone and she agreed. Her work in Two Days, One Night is amazing as she is deglamorized and has to combine mental fragility and resilience. The complex emotions required of her are truly phenomenal. She richly deserves her Oscar nomination for this demanding role.

The effect of unemployment on caring spouses


The Dardenne brothers ought to have been recognized for their admirable script. The film may be bleak, but it throws up important and relevant questions applicable to all of us. It is good to have directors like the Dardenne brothers making such rich thought-provoking cinema offering catharsis for the viewer just as the Greek playwrights of the distant past.


P.S. The film won the best film award at the Sidney film festival. The film is one of the author's top 10 films of 2014. Marion Cotillard, nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her role in this film, did not win the award.

Friday, January 30, 2015

173. US director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film “Whiplash” (2014): The ultimate Svengali levelled









I saw a drive in him” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, referring to his former student Sean Casey 
The next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged” —Terence Fletcher in Whiplash

A quick assessment of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash would be that the film is about a music student carving out a drumming career in a jazz band. Another would be classifying the film as a tale of a musician’s long and winding journey to acquire recognition by the critics who matter.  Others would only remember the film as one that forces the viewer to hate and cringe at the actions of an inhuman mentor, a perfectionist, who wrecks the lives of young creative diligent minds by physical and verbal abuse, all for his own goal in life. While all these are justifiable perceptions of the film, young Damien Chazelle’s script and film offers more than the obvious.

The film’s opening sequence is of the camera (the viewer’s point of view) entering a darkened corridor at the end of which the student Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is religiously practicing on a drum and cymbal set.  Concentrating on his music, he is oblivious of all else around him.  The lighting and camera movement innocuously provide the prologue for what is to follow without a word spoken. Chazelle’s poster of the film too captures that very mood. The spotlight is on the drummer.  And that is what could mislead the viewer. The film is equally about what is not under the spotlight, the shadowy part of the space, surrounding the drummer.The film is as much about the various characters (the teacher, the father and the lover) in the film who directly and indirectly shapes Andrew to what he becomes ultimately.


Fletcher (Simmons) (right) exacting what he wants from the drummer

The prologue over, from the darkened closed doors emerge a man in black Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) like a cat’s stealthy entrance, followed  by a defining staccato conversation and the removal of his jacket (denoting that he is at work), and an equally dramatic exit slamming the doors only to reappear again apologetically to retrieve his jacket. Most viewers will be transfixed by the overpowering presence of the man in black (Simmons), but a keen viewer will note the effect is totally orchestrated by the scriptwriter and director Chazelle. It is not Simmons who has grabbed your attention; it is Chazelle who is really shaking up the viewer, with the lighting, Fletcher’s clothes, the quiet entry and the loud exit. Chazelle by getting Fletcher to remove his jacket for such a short time has told the viewer that the man takes his job very, very seriously.

Whiplash is more than a movie about music; it is a lovely work exploring the ultimate Svengali bringing out the best of drumming in a wannabe using insults, intimidation, skulduggery and psychological manipulation. While Andrew takes the spotlight, Fletcher is the less assessed ogre lurking in the shadows.


Developing the Charlie Parker in a first year student with  'a drive"

The viewer is manipulated by Chazelle to hate Terence Fletcher, who does everything to ensure his jazz ensemble is the best of the best. He spots the “drive” in a former trumpet player Sean Casey when the rest of the Schaefer School of Music faculty was telling him “Maybe this isn’t for you “ (who the viewer never gets to see on screen), picks him for his ensemble just as he does Andrew the drummer, to push them to the limits psychologically and physically to bring out the best. Sean Casey ultimately becomes the first trumpet at Lincoln Center.  Only Casey dies shortly after “in a car accident” according to Fletcher.  Casey’s Svengali—Terrence Fletcher (Simmons)—is sorry and provides a eulogy for the departed in a touching manner by making his entire ensemble listen to a CD of Casey, with the name Sean scribbled on it, playing. Evidently, Fletcher had recorded Casey’s musical output and kept the recording with him. There is a human side to the beast, who spits out venom at his students, and yet spots the real potential talent, shapes that, and makes them famous. Much later in the film, we learn that Sean Casey did not die in a car accident but hanged himself. Fletcher can lie as well. The spacing and timing of the two differing bits of information about Casey's death provided to the viewer is clever. The original details that Chezelle provides work as an antidote to the evil sketch of Fletcher elsewhere in the film.  The revised information on Casey’s death makes the viewer to reappraise Fletcher and his tactics. So are the innocuous yet brilliant lines written by Chezelle and mouthed by Fletcher “I never really had a Charlie Parker.  But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And that’s more than most people ever do.” The man in black is not all black. He too has a talent to spot the Charlie Parkers of the future and chisel them into a live Charlie Parker. And he does transform Andrew into a Charlie Parker, Andrew’s ideal musician.

Who is this Charlie Parker mentioned again and again in this movie? Charlie Parker is a legendary jazz saxophonist who often combined jazz with blues, Latin and Classical music. The recurring references to Parker in Whiplash relate to a real incident involving Parker, the jazz saxophonist. Apparently a real drummer colleague of the teenage Charlie Parker named Jo Jones threw a cymbal at the floor near Parker’s feet because Parker didn’t change key with the rest of the band (according to Wikipedia) , just as Fletcher threw a cymbal close to Andrew’s head in Whiplash. In real life that incident apparently inspired Charlie Parker to practice inordinately until he became a legend in music. In Whiplash, Charlie Parker is first mentioned over dinner by Andrew. Then you hear Fletcher wishing he had a Charlie Parker to mentor. And finally you see Andrew transform into a Charlie Parker not with a saxophone, bit with the drums. Again, if one looks at the film closely it is the brilliant screenplay that comes out trumps.

Light and shadows effectively used by Chezelle

There are aspects of the Svengali’s manipulation that one has to conjecture from what is not shown in screen.  One of them relates to the mysterious disappearance of the musical notes folder of the drummer Fletcher decides is better than Andrew. Fletcher tells the band never to lose the notes.  Then director/scriptwriter shows Fletcher noticing Andrew sitting by the drummer turning pages for the drummer. This is followed by the mysterious disappearance of the folder. One can only surmise that it was Fletcher who ensured the disappearance so that Andrew could play without the notes.  If the viewer takes the incident to be happenstance, one is missing out on the brilliance of the screenplay (Chezelle) and editing (Tom Cross) in Whiplash.

It would be short-sighted to view Whiplash as a duel of egos between the mentor and the mentored. Whiplash is more about levelling of the egos between the two. A keen viewer will note the camera perspective that allowed Fletcher to tower over ensemble players throughout the film  making a defining change in the  point of view  at the end when drummer  seems to be looking down at the conductor Fletcher, and finally having both Fletcher and Andrew  appear at the same visual level, each appreciating the other. So much is said in the film without the spoken word—in a movie where spoken word seems to be overarching at key moments. Are the words of Fletcher, “Not my tempo” more memorable in the film or the door opening precisely when second hand of the clock moves to 9 o’clock? There are invisible aspects of Fletcher the Terrible not so subtly brought on screen by the scriptwriter/director. The reconciliation between the tormentor and the tormented, the mutual admiration of each others talent and the manner in which the unusual ending shows the gains of the lies, torture, and manipulation that helps another Charlie Parker arrive on the music scene are laudable.

The Svengali in black merges with the shadows


Ironically Whiplash is competing with one another film at the Oscars that deals with another obsession of another character, that of the real life Alan Turing the mathematician turned inventor of the world’s first computer in The Imitation Game. In both films, a flat tyre delays two different characters to make the films interesting. In both films, the love interests are peripheral to the tale but add considerably to the character development. In both films, the protagonists are loners in school with no friends. Only Whiplash does it all with subtlety, an aspect bereft in the competing film. But then most audiences do not appreciate subtlety.

The shadows/lack of lighting gains importance in the final drum sequence as in the prologue as lights seems to go off before Andrews drum solo takes centre stage.  Fletcher is shadowed out, the ensemble is not lit, and slowly the drums are lit by the spotlight.  Then follows the amazing solo by Andrew which at times are not heard (by the human ear but heard by the mind’s ear) but only seen (a brilliant exhibition of sound mixing in the history of cinema and deserving of the Oscar nomination). First, Chezelle shows us the sweat drops on the cymbals and later a few drops of blood.  Fletcher is shown lending a helping hand to set Andrew's cymbals right. Fletcher takes off his jacket during the solo as in the first scene of Fletcher in Whiplash.  Fletcher is in business again, he has spotted the real Charlie Parker.  Such importance to details make Chezelle’s work truly amazing. The final body language between Fletcher and Andrew is one of mutual appreciation. A Svengali is sometimes needed. Somewhere in the shadows, Andrew’s dad’s visage changes from concern for his son’s physical agony to one of celebration. What a film! It is one of the finest films from USA in a long while with incredible attention to scriptwriting, editing, sound mixing (that includes patches of near silence) and cinematography.  The contribution of Simmons as Fletcher is overarching in this lovely film. Chezelle deserved a nomination for direction as well, despite the Oscar snub.  One wishes the 30 year old Chezelle, with just two feature films behind him, proves to be a Charlie Parker of cinema.


P.S. Whiplash is one of the author's best ten movies of 2014 and the only one from USA.  The film won 3 Oscars-- Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor (for J K Simmons) and Best Sound Mixing. It has won the Golden Globe award and the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor for J.K.Simmons who plays Fletcher. At BAFTA, it picked up awards also for editing and sound. At Sundance Film Festival it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award. 


Saturday, January 10, 2015

172. Argentine director Damián Szifrón’s “Wild Tales” (Relatos salvajes) (2014): Black comedy that entertains while making us introspect






The "wild" characters from the six segments


Wild Tales is a gem of an entertainer made up of six stand-alone, dark, comic tales. It is a portmanteau film with a difference; all the six tales are written and directed by one man--Damián Szifrón.  He is also the co-editor of this impressive work. Surprisingly, this Argentine director is only in his late thirties and he has made a film that belies his age. Most audiences will love it because there are elements in the six tales they will easily identify with, irrespective of where they live on this planet.  Interestingly, the film was co-produced by the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, who must be delighted that he has invested his money well.

It is “wild” because it depicts extreme reactions of ordinary individuals, who are frustrated by present urban societal pressures and the outcomes are quite plausible if the frustrated individuals are left with little or no choice to correct their predicaments, created often not by themselves but by others. Damián Szifrón may be zooming in on frustrations in urban Argentina but a global viewer would easily identify the situations as universal.

"Pasternak": Wild revenge of a snubbed creative mind

The opening segment “Pasternak” is a prologue to the main film before you see the film’s credits hilarious credit sequence. The prologue is essential for the viewer to appreciate the comic elements in the illustrated animals shown in the credits.  The humans in the film Wild Tales are not far removed from the colorful wild animals in the credit sequence. The humans are ordinary people who can indeed become wild.

Without providing spoilers for those who are yet to enjoy the film, it is important to note ’’Pasternak” is a tale relating to the frustrations of a budding music composer named Pasternak, who finds his creative output is trashed by critics/professors and his life is gradually ripped apart by several people in his life. And the brilliant part of this segment is that you never get to see Mr Pasternak—you only get to see those who have ruined him.

"The Rats:" How to deal with rats in a restaurant 

The next segment “The Rats” is set in a restaurant but the rodents are human.  The human rat is a social climber who has succeeded in life by trampling down on poorer sections of society, often wrecking their lives with impunity and killing the bread winners of marginal lower middle class families who cannot survive the economic pressures.  This segment also presents the flip side view of lower middle class family members driven to prison for offences created by economic strains and eventually preferring to remain behind bars with basic food and amenities rather than succumb to “human” rodents who wreck your life outside prison.


"The Strongest": Class wars on the road

The segment “The Strongest” is all about road rage of two individuals with a difference. Director-writer Damián Szifrón adds the element of social economic disparity—one is driving a high-end car, the other a jalopy, both using the same highway.  The rich look at the slow moving jalopy refusing to give way for fast moving cars with disdain. The poor look to avenge the cocky rich. Who is stronger? The best part is the finale of the segment where the policeman makes an ironical statement. Kudos to the writer Damián Szifrón! The audience anywhere will erupt when they hear that line. (This critic is intentionally not reproducing it as it would be spoiler!)

"Little Bomb": The expert demolisher (Ricardo Darin) demolished

Argentine actor Ricardo Darin is impressive in every role in every film that this critic recalls having seen him in and the segment “Little Bomb” in Wild Tales is no exception. Ricardo Darin plays a well-paid demolition expert, married and a father of a lovely girl. His well heeled life is slowly demolished by a private sector Buenos Aires traffic entity responsible for ensuring cars are parked only in designated places and having the authority to tow away those that do not comply to the rules.

But such entities can get high handed and citizens can get high strung, if they are convinced that they did not break any rules but have option but to pay the large fines. This segment also reveals writer Damián Szifrón’s empathy for the parking woes of car owners in Buenos Aires and how a “terrorist” can become a local hero. Damián Szifrón’s characters here and elsewhere act and react as ordinary individuals driven up against the wall by forces un-intentionally created by a well-meaning society.

The segment “The Proposal” reiterates Damián Szifrón’s interest in the class divide and how the rich try to use the poor to get out of nasty situations such as a rich family member causing a car accident leading to a death of a poor citizen.  As in the earlier segment “The Rats,” Szifrón’s script deals with corruption but in “The Proposal” that aspect is openly shown with amazing humor. The black comedy takes a U-turn when the righteous, scarred public avenges by “wildly” killing the wrong person.


"Till Death Do Us Part": The bride confirms the bridegroom's infidelity

The final segment titled “Till Death Do Us Part”—the famous wedding phrase used in Christian weddings--is about a wedding reception for the newlyweds in a hotel in Buenos Aires.  The bride stumbles on a hidden relationship the bridegroom has with one of the invited guests and what follows is best described by Shakespeare’s words “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” The resulting “wild” roller coaster events during the wedding reception constitute black comedy, sinister and yet hilarious.

While we laugh at all the six segments, there are pointers from the film to take home. Can critics destroy creative minds? Can the upwardly mobile successful citizens realize who they have trampled along the way? Can we project our road rage towards people who are indeed breaking rules without considering the consequences? Can the private and public sector perform with a heart towards society? Can public rage against corruption and the wrongdoings of the rich go sadly wrong?  Can spouses who fall deeply in love forgive each other’s weaknesses?

Wild Tales is a combination of intelligent original screenplay writing and good direction. This wild film is a social critique of Argentina today, entertaining the audiences in its stride. Intelligent comedy is not easy; Wild Tales makes it look easy. The numerous audience awards it has picked up at film festivals globally testify to its universal appeal and for Argentine cinema, rare indeed is a film that has won a staggering tally of 15 national awards. Damián Szifrón has arrived on the world cinema map.



P.S. Wild Tales  has won audience awards at the San Sebastian film festival, the Sao Paulo film festival, the Sarajevo film festival, and the Oslo Films of the South film festival. Its box office returns have already exceeded 7 times its production cost. It is one of the 5 films that made the final  list of nominees for the Best Foreign Film Oscar 2015 but did not win it. Wild Tales is one of the author's top 10 films of 2014.

Friday, January 02, 2015

171. Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film “Leviathan” (2014): A bold political film made with a superb aesthetic flourish






































During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man.” Thomas Hobbes, in his political book on statecraft called Leviathan, published in 1651

“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook or tie down its tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through its nose or pierce its jaw with a hook? Will it keep begging you for mercy? Will it  speak to you with gentle words? Will it make an agreement with you for you to take it as your slave for life? Can you make a pet of it like a bird or put it on a leash for the young women in your house? Will traders barter for it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its hide with harpoons or its head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on it, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of  it is overpowering." Book of Job, Chapter 41, 1-9 in the Holy Bible (Job is referred to as Ayub in the Holy Koran) (This quotation is recalled in part by the priest in Zvyagintsev's film Leviathan)

All the four Andrei Zvyagintsev feature films—The Return, The Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan  provide an unusual amalgam of family relationships, politics, religion, philosophy, literature, psychology, sociology,  visual metaphors  and music. Each element grips the viewer when recognized in each of the films. Each element provokes inward looking questions in the minds of the viewers. Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers worldwide who consistently make awesome films for those who can appreciate serious cinema—alongside directors such as Terrence Malick (USA), Carlos Reygadas (Mexico), Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey), Paolo Sorrentino (Italy), and Naomi Kawase (Japan).

Each of Zvyagintsev’s four films have deservedly won major accolades at premier film festivals (the Golden Lion at Venice for The Return; the Best Actor award at Cannes for Banishment; the Un Certain Regard section Jury prize at Cannes, Silver Peacock for Best Actress at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa,  and the Grand Prize at the Ghent International festival for Elena;  Best Screenplay award at Cannes, the Golden Peacock for Best Film and the Silver Peacock for Best Actor at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa, and the Best Film at the London Film Festival for Leviathan).

Zvyagintsev's Job is the honest Nikolai (shortened to Kolya in the film) willing
to forgive an erring wife: A Silver-Peacock-winning performance
by Alexei Serebryakov 

At a very elementary level, Leviathan is a tale of an honest man resisting the wiles of a corrupt Mayor of his coastal town to grab the land on which he and his ancestors lived. The honest man Nikolai --shortened to Kolya-- (Alexei  Serebryakov) is on the verge of losing his house when even the courts go against him.  His former friend from his Army days Dimitri—shortened to Dimi--, now a high flying lawyer practicing in Moscow, arrives with powerful connections and documents to checkmate the corrupt Mayor. The tragedy that follows is not far removed from a Biblical character called Job (or Ayub, if you are a Muslim).

When critics like me discover and point out elements of politics and theology in Zvyagitsev’s entire oeuvvre, readers are sceptical if too much is ascribed to a film beyond the obvious narrative tale. In the earlier films of Zvyagintsev, politics and theology were partly hidden behind visual and aural symbols. Many viewers of the first three Zvyagintsev films would have discounted the theological elements unless they were well read in the scriptures and acquainted with the cinema of Andrei Tarkovksy. Both the late Russian maestro Andrei Tarkovsky and  Andrei Zvyagintsev (the latter is in his early fifties)  are intellectuals who have good knowledge of Christian scriptures and use them to enhance the depth of their cinema.  

The title of the film Leviathan comes from two interlinked sources:  the Biblical Book of Job (Chapter 41) and Thomas Hobbes’ political book Leviathan  (published in 1651) on statecraft linking politics and religion. Unlike Zvyagintsev’s preceding three films, where religion and politics remained partly hidden, in Leviathan Zvyagintsev openly discusses both elements. There is a scene in Leviathan where wall portraits of past Russian leaders Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev are consciously used as targets for rifle shooting during a picnic and even Yeltsin is disparagingly referred in the dialogue.  (Putin is not included here, but a photograph of Putin is discretely on the wall in the Mayor's office, just as Tarkovsky added Trotsky’s photograph on the wall in a brief scene in Mirror.) Religion, too, comes to the fore in Leviathan, as the Book of Job passage is quoted by a priest in the film and the penultimate ironical sequence is a church sermon by a bishop with the villainous mayor and his family listening to it with piety.  Tarkovsky, who could never be bold to openly criticize the Russian politics, would have been delighted to see what Zvyagintsev has achieved in Leviathan. One guesses that Zvyagintsev realized that his political and religious statements through symbols used in his earlier works did not reach out to a wide audience and he had to be more explicit in Leviathan. Even the TV program shown briefly in Leviathan is discussing the Pussy Riot case. Ironically, Leviathan is Russia’s official entry to the 2015 Oscars.

It is therefore relevant to reproduce below  the director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s statement provided at the Cannes film festival for the media on his film Leviathan

“When a man feels the tight grip of anxiety in the face of need and uncertainty, when he gets overwhelmed with hazy images of the future, scared for his loved ones, and fearful of death on the prowl, what can he do except give up his freedom and free will, and hand these treasures over willingly to a trustworthy person in exchange for deceptive guarantees of security, social protection, or even of an illusory community?”
 “Thomas Hobbes’ outlook on the state is that of a philosopher on man’s deal with the devil: he sees it as a monster created by man to prevent ‘the war of all against all’, and by the understandable will to achieve security in exchange for freedom, man’s sole true possession.”
 “Just like we are all, from birth, marked by the original sin, we are all born in a ‘state’. The spiritual power of the state over man knows no limit.”
“The arduous alliance between man and the state has been a theme of life in Russia for quite a long time. But if my film is rooted in the Russian land, it is only because I feel no kinship, no genetic link with anything else. Yet I am deeply convinced that, whatever society each and everyone of us lives in, from the most developed to the most archaic, we will all be faced one day with the following alternative: either live as a slave or live as a free man. And if we naively think that there must be a kind of state power that can free us from that choice, we are seriously  mistaken. In the life of every man, there comes a time when one is faced with the system, with the “world”, and must stand up for his sense of justice, his sense of God on Earth.”
“It is still possible today to ask these questions to the audience and to find a tragic hero in our land, a ‘son of God’, a character who has been tragic from time immemorial, and this is precisely the reason why my homeland isn’t lost yet to me, or to those who have made this film.

The predicament of the character Job of the Bible is not far removed from the pile of misfortunes heaped on a good man Nikolai or Kolya in Leviathan. Zvyagintsev, like Tarkovsky, is very familiar with the Bible and weave elements from it into his films.  Nikolai in Leviathan represents the average good Russian.  



The good working class Kolya is broken like Job in the Bible from all sides
as misfortunes pile up: yet he forgives his erring wife
Co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin worked on the last three Zvyagintsev films including Leviathan. Zvyagintsev and Negin weave in politics and religion with a rare felicity; they bring to mind the collaboration of the Polish Kieslowski and his co-scriptwriter Piesiewicz. However, Zvyagintsev’s collaboration with music composer Philip Glass is limited to Elena and Leviathan. Philip Glass’ music used in the film was Glass’ composition Akhnaten, the Pharaoh, who practiced monotheism in ancient Egypt. That operatic musical composition  also deals with power and religion, not far removed from the subject of Leviathan. The use of Glass’ music in the two Zvyagintsev films could serve as a master-class for some of the Hollywood’s currently feted directors because Zvyagintsev uses music only when it is essential and relevant and adjusts the volume with care. The rest is diagetic sound on his film soundtracks.  The third major Zvyagintsev collaborator is his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who continues to contribute richly to the visual canvas in all the four Zvyagintsev films. While most viewers will recall the fossilized bones of a blue whale in Leviathan, the most enigmatic shot in the film is the shot of a live whale in the distance at a key points\ in the film—the last scene of Kolya’s wife alive in the film as she contemplates the sea and her predicament. What Zvyagintsev and Krichman achieved in Leviathan in the final snowbound sequence was ironically close to the final shots of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, the Turkish film that competed with Leviathan and won the top prize at the 2014 Cannes film festival. Though both are amazing films, Leviathan, for this critic had more plus points when comparing both. Most importantly, Leviathan was more original in content than the Golden Palm winning Winter Sleep, which was anchored to a Chekov story. Most of all, Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, though referring to Hobbes and the Bible, is extraordinarily brave in showcasing the corruption in contemporary non-Communist Russia. And like Ceylan's Winter Sleep, Leviathan also underscores the plight of the poor when the rich and powerful people, crush their lives. Even the motives behind an apparent good deed to adopt a friend's teenage son is questioned in the film.


Zvyagintsev’s cinema is not the run-of-the-mill cinema. Many crucial scenes of the tale are never shown on screen—he prefers to show the aftermath. The viewer is forced to imagine what could have happened. The fight between Nikolai and Dimitri is never shown; we only see Dimitri’s injured face. The death of Kolya’s wife is never shown; only her dead body is shown.  The evil antagonist forces are described in a reverse quixotic detail when the corrupt Mayor asks Dimitri, the lawyer, if he was baptized, when Dimitri confronts the Mayor with the evidence of his "sins." What a loaded question, and the irony is, who is asking! The Orthodox Bishop asks the corrupt Mayor "We are in God's house. Did you take communion?" and reminds him that both are doing God's work.  One of the final scenes is of the corrupt Mayor’s child looking up at the church’s ceiling after the sermon which includes the statement of the Bishop "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Nothing in Zvyagintsev’s cinema is without considered thought. An intelligent viewer has to pick up the details. And as in Elena, Leviathan too ends with squawking of a crow on the soundtrack, before the colorful and deep music of Philip Glass takes over for the finale.


Kolya's teenaged son Roma mopes over his stepmother's unethical actions: Zvyagintsev's
imagery of  a fossilized "Leviathan" is brought into perspective


Children and boys in particular played major roles in all the four Zvyagintsev feature films. In Elena and Leviathan, the young boys find alternate entertainment with their friends far away from home.  In Elena, the youngsters fight among themselves; in Leviathan, the youngsters are less boisterous and appear drugged/drunk, no longer fighting among themselves to achieve something. The boys gather in a broken-down unused church.  Zvyagintsev is evidently making a time-based sociological statement on Russian youth and the Russian Orthodox Church.  Young-boys-revolting-against-their-parents is a recurring theme for Zvyagintsev. In Leviathan, the son Roma is born from a first marriage of Kolya and his anger against his stepmother is understandable. When Dimitri is beaten up and threatened to be shot to death by the Mayor, Dimitri is asked if he has any thoughts for his daughter we never see. What Zvyagintsev shows us instead is a little girl on the train Dimitri is taking back to Moscow, possibly reminding Dimitri of his own.

In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous embodying both the good and the evil, whom the
good Kolya forgives 

Wives in all Zvyagintsev’s films are interesting to study: some good, some evil, and some ambiguous in their actions. In Leviathan, the wife is ambiguous—we can only guess why she acted the way she did. She strays from the path of a good wife but chooses to return to her husband. In The Return, the viewer is never told why the father was absent for years. Zvyagintsev apparently believes that the jigsaw puzzles (a motif used in The Banishment) he presents in his films in varied ways can be completed by an intelligent viewer. He does not believe in spoon feeding his audience. Lilya, thw wife in Leviathan, asks her lover Dimitri "Do you believe in God?" Evidently she does.

To end this review, it might be more than relevant to again quote from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan“He that is taken and put into prison or chains is not conquered, though overcome; for he is still an enemy.” The enigmatic shot of the live whale in the distance towards the final minutes of the film exemplifies this last Hobbes quote.


P.S. All the three preceding Zvyagintsev films--The Return, The Banishment, and Elena--have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Leviathan is the best of the 10 top films of 2014 for the author. It has subsequently won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

170. The late Chilean maestro Raúl Ruiz' Portuguese film “Mistérios de Lisboa” (Mysteries of Lisbon) (2010): A brilliant cinematic treatise on memories

  































     “My films are not fiction films but about fiction”---Raúl Ruiz

     “In today’s cinema there is too much light, it is time to return to the shadows”--- Raúl Ruiz in his book ‘Poetics of Cinema’

      “I chose to take refuge in the dramaturgy of dreams” ---Raúl Ruiz


These three quotations of Raúl Ruiz are important starting points for analyzing the penultimate cinematic work of the talented Raúl Ruiz-- Mysteries of Lisbon. Ruiz had already made over a hundred movies and he made Mysteries of Lisbon knowing well that his days were numbered after being diagnosed with a life threatening liver tumour.  He completed the film while recovering from a successful liver transplant, only to die soon after, ironically from a lung infection.  While one can sense the brilliance of this cinematic work, it is difficult to distinguish what credit ought to be attributed  to the Portuguese novelist Camilo Castillo Branco, who wrote the book in 1854, without having read the work (the English translation of the book is not easily available), and what needs to be actually credited to director Ruiz.  Despite that conundrum, there are obvious pointers to what was definitely the contribution of Ruiz. The following analysis pertains to those aspects of the movie that are predominantly attributable to Ruiz alone.


Young Joao looks at his 'mother' in the company of Father Dinis



Father Dinis and Joao's "mother" (Maria Joao Bastos) after she becomes a nun

Mysteries of Lisbon is a 272 minute film unfolding a convoluted and yet interesting tale narrated by a tormented epileptic orphan Joao under the care of a priest named Father Dinis and some nuns. The tale is mostly set in the early 19th century Portugal. Priests and nuns there often have led colourful lives, preceding their final vocation. For author Branco, who was by all accounts a religious person, the Church in Portugal at that time provided sanctuary for orphans, widows, and those in trouble. Either Branco or Ruiz, or both together, use the puppet paper theatre as a prop and as a narrative punctuation device for the epileptic Joao to imagine vivid tales of grown-ups in aristocratic Portugal, who are all somehow connected to Father Dinis (Adriano Luz) and a lady who claims to be his mother, who has gifted him the puppet paper theatre while recovering from an epileptic attack. It is thus not surprising that characters in Joao ‘s world are closely interrelated.  (For example, Joao’s “mother’s“  husband’s mistress turns up later in the tale as the wife of Albert de Magalhaes, another important person in Joao’s life story.) In that process, Branco examines the social importance Portuguese gave to the firstborn in a family, how paternal titles made or unmade individuals, how fathers wreck the love lives of their daughters for personal benefit only to rue their actions much later in life and the lack of fidelity of abusive husbands.

Any approach to appreciate Ruiz’ cinema cannot dissociate it from  Ruiz’ life--a Chilean director who chose self-exile in the early Seventies following the US-supported coup that removed the democratically elected Salvador Allende while installing the Chilean armed forces Commander Augusto Pinochet in power instead.  Today, the world knows the late Pinochet was implicated on over 300 charges of human rights violations. The multi-talented Ruiz fled from Chile under Pinochet hopping from one European country to another, frenetically writing plays and books and making over a 100 films. Each of these works reflected his distaste for the armed forces that took power in Chile and his wistful love of Chile, a country he could not return to work as before.  Even though Mysteries of Lisbon is predominantly set in Portugal and France, there is a sequence where the ‘orphan’ Joao ‘appears’ to end his last days in Brazil, not far from Ruiz’ homeland Chile. Ruiz forever dreamt of returning to Chile. As per his wishes, Ruiz was buried in Chile. Such indirect references abound in each work of Ruiz. While Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially about dreams, the final sequence reiterates the importance of dreams.  At the end, the colours of the screen fade to merge with empty white light. The film of shadows comes to a close. Ruiz transcends Branco’s words using cinematic effects.

Shadows and perspectives: Ruiz upstaging Branco
(the shadow is of  Father Dinis) 
A casual viewer of Mysteries of Lisbon would not associate the work with surrealism and magic realism more obvious in Ruiz’ works, such as, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) and Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983). Early into Mysteries of Lisbon, there is a short sequence where another kid of Joao’s age leads Joao to a spot behind the hedges of the orphanage where some men have been hanged in public view. The kid claims that one of the hanged men is a thief and his father. The viewer can see the hanged individuals. Joao is crestfallen as he has been accused of being the son of a thief and confused but does not respond as one would expect.  Father Dinis, who accompanies young Joao and the kid who is showing Joao the hanging, is merely studying Joao’s face  rather than the hanged persons, and he leads Joao back impassively after Joao has taken in the scene of  the hanged individuals. Where is the surrealism or magic realism?  Could this be a real hanging, so close to the orphanage? If it was real, why is Father Dinis not appearing to be concerned with the hanging? Why is he only concerned about Joao? Why do doors open and close by themselves in the film? Why do certain paintings come alive for Joao? Why does an important transaction between two friends take place in a room with two massive religious frescoes on the walls and just two chairs, devoid of any other furniture? Why does Ruiz employ two Joaos during the duel scene, one committing suicide after pensively walking in the background, and another active Joao who partook in the duel going on to live another day with honour? The answers to each of those questions are “mysteries” that contribute to the richness of the film and help the viewer to unravel Ruiz’ complex movie Mysteries of Lisbon with its unusual ending.

Towards the end of Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon, the grown up Joao encounters Elisa de Montfort (Clotilde Hesme). She pauses in her walk and comes to Joao to state, “You lacked courage, my dear.”  This is a sequence which could have been typical of Ruiz’ cinema referring to Ruiz’ political courage or it could also have been Branco’s idea. While the lack of identity is a problem for Joao the orphan, the lack of citizenship of Ruiz is perhaps one reason for the director to choose to make this film, which mirrors his own life.

Riches to rags: The teenaged Joao encountering a once proud Marquis
reduced to beggary searching for the 'mausoleum' of his daughter
Throughout Mysteries of Lisbon, the peripheral non-aristocratic characters listen to conversations of the aristocrats and seniors openly. Servants not just bring in chairs and messages for their masters, but serve as silent and sometimes expressive external commentators within the film.  Even in an abbey, junior priests eavesdrop on the colourful tales of senior priests. Money transforms people of lesser social stature into aristocrats in Mysteries of Lisbon and a proud Marquise is transformed into a blind beggar in the course of the tale.

Torn shreds of an unread letter captured by the camera
placed below the resting pieces

The cinematography (André Szankowski ) of the film is stunning. The camera teases the viewer. The camera goes under a glass table to capture the torn pieces of a letter that is never read. Stories within a story deliberately show individuals with unreal beards and make-up, while the main story in contrast never compromises on quality. Dreams within dreams are treated differently by Ruiz.


Using the paper puppet theater to punctuate Acts

Mysteries of Lisbon is essentially a brilliant treatise on memories. At the end of the movie the viewer is shown a tired and graying Joao who needs a walking stick, but no taller than a teenager, narrating his tale to a scribe. He says “I was 15 years old and I didn’t know who I was. I went on no outings or holidays. I received no presents. I don’t know how long it has been since I lost consciousness. And the moment I opened my eyes. I thought I dreamt it all“, while lying down on a cot broad enough for a kid. Doors close by themselves and the screen brightens gradually to be covered by pure white light.

This film won the San Sebastian Festival Silver Seashell for Best Director and the Sao Paulo Festival Critics award for best film. The film was carved out by Ruiz from several episodes he made for the Portuguese TV.



P.S. Mysteries of Lisbon is the first film of Ruiz to be included in the author’s top 100 films. It was also one of the top 10 films of 2011 for the author.  Ruiz’ earlier work, That Day (Ce jour-la) (2003) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Ruiz’ last film that he completed before his death, La Noche de Efrente (Night Across the Street) (2012), was one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.


Thursday, November 06, 2014

169. French director François Ozon’s French film “Dans la maison” (In the House) (2012): Second Ozon film on creative writing, this time adapting a superb Spanish play












François Ozon seems to be fascinated by what makes writers tick. And he loves to prod the viewer to reconsider his/her mental evaluation of fiction and reality as they watch his later films.

Many viewers are likely to initially consider the superb tale of In the House to be solely Ozon’s creative work; it is not. In the House appears to be almost totally leaning on the product of a contemporary Spanish playwright Juan Mayorga titled The Boy in the Last Row, if one goes by the reviews of the play. It is, thus, not a coincidence that the French film went on to win the well-deserved Golden Shell (the grand prize) and the Jury prize for Best Screenplay at the San Sebastian film Festival in Spain. Then why is the film important, if almost all the credit rests with the play on which the film is built? This is because Ozon forces any intelligent viewer to evaluate himself/herself as they progress with the viewing of his film beyond the film’s tale. Is the viewer being cajoled to infer more than what the movie actually informs us?  Is the viewer a voyeur, wanting to see more than what the film offers? Those are Ozon’s questions thrown at us by cinematically adapting the play.


However, the Spanish play proved to be a perfect extension of the very ideas director Ozon presented in his previous movie The Swimming Pool (2003).  In The Swimming Pool, a film based on a story written by Emmanuèle Bernheim, director Ozon presented a riveting thriller, complete with dashes of murder and sex, which was essentially an essay on how a creative fiction writer (Charlotte Rampling)  gets and develops ideas to write her novels, while jolting the viewer to realize at the end of the film that what they read in books (or see and hear on screen) need not be true and that a clever writer can manipulate your mind to make you believe it is indeed true until the end, when you comprehend the real truth.

It is to the credit of director Ozon that he chose to film Mayorga’s play, which logically extends the cinematic argument presented by director Ozon in The Swimming Pool. Mayorga’s play is also about the creative writing process, laid out in a greater and more entertaining detail than in the previous film; with an important additional question relating to morality asked of the viewer. Does the creative process need to be merely smart or does it have to combine moral/social values?  Ozon never dealt with morality in The Swimming Pool but he does that to a certain extent in In the House.


Creative writing: Teacher Germaine Germaine (Luchini)
and student Claude (Umhauer)
In the House is a tale of a young, intelligent male school student, Claude already good at mathematics, who occupies the last rows in his class (the detail referenced in the title of the play), trying out his skills in creative writing in a literature class. Playwright Mayorga is erudite and one assumes is familiar with Vladimir Nabokov’s book Lolita, which has a literature professor double-named Humbert Humbert, who gets obsessed with his step-daughter nicknamed Lolita.  Playwright Mayorga alludes to Nabokov’s work by creating a literary teacher named Germaine Germaine (the viewer gets to see the teacher’s full double name on the cover of his very unsuccessful published book, in the Ozon movie). It’s not just Ozon and Mayorga who are taken in by Nabokov’s novel, even the maestro Stanley Kubrick decided to film Nabokov’s Lolita. Germaine Germaine  is not the only oblique literary reference in this film. They are scattered all over. The name of the French school in the movie is Lycee Gustave Flaubert and the teacher Germaine Germaine (Fabrice Luchini) refers to Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a novel that prevails on the reader not to quickly judge characters presented in it, while introducing the work to his students. (Madame Bovary was also the inspiration for Robert Bolt’s script of David Lean’s film Ryan’s Daughter, made in 1970, initially trashed by critics who were ironically too quick to judge what it offered.) The school-teacher’s wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) knocks down her husband in the film with a hardbound copy of Celine’s novel Journey to the End of the Night, quoted at the start of Sorrentino’s recent movie The Great Beauty (2013). The choice of the book is not an accident. Knowledge of international literature can provide additional entertainment for the viewer by enjoying the trenchant remarks of various characters in the movie/play.

The teacher (Luchini) and his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas),
who reads and comments on student Claude's creative writing

The film/play, like Nabokov’s character's name Humbert Humbert, presents and discusses on screen two fathers, two wives, two mothers (one on screen, the other off-screen). and a pair of twins, who own an art gallery, The position the young schoolboy Claude (Ernst Umhauer) occupies in his class is the last row—and visually ironically enough his teacher Germaine Germaine also occupies the last row during an internal teachers’ meeting in the school to discuss school uniforms. Both pupil and teacher are astute observers and thinkers at their individual levels, both sitting on benches in classrooms/schools or in open parks. Both are critical of the middle class to which they themselves belong. The last shot of the film is of both teacher and pupil sitting on the same bench, observing lives of people they have never met.  Ozon’s cinematic rhetorical unspoken question at the end of movie is who is the teacher? Ozon dissects the creative process of writing and storytelling for the viewer. The answers do not lie in the film; the resolution of the conflicts rests with us the viewers. Is the sharing of an apple by a woman and a boy symbolically innocent or not so innocent?

The film/play is a tongue in cheek look at the growing power of TV soap operas which keep viewers dangling on the edge at the end of each episode, convinced and reassured the tale is to be continued in the next, and thus ensnaring the viewer to watch the next episode.  People need stories like the ones Scheherazade narrated keeping her Sultan asking for more tales for 1001 Arabian nights. The creative writing process not merely ensnares the reader/viewer but also involves the creation of a good ending. The teacher of creative literary writing explains to his pupil that a good ending is one that is “necessary, unpredictable, inevitable and surprising.”  Director Ozon does just that by providing such endings in both his films: The Swimming Pool and In the House.


Real or unreal 'barbaric invasion:" Claude (Umhauer) appears to sleep
 between his classmate's parents.
Claude appears to look at the camera/viewer. while
his shadow seems to be looking at his classmate's mother
 (Emmanuelle Seigner)

In the House is ironically about the beguiling”barbaric invasion” of smart students in the school classrooms taking on unsuspecting teachers and extending that invasion to unsuspecting middle class-households with the knowledge of a well-meaning teacher who stokes the embers of creativity in his student not able to decide if his student’s entry into another student’s house is “like an angel or a vampire.” The play/film goes on to compare the allure of mathematics (that “never disappoints”) with that of creative writing (or literature).

The closing shot of the teacher and his pupil

Director Ozon presents a very entertaining and complex film that even prompts Germaine Germaine to wonder if his student Claude’s literary work that keeps his readers transfixed and amazed is close to an imaginary Pier Paolo Pasolini film when Claude is kissed by his male classmate Rapha Jr., while Claude is actually attracted instead to Rapha’s mother (Emmanuele Seigner), in whom he sees his own physically absent mother.  On the flip side, Germaine Germaine’s wife Jeanne wonders if her husband is turning homosexual with his increasing interest in his male student, while her husband actually sees in Claude a son he never had with his wife Jeanne.  Perception and reality are compared at every stage in the film. Who is the Svengali, the literature teacher who is a failed author or his bright student with real raw talent?

It is a film that explores the world of academia recalling Joseph Losey’s and Harold Pinter’s acerbic treatment of the middle class in Accident (1967).  Ozon’s In the House is a film like Accident, which makes a viewer evaluate himself/herself, while presenting a delightful and a surprising ending with endearing performances from an ensemble cast.

For keen Ozon watchers, it would be interesting if he does go on to make a third feature film on the subject to complete a triptych that began with The Swimming Pool and followed up with In the House.

(This review was earlier published on 5 Nov 2014 at  http://dearcinema.com/review/film-recco-francois-ozons-house/5245 )


P.S. Losey's Accident and Lean's Ryan's Daughter were reviewed earlier on this blog.

P.P.S. The two lead actresses Kristin Scott Thomas and Emmanuele Seigner had previously worked together in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992), coincidentally a tale about a failed author narrating a tale that could have made a great book. Polanski's film was an adaptation of a novel by the celebrated French 'New Philosopher' Pascal Bruckner. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

168. British film director Steven Knight’s film “Locke” (2013) based on his original script/story: Amazing script forged from what could also have been a suberb one act play with a great performance




There is something special when a director writes his own original script. And Steven Knight’s Locke is special, if an astute viewer evaluates what it offers.

The title reminds one of the 17th century British philosophers, John Locke.  John Locke postulated his ‘theory of mind’ that built the early concepts of ‘identity’ and ‘self.’ Locke felt that our minds at birth were without ideas or blank slates (or tabula rasa) and that our mind’s subsequent knowledge was derived from experience through sense perception.

Knight’s film Locke is about another unrelated, contemporary fictional Locke, whose full name is Ivan Locke. This Ivan Locke, the only person the viewer gets to see in the entire film, is an unusual human being.  Ivan Locke is a successful technocrat—a senior civil engineer responsible for overseeing the construction of skyscrapers.  Ivan Locke is a principled, devoted family man who is on the verge of laying the concrete foundation of the tallest skyscraper he has ever built within the next 24 hours.  However, the good man’s enviable life dramatically changes.

One night’s indiscretion after drinking two bottles of wine, brings all his family and career crashing down at the pinnacle of his 9 year career when he could own a state-of-the-art BMW X5 car. Knight’s development of the Ivan Locke character begins when you see the man removing his work boots before entering his car and putting it in a bag meant for them.  Ivan Locke might not be an aristocrat, but he evidently knows and plans ahead to maintain a rich man’s car. Ivan, we soon find out, is dedicated to his job, and, even after he is fired, insists on completing what he was doing professionally without any scope for mistakes. And when he does make a mistake he is willing to do everything to correct it and admit it was a mistake to all who matter to him. 

He is a modern day Jean Valjean of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, caring for those who are weak and lonely, who believes in ensuring his new progeny knows he /she has a caring father, unlike Ivan’s own father.

Tom Hardy as a fictional Welshman Ivan Locke:
aiming to reproduce
the "gravitas and integrity of Richard Burton's performances"
But what holds Ivan Locke’s life together are the principles and experience that he has acquired from his career, his life and, most of all, his father’s actions towards him. Those are the common denominators for technocrat Ivan Locke and the ideas of philosopher John Locke presented indirectly by director Knight for the thinking, discerning viewer. 

Director Knight has stated in an interview “He is called (Ivan) Locke because he is the John Locke philosopher of rationality and he is trying to do stuff logically.” (Huffington Post interview with Erin Whiney, 24 Apr 2014). Much of Ivan Locke’s actions in the movie have a bearing on the lack of communication and interest Ivan’s dad had with Ivan, which we learn from Ivan’s monologue addressing his dead father, as though he were sitting in the rear seat of the car.  It is important to note that the references to the distant past life of Ivan are brought up in “conversations” with his dead father or rather a monologue using the rear view mirror. (Appropriately, the rear view is for the past; the details of the concreting is in the file beside him in the car; and the GPS screen indicates his possible chosen future, with all its options. The confined space of the driver seat, is not confined to the obvious physical limitations.)


Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy)  speaking to his invisible dead father
 in the rear seat

The manner in which the 85-minute film was made is remarkable. The filming of the original script apparently evolved during a tight schedule, not unlike films of Terrence Malick evolving during the film-making process . Director Knight’s script was captured on film after mere eight nights of shooting, with two versions of the film being recorded each night. The final film was apparently a cut and paste of the 16 accumulated versions.  Except for the immensely talented Tom Hardy, the rest of the cast are only heard but not seen. The film is thus a close relative of a radio play with visuals.

It is visuals that inform the viewer, thanks to Bluetooth, that Ivan has keyed in ‘Bastard’ as the eponym for Gareth who is Ivan’s boss on his mobile phone. It is the GPS visuals on his car’s dashboard that indicate the straight road Ivan is taking to be with Bethan,  the mother of his soon to be born child. It is visuals that inform the viewer that Ivan is not over speeding on the highway. It is visuals that show you that there is further chaos outside the car on the highway as police cars/ambulance with sirens overtake Ivan’s car while Ivan is dealing with and getting on top of each crisis in his life that particular night. And if you are paying attention, you are not likely to turn off the radio (if you were to consider it as a radio play) or walk of the movie.  And it is visuals that inform you that Ivan’s BMW also has an ironic number plate “ADIOS,” Spanish for goodbye.

It is not important how the movie ends. The movie is more about how a viewer can identify with Ivan Locke, a successful working class British man who has made one mistake.  On a drunken night the married man slept with his secretary while on work away from home. He does not love his secretary but has sympathy for her apparent solitary life. Ivan seeks forgiveness from his wife for his one and only occasion when he has been unfaithful. Her trite answer to Ivan’s protestation is “The difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad.”  The viewer has to choose between the wrongdoer and the wronged, and decide whether Ivan is the hero or the anti-hero of Locke.

It is also a movie where the lead actor has contributed considerably to the making of the film as was revealed at the Venice Film Festival press conference, just as actor Kirk Douglas made director Stanley Kubrick make the all important change to the ending of Paths of Glory (1957). It is a movie that is more than an advertisement for a great car. It is a movie that will make you recall what Steven Spielberg achieved in his similar (and outstanding) film Duel (1971), in which unlike Steven Knight emphasizing character development through spoken dialogues, Spielberg emphasized the effect of faceless and illogical terror through images and sound rather than spoken words.  Tom Hardy’s personal interest in developing an unusual accent keeping the late Welsh actor Richard Burton on his mind’s radar while enacting the role in a confined space is truly commendable. It is a fascinating performance that complements a lovely script.

The film belongs to both Steven Knight and Tom Hardy in equal measure.  It is surprising that the Venice Film Festival chose it to be included in its official major line-up but kept it “out of competition.”  If it were in competition, it might have won an award or two.  The film is recommended for viewers who can appreciate good script-writing and actors committed to perfecting their skills.


P.SThis film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014


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