UK of the welcomes
YOU DO have to (reluctantly) hand it to the French. There are few other Europeans capable of regularly delivering this class of well-crafted, well-acted melodrama. Not exactly an art film, but not tied solely to the mainstream either, this touching melodrama proves that there is no shame in being workmanlike.
Venturing into territory previously occupied by Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, the film follows Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a Kurdish refugee as he attempts to make his way across Europe to meet his girlfriend in London.
After some squalid adventures on the back of a lorry, Bilal finds himself stranded in Calais. Using the municipal pool as much for its shower facilities as for exercise, he encounters Simon (Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged swimming instructor, and embarks on a series of lessons. Gradually, Simon, lonely after his recent separation, realises that his pupil has an absurd scheme in mind.
The veteran Lindon, so good in the recent Anything for Her, and
Ayverdi, making his debut, play very well against one another. The two characters represent experience and youthful naivety, and the disparity in the actors’ professional experiences shows through in their nicely contrasting performances.
Though an unshowy director, Lioret provides impressive, spooky shots of the busy commerce round Calais and works to establish a resonant sense of place. Welcome is, however, a rather sentimental piece that wears its worthy intentions a little too conspicuously. It is the sort of film that demands masochistic self-castigation from bourgeois cinemagoers.
None of that is to suggest that the films intentions are insincere or that it ever becomes a drag. The fact that it may be good for you doesn’t mean it’s bad. This French character study wouldn’t chew up too many of our natural resources: Essentially it’s a two-handed character piece, so despite its professional appearance, it would only have needed a relatively small cast and production crew. HOW FAR can you get with little else but charm and goodwill in your backpack? On the evidence of this enjoyably barmy adaptation of a nonfiction book by Jon Ronson, halfway round the world and back again.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is so unsure of its own place in the universe that it often threatens to slide off the screen and drain through the gutter beneath. Is it a genuine attempt to convey information about the US armed forces’ interest in psychic research? Is it a postmodern conundrum in the spirit of Spike Jonze’s work? Is it an exercise in liberal satire? Who cares? It features George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey as military men who believe they can read minds, foretell the future and, yes, kill goats just by looking at them. That’s more than enough to justify the admission price.
In its slippery approach to the truth as well as its confidence in its own irresistibility, The Men Who Stare at Goats has much in common with Clooney’s equally peculiar Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Ewan “Weak Link” McGregor plays an American journalist who, following the break-up of his marriage, heads for the Middle East in search of the big story.
In a Kuwait hotel he bumps into an American officer named Lyn Cassidy and, because the fellow has George Clooney’s agreeable head, gets drawn into his story about covert US military divisions, nicknamed “Jedi warriors”, who dabble in paranormal activity. “What’s a Jedi warrior?” McGregor asks in the desperate hope that we’ll remember he was once in a Star Wars film.
It’s just as well the picture features such amiable performances and wallows in such fascinating quasi-factual backwaters, because, with the best will in the world, you couldn’t say that it has anything like a plot.
Told largely in flashback, while Clooney and Weak Link stagger their way from desert to hostage situation to military detention, The Men Who Stare at Goats is almost zany enough to have sprung from the same 1960s counterculture that spawned the Jedi units. Maybe the ending is too stupid to bear, perhaps the connection to the facts is too insecure, but you’d have to be a very hard-hearted person indeed to resist this weird film’s suave advances. The overall message of this eccentric espionage film is peace and love, man. But it’s not totally green – the production depends on plenty of extras, at least one large set, one explosion and a number of gas-guzzling helicopters.