This is an overview of two fabulous films I watched recently. One is a brilliant film shown in Cannes, the other one is a cult classic featuring in the hall of fame of the flops.
I learned the name of Leviathan (2014) while trying to find about Deux Jours, Une Nuit. Like Deux Jours, Leviathan was also shown in Cannes in 2014 and was nominated for Palme d’Or. The poster of the film was equally eye-catching — a man sitting on a rock with a giant whale skeleton lying in front, on the seashore. I wanted to watch the film since, but the opportunity didn’t come until last month.
It was a stunning film. At the end of it, I was speechless. The protagonist of the film resembled a typical example of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are instances when you think that the situation couldn’t get any worse, but it does, and it’s relentless. It was an example of the power struggle on the fringes of Russia, where Moscow and its influence means nothing to the power sharks. It’s a tale of exploitation, desperation, disillusionment and betrayal. Shot in the Murmansk Oblast, Leviathan showcases the murky backdrops to set the dark tone of the film. The dilapidated infrastructure, symbolic shooting of the Soviet leaders’ portraits, the ostentatious focus on the word Pravda (truth) by the Orthodox Church priest — it heralded a Russia far away from the shining riches of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here, despite the camaraderie in the working class people, they live in fear, they don’t go against the flow, although inherently, there is a deep-seated hatred and disappointment of being deserted in the past.
Leviathan won international accolades just as it did criticism from the Russian cultural ministry for wrongly depicting Russian rural lifestyle where people stay drunk all the time, they bicker and commit adultery, the church brainwashes corrupt politicians. We don’t know the truth, but I can draw parallels to another brilliant film I watched many years back called Manorama Six Feet Under. In both films, politics was shown as the source of power, and exploitation that the usurpers cherish to the fullest. In an Indian backdrop, there was no doubt that the film was based on truth. For Leviathan, I’d like to be proven wrong, but for now, I believe the story is almost a true depiction of life at the far reaches of Russia. However, internationally acclaimed films about Russia are perhaps needed to be taken with a pinch of salt, where most of the successful films are found to be castigating the Soviet past.
Apart from the worrying storyline, Leviathan features brilliant acting, some breathtaking views, and beautiful music scores. Although halfway into the film, you’d start to hope that something positive happens to the central character Kolya, and hope there is some justice, that justice doesn’t happen. Leviathan is not a story that fills the viewers with a feeling of optimism and hope. Instead it drives home the message that life is not fair and it is controlled by the people with power. For the rest, it’s just a story of survival. It is a remarkable film and I’m glad I finally managed to watch it, although it took me three years.
For the other film, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve often written about brilliant films, that change your whole perspective about cinema and its role in our lives. The Room (2003) is certainly not one of them. The Room is, on the contrary, something that’s known as SBIG — So Bad It’s Good. And when someone makes a film featuring the filmmaker of that original film, you’ll have to admit it must be spectacularly disastrous.
The Room is the brainchild of Tommy Wiseau. It was originally played in theatres, but Tommy was so inspired by it that he wrote a book. When nobody published it, he decided to produce a film. The end result is The Room, where Wiseau played the protagonist apart from his many other credits. When within five minutes into the film, Tommy has sex with Lisa, the female lead of the film, and within another ten minute, the same scene is repeated, you know that this is going to be hilarious. Even porns have a better script and acting on them. The Room has nothing to boast about. The film is all about a banker Johnny in San Francisco and his fiancée Lisa, who has an affair with Johnny’s friend Mark. The story revolves around Johnny’s obsession with Lisa, Lisa’s lack of love for Johnny, and then Mark’s hesitation in choosing between Johnny and Lisa. Outside this, many characters pop in and out but fail to play a significant role. The script is incoherent, the acting is amateurish, editing nonexistent. It felt as if a dictator trying to make a film about himself. Tommy kept changing the dialogues, forcibly inserted scenes that had no relevance to the film like men playing football in their tuxedos. The budget for the film apparently surpassed $6 million whereas the first two weeks taking in the box-office came to about merely $1900! The Room is an ultimate disaster movie, with Tommy Wiseau at the helm.
With such a catastrophic start, one would expect the film to end up in cold storage with some old DVDs turning up in 99p stores in some remote seaside town. Possibly with a two for one offer. But The Room was destined to become something else. A legend. A cult classic. So 15 years since it was first released, The Room has its range of arcane followers — it often had midnight screenings across San Francisco, where Tommy Wiseau attended many times and posed with fans. Apart from this, Tommy Wiseau was an enigma to the crowd. The Room is his only prominent screen appearance. Nothing is known about his past that he claimed, like being of Eastern European origin but growing up in Paris. There were speculations that he made the over-budgeted film to get rid of the black money earned from dubious sources. Speculations led to many researchers delve into Tommy’s past life. And when Greg Sestero, who played Tommy’s friend Mike, wrote Disaster Artist about making of The Room, that opened up many facets of Tommy as well as unknown facts about the film. Hollywood rejected Tommy Wiseau in The Room, but then, thanks to its eccentricity, The Room will be reborn in Disaster Artist (2017), the screen realisation of Sestero’s book.
Sometimes in our life, we encounter things that are good and things that are bad. It’s the way of life. Both have their own roles to play. The same applies to films. You watch Leviathan, and then watch The Room and realise how good or bad filmmaking could be. What puts these two films into perspective is their budget — The Room with its extravagant spendings coughed up nearly $6m, whereas Leviathan was made on a shoestring budget of c. $4m. This only serves as an example that good films should not cost a huge budget, and you can throw millions but can still end up making a car-crash like The Room. It was a pleasure watching Leviathan, and The Room was painful to watch, but both films will feature in the hall of fame of the epic films I’ve watched — but for very different reasons.
Yet, at one aspect they both seem equal. In The Room, despite the end result was hilarious, Tommy Wiseau gave more than 100% of his abilities. He was frivolous, but it can be seen that there was not shortage of his dedication. So was Andrey Zvyagintsev in making Leviathan. Even though the end results are polar opposites, both filmmakers would still get the kudos for their dedication to tell a story they wanted to tell, irrespective of the reception.
Logan died last night. In fact, he died on 1st March this year, or in a distant 2029 — whichever way you look at it. But I wasn’t aware of it. To me, Logan died yesterday. No tears were shed, no sleepless nights, but inside I just felt something has changed forever. There was a sense of emptiness. The 17-year stint when the X-men were a part of my life has come to an end. And I know that it’s only going to get worse.
I grew up in an imaginary world of superheroes. In my early childhood, it was the comic strips of the Phantom — the ghost who walks, Mandrake the magician, Flash Gordon and alike. Then there were Batman, Superman and Spiderman in comic books and with their film franchises. All these characters had one thing in common. They were infallible, invincible. They fought many battles, they lost some, but they came back like the phoenix from the ashes. At the end of each book, or each film, you’re left with a feeling that they are there — whichever imaginary city or country they were protecting. We knew that they will bounce back. They come back. Always. Except for Phantom of course, who’d die but pass on the legacy to his offspring, who’d become the next Phantom. Phantom dies, but Phantom lives on.
When the superheroes only meant Batman, Superman or Spiderman, back in 2000 entered a new franchise that I had no idea about before. Rather than a single protagonist, they were a bunch of people. Or mutants, to be precise. The mutants on the film had remarkable powers, but like many others, I became a fan of the Wolverine. He wasn’t endowed with supernatural abilities, but when you gave up hope, Wolverine was the one who was in charge. A hard grafter, almost fighting with a feral instinct. That’s why in films like The First Class, you end up waiting for more since you don’t see him much. Wolverine became the next sensational superhero. X-men is the only film series that I waited as eagerly as Harry Potter films, and that tells something about it. Now knowing that Wolverine dies, the interest in any further X-men film has ebbed away. X-men won’t be X-men without Wolverine. Period.
After the initial moments of numbness, I tried to think why have I been so upset? Ultimately, it’s just another fictional story, created to earn millions in the box offices across the world. It is a big franchise and the crew cannot continue forever. It had to come to a stop. Better this way than like The Last Airbender, that created a lot more expectation and then fail to follow through with the sequels. So, what was the root of this sadness? There are many reasons, as I thought about it. Death is perhaps the main factor. We saw Wolverine die, and Professor X. Death came as a finality. I’ve known people, who passed away unexpectedly, and it is difficult to come to terms with that. Perpetuity is something we probably seek unconsciously, and comic book characters that withstand the test of time could provide that permanence. Many Golden era heroes have passed that acid test and are still equally popular after possibly four generations of readers. The untimely deaths of Wolverine and Charles broke that promise of permanence. We watch throughout the film how Logan is struggling with his health. Although in many scenes it was alluded that he is really ill, viewers could still hope that by some miracle he’ll wake up again, and perhaps even rejuvenate. But that doesn’t happen.
And waiting for that miracle, we see how powerless Logan and Professor X has become. They are shadows of their past, or more precisely ghosts. They seemed like mere mortals. They lived hiding away in a disused factory. Even on the run, they don’t really stay on focus. They looked like a spent force. Expendables. They live in a virtually mutant free world. There wasn’t anything left to fight for. 2029 represented a world where no X-men are left other than Wolverine and Professor X. Charles possibly killed all the mutants in one of his bouts of uncontrollable mental waves.
But the more pertinent reason was the end of hope. Watching films or reading books about superheroes makes you push the boundaries of your imagination. They make you believe in the supernatural and that all these things are possible — at least for the duration of reading the book or watching the films. Watching them become powerless permanently — their commonness take away the sanctuary inside your mind that somewhere there is this person who can kick some ass to the bad guys. A concept similar to god in a way. More so because in your mind you know they can do bugger all; they don’t even exist. Logan featured this death of hope. He remained a tour de force in almost all X-men franchises but suddenly he’s gone. Not disappeared mysteriously so he could make a dramatic entrance later on like Jane in X-men three. But he died. And he was dying throughout the film, it was not a sudden shock. Like all death, Logan reached the finality of the Wolverine. That’s when the hope finally evaporates away.
The death of Wolverine may not mean much as far as the film franchise is concerned. Although Hugh Jackman hinted that he will no longer play Wolverine, with a right script and a right fee, he may change his mind. The possibility of Wolverine being featured in a film is still big. We know now that he dies in 2029. That’s still 12 years away, and there can be as many X-men films as possible. Even after 2029, films can be set in the past like we see The Wolverine set in 1945. As long as Hugh continue to look like the invincible Wolverine seventeen years back, he can carry on X-men film franchises. So, it is still possible to see Hugh play Wolverine in future.
But it won’t be the same. In the past films, you knew that Wolverine will be back again. He’s less of a mutant, but more savage. But after watching this film, no matter how savage Wolverine appear in the next film — if there is any — Logan with all his vulnerabilities and resignation will come back to mind. Death, as the great leveller, has claimed another victim, who will now fade into oblivion.
As the next generation matures, X-men will probably become a thing of the past, just as are the Arnie or Stallone films to the present generation. The tapes will remain, and their hay days will live on through the dusty memories of the parents and grandparents who once dreamt of doing what they were doing on the screen when they grew up. Wolverine is not there yet, but we can say Logan marked the end of that era. Memories of Wolverine are still vivid, and that’s how we’ll remember him — the pain in his eyes, yet the savage outlines of his face, always on alert, trusting no one and finally, with his shiny Adamantium claws that hadn’t become rusty with disuse. The Wolverine who dominated my cinema experience in my twenties and thirties. Logan has been the swan-song of an exciting seventeen-year stint. It’s a shame that he chose to end Wolverine’s legacy and dash any hope that Wolverine will live on, like all other superheroes that were created. But then, it’s Wolverine. He’s the perennial bad boy; since when did he play by the rules?
So 1st March 2017 is the day when the hope ended. That mutants and humans will live side by side. A vision that Logan himself was very sceptical of. Melancholy is a profound word, probably not applicable to superhero films. But it was melancholy that filled my heart, seeing something, that has been a part of me, end. The last scene was pretty symbolic when Logan’s daughter turns the cross over his grave into an X. It could be a symbol of optimism, similar to le Roi est mort, vive le Roi. Or, it may mean that the story of X-men ended there, with the last true X-men biting the dust. Who knows what’ll happen to the mutants now?
Josef Mengele. Der Todesengel. The angel of death. Just thinking of the name makes my skin crawl. I don’t know if it’s just the name, or remembering the atrocities carried out by Mengele with a fanatical glee in Auschwitz. So when I read the synopsis of the film about a German doctor in remote Patagonia, it took me a while to decide whether to watch it, after my mind immediately associated the story to that of Josef Mengele in his exile. Wakolda (The German Doctor in English) is a fascinating atmospheric thriller where the thin line between truth and fiction was aptly obscured by a brilliant storytelling, remarkable acting and breathtaking cinematography featuring an Andean backdrop. But beyond the taut storyline, the ominous presence of Mengele at the back of the viewers’ mind is what gave the film an eerie outlook. If you don’t know about Mengele, the film will fail to create the effect the director intended to. So, prior to watching the film, I’d recommend a little history lesson in WWII and the role of Josef Mengele in the extermination of the Jewish population. And it’s important, not just to understand the context, but to understand the horror of the WWII that torn millions of lives apart.
The story begins in around 1960 as an Argentinian family heads to a mountain retreat named Bariloche in Patagonia, when a strange person requests to follow their car. He seemed quite interested in their boisterous girl with a stunted growth. Reaching Bariloche, where the family is trying to open their inherited hotel business, the doctor — identified himself as Helmut Gregor, offers to stay for six months in their hotel, despite having a place to stay in the town. The doctor offered to treat the girl, Lilith, against the will of her father, as she kept getting bullied in her new German school. Lilith’s mother was found pregnant as well, and knowing that she’s having twins, the doctor looks quite interested and offers to help her with the medication. As Lilith suddenly becomes fond of the strange doctor and follows him everywhere, she learns little things about him that made her more curious. Things such as Sonnenmenschen (Sons of the sun/Aryans), Blut und Boden (Blood and soil) engraved in a knife. Lilith’s curiosity gets someone else interested as well. Nora Eldoc, the photographer at the German school Lilith went to, was suspicious of the new doctor who arrived in the German community, and he seemed to have a few fond supporters including Nora’s boyfriend. She takes Helmut’s photos and sends them as evidence that Mengele was in Bariloche. But the Israeli authorities were more interested in Eichmann. As Lilith started showing some signs of growth, Helmut increased the dose that caused Lilith to have a high fever. Meanwhile, he convinces Lilith’ father Enzo to mechanise production of dolls that Enzo makes. By this time Eichmann was caught and taken to trial in Israel and Mengele knew people have started to suspect. The day they visit the factory to see how the dolls are coming along, Enzo finds out from the delirious Lilith about the treatment and confronts the doctor. Enzo asks him to leave their hotel immediately but realises on his return that his wife Eva gave birth to twins prematurely and they are not breathing. Despite Enzo’s protest, Eva convinces her support to the Doctor. Helmut agrees and tells Enzo to get help from a secret address. He finds out a heavily guarded place, with a fully functional hospital, strange looking people with bandaged faces. A nurse comes with them and makes the twins stable, although it was clear that one is recovering better than the other. The next morning Eva finds out that one of the twins passed away. Helmut packs his bag and measures Lilith for the last time, showing a big growth in her height before he starts making his escape. As the Israeli officials close in on the hotel, Mengele escapes in a seaplane, heading towards Chile.
Wakolda is a strange film. You don’t see anything amiss, and that is what is more unsettling. It feels as if you’re watching a Cold War spy film, but there’s something more sinister in the plot there. It also gave a déjà vu feeling after I tried to find more about it. The film is written, produced and directed by Lucía Puenzo, the same author-director who made XXY. XXY is one of the most remarkable films I’ve watched and in my state of awe of having watched Wakolda, I thought that explains the fabulous story and filmmaking. Lucía Puenzo is one of the rare breed of filmmakers, who make films from their own stories. The entire minutiae that she must have thought of while writing the story are seamlessly translated into the scenes when she was making the film, without details getting lost in transition.
Apart from Lucía Puenzo’s phenomenal storytelling, Wakolda is a success with its casting as well. Like her previous film XXY, Lucía’s story revolves around a young character and Florencia Bado was flawless in portraying Lilith. Lilith’s character is the narrator and most part of the film is seen through Lilith’s eyes. As one of the main characters of the film, Florencia’s characterisation of Lilith, with her innocence, hesitations, her shame about her body, and yet showing her defiance, her adolescence – it was magnificent. Natalia Oreiro and Diego Peretti played crucial roles as Lilith’s parents. Natalia’s character Eva played a subdued role in the film and although she won a number of awards for the role, the character was not emphatic or significant enough in the film for such acclaim. In fact, Elena Roger, who played Nora Eldoc in the film was much more vivid than Natalie. But it was Àlex Brendemühl who stole the show. Àlex portrayed the central character of the film with a finesse. I didn’t manage to find out how Mengele’s character changed when he escaped to South America, but Mengele in this film didn’t show the devilish ecstasy that he was known to exhibit during his experiments. Except for his obsession in creating the perfect race — whether it’s the cattle, the dolls or Lilith and the twins of Eva. But perhaps, his subjects in this film were of the race he wanted to modify, and therefore was sympathetic towards them. Again, being an atmospheric thriller, Wakolda didn’t leave much scope for Àlex to express the panache of his acting ability, like we witness from Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang. Àlex’s ominous presence was expressed by his silence, curt dialogues with Lilith, his feverish scripts and notes, and above the conviction in everything he does — whether it is reserving the room in the hotel, or convincing Eva that Lilith will start growing, or getting Lilith’s father to start manufacturing factory made dolls. He possessed an imposing aura on anybody and everybody he interacted with. It seemed that Àlex was a natural choice for this role.
Los poetas escriben lo que ven, los pintores lo pintan. Yo mido y peso lo que me interesa (Poets write what they see; painters paint it. I measure and weigh the things that interest me) — Helmut Gregor on his obsessive detailing of human form.
And finally the cinematography by Nicolás Puenzo, without which, Wakolda would have been another long-winding character drama. The dramatic backdrop gave the film its momentum and created the perfect atmosphere for the suspense to evolve. Whether it was the awe-inspiring Andes mountains, the meandering roads, the tranquil lake of Nahuel Huapi and the pier, the treacherous pass to reach the toy factory — the imageries fitted into the gloomy backdrop of the film. Some of the long shots lasted for a little too long but that worked well with the slow-paced start of the story. The film also captured the seasonal changes of the region — from incessant downpours to thick snows to sparkling spring. Bariloche, which is a famous Argentinian holiday destination, is showcased with all its beauties to an audience spread across the world.
But beyond these elements that made Wakolda a grand success, it was the storyline itself that gave the film its addictive charm. In Lucía Puenzo’s own words, she tried to blur the lines between black and white, how the world wants us to see things. The viewers are left in a state of confusion whether to believe if Mengele was in fact in Bariloche during that period. Lucía chose a period when Mengele’s whereabouts were not known for six months, between the time Eichmann was caught and Mengele escaped to Chile. He was known to be seen in Bariloche. Apart from Mengele’s sightings in Bariloche, the location was perhaps chosen based on the fact that Bariloche became a safe haven for the Nazi war criminals. Lucía mixed facts with fiction so subtly that it created a thriller straight out of Forsyth books. Facts like Nora Eldoc being present in Bariloche. She was later found murdered in the mountains, and she was in Argentina to find Mengele, but the rest of the story is fiction. It looked like the murder of Nora Eldoc is covered in mystery, as was the silence of Israel government. Was she sent to hunt Mengele down by the government? It seems that we still don’t know that. Throughout the film, similar questions arise that keep us wondering how much of the story was actually true and how much falls in the realms of the imagination of the author? In his parting gesture to Lilith, Mengele takes his SS engraved knife out and flicks it over the scale where he was measuring her growth. It showed a big change in her height. Again, Lucía mentioned that even until the time of making the film, the hormone treatment for stunted growth is done pretty much as developed by Mengele. Now, not knowing Mengele and his atrocities, his departure in the film leaves the audience wondering whether he was a misunderstood person with excellent medical knowledge? Perhaps it does. But that is the success of the film. It’s like making a horror film without showing scary ghosts. The spectre of Mengele looms over the film in every scene. If it wasn’t Mengele, the film would not have been classed a thriller. It would have been a stale drama.
Serendipity is a word I learned a long time ago, and I found that best discoveries in our life are serendipities, we find them when we aren’t really looking for them. It’s most apt regarding the films I’ve watched in my life, and Wakolda was one of them. I just come across brilliant films by accident. But I only write a review when the film goes beyond the message it’s set to deliver and makes me wonder further. Especially when the thoughts are primarily regarding Nazism and it’s just last month when Germany has seen right-wing MPs to be present in the Bundestag for the first time since the WWII. Questions like how on earth the despicable criminals like Mengele have avoided the war crimes trial? It appeared that Mengele had even gone back to Germany carrying his own passport and travelled across Europe before going back to Argentina. Did the officials not know who he was or was the information kept hidden? Even 15-20 years after the end of the war, was there still an underlying pro-Nazi sympathy existing in the government ranks? Had the ghost of Nazism ever disappeared completely from Germany? Perhaps it did, and the new far-right politics is a completely new movement, but while the leaders of these new movements debunk the horrors of Nazism, it begs the question whether it was just hidden under the rug. Wakolda also showed in a brief shot a heavily guarded hospital and many people with their faced covered in bandages. It obviously hinted to the fact that many of the defected German war criminals underwent plastic surgery and avoided arrest for their life. We also see the lack of remorse in a lot of Germans featured in Bariloche, about the war, about the Holocaust, about Hitler. They lived their life as it was before, in a close-knit community, still thinking about the world order they could not build, still dreaming about the Sonnenmenschen. Amongst all such developments, one thing was strikingly evident; it was the naiveté of the Argentinian people about who they were. It seemed that the Nazis and their sympathisers had no worries from the authorities. And the Argentinians they lived around were happy to be integrated into the German lifestyle – proudly attending parties and singing Deutschland uber Alles, which was officially banned in Germany since the war. Although news didn’t spread so rapidly as it does now, it was surprising why the Argentinian government and people did not know about the horrors of Nazism and turned a blind eye. One thing that these Nazi war criminals had in abundance is wealth, amassed from the families they destroyed. It can be easily guessed where that wealth was channelled to, so they have a trouble-free life. Perhaps it was the fall of Peron regime and Eichmann’s arrest and trial that brought an end to the carte blanche the Nazis enjoyed so far.
Such questions arose and it’s never easy to find an answer. People perhaps spent their lifetime finding an answer to these mysteries. However, Wakolda also raised another question and I have an unequivocal answer to that. At the end of the film, Mengele leaves the audience wondering if he was right and his treatment was working. There might even be a small room for sympathy towards the German doctor who avoided arrest at the last minute by catching the plane. But the Josef Mengele depicted in Wakolda is not the person who he really was. He was a heinous criminal, with no respect for human life, and single-handedly murdered thousands of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. He is beneath any sympathy, or commendations for the discoveries he made, because of the cost of such findings. And that’s where the similarity between the film and real Mengele ends. Mengele, after all, was not worth turning into a misunderstood protagonist. Wakolda is, in fact, a historical fiction, not a real story.
I recently came across a Russian film called I won’t come back, or Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) in Russian. It took a while to decide which one to watch, from a list of films by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Haneke. And I chose to watch the film by an unknown Estonian director Ilmar Raag. But after watching it, I can say the much-cliched phrase that you’ve only failed when you stopped trying. Failing, in this context, is not knowing the world of the parallel cinema, not knowing about a different world away from glitzy Hollywood and Bollywood, not witnessing life in another part of the world so less represented in the media. I won’t come back is a powerful film about two orphans fighting their corner in the world and their desperate search for love. The harsh realities of life, laced with short tales providing a poetic, magical, getaway from the sombre undertone of the storyline, and a brilliant cinematography spanning the vast expanse of the Russian countryside to the Altai mountains in Kazakhstan — the result of the eclectic mix is unforgettable. And above all, I won’t come back portrays career defining performances by Polina Pushkaruk and young Vika Lobacheva.
Polina portrays Anya, who grew up in an orphanage, and she becomes a lecturer in an university. There, she falls in love with a professor, but he has a family with children. One day she was accused of hiding drugs she didn’t know about, and she escapes the arrest. To avoid being taken in custody, Anya goes to an orphanage claiming she’s fifteen, and there she meets Kristine, a thirteen-year-old girl, who is bullied by other inmates. Anya defends her, and Kristine began to trust Anya. When Kristine tells Anya that she knows a secret way out, Anya runs away one day, only to find Kristine following her, pleading to take her to her grandma in Kazakhstan. Thus begins the voyage to Kazakhstan, with very little money between them. They had to hitchhike. On the way, Anya receives a call from Andrey, that all charges against her were dropped and she should come back to the uni. Thus begins the clash between the two characters, both desperate to find a tie, a sense of belonging and being loved — Anya, in her lover and Kristine, in her grandma. Anya tries to send Kristine to Kazakhstan in a train but fails. Through various dramatic sequences, it emerges that these two girls needed each other, more than they agreed to admit. But when Kristine said to Anya, she refused to admit it, resulting in Kristine running away and hitchhiking alone in a car leaving Anya behind. After a day of searching for her, Anya finds her alone, walking along the snow covered road in the upcoming winter. Anya finally realises how much she loved Kristine and decided to travel to Kazakhstan. Then in a sudden twist of fate, as they waited for a car, a drunk driver skids and hits the shed where Kristine was resting, killing her instantly. Anya in her grief realised that she’d become an orphan again, and lost the only human being who loved her unconditionally. The film then shows resolute Anya telling Andrey that she’s not coming back, and finally reaches the village in the Altai mountains. Kristine’ grandmother mistakes Anya to be Kristine, and Anya carried on with the lie, to finally find a place to call home.
Ya ne vernus a magical film, despite its dark and sad undertone. A number of scenes were truly emotional, and Polina and Vika made those instances realistic as though the tension between them was palpable. Instances worth specific mention are the time when Anya leaves a howling Kristine in the cemetery petrified of the wolves, or when Kristine kept asking Anya to admit she loved her but Anya kept refusing. Perhaps the most heart-rending scene was when Kristine suddenly dies. With the two girls finally agreeing to go to Kazakhstan, and the viewers expecting a journey to Kristine’a grandmother for a happily ever after, the suddenness of her death left us speechless. Perhaps Anya’s grief in the film moved at a faster pace than the viewers realising that Kristine, the eccentric and dreamy teenager is actually dead. No miracle is happening, Anya won’t be taking her to a farm where Vika would be treated and recover.
Yet, despite the dreary backdrop throughout the film, it also highlights the strength of a relationship. The mythical interjections in the film, mostly by the dreamy Kristine, gave the film a fantastic aura. These short intervals of fantasy take the viewers’ attention away from the harsh reality of the central theme. Scenes like Kristine introducing herself to Anya telling there are an eagle and a dog inside her who talk to her all the time, or that she had wings but they were broken and she couldn’t fly anymore because God only gives you wings once. We’ll remember Kristine pouring soda on the road so the road sends them a lift, and that of the swan and the girl kept us hoping that there is something positive happening to these girls. We see the relationship between Anya and Kristine evolve with a background of the out and about places in Russia, captured by the fabulous cinematography — from a busy city to the Altai mountains, from a dark, snow-laden cemetery at night, to busy service stations. The film presented slices of Russian life and culture through various imageries, perfectly blended into the storyline, such as the tale of the swan, as they walked past a deserted lake. As much as the unforgettable character portrayals of Polina Pushkaruk and Vika Lobacheva, the cinematography by Tuomo Hutri was a treat.
“There was a girl in the orphanage. One day she ran away from everyone. She came across a lake and saw a swan. She asked the swan to take her away. So the swan picked her up in his beak and flew away. The swan put the girl in his house. But he went away to see his kids and the girl saw him less and less. One day the girl jumped in the water. But she didn’t drown and turned into a fish. The swan came back and couldn’t see the girl. He began to cry. The fish-girl could see the swan but she couldn’t speak to him. From that day, the fish would come up to the surface every day and see her swan cry”
However, it’s the the relationship between the characters of Anya and Kristine — the turmoils and their love, is the tour de force in Ya ne vernus. Anya’s character is shown as an intelligent young woman, finding her place in the world putting the life in the orphanage behind her. However, as much as she appeared confident in professional life, she seemed helplessly desperate in her personal life. She was looking for stability throughout the film, and that’s why knowing that she had no hope of getting Andrey leave his family for her, Anya clung on to him. Her only hope, still, was to stay in the city she was living and pray that Andrey leaves his wife and family one day. Until then, at least she can still be in an affair with him. Kristine, on the other side, had nothing in the city. She has no relatives, she’s bullied by all the inmates of the orphanage. All she had was a small tin box, inside which was a crumpled photo with an address of a remote village in Kazakhstan, where her grandma lived. Living in a shelter knowing that she had a living relative made her flee one shelter to another until she met Anya who, unlike others, was ready to stand up to anyone harassing Kristine. Kristine saw her like a big sister, she felt loved and cared for. And she felt secure. But her ultimate goal was to reach Chemolgan, the village in Kazakhstan where her grandma lived. It appeared as though one of these girls will have to make a sacrifice or will be separated forever. If Anya goes to Kazakhstan, she’ll never see Andrey again, and if she went back to the city, Kristine will not see her Grandma. It was as if the destiny was playing a cruel roulette with their fate, where whichever path they chose, they will lose one significant person in their life. The director Ilmar Raag depicted through some unforgettable scenes how Anya opened up her feelings towards Kristine, and that the feeling she felt towards Andrey was slowly fading away.
Polina Pushkaruk was phenomenal in portraying the role of Anya but it’s the young Vika Lobacheva who stole the heart away of the viewers. She made the character of dreamy and feisty Kristine very real to the audience. It was amazing acting by a young actor and I wonder why she wasn’t nominated for the best young actors. I was surprised to find out later that Vika Lobacheva actually spent a large part of her childhood in social care. Ya ne vernus is an exceptional film, magically woven by talented Ilmar Raag and supported by the lead actors Polina and Vika. Adding the cinematography featuring the vast expanse of the Russian countryside, it made I won’t come back one of the phenomenal films I’ve watched recently. Many would argue that this may be classed as a road movie, but I’d strongly oppose that notion. It’s true that a large part of the film is about the journey for the two women towards Kazakhstan, but it’s much more than a road movie — it’s a tale about finding home and love. To me, it was a fable, a string of magical moments joined together to a bleak storyline. I’m glad that I made the choice to watch Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) over the other films I was tempted by, or else I would have missed this rare gem. It was a lesson, that sometimes it’s worth following a hunch, and not just for choosing which films to watch.
Films are a luxury these days, compared to the old times when they were a commodity. Writing a film review is easy now than it has ever been, as we cherish things that have become a rarity, and moreover, if I tried to write a film review when I watched more than one film a day, there wouldn’t have been enough hours in a day. After probably six months since watching a film, during the Christmas period, I watched Gnomeo and Juliet, and De rouille et d’os of Jacques Audiard. Then this weekend my eyes suddenly fell on a DVD while doing the grocery shopping in Morrisons. The blurb on the jacket suggested a gripping story of a freelance cameraman getting sucked into the underbelly of the LA criminal world. It had a promise of a crime thriller where the amateur cameraman uncovered the vicious criminal gangs. He did, but Nightcrawler was by no means a Hollywood good vs evil story. It is a far darker and sinister storyline that probably broke many stereotypes about Hollywood films produced over the years. It was an uncomfortable film to watch, and the effect is still lingering as I type these words.
Nightcrawler was released in 2014 so there is no spoiler alert here. And just reading these words won’t create the effect the film did. In short, Lou Bloom lives a destitute life in downtown LA, living off odd jobs but his hunger to achieve more, drives him to desperately start looking for newer means. One night as he was turned down a job where he sold stolen material, he drove past an accident scene and found a freelance cameraman filming the scene. Lou learns that by becoming a stringer — a freelance cameraman, he could earn easy cash. He buys a camcorder and a police radio scanner. After a few failed attempts, Lou captures someone shot in the neck and sells the footage to a news channel. There he meets Nina, the news editor. Her penchant for serving the story people want to see, mainly concerning affluent white families as victims in central LA neighbourhood areas gave Lou a clear idea what she’s looking for. As Lou starts to find success, his inner drive to do more, and Nina’s unrelenting support violating ethical boundaries of news reporting makes Lou take more risks, become more dangerous and desperate. He hires an assistant, and soon Lou realised that Nina is as desperate for his videos as he is for achieving something in his life. The film climaxes as they reach the scene of a shooting that would become breaking news, Lou hides the part of the tape showing the gunmen so he could film them getting caught another time, in another neighbourhood. After a shootout, one gunman escapes who is later killed by police after a chase that Lou and his assistant catch live, and Lou manages to trick his assistant in believing the gunman was dead. He gets shot and the gunman faces Lou, filming death of his assistant before police shot the gunman. Police later interrogate Lou but couldn’t prove that he hid the information. On the last scene, he’s seen to be running a new business hiring apprentices.
I remember watching Jake Gyllenhaal in October Sky and over the years, I thought he was Hollywood’s male version of Meg Ryan, having a face that never ages. Paired with the looks, he has a boyish voice that never developed into a baritone, like Tobey MaGuire’s. From that aspect, it was difficult to imagine Jake in a role that is so dark, and creepy. But at the end of the film, I was left wondering whether I’ve just watched the best career performance of Jake. He is a tour de force in Nightcrawler, it is not easy to watch, but that relentlessly uncomfortable feeling was Jake’s success. He lived and breathed in that character, emanating a sense of menace. Lou’s mannerisms, especially his business management parlance in almost every possible situation, paired with his obsessive expressions while covering the crime or accident scenes were uncanny, to say the least, and often monstrous. As he soullessly moved towards achieving one reckless feat to the next, his character shows no compassion or remorse for the victims. To him, they were just rungs of the ladder that will take him high up the corporate echelon he so painstakingly prepared himself for but was never allowed a break. He makes you squirm in disgust and enraged in hate. In the film, Jake looked almost emaciated, his bare arms uncharacteristically thin. I found out later that he lived on a diet of kale chips to lose all the weight. This brings to mind another virtuoso performances by Adrien Brody in The Pianist and Christian Bale in The Fighter, where the actors went to great lengths to mould their physique into the character they were portraying. Jake’s gaunt face, unassuming stature made him blend into the background of the film that all his expressions gained a new dimension. Nightcrawler is all about the superlative performance by Jake Gyllenhaal, and it is definitely worth watching just to watch him.
Yet, Nightcrawler is not just about Jake’s performance, it has plenty more to offer. The script is superb. It’s sleek, at times the suspense was too gripping to handle. And that is paired with fantastic night cinematography of LA, especially the long shots overlooking the city, or the crossroads. The film revolved around three central characters, and Rene Russo and Riz Ahmed played their part brilliantly to let Lou Bloom cast his dark spell on the viewers’ minds. Although a film is remembered by the actors’ performances, it’s the less praised behind the scenes work that makes the film successful. For Nightcrawler, this would be the scriptwriter and the director, for taking up a challenging subject. The film could be classified as Noir, with Jake Gyllenhaal as an anti-hero. It did not try to make him appear psychotic, and most of the Hollywood anti-heroes turn up, nor he dies in the end, nor he finds a sudden sense of morality and becomes the good guy in the end. Lou Bloom is a cutthroat optimist, he doesn’t let anything come between him and his success, he is desperate, and in the end, it shows that he gets away with all his unethical demeanour. A negative character not being punished at the end of the story — where does this stand on good vs evil? A non-ideal end made Lou Bloom more realistic, and thus more frightening. The other stereotype that was broken was the relationship between Lou Bloom and Nina. Hollywood hardly shows older women against younger men, unless it was like The Graduate, where the older female seduces the young actor. In Nightcrawler, Lou blackmailed Nina to get her to sleep with him. There is no love blossoming in there air, but just hard transactional relationship — Lou helps Nina keep her job, and he wanted sex in return. There are certain loopholes in the film that might interest the people who like finding gaffes, such as Lou getting away with hiding footage of the shootout from police, and CCTV evidence would easily have proved that he traced the killers and not the other way around. Also, confiscating his laptop would have shown that he searched for the car number plate. Yet, Nightcrawler will be remembered for the unforgettable acting by Jake Gyllenhaal, not the minor gaps in the storyline.
Finally, like moral of a fable comes a moment when you analyse a film with the present context and decide whether the film succeeds in conveying any message to its viewers that are relevant to our society. From this aspect, I’d hail Nightcrawler to have addressed one of the biggest perils of our society — of warped, directed and suggestive media reporting. Funnily enough, I remembered the Family Guy episode where Peter Griffin steals many Nielsen boxes and bargains with news channels how he wanted all the programmes altered. In reality, Nightcrawler is a stark reminder of the way media manipulates the truth, in order to make news sensational. Rene Russo in Nina personifies the uncouth, greedy media houses, where their viewership is fuelled by panic mongering and misinformation. The unfortunate events of Brexit and Donald Trump victory highlight the role right-wing media played in those two cases. In the case of Brexit, we saw Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Express wage a hate campaign against the migrants in the UK and against EU governance. The failure of the Leave campaign to deliver any of the promises only outlined the vacuous media bias towards Leave. They worked on people’s fear, and distrust and created an atmosphere of animosity within the country that has split the country for the foreseeable future. The same has happened in the USA as well, and the consequences much grave than Brexit. The willingness to go any lengths to twist the reality is very prominent in Nightcrawler. Although a sane mind doubts whether a news channel could lower themselves that low just to with some TRP, a present appreciation of the current situation only corroborates the message conveyed in the film. It should serve as a wake-up call to the viewers — or the customers of the media that unless the public collectively rejects the sensationalist media reporting, they will resort to more dangerous means, just as Lou Bloom did in the film, and it could do irreparable damage to the fabric of our society.
The thought that, what we watched in Nightcrawler is happening every single day at every single corner of the world, fills the viewer with an uncomfortable feeling. And that is the success of the film — the uneasiness, the queasy feeling that you get in your mouth after the film is over. Nightcrawler will be one of those films that I will be desperate to watch it again, but will never watch it ever, for the unpalatable truths that film makes us face, and we cannot just eject the disc and think — “It’s only a film”!
Before our daughter was born last year, I was reading an article on a number of films that won special accolades at Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and two of them I could particularly remember — Leviathan from Russia and Deux jours, une nuit from Belgium. Deux jours, une nuit particularly drew my attention due to Marion Cotillard, who is undoubtedly one of the most prolific French actors of our times, along with Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris. I tried to watch the film around that time and could not find any source. Finally in 2015 July, I found a copy in the world cinema section at the HMV shop. Needless to say, I snatched it within seconds. On one August Friday night, I decided to watch the film, sacrificing a much precious night’s sleep, and this has changed my perception of western Europe as well as incited a moment to reflect on the priorities of life.
First a short synopsis of the film itself, which one can find in Wikipedia or IMDb. Marion brilliantly portrays Sandra Bya, a mother of two children, working in a factory. She recently suffered from depression and was off work, and just recovered to be back to work soon. During Sandra’s absence her workload is shared by other sixteen workers with some overtime. The owner M. Dumont presented a dilemma to these sixteen workers — they could either continue to work extra and get a €1000 bonus whilst Sandra loses her job, or when Sandra is back, all will go back to regular shift and they don’t get any bonus. The story starts when Sandra gets the news that a vote took place on Friday, in an open forum and under influence of the foreman, who is not in favour of Sandra getting her job back. She meets the owner on Friday afternoon and the owner assures a repeat vote on next Monday, which would be a secret one, and if the majority voted for Sandra to stay foregoing their bonus, he will keep her on. Most part of the film then revolves around next 60 hours as Sandra personally attempts to meet all sixteen co-workers to vote for her to stay, and their decisions. Some felt guilty and compassionate immediately and assured they will vote Sandra to stay, the rest apologised for numerous personal reasons. Towards the end, with a few unsure ones, Sandra goes to work on Monday and the result comes out as a tie. The owner offered to keep her job although a tie meant she has not had the majority, but on condition that one of the trainees will have to be laid off later on. Sandra declined to offer, was bid adieu by all her colleagues who voted for her, and comes out of the factory brimming with her confidence, that she lost through her illness, and Sandra calls Manu to say <<Nous avons bien battu>> or we put up a great fight.
The film deserves special kudos for Dardenne brothers for deciding to make a film on disability and workplace discrimination, which are very pertinent issues around Europe. Marion Cotillard is flawless in her characterisation of Sandra, with all her vulnerabilities, doubts, hesitations and portrayal of a person with depression — on the brink of foregoing all the progress made by medication and being away from stresses at work. For most of the film where Sandra is shown to have a dejected, resigned demeanour, with her tired face and wry smile, the film brilliantly showed flashes of her personality, the part of Sandra we didn’t get to see in the film. The supporting cast were eclectically chosen and they all played their part very well — especially Manu as her loving husband trying to give her confidence whilst looking after the children and taking Sandra to all her colleagues when he had time off. The make up and costume is also worth accolades — Sandra’s ashened face and attires of a working class woman made her characters very real. It stands to reason why this Belgian/Italian production has won a 15min standing ovation in Cannes and set Marion Cotillard for her second nomination for the best actress role. Notwithstanding the fact that Deux jours, une nuit is an outstanding film, it struck a chord in my mind for two other reasons.
First reason was location, although it was partially flawed. Since I started to learn French in 2006, or even before that, I was fascinated by French cinema. Old and new, I have watched quite a few films before Deux jours…; however, there was one big change since I watched the last French film. I visited France for the first time in February this year, and then made three subsequent trips of which, the last one was a week long. So, to some extent, I could now relate some of the facts to my own experience, and France as seen in French films was not an utopia anymore, it’s something real and part of my life. Watching Deux jours… created the same sensation as would have done by a film about Calcutta, or London. And here is the flaw I mentioned before. Deux jours, une nuit is a Belgian-Italian co-production and shot in Belgium, so I was partially misled thinking I was watching France, whilst it was actually Belgium. Nevertheless, I can’t say that my assumptions and imageries were entirely untrue either, as I also went to Belgium twice this year. As a result, I could see that the surroundings on the film could well be related back to my memories in Belgium. Little insignificant moments, like seeing how it feels driving along the other side of the road, the sauce piquante offered with pizza, houses with orange tiled roof, Buses with ticket machines to scan — they all make the film appear much more personal, as if I was there, with Sandra, following her with a camera.
The second but most significant factor why I found Deux jours… phenomenal, is its purpose — the storyline. It’s not an epic drama, nor an action packed thriller, nor a portrayal of a larger than life person on screen…it’s a story of a woman, who could be your or my neighbour, or even, the story of ourselves. The social angle of the film made a large faction of the crowd to identify themselves or someone they knew of, in the situation. The workplace discrimination for disabled or people with depression, the difficulty of re-engaging someone back after a long-term sickness, small industries turning employees one against another in order to stay afloat in this age of fierce competition, keeping employees constantly under threat of being blacklisted — all such instances are seen or heard of in everyone’s life. For some it’s just a harsh reality of life we live in. This is the story of western Europe’s working class, for whom it’s a struggle for existence every day, a constant battleground to find one’s feet. As the film progressed, the viewers can see the convoluted schemes of the management, leaving the choice to the employees, if they want Sandra back, but creating fear saying if Sandra is back, someone else might be fired. The struggle for existence is picturised in many fights one encounters in the film — couples fighting each other, employees fighting one another on the issue of keeping Sandra, Sandra fighting her inner evils of giving it all in in the face of despair — fights that characterises the struggles one has to go through for people on the breadline. Not that those eight people, who voted against Sandra, had anything against her, but they all are part of the mechanism, where one can’t afford to go against the tide. In the minimum wage, they still want to make ends meet or live the consumerist dream — house, car, clothes, renovations, holidays — a €1000 was worth much more than sparing a thought about a struggling employee. Deux jours… also tried to depict a comparison between a class divide, although this could be my preconceived notions judging instances how I wanted to see them as. Those who rather wanted the bonus than keep Sandra, were better off than the ones, who offered to back her, and they would rather have the €1000 to spend on the consumerist utopia. Being in the higher rung on the social scale made them more susceptible to the demons of capitalism — to be less compassionate and more focussed on increasing their wealth. However, the vices of Europe’s working class society is best expressed by the words of the colleague of Sandra, who refused without hesitation to help her, saying “I wish you keep the job tomorrow, but if you do I will be heartbroken”. This exemplifies how people are pushed to a situation, where they have to make a choice between their own survival or someone else’s. In such desperate situations, Sandra’s taking all of her anti-depressant pills shows just so many people are stretched to their extreme limits of tolerance and so many people today are in a situation like Sandra in the film and fighting to stay adrift in the quicksand.
However, amidst all despairing struggle, there are positives to take away as well, and an optimistic ending, when Sandra, after a weekend long toil to request everyone to keep her job, actually offered one, but at the cost of one apprentice, who voted for her, and she chose to quit the job rather than let the owner try to fight one employee against another one more time. Throughout the film, there are snippets of optimism emerged in small bursts at most unexpected moments, that instil hope in the minds of the viewer that life under constant struggle and predicament still has moments of joy and happiness. Moments when Sandra, Anne and Manu drove back on Sunday night — with Sandra just back from hospital after taking the pills, Anne having broken up with her abusive partner, and Manu worried how Sandra would react if she were to lose her job next day — all three desolate souls, still managed forget all their woes and turn the Rock channel on car audio and sing along the tunes. The film also portrays the inter-relationships amongst the employees in a multicultural society, where a number of Sandra’s colleagues, with whom she hardly had any friendship, had offered to help her out by voting her, which is remarkable especially for the migrant families, who perhaps have no social security and money to send out to families abroad.
Deux jours, une nuit made me reflect on the priorities of life and how we see ourselves in this world. When we speak of Europe especially the western part of it as the vanguard of social infrastructure and most powerful and wealthy nations of the world, the working class still has the same trials and tribulations as anywhere else in the world. Although the hardship is comparative between working class of a first world to a third world country, and perhaps life of a first world working class person, as portrayed in this film would be a life to dream for by the a third world worker — it only proves that life in western Europe is not bed of roses and people there too, strife every day. Also, when people from middle class background, like myself, worry about financial situations, this film blows apart that mindset, where people worry about a life that billions would die for. Deux jours, une nuit again emphasises the importance on being humble to the means of life one has and not snigger at working class people as being lazy and defeatist.
Then, thinking about the film again, after the upsurge of emotions was over, that in the end, this is a film, not documentary of people from real life. Marion Cotillard is a superstar — she must have earned Millions for the role of Sandra Bya, who lost her job for €1000. The film was screened at Cannes, with opulent film personalities gathered together from all over the world, spending millions on their French riviera retreat, whilst characters like Sandra in real life persevere every day for their existence, far away from the pomp and limelight that the film and its cast would be basking in. Deux jours, une nuit has struck a chord focussing on the working class life in Europe, bolstered by a sterling performance by Marion Cotillard; yet, outside the silver screen, the film has failed to create awareness and a form a movement to improve the lives of millions of Sandras. Their strife does not finish at 95 minutes and with a <<Manu, nous avons bien battu>>…
Recreated from a Facebook post in February 2013
Yesterday watched a film, “Wer, wenn nicht wir”(who, if not us) that focussed on the earlier years of the Baader-Meinhof gang. Looking up on the net about their uprising and the end, it reminds me of a very similar movement much closer at home, the naxalite movement and specially of a book by Subhas Basu “Gol Ruti, Neel Chand” (Round bread and blue moon) that depicted how the fraction distanced themselves from the Communist party and right up to their disillusionment and dissolution. Just branding similar movements as terrorist activities, as some sites do, will be a gross simplification and misrepresentation of the world history of the time. One cannot condone the violence they started, and replace the losses the families suffered, but these are the tales of a lost youth, utterly brilliant and motivated – they were philosophers, writers, artists, journalists – yet lost in the tumultuous period the world was going through, and were fighting an enemy they couldn’t have overthrown, for it didn’t really exist. Forty years on since Vietnam, the youth movement calmed down a lot, the only violence you see is either by right-wing fundamentalists or state-sanctioned “peace-keeping missions” (or domestic); the terms Fascist and Capitalist aren’t synonymous any more as aren’t Socialist and Left-wing. Perhaps we are converging towards a de-polarised world that will see a harmonious coexistence of both theories, and will benefit all strata of people. Making it happen within a country – quite possible. Making it happen worldwide – Not!