Tuesday, January 08, 2019

A Prophet (Jaques Audiard, 2009)

There's much to admire in Jacques Audiard's 2009 film A Prophet. Cinematography and performances are by turns – and sometimes simultaneously – bleak and engrossing. Tahar Rahim gives a fine performance as Malik El Djebena, a young Algerian – illiterate but bilingual in French and Arabic – who has been sent to prison (justly or not, we do not know) for assaulting the police. (It was only mildly distracting that Rahim sometimes resembles a young Keanu Reeves.) Djebena is brutally drawn into the orbit of the Corsican mob that has the run of the prison. These early sequences are the most compelling in the film, convincingly depicting the fear and claustrophobic desperation that permit the Corsicans' boss, César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) to get his claws into Djebena by forcing him to murder one of the Muslim inmates. But after this the film gradually becomes less than the sum of its parts. Some quasi-magic realist elements (the ghost of the man Djebena murders; a vision of fleeing deer that later saves his life) are insufficiently integrated, and plausibility begins to diminish: Djebena somehow teaches himself fluent Corsican and convinces the authorities that he is a model prisoner (in order to be let out on day release), all the while getting involved in increasing numbers of different strands of mob and drug-related activity. As the film builds to its denouement, being a Muslim gangster is somehow coded as more admirable than being a Corsican one. Certainly, the absence of punitive moralism is to be applauded, but when Djebena finally punishes Luciani and – in the final scene – emerges from prison to be met by a readymade future partner and child (the child's father, his friend and colleague, having conveniently died of cancer just before), walking triumphantly towards the camera with his new criminal entourage in tow, much of what was distinctive has evaporated and we're left with a much more conventional story of the making of a gangster than the film's beginning leads us to expect. It's a little like Abel Ferrara's King of New York in reverse. Perhaps the way down is just more interesting than the way up.

Thursday, January 03, 2019

An Elephant Sitting Still (Hu Bo, 2018)

A very remarkable debut film indeed, and a wonderful start to my 2019 cinema-going (oh how lucky I am to live so near Bristol's Watershed…). An Elephant Sitting Still tells the story of one day (more-or-less) in the lives of four apparently unremarkable protagonists: two teenagers, an older gangster, and an elderly man whose adult children are looking to shift him off to a care home. These lives are – inevitably, but also very skilfully – interwoven. (Only at the film's end did one or two conjunctions or coincidences strike me as perhaps a little too neat.) Though it is probably, at the very least, in poor taste to say so, given the director/writer's suicide shortly after completing the film, the material about the unalterable bleakness of existence seems to me one of the least convincing, and certainly least distinctive, aspects of the film. Much more intriguing are its investigations of responsibility. The film explores a wide range of permutations of what it means to take responsibility – or to avoid taking it, or to refuse to take it – as well as interrogating when and why such decisions are imposed on us, and what their consequences can be. Is taking responsibility something we do once, in a moment – when we "own up" – or is it a way of living that needs to be continually (re)enacted? These investigations are carefully patterned (one character, for example, falls from a building; later two more are struck; between these moments another falls down a flight of stairs because they are struck) but these patterns are delicate and never intrude. Nor, thankfully, did I detect much in the way of allegorical pretention, despite the fact that (inter)generational responsibility is very important to the narrative. (The titular elephant is another matter, and I did have concerns now and then about its "message", but the final scene won me over.) 

The cinematography is remarkably achieved. Perhaps inevitably, the film has a subdued palette of browns, flinty blues, and dingy greens, but it manages somehow to avoid the clichéd desaturation that so often signifies bleakness nowadays. The virtuoso long takes and camera movements certainly mean it is no surprise to discover that Hu Bo studied with Béla Tarr, but they are put to distinctive and effective usage. I particularly liked the film's tendency to hold a certain framing for such a long time that the movement that follows is surprising and enlightening. There is an equally distinctive and virtuosic use of extremely shallow focus, such that for much of the film only the protagonist currently onscreen is in focus. Among its other effects, this means that when the profoundly unsympathetic mother of one of the protagonists is, eventually, seen in sharp focus for the first time, this contributes strongly – if ambiguously – to encouraging us to rethink our attitude to her. 

It would be foolish to say that, in a film of almost four hours, every moment was essential, but the film doesn't drag. The plot is often engrossing, with quite a number of tense confrontations, and the film avoids the cliché of concluding shots by holding them beyond all obvious rationale; in fact, when the – sometimes very long – takes do eventually end they often do so surprisingly abruptly. Eventually, I started to wonder where the end would come, but the slight sense I had of multiple endings was (I think) due more to my awareness that the end had to be arriving than to a failing of the film. We're less adept at judging proportion in very long films, I guess, due to being less experienced in watching them. When the final shot/scene does come (I shan't spoil it, but it involves a hillside, a coach, a fairly maladroit game of keepie-uppie and some fantastic noises), it has a remarkable poise and beauty. It's also, surprisingly, rather funny, which serves in retrospect to underline an (admittedly subtle) strand of humour that runs through the whole film, and is all the more interesting for taking the form of a rather weary irony rather than the black humour that might have been a more obvious route to have taken.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Key Largo (John Huston, 1948)

I remember thinking of this film as an entertaining but minor entry in the tiny Bogart/Bacall canon, rather hamstrung by its evident origins as a stage play. Today it seemed very different indeed, partly because although Bogart and Bacall are both very fine in it, it's barely about their relationship at all, nor are they the most interesting characters, and if it seems less purely entertaining than The Big Sleep it's because much more is at stake here. All the performances (including an excellent rogue's gallery of familiar character actors) are very fine indeed, particularly Edward G. Robinson, who manages to meaningfully refer to his old gangster performances without pastiching himself. The limitation of the setting for most of the film to a single hotel, while a hurricane rages outside, now seems to me very effectively managed, with Karl Freund's cinematography achieving beautiful effects with subtle movements, compositions, and focus pulls, while remaining in the service of the narrative at all times. The ending does rather fall away, descending into satisfying but implausible heroics and the cliché of a villain who can't comprehend that money isn't everything for everybody. But during the body of the film there are some wonderful studies of cowardice and humiliation; A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax's excellent biography of Bogart plausibly makes a case for an allegory of the recent HUAC hearings (John Huston was apparently proud of getting a quotation from FDR past the Breen office). The most notable scene of humiliation is of course Claire Trevor's enforced singing of her old torch song in search of a drink. The scene would bear comparison with the famous audition sequence in Mulholland Dr., expertly dissected by George Toles. The drama trades on the tension between our comprehension that the narrative has set the song up to be a failure and our hope that it will, nevertheless, be a triumph. The failure is edged into very delicately – at the beginning things could go either way, and I don't think it would be easy to pinpoint the exact moment at which we realise it's all coming apart.

(A final aside: at one point one of the thugs responds to a policeman he has just beaten up describing how 'the lights went out again' by dryly announcing 'I'm the electrician', which makes me wonder if this film is a source for Scott Walker's extraordinary song.)