Sunday, April 11, 2010

Father of My Children (Le pere des mes enfants)

Written and directed by Mia Hansen-Love
(France, 2009)

Films depicting the film world have the same engrossing quality as films, for that cosmos is exciting and glamorous; it’s about stars and art and money. Most little kids yearn to be famous movie stars when they grow up, so a film about the people who actually inhabit that inaccessible world plucks a thrill. In Mia Hansen Love’s new movie Le pere des mes enfants (Father of My Children), which she also wrote, Grégoire (Louis-Do De Lencquesaing) is a sexy, fortyish, irresistible producer of art house films. The films are so good, so original, that most flop at the box office, and the company is deep in debt with no hope of further credit anywhere.

The movie opens with the frenetic pace of Grégoire’s life, cell phone constantly to his ear, body in motion through the office as employees snag him for updates and decisions. It’s the same in his car as he heads to his country home for the weekend—he talks to his producers on sets. Then his wife calls: where are you? Should we wait dinner for you? Pressure pursues him from all sides, but we get the sense of his deep passion and commitment to work—its magic; it’s stronger pull than his interest in his family of five women: Sylvia his wife ( Chiara Caselli), Clémence his adolescent daughter (Alice de Lencquesaing), and Valentine and Billie, his precocious and delightful little girls (Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss). Without question he’s a loving husband and parent, devoted to his women and their well-being, but work tears him away, not just because he can’t resist it, but because of its overwhelming demands and now, financial crisis.

The film’s title Father of My Children suggests Sylvia as the protagonist, telling her story about what happened, but this is not the case. The story is Grégoire’s despite his “presence through absence” for the second half of the movie. It’s his life, his character, his denouement. The women are his family and what becomes of him profoundly affects them and their futures. His fate also creates the stage for some tremendous performances on the part of his women.

Not to give away entirely the plot of the movie, it serves a fine purpose of exploring one kind of suicide—the CEO kind, where financial disaster seemingly leaves no outlet for the powerless leader. Why are there no choices left for these types (when there might be for other types)? And why in the crashing rubble of their empire do they forget their loved ones. They aren’t to blame for forgetting, this movie makes clear, but their self-focus causes untold emotional harm within the family. Outwardly, Grégoire shows no sign of his destitution and despair, but rather converses optimistically to his accountant and creditors. He even takes on a new script by a young man he met on his way to the office. His inspiration for work, for film art is turned on, but the forces working against that drive eventually leave him no escape routes, or ones he personally can accept. The only inkling we have of his executive overload is when he’s driving to meet his family at their country home, against his instincts, for he has too much pressing work. He says to his daughter on the cell phone: “Anything nice to tell me?” Then, when the phone passes back to his wife he says, “Say something nice.” The girls tell her to say she loves him, and so she does: “Ti amo, ti adoro.” A tired droop of gratification crosses his face showing his need to hear something loving and supportive to sustain him.

Grégoire’s life and dilemma stays with us long after we’ve left the theater, as does the world with which his family is left, its cohesion and loving wholeness irreparably gouged by his departure. The script is too intelligent to fall into sentimentality; the emotions explored are live and believable.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Monday, April 5, 2010

Ordinary People

Written and directed by Vladimir Perisic
(France, Serbia, Switzerland, 2009)

When a movie with Serbian origins opens with soldiers being roused from bed to start their daily duties, we know some awful events are going to unfold. This shocking anti-war movie by Serbian director Vladimir Perisic transcends the standard war movie by becoming a meditation on the twisted side of human nature that war awakens. The baby-faced, teenage protagonist Dzoni (Relja Popovic) joined the army after high school because he couldn’t find a job. By sheer chance, then, his being, his life, his soul went down a certain road where the latent killer in man would be brought out. If he had found a job instead of the army, his life would never have encountered such atrocities and lasting consequences.

The movie takes place in silence, a tense silence in blazing summer heat at an abandoned army base in the middle of nowhere. The seven soldiers who were bused there mill around waiting for orders that are certain to be bad news, since the bus radio had announced “harsh reprisals of terrorists.” The soldiers suspect their lives are linked to the reprisals, but in what way remains a mystery. The silence, oppressive heat, and tedium in the overgrown army base become an irritant, for there’s no way to escape it, to go somewhere else. The soldiers are under orders and the audience is just as captive and restless.

The only sounds are made by humans, such as their crunching footsteps, the lighting of a cigarette, or the arrival or departure of vehicles to the base. Finally the reason for being there takes place, which is best to leave unstated in order to preserve the movie’s impact. Throughout, powerful meanings seep out of the story’s silence: After each event (there are three or four in all), Dzoni stares and thinks, and we stare at him and think. We ruminate on the same things, our memories have the same haunting visions replaying relentlessly. When Dzoni stares at his hands several times, we think as he thinks: these hands of mine did that. His horror is ours, but his is worse for he’s the soldier, by chance.

In the film’s interminable silence we keep pondering: The army is nameless, the war is nameless, the place is nameless. All wars, all atrocities are the same as this nameless war. All good young men who become soldiers like Dzoni have a place deep inside them where the killer-demon lies. What brings it out? When it is self-defense or survival of some sort, the murderous action can be forgiven. But when it’s forced through war atrocities, it becomes the most shocking action imaginable. Such behavior may be forced out of Dzoni, but once it’s unleashed, he becomes the owner and perpetrator of it, which feeds his deep, grieving meditation afterwards, and also ours.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Saturday, April 3, 2010

Between Two Worlds

Directed by Vimukthi Jayasundara

(Sri Lanka/France, 2009)

Poetic cinematography of lush tropical landscapes and puzzling scene sequences create the momentum in Vimukthi Jayasundara’s new movie that offers a surreal and also mythical window on Sri Lanka. From the opening image of a man dropped from hundreds of feet into the ocean to subsequent vignettes of his experiences near his rebel-infested village, the viewer soon realizes that no borders exist between fact and fiction, or reality and dream or myth. This blending is creative art and at the same time confusing, for given Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war the audience would like to separate fact from fiction, learn about the country. But that’s not the movie’s motive.

In the middle of the film, two fishermen on a rock retell a universal myth where a beautiful princess will bear a son who murders his two uncles who are kings. So the princess is locked away on an impenetrable island but gives birth anyway, and though the baby is taken by the uncles and given over to fishermen to kill, the baby survives. The kings hear of this and kill all young men his age, but not the prince, who has hidden in the hollow of a tree. Later he fulfills his destiny, killing his uncles and becoming king. The camera moves to a tall tree with a hollow in it.

The fisherman’s myth parallels Jayasundara’s protagonist Rajith (Thusitha Laknath), the youth whose experiences we follow and come to understand as part dream, part reality, to the extent that we do not know for sure what is real and what is imagined, though we can guess. We can guess he imagined the white van spilling into the lake; his murder of a boy and then his sister-in-law; the emptying of the poisoned reservoir by the village’s young virile men; and their subsequent massacre. When we see a final image of Rajith hiding in the hollow of a tree—the only survivor of the imagined massacre—the fisherman’s myth finds a new incarnation and underscores the mythical essence of the picture. The viewer can emerge from Between Two Worlds thinking that Rajith has a fractured psychology as a result of childhood trauma from the protracted civil war—living in constant fear and silence to escape murder; or, he has schizophrenia that feeds the vivid hallucinations we witness on the screen. Whatever the cause of his odyssey-like experiences, or even his existence, that blend dream and reality (hence the title “between two worlds”), the viewer is treated to a work of film art that attains scintillating perfection.

The filming of lush tropical landscapes—steeped in low fog over grasses or bordered by mountains so green they look like fresh wet paint—sustains the movie, forms its rich foundation for the Odyssean structure that plays out without one slip of contrivance or sentimentality. The terrain’s overpowering green is punctuated by the colorful shirts of the characters, clothing often distinguishing who is who in this fable. Skin is also a color—Rajith’s slender male torso is bare from early on when he sheds his orange shirt. When the young men of the village form assembly lines to empty the reservoir with buckets, they chant and strike valiant, warrior poses, their gleaming musculature reaching us in a visceral way—these are young, strong men, ready to fight, to defend. And yet when they are attacked by costumed enemies in the next scene they stand on the lakeshore like passive victims.

The cinematography of barely disturbed earthly wonder, coupled with partly naked men moving stealthily through tall grasses to avoid enemies, and also Rajith’s repeated attempts to rape women, remind us of the primitive origins of mankind. Survival created warriors of young men; existence was about defending a small settlement from enemies; male lust superseded respect for women; and brutality defined civilization. This is the world of the movie, told in the medium of cinematic art.

Music and natural sounds, such as the woodpecker, are key to the movie’s full experience. Sound both narrates for and orients the viewer with a gifted touch. It leads us into each new episode of Rajith’s odyssey. For instance, at the beginning, the pan on the fog-mantled mountain is so long we wonder if something went wrong in the projection room. Sorrowful, wistful flute music plays. Then scary sounds come in—charging hoof beats, screams, war whoops, as the cloud lifts off the mountain. This is the curtain going up on the stage; the show will begin. And with the flute followed by distant menace introduce us to the film’s deep contrast—sweet life and brutality.

Next, as if in response to the war whoops, Rajith drops likes an arrow from the sky into the sea, as if the victim of enemies. The scene cuts to a line of listless city police tapping their sticks, just waiting for a chance to use them. Back to the seascape, Rajith lies drenched on the shore, slowly rises, and begins climbing a cliff next to him. Slowly dim sounds of voices, war cries, guns, even cannons, rise in volume as we arrive to the next scene of city-street chaos, the wild looting of electronic shops, and the vicious beating of one youth. Rajith arrives in time to add his kicks to the beaten boy, showing us at the very beginning his primitive-man character. In no way do we ever like Rajith in this film, and yet, something in his slender-youth vulnerability and lack of a safe world, create a note of sympathy for him.

Frequently and ingeniously an ominous tension is created by the low, unchanging buzz of a tanpura or similar drone instrument. It faint noise transforms the utterly green landscape into a sinister place where heinous savagery, lurks in grasses and forests. This tanpura sound contrasts to the reoccurring flute. One other instrument plays a significant role, the lugubrious cello, whose periodic presence mourns senseless death and gore.

Finally, silence dominates the soundtrack, with bird chirps emphasizing the quiet. Any wrong move or manmade sound might lead to a hidden rebel shooting the perpetrator. No one is safe in that pregnant silence. And when the tanpura faintly buzzes underneath the silence, or horses whinny, the audience knows bad trouble is just ahead. What are the whistles we hear? Are they birds or signals between men hidden in the grasses?

Towards the end Rajith has his fortune told by an itinerant psychic with a green parrot. He will survive and all good things will befall him. Like the prince in the fisherman’s tale, Rajith somehow survives the massacre of the village men that happens next (though he dreamt it). He wanders in his confused state past the barbaric scene that shows no trace of itself. We hear and then see his brother’s wife calling for him, looking for him. The camera returns to the tree hollow of before and soon moves in to show Rajith’s shiny dark face inside.

Between Two Worlds saturates the viewer in both natural beauty and the primordial violence of mankind that go hand in hand, never to be separated. As in so many stories that show this, we once again leave the theater asking: What was the purpose of these lives?

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Port of Memory

Directed by Kamal Aljafari

(Occupied Palestinian Territories/UAE/Germany/France, 2009)

Kamal Aljafari has created Port of Memory to be seen and absorbed at face value. For American audiences uninformed about Middle East history, more context would help them interpret the “current events” angle of the movie, which is about the daily existence of Palestinians in a devastated neighborhood of Jaffa, awaiting their futures that they are powerless to control. Even without a few strokes of context, the movie can be understood—listlessness and oppression exist for members of this undefined community. One of the female characters prays to Christian icons, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and crossing herself afterwards, which can be confusing for the uninitiated viewer trying to grasp which nationalities are being depicted.

The location is Jaffa, by the seaside, and sounds of the sea and seabirds form the background atmosphere, which is otherwise a battlefield silence. Late in the movie a flashback shows a real battle taking place on the same neighborhood streets—a van chased by a military truck with machine-gun fire crackling. We might guess the Israeli army chasing Palestinians in the van, but not knowing the uniforms or jeeps, and not knowing what happened in Jaffa historically—and not being told this is Jaffa, at least in the subtitles—we must take the film at face value: Battles ruptured here in the past, the place is devastated, and the lives of those still dwelling here lack freedom because of an oppressor.

Visually, the movie strives for a poetic rendering of the devastation, with slow camera coverage of patched buildings, blackened windows, and overall ruins. Interiors range from barren to minimalist to middle class. Characters are straight from life. The central woman character who makes flower arrangements for weddings obsessively washes her artistic hands, and the third time we watch her hand washing, it’s too much. As if aware of this overkill, the hand washing is the third time.

As we are told nothing and can only absorb what we see in the daily lives of several characters, we lack answers that aren’t necessary but might also deepen the film by deepening our understanding. For instance, who receives a daily plate of food on his doorstep and why? Who is the child sleeping on the couch who has never appeared before and never again after? Who are the listless men who sit or stand all day at a place that might be—or might have been—a community center; or is it a home for mentally impaired people? One of the men is a pyromaniac. Another recurring character is a crazy man on a scooter who stops every 100 feet to scream.

The principal theme running through the 60-minute movie is one family’s upcoming eviction from the home they own. Unstated aggressors (we assume Israelis) assert that the family does not own the property. The man of the house goes to see a lawyer that the audience never sees, just hears, for he is not worth seeing—he is the scum of the earth, caring only for money. We hear his voice admitting that he has lost man’s documents submitted ten years before over a different housing crisis, so that now the man has no proof that his family owns their house. The lawyer says he’ll take the case anyway, for an extortionist’s sum. The man nods agreement. We don’t know if he ever gives the lawyer money for the case, but we do witness a later scene where he goes to the lawyer’s office and it’s locked, closed for good. The man kicks the door—the lawyer was his only frail hope. As the man’s wife has said about the housing crisis: It’s our word against their word. And the audience knows as well as the family that their word is worthless against a tyrannical power.

Once the man leaves the lawyer’s building he walks and ruminates on his problem, his fate, his future. His walk leads us through the town, the rubble, a cemetery, and out to a perch over the sea where the man sits, continuing to ponder. We cannot help but think he, too, is acutely aware of the striking contrast between what he gazes upon—open, rippling blue sea and clear sky—and what lies behind him, no man’s land, a hopeless quagmire.

We see machinery building new roads on the outskirts of the neighborhood and sense that soon enough they’ll be mowing down the remnants of the battle-ruined but also ancient streets. As the man passes a wall on his ruminating walk we see papers tacked to it with beautiful calligraphy that says: We miss you. We assume this means family members lost to the past battles.

Women in the movie are practical. The wife of the man who has seen the lawyer, poses questions to her husband about what they can do, but he has no answers and no motivation to fight for his rights. In our own society, women would take the matter into their own hands and attempt to pierce the bureaucracy, the records, the courts, to obtain justice. The women on the screen have the same practicality, acumen, and potential to win justice, but by tradition they defer such matters to the man of the house.

The movie ends with images of the wasteland—the town’s crazy man riding his scooter and this time pausing to cackle demonically; the woman washing her hands as usual; and the empty rooftop where she usually hangs laundry. We stare at these images of what there is, what is left, and the hapless characters inhabiting what is left. We feel the dead weight of an existence that is not right, is not just.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Monday, March 29, 2010

I Am Love (Io sono l’amore)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino
(Italy, 2009)

Luca Guadagnino’s Io sono l’amore (I Am Love) achieves first-rate cinematography. From opening snapshots of Milan in falling snow to photography of exquisite palace interiors, the movie sustains compelling visual wonder. Surfaces are examined from every angle—from above or straight on, from behind a door, or through a window. The conglomerate of pictures surpasses the pages of Architectural Digest, but share that milieu: the design, furnishings, and atmospheres of people with the richest artistic taste and pockets to express it. This capturing of design and architecture through the medium of stunningly rendered photography is the film’s outstanding attribute.

Surfaces dominate for the first half of the film, the surfaces of a high-society European family. Elegant dinners and parties are the pivotal center of family life, though the patriarchs go to work running their globally significant textile company. Servants prepare food and food comes to the candlelit banquet table via black-suited waiters wearing white gloves. Women are ornaments. “Surroundings,” the delicate, elevated effects of class are what matters.

In the second half of the movie the mistress of this world, Emma (a Russian, played by Tilda Swinton) moves to the fore as the central character, along with her adored son Eduardo (Flavio Parenti). Their lives intertwine with tragic consequences when Emma breaks free from the chains of her high society role to become lovers with Eduardo’s friend who has attracted her through the high art of his cooking. That is the movie’s story, with a few other family threads weaving through it, such as the daughter Bette’s coming out as a lesbian, spurring her mother’s own break from rigid expectations. Thus from the outward surfaces of the Recchi family’s lives we move into the more interior ones—the passions, the search for love. And here the movie is less successful. The surfaces of these peoples’ lives leaves their interiors shallow, or we know so little about them from their surfaces in the first half that we don’t particularly care about their interiors in the second half, though the superb performance by Tilda Swinton elicits vague compassion for her character, who undergoes a mid-life, and also social-class, crisis. The five-minute dreamy, abstract sex scene with Emma and her young lover fails visually and becomes a contrived distraction. Eduardo’s accidental death stretches the prevailing mood of the movie and isn’t necessary for Emma’s transformation—that has happened already. Thus the last scenes patch together with little credence in a weak ending. We care about Emma, but that’s all. We understand her loss of a son but we hardly feel anything for the young man lost because only Emma has substance as a character in the movie. All else is surfaces—the surfaces of rich lives in and out. Does the director intend us to admire this world or see it as surfaces? Or, is the murky ambiguity intended, and if so, it waters down the impact of the movie. An outlook to ponder is missing; what remains is banal. Five stars for photography, no stars for story.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved



Directed by Michael Koresky

(France, 2009)

Focusing on physical and facial imagery, Michael Koresky has created a tingling film, tightly sequenced, that true to life baffles more than it answers. For instance, was the construction worker in the opening convent scenes near Paris the same face as the man who goes to jail and then, when free again, rescues the protagonist Céline (Julie Sokolowski) from her attempted suicide? Despite its frugality, the dialogue holds essential clues to this film and most viewers will miss it. Nassir’s conversations with Céline are a steady, step-by-step indoctrination into committing terrorist violence in order to fight God’s cause. But this plot remains obtuse until something disastrous happens.

What emerges powerfully in this film is an exploration of religious devotion, the search for God’s presence in the individual’s life, and how such fanaticism can lead to acts of violence against innocent people. Nassir’s (Karl Sarafidis) preoccupation with his Islamic faith differs from Céline’s obsession with her Catholic Christ. The movie focuses on Céline, her piety and her utter confusion about her feelings, her body’s sexuality, and her relationship to Christ, to God. She wants physical union with him—sex. Her emotional and psychological state leave her vulnerable to extremists like Nassir, who can preach rationally, convincingly that God wants her to act, carry on his work in the world, which is to take political action to fight injustice. “We’re his soldiers,” Nassir tells Céline . “Why not his martyrs?”

Yet, again, all of this information is cloaked in the confusion of Céline’s point of view and can be easily missed by the viewer, though it becomes vaguely understood later when a bomb goes off at the Arc de Triomphe and clearly Nassir and Céline played a role in it. Was Nassir’s brother Yassine a martyr in the explosion? If so, the clue was just too obtuse.

The movie is reminiscent of Marco Bellocchio’s exploration of Red Brigade psychology in Buon Giorno Notte (Good Morning Night, 2003). Both films study female protagonists whose mental confusion, lack of conviction, and desperation for something to lean on cause them to be the right material to recruit for terrorism.

Julie Sokolowski’s performance is exquisite. We see her in her various environments: the convent where she prays fervently, her palatial home with shadows for parents, school, and Parisian streets, immigrant neighborhoods. She moves about in a mental fog and speaks only to say true things about herself, for instance, that she doesn’t want romantic involvement with her new friend Yassine (Yassine Salihine), because she can only love Jesus. Yassine accepts this and their odd-fellow friendship develops, leading Céline to meet Nassir. The denouement slowly builds but is overshadowed by the changing expressions on Céline’s Virgin Mary face; a brilliant parallel emerges, and that is the film’s minute study of Céline obscures what is really developing, just as what is going on inside Céline clouds her judgment of reality—leading her down a wrong road.

Besides its incandescent study of human beings of deep religious faith, the movie provokes thought on contemporary society, on vast metropolises like Paris with different social strata and influences, and how religious fervor can become the handbook for supposedly righteous or heroic acts in God’s name. Nassir’s sincerity is convincing—he comes across as a good guy—so that his character offers insight into one kind of terrorist. (A distinction should be made between those of deep faith who devote themselves to peaceful work for humanity, and those who become God’s defenders using violence. Nassir tells Céline that “violence is natural; it’s in the nature of things.”)

When Céline spends time with the nuns at the convent she is called Hadewijch; she tells Nassir that she was born at the convent and named Hadewijch there. We don’t know more than this or what Hadewijch represents. Wikipedia tells us she was a 13th-century Dutch poet and mystic who wrote about “worldly courtship replaced by sublimated love to God.” That would fit Céline, but who watching the film, besides religious experts or medievalists, would know that? Yet, the symbol holds significance, for the movie asks if sublimated love to God underlies today’s (and history’s) terrorism.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Making Plans for Lena (Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser)

Directed by Christophe Honore

(France, 2009)

This movie is for audiences who love relationship movies. The protagonist is Lena (Chiara Mastroianni), a recent divorcee who is cracking under the stress of managing life and young children on her own, determinedly on her own. Lena’s increasingly serious mental state endures as the salient impact of the movie, for everything else makes the audience wonder why a feature film had to be made to show this middle class French family’s particular relationships. Additionally, soon after the beginning, it’s a nagging distraction that Making Plans for Lena is a lot like the recent A Christmas Tale, by Arnaud Desplechin. And Mastroianni stars in that movie too. Both depict French families gathering for a holiday reunion, with one parent terminally ill. The individuals’ idiosyncrasies feed the films. In Lena, the family’s caring attention to farm animals and wildlife contrasts to their inability to love each other. In both movies, the mothers and siblings treat each other in the rudest, most discompassionate terms. Is this style of familial interaction a French cultural trait or something universal to the world? The characters’ brutally cutting remarks were startling to this viewer, and they created most of the film’s tension. Since no other side of the characters was developed—except possibly in Lena, though her personality disorder defined her—our hearts could not be moved for these people (nor for those in A Christmas Tale). Instead it was like witnessing privileged but unhappy lives, dysfunctional family relationships (which is fairly universal), and nasty verbal abuse.

As if the filmmaker was aware of the thinness of his material, he inserted a long fairy tale in the flashback mode. As Lena’s young son Anton reads to her from the book that’s kept him awake, the movie fades to the real life fairy tale of a privileged medieval woman who will marry only the man who can dance longer than she. We watch several contenders dance and die, until finally one dashing young man dances with the woman until she herself collapses. If this story was intended as a parallel to Lena’s story, it doesn’t work, though it helps to explain the French title Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser (No, my daughter (my girl), you won’t dance—i.e., destroy lives). By a stretch, we might connect Anton’s attempted suicide as his ill-fated dance with his mother.

Technically the movie was excellent as were the performances. Mastroianni plays a convincing role of a woman stressed beyond her mind’s ability to cope, and the consequences of that—the incremental steps to breakdown. There is no indication that Lena’s family knows how to get professional help for their collapsed daughter-sibling. The movie ends with Lena alone to work out her problems, but how, and at what cost to her children? The movie, like the family’s love, loyalty, and support, lacks strength and resolution.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved


Everyone Else

Directed by Maren Ade

(Germany, 2009)

This new film by Maren Ade captures the tedium of summer vacations when regular responsibilities disappear and all that’s left is self-entertainment. When young Germans, Chris and Gitta—who met in a disco not long before—share a two-week vacation in Sardinia in the bourgeois home of Chris’s parents, the languid days create space for all the cracks in their relationship to surface. Chris (Lars Eidinger) is an ambitious architect with aesthetic ideals, now suffering depression because the architectural world finds his work too complex—he can’t get a job, or one he’s willing to take. Gitta (Birgit Minichmayr) is a feisty, funky, emotionally unbalanced and immature record label publicist. She’s likable, whereas Chris’s conceit makes him less likable. They are an incongruous couple that got involved as a result of instant physical attraction at a disco. Thus they are like most young lovers, and the movie is a trip down memory lane for lovers of any era. It’s about male-female relationships that start out one way and end up another, because over time, inevitably, grievances and dislikes arise. Some couples might have more interests, social class, or education in common than Chris and Gitta, but they won’t be spared the same kinds of conflict depicted in the movie.

Another couple, Hans and Sana, juxtapose Chris and Gitta. They come from Chris’s bourgeois world with its “polite” conventions that everyone follows. Gitta is different. She comes from the bohemian art world where brash but honest self-expression is acceptable. She’s an embarrassment to Chris, which throws her into confusion, causes her to lose her self-confidence as a woman in love. The audience is on her side—who would want to be like Hans and Sana, or Chris for that matter? Yet we wouldn’t want to be like Gitta either—her world is too half-baked and emotionally volatile. She’s satisfied to pursue pleasures in life—discos, alcohol, boat rides, sex, anything that stimulates the senses. So the movie passes the vacation days with the couple expressing passion and love followed by deep, irreconcilable breaches. The pattern continues to the last lights of the movie, for once again, in the last scene, Gitta opens her heart and arms to Chris instead of saying goodbye. He has already destroyed her but true to life she cannot set herself free just yet. Also true to life, the detested woman has propped up her man; Gitta’s energy, enthusiasm for life, and practicality (female qualities in a relationship) give Chris the push he needs to accept a local renovation job beneath his talents and ideals. Once he starts, he finds he likes the work and his motivation returns. His future has launched.

This is a movie for young audiences who love to see themselves and their relationship issues through lovers like Chris and Gitta. Additionally, at the film’s climatic moment, the couple’s complete act of love from start to finish may keep them breathless. Filming coitus graphically raises questions: why do humans like to sit in chairs as a group and watch bodies thump around until climax? Sex is so very intimate, between two people, and when performed for viewers, who watch hungrily, the intimacy is lost. Are there members of the audience like me, who don’t want to watch the arena version of sex? It loses its beauty. But obviously there’s a voyeur market out there or filmmakers wouldn’t turn out so many graphic sex scenes. In contrast, Zefferelli’s post-coitus scene of naked Romeo next to tender Juliet spellbinds. It tingles with beauty, with the moment of lost virginity for both. Chris and Gitta in no way melt our hearts the way Romeo and Juliet do, so that their sex, which is part of their pattern of love-dislike, fails to draw us in with romantic rapture.

Nevertheless, the story of Chris and Gitta is a real one and timeless. Couples intimate behavior hasn’t evolved. Besides the film’s mismatched couple theme and its passion-at-first, fault-finding-later theme, it also shows the male ego and its innate programming to crush a female partner, partly in response to the female’s strength, practicality, and ability to take on life. After the crushing, the ego regrets and doesn’t want to be abandoned, doesn’t want to lose its support. Everyone Else does a good job depicting relationships.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved



Directed by Jordan Scott
(Ireland-U.K.-Spain, 2009)

Jordan Scott’s debut feature Cracks about an English girls boarding school in 1934 flows seamlessly with impeccable cinematic qualities, but lacks depth and originality. The omnipresent music by Javier Navarrete washes over every scene with insipid melodrama and becomes a distraction. It and the screenplay, based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, cast a romantic pall over the film. From the opening scene of a dingy drifting on a country lake with a beautiful, erotic teacher (Eva Green) languidly mentoring her most talented young pupil (June Temple), everything is overdone from the setting to the costumes and make-up. An audience should not be troubled by thoughts such as: would girls in a prisonlike boarding school wear that much make-up? Would their uniforms and other outfits look that new and pressed?

The story is too predictable, perhaps because famous (and more important) stories have preceded it—A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, and The Dead Poets Society. We know from the arrival of the new girl—a noblewoman, Fiamma, from Spain (Maria Valverde)—that disaster is going to happen. Fiamma exceeds her schoolmates and teacher in both beauty and talent. Will Miss G kill her because she can’t possess her, or will the jealous girls commit the deed? Suspense, like the scenario, is tacked on professionally but without originality. The lack of character development contributes to contrivance. Miss G who rigorously trains her girls (a group of ten) to be fiercely independent and unafraid of life has a complex past that is never revealed but could have been, perhaps in flashbacks that slowly make her insanity comprehensible and also deepen her character. Without such development we watch a paperdoll world that is beautifully appointed with costumes and atmospheres.

The girls high-diving into frigid mountain water—Miss G’s training technique—forms the movie’s pivotal center, and luckily, because it’s interesting to watch. As the girls soar off their perch, sail gracefully through the air, and then pierce the water—often filmed in slow motion—the moment is mesmerizing. We can even forget the implausibility of such training in hilly England in 1934.

Miss G’s hammering away of ideology to her protégés serves as the film’s intellectual theme. She is always preaching to them: Girls, stand up and be yourselves, trust yourselves, go with your desires, make your dreams come true. Your relentless physical training will release the body from the mind: Don’t think, do!

As the audience of Cracks, we periodically wonder why Miss G is always on the sidelines coaching. She is young. Where or how did her life derail to bring her to the remote girls school where she isn’t doing, or even training her body. Her cigarette smoking is one of her principal characteristics. In one scene, the school’s headmistress hints at knowing the dark secrets of Miss G’s past. She points to an old class photo on the wall, suggesting that Miss G herself attended the school; but the clue is murky with inaudible lines.

The ending lacks credence. Would the headmistress lack moral conscience to the degree of covering up a murder to save her school’s reputation? Maybe, but her switch to a diabolical mentality was sudden and out of character. Then, the young rebel Di—looking prim and determined—sails off, purportedly to Spain, to tell the truth about what really happened to Fiamma. It’s a bit ridiculous.

For screening times visit the San Francisco International Film Festival

© 2010 Gail Spilsbury, all rights reserved