David Strat­ton

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

A Holo­gram for the King (M) Lim­ited na­tional re­lease Early Win­ter (MA 15+) Lim­ited re­lease Hitch­cock/Truf­faut (tbc) Tour­ing Hitch­cock sea­son

For much of its length, Ger­man di­rec­tor Tom Tyk­wer’s A Holo­gram for the King is a re­fresh­ingly off­beat se­ri­o­comic adap­ta­tion of a book by Dave Eg­gars about the ex­pe­ri­ences of a rather un­suc­cess­ful Amer­i­can busi­ness­man in Saudi Ara­bia.

Tom Hanks, who worked with Twyker on the am­bi­tious Cloud At­las (2012), plays Alan Clay, whose mis­sion is to con­vince the Saudi king that the com­pany he rep­re­sents should be given the con­tract for work on a new city, to be con­structed in a desert wilder­ness.

Ar­riv­ing in Jed­dah jet-lagged and con­fused by the re­stric­tions and cus­toms of the strict so­ci­ety in which he finds him­self, Clay — whose wife and fa­ther both see him as a fail­ure — quickly dis­cov­ers he faces an up­hill bat­tle: his staff of three, who have ar­rived ahead of him, have been housed in a tent where air­con­di­tion­ing is un­re­li­able and WiFi non-ex­is­tent, and ap­point­ments con­firmed with the King, or lesser mem­bers of the royal fam­ily, con­sis­tently fail to ma­te­ri­alise.

There’s plenty of dry, whim­si­cal hu­mour here both at the ex­pense of the be­fud­dled Amer­i­can and his ma­nip­u­la­tive, but ex­ceed­ingly po­lite, Arab hosts. Hypocrisy abounds: al­though al­co­hol is banned in the king­dom, it ap­pears to be freely avail­able to the well-con­nected (a party at the Dan­ish em­bassy turns into a ver­i­ta­ble orgy of drunken rib­aldry).

The screen­play, writ­ten by the di­rec­tor, con­tains plenty of darkly funny lines: a Saudi of­fi­cial, asked about po­ten­tial union dif­fi­cul­ties, replies: “We don’t have unions. We have Filipinos.” And any­one who has vis­ited an Arab coun­try will recog­nise the stark con­trast in which black-clad, fully cov­ered women shop at stores dis­play­ing out­ra­geously sexy fe­male un­der­wear.

There are dis­turb­ing un­der­tones, too: be­neath the forced po­lite­ness and ci­vil­ity of these of­fi­cials there’s a def­i­nitely sin­is­ter tone, and the alarm­ing lump that sud­denly ap­pears on Clay’s back — which he un­wisely at­tempts to lance — is al­most the stuff of a David Cro­nen­berg hor­ror movie.

For all its charms and in­sights, the film is some­what un­der­cut by a nag­ging sense of phoni­ness. This isn’t to do with the fact that film­ing took place in Morocco, not Saudi Ara­bia; that seems quite ac­cept­able. It’s more the treat­ment of the two key Saudi char­ac­ters: Yousef, Clay’s chatty, cheer­ful driver, and Zahra, the doc­tor with whom he has an af­fair. Both are played by non-Arab ac­tors: Alexan­der Black is Amer­i­can and Sarita Choud­hury is half Indian. This makes the provoca­tive and po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous re­la­tion­ship be­tween Clay and the doc­tor who treats him less ef­fec­tive.

De­spite these flaws, A Holo­gram for the King is an in­trigu­ingly off­beat af­fair, beau­ti­fully pho­tographed by Frank Griebe and acted with con­sum­mate skill. You never know quite where it’s going, and in an era of so much cinematic pre­dictabil­ity that’s a wel­come at­tribute. Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Michael Rowe won the Cam­era D’Or (award for best first fea­ture) at Cannes in 2010 for his re­mark­able Ano bisiesto ( Leap Year), which he made in Mex­ico and which dealt ex­plic­itly with a woman’s lone­li­ness and ap­petite for sex. His third film, Early Win­ter, un­folds in a very dif­fer­ent cor­ner of North America — Que­bec — and the open­ing se- quence is a fairly graphic one in which a cou­ple are making love. This Cana­dian-Aus­tralian co­pro­duc­tion (post-pro­duc­tion was car­ried out in Queens­land) turns out to be a de­cep­tively sim­ple story about a trou­bled re­la­tion­ship.

David (Paul Doucet) and Rus­sian-born Maya (Suzanne Cle­ment) live in an iso­lated house with their two sons. Right from the start it’s clear that the mar­riage is going through dif­fi­cul­ties; sex is un­sat­is­fy­ing for Maya and she has no friends in this ru­ral back­wa­ter; she pines for her for­mer life and, par­tic­u­larly, for a for­mer lover. David works in a hospice, where he’s in con­stant stress­ful con­tact with the ter­mi­nally ill, a de­press­ing sit­u­a­tion not al­le­vi­ated by life at home with his un­happy wife and frac­tious kids.

As with Leap Year, Early Win­ter is vir­tu­ally a two-han­der and, again, it’s a film of great in­ten­sity that will re­ward the pa­tient viewer. The still, per­fectly framed, im­ages — pho­tographed by Ni­co­las Can­nic­cioni — al­most crush the trou­bled char­ac­ters into the con­fines of their claus­tro­pho­bic do­mes­tic­ity. It’s not a com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence, but it’s the sort of film Ing­mar Bergman once made his own — a steely, at times bleak, dis­sec­tion of a re­la­tion­ship. Prob­a­bly ev­ery film lover of my gen­er­a­tion possesses a copy of the sem­i­nal 1966 pub­li­ca­tion Hitch­cock/Truf­faut, which is es­sen­tially a tran­script of sev­eral days of dis­cus­sions be­tween two great di­rec­tors, recorded in 1962. Kent Jones’s very fine doc­u­men­tary, based on the book, is re­ceiv­ing lim­ited screen­ings around the Tom Hanks and Alexan­der Black in a scene from A Holo­gram for the King, above; Alfred Hitch­cock with Janet Leigh dur­ing the making of Psy­cho, far left; James Ste­wart and Kim No­vak in Ver­tigo coun­try as part of an Alfred Hitch­cock ret­ro­spec­tive and is es­sen­tial view­ing for any­one in­ter­ested in the sub­ject.

At the time of the con­ver­sa­tions, held be­tween the re­lease of Psy­cho and the com­ple­tion of The Birds, Hitch­cock’s rep­u­ta­tion was in doubt; Ver­tigo — re­cently lauded as the best film of all time in a poll con­ducted by the Bri­tish mag­a­zine Sight & Sound — had been a com­mer­cial fail­ure and many crit­ics had at­tacked Psy­cho for what they saw as its sick vi­o­lence.

Fran­cois Truf­faut’s rep­u­ta­tion as an as­tute, if waspish, film critic had been en­hanced with the re­lease of his first three fea­ture films, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Pian­ist and Jules and Jim. The vet­eran en­ter­tainer was flat­tered by the young au­teur’s as­ser­tion that Hitch, too, was an artist, and he agreed to the in­ter­views, which both men clearly en­joyed.

As well as al­low­ing us to hear sec­tions of the orig­i­nal in­ter­views, Jones’s film con­tains com­ments from sev­eral im­por­tant con­tem­po­rary di­rec­tors for whom Hitch­cock was an im­por­tant in­flu­ence, in­clud­ing David Fincher, Martin Scors­ese, Wes An­der­son and Richard Lin­klater.

Though the doc­u­men­tary skips through Hitch­cock’s Bri­tish pe­riod pretty swiftly, there are ex­cerpts from most of his films. Par­tic­u­lar at­ten­tion is given to those now seen as mas­ter­pieces: No­to­ri­ous (1946), Ver­tigo (1958) and Psy­cho (1960). Along­side the analysis of how these films “work”, we are given the op­por­tu­nity to hear Hitch­cock ex­plain his def­i­ni­tion of sus­pense (not nec­es­sar­ily to do with fear), his re­la­tion­ship with ac­tors and the im­por­tance of moral dilem­mas in his work. He also com­ments on a fa­mous se­quence in The 400 Blows.

All of this pro­vides un­told riches for the cineaste, but any­one even vaguely in­ter­ested in film and how it works, the way in which a great di­rec­tor like Hitch­cock could cre­ate the ef­fects he did by cam­era fram­ing, move­ment and edit­ing, should be fas­ci­nated by Jones’s film.

It is filled with rev­e­la­tions and also, of course, filled with ex­cerpts from some of the great­est films ever made.

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