Curzon Home Cinema

The Truth

12/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Hirokazu Koreeda’s first film outside his native Japan is an elegant French affair, a story about the tensions between mothers and daughters, fiction and truth, acting and living. Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) is a celebrated actress, whose memoir – entitled La Vérité – has just been published. There’s an initial print run of a hundred thousand, she boasts to her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche). ‘Fifty thousand,’ her assistant corrects her, and Lumir rolls her eyes. Such self-aggrandising exaggeration is clearly typical of her mother, and establishes Fabienne’s complicated relationship with ‘truth.’

Lumir lives in New York, where she is a screen-writer. She has a husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a TV actor, newly sober after a stint in rehab, and a young daughter, Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier); this is their first visit to Paris for many years. Clearly Lumir and Fabienne have issues to work through.

The storytelling is as elegant as Fabienne’s home furnishings. She has all the trappings of success, including a house that ‘looks like a castle.’ She’s imperious and vain, but complex too: this is no pantomime villain. Just a woman, caught in the gap between the fantasies she performs and the emotional realities she avoids.

The film-within-a-film device is neatly employed, the parallels between Fabienne’s current project, Memories of My Mother (based on a short story by Ken Liu), and the dynamics of her real-life family are subtly – but clearly – defined. In the story, a mother is frozen in time; her daughter ages while she stays the same. Fabienne plays the daughters’s oldest incarnation. But Fabienne and Lumir are frozen too; they’ve never moved past the resentments forged in Lumir’s youth, never resolved their feelings around a cataclysmic event, the death of ‘Sarah,’ Fabienne’s friend (and rival), and Lumir’s confidante. But, as Lumir confronts Fabienne about the distortions in her memoir, we see the glimmerings of a thaw…

Deneuve completely dominates this film, and that’s as it should be: it’s clearly her story. Fabienne is a huge character; everyone is diminished in her presence. Binoche and Hawke make excellent foils, their exasperation and admiration beautifully conveyed.

Koreeda is clearly one to watch; this is an utterly compelling piece of cinema, where not much happens but everything matters.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

The Assistant

06/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Writer/director Kitty Green’s The Assistant is a quietly troubling movie, a queasily believable insight into the machinations of the film industry, where venerated individuals are afforded too much power.

Julia Garner is Jane, a high-flying graduate who aspires to become a producer. For now, she’s stuck in an entry-level post, a lowly assistant to a movie mogul. Her duties include making coffee, photocopying, and removing evidence of his excesses. She throws away used syringes, wipes white powder off his desk, returns a stray earring to his lover, babysits his children and placates his crying wife. Her colleagues collude; they’re all fully versed in the kind of apologetic email she should send in response to being screamed at by the un-named boss, and a meeting with HR manager, Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen) – sought because of Jane’s concern for a ‘very young’ and naïve new recruit – reveals the unsurprising fact that there’s absolutely no support available. There are four hundred other people waiting to take her job, Wilcock tells Jane. She needs to put up and shut up – or she’s out.

The cleverness here is all in the understatement. We see how tedious and soul-destroying Jane’s role is: the brutal pre-dawn commute, the punishingly long hours, the personal nature of much of what she’s asked to do. She orders lunch for the whole office but doesn’t get a break herself; indeed, we’re always aware of how hungry she is, never managing more than a single bite of anything she tries to eat. Garner conveys Jane’s anxiety and brittle desperation most eloquently, despite  saying very little. We can feel her gritting her teeth, determining to get through this phase so that she can, eventually, have the career she wants. What’s less clear is whether she’ll be able to endure, and, if she does, what she will lose in the process.

The movie is claustrophobic and tense; there is little action but much revelation. I like that we never see the boss. His absence makes him universal – not a capricious individual who needs to be replaced, but a symbol of a rotten system that’s ripe for revolution.

And the Janes are starting to speak out.

#MeToo.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Calm With Horses

03/05/20

Curzon Home Cinema

There’s something of the young Marlon Brandon in Cosmo Jarvis’s performance in Calm With Horses; indeed, there are plot similarities here that make this feel like a West of Ireland homage to On The Waterfront. But that doesn’t detract from the film’s power, nor the intensity of the performances.

Jarvis plays ‘Arm,’ a promising boxer in his youth, whose career hit the skids when he accidentally killed an opponent in the ring. Now he’s reduced to being the hired muscle for the Devers clan, a family of criminals who hold sway over the town where he lives. Arm is accompanied by his minder, Dympna (Barry Keoghan), who is the nephew of Hector (David Wilmot), the gang’s head honcho. Dympna is desperate to prove his worth and seems capable of making Arm do pretty much anything, no matter how brutal, usually by getting him drunk and stoned beforehand. It’s clear though, that Arm is basically a decent bloke who’s taken a wrong turn back in the day.

He has a son, Jack, with his former partner, Ursula (Niamh Algar), but the boy is severely autistic, only really happy when he’s riding a horse (hence the title). Ursula wants to move Jack to Cork, where there are specialised schools that can help him, and she asks Arm for financial help, but Dympna manages to dissuade him; he has another job for Arm, one that requires him to more than just beat somebody up…

Nick Roland’s debut picture, with a screenplay by Joe Murtagh, is set in those parts of the West of Ireland where tourists would fear to tread – indeed, a visit to Paudi (Ned Dennehy)’s garage is not for the faint-hearted. It’s not just sides of beef he has hanging in that outbuilding. This is mostly Jarvis’s film, though Keoghan once again displays his uncanny knack of choosing the right role at the right  time, and Dennehy’s smirking, scowling performance shows why his is one of the most familiar faces in Irish cinema.

If there’s a certain inevitability to the story’s ending, it’s more than compensated for by the film’s raw power and those memorable characterisations. Those looking for a charming, lyrical tale of simple country folk may wish to look elsewhere.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Vivarium

02/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Curzon Home Cinema has become our go-to for movies in these stay-at-home times, and Lorcan Finnegan’s waking nightmare, Vivarium, is the latest on their list to catch our eye.

Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star as Gemma and Tom, a teacher and a tree surgeon. They’re ready, they think, to buy a home together, and visit an estate agent to see what’s available. When creepy Martin (Jonathan Aris) recommends Yonder, a vast suburban estate of identikit new builds, Gemma and Tom are dubious. But Martin is very persuasive, and they agree to go along, just to have a look.

To their horror, they find themselves trapped: it is impossible to escape Yonder’s endless green streets; despite their ever-more frantic efforts, they always end up back at the same house, with food and other staples delivered silently and anonymously, all shrink-wrapped and pre-packaged like the life they’re being forced into. One day, a baby (Côme Thiry) is deposited on their step; within days he has grown into a freaky young boy (Senan Jennings). Tom insists they should refuse to care for the child – it’s not human, he says, and certainly not theirs – but Gemma can’t face leaving the boy to his fate, and does her best to look after him. Tom, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly obsessed with digging a hole in the garden…

The metaphors here are all thinly-veiled. The opening sequence of a cuckoo forcing its way into a nest, brazenly devouring everything it can, is a beautifully brutal portent of what’s to come, but it’s not a subtle allegory. The cartoon-like Yonder, with its perfectly manicured lawns and lifeless, listless architecture, represents the living hell of conformity, the loss of self that many couples feel as they settle down, do what’s expected of them, become subsumed by their children’s needs.

So no, not subtle, but clever nonetheless. The child’s age, for example, is a neat concept: the sight of a six-year-old screaming relentlessly while his ‘parents’ desperately try to placate him with food seems monstrous; the way he copies what they say and parrots it back at them is equally grotesque. But this is just what babies do, amplified here to awful effect.

There is, it must be said, only a single idea here, so it is all bit one-note. Nevertheless, Vivarium is a taut and genuinely frightening film, and its pervasive imagery might well haunt your dreams, especially if you watch it now, while we’re all ensnared in a similar scenario, unable to venture far from home, and barred from participating in the lives we used to lead.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

System Crasher

18/04/20

Curzon Home Cinema

Here’s a tip for you: don’t watch this film if you’re in the mood for a bit of light entertainment to help you while away a locked-down evening. Also, don’t watch it if you’re up for something sad but ultimately up-lifting. In fact, don’t watch it at all unless you’re prepared to spend a couple of hours feeling horrible and helpless, sobbing intermittently, furious about the way we let down our most vulnerable kids.

And nine-year-old Benni (Helena Zengel) is very vulnerable. Traumatised in her infant years, she is bursting with rage. Her social worker, Frau Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), is running out of options. Benni has been expelled from so many group homes there’s nowhere left to try. All she wants is to go back to her mama (Lisa Hagmeister), but that’s not possible. Not when mama’s abusive boyfriend is there; not when mama fails every time to prioritise her daughter.

It’s utterly, devastatingly, heartbreaking. I don’t remember when I last cried so much. Zengel’s performance is extraordinary. Her Benni is a desperate child, who just needs someone to love her. But she’s so damaged, so violent and so destructive that not many adults can cope with her. Sometimes it seems like a breakthrough might be possible: there’s a string of well-meaning professionals such as her school escort, Micha (Albrecht Schuch), who go out on a limb to try to help. But three weeks’ respite in the woods isn’t a permanent home; a friendly mentor is no replacement for a family; they can never give enough. And Benni’s yearning is so vast it’s all-consuming. Everyone wants to make things better but no one knows what to do.

The film is German, so the social care set-up is different from ours here in the UK. But the inadequacy of a bureaucratic system to address the needs of a wounded child is all too recognisable. The team around Benni are decent, dedicated folk, their anguish as palpable as hers as each of their efforts fails.

Writer/director Nora Fingscheidt has crafted System Crasher to perfection, depicting Benni’s calamitous story in unflinching detail. I especially like the razor-sharp flickers of flashback we are shown whenever Benni begins to freak out, brief glimpses into the suffering that has shaped her blighted life. I like the colours too: a light-saturated palette that seems to suggest brighter possibilities.

Sadly, for Benni, such possibilities are only dreams. This is truly a modern tragedy.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

Portrait of a Lady On Fire

25/03/20

Curzon Home Cinema

The current global pandemic has had devastating consequences for so many people that it seems somehow petty to complain that, as ardent movie fans, we’re trying to deal with the much less disastrous irritation of having no new movies to review. But nevertheless, the problem exists.

Of course, films are readily available on streaming services such as Netflix , but there’s not much there that we haven’t already viewed elsewhere – so, when we hear about Curzon Home Cinema, where there’s no monthly contract and where recently released films can by rented for a set fee, we are naturally keen to try it out. Prices range from £4.99 to £9.99 and there are discounts for those who choose to become members. Portrait of a Lady On Fire is our first foray into the service.

This handsome French production has all the familiar tropes of a classic Gothic horror: an empty house in a remote location; dark candlelit corners; there’s even what appears to be a ‘ghostly’ presence haunting its corridors. But writer/director Céline Sçiamma clearly has other intentions and what gradually emerges here is a tragic love story enacted in a period when such love was strictly forbidden.

Portrait painter Marian (Noémie Merlant) arrives on an unnamed island. She’s been commissioned by Lan Contesse (Valerio Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter, Hélöise (Adèle Haenel), who – after the death of her older sister – is about to be betrothed to a man she has never met. But Hélöise – understandably – really isn’t in the mood to have her portrait painted, so Marian is going to have to spend as much time as she can with her and produce the portrait in secret. Locked up together in the house, with just young maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) for company, Marian and Hélöise grow closer by the day…

This is a gorgeous film, featuring beautifully nuanced performances from the two leads and gifted with some sumptuous cinematography. It’s a strikingly feminist story, clearly demonstrating the unfairness of womanhood in the 18th century. But it’s strongest suit is in the depiction of an artist at work, as Marian gradually builds her images from rough lines in charcoal to the finished product. There’s also a stunning set piece where we fully understand the full meaning of that unwieldy title and also a bitter-sweet coda that drives the film’s powerful message straight to the heart.

Curzon Home Cinema is surely the place to procure your cinematic fix.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney