Wednesday, 17 September 2014

In Order of Disappearance

When Swedish film distributors were marketing The Life of Brian in 1979, they offered a sly dig at their morose Scandinavian cousins to sell their product. Monty Python’s opus was brilliant, they said. ‘The film so funny it was banned in Norway,’ screamed the self-satisfied quip.

Norwegians have often been at the back of the queue when it comes to the Nordic-cool accolades so popular at present: not as hip as the Swedes; less refined than the Danes; sullen squares next to the zany Finns. Oil wealth, snow and serviceable footballers are about the only things we lazily associate with our neighbours across the North Sea.

As with most stereotypes, of course, this is wildly inaccurate and nothing should undermine such silly notions more than Hans Petter Moland’s outstanding In Order of Disappearance. Bleak and chilly, this revenge thriller is a bloodthirsty, snowbound noir laced with a comic thread as black as pitch.

Stellan Skarsgård plays Nils Dickman, a resourceful Swedish immigrant who drives a snow-plough out on the vast tundra where he enjoys the respect of all in his small community. Unfortunately, that humble existence is cruelly interrupted when his son is murdered by a drug baron’s underlings and the useless police believe it to be nothing other than a tragic overdose.

Nils knows different of course and within the first 20 minutes he has already customised his hunting rifle, snuffed out two bad guys and thrown their bodies over a waterfall. As vaguely ludicrous as this sounds, there is never less than a knowing smirk lurking on the edges of Skarsgård’s watchful visage and one cannot help but feel righteous as this angel of vengeance – lacking any discernible history of violence, though he is far from a bumbling hick – unleashes himself, like a cruel Arctic wind, on a criminal empire lacking any notion of his existence.

Moland has tremendous fun with this unashamedly pulpy material, ranging the largely impassive Nils, bordering on psychotic in his own quiet way, against preening chrome-plated villain Greven (Pål Sverre Hagen). The first half may invoke the ghost of Charles Bronson rather than Leslie Nielsen but, by its finale, this is clearly a film refusing to take itself too seriously. Nils ignites a mob war; the body count racks up. Throughout this anarchy Moland cheekily sprinkles in sombre title cards bearing the departed’s name and a relevant religious symbol. 

Given its icy setting and that undeniably irreverent air, Kraftidioten (to use its native title: The Prize Idiot) displays more than a hint of shared DNA with the Coens’ Minnesotan crime epic, Fargo. In the scene where Nils and his wife view the corpse of their son, there is a spartan inelegance to the manner in which their child is levered up and down on a sterile tray. The Coens would be proud indeed of such a chillingly awkward subversion of human decency. 

That said, while the American masters tend to imbue their pictures with a degree of sweet innocence, Moland has no such intention here. The cast helpfully buys into this creeping chaos; Nils is the unmoving instigator, Grieven the petulant prey. The latter is a particular scene-chewing treat with Hagens murderous vegan overlord sporting sharp suits, good hair and a burning hatred of his ex-wife (Borgen’s Birgitte Hjort Sørensen). 

Beyond that, Bruno Ganz pops up as the equally ruthless boss of the local Serbian mafia. Ganz has become something of a parody in recent years, thanks to his much edited rant in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, but he remains an actor of true gravitas. 

Just as outstanding is Skarsgård, a man with little to lose. The Swede, who has long straddled the worlds of European cinema and Hollywood, enjoys himself immensely in the lead role, terrorising a murky underworld for which he has only disdain. The cost, however, is high. To realise his wrath he must sell his soul and no matter how arch the tone, there is nothing amusing about that.

An edited version of this article was first published here.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Hundred-Foot Journey

It should come as no surprise that Lasse Hallström’s latest cinematic offering, The Hundred-Foot Journey, is as replete with the Swede’s trademark visual richness and narrative saccharinity as anything else in his bulging filmography. 

Following the observant, and critically acclaimed, 1993 feature, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Hallström’s career has become increasingly defined by beautifully rendered, if overly emotive, tearjerkers. The Cider Rules was a wonderfully elegant period piece which earned Michael Caine a deserved Academy Award, but it is safe to judge that the director — a veteran of literary adaptations — has applied its formula with decreasing success in the years since. 

In some ways then, The Hundred-Foot Journey (based on Richard C Morais’s source novel) is an apogee of the modern Hallström: undemanding themes, flawless photography, flawed plotting. Enjoyable and visually gorgeous, this choppy effort is carried along on the shoulders of a capable cast and a palette as rich as its culinary treats. 

At its centre is prodigal chef Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal). Home schooled in his mother’s kitchen, Hassan and his family relocate to Europe from their native Mumbai — illustrated, just to be safe, by bustling markets and the obligatory lilting sitars — following a devastating fire at their rustic eatery. Led by the stubborn Papa (Om Puri), the Kadam clan winds up in the south of France, via Holland and Germany, where fate intervenes to anchor it in the heartland of haughty French cuisine. Both gruff and flighty, Papa spots a ramshackle restaurant for sale, buys it up and muscles in on the patch of aloof, Michelin-obsessed restauranteur Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) in the process. 

In the early scenes, Hallström is in his element, the action cavorting around the outrageously picturesque surroundings of the nameless French locale, a place bathed, apparently, in an eternal golden hue. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera soaks up a charmingly vivacious kaleidoscope of colour and it is no overstatement to label this 2014’s most aesthetically pleasing release. 

Less certain is the story itself. Far from being complex, Steven Knight’s script is coming down with stale clichés and a cloying sense of fate much removed from his earlier, gritty screenplays for the likes of Eastern Promises — Russian mobsters, sexual violence, naked shower-based knife fights — and the brilliantly tense Locke.

Indeed, the clash of cultures forms the picture’s only thoughtful element. One hundred feet separates the rival premises of Puri’s proud patriarch and Mirren’s scheming siren, though, very broadly, it also represents a chasm between two worlds. That heavy-handed dichotomy is overplayed but remains an amusingly executed running gag. It even gives way, naturally, to friendship and respect.

Beyond that, however, many of this gentle drama’s failings rest in its superficiality. What conflict there is feels forced, swiftly brushed away to make room for yet more scenery or another dollop of warm-hearted cod philosophy. While Hassan’s evolution is actually quite interesting — he embraces classical French cooking without losing sight of his equally refined roots — it is marked by pleasantly meaningless dialogue which says absolutely nothing of consequence. ‘The sea urchins taste of life,’ intones one character. ‘Food is memory,’ opines another. Okay then. 

Ironically enough, for all its keen gastronomical sensibilities — and this is a film obsessed with the workings of the kitchen — actual table-ready fare is noticeable by its absence. Save for a few snatches of meanly portioned nouvelle cuisine and delicious looking curries, Hallström appears to reckon that audiences will be excited by the mundanity of how meals are prepared and considered. As Hassan’s talents take him to Paris and a hilariously pretentious neon establishment which would not be out of place in The Matrix, food, increasingly glimpsed, becomes a chore: overwrought and expensive. It is an incredibly strange approach given the subject at hand. 

The latter arc is situated at the end of a film that seems substantially longer than its 122 minutes, a sensation undoubtedly accentuated by the myriad strands invading the foreground right up to the rolling of the end credits. Whole new plots are conjured from nowhere, each cutting off the chance to explore those other raised questions that remain hanging and unanswered. 

What do the locals think of the Indian flavours that Papa was so determined to introduce? From where in these sparsely populated surroundings are all the customers coming? Why is everyone speaking English? Minor queries they may be, but basic authenticity depends on such detail.

In spite of such obvious weaknesses, there is much to admire in an uplifting tale of family unity, one steeped in the belief that we are, to use a topical phrase, better together. 

The cast in particular is up to the task of presenting the unchallenging material with wit and enthusiasm. Puri, who gets all the best lines (‘He looks like a bloody terrorist’), is especially watchable as a bullish man convinced of his own superiority and his crackling interplay with Mirren is perhaps the best thing on the menu. Dame Helen aims for pantomime matron, sliding, often illogically, between French and English, but she is a classy a performer, incapable of cheap or nasty.

Dayal, too, possesses a greater number of layers than is initially suggested and if his romance with Charlotte Le Bon’s incredibly adorable, bicycle-riding Marguerite is laced with predictability from the beginning, the eventual iciness of their professional rivalry is infinitely more interesting. 

Ultimately, almost inevitably, Hallström’s newest project is as accessible as a curry down the high street and about as hard-hitting as the house korma. There is no kick to this dish.

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Two Days, One Night

It is interesting to think that Marion Cotillard’s Hollywood sojourns, outside of her native France, should so closely resemble the offscreen persona. From Public Enemies to The Dark Knight Rises, the starlet has often been cast as the same elegantly glamorous figure so popular in glossy French gossip columns. 

In Cotillard’s more familiar Francophone surroundings, however, the Oscar winner has excelled in blue-collar tales focusing on the quotidian struggles of the working classes. Both Rust and Bone and La Vie en Rose were hardscrabble fables, wildly different in content but undeniably similar in theme, and Cotillard — playing a double leg amputee in the former, Edith Piaf in the latter — imbued these pictures with an invigorating charge of humane naturalism. She is a truly remarkable actress. 

So she proves here in the latest project from Belgian siblings Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes, filmmakers well versed in spartan and meditative portraits of the squeezed lower middle. Like Ken Loach with less it’s-grim-up-north realism, the brothers Dardennes have long practiced the art of coaxing drama from unremarkable settings. In Two Days, One Night that drama is affecting, yet low-key, as the plot delves searchingly into places of such relative insignificance that almost everyone will feel a twinge of connection to its illustration of lifes stark and ordinary practicalities. 

Cotillard plays Sandra, a woman barely clambering out of the hobbling depression that has confined her to the house and jeopardised her livelihood in the process. She is just about ready to return to her job at a local solar panel factory when she suffers another setback. Given the choice by the boss to welcome her back into the fold or receive a €1000 bonus, Sandra's colleagues have opted, predictably enough, for the money. 

It is an arbitrary conundrum, perhaps, but its cruelty is artfully played and prolonged to a humiliating degree when Sandra is granted a stay: a new, secret vote will occur after the weekend. All she must do is convince a majority of her co-workers to surrender their much-needed cash, securing her employment in the process. That is, of course, an easier prospect in theory and Cotillard is every bit the tortured soul bouncing unwillingly between doorsteps and doorways, peddling the same feeble plea, begging for mercy; that she is urging people to choose her wellbeing over their own is a cause of instant tension. 

Even with a family to feed and a mortgage on the line, Sandra’s odyssey could prove too great a task. A morbidly depressed individual, she is barely equipped to fight this battle. With each refusal, Cotillard’s broken woman retreats further into a private morass, slinking off to her unmade bed in daylight hours full of Xanax and sorrow. In these moments relief even hovers around the edges of her weary visage. Each setback is a confirmation of her own inadequacies; this swirl of familiar miseries serve as symbols of warped comfort. 

Cotillard bravely shows off the kind of layered, multifaceted characterisation with which only the greats tend to toy. She slides effortlessly between tentative highs and crippling lows, all the time masking the squall behind a choked, whispering exterior. This brilliance seems grounded in small but intimate details, where beautifully observed acts of domesticity (Sandra delicately rearranges her children’s bedroom with expert precision) sit easily beside an unheralded suicide attempt, genuinely chilling in a casual sort of way. In truth, hers is a stunning performance that will resonate long after the credits roll. 

The directors exhibit no obsession with morbidity, however. The small victories are joyous indeed, blazing shafts of light in the gloom. As those who refuse her have that right — everyone is attempting to makes ends meet — so, too, does each ally act to his or her own detriment. The courage of their solidarity is underplayed, though undeniable.

In support of Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione’s revelatory display as Sandra’s husband, Manu, is the film’s second pillar. Granted less time to shine, he nevertheless remains a rock throughout, both motivator and chauffeur. 

The unquestioning commitment to his wife’s betterment, in spite of her own doubts, could become repetitive in less assured hands but Rongione’s low-key devotion represents something profoundly touching. It is as truthful a portrayal of real-world masculine responsibility as anything depicted elsewhere. 

Ultimately, the Dardennes’ work soars, in spite of its earthy simplicity, thanks to Cotillard’s wondrous, unmissable presence. The ending offers drama and pain in equal measure, yet Sandra embraces a noble redemption of sorts. In doing so she hints at a sea change, a reclamation of self-worth once considered lost. 

An edited version of this article first appeared here

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Congress

There is more than a hint of irony in the fact that Ari Folman’s The Congress should arrive at a time when the star of its central presence should be so much on the rise. In Folman’s reality, Robin Wright, playing some version of herself, is an ageing actress of dwindling status. This is the Wright of The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, a one-time ingénue whose box office power has waned in line with her disastrous personal and professional choices. 

The House of Cards Wright does not exist. 

As the icily bewitching Claire Underwood in Netflix’s towering political thriller, the former Mrs Sean Penn has reinvented her recently low-key career; she has taken on a keen edge that comes with maturity. Alongside Kevin Spacey, Wright’s portrayal, so pivotal to the online giant’s groundbreaking series, earned her a Golden Globe as the drama’s watchful and hauntingly beautiful puppet-master. Relaunching herself as one of Hollywood’s finest female performers in the process, she is no longer waiting for the phone to ring.

Waltz with Bashir director Folman, however, has no regard for this resurrection. Indeed, in his latest experimental feature, Wright’s professional future is so bleak that she must surrender it to technology. 

Living with her kids in a cool converted aircraft hangar next to an airport runway, Wright spends her days looking after her daughter Sarah (Sami Gayle) and son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a charmingly ethereal, kite-obsessed kid who is slowly going deaf. Wright’s commitment to her children has killed her progress, as underlined in the opening minutes by Harvey Keitel’s good-natured agent, Al.  

With few prospects on the horizon, the slyly named Miramount Studios propose a deal. In exchange for a handsome sum she must allow herself to be digitally mapped. The resulting ageless clone, possessed of her face, her body and her voice will be studio property, a plaything to be utilised in any number of risible blockbusters. The real Robin Wright, her corporeal form, will simply cease to be of use. It is the only way to stay relevant, sneers studio supremo Jeff, played with standard enthusiasm by Danny Huston, a man who long ago cornered the market in smooth but threatening bigwigs.  

She eventually agrees and it is at this point that Israeli-born Folman’s singular leanings emerge. The vaguely unsettling sci-fi tone  coming from left field, admittedly  is heightened by the sight of the great strobing globe into which Wright steps for her conversion from celebrity to nobody, dressed simply in a figure-hugging suit à la Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Running Man.

In truth, the early scenes are merely a conservative lead-in to the film’s hand-drawn second half, an illusory blitzkrieg evoking the gorgeous visuals of Folman’s aforementioned documentary about his experiences in the Lebanon War. In contrast to the hyper-stylised realism of that seminal work, The Congress’s fluttering last hour is a thing of exquisitely rendered, if bewildering, dystopian darkness which signals the director’s near boundless imagination. 

Twenty years on from the original agreement, and with that contract due for renewal, Wright — the non-digital version — is summoned to Miramount’s entirely animated Futurological Congress (that being the title of Stanisław Lem’s loosely followed source novel) to publicly endorse the company’s newest invention. 

It has formulated a drug which allows anybody to live as anything in a fantasy world. What charm there is dissipates as the toxic product escapes its corporate confines to infect the wider public, generating a planet of drones, each lost in a personal nirvana.

From there, Wright, depicted as an elegant, elder iteration of her solid state, must battle to escape an increasingly pointless subconscious, a leering freak show, brilliantly realised by Folman through an intensely immediate kaleidoscope of colour and shape. With the help of her avatar’s first creator, Dylan (voiced, unmistakably, by Jon Hamm), she trains her focus on locating her son and daughter in this crazed Shangri-La.  

If it all sounds wildly unpredictable, such impressions are merited. Fusing live action and a host of animation styles is one thing but the spiralling nature of the latter represents a strangely compelling arc in itself. The trippy netherworld’s knowing peculiarities will grate with many but the scale of Folman’s curious ambition is remarkable.

If there is a consistent subtext then it is unfortunately obscured by this oppressive psychedelia. That said, the theme of familial love is discernible throughout, becoming even more pronounced as Wright attempts to stay tethered to that which is tangible. This will decide her path. 

Ultimately, the film’s strongest commentary is reserved for the movie industry’s own callous approach to feminine self-worth. Thus, in spite of the roiling verve of its later sections, The Congress excels in the sobriety of that initial real-world setting. It offers a chiding indictment of a business model that throws a woman on the metaphorical slag pile once she hits 40 and while this may be a somewhat self-serving sermon from the likes of Wright, it is, nevertheless, a message worth sending. 

Subverting any notion of unsuitability, Wright carries the perplexing mass of Folman’s vision on her shoulders. She might look like a modern-day Julie Christie but there is a wisdom to her countenance that no computer may ever replicate. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Wednesday, 13 August 2014


Whatever motivates Nicolas Cage to appear in terrible movies — financial considerations, bad judgement, an unwillingness to pass on a script — there is no doubting that his résumé boasts an especially large number of turkeys to go alongside his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas. Sure, he’s headlined the occasional crowd-pleasing blockbuster (Con Air, National Treasure, The Rock) but, for the most part, a series of outright disasters litter the record. 

From Bangkok Dangerous to Drive Angry, his presence above the title long ago became a helpful guide, used by casual cinemagoers deciding on what not to see. It has all been rather unseemly for this member of the Coppola clan. 

Thank goodness then for Tye Sheridan. In David Gordon Green’s Joe, this gifted young actor weaves a similarly earthy spell to the one he exhibited in 2012’s Mud. It was there that Sheridan backed up the career renaissance of the once doomed Matthew McConaughey. The latter man now boasts an Academy Award for Dallas Buyer’s Club and it is reasonable to argue that Cage, too, has been rescued from life in the filmic wilderness. Sheridan’s contribution cannot be underestimated. 

Green has swum in these dark southern waters before, courtesy of 2004’s Georgia-based thriller Undertow, and, alongside screenwriter Gary Hawkins, he returns to these quasi-indie roots following his forays into the low-brow stoner-comedy genre with Pineapple Express and Your Highness. An adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, Joe certainly exists within the same evocative tapestry as Mud: that of a rusted, dilapidated South. For Arkansas, read Texas; hot dust replaces sweltering grime. 

As Mud’s lowly denizens subsisted on the offerings of the mighty Mississippi River, the instant blue-collar occupation — what little employment there is in this bankrupt locale — comes from the vast swathes of dark forest as Joe (Cage) and his crew of good-natured labourers poison trees marked for replacement by fresh saplings. 

Into this world enters Sheridan’s Gary, the teenage son of an itinerant family. The boy is tough and stoic, willing to work and unafraid to stand up for himself. Yet, he desperately needs love and some measure of stability given the fact that his father (Gary Poulter) is a drunken brute. 

In many ways, Gary is like Mud’s Ellis, but it is to Sheridan's credit that this is no simple rehash. This time he is sturdier, more worldly, a boy who knows how dreadful life can be yet refuses to be cowed by it. They are qualities which Joe appreciates and, seeing something of himself in the youngster, perhaps, he quickly takes Gary under his wing.

The interplay between the two is subtly affecting. Not exactly father and son, they are simply friends, equals. When events conspire against his protégé, it is up to Joe to offer his protection and ensure Gary’s upward curve. 

The title role here is a fascinating creation. A man who has certainly done terrible things in the past, Joe’s restraint serves as his truest asset, despite the well of anger and pain simmering beneath his mostly controlled visage. Cage is at his best therefore when straining to keep it all in check. Grimacing and in obvious emotional turmoil, this is far from the gratuitously crazed caricature which has come to define the grizzled A-lister. 

Instead, the intermittent tics and eye-bulging rage are considered, rendering him infinitely more compelling. Joe is a seriously disturbed guy and, for all his necessary self-control, he exists in a demented world away from the steady, simple calm of his woodland realm. 

Hardly a choirboy, he veers drunkenly from one white-trash setting to another, an unspeakably seedy brothel here, a deranged kitchen-cum-abattoir there. At one point Joe sets his American bulldog on a fierce Alsatian that he has a particular dislike for, petting the animal later on as she licks blood from her own face. Furthermore, a running feud — based on a relatively minor slight — with local scumbag Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) quickly escalates to an alarmingly bloodthirsty degree. In truth, whether through accident or design, the hectic environment he uses to occupy his mind seems destined to relight the touchpaper. 

Cage leads an excellent cast with more than one non-professional lending hardbitten naturalism to their roles. Sheridan stands out as generational talent but it is Poulter as his vile paterfamilias who steals the shown, even from its leading player.

Poulter’s story is an interesting one. A homeless alcoholic with no professional acting experience, he was plucked off the streets of Austin by Green to take up the role of Wade. He oozes a terrible charisma as a degenerate of rare vintage, a work-shy, mumbling wastrel possessed of not a single positive feature. Notably, this lack of goodness fails to ring false, for history is littered with irredeemably horrible people and, in this respect, Wade is a villain like few others. 

His actions spiral from unrepentantly avaricious to brutal. His pursuit of the next drink is all that motivates him and it is his depravity that sets the bloody final events in motion, unlocking the gothic sensibilities that Green has hinted at throughout. Poulter died in February 2013 but his haggard performance represents a fine legacy and a single shining example of bottled magic. 

As powerful and authentic as it is, the film does not lack flaws. Reflecting the present style with these gritty modern noirs, the plot is somewhat fleeting. Few narrative sign posts are offered to fill in the gaps as the audience is, essentially, dropped into an ongoing tale. The opening scene is undeniably accomplished — a single take in which Gary and his father exchange words and blows beside a desolate train track — but as Wade is set upon and beaten, for reasons unknown, by a pair of faceless men, a sense of disconnect is established. It has the whiff of significance without any of the context. 

Joe is a colourful figure but there is much left unexplained about him, save for vague references to his past deeds. When he and an unnamed woman observe each other with intense familiarity at a red light, no words passing between them, one is left to wonder about the nature and identity of all those he has wounded in the past. 

Indeed, compared with the vigour of the central trio, the figures surrounding them are either poorly developed or entirely ancillary. More than one character appears from nowhere, free of any explanation as to who they are or why they are there. The ultimate effect is slightly jarring, if not wholly irritating. 

Place such matters aside, however, and this becomes a rewarding affair. In the muscularly conveyed themes of friendship and loyalty, Green and Cage relocate paths they have strayed from, each embracing the drama offered up, bending it to their will. Even as death and sexual violence flood the screen, Joe stubbornly holds its shape, a notable contrast with its own decaying landscapes. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Monday, 11 August 2014

Mood Indigo

Michel Gondry has long been considered an auteur possessed of profound skill bordering on greatness. His reputation paints him as a free-form Gallic genius in complete control of his archly artistic tendencies and a commanding director capable of uniquely accomplished work. 

Indeed, in many respects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a romantic sci-fi released in 2004, represented an apogee of his craft. Charlie Kauffman’s incredibly clever script served as the brains; Gondry’s creative sensibilities shaped its broken heart. 

Less unsettling than Spike Jonze, yet zanier than the low-key ethereality of Wes Anderson, this one-time music video guru’s name nevertheless demands a spot in the restlessly idiosyncratic corner of the filmic landscape occupied by those fellow travellers. 

Given his heritage, it is puzzling that Gondry’s first wholly French feature should come now, at the age of 51. That being said, an adaptation of Froth on the Daydream, Boris Vian’s strange 1947 novel, appears a fitting place to start, comprised, as it is, of all the components readily associated with his eccentric, faintly sinister, style. Retitled Mood Indigo in this instance — the name of a jazz composition by Duke Ellington — the book has been transferred to the screen, in various guises, on a number of occasions, in spite of the widely held notion that it is unfilmable. 

For all Gondry’s inventive efforts, the latter seems especially apposite here. Mood Indigo is a luscious slice of visual cinema, that much is true, but in the areas where the medium is, perhaps, at its most affecting — storytelling and emotional resonance — it fails, fundamentally, to satisfy these rather basic demands. That Vian’s vision might be best left alone to exist within its peculiar dimension is a notion granted credence almost from the beginning. 

It would be unfair to suggest that Gondry has overseen an outright disaster, for the finished article must surely have turned out exactly as he imagined. Still, it creaks under the weight of its own shapeless pretensions. A trying, cocked-eyebrow of a film which never rests, never lets up, its sweet plot peeping out from time to time only to be battered into submission by the relentless whimsy which takes centre stage without even the slightest hint of regret. Mistaking its myriad quirks for charm, this is exhausting and utterly, undeniably vacuous. 

Romain Duris plays Colin, a wealthy, if earnest, wastrel who lives in an unbearably kooky (obviously) apartment high above the Parisian skyline. He enjoys jazz, aimless chit-chat and good food — courtesy of his private chef-cum-lawyer Nicolas (Omar Sy) — but is desperate, beyond everything else, to find love. When his friend, Chick, a bookish man obsessed with droning, bizarro-world existentialist ‘Jean-Sol Parte', enjoys unexpected romantic success, Colin is piqued and resolves to find himself a partner.  

Since it is all so incredibly silly, he pairs up with Audrey Tatou’s adorable Chloé that very night and their life together begins in earnest. Regrettably, what might have been a refined little romantic comedy becomes lost instead in a fog of unyielding overindulgence. 

A receptive audience may respond well to the cornucopia of largely pointless elements: a man dressed as a mouse driving a vintage Renault; more than one instance of rubber-legged dancing; an anarchic church-based box-car race; a crane-assisted flight over Paris in a plastic bubble shaped like a cloud. In fact, all of this takes place after the breathless opening scenes in which Colin shows off his cocktail-dispensing piano (no, seriously) and Sy’s jolly scoundrel prepares a bamboozling stop-motion feast of revolving trifles and jerking eels. 

Unfortunately, the knowing playfulness, distracting from the sharper flourishes, moves the story forward not a single iota. A kinetic mass typing pool signifies Colin's own narrative and Chloé’s later sickness arrives courtesy of an elegantly placed flower seed. To stave off her illness she is eventually surrounded by a blooming floral palette, yet beside the wantonly impulsive ancillary strands, these truly important details become meaningless. 

The cast is a fine one, of course, and Duris in particular — fresh from a starring role in the excellent Chinese Puzzle — embraces everything Gondry throws his way with no little brio. Tatou, also, is a worthy presence as always. Whatever their talents, however, they cannot make up for the chasm between those on either side of the fourth wall, audience and actors. When a sickly melancholy (symbolised by a subtly introduced monochrome) settles over proceedings — brought about, ironically, by the blooming of a beautiful water lily on Chloé’s lung — there is nothing upon which to build emotion or engender sympathy. 

The characters have not engaged, they have simply flitted from spontaneous desire to strange passion. Thus, their actual human problems ring hollow. If anything there is a blackness of humour running through the finale which jars, loudly, with the sincere misery Gondry seems determined to convey. 

Whether such gloominess is deliberate, or slyly misleading, remains a mystery until the credits roll though by that stage, quite honestly, one is unlikely to care either way. 

An edited version of this article was first published here

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Grand Central

Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central is a strange film. Its main thrust, a fraught adult drama, plays out in the ominous shadow of a hulking nuclear power plant, where the invasive klaxon pollutes the surrounding air as its core eats away at the health of the myriad low-level employees. In truth, however, it is the depiction of blue-collar life at the hazardous coalface, rather than anything else, that forms the most compelling part of an occasionally fascinating picture. 

Tahar Rahim plays unskilled drone Gary Manda, a willing worker who signs up for a place on the decontamination unit which spends its days deep in the perilous bowels of the reactors. They clean walls, carry out maintenance and try desperately to steer clear of the radiation levels that are likely to result in the sack. Exposure is unavoidable, goes the message, just don’t let it take your job away. 

Rahim, so impressive in Jacques Audiard’s exhilarating A Prophet, wields an unthreatening everyman quality which renders him likeable in spite of his character’s faintly needy edge and one is struck by the delight he displays in securing employment, in finding familial camaraderie with his workmates. As he conquers a mechanical rodeo bull on his boozy first night, there is a sense of genuine triumph in the way his peers carry him from the bar on their shoulders, an instant working-class hero. 

He even appears less than concerned that he might suffer contamination by ‘the dose’ which his more experienced colleagues talk about both with respect and casual disregard. Under the luckiest circumstances, a blast of ‘the dose’ might even result in a kiss from a beautiful woman, in this case Léa Seydoux’s sensual, watchful Karole, herself a plant employee and fiancée of flinty core-diver Toni (the ever magnetic Denis Ménochet). 

The blossoming romance between Gary and Karole, all bucolic strolls and riverside trysts, feels strained, marked by unspoken contradictions. Karole’s own complex relationship with Toni is potent and her feelings for the smitten Gary remain unclear until the end. Given the setting it is no surprise that the crackling chemistry between all three is tangible. Unfortunately for Zlotowski, this central love triangle grates, nibbling at elements of her narrative which are infinitely more interesting. 

The French dependence on nuclear energy — 58 reactors provide 75% of the nation’s power — drives a darker theme, one of stark socio-economic exploitation. Gary and his transient friends are more essential to keeping France ticking over than the almost invisible corporate snobs, yet all are entirely expendable. They keeps the lights on, enjoying no security along the way, and possess little beyond the community of their tranquil campsite existence. In all likelihood, of course, there are plenty to replace them. 

As one female character faces up to her own severe brush with radiation poisoning, the story barely lingers on her fate. This has happened before; it will happen again. That the wage slaves are essentially on their own in the depths of the facility is obvious, the higher-ups only appear to break bad news or dispense reprimands. Significantly, staff safety is dictated not by the pages of some human resources handbook but in direct, practical terms by plain speaking team leader Gilles (Olivier Gourmet).

In adapting Elisabeth Filhol’s 2010 novel, La Central, Zlotowski tries to keep a lid on the melodrama bubbling beneath an otherwise stoic surface. It leaks out occasionally at unpredictable, unwelcome moments and the director’s unfussy style counters this with varying degrees of success. In one respect her preference for gritty storytelling is welcome but in rushing to define her film by something other than its over-wrought emotional subplot, Zlotowski leaves strands dangling and angles unexplored. The ending itself is classic Euro-cinema: abrupt, opaque and utterly unfulfilling. 

Against this backdrop, Gary begins to cheat on his dose levels. He seems desperate to stick around, to maximise his earnings and remain in the orbit of the intoxicating Karole. As the sickly bleeps of the pervasive geiger counters become more pronounced Gary's fate appears sealed, though the reasons for his pre-finale distress are left unexplained. Maybe it is the radiation taking hold; perhaps it is down to Karole’s sullen embrace of married life. Neither explanation is favourable to him. 

‘DO NOT GIVE IN TO CURIOSITY’ warns a sign on the workplace wall. It is sound advice, swiftly ignored. 

An edited version of this article was first published here.