Dardenne Brothers Deliver a Coming-of-Age Tale of a Young Terrorist
“A true Muslim doesn’t shake a woman’s hand,” says the title character in the first scene of the Dardennes Brothers’ Young Ahmed, a hateful, duplicitous little movie which attempts to disguise its toxic Islamophobia under a superficial veneer of naturalistic humanism. Thirteen year-old Ahmed (newcomer Idir Ben Addi, a talented young performer who will hopefully go on to do fine work in better projects) is another one of the Dardennes’ trademarked wayward youths, but this time he’s given an explicit religious dimension. Ahmed, you see, was a once peaceful, westernized little scamp enjoying video games and colouring books, but he has recently become radicalized by an imam working in a local corner store.
Introduced in one of the Dardennes now-rote in media res rough tracking shots, Ahmed hides in an isolated classroom of his junior high school to complain over mobile about his infidel teacher, Madame Inès (Myriem Akheddiou). Briefly after being caught, Ahmed excuses himself to go to his daily prayer session. Madame Inès begrudgingly obliges, but first pressures him to shake her hand before he leaves. Skin-to-skin contact with a woman, Ahmed reminds her (and it is implied that she already knows), is forbidden by his religious beliefs. In this moment, however, Inès is treated as a kindly matriarchal figure attempting to bring Ahmed out of his shell, while Ahmed is portrayed as a sullen, immature youth who has adopted the values of fundamentalist Islam the same way another teenager may go through a Goth phase.
This is a characteristic moment in a film which treats Islam as an essentially (and pointlessly) violent, misogynistic, anti-Semitic religion. Ahmed lives in a small Belgian village with his doting single mother and indefinite number of siblings (Young Ahmed is strangely vague in its detailing of Ahmed’s home life), but despite living in an idyllically rendered Western society, he is drawn to the lure of fundamentalist Islam — an ideology that is removed from its wider social and political grounding, and presented as an anarchic system of belief primarily motivated by an inexplicable hatred of western freedoms.
The obnoxious Ahmed begins lambasting his mother for her light drinking, his sister for wearing revealing outfits, and his Madame Inès for dating a Jewish man (the fact that the Dardennes glibly equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism should give you an idea of their myopic and deeply prejudiced view of the Muslim faith). So enraged is he, in fact, that he launches a violent attack on Inès with a knife, a stunt which results in his incarceration in a juvenile detention centre. Inside, he is subjected to intensive psychological examinations by angelic counselors who try to convince him to renounce his religious beliefs; when Ahmed excuses himself from a mandatory therapeutic farming session to pray, it’s treated as a regression (the film is unable to imagine the possibility of somebody living both a peaceful, tolerant life and by the codes of the Muslim faith).
Along the way there is a ridiculous and under-cooked sub-plot which sees Ahmed spark up a flirtation with Louise (Victoria Bluck), a one-dimensional, perfect atheist girl who Ahmed violently rejects after she refuses his attempts to force her to convert to Islam so that they may be together. Eventually, the authorities deem Ahmed sufficiently reformed to be reunited with Inès, and the Dardennes pave the way for the sort of classical Christian redemption narrative which has dominated their output since Rosetta, but takes on a deeply insidious air when forced upon the coming-of-age story of a fundamentalist Muslim.
The very idea of two white, Western filmmakers making a feature about Islam is enough to raise eyebrows, but it doesn’t mean that they cannot take a sensitive, sophisticated approach to the material. The Swallows of Kabul, which was screened in the same festival, was helmed by two white, French directors, but they managed to portray the modern Islamic state with a great deal of nuance. The crucial difference between the two is that The Swallows of Kabul treats extremism as a corruption of the Quran, while devoting the majority of the screen time to the lives of noble, intelligent individuals who also live by the teachings of traditional Islam; meanwhile Young Ahmed treats religious violence as being inherently embedded within the Quran.
So, we get a lot of menacing sequences of Ahmed dressed in religious garb and kneeling before a prayer rug as a cheap way to drum up suspense, and several images of the boy tucking a little knife into his jacket next to his copy of the Quran. Given the subject matter, you may expect the Dardennes to at least attempt to tackle the pressing issue of rampant Islamophobia in contemporary society, especially given its prominence in the education system. Instead, Young Ahmed is likely to only contribute to this paranoia, framing western fear of Muslim subversion as a natural and rational response to a very dangerous threat. The recurring scenes of Ahmed being forced to walk through a metal detector by security conjures images of the invasive methods of surveillance Muslims were forced to endure after the 9/11 bombings, yet the Dardennes irresponsibly portray this as a necessary process in service of ensuring the protection of society; Ahmed is, after all, actually concealing a violent weapon in all of these sequences.
At last year’s Cannes festival, Jean-Luc Godard presented his masterful video essay The Image Book, a film which explores the persistent vilification of Arab people in western cinema. At one point, Godard observes that “There is a real contrast between the violence of the act of representation and the internal calm of representation itself.” I was reminded of this quote throughout Young Ahmed, a film which positions itself in the tradition of socially-conscious, character-driven, realist cinema, but is, in its own quiet way, just as insidious in its portrayal of the Muslim faith as anything by Paul Greengrass or Michael Bay.
Cannes 2019 Round-Up: The Best and Worst of the Fest
“Is this the end of the world? Is this the death of light?” ponders a character roughly an hour in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, encapsulating an apocalyptic tone which dominated many of the festival’s most hotly anticipated films. The Dead Don’t Die glibly tittered at the red state voters ostensibly responsible for the rise of nationalism; Too Late to Die Young stared pointlessly into a nihilistic void of human brutality; Sorry We Missed You imagined the self-destruction of a working class family under the pressure of parasitic capitalism; Little Joe painted a society slowly limping towards death through its citizen’s selfish addiction to consumer pleasures; Young Ahmed irresponsibly pinned society’s ills on religious extremism; Parasite reflects a society in which the underclass are pitted against each other to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie.
At the premiere of the outstanding The Halt, Lav Diaz provided a note which lamented the overwhelming focus on despair that has ensnared modern art film, stressing that cinema’s social role should be not to wallow in anguish, but to restore our faith in the future. Aside from Diaz’s magnificent work, the only other film which substantially fulfilled that purpose (in this writer’s eyes) was A Hidden Life. Malick’s vision of transcendence is metaphysical, crucially re-affirming the potential for human redemption, while Diaz’s utopian vision is more concrete, detailing the revolutionary systematic changes which may be implemented to establish a fair and harmonious society. For this reason (amongst others) these films stand as the greatest accomplishments featured at Cannes 2019 — two towering masterworks which will be watched, dissected and debated for years to come.
Best of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival
A Hidden Life centres on a monumental philosophical conundrum: how can a person sustain their moral conviction when the ideological institutions which have influenced — and continue to shape — their ethical beliefs become corrupt? Such is the situation that humble Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter finds himself in when his country is taken over by Nazi forces during the early years of the Second World War. As his friends, religious leaders, and political idols gradually crumble under the pressure to submit themselves to the will of Anschluss, Jägerstätter holds true to his fundamental ideas of right and wrong — and is branded a traitor, a heathen, and a failed patriarch as a result. While those around him either lapse into despair in the face of overwhelming global atrocities or opportunistically embrace the hateful rhetoric encouraged by the Third Reich, Jägerstätter latches onto the examples of the saints to give him the strength to retain his principles.
Out of the overwhelming darkness of a country buckling under the oppressive influence of fascist forces, Malick envisions a 20th century parable in which a sustained deontological act of resistance grants an ordinary man the grandeur of a myth. But although Jägerstätter reaches the status of icon in the film’s exhilarating final passage, for the most part he is portrayed as a very real, conflicted man struggling to reconcile his fundamental beliefs of right and wrong with the shifting landscape around him, tormented by the elusiveness of the creator as the world turns to darkness. A Hidden Life is Malick’s greatest aesthetic achievement, a breathtaking work of impressionistic montage which expresses its lofty existential themes through an ecstatic stream of images loaded with emotional and symbolic weight.
Though Malick is often accused of uncritically embracing a naïve, New Age-y form of spirituality, it’s hard to imagine any of his detractors making this accusation about A Hidden Life, a clear-eyed film which unflinchingly explores the relationship between religion and state, the apathy of the Catholic church during the holocaust, and the ethics of representing images of the war on screen, all the while drawing clear parallels with the rise of the far-right in contemporary Europe. Its final affirmation of the potential for spiritual redemption and the endurance of human decency thus feels deeply earned, and A Hidden Life deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time great films about faith.
- The Halt
The epic reach of Lav Diaz’s astonishing five-hour phantasmagorical nightmare The Halt comes from the way he portrays the development of Fillipino society as a historical continuum, positioning the violently oppressive leadership of Rodrigo Duterte as a repetition of the reign of Ferdinand Marcos. Thus, The Halt is set in a dystopia which collapses past, present, and future — an apocalyptic world ravished by environmental ruin, bathed in perpetual darkness. A title card introduces the year as 2034, but it registers as an ahistorical state in which the sins of the past are allowed to be perpetuated in a vicious cycle. Mass poverty, increasing crime rates, and a horrific food shortage make the citizens of The Halt ripe for the ultra-nationalistic rhetoric peddled by Duterte stand-in President Narvarro, a populist who feeds on the desperation and paranoia of an insecure populace in order to instill an authoritarian military regime.
Citizens are subject to hugely invasive methods of surveillance, an obscene amount of government funds are directed towards the construction of nuclear arms, strict allegiance to Narvarro is demanded, and anybody who is suspected of harbouring dissenting viewpoints is fatally dispatched. The intellectual establishment is swallowed whole by Narvarro’s regime, with the national educational systems and media heavily manipulated so as to put a positive spin on his actions and diffuse the threat of rebellion. The pervasive influence on nationalist conformity trickles down and has physiological effects, expressed through a young woman whose newfound adherence to the totalitarian government coincides with an inexplicable lust for blood.
And yet, traces of resistance remain in the form of a young revolutionary/heavy metal musician called Hook Torollo, a high-ranking member of Narvarro’s armed forces who is working on a movement to usurp him from the inside; Also, there is an academic named Dr. Jean Hadorro, who is working on a social exegesis which parallels Diaz’s perspective — that willful amnesia is a natural reaction to national trauma, but it’s a reaction which narcotizes the country and paves the way for the same mistakes to be made again. To confront historical trauma head-on, though, allows for the failures of the past to be learned from, and society to be substantially altered for the better.
Diaz’s sprawling narrative is devoted to depicting the plight of the poor who suffer the most under Navarro’s reign, the resistance fighters struggling to undercut him against seemingly insurmountable odds, and the dictator himself, presented in scenes of disquieting comic absurdism which recall Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The image of Navarro gently weeping on his balcony, surrounded by cacti of all shapes and sizes, back-dropped by luminescent surveillance drones bobbing in the sky is perhaps the most indelible of the entire festival. Yet, after examining in exacting detail the ways in which a nation can become ensnared by a brutal fascist regime, The Halt’s final section is a breath-taking expression of hope, resulting in one of the most cathartic endings in recent memory.
Albert Serra makes films which explore the socio-political dynamics of specific historical eras through an intense focus on the physicality of his iconic subjects. Liberté is Serra’s most abstract film thus far, partly because the narrative scaffolding which provided a backbone for his aesthetic and temporal explorations in projects like The Story of My Death, The Death of Louis XIV, and Birdsong has been removed, leaving only an uncompromising formal exertion into the human body’s capacity for pleasure. Taking place over a single night, Liberté unfolds as a series of sensual experiments undertaken by a gang of libertines who have been exiled from the court of Louis XVI on obscenity charges. The acts are captured in serene, sumptuous tableaux, with Serra’s masterful use of digital video’s light-capturing abilities to recreate the appearance of Rococo painting. Though it may sound like a dry aesthetic exercise, Liberté is a euphoric work of cinema — a sensuous immersion into a self-constructed utopia positioned on the eve of the French Revolution.
Worst of the Cannes Film Festival
- Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo
The Mektoub, My Love series may well go down in history as one of the most heinous cinematic trainwrecks. After winning the Palme d’Or with his controversial sex epic Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche set his sights on an adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s novel about screenwriter in his mid-twenties returning from Paris to his provincial hometown for a summer of frolicking by the sea, sweating in nightclubs, and flirting with the local girls. The book runs a slim 305 pages and was originally intended to be the basis for a single film of reasonable length, but Kechiche inexplicably decided he needed a far larger canvas to work with, and expanded it into a multi-part project in which each segments lasts somewhere between three and four hours.
Producers were understandably distraught when they learned of Kechiche’s intentions, and withdrew funding, inspiring Kechiche to auction off many of his own possessions — including his Palme d’Or trophy — to finance his (ahem) opus. The first entry in the Mektoub, My Love saga was largely panned by critics when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, made less than half its budget back at the box office, and quickly slinked away into obscurity. The four-hour follow-up, Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo, was a late addition to the festival’s main slate, with news of its premiere being revealed several weeks after the official competition entries had been added. The film arrived steeped in controversy; Kechiche is still under police investigation following allegations of sexual assault filed less than a year ago, while stories of Kechiche’s unethical on-set behaviour quickly circulated, with several crew members alleging that he used heavy doses of alcohol to influence his reluctant young actors to strip and perform explicit sexual acts in front of his camera against their will. To add credence to these accounts, few of the film’s stars appeared for the screening or the Q&A which followed. The screening itself was one of the most disastrous in recent memory, with roughly half of the auditorium walking out mid-way, and a chorus of boos to punctuating the film’s more obnoxious moments.
It is always dangerous to judge a movie as an event rather than focusing on the text itself (especially within a film festival setting), but it is impossible to separate Kechiche’s status as a manipulative sex pest from Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo, an odiously leery ode to the nubile female body. Shot and edited like four episodes of Jersey Shore stapled together and plotted like a daytime soap, Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, foolishly expecting the viewer to remember what the hell was going on in the inconsequential lives of its vapid group of model-perfect youths. The plot revolves around a series of tangled romantic connections between a bunch of incredibly dull stock types: the reserved screenwriter, Amin, who holds a torch for the extroverted temptress, Ophélie, who is having an affair with the charming Tony while her fiancé is serving in the army. This dull drama plays out over a single night, divided into a forty-minute beach scene, a three-hour nightclub scene, and a quick, twenty-minute coda set the next morning.
All of this plays out exactly as expected, with the sensitive Amin — a clear directorial self-insert — being repeatedly antagonized by the vindictive tease, Ophélie, who refuses to see his innate goodness, and instead falls into the arms of a callous ladies’ man. This despicable, misogynistic drama plays out against a backdrop of fetishized, scantily clad bodies twerking at the club, sunning on the beach, and thrusting in the cramped public toilets. Kechiche has limply fired back at his detractors, claiming that his intention with the film was to “celebrate life, love, desire, breath, music, the body,” yet this supposed ‘celebration of the body’ is merely pornographic, fetishizing the sexuality of his young female stars for the satisfaction of a lecherous male gaze. I saw quite a few bad movies at Cannes 2019, but Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo was the only one which made me feel dirty for watching it.
The Dardennes Brothers inexplicably won the Best Director prize for this mean-spirited, grim little movie about the threat of Islamic extremism corrupting otherwise idyllic Belgian communities. Ostensibly a coming-of-age story about a naïve adolescent’s flirtation with religious radicalism, Young Ahmed centres on the titular Ahmed as he is encouraged by an insidious, freedom-hating imam to trade his childhood toys for the Quran, a prayer mat, and whatever sharp objects he can sneak out of his school to use against the infidels. Ahmed is pushed too far when he discovers that his teacher is (gasp) dating a Jew, leading him to attack her with a knife. The plan lands him in juvie, where he is confronted by a series of white Christian and atheist guards who encourage him to give up his religious beliefs (an act Young Ahmed conflates with growing up).
The reductive view of the Muslim faith as one rooted in misogyny, anti-Semitism, and vengeful violence would be laughable if Young Ahmed wasn’t being released in a culture increasingly gripped by Islamophobia. Recurring sequences in which Ahmed is forced to walk through metal detectors and be searched by security guards instantly conjure up images of the oppressive acts of surveillance Muslims were forced to endure in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but Young Ahmed will only add to the irrational paranoia of the West rather than challenge it.
Nicolas Winding Refn reaches a new low with this tiresome, joyless slog. Refn’s cinema represents the nadir of the arthouse-exploitation hybrid trend pioneered by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Eli Roth, pointlessly recycling the tropes of grindhouse movies but stripping his genre models of any sense of fun, momentum, or suspense. His breakthrough hit Drive may have been flawed, but its stylistic retro textures held a certain base appeal. The commercial success of that film, however, has enabled Refn to wallow in his own worst tendencies, with each film dialing up his most reviled, stylistic affectations as a way of baiting his critics.
Every performance muted down to the point that his characters register as nothing more than blank slates? Check. Lengthy pauses between every line of dialogue? Check. Searing, neon-lit interiors? Check. Pompous slow-motion? Check. Over-reliance on a repetitive synth score? Check. Deliberately idiotic, ridiculously profane dialogue? Check. Every element of Too Old to Die Young is over-directed to an inch of its life, resulting in a sluggish slideshow of stultified, airless images. This time, however, Refn doubles down on the depraved behaviour, incorporating gang rape, incest, pedophilia, snuff filmmaking, bestiality, femicide, torture, human trafficking, sadomasochism, and necrophilia, as if straining to make his way through a list of taboos.
That Refn does not even attempt to say anything of substance about any of the topics he touches on is to be expected — that he presents these atrocities with such an affectless, antiseptic air is self-defeating, and it removes any sense of danger or menace from images which serve no purpose other than to shock. A recent trailer for the series — cut after its Cannes premiere — proudly boasts the critical quote “just as horrible and upsetting as you’d expect,” making it clear that Refn is deliberately courting outrage through his gratuitous display of vile acts. But Too Old to Die Young is unlikely to provoke any response other than boredom. Provocation-for-the-sake-of-provocation will always slip into absolute tedium.
For the sake of completism, here is every movie I saw at Cannes 2019, ranked in order of preference:
- A Hidden Life
- The Halt
- Sorry We Missed You
- The Wild Goose Lake
- The Whistlers
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- The Swallows of Kabul
- The Lighthouse
- Oh Mercy!
- The Climb
- Family Romance, LLC
- Pain and Glory
- The Traitor
- The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily
- Little Joe
- Lux Æterna
- Matthias & Maxime
- The Dead Don’t Die
- Once in Trubchevsk
- Too Old to Die Young
- Young Ahmed
- Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo
Cannes Film Festival 2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ is a Majestically Orchestrated Epic
‘A Hidden Life’ may represent a return to the mode of grand historical epic which dominated Malick’s so-called ‘golden era.’
Terrence Malick’s majestic A Hidden Life is orchestrated around dialectical clashes — the physical vs the metaphysical, inner integrity vs external honour, and individual rights vs civic duty. The inspiration for the film was the true life account of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who steadfastly refused to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler after his country became occupied by the Third Reich. Malick’s film begins during the early period of the invasion, painting a portrait of a rural village increasingly consumed by the ideology of fascism as it is enforced through a vast array of economic, religious, and political mechanisms. Some figures give into the rhetoric of the Nazis enthusiastically — such as the mayor, who giddily speaks before crowds about the economic stability that will be restored to the country if the immigrants are purged — while others are coerced into endorsing the cause through threats, like a local parish priest who faces the possibility of incarnation and the disbanding of his church if he speaks out against the Anschluss.
But do your outward declarations matter if your inner principles remain noble? That’s one of the quandaries at the centre of A Hidden Life, verbalized in a fellow religious devotee who assures Jägerstätter, “God doesn’t care about what you say; it’s about what’s in your heart.” This is the attitude adopted by Jägerstätter’s priest, who insists that though he may support the Nazis on the outside, his heart belongs to God, and the Holy Father will understand the concessions he must make in the name of self-preservation. For Jägerstätter, however, the situation is not so easily resolved; for him, to be a good Catholic means not only a spiritual devotion to God, but also to refuse to be complicit in the spread of evil (Jägerstätter refuses to speak of Hitler by name, instead only referring to him as ‘The Antichrist’). In his eyes, the apathy of the Church is a heinous sin, leading him to abandon his social duty as a Roman Catholic to obey the will of his religious leaders.
Jägerstätter becomes a pariah as his tight-knit community increasingly spirals into intolerance and brutality; he is labelled a traitor to his homeland, a failure as a father, and a disgrace to his religion. Still, he manages to resist for years, becoming the only member of Radegund to vote against the Anschluss in the April 10 plebiscite, and deferring military service on four separate occasions. In an effort to maintain his conviction despite widespread pressure to relent, he throws himself into the study of the saints, and begins to perceive his life through the prism of the religious martyrs that populate the Catholic tradition. Repeatedly, Jägerstätter gazes at the iconography of church murals in order to strengthen his moral conviction. At one point, one of the religious painters working on the ceiling of a chapel doubts his own ability to adequately represent the lives of the saints, when he himself has lived such a humble life. “Someday I’ll have the courage to venture,” he says. “Someday I’ll show them a true Christ.” And while this may be an idealistic fantasy to the painter, Jägerstätter truly internalizes this moral imperative, using it as guidance throughout the turmoil that awaits him.
Despite having the unquestioned support of his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), elements of doubt slowly creep into Jägerstätter’s mind. Are the hardships he and his family are being forced to endure evidence that God is absent, or is he being subjected to a Christ-like test of faith? Is his purity of spirit strong enough to bring about the salvation of his entire nation, or is his stubbornness simply the result of a selfish and narcissistic desire to ascend to the ranks of his idols? As he is repeatedly reminded, his act of resistance will have no concrete effect on the direction of the war effort; in fact, the Third Reich do everything in their power to suppress his voice and prevent the rest of the nation from being aware of his dissent (the local authorities refused to report his single vote against the Anschluss, out of fear that their small village of Radegund would be targeted if word of a rebel were to break out).
Jägerstätter risks having his wife and daughters face violent persecution and not being able to support themselves if he continues to resist taking the oath. A visit to his episcopate offers Jägerstätter no spiritual guidance, but instead adds to his sorrows, as the Bishop is too afraid of the consequences to openly discuss the issues at hand. The resigned Bishop instead stresses the importance of fulfilling his obligation towards civil authority. “You have duty to the fatherland,” he tells Jägerstetter, limply finding rationalization for the Church’s collaboration with the state, as well as its inability to openly condemn the most heinous ethical atrocity of the 20th century. Even though the supposedly ethical communities in which Jägerstetter was embedded permit the act of fighting for the German army as morally acceptable, his own internal sense of injustice leads him to continue his personal resistance against an inherently immoral political body; that this is an act of individual moral reasoning not encouraged by any external force informs the sense of otherworldly goodness with which Malick frames him.
Eventually, Jägerstätter is conscripted into the Wehrmacht army. Although willing to train at the Enns garrison, he still refuses to salute Hitler, and as a result is sent to a war prison in Berlin, where he is subject to torture and ridicule from the guards. “It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it,” he concludes. The imprisoned Jägerstätter is visited by clergymen, attorneys, and politicians, who each attempt to convince him that apostasy is the only rational option in order to avoid execution. As Jägerstätter becomes increasingly alienated from every comfort of the material world, he gains spiritual sustenance from a deep sense of connection with an immaterial creator — an impression of the divine which, as always in Malick, is expressed through the grandeur of the natural world. “When you give up the idea of survival at any cost, a new light opens,” he remarks, expressing his strengthening devotion to a being which exists beyond the realms of the physical. Malick cuts to shots of small tufts of grass growing in the cracks in the concrete which lines the prison yard and thin rays of sunlight seeping through Jägerstätter’s cell window — two of the few elements of beauty in an environment of oppressive ugliness.
In his confined isolation, Jägerstätter’s only source of comfort is his own absolute belief in the essential rectitude of his actions. To eschew all material comforts in the name of remaining true to basic notions of right and wrong is a heroic act, and Malick’s filmmaking rightfully mythologizes Jägerstätter into a modern-day saint, imbuing his story with the grandeur of a parable. That A Hidden Life is an explicitly religious movie has made it the target of a lot of puerile ridicule, but there is nothing simplistic about Malick’s treatment of the Catholic faith; it neither affirms nor denies the existence of God, and it doesn’t shy away from critiquing the systemic problems of the church as an institution. The awe expressed by Malick lies in the saintly capacity of a deontological moral agent in a community that has turned to immorality. That Jägerstätter remains committed to his principles while knowing that he will not gain any external recognition for his actions is crucial to the film’s conception of him as a heroic figure, and this fact is reflected in the George Eliot passage from which Malick’s film draws its title, which is worth quoting in full:
“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Malick raised eyebrows when he announced a few years ago that A Hidden Life would mark his return to a more classical form of storytelling following the extreme experimentation of To The Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song. A Hidden Life certainly marks a turning point in Malick’s filmography, though to say it is any way more conventional would be hugely misleading. There is a newfound focus on the physicality of corporeal experience that has been pointedly absent from his recent work, in which ethereal, immaterial images float in and out of the ether. But Malick remains a montage artist, a filmmaker who communicates ideas and sensations primarily through the associative linking of shots.
There is nothing resembling a traditional ‘scene’ in A Hidden Life, which radically fragments concrete incidents into vibrant, evocative slices of time, then organize these pieces into an impressionistic, non-linear stream of imagery. Sometimes an entire month will be condensed into a few seconds of screen time, and at other points a seemingly minor moment will be stretched out for what seems like eternity. The perpetually roving camera is unmoored from any sense of traditional perspective, constantly wandering, searching for ways of shooting environments and situations so that they feel radically, ecstatically new. Human interactions are established through a series of gestures loaded with symbolic and emotional weight, expressing emotion through their thoughts via carefully choreographed, dance-like movements rather than classical dramaturgy. When Jägerstätter briefly returns from his training camp to reunite with Frani, Malick knows that the feeling of elation is too grand to be consumed in the standard grammar of continuity style; instead, he cuts to a rapid series of shots of the pair playfully touching, tumbling, and running in the grass.
Malick’s montage is sensual and intellectual in equal measure, delighting in the sensory experience of the natural world as it simultaneously puts into motion a complex series of theological, ethical, and ideological debates. The snatches of voice-over are employed to interact with these images, rather than to dominate them, putting into play a series of ruminations and questions that guide the viewer through this vast visual symphony. And so A Hidden Life may represent a return to the mode of grand historical epic which dominated Malick’s so-called ‘golden era’ (which generally is believed to run from Days of Heaven through to The New World or Tree of Life, depending on who you ask). The sophistication with which ideas are articulated through cutting is deeply indebted to the free-form experimentation of his late period work, and although there is a more concrete narrative framework here, the loose, improvisatory quality of Malick’s late films is still in full effect. The story, such as it is, follows a simple trajectory, thus allowing the film to wander, to search, to ruminate on a multitude of topics which emanate from the tragic case of Jägerstetter.
One of these salient themes is the ethical issue of portraying the Holocaust through fiction. Following Godard, Adorno, and Lanzmann, Malick seems to be of the belief that recreating images of the Holocaust on screen is obscene. As in Godard’s late work, Malick is deeply careful about conjuring imagery of the concentration camps, and does so through sophisticated means of suggestion. Godard (who infamously derided Spielberg for transforming images of the holocaust into a Hollywood thrill ride in Schindler’s List) has refined his essayistic work to the point that he can encapsulate the horrors of the camps in a single archival image of a scorched hand.
Malick similarly draws on archival footage to illustrate events he cannot bear to recreate himself, such as Hitler’s rise to power, Nuremberg rallies, and combat in Berlin. These images, which are integrated seamlessly into the film’s poetic audio-visual flow, necessarily establish a wider social context, while never registering as disrespectful recreations. Malick crucially refuses to dramatize the camps in A Hidden Life, but he evokes them through an equally powerful form of cinematic short-hand; at one point, the screen fades to black as the sound of a train overwhelms the soundtrack. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching moments in modern film.
Cannes Film Festival 2019: ‘The Lighthouse’ Presents a Vision of Ravishing Savagery
‘The Lighthouse’ is a masterfully controlled mood piece from director Robert Eggers, who delivers and then some in his sophmore effort.
Robert Eggers delivers on the promise of his acclaimed 2015 slow-burn horror The Witch and then some in The Lighthouse, an altogether more playful, experimental, and assured work. Set during the late 19th century, Eggers’ sophomore feature centres on lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), who have been sent to a stormy, remote island off the coast of New England for a month-long spell. The experienced Thomas lords his position of authority over newcomer Ephraim, forcing him to perform the menial chores he has no interest in, such as cleaning out the chamber pots, mopping the grimy floors, and scaring off flocks of seagulls. It’s hard, physically demanding labour, and Eggers captures the strain through a series of intensely visceral images, awash in sweat, sea water and heavy mist.
The taciturn Thomas, meanwhile, spends all of his time drinking liquor, singing sea shanties and telling (likely fabricated) stories about his days at sea. He also strictly forbids Ephraim from entering the chamber where the light itself lay, leading the younger man to believe that something nefarious may be being kept up there. Damian Volpe’s dense aural landscape also deserves special consideration here; it’s a delicately layered, discordant assortment of squalls, crashing waves, and fog horns which elevates the sense of threat underlining the images.
Ephraim’s paranoia, isolation and exhaustion soon combine to produce wild hallucinations, most of which combine erotic and nightmarish imagery into genuinely indelible surrealist passage. Thankfully, the tools used to create a feeling of dread here are far more imaginative and multifaceted than in the one-note, overly self-serious The Witch. The Lighthouse is light on narrative, instead focusing on fully immersing the viewer into this hellish setting. It brutally establishes a bleak atmosphere and brutal rhythm, a tangled web of obscure sound and light drifting in and out of clear perception. Throughout, Thomas regales Ephraim with tales of his previous assistants who were unable to stand the toil of life at sea, and ultimately descended into madness.
As Ephraim’s mental state gradually disintegrates, the visual language of the film becomes increasingly phantasmagorical, as expressionistic symbols — such as an ominous seagull that taps incessantly on his window and visions of the lighthouse’s beam — dominate the visual landscape. Simultaneously, his relationship with Thomas grows increasingly threatening and sadistic. A masterfully controlled mood piece, The Lighthouse always seems to be on the verge of lapsing into an explosion of violence, but never quite does. Instead, the feverish claustrophobia and the relentless clash of wind, dirt, and metal escalate until it becomes nearly unbearable. The level of detail on display in the mise-en-scène is astonishing, creating the impression of the fictional island as a real, lived-in environment rather than a simple bundle of empty period signifiers.
The Lighthouse was shot on black-and-white, orthochromatic film stock in boxy 1:1 academy ratio. It’s a decision which may have the ring of aesthetic affectation, but Eggers fully explores the textural possibilities of celluloid in conjunction with the harsh elemental properties of the environment to produce a haunting visual cacophony. Interior scenes are shot in low lighting conditions, sometimes only allowing for a small patch of the frame to be illuminated, while other times allowing for the screen to be consumed by an exhilarating pattern of chiaroscuro. The Lighthouse clearly draws on the tradition of silent era expressionist horror, but this is not just an exercise in nostalgia – Eggers absorbs predecessors into a distinct, authorial vision of ravishing savagery.
Cannes Film Festival 2019: ‘The Wild Goose Lake’ is a Stylish, Substantive Thriller
‘The Wild Goose Lake’ is a masterfully stylish Hitchcockian thriller depicting individuals caught up in large, labyrinthine organizations.
Just as he accomplished in his outstanding 2014 breakout hit Black Coal, Thin Ice, Diao Yinan uses neo-noir tropes to explore the socio-economic conditions of modern China in The Wild Goose Lake. In a festival filled with movies that superficially adopt the appearance of genre filmmaking while simultaneously positioning themselves far above the thrills of the ‘low-culture’ material they’re drawing from (Too Old to Die Young, Little Joe, The Dead Don’t Die), what a pleasure it was to watch an action movie of such classical virtuosity. Yinan’s style doesn’t call attention to itself, and his absolute mastery of composition, pacing, editing, and lighting is put in the service of carefully modulating suspense and rhythm for maximum kinetic impact. Although Parasite has been widely dubbed as the Hitchcockian thriller of Cannes 2019, I’d argue that it is the classical professionalism of The Wild Goose Lake which in fact skews closer to the spirit of the old genre masters.
The film starts with an immaculate set-piece set during a thunderstorm at a secluded rail station. Small-time crook Zhou (Hu Ge) is on the run from the cops after killing an officer, and has organized to meet with Liu Aisai (Gwei Lun-Mei), a prostitute who has been hired by the mob to bring him in. From here, the narrative unfolds through a combination of flashbacks detailing the events which brought Zhou to that moment, and contemporary scenes which detail his continued attempts to evade capture. In the past, Zhou’s band of criminal associates stage an elaborate demonstration on how to steal a motorbike — a meeting which explodes into mass violence over a dispute on how to assign the men to different territories.
The gangs decide to resolve the fight by organizing a contest whereby whichever gang manages to steal the most bikes throughout a single night will be able to relegate territories. It is during this night of debauchery that Zhou accidentally commits the homicide, and is abandoned by his comrades. Zhou’s ambition, however, isn’t self-preservation; instead, he begs Liu to turn him into the authorities so that she may collect the reward money and send it to his wife.
Yinan’s style combines documentary elements with neon-lit impressionism (his guiding influences here must surely be Johnnie To and Michael Mann), tactfully employing long takes, focal shifts, and associate edits to immerse us into the sensory experience of Zhou’s world. Although a masterfully sustained atmosphere of rough, gauzy romanticism predominates, the action — when it arrives — is weighty and visceral, offering exhilarating explosions of elaborately choreographed kineticism deeply rooted in finely observed details of cartology and human biology.
The Wild Goose Lake is a film which rejects easy characterization, positioning both the cops and criminals as neutral individuals caught up in larger, labyrinthine organizations whose inner workings remain a fundamental mystery.
The film is composed mostly of lengthy tracking shots, the agile camera elegantly traversing urban spaces while panning from salient detail to detail, effortlessly establishing the important elements of narrative, character, and theme. His compositions are vibrant and lively, filled with enriching pictorial activity which flesh out the parameters of the diegetic world — one that feels remarkably complete and lived-in. Sleek modern high-rises clash with the poverty of marginalized slums and backstreets, while imaginatively staged sequences set in environments like a circus, an evening dance class, and an amusement park provide striking moments of visual poetry.
The Wild Goose Lake isn’t style for style’s sake, however; Yinan uses his rigorous craft to communicate an intricate portrait of the failure of modern law enforcement systems, the life of crime that poverty forces citizens into, the relativity of morality, and the all-encompassing strategies of surveillance enforced by the state. The Wild Goose Lake is a film which rejects easy characterization, positioning both the cops and criminals as neutral individuals caught up in larger, labyrinthine organizations whose inner workings remain a fundamental mystery.
Cannes Film Festival 2019: ‘Little Joe’ is Planted Too Shallow
It’s almost criminal how aggressively Jessica Hausner’s ‘Little Joe’ works to drain the fun out of a juicy exploitation premise.
It’s almost criminal how aggressively Jessica Hausner’s English-language debut, Little Joe, works to drain the fun out of a juicy exploitation premise. Hausner has crafted a fine body of work over the past two decades, but her stately, austere style forms an odd mash with this material — an arch, high-concept sci-fi comedy which is intentionally light on laughs and thrills. Essentially, it’s a gender-flipped riff on Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Little Shop of Horrors.
Emily Beecham plays Alice, a plant geneticist who heads an operation to produce a radical breed of plant theorized to have anti-depressant effects. At first, the experiment seems to be working perfectly according to plan. However, those impacted by the flower’s scent begin to become eerily committed to the survival of the plant, and with time, the victims grow increasingly desperate to ensure that the plants flourish at any cost. Are the plants truly omitting a dangerous chemical which de-humanizes those who consume it, or is the populace too afraid of a radical new medicine that they are beginning to hallucinate? Alice initially comes to the latter conclusion, but when her young son, Joe (Kit Connor), comes into contact with the pollen, her fear of her own creation takes over.
Any sense of tension, however, is crushed by Hausner’s hermetically sealed, not-a-hair-out-of-place aesthetic, which combines stilted performances, pastel colour-coding, and static compositions into a sluggish procession of airless tableaux. Actors are posed like statues within these self-consciously artful frames, made to stand stock-still as they deliver their ridiculous dialogue with a deliberately affectless flatness. The set design is artificial in a cold, antiseptic way, with the immaculate minimalism of the locations adding to the chilled distancing that the film pursues for no discernible purpose other than to position the arthouse-courting Hausner far above traditional genre pleasures. The vaguely camp, comic tone the film manufactures has the effect of undercutting the importance of everything on screen; the comedy does not poke at anything other than the scenario’s inherent ridiculousness.
Alice is codified as an independent women demonized for her roles as boss, innovator, and single mother. Her dedication to her work renders her an absent figure in the life of her pre-teen son, and upon hearing her concern that he is changing, she is met with the disapproval of her co-workers, who suggest that a more competent parent would recognize his behaviour as simply the onset of adolescence.
The realization that Alice’s project has grown drastically wrong also leads to the ingrained sexism of the workplace to surface. The problem, however, is that a bunch of potentially interesting ideas are tossed, and no strand is sufficiently fleshed out or brought to a meaningful conclusion. At some points, the film seems to be seeking a critique of the ethics of the pharmaceutical industry — who similarly produce mood-altering chemicals for the sake of amassing profit — and at others it shoots for an ecological approach, suggesting the notion that the natural world we have exploited for our own benefit is finally fighting back en masse. When subjected to an in-depth reading from any theoretical angle the feature invites, Little Joe reveals its shallowness. As a result, the film feels simultaneously over-stuffed and undercooked. In trying to be about a bit of everything, the film ends up saying nothing.
On a more basic level, there are some serious issues with the central premise; it’s never made clear, exactly, how the plants affect their victims. In some cases, the toxins cause the infected party to reveal their deepest, most intimate secrets, while others just act like mindless zombies, and some behave like performative parodies of themselves. It is difficult to invest in a diegetic world whose contours have been sketched so vaguely. Little Joe represents all of the worst characteristics of the nascent trend of ‘elevated horror.’ It sets up a genre premise, but withholds suspense and shocks in favour of maintaining a one-note atmosphere of eeriness, which acts as a shortcut to instant respectability.
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