Reviews of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Call Me By Your Name and The Little Hours, plus a preview of the Show Me Shorts festival.
Stylised dialogue, jarring music and discomforting camera angles all contribute to a memorable work of art.
REVIEW — DAVID LARSEN The Killing of a Sacred Deer Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos Opens November 16
Something is wrong. You will be a good way into the second English-language feature from Greek writer/ director Yorgos Lanthimos before you know what, or why, or what will come of it, but the sense of something palpably amiss is pervasive and enveloping.
Calling this a horror film would be accurate in a technical sense, but also misleading. It lives out on the far cinephile fringe of horror, where creeping unease replaces the jump-scare. I’m divided between wanting everyone I know to see it — it’s a grand and memorable piece of art — and wanting to post warning notices at the door.
The first thing we see is a close-up of glistening raw flesh. It’s discomforting; for the squeamish it will be worse than that, but even for those desensitised by slasher films and hyper-realist medical dramas, the lack of context gives your mind too many places to go. The explicitness of the image is not typical of the film, which is far more interested in mental discomfort than body horror, but that brief moment of visual disorientation — are you seeing open heart surgery? An act of torture? The ritual killing of the title? — counts as fair warning.
We cut to two doctors walking down a hospital corridor. One of them is Colin Farrell, and their conversation has a distinctive tang which will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Farrell’s previous collaboration with Lanthimos, The Lobster. The earnest over-sharing of that film’s dialogue is back, but here it has a very different effect, and Farrell is playing a very different character: not a sweet no-hoper placed in a ghastly predicament by a satirically dystopian society, but a wealthy professional with a picture-postcard life in a society that seems identical to ours.
We get hints quite quickly that there’s something off about his relationship with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and something forced about his mentorship of a needy teenage boy (Barry Keoghan), but the stylised dialogue means that every conversation in this film feels a little wrong.
I’m divided between wanting everyone I know to see it — it’s a grand piece of art — and wanting to post warning notices.
It could just be Lanthimos playing language games; it could be that these are ordinary people speaking a heightened cinematic dialect. Or it could be that the artificial vernacular is a form of double bluff. Maybe every relationship in the film really is subtly poisoned.
The soundtrack and the cinematography combine to reinforce the effect of the language, with jarring music cues and camera angles that defamiliarise and discomfort without quite rising to the level of overt manipulation.
The performances are equally well judged and equally ambiguous. It should not be surprising to anyone at this late date that Nicole Kidman can convey a complex inner life with one twitch of an eyebrow, though I’m still getting used to the idea that Farrell can match her. But the real surprise in the cast is Keoghan, last seen as a young fishing-boat worker in Dunkirk, and here a remarkably strong presence. Exactly where his character sits in the story takes a while to become clear, and the revelation is not a happy one. This is not, in fact, a happy film. But it reinforces my sense that Lanthimos is one of the most original voices in today’s cinema.
REVIEWS — GEMMA GRACEWOOD Call Me By Your Name Directed by Luca Guadagnino Opens December 28
Call Me By Your Name is a long, sumptuous coming-ofage tale that’s utterly worth not knowing a thing about before you let yourself sink into it. Unless, of course, you have read André Aciman’s novel upon which it is based, in which case, as you were.
Directed with sensual attention by Luca Guadagnino ( I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) and written — after years in various hands — by the great James Ivory, who also adapted one of the important gay-romance films of the 1980s (E.M. Forster’s Maurice), we are in very good hands. Amidst heaving apricot trees and lazily chirping crickets, Elio, a 17-year-old American-French-Jewish son of an academic family, and Oliver, the 20-something doctorate student who comes to live with them for the summer in their gorgeous Lombardy villa, dance around each other for a lip-bitingly long time.
Timothée Chalamet is a divine Elio, all long eyelashes and precocious talents, unsure of himself around Oliver, yet cocksure at the same time. Armie Hammer as Oliver is a man-mountain of confident American energy, who reveals his vulnerabilities in delicious layers. (Thank goodness for the 1983 setting; smartphones and Grindr might have made this story so different, and so much shorter.)
Call Me By Your Name has a languid, unstructured feel that serves as a mirror of its summery setting, and as a blessed relief from Hollywood’s relentless three-act structure. Days blend into each other, hours go unhurriedly by, and characters take their time, until suddenly there’s not enough time left.
What’s really lovely about the novel, and the adaptation, is that Elio and Oliver are able to undertake their journey to seduction without the apparent weight of society on their shoulders. The people in their orbit are intellectuals and lovers; if they worry for these young men and what they might face once summer ends, they don’t let it interfere with love’s path. And there is a spectacular father-son moment, one to die for, one that many will wish they had had in their own lives. It feels like an exquisite gift to the audience for our own patience and care.
The Little Hours Directed by Jeff Baena Opens November 16
The nunsploitation genre gets a modern-ironic twist in The Little Hours, an almosthilarious take on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century folk tales. Known as The Decameron, Boccaccio’s short stories were The Onion of their time, written in a postBlack Death period when the masses were starting to poke fun at the Catholic Church.
The film, like the stories, is set in northern Italy in the 1300s. It’s a compact tale with a small cast of American comedy regulars. Aubrey
Thank goodness for the 1983 setting; smartphones and Grindr might have made this story so different.
Plaza, Kate Micucci and Alison Brie play Fernanda, Ginerva and Alessandra, a trio of back-stabby, pottymouthed, sexually repressed nuns, with the brilliant
Molly Shannon as their woefully under-written mother superior and John C. Reilly as the drunken Father Tommasso.
There’s something instantly funny about characters speaking like thoroughly modern folk in a deep period setting (see Blackadder,
Monty Python), and the best laughs in The Little Hours come in unexpected bursts of filthy dialogue. The three young nuns unleash every f-bomb they know on the convent’s downtrodden farmhand, scaring him off. Soon, he is replaced by the younger, buffer Massetto (Dave Franco, Alison Brie’s husband), who must pretend to be deaf-mute for reasons dreamed up by Father Tommasso. High jinks and fertility rituals ensue, donkeys and turtles are involved, and the alwayswelcome Fred Armisen turns up as a visiting bishop to read them all the riot act.
Written and directed by
Jeff Baena, with his real-life partner Plaza producing as well as acting, The Little Hours features cast members from Baena’s previous films Life After Beth and Joshy, which lends an intimate feel to its production. There’s chemistry and ease between the actors; you can tell they had a fine time making this in the Tuscan countryside. The downside is it’s a bit like watching a live improv troupe in the middle of a sketch that’s dragging on for the audience, but that the players are still very much enjoying. The Little Hours is humorous and adorable (and violent and obscene), but never quite hits the comic highs that its cast suggests it ought to.
ABOVE — Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
BELOW— The languid Call Me By Your Name offers a blessed break from Hollywood’s three-act structure.
TOP— In Blind Vaysha, a girl’s visions are depicted in wood-cut animations.
ABOVE— Downside Up shows a world where everyone has Down syndrome.