Blood, toil, tears and sex

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Coin­ci­den­tally, all four films dis­cussed this week are di­rected by women who of­fer, through their work, rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent vi­sions of the world. Den­mark’s Lone Sher­fig started her ca­reer as part of the dodgy Dogme school, but left her ori­gins be­hind her to make fine char­ac­ter stud­ies in Bri­tain, in­clud­ing An Ed­u­ca­tion (2008) and the mov­ing and un­der­rated One Day (2011). Her lat­est film, Their Finest, is set in Lon­don in 1940 and un­folds against a back­drop of the pro­duc­tion of a pro­pa­ganda film about Dunkirk. The cen­tral char­ac­ter is Ca­trin (Gemma Arter­ton), a bright young woman from Wales who, very dar­ingly for the time, is liv­ing with her lover, El­lis (Jack Hus­ton), a strug­gling artist.

Ca­trin man­ages to land a job as screen­writer for a movie pro­duc­tion com­pany and finds her­self work­ing along­side Tom (Sam Clafin) on the screen­play of the Dunkirk project. The project has been ini­ti­ated by the film divi­sion of the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion, per­son­i­fied by pompous bu­reau­crat Richard E. Grant, and the chief re­quire­ments are “au­then­tic­ity and op­ti­mism”.

Ca­trin in­ter­views twin sis­ters who sup­pos­edly joined the flotilla of civil­ian craft that sailed across the Chan­nel to help evac­u­ate the Bri­tish troops stranded on the Dunkirk beaches, but from them she elic­its a some­what dif­fer­ent story and in­cor­po­rates this into her ideas for the film. There’s the in­evitable love tri­an­gle as Ca­trin is torn be­tween El­lis and Tom, but much of the film pro­fesses to de­pict how a film like this would be made in 1940, and it’s here that Their Finest falls short.

It pa­tro­n­ises the very skilled crews in­volved in pro­duc­ing Bri­tish films at the be­gin­ning of the war. What we see of the movie they are mak­ing looks as though it was pro­duced in 1930, not 1940, with its overly ob­vi­ous mod­els and back­drops. In ad­di­tion, it’s be­ing filmed in Tech­ni­color though very, very few Bri­tish films were made in colour at the time.

Sher­fig is on firmer ground with her de­pic­tion of a vain ac­tor, Am­brose Hil­liard (Bill Nighy in fine form), whose star­ring days are over but who is per­suaded to play a mi­nor role in the pic­ture. Nighy is the best thing in a movie that is, over­all, rather dis­ap­point­ing. The screen­play by Gaby Chi­appe, based on a book by Lissa Evans, tries hard to con­vey what life was like in Lon­don dur­ing the Blitz, with the out­come of the war un­cer­tain, but the de­tails shown are of­ten un­con­vinc­ing. For the record, no film about Dunkirk was made dur­ing the war; Dunkirk was made in 1958 — in black-and­white — but Christo­pher Nolan is now com­plet­ing what prom­ises to be a lav­ish film on the sub­ject due for re­lease in the mid­dle of the year. Cate Short­land is an in­no­va­tive Aus­tralian di­rec­tor who scored a hit with her first fea­ture, Som­er­sault, in 2004. Berlin Syn­drome is the sec­ond film she has made in Ger­many, after Lore (2012), and the early scenes, in which Teresa Palmer plays Clare, a young Bris­bane woman alone in Berlin and seek­ing com­pany, who en­coun­ters a friendly man, are some­what rem­i­nis­cent of the scenes in which Ab­bie Cor­nish trav­elled from Canberra to the Lake Jind­abyne area in search of male com­pan­ion­ship in Som­er­sault.

In the new film, Clare meets the friendly Andi (Max Riemelt), an English teacher, and, after some hes­i­ta­tion, ac­com­pa­nies him to his apart­ment for sex. But next morn­ing, when he goes to work, she finds her­self locked in. She thinks it was a mis­take, but it wasn’t. Max proves to be, for rea­sons not ad­e­quately ex­plained, de­ter­mined to keep her a pris­oner.

This is hardly a new plot, hav­ing been ex­plored re­cently in films such as Room, but Short­land, work­ing from a book by Melanie Joosten, han­dles the es­tab­lish­ing scenes pretty well. And the film’s ba­sic theme, of a con­trol­ling man seek­ing dom­i­nance over a woman, is al­ways a hot topic. Un­for­tu­nately, at about the mid­way point the film loses steam and then drags on for almost two hours, far more than the ma­te­rial can stand. As a re­sult, the es­sen­tial ten­sion is dis­si­pated and sub­plots, one in­volv­ing Andi’s fa­ther, add lit­tle to the drama. Here’s a one-line de­scrip­tion of first-time di­rec­tor Ju­lia Du­cour­nau’s film Raw: Veg­e­tar­ian Vir­gin is Trans­formed into Flesh-eat­ing Nym­pho Zom­bie. And the film, which has been most ex­trav­a­gantly praised by some film writ­ers, is just as silly as that de­scrip­tion makes it sound. Du­cour­nau is, ap­par­ently, a dis­ci­ple of a new move­ment of “ex­treme” French cin­ema, but Raw is all about con­fronta­tion and provo­ca­tion and noth­ing about the sort of nar­ra­tive co­he­sion and sus­pense that even the most mod­est thriller usu­ally con­tains.

Jus­tine (Garance Mar­il­lier) chokes on a piece of sausage found in a dish of mashed potato served up at a road­side diner as her par­ents drive her to the res­i­den­tial vet­eri­nary school where her older sis­ter, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is al­ready en­sconced. The haz­ing rit­u­als for new­com­ers at this lu­di­crously im­plau­si­ble es­tab­lish­ment in­clude drench­ing them with an­i­mal blood (shades of Car­rie) and forc­ing them to eat raw rab­bit en­trails.

It’s this lat­ter or­deal that ap­par­ently gives Jus­tine — the name is pre­sum­ably a wink to the Berlin Syn­drome; Cer­tain Women Mar­quis de Sade — a taste for hu­man flesh. In ad­di­tion to this lurid stuff, Du­courneau in­serts hints of bes­tial­ity and in­cest into the mix, and has a scene in which Jus­tine vig­or­ously rapes her gay (male) room­mate (Rabah Nait Oufella).

Some may claim the film is about a young woman dis­cov­er­ing her­self, but the wri­ter­di­rec­tor’s ob­vi­ous de­light in shock for shock’s sake con­sti­tutes a ma­jor turn-off, no mat­ter how ef­fi­ciently made or well acted the film may be. It’s a re­lief to turn to Kelly Re­ichardt’s Cer­tain Women, which has taken its time to reach Aus­tralia and has man­aged only a very lim­ited re­lease. The film con­sists of three short sto­ries by writer Maile Meloy, all of them set against the mag­nif­i­cent back­drop of ru­ral Mon­tana.

In the first, Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer whose an­gry male client (Jared Har­ris) won’t ac­cept her ad­vice. Next, Gina (Michelle Wil­liams) and her hus­band Ryan (James Le Gros), who — as we saw in the first story — is hav­ing an af­fair with Laura, de­cide to build a week­ender close to the home of an el­derly recluse (Rene Au­ber­jonois). The third story fea­tures Lily Glad­stone as Jamie, a lonely girl who runs a horse farm en­tirely on her own. She be­comes at­tracted to Beth (Kris­ten Ste­wart), who teaches a class on stu­dent rights at a nearby adult ed­u­ca­tion cen­tre.

The three sto­ries, which very loosely over­lap, are han­dled in a min­i­mal­ist yet sub­tly emo­tional man­ner and this calm, un­der­stated film is a de­light.


; Teresa Palmer in left, Michelle Wil­liams in

Gemma Arter­ton and Bill Nighy in Their Finest

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