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Olivier Assayas concocts a heady atmosphere here; Personal Shopper is spooky and cold throughout, thanks in part to its superb sound design (with all those bumps and smashes mysteriously occurring in a grand old mansion) and also thanks to the terrific central performance by Kristen Stewart. Her character, Maureen, seems oddly disconnected from the world; she is a clothes-purchasing assistant to a celebrity – an American in Paris – and we spend close to two hours in her company, but although we discover some things about her life and see interactions with friends, can we honestly say that we ‘know’ her by the end? She is nervy, grieving and in search of her own identity, and she doesn’t give much away. She is also intriguing: can she really communicate with the spirit world, and in particular her recently-deceased brother, who owned the mansion in question?

Personal Shopper is a difficult film to pin down, as it comfortably slips between genres, without much in the way of fuss. It is on the one hand an existential drama largely set within the fashion industry and the celebrity world, though it’s apparent from the off that Assayas wishes to deglamorise fashion, or at least the purchasing of it (if not the actual act of wearing). It’s also a chiller, a genuinely unnerving ghost story that leaves its fantastical phenomena unexplained – we see a wispy spirit and ‘hear’ the same things that Maureen hears, but even by the end it’s unclear whether we’re supposed to believe in these interactions or judge Stewart’s character as someone who is coming apart at the seams. The standout moments involve her text exchanges with an unknown person, which she believes is a spirit of some kind; as Peter Bradshaw rightly pointed out in the Guardian, one of these – in which a flurry of texts arrive after a phone is switched on – is the kind of thrilling coup de grace that Hitchcock would have been proud of, and genuinely made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, while the whole Eurostar section, when Maureen is first contacted, is surprisingly gripping given that we’re mostly watching someone send, receive and read text messages on a train. This is worth seeing simply on account of the superb central performance, but it’s well worth your time if you enjoy filling in the gaps around the edges of a story, and it’s another smart, intriguing film from this talented director. (****½)

The second collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí – who had fallen out with each other by the time of production – is another surreal film, this time a series of vignettes that seem to mock the absurdity of modern life, as it was in France in 1930. The main link throughout is a couple (Lya Lys and Gaston Modot) who are trying to have sex but are constantly thwarted by others, such as religious figures, family members, etc. There are some typically strong images: the woman fellates the toe of a statue, apparently to ease her sexual frustration; a crucifix has scalps hanging from it that blow in the wind; a young boy is shot in a chillingly cold fashion; an old man at the side of the road is needlessly attacked. All very shocking at the time, no doubt, and some of it still surprising to see today. Buñuel’s gift for editing by associating similar objects and shapes or by linking ideas is clear for all to see, and it’s one of the very first sound films made in France, though you wouldn’t describe it as un talkie, exactly. (***)

Forough Farrokhzad’s first and only work is a documentary short, or essay film, that examines life for leprosy sufferers in an Iranian colony. It’s a moving, admirable film, with Farrokhzad’s camera trained on the faces and affected body parts of patients; the editing is often quick, such as in the sequence that shows a number of people playing with a ball, as if the director is desperate to show us as many of them as she can; this is a film that, through its structure, seems to be reinforcing the idea that every single human life matters. (****)

An amusing and playful 1906 Gaumont short by Alice Guy-Blaché in which the traditional male and female roles of the age have been swapped around: women sit at tables drinking, talking, taking advantage of their status and generally being pains toward men, while the poor, put-upon blokes iron and sew clothes, look after babies and small children and are harassed and insulted. Judging by the handful of comments on YouTube its sarcasm and its clear point is still being misunderstood by idiots today; goodness knows how it was interpreted 100-odd years ago. (***½)

A competently made and occasionally handsome period drama from Amma Asante, which fictionalises the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, an 18th century West Indian woman who was raised by a wealthy family in England, played here by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. While it’s an unusual British period piece precisely because of the lead character’s race, it’s conventional in every other sense, with its typicalities including such stock characters as the inappropriate love interest whose advances the poor woman must endure, the preferred love interest from a lower social standing, the dragon-like old dame with a venomous tongue, and the hard-nosed old patriarch – Tom Wilkinson as the 1st Earl of Mansfield – who must inevitably soften his stance on this, that and the other by the end of the story. The life of the subject is undoubtedly interesting, and the character of Dido’s even rather skilfully linked to the famous Zong Massacre case in the narrative, for which Mansfield was the judge (there’s actually no evidence to show that Dido had any influence over the ruling or anything to do with the case more generally, but it makes for a decent denouement). Aside from that, though, I feel like there’s too much here that I’ve seen many times before. Not bad, though. (**½)

Ira Sachs makes beautiful, intelligent films that are filled with smart observations about his characters (often middle class families and/or couples). Little Men, his latest, sees the American writer and director returning to subject matter that he also covered in last year’s poignant and moving Love Is Strange: gentrification. In that earlier film a couple played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina were priced out of the New York neighbourhood they’d lived in for years, but also temporarily separated as they searched for somewhere new to live. Despite being able to call on the generosity of neighbours and family members in times of help, ultimately house prices had risen so steeply the two men could no longer afford to live together in the area of their choosing, and were subsequently kept apart for much of the film. In Little Men, we see similar events from several different perspectives as a family inherits and then moves into a building in Brooklyn.

Sachs also explored family and inter-generational dynamics in Love Is Strange, and that’s something he returns to here as well. Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle play Brian and Kathy Jardine, who move into the property in question with their teenage son Jake (Theo Taplitz). We discover that Brian is struggling to make a living as a stage actor and that Kathy – a psychotherapist – is the family’s breadwinner, though even her relatively-high earnings are not enough to support their lifestyle, which includes Jake’s school fees. The Jardines move into an upper floor apartment, while in the same building on the ground floor Leonor Calvelli (Paulina García) has owned and run a clothes shop for a number of years. Judging by the amount of time we see Leonor in the shop behind a sewing machine she is a hard worker, though the longevity of her business is also due to the leniency of the previous landlord – Brian’s father – who enabled her to keep trading by charging a small amount of rent each month. Brian and Kathy have plenty of compassion but no great attachment to their new neighbourhood, and with pressure from his sister Audrey (Talia Balsam) combining with his own financial concerns, Brian is forced to increase the rent on the shop. This leads to strained relationships with Leonor, whose own son Tony (an excellent turn by newcomer Michael Barbieri) has formed a fast friendship with Jake.

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Paulina García and Greg Kinnear in Little Men

Much of the film concerns Jake and Tony’s friendship, which may or may not include a degree of sexual attraction on Jake’s part (Sachs wasn’t keen to be drawn on this when pressed in publicity interviews, arguing that he felt it was unimportant). The two teenagers are from different backgrounds but they soon find they have a lot in common, and they become very close very quickly. However, the story gradually becomes more concerned with the way that adult behaviour and decisions made by the boys’ parents impacts on their friendship; the escalating clash between Leonor and Brian over the shop – which is surprisingly gripping in and of itself – ends up ruining what looks like a stable, promising relationship as the two boys get unwittingly caught up in matters (they are used, rather unfairly, as pawns).

Both of the younger actors give terrific performances, the highlight undoubtedly being Barbieri’s scene in an acting class, during which he is forced to rapidly trade lines with the teacher, though it’s Taplitz who really shines during the film’s final and most poignant moments, which seem to offer a resigned shrug about class divides in modern New York. Their two characters are the ‘little men’ of the title, but the phrase also refers to Brian, who has not lived up to his father’s expectations (and is cruelly reminded of the fact by Leonor on more than one occasion). Kinnear is such a dependable actor, and his scenes with both García and Ehle are uniformly excellent. In fact it’s one of the strongest ensemble pieces I’ve seen this year; Sachs is clearly able to coax consistent, unshowy but solidly-impressive work out of his actors, and it’s nice to see Alfred Molina joining in too, albeit in a brief supporting role. The film and the characters are well-written, and Sachs continues to prove himself as a talented purveyor of low-key, sympathetic, modern New York stories.

Directed by: Ira Sachs.
Written by: Ira Sachs, Mauricio Zacharias.
Starring: Theo Taplitz, Michael Barbieri, Greg Kinnear, Paulina García, Jennifer Ehle, Talia Balsam, Alfred Molina.
Cinematography: Óscar Durán.
Editing: Mollie Goldstein, Affonso Gonçalves.
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe / Tindersticks.
Certificate: PG.
Running Time: 83 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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Though only in his late-20s, Brady Corbet has already worked (albeit briefly, on occasion) with a string of top European directors as an actor; the list includes Michael Haneke, Olivier Assayas, Lars von Trier, Mia Hansen-Løve, Bertrand Bonello and Ruben Östlund. There are similarities in terms of the directing styles of some of those named above, and certainly with regard to three or four of them in particular it’s fair to say there’s a kind of removed, icy feel to their best-known films. Corbet’s debut as a director, The Childhood Of A Leader, is a cold, dark and distant film, with cameras that constantly back away apologetically from the action, or that seem to linger without emotion or fascination on the characters at the end of some scenes (in order to emphasise the importance of what is happening, however unpalatable it may be). The film’s superb, atmospheric soundtrack, by Scott Walker, has jarring strings and occasional, strange electronic outbursts, which means that it too seems to fit with the dissonance between the characters on screen, of which few (if any) are sympathetic. It’s a film with a distinct look and feel that one would have every right not to expect from such a young director.

As the title suggests, we’re dealing here with the life of a boy (played by newcomer Tom Sweet) who will become a leader in the future, and there’s an ominous, bleak mood from the outset; given that the film is set in Europe just prior to the signing of The Treaty Of Versailles in 1919 – the resentment of which within Germany became an important factor facilitating the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what kind of leader the boy will become. He’s called Prescott, and he’s the son of an authoritarian American diplomat (Liam Cunningham) and an austere French woman (Bérénice Bejo), who between them create a particularly stiff, puritanical home environment. The father’s role in brokering the Treaty is important, while he’s also having an affair with Prescott’s language teacher (Stacy Martin). The mother, meanwhile, shows some affection to her son, yet she too has a colder side, as witnessed when she summarily dismisses house staff who have years of experience in their jobs.

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Lines often lead the eye to Prescott (Tom Sweet, right), who is a key presence in each of his scenes despite his diminutive stature

Corbet’s film – based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre – is split into segments (‘The First Tantrum’, ‘The Second Tantrum’, etc.), which detail outbursts by Prescott that are presumably supposed to be taken as grave indicators of what will follow in adult life, though one could just as easily argue that the child’s stubborn rejection of the hypocrisy and over-the-top punishments meted out by the Catholic Church are merely indications of someone being wise beyond their years, and that his parents are deserving of the scorn and embarrassment they receive. (I read a witty summation on Letterboxd that described the film as ‘a portrait of a spoiled, rebellious child of privilege who wants to get everything he sets his heart to and will one day be hailed as righteous by the general population’ before later pointing out that the same description could be applied to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)

The concept here is simple, and it’s presented to the audience in a straightforward, compartmentalised fashion that allows very little room for nuanced interpretation: Prescott is such a ‘perfect’ psychological case study it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s been dreamed up by writers (Corbet’s screenplay was co-written with filmmaker Mona Fastvold) to fit squarely with widely-held views on behavioural patterns. For me, then, The Childhood Of A Leader is more interesting for its formal qualities than it is as a study in child psychology. The tone is homogenous with films like Haneke’s The White Ribbon, or even 1970’s chillers like Richard Donner’s The Omen, with which Corbet’s film shares a sense of looming, impending dread. In fact this feels like a horror film at times, and so chaos and the unknown gradually take over from normality, as they do in horrors; the director and his cinematographer Lol Crawley manage to create a sense of a world going awry with disconcerting, circular camera movement throughout, which eventually leads to a topsy-turvy view on events in one scene, as the father chases the son so he can catch him, and punish him. The nausea-inducing, lurching camerawork of the epilogue is the grand payoff, and it reinforces the notion that this is a remarkably-assured debut feature.

We see plenty of evidence of Corbet’s care (and Crawley’s, perhaps) with regard to the blocking, staging and framing, too. Despite his stature Sweet is often placed at the centre of the frame, or if he isn’t in the middle his presence is amplified by the positions of other actors around him, or the angle of the camera. We see certain things – such as the signing of the Treaty, or the discovery of the father’s affair – from his perspective, and it’s also interesting to note how close or far away the camera is (or indeed the kind of lenses that are employed) during his rebellious acts or his tantrums; I’d need to watch the film again to confirm this, but my impression was that a greater number of close-ups were used as the film progresses, after some initial distance from the action. Does this make us empathise with the brat the longer the film goes on, when we should be tiring of his petulance? Perish the thought, given what he becomes.

Much of this is a long-winded way of me saying that Corbet has made a film that has clearly been constructed very carefully, and with much thought paid to the way in which everything fits together to make a coherent, cohesive whole. To reinforce the point or to support a claim that he could in future be a director of real prowess, I could mention other elements that help to cover up a rather middling plot: once again it’s worth reiterating the importance of Walker’s score, which oddly reminded me of Mica Levi’s Under The Skin soundtrack at times; the very good performances by Cunningham and Sweet in particular; the look of the film, from the enveloping darkness and the natural lighting to the attention to costume design and period detail, which (in tandem with the wintry setting) occasionally makes you feel like you’re watching a movie in black and white, such is the dearth of any striking colour; it’s also so damn heavy-feeling from start to finish, which will undoubtedly put some people off, though it’s also indicative of the director’s consistency with regard to tone. Corbet has clearly been paying attention to a variety of directors and other crew members on a variety of sets, though I wouldn’t want to suggest that this film is a mere imitation of a certain festival-and-critic-pleasing European arthouse style; there’s a strong voice here, and clear ambition, so I’m intrigued to see what he does in the future while admiring this assured debut.

Directed by: Brady Corbet.
Written by: Brady Corbet, Mona Fastvold. Based on The Childhood Of A Leader by Jean-Paul Sartre.
Starring: Tom Sweet, Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson.
Cinematography: Lol Crawley.
Editing: Dávid Jancsó.
Music:
Scott Walker.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
115 minutes.
Year:
2016.

4 Comments