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.