Friday, 16 September 2011

Fukunaga's JANE EYRE reviewed

Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre, with Mia Wasikowska as Jane and Michael Fassbender as Rochester, does follow Charlotte Brontë's book quite faithfully, although not in the same chronological order. While the novel has a lineal narrative, the film relies on flashbacks, seamlessly woven into the timeline. 

 What Fukunaga and Moira Buffini, the screen writer, did, very intelligently, was to introduce us at that moment of the story when Jane runs away from Rochester's house, after having been deceived, after suffering the humiliation of a promised marriage which could not be, in despair after learning, and having seen, his imprisoned wife. We see her running, running, it is raining, raining, she is falling, her face hitting the muddy ground, crying, crying, until she finds refuge in the Rivers' home (Jamie Bell as St. John, Holliday Grainger as Diana, and Tamzin Merchant as Mary) . This scene is followed by the first flashback to her childhood, when the child Jane (Amelia Clarkson) reacts angrily to the abuse suffered under the hands of her cousin, John Reed (Craig Roberts). 

 By introducing us to these two key dramatic moments, the story develops in a circular fashion, returning to this point by the end of the film, allowing us to reflect in Jane's journey. More importantly, they highlight one of the core themes of the story, that of the betrayal of Jane, first as a little girl by her aunt, Mrs Reed, and her family, and then, as a young woman inexperienced of the ways of the world, by Rochester (a splendid Michael Fassbender, sensitive under a mask of strength, yet psychologically playing games with her, powerfully conveying the attitudes and rights of the lord of the manor), lured into a path that could not be. This theme of betrayal is repeated later on, when her benefactor, St. John Rivers, whom she has accepted as a brother, tries to force her to marry him and be a missionary's wife in China.

  This lack of experience of the ways of society is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why she was defined as “plain”. Mia Wasikowska conveys marvellously well that sense of a young woman, inexperienced but possessing an inner conviction of her worth, of her place, which is more powerful, at the end, than the graces of a society lady. 

 Wasikowska's Jane is no longer, it can no longer be, an icon of feminism. Fukunaga's and Buffini's interpretation of the Brontë novel have lifted that heavy baggage, forced onto it by a 20th century sensibility. On this sense, the film is, perhaps, closer to the spirit of the book than previous versions. When Jane Eyre was published, in 1847, it was not possible for the author to articulate a contemporary feminist discourse. This Jane does not pretend to advance the cause of womanhood, this Jane is doing no more than carving for herself a place in the world, a place she righteously believes she deserves, not necessarily as a woman, but as a human being. She does not pretend to subvert patriarchy, or a social order, it is significant that Charlotte Brontë gave her the fortune of a long lost uncle, therefore devolving her a position in society from which she had fallen. This Jane is not a revolutionary, or feminist icon. She is a 19th century heroine, not a 20th century one. 

 The world view that the author articulates is from the point of view of a girl, first, then of a young woman, within a patriarchal society. That sense is clear, both in the book and the film, when Mrs Fairfax (splendidly played by Judy Dench), dispels Jane of any notion that she was the lady of the manor, she being no more than the house keeper, although related to Rochester, when Jane arrives at Thornfield Hall to be young Adelè's (a gracious Eglantine Rembauville-Nicolle) governess. By writing this is not my intention to demean such feminist discourses, far from it, what I am saying is that it is not appropriate to read the past through the prism of contemporary cultural, political, social, economic and artistic concerns. 

Some people have objected to the casting of MIa Wasikowska as Jane, on the grounds that she is too beautiful, that she is not plain enough. I thought that, particularly at the time when the first teaser trailer was released, that all these objections were wrong. Is Mia too pretty to play the part of plain Jane? Some people would say, yes. I think that she has a kind of flexible beauty, that she can be both beautiful and plain. Re-reading the book, it is clear to me that, whilst Charlotte Brontë defines Jane as "... you were no beauty as a child", that is not the same that saying she was ugly. The regime of the educational establishment were she grew up meant that her manners, appearance and clothing were worked out to be plain, they may have been plain by the expectations of the upper class society at the time, the description of the character was done with a 19th century sensibility. Jane may have not possessed the conventional beauty expected, or associated, with the landed gentry, she may have not dressed like the ladies of such society, or coiffured herself as such, her features have been described as being “irregular”. What does that mean? Canons of beauty change over time, indeed in the past few years they have moved here in Britain. The book was written in the first half of the 19th century, Jane's plainness was defined within the idea of beauty of that time. Would she be considered plain nowadays? 

 I think that Mia Wasikowska has managed to pull a very believable and strong Jane Eyre, she has managed to portray herself as a plain woman, in spite of her natural beauty, although I have read reviews of Alice in Wonderland describing her as an “insipid blonde”, whatever that does mean. Mia has a complexion which I can only describe as being flexible, like casting plaster she can mould, that she can sculpt, in any way she chooses to. There is a resilience, a strength, under this apparently “insipid blonde” exterior, as a critic defines her when she played Alice in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. 

 Fukunaga and his cinematographer, Adriano Goldman, have managed to recreate the ambience, the atmosphere, the desolation of a Yorkshire of the 1850s, an extremely believable image of that world. I was shivering when watching those dark night winter shots, when Jane, as the mistress of St. John Rivers' school, spent her nights in that solitary snow bound schoolhouse, or feeling the rain on my face when she was running away from Rochester's house; or the sun caressing her and Rochester on those happy moments in the midst of a Yorkshire summer, when, for a brief moment, the impossible seemed reachable. 

 Cary Joji Fukunaga's Jane Eyre is currently being screened on British cinemas.

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga 
Screen writer: Moira Buffini 
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench.


 Trailer and stills © Focus Features.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

THE PEDDLER, or the art of DIY feature film making

The Peddler (El Ambulante) is Daniel Burmeister, a very down to earth man in his sixties who has dedicated his late life in making home crafted full length feature films, travelling from dusty town to dusty town in Northern Argentina with a video camera, minimal equipment, and a tremendous skill to improvise. He shoots his films involving the locals as actors, based on a staple of four or five screenplays. This is community based film making on a shoe string at its best. 

 This beautiful documentary was made in Benjamín Gould, in the province of Córdoba, by Argentinian film makers Lucas Marcheggiano, Eduardo de la Serna (who also acted as the judge for the competition based on it) and Adriana Yurcovich.. The film opens with a long lens take of a dusty reddish road in the middle of nowhere, a small dark object in the distance slowly becomes a rusty wreck that Daniel calls a car. The car enters the lonely streets of the town, stopping in front of the municipality. Not only Leone's Once a Time in the West sprang to my mind, but also a short journey I took in 1971, into a slow town in the province of Misiones, in the North, after crossing the River Paraguay by boat. The dust, the loneliness of the place, the punishing sun... All captured in here.

 We see the same scene in reverse by the end of the film, as the peddler rides out of Benjamín Gould, his mission accomplished, a scene reminiscent of Westerns, with the hero riding into the sunset, a trail of dust behind him, accompanied in here by the music of the legendary Argentinian singer Atahualpa Yupanqui. This song is not only beautiful, but also captures the mood and atmosphere of the film, the loneliness of the vast agricultural plains, the slowness of a way of life, so well. 

Have no mistake, the peddler is a solitary man with a mission, to make cinema from the grass roots, although he does not articulate it in this fashion. Daniel Burmeister had already built a reputation before arriving to the town, he only asks for free accommodation and groceries from the local shops, as his income comes from the proceeds of the sale of tickets once the finished film is shown. Once the local council, the municipality, approves his terms, he charms the locals, including the children, to participate in auditions. These sessions are a kind of improvised home made method acting workshops, before deciding in the cast. He has, as the mayor of the town says, the knack to sort out every problem that conspires against the completion of the film, including sorting the broken radiator of his old car. In one scene, involving a wedding, the actor playing the part of the priest walks away, so the help of a bystander is enlisted and, presto!, the filming continues. In another crucial scene, one of his main characters has to go away to sort out an industrial accident, yet Daniel manages to get him to play his part before leaving, rearranging the shooting schedule, and the screenplay, thinking on his feet. 

 What the peddler does is to make people realize their own true value, their own potential, that you do not need to be famous to be able to act. In this sense, what he does goes against the grain of contemporary culture, with its incessant pursue of fame for the sake of it, in many cases. His conversations with the taxi driver are enlightening, to convince him to play a part in the film, his reluctance to do so, “he couldn't do that, he is not an actor”, left behind, a wig left by a passenger becoming useful for his character. Cinema on the hoof, and its works. 

He has no interest in making commercial cinema, and the initial notions from the locals that he had to be a really bad director to ride into town are quickly dispelled. By adapting one of his staple of scripts (he used to write a script for each town where he made a film, at the beginning of his career as a film maker) to the circumstances and the abilities and characteristics of the cast he has been able to gather, the inhabitants are able not only to realize their own potential, their own creativity, but also a sense of community is reinforced, as people who only greeted each other with a “Good morning”, or “What a nice day!”, or whatever, start to actually talk to each other, to know the others who surround them. 

 When he leaves in his old car, rust and bits falling from it, he leaves behind not only a testimony of the creative potential of that community, but also a sense of worth which goes well beyond the geographic boundaries of the town, as tapes get sent to relatives leaving on all corners of the world. The sense of pride emanating from the function in the town hall when he shows the finished film to the locals is palpable, you should have seen the smile on my face when I was watching it. 

 The disc also contains three short films, the winner and runner ups of a competition held when The Peddler was released on British cinemas a few months back. I confess that I was slightly disappointed with those shorts, not so much, but because of their nature, with, perhaps, the exception of Kyle. The sleekness of their production betrayed the ethos behind The Peddler, the ethos of a community based and crafted film making. 

 The Peddler DVD goes on sale in Britain on 26th September, 2011, RPP £12.99

 Interview to Daniel Burmeister (not provided by Network Releasing). Regretabbly, it is in Spanish. 

 Stills and trailer © Network Releasing, unless otherwise indicated.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

CIRCO, a compelling and beautiful account of a way of life...

The first shots of Aaron Schock's jewel of a documentary, Circo, show a row of electric bulbs hanging between the two masts holding a circus tent , followed by the mundane view of clothes on a drying line, although the backdrop of the circus tent is not so mundane. We see then the profile of a young girl, her hair ruffled by the wind as she travels on the back of a pick up truck, her face welcoming not only the breeze, but also their next stop, their next performance, her upcoming life...

Beautifully photographed, the camera warmly caresses the Ponce family  as they go on their daily routines of running a small travelling circus moving from town to town, from village to village, throughout the dusty landscapes of Northern Mexico. Circo Mexico is part of a century long tradition for the Ponces, the old patriarch with four sons, each one running their own circus, Circo Mexico being one of them, surviving  in an increasingly difficult economic environment, facing stiff competitions from other operators, struggling to get the money to pay for the monthly instalments for their motors, as one of the little girls muses that Tino, her dad, had already missed two payments for one of the big trucks.

Circo follows the adventures of the travelling circus through the eyes of Tino Ponce, whom we see in one of the opening scenes recording the announcement to be broadcasted to the small town by a van driven by his father, the actual owner of the circus, distributing tickets to the children for the evening function, we are also privileged to see their mesmerised faces as they watch the antics of Cascaritas, one of Tino's children, gyrating and gyrating in the air...

Tino is between two generations, that of his elderly father, the tradition, and that of his children, who all perform in the arena, a new generation which will have to find ways to continue with the tradition. His wife, Yvonne, is tired of the endless travelling, of the energies that the circus demands from all of them, the children formal schooling is almost non existent, one of her daughters can hardly write a few words and her own name, whilst her young sister is proud to have been accepted into the local kindergarten as she wants to learn to read, to write, and all about numbers.

Amidst the chores of finding water when they get into a new location, in a poetic scene we see one of the young girls, Alexa,  drinking water from a pipe whilst her elders fill the tanks on the back of their pick up truck, just to be replaced by another scene of her mother washing the dishes, and then the youngsters training for their evening performances, when not playing as most children do. In a poignant scene, as they drive through the town, Cascaritas observes that the children there just goes to school and play afterwards, nothing else, none of the work they have to do to get ready for the function, to set up the tent and performances.

Tino's life is crucial to understand the crossroads he is facing, between his family and his life in the circus; between the pressure of keeping a travellers way of life and that of the environment around him, pulling, pulling his performers as his children get attracted by life in the city, as their audience slowly dwindles away...

Aaron Schock's single camera has delivered a compelling and poetic account of a way of life which is slowly and inexorably disappearing, the joys and the individuality of a circus life as entertainment being replaced by anaesthetized and amorphous mass media. Indie band Calexico 's score rounds up this beautiful documentary.

I laughed, I cried, when I saw the Ponce family assist to the premiere of Circo at the Morelia International Film Festival, to a Q&A session, their zest for life is so inspiring.

CIRCO is an intimate, sympathetic portrait of a Mexican family struggling to stay together despite mounting debt, dwindling audiences, and a simmering conflict that threatens a once-vibrant family tradition. 

This critically acclaimed documentary featuring music from Alt American country group Calexico, is available to own on DVD on 12th September 2011, RRP £12.99.

Driven by a dream to lead his parents’ circus to success, ringmaster Tino Ponce focuses the energy of his entire family, including his four children, towards this singular goal. But his wife Yvonne is determined to make a change: exhausted and feeling exploited by her in-laws, she longs to save her children from a childhood lost to labouring in the circus that has been part of Tino’s family for seven generations.

Filmed in rural Mexico, award-winning film-maker Aaron Schock’s debut feature is both documentary and cinematic road movie, inviting the viewer into the luminous world of a travelling circus while examining the universal themes of family bonds, filial responsibility, and the weight of cultural inheritance. Through an intricately woven story of a marriage in trouble and a family tradition that hangs in the balance, Circo asks: to whom, and to what, should we ultimately owe our allegiances?

Special Features:

  • Director Aaron Schock on the making of CIRCO
  • Calexico and the making of the CIRCO score
  • Update on the Ponce family.

Trailer and images © The Distributors.

Friday, 9 September 2011

I KILLED MY MOTHER and HEARTBEATS: the ambiguities of love

While I Killed my Mother and Heartbeats are different films, in both Xavier Dolan (who also acts in them) explores the complexities and ambiguities of love, sexuality, the constantly shifting boundaries between love and friendship, and the fragility of the perception we gather from the signs that people around us, our dearest or those to whom we are most attracted to, are constantly sending. 

Love, friendship, sexuality and the many facets of seduction are systematically dissected from, most importantly, a young person's viewpoint. Dolan was only 19 year old when he broke into the cinematic scene with I Killed my Mother, a tender yet sharp eye cast on the never ending seduction, and its sister, conflict, between a single mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval), and her son Hubert (Xavier Dolan). 

Heartbeats (Les amours imaginaires) followed it, portraying a couple of young close friends, Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri), who are unwittingly seduced by the recent addition to their social circle, Nicolas (Niels Schneider, who also plays the part of Éric, Hubert's boarding school friend in I Killed my Mother), a rich boy who had recently moved into Montréal from the country. Shades of the love triangle of Truffaut's Jules et Jim flash in here, although seen through the ambiguities of the prism of a 21st Century urbanite. A tale of seduction, of signs wrongly read – coloured by their fantasies, of the clash of conflicting moralities, of a fraying friendship. A tale of the emotional fragility moulding the sarcastic and bitchy masks worn by “pretty urbanite young things”, people who could be easily dismissed as frivolous. 

I am reviewing both films together, as I see them as a continuum in the themes explored, in their aesthetic, and the cinematic devices used to convey the stories. The frontal video interview, with harsh lighting (on occasions in black and white) is one of such devices, interviews at times confessional, as the protagonists and their friends spell their controversial, sometimes, views and inner thoughts on their friends, their lovers, their colleagues, their family, their bosses. 

However, I found the rendering of such interviews to be at times slightly annoying, particularly in Heartbeats, as the camera jumps back and forward in the close-ups, as if its operator could not take a decision on how to frame the actor. Subsequently it became clear that this was a stylistic device which I found irritating, distracting me from what the actor was conveying. 

The use of these interviews interwoven into the fabric of the films doubles as a metaphor for the social networks (and YouTube), where people, particularly the young, express their innermost thoughts, desires, hopes, sarcasm, snapshots of their minds, to, in many cases, complete strangers. It is not the case that privacy has disappeared, or it is disappearing, as Mark Zuckerberg seemed to have recently implied, but rather that its boundaries have significantly shifted as our social networks, in their scope and nature, have expanded considerably beyond geographic or geo-social vicinity. There is a scene in one of these confessional moments, which could be considered as key in Heartbeats, where a young man goes into a long exposé of the classification of masculine sexuality as defined in the Kinsey Report, to end asking:”What are you, tits or cock man?” (or thereabouts). The ambiguity of sexuality is starkly exposed here, and accepted, an act which would have been unthinkable forty or fifty years ago, at least publicly. 

I only can speculate if Dolan conceived both films as a sequence from the very beginning, or, perhaps, Heartbeats came after the positive reception that I Killed my Mother received, as he realized that the theme of love in a contemporary urbanite society called for further rendering. Perhaps a third one is in the making? 

Both films are stylistic and thematically brilliantly executed, I understand that I Killed my Mother got an 8 minutes standing ovation in Cannes in 2009. Surely, a considerably part of that success is due to the low key and brilliantly nuanced performances, such as the rainbow of emotions crossing the face of Hubert's mother in I Killed my Mother after one of the never ending disputes with her son. Dolan, an excellent actor himself, choreographed an intensely powerful yet low key emotionally charged moment.

Is Heartbeats for 2011 what Truffaut's Jules et Jim was for 1962, and Bertolucci's The Dreamers for 2003?

Heartbeats DVD contains an enlightening interview with Monia Chokri. 

I Killed my Mother and Heartbeats DVDs are released in the UK on Monday 12th September 2011.

We love our mothers almost unknowingly, unconsciously, and we fully realise how deep-rooted that love is when we come to the last separation." Guy de Maupassant Hubert Minel doesn’t love his mother. 

The seventeen-year-old regards her with haughty contempt, and sees only her dated sweaters, kitsch decorations and the breadcrumbs that get stuck on the corner of her lips when she munches. In addition to these irritating surface details, there are also the cherished family mechanisms of manipulation and guilt. Confused by a love/hate relationship which obsesses him more and more each day, and desperate to escape the suffocating atmosphere of his mother’s working-class, suburban home, Hubert drifts through the mysteries of an adolescence both marginal and typical: artistic discoveries, illicit experiences, the opening-up to friendship, sex, and ostracism. The directing debut of young French-Canadian actor Xavier Dolan is a cathartic, fiercely compelling evocation of turbulent late adolescence. 

Visually stunning, with exquisite performances from Dolan himself – as the volatile, verbally savage Hubert – and a highly acclaimed cast including Anne Dorval and Suzanne Clément, 'I Killed My Mother' was the winner of 22 international film awards in 2009, including three categories at Cannes.

The follow-up to his directorial debut I Killed My Mother explores the complex relationship between three young people which will draw favourable comparisons with Bertloucci’s The Dreamers, Truffaut’s Jules et Jim and Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. HEARTEATS had previously been screened as part of the Certain Regard strand of the Cannes Marche du Film and The London Film Festival in 2010.   Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) are close friends. 

The tight bond that they take comfortably for granted is severely tested when during lunch one day, they meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a new arrival in town from the country. As a beautiful young man, Nicolas becomes the object of desire for both Francis and Marie. As they slide further into their obsessive fantasies, the trusted friendship between Francis and Marie begins to crack under the pressure of competing for the affection of the new kid on the block. The film follows each stage of the progress of a love story- a most intriguing and compelling ménage. 

In turns crazy, passionate, hopeful, sorrowful, comical, sad, the film offers up an insightful look at the paths of falling in love and giving into obsession and what the consequence could be for both the pursued and the pursuers.  

To read further about Heartbeats please click HERE  

Post edited on 10 September 2011.

Trailers and images © Network Releasing.