The Saturday Matinee
The Saturday Matinee is a new partnership between the Seamus Heaney Centre and our friends at the Queen's Film Theatre. Each week one of our students gets an opportunity to engage with new cinema, so they can tell us what they find.
Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is pink, beautiful, nostalgic, and simply exceptional. The film takes place across two worlds, ‘Barbieland’ and the ‘Real World’, tracing the ideological similarities and differences between them.
As Gerwig explores what feminism entails, Barbie puts forward essential ideas about womanhood and equality with a light touch.
Moreover, Barbie explores what it means to ‘only exist within the warmth of [someone’s] gaze.’ It underlines how women have existed under the male gaze for centuries, which leads women to be self-conscious and self-effacing. Barbie highlights this while also reckoning with how fragile, fluid, and impressionistic our identities are, and how they are both personal to us and interlinked with the society in which we exercise and perform identity.
Barbie is not only a reclamation, but for those of us who have grown up with Barbie dolls, it offers closure, as ‘the stereotypical Barbie’ performing the Eurocentric standards of beauty challenges the system she is a part of, recognising beauty as a fluid concept rather than an ideal. In this way, Gerwig explores the differences between being a creator and the product that is created, between reality and the ideal, as she underlines the power that comes with being questioning, creative, and imaginative.
With songs that are beautiful and coherent to the film, with costumes that are nostalgic for the accessories of the Barbie doll, Barbie is smart, witty, and sarcastic. I recommend letting the credits roll till the end so you can listen to Billie Eilish’s ‘What Was I Made For?’, a song that sheds light on the themes explored in Barbie but is also endlessly tender and evocative.
The movie often breaks the fourth wall and invites the audience to be part of the ‘Barbieland’; it's loud, wholesome and heartwarming, all the while exploring feminism, the nightmares of patriarchy, and arguing for equality. A classic Greta Gerwig film!
Starring Paul Mescal as Calum, and Frankie Corio as his daughter Sophie, Aftersun maintains a close focus on its dad-and-daughter-duo.
Aftersun seems like a story we’ve heard before; a young, divorced dad, struggling with drugs and his mental health, tries to be a good father to his daughter on their holiday to Turkey. Though, as Jack Underwood notes in Not Even This, a book on his experiences as a father: we’ll always need another love poem, or another death poem, for there will always be something more to say.
As Sophie records her summer with Calum on her camera, the film cuts from scenes of them lounging beside the pool to the future, where Sophie watches that same footage interspersed with scintillating and disorienting flashes of a rave. Calum’s and Sophie’s summer resort, which appears to be a haven, struggles to hold on to its idealistic image. Scenes play out in mirrors, water, or in her camera, an uncertain world seen through reflections, uncertainty, and fragments of memory. The pace of the story is slow, but inside the spare dialogue, we become aware of a bubbling tension, and a developing tenderness, between Calum and Sophie.
Subthemes unspool through the narrative; one that stands out to me is the sexual curiosity, and mortification, of the eleven-year-old Sophie. In a summer resort populated with young lovers, an observant child becomes an audience to a world without sexual inhibition. Troubling scenes are well delivered with a lightness of touch – Calum forgetting to go to sleep with his clothes on, and sleeping on Sophie’s bed instead of his own, while the child puts a blanket on him.
The film is filled with melancholia, wrapping itself in an eerie calm, but this is sprinkled with realistic humour; an effort to keep a brave face for and by the child. Childishness and humour appear when the story can’t bear to speak up and tell itself. Paul’s and Frankie’s acting is something truly wonderful, so that we understand through silences; our sadness filling the gaps in the storytelling.
The film breathes so silently and delicately that we wait for the moment where it all explodes – but it never comes. There is no closure, no neat ending. All we’re left with is the façade of calm where we began. It is a testimony against exposition, while a story, a very real one at that, shines its way through just the same.
Women Talking is an adaptation of the book by the same name and begins the same way with the premise of an imagined response to a very real event that took place.
The film follows a council of women elected by the rest of the women in the isolated Mennonite colony to make the final decision for them all after everything they’ve suffered at the hands of their abusers: ‘Stay & Fight’ or ‘Leave’.
The film is pieced together mainly through conversation between the women of the council, where we learn of the atrocious acts committed against them, from toddlers to elderly women, and of their reservations as they decide what is to be done. The women are torn as they care for the boys who are not yet the men that abused them and don’t want to leave them behind, but they also know that if they stay, they endanger their own lives and that of the women that come after them. They know that things will not change. The ambiguous ending itself is an extended act of the female imagination, leaving the viewer and reader only with the hope that the women are safe after everything they have faced.
The director, Sarah Polley, does an excellent job of focusing the film on the women and women alone, with the narrator of the film being an unnamed woman, and with the only adult man to speak was the minute-taker August. She also does a great job with the dialogue, with hard-hitting dialogues and impactful moments that drove home the pain these women experienced and their hope for the future. Cinematographer Luc Montpellier also does a wonderful job with setting the tone for specific scenes using light, colour, and elemental settings really pulling you in to the story and making you feel the full impact of the women’s plight and their varied range of emotions from grief to anger and finally to hope.
The Whale depicts the final five days of the depressed Charlie, a fat man whose health is rapidly failing. The film opens with an ending, promising that Charlie will die. We as the audience are made to suffer as we watch this man’s own destruction.
Darren Aronofsky’s auteurship wants both his characters and the spectators to suffer as much as possible. The pseudo-suffering in the film comes through overly dramatic scenes where Charlie binge-eats. These sequences are entirely voyeuristic, yet excessive in nature. Aronofsky is relying on a stereotypical portrayal of someone struggling with obesity. The emphasis on the ‘whale’ appearance of Charlie through the cinematography, animalising him, as well as the forceful metaphor of the Moby Dick essay, constantly draw on Charlie being ‘the whale.’
No, the real suffering of the film comes subtly. At one point, Charlie drops a key to a door. He grabs a claw mechanism to try and grab it, but ultimately fails to obtain the key. We don’t get an excessive bending-down sequence. Instead, Charlie admits defeat, showcasing the everyday horrors he faces. Most important, though, are the relationships, the ones Charlie builds and breaks, bends and molds, each person suffering with the looming fact that Charlie is going to die. Hong Chau’s performance as Liz is a personal highlight, in an intense and constant battle between saving her friend and ultimately ending his suffering.
We suffer, particularly through the actors’ performances, the raw and intensity of them. This drives the film, and it relies on its performers to work. Eventually, we find empathy, proving a more worthy use of the art of suffering, beyond excessive grotesqueness.
Warning: This review discusses events from the whole film, including the ending.
Tár shows the life cycle of an abuser, depicting the entangled relationship between creativity, spectacle, and abuse.
Lydia Tár is an archetype of power, another ‘great artist’ in a line of controversial maestros. This film could be a portrait of the mastery of a powerful abuser, from the brazenly familiar titling to the self-important opening credits; it could be enraptured by the inevitability and ineffability of the powerful, the talented, the spectacular. This is not the story director Todd Field tells, however. He fragments that narrative, inverting an almost biopic-like structure by condemning and exposing Tár instead of empathising with and exalting her.
A second structure emerges as a result, bending the film’s genre with ghostly off-screen screams. Like any skilled abuser, Tár frames the narrative to portray herself as victim to this tragic haunting: "I was attacked," she flippantly lies about injuries accidentally sustained while pursuing a new victim. In the end though, when faced with the reality of her predatory behaviour, Tár runs vomiting from the scene, her composure and control vanishing as the spectre of her actions condemn her.
Like a conductor’s second hand, one half of this story shapes the other, and when Tár’s exploitation is exposed, the destruction of her reputation, an abuser’s main asset, becomes inevitable. She goes from European cultural icon to uppity Staten Islander conducting at video game conventions.
Like any life cycle, abuse perpetuates and grows beyond itself. On a visit to a river in the Phillipines, an exiled Tár is told that crocodiles lurk in the water, leftover from a chaotic Hollywood production. They are the consequences of spectacle, of abuses of power, and much like the ghosts of victims, legacies of historic abusers, and Tár’s regenerating potential for further abuse, Field warns us: “They survive.”
“Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.” In gorgeous black-and-white photography, North Circular builds these songs into the size of myths, of the land Empire built and left behind, of the people who came, stayed, and struggled to live.
At the end of the credits, Luke McManus’ documentary North Circular tells us that “Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs.” North Circular builds a mosaic of its titular road which runs across Dublin’s North Inner city, from the westerly neighbourhoods of Phoenix Park to the estates and warehouses of the Docklands.
Locals gather in pubs, listening intently to old songs played by local artists, both professionals and enthusiasts. The camera explores ruins of old institutions, mental hospitals, and Magdalene laundries, haunting communities still. The film rests on hidden details, carvings on walls, statues, pillars; here, a face, near cartoonish with mouth wide open, hidden on a street corner. New squatters make a home in an abandoned terraced house, while taking the time to keep the prized possessions of its deceased former resident carefully filed away. These places, these communities, the eccentrics and pubs, families and soccer teams, their shameful pasts and uncertain futures, these are what North Circular is concerned with. In gorgeous black-and-white photography, the film builds these stories into the size of myths, of the land Empire built and left behind, of the people who came, stayed, and struggled to live.
But what is black-and-white photography if not a myth-making device? When we see it, we think of something timeless, something disconnected from the current world, already past. Whatever moment has been filmed, has already gone. This photography plays on the nostalgia inherent in the film medium, aestheticizing the very nature of the image; that the image captures what had already passed. McManus seems to have created, in this form at least, not just a portrait of this community, but a eulogy to it.
This is ironic, considering how the film focuses in on a campaign that saved one of the North Circular’s iconic pubs, the Cobblestone, and how it ends on a gig by the musician Gemma Dunleavy, whose upbeat music breathes new pride to these neighbourhoods. This road is alive with life, despite the gentrification. Though, perhaps this nostalgia comes with a focus on the music of this island. After all, many of our great songs, the ones that people remember, are dirges for the dead.
Ben Webb and Hilary McDaniel harmonise their thoughts on new release, Clouded Reveries, an intimate exploration of Doireann Ní Ghriofa's world and creative process.
Ben: This is a beautiful film, not only in its images, its rich readings in Irish and English, but in the very structuring by which it enacts the poetic worldview Ní Ghríofa unfolds.
All her life, her poetry, she says, has been circling down and down, deeper and deeper into the same themes; she wonders what there will be after a lifetime of this. Many poets might say this anxiously, but her eyes widen with excitement.
The film itself is a deepening circule, the viewer floating in the ‘underground river’ — a metaphor through which she later describes the mysterious surfacing of experience into poetry.
The centre of the film, and Ní Ghríofa’s experience, is her granny Mai’s house in rural Co. Clare. She speaks of the silence there; the voices of crow, clock, fire; all the stories told. The ordinary sings, here and throughout the film, in shots of concrete walls, Lego, hands folding clothes and tapping out rhythms of words. She “prais[es] the unique work women do“. She chants lost female voices: the daughter of an Ascendancy family watching her house burn, and the song of Eibhlín Dubh.
Almost embarrassed, she says these voices speak through her, ghosts in her throat. But her vision of life works by mystery, not mastery; to which end the visuals of the film work in harmony, with lingering close-ups turning the most ordinary things strange, into art. Seethe lichen-spotted black railing in Kilcrea, a red ribbon tied round it…
The film beautifully translates her work, convincing me that poetry and film must work together much more often than they do, to create from the melody of words and images, a song.
Hilary: I’m entirely in agreement Ben. The cinematography by Kev L Smith is strangely lush and magical; and you can wince at that description but there is no other way to elaborate on it. The drone scenes of Ní Ghríofa lying in a dense, grassy field are perfect accompaniments to dialogue by the poet herself, and needs no further explanation, where in other contexts they may seem gratuitous. She is a tantalizing subject, and her purple lips and hazel-green eyes are in director Ciara Nic Chormaic’s generous and fluid camerawork for 80% of the film. Here is a raven-haired delicate beauty, articulating the dissection of a body preserved in formaldehyde in an anatomy lesson, or describing her spiritual connection and channeling of Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill the 18th century Irish noble woman, who wrote the poem at the core of Ní Ghríofa’s novel A Ghost In The Throat. The Irish and English are expressed in a gorgeous counter-point with subtitles which enrich each other.
My only complaints are that, having never heard of the author as Ben has, I would have loved more enticement to precede the film. At about forty minutes there was suddenly a close narration about the novel itself. I thought, ‘Wow, I would have loved this in the beginning!’, a help to lead me down this fascinating fairy trail. The only other actor in the film is a re-enactor in an eighteenth century dress. She is always portrayed in out of focus footage, and is inoffensive as far as re-enactors go. The question is, could the film do without her? I believe, yes. I also felt the lack of John Daly’s minimalist music score and found myself wanting more. Besides that, this was a film that never woke up from the dream submerged in Ní Ghríofa’s writing process and world, and really at the end, it never needed to.
Triangle of Sadness believes that it knows more than its audience. Billed as an anti-capitalist satire where the rich suffer a shipwreck, it walks a thin line between satire and propaganda, as the cinematography is often at odds with the story.
The plotline hammers you with the lesson: capitalism is bad, the rich worse. However, the visuals highlight the poignancy of rich people suffering a shipwreck, and we end up rooting for them and their survival. Though the movie announces a scathing take on capitalism, its plotline depends on the sentiment that all is forgiven in adversity if we stick together.
It is unsurprising then that many of the ‘jokes’ are insensitive yet delivered as punch lines. We are supposed to laugh at humanity’s expense as intersectionality brutally collapses. One of the characters, Therese, is in a wheelchair and has a speech impediment. She is only able to say the German phrase ‘in den wolken’ (‘in the clouds’), and exclaims it repeatedly in moments of distress. Given that the rich are painted as entitled and annoying, it is suggested that Therese is much the same as her fellow customers.
However, when the camera focuses on Therese, we see a woman struggling to save her own life. When Therese asks for help, it is not entitled, like the group of rich men who can’t be bothered to catch a fish, but depend on women for their lives. The other survivors abandon and neglect Therese, and only when they hear her scream her phrase do they turn to rescue her – is this supposed to be funny? As a terrible attempt at dark humour, it is hugely insensitive and ableist.
One of the characters, Dimitry, accuses the only main Black character, Nelson, of being a pirate. Given Nelson has not been shown on screen before, we are made to question this. Even though this is narratively plausible, this does not excuse that Dimitri’s accusations towards Nelson are not supported by any evidence except his ignorance. Although this scene is pertinent and invites the audience to engage, it is presented as a ‘joke’. Unsurprisingly, towards the end, all seems forgiven as Nelson shaves a relaxing Dimitry’s chin. As a satire on society, Triangle of Sadness could have more impact if only it understood its own politics.
In some ways, Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is treading familiar filmic ground: Park Hae-il plays Hae-Joon, a detective who tumbles into a romantic and sexual obsession with a suspect, Seo-rae (played by Tang Wei), accused of murdering her husband.
From the title drop to the end credits, Chan-wook plays with an impressive amount of genre-hopping fire: a tense detective mystery, a surreal erotic thriller, and (at times) a pretty sweet romantic comedy.
Seo-rae is a classic femme fatale: mysterious & seductive, dangerous & uneasy. Both Park’s script and Tang Wei’s performance, however, take the best of the trope and elevate it. Stories of obsession are too often also stories of dehumanisation, but Decision to Leave refuses to depersonalise its protagonist’s object of fascination. At times, Hae-Joon’s obsession is surface level (isn’t obsession always?) but Seo-rae never is. Exactly what she is feeling isn’t always clear, but it’s clear she is feeling with a vicious depth.
Obsession is rendered in a number of striking ways: Seo-rae turns a corner, and the detective is lying in wait, invisible to her but rendered sharp and hungry to the audience; Hae-Joon is going about his business, and a phone vibration stills him, another text to analyse; she leans forward to apply chapstick to his lips, and they’re both frozen for a moment, because – it turns out – they’re both consumed.
Despite the vast and uncompromising scenic moments, and the intricate, stylish plotting, this is an incredibly restrained film. The mystery reveals itself slowly but never ploddingly. Sex is superseded by a subtler sensuality, and violence – while horrifying – is seen mostly through its aftermath. At its very best, Decision to Leave uses this restraint to forecast the delicious perils of coming undone.
Director Terence Davies’ Benediction refuses easy denotation – it is a montage-work, a re-enactment, a chamber piece, a melodrama, a comedy, a psychological study, a love story, a death story, a biopic, an anti-biopic.
It stops and starts, conforming to no consistent register; an aesthetic undermined by the intrusion of distant voices and decaying newsreel and the sense that time is out-of-joint. It is a retelling of gay history through someone who somehow navigated its centre while living on its peripheries. Most importantly, it is a film about trauma, of war, of repression.
Its subject, Siegfried Sassoon (as played by both Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi in twin performances across time), is a poet reduced by history to the twin states of War Poet and Tragic Homosexual. Sassoon was changed by the first world war, and Capaldi has never given a greater performance than as a man who has lived through his life the long-way-round carrying its ghosts upon his back. In its wake, he cannot say what he means, nor can those around him. He becomes increasingly self-denying, blaming the cruelty of others for the cruelty he begins to enact himself. Still, he wants to touch and to be touched in return, but he cannot articulate what kind of touch he needs just as he cannot decode that which is wanted of him. This is his problem, that he sees everything as a problem of language, rather than addressing the need for sensation. He cannot just ‘be’, as he feels his being to be irreparably compromised, subject to enclosure and confusion, salvageable only in increasingly-meticulous and outmoded artistic expression and a pivot towards outward respectability. This is perhaps why Terence Davies, a man unashamed to publicly-articulate his lifelong struggle with a uniquely queer loneliness, has been able to produce a film of such unprecedented empathy, with a paucity of easy answers.
Benediction is unafraid to depict pain through the ageing of faces, the confusion of want and Siegfried’s refusal to be happy. There are moments of extraordinary tenderness and understanding though, of quiet solidarity. So much is communicated within the slightest gestures, and the phenomenon of humanity is never condemned or seen as anything other than a phenomenon. There may be ghosts, but Davies knows that cinema is made from ghosts. Benediction draws pure cinema from verse.
An Cailín Ciúin, or The Quiet Girl, is the Irish language debut from writer and director Colm Bairéad, based on Claire Keegan’s 2010 novella Foster.
This is a quiet movie, guiding your hand through the countryside of Ireland and its people with gentleness and care. Set in 1981, a young girl named Cait leaves her impoverished, emotionally cold family to stay with a childless couple for the holidays. Cait is a withdrawn observer who struggles to make friends, but during her time away she feels deep affection, perhaps for the first time, and must reconsider the definition of family.
An Cailín Ciúin builds slowly, showcasing the world from the protagonist's perspective. Shot on 35mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio, there’s a claustrophobic feeling to the naturally lit shots of rooms and hallways that reflect the characters’ entrapment. Kate McCullough’s camerawork brings out the humanity in every frame, using static shots and slow zooms to rest on her subjects, pulling you further into the intimacy they feel. The little details that make a place special are brought out; the camera lingers on train-patterned wallpaper, soap smeared arms, a macaroon resting on a table. Most scenes are unaccompanied by score, soaking the audience in Cait’s silence, so when Stephen Rennicks’ beautifully minimalistic additions do come in, their impact is felt.
From its warm cinematography to its minimal script, An Cailín Ciúin lifts up quietness, gentleness, and small acts of love. The characters grow in compassion and understanding, proving how the little moments of life can make a big difference in deciding who to trust. From helping scrub floors to offering someone a tight embrace, Colm Bairéad’s film proves that sometimes you don’t have to say anything to tell someone you love them.
A banal horror; the missed period. Mundane evil and long periods of pain define Happening, directed by Audrey Diwan. Which is to say, I was on the edge of my seat and felt physically ill by the third act.
Happening is an adaptation of Annie Ernaux's memoir which traces her pregnancy and numerous attempts at trying to obtain an abortion as a university student. We begin with Anne, played by Anamaria Vartolomei, in the hazy end of a university semester and follow her to the cold hopelessness of seeking help to the fever pitch of the final act. Time in the movie is marked by captions reminding us how many weeks along the pregnacy is. The reminders externalise the urgency that bubbles under the surface of the narrative.
Happening is a dutiful portrayal of what illegal abortion is and never shys away from it, and yet never borders into a territory in which it is for our entertainment. The sunny hope of the first act wanes along with Anne's naivety that an abortion will be an easy thing to obtain. While a period piece, being set in rural France in 1963, it still resonates with stories that emerged during the Repeal the Eighth campaign in the Republic of Ireland in 2016 and stories that emerge from Northern Ireland even now.
The perniciousness of a misogynistic society is found in every interaction Anne has when she confesses she is pregnant. The GP who prescribes her an anti-miscarriage drug when she approaches him for an abortion. The married male friend who attempts to sleep with her as she is already pregnant. The friend who stops talking to her after finding out she is intent on getting the abortion. The abortionist who tells her she'll stop the procedure if she makes a sound, to the prudish girls in the shower room asking if the rash Anne has is syphilis. Yet, these are also the people who save her. The abortionist who takes her hand as she inserts the wand, the classmate in a prudish night dress gown who hands her the scissors to cut the umbilical cord and calls the doctor.
It is pieces of media like Happening that remind us why reproductive rights activists do what they do. Diwan’s film shines a harsh light on what it means to deny people autonomy, and above all, is one of the strongest tools that exists in a political movement: an unflinching story.
How do we know what’s important? Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World reflects on this question through the chronicles of four years in the life of Julie, a thirty-year-old woman who feels like Bambi on ice, utterly out of control as she attempts to navigate her place in the world.
Flipping from professions as a doctor to a psychologist to a photographer, Julie hasn’t a clue how she wants to live her life or who she wants to live it with, especially when she is given a glimpse into a life that could be permanent. When she’s faced with the possibility of having kids or pursuing a new partner, Julie does the only thing she knows how to: wait, and see where time leads her.
“Time” here is presented in twelve chapters, the only structure we can rely on in a story full of chaos and uncertainty. Each chapter is accompanied by a title that foreshadows the content to come, allowing the audience to set their expectations before entering a scene. Unlike Julie, we get the luxury of knowing what’s to come.
The film wanders with Julie around the streets of Oslo following each reckless decision she makes. Kasper Tuxen’s camerawork, much like our protagonist, is rarely stationary, gently mirroring the character's movements, shaking ever so slightly on shots that would traditionally remain static. Trier’s script honestly appeals to a generation who feels pressure to reach a place of certainty about their futures. Julie is constantly waiting for some greater alternative, some confirmation of what’s important, but sometimes what’s best is right in front of us. Sometimes it’s not enough to wait for certainty–we must compromise, make shortsighted decisions and figure it out in the process.
The Worst Person in the World celebrates wandering, confusion, and processing. The film settles on a comma rather than a period, suggesting that what is most important is not finding an answer, but holding close to those who share in your questioning.
Red Rocket is a film about a bad person who does bad things, a user who uses whilst possessing the ability to buy into his own delusions.
It is a film that has the courage to force its audience to draw its own conclusions, to question its own responses without guidance. Mikey Saber, played by Simon Rex, is our eyes -- we follow his worst-made-plans, his predation. He is in many ways the hero his country and his country’s cinema deserves, a hole without a donut who can only break what he touches. Rex is fearless, making himself the literal butt of the joke whilst performing every action with the kind of manic intensity that calls to mind both Jerry Lewis and Johnny Knoxville.
Few directors know how to zoom in like Sean Baker, both in terms of deployment of the lens and in his innate understanding of the small boring particularities and immoralities that define a country in slow decay. He is a director of rare empathy, the kind of courageous empathy that enables him to show people as they are. There is an innate courage of depiction that unifies all of his work, a love of humanity that acknowledges the contradictions and cruelties of humanity as part of that love. We hear Trump & Clinton on the television, but we witness a ‘flyover town’ wherein none of that makes any difference -- a world either ignored, dismissed, or used.
This is a film that evokes Jesse Stiles’ observation that “if anything could mean nothing at all while signifying everything at once, then this must be the centre of America.” It is the only film on record with a title that evokes both a dog’s penis and the U.S. national anthem. And it is very, very funny.
It’s an ancient cliché to infer that music be the food of love, but in Ali & Ava, the cliché comes alive.
A joyful romance set across two neighbourhoods and the surrounding country of director Clio Barnard’s beloved Bradford, the film depicts the kind of lovers we don’t often see on camera. Ava is a teaching assistant and recent grandmother, hiding the abuse of her late husband from her son. Ali is a techno-obsessed British-Asian musician living with his younger wife as they hide their separation from his family. When Ali and Ava meet the chemistry crackles; the spark between the two leads, Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar, is the thing that movies are made for. Together, Ali and Ava see a future they didn’t realise was missing.
Ava listens to country and traditional Irish music, and she lights up when she talks about it, filling her with images of her father singing in the pub. Ali retreats to music in times good and bad, dancing to the heavy beats coming from his large boxy headphones, the movement and energy keeping him alive and connected to the world around him. Ali and Ava get to know each other through their music, teasing each other about their preferences, sharing what it means to them.
At her house, they wear their own headphones and dance to their own music, the sound mix sliding between their own tunes, shifting us from one perspective to another. Then, they share their music too; Ali listens to Bob Dylan, Ava Daniel Avery’s techno. The scope of their world expands with the experience of the other. Music helps them connect with the supporting characters too; in one memorable scene, Ali calms the suspicious children on Ava’s estate throwing rocks at his car by blasting a song they can all sing together. Through their music, the lovers share their worlds, and assert that we are all living in the same one.
Damian McCann’s Irish language thriller Doineann, set on a remote island, is an example of the exciting output in the Northern Irish cultural scene at the moment.
On the surface this is a classic, pacy whodunnit with all the necessary ingredients: a missing family, encroaching criminal entities and a (literal) incoming storm. But it is also a complex representation of male violence and a quiet masterpiece of tension, from the claustrophobic island setting with its recurring motif of broken transport to the ever hovering threat of Dublin’s criminal underside.
Household items are intelligently used as narrative vehicles as well as talismans of the deceptive domestic situation between Tomás and his wife Siobhán, from a baby thermometer used as a murder weapon to a bottle of ketchup misplaced deliberately to gaslight Siobhán. In scenes in the house, the mise-en-scene produces excellent levels of tension, like one simmering shot while Tomás argues furtively on the phone while the baby cries and an egg burns on the stove.
It is rewarding to have the chance to watch an excellent Irish language film at our local independent cinema, and the film deliberately plays with language and power in interesting ways too. English is spoken by Tomás as he tries to convince a GP that Siobhán has postnatal depression, notably in her absence, and when his anger explodes on phone calls. English in Doineann is the language of male power and violence, whereas the tone of Irish dialogue is often measured and collected in comparison, especially in Brid Brennan’s focal performance as retired detective Labhaoise. This sense of antithesis culminates in the startling use of a perspective switch, a kind of halfway volta from which the film begins to feel more serious and resolute.
Billed as ‘Storm’, it is worth noting that Irish speakers have taken to social media to point out that ‘Doineann’ translates more accurately to ‘Hurricane’. Yet Doineann, the film, is best described as the moments when a storm gathers: moment to moment this is a neatly assembled thriller that takes its time.
Mike Mills last two features, Beginners and 20th Century Women, track the relationships he has with the people who raised him. C’mon C’mon finds Mills turning that parental gaze inward, making a film loosely based on his experiences of becoming a parent.
The film follows an audio journalist, Johnny, played by Joaquin Pheonix in a gentle Her mode, who minds his nephew Jesse (played by a brilliant and eccentric child actor named Woody Norman) for a few weeks while Jesse’s mother Viv (Gaby Hoffman), tends to her husband’s mental health crisis.
In an interview, Mills mentions that they shot the film in black and white to let the film lean into its own sentimentality. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography stays close to the characters, focusing on the joyful intimacy of the ways we look and touch one another. Mills’ editing in C’mon is essayistic, cutting around the timeline to emphasise moments, and including Johnny reading real-world texts as he explores parenting. Throughout the film, Johnny interviews real kids from across America about their thoughts on the future. He’s constantly amazed by the kid’s emotional intelligence, their ideas, hope and energy. Listening to kids lets them know their voices are worth being heard.
Mills’ work is attuned into the everyday tragedy – or miracle – that we can’t understand everything about a person, no matter how much we love them. For much of the film Johnny struggles with his own situation, his past loves and his relationship with Viv. In becoming Jesse’s temporary parent, he’s forced to talk honestly about his own feelings to prepare Jesse for a life that will never turn out the way you think. It’s better, perhaps, to give kids the skills to navigate their feelings honestly in an unreliably beautiful world, than teach them that that same world will keep them safe.
Céline Sciamma follows up her masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire with the new film Petite Maman. Maman is a decidedly low-key affair, a slim 79-minute film with an amusingly high concept; what if you could meet your mother when she was a child?
Eight-year old Nelly’s (Joséphine Sanz) grandmother has just passed away, and she heads to her old house at the edge of a forest to help her parents clean out the old house, haunted with memories. Her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), finds the process unbearable and despite Nelly’s best attempts to cheer her up, goes away for a few days. Lonely, Nelly finds herself exploring the woods next door, where she meets another young girl who looks exactly like her; also named Marion (played by Joséphine’s twin, Gabrielle).
In classic Sciamma fashion, however, the film’s fairy tale set-up is downplayed with naturalism, making the break from reality seem even more magical. There are no explanations or fairies; this is just what is happening. Scenes play out in long wide takes, with long gaps between dialogue and no music. Sounds are placed high in the mix, translating a huge amount of intimacy as in the scene where Nelly shaves her father’s face. You can almost feel the scrape of the razor on his skin. There’s something in it that speaks to the tactility of childhood, when all sensations feel new.
With Maman, Sciamma returns to the themes of childhood that run through her earlier work, but with a different focus this time. Like Sciamma’s break-out trilogy of films, Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood, Maman is a story about the journey between childhood and adulthood; but unlike those films, it tells its story in reverse. Nelly discovers the child in her mother, rather than vice versa. Through the magic of the film’s premise, she recognises her mother’s grief, and grows to understand her a little better.
In Wes Anderson’s newest film The French Dispatch, the editor of the eponymous, fictional magazine (Bill Murray) gives all his writers the same advice; “Whatever you write, try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
The French Dispatch is an anthology film, its structure replicating that of the fictional magazine, modelled after the New Yorker. There are three feature articles about the fictional French city Ennui-sur-Blasé, some detours, and the odd scene following the editors of the magazine putting the issue together. Everything about the film is playful; each moment, shot, gesture, line of dialogue or production detail is packed with unexpected wit. The balance is delicate; having so many unexpected things happening on screen almost overwhelms. Yet for me, the ultimate effect is so seemingly controlled that it retains a singular vision.
While the film structures itself around the articles, it’s really about the journalists who write them. Each section is framed by a journalist as they narrate their article, becoming a part of their subject’s lives whilst trying to stay subjective. These characters are observers first, whose relationships with their subjects, while meaningful, will always be fleeting and transactional. They try to hide in the stories they tell, but end up revealing themselves in their reporting.
Bill Murray’s character becomes a guide to the reporters, looking after their interests while pushing them to reveal those hidden parts of themselves. These writers become his subjects in the process; Murray doesn’t get much screen time, but through his absence the film shows itself as his vision. All the chaotic flourishes and strange digressions become one with his erudite, detached persona; much like the director himself.
Anderson’s films are a vibe unto themselves, but Dispatch feels like a culmination to his approach, an anthology that embraces its distractions and flights of fancy. For better or worse, it feels like he made it that way on purpose.