CANNES 2015: THE NAIVE SWEETNESS OF NAOMI KAWASE’S ‘AN’

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Under the blossoming cherry trees, two very different people, Sentaro and Tokue, strike an unlikely friendship. He is a disillusioned man who earns a living by running a tiny dorayaki pancakes restaurant, and she is an adorable, slightly batty elderly lady who is determined to get a job there.

For its opening feature, Un Certain Regard chose An, a low-key feature from Cannes regular Naomi Kawase. A melancholic film about loneliness and blessings in disguise, An is an intimate drama that feels unresolved despite its promising beginning.

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When the film starts, Sentaro is reluctant to hire Tokue because of her old age, but quickly changes his mind when he tastes the an (the red bean paste that goes into the doriyaki) she made: her recipe is so delicious that it sends the business booming within days. The initial enthusiasm, however, is short lived, for a rumour starts to spread that she might be a leper. This could cause the restaurant to shut down, but customers have been flocking in since Tokue’s arrival. Sentaro knows he has to take a difficult decision, but he’s torn, which makes him slump back into his usual state of torpor and depression.

If Kawase had stopped there, the film would function really well as a study on loneliness and quiet suffering, exploring the fortuitous ties that can link two strangers – and indeed the first half of the film is strong enough to stand on its own. Instead, the film carries on for another hour, with characters and plot progressively losing focus.

While the decision not to dwell on Sentaro’s sadness is for the best, Tokue has an interesting back-story that deserved to be explored a bit further. She was faced with many difficulties during her lifetime, but didn’t let them hold her back nor prevent her from finding beauty in life. Instead, An reduces her to the role of “angel in disguise”, a trick that feels unnecessary.

The cinematography can only do so much to help the film. The soft lighting lends it a gentle, almost rarefied atmosphere, and the recurring images of nature, with which Tokue entertains a constant dialogue, are really idyllic. Focusing on showing rather than telling, An is a delicate exploration on grief and marginalisation that does not give in to pity. Sadly, it also fails to fully engage with these topics, and the absence of a real reflection on the stigmatisation of lepers, ageism or simply loneliness is very much felt.

The final impression is that of a feature that avoids challenging subjects in favour of a cute and forcibly moving story about an old lady and her positive influence in the lives of other people. While that’s nothing wrong per se, An nevertheless feels like a half-baked effort.

Article originally published in Nisimazine Cannes

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Fifty shades of burgundy: Peter Strickland and the exquisite pain of unfulfilled potential

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Love it, hate it or “close your eyes and wish it away”-it (I personally oscillate between the last two), there is no denying that Fifty Shades of Grey has made BDSM – or rather, a grossly misrepresented version of it – the buzzword in our conversations, if not our bedrooms. BDSM became so hot it soon transpired that cinema would add fuel to the fire through the release of another BDSM film a week after Fifty Shades. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy had me at the trailer: the lesbian dom-sub relationship between two lepidopterists looked full of promise, making me wish that it would be the film to set the record straight on non-vanilla relationships. The stunning visuals, out-of-time atmosphere and critical acclaim further piqued my interest. And of course, the fact that it was directed by Peter Strickland, of neo-giallo Berberian Sound Studio fame, only added to my curiosity. screen-shot-2015-01-23-at-1-15-11-pm Once at the cinema, the film seemed to deliver, starting from the meticulously curated opening titles, which go as far as to feature the fictional perfumes worn by the actors. The twist in the plot came twenty minutes in [spoiler alert!]: we find out that Cynthia is adopting the dom role to please her younger lover Evelyn, a natural-born sub. Her ice-cold allure and inflexible ways are revealed to be a carefully rehearsed act, for Cynthia is following cues penned by Evelyn herself. “Fantastic – I couldn’t help but think – finally a film that acknowledges the power relation between dom and sub, showing that it is the latter, with her license to stop everything by mentioning the safe word, who calls the shots in the relationship”. And indeed, Evelyn is the one in control, imagining scenarios and buying Cynthia outfits in order to fulfill her fantasies. Such premise is fascinating, and for the first half hour, everything is perfect: the deceitful first impression, the chemistry between the characters, the remote universe in which the events take place, a land seemingly populated only by women, all scholars in entomology. These are matched by a sensuous cinematography, which supports the plot in full by studiously lingering over the shiny silk of undergarments, the delicate soap bubbles, the brocade drapes that ask for fingers to be run through them, the creaky, stiff feel of leather and the way it moulds to the skin. dukeofburgundy However, I cannot help but feel that the film climaxes too quickly, with both plot and relationship slowly going downhill after the first half hour. While we understand that Evelyn asks Cynthia to go through the same lines again and again in the hope that they’ll become more ingrained and spontaneous, this becomes repetitive and confusing, for at times it is unclear whether we are witnessing a flashback or it’s just the umpteenth repetition. In any case, Evelyn’s tricks are to no avail, because Cynthia’s ideal relationship remains one where her lover wants to sleep in bed next to her rather than being tied and locked into a coffin-looking chest. Perhaps as a result of this routine, the two begin to drift apart, with Cynthia swapping her corsets for comfy PJ pants and Evelyn deserting the thalamus and getting caught polishing the boots of another woman (we don’t get to find out whether this is a codeword for more serious misconduct or an affront in itself). This introduces an interesting point for reflection: is denying a sub the punishment they long for an even better punishment, or is it just the beginning of a vicious circle? Unfortunately, Strickland doesn’t really engage with it. tumblr_nbjikx0C2U1qbtfr1o1_r2_500 Cinematography becomes similarly repetitive: the progressive zooming in on surfaces (the silky underwear, the warm suds, the brocade curtains…) to arouse our sense of touch is effective at first, but begins to “drag” when we notice it reoccurs over and over again in the same pattern and mode. An exception is represented by the collection of butterflies in their glass cases, which cover the walls of Cynthia’s office, being the subject of her studies. While as recurrent as the other objects, they represent not just a leitmotiv that gives the film its name (the Duke of Burgundy is a butterfly species), but also encompass its message. An object of exquisite cruelty, their colourful wings and pinned down abdomens suggest pleasure and pain, referring to the dynamics of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship but also to the douleur exquise of trying to pin down something that is unattainable. 75-2 And perhaps the relationship between the two is unattainable as well, and breaking point is reached when Cynthia chokes on her lines, unable to continue. Evelyn reacts sympathetically, saying something along the lines of “I know I’m putting you through a lot, I’m just strange that way”. End credits roll soon afterwards. We don’t know who will give in, or if the relationship will survive at all, and therefore lack a real sense of closure. But it is the banalisation of BDSM, reduced once more to mere kink, that I find most frustrating. The Duke of Burgundy lacks the matter of fact tone of Spader’s Secretary, the drama of Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or the shock, repulsion and controversy generated by Cavani’s Night Porter. From a film based on such an interesting premise, this is a disappointing result and makes The Duke of Burgundy feel like yet another case of unfulfilled potential, with a tempting hot subject explored only superficially, as ticking boxes on a textbook. Foot fetish? Check. Creaking leather corset? Check. Anything that goes beyond common BDSM cliches? Sadly, not enough.

Awards Prediction: why Wild Tales won’t win the Oscar

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With the Golden Globes past us and the Baftas and Oscars looming, the award season is in full swing, and prediction buzz has reached fever pitch. As for me, I move between a state of second-guessing who’ll win what and one of “I can see right through this wrestling match of PR agents.”

Yet, the following thought remains constant amidst all my internal battles: even without having seen all five nominees, it’s fairly safe to say that Argentina’s entry, Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, will not be winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

On paper, Szifrón’s film has all the cards to succeed. Its stellar ensemble cast features two actors that will be familiar to international audiences: Dario Grandinetti (co-protagonist of Almodóvar’s Talk to Her) and Ricardo Darín, who over the past years has appeared in almost every Latin American movie that made its way outside national borders (just to name a few: XXY, Carancho, The Son of the Bride and the 2010 Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes) and is possibly the most recognisable Argentine actor at the moment. It has an even more famous producer, the Almodóvar brothers’ El Deseo, whose long shadow has insured the film gets all the attention it deserves. Also, in the countries where the film was released, it has been doing well both in terms of sales and feedback.

Whilst nailing another Oscar win would firmly place Argentina on the cinema map and acknowledge both the Latin American New Wave and the rise of New Argentine Cinema, it’s quite unlikely that the film will secure the award.

It’s not necessarily a matter of genre, of Wild Tales being a comedy when most foreign film winners are dramas. It’s not even a matter of cultural specificity, for its vitriolic humour has translated quite well across countries. Rather, it has something to do with its anthology format, six episodes that don’t allow viewers to fully get to know and connect with the characters. But it is mostly the way in which these characters – and, by proxy, humanity – are depicted that won’t go down too well with the Academy. Past winners have featured tales of everyday heroism (Life is Beautiful, A Separation), heart-wrenching pain (Amour, The Sea Inside, All About My Mother), or films where even a despicable protagonist is granted a last chance for redemption (from the spy that turns against the Stasi in The Lives of Others to The Great Beauty‘s Jep Gambardella, who finally sheds his ennui and engages once again with life in all its ups and downs).

Poster design by Berkay

Poster design by Berkay

The characters in Wild Tales, on the other hand, have no interest in being redeemed. As the title promises, the film is a descent into unhinged savagery, where all pretenses of formalities, of saving face, of social norms or – if all else fails – of fear of the consequences, are washed away in a stream of blistering wrath and explosive revenge.

No institution, no status symbol, no professional category is left untouched by Szifrón’s scathing critique. The middle class – and everything it holds dear – is especially targeted and exposed in all its neuroses and hypocrisy. But truly, no one’s exempt from Szifron’s desecrating gaze, not even the audience: that we partake in the characters’ fury, that we laugh at brutal murders and rejoice in revenge as if it were a cathartic ritual says as much about mankind as the people on screen do. As the end credits roll, we realise that really, the joke (and the mirror) was on us.

Coming from a country obsessed by psychoanalysis, Wild Tales sees the triumph of the id as it crashes its way past the gates of the socially acceptable. Will the Academy award a film that portrays with rare honesty our much suppressed beastly nature? Quite unlikely. But does a film so ferocious need a legitimising accolade from this most proper, most PC of awarding bodies? Frankly, I don’t (think they) give a damn.

Image sources [1], [2]