Friday, June 19, 2015

180. The late Hungarian maestro Zoltan Fabri’s “Az ötödik pecsét” (The Fifth Seal) (1976) based on Ferenc Sánta’s novel: The ultimate debate on conscience and self-respect

Very few films deal with philosophy and ethical human choices under extreme testing situations.  The Fifth Seal is one that not only presents a philosophical dilemma on screen but will make any intelligent and sensitive viewer to ponder over his or her own choice under similar circumstances.  The film directed by Zoltan Fabri (1917-94) won the Golden Prize of the Moscow Film Festival in 1977. The film is based on a novel written by Ferenc Santa, arguably the finest Hungarian writer who has won almost all the top honours in that country. Santa himself wrote the screenplay of the film and, therefore, one can guess the film reflects the novel’s content pretty accurately.  This is the second work of Fabri that was based on a Ferenc Santa novel—the first being Twenty Hours (1965). Both films won the top award in the respective years at the Moscow Film Festival. The Fifth Seal is one of the top 100 films of this critic and the film made such a positive impact on him that he travelled to Budapest in 1982 and succeeded in interviewing the director. (The exclusive interview was published in the English daily newspaper, The Telegraph, of Kolkata, India, in 1982.)

The book seller, the watchmaker. the carpenter, and the bar keeper meet as usual
-- the photographer (with his back to the camera) is invited to join them 

The basic debate on conscience is raised during a meeting of four friends in a Budapest bar, set during the Nazi occupation of Hungary during World War II, though the film/novel replaces the swastika with an odd-looking cross on the uniforms of the Nazi-equivalent characters. But the mention of the Russians replacing the current military occupation of the Nazi-equivalent characters, give away the obvious intention of the writer/director.  The question thrown up in The Fifth Seal is, if we were to die today, whether one would like to be reborn as a powerful, rich, cruel dictator/slave owner who does not believe he/she is doing anything unethical or as a slave who is poor and is continuously brutalized and humiliated by his/her master and yet is happy that he/she has not done any action that is wrong in spite of his/her powerless condition.

Keszei, the photographer, makes the crucial soliloquy quoting the relevant
 passage of the Bible on the Fifth Seal 

To appreciate The Fifth Seal sufficiently, it would help considerably if the viewer has some knowledge of the Holy Bible and of visual art, specifically the works of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516). The reasons are simple. The title of the film refers to the following excerpt from the Holy Bible:  

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” Revelation 6:9. 

Further, a character in the film/novel, Karoly Keszei, who is an artistic photographer and a wounded ex-soldier, refers to the above passage, specifically mentioning the Fifth Seal, in a crucial monologue in the film.

Similarly the artist Bosch has additional relevance in the film The Fifth Seal. The book seller, László Kiraly (László Márkus), who is referred to mockingly as the “intellectual” in the film/novel, states that he procured two prized portions of meat for consumption, shown in the film, on selling a Bosch painting, or possibly, a book on Bosch’s paintings.  Director Fabri intercuts important pieces of dialogue with visuals of Bosch’s paintings. And interestingly much of Bosch’s famous paintings deal with the Book of Revelation in the Holy Bible, the perverted delights of a sinner, and martyrdom of various early Christians. (Bosch is increasingly being acknowledged today as the first surrealist painter, while surrealism as a movement is often considered to have begun only in the 1920s. Works of Dali and those of Bosch are so strikingly similar, that one wonders how four centuries could separate them.) And the film's director Fabri does not stop with the paintings—he recreates visuals from Bosch’s paintings with live human beings for the bookseller Kiraly to fantasize in a drunken stupor while reflecting on the philosophical issues raised in the film/novel earlier.

The crucial towards the end of the film that redefines all that the viewer has
been shown and believes

The film can be divided into three segments though these are seamless. The first is the situation in the bar where Miklós Auricular (Lajos Öze) a watchmaker, Kiraly the book seller, János Kovacs  (Sándor Horváth) a carpenter, and Béla (Ferenc Bencze) a barkeeper meet and discuss a variety of subjects in the presence of Keszei, the artistic photographer, who joins these gentlemen for a drink by accident. The second segment takes the characters out of the bar, where each come to a decision as to who he would like be reborn as. The third segment puts all the characters in an extreme environment, where interestingly for different reasons, all the characters seemingly reverse their earlier decision made in the film to the question posed by Mr Auricular. One metaphoric aside made by Mr Auricular is whether you would choose to eat veal breast or an artichoke, if given an option, referring directly to the piece of meat the book-seller has procured to eat later. The third segment adds another aspect to the final decisions—the aspect of self respect.

Bosch’s surreal images and the surrealist manifesto of the 1920s would nudge the viewer at the grim end of the film. All through the film, an intelligent viewer will note the characters in the film constantly reassess their philosophical stance or points of view, according to circumstances. Nothing is as per the obvious. Keszei, the photographer, lost his leg on the war front, like the slave in the philosophical conundrum and believes he has a clear conscience. Yet his actions prove to be the opposite. The viewer would also need to reassess his/her judgements of the characters the end of the film, particularly in in view of the past and possible future intentions/actions of Mr Auricular.

Mr Auricular, the watchmaker, asks the carpenter the difficult
philosophical question

The final shots of the film underscore the fact that one is ultimately alone and the final decision of a reflective soul could surprise oneself. This movie is undoubtedly the best work of Zoltan Fabri, a marvellous filmmaker, who most cineastes the world over have yet to discover. And this is possibly the best work of the author/novelist Ferenc Sánta, little known outside his country. This is a film with superb performances (especially Lajos Öze as Mr Auricular), the lovely music of Georgy Vukan that opens (with colourful details) and closes (in deliberate contrast with a dark, blank screen) the film, intelligent editing (Ferencné Szécsényi), and needless to add, a great script. The “intellectual” in the film would like to distract himself with music or play snooker, when someone has been shot dead outside. These are some of the little nuggets of detail that make this work truly outstanding.

What is so remarkable about the film? The viewer will find that as the film progresses, the viewer's own judgement of the principal characters' response to their individual conscience keeps changing right up to the end. That's what will make you think deeply about this work of cinema.

Thank you, Mr Zoltan Fabri and Mr Ferenc Sánta, for the top-notch cinema.

P.S. The full movie is available on You Tube.  The film is one of the author’s best 100 films. The author had interviewed Mr Zoltan Fabri in Budapest in 1982 as a staff film critic of a daily newspaper published from New Delhi, India.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

179. The late French director Maurice Pialat’s “La Gueule Ouverte” (The Mouth Agape) (1974) based on his own original screenplay: An unforgettable cinematic work on dying and family bonds

Here’s a film every true film enthusiast ought to make an effort to see though it is rarely found on the “best film” lists of the better known film critics and directors. Some 40 years ago when this critic saw The Mouth Agape for the first time, the film and its director leapt out not only among the pantheons of French cinema’s giants but also those of world cinema. Forty years later, on a second viewing, this film, The Mouth Agape, still remains for this critic one among his world’s top 100 films. Most importantly, it has one of the finest subtle endings in the history of cinema, one that will be appreciated by any dyed-in-the -wool film viewer. And this review is not revealing it.

The Mouth Agape.  What a name!  One guesses Pialat’s choice of the title had something to do with the popular belief that people die with a last gasp for air associated with death.  Interestingly no such scene is included in the film, which is indeed pegged on the death of a lady Monique; only scenes prior to her death or after her death are included. The actual death is not shown on screen; it is inconsequential. The laboured heavy breathing of the dying Monique is captured with no other aural distraction and presented in a manner rarely seen on screen. Pialat could not have chosen the title because of the spoon-feeding of her semi-solid diet, which is shown in the film for the simple reason that the mouth is not always open when you eat or drink. It would be too simplistic to state the film is about Monique’s death, it would be more accurate to say the film is about Monique’s immediate family. If we zoom out of the specific tale, the film is about the fragility and the strengths of modern French family bonds which can be best assessed when death comes knocking at the door.

Monique (Monique Melinand) in hospital 

While one is not privy to the casting details and chronology of the writing of the original script by Pialat, one unique fact would strike the mind of an intelligent viewer. There are four major characters in the film, the dying mother Monique (Monique Mélinand), her husband Roger (Hubert Deschamps), her son Philippe (Philippe Léotard) and her daughter-in-law Nathalie (Nathalie Baye). Three of the four major characters have the same first names of the actors. It is too much of a coincidence. Did the script develop after the casting of the actors? If the choice of names was a decision of convenience for the director and the actors, why was Roger called as such and not Hubert? Only those closely involved with the film would know.

Monique at home, later withering away

Now Maurice Pialat (1925-2003) is not as celebrated in France or elsewhere as Godard or Truffaut or Chabrol are. His cinema is different. One possible reason for his lack of prominence is that he made his first film at 44, an age at which when most other directors would have established themselves and earned some recognition.

He creates a realism that is bereft of sentimentality. His strength in depicting realism is both aural and visual. One almost feels the Austrian director Michael Haneke is his pupil and that Haneke’s Amour (2012) borrowed heavily from Pialat’s The Mouth Agape (1974) while dealing with a similar subject. In both films, the dying wife steals the show.

The second best sequence, early in the film: son Philippe (Philippe Leotard)
and mother Monique's intimate conversation at home

Why is Pialat’s The Mouth Agape so fascinating? Early in the film there is a lovely yet brief and intimate conversation between Monique and Philippe (mother and grown-up son) alone recalling their past and the family dynamics. The script is brilliant just doing that and then it offers more. We learn for the first time that Monique was superior morally and socially (she was from Paris) to Roger (a provincial man to the core) and could have cheated on her husband but did not. We learn that Philippe was not a healthy child and was tended with care by his mother. Suddenly, Philippe gets up and puts on a record as though he is bored reminiscing the past and probably he is. They are listening to Mozart’s opera Così Fan Tutte/Thus They (Women) Do All.  The static camera of Néstor Almendros captures the two faces as the record plays for a very long time. (Haneke repeats a similar sequence in Amour for a different family relationship.) Then the phone rings. Philippe attends to it. And Monique, whom the viewer would have assumed was listening all the while to Mozart, continues wistfully the discussion she was having with her son, the music and phone call notwithstanding. It is so beautiful and intimate . And so real! This is the second most important sequence for this critic in the entire film after the awesome end sequence. In both sequences, it is the mastery of Pialat the director and scriptwriter hand in hand with Almendros that create the magic. The choice of the Mozart piece for the sequence adds on another layer of irony, bringing to the fore the differences between Philippe and Monique, which becomes apparent only much later.

Roger (Hubert Deschamps) and son Philippe watch over the dying Monique:
a newspaper covers the lamp's harsh light

Pialat’s film provides a contrast between the two women (Monique and Nathalie) and the two men (Roger and Philippe). The men have a roving eye and drift with the tide; the women are more anchored to their spouses. And yet the film captures another strange phenomenon: men change, at least some seem to change. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who asks Philippe to turn off the TV, “Honestly, Philippe, have some respect (for your mother) “, when Philippe loves to distract himself from the dying mother. Roger, the philanderer, is the one who feeds, cooks and takes care of his dying wife. When he cries, the viewer is devastated by the emotion. But Pialat’s tale does not merely show Roger having two sides to his personality—all the four have. Even the mother Monique we learn from others only cared for money and possessions, especially of her father after his death. And yet only Monique is the apparently religious person in the family.The film urges viewers to look at characters in totality, rather than a few actions. This is done with carefully planned dialogue and shots, that often linger when actors have left the frame.

Roger lovingly massages his dying wife Monique's toes

None of the other works of Pialat worked as well for this critic, possibly because this is perhaps the only Pialat film in which the cinematographer was the legendary Néstor Almendros (1930-92), who was responsible for so many marvellous works of cinema, including Malick’s Days of Heaven, Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice, and Truffaut’s Story of Adele H all of which are great movies primarily because of the strength of the cinematography.

When one studies the camerawork of Almendros in The Mouth Agape there are the static shots in limited space and the moving camera that reveals delicate details, often social, rarely done in cinema. There is a sequence of the funeral service of Monique captured by Almendros and Pialat without entering the church or showing the dead body.  They are more interested in the living folks who are gathered outside. What a brilliant sequence! And finally much later the superb end sequence where no words are spoken and only images talk and jolt the viewer to figure it all out. That’s cinema. 

This is a movie, subtler and better than the best of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, and Chabrol, based on an original screenplay created and developed by the director alone. It is essential viewing for cineastes and students of cinema.

P.S. Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012), which recalls the style and content of  The Mouth Agape, was reviewed on this blog earlier. The Mouth Agape is one of the author's best 100 films.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

178. British director and screenplay writer Mike Leigh’s “Mr Turner” (2014) based on his own original screenplay: A cinematic canvas providing perspective and colour to the mind and soul of one of England’s finest painters

JMW Turner and John Constable were two of the finest painters in Nineteenth century England renowned for their emotional response to nature and are classified as exponents of romanticism and eventually emerging as major contributors to modernism in painting.  Mike Leigh’s film and original screenplay gives ample scope for movie viewers to appreciate the work of JMW Turner anew. However, the film is not as much about his paintings as it is about the man who made the paintings.

Mike Leigh deliberately titled the film Mr Turner. Now what’s in a name, one would ask? The obvious reason is the film is more about the man and much less about his paintings. The initials “JMW” are replaced with “Mr.” Even in the film, very few addresses the painter as Mr Turner.  Even the physicians, who treated him towards his last days, addressed him reverently as the famous painter “Turner.” JMW stood for Joseph Mallord William. In the film, when Turner wants to hide his true identity while renting a room to stay he calls himself “Mallard” not even by his little known middle name Mallord. Those close to him addressed him as William or Billy. And to some he was just Mr Booth, the “husband” of his landlady.  And Turner straddled two worlds with equal felicity—the world of the nobility and the rich and educated and the world of the poorer sections of society including maidservants, not-very-rich landladies, and prostitutes. The title “Mr” adds a degree of respectability to a man who conventional society may not deem respectable. The title “Mr” also avoids a degree of intimacy that his father and some of his admirers among the nobles had for the painter when they called him William.

Turner (Timothy Spall) after dramatically adding the touch of red to his painting,
an idea he picked up from Constable's painting with lots of red

Leigh’s stated reason to make the movie Mr Turner was to “examine the tension between this very mortal, flawed individual, and the epic work, the spiritual way he had of distilling the world.”  And Leigh succeeded in a not so obvious way.  Had Leigh cast someone other than Timothy Spall in the title role who looked more like the young and dashing JMW Turner in his self-portrait, some purists would have appreciated that fact.  But Mr Spall who plays an older Turner, does not resemble the self portrait by a mile. But instead what Leigh made Spall do was to make him learn to paint as Turner would have painted, over a period of 2 years.  Mr Spall is presented by Leigh as a Turner with awful teeth—and there is evidence that the artist had indeed major dental problems in his later years. Leigh and Spall together succeed in creating a flawed personality, physically and mentally, which Turner apparently was. Not many would totally ignore his own flesh and blood—and Turner ignored the two children born to Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) , publicly and never stayed with Sarah Danby in later life giving greater importance to his work. Leigh cleverly shows Spall’s  fingers curling in anguish, only visible to the camera and not to others in the room, as he interacts with Sarah Danby and his daughter. Towards the end of his life, Spall’s Turner is equally dismissive of another lady in his life, his faithful maid servant Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) with whom he had several sexual trysts, though she cared for him at all times. He would at best enquire about her health and well being, when in close proximity.

But why did he behave in this manner? Leigh provides the answers to any perceptible viewer. Turner’s mother went insane while Turner was young and she made his and his father’s life miserable. On his death bed, Turner Sr admonishes his son “Show her respect. The bitch..” when Turner Jr speaks disparagingly about his mother, who had made life hell for both. Evidently, this had much to do with Turner’s disdain for most women as depicted in the film.

Turner (Timothy Spall) often ignores his faithful housemaid
 Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson)

But Leigh’s intelligent script shows yet another side of Turner the painter. There is a subtle insinuation that Turner finds Miss Coggins, the piano player, in a nobleman’s house attractive, as after staring at her,  he comments “Exceedingly beautiful.” Miss Coggins, being prim and proper, makes no further move to come closer to Turner. For the viewer, the deft editing of the film’s sequence suggests that the comment was not about the music being played by Miss Coggins as it was about the lady’s visage that caught the painter’s attention. Turner makes a similar comment much later in the film “You are a woman of profound beauty,” to Mrs Sophie Booth (Marion Bailey), the landlady, and it is Mrs Booth, less sophisticated than Miss Coggins, who takes the initiative and drags him into her bedroom following his overtures. Earlier before the relationship with Mrs Booth bloomed, the script has Turner getting heady on wine during a dinner and making a comment to an attractive lady sitting next to him “Loneliness and solitude, ‘tis not the same.” There is much to admire in Leigh’s scriptwriting skills.

Turner (Timothy Spall) and  Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey): a change of attitude
towards women

The high point of Mr Turner the film for this critic was the incident where the painter goes to a brothel not for sex but to paint the prostitute lying in bed.  While painting, the otherwise gruff Turner breaks down in tears. Was he thinking of his mother, was he thinking of his daughters? Mike Leigh’s Turner is a complex character—one that you can pity, one that you can dislike, and one you can admire, all in equal measure.  

Turner at work capturing light and landscape

This is in contrast to the superb opening sequence of the film, where two young Dutch milkmaids walk by close to where Turner is standing taking feverish notes of the sky and dawn. Here Turner does not care for women or people as others would have in his place.  He is preoccupied capturing the magic of light and landscape.

Leigh’s Turner is a man with a mission--to paint and earn world recognition for England. He was born poor but he painted his way to success, money and education (his apartment has many shelves of books)—an incredible achievement for the son of a barber and wigmaker.

Dick Pope's magical cinematography

When one views the film Mr Turner, it is not the painter alone that you admire: you admire the filmmakers and their obvious individual commitment to good cinema. You like Timothy Spall not because he is attractive on screen but the effort he has taken to grow into the role of an often dislikeable individual, grunting and spitting. You admire Dorothy Atkinson’s drab and ugly role as Hannah Danby, the psoriasis-stricken dutiful maid-servant who has been so faithful to the painter. You admire Dick Pope’s brilliant cinematography that makes the film so watchable and you wonder at the pains he taken to match the landscapes and seascapes that so fascinated the painter.  You hear  with awe of the commendable pains Leigh and Pope took to get the right shots of the steam locomotive, which was not achieved in a studio as many Hollywood films would have preferred to do.

Director Mike Leigh and Dick Pope's collaboration:foreground of admirers
in black and shadows,
while Turner dramatically adds red to his painting 

Another unforgettable sequence in the film is of Turner and Constable together displaying their works to the admiration of peers and art lovers at the Royal Society exhibit. Leigh’s Turner goes around the hall giving positive comments and suggestions to his peers but avoids making any comment on the work of Constable. Constable’s work has a lot of red dabs of paint which makes it stand out from the rest. Turner’s work on the other hand is admirable but lacks colour.  Turner procures a brush of red paint and creates a red blob on his painting’s seascape, apparently ruining it, to the shock of his admirers including Constable.  After some time Turner returns dramatically and uses his fingernail and cloth to reshape the blob into a buoy floating on the water. Turner got the idea to improve his painting by noticing Constable’s use of red colour in his painting. This is the only scene in the film where Turner’s active artistic skills are shown in such detail.

Where does Leigh’s Mr Turner stand among great films on painters? Luciano Salce’s El Greco (1966) with Mel Ferrer as the painter and the music of Ennio Morricone, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, and Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh (1991) are all lovely films of a similar kind. For this critic, Leigh’s Mr Turner and Salce’s El Greco tower over the rest as a complete cinema experience. While Leigh’s film won the Best Actor award for Timothy Spall and the Vulcan Prize for Dick Pope for his cinematography at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the film failed to win a single Oscar though nominated in four categories. However, Mr Turner is undeniably Mike Leigh’s best work and Dick Pope’s best work to date.

Not a painting--its the cinematography of Dick Pope

...and again Dick Pope!

As a student of aesthetics, who earned a postgraduate degree in the subject from Bombay University, this critic has been an admirer of both Turner and Constable and have spent valuable time studying their original paintings on display at various museums and galleries on both sides of the Atlantic.  Turner was a “master of light”, a harbinger of the revolutionary modernist impressionism and expressionism that bloomed much after his demise. Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner helps a student of art to appreciate his paintings even further by putting the painter’s psychological perspectives in focus while viewing his paintings.  Thank you, Mr Leigh, for your creditable effort in putting it all together. It is a mature work that sadly the Oscars missed to honour but Cannes recognized. That matters.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

177. Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” (Turist) (2014), based on his original story/script: Cowardice (and heroism) of an ideal father figure in a modern family

What is force majeure? Force majeure — or vis major — meaning "superior force,” is also known as cas fortuit or casus fortuitus or a "chance occurrence, unavoidable accident.” Director Ruben Östlund’s film uses this legal term Force Majeure as the title of his film, released in some countries under the less meaningful, alternate title Tourist. The term force majeure is used to describe an unusual situation that prevents one or both parties under a contract from fulfilling their obligations. In practice, most force majeure clauses do not excuse a party's non-performance entirely, but only suspends it for the duration of the force majeure. Some understanding of the legal term will enhance a viewer’s appreciation of this remarkable film.

Tomas with his cellphone--an item that matters in the "Lord Jim" moment

Why then is Force Majeure, the film, worthy of being termed as a remarkable one?

First, director Östlund conceived and scripted the film all by himself.  Few directors are able to do this. Ingmar Bergman and Naomi Kawase, are prominent among the select band of directors who often did/do this. American director Damien Chazelle accomplished a similar feat with the Oscar-winning Whiplash in 2014. Most viewers do not differentiate a film adapting another work from another medium from a film that is the director’s own original conceptualization. Most viewers do not differentiate directors standing on the shoulders of very competent and gifted co-scriptwriters from those directors who sculpt original films based on their own imagination and acumen. Östlund is one of the latter breed. He is able to conceive and develop a tale of a small, young Swedish family enjoying a brief costly vacation in the Alps into a complex, compressed  tale of 5 days of conflict, self realization, and ultimate reconciliation, of not one but two sets of families that could have taken years, if not decades, in real time for other families.

Developing the script from the ideal tourist family on holiday
to present a complex tale of 5 days of conflict and resolution

Second, Östlund in Force Majeure deals with cowardice of principled “heroes” of society. The famous novelist Polish novelist Joseph Conrad dealt with the precise subject in his novel Lord Jim, made into a lovely film in 1965 by Richard Brooks with Peter O’Toole in the leading role. O’Toole played a ship’s captain, who in a rare moment of cowardice jumps off his sinking ship into a lifeboat, not caring for the fate of his devout Muslim passengers for whom there were no lifeboats, when by tradition the captain ought to have been the last person to leave his sinking ship. In Force Majeure, Östlund is not discussing seafarers (though the script does include mention of a recent Estonian tragedy with similar trappings) but instead focuses on the bulwark of a good Swedish family—a hardworking, successful 30-something male called Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuehnke), with a devoted wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their daughter Vera and son Harry. Director/scriptwriter Östlund creates a convincing ‘Lord Jim’ situation for his devoted family as they enjoy their second day of a 5-day holiday in a plush hotel cum ski resort in the French segment of the Alps mountain range. The US director Brooks adapting Conrad’s tale had a beautiful line in his film: “It only takes a split second to make a coward a hero or to turn a hero into a coward.” There is a huge difference between an American director and a Scandinavian one—the latter is less obsessed with words and more with visuals, sound and silence. The cowardice (and heroism) is more to be perceived than heard in the Swedish film.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuehnke) accepting his cowardice

Third, Östlund uses the scenario to make an indirect commentary on male heads of families and their ability to care for the members of the family, in contrast to women like Ebba whose maternal instinct to care for the family at a moment of insecurity comes to the fore. In Force Majeure, the interesting script deals with two male heads of families Tomas and Mats, and a contrasting mother (Charlotte) they meet at the hotel , who like Ebba, is a mother of two but unlike Ebba wants her free time, in which she is not distracted by her responsibilities to her husband or children. (Interestingly the script, as in Kieselowski’s masterpiece Dekalog, where a strange silent individual transects most tales, in Force Majeure too, a silent hotel cleaning staff watches the various developments between the couples with interest).  All three, Tomas, Mats, and Charlotte admit their lapses, big or small, directly and indirectly, at various stages of the film in being a responsible part of their respective family units. Charlotte indirectly admits her guilt by deferring to converse further on the observations of Ebba on the subject.

Even half asleep, the ringing phone is more important for Tomas
(the male bread winner) than all else

Fourth, Östlund uses unusual methods of filmmaking that will upset the purist. Sometimes, in Force Majeure, the speaker’s head is out of the frame; the camera is more interested in the listeners rather than the speaker. In a particular scene, the speaker, Ebba, walks around and sits with her back to the camera, and the viewer gets to see only the listeners. The Swedish director is breaking the cinematic conventions deliberately. Then there are static exterior shots that end each day, or punctuate “acts” in the film as in a play.

Static camera captures a mirror shot of all four members of the family
brushing their teeth

Fifth, Östlund uses the ‘Summer’ segment of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a manner reminiscent of the curtain falling on a proscenium stage at the end of each act. While one is befuddled by the choice of the Summer segment, the effect is indeed staggering.  Most of the film does not depend on the music of Vivaldi as much as it does on the use of sound of ropeways or of creaking wooden floorboards.  The sound management in the Swedish film is top notch.

Finally, Östlund uses the time-tested Edward Albee technique of the play/film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by pitting the major husband and wife duos’ problem on another couple to extend the arguments of the film. And like Albee’s play there is certain resolution of the conflicts. Even the strong Ebba towards the end of the film shows the shades of a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, while Charlotte appears more composed and practical in comparison to her. As the film progresses, Tomas has occasion to redeem himself as a hero to his kids soon after admitting his folly to his family.  The best part is arguably the final innocuous conversation between son and father (Harry and Tomas). Harry asks Tomas “Do you smoke, Papa? on seeing his father smoke for the first time and the father replies “Yes, I do.” Tomas is finally honest and Harry appreciates it. That honest answer puts much of what has preceded in perspective and provides a final example of the director/scriptwriter’s maturity evident in Force Majeure. The very child that earlier asked its parents to leave the hotel room, now looks up at his father with trust.

One parent who never cared about his own kids carry another's kid,
while Harry learns from his father Tomas
about his father's smoking habit for the first time

Force Majeure is not in the same league as certain important and fascinating movies of 2014 such as Leviathan, Still the Water, and Winter Sleep. Force Majeure is nevertheless a remarkable work that will make any astute viewer to sit up and admire the fresh approach to cinematography, the excellent casting, and a thought provoking original script where saving one’s cell phone (the link to your job and office) is perhaps instinctively more important than saving members of your family.

P.S. Force Majeure won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film FestivalThe films mentioned in the above review Lord Jim, Dekalog, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Leviathan, Still the Water, and WinterSleep have all been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

176. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” (Futatsume no mado) (2014): A perspective on death, grief, and continuity for those alive and questioning their lives’ meaning

Naomi Kawase stated that she expected to win the Golden Palm at the 2014 Cannes film festival for her film Still the Water during a press conference but she was disappointed. All the awards and attention were instead grabbed by the Russian film Leviathan and the Turkish film Winter Sleep, both competing with the Japanese film for the honors. But a close evaluation proves there was very little differentiating the three awesome films, except for the cultural differences of the subjects in each of the three films.

Trees and the sea enveloping growing minds 

This critic had described Ms Kawase as the Terrence Malick of Japan on this blog in February 2012 while reviewing her previous work Hanezu, which had lost out to Malick’s The Tree of Life at Cannes for the top honor of 2011 at that festival. But if you ask a Japanese cineaste about Terrence Malick he or she is likely to call Malick the ‘Kawase of USA.’ And for good reason—Kawase’s 2007 film The Mourning Forest was about loss of loved ones, death and regeneration, while Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life also dealt with death and reconciliation with a larger cycle of life. Both dealt with the sun and the trees/forest. Only for Malick the loss is often of the young, while for Kawase, the loss is often of adults. For Malick, the references are Christian theology and scriptures; for Kawase it’s Buddhist scriptures and shamanism.  For both directors, nature teaches humans to live a better life by observing nature, not resisting it.

Kyoko swims in the sea wearing her school uniform

Still the Water begins with visuals and sounds of the wrath of the sea only to be followed by visuals of the quiet sea where a schoolgirl goes swimming in her school uniform. Yes, the waters can be stilled, philosophically. What matters is our attitude.

Like most Kawase's films, there is a death of an elder that provides the fulcrum of the film. Kawase’s choice of the beautiful Makiko Watanabe (who plays Kyoko’s dying mother in Still the Water and a minor role of Wakako in The Mourning Forest) is laudable and elevate the quality of both films. Preceding the death of the elder in Still the Water is a cruel, unsavory killing of a goat by an old man watched by a young person that almost makes you leave the auditorium unless you know Kawase’s visuals have a purpose beyond shock and gore. The old man pats with affection the goat that he has just killed.  (This is the second important film in recent times that begins with the graphic killing of an animal, the first being Emir Baigazin’s Kazhak film Harmony Lessons (2013), winner of a Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival,  only to be followed by a contrarian humanist story.)  While the gore repulses the viewer, the films use these scenes to prepare the viewer for deeper thought as the films unspool. The death of goat/sheep is contrasted with peaceful death of young Kyoko’s lovely mother dying in the company of her caring husband and daughter from an unspecified disease. The ‘waters’ of the film are metaphorically stilled. “Mother’s soul will be part of you,” Kyoko is told in consolation. A large banyan tree, occupies some space in the movie's script and visuals, with drooping branches and aerial prop roots that grows into thick woody trunks making it difficult to distinguish them from the main trunk.

Wisdom of the elders for the young

Much of Kawase’s films have autobiographical touches. Kawase’s father had abandoned her when she was young and she was brought up by her grandmother. In Still the Water, the young shy boy Kaito, is being raised by his mother after his father has left the village to live in the city blaming the circumstances on ‘fate’. Thus both the youngsters in the film suffer from a missing parent whom they love. The girl loves the sea, while the boy is afraid of water. Early in the film a wise old man comments:  “These kids don’t know what lies in the sea.”  Animate and inanimate objects have relevance in the films of Malick and Kawase in equal measure.  Both are visual poets of nature, life and death. 

Halcyon days: Father, daughter, and the sick mother during a light interlude

Kawase’s handling of Kyoko’s mother’s death is truly unforgettable. The mother, a shaman, dies holding her daughter’s hand s the villagers sing the mother’s favorite song. Friends come to sing and dance as the mother dies reminiscent of an Irish wake.

For Kawase, memory of successive generations lives in trees and forests (The Mourning Forest and Still the Water), and rocks (Hanezu) and life is eternal (the arachnids of Hanezu and roots of the banyan trees in Still the Water.)  The most interesting line Kawase provides in Still the Water is “Young people should be brave to leave us elders to pick up the pieces.” 

The banyan tree as a metaphor of life

The tale of life, death and love as it affects two young people in a Japanese village on the forlorn island of Amami is scripted by the Japanese director herself. The appeal of what she provides as cinematic visuals and storyline could be eclectic to Occidental viewers but it would appeal more to the Oriental mind that seeks spiritual connection with nature and respects the forces of nature.  She might not have won the admiration of Cannes with Still the Water but this work is her most engaging work since she made The Mourning Forest.  The love tale of the boy and the girl is submerged by the sea of philosophical thought the film attempts to provide. Most other directors would have been inclined to do just the opposite.  The unknown killer of Kyoko’s mother’s lover is never revealed.  The detail is peripheral for Kawase; instead the effect of the death on other characters is more important for her. That is where we need to admire Kawase, she is different from the regular filmmaker.  For this critic, Kawase is the finest living active filmmaker of Japan today.

P.S. Kawase’s earlier films Hanezu and The Mourning Forest have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.  Still the Water is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2014.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

175. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” (Kis Uykusu) (2014): Top-notch contemporary cinema that will satiate a patient, intelligent viewer

Winter Sleep is one of the outstanding cinematic works of 2014.

Winter Sleep is a daunting 196 minutes long movie and could put off an uninitiated, immature viewer craving for action, sex and thrills. The Turkish director Ceylan, speaking to a packed audience that had earlier stood in long, winding queues on a humid December morning in Trivandrum city in India to view the award winning cinematic work and glimpse the accomplished director, during the International Film Festival of Kerala, India, stated with a note of apprehension “I hope all of you slept well last night as my film is more than 3 hours long.”

Interior lighting that embellishes the film

Winter Sleep, as in the case of the director’s previous two films—Three Monkeys and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia—proved one fact, it was a work of a contemporary master of cinema, while requiring a viewer’s undivided concentration to savour all the multifaceted morsels of delectable cinematic treats the film offers in the form of amazing performances, cinematography, choice of classic western music, and last but not least impressive script and direction. Winter Sleep deserved the two awards it won at the Cannes film festival—the Golden Palm for the best film of the festival and FIPRESCI prize for the content.

Winter Sleep is a film about several subjects of conflict and their resolution moulded into one tale, constructed with immaculate care.

The Script and the Scriptwriters

The husband-wife team of Ebru and Nuri Bilge Ceylan has been responsible for the last three masterpieces of director Ceylan. In all the three films, they have developed and presented varied types of husband and wife relationships. (Their collaboration is quite like another notable contemporary screenplay collaboration team made up of the Russian film director Andrei Zvyagintsev and scriptwriter Oleg Negin on their respective last three Russian masterpieces that culminated in Leviathan, a film that competed with Winter Sleep at Cannes and had to settle for the Best Screenplay Award, losing out on the top award to the Turkish contender).
The fascinating bit about Winter Sleep is that a real life husband-wife duo have come together to write about the fictional see-sawing relationship of a husband and a wife, who in this film are not cheating on one another and on many counts can be well considered as admirable individuals and perhaps from certain perspectives even as a devoted couple.

Husband Aydin (Bilginer) and wife Nihal (Sozen)
in delicate hues of light and shade

The husband in Winter Sleep is a retired actor named Aydin of certain national repute. He has co-inherited, with his sister, a boutique hotel in a fascinating natural rocky setting of Cappadocia in Turkey attracting international tourists.  Aydin’s wife is Nihal, an attractive young lady, who is evidently not as financially secure as her husband, whom she had admired in the past as an actor of repute and has been married to for a while.  Nihal now finds Aydin to be “an unbearable man.” They have no offspring.  Apart from helping run the small hotel, Nihal takes a proactive interest in the improvement of a local school and its affairs. Her husband has apparently never shown interest or an inclination to help improve the functioning of that school, which has caught the attention of his wife. He is busy writing a column for a small newspaper with limited readership, cocooned in his study filled with books and memorabilia of plays and films that he was associated with or liked and dreams of writing a book on the history of Turkish theatre.  He has even named his hotel “Hotel Othello.” The script of the film shifts gears with the arrival of an electronic mail from a female reader of Aydin’s column. She respectfully requests Aydin’s help in improving the deplorable conditions of a school in a not-so-distant village by either providing direct monetary help or by Aydin, as a respected citizen, contacting influential government officials to provide more financial resources for the school.  Aydin, who has never been interested in supporting Nihal’s pet school, suddenly wonders if he should respond positively to this distant admirer of his column.  What follows in the film, provide sufficient details to show the cracks in the marriage of two otherwise admirable educated Muslims, Aydin and Nihal, both having diverse social acceptance by different sets of people. Unlike George and Martha of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? where the husband and wife spewed venom at each other, in Winter Sleep, Aydin and Nihal are overtly caring and respectful to each other, taking great care not to tread on each other’s toes.  Even the most hurtful comments made by Aydin’s sister Nacla towards her brother are gently-spoken, well-chosen words though sharp as knives. One unforgettable line from Nacla to her brother is “I wish my level of self deception was as low as yours.”   So, too, are those of Nihal addressed to her recently divorced sister-in-law---subtle words and inflections of speech that drive home the intended critical message, without seeming to be ugly, even to the ears of the hotel‘s main employee who was in earshot. And like the Albee play (made into a memorable Hollywood film by Mike NIchols) there is reconciliation at the end, but in a quite unusual manner  for the average Muslim male ego one often associates with the contemporary Middle East.

Mature performances are the mainstay of the film

This critic, who was able to throw a couple of questions at the director, during a post-screening public interaction, specifically asked Ceylan about his three film long collaboration with his wife Ebru in scriptwriting--all of which resulted in three consecutive major award-winning films at Cannes. The response was revealing and startling. Ceylan stressed the fact that Ebru an accomplished Turkish actress (she also acted in Ceylan’s early films Distant and Climates) and filmmaker had taken to scriptwriting very well. Ceylan explained that he himself was influenced by literature, specifically Russian literature and that Winter Sleep is very similar to Anton Chekhov’s short story The Wife. Ceylan, who was influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence when he was a young man, evidently continues to develop and construct scenes reminiscent of the Swedish maestro. While developing the script, Ebru kept reminding her husband Nuri Bilge that the script was way too long and the length needed to be reduced.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan finally decided not to reduce the length as all the small details were important for him. As a jury member at Cannes, Ceylan recalled he wished Michael Haneke’s lengthy Austrian film White Ribbon could go on and on as it was great cinema just as he wishes certain badly made 80 minute long films would end quicker than their intended full duration. With remorse, he added to this critic, Ebru, his wife, might not work on a film script with him again after this decision to retain the film’s length and its myriad details. He added that he found women were stronger than men intellectually.

This critic decided to read the Chekhov story and compare it with Winter Sleep.  In the Russian story there are similar characters and a parallel ending, when you compare it with the film. In the Russian story, the lead character wished to write a book on the history of railways, while in the movie the lead character Aydin wishes to write a book on the history of Turkish theatre, which both pursue in the separate creative works. But more importantly, both works look closely at the social divide, in Russia (in the short story) and in Turkey (in the film). The social divide leverages the emergence of the fissure in the husband-wife relationship in both the movie and short story and therefore serves as an important sub-plot in both tales.

Social Commentary of Chekhov and of the Ceylans

In Winter Sleep, as in the Russian short story, the social divide is all pervasive. The landed gentry live in comfort concerned only whether their tenants pay their rents on time and do not hesitate to take corrective action if they are not paid, blind to the financial conditions of their tenants. The Ceylans, in their script, weave in the reactions of children and old women in the family of the tenants (an aspect Chekhov never dealt with) deprived of their TV by the owners because the rents have not been paid. For Chekhov, the peasants were hit by famine; for the Ceylans, it is a population who sought refuge after calamities decades ago. The Ceylans’ script even details the reaction of the landed gentry to the smelly socks of a tenant, oblivious of the fact that the poor tenant has walked miles to make a token payment.  Even the employees of hotel treat the less financially supported  tenant with disdain by bringing small female slippers for a male adult tenant, who has left his muddy shoes outside, when Aydin asks the employee to bring slippers to protect the visitor’s feet from the cold floor.  The boiling anger of the socially deprived folks towards the well-heeled landowners reminds one of Dostoevsky’s literary works, just as a swooning young boy in Winter Sleep reminds one of passages describing an epileptic in The Idiot. In Winter Sleep, the husband Aydin passing value judgements on the lack of cleanliness of the poor is contrasted with his wife Nihal who is a naive do-gooder who senses the pain of poorer sections of society. Both have differing attitudes and perspectives of the poor. Nihal does painfully realize that “hell is paved with good intentions.”

Aydin writes his column while sister Necla (background) provides bitter criticism

Shakespeare in Winter Sleep

There is no Shakespeare in Chekhov’s story but Ceylan’s love for Shakespeare goes beyond the name of the hotel in Winter Sleep.  There are two references to Richard III in the movie. The title itself connects with the famous line of the play “Now is the winter of discontent...” and towards the end one of the minor characters verbally attack Aydin with the quotation from the same play “Conscience is but a word that cowards use devised at first to keep the strong in awe; our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.”

Winter Sleep may not be an obvious treatise on conscience of the rich and powerful but on some reflection the film is indeed on this subject.  It is not without reason that the Ceylans have called the film by that name and introduced Richard III’s lines into the script.

The ambiguous, reflective visage of Nihal (Melisa Sozen), the wife,
 at the end of the film

Religion in Winter Sleep

Turkey is a Muslim country and it is inconceivable to make a realistic feature film without touching on religion.  In answer to another pointed question from this critic on the references to religion in the film, Ceylan noted that intellectuals worldwide are not worried about religion. In the film Winter Sleep,   the rent defaulting tenant is an Imam, a religious figure, who curses the inconsiderate rich landlord under his breath, while literally going the extra mile to grovel and appease his landlord. The Ceylans’ script makes Aydin realize that his roles on stage as an imam were all wrong after his brief interactions with his tenant imam. The former actor Aydin is taunted by his acerbic sister Necla as she describes him as a Muslim who never goes to a mosque to pray and yet writes about the importance of cleanliness by the devout.  Another taunt by Necla that deeply hurts Aydin is “Philanthropy isn't tossing a bone to a hungry dog. It’s sharing when you are equally hungry.”  And by stark contrast, the Chekhov short story has no mention of religion.

Ceylan, the Director, and Animals as Allegories

The cinema of Nuri Bilge Ceylan has increasingly used animals—the role of dogs in Once Upon a Time in Anotolia is easily recalled.  In Winter Sleep, horses, a dead dog and a hare get attention. And interestingly, this is purely the Ceylans’ contribution, not Chekhov’s.  Aydin, the retired-actor-cum-hotel-owner, never owned a horse. Since a hotel guest points out to him that the hotel’s website shows horses, Aydin is persuaded to purchase a wild horse, which is subdued and kept in the hotel’s makeshift stable. It does not require the brains of a rocket scientist to see the parallels between the horse and Nihal as what happens to the horse is related to the husband-wife relationship. So do the allegories of the dead dog’s carcass and the waiting carrion birds on the tree branches connect up with the film’s plot.  And the final quixotic proof of ability to hunt game by killing a hare and showing the trophy to his wife Nihal provides considerable visual treats for the viewer to mull over the ambiguous ending.

Profile of Aydin in reverse before he spots the dead dog

Ceylan’s Actors

Winter Sleep is a tale of a retired actor Aydin and his wife. It was imperative that Aydin’s character be played by an able performer. Ceylan achieves this by casting Haluk Bilginer, a Turkish actor with considerable experience on the British stage and TV, who is a delight to watch as he interprets Aydin on screen. So are Melisa Sozen as Nihal and Nejat Isler (who was equally impressive in Semih Kaplanoglu’s Egg) as Ismail, the elder brother of the Imam.  While these three performers are top-notch, the other minor characters such as the Imam Hamdi, his nephew Ilyas, and Aydin’s sister Necla will not fail to impress a perceptive viewer. Winter Sleep is not a film held together by one actor, it is held together by an ensemble of quality actors well chosen by the director.

Cinematography in Winter Sleep

No discussion on this remarkable film would be complete without praising the cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, who has been a regular collaborator of Ceylan and has been responsible for capturing effective external and indoor scenes with dramatic effect, more so in the latter. His use of light and shadows in interior shots will remain in a viewer’s memory, film after film.  In Winter Sleep, his reverse angle shots of Aydin and slow zoom in on Aydin’s head at key junctures in the film are remarkable.  The rock thrown at Aydin’s Landrover can be seen in flight before the ultimate impact and one doubts if special effects were employed.

Reverse shot of  Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) in light and shadows

Lastly, the final shots of both Winter Sleep and Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (cinematographer Mikhail Krichman) are almost identical wordless shots of rocky snowy landscapes. Both films are outstanding and comparable. Winter Sleep won the top award at Cannes but failed to reach even the final nomination stage at the Oscars.  Leviathan won the Golden Globe, an Oscar nomination, and the Cameraimage Golden Frog award, the most prestigious award for cinematographers.

Music in Winter Sleep

The choice of music in a film by the director is often missed out by viewers. In Winter Sleep, music is sparsely used, but when it is utilized it embellishes the cinematic work. The piece of music Ceylan uses is Schubert’s Sonata no. 20 in A major the very same piece of music used by Robert Bresson in his French classic Au Hazard Balthazar. By a coincidence, the French classic is one of Ceylan’s favourite films.

Concluding Remarks

Though this critic is a great votary of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and considers him to be one of the finest directors alive and making films, the best work of Ceylan remains Three Monkeys, the first movie the director collaborated with his wife on the script. Both Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Semih Kaplanoglu, two remarkable Turkish directors, have injected a new life into Turkish cinema to take it new highs in world cinema.

P.S.  Winter Sleep is one of the top 10 films of the author in 2014. Three Monkeys (2008) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) have being reviewed on this blog earlier. Three Monkeys is the lone Ceylan work on his top 100 films list. A report of a brief interaction between the author and Nuri Bilge Ceylan in December 2014 at Trivandrum’s International Film Festival of Kerala published on the Dear Cinema website can be accessed at Zvyagintsev's Leviathan (2014) and Nichol's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), mentioned in the above analysis, have been also earlier reviewed in detail on this blog.

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