Star & Shadow

  • La Dolce Vita   Frederico Fellini (1960 Italy)

    La Dolce Vita   Frederico Fellini (1960 Italy) Marcello Mastroianni; Anita Ekburg

    Viewed: Mubi streaming 29 June 2020

     Filmed as a series of psychic fragments Fellini’s (FF) film is an oracular vision of the shape of things to come: the transformation of all areas of life into hallucinogenic spectacle with no distinction between the participant and onlooker. Spectacle fed into the amplification circuitry of the media who both feed off and feed into the images they produce. Fellini’s Dolce Vita is an initiation rite into a Western World driven and controlled by ‘image’ whose present dynamic takes the form of Berlusconni as a demonic hybrid apotheosis of the world of politics and media. As I watched Dolce Vita unfold I was awed by FF’s visionary clarity in relation to the convergence in shape and form of the control apparatus.

    The opening sequence of the movie is a statement of intent. We see, flying low over Rome, a helicopter with a huge statue of Christ slung by ropes beneath its undercarriage. The apparition causes everyone to look up at this giant airborne caricature. La Dolce Vita (DV) introduces Christ as the clown of the skies, a cosmic Christ for our entertainment and amusement Ladies and Gentlemen…… The flying Christ merges publicity stunt with religion, marrying the two worlds in a spectacle that presages the movies underlying theme.

    A thought: where did FF get this statue? It looks like it was made for the movie, for the brave new world of 1960. More interesting where/ how did he get the idea?   Perhaps it was something he actually saw or heard about; anyway, ‘as idea’ it perfectly and succinctly predicates what follows.

    In DV,  FF uses the structurally broken filmic fragments of action as a mirror to catch Marcello’s reflection as he is transformed and bent into shape by the images and social forces that come to define his life. An early fragment of the film sees him, an inveterate womaniser, spend a night trying to seduce and bed the American film star Sylvia (Anita Ekburg who’s a shoo-in for Marilyn Monroe). In the mirror fragment we see clearly that narcissistic narcosis induced by publicity and media attention have totally absorbed this Diva.   Marcello discovers (he takes a little time to get it) that Sylvia is not really of the flesh. She has a body, central to her image but an appendage to her life. She may seem present in the flesh but actually she lives inside an endlessly projected movie of herself.. She isn’t really present; sex with her can only be a two dimensional movie. Sylvia is machine for absorbing fantasy and projecting desire onto the white walls of life. For people like Sylvia life doesn’t flow; rather it takes the form of a sort of eternal recurrence: the same people sets and situations repeated time and time again. This recurrence is only broken by the momentary irruption within Sylvia of fleeting impulses that are for an instant totally insistent, but immediately fade. Time in her life doesn’t flow rather it is compressed into a crystallised everlasting and overwhelming present, bolted like the image of the flying Christ, to an unchanging image of herself.

    Marcello has the chance to avoid being trapped in the recurring movie of his projection as an image in two dimensional photogenic space.   He has a chance to chose to live through time as he is pulled by his girl friend to accept her love to share her carnality. But each glimpse in the DV mirror fragments shows him drawn further into the spectacle by the fascination of himself as an operating image. Through the shattered fragments of time Marcello develops the idea of himself as an increasingly self referential and narcissistic object.   An increasingly emptied out self, refined through the rectifying forces of the media, into a being of pure surface. A centre of attraction and repulsion in the endless parade that he joins to replace the tedium of life.

    The music as in all FF’s films complements in form the content of DV. It’s surging rich gorgeous encompassing. Parade music that is intended like the Pied Piper’s flute, to draw in everyone who hears it, to disarm resistance and allows the children to completely abandon themselves to the show.   The music is an amalgam of mood feeling and thought swamping and bypassing the human mental faculties as FF fills out DV with sequences of extraordinary fluid shots that capture small and large crowd situations and scenes.

    DV opens up worlds as spectacles that absorb, disarm and finally infiltrate the individual.   The world of religion filmed as a hysterical fusion of media frenzy and religious hysteria. Catholicism experienced as a testing ground for experiments that would later be internalised and finally replicated by the profane secular order. Marcello cannot see the hilarious farcical religious and media circus caused by two young children claiming to have seen the Virgin.   He is absorbed by it, and excited by the prospect of living and working outside time. He breaks (or rather the mirror fragments suggest that he does, for there is no convention of continuity in DV) with his girlfriend and joins the parade of partying which is the gateway to a sort of immortality. The movers and shakers the money and the power exist in a never ending spectacular that engulfs life and pulls everything along with it in a frenzied dance lived out in image and gesture, a saturated narcissism that ends in death. But of course death does not stop the show.

    The final sequence on the beach shows the party goers descend onto the beach to gaze at the lifeless form of a huge dead fish. A young innocent girl, introduced earlier in the film as working in the beach café also looks on. Both exist outside the spectacle,

    Adrin Neatrour





  • The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors   Sergei Parajanov (USSR 1965)

    The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors   Sergei Parajanov (USSR 1965) Ivan Mykolaichuk, Larisa Kadochnikova, Tatyana Bestayeva

    streamed by the Star and Shadow Cinema from YouTube 27 May 2020 during the great plague.

    no me

    Like the snow that covers the land in the opening sequences of ‘The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’ (‘Shadows’), so Parajanov’s film overlays the consciousness of the viewer with the images of a symbolic journey.   The viewer travels not only through the territories of a remote culture but through a mythic soul-scape, on a journey from life to death. And the narrative, like the snow covers and alters the contours of what can be seen; to understand we have to look through the surface and see what lies hidden from our immediate vision.

    Parajanov’s title, The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors points to his intention in making his film: to reveal the shadows. Through music through image, Parajanov calls up the buried psyche of the Hutsul people, giving filmic form to the living ghosts of the past that were negated by a Soviet film industry that was hostage to history and the lifeless illusionary beings of an arid future.

    Inspired by Tarkovsky’s ‘Ivan’s Childhood’, ‘Shadows’ is a personal political response to the dead hand of Socialist Realism which was supposed to guide Russian film makers of this era. Soviet film making was directed in principal by a materialist manifesto. The scripts scenarios context development and interpretation were judged and determined by Marxist dialectic in which ideologically correct time was travelling in one direction: towards the victory of the proletariat, the realisation of Marx’s prophecies. But filmed in a society in which a shamanistic culture remained intact under the outer garb of orthodox religion, ‘Shadows’ follows the another path another time line, the soul journey: Ivan’s movement towards consummation of love. A journey that is archetypal and as an archetype is located outside time. Parajanov’s invocation of archetypes runs counter to the dogmatic shibboleths underlying soviet scientific orthodoxy. ‘Shadows’ embraces the hallucinogenic and the ecstatic. It breathes rare pure mountain air that rises above the stale gasses trapped in the abyss of political dogma.  

    Located in a Hutsul settlement in the mountains, the story told is that of the possession of Ivan’s soul by love. The love between Ivan and Marichka is born in extraordinary circumstances. They come together in blood, after the killing of Ivan’s father by Marichka’s father. Consequent to the killing the antagonistic tensions between the two families might endure for generations, but what happens is that love, as an exterior force occupies the souls of the two young people, overpowering them and fusing their destinies. They become as one, twinned souls in life and death, overtaken by the archetype of ‘the Lovers’ that transcends death, transcends time.

    When Marichka dies in an accident, the separation for Ivan is a violation. After her death they exist in separate forms: he body; she spirit.   The shock of separation is the shock of losing part of himself, because fused in an archetypal form of love he and Marichka are not two but one. Parajanov does not depict Ivan’s loss as melodramatic pantomime in which he expresses the loss as an inconsolable emoting, a flooding out. Marichka’s death does not cause this type of emotional pain, rather another type of response, an imperative to tear away from life and start on the journey to rejoin her.  In the way Parajanov shows Ivan, he has no ‘me’, in the sense of responding as an individual, he is a type. With Marichka’s death Ivan is subsumed into a mythical realm in which there is only the necessity to become one with her again.

    The effect of Marichka’s death is initially to weaken and loosen Ivan’s grip on life, as he experiences a pressure he perhaps does not understand but to which he bows. Acceding to her persuasion Ivan marries Palahna, a union that takes place in the human domain, and which crystallises for Ivan that after Marichka’s death, he no longer belongs to the world of men. Married and crushed by his new earthly bonds Ivan commences an accelerated race towards world of the the dead and re –unification Marichka.   His marriage to Palahna is barren and she desperate for a child that Ivan cannot give her, seeks out the local shaman, which relationship leads to Ivan being axed to death by the shaman in a similar fashion to his father. A death that in blood mimics that of his own father, but this time avows with his own blood Ivan’s tie to Marichka.  

    So one sees things in Parayanov’s film, perhaps one sees nothing more than one’s own shadows.

    The way the film is put together, the fusion of camera work music and mis-en-scene creates a maelstrom of hallucinogenic effects that transpose the action into an otherworldly dimension.  Parajanov’s camera, whether filming in the suffocation of the candle lit interiors or in the exposed raw exteriors, becomes a rhythmic instrument exulting in the intensities of collective and organic life. Most of the music is played by the people, pipes reeds horns jews harps digs deep into the fabric of the images calling up apparitions of daemons spirits and wraiths. And the settings: the compressed churches and wakes and the natural settings in particular the river sequence, become portals to a parallel dimensions of existence. In his fusion of these filmic elements Parajonov projects a vision of a world balanced on an edge between substance and shadow.

    The Soviet film industry was mandated to produce films with narrative structures which could only be interpreted in one way: that is to say in support the state’s official ideology. Tarkovski and Parajanov (after 1965) were not interested in making films that led to one interpretation. Their films were diffuse, structured to exploit material and content that were intentionally malleable, designed to bring out into the light manifold inherent possibilities of human experience.   What viewers take away from their films depends on what they see in the shadows, what is brought into light by their own subjectivities.

    adrin neatrour


  • Une Femme est Une Femme J-L Godard (Fr 1961)

    Une Femme est Une Femme  J-L Godard (Fr 1961) J-P Belmondo, J-C Brialy, A Karena

    Mobi streamed – viewed 22 May 2020 during the great plague


    film as delerium

    Godard’s movie, Une Femme est Une Femme (‘Une Femme’) of course begins at the beginning.  He uses the opening title sequence to not only to anticipate the themes of the film but to flaunt its wit, provenance, and his mastery in deconstructing cinematic form.   In the opening captions, we see written out in huge block caps across the Cinemascope screen and spaced over two shots, the formula that traditionally leads us into the fairy tale:  IL ETAIT /cut / UNE FOIS…(once upon/cut/ a time).  This opening is followed by a series of words (all in the same huge screen filling block caps a la Godard) that are invocations of the wild promises we see every week in the cinema interjected into the manic film trailers.  But instead of flashed excitor words such as: sizzling – hot – teenage sex – explosive – true story etc in ‘Une Femme’ we are hit with such as : LUBISCH – 14 JUILLET – GUILLMOT – COMEDIE – FRANCAIS – GODDARD – and many more..before…

     …off camera Anna Karena (AK) calls out: Lights! Camera! Action! (usually the director’s call), and the title Une Femme est Une Femme fades up over an interior shot of a Parisian café, a familiar setting used by Godard in this era, and picks up Angela  (sic.; AK ) as she swings through the door.   

    So what is ‘Une Femme’ about?  It seems to me that it is about Godard as the playful lover, playful lover both of Cinema and lover of his star.  His movie is both an infatuation with AK and an infatuation with Cinema.   Une Femme est une Femme is a delirium of infatuation.

    Using the American musical comedy as a tongue in cheek reference or ‘Homage’ Godard strips out the Hollywood film making bible and employs every trick in the counter-culture guerrilla cinema book to deconstruct the genre.  Yet, through script, colourisation, editing, wit and the performances – above all his camera’s love affair with AK – Godard maintains the energy vitality and innocence of his original model.

    The narrative, such as it is, is written to give full weight to the woman’s perception of the situation.  As such the script moves well outside Hollywood’s comfort zone (certainly in 1961), with Angela’s insistence to Emile that she wants a baby.  Given Emile’s intransigence on this matter, Angela’s solution to go and make love with Alfred to effect conception, prioritises her biological imperative over romantic faithfulness.   This solution and  Emile’s relaxed response are both outcomes well outside ‘The Code’.    The acting style is ‘cool’, the actors don’t invest in emotive charge, and the interchanges even when not mediated by book titles, tend towards a logic in which the words are owned by the actors but not possessed by them.   The dialogue has its own dynamic, in turns ironic radical and left field, it creates its own tensions and resolutions, and is delivered with gestural self possession but without affected commitment.  

    ‘Une Femme’ is characterised by random breaks in the flow of the film’s soundtrack, discontinuities which then resume pick up and continue as if nothing had happened.  These edits break into the viewer’s cognitive processes, putting them on alert that they are the targets in a game of manipulation.  Take care! It’s just a movie, anything is possible.   The script also gives the caste a part to play in breaking through the hallowed conventions of Cinema.   With nods winks and little looks they cut through the screen and collude directly with the audience.  Seated in the dark (the traditional setting for ignorance) the audience know they are being guyed by the directors simple stunts – absurd undisguised spacial contractions –  stunts that point up their complicity in the illusion yet earns their intelligent indulgence and admiration for the director’s filmic delirium.   Because Godard loves Cinema as a way of thinking, as a way of life, as a way of saying something about the world. As a way of being: ‘In Love’.

    The second delirium that makes up the substance of ‘Une Femme’ is that it is Godard’s ode to Ana Karina.  It is his portrait his sonnet his love affair with his muse.  He found her in the Cinema (interestingly the full name of AK’s part in Une Femme is: Angela Recame – Reclame is French for an advert and Godard was first smitten with AK in a Palmolive Soap Advert), and he will make her a star of the Cinema.   In ‘Une Femme’  AK, wrapped in ‘Minnelli’ red colourisation, is the subject of Godard’s delirium, a series of fantasias – housewife – stripper – child  – music comedy star (There is a Gigi sequence. But interestingly Minnelli, director of Gigi, is not one of the names seen either in the opening credits,  nor is he mentioned in the script – but Bob Fosse is) .  In Godard’s vision AK radiates through Une Femme.  Brialy and Belmondo both play out downbeat performances, wandering through most of the takes like clouds on a sunny day.  AK is the sunshine.

    Bunuel  Parajonov, Tarksovski, Herzog  Rossellini Resnais are some directors who immediately spring to mind who have made films that constitute a state of delirium.     It is of course a subjective judgement.  I wonder how Godard came to view ‘Une Femme’ as he moved into a more cerebrally committed mode of film making?  In some respects ‘Une Femme’  appears as an indulgence, a film that verges on being self satisfied and over content with itself, but in the end I think its innocence overcomes, its playfulness overrides reservations.  Its thematic feminine line, its pricking of male pomposity wrapped up in the bubble of film making justify the final lines of the script, the terrible pun spoken by Angela in bed as a reposte to Emile: “Non une femme n’est pas infame, une femme est une femme”.  Much can be forgiven if much is attempted.

    adrin neatrour

  • Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero) Frederico Rossellini (It. 1948)

    Germany Year Zero (Germania Anno Zero) Frederico Rossellini (It. 1948) Edmund Moeschke; Franz-Otto Kruger, Ingetraud Hinze

    viewed YouTube 14 May 2020 during the Great Plague

    Like Raqqah like Homs – what lies behind these ruins…the death of Patriarchy?

     The opening title section of Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (GYZ) is a series of establishing shots tracking through the smashed up streets of Berlin immediately after the war. The city’s face is shattered, its core reduced to rubble and the buildings, such as are standing, resemble broken teeth or gravestones. The images are overlaid by the rhythmic strident cacophony of the overture to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman as ironic counterpart to the desolate imagery.

    The question is what is this sequence establishing?

    I think it establishes that in GYZ Rossellini is looking at what is to live a life under the condition of total defeat. Conditions are situations that are all encompassing. They surround and press on us, as omnipresent as the air we breath.  Conditions are pressurised containers. Siege plague famine and total war create in extremis the conditions in which the human population tries to survive, at whatever the cost. The rules of survival permeate all behavioural responses, drilling down deeply into both the collective and individual psyches.

    Rossellini’s plot centres about one family and their survival. Like everyone else they live in buildings that are bombsites, sharing space with other families and penned into their rooms like hollowed out caves. Life is clearing rubble, digging graves, prostitution, theft, selling, hiding. The women walk out with the occupying soldiers, the children steal, sell, pimp, men cowed and frightened, hide from the authorities who are everywhere. Life is focused on getting to tomorrow. Life and death are familiars, but what Rossellini’s film excavates in parallel to the physical ruins are the reverberating echoes of life lived in the ruins of a shattered ideology: Nazism.

    These Berliners were the people who some five years earlier had cheered Hitler as the Fuehrer and embraced his fantasy that they the Germans were the superior race destined to bring the world under their heel. For Rossellini these Germans are a people psychologically adrift .   Scratch many of them, and just under the skin is National Socialism. Many still desire recourse to the old Nazi certainties but are unhinged by the evidence everyday life pushes into their faces, that they themselves are living proofs to the failure of these shibboleths of the Third Reich.

    A twelve year old boy Edmund sits at the centre of the scenario.   He is a luminous being who increasingly comes to dominate Rossellini’s attention. Edmund is a beautiful child: a physical embodiment of the Aryan somatic fantasy, but also the repository of a strange purity that stands out against the images of desolation. And Rossellini’s script marks him out for a specific purpose.

    Resourceful observant truthful Edmund plays a duel role in GYZ: one illustrative, the other mythic as the scenario plays out its sacrificial design.  

    As an illustrative figure Rossellini follows Edmund as he walks through Berlin. There are moments experienced of the city’s strange residual beauty, but mostly we see the conditions of destruction and relations of total defeat: the double crossing, the bullying, the black market, the dog eat dog situation in which the kids like packs of urban dogs play prominent roles. Rossellini also uses Edward to point up the sexual undercurrents of Nazism and its male dominated fetishism, the paedophile corruption underlying its racial ideology. Organisations such as the Hitler Youth, based on a glorification and glamorisation of the male body were tacitly based upon a certain a sexual dynamic between older men and young boys. This kind of sexual relationship is strongly suggested but not actively played out in the relationship between Edmund and his friendship with his ex teacher, a resentful unreformed Nazi.

    Edmund travels through all this with calmness of spirit aware of but not contaminated by the world in which he moves. And in this world Rossellini has reserved a particular mythic role for Edmund.  

    GYZ’s plot revolves about the sick father of the family and its desire to keep him alive.   There is a key scene after the bedridden father returns from hospital and talks candidly to his children about the Nazi past and his own failure, like everyone else, to have opposed Hitler. The camera comes to rest on Edmund as the father concludes:

    “We just have to acknowledge our own guilt…”  At some point in the development of the psychic and material strands of the film’s dynamic, Edmund comes to understand he will murder his father, he has been chosen as the agent of death.  

    Of course the narrative formulates a rational basis for Edmund’s killing: his father expressing his wish to die, so as not to be a burden; the teacher’s suggestion that the weak such as his father should be allowed to go to the wall. Edmund himself after the murder, tries to blame the teacher for the own crime. But these rationalisations as scripted linkages are weak, little more than pretexts for Edmund’s act as if his act of murder derived from a sort of cost benefit decision. Edmund’s impulse draws on a deeper psychic wellspring, the imperative to enact a rite of purification which takes possession of the boy and itself carries out the deed. And this is the reason Rossellini went to Berlin and made his film.

    Rossellini in creating his parricidal climax is pointing to mythic necessity as the way to expiation and hence the shot of Edmund over the father’s lines about the need to acknowledge guilt. Edmund is possessed by a force greater than and exterior to himself. The father must die by the hand of his progeny, his male offspring. Only this sacrifice will free people to move out of the patriarchal past and to come to terms with the terrible crimes that were committed in their name.

    But this is no trite Freaudian Oedipal story, where the son murders daddy, replaces daddy and then marries mummy.   This is another type of myth: a spiritual myth of self sacrifice. As Rossellini understands it, this killing this ritual murder must be carried out by the agency of an innocent being but one who accepts the guilt for his action and in reconciliation kills himself. When the cycle of death closes in on itself, the saga ends. Only through mythic death is there the possibility of renewal.

    In reaction to the still unfolding horrors of the Third Reich I think Rossellini in Germany Year Zero travels all the way to Berlin to make a film that will represent a rite of purification of behalf of Germany and its people.  It is film as liturgy and in the figure of Edmund he found his symbolic mediator for the necessary sacrifice. 

    The last year zero before this one, was the year of Christ’s Birth, another symbolic sacrificial figure who accepted the guilt of our sins and died to save the world. And as one of the architypal images of Chirst’s death is the Pieta, the image of the dead crucified Christ attended by his mother Mary, so in the last shot of Germany Year Zero Rossellini composes his own version of the Pieta, as a woman prays beside the crumpled body of the dead Edmund. Another spiritual death before camera tilts upwards towards the ruins.

    adrin neatrour







  • Ema     Pablo Larrain (Chile; 2019)

    Ema     Pablo Larrain (Chile; 2019) Mariana Di Girolamo, Santiago Cabrera.

    Viewed Mubi Streaming 3 May 2020 during the Great Plague.

    Sign of the times

    Girl Power is the key note of Larrain’s movie ‘Ema’, which is set in his native Chile but like girl power movies in general involves a lot of shots of the protagonist Ema looking directly into or towards camera with an affect image, a sort of pout into which we might read anything, but into which we are likely to read a sense self rightiousness. Although set in Chile, Larrain’s movie could have been made in any country with a Western cultural background as it plays out its convoluted and sometimes tortuous scenario.

    Confusion is characteristic Pablo Larrain’s film, confused state of minds, that in many respects reflects the times: gender/sex confusion, male-female role confusion; political confusion and climate anxiety. Larrain’s movie exploits confusion to create a series of dramatic images: ‘Ema’ has a little bit of everything: groovy modern dance, fire; lots of sex AC/DC; girls with fun earrings and cunilinctus; disputed child custody; targetted seduction and a claim by the hero, Ema, to be evil.


    And this claim to be ‘evil’, made in an intimate exchange with her new lover, the fireman, epitomises the vacuous nature of Larrain’s movie. Ema says she is evil…. but she might as well be saying she is dyspeptic or Sagittarian for all the difference it makes. Her line is just a line, words in a script, a pose that is inconsequential and empty, an outward display.

    ‘Ema is a film that exploits image for effect and affect without shame. In this too ‘Ema’ is of course very much a film of its time. It has nothing to say and serves notice only of its desire for fame and fortune, at any cost to be noticed.

    ‘Ema’ opens with our eponymous hero having fun with a flame thrower. Standing in the middle of the street directing her stream of fire at the overhead intersection traffic lights. The traffic lights perhaps symbolise the male ordering of the world, a world where public life is regimented by cars and their control systems, a world she wants to destroy or simply impress her rage upon, by pissing fire on it. ‘Ema’ is regularly punctuated with Ema’s use of fire as destructive force. But I don’t think Ema’s use of fire endorses her claim to be evil, even in the movie’s own disoriented terms. In classic psychiatry fire razing often relates to some forms of sexual dysfunction, but classic psychiatry is not fashionable these days. More probably its symbolic use here implies the idea of destroying the past, the idea of taking control of life through elemental intervention.

    However viewing ‘Ema’ these ideas don’t sit easily with the film.   They are not grounded in Ema herself or in the material of the movie; rather the use of fire seems simply played out as spectacle a gratuitous gimmick to sell the movie. Looks good on the poster; in the trailer.

    The opening half of the movie is punctuated by elaborate dance numbers. The dances are played out and filmed as referents to energy, body power, freedom. These qualities resonate with Ema’s persona: funky woman, and uninhibited.  But trying to stretch a practice dance leotard over Ema’s varied intentions, the garment simply splits. The dance is simply another distraction, a spectacle.

    There are attempts to integrate the dance into the scenario: Ema’s break up with the impotent choreographer with whom she has adopted a little boy – she rejects him as a lover and as an artistic director. But this narrative strand simply goes flaccid, there’s nothing left to dance out. It’s in competition with too much else – the pack of girl power digressions – the seduction of the fireman who is the new adopting father of the little boy. The scripted machinations multiply relentlessly, until at last Ema embraces a biological destiny of pregnancy and motherhood, finally taking her place amongst her enlarged family group of lovers and a lover’s wife and adopted child.

    The last shot of Larrain’s film is particularly dishonest. We see a medium shot of Ema at a gas station filling up a gerrycan of gasoline, the fuel for her toy flame thrower. For all Ema’s primping and pouting Larrain’s script simply leads Ema into a dead end. But like Ema, Larrain wants to have it both ways: tight and loose. Rebelling against this dead end Larrain has decided to open up the finale to suggestion: that Ema is waiting for ‘Ema 2’ to be financed, or that he is available should Hollywood call. Larrain is saying he can rock and roll as good as LA.

    adrin neatrour






  • The Servant                 Joseph Losey (UK; 1963)

    The Servant                 Joseph Losey (UK; 1963) Script: Harold Pinter. with Dirk Bogarde; James Fox; Sarah Miles; Wendy Craig

    During lockdown I decided to re-watch some films that had made a considerable impression on me when I first saw them. One of these films was Joseph Losey’s 1963 movie ‘The Servant’, starring Dirk Bogarde James Fox and Sarah Miles, which I was able to access on streaming provider Mubi (Blu-ray and DVDs are readily available online). I was also able to view ‘Eva’ on the same platform, the film he made in Italy immediately before shooting the Servant. Both films evidence the effective devices that Losey employed to communicate his forebodings about the entangled nature of human relations. They are both films of ideas.

    These movies were shot against ‘classical’ backgrounds, Venice and Rome in the case of Eva, and a Georgian London terrace for ‘The Servant’. Losey chose these settings and exploited their character so that they are not just backcloths, rather they underlie and are intrinsic to the stories that unfold.

    ‘The Servant’s’ opening shot is a stunning 360º pan. The film begins with a shot of a spaciously appointed Georgian London terrace, the location of the house where the action will unfold. At first the camera locks onto a gated neo-classical building, perhaps a church or a college, before panning anti clockwise across some nondescript buildings then up through leafless plane trees moving round to a busy London street where finding the huge shop front signage of Thomas Crapper, sanitary engineers, we see the eponymous servant (Hugo played by Dirk Bogarde) and follow him as he crosses the busy road, walks into the terrace and makes his way towards the grand classical structure seen at the top of the shot.

    This shot introduces a specific thematic concerns that Losey weaves through his film: the passage of time and our reading of images .   The fine classical structure and the Georgian terrace that leads up to it, exude an image of timelessness.  But as the camera pans we see that these buildings, with their classical porticos and fine panelled doors, these discrete architectural expressions of wealth, are surrounded by recent upstart structures made up of all sorts of buildings in all sorts of styles. The initial image of an unchanging Georgian street is in fact misleading: if you look back the other way you see the vista is deeply compromised by its urban situation. But many people don’t turn round, they just see what they want to see.

    In the course of ‘The Servant’ Losey returns to this opening shot, the exterior of the Terrace, a number of times. Using it with ironic effect to intercut and break up both the action and the emotional charge of the film.  In its repeated use, the shot implies a number of interrelated ideas and purposes: ideas about the entrapment of time, the predilection to look only at the image presented, not to turn over to the other side of the postcard; as the emotional intensity builds between the protagonists these cool white painted regular exterior forms contrast with the dark destructive forces within; and intercut this terrace shot suggests that behind the surface of an unblemished exterior, corruption can spread through the interior of a body eating away at its flesh.

    Losey’s interest in time is evidenced in both ‘Eva’ and ‘The Servant’ where he uses shots such as ticking clocks and dripping taps as blatant references to its passage, time that hastens away with the quick leaving the dead behind. More subtle is the director’s use of mirror shots throughout ‘The Servant’ calling attention both to time and its reading. These mirror shots, often of long duration, split the subjective reading of time into two discrete sections: first to what is seen indirectly through the mirror, then as the camera pans off the mirror, to that which is seen directly. The shots move from the virtual to the actual.

    For the viewers, the mirror shots cause a momentary disorientation, a need to reframe what they are watching.  At some point in the camera movement the audience understand that initially they have mis-read the scene: “Ahhh! I see it’s a mirror shot!” Having to reframe what you are looking at, breaks the integrity of the shot sensitising the viewer both to the issue of accepting the images presented on trust and to the idea of time as a subjective dimension.  Losey’s use of long durational choreographed mirror scenes where the action flows out of the reflected into the actual splits the shots into two temporal sections, before realisation and after realisation. The cognitive fissures caused by the mirror shots are quickly assimilated; the effect is perhaps confounding but rarely disruptive.  But movement through or across a mirror causes a subtle re-orientation in the seer to the manner in which time and space have been experienced.

    Crudely in the ticking clocks, subtly through mirror image manipulation, time is a basic building block for Losey in ‘The Servant’. Events are running on fast in ‘The Servant’. Society, the pampered elite living off inherited wealth who live in the expensive houses, are running out of time so fast they can’t see what is happening. Admiring themselves in the mirror they don’t see the camera has panned round. They live as if they were insulated from change but are actually complicit with the forces which will inevitably destroy them.

    ‘The Servant’ is Losey’s morality tale; a contemporary allegory. Losey’s vision is pessimistic, perhaps cynical. Not for him the righteous outcome of the servants and the dispossessed inheriting the earth in a bloody but glorious revolution. In Western society Losey sees that traditional class oppositions  have been fatally compromised and undermined by emulative consumerism. The servant, intelligent clever and adaptive, doesn’t want to overthrow the toff, he just wants to turn the tables on him, and experience for himself the life of a leisured aristo. The servant’s intention is to use his increasing position of power to garner for himself the life style of the other.

    In ‘The Servant’ Losey and his script writer Harold Pinter suggest that those in close contact with the system of inequality will never overturn that system but simply enter the more deeply into collusive relations.

    Losey’s script for ‘The Servant’ charts a process of role inversion between master and servant. The script is a psychic machine ripping Tony (James Fox) apart finally consuming him and spitting him out as the spent husk of a retarded child. But it is the atmospherics of the film’s scenario registering the dynamics of the homoerotic relationship between Tony and Hugo, that charges the film with its intensity. The rising emotional tensions as the women, in particular Susan (Sarah Miles), are emotionally squeezed out, demeaned, barred from this dyadic male world. The sexual tensions are all the more potent for being implicit in the action, and given the script is by Pinter, in the pauses between the action; they are not made explicit in the flesh.   Less is more. Were the film re-made today the script would almost certainly include a full on sex scene between Tony and Hugo, and perhaps between Vera (Wendy Craig) and Tony. In Losey and Pinter’s work this type of roly-poly would simply have reduced the relational complexities to a banality.

    Ultimately ‘The Servant’ reads as Losey’s allegory for the the country in which it was made: Britain. A country sliding into psychic melt down: corrupted by the wealth of Empire, married to privilege and unable to change. Some of the things seen in 1963 by this ‘Un-American’ director and Pinter, that in 2020, still ring true.

    Adrin Neatrour





  • L’Age d’Or Luis Bunuel (1930; Fr)

    L’Age d’Or     Luis Bunuel (1930; Fr) Gaston Modot, Lya Lys.

    Viewed Star and Shadow shared screening 12 April 2020 during the plague.

    Download from YouTube.

    Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or were both privately financed, and like Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or was originally meant to be a collaboration between Dali and Bunuel. But some time along the way they fell out, and Bunuel went solo, though I am sure I spotted the ghost of Dali lurking between the sprockets.

    What impresses me with Bunuel’s scripting and direction is his certainty and confidence as he assembles juxtaposes incorporates the disparate and extraordinary chain of images that make up the film.

     Bunuel’s produces his effects of psychic dislocation both by using editing and montage techniques, and also employing devices or actions built into the flow of particular scenes.  In the latter case scenes are sabotaged by strategic interpolations that bring things to a stop, challenging the viewer’s framing of what they are watching. But before the brain has completely adjusted frame,  the scene moves on or shifts as if nothing has happened. In L’Age d’Or  a large cow is discovered in the bed, a little dog is kicked out of frame, a ox cart travels across a drawing room party.   These acts of ‘framing’ sabotage are witty disruptive but ultimately swallowed whole, like Desperate Dan and his Cow Pies.   This type of scene sabotage was certainly a feature of silent comedy, Max Sennett et al and also would feature in the cameo’s of TV shows such as Monty Python.   Comedy’s golden age in Hollywood specialised in short vignettes in which the whole purpose of an absurd intrusion is to get a laugh.   Something more happens in Bunuel’s scenario, as indeed it does in the Monte Python series.  Bunuel’s surreal interposed images of course have wit and invention but the interpolations with which Bunuel blocks out L’Age d’Or are an integral part of the film, if not the whole point of the film:  that we live in the world in a state of psychic suppression. And this state is under continuous threat of being overwhelmed by the raging and sometimes murderous forces of the psyche. L’Age d’Or is a state of mind.    

    As per montage,  L’Age d’Or is bookended by two completely contrasting and dis-associative sequences. An introductory section comprising a brief documentary about scorpions; a final sequence, shot on a set representing the exterior of the Chateau de Silling (the fictional  location de Sade’s 100 Days of Sodom) with a Christ like figure in attendance.  L’Age d’Or as a thing itself absorbs the invasion of rogue elements erupting into film. Montage is of course the perfect filmic device to enable scorpions, bishops, bourgeois gatherings, mass urban riots and Christ to become a part of the flow of consciousness. 

    Bunuel’s cornerstone is  of course frustrated desire.  Natural desire frustrated by the artifice of society. In this case it the desire of lovers wonderfully played by Modot and Lya Lys, to make compulsive all encompasing love.   The theme of frustration, of the particular frustration generated by Bourgeois hypocrisy and false propriety, is a recurring concern of Bunuel’s.  It is evident in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire as well as other films such as The Exterminating Angel and the Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz.

    In L’Age d’Or as well of these other films, Bunuel is able to employ his mordent uncompromising humour against the lifeless dead people that he observes around him. Dressed up in their ridiculous constumes sustained by obscene belief systems they present themselves as: ‘society’.   ‘Society’ that has abandoned life for safety in sartorial conformity and the stifling postures of conventional behaviour. 

    Of course today the herd conformity of Bunuel’s age dictated to by social conventions, has been superseded by the dictates of self image.   But there are few film makers around of Bunuel’s ability to point with effect to the absurdity of enslavement of the self by the self. 

    Adrin Neatrour



  • Bakurau Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (2019; Brazil; Fr.)

    Bakurau       Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (2019; Brazil; Fr.)  Sonia Bárbara, Udo Kier, Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino

    Viewed 4th April 2020; collective Star and Shadow viewing on MUBI

    SPLAT the rat movie

    Filho and Dornelles ‘Bakurau’ is made with a sense of urgency. They are saying what is happening in Bakurau is happening now in Brazil: people are being murdered.  But we can do something, together we can fight the forces that would kill us.

    In the penultimate sequence of the film the good folk of Bakurau watch as the murderous scumbag mayor, Tony, is led away.  He is naked, bound and tied backwards on a mule which will carry him into the cactus dominated scrubland where he will die.   This one’s for you Bolsonaro must have been the thought of the millions of Brazilians who flocked to see Bakurau which is a thinly disguised allegory of the state of affairs in the largest South American country.  

    Filho and Dornelles have made their film as a direct political statement as to what is happening in this land.   A polemic pointing the way in which Brazilians can take on and oppose the forces ripping up their society and their county: only by being together.

    Brazilians are being butchered.  Butchered for private profit.  The activities of the mining companies killing thousands; the pollution they cause poisoning millions.   The Amazon is being felled at a rate that is destroying the life of the people who live there and will hasten the process of catastrophic global warming.  Whereas it is Brazilians themselves who often seem to be overseeing the destruction, it is the unseen forces from the US and Europe who are the real instigators, spilling the blood of Brazil, the disregarded collateral damage of their private gain. 

    Two factors make Bakurau work.  Firstly its allegorical content neatly enfolds the different layers of exploitation at work in this neo-colonial rentier economy.   The mayor, Tony, the Bolsonaro shoo-in, is paid off to do the metafixing.  He provides the conditions for the sting:   squaring off the people with false assurances,  cutting off their water supply, interrupting the communication networks so that the victims either cannot be heard, or better still, seem no longer to exist, become non-people.  Once Tony has sold out to the exploitation powers, these managers of death can move in for the kill. Literally as scripted by Filho and Dornelles, the Americans can walk into Bakurau and enjoy the pure pleasure of distraction, shoot and kill the people there.  In actuality what happens is that the outsiders come and  pollute the water, build unsafe damns, strip forests, control the highways and rivers, kill people who get in the way.   But it amounts to the same thing: death.

    And there is no one to protect them – except the people themselves.  Everyone else is bought.  For  besides the big cheeses such as Tony, there are a multitude of local middle managers who are needed to organise the day to day operations of exploitation.  These necessary peons are held in contempt by their paylords but besides doing the useful dirty work they are also expendable nobodies who can be fed to the crocodiles at the first sign of trouble.   They are no help.  It is only the people, the oppressed who can stand up and fight.

    In Hollywood and now increasingly European films, the people are mostly absent.  People do not exist as an active force.  In our movies the Western individuated ethos dominates to the exclusion of all other themes.  Cinema tells the stories of individual protagonists, the scripts relate: overcomings, reconciliation, transformations, conversions etc.  But accounts of socio-political relational networks forming the basis of change and oppositions,  accounts of shared common struggles, are not told.  The people as a category exist only as objects and data, consumers to be manipulated, divided up into categories processed by algorhythms to be the raw material for political and commercial collation and manipulation:  a process called consumer choice. 

    Of course arguing against the above depiction of their industry film producers might say that their scripts and scenarios simply mirror what society has become.   There is little left of the old collectivities.  There are no communities no proletariats no Unionised workers in large monolithic industries.  There are no people for the film industry to represent, only isolated functionaries locked into systems from which they can either try to escape or within which they can redeem themselves.

    The reply to this is that of course the Cinema Industry itself is part of the same system and employs a late digital capitalist development strategy.   Cinema is a huge industry, dominated by multi-national corporations that itself utilises the same population control devices as governments.  Cinema’s commercial strategy has been to produce films that target specific demographics.  Movies that stratify and strategically divide up its audiences into marketing categories predicted by age gender status and known proclivities.  Cinema itself has become one of the socio-industrial elements dividing us.   

    But in ‘Bakurau’ Fihlo and Donnelles have made a film in which Cinema unites people – the people are present.  It is the victims as the people, who finally understand what is happening to them and that there is no alternative to active resistance.  Bakurau is touted in the publicity as a Western, but if the supposed model Western is a movie like the Magnificent Seven, this is a misrepresentation.  Bakurau has nothing in common with this movie in which the people cower in their houses whilst Bronson McQueen and Brenner get on with the action.  In Bakurau the people do call in the help of the local village bandito, but it is the villagers who  decide to take on the outsiders and collectively defend themselves.  In the end they kill them all, mostly Americans, symbolically entombing the last survivor in a deep pit built in the middle of main street.  Lest they forget.

    During Corvid 19 plague we in the industrialised economies are going to be pushed back into a deeper individuation, becoming for government and industry atomised units at the end of a telephone number.  The experience of Hong Kong does show that this does not have to be defining situation for the people, that the tools used to control them can also provide the means for organising and defining opposition.  Filho and Dornelles’ ‘Bakurau’ points to us that the moment to resist must be taken or lost forever and that resistance by people has to be defined by the resolve to see it through.    

    adrin neatrour

  • Grizzly Man Werner Herzog

    Grizzly Man   Werner Herzog (including original footage shot by: Timothy Treadwell; USA; 2005; doc) subject: Timothy Treadwell

    viewed at home in Newcastle upon Tyne on DVD; 2nd April 2020 during the plague

    Now here’s a cute little fella….

    Grizzly Man is Werner Herzog’s movie about Timothy Treadwell (TT), the Grizzly Man, self appointed guardian of the wild bears in an Alaskan wild life sanctuary.  

    Herzog splices together the material comprising his own interviews with relevant parties, with footage shot by TT in the last three years of his life, before he and his girlfriend were mauled to death and eaten by a bear. Herzog presents TT as the phenomenon that he was; in his cautionary commentary voice Herzog disagrees with some of the ideas expressed by TT; and at the end of the movie offers a line of explanation in relation to TT’s death.

    Seeing Herzog’s movie, I came to a quite different conclusion about the reasons for TT’s death than the director. Herzog talks about TT’s increasing alienation from the World of Man. This alienation, call it a line of retreat, pushes him deeper into the world of the bears with the direct physical dangers this entailed.   My own reading of ‘Grizzly Man’ was that TT’s death was mediated by the forces at work both in US society and in American media that shape and conform the ways and means by which we form and use images of ourselves in the world.

    As Werner Herzog edits clips from Treadwell’s footage into his movie, Timothy Treadwell like a Jack-in–the–Box pops up regularly in Grizzly Man. Treadwell is a prepossessing and insistent character, both in his immediate physical presence on screen and in his psychic make-up. But who is Timothy Treadwell? There is something in his look and presence that said to me, this is: Peter Pan.

    Perhaps like me, Treadwell saw Disney’s Peter Pan at an impressionable age. An age when ‘girls’ were remote creatures and the simple male bonded life of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys seemed perfect. But it was Peter Pan’s refusal to grow up that struck the most responsive chord. A chord in harmony with the Disney belief that we are all really eternal children free to lead carefree lives following our dreams.  This infantilisation of life has become an endemic part of US culture. And of course some guys never do grow up.

    TT’s physical presence is dominated by his shock of blond hair, an unruly ungroomed outgrowth either flopping straight over his forehead down across his eyes or like straw thatch protruding out through his headgear. His face sometimes shielded by sun shades, has a youthful ageless quality. As TT darts through frame in multiple takes and retakes, I realised that I was watching an embodiment of Peter Pan. Treadwell was the little boy who never wanted to grow up. The man-child and hero of Disney’s cartoon, who had left La La Land and come to Alaska, to create his own Neverland.

    Treadwell’s Peter Pan ‘look’ was matched by his performance. On camera he communicates the breathless excitement of an adolescent. In word and gesture we feel his uncompromising passion for the bears, the intensity of his self questioning, his self justification and his rage against the world that opposes him. TT in his being has caste himself as Peter Pan. He presides over a domain not of Lost Boys but of wild bears, surveying his kingdom with the innocent righteousness of the child determined to save them from the Captain Hooks of this world.

    This merging by Treadwell of himself into a recast image of Peter Pan is not accidental. It is a result both of forces at work in his own nature and of course the psycho-social forces working through US culture, in general the Hollywood film and TV industry and in particular the Disney Corporation.

    TT had a significant history in relation to La La Land. He quit college to go to Hollywood with the purpose of breaking into the movies. With an agent and auditions he is ultimately unsuccessful, failing (albeit narrowly) to land a prize part. What he will have learnt through all the photo-shoots and interviews is that in the movies, you are selling your image. He will have understood you need to be absorbed by your own image, to become the projection of an assemblage of adapted signs that signify the self. At its most extreme this is a process of demonic possession, and after his rejection there follows the death wish. Treadwell ends up in extremis, almost totalling himself on drink and drugs.

    He survives but finds himself with a residual problem. He has spent years creating an image for Hollywood. This hadn’t been successful but with an undeveloped sense of self, his need for an image lives on. The Hollywood Treadwell is a battered and wounded, but to survive he will create another persona, continuing the process he had begun of arresting the development of himself as an actual person and the concomitant relations the define actuality.

    Treadwell’s image is built around his physical presence: that mop of blond hair, the ageless face. Leaving La La Land, TT drifts back to his childhood connection with animals, and in the wild vistas of Alaska he finds the bears, the grizzly bears.   Here with them, there is time and space to develop a new persona. Alaska becomes Neverland; TT becomes Peter Pan.   In Neverland there are no agents no auditions no judgement.  Wrapped up in the protective carapace of a Pater Pan image, nothing can touch him. He will stay forever young. Treadwell, as Peter Pan, will turn his Alaska experience into a Disney movie. And he will be the star.

    When I was about ten years old I was taken to the cinema with my best friend Andrew to see Disney’s movie ‘The Living Desert’. This was Disney’s first nature film, his first feature film that was not an animation.    I remember only one fragment: a rat scuttles out of its hole and the voice over exclaims: “Now here’s a cute little fella!” . What I retain from seeing the ‘The Living Desert’ is Disney’s seductive idea that the world of wild creatures is in some respects no different from that of man. This of course was the working assumption of the Disney cartoon output: that the human and the animal worlds co-merge through the interaction of their similar emotional responses.     But in ‘The Living Desert’ this sentimental affiliation was extended to actual filmed images of animals and their behaviour. It was a significant development in a way legitimising Walt Disney’s commercially driven ‘ideology’ that animals and humans share similar feelings. Through Disney’s sentimental education we can understand each other.

    Walt Disney’s ‘belief system’ underwrites the construction of his huge media empire, the Disney Corporation. For Americans and many others world wide it is the Disney Corporation’s product range with its particular anthropomorphic image of the animal world that mediates understanding of nature.  

    Along with his Peter Pan persona Timothy Treadwell seems to have shared the Walt Disney Corporation’s view of animals. Living close to the bears (and other animals such as foxes) he projects onto their behaviour and relationships an exclusively anthropomorphic understanding. Through his eyes they are seen as creatures from the Jungle Book, with human personalities traits and desires. Treadwell spends thirteen years in Alaska, increasingly cocooned in his own private world. After 10 years there he starts filming and the video camera allows him to to take measure of his own performance. The image becomes a real projection.

    And then along comes Wendy.

    No Peter Pan without Wendy. And of course Wendy is the outside force that has the power to break through the shell of Neverland. To crack open the enclosed male world and threaten it with castration.

    Wendy is the new girl friend, Amy Huguenard. 

    The problem for TT is that the moment at which Amy becomes important, is the point at which Peter Pan the image and the bear movie have become seamlessly fused.   The bears are Disnified and Peter Pan’s forever young. But it is difficult for images to love; they only love themselves. It is difficult for images to have personal relations; they only relate to themselves.   Amy starts to become important to TT, he starts to feel for her, feelings that sound alarm bells that ring out the alarm at the inflexibility of the image. TT starts to feel an intimation of another type of development, intimations of a pressure to let Peter Pan go.

    But this pressure immediately puts TT into a dilemma. He thinks Amy loves the image! Wendy loves Peter Pan! And Wendy is with him all the time. Peter Pan is the object of her gaze and if she should see that he is not really Peter Pan, she will abandon him. Under the existential threat from a schizo discrepancy between the virtual and the actual Treadwell, his imaged self responded by radical self affirmation

    TT is trapped in his own image. In order to keep Amy he thinks he has to overplay Peter Pan; he has to live out the image of Grizzly Man, providing her with ever more extreme proofs that he is what he appears to be. A Disney character in a Disney world, he will push himself further into actions that conform to the image. To acquit himself he will be attracted into ever greater risky behaviour with the bears. Amy’s close proximity triggers a schizo crisis for TT. And this existential crisis precipitates both his and her deaths.So perhaps the explanation is that the image that shaped Timothy Treadwell also killed him. To live by the image; to die by the image; this is the story of Grizzly Man.

    adrin neatrour

  • Portrait of a Woman on Fire   Celine Sciamma (Fr; 2020)

    Portrait of a Woman on Fire   Celine Sciamma (Fr; 2020) Noemie Merlant; Adele Haenel

    viewed Tyneside Cinema Newcastle 3rd March 2020; ticket £10.75

    slow burner

    Celine Scammer’s feminist panegyric, Portrait of a Woman on Fire, comes with heavyweight literary precursors.  Its title and ambiance surely reference the Henry James novel, Portrait of a Lady, and Sciamma’s characters, Heloise and Marianne symbolise eponymous resonant female progenitors.

    Heloise was a Medieval epistemologist, scholar, wife of Abelard, whose belles lettres are regarded as the first of the French female literary voices.   Nun mother and wife, she is strongly associated with Isles off Brittany where celebrated in song and dance, memory of her presence has elided into that of a shaman. Marianne is of course the personification of post revolutionary France, emblem of a certain faded modernity, ready to be reinvigorated as a feminist icon.

    Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady, follows its protagonist Isabel Archer’s determination to persue her own destiny. She is not betoken to the influences and manipulations of convention status or class. Isabel is of course not successful in avoiding the social machinations set to trap her, but she retains her complete independence of spirit. Life is lived on her terms. Likewise Sciamma’s Heloise is an intellectual imbued with a pride in her own independence; she is also the object of a relentless manipulation, to which she succumbs. But even in her succumbing she retains the spirit of her selfhood, a spirit captured by Sciamma in a shot, repeated three times, in which Marianne sees Heloise resplendent in her white ‘wedding’ gown, triumphant as ‘bride’. A shot which is emblematic not of her earthly fate but of her spiritual fate, a personal overcoming of the social fabric.

    The whole movie is shot in a manner that flaunts its impeccable literary credentials. It is a camera of detached painterly observation. Some shots in particular of the servant girl, called to mind Vermeer (Portrait of a Girl with a Pearl Earing sic.), and Marianne’s ‘vision of Heloise’ has a  pre-Raphaelite quality. The camera tracks pans tilts through colour and form, comes to rest in composition.   In her framing Sciamma suggests a world of surfaces a world only seen through the images presented, a world of Gainsborough portraits.

    But if Sciamma’s intention is to work against surface she creates, to crack it open and reveal what lies beneath, forbidden passion, pain, then she underestimates the strength and resilience of the way in which she has chosen to actually film her scenario. All the scripted elements seem contained by the physical surface tensions of the movie. The passion between Marianne and Heloise, the background feminist elements of menstruation and the abortion by the maid, all feel de-intensified artifices somehow alien to the studied observational design of the film. With its deliberately modulated cinematography, the emotions unleashed by the situations all blend together, merge into the cameras detached beautifully colourised imagery. Everything defaults to the tasteful keying of the painterly lens. Outside of Marianne’s vision of a transfigured Heloise, there are no moments of rupture or when the film stops. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an homogenous experience, ultimately the uniformity of construction becomes monotony, the film subsumed in blandness. This is a quality not characteristic of the James novel.

    The Henry James novels are on the surface in narrative terms, chaste. But the underlying intensity of James’ prose creates situations densely packed with erotic charge, all the stronger for never being discharged. A literary almost unbearable coitus interruptus characterises scenes in James’ novellas such Inside the Cage and A Turn of the Screw.    Sciamma is a product of a literalist age in which we have to see people pissing menstruating in case we didn’t know about or understand these things.

    Restraint is a a rarely exercised artistic choice in contemporary films, in particular when writers directors feel the need to make statements of their credentials, so of course Sciamma choses to have her love affair consummated for the camera. But if you consider a classic film with a similar plot mechanism, Michael Curtiz’ Casablanca, it works with effect because Bogart and Bergman don’t make out physically. The tensions of erotic interplay in Casablanca, as in James novels, are the forces that define and deliver.

    By delivering Marianne and Heloise into the physical realm, Sciamma makes a politically correct statement, but works against the grain of her own material. Her film that is not so much Portrait of a Lady on Fire, as Portrait of a Lady who gets Everything. In tune with the times.

    Adrin Neatrour











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