Blood, toil, tears and sex
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.
IN THE WRITERDIRECTOR’S OBVIOUS DELIGHT IN SHOCK FOR SHOCK’S SAKE CONSTITUTES A MAJOR TURN-OFF
; Teresa Palmer in left, Michelle Williams in
Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy in Their Finest