By Andréa Picard from Cinema Scope
“Someone ought to do a Dabernig Derby soon,” a North American friend and
colleague recently exclaimed. And right he is. Aside from a sprinkling of
screenings at obscure American underground film festivals and his inclusion in
a group show at the corridor-shaped, formidable Storefront for Art and
co-designed by Vito Acconci and Steven Holl in NYC, Josef Dabernig’s renown has
not crossed the Atlantic. His name, unfamiliar even among cinephiles and art
Dabernig’s short films have concurrent themes and motifs, each recognizably, unmistakably his. A cross between Béla Tarr, Jacques Tati, Samuel Beckett, and Aki Kaurismäki, these works ranging in length between seven and 24 minutes rely on minimalism to fashion portraits of modernist decay and the banal scenarios that occur amidst their structures. As much about architecture and history in place as they are about the ridiculous inherent in ritualistic exchange (between people, landscape, technology), Dabernig’s films exhort contradictions with every twist of road. A deadpan treatment of these existing and fabricated scenarios further distorts a definitive worldview, which, while puzzling, is alluringly bizarre and foreboding. The farcical elements, often physical, are laced with a dark, existential confusion—not only one which questions existence but every social interaction and prescribed decorum. A Monsieur Hulot-type character, played by Dabernig himself, often figures in the work, embarking on a set task which seemingly exists in a fully formed universe, but the audience is welcomed in perhaps mid-way through the endeavour (it is not clear). Much remains blurred in the work, but the repetition of imagery—of cars, trains, desolate and decaying landscapes, abandoned buildings and semi-futuristic, socialist architecture—suggests an ongoing narrative whose structural expectations are all but abbreviated in any given film. Difficult to situate, Dabernig’s films reside near the boundaries of both narrative and avant-garde filmmaking, resting unsure of either’s hypothetical position in today’s art world.
Wisla (1996) begins with a large, blocky, concrete structure jutting into the composition, a modern ruin standing proud despite its neglect. The camera then pans insistently to the left, surveying tops of structures barely penetrating the frame composed of a big, grey sky. Shot in soft black and white, the film looks and feels old, itself an implied remnant from another time. Two men in suits and ties walk through the concrete catacombs of a dilapidated, brutalist football stadium, to the coach’s bench, “Wisla” clearly labeled on the side of the glass structure where they settle and sit. This is the home of the famous Polish football team; off-screen sounds (Italian!) erupt as the game gets underway. Boisterous cheering and loudspeaker refereeing conjure the visuals of the match as the camera remains focused on the two men who are somewhat awkwardly playing out the clichés of a soccer coach and training assistant. Registering nervousness and frustration, their gestures are exaggerated and unrealistic. And yet, they are amusing, never maddening, nor nearly as unbelievable as the real thing. Dabernig’s character gets up, calmly walks to the edge of the playing field and signals to his make-believe players, and the camera responds to his order by quickly panning up to reveal row upon row of empty seats. This game (the imaginary football match and the film’s precise sound-image play) continues for a few more minutes until the two men rise, walk up through the bleachers and greet dignitaries watching the game. A series of handshakes takes place, and the two Wisla members walk off-screen, the camera pulling out to expose the barren stadium. Wisla ends as the Italian football commentary continues through the credits, which appear at the end of all of Dabernig’s films in a typewriter-like, anachronistic font. An introduction into Dabernig’s self professed “no-man’s land,” Wisla depicts the un-depicted, where familiarity is elided in exchange for the geometry of human-made interventions into the natural order.
Two years later, Dabernig co-directed Timau with German photographer Markus Scherer, a 20-minute, black-and-white, tripartite vignette which has been called a “workers’ melodrama.” The first shot reveals two men driving in a car through a beautiful, but treacherous, mountainous landscape, with lyrical lightplay being performed upon their car’s windshield. The sleepy passenger shifts to reveal a third person in the backseat—the entire film, like all of Dabernig’s, relies on a revelation-concealment structure. As they drive, we hear the distinctive but undetermined sounds of the car radio and see wondrous ruins like aquaducts and bridges from a distant era. Driving through tunnels, the passengers are alternatively obscured by darkness and obliterated from sunshine, this chiaroscuro peek-a-boo exchange acting as dramatic highpoint to the film’s uncertain storyline. Finally, they park next to a rock face that displays a mysterious rectangular delineation seemingly drawn with chalk, and fetch their gear from the trunk. As the tension for narrative builds, the second section of the film draws out the desire for story and refuses quick fulfillment. The three men, dressed in some kind of uniform, continue their journey on foot, lugging briefcases. The leader of the trio uses ski poles to help him climb the hilly, landscape. Timau adopts a silent film aura as they mount the brush ever upward, their steps unheard on the soundtrack, the quiet contradicting the arduousness of their hike. This oddly tranquil ascent seems to go on forever until eventually they reach a dark tunnel and the sound is restored. The light from the opening casts their plodding outlines in sharp contrast, and there is very little to see on screen except for shafts of light alternatively illuminating the top of their heads and then their feet. Laborious and claustrophobic, their trudging is enhanced through the sounds of heavy breathing. When they at last emerge into daylight again, the camera explores the jagged rock faces and catches a slithery snake as it cowers beneath a rock, this observational gaze belonging to none of the men.
The third section reveals what the three men have come to do, an uncanny denouement which is sealed through a formal pact (whose echoes will reappear later on at the end of Rosa Coeli, one of his best and most fascinating films). Deed done, wistful romantic music concludes this odd, elegant tale, the end of which I will not spoil. But it’s a typical Dabernig motif: the paradoxical coming together of old and new worlds. Unsurprisingly, his oeuvre has occasionally been read as a fabled Western excursion into the East; his camera and Hulot-esque character representing the European sophisticate (though awkward and misplaced) casting a peculiar look upon former Soviet states stuck in a time warp. While the aesthetic collision of rural and urban, and of traditional structures and modernist buildings recurs, the dividing line between old and new is not the dominant theme. Anything askew is.
Jogging (2000), for example, is wickedly strange. Again we begin in the car, this time in striking, saturated colour. Twentieth century orchestral music plays from the stereo as the car travels through a decrepit landscape marked only by unidentified communist architecture; the mood grows steadily eerie. The music, now haunting and gothic, grows louder as the camera voyeuristically glances through the sideview mirror, catching the reflection of buildings hovering in the background, compulsively observing the driver’s hands, pausing on the dashboard, and looking out the windshield from the backseat. The editing grows quicker as the collage of bizarre imagery (drooling and barking wild dogs, a herd of goats) increases with the music, culminating in an all-consuming state of disquiet. The ultimate destination is Renzo Piano’s UFO-inspired Stadio San Nicola, built for the 1990 World Cup. The car suddenly stops, and the Adidas-sporting driver (we never see his face) steps onto the pavement with his puffy black sneakers; the camera goes mad. Swirling out of control, the ethereal music still soaring, the camera finally rests upon the big blue sky as the film ends in a L’Eclisse extended finale shot, the doom of modernity hanging indeterminately in mid-air.
Two less successful works followed, Wars (2001) and automatic (2002), before Dabernig’s most ambitious film, 2003’s Rosa Coeli. (In between, Dabernig made a six-minute short, Parking, but I was unable to locate any information on it, let alone a screening copy.) Though sumptuously shot in pristine black and white, Wars is a bit goofy, with the service staff of a passenger train going through the motions with too much self-inflection, the props too perfectly positioned, and the end result stilted. The trademarks are all there: the unsigned landscape framed by a series of windows, the title of the film physically located in the space—this time over a baggage compartment and on the back of the seats in the empty restaurant compartment—the boredom and monotony, the rehearsal of motion and movement through time and space. It’s not tossed off by any means (how could it be with gleaming, precise cinematography that reveals the train compartment as a work of lacquered art?), but it is minor. The same can be said of automatic. Made with the music group G.R.A.M., the film is a drum-and-bass, pulsing, automotive musical taking place in a ramshackle parking garage. A road movie that never sees the road, this pared down curio is oddly reminiscent of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), but the revved up homoeroticsm is here replaced by solitary and silly art-making. But the crafty interplay between diegetic and non-diegetic sound is remarkable, and reminds us of Dabernig’s clever and intricate use of sound overall. It’s not incidental that the car audio tape player (now virtually obsolete) figures so prominently in his works—that, and the chugging of trains, like the rhythmic mechanized sound at the beginning of Rosa Coeli.
A man (Dabernig) sits on a train ostensibly reading a newspaper. German voiceover recites his private thoughts, a dense and poetic text written by Bruno Pellandrini which lasts the duration of the film. En route to a small Moravian town, his birthplace, to bury his recently deceased father, the protagonist conjures his past inside his head as he physically goes through the motions of settling the formalities over his father’s death. A rumination on childhood, tinged with regret, sorrow, and existential longing, the beauty of the text is rendered elegiac through the masterful compositions highlighting the wonders of the land. As the village’s past and the ruining of its eponymous monastery, named the Celestial Rose (after which the wine of the region was christened), emerges through this internal monologue, the camera dissects this snowy, sleepy town, its feeble-bodied villagers, and the anachronisms of its interior design. Like Timau, the signing of a pact is the concluding gesture, but Rosa Coeli is imbued with the weight of psychological solitude, a Baudelairian recoil for which there can be little sense of accomplishment. A cloaked sense of irony surely lays hidden amidst this picaresque tale, but as it’s so different from Dabernig’s other works, it’s difficult to detect.
The same cannot be said of his latest film, the magisterial-farcical Lancia
Thema (2005), showing in the Wavelengths program at this year’s
BOMB Magazine: Cherien Dabis by June Stein June Stein interview from Bomb magazine, Fall 2009 (excerpt)
January, 2002: Columbia University’s graduate film school. The winter sun flashed through the mini-blinds in my classroom, spilling slatted bars of light onto the beautiful face of a stranger in the corner. Who was she? It was a new semester, but “Directing Actors,” the class I teach, is a full-year course and I don’t allow new students to join midstream. Rules are rules, but I didn’t bargain on the likes of the force about to be born. Cherien Dabis stayed, busted her ass, and ate every pertinent molecule in that room. As my colleague, professor and filmmaker Katherine Dieckmann said: she was incredibly diligent, dogged, and determined to learn the screenwriting form. She’d rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. She was tireless. She just didn’t give up on her ideas until she got them right. Her great determination and focus were a huge factor in how she got her first feature made. Because she’s tenacious. Power to her.
Amreeka, a comedy/drama, premiered at Sundance in 2009 and played as opening night of New Directors/New Films at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. At Cannes in 2009, it was awarded the prestigious FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize. The film is a universal journey into the lives of immigrants searching for a better future in America’s promised land. Muna, a single mother, leaves the West Bank with her son Fadi only to find undreamed-of challenges in a new world full of seismic changes.
I thought of my own young artistic ambition as I trudged up 85th Street, past a FedEx depot that used to be Merkin’s, a jazz-and-drugs bar. Bizarrely, Cherien’s apartment was in the exact same building that I had moved into exactly 40 years ago when I first came to New York, before Cherien was even born. Here’s the old wrought-iron fence! And the crooked little entrance facing the elevator that I got attacked in! God, the lobby hasn’t changed at all. I feel old, but proud. Cherien answers the door and we horse around, do some girl talk, and apply lip gloss for a photo shoot. Then she cracks a joke that she is clearly fond of, so please, LOL.
on One: Najwa Najjar and Cherien Dabis | Sundance Festival 2010
Huffington Post Sundance Interview Melissa Silverstein interview at Sundance from The Huffington Post, January 21, 2009
Magazine, "Arab in America: Cherien Dabis" Kera Bolonik interview from The New York Times magazine,
Amreeka's Cherien Dabis | Film Independent
Carolyn Cohagan interview from Film
director Cherien Dabis brings Arab Americans to the screen ... Jen Sabella from After Ellen,
Cherien Dabis straddles two worlds -- latimes.com Reed Johnson feature and interview from The LA Times,
Intimacy and Realism: Cherien Dabis Talks 'Amreeka ... Interview by indieWIRE,
Amreeka' Michael Archer interview
BOMB Magazine: Cherien Dabis by June Stein June Stein interview from Bomb magazine, Fall 2009
The title is the Arabic word for America, so
this film plants its feet firmly on an idealization, using a series of small
real life incidents to help re-visualize a new image of what it is to be an
Arab-American. At least for me, I much
preferred the opening sequences that took place in Ramallah, which show
geographically how the Palestinian territories aren’t one continual land mass,
but separate little entities, like islands, each of which is separated by an
Israeli checkpoint. Imagine traveling
from Connecticut to Rhode island, but being unable to pass through any major
cities, as 99% of Palestinians can’t travel through Jerusalem without an
Israeli permit, so have to be diverted but also pass through several different
checkpoints along the way where the guards have the authority to hold you
indefinitely for as long as they want, intentionally leaving some travelers
stranded for hours at a time, all under the security imposition that each
Palestinian is a would be terrorist. So
a trip that might normally take 45 minutes ends up taking several hours
instead. (See a detailed map from “Around Jerusalem to Ramallah” on August 18,
2006 by Ben here: B o s t o n t
o P a l e s t i n e ...,
where a 30 minute trip requires an hour and a half detour, and this is before
you hit the checkpoints) It’s very
difficult to live and work under those conditions, but Palestine has been
occupied for over half a century or more, forty years by the Israelis and
twenty years before that by Egypt and Jordan, and still can’t rightfully call
itself home. Nonetheless, there are
nearly 3 and a half million Palestinians living in the occupied territories of
the West Bank and
Newcomer Nisreen Faour in her first film is the
slightly pudgy Muna Farah, an extremely warm and overly affectionate mother of
a high school son Fadi (Melkar Muallem) living in Bethlehem with her own
elderly mother. Implications are that her
husband has left the family for a younger, skinnier girlfriend under unpleasant
circumstances that remain unspoken. When
she wins the
With only benign trace notes of political discourse mentioned anywhere throughout the entire film, this becomes instead an intimate family portrait where the idea of America becomes the focus of Muna’s journey, where she enters the country with such naïve, open-minded anticipation, eagerly believing she has finally found a place of acceptance, except she runs into a wall of resistance. She begins to see herself in pathetic terms, as does her son during his own confrontations with bullying kids, as both are made to feel less than human. The film appears rooted in realism, where the discord outside finds its way inside, where families are challenged by the fundamental indifference and ostracism shown to them by their neighbors, where your problem is not my problem, so why should I care? It is here that the film falters somewhat, as it doesn’t really dig deep enough into the bitterness that develops when nothing but scorn is heaped upon you at every turn and in every layer of American bureaucracy, where people find themselves in a no-way-out pit, especially when they have no one and nowhere else to turn. But this is not a political film, instead it uses warmth and humor to win our affection, where Muna’s smile alone is enough to brighten anyone’s day, and how could anyone not love Muna, who is simply a force of good will? America is still too deeply mired in the Middle East war efforts and is not exactly ready to embrace a film that takes a pro-Arab stance, which is exactly the point of the film, where facing everyday prejudices becomes part of the human dilemma. There is a sweet contextualization and something of a contrived Disneyland ending, using a liberal American school principal Joseph Ziegler, similar to Richard Jenkins in THE VISITOR (2007), to become a bridge between different cultures, where all things work out in the end, but also a terrific performance by an Americanized Palestinian cousin Salma (Alia Shawkat) who dates a black guy, so there is a United Nations goodwill feel to all of the characters, where the single-minded xenophobic white notion of what it is to be an American is seriously challenged.
This story follows a Middle-Eastern woman as she struggles living in an
The thriving subgenre of immigrant displacement dramedy gets a
confident new spin from Cherien Dabis, a Palestinian-Jordanian raised in the
Paper Magazine, "Amreeka, the Beautiful" Rachel Syme from Paste magazine, September 3, 2009
Growing up in small-town
Two decades later, Dabis has made a film her teenage self would
be proud of: Amreeka, a runaway hit at
Moving Pictures: Cherien Dabis - Amreeka Article by Cherien Dabis from Moving Pictures magazine, December 2008
This past November, the country that Arabs call "Amreeka" proved that it's not what it had appeared to be. And, in doing so, it surprised the world by ushering in a whole new era - the era of hope. It is in this era that my first feature film, Amreeka, will make its debut. Though it was conceived during troubled times, much like Obama's presidency, it was born out of a desire for change and the hope for something better.
A first-generation Palestinian/Jordanian American, I grew in
Then the 1991 Gulf War hit, and the question that plagued me became the fire that fueled me. Virtually overnight, my family became "the enemy." My father lost many of his patients because people suddenly decided they didn't want to support an Arab doctor. We got death threats on a daily basis: "Love it or leave it." And: "We know what to do with you Saddam-lovers." But the icing on the cake was when the secret service came to my high school to investigate a rumor that my older sister threatened to kill the president. My eyes were opened to the racism that can result from the stereotypes that the media propagates. Not only did I start paying close attention to the ways in which Arabs were portrayed in the news and in Hollywood movies, I realized that I wanted to have a hand in changing the images that were (and still are) associated with being Arab.
It was in this spirit of activism that I discovered the power of
filmmaking, the power to bridge cultures and bring stories to the masses, the
power to use the universal language of emotion to effect change. A decade
later, I moved to
Thus "Muna" was born. Inspired by the strength and optimism of my aunt who immigrated to the U.S. in 1997, Muna is a woman who doesn't see her own differences but rather assumes a sense of belonging everywhere she goes. She'll do anything for her family, except let them down. And though she starts off eager to run away from her problems back home, she learns that she must face them and stand up for herself. It's through her that I set out to uncover the truth of our shared humanity in a film that ultimately is a gesture of love for my own family and community.
Five years, countless drafts of the script and more than half a dozen development labs later (from the Film Independent Director's Lab to the Sundance Middle East Screenwriter's Lab to Tribeca All Access), I was in production. I'll never forget the feeling of pride that overwhelmed me when I stood on set watching my incredible international cast as we recreated - at least in part - my 1991 reality in Celina, Ohio. I couldn't help thinking that my true hope is that this movie be seen in small towns across the U.S. Naïve? Perhaps. A few years ago, I would have never thought it possible. But as Obama declared at Grant Park on election night, "Change has come to America." That gives me great hope for Amreeka.
review Caryn James from The Daily Beast, September 1, 2009
In the Sundance favorite Amreeka, a single mom goes from the West Bank to White Castle. The Daily Beast’s Caryn James on this fall’s most charming indie film.
Muna, the down-to-earth heroine of Amreeka, arrives in the United States from the West Bank with her 16-year-old son and offers only smiling agreement to an obtuse officer at passport control. “Citizenship?” he asks. Eager, endearing, speaking fluent but imperfect English, she says, “I don’t have.”
“Then you don’t have a country?” he says sarcastically. She cheerfully nods, and explains she’s from the Palestinian territory. And when he moves on to ask, “Occupation?” she innocently answers, “Yes, it is occupied, for 40 years." That’s as overtly political as this witty little film about Palestinians coming to America becomes.
Even though the movie pointedly takes place just as the U.S. is invading Iraq in 2003, politics creeps in quietly. First-time writer/director Cherien Dabis leaves it to us to notice the sign outside the White Castle burger joint where Muna works. With a couple of strategic letters missing, it reads “SUPPORT OUR OOPS.” (If only Bush’s famous banner had read “Oops!” instead “Mission Accomplished.”) But Dabis’ own girlhood as the daughter of Middle Eastern immigrants in small-town Ohio, which inspired the film, adds a valuable dimension we never see on screen.
The earliest scenes, set in the West Bank, make the film seem more blatantly political than it is. Muna has to pass through checkpoints to get home from her bank job, and when her son, Fadi, makes a wisecrack to the guard, the boy is hauled out of the car at gunpoint. Muna worries that in America, “We’d be like visitors,” but Fadi says, “It’s better than being prisoners in your own country.”
Even in this fraught political atmosphere, though, the film’s focus is on Muna herself. She is the kind of willful person whose determination has to overcome her lack of self-confidence; a pudgy middle-aged woman who calls attention to her recent weight gain before anyone else can, who is still wounded that her husband has traded her in for a younger, skinny wife. A new life is just what she needs. (Nisreen Faour, unknown here, makes Muna entirely sympathetic and real.)
She finds a different ordeal in Illinois, where she and Fadi move in with her sister and brother-in-law, and their two thoroughly American daughters. Muna is so embarrassed at having to mop floors and flip burgers for a living that she tells her family she is working at the bank next door. The family is mistaken for Iraqi and finds an anonymous threat in the mailbox. Muna’s brother-in-law, a doctor, begins losing so many patients that he can’t pay the mortgage.
Even the kindest characters display unexamined bias. Fadi’s high-school principal, who develops an instant crush on Muna, tries to reassure her when Fadi is bullied, telling her that kids ignorantly assume all Muslims are terrorists. Muna quietly says, “We’re not even Muslim.” Dabis makes all this part of the fabric of her characters’ lives, along with other strands as ordinary as Fadi getting stoned with his American cousin and learning how to dress so he’ll look cool.
As Amreeka was making the festival rounds, including Sundance and the opening night slot at New Directors/ New Films, Dabis often talked about how her girlhood shaped the film. (She has written for the Showtime series The L Word, but Amreeka is her first movie.) The daughter of Jordanian and Palestinian immigrants, she was 14 during the Gulf War. Her father, a doctor, lost patients; the family received death threats. And in an incident more dramatic than any on screen, the Secret Service investigated a rumor that her 17-year-old sister had threatened the president. It’s startling to realize how easily she was able to transport those memories intact from the first Iraq war to the post-9/11 world. But like the sign outside White Castle, Dabis’ memories enhance a film that is fundamentally quite cheerful, taking its cue from the ever-optimistic Muna as she successfully finds her way in a new country.
On the scale of current Iraq-themed movies, Amreeka is far less skewering than the gleefully anti-Bush In the Loop, but more opinionated than the determinedly apolitical soldiers’ story The Hurt Locker. Giving a fresh twist to the evergreen story of immigrants, Amreeka shows how politics infuses daily life, and how the muddled image of Middle Easterners in this country has persisted from that first Iraq conflict straight through to the Big Oops war of today.
Slant Magazine review Ed Gonzalez
Out director Cherien Dabis brings Arab Americans to the screen ... Jen Sabella from After Ellen, August 25, 2009
'Coming to Amreeka' Michael Archer interview from Guernica magazine, September 2009
Authenticity, Intimacy and Realism: Cherien Dabis Talks 'Amreeka ... Interview by indieWIRE, September 4, 2009
BOMB Magazine: Cherien Dabis by June Stein June Stein interview from Bomb magazine, Fall 2009
Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan) review September 4, 2009
Director Cherien Dabis straddles two worlds -- latimes.com Reed Johnson feature and interview from The LA Times, September 4, 2009
KUMA B- 81
aka: 2nd Wife
Austria (93 mi) 2012 ‘Scope Official site
An exposé on Turkish culture in an Austrian film is quite a novel undertaking, an extremely detailed slice of life, unraveling like a Turkish Madame Bovary, another realist work that was the subject of obscenity attacks in its era, written in mid 19th century France. Similarly, the religious backwardness ingrained in these small Turkish sects existing today almost in secrecy brings ancient customs and beliefs into stark contrast with the modern world. The story revolves around the idea of Turkish husbands taking a 2nd wife, something outlawed in Austria, yet continues to be practiced, albeit infrequently, outside the gaze of unsuspecting government officials. What starts out as a festive, wide-open, country wedding in Turkey (where perhaps money changes hands) soon takes a quick turn for the worse, as the alleged bride and groom, the beautiful young Ayse (Begüm Akkaya) and handsome Haslan (Murathan Muslu), are quickly ushered back to Vienna with Haslan’s mother Fatma (Nihal G. Koldas) where we learn the wedding is a sham, as Ayse is really the 2nd wife of Fatma’s husband, the aging patriarch Mustafa (Vedat Erincin), already with 5 children, where the two older grown daughters, perhaps more Austrian than Turkish, disapprove of the younger Ayse from the moment she enters the house, turning this into a claustrophobic chamber drama. Written from a woman’s perspective by Petra Ladinigg embellishing the director’s story, this is a small scale, realist work that eventually becomes suffocatingly melodramatic.
The widescreen pan of the mountains of Turkey quickly give way to a secret, closed-off world that likely conflicts with Muslim practices as well, but are holdover family customs. Fatma is extremely ill with cancer early on, as her condition is deteriorating with chemotherapy, requiring surgery, where she welcomes and embraces Ayse even over her own daughters, suggesting if anything happens to her, she wants Ayse in charge of her family. Making matters more uncomfortable, the family must prepare a bed in the living room for the wedding to be consummated, where every sound reverberates through the thin walls, but Ayse is soon pregnant. Like Cinderella, she is still treated within the family as a scrub lady, doing all the cooking and cleaning while everyone else has the freedom to live their lives. Even when she visits the grocery store, she is labeled arrogant and snobbish by the Turkish women in the community for not engaging in the local women’s gossip, and she’s afraid to speak as she’s still learning the Austrian language. Despite her best efforts to please her own family, she is constantly ridiculed and humiliated, as if she is the cancerous growth within the family. The director, in his first feature film, plays on the audience’s expectations, offering a few plot twists that come unexpectedly.
Pitting the old against the new, raising relevant but often embarrassing questions, each generation has to face its own challenges, where you’d think Ayse might be steered towards other 2nd wives, many of whom might be undergoing similar resentment, each having no one they can turn to, as their very presence is an abomination in strict Austrian society. The featured characters are Ayse and Fatma, as it’s really their story, where the performances of both are standout. Director Umut Dag, of Kurdish descent, aided by cinematographer Carsten Thiele, displays a special interest in the plight of his female characters, effectively making a ‘women’s film.’ Not welcomed and faced with overly harsh options are typical immigrant stories, where the severe treatment often backfires, forcing characters into making more reckless choices they’d never otherwise have considered. The small, baby steps that Ayse has been taking throughout the picture suddenly turn into leaps and bounds, as the film takes a strange turn towards the end, but one which is telegraphed throughout, sending tensions literally skyrocketing through the roof, becoming an intimate portrait of women’s hysteria, where Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. The film is a wrenching glimpse of the underside of humanity, often tightening the noose around their own necks when they become the arbitrary enforcers of morality.
I recently saw this movie at TIFF in my hometown. Although it gets a little
time to get into the slower pace it deserves every inch of it. It is also a
good insight of Turkish traditional family, although emigrated with strict
rules that are carried on even in western countries. The film develops the
drama slowly until the climax towards the end. The acting is very solid,
although they are all Turkish actors. I don't know how famous are they in their
own country, but I would give credit to Nihal G. Koldas as Fatma, the
authoritarian mother of the family, and Murathan Muslu who plays Hassan, the
hard working son hiding a secret that wouldn't be tolerated in such
conservative environment. The biggest surprise is the 21 year debut Begüm
Akkaya in the role of Ayse , a young Turkish woman sent out for marriage abroad
by her family. Her performance is stunning, incredibly fresh and brilliant. I
hope to hear more of her in the future. If you have the chance, go for it, you
won't regret for sure. andrei
Kuma means ‘second wife’ in Turkish, and Umut Dag’s debut feature is
indeed a claustrophobic domestic drama about a second wife, although, in the
way of the Turks living in
Exposure may well be limited, but this turns out to have enough heft to guarantee festival profile at the least. The events onscreen are greatly enhanced by a distinctive shooting style which presses in on the viewer in the subtlest of ways, until the limitations and tensions of the lives led onscreen become palpably real.
Kuma starts out wide, with a wedding in a Turkish village; amidst the clamour and the colour, several facts reveal themselves. Fatma (Koldas) is very ill; her son Hasan (Muslu) has just married a local girl called Ayse (Akkaya), which his sister Nurcan (Karabayir) resents; and they are all travelling back to Vienna where they will live together.
On their return, however, it becomes clear that all this is an elaborate ruse, and the young Ayse has been brought to Austria to become second wife to the ageing family patriarch, Mustafa (Erincin), with the full blessing - if not connivance - of his ailing first wife Fatma, who also has a son working in Germany, a married daughter in an abusive relationship, a teenage girl and a 10-year-old boy.
Once in Europe, the film quickly cuts from a wide shot of the mountains of Turkey to a closed-off world - the apartment, the local halal shop, the playground. This isn’t so much a film about integration - effectively, there is none, although Ayse does slowly learn to speak German - but the old ways and the new, the past and the future.
In this sealed-off Turkish community, appearances are everything and everybody guards their secrets, but the timid and well-meaning Ayse, brought in as a glorified housemaid, may yet effect a change.
Kuma isn’t evenly paced, and some of the early establishing sequences can tend towards the plodding. With a lot to shoulder, performances from the two leads are crucial and strong, although Koldas, as the somewhat saintly Fatma, only really makes her full mark in the final denouement - but it’s quite a mark.
Young Akkaya is certainly a face to remember, as is Muslu, as Hasan, her ‘husband’. Director Umut Dag, himself a Kurd, displays a marked sensitivity for the plight of his characters, turning in fundamentally what used to be called a ‘woman’s film’. In his efforts, he is much assisted by intriguing camerawork from Carsten Thiele and a screenplay of some unexpected depth by Petra Ladinigg.
An innocent village girl is secretly recruited as the second wife, or kuma,
of a Turkish pater familias in
If it’s hard for Westerners to swallow the idea of co-existing wives, one
suspects modern Muslims have a few problems, too. Perhaps this is why Ayse’s
(Akkaya) wedding to a nice, anonymous white-haired gent is passed off as a much
more appropriate marriage to his handsome son Hasan. Only the family knows the
truth: The pretty teenager is being shipped off to
The children’s reactions (two are already grown up) provide a reality check
on the surreal situation. Though they still wear tightly wound headscarves out
of doors, the two younger girls appear to have been born in
Just when things are settling down, a major plot twist sends the story rocketing off in a new direction. The second part of the film splits wide open in the kinky way Austrian films tend to do, raising all sorts of embarrassing social questions no character is prepared to answer. Finally, after all Ayse’s Cinderella-like masochism and self-sacrifice and the family’s outrageous bad faith, tensions explode in a highly satisfying, knock-down fight that sends genuine old Turkish values flying out the window.
The fine cast is exceptional in creating a closed-circuit world in which hidden passions can explode. Koldas’ mature performance is full of unspoken, repressed feelings, making an ideal foil for Akkaya’s blank-faced country goodness and apparently will-less compliance. The camera and tech work are modest no-frills.
Promise" ("The Promised Life") is among the French actress'
Isabelle Huppert's finest accomplishments. This amazing masterpiece presents
Huppert in a character, which is a combination abrasiveness and vulnerability,
she is both exasperating and at the same time pathetic, monstrous, and saintly.
It is difficult to envision another actress who could embrace the complexity of
her character and yet still present her persona in such an intriguing paradigm
of humanity who magically captures our full attention while taking our breath
It seems palpably unfair when such other female film stars as
Huppert's role is that of Sylvia, a sullen prostitute walking the streets of Nice in
Sylvia seems in charge of her life until the appearance of her 14-year-old epileptic daughter Laurence (Maud Forget). Laurence is in foster care and Sylvia would prefer to have her out of her life, which becomes obvious by her callous rejection and disrespect even though it was Laurence's birthday. Laurence, desperate for attention, turns up again unexpectedly in Sylvia's apartment and observes her mother's pimp pummeling her. When the pimp's associate turns his attention to Laurence by sexually attacking her, she fatally stabs him, thus compelling mother and daughter to hastily leave town.
Eight years earlier, Sylvia had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized after giving birth to a son. The boy's father (whether he was married to her or not is not clear) lived in the north of
The film has the inspiring appeal of a half-told chronicle where significant and intriguing passages are casually left unexplained. The full meaning and resolution of Sylvia's relationship with Laurence and Joshua's criminal career remain delightfully obscured; leaving us just enough information to maintain our interest, yet preserving the mystery that tweaks our attention. The audience must search their own repertoires of imaginations to conclude the story.
Director Olivier Dahan is daring enough to bring his camera into tight close-ups leaving Huppert's character displayed in unflattering poses while wearing harsh make-up and in poor lighting. Huppert does not attempt hide behind the cheap make-up in order to present a good performance. Her talent is sufficiently powerful to reveal Sylvia's inner strength and bring her true character bubbling to the surface. Her painted exterior suggests one stereotype while her eyes tell yet another story. This is an extraordinary film not to be missed.
aka: La Môme
Olivier Dahan's sprawling portrait of the life of Edith Piaf is the kind of grand, passionate historical drama that no one seems to be able to pull off any more. Dahan does so magnificently, thanks largely to a brilliant performance by Marion Cotillard.
Discovered singing on a
Cotillard plays the legend from 20-year-old street singer and hard-living urchin to superstar concert-hall vocalist to frail icon, bent and palsied from a life of drink, drugs and high living without ever losing the spark of the sassy street kid who muscled her way into polite company. Even when planted in front of a microphone, she stands aggressive and defiant, as if holding her ground and staring down the audience while belting out her stories.
The sprawling historical epic slips back and forth through her life, leaping from traumatic moments to quiet reveries with little apparent pattern. It tends to confuse her timeline, which already skips over her legendary work with the French Resistance during the German occupation. It's really less a biography than the sketch of a melodramatic life of triumphs and tragedies and a passionate woman who favored emotion and impulse over reason and restraint.
But no, she has no regrets, or so goes her signature song and lyric epitaph. While Dahan's take on her final moments may contradict the defiant lyrics of that song, Cotillard convinces that Piaf lived by that romantic and heedless philosophy.
Critique. La vie en rose by Olivier Dahan. Emmanuel Burdeau from Cahiers du Cinéma
World Socialist Web Site David Walsh
The Lumière Reader Diane Spodarek
La Vie en Rose [La Môme] Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
Movie House Commentary Johnny Web
New York Times (registration req'd) A.O. Scott
Brazil Film Update Robert Stan from Jump Cut
Dahl's second feature, UIRA is a work of what the director calls
"anthropological fiction." Based on research by the Brazilian
anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro, UIRA tells the story, set in 1939, of an Urubu
Indian who, in despair over his son's death at the hands of whites, departs
with his family in search of Maira, the Indian Creator-God living in
In Gustavo Dahl's able hands, Uira's journey becomes a pretext for a ringing critique not only of the Indian policies of the Brazilian government (although the story is set in 1939, little has changed), but also of white capitalist civilization in general. Through Uira's astonished eyes, Dahl reveals to us the strangeness of our own customs — the strangeness of finding human nudity obscene or titillating, the strangeness of wage slavery and capitalist commerce. UIRA, in short, is an exercise in cultural relativism, a critical look at our civilization from the standpoint of La pensee sauvage. Avoiding the twin extremes of racist vilification and noble savage idealization, UIRA treats its native subject with rare respect and dignity, even while it offers a provocative critique of our own civilization and values.
BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS (Xiao cai feng) B+ 90
A French-Chinese co-production, this film features some lush cinematography by Jean Marie Dreujou, filmed in the remote Phoenix mountains area during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, where two friends, one the son of a “reactionary intellectual,” are sent to a Maoist re-education camp, a forced labor camp, where they are the only ones who can read, who know what a violin is, so they find out immediately that if they want to play Mozart on the violin, then they have to name the song, “Mozart is thinking of Chairman Mao.” They meet a local village seamstress, read her some stolen, reactionary literature of Balzac, and it plays almost like a fairy tale of what could have been in the labor camp, a love story intertwined in the dreams and recollections of the two young men. There were some beautifully constructed scenes, especially when the two boys were sent to view North Korean films, returning to re-tell the local villagers, who were none the wiser when they used these elaborately re-constructed stories of the forbidden reactionary literature to amaze them all. This must be considered an overwrought, idealized, high drama, the style of film that should never work, but it worked for me, largely due to the gorgeous remote locations, some interesting storytelling, and a few magical moments that can only be described as the wonder of cinema.
Day In The Life Sheila Johnston from Sight and Sound
THE READER B+ 91
USA Germany (123 mi) 2008
If people like you can’t learn from people like me, then what the hell is the point? —Professor Rohl (Bruno Ganz)
A decidedly somber work, which is appropriate, as the subject touches on the Holocaust, where in an unusual choice, Kate Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz, a Nazi prison guard who is brought to trial twenty years after the war ended. What makes this even more unusual is a flashback sequence that opens the film in the late 50’s when she is working as a train conductor and has a summer affair with a 15 year old boy, Michael (David Kross), a young student at the time who has just recovered from scarlet fever. Though they meet for sex, it’s clear her favorite activity is listening to him read classic literature to her, where she is frequently moved to tears from the stories she hears. Unexpectedly, she disappears without a trace before that summer is over. Michael goes on to study law where his class visits a Nazi war tribunal in the late 60’s where Hanna Schmitz is on trial for war crimes. His emotional upheaval is the subject of the film, which brings into question the role of working class Nazi’s during the war, as some 8000 worked in the prison camps, but only a few dozen were actually tried or convicted of war crimes. Winslet’s status as one of the leading actresses of her generation lends credibility and a bit of extra added emphasis to the role, and she does not disappoint, never excusing what she did, but also questioning what choice working class women had during the war, where prison guard work was probably one of the few reliable sources of income.
Adapted by David Hare, THE HOURS (2002), from a novel by Bernhard Schlink, the film has a low key sense of detachment, which matches Michael’s moody introspection. In this light, Hanna’s orderly existence with a boy twenty years her junior does not seem all that unusual, and certainly the effect she had on him was profound, but he got on with his life afterwards. When she re-enters his life so unexpectedly, he is ashamed yet at the same time immeasurably moved by the experience, leaving him deeply haunted by the trial. At one point he revisits Auschwitz today, which has been left as is, with the shower rooms, broken down beds, and the tens and thousands of shoes all neatly piled up. One wonders if showing these scenes exploits the uniquely powerful impact in a fictional film, if it in fact diminishes the power of the event itself? Yet it is done wordlessly and with utter detachment, without any added effect, simply shown without comment as if seen by any observer. It can’t help but add an extra dimension to the film, as the camera takes you right there to the scene of the crime. When it becomes clear that Michael has information that might effect the trial outcome, in particular the sentencing, he can’t summon the courage needed to act, which only makes him more ashamed of himself, as that’s precisely the crime of ordinary German citizens during the war.
In fact, Michael’s behavior is suspect throughout his adult life, as he has a failed marriage (his wife is never seen), and an estranged daughter that he doesn’t see enough of, remaining largely closed off to her as well, so he is a man that lives behind layers of walls that he has built for himself, which perhaps defines how anyone copes with traumatic events in their lives. Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael has made his career out of wordless subtlety, and his growing sense of unease is exasperating, as one wonders why he doesn’t visit Hanna in prison, why he doesn’t confront his own past, and perhaps why he can’t forgive her. The trial itself is exposed as a sham, because Hanna did nothing any differently than thousands of others, but unlike the other guards, she actually came forward and acknowledged her crimes. Much is made of how different people perceived her actions, as she was the victim of a lynch mob mentality, as people so needed someone to blame, and others would just as soon put a bullet through her head. Michael’s quandry is more personal, but he’s just as indecisive about how the law applies to her actions. Her sentence carries with it a degree of certainty that the court got it right, that justice delayed is still justice served, but Michael remains in a moral fog, as does, I suspect, a majority of the audience, as it’s simply not appropriate to sympathize with a Nazi prison guard. They personify how routine the Holocaust became to ordinary German people where one carried out one’s responsibilities and never thought to ask questions. Only in hindsight were questions asked. To its credit, what the film really shows is that we still can’t begin to fathom any answers.
Bernhard Schlink's bestselling novel "The Reader" is about how the German generation born after the Holocaust coped with its legacy of guilt. The movie adaptation by screenwriter David Hare and director Stephen Daldry starts out choppy and overdrawn but develops a cumulative power. It's about a 15-year-old boy, Michael (David Kross), who in 1958 has a passionate affair with Hanna (an uneven Kate Winslet), a working-class woman 20 years his senior. Eight years later, while a law student observing the Nazi war crimes trials, Michael – played as an adult by Ralph Fiennes – is shocked to discover that Hanna, whom he had lost track of, is in the dock admitting her role as a guard at Auschwitz. The emotional core of "The Reader" is how Michael copes with this fact. His emotional transformation is not easily rendered on film but Fiennes knows how to do nuance. He brings to the role a shimmering subtlety.
People can give themselves away with a single word. Early in "The Reader," which is about words and literacy, and much more, Hanna Schmitz, a German tram conductor played by Kate Winslet, comes upon a teenage schoolboy who's obviously ill and takes him into her flat. "Have you always been weak?" she asks. The word sounds a faint alarm -- weak as opposed to Germanic-strong? -- that grows louder as the film swings between past and present, though also between impassioned and abstract.
The story starts in 1958. Hanna seduces the boy, Michael (David Kross), making him an eager slave who must read classic literature to her in exchange for their illicit sex. (He's under-age by several years.) Later, as a law student, Michael discovers that Hanna, as a young woman, was a concentration-camp guard. From that moment on, the young man (who's played in middle age by Ralph Fiennes) must struggle with the meaning of what he has learned -- he loved her, after all -- in something of the same way that modern Germany still struggles with the meaning of the Nazi era.
Stephen Daldry directed, skillfully, from David Hare's adaptation of a widely read novel by Bernhard Schlink. The elegant cinematography is the work of two of today's finest shooters, Chris Menges and Roger Deakins. (Mr. Deakins also shot "Doubt.") And the cast is superb: especially Kate Winslet, who transcends, by far, the limits of her character's narrow soul. Yet "The Reader" remains schematic, and ultimately reductive. It really is about literacy, which proves to be a dismayingly small answer to the enormous questions posed by Hanna's dark past.
Bernhard Schlink's "The Reader" was a terse, morally complex, erotically charged novel that examined the impact of German guilt on the generation born after the Holocaust. Director Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") and playwright David Hare have taken up the challenge of turning this double-edged, cerebral book into a film, and it's not surprising—movies being better at the visible than the internal—that the eroticism trumps the moral complexity.
Fifteen-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) is a well-educated schoolboy who, in 1958, falls into a passionate relationship with a secretive, tough, working-class wo-man 20 years older. Hanna (Kate Winslet) is a woman of few words, sudden rages and a hungry sexual appetite that's matched by her equal ardor for literature; she demands, as foreplay, that Michael read Homer, Twain and Chekhov to her.
Then one day, after seeing each other in secret all summer, Hanna vanishes. The next time Michael spots her, eight years later, he's a law student witnessing a war-crimes trial—and Hanna is in the dock. She's willing to confess her role as a guard at Auschwitz, but she has one secret—a far less damning one—that she clings to with even deeper shame.
"The Reader" is not about the horrors of the "final solution." It's about how Michael deals with the fact that the great first love of his life was implicated in these atrocities. Ralph Fiennes plays Michael in middle age— a parched, solitary man of the law whose unusual relationship with the older Hanna raises questions about his own moral compass. "The Reader" can feel stilted and abstract: the film's only flesh-and-blood characters spend half the movie separated. But its emotional impact sneaks up on you. "The Reader" asks tough questions, and, to its credit, provides no easy answers.
Slant Magazine review Nick Schager
Once again drawn to a tale that alternates
between (and often parallels) intrinsically connected pasts and presents, director Stephen Daldry and
screenwriter David Hare exhibit, with The Reader, a continued inability
to thrillingly translate literary forms to the screen. Even greater than it was
in their previous Virginia Wolf-centric collaboration, the problem is that the
two mediums aren't necessarily natural bedmates, as piercingly evidenced by the
filmmakers' method of adaptation, in which faithful straightforwardness gets
the particulars correct but makes their source material's plot tropes, symbols
and mirroring structure both simplistic and obvious. Transposing German author
Bernhard Schlink's novel about a young boy's maiden sexual relationship with an
older woman and, years later, the devastating revelations that come to light
about his lover's true identity, Daldry and Hare's film has the stately polish
and thoughtfulness that's come to define award-courting season, a sort of
faux-highbrow atmosphere whose measured deliberateness, when matched by intense
star turns, implies prestige. Yet even a minor peek underneath this elegant
surface reveals clunky conventions and superficial shorthand dramatizations,
both of which are delivered with self-important sophistication intended to mask
the fact that the affair is no more graceful or profound than your average
Which is a shame, as The Reader occasionally bumps up against the pressing, universal tension that derives from furiously wanting to alter the past, and yet recognizing that not only is said desire impossible, but that one's anguish over this powerlessness can never be fully assuaged. This discord blooms in the heart of 15-year-old Michael (David Kross), who, stricken with scarlet fever in 1958, is aided on his way home one day by thirtysomething stranger Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet). When he returns months later to thank Hanna for her kindness, she catches him peeking at her putting on stockings and responds by bathing him, pleasuring him, and then having him read to her. Their affair, depicted through the prism of adult, divorced Michael's (Ralph Fiennes) remembrances, is given flickering vitality by a few early offhand images (such as Michael's feet racing to another rendezvous). However, a dinner sequence in which flatware clink-clanging ignites Michael's memories of devouring Hanna is a thing of eye-rolling silliness, and moreover, their initial courtship—he tentative and excited by his first lessons in carnality, she concealing concern over their May-December amour with sternness—feels basic, familiar. And as Michael begins regularly visiting Hanna, Daldry's grip on the material quickly goes slack, beginning with the director's insertion of a needless, upfront articulation-of-theme from a teacher who opines that secrets define character.
This blunt thesis statement is followed by Michael telling Hanna that "I didn't think I was good at anything" and, intriguingly, a cutaway to the sight of him confidently, joyously dominating a game of gym-class handball. It's a tantalizing suggestion of dueling deceptions to come, but alas, The Reader never makes good on that promise, as once Hanna suddenly disappears, and her young beau grows into a joyless, emotionally detached law student studying, in 1966, under the tutelage of Bruno Ganz's professor, Michael is reduced to a man conflicted but not particularly complicated. Attending the war crimes trial of female SS guards who stood by as 300 Jews burned to death in a church during the Death March from
Michael's love/hate turmoil propels The Reader into a flip-flopping second half concerned with his attendance at the trial—in which he realizes that Hanna is secretly illiterate, hence her requests to be read to—and his adult efforts to grapple with the past, which mainly involve making audio recordings of books for the incarcerated Hanna. All the while, narrative echoes begin piling up, each of them so tidily schematic that the story's literary roots become distractingly glaring, a situation compounded by two protagonists who are embodied with earnest gravity by Winslet and Kross/Fiennes, yet, like the many plot device-only peripheral figures, remain fuzzy, shallow creations. Even more than the book-on-film atmosphere and the pitiful, disengaging old-age makeup Winslet eventually dons, it's the filmmakers' inability to immerse themselves in, and wrestle with, their characters' distress that ultimately proves most troublesome. Though nominally about individuals' inner—and, by extension, post-Holocaust Germany's national—struggles with history, The Reader remains a stiff, external affair, too refined to muck about in its protagonists' consuming confusion, and too leaden and contrived to allow anything to organically materialize, epitomized by a final conversation between Michael and the sole church-fire survivor (Lena Olin) that takes great pains to spell out those very thematic points which, in the name of subtle storytelling, should best be left unspoken.
The Reader David Jays from Sight and Sound, February 2009
CBC.ca Arts review Katrina Onstad
Screen International review Mike Goodridge
Entertainment Weekly review [B-] Lisa Schwarzbaum
Peter Bradshaw's original review from The Guardian, January 2, 2009
The lame, the weak and the godawful Writer David Hare responds to a scathingly negative review from The Guardian, January 19, 2009
Sir David's attack on my Reader review is as glib as the film itself Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian, January 19, 2009
The New York Times review Manohla Dargis
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE C 74
The post 9/11 movies worth considering are Spike Lee’s 25th HOUR (2002), Paul Greengrass’s UNITED 93 (2006), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011), also the video of Paul Simon singing Sounds of Silence at the 10-year Memorial Event Paul Simon's Heartbreaking 'Sound of Silence' at Ground Zero ..., - - and that’s it. You can forget the rest, which don’t so much examine the consequences as manipulate the viewer with plenty of tearful guilt that is really insignificant filmmaking, basically telling the viewer what they already know about losing someone, reminding us in many different ways just how bad it feels. According to an interview with actress Sandra Bullock (The Cast Of 'Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close' Talk Navigating ...), “I think a lot of people haven’t been able to grieve.” Just who are these people, and are they the same undecided voters who can’t make up their minds until they walk into a polling booth? There have been endless discussions, news reports, magazine articles, radio chat sessions, online essays and personal recollections, fragmented memories, tributes, memorials, photos and video reminders, not to mention endless merchandising of the event, so certainly there has been time to process the event. What we haven’t had before, which this film provides, is a child’s perspective, where despite the gravity of the event, this is almost exclusively viewed through the eyes of a child—not just any child, mind you, but a borderline autistic child whose brilliance is only overridden by his meticulously obsessive nature, where he views the world through a catalog file system that is nearly perfectly mathematically arranged. In this way, the writers are allowed to paint with a broader brush, as this isn’t really a child so much as an overly mature young adult, but also one for which there is always a logical expression, where his brain continues to compute until everything makes sense, where the events of 9/11, of course, send the faculties of his brain into utter turmoil, where the computer does not compute and literally goes haywire.
Despite an utterly maudlin story that tearfully shows a brilliant and highly sensitive 11-year old boy Oskar (Thomas Horn), with few social skills, on a journey through the streets of New York to find the connection between the father he lost on 9/11 and a mysterious key he found in his father’s belongings in an envelope identified only by the name “Black.” In his mad rush to make sense of it all, he organizes everything with meticulous detail, like inventing a Dewey Decimal system for tracking down all the families named Black in the entire city, cataloging their addresses, where if he contacts each of them on foot only on weekends, taking no weekends off, he figures it will take him three years to complete his project. Initially allotting 6 minutes per visit, he soon discovers that people offer him sympathy and hugs, have their own stories to tell, which takes considerably more time. And while he enjoys the collective efforts to connect with him and offer some degree of comfort and friendship, snapping photos of those he meets along the way which he places in a scrapbook, all he really wants is to find out what the hell the key opens. While the diverse population he encounters does resemble a portrait of those that lost their lives on that day, only two really stand out. The first is Viola Davis as Abby Black, perhaps the first one visited, where Oskar bursts into her apartment with the subtlety of a blitzkrieg, forced to endure his non-stop, incessant chatter while already moved to tears by the impending separation with her husband who’s about to walk out the door, where she simply hasn’t the strength to send him on his way, so she endures both events happening simultaneously. The other is an old and feeble man who can’t speak (Max von Sydow representing the unspoken voice of the dead), who may be his grandfather, though he claims to be a renter in his grandmother’s apartment, where he’s forced to write hand written notes for Oskar to understand. Oskar asks him to tag along on his visits, which turn into carefully choreographed mime routines.
Oskar runs everywhere he goes, never tiring, blurting out
words like tiny explosions, where occasionally he tries to use his words to
outrun his thoughts, where in his excitement the adrenaline takes over,
creating a frenzied rush of near panic as he continually relives the events of
that fateful day, telling perfect strangers what happened to him on 9/11. Well how do you expect people to react? As the film is a recording of his journey, we
hear Oskar recall what happened to him over a dozen times, each one adding a
significant detail left out of the last version, where the sum accumulation loses
any hint of subtlety and starts pounding into your skull like a sledgehammer,
where this literally becomes overkill. Forcing
the audience to re-live 9/11 over and over again in a movie theater through the
repeated exploits of an overeager but delicate child is not exactly great
theater, as we re-live the photos and the news reports and Oskar’s own personal
recollections, all of which has some cathartic quality, one assumes, except
that for many it doesn’t. One’s reaction
to a nationwide catastrophe is much too intimately personal, where none of us
match the weird and eccentric personality traits of this overly precocious kid,
nice as he may otherwise be, but he’s not us and he can’t be made to stand for
us. He’s who he is and he makes it
understandable by making a child’s pop-up scrapbook of photos and memories,
which he calls by the movie title, taking something that’s messy and condensing
it all into something nice and neat and clean.
Unfortunately, there are many who survive the horrors of war, incest,
rape, torture, the Holocaust, or Japanese-American internment camps, and can
never utter a word about their experiences to their respective families. For those many individuals who don’t believe
It is, simply, the “worst day”—that’s how 9/11 is referred to in Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 child’s-eye novel, ambitious if a touch forced. In being true to the intentionally naive material, filmmaker Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) has now created an earnest puddle of slop: Fragile nine-year-old Oskar (Horn), bereaved after his dad’s death at the World Trade Center, is too quiveringly stunned to be any kind of long-form surrogate for a viewer. You watch him roam through a shaken city nonetheless getting on with itself, and wish this brainy kid—or at least his director—could enjoy a nonglazed moment or two.
That’s not to say the best scenes don’t work, particularly those
that transcend the specifics of that terrible Tuesday. Some geeky, relaxed work
by Tom Hanks as the doting father helps you feel the toll taken on a sensitive
relationship filled with microscopic inquiries, Barney Greengrass brunches and
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo | The ... - Wall Street Journal Joe Morgenstern
I've heard people say they weren't sure, even a decade after
Sept. 11, if they could handle this film about a boy whose beloved father has
recently died in one of the twin towers. I know what they mean. Almost half a
It's surely not the fault of Thomas Horn, the remarkable young man who plays him. In widely seen clips from his winning appearance on "Teen Jeopardy," Thomas was thoughtful, articulate and poised beyond his years. That must have made him seem like a natural for the role of Oskar Schell, who may or may not have Asperger's syndrome, and who outdoes any of J.D. Salinger's gifted kids in richness of vocabulary and complexity of ideas.
But Oskar in print is one thing. As you read the book (which I also disliked), you are tracking, at your own pace, the workings of the boy's mind—and the pain in his heart—as he searches New York City for a lock that matches a key his father has left behind. It's quite another thing to watch Oskar on the screen, with no respite from his shrill voice or his mannered behavior. A less remarkable actor—or Thomas himself, directed for simplicity—might have taken the curse off the movie's case of the terminal cutes. Mr. Daldry, however, chose to push his young star in the opposite direction, toward a totality of artifice that dilutes the impact of Sept. 11 and underscores the blissed-out illogic of Oskar's quest.
Sandra Bullock is Oskar's griefstruck mother, Linda, and Tom Hanks is his father, Thomas. In flashbacks, father and son express their special relationship with such relentlessly abstruse conversations that you long for one or the other to say something like "Let's have scrambled eggs." Max von Sydow gives a lively performance as The Renter, a mysterious mute. In another film his silence might be golden. In this one it goes platinum.
Scott Tobias The Onion A.V. Club
In the aftermath of 9/11, the question arose of when it would be appropriate for popular art to address the events head-on. For a national tragedy of that magnitude, when would it not be “too soon”? Yet Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, an appalling adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, suggests that maybe that’s the wrong question. The 2006 docudrama United 93, once the trial balloon for “too soon,” dodged exploitation by focusing rigorously on the minutiae of a single flight. But it will always be “too soon” for Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which processes the immense grief of a city and a family through a conceit so nauseatingly precious that it’s somehow both too literary and too sentimental, cloying yet aestheticized within an inch of its life. It’s 9/11 through the eyes of a caffeinated 9-year-old Harper’s contributor.
Thomas Horn plays that 9-year-old as a boy who’s somewhere between
precocious and autistic, given to channeling his energies through whimsical
projects that give his intellect the exercise it needs. After his father (Tom
Hanks) dies in the
Through the boy’s journey, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close tries to link the personal with the universal, connecting one story of grief within the larger context of a wounded-but-resilient city. (Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour accomplished this in one breathtaking montage, but still.) Yet the film is like a monument that calls attention to its own magnificent architecture—at one point, a “Black” actually cradles one of Horn’s letters to her breast like a newborn babe. Rather than dilute the sap, director Stephen Daldry slathers on Alexandre Desplat’s prodding score—he did the same with Philip Glass in The Hours—and makes a motif out of a body falling from one of the Twin Towers. It’s all very tasteful, he presumes.
"If I ask you a question, will you tell me the truth?
Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is relentless in the worst way. Every moment, every line of dialogue presses its themes and metaphors with a mulish determination. Each shot is an emotional appeal. Not for a second does the movie breathe; never does a character say or do something not perfectly on all fours with the film’s designs. When he feels too much slack on the rope, Daldry cranks up the musical score, or launches an overwhelmingly emotional montage, or just has his precocious protagonist start yelling. The movie is furiously obsessive, hell-bent. It will wear you down or die trying.
I can construct a theory of why it should be this way. Extremely Loud is, after all, a story of a young boy toward the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum (Thomas Horn), trying desperately to make sense of his father’s death in the September 11th attacks in the only way he knows how: by throwing his entire being into an elaborate, compulsively-formulated plan to search for something he believes his dad (Tom Hanks) meant for him to find. It makes a certain kind of sense that the film would be as meticulous and purposeful as its main character.
But even if this works as a conceit, what we have in execution is unspeakably pushy and obnoxious. It is not enough that young Oskar Schell must canvas a traumatized city with a business card reading “Amateur Entomologist and Pacifist” looking for the lock that fits a mysterious key found in his late father’s closet. He must also tow along with him an old geezer who is (a) mute; (b) wise; and (c) clearly a long-lost relative of some sort. And he must tell his long-suffering mother (Sandra Bullock) that he wishes it was her in that tower. And if all of that is not enough, there are at least three maudlin plot twists, each calibrated for maximum sob extraction. It’s frankly shameless.
The film deserves credit for featuring an autistic character as a bona fide protagonist, rather than a subject of curiosity and pity as in, e.g., The Black Balloon. But I note that Daldry and his screenwriter, Eric Roth, rather cynically turn this to their advantage. Oskar speaks (and narrates the film) in elaborate, verbose declamations, a fact that the screenplay implicitly ascribes to his Asperger’s, but that in practice allows Roth to repeatedly verbalize the film’s themes: how sometimes bad things happen and they don’t make sense no matter how hard you try to figure them out, or how Thomas’s quest is his attempt to cling to his father’s memory. A weird sort of exploitation.
To be clear, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is earnest, and mostly good-hearted, and I found it hard to hate. It moves pretty well, and is too slick to be boring. I certainly did not have the same virulent reaction as Scott Tobias, despite harboring many of the same complaints. But if you want a movie that genuinely grapples with the effect of 9/11 on New Yorkers who lived through it, look elsewhere (perhaps to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour). This is, if you can believe it, maybe the first mainstream example of 9/11 kitsch.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
David Edelstein on 'War Horse,' - New York Magazine David Edelstein
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Screen Daily Brent Simon
Filmcritic.com Bill Gibron
Motion Picture Academy Ho-Hum Over 'War Horse,' 'Extremely Loud' Screenings Steve Pond from The Wrap
Stephen Daldry Talks Asperger's, Depicting 9/11 In 'Extremely
Loud and Incredibly Close,' And The Oscars Todd Gilchrist interviews the director from
The indieWIRE Playlist,
Stephen Daldry Discusses New Movie Robert Sigel interviews the director from NPR, December 20, 2011
Cast Of 'Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close' Talk Navigating ... Gabe Toro speaks with several of the
principals from The indieWIRE Playlist,
Loud & Incredibly Close - Boston.com
Wesley Morris from The
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close - Washington Post Ann Hornaday
'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' review Mick LaSalle from The SF Chronicle
Loud & Incredibly Close - Movies - New York Times
Close Enough for an Oscar Nod? - NYTimes ... - New York Times
THE OTHER SIDE OF SLEEP
Murder-mystery from first-time director Rebecca Daly deliberately avoids suspense.
The film opens mid-dream, as Arlene (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) wakes up in the woods of her small rural hometown in the Irish midlands next to the murdered body of a young woman. Reality and subconscious immediately begin to blur as news circulates that local girl Gina has been killed while returning home after a night out partying. Like a ghost observing her own life from the outside, Arlene registers the gossipy speculation of her fellow factory workers and the shell-shocked grief of Gina’s family at a community prayer service.
Obsessively collecting newspaper coverage of the murder while returning repeatedly to a photograph of the mother she was too young to remember, Arlene insinuates herself into the lives of the dead girl’s family. She befriends Gina’s sister (Vicky Joyce), and cautiously gets closer to the victim’s boyfriend (Sam Keeley), a suspect in the murder.
While the police investigation happens outside the confines of the narrative, Daly and co-screenwriter Glenn Montgomery cast suspicion over a number of shadowy figures, including Arlene’s factory boss and Gina’s troubled father. It’s suggested that Arlene might have committed the murder herself while sleepwalking, but more strongly, that she is courting her own death by wandering the town at night, willfully exposing herself to danger.
All this is moderately absorbing, but the filmmaker’s deliberate avoidance of suspense keeps the drama remote and unaffecting. Even in high-meltdown mode when Arlene is trashing her kitchen and smashing plates, we’re never encouraged to feel much for her, despite Campbell-Hughes’ intense vulnerability.
Characterized by extended silences, minimal dialogue, static shots and penetrating close-ups, the film’s melancholy stillness feels a little studied and its slow pacing makes it a slog. The contrasting notes of balefulness and raw sorrow are disquieting at times, but overall, its spell tends to dissipate without getting under the skin.
In texture, it’s not unlike AMC’s The Killing and the Danish TV series from which that highly addictive procedural drama was adapted. That show conjures death and grief into palpable, insidious forces that condition wave upon wave of unpredictable, often irrational behavior. Daly’s film, however, remains soft and impressionistic, too caught up in its own ambiguities.
With Irish accents so strong they require subtitles, Rebecca Daly’s Offaly villagers are palpably real; her dreamy story ebbs and flows around them as a psychologically frail young girl draws herself into the aftermath of a disturbing murder.
A Cannes Residence project, The Other Side Of Sleep is undeniably Irish but speaks the film language of the European art-house, where it should make an immediate impression, notching strong sales for Paris-based Memento Films (its closest relation is Urzula Antoniak’s Nothing Personal).
Daly’s haunting debut flirts with dreams and reality; it is under-stated yet powerfully etched. Although it can’t quite maintain the force of its opening sequences and an elliptical narrative sometimes takes a turn into muddy waters, The Other Side of Sleep is a notable debut with a lead performance that marks out young Antonia Campbell-Hughes as a talent to watch. Daly’s work with photographer Suzie Lavelle and her sound team of Michel Schopping and Marc Lister is notable throughout.
Arlene (Campbell-Hughes) is a sleepwalker since childhood, a lonely and vulnerable orphan living by herself in a downbeat Offaly village (this is not an Irish Tourist Board destination) with occasional visits from her grandmother.
None of this is apparent in the memorable opening sequence, however, when she rises from her bed and wakes up beside a dead body wrapped in a duvet in the woods. A factory worker, she leaves the scene, comes home and showers, and goes straight to work.
Arlene lives in a silent, internalised world; a friend jokes that
people think she’s a little mad. The murder of her mother in
In the meantime, her sleepwalking - and terror of it - is intensifying, provoked by the trauma of waking up beside a corpse (although it does seem odd that in such a small town her neighbours would not be more aware of Arlene’s nocturnal ramblings). Arlene, at times, looks dangerously like she’s about to join a long line of cinema’s silent, blank-faced young girls, but Daly and her co-writer Montgomery have worked hard with young Campbell-Hughes to give her more than meets the eye.
This incoherent catastrophe is among the most stupefyingly awful films I have ever seen, which could possibly be due to the worst subtitling on record, but this first time feature film director was present during the screening claiming she wrote what we just saw, so I’m inclined to believe either her English is atrocious or she simply wrote the most insipid, god-awful dialogue I may have ever seen, as so much of it made absolutely no sense of any kind. It was as if people were speaking pure gibberish for two of the three segments. The film is in three parts, supposedly linked together by a common element, but don’t hold your breath for any real connection to speak of. The director indicated this began as a film short that she expanded to feature length, so perhaps the final segment (at least in understandable language) was closer to the origin of her idea, while the other segments are pretty close to worthless. They are laughably bad, but listening to the seriousness of the director afterwards, one realizes right away that she hasn’t even an ounce of a sense of humor, that she’s instead pretentiously full of self-justifying explanations. I can only think she must know somebody important at a high level in Romania as this film is not suitable for screening. I’m open to the possibility that in Romanian language this may be an altogether different film experience.
As seen in a theater, an obnoxious radio personality is summoned for a prison interview to meet an inmate who is supposedly his exact double. But when they meet, the interview goes nowhere. It’s as uncomfortable an opening segment as one could possibly be subjected to, because if it’s 30 minutes in length, the first 25 have no interest whatsoever. There is a scene of mild interest (a guy making a jerk of himself) in the parking lot afterwards. In the second segment, the prison warden who is female meets up with a Finnish colleague at the airport for a business conference in Bucharest, where they apparently have a romantic history together, but you’d never know it by the inane dialogue that is entirely in English. My only clue was the exposed cleavage in a red dress. But they are interrupted in mid form by an unexpected visitor. We’re not talking aliens here, which might have helped. The two ignore the visitor still in their room and do the nasty on the floor. A crisis sends the warden scurrying back to the prison. In the final sequence, the visitor in the previous sequence actually has a life, happily meeting up with her brother after he’s released from prison, but he soon realizes she’s being handled by a goon who is offering her services for nude magazines, which sends the brother voluntarily scurrying back to the prison, like he’s somehow happier there.
After watching this incomprehensible movie, the director takes the microphone and claims it’s all about the absence of love which is responsible for why people end up heading in the wrong directions. Wow. This is one stinker of a film to be avoided at all costs.
USA (61 mi) 1972
This notorious porn movie was originally released in 1972. Its sole intention is to arouse with close-ups of fellatio. One of three principal women, Lovelace, discovers that her clitoris is in the wrong place - in her throat. Cue close-ups of one dick-swallowing trick after another. Stilted performances, dud production values and a thrashy, hilariously cheesy '70s soundtrack.
A dirty-funky joke, the one about the small woman on Swallow Street, the salacious party trick that spread out of sticky Times Square screens and into 1970s American culture like a tremor. The tone is offhand carnal vaudeville, Linda Lovelace -- frizzy, freckled, slender, affectingly half-lost -- wanders into her bungalow and nonchalantly greets her cigarette-dangling roommate (Dolly Sharp), who’s spread on the kitchen counter with a lout’s head between her thighs. Orgasms have long eluded the heroine, sex makes her "sort of tingly all over, and then... nothing." An orgy leaves a roomful of exhausted studs strewn about the living room but none of those bursting dams and exploding bombs she yearns for. Finally, in a medical examination adorably patterned after A Day at the Races, the Ovidian revelation: Her clitoris is hidden deep in her larynx, the bell at the bottom of the well. The doctor (Harry Reems) volunteers to help her overcome her gag complex ("a matter of discipline"), the oral spectacle that follows startles, tickles, and earns its shuddering orgasmic montage of fireworks and rockets. Parodying a certain Mickey & Sylvia hit, the soundtrack tries to make sense of it all ("Looooove is strange, a lot of people like it in the mouth..."). As befits a tale of displaced anatomy and pleasure, Gerard Damiano’s crossover triple-X smash is a male fantasy of female desire, a Doris Day-Rock Hudson romp with the polished veneer scraped off and the coy innuendo replaced with slapdash, raunchy surrealism (Lovelace in nursing lingerie readying herself for an old kinkster’s soda pop and straw, a spent Reems clutching his bandaged schlong under the sheets, "wounded in the line of duty"). Nixon led the prudes after it only to have its title haunt his dethroning scandal, Cronenberg took the yonic drollery and ran with it. As for Lovelace, there she is gasping in her final close-up, flushed and smeary and smiling, ready to be launched as pop emblem and pop casualty. With Carol Connors, Bill Harrison, Bob Phillips, Jack Birch, and William Love.
There's no doubt that the Gerard Damiano's 1972 porn masterpiece "Deep Throat" is not only one of the most successful films of all time, but it's also one that holds a great deal of historical significance as well. It was the first and only porn film that managed to get a great deal of mainstream attention and recognition at the time and even helped coin the phrase "Porno chic". Because of "Deep Throat" it was thought that pornographic films would start to move outside of the underground and into the mainstream theaters all over the United States. Although that never happened it certainly is one of the reasons why people have more lax attitudes on the subject up until this day. Without the release of "Deep Throat" who knows if that would have ever been possible.
Another thing that "Deep Throat" should be credited for is introducing the world to the most famous porno actress of all time, Linda Lovelace. At the time the actress became a phenomenon outside of the pornographic film industry and somewhat of an icon of porn. After all she didn't play a character in the film as she played herself. Understandably she was deserving of the attention however because not only was she actually funny in the movie but she also had a charisma about her that better looking porn actresses of today could never achieve. Not only that but she was the first woman to perform a "deep throat" in a porn flick before and it pretty much had jaw's dropping in every theater that it was shown.
Linda Lovelace however wouldn't be the only porn actor in the film though to become a phenomenon. The most memorable role to me in the film however goes to veteran porn actor Harry Reems who played the hilariously over the top Doctor Young. Not only did Reems show his acting chops in the film as well as his talents in comedy, but managed to really work well with Lovelace in the film. It was later said that Lovelace was sweet on Reems and would work very well with him when they managed to get rid of her pimp/boyfriend Chuck Traynor (who is actually credited as a production manager on the film) for the shoot. Reems himself was brought up on charges in Memphis at one time for "conspiracy to transport interstate obscene material" for a movie that he simply acted in. He's even mentioned that he felt that he was a recognizable part of the film and was getting the punishment for it. Director Gerard Damiano and star Linda Lovelace were actually brought in to be witnesses against him. He also mentioned that the only reason the case was overturned is because the Republicans had lost control of the White House when Jimmy Carter was elected, as Nixon was dead set on going after the porn industry as the Watergate controversy spiraled out of control.
The thing about "Deep Throat" though that made it special was the fact that the movie had better production values than most other pornographic films from that time period. Although by today's standards it's not much to look at, it's still one of the first pornographic films to achieve such high technical standards at the time as were many of the Mafioso funded films of Gerard Damiano. At the end of the day it looks like your typical B-movie, but if you are at all familiar with pornography made before it as well as porno loops you'll see just how much better the production is here as a whole.
Another notable about the movie is that some Hollywood stardom has actually come out of it in the strangest of ways. See actress Carol Conners and actor Jack Birch worked on the film together and collectively they are the parents of actress Thora Birch who starred in the Academy Award winning film "American Beauty".
The main thing about "Deep Throat" was the fact that it's still to this day the biggest money maker as far as film at the box office goes. Sure Titanic made more at the box office but it certainly cost more to make. "Deep Throat" was shot on a modest $24,000 budget while bringing in an estimated 600 million dollars making it the most profitable film ever made. Considering that most of the money coming in was doing so in cash, it's believed that the movie actually made more over the billion dollar mark but there is no evidence to prove it. Most of the money was going into illegal activities and it's been noted that the mob couldn't figure out how to cover up all of the money that was coming in.
Overall, "Deep Throat" is a historically significant film that deserves the attention that it has received. It's one of the most important films ever made and I would dare to say that it's easily the most important adult film that has ever been produced.
eFilmCritic Reviews The Ultimate Dancing Machine
Linda Lovelace in Deep Throat 1972 YouTube (59 seconds)
Although widely considered the best living French film critic at the time of his death in 1992, Serge Daney remains pretty much unknown in the English-speaking world. An editor of CAHIERS DU CINEMA from 1974 to 1981, critic for the daily LIBERATION from 1981 until his death, and founder of TRAFIC, Daney published four books during his lifetime. An additional three (a collection of journal entries, L'EXERCISE A ETE PROFITABLE, MONSIEUR; a book-length interview, PERSEVERANCE; an anthology of sportswriting, L'AMATEUR DE TENNIS) have come out posthumously. Yet no publisher has found it worth their while to put out an English-language Daney collection .
Thanks to the graciousness of editor Paul Willemen, I've finally managed to get a copy of the manuscript for Daney's CINEMA IN TRANSIT, an unpublished English-language anthology acquired by the British Film Institute in 1994. I've written to them to inquire about the possibility of posting it on this site but have yet to receive a response and doubt I ever will. If anyone out there would like a copy, please contact me.
In other Daney news,
the French publisher POL has just released a collection of his work from 1964
through 1981, the period when he wrote for CAHIERS DU CINEMA. The best source
for ordering Daney's French books in
For your one-stop Daney needs, you can take a look at the Serge Daney in English blog.
Jonathan Rosenbaum on Serge Daney introduced by Adrian Martin from Senses of Cinema
The War, the Gulf and the Small Screen, by Serge Daney from Rouge
The Tracking Shot in Kapo Serge Daney from Senses of Cinema, originally published in Trafic, Fall 1992
The Missing Image The Missing Image – From Cinephilia to the World – The Trajectory of Serge Daney, Jonathan Rosenbaum from New Left Review, 2005
Dzenis on Postcards from the cinema Serge Daney, Postcards from the cinema, review by Anna Dzenis from Screening the Past, July 19, 2007
Grounded in the authentic bustle of Hanoi and the uncomfortable interplay of familial relationships Bi, don’t be afraid! is a thoughtful cinematic exploration of inchoate longing, the messy consequences of physical decline and encroaching death, and confirmation that sex and youthful exuberance spring eternal. Frankly and overtly sensual with scant dialogue, this contemporary portrait of relatives living in close quarters while harbouring secrets is conveyed with impressive visual assurance.
Writer-director Phan Dang Di’s leisurely debut feature, which was part of the Cinefondation’s Atelier line-up in 2008, is a heat-soaked panorama of human desires that is probably more festival fare than art house material in most territories, but bodes very well for the directing future of Phan Dang Di who wrote the screenplay for Bui Thac Chuyen’s 2009 Venice Horizons and Toronto competition title Adrift (Choi Voi).
Ice is a recurring motif. It’s so hot that six-year-old lad Bi’s favourite place to play is among the various work stations at a neighbourhood ice factory. Bi’s attractive but strait-laced Aunt is later seen masturbating with a hunk of ice.
Bi’s seriously ill paternal grandfather has recently returned from years abroad and uses ice to dull the painful cramps in his belly.
Bi’s father’s coping mechanism consists of getting sloppy drunk with cronies every night in a large outdoor café. Bi, his father and grandfather, while each distinct characters, seem to suggest three major phases in every man’s life. Bi forms a bond with his ailing granddad.
Bi’s mother is frustrated by her husband’s filial cowardice and unwillingness to have sex… at least with her. The family’s cook is a not-always-silent witness to the proceedings.
Bi’s spinster aunt looks after him more attentively than the rest of the household. When do-gooders fix her up with a man they think might be a suitable mate, she struggles to take his advances in stride. But it’s a much younger man she encounters by chance who will rock her to the core.
Various couplings boast convincing raw energy. While there’s not a lot of humour, a scene in which two characters inhale helium from balloons and carry on a high-pitched conversation is as funny as it is incongruous.
Who Is Bozo Texino? is a great American movie, and its greatness is tied up very closely with
its American-ness. With this brilliant experimental documentary, self-styled
hobo film-maker Daniel places himself firmly in the bootprints of Jack London,
Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie - a fine, long tradition of American artists who
look for their inspiration to the marginal, the underclass, the vagabond and
the outcast. Nominally a chronicle/survey/history of boxcar graffiti (a
tradition as old as the railroad itself) and the men who create it, Who Is
Bozo Texino? soon transcends its narrow subject-matter to become a
gloriously rough-edged elegy for an
Unlike the overwhelming majority of documentaries - even entertaining recent examples like Murderball, Dogtown and Z-Boys and Stoked - Daniel's film manages a near-perfect union of radical form and radical content, And it does so in consistently accessible style: at first you're intrigued by the stunning monochrome images captured by his self-effacing, sensitively-handled camera(s); by the startling kineticism of his fluent editing style; by the sheer range of voices, music and sound-effects we hear as he tracks down a series of grizzled hobos and wisdom-dispensing graffiti-'markers.'
Then you realise that, just as these men have always instinctively rejected authority and convention, Daniel (who has made a fantastic old-school poster for the movie) has likewise embraced the unorthodox in his style of film-making - even down to his choice of title and running-time. Indeed, in less than an hour Daniel manages to say more about life, art,
There's a secret stigma, reaping wheel
Diminish, a carnival of sorts
Chronic town, poster torn, reaping wheel
Stranger, stranger to these parts
Gentlemen don't get caught, cages under cage.
Gentlemen don't get caught,
Box cars (are pulling) out of town,
There's a secret stigma, reaping wheel
Stranger, stranger to these parts
Chronic town, poster torn, reaping wheel
Box cars are pulling
a carnival of sorts
Out of town
USA (109 mi) 2009
While there is a compelling story here and moments of brilliance in certain scenes, the amateurish direction and lack of subtlety, despite the attention to detail, seriously overdramatizes at the wrong times, creating an uneven tone throughout, especially an over-reliance on Precious’s high gloss fantasy world, where the editing is at times atrocious, adding artificial sequences so jarringly obnoxious that their garish style undermines the otherwise established realist tone, which has the effect of muddling the story, as these fantasy sequences, many shown early on in short succession, detract more than they add, each time juxtaposed immediately following a humiliating violent confrontation, where the dramatic power of the moment gets lost in a glitter collage of teen wish fulfillment where Precious sees herself as a slender white girl. This story is so compelling it needs no glorification, as the life of Claireece “Precious” Jones, played by newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, is about as abusive and horrifying as it gets, a morbidly obese teenage black girl in Harlem whose mother (Mo’Nique) berates her constantly, ordering her around like her personal slave while also physically abusing her, subjecting her to mental defeatism by continually telling her she is worthless. Despite going to high school and enjoying the world away from her mother, she sits in the back and does not participate, never learning to read or write. When she becomes pregnant at 16 with her second child, her first born with Downs syndrome at 12, repeatedly raped by her own father, her mother’s boyfriend, the school principal suggests an alternative school that would help her learn to read. The mother has a conniption because she thinks it will affect her welfare check, and Mo’Nique has a welfare queen scam going on to collect as much welfare as possible by doing absolutely nothing, where her life consists of drinking and smoking cigarettes in front of the TV while making her daughter’s life as miserable as possible, actually blaming her for stealing her boyfriend. Precious, however, is a gentle giant who silently endures it all, but it’s clear she’s never had a moment of happiness in her life.
The opening sequences are so harrowingly miserable that they are only made worse by what feel like one-note, stereotypical depictions of meanness and abuse that thrive on crude language and over-melodramatizations. But once Precious finds her new school, a new world opens up to her, coming under the tutelage of the near saintly Ms. Rain, an excellent Paula Patton, who is a stand-in for Sapphire, a former Harlem literacy instructer and the lesbian author of the book Push upon which the film is based, named one of the top ten books in 1996. Ms. Rain feels right at home with the most difficult, hardest to reach students, all girls as it turns out, but she treats each with the kind of respect they never get at home, so her classroom becomes a safe haven and offers some of the best moments in the film. The girls themselves are a treat, all stylish attitude with hair trigger tempers and foul mouths that fume in sexual innuendo. The teaching method, unfortunately, feels very similar to Hillary Swank’s portrayal with at-risk high school kids in FREEDOM WRITERS (2007), where she similarly has her students spend time every day writing about their personal experiences in their diaries, which opens up their eyes by forcing them to verbalize their thoughts. This teaching method requires Precious to learn how to read and write in miraculous fashion, all supposedly during her pregnancy, though her actual speech is literred with foul, sexually graphic terminology. (See an excerpt from the book at the Random House publishing website) One of the problems with black lesbian writers is not only their hostility towards black men in general, where Precious’s father is depicted as a savage ghost, mostly an offscreen presence, yet responsible for the ruination of a young girl’s life, a common thread seen throughout the works of Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Tina Mabry, or now Sapphire, but they also can’t resist depicting an idealized, rainbow-colored camaraderie between the women where sisterhood suddenly materializes at the hospital, all rallying their united support around Precious when she delivers her baby, an odd twist because these women were at each other’s throats with a healthy dose of scorn and skepticism in the previous scenes.
Sidibe narrates her story throughout the film, much of it taken from her diary entries, spoken in a calm monotone of semi-literate, stream-of-conscious language as she describes the gritty, unforgiving world around her, oftentimes feeling so alienated and alone that she may as well be from another planet. Like Celie, a similarly abused child in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, both survive by developing a trust in language, Precious in her diary entries, Celie in her series of letters, which connects them both to the outside world. There’s a manipulative pan shot as figures in black history encircle Precious as she is suddenly capable of connecting a sense of self and identity to her own history. Precious eventually reveals the truth about her father to the welfare office, where the sympathetic worker is played by a near unrecognizable Mariah Carey without makeup, where their bond along with her school and teacher allows Precious to confront her mother with a renewed belief in herself. What happens gets ugly, and is a bit hard to believe, but baby in hand, Precious hits the streets in the snow with nowhere to go, which in her case is grounds for optimism. There are several outstanding moments, Sidibe has hers after discovering her father passed the HIV virus to her, where she is literally laid bare in class, exposed perhaps for the first time in her life, while Mo’Nique has a similar confession, probably the scene of the film, when the social worker at the welfare office demands to know what she was doing while her boyfriend was having sex with her daughter. It’s a gut-wrenching moment that is beyond words, but it releases a world of indescribable pain off the shoulders of a 16-year old girl whose life has finally been handed back to her. It’s these haunting moments of raw emotion that save the film, as the performances are simply outstanding. Overall the tone of the film is uneven and manipulative throughout, and doesn’t really match that dramatic firepower offered in a few brilliant scenes, but it’s nonetheless searingly intense, uniquely relevant, and hard to look away from this seamy underside of life.
Harlem, the late ’80s: Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones is 16, terribly overweight, illiterate, frequently bullied and already pregnant for a second time – by her own father. Only when she’s sent (against her mother’s wishes) to an alternative school and begins to express her anger and pain does life begin to seem a little less hellish. It’s hard to be unaffected by this familiar story of horrendous abuse, though a certain slickness and literalism in scripting, camerawork and cutting threaten to turn the film into a kind of Sundance variation on the ‘sickness movie of the week’ genre. But the performances somehow make it work: not just Sidibe as Precious, but Mo’Nique as her mother, who in one scene towards the end single handedly takes the movie into far more rewardingly complex territory.
Given the months-long hype, what’s most bewildering about Sundance sensation Precious is its overall shrug-worthiness. You’d think the litany of horrors that befall Harlem teenager Clareece “Precious” Jones (Sidibe)—illiteracy, rape, domestic abuse, Mariah Carey—would register with some piercing and perceptive effect. Instead, they pass by with the glazed-over, lookie-lookie luridness of a Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episode.
And yet, at the film’s center is a fully lived-in performance by newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, who will hopefully go on to better things and not be cast aside, Slumdog-style, in the post-awards season. The actor holds her own with such scene-stealers as Mo’Nique—dangling her cigarettes with Oscar-baiting malevolence as Precious’s mom, Mary—and navigates the neorealism-lite trappings with brazen, always arresting confidence.
The film’s best scenes take place in a literacy class headed by a tough-love educator (Patton). It’s here that Precious finds the means to express herself in ways reminiscent of Celie, the uneducated heroine of Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple. Indeed, director Lee Daniels seems to be aping Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Purple (specifically the sequence where Celie discovers a long-hidden pile of letters from her sister) in the moment when the camera circles Precious while video images of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, et al. are projected around her. The meaning is the same—history floods the consciousness of both Celie and Precious and powerfully widens their worldview—but Daniels’s methods are decidedly cruder. It’s hardly surprising that, in another instance, he emphasizes the revulsion of incest by cutting to a pan of sizzling eggs. Even the worst behaviors, he appears to be saying, have to go over easy.
Moving Pictures magazine [Eric Kohn] at Cannes
Lee Daniels' Precious could go wrong in many ways, and yet
nimbly avoids the obvious trappings of the material. Based on the novel Push
(and screened at Sundance under that name) by noted poet Sapphire, the
story focuses on an overweight, pregnant, Harlem teenager (Gabourey Sidibe, in
her first movie role) at odds with her crazed single mother (Mo'Nique) and the
larger possibilities of the world around her. With a lively soundtrack and
heavily stylized manifestations of the girl's emotional distress, Precious
frequently approaches the dangers of getting too ambitious - and somehow
This results from more than just Daniels' directorial guidance. Primarily recognized for producing Monster's Ball rather than for his sole previous directing credit, Shadowboxer, Daniels tends to pile on many ideas at once, which runs the risk of alienating his viewers. But the constant experimental formalism in Precious jibes with the nature of the characters, and thus succeeds because the performances never falter. Sidibe turns in a frighteningly low-key onscreen personality to reflect Precious' abused, withdrawn nature (her father raped her, adding two children to her life). This creates a powerful contrast with the vibrant world inside her head, where she dreams of a happier life. In her fantasies, Precious wears lavish clothing, dances with the man of her dreams, smiles for the cameras and pleases the crowds. The movie tracks her progress from wishing for this impossibly palatial world to understanding how to correct the problems of the one in which she resides.
By staying close to his main character's downtrodden perspective for most of the film, Daniels keeps things refreshingly simplistic despite the dark themes. Because of her poor schooling and virtually nonexistent parental guidance, Precious views the world with childlike simplicity - and yet she develops a sense of confidence that fosters her own personalized intellectual capabilities. A witty moment where Precious imagines herself in an old, histrionic Italian movie as it airs on television, echoing Oliver Stone's ironic use of canned laugh tracks in Natural Born Killers, shows us the remarkable complexity of the girl's escapist tendencies. But just as she grows more distant from her unhappy existence, it starts to improve.
Guided by the passionate welfare case worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey, surprisingly less showy than one might imagine) and the supportive efforts of a teacher (Paula Patton) in the alternative school where she goes after proving herself academically superior to low-rent public school education, Precious gradually steps out of her mental box. This transition would simply not seem credible without Sidibe's extraordinarily subtle performance. Watching her try to comprehend her constantly expanding universe is at once scary and sociologically fascinating. In early scenes, since she lacks the verbal skills and optimism to find success, her daydreams contain a cold, disconnected feeling that constantly reminds us of their unreality - strengthening the discomfort permeating the real world.
Mo'Nique's awards-ready performance completes the puzzle. A grotesque manifestation of American poverty, it gives us one of the more memorable and important movie monsters in years. She's composed of fragments, much like the structure of the film; an abusive husband, lack of work ethic and no evident talent give rise to her own rage, which she takes out on her despondent child. But as Precious grows out of the psychological cage where her mother desperately tries to trap her, Mo'Nique gets the opportunity to allow her character to blossom into a fully believable human being. Her final monologue, a self-defense of her bad mothering delivered to Mrs. Weiss, explains not only her own flaws but how they prevented Precious from reaching her potential. The scene is unabashedly manipulative but not vindictive, making it an apt summation of the movie itself.
New York Times review Michiko Kakutani, June 14, 1996
What do you get if you borrow the notion of an idiosyncratic teen-age narrator from J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" and mix it up with the feminist sentimentality and anger of Alice Walker's "Color Purple"? The answer is "Push," a much-talked-about first novel by a poet named Sapphire, a novel that manages to be disturbing, affecting and manipulative all at the same time.
Like Celie in "The Color Purple," the heroine of "Push" is the survivor of a brutal childhood and youth; at the age of 16, Claireece or "Precious" as she calls herself, has already had two children by the man she knows as her father. Her mother has not only allowed these rapes to occur, but also beats Precious for stealing her man. She, too, sexually abuses Precious, and treats her as a maidservant around the house.
It's hard to imagine how things could get much worse, but in the course of "Push," Sapphire throws a lot more misfortune Precious's way. Little Mongo, Precious's first child, to whom she gave birth at the age of 12, turns out to have Down's syndrome and is quickly taken away from her. A week after her second child, Abdul, is born, Precious finds herself out on the streets of Harlem, without a place to live. Not much later, she learns that her father has infected her with H.I.V.
Given these circumstances, it's no surprise that Precious often feels as if her mind has become a television set, playing and replaying videos that offer her a brief respite from the bleak realities of her daily life. In these daydreams, she is thin, not fat; white, not black; loved, not mocked.
"Push," however, is not the story of a helpless or self-loathing victim. It's meant to be a story of female empowerment and triumph. Through the help of a gifted teacher named Rain, Precious learns to read and write. She learns how to write down her own experiences and turn them into poetry. She also gets hooked up with an incest survivors' support group, and a H.I.V.-positive support group. She gains friends, self-respect and the hope of one day going to college. "Push," the paramedic says to her when she's giving birth. "Push," says her teacher, when she despairs of making anything of her life.
What prevents all this from sounding as cloying as the characters' names is Precious's street-smart, angry voice, a voice that may shock readers with its liberal use of four-letter words and graphic descriptions of sex, but a voice that also conjures up Precious's gritty, unforgiving world. Sapphire somehow finds lyricism in Precious's life, and in endowing Precious with her own generous gifts for language, she allows us entree into her heroine's state of mind.
Precious talks of the neighborhood addicts with "kraters like what u see wen you look at spots on the moon" on their arms, and girls in her incest support group who sit in a circle with "faces like clocks, no bombs." She speaks of time seeming "like clothes in the washing machine at laundry mat -- round 'n round, up 'n down," and the television in her own head, "always static on, flipping picture."
"I'm walking across the lobby room real real slow," Precious recalls. "Full of chicken, bread; usually that make me not want to cry remember, but I feel like crying now. My head is like the swimming pool at the Y on one-three-five. Summer full of bodies splashing, most in shallow end; one, two in deep end. Thas how all the time years is swimming in my head. First grade boy say, Pick up your lips Claireece 'fore you trip over them."
Although the reader comes to feel enormous sympathy for Precious, one is constantly aware of the author standing behind the scenes, orchestrating her heroine's terrifying plummet into the abyss and her equally dramatic rescue. The first time we see Precious with a book at school, she is having difficulty sounding out the words in a picture book and learning the alphabet. Only pages later, her teacher is trying to get her to read "The Color Purple" in class.
For that matter, Alice Walker's ghost hovers more and more insistently over "Push" as the novel progresses, lending Precious's story a blunt ideological subtext. We learn that white social workers are foolish, patronizing liberals, and that men are pigs who only think about sex. Though it's easy to understand how Precious might hold all of these views, it soon becomes clear that Precious's creator, Sapphire, is also stacking the deck. In a lengthy postscript in which Precious's classmates tell the story of their lives, we are treated to a recitation of crimes committed against women by men. Rita's father kills her mother in front of her eyes, and Rita begins working as a hooker at the age of 12. Rhonda is raped by her brother, then thrown out of the house by her mother; when she gets a job taking care of an old white man, he asks her for sexual favors. Jermaine is molested by a boy at the age of 7, then raped by a friend's father a few years later; at 19, she is assaulted by six men.
No doubt this rapid-fire sequence of horrifying stories is supposed to mean that Precious has finally found a community of friends with shared experiences. Instead, they leave the reader with the feeling that one has abruptly exited the world of the novel and entered the world of a support group. In trying to open out her heroine's story and turn it into a more general comment on society, Sapphire has made the tale of Precious decidedly less moving than it might have been.
There are worst-case scenarios, and then there is Precious, who’s
in a hellish league of her own. The heroine and narrator of the novel Push by
Sapphire (born Ramona Lofton), now a much-hyped film called Precious: Based
on the Novel Push by Sapphire, is the embodiment of everything—I
mean, everything—American society values least and victimizes most. She’s a
poor, illiterate, morbidly obese, dark-skinned African-American girl. She was
raped by her father from the age of 3, pregnant with his child at 12 (the baby,
which she names Mongo, has severe Down syndrome), and then pregnant by him
again at 16, when the novel begins. She’s also sexually molested by her
jealous, welfare-cheating, gross, and sedentary mother, although the genital
fingering might seem preferable to the verbal and physical abuse. The book
gives you quite a bludgeoning. I started to pull back from it in a flashback
when the 12-year-old girl is in labor on the kitchen floor and her mother is
kicking her in the face.
Sapphire goes on to chart Precious’s journey from darkness to light: her transfer to an alternative school and acceptance into a warm, matriarchal community, where she’s encouraged to give voice to her experiences in poetry and prose. A former teacher, Sapphire wants to show young women that if the damaged, emotionally locked-up Precious can develop a sense of self-worth and autonomy, anyone can. But Push, written in Precious’s distinctive patois (“I still don’t say nuffin’. This hoe is keeping me from maff class. I like maff class”), is so schematic, so single-minded in its depiction of predatory evil and empowering good that you may think its title is not an exhortation to drive through pain but a description of the author’s technique.
I dwell on the novel because the movie leads with it (that subtitle!) and because it faithfully, even reverently, sticks to Sapphire’s outline. But the director, Lee Daniels, working from a screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, has a good sense of when to push and when to lie back. His rhythms are punchy—abrasive without being assaultive. And he has such a striking actress in Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Precious, that he doesn’t need to force her alienation—or ours. I’m not judging girls who look like Sidibe in life, but her image onscreen is jarring to the point of being transgressive, its only equivalent to be seen in John Waters’s pointedly outrageous carnivals. Her head is a balloon on the body of a zeppelin, her cheeks so inflated they squash her eyes into slits. Her expression is either surly or unreadable. Even with her voice-over narration, you’re meant to stare at her ebony face and see nothing. The movie is saying that she’s not an object, but the way that Sidibe is directed she becomes one. It’s only in a couple of heavy-handed fantasy sequences (she emerges from a theater in a bright-red gown to popping flashbulbs) that her eyes are windows to the soul.
Daniels does everything to hold the melodrama at bay, but there’s only so much he can do. The comedian Mo’Nique gives a vivid and surprisingly varied performance as Precious’s mother, Mary (ironic-name alert): I have no doubt she found psychological justifications for Mary’s sadism, for the displacement onto Precious of her fury at a man who she thinks preferred her daughter to her. But the woman who drops a TV onto Precious as she hurries down the stairs with her infant is a sociopath, too singularly garish to be universal. As Precious’s teacher, Ms. Rain, Paula Patton is at the other extreme. A light-skinned beauty with fine features, she has a network-TV wholesomeness: Even her lesbianism has the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval—a poster on her wall of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf. The most offbeat touch is a social worker played by Mariah Carey. She’s a tad too goody-goody, but her toasty, caressing voice is a gift beside Sidibe’s mush-mouthed monosyllables.
Daniels does well with the girls in Precious’s class, who have a mordant, barbed rapport. They’re almost as defended as she is, so when they bond with her it’s not sticky: You can feel their relief in being able to get out of their own heads and be kind. That’s when the film is genuinely moving without being manipulative. But it somehow skips over the part where Precious actually learns. When she tells us, in voice-over, that she won a literacy prize, you may think you missed something. Precious jumps from signpost to signpost. Set in 1987, it features obligatory images on TV of Reagan and Ollie North—but also, for hope’s sake, photos of Oprah Winfrey (thinner than she was at the time), who signed onto the film as co-executive-producer after it was made. The elements of Precious are powerful and shocking, but the movie is programmed. It is its own study guide.
Edelstein's Response to Commenters a response to his angered critics, specifically Latoya Peterson at Jezebel:
Some readers (and a posse led by Latoya Peterson at Jezebel) are angered by my review of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. They believe my language reflects deep and both conscious and unconscious prejudices toward African-Americans, obesity, and the so-called “underclass.” Defending myself against those charges (as well as outright abuse) is bound to be a losing battle, but I respect the feelings of Peterson and many of her commenters (the least abusive, anyway) and am sick at the thought that my attempts to evoke this movie have been viewed so harshly — and, I believe, unfairly.
When a filmmaker in or out of Hollywood makes a movie about a victimized African-American girl, you can expect him or her to cast an actress who is thin and light-skinned with big round eyes to make everyone — black and white — want to identify with her. Lee Daniels, in filming Precious, has gone to the opposite extreme. He presents a heroine, Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), who is, in the context of mainstream American culture, on the bottom rung status-wise. That is not my prejudice; it is reflected in every aspect of our society, from job opportunities to magazine covers. (Outside of Oprah, who has spent millions to lose and keep her weight off, it’s hard to think of another overweight African-American cover girl — until now, anyway.) It is unjust, it is mean, it is destructive, it is inhuman, but it is true. It’s also the whole point of the movie (even more so than the novel). Here is an obese, black-skinned (as opposed to latte-colored), pregnant, illiterate, poor girl: She has everything against her. And Daniels, like Sapphire, continues to pile on the abuses. She is sexually assaulted by both parents. She is beaten into unconsciousness with a cast-iron pan. She is kicked in the face giving birth. She is expelled from school for being pregnant — not even her fault but the result of her father’s rape. She has AIDS.
Contrary to commenters' assertions (“What does it transgress, exactly? Because she is, you know, human, and she looks like a human … The usage is just racist. And sizeist”), “transgressive” isn’t a misuse of my thesaurus and it doesn’t reflect my racism or prejudice against fat people. In the context of movies, her image is a shock; it throws you violently outside your normal frame of reference, forcing you to rethink your assumptions. My assumptions are not, as many have inferred, judgmental. I’ve had weight issues all my life. My mother, an M.D., once treated obesity (or tried like hell) and in filling in for her receptionist in my late teens I saw what women in the African-American community with a certain body type and metabolism were up against — especially since they were surrounded by crap food (which, as the great documentary Food, Inc. makes clear, is both addictive and cheaper — thanks to corn subsidies — than, say, a head of broccoli). As for her affect, Sidibe is reportedly a bubbly, outgoing girl in life, but she is directed to be inexpressive. Again, that’s the point. Horribly abused and slighted or ignored by those around her, Precious has learned to reveal nothing. The first time you can see into her eyes is in her glamorous fantasy sequences, when Precious can let go.
I could have used euphemisms in describing the way she is presented to us, but I don’t think that would have evoked the movie. Daniels is very calculating in how he uses Sidibie’s image. He also has a scene in which she stares into a mirror and sees a beautiful thin white woman staring back, as if to say, “This is how she sees herself on the inside.” If he can so starkly portray how she wants to be versus how she is, if he can say, “Look how many strikes are against this girl,” then at the end when she emerges with real self-esteem, he can claim to have made a truly affirmative film — and I don't mean Hollywood-style affirmation.
So I was taken aback by comments like this:
Can I nominate Edelstein for worstie? That's how a real human being actually looks like in real life. I realize that her appearance may be shocking to you but you seriously need to filter your mouth. I agree with your sentiment and I hope this does spur some type of discussion, but his "reaction" was incredibly rude and shouldn't have been published (at least that bluntly). It didn't even take into consideration that some people do look like that and probably have very fragile self-esteem. As for her "shortcomings," obviously Ms. Sidibe is overweight but, from what I gather, that doesn't really have much to do with the true message of this movie.
It doesn’t have to do with the “true message” of the movie, but her weight is front-and-center.
OK, Edelstein, granted, maybe if Hollywood had allowed for a broader (ahem!) portrayal of black womanhood through the decades, showed the points between and beyond Dorothy Dandridge/Thandie Newton/Halle Berry and Mammy/maids/Medea/Eddie Murphy in a dress instead of spending a century studying how to properly light toothpicks onscreen, you'd find Sidibe less "jarring."
Actually, many of my colleagues and I have complained about fewer opportunities for beautiful women who are darker and more, ahem, broad (read: rounder, less model-skinny), like Angela Bassett. It is in the context of the Halle Berrys that Sidibe is, like it or not, jarring.
Also, her eyes are naturally narrow, not "squashed." I have a longstanding hatred of Edelstein, but this takes the cake.
As Jason Alexander said in Shallow Hal (the ultimate absurdist riff on prejudice against weight), “It takes the whole bakery.” My use of the word “squashed” was meant to suggest that Precious’s most expressive features are, thanks to how she's directed and photographed and lighted, hidden by her flesh; it was not a comment on Sidibe’s eyes, which are lovely in out-of-character photos.
The New York Magazine article confirmed my opinion of magazine and well, uh, all print media. Namely, the shockingly broad de-humanization of black people that exist outside of what it is to be a "good black," namely light skin, "good hair," thin, well off, and devoid of any linguistic trace of "black accents." (See: uh, the vast majority of black female actresses and singers). It's fucked up. It's sad. But seriously. It's about time he just played it as it lays and said "these are monsters." Which is to say, he missed the entire point of the book, the movie, and fucking life, that is, humanity exists in us all. In fact, this review is fucking evidence of some of the fucked up pathology that drives the self-hatred of the main character in Precious.
No one at New York would describe the characters (or people they're based on) in Precious as monsters. That's an unfair prejudice against this magazine. But I think the film does cater to a Reaganite preconception about “welfare mothers” by making Mary — in between the beatings of Precious — obsessed with her “check” and baldly lying about looking for work.
One line of mine I admit was insensitive: “She’s also sexually molested by her jealous, welfare-cheating, gross, and sedentary mother, although the genital fingering might seem preferable to the verbal and physical abuse.” The last thing I would ever do is make light of sexual abuse. In a clumsy way I was trying to suggest that I have read accounts of incest in which victims have said that at least when being touched they weren’t being beaten bloody, that it was perceived by the victim at the time as the lesser of two evils. But that is too complicated and too debatable a point to pack into a single offhand phrase. I apologize.
I think he means it offends his delicate sensibilities to be shown a fat woman on the screen. There should have been a black rectangle over her body so people wouldn't be offended.
No, my “delicate sensibilities” weren’t offended. I was offended based on other criteria. I still believe — and we can debate this I hope without throwing around charges of racism — that the piling-on of abuse and the relentless demonization of the family is a kind of demagoguery. I’m not naïve enough to think that monsters like Precious’s mother don’t exist. But I think the job of an artist is to get inside and understand people like that and not exploit their inhumanity in melodramatic ways to make us furious. It’s the crudeness of Precious I resent, not its message of hope.
UPDATE: Latoya Peterson also points to my description of Precious's mother, Mary, as "too singular to be universal," asserting that I refuse to accept (perhaps because of my different background) "ferocious violence" in this community. I accept its existence, but reject the portrayal onscreen — not out of squeamishness but in the belief that an artist owes us something more than a relentless display of cruelty edited for shock value.
UPDATE 2: I hope this is my last word on the subject, but as we get closer to the opening of Precious, it's important to note how casually the movie's adherents (many of whom haven't seen it) throw around the charge of racism. I've read that by pointing out that Precious is dark-skinned in a world that prizes lighter skin, I've revealed my own bigoted preferences. What garbage. In Sapphire's Push, Precious says she wishes she were light skinned and looks with envy on women who are. Early in the movie, the woman she sees in the mirror who represents — she thinks — who she is on the inside is thin and white. Those weren't my racist projections!
Meanwhile, a woman who calls herself piranha in an entry called "how not to defend yourself," quotes me selectively:
so now he defends himself, because he, david edelstein, isn't racist or sizeist, noooo:
"I’ve had weight issues all my life. My mother, an M.D., once treated obesity (or tried like hell) and in filling in for her receptionist in my late teens I saw what women in the African-American community with a certain body type and metabolism were up against — especially since they were surrounded by crap food"
*sigh*. that really needs no further commentary, does it.
*Sigh*. Maybe it does. Notice how she omits the final, parenthetical clause: "... which, as the great documentary Food, Inc. makes clear, is both addictive and cheaper — thanks to corn subsidies — than, say, a head of broccoli." I guess she doesn't feel that some people are genetically predisposed to obesity — and therefore have a much tougher time losing weight. And if she'd seen Food, Inc., she'd know that among the consequences of America's corn subsidies is a hugely disproportionate rise of obesity in poor communities. The filmmaker shows why a family goes to a fast-food drive-in window instead of eating at home: a) the parents both work several jobs and don't have time to cook; and b) double cheeseburgers are cheaper than a head of broccoli. The book and movie Precious drive this home by showing Precious's breakfast: a tub of fried chicken.
The dishonesty is breathtaking.
Reactions Interesting, Infuriating
Latoya Peterson at Jezebel
Slant Magazine review [1.5/4] Ed Gonzalez
The Onion A.V. Club review [B] Noel Murray
Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire Michael Sicinski from The Academic Hack
Precious Mike Goodridge from Screendaily
Moving Pictures magazine [Andre Chautard] at Toronto
The Audacity of ‘Precious’ Lynn Hirschberg from The New York Times, October 21, 2009
Black author Sapphire, her novel Push becomes Precious on big ... Nordette Adams from The Indianapolis Examiner, May 20, 2009
Sapphire's Push: Merciless Honesty | BlogHer Nordette Adams from Blogher, November 9, 2009
What to Watch: Precious, Based on the Novel Push « Knopf Doubleday ... Study guide from the Random House publishing website
excerpt excerpt from the book at the Random House publishing website
here Random House profile of author Sapphire
Owen Keehnen: Interviews Owen Keehnen interviews Sapphire from Queer Cultural Center, August 1996
For Colored Girls: The Sapphire Interview Ernest Hardy interviews Sapphire from LA Weekly, November 11, 2009
Women of Color Women of Word -- African American Female ... biographical information
Ntozake Shange biographical profile
USA (107 mi) 2012 ‘Scope
The recipient of some of the worst reviews in print, a train wreck alleged to be one of the worst and most forgettable films of the year, this is instead a highly entertaining and juicy film noir, a candidate for a spot on John Waters Top Ten films of the year, with enough repressed sexual dysfunction and lurid southern atmosphere to rival any Tennessee Williams play. Reportedly offered to Pedro Almodóvar as his first English-speaking feature film, after toying with the screenplay he eventually declined, but certainly the raunchy tone of the material is there, based on a novel by Pete Dexter who along with the director helped adapt the screenplay, which is unashamedly trashy, B-movie material. Some may find the boundaries of bad taste pushed to the fullest here, yet that is the point of the film, that people require their “news” to be sanitized and cleaned up beyond description so that it is no longer recognizable from its origins, where truth is a virtue that exists only in concept, as there are so many powers in play desperate to spin and alter the news to suit their readers. While there is no attempt to add sanctimonious morality or a message to this film, but this is ascertained strictly from the title of the film, and as it concerns a family where the patriarchal father (Scott Glenn) runs a newspaper. Set in a small town in Florida (though filmed in Louisiana) during the late 60’s when New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm can be seen delivering a speech on television, where by the early 70’s she was one of the founding members of the Black Congressional Caucus and even initiated a bid for the Presidency in 1972, surviving several assassination attempts, running as the ideological opposite of race segregationalist candidate from Alabama, Governor George Wallace, whose picture may be seen on the walls of law enforcement officials. This sets the scene for the existing racism that routinely exists in the region, where Macy Gray steals the thunder from some of the bigger names, playing Anita, the family maid, who takes the place of the missing mother to Jack (Zac Efron), an impressionable teenage kid just out of high school who also happens to be a paperboy.
Like a modern day MILDRED PIERCE (1945), Anita opens the
film awkwardly recounting her personal recollections of a local murder to a
journalist, where the film is a flashback of colorful events that she continues
to narrate throughout, often with a bewildered amusement. Jack’s older brother is Ward, Matthew
McConaughey, working for a Miami newspaper, returning to his home town
accompanied by a fellow black reporter, Yardley (David Oyelowo), supposedly
While some of the best scenes exude personal familiarity between Anita and Jack, it’s also clear the murky atmosphere under the surface is seething with a suffocating claustrophobia, often retreating into the swamps for more local color, as every character in the film has been seriously damaged in some deeply affecting way, where Jack follows his brother’s footsteps until Ward gets into a heap of trouble where he barely makes it out alive, the victim of some starkly graphic, criminally inspired, brutally sadistic gay bondage, literally forcing little brother to assert himself more due to his medical circumstances. Jack is the victim of the prevailing racial attitudes where he stupidly embarrasses himself in front of Anita, but also carries the baggage of abandonment issues due to the loss of his mother, while Ward is on a self-destructive bent driven by his inability to accept the fact he’s gay. Charlotte has such a low degree of self-esteem that she hangs on literally every word of some of the lowest and most depraved men on earth, driven to the point of delusion by her need to be desired by men. When Jack offers his love, she sees it as little more than child’s play. Yardley, like a modern day Mr. Tibbs, is forced to take advantage of job opportunities that have routinely been denied blacks, even if it means stepping on the backs of others to get there, losing his moral compass in the process. Hillary Van Wetter, on the other hand, is a swamp creature that lives with the alligators, snakes, and incessant swarm of bugs, a primeval force of nature that we’ve come to accept in Robert Mitchum’s roles in The Night of the Hunter (1955) or CAPE FEAR (1962). Brought together by uncommon circumstances, they all seem to bring out the worst in one another, where the insidious nature of man is portrayed as little more than that of lowly animals, where it’s questionable who we are and what we’ve evolved into. The film is more interested in capturing the right tone and atmosphere, like CHINATOWN (1974) set in the swamps, filled with Mario Grigorov’s original score and a collection of standard R & B hits from the 60’s, where the interplay between characters is interesting and often hilarious, leading to an unvarnished and uncompromisingly thrilling finale, where the unexpected raises its ugly head and proclaims victory, where many of us may be wondering what happened, and how did all this rarely seen material suddenly appear before our eyes? Daring and devious throughout, where Kidman especially is another force of nature onscreen, credit is due for having the fortitude to approach this material head on without studio imposed concessions.
CINE-FILE: Cine-List Patrick Friel
The plot of Lee Daniels' THE PAPERBOY—the director's brave follow-up to his critically and popularly acclaimed PRECIOUS—reads like Tennessee Williams melodrama hopped up on Erskine Caldwell pulp. It's a Southern Gothic, sure enough, but don't let the critics who dismiss (or praise) it as a simple, trashy romp fool you. This is a heady and intoxicating brew that, honestly, shouldn't work—but does. The narrative threads are many (excessive even)—but they're worthy vehicles for an ensemble of exaggerated characters, a messy set of themes, and a carefully pastiched visual style. Jack Jansen (Zac Efron—yes, really) is the hub of the film (a stand-in for the source novel's author, Pete Dexter), a young man whose 1960s small-town life starts to spin out of control. Jack's older brother (Matthew McConaughey) is a newspaper journalist who returns from the city, with his black colleague Yardly (David Oyelowo), to investigate the case of a convicted killer on death row. The convict (John Cusack) is a swamp-dwelling, alligator-hunting maybe-psycho mixed up in a torrid jailhouse romance with a trampy death-row groupie (Nicole Kidman). Rounding out the primary cast, singer Macy Gray plays the Jansen family's domestic Anita (and the movie's narrator). As in the great genre films of Hollywood's heyday, Daniels uses a sensationalistic story, a debased genre, to explore a host of potent themes. Through shifting interactions and allegiances among his characters, Daniels riffs on race and class, guilt and innocence, sexual repression, friendship, trust, and more. There are shades of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, IN COLD BLOOD, DELIVERANCE, WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, and GOD'S LITTLE ACRE. Kidman evokes a sexed-up Elizabeth Taylor; McConaughey has the charming aloofness of Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke; Cusack combines the frightening iciness of Robert Blake's Perry Smith and psychotic intensity of Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH. The list of cinematic reference points could go on, but it's not the specificity of these (or others) that matters. Daniel's achievement is recapturing the hot, sultry mood of these movies in his own haunting and beautiful way. It's trashy, exasperating, convoluted, over-the-top, violent, and deliberately provocative. But these charged-up qualities give the film its unique power, and Daniels piles them on as if daring his audience to come to grips with, and move beyond, the excess.
The Paperboy | Film | Movie Review | The A.V. Club Nathan Rabin
It’s hard to describe Lee Daniels’ sweaty new melodrama The Paperboy without making it seem far more vivid and entertaining than it actually is. Everything about The Paperboy promises a deranged instant camp classic, from Nicole Kidman’s strangely stylized turn as a prisoner-obsessed nymphomaniac who looks and behaves like a malfunctioning Marilyn Monroe sex robot to the surreal miscasting of genial Midwesterner John Cusack as a borderline-feral Southern death-row inmate to a much-buzzed about scene involving Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron. So why is The Paperboy so bizarrely dull? It’s as if the filmmakers combined 18 different kinds of scalding-hot peppers, yet inexplicably emerged with oatmeal.
Efron stars as a directionless young man in a perspiration-soaked 1960s Florida, where he frequently spends time clad only in a pair of tighty-whities. His dashing reporter brother (Matthew McConaughey, whose impressive recent winning streak reaches an end here) comes to town with his enigmatic African-American partner (David Oyelowo) to investigate the case of a prisoner (Cusack) on death row for killing a corpulent, corrupt sheriff. Efron falls in love—or at least a profound state of lust—with Cusack’s fiancé, a hot-to-trot sexpot played by Kidman, whose sun-baked sensuality spills out in all directions and is the film’s main attraction and source of morbid fascination.
An intense, almost disconcerting level of investment and commitment characterized Lee Daniels’ previous two directorial efforts, Precious and Shadowboxer, yet The Paperboy feels strangely remote throughout, in part because it centers on a murder case nobody in the film seems to care much about, not even the folks directly involved. The framing device finds maid Macy Gray recounting the sordid events in flashback, which further distances the film from the lust, rage, violence, and longing at its blurry core. In his previous films, Daniels established himself as a sensualist with a gift for feverishly over-the-top melodrama, but his primary directorial stamp here, beyond finding infinite reasons to separate Efron from his clothing, involves giving the film a retro-fever-dream look that suggests an Instagram filter called “Bayou Swamp.” The Paperboy offers a perversely bloodless take on rough sex, murder, intrigue, and race. If Daniels actually set out to transform the wildest possible source material into the most inert possible film, he’s succeeded spectacularly.
The Paperboy is an enjoyably lurid southern noir set in
the mid-Sixties from Pete Dexter (who collaborated on the screenplay) with
additional touches added by the director of Precious, who has a taste
for the highly colored ant the shocking. If you want to see Nicole Kidman pee
on a half-naked Zac Efron this is your movie. But Kidman is excellent as the
tacky bleach-blonde Barbie Doll death row groupie and Efron (Jack Jansen) is
vulnerable and sweet as the younger brother of Miami newsman Matthew
McConaughey (Ward Jansen), who comes with Yardley, a black colleague apparently
from London (David Oyelowo) to investigate a murder case. The sleazy, odious
inmate is played by John Cusack (Hillary Van Wetter). Of course in this Florida
town in this year a black colleague is provocative enough; and it's Daniels'
touch, not in the Dexter novel, that he should be black. The peeing scene has a
therapeutic purpose: it's to counteract toxins from a jellyfish Jack (Zac) has
met up with while swimming. Daniels' finest touch is his use of the excellent
Macy Gray as Anita Chester, the Jansen family maid, who also does the
voice-over narration, and the best scenes are ones of familial intimacy between
Anita and Jack. Everybody is good, McConaughey doing his Good Old Boy drawl,
Oyelowo infuriatingly cocky as the British-accented colored man, Cusack a scary
piece of swamp muck Hilary's family comes from the swamp and lives by gutting
alligators to sell for shoes and handbags). Daniels at times tries to evoke
Seventies B-pictures. I don't think you can take all this seriously, despite
the strong hints at many turns of Sixties South racism, but there's something
unique about it, and it entertains.
Charlotte gets the "paperboys" to come following a romantic correspondence with Hillary, and when they come into town comes wearing a tight dress and bearing big boxes of research into the case. But the newsmen seem distracted, and not very interested in finding out the truth. Jack, a former swimming star kicked out of college who's not doing much but delivering papers, is enlisted to be the reporters' driver, and he falls madly in love with Charlotte and moons for her or sexes for her till finally he gets her "Okay, but just once." Meanwhile there is Anita's humorous voiceover narration, and the present-time Anita's many cozy little scenes with Jack, while unexpected or not so unexpected truths emerge concerning Ward, Hillary, and Yardley.
The movie is great in individual scenes, but doesn't move so well from on to the net. For a noir, The Paperboy lacks urgency or narrative drive. This won't convince anybody it has contemporary relevance as did Lee Daniels' previous film, the 2009 Precious, but again there may be some Oscar mentions. Along with condemnations: the critics are not joining up to praise The Paperboy. Rex Reed has launced one of his diatribes against it: '"This raunchy dreck, cut from the same disposable toilet tissue as the recent trailer-trash creepfest "Killer Joe," is a leap downhill from "Precious,"' he intones. Indeed McConaughey is also featured with Zac Efron in Killer Joe, but that's Tracy Lett, and that's a different kettle of rancid catfish.
It's hard for me to understand the scorn that has been heaped upon this
film. You'd think Lee Daniels had created a film praising Hitler, the
Antichrist, and communism. Also, it's hard to understand why some critics have
focused on certain aspects of the film. Zac Efron in his "tidy whities"
or Nicole Kidman urinating on Mr. Efron. The level of titillation that is being
shown would be credible in a 7-year old, but not for adult critics. To focus on
these rather minor points shows a deep misunderstanding of what this film is
So, what is this film about? While I think it's hard to reduce a work of art to the level of a short essay, I am so fed up with what has been written about this film that I shall attempt to do so.
For starters, I believe this film reflects the world as it is, and not as we want it to be. I think this film is saying that our deepest need is for love, connection, and moral truth but these needs become warped when filtered through the lies,despair, and degradation that American society has offered up as the truth. Mainstream films never go here, and while some indie films touch on this theme, they don't usually go for as deep a dive. The only other director that I can think of even approaching this level of an unblinking stare into the abyss is Todd Soldendz.
The characters in the film consist of Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), a journalist who has come back to his home town to investigate whether or not Hilary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a man on death row, received a fair trial. Ward's attention has been drawn to this case by Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman who has maintained a jail house correspondence with Mr. Van Wetter, and who believes she is in love with him. Ward brings with him a colleague, Yardley Acheman (David Oyewolo), a black journalist from London. They are assisted by Ward's younger brother, Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), who still lives at home. The Jansen family maid, Anita Chester (Macy Gray) is Jack's confidant and a stand in for the mother that left the family several years ago.
Each character's story is that of connection or love that has been twisted or thwarted for various reasons. Jack's playful relationship with the family maid can never be a relation between equals because of his racism. Jack can see that she is his natural ally and friend, but his racism denies them both a deeper connection. As brothers, Ward and Jack share a powerful bond of affection, but no amount of affection between the brothers can halt Ward's impulse to self-destruction brought on by his inability to accept being homosexual. Charlotte Bless is looking for love and thinks she can find it by writing to men in prison. She receives a response from Van Wetter, and because of its seeming indifference to what other men want from her, she decides this man loves her. The delusion is so powerful that even when real love is offered by Jack, she doesn't understand it. The film doesn't make it clear why she is so self-destructive. We can only assume it is the logical end to the toxic sexism that forces women to see themselves as worthy only if they are desired by a man; any man. Jack's impulse toward love and connection with this woman is driven by the damage done by the abandonment Jack experienced at the hands of his mother.Yardley is a black man trying to have a decent career as a journalist at a time (1969) when racism almost guaranteed that black men remain in lowly positions and did not allow them to rise to their full potential. It is this very racism that makes him betray his colleague and his principals and forces him to assume an identity other than his own. Van Wetter is, I think, a kind of stand in for a force of nature. It is when you face up to these kind of forces that your innermost strengths and weaknesses are revealed.
Through these characters, Lee Daniels is showing the damage done to human relations, forcing people to act in ways that are not pretty to watch, and so the world he shows us is not pretty. It's hard and brutal. But so are the forces that drive these characters. To the critics who hated this film, if you want pretty, watch Lucy and Desi. Mr. Daniels world is the real world; flawed, messy, and hard to look at, but with humanity and the impulse to transcendence at its core.
Review: 'The Paperboy' Gets the Hard Things Right – | Film.com Stephanie Zacharek
Paperboy, The - Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
FILM REVIEW: The Paperboy - The Buzz - CBC Eli Glasner
James Rocchi at Cannes from the indieWIRE Playlist, May 24, 2012
Eric Kohn at Cannes from indieWIRE, May 24, 2012
Sound On Sight Neal Dhand
Cannes 2012: Nicole Kidman reveals why she loved playing a 'hot, over-sexed Barbie' in The Paperboy Anita Singh interviews Kidman from The London Telegraph, May 24, 2012
'The Paperboy': Nicole Kidman is used to audience discomfort - Los ... Mark Olsen interviews actress Nicole Kidman from The LA Times, December 20, 2012
Cannes 2012: The Paperboy – review Peter Bradshaw at Cannes from The Guardian, May 24, 2012
Xan Brooks at Cannes from The Guardian, May 24, 2012
'The Paperboy' delivers a dark, angrily steaming tale: Review - Los ... Betsy Sharkey from The LA Times
Nicole Kidman refused to say N-word for Lee Daniels in... Steven Zeitchik from The LA Times
The Paperboy - Movies - The New York Times A.O. Scott
USA (132 mi) 2013 Official site
Darkness cannot drive out darkness — only light can. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is a truly strange movie, at times deliciously
entertaining, while at other times one is simply aghast at the ineptitude,
where mixed signals are sent throughout, partly tragic, partly comic, where for
several moments one had to wonder if this could possibly be a subversive
attempt to actually send a message to America, but instead it comes across as a
toned-down Disney movie of the week, where the narrative style unfortunately
resembles Uncle Remus storytelling at the White House, told in the supposedly
inoffensive manner of Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH (1946), which is really one
long American narrative as Uncle Remus takes us through the Civil Rights era of
history, as seen through the eyes of a long-serving White House butler, Cecil
Gaines (Forest Whitaker). Rather than
deal with anything remotely resembling the present, it appears that today’s
movies prefer to remain stuck in the past, continually conjuring up stories
that deal with an era of loyal black servitude and obedience, like The Help
Unchained (2012), 12
Years a Slave (2013), and now yet another, as if the drumbeat of showing
past transgressions will somehow alter the course of today’s history. If that is the desired effect, it’s not
working. One has to wonder who decides
which black stories are told, or how they’re told? And why do we continue to project the same
negative stereotypes that only reinforce images of black subservience? Black talents like Viola Davis and Forest
Whitaker have received critical acclaim for playing maids and butlers, while
British black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is the odds on favorite for an Academy Award for
playing a kidnapped free slave sold into the brutality of slavery. Why is
Adapted from an article written by Wil Haygood that appeared
in The Washington Post just a few
weeks after President-elect Obama won the election on
The casting of Whitaker as the butler is a good one, as
after all, he already won an Oscar for portraying Idi Amin in THE LAST KING OF
What is particularly powerful about the picture is the portrayal of black father and son relationships, established in the opening shots of the film in 1926 Georgia at an existing cotton plantation where Cecil (as a child) and his own father worked, which was run exactly as it did during the slavery era, no difference whatsoever except they didn’t shackle slaves. Blacks were still routinely killed by whites, calling them “niggers,” even by judges in court, and whites just as routinely got away with it, using the violent threat of lynchings and the KKK if anyone had any other ideas. In another casting misadventure, Mariah Carey plays Cecil’s mother in the fields, where after her own sexual assault, they both witness the shooting of her husband, after which Cecil is led from the fields into the house under the tutelage of none other than Vanessa Redgrave to become the subservient “house nigger.” He learns so well he eventually becomes the White House butler serving 8 different Presidents from Truman to Reagan, where the rules are identical, as he is never to display any emotion, react to anything seen, or engage anyone other than his boss. The irony here is that his oldest son runs off to college and becomes a campus militant, the polar opposite of his father, where viewing American black history from the 20’s through the 80’s through the shared father and son experiences is simply too much, as it’s too great a cultural divide. For instance, we learn about what happened to Emmett Till over the dinner table as a drunken Gloria is serving food to her family, where that’s the extent of the experience, mentioned in much the same way as idle gossip. Both parents are convinced that having left the South, they have obtained security for their family. But Louis will not rest until blacks have the same rights as other American citizens, joining the freedom riders where he is routinely assaulted, beaten, spit upon, and arrested. Because of these offenses, Cecil disowns his son and refuses to speak to him, which is his way of deluding himself about his son and history.
In much the same way, it’s interesting how the Presidents engage in private conversations with their black butlers about the ‘black” problems, where Eisenhower doesn’t get how his experience growing up on a farm isn’t the same as Cecil’s, or LBJ’s profusive use of the word “nigger” to his own cabinet and staff somehow evolves to the word “Negro” on national television, JFK coolly describes to Cecil (who had no idea) that his son has been arrested 15 times, before television photos of the firehoses turned on peacefully demonstrating blacks in Birmingham cause he and his brother to have a change of heart on the race issue, while Reagan (played by the Harry Potter wizard specializing in the Dark Arts) second guesses his own shortsightedness on the post Civil Rights race relations, something one sincerely doubts, since the Reagan Republicans have consistently attempted to all but legalize racial discrimination, playing the race card in political ads ever since that cynically appeal to white votes. But in this film, the theme of the film comes from the prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. spoken to Louis just moments before he would be shot, “Domestics play a very big role in our history. In many ways they are subversive without ever knowing it,” suggesting they break down negative racial stereotypes by demonstrating steady employment, also by performing their jobs with grace and dignity, showing that they can be trusted, all of which defies the inherently distrustful views of racial bigotry.
But the arc of the story leads to a reunification of father and son, to President Obama, and the mistaken belief that things are finally so much better for blacks in America, where the film’s tagline, “One quiet voice can ignite a revolution,” is simply ridiculous. Who are they kidding? Then why are so many black men (over a million) languishing in prisons at the moment? And why is it legal to arrest a black and a white man for the exact same drug offense, yet the sentence for the black is so much more severe than the white, who with a lawyer may never serve any prison time at all? Whites use drugs 5 times more than blacks, yet blacks are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. Blacks constitute more than 80% of those incarcerated under federal crack cocaine laws and serve substantially more time in prison than do their white counterparts, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic, so it’s now perfectly legal for the police to exclusively target black neighborhoods for drug raids and for the court system to exhibit racial discrimination in court sentencing, and no one says a word. But while blacks no longer have to sit at the back of the bus, progress has been slow going, with all too many reminders of the vicious cycle of racial hatred that continues without end from generation to generation.
While the picture has some well known blacks promoting and participating in the making of the movie, the question must be asked, is this a black movie? Borrowing from the website Racism Is White Supremacy: Is “Lee Daniels' The Butler” (Really) A “Black Movie?” | Racism Is ...
1. Who wrote the screenplay for the movie, The
Danny Strong, Screenwriter for ‘The Butler,’ who was hired to write “The Butler” in 2009, a year before Daniels even signed on as director.
2. Who Owns the (Distribution) Rights to the movie,
“Lee Daniels’ The
Harvey Weinstein (Co-Chairman – the Weinstein Company)
David Glasser, Weinstein Co. COO
3. Who are the Producers, Executive Producers and
Co-Producers of “The
Laura Ziskin – Executive Producer (deceased)
Hilary Shor – Executive Producer
Adam Merims – Executive Producer
Buddy Patrick – Producer
Shelia Johnson – Producer
Lee Daniels – Producer
Cassian Elwes – Producer
How, then, is this considered a “black” movie? This is Hollywood’s portrayal of a black movie, which is an altogether different thing, as the creative minds and financial power behind the film are almost entirely white. So one must keep in mind that this is still how white people view blacks even in contemporary society, where it’s a continuation of a white Hollywood racist fantasia that’s been the corporate business model for well over 100 years, where leading black roles of continued submission and obedient servitude to whites are the ones more likely to be accepted by white audiences and nominated for Academy Awards.
Lee Daniels' The Butler follows the title character, Forest Whitaker's Cecil Gaines, as he serves under eight American Presidents over a period of several decades, with the setup employed primarily as a springboard for an exploration of the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s and '70s. Filmmaker Lee Daniels has infused Lee Daniels' The Butler with an unabashedly old-fashioned sensibility that's reflected in most of its attributes, which does ensure that, for a little while, the inherently compelling subject matter is exploited to maximum effect - with Whitaker's solid turn matched by an eclectic group of periphery performers (including Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr, and Terrence Howard). (And this is to say nothing of the various folks playing the Commander in Chief, with Robin Williams' Dwight D. Eisenhower and Alan Rickman's Ronald Reagan standing out as highlights.) The film's compulsively watchable vibe proves to be short lived, however, as scripter Danny Strong begins to emphasize the comparatively less-than-engrossing exploits of Cecil's rebellious son, Louis (David Oyelowo). Whitaker's character is increasingly relegated to the sidelines, as Daniels and Strong devote much of the film's midsection to the battle for equality among African Americans - with the narrative's one-track-mindedness growing more and more tedious as time progresses. (It doesn't help, either, that Strong pads out the proceedings with a number of palpably useless subplots, including the possible infidelity of Cecil's wife and other similarly pointless asides.) The ensuing lack of momentum paves the way for a second half that wavers between mildly engaging to flat-out interminable, with the heartfelt final stretch, as a result, unable to pack the emotional punch that Daniels is obviously striving for - which ultimately cements Lee Daniels' The Butler's place as a terminally underwhelming curiosity.
As presented, Lee Daniels' star-studded, multi-generational epic
of truncated American Civil Rights history, The Butler, is an easily
interpreted political argument. It's an emotionally driven documentation of the
fight against subjugation, utilizing a framing device and broad character
conflicts to make it a twee narrative rather than a ramshackle, overly sweeping
As written by Danny Strong (the scribe behind the similarly observed Recount), this effective, but woefully contrived drama takes the Forrest Gump approach to storytelling, utilizing the titular cipher — here, a slave turned butler named Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) — to observe a complex tapestry of historical events unfolding around him.
Although based loosely on the life of Eugene Allen, many liberties stretch this story from the cotton fields of Macon, Georgia in the '20s up to the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. Cecil (a slave that witnesses the murder of his father and the raping of his mother by white men) eventually learns the ways of domestic service. Sent out on his own as a coming-of-age journey, the theft of pastries pushes him into the good graces of a prestigious local butler that teaches him the craft and who eventually recommends him for roles that subsequently land him in the White House during the Eisenhower (Robin Williams) years.
Amidst the endless array of montages quickly guiding us through his trainings and acclamation to fellow staffers (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz, primarily), we also get a sense of Cecil's physical, and non-physical, absence at home, with wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and oldest son Louis (David Oyelowo).
Significant Civil Rights events fuel the exposition spewing out of the mouths of various presidents — Kennedy (James Marsden), Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Nixon (John Cusack) and Reagan (Alan Rickman) — reiterated on the news highlights that Gloria watches, reacting as emotionally and dramatically as possible in close-up (demonstrating Daniels' sycophantic tendencies).
As a work of pacing, utilizing formulas and the interspersing of informational, structurally necessary montages with quiet moments of intensity, focusing on acting and the pointed pronunciation of profound dialogue, The Butler is exceptional. As manipulative and ridiculous — every president shares a telling, character-defining moment with Cecil and Cecil alone — as it is, there is a whirlwind of inspiration and feeling projected from this story, doing as intended by reminding us just how profoundly disturbing our collective history of ignorance and discrimination really is.
As a work of art, The Butler is quite embarrassing, featuring characters that can be summarized in brief anecdotal form and conflicts that exist only to reiterate the thesis statement and some rather redundant political assertions. While the eventual deterioration of the relationship between Cecil and his son does hold some intensity on its own — the dinner scene where he brings home a classless, belching girlfriend (Yaya Alafia) is priceless — the overtly argued ideological difference is presented with ultimate condescension.
Louis (a young freedom fighter and eventual Black Panther, who engages in rallies to remove segregation in public locales and spends more time in jail than out) doesn't respect his father's decision to serve the white man. Contrarily, some African-American academics suggest that, while not exactly ideal, the role of the butler helped debunk most of the negative stereotypes whites asserted about blacks, being a reliable, hard-working, professional role, with a constant air of dignity.
It's an interesting argument that helps give this century-long bout of name-dropping ("Oh, look, it's Jane Fonda playing Nancy Reagan!") some sense of purpose beyond heavy-handed histrionics. But it's also painfully obvious and reiterated too overtly and pointedly to leave this desperate awards hopeful with a great deal of integrity by the time the make-up artists are struggling to make everyone look decades older than they are.
Of course, since we're looking at a story seeking to reach as wide an audience as possible, preaching the word of tolerance to the masses, this lack of subtlety and the absurdist convenience of it all are understandable. While most films of this nature are completely devoid of humour, Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character makes regular jokes about fornicating with a woman that defecates during orgasm. This was almost as surprising as having to admit that Oprah actually does a good job with her character.
How Daniels asserts/inserts himself into his films is crucial to the failings of…oh, let’s just call it The Butler. While Daniels purports to make a biography of Cecil Gaines, a Black Southerner who went from picking cotton in Georgia to serving as butler in the White House for seven Presidential administrations, the film primarily displays Daniels’ opportunism. Taking advantage of our strange, polarized political moment, The Butler only makes noise about race–simplifying the history that Gaines lived through from Jim Crow to 2008–implying that Gaines’s story prepared the way for the election of Barack Obama. So soon after Kushner-Spielberg’s Lincoln, another foreshortening of American history.
The Butler’s major malfunction is its inexact parallel to Obama’s own biography; Gaines’s suffering through the post-slavery experience is completely different from Obama’s story. Daniels feeds the marketable concept that Gaines’s very particular sojourn represents the entirety of Black America’s struggle for equality. He distorts Gaines’s private life into a national epic, making him an emblem rather than a character.
Everyone here, from limousine liberal parade of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave to the various Presidential caricatures (Robin Williams, James Marsden, John Cusack, Liev Schreiber, Alan Rickman), look like waxworks. From the beginning, Forest Whittaker plays the title role as a gaunt, wizened symbol of oppression and endurance–a Morgan Freeman figure of quiet dignity and rectitude. His wife (Oprah Winfrey) and two sons (David Oyewelo and Isaac White) seem like appendages rather than family. Gaines’s estrangement from his world suggests a reverse Benjamin Button aging through decades, keeping quiet during eras of social turmoil. He—and this film–most resembles Forrest Gump, that symbolic idiot savant witness to social progress he played no part in.
The Butler is unconvincingly noble–without even that streak of psychotic behavior in the ridiculous shit pie scenes of The Help. Gaines is always crotchety and proper, leaving dirty-minded resilience to Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr in scene-stealing supporting roles–they’re surrogates for Daniels the salacious auteur who’s uninterested in what propriety and self-control mean.
Instead of a freaky-deaky view of the Civil Rights Movements’ behind-the-scenes hook-ups (even Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waves quotes Martin Luther King defending masturbation as a great release), we get an Obama-ized tale of Gaines as a dogged, enigmatic paragon. Rectitude as political caution was better dramatized in Brian Helgeland’s far superior Jackie Robinson story, 42. But this film is so solemn and disingenuous it neglects its opening thesis: Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong never confess what it feels like to make a room “feel empty” (although Whitaker’s zombie performance inadvertently gives an inkling). They trade the existential torment of self-abnegation (refuted by decades of Hollywood’s servile-yet-impudent stereotypes) for the cliche of long-suffering martyrdom. (Daniels lacks the honesty and talent to show what being close to power feels like.)
A more credible film would consistently portray the advice of Gaines’s father “Don’t lose your temper with the Man. Dis his worl’; we jus’ livin’ in it.” The Butler will feel inauthentic to most Americans who painfully, cagily work menial jobs; it is designed to appease condescending elites—what politicians call “the Middle Class”–who like to sentimentalize about workers who are beneath their regard (symbolized by the ever-changing line of Presidents, lightly satirizing the indifference of patronizing whites). The Butler may feature a largely Black cast under a Black director’s baton, but it’s really a movie for whites who seek self-congratulatory lessons rather than entertainment.
Daniels’ key trope is the presumptuous montage: Lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s contrasting formal White House dinner parties–pseudo-political juxtapositions that would make Eisenstein wince. Daniels uses montage for sensationalism–not feeling or politics. The entire film exploits subtle and overt American racial violence. The first striking image poses a lynching next to the American flag. Such cheap, Spike Lee rhetoric trivializes history. The 1929 flashback to Gaines’s mother being raped and father being killed isn’t just horrible, it’s an infuriating simplification: The son’s modern attitude shows ignorance of Southern custom; pressuring his father (“Pop, what you gonna do?”) is what gets his Dad killed. When titles say “Inspired by a true story” it merely means an anachronistic fantasy of Black American history adapted from Wil Haygood’s propagandistic Washington Post article (“A Butler Well Served By This Election”) celebrating Obama’s inauguration.
This fantasy includes casting Mariah Carey as the mother defiled and made crazy by the puzzlingly pretty white plantation-owner (Alex Pettyfer) and Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’s horny, boozing then devoted wife. Only Oprah–in a role better suited to Mo’Nique–could act self-righteous about committing adultery (dismissing her “yellow ass” lover). Oprah’s not a character but a Black Womanist Figurehead which places this film far outside the artful realm of Jonathan Demme’s magnificent Beloved. The subplot of Gaines’s conflict with his politically-wayward son merely extenuates the story without delving into the father’s painful, necessary political reticence. Worse, it misrepresents what Lorraine Hansberry explicated about the Black generation gap in A Raisin in the Sun.
Daniels panders to the hip-hop attitude that Black youth know more about survival than their hard-working ancestors. The scene of Gaines driving through urban chaos in response to MLK’s assassination is as phony as the riot scenes in Dreamgirls. Pandering to history and violence lacks the political detail of Melvin and Mario Van Peebles’ Panther; this more resembles Tarantino’s unrealistic s&m circus Django Unchained. These discomforting prevarications are angled toward Obama’s “Tonight is your answer” election speech—turning historical pain into shallow, maudlin victory. Daniels’ tendency to falsify Black American experience and then exploit it is as offensive as Spielberg-Kushner’s factitious Lincoln. A more personally honest, openly licentious fantasy would be more interesting. Now that he’s played his Obama card, I’m sure Lee Daniels’ Satyricon will come next.
Richard A. Epstein Defining Ideas, a Hoover Institution Journal, August 20, 2013
Subversive Subservience: Exploring the History of Black Servitude ... Sophia Dorval from Highbrow magazine, October 31, 2013
A Butler Well Served by This Election - Washington Post Wil Haygood, source article, November 27, 2008
Is “Lee Daniels' The Butler” (Really) A “Black Movie?” | Racism Is ... Racism Is White Supremacy, August 17, 2013
Racism Still Exists, Representations of Black People in Film Racism Still Exists
Today's Hollywood And The Reinforcement of Black Subservience Anthony Samad from Between the Lines, October 3. 2013
Lee Daniels' The Butler / The Dissolve Nathan Rabin
Movie Review: The Butler -- Vulture David Edelstein
PopMatters Cynthia Fuchs
The Butler Review: Lee Daniels' Big Ol' Feel-Good Mess - Pajiba Amanda Mae Meyncke
'The Butler' Doesn't Do It - The Wire Richard Lawson
Review: 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah ... Kimber Myers from The Playlist
'The Butler' Review: Lee Daniels Goes Historical, the 'Forrest Gump ... Kate Erbland from Film School Rejects
Butler, The (2013) - Reelviews Movie Reviews James Berardinelli
Lee Daniels' The Butler Review - Hollywood Reporter Todd McCarthy
Why 'Lee Daniels' The Butler' Has 41 Producers Pamela McClintock, August 14, 2013
Lee Daniels on 'The Butler': 'I Don't Feel So Good About the Title ... Hilary Lewis from The Hollywood Reporter, August 9, 2013
John Singleton: Can a White Director Make a Great Black Movie ... John Singleton from The Hollywood Reporter, September 19, 2013
Born and raised in
TCMDB biography from Turner Classic Movies
Film Reference profile by Ross Care
Joe Dante - Issue 51, 2009 - Senses of Cinema Martyn Bamber from Senses of Cinema, March, 2003
Joe Dante: serious mischief Tom Charity from Sight and Sound, October 2010
Dante, Joe They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They
1998 from Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Best Films of 1998 article from the Reader
4. Small Soldiers.
Satire, according to George S. Kaufman, is what closes on Saturday night. But judging from the critical response to Joe Dante's high-spirited satire of watching wars and war movies, it's also what gets pilloried in the Friday papers. I've seen this pleasurable and highly visceral extravaganza twice in
This isn't the first time Dante has been misunderstood, nor, I suspect, will it be the last. (His previous picture, the 1993 Matinee, was about war fever, and critics who connected its treatment of the Cuban missile crisis with our periodic eviscerations of Baghdad were few and far between.) Though all his movies are about the ethics and ramifications of spectatorship, Dante prefers to keep a low profile within the studio system and works without a personal publicist, so you won't catch many critics treating him like an auteur. For me the satire of Small Soldiers was so powerful and persuasive that when I saw Saving Private Ryan a week later, the Spielberg film seemed like derivative, warmongering claptrap. Now that Private Ryan has been hailed as the movie to end all wars, I can only wonder whether we've chosen Spielberg as our filmmaker laureate because we implicitly understand that he's every bit as innocent about his motives as we are--meaning that we can all remain children as long as he's the grown-up in charge. "I think World War II was my favorite war," the late Phil Hartman says wistfully in Small Soldiers while showing his wife his fancy new home-viewing setup--or media arsenal. Judging from the success of Private Ryan, Spielberg has lots of company, but now that the critical obfuscation has abated, I hope that home viewers able to laugh at their own worst impulses will discover the year's best studio picture.
Masters of Horror TV show
Masters of Horror: "Homecoming" Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
For a more in-depth consideration of Dante's shrewd, on-time
political satire than I can really offer, I refer you to Mark Peranson's
insightful analysis and Dante interview in the latest Cinema Scope. While I was
impressed with "Homecoming," I suppose some of its broader strokes
left me a little ambivalent. Dante and screenwriter Sam Hamm have produced a
classic Juvenalian satire, with impossible-to-miss stand-ins for Ann Coulter,
Jerry Falwell, Larry King, and other contemporary unsavories. Despite a few
poetic touches (none quite so moving as when an earnest polling-place worker
affixes an "I Voted" sticker to the body of a fallen soldier), there
is a sense of inevitability to much of "Homecoming." As a viewer I
found myself nodding in assent but also acutely aware of the fact that its
trajectory and its political takedowns were intellectually preordained. It's as
though this film was in the zeitgeist for the taking, and it is absolutely to
Dante's credit that he brought it into being. (After Ralph Nader's comment that
the presidency of George W. Bush was "beyond satire," it's nice to
see someone prove that thesis wrong.) But Dante abandons even the thin
metaphorical register recently employed by Romero, scoring direct hits but
sacrificing the subtlety that usually characterizes great art. So although I
began and ended my viewing of "Homecoming" secure in the knowledge
that Dante's point of view is the correct one, the director has perhaps
accomplished something else here, implicitly posing a secondary set of
questions, reverberating in the shadow of the primary ones. What is art's
function in a desperate political present? When are the stakes too high to risk
speaking in the ambiguous languages of aesthetic response? What's gained, and
lost, when the gloves come off? ["Homecoming" can currently be seen
USA (142 mi) 1994
In 1946 a young New England banker, Andy Dufresne (Robbins), is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to life at the Shawshank State Prison - twice over. Quiet and introspective, he gradually strikes up a friendship with the prison 'fixer', Red (Freeman), and over the next two decades wins the trust of the governor and guards, but in his heart, he still yearns for freedom. Darabont's adaptation of a Stephen King novella is a throwback to the kind of serious, literate drama Hollywood used to make (Birdman of Alcatraz, say) though the big spiritual resolution takes some swallowing - ditto the colour-blind relationships within the prison and the violent disavowal of any homosexual implications. Against this weighs the pleasure of discovering a first-time director with evident respect for the intelligence of his audience, brave enough to let character details accumulate without recourse to the fast-forward button. Darabont plays the long game and wins: this is an engrossing, superbly acted yarn, while the Shawshank itself is a truly formidable mausoleum.
The story of The Shawshank Redemption is well known. Based on a Stephen King novella, the film was released in 1994 to a warm critical reception, but failed to turn a profit at the box office. Finding an audience through TV and video, it gradually grew to become a phenomenon, a canonised classic, and something close to a religious experience for many. The story may be well known, but the mystery remains: What is it about The Shawshank Redemption that has such a profound effect on people?
The film tells the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), an educated banker sentenced to life for the murder of his wife and her lover. In prison, Andy inspires his fellow inmates with his courage and humanity and has a profound effect on Red (Morgan Freeman), an older prisoner, who has given up hope.
Unlike many films of the Nineties, Shawshank has no "high concept" plot premise and is somewhat episodic compared with the tight, linear narratives of closer structured pictures. This sense of freedom in the storytelling allows the film to consistently throw up genuine surprises, as the viewer isn't constantly on guard for clues and plot points. In hindsight, we tend to forget how successfully writer/director Frank Darabont leads us to expect a very different resolution.
Now it is regarded as a feelgood classic, which only achieves such popularity by first visiting the darkest places imaginable. It's easy to forget how violent and depressing the story is and it's only by evoking a powerful sense of horror that Darabont's masterful screenplay earns its climactic feeling of release.
The film's inspirational power is heightened by the use of religious references and symbolism throughout. Some argue, compellingly, that it can be read as a religious parable, with Andy as a Christ figure, who sacrifices himself in order to inspire those around him, and is figuratively killed and reborn.
Part of the film's popularity is the way it warrants rewatching, as the quality of the writing means each new viewing throws up fresh details and delights. The tension, when the warden checks Andy's cell, for example, is only fully appreciated second time round. Similarly, the wonderful dialogue is best enjoyed with the leisure of already knowing the story; Andy's reply in court, for example, to the accusation that the disappearance of his gun is convenient: "Since I am innocent of this crime, sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient that the gun was never found."
The story obviously inspired the makers as much as it does the audience, as it marks a career high for most of the considerable talents involved. The cinematography by long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins is awe-inspiring. Freeman and Robbins were never more touching and restrained and Darabont's direction displays the mastery of a man making his twentieth film, rather than, as this was, his debut.
The Shawshank Redemption is perhaps the only undisputed classic of the Nineties, although it's more popular with the public than with critics, who tend to be slightly sniffy about it's feelgood magic. In this respect, it has much in common with the other classics, with which it is often compared, such as Casablanca and It's A Wonderful Life, which suggests that it will remain a favourite of the people for decades to come.
Though adapted from a Stephen King novella, "The Shawshank Redemption" has more to do with a man's internal demons than the kind that routinely rise up from overgrown graveyards. Like "Stand by Me," it's not a typical story from the horror King. Instead, it's a devoutly old-fashioned, spiritually uplifting prison drama about two lifers who must break their emotional shackles before they can finally become free men.
Set in a spooky old penitentiary with turrets and towers, the movie manages to be true to its Big House origins while incorporating such horrific mainstays as the clanking of chains and the creaking of the walls. There's even a raven that roosts in the prison library, where he is cared for by a darling old trusty (James Whitmore). For the most part, however, the movie expands upon cliches that date back to James Cagney's prison portraits—the twisted warden (Bob Gunton) and the sadistic guard (Clancy Brown).
Director Frank Darabont, who apprenticed on B-scripts ("The Fly II") and TV movies ("Buried Alive"), manages to fashion an improbable new pattern from the same old material in his remarkable debut. While he deals with the grimmest aspects of prison life (sadistic guards, gang rapes and befouled food), Darabont is chiefly interested in the 20-year friendship that sustains Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) .
The movie opens in 1947 as Andy, a prominent New England banker, is on trial for murdering his wife and her lover. Not only did he have a motive, but he had the opportunity—his footprints were found at the scene of the crime—and he had a weapon of the caliber used in the shootings. He insists that he is innocent, but the jury finds him guilty. Sentenced to life twice over, Andy is shipped to the maximum-security state prison at Shawshank, Maine. An introverted loner with an interest in reading, chess and rock carving, Andy doesn't make himself many friends until Red, a 30-year-veteran of the system, decides to take him under his wing.
Things begin to change for the better when Andy finds a way to use his skills and education to benefit his fellow felons. When he overhears the guard captain complaining about losing most of an inheritance to taxes, he offers to trade his advice for three beers for each of the men who are working with him that day tarring the roof.
His reputation as a financial adviser spreads, and soon he is doing the taxes for all the guards and running the warden's outside scams. This leads to a position in the tiny prison library, which Andy gradually expands into the best educational facility of its kind in the area. It takes him six years to do it, but Andy never gives up hope.
It is hope that allows the self-proclaimed innocent man to survive what may or may not be an unjust imprisonment. And hope is his gift to his friend Red, who no longer even tries to impress the parole board at his hearings. He's become "institutionalized," he explains to Andy, and would be a "nobody" on the outside.
Red's gift to Andy is absolution when he finally confesses his true sins. Whether or not he pulled the trigger, Andy blames himself for causing his wife's death; his redemption comes as he learns to give of himself over the course of this marvelously acted and directed film.
Robbins gives a performance that evolves with beautiful clarity from starchy banker to warm and loving friend. Freeman is sure to gain his third Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Red. He also reads the film's lovely narration, much of it drawn verbatim from King's 1982 novella.
A detailed portrait of the routine of cellblock life, "The Shawshank Redemption" might change a few minds about the usefulness of incarceration in terms of rehabilitation. Mostly, though, it reminds us of that we all hold the keys to our own prisons.
Slant Magazine review Ed Gonzalez
Movie Reviews UK review [4/5] Damian Cannon
Film Threat, Hollywood's Indie Voice dvd review [3/5] Michael Dequina
Turner Classic Movies dvd review Jay S. Steinberg, 2-disc Special Edition
James Gray, 2-disc Special Edition
John Spry, 2-disc Special Edition
DVD Town (John J. Puccio) dvd review 2-disc Special Edition
DVD MovieGuide dvd review [10th Anniversary Special Edition] Colin Jacobson
Exclaim! dvd review Monica S. Kuebler, 2-disc Special Edition
Fulvue Drive-in dvd review Nate Goss, Blu-Ray Version
Entertainment Weekly review [B-] Owen Gleiberman
Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) review [3.5/4] September 23, 1994
Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert) recommendation [Great Movies] October 17, 1999
DVDBeaver dvd review Gary W. Tooze
DVDBeaver dvd review [Blu-Ray Version] Gary W. Tooze
A good old-fashioned and highly entertaining horror movie, where one can read volumes into our society’s preparedness for such a large scale accident or disaster, namely, that despite the formation of a new Homeland Security cabinet position after 9/11, and billions of money spent in each state to update various security systems, the plain truth is that people aren’t even close to ready in the event of a real disaster. Katrina remains the best metaphor for our state of preparedness, which is a pretty pathetic picture. What this film does is break it down to a typical small town anywhere in the USA, in this case it’s Maine, writer Stephen King’s home state, where out of nowhere an event that no one can explain turns into a disaster of epic proportions. But it evolves out of an ordinary day, the night after a storm where the wind blew all the phone reception and power lines down so people flocked to the local supermarket to stock up on supplies, including a father and son, Thomas Jane (a LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE Greg Kinnear type) and Nathan Gamble, along with their next door neighbor, Andre Braugher, whose car was smashed by a falling tree. After a few courtesy hello’s, a man comes running into the store bleeding on his face screaming “There’s something out there in the mist.” Sure enough, the entire town has been engulfed by a strange and unexplained mist. People have a hard time believing the severity of their situation, even after one of the stock clerks has been ripped away from them by a giant creature, largely because most didn’t see it with their own eyes, so they’re inclined to be skeptical. When a group, led by Braugher, decides to brave the mist alone, they are set upon by giant creatures instantly, where one man’s half-eaten body is left lying in front of the store. So much for skepticism.
After a few instant fortifications of the front windows, in no time people are divided into factions, one by the level-headed dad, the only one brave enough to try to save the store clerk, and another led by the fire and brimstone spouting Marcia Gay Harden who is terrific in her role as the semi-crazed town fool who rises to the occasion fortified by her belief that the Apocalypse of Revelations is upon them, whose dire predictions of evil rooted in sin begins to resonate with a few, largely due to the rising degree of their fear. When prehistoric winged flying creatures break through the window and start flying through the store, well, to put it mildly, all hell breaks loose, and rather than stick together as a unit, one group risks their lives fending them off, while the other group cowers in fear, but claim Harden as a prophet afterwards, bolstering her position as the voice of hysteria. Although much of the action takes place stuck inside a supermarket, their dire circumstances are well demonstrated, because it’s as if someone opened Pandora’s Box and the world has been set upon by giant demons. How would anyone react under those circumstances? When it becomes clear that the fear factor is spreading as fast as the Mist itself, dad’s small group tries to come up with an escape plan, but their initial venture outside only exposes them to still greater danger than they ever imagined, and only a few get back alive, whereupon they are turned upon by the fear mongers, who have no answer except to resort to Old Testament ideas of offering human sacrifices to an angry God, as Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, as if that would quell the storm. But all it seems to do is turn this angry mob into what resembles a hateful feeding frenzy. Despite the ugliness of the winged creatures, and a few giant spiders thrown in as well, they are no less repulsive than humans turning against one another with such a bloodthirsty lynch mob mentality.
It’s interesting that one of the charms of small town life is how everyone knows everyone else, how there are few secrets, how you can keep your door unlocked at night, or even leave the keys in your car while it’s running, how there’s a palpable sense of unbroken community trust. This view that in hard times, the community will pull together and help each other out is simply shattered to bits in this film which shows instead a clawing and scratch-your-eyes- out mentality where self-preservation comes first. The idea that when faced with such hard times, extremist views prevail should open up a few eyes as to the desperate straits that exist in the rest of the world where religious extremism has already grown out of control, yet few who see this film will sympathize with others, instead they’ll take the individualist approach, like the days of the wild west when no moral order prevailed, where it was every man and woman for themselves. It appears we have come full circle by returning to that western mentality of 150 years ago – some progress we’ve made. Oh yes, but we have Ipods and cellphones to be thankful for.
With about a hundred film credits to his name, the works of Stephen King continue to fill movie theaters. But only a handful of the projects can really be considered “great,” and two of those were co-written and directed by the same person: Frank Darabont. His work on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile garnered each film an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. The Mist may not rise to such lofty heights, but Darabont proves once again that he’s got King’s number.
The film features a group of shoppers trapped inside a small town grocery store, with something from a strange mist killing anyone who ventures outside. Thomas Jane plays the typical King hero as movie poster artist David Drayton. Marcia Gay Harden plays the villain in the guise of the town’s local religious-extremist-wacko Mrs. Carmody, who uses the fear of the unknown to build what David calls her “congregation.”
Darabont employs a bevy of terrific effects to bring flying pterodactyl-like creatures, giant, lethal insects and very creepy acid-web shooting spiders to life. But he also relies on man’s humanity, or lack thereof, which always makes King’s stories shine above the typical horror fare. When it comes time for David and some others to make a run for it, they do so more out of fear of their fellow man rather than the creatures outside.
Harden does a fine job of keeping her potentially hysterical character reined in. The journey of her “becoming” as the store’s savior is a wonder to watch. And Toby Jones (Truman in the “other” Capote movie Infamous) is excellent as the surprisingly courageous grocery clerk. But it’s the story of the store’s inhabitants as a whole versus the mist’s unearthly realm that creates a tense and visually exciting standoff, eventually leading to an ending that King never wrote. Darabont’s skills go beyond interpretation, as he creates a work not just fit for a King, but fit for the screen.
Frank Darabont’s adaptations of Stephen King’s writings are not just some of the best mountings of the writer’s work but some of the best films, period, of recent years: The Shawshank Redemption, anyone? The Green Mile? So I don’t think it’s too outrageous -- or too surprising -- to say that The Mist, which Darabont wrote and directed from a King novella, is not only one of the best movies of 2007, it’s one of the best horror movies ever made. Period.
Look: B movies went A a long time ago, even before
the real world turned into its own kind of science fiction nightmare of drowned
cities and kamikaze terrorists, and so isn’t civil disaster the perfect
springboard for exploring the most sinister aspects of humanity? Because, oh
yes, there are creatures here with teeth of both the metaphoric and literal
kind, but they’re just animals doing what animals do. The monsters of The
Mist are the people, and how we give in to fear and give up on hope at the
very moments when we don’t need the one and desperately need the other. This is
horror of a philosophical, humanistic bent, examining the nightmares of
politics and religion on the small scale upon which they act upon individuals,
as well as our propensity to dispense with reason at the drop of a hat... or a
tentacle. For all its fantastical elements, this is as grounded and as
immediate and as real as movies get. This is “horror” the way that Rod Serling
told it -- think the creepy societal breakdown of “The Monsters Are Due on
The civil disaster is an ordinary one: a gusty storm knocks down trees and brings down power lines in one of those outwardly charming, secretly insidious Stephen King small towns. But did it also knock out the power at the local army base, wherein, it is rumored, is housed the remains of a crashed flying saucer and dead alien bodies? This is the stuff of the polite, time-passing chatter strained neighbors David Drayton (Thomas Jane: The Punisher, Stander) and Brent Norton (Andre Braugher: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Poseidon) engage in as they drive, with David’s young son, Billy (Nathan Gamble), into town to pick up supplies to board up windows, and groceries before the shelves are picked clean. They’re all in the supermarket when a thick mist descends, obscuring the view out the plate-glass windows beyond a few feet. And then a bloodied man runs into the store, screaming about monsters in the strange fog...
It’s quiet inside the store for a while, the couple of dozen people trapped by their uncertainty over what’s happening but not yet giving in to panic. That begins to happen soon enough, however, when no rescue comes and, well, other, more deadly things begin to occur. It’s all smartly, brilliantly, paced, not just the more traditional aspects of what you’d expect from a horror movie -- those things with the tentacles in the mist are vicious buggers -- but the collapse of the civilization as represented by the little supermarket society. Tribes start to form along sharply drawn lines, drifting toward either David and his calm logic or Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden: Into the Wild, The Dead Girl), a vocal proponent of hellfire-and-brimstone Biblical literalism, and her preaching about how this is the promised Armageddon, and boy, is God pissed with us or what? (She’s the most terrifying thing about the movie, no question.)
There’s an almost orgasmic rise and fall to The Mist in how it scares the hell out of you via the monsters of both the human and the creature varieties, lets you relax with a tension-relieving laugh or two -- though the film never indulges in a snarky joke that would break the satisfyingly grim mood -- and then starts on you all over again. And if the movie worked purely as that kind of intellectual roller coaster ride and nothing else, that would have been more than enough. But it also offers finely drawn portraits of the kind of positive strength movies of this ilk -- or any ilk -- rarely see, of a real-masculinity not about bombast or machismo but built up of courage in the face of one’s own fear and a refusal to descend into easy animality... and not just in the obvious hero character of David but also in, say, the apparently meek supermarket manager played by the ever-essential Toby Jones (The Painted Veil, Infamous). Hell, even the woman customer played by Laurie Holden (Fantastic Four, The Majestic), who teams up with David, is strong and capable and genuine -- so let’s call it not just real-masculinity but real-humanity.
It’s impossible to guess quite what’s going on or quite how Darabont -- who took some liberties with King’s material -- can possibly resolve his story in a way that will completely gratify. But he does. How it ends... well, I couldn’t move from my seat, I was that blown away by the power of it. It’s absolutely right, exactly the kind of uncompromising kicker it needs to be to ensure that The Mist haunts you for a good long while with its shocking reminder of how we can be our own worst enemies in all ways imaginable.
Book or story to screen adaptations of Stephen King’s work cluster around the mediocre ("1408", "Pet Cemetery," "Firestarter") or the truly wretched ("Night Flyer," "Night Shift", "Maximum Overdrive"). Of the few adaptations that stand on their own, most were made from King’s early novels ("Carrie," "Salem’s Lot," "The Shining") or novellas ("The Shawshank Redemption," "Stand by Me") with the occasional exception ("Dolores Clairborne," "Misery") drawn from his realistic novels. Writer/director Frank Darabont has adapted two of King’s work, "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile," and after a long hiatus, is back with a third, an adaptation of King’s 1980 apocalyptic survival/horror novella, "The Mist."
Darabont sticks closely to
King’s novella, centering The Mist on David Drayton (Thomas Jane), an artist
who lives and works from a lakeside home in
But then the mist rolls in. One man, Dan Miller (Jeffrey DeMunn), appears out of the mist, bloodied, and bruised and with a story to tell: something non-human came out of the mist and took his friend. The other townspeople disbelieve him at first, but decide to stay put. The screams of a man dying in the mist suggest that
The struggle between rationality and fear and between religious zealotry and fire forms the backbone both of King’s novella and Darabont’s adaptation. Human conflict, the breakdown of the social order, personalities crushed under extreme duress are also elements found in most stories involving apocalyptic horror, of which there’s no better example than George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Despite a larger cast of characters in The Mist, the conflicts are practically the same, the dilemmas almost identical: what to do when information is severely limited and the risks are high, usually filtered down to a simple, if extremely hazardous choice between staying or going.
In all that, The Mist is a fine example of the sub-genre. The increasing desperation of the characters, the turn to religious comfort, and eventually, the turn to violence as the answer are emphasized in a way few directors working in the horror genre would, since they’d risk heavy criticism for such a choice. Backed by Dimension Films (a.k.a. the Weinstein Brothers), Darabont was given wide latitude in adapting King’s novella. To his credit, Darabont includes all the major characters and, just as importantly, all of the major plot points, including the attacks by the monsters, each one more intense than the last. Up until the last ten or fifteen minutes, The Mist is truer to King’s work than any other adaptation of his work.
Darabont, however, strays from The Mist original ending or, to be accurate, continues the story past where King left his readers. King opted for an ambiguous ending, one that gave the survivors, at best, a temporary victory. Frustrating or refusing narrative closure, The Mist allowed readers to make up their own ending, hopeful or bleak. Darabont’s ending provides far more closure and offers, at least on one level, a more optimistic ending, but another, more personal (meaning the characters we’ve followed for two hours), it’s anything but. It’s bleakly ironic and probably the most daring ending to a mainstream film this year.
If "The Mist" doesn’t falter by tacking on a “false” or illogical ending (it doesn’t), it’s far from perfect. At almost two hours, "The Mist" is too long and repetitive, especially where the bible thumping, Revelation-quoting Mrs. Carmody is concerned. The visual effects are also a bit dodgy, due no doubt to budget constraints. To be fair, most of the visual effects, especially those obscured by the mist are more than serviceable. It’s in the cold light of day or in a well-lit interior that the visual effects look unfinished or unpolished. Luckily, that only happens twice, once during the loading dock scene and later on during an attack on the supermarket. Still, those are minor, easily forgivable problems in comparison to Darabont’s achievement: an adaptation of a Stephen King work that’s faithful to the source material while managing to stand on its own.
Fangoria.com Don Kaye
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune Colin Covert
here David Harley from Bloody Disgusting
Screen International John Hazelton
The Video Graveyard Chris Hartley
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne -- Britannica Online Encyclopedia Kathleen Kuiper
In 2005, with their film L’Enfant, the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne for the second time in six years won the Festival’s Palme d’Or for best film. Only Emir Kusturica and Imamura Shohei had previously won twice. Two other pairs of brothers—Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, in 1977, and Ethan and Joel Coen, in 1991—had earned a Palme d’Or.
Like Rosetta (1999), the Dardennes’ first Palme d’Or winner, L’Enfant
explored life in an impoverished, gritty, industrial region in French-speaking
Jean-Pierre Dardenne was born on
Three years separate the
brothers. Jean-Pierre born in 1951 and Luc in 1954, they grew up in the
industrial town of
In 1975 the Dardennes set up
Dérives, a production company that became the outlet for the sixty or so
documentaries they have made together.
These works cover diverse historical events including anti-Nazi
resistance groups, Polish immigration, underground newspapers, and the 1960
general labor strike in
In each of their pictures they start from the same, simple question: what does it really mean to be human today? They succeed in answering this through precision, discipline, and the very way they use the camera and carefully construct their scenes. They take single characters or a family relationship and concentrate entirely on these. Their films have little dialog, no music (“It blinds you to the image”), and the most spare of narratives (they refuse to draw any “dramatic line that would stifle [the] life” of their protagonists). Simplicity is an essential component. The Dardennes concentrate our emotions, which in turn allows us time to reflect on a single predicament or event. Also, we are given the space to sense the very rhythm of the film, we feel and follow the movements of the bodies, are conscious of surrounding traffic noises, and notice the little habits and accessories that define the characters.
The Dardennes tend to reuse their actors (Gourmet, Renier) and nearly always cast nonprofessionals. In these four films they gave Gourmet and Renier their first major parts, and Dequenne, Marinne, and Déborah François (Sonia in L’ENFANT) their first acting roles. Their technical team, as well as their settings, has remained mostly the same for each picture, too – Marie-Hélène Dozo (editor), Denis Freyd (producer and screenwriter), and Alan Marcoen (director of photography). The small group and budget, along with the single location and selection of actors, is a very conscious choice, a filmmaking ethic, almost, as it is the product of the brothers’ relationship with cinema and what they aspire to achieve.
In light of their subject matter
and this approach, it isn’t surprising that the brothers are often described as
political and socially conscious filmmakers.
They focus on the marginalized or déclassé in society – black market
employers, immigrants, the unemployed, young offenders, and teenage parents,
all shot in the postindustrial landscape of eastern Belgium. There are recurring concerns, in particular,
the transmission of skills and lessons, especially focusing on the journey to
adulthood, the role of parents for future generations, and the continued
importance of employment for status and a sense of self in contemporary
society. ROSETTA had such an impact that
it even spurred a new law, passed in
However, it is not so much their subject matter that makes the Dardenne brothers’ work political, but more the way their films explore certain emotions or situations and the humanist vision that subsequently emerges. What the Dardennes represent is the way cinema can be political today, their real originality coming from their refusal to be cynical and struggle against what they call the loss of confidence in man. This can’t be achieved by making characters mouthpieces for particular ideas or representative of predicaments and struggles. This appeal to class consciousness is an old strategy and it is the lack of such an appeal in the Dardenne’s work that makes them so interesting today.
If the brothers have concentrated on a similar selection of characters so far it’s because theirs are the experiences they know about. The same setting of Seraing in Belgium is also chosen because of its familiarity and, as Gatti taught them, it is best to start with this when dealing with fiction, if you’re to go on and say anything true. Of course, some aspects of the film industry and the media, as we have seen, do rile the brothers. That the déclassé are such a blind spot, cinematically and socially, is particularly disturbing for them. Either they are ignored or given charity, yet both, they argue, annihilates them as active subjects capable of shaping their own futures. Echoing the criticisms of the late French critic Serge Daney, the Dardennes are scathing about what they see as the estheticization of poverty of famine on screen – the manipulative pictures of starving children put to pop songs for example, does little more than nourish a vision of a powerless victim. “Filming the body of someone starving is, for the media, the same as filming a mute body,” so “filming a human being...who refuses to be reduced to the symbol of suffering, who refuses that pity be felt towards him, filming this human being has become an act of cinematographic resistance against the contempt of a man who holds onto the morbid pity contained in these images, derived from a victim-centred aesthetic.” What is so remarkable and quite unprecedented about the brothers’ work so far is they have achieved this cinematographic resistance, depicting characters without transforming them from subjects into victims. Dignified is perhaps the most fitting word to describe their cinema, as we are able to grasp the reasons for the character’s actions.
Soldiers' Stories - Movies - Village Voice - Village Voice Leslie Camhi from The Village Voice, November 2, 1999
Dans l’Obscurite Doug Cummings from Filmjourney, July 22, 2007
Time Out review Geoff Andrew
An impressively tough, raw realist drama, set in and around the drabber areas of Liège, in which a 15-year-old comes into conflict with his single parent father after a tragedy forces the boy to confront the moral implications of the pair's exploitative business in smuggling and housing illegal immigrants. Having made a promise to a dying African that he'll look after his wife and kid, young Igor is torn between filial duty and growing affection for his impoverished 'charges', between fear of his dad's bouts of drunken violence and his desire to keep his word. The performances are superb, the interplay between father and son extraordinarily well observed, and the whole thing at once wholly unsentimental and deeply moving.
The subject is the birth of a conscience, the film was written and directed
by two brothers from
Instead of reporting the death, Roger enlists his son's help in burying him on the site - covering him with cement. He then lies to the wife, Assita (Assita Ouedraogo), saying that her husband fled because of gambling debts, and then uses an elaborate ruse to get her to go with him to Germany, where he plans to sell her as a prostitute. Igor, faithful to his promise, decides to help her, at great personal cost to himself.
La Promesse is quite vigorous and immediate in its editing and direction. The Dardennes have achieved a small miracle with their mostly non-professional cast. The young Renier has a special honesty and naturalness. We can see the painful growth of a moral sense in the boy. The drama of the immigrants, the social observation, the sense of corruption as an everyday reality, is seen from the inside, not preached at from the outside. The modesty and directness of the technique make the story all the more compelling. Although the film is sad, there is hopefulness - there is even a kind of faith in this film, the faith that promises do mean something and that the simple actions of this young man can make a difference.
In short, I can't think of a recent English-language film as immediately and powerfully concerned with filial confusion and anguish as is La Promesse, by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. There's no mystery in their heartbreaking tale, no "did he or didn't he?" -- young Igor (Jérémie Renier) watches, dumbfounded, from inches away, as his father (Olivier Gourmet) removes the impromptu tourniquet that Igor had fashioned from his belt. Later that night, at dad's insistence, he helps to bury the poor fellow. Has it ever before occurred to him to question his father's decisions, behavior, or authority? The film's early scenes, which deftly and succinctly establish the pair's ruthless, amoral trade, suggest that it hasn't; but judging by the expression on his towheaded face as he watches pop shovel cement upon the corpse of the man he'd hoped to save, those aren't exactly visions of sugar plums dancing in his head. What prevents him from acting immediately is not uncertainty or self-delusion, but love and inertia. (Irrelevant aside: if I ever form a speed-metal band, which is about as likely as Thomas Pynchon writing CD liner notes [what's that you say?], it will be called Inertia.)
But act he does. Like last year's otherwise utterly dissimilar Jerry Maguire, La Promesse depicts the aftermath of a noble, selfless gesture made by someone unaccustomed to bestowing such largesse; in this case, however, the stakes are a great deal higher, and there's nothing remotely funny or charming or romantic about the subsequent ordeal. In a development so downbeat and feel-bad that the mere suggestion of it would have development flacks cowering in abject terror beneath their mahogany desks, the beneficiary of Igor's compassion, Burkina Faso expat Assita (Assita Ouédraogo), is so bewildered and terrified by her circumstances that she turns on her protector, accusing him of trying to kill her baby. The stark narrative culminates in one of the most harrowing familial confrontations imaginable -- all the more remarkable because for once there isn't a handgun in sight. The Dardennes create tension the old-fashioned way: not with rote equations like train + helicopter + plastic explosives = BOOM!, but with volatile human emotions and contrary wills.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first film made by the brothers
Dardenne to be shown in the
Since I began writing this review, I've seen La Promesse a second
time. As a general rule, I try to see my favorite movies at least twice, but I
usually wait until they hit the bargain houses (or until I can sidle in from an
adjacent auditorium) before returning. In this case, however, I shelled out the
full $8 -- in part because I was eager to relive the experience, but also
because it had been more than seven months since I'd seen it the first time,
and I thought that I might well have forgotten significant details that I could
incorporate into, say, this very paragraph. (My memory for plot minutiae is
notoriously bad, and I've even been known to blank on entire films. For
example, I had completely forgotten, until I stumbled onto the title about an
hour and a half ago in my master film list, that I'd seen Nicholas Ray's Flying
Leathernecks, and had to look it up in Maltin before I could even vaguely
recall what the hell it was about (flying leathernecks, as it happens).
Understandable, though, since I saw it a small lifetime ago:
As it turned out, however, the refresher course was unnecessary: on the second go-round, I experienced La Promesse less as "that movie I saw last autumn" than as "that thing that happened to some folks I knew last year." This sensation was so disorienting, on the few occasions that I became conscious of it, that I fought against it, by attempting to envision the world beyond the frame as a set -- imagining, for instance, the boom operator standing a few feet to Igor or Roger's left, holding the microphone just above their heads, wondering how much longer it would be before somebody called lunch, trying hard not to cough. It didn't work. The illusion was too strong, the verisimilitude too great. I'm not entirely sure what that betokens, as I don't necessarily believe that filmmakers should strive for realism -- many, if not most, of my favorite films feature ostentatious artifice -- but there's no question that it grabbed me as I've seldom been grabbed by a movie this plain. If nothing else, it's the cheapest special effect I've ever encountered, and somebody ought to run and tell James Cameron, pronto.
“ONE THING IS CERTAIN: small budget and simplicity everywhere.” When Luc Dardenne articulated these twin principles—curiously, as though they were one—in his diary in 1992, did he have any idea they would guide him and his brother, Jean-Pierre, so surely into the upper realms of cinematic achievement? Several Cannes victories later, the Belgian duo—the subject of a mini-retrospective that begins at New York’s Anthology Film Archives on Thursday—are responsible for some of the screen’s most disarmingly resonant portraits of modern Europe. And they haven’t availed themselves of much more than a handheld camera, a pocketful of virtually unknown actors, and a single Belgian town.
The skies over
In La Promesse (1996), a teenager struggles to help an African immigrant whose husband has died in an accident; in Rosetta (1999), a girl tries to hold a steady job and keep her mother from sinking into complete dissolution. A carpenter mentors the boy who killed his son in The Son (2002), and The Child (2005) tracks the wanderings of a young hoodlum who sells his baby.
The critic J. Hoberman has described the cinema of the Dardennes as “spiritually infused social realism.” The brothers, who started out making documentaries, have a detective’s eye for authenticity. Look closely, and you’ll notice that Olivier Gourmet’s woodshop instructor in The Son has a blood blister on his left thumb. Their movies look raw and modern, but there’s a classical rigor at work in them: The Dardennes film scenes at different paces before deciding which feels right, and if they don’t detect the “life force” in a scene, Jean-Pierre has said, they reshoot it—often in another location.
The ghost of Rossellini lives in their frames—also, Bresson. The actors in these films don’t seem like they’re acting, and the dialogue is minimal. The Dardennes are known for honing body language more than delivery. And while they like to foreground the human face—especially in tight, over-the-shoulder close-ups—they have pretty much staked their career on the assumption that the camera can’t get into someone’s head. In Luc’s words: “We film what we can see. This starts you thinking.”
Thinking about economic injustice, among other things. The
Dardennes deliver memorable images of life on the brink—as when Rosetta,
wrestling with her alcoholic mother near their trailer, falls into a muddy
sinkhole. She flounders, cries out, then drags herself out of the slime alone,
gasping desperately. You can almost hear the filmmakers crying out: How can a
civilized country tolerate anything so abject?
Tragic conditions like these, the films posit, breed almost unfathomable apathy. When his girlfriend confronts him about selling their child, Bruno says: “We’ll make another one.” But even if he isn’t aware of it, his panting and scheming are leading him toward a redemption of sorts. On the one hand, the abrupt, ambiguous conclusions of the Dardennes’ films are a snub to the Frank Capra ending. Marginal types in particular, these endings say, move their lives ahead on their own—certainly the watchful eye of a couple of high-minded filmmakers doesn’t budge them. Maybe some divine force does? Beautifully, the lingering threat of violence that pervades The Son is most vividly expressed on a plank of plywood, by a red stain that almost seems to have appeared there by accident.
Ultimately, the Dardenne brothers’ films are not about their austerity—a default aesthetic, after all, for many a penniless filmmaker—but their richness. Simplicity can be a complicated proposition. Even, potentially, a heroic one.
Long Pauses Darren Hughes
Lucid Screening Andrew
Strictly Film School review Acquarello
The Globe and Mail review [3/4] Liam Lacey
The Boston Phoenix review Peter Keough
DVDBeaver dvd review Gary W. Tooze
ROSETTA (played by Émilie Dequenne), even more simply, is a young woman’s fight to “stay standing.” She is determined to find employment and not “fall in the hole,” not disappear from society and be engulfed by her own humiliated situation: living in a caravan park with her alcoholic mother. “Rosetta moves, moves, moves,” she is “in a state of war,” and the camera follows her every step...The moment she starts to move we follow and try to make sense of her actions but at the end we’re thrown back in our seats, forced to deal with the journey we have just witnessed.
From the opening seconds, this feature from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre
and Luc Dardenne, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival,
was surely the most visceral filmgoing experience of that year, including all
You feel ROSETTA in your nervous system before you get a chance to
reflect on its meaning, almost as if the Dardenne brothers were intent on
converting an immediate experience of the contemporary world into a breathless
theme-park ride. It makes just about
every other form of movie “realism” look like trivial escapism. The film is certainly not devoid of
psychological nuance either, and it had such an impact in
Time Out review Geoff Andrew
A deserving Palme d'Or winner at Cannes '99, Rosetta is in the same, grim realist mould as the Dardennes' earlier La Promesse; it, too, offers a glimmer of hope through the prospect of friendship. Teenage Rosetta (Dequenne) has it tough: living in a trailer park with her promiscuous, alcoholic mother, she tries to hang on to whatever mundane jobs she can get, but for all her determination and hard work, bad luck and her surly, volatile disposition repeatedly tell against her. Is life really worth living? Using very little dialogue and long, hand-held tracking shots (the relentlessly restless visuals perfectly reflect Rosetta's unsettled life, the secret to which is provided only halfway through the movie - and even then, subtly), the Dardennes never sentimentalise their heroine but respect the mysteries of her soul; the result is a film almost Bressonian in its rigour and power to touch the heart.
Brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne co-write and co-direct this bleak and unredeeming tale of an embittered trailer-park teen and her cutthroat climb to the top of the Belgian waffle-cart ladder. It's every bit as fascinating as it sounds -- and in French, oui! -- which means some people will insist it's a cosmopolitan and artistic exploration of wage-earning, homelessness, alcoholism and desperation. A dearth of dialogue means non-French speaking audiences won't be encumbered by lengthy subtitles, affording plenty of time to focus on the off-road antics of the Dardennes' hand-held camera, and increasingly pointless point-of-view horseplay as Rosetta attacks absolutely every human being who crosses her path. If it wasn't so literally hard to watch, it might be funnyÉfrom a sort of insensitive, bourgeois perspective. Rosetta will not deepen your compassion for humanity, but it reveals the violent and melancholy underworld of the sidewalk-waffle industry in a way that only a French film can.
The camera is at eye level for Rosetta. In the tumultuous opening, it hurtles down a staircase behind the teen-age title character (Emilie Dequenne) as she tries to elude the factory boss who has just fired her. It swerves left then right as she pulls on locked doors in a vain attempt to evade the plant's security. It's sickeningly in the thick of things as she claws at her pursuers and shrieks that it's unfair, she's a good worker, she doesn't deserve to be let go. Throughout this terse, entertaining parable (it won the grand prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival), the Belgian-born writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (La Promesse, 1996) immerse you in the sensations of Rosetta's life: her daily, roundabout slog through the woods to reach the trailer park where she lives with her alcoholic mother (she's too ashamed to go through the front entrance); her frustrating treks to find employment, however menial; and, most of all, her countless rages at a society that refuses to grant her a "normal" (her word) existence.
By confining the movie's perspective to Rosetta and her rituals, the Dardennes suggest the ways in which people lose the big picture and so have no insight into their own corruption. All they know is what they need--and what will happen if someone else beats them out. In Dequenne, the filmmakers have found a somewhat lumpen girl with just a trace of prettiness, especially when she opens her eyes and lets the world see in. She mostly doesn't, though, which is the point. She tromps around dull-eyed in a gray skirt and thick, mustard-colored stockings--a sullen bottom-feeder. When a generous friend, Riquet (Fabrizio Rongione)--the only one she has ever had, the film implies--falls into quicksand and screams for help, you can see Rosetta's thought processes: If he dies, his job will open up, she'll get it, and she'll be "normal."
As in the La Promesse, the point is to show how capitalism is fundamentally at odds with human decency. People are good, but they're driven to victimize others by the fear that what they have will be taken away. At best, they turn into machines; at worst (most of the bosses), they become casual exploiters. You can't land a job without being raked by the angry gaze of the person you've unfairly replaced, and once you have it there are no guarantees that tomorrow you won't be raking someone else with your own angry gaze. Change the way things work and you will change mankind, is the implicit message--although it's crucial to add that there are no explicit messages, no Brechtian/Marxist exhortations. Both Rosetta and La Promesse end at the point when their protagonist's consciousness begins. The next step is anyone's guess.
I fear I've made Rosetta sound programmatic. Well, it is, but the thing you come away with isn't the program but the rhythm and texture of a young, working-class woman's life. The Dardennes are peerless at staging and shooting rituals, such as Rosetta's day selling waffles and beer from a truck: taking an order, plucking a waffle from the iron, grabbing a beer from the shelf, counting money, making change, saying thank you, taking another order … It's easy to dismiss films that make grandiose statements about how people ought to live but never convincingly portray how they do. The utterly believable capitalist ecosystems of the Dardennes are harder to shake off.
JonathanRosenbaum.com » Blog Archive » True Grit [ROSETTA] January 14, 2000, also seen here: Rosetta | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader (capsule)
Senses of Cinema (Rhys Graham) review Why Bodies Collide, March 2001
Sight and Sound review Lizzie Francke
Bright Lights Film Journal review Five Rampaging Women, October 2001
Reverse Shot review Knock On Any d'Or: Looking Back at Ten Years of Cannes Winners, by Adam Nayman at indieWIRE
Strictly Film School review Acquarello
The Globe and Mail review [3.5/4] Liam Lacey
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Paula Nechak
DVDBeaver dvd review Gary W. Tooze
Time Out review Geoff Andrew
Olivier (Gourmet) is a good teacher of carpentry, but a touch gruff; even so, when he refuses to accept young Francis into his workshop, that doesn't explain why he takes to following the boy, as if he were spying on him. Might it have something to do with his own dead son, as his estranged wife insists? One strength of the Dardennes' follow-up to Rosetta, winner of the Cannes Palme d'Or, is that, once again, they ask us to discover certain crucial facts for ourselves: by the time we're faced with questions of ethical and spiritual import, we've done enough groundwork to assess the evidence properly. Wisely, the camera stays close to Gourmet, with the result that, notwithstanding his subtle understatement and a relatively taciturn script, we're privy to his every fleeting thought and nagging emotion. Never manipulative or sensationalist, the film is none the less deeply moving.
The Son Michael Sicinski from the Academic Hack
It is interesting how many critics have praised this film by saying, in essence, that there is nothing to say, that it is almost too perfect for words. The dumbstruck wonder so many seem to be experiencing before The Son could be likened to the non-linguistic reactions that viewers often have to experimental films. Like a structural film, The Son deploys a closed-off style which determines what can and cannot happen within the film’s universe. At a certain point, its narrative trajectory becomes clear, and the tension becomes not how the narrative will be resolved, but how its necessary resolution will be depicted. Although The Son is significantly different than Time Out and Spider, these films share a sense of absolute completion and self-sufficiency, which for me provoked more intellectual admiration than emotional engagement. Still, the film is a major work of art. Olivier Gourmet and Morgan Mariane deliver exquisite, naturalistic performances. And, as was the case with Pasolini, the Dardenne brothers’ Marxism allows them to create a clear-eyed Christian film, one with both feet planted in the everyday world. [A second viewing cleared up many of my reservations. The moral confusion, the near instinctual propulsive drive of Olivier was more palpable, as were the jarring flare-ups of anger. Olivier does not forgive and then act upon this forgiveness. Rather, his impulse to teach and reshape the boy is a physical one, like righting a badly mitered joint. Depth comes later, and surprises Olivier, Francis, and us.]
The latest film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
is not without allegorical implications. Cannes Best Actor winner and Dardenne
mascot Olivier Gourmet stars as a bereft carpenter who develops a sudden
fascination for his young apprentice. As mirror reflection of Gourmet's inner
turmoil, the Dardennes' camerawork isn't as assaultive as it was in Rosetta,
but it's equally demanding. Their camera contributes to the film's near cosmic
state of grace. The nature of the film's relationships are revealed without
fanfare, and as such part of the film's mystique is learning that Magali
(Isabella Soupart) is not some pregnant stranger but Olivier's estranged wife.
Forty minutes in, the Dardennes offer a context for Olivier's strange
attraction to the young Francis (Morgan Marinne): Some five years earlier, the
teenager strangled Olivier's son while attempting to steal a radio from the
carpenter's car. The Son or, more accurately, How Joseph Learned to
Stop Worrying and Love Judas Iscariot, has been seemingly pieced together
from similar confessions. As allegory, The Son is a testament to
Christian forgiveness. While far from heavy-handed, the film's metaphors are
still unavoidable: Magdali-as-Magdalene, her Wednesday declaration (Lent
anyone?), and the many panels of wood Oliver is forced to carry (like Jesus, on
his way to
More than any other contemporary filmmakers, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne understand the ways in which work gives tenor and meaning to people's lives, and how the mundane routines of everyday life set the limits of their world. In their last film, 2000's Palme D'Or-winning Rosetta, these routines form the distinct shape of a cage, with the title heroine clawing ferociously to survive in a city with dire unemployment rates. Former documentarians, the Dardennes followed her around with a handheld camera pinned to her back, getting about as close to her visceral experiences as possible without burrowing into her skull. If anything, this intense first-person technique is employed even more rigorously for The Son, a searing Christian allegory about sin, redemption, forgiveness, and, not least of all, carpentry. After the silent, white-on-black credits, the Dardennes rudely plop the audience into the organized chaos of Olivier Gourmet's workshop, as his juvenile apprentices work up a racket with hammers, buzzsaws, and welding torches. A lesson in how to bury exposition, the film proceeds for a full 30 minutes before the dramatic core of the story spills out in casual conversation; until then, it simply lays out Gourmet's daily life and offers something close to a crash course in his trade. Gourmet's insistence on precision and order gives him a quiet command over his young charges, who come to him as part of a reform program designed to usher them from delinquency to responsible adulthood. But his stable life is upended when a sullen new applicant (Morgan Marinne) turns out to be the boy who murdered his only son five years earlier, a tragedy that ended Gourmet's marriage. Though the Dardennes' style sometimes limits his expression to his ears, neck, and shoulder blades, Gourmet's tormented, internalized performance sets the film on edge: Not only does the audience not know what he's going to do, but he doesn't seem to know, either. From the moment he recognizes Marinne, Gourmet's interaction with the boy takes on an agonizing intensity, yet he's bound up by conflicting impulses, with anger and bloodlust mingling alongside curiosity, compassion, and an unexpectedly tender fatherly connection. The Dardennes sustain that tension through a masterful closing drive that resembles the final third of In The Bedroom, only without the same dreadful inevitability. In the process, they also offer a few helpful lessons on back support, proper beam storage, and distinguishing one type of wood grain from another.
Los Angeles Times review Manohla Dargis
There are few filmmakers today for whom moviemaking is as deeply
moral an enterprise as it is for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In the brothers'
powerful new film, "The Son," a man trembles at the threshold of
vengeance, confronted by a boy who has done him immeasurable wrong. Forgiveness
is the sort of thing that can sound the death knell for a movie, but in
"The Son" absolution isn't grist for a sermon or anything so blandly
reassuring -- it is instead the stuff of ordinary life.
The story opens in the barren Belgian city of
Francis doesn't know what Olivier knows, and the great, almost
unbearable tension in the film comes from the gap in their respective awareness
of each other. Recently released from a juvenile prison, Francis lives alone in
an apartment outfitted with not much more than a radio, a bed and his
prescription medicine. (He has chronic insomnia.) Sullen and watchful, with
blunt features arranged like a wall against the world, the teenager has learned
little from jail save for defensiveness. As far as Francis is concerned, as he
explains to Olivier in one of the film's more wrenching exchanges, he's paid
his debt to society and has a right to a normal life. He wants to learn
carpentry from his standoffish teacher, but, as it becomes painfully clear,
Francis is also searching for love.
It doesn't take Olivier long to realize what Francis wants from him; it takes almost the entirety of the story for us to understand what the man will give. At the center where he teaches, the carpenter pushes the boy away even as Francis tries to sneak under his wing. Olivier forces the boy to carry beams that are too heavy for him, yet he also patiently shows Francis how to build a toolbox. He's at once gruffly paternal with the teenager and scarily hostile, caught between curiosity and contempt. (Gourmet won best actor at
Best known for their modest art-house successes "La Promesse" and "Rosetta," the Dardennes began making nonfiction films in the 1970s as a form of political action. From documentaries about strikes and factories, they moved into fiction and, after making two features that slipped into the ether, found international acclaim with stories about people desperately clinging to a place in the world. (The fiction films retain a gritty documentary texture.) Like the immigrant African workers of "La Promesse" trying to find a foothold in
The Dardennes have said that "The Son" could have been called "The Father," an observation that reinforces the film's religious undertones. It's possible to see the film as a Christian allegory, but there's something too limiting about that take and not only because the filmmakers are Jewish. The themes of vengeance and forgiveness aren't the provenance of any one faith, after all, and there's as much leftist politics in their worldview as there is the documentarian's pursuit of realism and a first-rate
Sight and Sound review Richard Kelly
indieWIRE review David Sterritt and Mikita Brottman
Reverse Shot review #4 Film of the Year, by Erik Syngle and Jeff Reichert
culturevulture.net, Choices for the Cognoscenti review Arthur Lazere
Kamera.co.uk review Antonio Pasolini
Looking Closer (Jeffrey Overstreet) review [A+] from a religious perspective
Movie Martyr (Jeremy Heilman) review [1/4] from an infuriorated cinephile
New York Observer (Andrew Sarris) review increasingly esoteric, if not pretentious
Film Freak Central review Walter Chaw
Plume Noire review Moland Fengkovm
Twitch Jason Morehead
Strictly Film School review Acquarello
We understand why critics have seen similarities (with Bresson’s PICKPOCKET), especially because of the endings, since in both films the boy is in jail and the girlfriend comes to visit him. The famous sentence that the boy says at the end of PICKPOCKET is, “Jeanne, what a strange path I had to take to meet you.” It’s true that Bruno has also gone on a long and strange path to be able to encounter, to be able to meet and accept, the woman and accept his son, accept fatherhood. So there is a similarity, but I think that the terms are very different. The narrative construction is very different. We’re talking about very different things, and our manner of editing isn’t at all Bressonian.
At the same time, there’s a similarity with Bresson in the link to Dostoevsky, to Crime and Punishment. I think that perhaps out choice of the name Sonia for the girl is unconscious, because it’s Sonia who at the end of Crime and Punishment goes to Raskolnikov in jail, who allows him to cry and to remember and understand what he’s done.
In L’ENFANT, for example, rather than dwell on his mistake, the Dardennes are interested in how Bruno comes to understand his act as such. They explore the sources of his final repentance. Where does this sense of morality come from? Given his environment it would have been comprehensible that he never felt any remorse but continued his amoral life of petty crime. Yet Bruno turns himself in to the police, seeks forgiveness from Sonia, and finally takes an interest in his son. He does this because of those moments of friendship and love he has experienced, and so feels their absence acutely. His sense of morality, then, derives from his interaction with the young Steve (especially after hiding in the freezing water together, saving him from drowning, and trying to warm his legs afterwards) where he realizes his ability to look after another person, and the disgust Sonia shows towards him. The conclusion to L’ENFANT, as with their other films, roots morality in society through engagement with others, rather than any innate human (and thus Christian-based) goodness. It is this understanding of human beings that must be derived from the Dardenne’s body of work.
For some the simplicity that characterizes the Dardenne’s films might seem too easy. Rather than agonize over what Sonia should say to Bruno, she faints. There is a similar act in a difficult scene from LE FILS. And even when Sonia’s confrontation with Bruno does come, her words are few – “Get out!...outside!” But there is nothing easy about this. The ability to keep silent, to hold your tongue, is a restraint that differentiates the Dardennes from other directors who appear to fear silence, anxiously filling their frames with unnecessary sound and color. When Sonia and Bruno meet again, the scene is nearly without dialog and there is no music, only their movements. But everything is so heavily charged that you watch with increasing concern (you have time to feel this), wondering what will she do. She makes soup in the tiny kitchen, there is barely space for Bruno and even less for the camera. We feel the claustrophobia and every detail and action has a magnified impact – the pans slammed down on the cooker, the gas flame hissing – we really are in that room. And finally Sonia snaps, screams those two words, and her expression is savage, total disgust and anger. It lasts a second but imprints itself on our memory. The humanism is here, in the refusal to bow to our own expectation for melodrama. Will Sonia take him back, you ask yourself, willing her not to. And then you watch this scene and realize of course not, of course she won’t because we are dealing with human beings and the gravity of Bruno’s action is fully realized.
With their breakout hit La Promesse,
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne cultivated a singularly exquisite ethical and
emphatic view of the world adopted and extended by each and every one of their
successive masterpieces: Rossetta, The Son, and now L'Enfant.
The verite aesthetic of these films is instantly recognizable and rooted in the
brothers' shared background in documentary filmmaking; the wobbly camera,
back-of-the-head shots, oblique framing, and lack of mood music is its own
artifice, but the cumulative emotional and spiritual affect of these films
never feels premeditated. So innate is this style that the films appear to
materialize out of thin air, and with each new project, the filmmakers appear
to be daring us to find a single false note in their startling simulations of
In typical Dardenne fashion, L'Enfant wastes scant time chokeholding its audience. In a grim eastern Belgian steel town, Bruno (Jérémie Renier) panhandles and cons locals with the help of 14-year-old Steve (Jérémie Segard). Bruno's girlfriend, Sonia (Déborah François), waits to collect an unemployment check, oblivious that Bruno is about to sell their newborn child, who's tossed around like an article of trade throughout the film's running time. This moment is horrifying, not least of which because Bruno betrays the moral and emotional responsibility implicit in that mythic image the Dardennes allow us to glimpse early in the film of father, mother, and son huddled in ostensible rapture near the cold, dirty embankment they sometimes call home.
L'Enfant's swirling sense of moral chaos, sustained horror, and courage has not been seen since The Son, which was also open to the possibility of good coming out of a world that can be relentless in its callousness. Like the Dardennes' camera, Bruno seems propelled by an innate mechanism beyond his control; he is keen only on self-preservation, oblivious to his role as a father. The Dardennes help us to understand Bruno's helplessness, but they never abuse or toy with our sympathies. They may see Bruno's actions as the residual damage of a heartless social existence (a dog-eat-dog global market), but this bitter truth isn't revealed to the audience with a guttersnipe's sense of class, but with uncanny ease, and with the compassionate belief that the world, in spite of its merciless cruelty, is still possible of affecting good.
The Dardennes are religious men, but their detached style is so munificent their films defy easy categorization; these works can just as easily be read as Christian allegories or visions of socialist-humanist daring. Indeed, every remarkable composition and movement in L'Enfant exudes compassion and remorse, evoking a profound sense of transcendental, existential, spiritual, or emotional unease (take your pick, or take them all, because the brothers' vision is nothing if not absolute), and its incredible, gut-punching finale—which follows what may be the most exciting and revelatory chase sequence the movies have ever seen—can be looked at as a male pieta or, more simply (but just as powerfully), an eruptive demonstration of a child finally becoming an adult. Either way, the film is nothing short of a miracle.
The Child (L'Enfant) Jonathan Romney at Cannes from Screendaily
World Socialist Web Site review David Walsh
At the Movies Michael Wood from The London Review of Books, April 6, 2006
Cinepassion.org Fernando F. Croce
DVD Times Noel Megahey
Weight Of Water Jonathan Romney from Sight and Sound
Interview Jonathan Romney interviews the Dardennes from Sight and Sound
Reverse Shot [James Crawford] with responses by Nick Pinkerton and Jeannette Catsoulis from indieWIRE
Luc and Jeane-Piere Dardennes interview and essay by Gerald Peary
DVD Outsider Slarek
Kamera.co.uk review Antonio Pasolini
Lucid Screening Ben
The Lumière Reader Tim Wong
Strictly Film School review Acquarello
Seattle Post-Intelligencer review Sean Axmaker
Boston Globe review [3.5/4] Wesley Morris
DVDBeaver dvd review Gary W. Tooze
LORNA’S SILENCE (Le Silence de Lorna) B 88
Belgium Italy France Germany (105 mi) 2008
The Dardenne’s take a dip into familiar territory in another minimalist, unadorned and unsentimentalized examination of life in a loveless and paid-for marriage, where immediately we’re aware of being caged-in, where the wife Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) has few options, as she was given a raw deal when her worthless husband Claudy (Jérémie Renier) turns out to be more of a slimeball than she realized, a pitiful junkie who’s always whining and pleading with her while promising to straighten himself out. Claudy is easily one of the least appealing and more pathetic characters seen onscreen in awhile, as it’s hard to know why she doesn’t simply kick him out, as he’s otherwise a useless bastard that is an all-consuming force in her life. We soon realize what kind of black market hoodlums she’s dealing with, as they’re arranging to have “the junkie” killed in order to arrange another marriage for her, this time with “the Russians,” who apparently pay top dollar. In typical Dardenne fashion, all of this evolves through an endless series of walks, drives in cars, conversations on cell phones, more walks, which feels like a pathetic way to waste one’s time, always arranging times and places for an unending series of meetings where Lorna is treated like a piece of merchandise that can be inspected and evaluated prior to purchase. Since the method has been utilized so often before, none of this draws the audience into this circular web of money and deceit, as cinematically it resembles ROSETTA (1999), one of the first to employ such restless visuals through what seems like an endless stream of hand-held tracking shots, more or less projecting the image of a caged-in animal, which becomes especially relevant here as the film veers more towards a slave market ring, as she’s a bought and paid for illegal Albanian immigrant, so if she disobeys their rules, they’ll take her passport and send her back to Albania. Her idea of getting a quick divorce instead of following the murder plan threatens the Russian’s timetable, so it’s out of the question, yet she pursues it anyway. This idea of free will soon has its consequences, as she’s just as much a slave as the women living behind locked doors depicted in international sex rings, such as Lucas Moodysson’s LILYA 4-EVER (2003), yet she still persists, perhaps out of innocence, naiveté, perhaps a misreading of the situation and the kind of thugs she’s dealing with, or more likely because she aspires to freedom of choice.
The most powerful moments in this film are wordless, requiring believable performances, especially by Dobroshi, who grows more inwardly intense as the film progresses and had to learn an Albanian French accent, while Renier is so skin and bones he’s a ghost of his former self. The inflexible underworld figures are not men anyone would want to meet and would feel right at home in Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES (2007). Unfortunately, the darker edges of the world today are infiltrated by men just such as this, men who exploit the weaknesses of others (usually young women) for profit, where killing is seen as a business decision. It’s from these dark, restless waters that Lorna must learn to survive. She goes through a charade of fake battery attempts in order to quicken the divorce proceedings, all of which leaves Claudy in disgust, as he’s checked himself into a rehab hospital in an attempt to get clean and refuses to have anything to do with hitting her. So instead she has to settle for a series of self-inflicted wounds and a convincing police report, all in a last ditched effort (which he knows nothing about) to spare his life. The best piece of filmmaking is saved for last, as there’s a bit of a plot twist where things really spin out of control, but rather than find herself above the fray, as she hoped, she finds herself more immersed in the muck than ever before, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth, as the men in her life become ever more despicable, which of course, is how the rest of the world views her. As a foreigner living in Belgium, she is seen as a shadowy outsider who’s so completely under the radar she’s barely even acknowledged as human. She’s used to being shunned by nearly everyone, so what’s interesting in this movie is a storyline that’s never told, that’s only hinted at, where in this rancid depiction of black market corruption there’s only a brief glimpse of hope, but nonetheless, this screenplay won the Cannes festival award for best screenwriting. From my perspective, the first half is overly mechanical, but by the end it discovers its own inspiration. Perhaps trying too hard to be overtly Bressonian, it reminded me of AU HASARD BALTHAZAR (1966), where everything that could go wrong with the girl (taking the ownership and property place of the donkey) goes wrong, as she’s led around on a leash by despicable characters, yet in the end lands on a perfect grace note, where a Schubert piano sonata is replaced by Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven’s sublime 32nd piano sonata.
In “Lorna’s Silence,” a somber beauty of a French-language drama by the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the heroine is looking for purity of purpose too, though she doesn’t know it, or can’t articulate it to herself. Lorna, an Albanian émigré in the process of gaining Belgian citizenship (she’s played exquisitely by Arta Dobroshi), dreams of opening a snack bar with her boyfriend. But doing so depends on her keeping silent about a criminal scheme that may cost the life of another man, Claudy, whom she has come, inconveniently, to love. (He’s played by a Dardenne veteran, the always impressive Jérémie Renier.)
Every time predictability threatens, the plot takes an unexpected turn that traps Lorna more tightly between her love and the thugs who run her life. Like earlier Dardenne films, “Lorna’s Silence” is naturalistic, yet this one, beautifully shot in 35 mm film by Alain Marcoen, achieves a poetry of bereftness. “They want to kill us,” Lorna says near the end. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.” Simpler words were never spoken in more startling circumstances.
A soul-crushing weight rests upon Lorna (Dobroshi), the Albanian-immigrant heroine of the Dardenne brothers’ stunning proletarian character study. You can see it in her tightly wound expression—lips subtly pursed, eyelids heavy—and in how she walks from place to place with a sleepwalker’s gait. To describe the plot she’s entangled in would ruin much of the film’s surprise, and also be a capitulation to those who have accused the Dardennes of moving away from the less storied structures of masterpieces like La promesse and The Son.
Suffice to say that Lorna’s under the thumb of a mobster (Rongione) and is falsely married to her drug-addict lodger (Renier). From there, the tale twists and turns until it spirals out of control, though the Dardennes maintain their usual rigorous aesthetic and thematic grip. They make it look easy, to the point that the effortlessness and elegance of certain revelations barely register until after the credits roll.
In the moment, it’s easy to wonder if Lorna’s Silence will be much of anything beyond a subdued, seemingly realism-bound pulp fiction. The Dardennes’ most praised films tend to hinge on a climactic epiphany that is noticeably absent here. Additionally, Lorna is left behind at her most vulnerable moment, a point that a good number of stories would either begin at or at least continue on from. Yet what becomes clear in these final moments is that the whole film has been an epiphany; each story beat has brought us closer to Lorna while slowly severing the narrative umbilical cord. It’s an entirely new world that we’re left in—a place where the rules of the movie we’ve just experienced no longer apply.
The Lumière Reader Barry Levinson (spoiler)
FOR ALL their nominal prestige, there’s a welcome lack of pomp surrounding
the event of a new Dardennes’ film. Maybe it’s because, unlike the Coens –
whose in-house pecking order sees to the divvying up of writing, but not
directing duties – the Belgian duo enact their craft under the same industrious
anonymity that informs their characters. Whatever the case, Lorna’s Silence,
their latest collaboration, opens on familiar terms – with a nod to Bresson:
Mimicking L’Argent, we witness a cluster of Euros changing hands,
unspooling a bleak scenario that finds the title character hitched to a junkie
named Claudy (Jeremie Renier) in order to gain citizenship. Strictly a formal
arrangement, the pair cohabit a flat in Liège, where – hair cropped boyishly
close – Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) flaunts an obvious lack of empathy over her
spouse’s struggle to give up heroin. (More salient, as it turns out, than her
steppingstone existence as an alien-bride, is the one she pictures alongside
her thuggish boyfriend Sokol (Alban Ukaj), with whom she dreams of opening a
snack bar.) But Lorna, like Claudy, is just another pawn in a plot overseen by
Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione) – a shadowy cab driver who, after removing Claudy via
a forced overdose, seeks to marry her off to a mafioso known as “the Russian.”
Like their 2005 film The Child, Lorna’s Silence uses the sale of bodies as shorthand for a desperate sub-order – one whose collapsed territories fall under the lonely grip of the Euro. As viewers, our sole entry point into that world remains Lorna: Shunning omniscience, the brothers purposely muddy character relations, in a bid to lock us into the mindset of their flailing heroine. But where as, in the past, that tactic has been used to devastating ends, the web of crime surrounding Lorna – and her standing within it – prove to be intuitively simple: that is, she treats Claudy with contempt for no other reason than his co-dependence – suddenly awoken to his humanity by his impending death.
As such, a chism is aroused, draining the impact from a crucial turning point in in which Lorna strips down and fucks Claudy during the throes of withdrawal. Before any tendrils of affection can emerge, however, Claudy is killed, and what ensues is the typical spur towards redemption, only with an added twist: When the resultant guilt proves to be too much, Lorna is sent reeling into a kind of punch-drunk martyrdom in which she becomes convinced – against all medical reasoning – that she’s carrying his unborn child. As played by newcomer Dobroshi, Lorna is a pleasure to behold – magnetically shuffling between open vulnerability and devout resilience. But the Dardennes’ ascent into a delusional spiritualism feels off: Their films are at their best when they reframe Christian tropes of sin and forgiveness as a fraught exchange between two individuals; here, absolved of the source of her anxiety, Lorna simply feels like a tool in some God’s-eye prank.
gradnick wrote in Lumiere Reader comments:
The Dardene’s have referenced Bresson in one way or another in
virtually all of their work, and while a nod to his final masterwork L’ARGENT
(1983) in LORNA’S SILENCE is quite likely, the film might also reflect an
understated awareness of Bresson’s UNE FEMME DOUCE (1969) and MOUCHETTE (1964).
The latter was referenced more stridently in the Dardenne’s second feature,
ROSETTA (1999), whereas here in their new film the similarities are more
implicit. Another striking touchstone for this excellent film might be Jean-Luc
Godard’s 1962 masterpiece, VIVRE SA VIE, through which LORNA’S SILENCE
resonates all the way back to Dreyer’s LA PASSION DE JEANNE D’ARC (1928).
Dardenne heroines have all experienced their own unique Passion. La Passion de Lorna follows a similar trajectory to that of Godard’s Nina: the circumstances are different, but the options for Lorna are disturbingly similar to Nina’s some 45 years earlier. However, the Dardenne’s take a different route. Just when you think Lorna and Nina are about to merge in a repetition of VIVRE SA VIE, Mouchette returns to pull us towards Bresson again. Where David Levinson saw Lorna as the victim of a cruel prankster-God in what he took to be an unsatisfying foray into delusional spirituality, I saw a very grounded late Bressonian moral struggle. There is nothing in LORNA’S SILENCE to signal a theological, spiritual, or specifically Christian reading of the film. Lorna’s crisis and birth pangs that manifest inside her are moral and philosophic rather than theological or spiritual. In this respect the Dardenne’s have an affinity with Bruno Dumont, another Bresson-influenced French filmmaker who locates his philosophical studies solidly in the earth (as signaled at the end of LA VIE DE JESUS, the beginning of HUMANITE, and repeatedly throughout TWENTYNINE PALMS and FLANDRES).
Starting with MOUCHETTE, Bresson’s films dealt with moral and philosophical despair – the impact of the absence of God in the affairs of humankind. For Lorna (like all of Bresson’s sensitive protagonists) pain and guilt are nevertheless very real, and she cannot ignore them. Godard’s Nina was an innocent, used by the world and spat out. Like Jeanne d’Arc before her, she was martyred at the hands of men. Mouchette was another innocent, used by the world then left to rot. She took action and martyred herself. Elle in UNE FEMME DOUCE was another innocent broken by the indifference and self-interest of the world. She took action and martyred herself. Lorna is not an innocent, but she longs for the innocence of being at peace with her conscience and to be free of the corruption of the world. She also takes action. If God is anywhere in the equation, it might be (as Dumont suggests) in the silence of conscience – maybe.
Posted: 05.08.08 @ 22:53:44
Whether or not you “like” their work, if you’ve spent any significant time this decade at film festivals (or reading the blogs that cover them), you’d be hard pressed to deny the impact that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have had on recent art cinema. With traces spottable in films as diverse as Berlinale winner About Elly, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Jacques Audiard’s over-praised A Prophet, the Dardenne style (handheld camera kept close, hyper-naturalistic performances, real locations, a general hard-on for brutality wrapped in the mundane) has become the dominant style of serious movies about ordinary people. This is what happens when you win two Palme D’ors in less than ten years, I guess — other filmmakers presume that you’ve cracked the code. The dirty secret, of course, is that the audience for an actual Dardenne brothers film consists almost entirely of other filmmakers and critics, and neither group has done a sufficient job of persuading that this shouldn’t be the case. This decade’s key art film phenomenon is — ironically, considering the Dardennes’ preferred subject matter — virtually completely inaccessible to any sort of audience outside of the elite circle that made it a phenomenon in the first place. If you are reading this, you are probably part of that elite. If you are not reading this, you probably hear the phrase “Belgian film about poor people” and run as fast as you can in the other direction, and frankly, I don’t blame you.
That said, the Dardennes’ follow up to the Cannes-winning L’enfant is of interest for two reasons: with a pulp kick giving way to psychological intrigue before the globo-political thesis kicks in, it’s more entertaining on a base level than “a Belgian film about poor people” has any right to be, and it reveals why the Brothers are not only worthy of emulation, but also why they do what they do so much better than their pretenders.
Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian immigrant who dreams of opening a cafe with her largely absent boyfriend, has married Belgian junkie Claudy (Jérémie Renier, nearly unrecognizable at about 30 pounds lighter than in his last stateside release, Summer Hours) to secure citizenship, which will allow her to get a bank loan. As part of a deal set up with taxi driver/low-level crook Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), Lorna has agreed to make her newly-acquired Belgian citizenship useful by passing it on to a Russian stranger via another marriage. Claudy thinks he’s going to be paid 5,000 Euros to divorce Lorna so the second half of the deal can go through, but Lorna knows that Fabio really plans to kill Claudy and make it look like an overdose. When Claudy asks for her help in getting off heroin, Lorna tries to convince Fabio to spare Claudy’s life, faking domestic violence so that they can get a quickie divorce. At the point where Lorna is self-inflicting head injuries, it looks like Lorna’s Silence is on the road to a happy ending. It’s not.
Formally, Lorna’s Silence is above repproach. There’s a pure beauty to the imagery here that seems antithetical to the concerns of most films made by Dardenne pretenders, an ease with color and a subtlety of light that seems distinctly related to classic Belgian painting. The Brothers also understand that sometimes a fixed camera doesn’t impede immediacy, but actually enhances it. Their visual minimalism is all about quiet control.
Lorna’s emotional complexity is such that when I saw it first 14 months ago at Cannes, I interpreted Lorna and Claudy’s relationship — the heart of the film, the area where her silence most crucially comes into play — as a different beast than it seemed to be when I screened the film again last week. It’s clear that lonely, self-loathing Claudy would love for Lorna to be a real romantic and domestic partner, but Lorna’s motivations are much more ambiguous. Why does she suddenly become emotionally invested enough in Claudy to try to save his life, to the point where she literally throws herself mind and body to the cause, when everyone she trusts insists that a junkie’s life is expendable? Fabio suggests at one point that her show of basic human empathy is out of character with “the Lorna I know.” Something has happened over the course of the marriage to change her; on first viewing, I assumed that she had fallen in love, but the second time around I was sure it wasn’t as one-note as that. Indeed, the Dardennes’ project here seems to be emotional whiplash: when you suspect you have a character pegged you’re proven wrong, the moments of lowest spirit bump up against the highest, and there’s a dark humor to its deepest horrors.
Also seemingly more complex on second viewing, and ultimately more difficult for me to reconcile, is Lorna’s ending. It’s because of the Dardennes’ commitment to speaks-for-itself naturalism that they’re able to make the point, without ever stating it in anything like literal terms, that the 21st century globalist dream of a middle class life in a Western country inevitably resolves in either death or madness. And then in the final scene, any pretense towards realism is thrown out the window, as a desperate Lorna finds and, thanks to a conveniently placed crow bar, gains access to a safe haven, all in about 30 seconds. At this point, Lorna has without question been driven by guilt and grief to some kind of madness, so it’s possible a psychotic break has occurred — in a film that often makes use of narrative ellipese to throw the viewer off the track of the narrative, it’s possible that we’ve switched from an objective view of her circumstances, to her fantasy. I’d like to believe that’s the case; I’d like to believe the Dardennes are too good to suddenly change the rules of their game at the last minute.
Little White Lies magazine Matt Bochenski
Le bleak c’est chic, but can the Dardennes brothers live up to past successes?
In the end, it always comes back to the beginning. In Rosetta, it’s the moment-by moment struggle for survival. In The Son, it’s a ghost returned from the past. In The Child, it’s the bond between mother and son. In The Silence of Lorna, it’s a fistful of money. It belongs to an Albanian immigrant, Lorna (Arta Dobroshi), and this opening frame signals that here is a film in which economic reality will have the final, sorry say; where Lorna won’t fall out of love, she’ll go out of business.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are back on the glum, grey streets of Liège, shooting what Truffaut once called the cinema of the first-person singular, where ethics and aesthetics combine to portray a bleak vision of modern life.
The Silence of Lorna is a pitch-black fable about the dehumanising effects of life in this new Europe; an economic experiment in which the poor are lab rats fighting for survival. It returns to the motifs that the brothers have been exploring since their 1992 drama I Think of You: the selfishness and desperation of poverty, the impossibility of love, the inevitability of betrayal.
Despite a recent surge of pretenders to the throne – Ulrich Seidl (Import Export), Lukas Moodysson (Lilya 4-ever), Theodoros Angelopoulos (The Weeping Meadow) and the lion’s share of New Balkan Cinema – this is the chic, bleak nihilism that the Dardennes still do better than anybody. And if it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs, nor is it worthy liberal cinema. The Dardennes don’t make films that feel smugly satisfied with their powers of empathy. They whip the narrative like a racehorse, shooting with a precision and urgency that make their work as much an instinctual as an intellectual experience.
And though there is much in The Silence of Lorna to tie it to their previous films, there is also a more profound sense of moral ambivalence that sets it apart. The Dardennes make trajectory films in which the struggle for survival affords small moments of spiritual grace. Often the experience is painful – in Rosetta, it’s only in the film’s final moment that Émilie Dequenne is literally and metaphorically picked off her knees; in The Child, Bruno, the petty thief and misguided father, takes ungainly steps from adolescence to adulthood, but won’t reflect on the journey until it’s already too late.
The Silence of Lorna reverses this trajectory. When we first meet her, Lorna looks an unlikely subject for the life lessons headed her way. She has savings, a boyfriend, the dreams and delusions of a normal life. She is well equipped to succeed in a harsh and unyielding world, because she is harsh and unyielding herself.
Lorna has been brought to Belgium by Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), a small-time hustler who marries Belgian women to Russian businessmen in order to acquire legal papers. To get her own papers first, she’s been hooked up with a Belgian junkie, Claudy (Jérémie Renier), whose death is the only thing standing in the way of the scam.
As Claudy, Jérémie Renier has taken Bruno and imagined a life in which all his lessons remained unlearned. It’s a life in which the mistakes got incrementally worse until he found himself alone and addicted, edgy good looks strung out to nothing. But like Bruno, Claudy is an innocent of sorts, driven by instincts he can’t control. Lorna rejects him, waiting and hoping for Claudy to OD so her life can get underway, but as he struggles against addiction, Lorna’s conscience is pricked, and it’s here that her story is turned on its head.
Compassion will be her undoing. In a touching scene in the hospital where Claudy is recovering from his withdrawal, Lorna stares at him, silently sleeping, perhaps seeing her own vulnerability reflected in his. Sleep is a recurring theme for rescue and redemption: “Let me sleep, Claudy!” Lorna begs him in an early scene that tragically foreshadows the film’s conclusion. But in the savage universe conjured by the Dardennes, goodness is weakness. In reaching out to Claudy to save him, Lorna will also betray him – her first, literal silence is the failure to warn Claudy that Fabio will kill him whether he survives his addiction or not.
Her complicity is signalled by a brutal transition. As Lorna sorts through Claudy’s few, pathetic possessions, it looks like a loving domestic act. But then the truth is revealed – Claudy has been killed; casually, off camera, tossed away like a piece of rubbish. It’s an astonishingly cruel summation of the value of his life, and points in a way to one of the problems with the film.
The Dardennes may be humanists, but there’s a vein of ugliness in The Silence of Lorna that makes you wonder if they care for the character as much as you will. Call it ‘real life’ if you like, but at times their choices border not just on the forensic, but the sadistic. There are two big narrative shifts which are unveiled with such perverse timing that it’s less an emotional juxtaposition as victimisation. Perhaps it’s a mark of the film’s success that you feel for Lorna as she’s buffeted by these cosmic gales, but as she’s slowly stripped of illusions, then possessions, then dignity, then sanity, it becomes an uncomfortably voyeuristic experience.
That the film doesn’t tip over completely into melodrama is due largely to the Dardennes’ signature style. The handheld cameras, the natural lighting and ambient sound all keep the narrative anchored in reality, however hostile and unremittingly callous it may seem. It’s an affectless, almost artless style that’s nevertheless predicated on pinpoint accuracy and exhaustive discipline. It betrays their documentary roots, but it’s also a very rigid style that sacrifices the richness of visual metaphor for a more literal approach to narrative.
If it’s visual depth you’re looking for, then stare into the eyes of Arta Dobroshi. The Dardennes relish bringing new faces to the screen, but the sense of expectation can’t detract from the fact that Dobroshi is sensational as Lorna, drawing on a reservoir of primal energy to sustain a performance of raw intensity. Lorna goes through a spectrum of experiences, but the consistent thread is a kind of existential vulnerability that Dobroshi’s frail, boyish frame perfectly captures. Despite her magnetic attraction, she conveys the anguish of a woman who has lost her place in the world. “Do you remember me?” she asks a nurse in the hospital. “And my husband?” With her sense of self stripped away, Lorna exists only as others see her – in their eyes, but not her own.
From here, her life spirals rapidly out of control, stripped of everything except guilt, her own silence amplified by the emptiness inside her. Staggering through a forest, she cuts a grim figure, like some ruined Red Riding Hood alone in the huntsman’s cottage. It’s here where Claudy will finally let her sleep – and no nightmare could be worse than those that life has already thrown at her.
And it’s here, too, that the silence the Dardennes are pointing towards
really hits home. For people like Lorna, the economic migrants drifting through
this new, borderless
Lorna’s Silence Thom Andersen from Film Comment, July/August 2009
Cannes Dispatch: Part Three: Patrick McGavin at Cannes from Stop Smiling magazine
THE KID WITH A BIKE (Le gamin au vélo) B- 81
Easily the most contrived and manipulative of the Dardennes Brothers’ films, one which borders on melodrama and is likely to divide audiences, as they will either despise or feel sorry for the protagonist, in this case an 11-year-old boy Cyril (Thomas Doret), who from the outset is seen as a determined but problematic kid, one who is not likely to listen to or believe anyone else, but instead do whatever he wants with no apparent punitive repercussions. Known for writing their own screenplays, a documentary style, the use of hand-held cameras, and complete lack of artifice in a social realist setting, this film is an extension of their previous works, where this young boy is in nearly every frame of the film, initially seen as a detestable brat who insists the world is lying to him about the whereabouts of his absent father, involuntarily placed in a boys home where his only desire is escape. Obsessively driven by inevitable circumstances, the reunification with his father, the bare-bones plot seems paper thin, as more and more it becomes clear his father has abandoned him. Nonetheless, Cyril continues to seek him out with relentless desperation, including multiple escape attempts. Simply by accident, in the building where his father previously lived, he grabs and clings to a woman, Samantha (Cécile de France), to avoid being captured by the authorities, where she offers further assistance by finding the bike he reported missing, which is his only link to his father. His bike is also his means of flight and freedom, as it can seemingly take him wherever he needs to go.
When Samantha agrees to house Cyril over the weekends, offering no reason whatsoever for this extension of kindness, her character is immediately seen in glowing and rather angelic terms, as a guardian angel watching over an angry and dissolute child. It’s never made clear why Samantha takes such an interest in this utter stranger whose life is a perpetual series of misfortunes, but the first thing he does is disobey her with the same consistency as he does other adults. While she actually reaches out to him and helps find the father (Jérémie Renier), the object of his continuous obsession, who is working in a neighborhood nearby, the father simply shows no interest in seeing him again. While it’s clear there are damaging psychological issues, no one seems to offer any assistance on that front, as it is never mentioned. Cyril instead is left to resolve his personal issues on his own, where he gets involved with a gang of street kids who easily steal his bike (the kid never learns to use a lock), headed by an older kid Wes (Egon DiMateo), something of a dark angel who takes a particular interest in him, taking him under his wing, using Cyril’s blind persistence to hold onto his bike as a useful tool in accomplishing a secret task that he has in store for him, using Cyril to take care of some unfinished business, which, of course, he readily agrees to, as he thinks this guy is his new friend. To a kid who has no one, a new friend has a strange and intoxicating allure, so much so that he continually lies and deceives Samantha, who mystifyingly continues looking out for his best interests, even at the expense of her own relationships, where boyfriends find Cyril nothing but endless trouble, an ungrateful and impudent malcontent who refuses to listen or learn.
Clearly, Cyril tests the audience’s patience as well, as the typically non-sentimental Dardenne approach leaves one thinking this is an unusually obnoxious and abrasive kid, one who is continually asking for trouble. This escalating wrongward path can only have a few possible outcomes, where the narrow focus of a child’s fate becomes overly predictable, especially considering all the contrivances thrust upon the audience along the way, where this becomes a black and white existential struggle for good and evil, meaning and salvation, where Cyril is caught between the vested interests of a dark force and a guardian angel, where both are trying to tap into and redirect this kid’s inner rage and seething discontent. The overlying reliance on maternal affection and sense of societal justice appear quite French, where both somehow miss the point, but are overly accentuated with an exaggerated power of influence. Cyril is a psychologically damaged and extremely self destructive kid, one who would not likely succeed without intensive personal therapy, but this film bypasses the necessary hard work involved and instead would have you believe that a healthy dose of motherly affection is all he needs to steer him on the right path, which for a realist film is a bit preposterous. Adding to the solemnity and sense of interior transcendence is a brief recurring passage from Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto, Glenn Gould - Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto 3/4 YouTube (), the symphonic section just preceding the introduction of the solo piano. These brief passages hold clues and are musical road markers interspersed throughout the film, where the piano is heard only over the end credits, where the narrative finally offers a glimpse of renewal and a sparing sense of release.
Modern cinema's poets laureate of working-class marginalization and spiritual crises, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are also bona fide motion-picture makers whose works brim with the kind of propulsive thrust that would have left pure action pioneers like Raoul Walsh or Allan Dwan green with envy. Think of the Belgian brothers' new film, and the first thing that springs to mind is a red shirt zipping kinetically up and down and across the screen, rushing in and out of corridors when not climbing fences and trees. Of course, ardent humanists that they are, the Dardennes are interested first and foremost in the character wearing the shirt, a runty, half-feral 11-year-old boy (Thomas Dorset) whose single-minded pursuit of a feckless father who doesn't want to see him (Jérémie Renier) adds to the filmmakers' indelible intergenerational galleries of children plunging into adult worlds and adults learning to move beyond childish confines. As talismanic as De Sica's, the bike of the title becomes the main element through which the film scrutinizes the boy's anger and confusion, his relationship with a sympathetic hairdresser (Cécile de France) and a neighborhood hood (Egon Di Mateo), and the abrupt and furtive acts of revenge and compassion that lift rough-hewn realism into the realm of cinematic grace. Astoundingly unsentimental yet consistently heart-squeezing.
The Dardenne brothers of Belgium, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have moved away from the somewhat formless quality of their early work into the realm of melodrama, which would be worrisome if their new films weren’t as good or better—heightened and purified by stronger narratives. The Kid With a Bike centers on 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), whose father has deposited him in a state-run school and decamped, leaving no address. In the face of all evidence, Cyril won’t accept this rejection. He runs away to their now-empty flat and pounds on the door. When school counselors come, he clings to the legs of a random young woman and screams for his papa and his bike.
The woman is a hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France) who
tracks down the bike (it was sold), locates the father (“Seeing him stresses me
out. I’m starting over”), and arranges to take the boy in. Why?
The Dardennes have an exquisite sense of when to let their shots run on: A scene in which Cyril pedals furiously away from a crime evokes his state of mind and gives you time to brood on where he has been and might be going. Despite the simplicity of the brothers’ technique, The Kid With a Bike has deep religious underpinnings, a relentless drive toward the mythos of death and resurrection. The film is not just in the tradition of Pinocchio and A.I.: It is a worthy successor.
The Dardenne Brothers’ The Kid with a Bike is a character study of boundless empathy. It is impossibly wise about childhood, human frailty, and moral responsibility. I will return to it again and again for comfort and perspective. It is chicken soup for my black, cynical husk of a soul.
Kids are inclined to think in absolutes. And so Cyril (Thomas Doret), the Dardennes’ 11-year old protagonist, absolutely refuses to believe that his father has moved away, sold his precious bike, and left him in a state orphanage indefinitely. After all, he said it would only be for a month. Ergo all of the other adults insisting that he is gone are wrong or lying. Biting and darting like a feral cat, Cyril runs to his dad’s old apartment, and inspects every empty room. Even then he doesn’t believe it. He must have been forced to go away, and take the bike with him.
A kind hairdresser (Cecile de France) recognizes Cyril’s bike and buys it back from its new owner. It’s a kind gesture, and the usually mistrustful boy asks if she would foster him on weekends. She agrees. But Cyril hasn’t given up on his father. Samantha, the hairdresser, tracks him down and they go to see him. There’s no dramatic confrontation. “When are you coming for me?” Cyril asks. The dad, played by the great Jeremie Renier, takes down Cyril’s mobile number and promises to call, but it’s clear he wants nothing to do with the kid. “I’m starting over,” he tells Samantha out of earshot. “I can’t if he’s around.”
As Cyril, Thomas Doret is an amazing discovery — he has a compact intensity of a born star, commanding attention without ever asking for sympathy — but the real triumph is the way his character is written. The Dardennes’ screenplay is extraordinary in its ability to pack drama and heartbreak into simple, naturalistic, entirely unsentimental scenes. Cyril’s dialogue is artfully terse and often beautiful (or at least the translation is), but at the same time perfectly plausible for a bright 11-year old boy: “I’ve come to see you. Do I jump or will you open the door?” he yells to his dad over a fence. He can be nasty and an awful brat (he certainly isn’t cute) but the movie makes sense of it: his family has left him with wounds that won’t heal just because a nice lady lets him stay with her on weekends.
Cyril’s pride and desperate need for a father figure he can respect gets him into some third-act trouble I’m loath to describe. The last 30 minutes of The Kid with a Bike are the year’s most riveting stretch of film, and the ending is just perfect. After what must have been years spent flailing in anger, Cyril faces his toughest test, and does the right thing.
Kid With a Bike Geoff Andrew at
There are some very
consistently distinctive things about the Dardenne brothers’ films. They are
about recognisably ‘ordinary’ working-class people; they are usually about
inter-generational relationships; they deal with ethical (and psychological) issues
in such a way that people often describe them, rightly or wrongly, as somehow
concerned with ‘redemption’; they fall, for all their apparent documentary-like
naturalism, into three fairly clear ‘acts’; and – perhaps most distinctive of
all – they often feel, for one reason or another, a little… well,
unremarkable for the first 20 minutes or so. Then something happens which makes
you realise you’re watching something very special indeed.
All of which is true of their fifth film in the main
Partly, that’s down to performance. Besides such Dardenne regulars as Jérémie Renier and (admittedly in a small role) Olivier Gourmet, the film boasts wonderful work by Cécile de France (recently seen in Eastwood’s ‘Hereafter’) as the protagonist’s unexpected but altogether plausible protectress, and by Thomas Doret as young Cyril. Still, it would be wrong to attribute the excellence of the Belgian brothers’ film simply to a form of well-acted Loachian ‘realism’.
The marvellously nimble, fleet pace perfectly suits the adolescent, often desperate energy of Cyril’s search for stability, while once more the narrative embraces both naturalism and something more mythic, even Biblical; this, after all, is a tale of crime and punishment, longing and disappointment, love, hatred and forgiveness. But in the end it’s probably best to forget such contextual stuff, as the film is primarily about people. See the sheer fear on Renier’s face as his character confesses that he just can’t cope any longer with looking after his own son. At this point, about half an hour into the story, the power, subtlety, enduring relevance and absolute truthfulness of the Dardennes’ latest immediately become brilliantly clear.
The Kid With A Bike has the classic Dardenne Brothers plot. Like those other famous brothers, the Grimms, the Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne put their hearts and souls into the telling of tales about children in bad situations. The horrors of childhood are taken very seriously and there is nothing cliché or sentimental in their special neorealist approach to illuminate the human condition.
Their latest, and fifth film at the New York Film Festival and winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes this year, is about 11-year-old Cyril (played with fantastic agility, vulnerability and strength by 13-year-old Thomas Doret), whose father abandons him. The mother is never mentioned, she only exists as absence, like in many a fairy tale, where one bad parent is more than enough to deal with.
Cyril wants to get in touch with his father, desperately dialing his old phone number over and over again, as if pure willpower and stamina could change the NOT IN SERVICE message to his father's voice. Cyril also wants his bike back - he cannot believe that his father could have sold it. The various people at the orphanage where he is staying, have a hard time keeping up with this whirlwind of a boy, who runs, breathes, bangs on doors, checks his old apartment building, runs some more, always dressed in red, because he will not give up the fantasy that his father still loves him, has not abandoned him, and that everything is a big misunderstanding, just like Hansel uses pebbles to get back to his father's house, only to be forced out again.
In this tale, Cyril does not encounter a witch, but a hairdresser he holds on to, played with wonderful grace and toughness by Cécile de France. Samantha is like "the good fairy," Jean-Pierre Dardenne told me in response to my comment that their stories set in a tough Belgian working class milieu capture the core of what makes fairy tales relevant. "This film is the closest to a fairy tale," he agrees, "because it is the simplest. It is about a child who is losing a very big, terrible illusion."
Characters in a Dardenne film don't analyse situations or talk about why things occur. They act and in their movements, hits, smiles, they reveal the whole world. The little boy defends his father who never wants to see him again and he tries to latch on to a dangerous drug-dealing wolf in the woods who calls Cyril "pit bull". The boy doesn't know how to accept the affection from Samantha, a woman who is not family and still deeply cares for him.
Watch for a Dardenne brothers' favorite, Olivier Gourmet, who makes an appearance playing the cafe owner who serves the beers. Another Dardenne regular, Jérémie Renier, plays Cyril's father, in many respects an aged shadow of his role in The Child (a film that blew me away at the NYFF in 2005) which starts with him selling his baby, just like Rapunzel.
At the press conference Luc, the younger Dardenne, mentioned the locations in the film are in the form of a triangle: town, forest, gas station, everything happens between these three points.
Cécile de France's Samantha "brings a light to the story," when she reclaims the child's soul as they drive and bicycle to and fro.
In a world where everyone seems so lost, The Kid With A Bike will help you find your humanity again.
The Kid With A Bike | Film | Movie Review | The A.V. Club Scott Tobias, also seen here: The Kid With A Bike
A Lost Boy and a Sliver of Hope in the Dardenne ... - Village Voice Karina Longworth
Cannes Film Festival 2011: Day Four – The Kid with a Bike, Pina, and Good Bye Glenn Heath Jr. at Cannes from the House Next Door, May 14, 2011, also seen here: The House Next Door [Glenn Heath Jr.]
Kid With A Bike Jonathan Romney at
Filmcritic.com Chris Cabin
Kevin Jagernauth at Cannes from the indieWIRE Playlist, May 14, 2011
REVIEW: The Dardenne Brothers Break From Formula with Le Gamin au Vélo Stephanie Zacharek at
'11, day four: The Dardennes shoot for the Palme D'Or trifecta, and Freaks
& Geeks' Linda Cardellini gets a rare showcase Mike D’Angelo at
of the Riviera Barbara Scharres at
Drew McWeeney at
Kid With a Bike,
The Emanuel Levy at
Film Review: The Kid With A Bike (2011) Steven S. from Film Scope
Sound On Sight [Simon Howell] ar Telluride
The Kid with a Bike Richard Brody from The New Yorker (capsule review)
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne | Film | Interview | The A.V. Club Chris Kompanek interview, March 15, 2012
brothers: 'We don't argue in front of the actors' Anne Billson interview from The Guardian,
Movie Review: The Kid With A Bike - Entertainment Weekly Lisa Schwarzbaum
Kid With a Bike Dave Calhoun from Time Out
Kid with a Bike – review | Film | The Guardian Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian,
Cannes 2011 review: Le Gamin au Vélo/Polisse | Film | The Guardian Peter Bradshaw at Cannes from The Guardian, May 15, 2011
Kid With a Bike – review Philip
French from The Observer,
'11 Day 4: Unfair Wesley Morris at
'The Kid With a Bike' review: Dardennes' quiet truth Mick LaSalle from The SF Chronicle
'Kid With a Bike': Tale of troubled child told with deft directorial touch ✭✭✭ 1/2 Michael Phillips from The Chicago Tribune, also seen here: 'Kid With a Bike': Tale of troubled child told with deft directorial touch ...
Cannes, Synergy but Not Consensus - New York Times Manohla Dargis at
Kid With a Bike - Movies - New York Times
Manohla Dargis from The New York
TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Deux jours, une nuit) B 88
Belgium France Italy (95 mi) 2014
An excoriating critique of capitalism, brilliantly revealing how it isolates and divides workers, pitting one against the other, where over the course of the film the Dardennes turn this into a modern era horror story. What’s most striking, however, is how it’s framed in such ordinary circumstances, where the fear of losing one’s job is the overriding concern, capable of driving one to do the unthinkable. While the opportunity to work with an actress of the stature of Marion Cotillard may have proven too alluring to resist, the film would probably have played much better with a lesser known, unknown actress, much like their earlier efforts, especially ROSETTA (1999), where the actress’s daily struggle might mirror the role of the character in the film. Part of Cotillard’s role as Sandra, a young Belgian mother working at a small solar panel factory, is her invisibility, where she is forced to come out of the anonymity of her character to make herself seen as she confronts each and every one of her fellow workers. When trying to return from a medical leave, she discovers the company has instead decided to lay her off in order to pay the annual 1000 euro bonus to the rest of the workers. When cornered in a parking lot, the owner agrees to hold a vote by secret ballot to alleviate allegations of pressure and intimidation by the foreman, and if a majority of workers agree to vote for her return instead of their bonuses, then he will honor their decision. He is of the opinion, however, based on an initial vote tallied by the foreman, that most everyone prefers the bonus. This leaves her little time, as indicated by the title, to change people’s minds. While a worker on leave could be confronted by any number of illnesses, such as losing a child, recovery from an injury or an accident, to having a more serious medical diagnosis such a cancer, but in Sandra’s case she suffers from depression (another invisible disease), seen taking large doses of Xanax, well beyond the recommended limit, in an attempt to maintain her sanity throughout this ordeal. The idea for the film is based upon real incidents occurring in French factories, but also Belgium, Italy, and the United States, where a worker was laid off so the rest of the workers could get their bonuses, all of which raise questions of solidarity in the workforce.
Shot in Seraing, an industrial town in Liège, in Wallonia, the French-speaking section of Belgium where the Dardennes were born and raised, and where all their previous films were shot as well, Cotillard had to change her French accent to Belgian for the film—no minor undertaking, as she’s the first non-Belgian actor to ever work with the directors. By all accounts, many believe she was robbed at Cannes by not winning Best Actress, but this is an understated, minimalist, low-key film without any major dramatic moments. Experts in social realist films, this is most reminiscent of a Bresson film (Introduction to Bresson), a meticulous film constructionist who downplayed the performances of his actors, where this film is based upon a repeating, cyclical theme where Sandra literally goes door to door tracking down her coworkers, asking them to vote to save her position by sacrificing their bonuses. While this is incredibly humiliating, to say the least, it leaves her emotionally exhausted and demoralized afterwards when she realizes what an uphill struggle this is turning out to be. Shot in chronological order, most of the scenes are long takes culminating with stressful discussions at someone’s front door, usually interrupting them from their weekend activities with their children, where the situation couldn’t be more awkward, as in an economic downturn, everyone needs the money, with some in desperate straits. While it’s hard to believe someone is placed in this position, literally begging for their job back, the Dardennes don’t over-dramatize or turn this into a melodrama, but confine their focus to exposing what each of these people must be going through, literally providing a window into their souls, as for each, this is a gut-wrenching decision. People are surprisingly honest with one another, as is Sandra, who is never pushy or argumentative, but simply presents the reality of the situation, then must gracefully accept the fact that not everyone is going to support her, even some who sympathize with her. In some cases, the husbands aggressively bark out their opinions while their wives (who work with her) meekly stand in silence, unable to alter the balance of power in their homes.
Beautifully portraying the accumulative stress and mental anguish, Cotillard anchors the film with her warmth and sense of decency, where the urgency of her situation mirrors how other people live and the pressures they face, where in troubled times it’s extremely hard to support her efforts. Nonetheless it’s a heroic act to summon the courage to embark on such a personally revealing journey, where you literally strip yourself naked standing completely vulnerable before your coworkers, always struggling to overcome feelings of hopelessness and despair. Perhaps the weakest character in the film is Sandra’s own husband Manu, Fabrizio Rangione in his fifth film with this directing team, whose pathetic struggle to continually push his wife feels overly abusive, though perhaps necessary when she’s incessantly on the verge of giving up. We don’t see an emotional connection between the two, or any hint of happiness, but their interaction together represents a tired couple that is used to struggling to get through every day. Perhaps the most beautiful scenes involve music, including Petula Clark singing the French version of the 1963 Jackie DeShannon song “Needles and Pins” Petula Clark - La Nuit N'en Finit Plus - YouTube, while the scene of the film is the euphoric emotional release expressed to the song of Van Morrison and Them singing a teen anthem from the 60’s, “Gloria” THEM (Featuring VAN MORRISON) - LIVE 1965 - "Gloria" YouTube (2:47). While Sandra is literally terrified at what will happen behind the knock at each door, it’s a petrifying journey set by her boss against her colleagues, where no one protests against the inherent cruelty of the employer’s actions, instead it’s a barbaric act commonly accepted in the modern workplace. Sandra has a husband and child, perceived as a woman’s dutiful role in the 50’s, but in today’s world she needs a place in society where she can be of use. Work has come to represent a sense of purpose in people’s lives, even in the routine work of factory jobs, without which many people feel lost and useless, expressed in the film as confronting one’s worst fear, “living on the dole.” Despite the anger and outright hostility that arises, where the foreman (Dardennes regular Olivier Gourmet) blames her for “stirring up this shit,” this is an unconventional exposé of the meaning of work in people’s lives, where to some their fellow coworkers are an indispensable part of their lives, like one of the family, where they spend eight to ten hours a day alongside each other, while others routinely ignore the social dimension of working with others for a period of years. In this film, the Dardennes allow the characters to determine the outcome by challenging their humanity, which has greater significance than some predetermined moral lesson that would quickly be forgotten.
Which movies to see—and which to skip—at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival JR Jones from The Reader
An assembly-line worker at a solar panel factory (Marion Cotillard), recently returned to work after an emotional breakdown, discovers that her coworkers, coerced by management, have voted to terminate her employment rather than forfeit their annual bonus; over a long and desperate weekend, she visits them at their homes and begs them to change their votes. The premise for this Belgian drama couldn't be simpler or more compelling, yet writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (The Kid With a Bike) tease out any number of moral complexities as the heroine learns of her coworkers' various circumstances (many of them have children, and almost all of them are living hand to mouth). In film after film the Dardennes have proven themselves the cinema's most acute humanist critics of predatory capitalism; this masterful drama finds them at the top of their game, laying bare the endless uphill battle of getting workers to look out for each other. In French with subtitles.
CINE-FILE: Cine-List - Cine-File.info Elspeth J. Carroll
The most masterful film of 2014 was also the quietest. The Dardenne Brother's latest is a characteristically nuanced portrait of a young mother recovering from a bout of severe depression. Steadily regaining her strength and ready to return to work, Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is told that to keep her job she must convince her coworkers to vote to save her and lose their bonus. It seems an act of supreme cruelty that a woman who can barely bring herself to get out of bed should be forced to persuade others to sacrifice so that she can return to life, and her greatest battle is not to convince her coworkers but to summon the strength to try. Her campaign provides a window into the lives of the men and women she works with. We see their homes, their families, their weekend lives. They're a diverse group, but they occupy the same economic position—not dire, but precarious. Their reactions are telling—guilt, anger, reluctant yeses and apologetic nos. There may be a right choice—solidarity over self interest, but the Dardennes resist easy moralizing, and their main indictment seems to be of the system which forces such a choice. It's hard to imagine any other director with a soft enough touch to keep the material from edging into melodrama, but its that restraint and precision which makes the film so effective. Their control is matched by that of Cotillard whose performance as Sandra is powerful without overpowering. "But they're right. I don't exist. I'm nothing. Nothing at all" Sandra says to her husband before collapsing on the floor. It's hard to read without cringing, but in Cotillard's hands it feels honest, real (unnervingly so.) So much rests upon Cotillard's performance. She is so fragile, so often on the verge of tears, that her moments of triumph, however small or short lived, are truly moving. TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT is a film that does so many things so well and so quietly. It's at once a study of depression, of family dynamics, of community and of an inhumane and exploitative economic system. But perhaps most excitingly, it's a convincing work of realism that's much more hopeful than it is grim.
Cannes Film Festival 2014: Part Two - Reverse Shot Jordan Cronk
A similar sentiment is expressed in far more visceral terms in Two Days, One Night, a typically efficient work from Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. In fact, efficiency itself is a central subject of their new film. In two stealth, single-shot opening scenes, the Dardennes lay out their basic narrative conceit: Sandra (Marion Cotillard), informed by her boss of her impending termination, must convince her coworkers to side with her in a vote to retain her job at the expense of their yearly bonuses. She’ll have the weekend to complete the task and she’ll have to rely on nothing more than goodwill and persuasiveness to accomplish it. The Dardennes’ brand of socially minded, realist filmmaking has for well over a decade been one of the most recognizable in contemporary cinema. Each film’s distinguishing nuances lie in its uniquely implemented narrative devices—not as variations but as a subtle protraction of a specific working-class plight.
Two Days, One Night utilizes its temporal strictures to build tension via elemental means: handheld camerawork, infrequent but purposeful editing, and situational drama, all delivered through dialogue or dramaturgy. Sandra spends the majority of the film essentially restaging the same scene for an audience of one: a colleague with the ability to leave this woman and her husband (who can’t support the couple on his own) without immediate financial recourse. What’s fascinating about the film is how perspectives continuously shift; as a viewer we’re ostensibly asked to sympathize with Sandra—who we learn has recently suffered some sort of breakdown and is now taking prescription Xanax, which she pops incessantly throughout—and yet each successive encounter presents to the viewer an entirely new dilemma, with implications that could affect more than just this one couple. Many of these men and women are worse off and in greater need of a bonus than Sandra—who, if nothing else, is young and experienced—no matter the immediate repercussions on her life. The way the Dardennes foster this empathy, without allowing Sandra to wallow in self-pity—if anything, she refuses to beg, never resorting to negotiation—granting her the strength to exhibit grace during a final moral crisis of her own, further confirms their unyielding faith in human resilience and righteousness.
An unfeasibly gripping social realist parable that provides a gravitational showcase for one of Marion Cotillard's finest performances (and yes, we know that's saying something), the Dardenne brothers' "Two Days, One Night" sees the two-time Palme d'Or winners put in a serious bid for a third (though probably, Cannes rules being what they are, a Best Actress trophy for Cotillard is more likely). It’s a deeply lovable film, satisfying, nourishing and accessible, and bar the odd stumble toward melodrama (more on that later) we were completely immersed in its plain-spoken yet impossibly resonant rhythms practically from the first frame.
A great deal of that is Cotillard—her character is in nearly every single shot, and hers is inarguably the point of view of the film throughout, making it a riveting performance in a film that is riveted to her. But perhaps the greatest achievement is in how brilliantly the film balances the trademark Dardennes social conscience with a conceit that plays out almost like a ticking-clock thriller, as well as being a deeply felt character study, at the same time as it operates on at least two metaphorical levels in parallel at any one point. Casting the biggest name star they’ve ever worked with, who herself happens to be one of the finest actresses of her generation enjoying an extraordinarily impressive run of performances, and writing perhaps the most focused and sculpted screenplay of their illustrious careers, Jean-Pierre and Luc turn in a film that may well be their richest. At 63 and 60, respectively, it feels like they crested the peak of their powers a while ago, only to discover a higher summit to conquer, on top of which “Two Days, One Night” has now planted their flag.
As the film begins, Sandra (Cotillard), a wife and mother of two living in straitened circumstances in an economically depressed town, has slipped back into the depression from which she had ostensibly recovered, following the news that she has lost her job. Unemployment and potentially a return to social housing beckons for her family. In fact, the day before, she had been voted out of the company by her co-workers who were offered the choice of retaining her, or retaining their €1000 bonuses. An ally convinces her that the foreman had pressured some of her colleagues into voting her out, and when they confront the boss he agrees that they can hold a new secret ballot on Monday morning. Sandra therefore has the weekend to convince a majority to sacrifice their bonuses in order to save her job.
What then unfolds is an almost epic journey from house to house to meet each of them face to face, providing snapshots of the lives and attitudes of her co-workers, many of whom are in just as perilous a situation as she. It’s a portrait of a moral dilemma considered from every conceivable angle and not just on the part of those she’s visiting—Sandra, still fragile herself, can only negotiate with difficulty the oceanic swallowing of pride necessary to, essentially, beg for her livelihood. With difficulty, and Xanax.
The responses to her entreaties vary wildly from positive and sympathetic to outright violent, but a few insightful similarities remain. Almost everyone’s first question is “how is everyone else voting?” just as almost everyone’s response to Sandra's pointing out how it's not her fault that the boss put her job up against their bonuses is “Mine neither.” And there’s a hopelessness to the way they all simply accept the fact the injustice, really the barbarity of pitting workers’ self interest against their fellow-feeling in an effort to rationalize the company's bottom line. No one once suggests protesting the unfairness of it; it seems like they might as well shout at the moon to change its phase. And so, seamlessly and always within the context of this tense, ever evolving story, the film examines truly meaty moral themes of herd mentality, manipulation, pity, guilt, remorse, empathy, peer pressure and so on, at the same time as becoming an allegory for socialism, worker’s rights and corporate corruption and a heartfelt plea to recognize the humanity of others.
It’s true that the whole having-to-go-and-present-a-moral-dilemma-to-a-disparate-group-of-people premise does feel less organic than a typical Dardennes set up and more manufactured for those allegorical purposes, but that's not so much a criticism as an observation. In fact it’s a film with which we could find exactly two, and only two, things wrong. Without wishing to spoil, there is a section later on in the story when the story’s resolute believability falters and the actions and reactions of Sandra and one other character feel overtly manipulated for [over] dramatic effect. It is a shame, because the film is easily compelling enough without these extra turns of the screw.
Those hiccups in the flow of this deceptively taut, honed narrative would have ruined our enjoyment more, however, if they hadn’t been superseded by an ending that is simply perfection. Accomplishing a similar feat to last years Cotillard-starring Cannes contender “The Immigrant” the Dardennes here pull off an astonishingly satisfying somersault as their dismount, a simple moment in which we suddenly realize that the film we’ve been enjoying as a multi-layered ethical parable to that point was in fact also something much simpler and more human all along: the story of a broken woman’s journey back to herself. It’s nothing as simplistic as a happy ending, but it couldn’t be more uplifting and affecting, and we left the theater with our hearts nearly bursting. [A]
Sight & Sound [Tony Rayns] August 22, 2014
Manohla Dargis interview Steve Erickson from Senses of Cinema
Critic Biography: Manohla Dargis from The New York Times
New York Times > Readers' Opinions > Questions for ... Questions for…Manohla Dargis from The
"Movie Review: Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties (2006) As Told to MANOHLA DARGIS by LORD DARGIS, from The New York Times, June 16, 2006
"Fuck Them": Times Critic On Hollywood, Women, & Why Romantic Comedies Suck Irin interviews Dargis from Jezebel, December 14, 2009
Reviews by Manohla Dargis from The New York Times
YouTube - What is Manohla Dargis of the New York Times ... (3:36) on YouTube
A SNOWMOBILE FOR GEORGE C+ 77
USA (94 mi) 2008 Official site
What begins as a lighthearted query about snowmobiles and the two-stroke engine that was banned initially by the Clinton administration but quickly reinstated by the Bush administration, which led our documentarian to wonder why? He quickly learns that his snowmobile tends to smoke heavily, where the exhaust fumes are twenty seven times more toxic than an automobile. So how’d they get reinstated? People who make snowmobiles had no answers, as they had already redesigned the engine when they were informed there was no need. So he visited the Klamath Falls area in Oregon where there had been a hundred year dispute regarding water restrictions caused by water withheld by a dam to irrigate local farms, which impacted upon the salmon runs up the Klamath river, one of the strongest in the nation, causing ever smaller numbers of fish. George W. Bush’s chief political strategist Karl Rove decided this was an opportunity to rally their Republican base and intervened in the dispute, immediately taking sides with the farmers, giving them all the water they needed despite dire warnings about what this would do to the fish. During the next salmon run, all the fish died, the worst in the nation’s history, and could be seen washed up to shore belly up, as there was insufficient water to make it to their breeding grounds. Despite this disaster, the Bush administration refused to acknowledge their decision had anything to do with it, instead blaming recent drought conditions.
He visited Yellowstone National Park where snowmobiles were frightening away the natural wildlife, causing another battle between preservationists and snowmobilers, with the Bush administration siding with the snowmobilers, again, pandering to their political base, where these noisy, heavy pollutants continue to be allowed into the park in the winter, but where toll guards at the gates can wear protective gas masks. He visited a man in Wyoming who discovered that Wyoming grandfathered into their state constitution that land purchased a hundred years ago by a family was still obligated by state law which indicated they bought only what was above land, as the federal government owned what mineral rights were below the land. So oil and natural gas companies can enter people’s properties at will, with no notice or approval, and dig for oil and gas by any means necessary, even install permanent machinery to continue the operations indefinitely. The farmer visited indicated the noise of the machines was driving all the wildlife away, and the huge quantities of water brought out from beneath the earth to release the methane gas was killing the natural prairie grass that his cows had been eating for decades. Even worse, despite drilling at distances of nearly 5 miles away, private water wells were drying up, leaving many residents with no water supply at all. However, the government again took no responsibility, and blamed the families for improper maintenance of their land. The overriding theme here is that companies were given a blank check to do whatever they wanted, while families were simply marginalized in the process, and were of no concern whatsoever to the companies or the government.
When he visited survivors of 9/11 in
BURNING FUSE FILM FESTIVAL Facets Multi Media
A Snowmobile for George is a rambunctious road trip that collects the stories of fishermen, cowboys and firemen who have had to face the consequences of environmental deregulation by the Bush Administration. Started by a question about the filmmaker's own used two-stroke snowmobile engine, this trip steadily reveals the political strategy and rationale behind a massive sell-off of public resources. A Snowmobile for George begins modestly as a one-man, one-machine road film that simply asks why rules to clean up a smoky off-road machine got shelved. With no presumption of guilt or blame, filmmaker Todd Darling tows his family snowmobile across the United States and persists in asking that question. The film's humble point of departure gives little hint as to its ultimate destination. What starts off as a personal quest gradually morphs as this journey takes the viewer to the sites of more serious environmental change. The common thread among these stories is deregulation - the notion that common citizens benefit when "the government gets off their back." But the film uncovers how the Bush Administration worked efficiently to match up the goals of select industries with the political demands of the White House at the expense of the average American citizen.
Eric Darnell ("Antz") and Tom McGrath plug old-fashioned Looney Tunes style into the computer-animated film and come up with the zippiest CGI comedy DreamWorks has produced to date.
Showbiz lion Alex (voice of Ben Stiller), the merchandised-to-the-mane king of the Central Park Zoo, loves living in the Big Apple: the feel of cement, the sounds of cars and sirens, the black night sky where helicopter spotlights are the closest you get to starlight. His best friend, Marty the zebra (Chris Rock), longs for the legendary open plains.
When Marty escapes to sample the wild (of Connecticut, via
Grand Central Station, of course), the ensuing city adventure of Alex and his
buddies, Melman the hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the
hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith), is misinterpreted as a cry for escape, the furthest
thing from their minds. Shipped off to an animal preserve in
Alex is no predator, he's a ham who lives for the spotlight, but he succumbs to his primal instincts in the wild (the marvelously animated sequences suggest a giant housecat in the feral fever of play) and his best friends start to look an awful lot like dinner on the hoof. It's the film's basic conflict -- instinct versus individual choice -- and it comes through with what I like to call the "Iron Giant" moral: "You are who you choose to be."
Slim on plot but fat with furiously paced gags, "
For the adults, there is a non-stop bar rage of cultural references, from "American Beauty" and "Silence of the Lambs" to "The Twilight Zone" and "National Geographic" TV specials.
For the kids, there are a smattering of poo jokes (some inspired -- it's the lingua franca of the monkey kingdom, after all) and slapstick gags, all directed with zany energy. It could be more involving, but it's funny enough that you won't care.
If anybody bothered to ask movie critics, we’d tell you that the
fastest way to solve the population problem is to expose those of childbearing
years to a cartoon sneak preview, with its packed house of squirming, screaming
little, er, angels. I mention this only to set my mood (cantankerous):
That is to say, I was in no way prepared to like this film. The perfunctory
opening scenes didn’t help: There’s Marty the Zebra (voiced by Rock), who is
weary of pampering at the Central Park Zoo and lusting for a life in the wild.
There’s his grab-bag of wisecracking best friends: the self-centered showman,
Alex the Lion (Stiller); sassy hippo Gloria (Pinkett Smith); and glum
hypochondriac Melman the Giraffe (Schwimmer). Gently amusing stuff, sure, but
nothing terribly inspiring – that is, until a bookish primate makes a crack
about throwing monkey poo at Tom Wolfe, and Madagascar dangles the
possibility of being something slightly nutter. Consider that possibility
mostly realized: After its leaden beginning,
DVD Times Eamonn McCusker
The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review Richard Scheib
PopMatters Cynthia Fuchs
New York Times (registration req'd) A.O. Scott
YouTube - The Madagascar Penguins scenes (10 minutes)
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Set in 1902, on a barrier island off Georgia, this first feature is an impressionistic portrait of the ritual last supper of the Peazant family before migrating to the mainland. The younger generations are leaving the matriarch Nana (Day) and the insulated traditional life she symbolises. Tensions are raised by the return of family members Viola, a Baptist missionary, and Yellow Mary (Barbara-O), a proud whore, and by Eli's apprehension that his wife Eula (Rogers) is carrying the child of a rapist. Nana fears these rifts will destroy her family when they leave the home of their African ancestors and calls on the spirit of Eula's unborn child to heal them. Steeped in symbolism, superstition and myth, this disconcertingly original film is structured in tableaux which jump through time. The characters speak in the islanders' Gullah dialect and little is explained; however, Dash's universal message about holding on to tradition in face of change rings clear.
Daughters of the Dust: The Film File: The New Yorker Michael Sragow
CINE-FILE: Cine-List Kathleen Sachs
The narrator of Julie Dash's DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST is more than just a character in the film, but a symbolic representation of the film's message. The unborn child who tells the story of the Peazant family in their last days before migrating north is as much a reflection of the past as she is of the future; all that has come before her is as inherent to the family as the very blood within their veins, and it's that history which will propel them along the trying and changing times. The Peazant family are inhabitants of the southern Sea Islands and members of its Gullah culture, having preserved the identity of their African heritage in the face of slavery and post-war oppression. Before the move, the matriarch of the Peazant family contemplates her native beliefs while the family's younger members overcome their personal struggles. Rape and prostitution have afflicted several female members of the family, and the scorn from both society and their own clan present the unique obstacle of African American women within an already disparaged race. Dash uses magical realism not only in the story, but also as a filmmaking device that is reflective of the characters' culture. It was the first feature-length film by an African-American woman to receive theatrical release, and its historical context and female-oriented storyline set it apart from both other films of the time and other films put out by fellow members of the L.A. Rebellion.
Daughters of The Dust was produced by Geechee Girls and American
Playhouse Company. The movie main focus is on the Peazant women. Nana Peazant
is played by Cora Lee Day, and Eula, her granddaughter, is played by Alva
Rogers who is pregnant and has been raped by a landowner. Nana's granddaughter,
Yellow Mary, is played by Barbara-O who is returning, with her friend Trula,
from the mainland and her life as a prostitute and wet nurse. Haggar, who has
married into the family, is played by Kaycee Moore and wants nothing to do with
the old traditions. Similarly, the Christian Viola, played by Cheryl Lynn
Bruce, is returning from her life on the mainland.
Daughters of the Dust is a film written and directed by Julie Dash. It tells the story of a family of African-Americans who have lived for many years on a Southern offshore island, and of how they come together one day in 1902 to celebrate their ancestors before some of them leave for the North. The film is narrated by an unborn child, and ancestors already dead also seem to be as present as the living.
Julie Dash underwent many hardships in bringing the story to the silver screen. She had severe budget constraints, filmed in mosquito and insect infested areas, was delayed by Hurricane Hugo, sidetracked by sudden and violent sandstorms, and was forced to decide to either have a child or make the movie. In the end, she choose to give birth and nurture the story Daugthers of the Dust and the result is an unconventional masterpiece.
Initially, the response by white male critics was not favorable and they accused Dash of not adequately explaining the Gullah people, their culture, and their religious traditions. While attacking Dash, these critics failed to acknowledge many positive aspects of the film. The reasons behind this, according to Bell Hooks, is that "we've never been taught, most of us, in any history class that black people had different languages, had different religious practices, etc. So, to some extent, the film represents that challenge to a critic of any race" to review something they are not familiar with.
Because of these reviews and the fact that movie tells the story of African American women in an unconventional manner, it would seem to have slim commercial prospects. However, through word of mouth and some positive reviews it was able to generate a cult following. To date, the film has grossed 1.6 million from a budget of only 800,000.
The Newark Black Film Festival has chosen Daughters as the Film of The Century while the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound Magazine chose the soundtrack as one of the best in the past 25 years. It also received the Best Cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991.
I believe the film hits the viewer on various levels. By placing the story in the early 1900's, Dash is able to show us a turbulent time for African-Americans and address many issues such as migration, lynching, and the changing African-American culture. Dash also shows and teaches us about Ibo culture and its importance in the lives of those inhabiting the
DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST (1991, 113 min notes, essay and Julie Dash bio info by Michael Dembrow
Untitled Document A History of Exile, an essay on the film by Deanna McGowen Prufert
Read the complete review for Daughters Of The Dust TV Guide magazine
Daughters of the Dust Eat-Online
Writing > Essays > Women Studies > "Daughters of the Dust," my ... my impression of the movie by Yanet Manzano
Manish Malhotra says it’s poorly made
Daniel Barrett calls it a dud
Daughters of the Dust (1991 comprehensive film website with analysis, essays and links
Religious Traditions of the African Diaspora The Gullah People and Their Link to West Africa
ISSUE ESSAY Maintaining Cultural Identity in the Face of Adversity
Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway, by Felicia R. Lee from The New York Times, July 28, 2008, at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, S.C, Toni Morrison led the procession dedicating her “bench by the road,” honoring the memory of slaves who arrived there
Daughters of the Dust capsule book review by Casey King from The New York Times, December 14, 1997
Daughters of the Dust book review of Daughters of the Dust, a novel by Julie Dash which expands the story, from Akilah Monifa
Read the transcript of an on-line featuring Julie Dash discussing "Daughters of the Dust" Interview with Julie Dash, December 19, 1997
MoMA.org | The Collection | Julie Dash. Daughters of the Dust. 1991 a photograph from the film
Julie Dash Homepage on the AALBC.com's web site Julie Dash website
MAGAZINE | FEATURES | JULIE DASH-ROSA PARKS | VOLUME 26-6: MARCH 2002 Julie Dash and the Rosa Parks Story, by Robert A. Jones from DGA, March 2002
YouTube - Daughters of the Dust Scene an opening scene (1:41)
Invisible Woman.....Black Cinema At LARGE: Daughters Of The Dust a YouTube condensation of the film (9:05)
YouTube - Robert Farris Thompson Speaks: Daughters of the Dust an Interview with a Yale Art professor about the film, also seen here: Robert Farris Thompson on Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust ... (14:55)
Film Reference Rob Edelman
All-Movie Guide bio from Hal Erickson
TCMDB biography from Turner Classic Movies
Dassin, Jules They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They
Harvard Film Archive film retrospective summary
Article (2000) Jules Dassin: the Early Years,
by Michael Sragow from Salon,
Jules Dassin, Filmmaker on Blacklist, Dies
at 96 Richard Severo from The New York Times,
Wise Guys roundtable discussion with André de Toth, Budd Boetticher and Jules Dassin by Patrick Francis from LA Weekly
Time Out review Tom Milne
Despite a loss of temperature through the flashbacks which let in some female interest, this is one of Dassin's best films. Less coherent than Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11 in its challenge to prison conditions, it draws on WWII experience to draw a powerful analogy between the prison (where Cronyn's sadistic chief guard beats up prisoners to the strains of Wagner) and a fascist state. With brutality breeding brutality in this world which the dialogue (script by Richard Brooks) defines as an existentialist hell from which there is no escape, Brute Force was a notably violent film in its day. The scene in which an informer is herded by blow-torches to execution in a steam press still chills.
Prison-break movies are off-limits in real houses of correction, but the decommissioned Eastern State is fair game for Secret Cinema's screening of Jules Dassin's high-drama yarn. Drawn from Richard Brooks' script, Brute Force stars Burt Lancaster as a rock-jawed inmate with a yen for the outside air and an effetely effective Hume Cronyn as a sadistic head guard. Dassin liked to marry pulp forms to socially conscious themes, which sometimes produces a kind of leftist camp. (I suspect the reference in Barton Fink to a wrestling movie in which the main character "wrestles with his soul" is a dig at Dassin's Night and the City.)
Fond of Wellesian high angles and showy deep focus, Dassin is a relentlessly self-conscious stylist, amping up the climactic prison riot to gladiatorial proportions, an instinct that jars with Brooks' desire to make each of his inmates an average Joe, complete with heart-tugging flashbacks in which their crimes are laid down to economic need. Dassin would do better with the just-the-facts approach of Rififi, but William Daniels' cinematography is often stunning, and Cronyn's slyly menacing performance will come as a shock to those who only remember his kindly roles.
Turner Classic Movies review Mark Frankel
"Those gates only open three times. When you come in,
when you've served your time, or when you're dead!"
- from Brute Force
Producer Mark Hellinger had wanted to make a prison movie for almost a decade, and when he read an article by a former convict, the basic story of Brute Force (1947) began to take shape. Hellinger hired San Francisco Examiner reporter Robert Patterson to come up with the scenario and then brought in Richard Brooks to write the screenplay. A young screenwriter, Brooks had already worked on two of Hellinger's productions: The Killers (1946, uncredited) and Swell Guy (1946). Hellinger also reunited Burt Lancaster with two of his costars from The Killers: Sam Levene and Charles McGraw. Brooks and Lancaster clearly got along. At one point, Brooks told
Part film noir and part
Hume Cronyn's portrayal of the sadistic Captain Munsey is one of the highlights of his film career. Of course, the idea of a final physical confrontation between the athletic Lancaster and the wispy Cronyn was a bit hard to imagine as a real contest. As Cronyn recounts in his autobiography: "Burt, who had at one time been a circus acrobat, was in magnificent physical condition and weighed about two hundred pounds. He could in reality have picked me up with one hand and wrung me out like a washrag. As a concession to the casting and the totally unbelievable match, it was agreed that before the struggle began, Burt's character should be shot and wounded. Even so, Julie [Dassin] staged one of the most murderously filthy fights ever photographed, so filled with kicks to the groin, eye gouging and karate chops that when the scene was cut together, it was considered altogether too violent for the public and portions of it were eliminated."
Though ostensibly an indictment of a corrupt prison system, what emerges most clearly from the film is the sense of utter hopelessness. According to one of
The only respite from the film's unrelenting brutality comes in the four romanticized flashbacks. At night, after the inmates use their blowtorches to push James O'Rear into the machine press, the four cellmates reminisce about the women who, unwittingly or not, put them in prison. Whit Bissell recalls his wife, Ella Raines (Hail the Conquering Hero, 1944), for whom he juggled the company's books in an effort to get her a mink coat. John Hoyt bitterly remembers con woman Anita Colby and the way she played him for a fool. (Colby, a former fashion model and advertising executive, was the inspiration for Grace Kelly's character in Rear Window, 1954.) Howard Duff thinks back to his Italian beauty, Yvonne De Carlo. She had killed her own father in an attempt to protect Duff, but when the authorities arrived, it was Duff who nobly took the fall. Finally,
Though today she is chiefly remembered for her roles in The Ten Commandments (1956) and the TV series The Munsters, at the time De Carlo was one of Universal's most captivating starlets. And according to her autobiography, her charms were not lost on the film's star. "I had no doubts that Burt knew exactly what he wanted, and at the moment it was me." Though
According to Dassin, the flashback sequences were not his idea and though he vigorously objected to their inclusion in the film, he lost that battle (presumably to Hellinger).
Though the Production Code Office demanded several cuts to soften what it called the film's "excessive" brutality, the film's depiction of violence remained potent, and many critics felt that Hellinger had stepped over the line. Responding to these critics, Lancaster commented: "If Daumier knocks off a sketch of a rat eating out a woman's eye, by God, you say it's art, but if Joe Blow writes it for Hellinger, you say it's obscene. I don't get it."
DVD Talk (Jamie S. Rich) dvd review [4/5] [Criterion Collection] condensed version here: Criterion Confessions
Film Noir of the Week Steve-O
Nitrate Online (capsule) Eddie Cockrell, also reviewing BLUE GARDENIA and THE NAKED CITY
Time Out review Geoff Andrew
Despite its reputation, a rather overrated police-procedure thriller which has gained its seminal status simply by its accent on ordinariness and by its adherence to the ideal of shooting on location. In organising the hunt for a brutal murderer, Fitzgerald's detective is too winsome and hammy, Taylor's assistant merely wooden; thanks be then to Ted de Corsia as the killer, adding a touch of real nastiness and urgency to the admittedly well-constructed final chase.
Movie-Vault.com review Ramsey
In retrospect, The Naked City is an odd piece of film
noir. It contains few recognizable stars, was shot completely on location, and
includes real people in supporting roles. As the film attempts to capture a
certain street-level grittiness, there isn't much swank -- no burning Los
Angeles elegance as in The Big Sleep or shadowy, old world decay as in The
The film begins with some unvarnished and rather startling violence, when a women is coldheartedly murdered in the middle of the night on the Upper East Side. The case falls into the lap of Dan Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald), a diminutive Irish homicide lieutenant with a sort of muddled amiability and clever wit that predates Columbo by nearly thirty years. Muldoon and his team of flatfoots doggedly pursue their investigation, following lead upon lead, reaching dead-ends, and getting lucky a time or two. It's all solid police procedural, and the nature of the plot will feel familiar if you've ever seen an episode of Law and Order. And like that program, the movie's not afraid to get up close and offer quiet, desperate moments as when a mother is faced with the prospect of identifying her daughter's corpse at the city morgue.
The standout is, of course, the cinematography, for which the film won an Academy Award. There's plane shots over the city that are simply breathtaking, especially a view of the
To its credit, The Naked City gave rise to a television show of the same name, and it's had an obvious influence on a score of police dramas, from Starsky and Hutch to Hill Street Blues and the aforementioned Law and Order (which owes some, if not all, of its existence to this film).
Granted, there's an intrusive, annoying voice-over narration done by none other than the film's producer, in an attempt to glue together some sloppy storytelling and editing during the opening. But The
The real star of the picture is
Turner Classic Movies review Paul Tatara
"There are eight million stories in the naked city. This
has been one of them."
With that memorably stark declaration, producer Mark Hellinger closes one of the greatest film noirs of all time, Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948). The picture itself is just as hard-edged as its narration, a groundbreaking detective story shot in raw documentary style amid the bridges and concrete canyons of
The Naked City opens in tawdry noir style, with the murder of a young model in her
No doubt about it - this is one great-looking movie. Dassin and Daniels delivered perhaps the most starkly realized movie of the 1940s. Hellinger intended the images to resemble tabloid newspaper photographs. But it was Dassin and Daniels who had the brilliant idea to shoot scenes with a camera that was hidden inside a van, behind a tinted window. That way, the cast could cover the sidewalks without passersby even knowing they were taking part in a movie! The results are a virtual time capsule of life in post-war
Dassin directed other memorable films in the same mold as The Naked City, including Brute Force (1947), Night and the City (1950), and Thieves' Highway (1949). But his career in
Nevertheless, even with Dassin at the helm, Hellinger is the most fascinating person connected to The Naked City. A quick scan of his biography reads like an elaborate, Damon Runyon-inspired put-on: His first job was as a reporter for a theatrical publication called, mysteriously enough, Zit's Weekly. During prohibition, he drank copious amount of brandy and wrote the first-ever Broadway column, a wildly popular slice-of-life called "About Town." He soon began dressing in his lifelong uniform of dark blue shirts and white ties. He was so generous with his money, people would line up on pay day and wait for him to slide bills into their hands. In 1926, he married a beautiful showgirl whose actual name was Gladys Glad. In 1931, he wrote sketches for the Ziegfeld show, Hot Cha. He successfully toured the vaudeville circuit as an actor for a year. He broadcast football games for
Eventually, Hellinger wrote a couple of books that got sold to the studios out in
Hellinger dropped dead from a heart attack in 1947, having lived just long enough to enjoy a successful preview of The Naked City. At long last, he finally got some sleep.
DVD Talk (Jamie S. Rich) dvd review [4/5] [Criterion Collection] condensed version here: Criterion Confessions
Turner Classic Movies dvd review Jay Carr
DVD In My Pants - Criterion Collection DVD Review Jerry Donaghe
Jules Dassin's trendy reputation (and an awful lot of money) was made with Rififi, Never on Sunday and Topkapi - triumphant European success for a blacklisted Hollywood talent. But cultists groaned, for the 'real' Dassin was surely to be found in the baroque and electrifying Brute Force, the grotesquely Dickensian Night and the City, and - a personal favourite - Thieves' Highway. AI Bezzerides' script (from his own novel Thieves' Market) and the performances of Conte, Cobb, and Cortese (in her American debut) help restrain Dassin's feverish artistic ambitions in this tale of racketeering in the California fruit markets. The result slots sleazy eroticism and rigorous action seamlessly together into a high-grade trucking melo. Nothing more, but nothing less, which in the '40s was the most triumphant kind of American success.
While Thieves' Highway's superficially upbeat
ending (reshot, against the filmmakers' wishes, by Fox chief Darryl Zanuck)
might prevent it from being categorized as a genuine noir, Jules Dassin's 1949
melodrama about long-haul truckers—the director's final (and finest) film made
in America before the House Un-American Committee exiled him to Europe—is
nonetheless a bleak portrait of post-WWII despair, corrupt capitalism, and
idealistic disillusionment. Nick (a sturdy Richard Conte) returns home from a
stint overseas as a military mechanic with exotic Asian gifts for his mother,
father, and fiancé, yet from the get-go, Dassin (working from They Drive By Night and Kiss
Me Deadly scribe A.I. Bezzerides' script, based on his novel Thieves
Market) layers this happy reunion with portentous signs of the nasty
reality lurking beneath this cheery suburban facade.
In his family's sunny kitchen, Nick finds his bride-to-be Polly (Barbara Lawrence) disappointed with his china doll gift (until she spies the even-more expensive ring hanging from its arm) and his father legless due to an accident caused by underhanded San Francisco produce market kingpin Mike Figlia (a devious Lee J. Cobb, exuding small-time shadiness). Bent on exacting revenge, Nick teams up with Ed (Millard Mitchell), a trucker currently tending to his dad's rig, and the duo hatch a two-killings-for-the-price-of-one plan to travel to Frisco, where they can simultaneously deliver a truckload of sweet, highly coveted apples and dish out some bitter payback to the rotten Figlia.
With the exception of the opening scene and Ed's fatal hairpin turn on a winding highway, Dassin swathes Thieves' Highway's long-haul boys in claustrophobic compositions and menacing darkness, amplifying the sense of danger that hangs over Nick's head (whether it be the truck that collapses on his neck during an impromptu roadside pit stop or the axe hanging from the belt of Figlia's goon) and the air of doom that follows these desperate nomads as they hurtle through the night in their rickety rigs. Breakneck close-ups of speedometers and spinning tires create a propulsive sense of inevitability, while Italian prostitute (and Figlia crony) Rica's (Valentina Cortese) comment that Nick's bloody neck wound looks "beautiful" speaks to hers (and, later, Nick's) reconciliation with life's pain and disappointment. When Nick tells Rica—whose conniving smile initially says she wants to screw Nick in more than one way, but ultimately radiates authentic affection—that she looks like "chipped glass," she responds without a hint of surprise, "Do I? It took me a long time to get that way."
For Nick, however, it only takes the film's brutal 94 minutes to devolve from an enthusiastically optimistic ex-soldier—the misery of war already a fading memory—to a battle-scarred itinerant hardened by life's callous depravity. Although Dassin's film is less an anti-capitalist screed than a cynical portrait of revenge, betrayal, and dubious dealings, money is nonetheless an insidious force throughout Nick's ordeal, from Figlia's backhanded market manipulations to Polly's money-grubbing. Like pride and honor, love is also a commodity with a steep price in Thieves' Highway, and when Nick drives off into the sunset with Rica, his supposed triumph is colored by the fact that he's been forever corrupted by his vengeance, his newfound lust for wheeling and dealing, and the realization that the world—rather than full of pretty gifts and prettier girls—is a cheerless, degrading labyrinth of treacherous highways.
Turner Classic Movies dvd review Jerry Stafford
Cinepassion.org Fernando F. Croce
Time Out review Tom Milne
Bizarre film noir with Widmark as a small time nightclub tout trying to hustle his way into the wrestling rackets, but finding himself the object of a murderous manhunt when his cons catch up with him. Set in a London through which Widmark spends much of his time dodging in dark alleyways, it attempts to present the city in neo-expressionist terms as a grotesque, terrifyingly anonymous trap. Fascinating, even though the stylised characterisations (like Francis L Sullivan's obesely outsized nightclub king) remain theoretically interesting rather than convincing. Inclined to go over the top, it all too clearly contains the seeds of Dassin's later - and disastrous - pretensions
1950 American director Jules Dassin fled to
Opening with a shot
of American crook Harry Fabian (Widmark) sprinting down the street, the story
follows his doomed attempt to gain control of
Widmark actually spends a great deal of the film running away from things, both literally and metaphorically, and his nervous energy infects every scene. Dassin uses low camera angles to sweep through the gloomy streets and the wrestling sequence (featuring Lom and Mazurki) has a brutal power and beauty. A taut plot moves towards a conclusion that's both tense and tragic and though Dassin would go on to produce rather more ponderous fare, here he's bang on the mark throughout.
From its definitive title, which succinctly
encapsulates the genre's fundamental gloominess and urbanity, to the inevitably
cataclysmic end for its enterprising protagonist, Night and the City is
no less than the archetypal film noir. Jules Dassin's 1950 masterpiece was his
first movie after being exiled from America for alleged communist politics, and
the unpleasant ordeal seems to have infused his work with a newfound resentment
and pessimism, as the film—about foolhardy scam-artist Harry Fabian (Richard
Widmark) and his ill-advised attempts to become a big shot—brims with anger,
anxiousness, and a shocking dose of unadulterated hatred. Few films are as
wholeheartedly bleak as Night and the City (sharply adapted from Gerald
Kersh's novel by Jo Eisinger), which ignores typical noir elements (an
intricate heist, a femme fatale of some dangerously sexy note) in favor of
watching the wicked, weasel-like Fabian scamper about like a decapitated
chicken that doesn't realize it's already dead. That such nihilistic nastiness
is remotely entertaining is a tribute to Dassin's frantic, expressionistic
Richard Widmark's sweaty, chaotic face—his eyes on the brink of popping out of their sockets, and his mouth a tight, humorless line that emits a cackle like the Riddler on speed—is a reservoir of self-loathing and agitated ambition, and the director shoots his star's maniacal mug in slashing shadows that suggest Fabian's delusional lack of self-awareness. A two-bit crook who dreams of a life of "ease and plenty," Fabian finds what he believes to be his ticket to the top when he persuades legendary Greco-Roman grappler Gregorius the Great (Stanislaus Zbyszko) to form a wrestling business aimed at toppling the phony pro-wrestling operation of crime boss (and Gregorius's son) Kristo (Herbert Lom). However, as the film's opening and closing scenes (set to Franz Waxman's throbbing, hot-blooded score) convey, Fabian is on the run not just from those he's screwed (a considerable segment of London's population), but also from the cold, hard truth that he's a minor-leaguer unfit for the lawbreaking big time. Fabian's loyal, upstanding girlfriend Mary (Gene Tierney) is told by her friend Adam (Hugh Marlowe), a wealthy artist and cook whose domesticity is a counterpoint to Fabian's juvenile, amateurish career of vice, that her boyfriend is "an artist without an art." Desperate to prove Adam wrong and validate his calling as a wheeler and dealer, yet completely incapable of honest self-analysis, Fabian commits noir's cardinal sin by striving to better his lot in life. The results, predictably, aren't pretty.
Only a year removed from the more traditional Thieves' Highway, Dassin's first production abroad is dripping with symbolism, from the constrictive staircases Widmark rapidly descends (indicative of the direction Fabian's schemes are headed) to the lethal wrestling match between Gregorius and The Strangler (a metaphor for the uselessness of Fabian's attempts at social climbing). Just like his anti-hero, the director is obsessed with "angles," as his frame doggedly circumscribes Fabian with astringent architecture and harrowing darkness while amplifying the mood of impending existential tragedy by refusing to present the character's face in full light. Meanwhile, Dassin's London is a malevolent urban nightmare, a tangled web of disorienting murkiness and dastardly double-crosses, and the metropolis's menacing enormity—just like ruthless Silver Fox club proprietor Phil's (Francis L. Sullivan) massive girth—forms a discordant visual and thematic contrast with Fabian's wiry, hyper-kinetic frame. "Harry, you coulda been anything," a despondent Mary sighs after her lover's foolproof plans have been torn asunder, but in truth, Fabian—a man who robs and abuses Mary and callously screws over Phil's untrustworthy entrepreneurial wife Helen (Googie Withers)—is fulfilling the only destiny he's got. A more apt summation of this vitriolic hustler comes courtesy of the acidic Kristo, who perceptively recognizes that Fabian was "born a hustler, and you'll die a hustler." Fabian is confined by—and doomed to perish in—the endless night and the wicked city, and thus when Mary, working in a swanky nightclub, sings, "Here's to tomorrow morning," the unromantic irony is enough to make one choke.
Film Noir of the Week Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell, from Encyclopedia of Film Noir
Turner Classic Movies dvd review Nathaniel Thompson
Electric Sheep Magazine Pat Long
New York Sun [Gary Giddins] also reviewing 3 other Criterion crime films
The Village Voice [Jim Ridley] A
Tribute for Richard Widmark,
Time Out review Geoff Andrew
Archetypal heist thriller, with a group of thieves banding together for a daring jewel robbery and falling out afterwards. Highly acclaimed for the 35-minute robbery sequence, conducted without a word being spoken, and for the generally downbeat atmosphere, it's actually rather overrated, lacking the tension, profundity, and vivid characterisation of similar films by, say, Becker and Melville. Like even the best of Dassin's work, in fact, it never penetrates beneath its fashionable, self-conscious surface.
Guardian/Observer review Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian
Jules Dassin's classic jewel-thief caper of 1955 looks as smart as paint, with its unendurably tense, entirely wordless robbery section, and its beautifully constructed payoff in the final act, built on failures to communicate superseded by the cellphone age. In fact, the whole robbery is from a low-tech, even pre-tech era, larceny on a human scale, hinging simply on spraying fire-extinguisher fluid into an alarm-grille, which somehow makes it more real and more exciting.
As ex-con Tony, Jean Servais has
a tremendously cold and haggard look (Ray Milland is the nearest
Jules Dassin's brilliant depiction of betrayal, revenge,
redemption without joy, and irony. Jules, having been run out of the land of
the free on political grounds, knew something of each. Auguste Le Breton
pitched in on the script based upon his novel, but it's probably fair to say
that the latter work was coloured as a Dassin statement. And it is. It's
difficult to imagine a more comprehensive two-hour indictment of capitalism; it
even corrupts the criminals! As a secondary concern it then turns out that the
film is an utter technical masterpiece. The realism that already characterized
Dassin's better work is brought to critical mass in the famous 28 minute
robbery, a scene delivered without any dialogue or music. The next thing is
that when the music returns, when cinematic devices return, Dassin/Breton
sustain the horriffic level of suspense through to the darkest comedy of a
conclusion; so dark that it's not even funny. It is not, of course, supposed to
be. There may be something humorous about a talented artist giving American fascists
the finger, and then being welcomed with an enormous budget and all of the
cinematic talent in
As a French production made by an American movie veteran, Rififi
forges a world where the Hays Code of censorship never existed and
What director Jean-Pierre Melville synthesised from the French side (witness his bar in Le Doulos based on American models never seen in a French setting), Dassin conjures up from the perspective of the left-hand side of the Atlantic with his Hollywood nightclub architecture, echoing to the strains of doleful Parisian blues in Rififi. Here a chanteuse sings the film’s eponymous song, and gives us some clues as to its elusive meaning: "slugging it out" is one which, in context, may mean rough love play, but ultimately its point is its very unknowability to all but the initiates – the ‘gang’.
We know we’re moving into a different cinematic world in the key
confrontation scene that comes early between wronged gangster ‘the Stephanois’
(Belgian actor Jean Servais) and his ex-squeeze, Mado (Marie Sabouret), who
betrayed him to police. He demands compensation through taking her jewellery
and, as she sheds the baubles, his next demand - for her coat - turns power to
eroticism, brought home as she continues to shed… Nothing is seen, all is
suggested, but it’s a vengeful, domineering (and hence political) assault that
wouldn’t even have reached American censors, let alone been passed by
them. Coming after the familiarity and comfort of the
Sex rears its head again as the gang members bid farewell to their loved
ones before the heist through erogenous touching in scenes that have a truth in
them that can’t be denied, yet would never have been contemplated in 1950s
Music plays a big part, especially for a film famed for its ‘silence’, in Americanising Rififi. We are unknowingly prepared for the unvoiced drama to come when seeing the heist’s foundations being carefully laid - in a montage of mime! This extraordinary sequence of preparation is driven by breathless music – even the safecracker (played by Dassin himself) is seen as a cash-paying jewellery customer – completely sans dialogue. How very French this must have seemed from an American point of view. It’s a short but lovely sequence – no wonder we are barracking for the crooks!
The ‘silence’ of the fabled heist sequence glides in imperceptibly; it’s almost an elision. This setpiece is choreographed to perfection – it’s a ballet of teamwork, camaraderie and cunning, building inexorably without a wasted moment. And because it’s character-driven, it grows organically out of the narrative of gangland connectivity, rather than being dropped in with bookends as in later copies of this sequence like The Hot Rock (1972) and Dassin’s own, regrettable reprise, Topkapi (1964). Rififi ‘s famed sequence remains legendary not because it was first but because of its humanity, all eye contact, frailties and egos in full flight.
As the gang members’ nerves stretch tauter, the shadows steadily deepen, the camera angles skewing more rakishly off level. But it’s the ever-present sound that drives our tension – grinding saws, stepping feet, breathing bodies – we’re there! (Talk about mime!)
Stunning cinematography by Philipe Agostini (who also shot 1939’s Le Jour Se Lève) has echoes of The Third Man in its rococo noir: European wedding-cake architecture dramatised in destabilising fields of light and acute, ink-black voids. Attention to detail comes in their leader smoking at the crime scene but holding on to the match – forensics won’t get any breaks from these guys!
The ultimate putdown of police is their near-total absence (as it’s gangsters who initiate and make the running on ‘investigations’) which, like Fritz Lang’s M (1931), implies a lawlessness closer to jungle rule than constitutional – an unsurprising view for someone like Dassin hounded from their country by the kangaroo court of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Who can blame Dassin for running a dialectic between
The final death ride, in a ‘49 Oldsmobile ragtop (almost certainly the director’s personal ride), with the rescued boy in his cowboy suit enjoying his toy pistol waving shenanigans, oblivious to the dying gangster at the wheel, mocks the American tough guy aesthetic. Its stunning visual design has a subtlety and economy that leaves the Hays Code ‘crime must not be seen to pay’ admonitions standing exposed for their artlessness. But at the climax there is also a moment of paternal tenderness, recalling the fadeout of the American noir classic Double Indemnity (1944) in which Edward G.Robinson cradles the dying Fred MacMurray. It ties together two works of a mutually reinforcing canon, of which Rififi may be one of its ultimate distillations.
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Turner Classic Movies review Frank Miller
The Greek film
industry took center stage in 1960 with the release of the off-beat romantic
comedy, Never on Sunday. The film led to increases in tourism and
location shooting there. But not only was it the product of an American
writer-director's imagination, but it was even resented by many in its country
Never on Sunday was the brainchild of American expatriate Jules Dassin. After a promising start in
Eventually, he settled in
With no major producers interested in the project initially, Dassin kept his budget low, a mere $125,000, which adjusted for inflation still comes out to less than a million in current dollars. One clever move on his part was assigning the music score to Manos Hadjidakis, a Greek composer noted for his work in developing new forms for the traditional instrument, the bazouki.
The result was a huge hit. With Hadjidakis' score and hit title song selling records, the film went on to gross almost $4 million in the
Moreover, the film scored well with critics. Mercouri won Best Actress honors at the Cannes Film Festival, and the picture picked up five Oscar® nominations: Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Costumes and Best Song. That was when the real controversy started. Many Hollywood old-timers were appalled that any foreign film, much less one showing a positive view of prostitution, should knock more wholesome American fare out of the running. In a year marked by some embarrassingly blatant campaigns for the Oscar®, Mercouri made headlines when she refused to heed United Artists executives who urged her to fight for the award. She complained to newspaper columnist Art Buchwald, "I'm not a Kennedy. I'm an actress, not a politician. What do they want me to do -- ring doorbells in
There also were complaints about Hadjidakis's nomination for the title song. Some pointed out that the song had achieved its greatest popularity with an English lyric by Billy Towne, who was not eligible for the award since his version was not the one heard in the film. Others complained that Hadjidakis had stolen his melody from a Greek folk song. Nonetheless, on Oscar® night, he came out the film's only winner. Even then there were problems. Through a communications snafu, Hadjidakis was not there, nor had French producer Raoul J. Levy been notified that he had been asked to accept any of the film's Academy Awards®. When Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows announced the Best Song winner, nobody came to the podium. After a few quips from Allen ("I guess he won't be here until Sunday."), host Bob Hope came on and tried to claim the award, joking "This is the moment I've been waiting for." But Meadows simply took it herself and made sure it got to the composer.
Ironically, in all the furor about the film's foreign production and permissive subject matter, nobody had noticed Dassin's sly criticism of the