21: Offside – Way back when, at the conception of this film diary, I wrote about wanting to see more Iranian cinema as well as world cinema. In a fit of pique about what to watch, I gathered together all the films on my to-do list (and made sure they were under two hours long) and decided to finally watch Offside by Jafar Panahi.
We open with father searching for his daughter, who he fears will go to the big football match that will decide whether Iran is going to qualify for the World Cup 2006 or not. The father stops a bus full of men, seeking her out in vain. He, alongside most of the men on board, fail to spot another woman stowaway, known in cast lists as first girl. She keeps herself to herself, with her baseball cap pulled low and the Iranian flag daubed in paint on her delicate skin. As one youth spots her, he reminds her “you totally look like a girl” and she does.
The moral compass starts spinning as soon as the film starts. Women banned from watching live football? The men of the movie portray themselves as moral arbiters, thinking of the devastation that will occur if a woman dared to enter this vipers nest of football fans. In a way, you can see the reasoning for this – 100,000 shouting men, a stadium flooding with testosterone – and you can sense the worry that the women would be in danger here. That makes sense. But what about the very simple, basic freedom of just going to something you want to do. That doesn’t seem to come up on the male radar.
The first girl isn’t the only deviant trying to get inside and alongside a bunch of other girls, she is swiftly detained for trying to get into the stadium. Despite endless questions about why the girls can’t go in, the male guards never consider they could. Bureaucracy is never far away in Iranian films and one can only imagine how restrictive life must be when these simple pleasures are denied. As Richard Littlejohn would have it (though I seriously doubt he’d be able to cope with Iranian cinema)… it’s health and safety gone mad.
Offisde isn’t about football so much as it’s about passion and excitement. The detained girls, kept in a pen a few metres away from a vantage point of the match, are delightful in their disdain of authority. They cajole the guards into narrating the match for them and when one girl needs a toilet, inevitable chaos ensues. Yeah, there’s no female toilet, which is a sobering fact. We meet a defiant girl who likes to smoke and another who came to the big match in a soldier’s uniform. As we get to the end of the match, all the girls are marched into a bus to be deposited to the Vice Squad. On the way, we pass through a city alive with excitement and chaos and the girls’ excitement reaches fever pitch at one point, with a guard dutifully getting the radio aerial to work so they can hear the result.
As the driver pulls the van over to get water, the film takes on an edge of anarchy. Amidst the melee, Pahani sees the passions of people as something stronger than the petty rules of the religious police and the government. People can’t be crushed so easily, and Offside reminds of this beautifully.
22: It Follows – While both Birdman and Whiplash scaled the heights of cinematic brilliance, It Follows has achieved something altogether more impressive; it’s carved its way into my dreams more than once and occupied my thoughts since I was lucky enough to see it at the London Film Festival. A second viewing opens up the films charms and remains every bit as tense, exciting and aesthetically glorious as it was first time round. The conceit of the film, a curse is passed on through sex, plays with conventions of teen horror in a novel way. There’s no virgin to be kept safe for the end and despite being in Detroit where over 80% of the population is black, the only faces you’l see are white. But then, this film doesn’t exist in the real world. David Robert Mitchell has created a fantasy world of the teenage years where summer is never-ending, parents are somewhere else, illicit booze is supped on porches, streets are quiet and the buzzing and clicking of the modern world is abandoned for the closeness of friends.
This teenage world allows us to escape the tedious concerns of reality and lets us drift into this slightly hazy world, before pitching us sharply back into the terrifying nightmate that Jay’s world has become. Jay, played by Maika monroe, finds out that she’s been given the curse after a date night ends in an abandoned car park, which looks achingly beautiful thanks to the work of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis. It’s rather simple really – there will be something coming after her, at a canter, but forever and always until she passes the curse on by sleeping with someone else. It’s the worst game of tig ever. Jay can only see her eternal follower and naturally her friends wonder if she’s lost the plot.
Mitchell opts not to confine Jay in inescapable rooms, choosing instead to frame her in open spaces that compel your eyes to always be looking for the slow-moving killer. A particularly memorable scene is held in her high school where the camera performs two circular pans, letting us see everything yet Mitchell is always holding the power to scare us when he decides to. Slow-motion is also used regularly to push home the languorous mood of the film, again changing the boundaries and rules of what a teen horror can be as a steady and calm style is preferred over hyperactive running and screaming. As we head to the end of the film, questions are left unanswered and the endless summer carries on like nothing’s happened.
It Follows is thoughtful, smart, scary, measured and a success on its own terms. There’s something of the auteur in Mitchell’s style and his is a world I want to see more of.
23: Do I sound gay? – For a film that is concerned with voices, its main flaw is that it lacks a voice of its own.
David Thorpe’s film about the gay voice and his efforts to alter the way he sounds is a strange compromise of a film. A chance to explore a tricksy area of sexuality, social conformity, homophobia and belonging is often pushed aside to relate back to a film-maker who might start to explore why he wants to change a fundamental part of himself in the first place. In his 40’s and newly single, there’s more than a whiff of crisis surrounding Thorpe’s sudden desire to sound less gay; near the start of the film he asks people on the street if he does sound gay, to which people come up with interesting responses. Most don’t care, some clearly identify a manly voice as something that is desirable and useful to have.
And when this film succeeds, it’s when Thorpe’s attention it turned towards how we are shaped by societies fixed image of success – whether that be the way we look, walk, talk or who we sleep with. Videos of young students being beaten senseless in American classrooms because they are gay reminds us that we maintain stifling social rules and some people are bound to become victims. That the onlookers choose the film the beatings rather than stand up to the bullies just pounds the message home that deviation from the norm can be damaging to your health. We all project many insecurities to the world and it is fascinating to learn that Thorpe designed his gay persona and voice at the time he started university and left his quiet upbringing behind, only for this persona to become a problem later in life. There’s a cycle of repression/freedom/repression going on here.
Sounding gay is something that Thorpe brings up in society as a negative indicator and the scenes where he works with speech therapists are often enlightening and entertaining but as we delve deeper into how the voice works and how it is possible to sound less gay, the film loses its thread. If Thorpe succeeded in changing who he is, what is there to be gained? Is it positive that a man in 2015 wants to indulge in heteronormative behaviour? Ultimately, we don’t find the answer to many of the questions raised as the film haphazardly rushes to a conclusion, telling us that the entire experiement is a little bit futile.
24: Force Majeure – Force Majeure blurs the lines between film-making and social experimentation. Why? Because the film will polarise men and women, mothers and fathers with a few simple questions. “What would you do?” and “Are you man enough?” are scattered throughout this film as a family ski trip turns into a devastating re-assessment of how a family works. Frazzled businessman Tomas is taking some time out with his family when during lunch an avalanche threatens to wipe them out. The decision Tomas makes is to run away with his iPhone, leaving his wife Ebba and their two kids to face the consequences. As the snow clears and we realise the avalanche missed the family, Tomas comes back, joking about the event. Ebba has just had a life-changing moment of seeing her husband flee at the time she needed him most – setting up the rest of the film.
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Tomas continues to deny running away from the family, acting as if Ebba has gone mad. Tomas can only deny flatly running away, but his affectations ring hollow and as Ebba increases her attacks on Tomas. At dinner parties and with friends, his lies become ever less effective until he eventually breaks down into a hot teary mess, at which point Ebba accuses him of not crying for real; Tomas coldly replies “No, maybe I’m not”. In our lives, we are trapped into gender roles whether we like it or not and Force Majeure exploits this for all its worth. The expectation of a man is to save his family above all else, but as the film tells us, even the old phrase women and children first held no power onboard the sinking Titanic as men scurried into the life boats.
So, Tomas is weak. And director Ruben Ostlund films this with great style by changing the positioning of light, children and reflections in mirrors to suit his needs. One minute Tomas is on top of the world and looks disarmingly handsome, sleeping with his beautiful family. Later on, his children smother him as he sobs, with his wife looking callous in the shadows. At one point, he forgoes reality and places Tomas, fully dressed up to ski, in a club full of topless men shouting their hearts out. In this macho environment, he looks ludicrously out of place. As the head of a family, he is outclassed by his wife. Force Majeure strips back the veneer of a good relationship, exposing the poison lurking underneath, offering all of us a chance to consider what way we’d go if we were on the verge of oblivion.
25: Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown – Clearly whatever I have to say about this will have been said a million times. This is a film that has embedded itself not into the little box called world cinema where people either freak out because they have to read while watching or think it’s all pretentious, but into the big box of classic cinema.
Watching it again, at the delightfully snug screening room at 20th Century Flicks in Bristol, I was struck by how gorgeous the whole thing looks. Almodovar does colours like no-one else – fyi, my favourite film for Almodvar’s use of colour is Volver, itself due a re-watch – and colours boldly pop through in Women on the verge… There are the gaudy colours of the Mambo taxi with a Pedro lookalike driving, there are the fabulous dresses of insane Lucia, a woman scorned and trapped in the outfits of her past, there is the bright red of the gazpacho; a prop which seems to hold endless possibilities in this film. The level of detail is sensational, from the way the camera tracks the movement of love-lorn Pepa as she paces left and right in her apartment, the focus on the click of her heels to the stunning sunset on a rubbish tip.
Phones are hurled across the apartment, beds are set alight and the characters of Pepa and Iván make a living from dubbing loving words into Spanish. No wonder nothing feels real when everything is built on artifice, confusion and the madness of a hot summer.
If you haven’t seen this, all I can say is vamos, see this now!
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26: The New Girlfriend – Francois Ozon is back, not that he’s ever away for a long time, and this time he stands up, locks glances with the film critics of the world and says “don’t you dare ruin the surprises” to which Justin Chang at Variety replied “oops, my bad”. I made a blood bond not to let anyone reading this (hi, all two of you!) go to see the film knowing its secrets because sometimes life is much more rewarding that way. The New Girlfriend starts off in audacious style with us watching a woman have make-up applied to her face. The shots are slow and elegant, there’s not a movement here that hasn’t been thoroughly planned. Lipstick has never seemed so austere. We track through the lives of Claire and Laura as they grow up, with Claire marrying Gilles and Laura Marrying David. They both have babies but it always seems that Claire is one step behind Laura and therein lies the truth of many friendships – aren’t we often trying to outdo our peers just a little, even while congratulating them on their success?
Life doesn’t always work out as planned and grief permeates the film’s opening, represented throughout by the beautiful autumnal colours like the mustard jumper of David, played with relish by Roman Dupris and the freckled face of Claire, played with grace by Anais Demoustier. Taking autumn further, it’s the season of decline but there’s still hope and beauty and as Ozon takes David and Claire on a journey of discovery and re-discovery, they open up to the audience and what we see isn’t always very nice. Claire harbours a selfish side, Gilles is something of an enigma dressed in a dashing suit and David struggles to find his true self, as changeable as the seasons. There is a bejewelled elephant in the room, alright, but human emotions and our ability to tolerate change and what society deems as autre are the things Ozon is exploring here.
Based on a short story by Ruth Rendell, there’s more than a hint of mystery in The New Girlfriend. Indeed, the film trades in light and dark, sometimes as light as an Almodovar romp before turning a Hitchcockian hue. The score, by Philippe Rombi, resembles the work of Alberto Iglesias, who often collaborates with Almodovar. Sexuality, friendship, loss and re-birth make this one of the more intriguing films of the year and certainly one of the most wonderful to look at, with every shot is pared down for maximum effect. Ozon again shows his skill at mixing comedy with drama, joy and despair and a flair for delving into our often unspoken of desires.
27: High Heels – I wouldn’t mock you if you said that you thought 1991’s High Heels by Pedro Almodovar came before Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown because Women… is so obviously the stronger film in every way, with all the hallmarks of an auteur. I felt the same, but I was wrong. Women… was released in 1988 and High Heels marks a stark decline in quality. It’s down to the film’s plot being convoluted without being ever being fun or dramatic enough to justify the twists and turns. Though much of the film works, it almost feels like he’s on autopilot – a barb that many would also aim at his last film, I’m so Excited! As usual with Almodovar, High Heels is often a feast for the eyes and many of the characters are sublimely ridiculous. The mother/daughter dynamic between Rebecca the younger and Becky the elder is great. Becky is horribly self-obsessed and has been absent for much of Rebecca’s life. No wonder Rebecca makes friends with Letal, a drag act based on Becky’s phase as a pop singer. I won’t even venture into the complicated love lives of the women.
Some of the best moments are based in an approximation of a women’s prison – my friend described it as a street closed down by the production crew with some guards wondering about every so often – and when the female prisoners decide to have a dance-off wearing the brightest assortment of clothes since colour was invented, well, it’s novel.
Ultimately, my eyes grew heavy and my interest waned. By the end, I didn’t much care for the characters and their crazy lives. But this is Almodovar, who at his best becomes a genre in his own right and eight years after this had a spectacularly successful run from All about my Mother to Volver.