“Maggie’s Plan” – Rebecca Miller

The reviews on Maggie’s Plan by the American Rebecca Miller (married to Daniel Day-Lewis) and its successful premiere at Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015 were all very promising and the subject of a single mother turned the rom-com into a controversial taboo-breaking feature about a young woman with a desire to have kids, but Maggie is definitely a woman with a plan.

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The young Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who comes from a traditional Quaker family works as an academic teacher in the college art department in New York. She longs to become a mother, but realises that she is not capable of maintaining a proper long-term relationship. So she decides to have an insemination by a surrogate, namely her high school friend and ‘pickle-entrepreneur’ Guy (Travis Fimmel). Initially planning on raising a baby by herself, she falls in love with her colleague and novelist John who is still married to the volatile, but genius academic Georgette (Julianne Moore). The audience clearly expects that this is not according to Maggie’s plan and that there will be some intriguing consequences. Wait for it….. Maggie gets fed up of being married and arranges the ex-lovers to reunite. We witness a kind of love triangle, that all parties seem to agree with.

Greta Gerwig might be an unfamiliar face to the mainstream audience, but she performed in plenty of series and feature films like Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), Mia Hansen Løve’s Eden (2014) and the popular No Strings Attached by Ivan Reitman (2011). Gerwig is rightfully casted as the somewhat confused and seemingly unworldly Maggie. Nonetheless, it is Julianne Moore who stands out as the Danish ex-wife without her becoming a caricature. Her accent -including a ‘jah’ at the end of her sentences- is only very subtle. She remains natural and so proves her talent worth the Oscar she had in 2014 for Still Alice (Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland).

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The images are not too complex, without specific montage techniques so the focus is mainly on the narrative instead of on the visuals. The only remarkable point is the constant centering of the characters in every frame, mostly composed as pairs.

The thematic of consciously unmarried mothers is quiet a new concept in Hollywood productions, additionally the fact that the film is directed by a woman increases the self-awareness of every single mother, or every woman with a desire to have kids, that everything is possible as long as you want it hard enough. Maggie is a setting example of female independence, nonetheless in her case sometimes just stubbornness.

The end is somewhat predictable, which turns the whole into a typical feel-good happy-ending Hollywood production. The closing shot keeps the end open, but is suggestive enough to be according to the audience’s expectations. Maggie’s Plan lingers somewhere between realistic and absurd, but unfortunately, my hunger for more conflicts or exciting plots was not entirely satisfied.

Maggie’s Plan is now still scheduled in theatres worldwide.

“A Bigger Splash” – Luca Guadagnino

Although A Bigger Splash will only be released in Belgium on April 6th, the film premiered in Kinepolis Antwerp last Friday, on March 11th. The hall of the cinema complex was filled with impatient fans, mostly female though, because the one and only Matthias Schoenaerts was showing up together with the Italian director Luca Guadagnino (Io Sono l’Amore, 2010) to introduce the film. We still like to call Matthias ours, a Belgian actor in heart and soul,  but he spends most of his time abroad, acting in big Hollywood productions like The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper) and Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg).12821481_784537185011366_6528864467573304711_n

A Bigger Splash is a remake of the 1969 French La Piscine by Jacques Deray (with Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin!), but with a modern 00’s touch and a couple of new plotlines. Personally, I am not quite sure yet, whether I should call it a drama or a thriller. Certainty is, that it is a film replete with intrigues and sexual tension. In the Guadagnino-version, the world-famous rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) retreats for a holiday to the sunny Italian island of Pantelleria (near Sicily) to recover from a vocal cord surgery. She seeks rest together with her lover and documentary-maker Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is still fighting against an alcohol addiction. They seem perfectly happy on their own, until Harry and Penelope show up. Harry (Ralph Fiennes) is Marianne’s producer and ex-lover, Penelope his thought-provoking daughter.

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Still from “La Piscine” (Deray, 1969)

 

The actor who clearly steals the show is Ralph Fiennes, already established in Hollywood for many years, with his caricatural performance as Marianne Lane’s record producer. His acting is so over the top, what actually makes it so good, promiscuous and equally affecting. Harry is an exhibitionist alpha-male, who came to the Island with a clear purpose, namely to seduce Marianne again. The  physical and emotional attraction between them is undeniably still there. His so-called daughter Penelope is the most mysterious of them all. Their almost erotic father-daughter relationship increases the tension, but what you mostly wonder about is who she really is and why she hides essential facts for the others. (No, I won’t spoil anything!)

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The setting and cinematographic style is what makes the film so exotic and the sexual tensions so acceptable. Guadagnino spends a handful of time on showing the beautiful Italian landscapes and the glimmering sun on the island. Just like in the French Original, the swimming pool of their luxurious villa is the symbol of lust and male competition and functions as a justification of provocation. The deep blue colour of the water and the extensive dark-light contrasts throughout the film turn A Bigger Splash into a real beauty.

Guadagnino also pays attention to the local cultural heritance by shooting a scene where the 4 of them visit the local carnival of San Gaetano. That specific night out serves as a turning point, after which the couple Marianne and Paul seem to get more involved in the exhibitionist and provocative way of life of both father and daughter.536921155738_10021110_biggersplash2_large

Unfortunately, Tilda Swinton fails to convince us in the rock star episodes. They look commercial and are the least powerful of the entire film. This subplot appears to be too Hollywoodian in contrast to Guadagnino’s mainly Italian realist narrative and cinematographic style. Nonetheless, A Bigger Splash is a perfect synthesis of Hollywood and European cinema.

“Belgica” – Felix Van Groeningen

On February 28, the long anticipated feature film Belgica by Felix Van Groeningen premiered in his hometown Ghent. Fans and industry were all eager to watch this semi-autobiographical feature film, although he claims that none of the film’s aspects are based on true events and that any resemblance is coincidential. Van Groeningen grew up in Charlatan, a bar in Ghent on which Belgica is based.SHG_Belgica_15.jpg

Belgica is Felix van Groeningen’s latest and already 5th feature film (He was nominated for an Oscar with The Broken Cirle Breakdown in 2012) The film is about 2 brothers, Jo (Stef Aerts) and Frank (Tom Vermeir), who own a bar together called Belgica, where things get out of hand and they slowly, but clearly lose themselves in sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

First of all, the cast displays some of van Groeningen’s favourites, like Titus De Voogdt and Johan Heldenberg as supporting actors, but had leading parts in some of Van Groeningen’s earlier work. Stef Aerts and Tom Vermeir, who play the 2 brothers, are a perfect match, which makes their performance so much more authentic as if you they were really related.

When it comes to credibility and authenticity of his films, Van Groeningen is the ‘Master of Drama’. Belgica is entirely spoken in the Western-Flemish dialect, and it’s hard to distinguish the Western-Flemish actors from the others, like Stef Aerts, who is actually from the very east of Antwerp (Turnhout). The natural acting of the entire cast makes it hard not to sympathise with both brothers and experience how they get swept up in the Belgian nightlife. We’d like them to succeed so badly, that we cannot have mixed feelings when Frank, the oldest brother, seems to be torn apart between the Belgica and his wife (a part performed by Groeningen’s real life partner Charlotte Vandermeersch) and son. Belgica is a story about chaos, and perfectly directed chaos is what you get.

12304536_750803098386491_6446367715282654999_o-30cpb10ewwj20ufy1etkp6.jpgBelgica‘s biggest asset is definitely its soundtrack composed by the famous brothers David and Stephen Dewaele A.K.A. Soulwax.They came up with 15 vibrant and at times unsymphonic songs by fictitious bands, like The Shitz with its charismatic lead singer Davy Coppens (Boris Van Severen). All these are performing bands in the film. The Dewaele-brothers went the extra mile for this one by composing an eclectical mix of different genres ranging from acoustic rock to electro. Honestly, although not all the songs were my cup of tea, I really looked forward to the Belgica-afterparty. The music is very promising and in perfect balance with the narrative structure and atmosphere.

In addition, very remarkable is Van Groeningen’s use of colours. Whenever the party in Belgica is on, the colours are as vibrant as the film’s soundtrack, but grey and dull colours seem to take over once the mood is less optimistic, or when the scene is set at home instead of in the brother’s favourite ‘place of destruction’.

Film technically, Felix Van Groeningen has built up his own band of brothers throughout the years consisting of producer Dirk Impens (The Broken Circle Breakdown, De Helaasheid der Dingen,..), cinematographer Ruben Impens (idem), screenwriter Arne Sierens (Dagen zonder Lief) and his editor Nico Leunen (who also did Ryan Gosling’s Lost River in 2014) and their co-operation is not without impact. Van Groeningen is by far Belgium’s most influential director of his time in narrative and visual style.

Check the website of Belgica for more info and pictures.

“Spotlight” – Tom McCarthy

SPOILER-ALERT!

Spotlight tells the true story of how the  Spotlight-section of the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and its cover-up within the Bostonian Catholic Archdiocese in 2001, which shook the entire Catholic Church on a global scale. This new Hollywood production is by the hand of  director-actor Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler, 2014,..).spotlight-one-sheet

Spotlight is one of the most anticipated feature films next to Iñárritu’s The Revenant or Tarantino’s The H8teful Eight, with 6 Oscar nominations in this year’s 88th Academy Awards; namely Best Picture, Best Director, Mark Ruffalo in Best Supporting Actor, Rachel McAdams in Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

If I was asked to  describe Spotlight in just one single word, it would definitely be ‘Simplicity’. This could be found in every single aspect, like acting, editing, cinematography, setting, etc. When it comes to naturality and credibility, the film scores 100%. Frankly said,I don’t really know what entire buzz is. Yes, Spotlight indeed puts a ‘figurative’ spotlight on the scandal in the Catholic Church, which is a touchy subject, but the film felt a bit dull and actionless. When it wasn’t for the modest, humane and authentic acting performances, I would simply rank Spotlight with the endless reruns of the CSI-series we get to swallow every year again.

Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, Mean Girls) shows her natural acting skills  as the only female member of the team, called Sacha Pfeiffer. Mark Ruffalo  (Shutter Island, The Avengers) as Mike Rezendes seems properly casted because of his ever-tormented facial expressions., which are not out of place for the somewhat frustrated and hard-working Rezendes. Stand-out was Brian D’Arcy James as Matt Carroll though, with his witty manners and fatherly care taken to the upper level, when he finds out that one of the suspect priests lives just around the corner.

Unfortunately, this film has a monotonous pace, which you really had to stay focused for. The lack of action and tsunami of dialogues creates a situation of information-overload and name-throwing, without even put a face to them. Although editor Tom McArdle, who also edited McCarthy’s The Visitor in 2007, is nominated for Best Film editing, I never witnessed any peculiarities which could make Spotlight so outstanding. Also the setting was simple in that sense. Offices, court rooms,.. all of them very late 90’s.

rachel-mcadams-mark-ruffalo-brian-dg-arcy-michael-keaton-and-john-slattery-in-spotlight-cred-kerry-hayes-open-road-films_wide-a9ace4a3a9d3d271a45d19c7c220201b7656c7eb-s900Remarkable once again is the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi, who easily adapts his  work to the director’s style, but still is able to capitivate the atmosphere of the historical setting. The rather old-fashioned way of filming and use of colours (or lack of colours) reminded me of Scott Cooper’s Black Mass (2015). And guess what, its cinematography was also by the very same Takayanagi.

What kept me watching was the detailed narrative and accuracy of the features given. Could you imagine 90 accused priests in Boston since the ’70s? And they only came up with the report in 2001? Those are some details that really strike me. Hats of for the real-life journalists of the who went deep to get this case and report it in the Boston Globe in a humane and respectful way, although they involved many institutions in the controversy, namely Church and Law. The film based on these events is nonetheless too modest and not outstanding or provoking enough to be worth receiving 6 Oscar nominations.

“The Revenant” – Alejandro G. Iñárritu

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One of the most anticipated releases of 2016 is definitely The Revenant by the Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu starring Leonardo DiCaprio in its leading role. The latter won a Golden Globe last week for Best Actor. The former won 2 awards, namely Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director. The Revenant is based on a novel by Michael Punke, which is based on true events. You might also know Iñárritu from other feature films like Babel (2006), Biutiful(2010), and Birdman (2014).

The Revenant tells the story of American frontiersmen on a fur trading expedition in the 1820’s. When Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) gets mauled by a bear, he is left for dead by some of his hunting companions. From then onwards he is on his own in a journey through wilderness relying on his knowledge of nature and the language of the Indians. The story is mainly one about fellowship, revenge, love and most of all survival. You can easily put The Revenant in the same line as the biographical dramas Into The Wild (Sean Penn, 2007) or 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010).

Next to DiCaprio the film also stars Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road) as the treacherous FitzimagesJJSAYF8Ygerald, who is an opportunist liar and the Irish Domhnall Gleeson (Harry Potter & the Deathly Hollows Part II) as the reliable captain of the team. Fresh young talent is Forrest Goodluck, who plays Glass’s half-blood Indian son Hawk. The Revenant is Goodluck’s first feature film, in which he proves his ability to show authentic emotions and speak several languages (English and Caddoan). Rumours had it that part of the cast suffered from hypothermia during the shooting. In fact, the back to the roots atmosphere of the film shows us what it is to be cold and indirectly makes us shiver as we watch. I could almost feel the ice-cold wind on my back.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Sleepy Hollow) shows us the beauty of nature and in the same time its power to destroy. The film is shot partly in Canada and Argentina, to assure snowy landscapes. Lubezki catches every glaring sunbeam in the most aesthetic way. A viewer cannot be anything but moved by the peacefulness these images show in contrast to the roughness and pain these men experience.

naamloos (16)Although The Revenant is about survival-of-the-fittest in the most primitive way, some scenes may be disturbing, due to the violence and explicit skinning and eating of animals. None of them really got spared, so when you are a fundamental vegetarian or vegan, please don’t watch the 156 minutes long The Revenant, because some shots might be repelling. Iñárritu opted for the most naturalist way of representing reality. DiCaprio goes full-on in his performance, grunting, groaning, killing and guts-eating, and therefore won his award at the Golden Globes. Once again he proves himself to be an multi-talented actor on his way to an Oscar (-pretty please!)

“The Young Victoria” – Jean-Marc Vallée

naamloos (11)The Young Victoria is a British-American period drama film by the Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, and written by Julian Fellowes, which can be categorized along with other historical biopics such as Saul Dibb’s The Duchess (2008) or Shekhar Khapur’s Elizabeth (1998), but in this one the focus is not primarily on Queen Victoria’s reign, but on her private life and her romantic encounters with Prince Albert.

This 2009 film by Jean-Marc Vallée, who is also known for his award winning feature films Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Wild (2014) tells the romantic story of Victoria (Emily Blunt), the Princess of Kent, who is heiress to the throne after her uncle King William (Jim Broadbent) dies in 1837.

As we watch, we witness Victoria grow up, leading the life of a rebellious princess who tries to push herself off from her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and her adviser Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong). He secretly hopes King William will die when Victoria is still a minor, which would make her mother Regent and therefore would cause him to exert more power behind the throne. In the meantime, her uncle King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) seeks to secure an alliance between Britain and Belgium. Therefore, he sends his nephew Prince Albert of Saxen-Coburg Gotha (Rupert Friend) to seduce Victoria.

naamloos (12)When Victoria becomes Queen at the age of 18 –no regency took place – she increasingly distances herself from her mother and Sir Conroy after which the Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne becomes her adviser (after years of faithful duty to the deceased King). This part is performed by the ever-charming Paul Bettany. As the love between Victoria and Albert seems to grow, the initially powerless Albert gets the chance to exert more influence on Victoria’s decisions, which obviously clash with those of Lord Melbourne.

After a fierce argument between Victoria and Albert over parliamentary politics, Victoria is fired upon by an assassin while the couple is riding in a carriage together. Albert catches the bullet for her. This happens near the end of the film, and raises the logical question: will he survive the attack? Well, yes, of course, because that is what history teaches us, and The Young Victoria sticks to the facts and leaves no place for fictionalized story plots. Whoever had proper history classes in secondary grade should already realise by then that the film merely portrays the first turbulent years of Queen Victoria’s reign and her enduring romance with Albert. The film is yet another romantic story, like a dime a dozen unfortunately, despite the fact that it is based on true historical events. Consequently, the narrative misses some dramatic depth and tension.

Vallée uses a more or less static camera and one should watch really closely to witness any special effects – of course they do not make sense given the time period, but they do add to The Young Victoria’s cinematic value when he wants to bring attention to important relevant turning points in the narrative, such as when Prince Albert gets shot in slow motion. This is probably to stress them as key moments and heighten the tension, but it ultimately seems corny.

Vallée introduces and closes the film with title cards with historical facts. This helps us understand the historical framework around the story along with the extra-diegetic narrator, who is Victoria herself. Telling the story from her viewpoint – which is nonetheless the objective truth – makes the viewer sympathize with the young Queen-to-be.

Victoria-Albert-the-young-victoria-14637513-1280-800The Young Victoria stars an impressive cast and also gives the opportunity for fresh talent to rise, like the Dutch Michiel Huisman as Ernest of Saxen-Coburg Gotha, who now takes a leading part in The Age of Adaline (2015). The leading part of Queen Victoria is performed by the talented British actress Emily Blunt, who seems to have been born with a natural and modest air that is most appropriate when taking the role of a Queen. Therefore, she was nominated for multiple awards as Best Actress, including at the Golden Globes in 2010 and the British Independent Film Awards in 2009. A remarkable fact is that The Young Victoria won an Academy Award and a BAFTA Award in 2010 among others for its Costume Design by Sandy Powell. One might conclude that Vallée’s film was more praised for its mise en scène and props, than for its narrative.

Historical consultant Alastair Bruce, 5th Baron Aberdare was hired to make the film as historically accurate as possible, so what the audience witnesses on the screen, is supposed to be exactly what the history of the British monarchy implies. Nonetheless, The Young Victoria has been criticised for historical inaccuracies, such as the fact that Prince Albert and Ernest talk German to one another, while the royal family in Belgium used to talk French or Dutch. Despite the incredible cast and the film’s success in the running for many awards, The Young Victoria and its depiction of the romance between the two young lovers might be a bit too corny and rather tiring at moments for those who prefer a film to have a little action.

 

Sequence analysis; Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream”

Next essay is part of my academic portfolio of Uantwerpen.

In this short essay, I will try to provide a technical analysis of an interesting sequence in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. (1987). Firstly, I will give a short synopsis of this drama in order to contextualize any specific themes and ideologies, which could refer to specific techniques used for the mise en scène. After this I will analyse the chosen sequence in terms of camera techniques, sounds, light effects and so on. Therefore, I chose a sequence, which contains plenty of specific cinematic techniques.

Synopsis

The movie is set at Coney Island and is divided into 3 parts by subheadings; Summer, Fall and Winter, and tells the story of 4 characters (Harry Goldfarb and his mother Sara, Harry’s Girlfriend Marion Silver and his friend Tyron C. Love) and their relation to drugs. These subheadings symbolise the temporal progress as well as the downward spiral these 4 main characters land in.

Sara, a lonely widow, gets invited to participate in a television program and therefore starts to diet obsessively. She takes weight-loss amphetamine pills and sedatives. Her son Harry , and his friend Marion and Tyron are addicted to heroin and enter the illegal drug trade. The business flourishes and Harry invests the money in a small shop for his girlfriend Marion, who wants to become a successful designer. Summer seems to be positive for all 4 of them, all convinced to realise their dreams. In Fall Sara begins to suffer from amphetamine psychosis, and Harry, Tyrone and Marion get involved into drug-related violence. They’re no longer able to make profit out of their trade and get lost in a state of deprivation. Marion even prostitutes herself to gain some money, which additionally problematises her relationship with Harry. In Winter, where the movie reaches its dramatic climax, Sara gets committed to a psychiatric hospital, Harry’s arm gets infected by an unsanitary injection. Tyrone takes him to a hospital, after which both of them get arrested and imprisoned. Harry suffers from severe, consequently he has to get his arm amputated. In the meantime, his girlfriend Marion receives drugs in exchange for sex.

To conclude, the movie shows how the life of 4 people gets affected by drug abuse and how this leads them each individually into misery and deprivation.

Scene analysis

In order to understand next scene analysis, and to relate it to the story content, I should first shortly sum up some specific editing techniques Aronofsky uses throughout the entire movie in order to rise the dramatic effect. So for example the dream sequences, which are frequently added in the scenes. They illustrate the character’s utopian hope for a happy ending and in this way Aronofsky intercuts reality with a character’s subjective desires and fantasies. Typical for Aronofsky’s style of cinema is the overload of shots (see also the analysed fragment), which is also referred to as hip hop montage[1] or fast cutting. The average movie has around 650 cuts, Requiem for a Dream on the other hand has more than 2,000. Aronofsky uses a lot of split-screens[2] and tight close-ups. Another prominent stylistic device is time-lapse photography. As the movie progresses, the average scene length shortens until the climax, where all seems to come to its tragic end. Abovementioned techniques are all specific camera techniques. Moving on to the music of the movie, the theme song of Requiem for a Dream called Lux Aeterna not only functions as a extradiegetic element with the opening or closing credits, but is repeated throughout the entire movies. This theme is composed by Clint Marshall and performed by the Kronos Quartet and, in my opinion, enhances the dramatic effect the movie has on its audience.

The sequence of shots I analysed takes only 33 seconds of the entire movie, but conveys the spectator with plenty of information in such a short time, because of the used editing techniques. In this paragraph I would like to focus on the 4 components of the mise en scène as referred to in Pramaggiore and Wallis[1]; namely setting, lighting, composition and the human figure, and on all the specific filmic elements related to these 4. The screen shots in the attachment give a selection of the analysed sequence.

Firstly, I would like to point at the setting, which are real settings, namely the houses where the characters Marion and Sara live. Marion is in the bathroom and watches her own image in the mirror. Because of the use of specific camera angles, namely an over-the-shoulder-shot on eye-level, Aronofsky creates the effect as if the viewer is watching her through her point of view (although we in fact see her twice: Sara in real person and her reflection in the mirror). Consequently, Aronofsky pulls the viewer in and one can feel as if he experience the effect of the drugs along with her. Sara on the other hand sits in her sofa in the living room, adjacent to the kitchen. She watches the show on television, she is about to participate in. The host tries to convince his audience of eating more healthy by cutting on eating red meat. Sara, who is on a diet herself, is starving at that moment. The split screen shows Sara on eye-level and her refrigerator, which appears as an embodiment of her failure to lose weight. By analysing the setting of the sequence and its related camera techniques, I already covered the second important component of the mise en scène, namely the human figure, and more specifically the figure placement. Their proximity to the camera reinforces the attachment of the spectator to the characters.

Now let me turn to composition. Although the movie depicts the destruction of the main characters’ life, the chosen sequence shows balanced images, which are in almost perfect symmetry. In the analysed sequence only one diagonal line can be found, and that’s the one of the dollar bill used to sniff the heroin. The framing though, is rather tight (in Sara’s case even a frame within a frame) , which can still point at the characters’ isolated situation. The shot of the eye points at the moment Marion injects herself with heroin and the physical effects following afterwards. In the same sequence (but not in the screen shots) there are also close-ups shown of blood cells running faster and faster through her veins. These shots are frequently repeated and form some sort of motive throughout the movie. In the same way, the movie shots of the heroin or the dollar bill signify the symbolic importance of these props for the narrative progress of the movie. Their dominant role is made visible by the use of close-ups.

Finally, I will end this essay by focussing on the use of lighting and colour in Requiem for a Dream. The movie in its whole is dominated by grey tones (in the beginning of the movie there’s also place for some more bright hues of orange and red) and artificial (or even industrial) lighting , which creates a rather pessimistic mood, which mirrors its theme. In the analysed sequence the lighting is mostly frontally positioned or from the side, creating shadows.

To conclude this sequence analysis, I would like to point at the fact that the used editing techniques such as the tight framing, lighting, and extensive use of close-ups, all refer to the theme of the movie and the constricted lives of the main characters.

[1] Pramaggiore, M. T. and Wallis, T. 2006. Chapter 4: Mise en Scène. In: Film : A Critical Introduction. North Carolina : Pearson, 58-97

Bertolt Brecht’s Episch Theater in de hedendaagse cinema; Von Trier’s “Dogville”

Onderstaand essay is een van de examenpapers voor de opleiding Master Filmstudies en Visuele Cultuur aan de UAntwerpen.

In volgend essay zal ik trachten het theaterprincipe van Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), dat bekend staat als het Episch Theater, toe te passen op de hedendaagse cinema. Zijn theaterprincipe, dat ontstond in de problematische context van de Weimarrepubliek (1918-1932), bestaat erin het publiek te activeren en een kritische houding te doen aannemen door het gebruik van specifieke vervreemdingseffecten.

Deze methode die identificatie met de acteur vermijdt en de gewaarwording van theater als illusoir voorstelt, wordt tot op de dag van vandaag nog steeds toegepast in de cinema. Zo bijvoorbeeld bij David Lynch, Alain Resnais, Rainer Werner Fassbinder en Jean-Luc Godard. Om theater en film in deze context aan elkaar te relateren zal ik in de eerste plaats kort analyseren van waaruit het principe van Brecht’s Episch Theater vertrekt, om nadien te benaderen hoe deze als functie kan dienen voor de film als medium. In dit essay zou ik meer specifiek de focus willen leggen op het werk van Deens filmregisseur Lars von Trier (1956-…). Ik zal trachten te analyseren in hoeverre zijn films beïnvloed zijn door het episch theaterprincipe en daarbij vooral Dogville, een film uit 2003, als exemplarisch voor Brechtiaanse cinema willen benaderen. Deze film werkt niet enkel filmtechnisch vervreemdend op het publiek, maar refereert ook thematisch naar werken van Bertolt Brecht.

Theoretisch kader: Brecht’s Episch Theater in de cinema

brecht1Bertolt Brecht’s bekende principe van het Episch Theater laat zich plaatsen binnen de context van de Duitse Weimarrepubliek (1918-1932) en bijgevolg een periode van politieke bewaking en censuur op alle culturele gebieden. De media werd gebruikt als propagandamateriaal, waardoor men als het ware de heersende ideologie aan het publiek oplegde. Binnen de filmstudies kan men Bertolt Brecht en zijn theaterprincipe relateren aan de Frankfurterschule (met vertegenwoordigers zoals Adorno en Horkheimer). Beïnvloed door het Marxisme was hij ervan overtuigd dat de cultuurindustrie in de Weimarrepubliek louter functioneerde als instrument van het kapitalisme. Mediaconsumptie, en dus ook theater, werkte als verdovend en als legitimatie van dit kapitalisme en de politieke ideologie van de Republiek, die het publiek als realiteit aannam. Het publiek nam een uiterst passieve positie in en daarop bood Brecht een passend weerwoord (hoewel hij veel stukken buiten Duitsland schreef wegens een dreigende juridische vervolging).

Het Episch Theater berust algemeen gezien op het principe dat theater slechts illusie is; het is geënsceneerd en mag niet als waarheid aangenomen worden. Opdat het publiek zich niet zou identificeren met personages en zich bewust zou blijven van het illusoire (en dus geleid zou worden door zijn ratio en niet door emoties) ontwierp hij specifieke vervreemdingstechnieken zoals directe aanspreking van het publiek, onderbreking door liederen en dans, het zichtbare veranderen van decors enzovoort. Brecht wil het passieve publiek activeren door het artificiële van theater te benadrukken en het bijgevolg aanzetten tot het innemen van een kritische positie, inclusief tegenover de maatschappelijke context en de politieke situatie. Brecht zelf heeft ook enkele filmrealisaties op zijn palmares, zoals Kuhle Wampe, waarin de vervreemding gerealiseerd wordt door montagetechnieken[1].

In de moderne cinema vindt men hier nog steeds sporen van terug, weliswaar vaak enkel formeel. Zo zal niet elke film die Brechtiaanse stijlkenmerken vertoont eenzelfde ideologische bijklank hebben die kenmerkend was voor het originele Episch Theater. Deens filmregisseur Lars von Trier kan gerelateerd worden aan Brecht, maar wegens de lengte van dit essay zal ik me beperken tot het aantonen in hoeverre zijn meesterwerk Dogville (2003) zowel formeel als intertekstueel op Brecht’s theaterprincipe berust.

Toepassing: Lars von Trier’s Dogville

Dogville is de eerste film in van Trier’s trilogie USA-A Land of Opportunities (Manderlay vormt het 2e deel (2005) gevolgd door Washington, dat nog niet uitgebracht is). De gehele trilogie vormt een kritiek op Amerikaanse hypocrisie, alsook op de Hollywoodfilmindustrie, die films maakt over andere landen over de hele wereld en zo pretendeert de dominerende cultuur te kennen en begrijpen, maar deze in van Trier’s ogen slechts onderwerpt aan de Amerikaanse dominante politieke en culturele ideologie[2]. Deze visie kan geïllustreerd worden door volgend citaat uit Linda Badley’s boek Lars von Trier, dat tevens een mooi aanknopingspunt vormt voor de verdere analyse van Dogville als Brechtiaanse film:

…and the film becomes a lesson in the economy of desire and the sadomasochistic relations of power (106).

 Ook filmtechnisch vertoont Dogville karakteristieken van de Brechtiaanse cinema. De film is als het ware opgenomen als zijnde theaterstuk, letterlijk op scene gefilmd. Het dorp is met krijt uitgetekend en decorstukken die dienen om de verschillende huizen af te bakenen zijn praktisch afwezig of te doorbreken. Dogville kan op deze manier als soort geteleviseerd of filmisch theater beschouwd worden. Ook structureel is de film zoals een theaterstuk in scènes of hoofstukken onderverdeeld. Het bestaat namelijk uit  9 hoofdstukken en een proloog, die telkens van elkaar afgescheiden worden door een inleidende tekst die aangeeft wat in het volgende hoofdstuk zal gebeuren.

Inhoudelijk behandelt Dogville het verhaal van Grace (Nicole Kidman), een jonge vrouw die uitgebuit wordt, en zelfs fysiek misbruikt, door de corrupte bevolking van een geïsoleerd Amerikaans mijnersdorpje in Colorado in de jaren ’30. Grace biedt haar hulp aan bij allerlei klusjes in ruil om te mogen onderduiken. Intertekstueel en thematisch refereert Dogville naar Brecht’s bekende stuk Die Dreigroschenoper (1931) en meer bepaald naar de ballade Seeräuber Jenny, over een zeeroversbruid. Dit lied behandelt de thematiek van wraak en de onderdrukte vrouw die de macht grijpt, zoals deze in de slotscène van Dogville ook aan bod komt[3]. Aan het einde van de film blijkt Grace gezocht te worden door haar eigen vader, die ze ontvluchtte wegens zijn wreedheid. Als hij ten tonele verschijnt biedt hij haar de keuze met hem terug huiswaarts te keren en Grace neemt wraak op de bewoners van Dogville door het dorp in brand te steken. Zo benadrukt Dogville de onmogelijkheid tot verandering van de maatschappij; het kwaad zit in de mens ingebakken en dit is onomkeerbaar De aanvankelijk ‘goede’ Grace keert haar eigen normen en waarden de rug toe en neemt dezelfde positie in als de ‘slechte’ dorpsbewoners, waardoor Dogville zich aan het einde opwerpt als moreel vraagstuk (deze thematiek kan ook gerelateerd worden aan Brecht’s stuk Der Gute Mensch von Szechuan)[4].

brechtAls laatste zal ik nog enkele specifieke vervreemdingseffecten die Lars von Trier in Dogville gebruikt willen vermelden. Zo bijvoorbeeld de voice-over van John Hurt, die de rol van verteller aanneemt, maar verder niet in beeld komt. Het gebruik van een podium als setting creëert zoals reeds vermeld het effect bij de kijker niet in de film en situatie betrokken te worden, maar deze neemt het geheel eerder waar als soort ‘kijkkast’. Ook het muziekgebruik werkt vervreemdend in die zin dat de hele film gedomineerd wordt door de klassieke muziek van Vivaldi en Pergolesi, maar bij de aftiteling hoort men plots het fel contrasterende Young Americans van David Bowie ( tevens een maatschappijkritisch lied)[5].

Conclusie

Het Episch Theater van Bertolt Brecht oefent tot op de dag van vandaag niet enkel grote invloed uit op het theater, maar tevens ook in andere culturele velden zoals de cinema. In dit essay heb ik Brecht’s theaterprincipe toegepast op de moderne cinema van Deens filmregisseur Lars von Trier en dit door specifiek te focussen op de film Dogville als representatief voorbeeld van Brechtiaanse cinema. Zowel thematisch als filmtechnisch vertoont deze film gelijkenissen met Brecht en het concept van Verfremdung, zoals deze door Brecht geïntroduceerd werd als middel om een maatschappijkritische positie te kunnen innemen.

[1] Jovanovic, Nena (2011). “Montage and Theatricality as Sources of Estrangement; A Tendency in Contemporary Brechtian Cinema”. Theatre Symposium, 19, 114.
[2] Wikipedia. (2013). Lars von Trier. Geraadpleegd op 17 december 2013 via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lars_von_Trier
[3] Badley, Linda. Lars von Trier. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2011, 101.
[4] Koutsourakis, Angelos (2008). “The Crisis of Identity: The Negative Dialectics of History in Lars von Trier’s Europa Trilogy”. Communications from the International Brecht Society, 37, 139-140
[5] Badley, Lars von Trier, 103.

 

 

“Rosemary’s Baby”-Roman Polanski : The abject theory of Julia Kristeva

rb1Women don’t always play a noble or powerful role in film productions. In horror productions, the female lead can either stay alive as ‘the final girl’ or can be portrayed as some kind of monster. The latter characterization ties in with Julia Kristeva’s famous concept of ‘the abject’, the idea that anything that deviates from the ordinary or threatens common life – in this case, a woman in the eyes of a man – can be regarded as ‘abject’, or repugnant.

Kristeva, a Bulgarian-born French philosopher, first wrote about the ‘abject’ in the 80s. What makes a woman ‘abject’ is the patriarchal association of the feminine with blood and other body fluids (i.e., menstruation blood), that make her different from her male counterpart and turn her into ‘the other’. This idea and the horror genre are closely related, partly because of some striking social changes since the 60’s, such as the rise of feminism and the rejection of patriarchal power.

As Robin Wood says in Barbara Creed’s book Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine, “one might say that the true subject of the horror is the struggle for recognition of all that our society represses oroppresses.”

A film to which this concept fits perfectly is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, released in 1968. Based on the bestseller by Ira Levin, the film was Paramount Pictures’ first horror blockbuster, and won multiple awards including a Golden Globe for lead actress Mia Farrow.

rb2In the film, housewife Rosemary (Farrow) and her husband Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes), an actor on the verge of a breakthrough, buy themselves an apartment in The Bramford, New York. They befriend their rather eccentric neighbours Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), who look innocent but soon reveal themselves to be a meddlesome couple who want to control every aspect of Rosemary’s life.

It is when Rosemary decides she wants to have a baby that aspects of Kristeva’s abject “monstrous-feminine”start coming into play. On the night which Rosemary and Guy have chosen to conceive, Rosemary faints after eating an unpleasant chocolate mousse given to her by Minnie. We then witness a dream sequence in which Rosemary is raped by a demon with fiery eyes. Although this is a dream, Rosemary nonetheless wakes up again with scratches on her back, after which Guy confesses to have had sex with her while unconscious so that they could conceive.

Rosemary then suffers a particularly gruesome pregnancy, which brings the perceived horror of the female experience to life. Kristeva’s reasoning that the female figure herself – known as ‘the other’- is seen as different from her male counterpart is embodied in Rosemary’s pregnancy. Her deteriorating health is used to disgust the audience; she loses weight, feels serious pain and even craves raw meat.

Rosemary’s unusual suffering leads her to confide in her friend Hutch (Maurice Evans), who gives her a book about witchcraft. In this book, Rosemary finds out that Roman Castevet is an anagram for Steven Marcato, a former Satanist who lived in The Bramford. Rosemary suspects her dear neighbours, and her own Guy, to be part of a religious sect who are trying to take her baby as a trophy.

rbWhen the audience learns this, Rosemary no longer seems much of a “monstrous-feminine”at all. Instead of being repulsed by Rosemary, the viewer experiences her pain as their own. One can clearly imagine her fear for the satanic conspiracy against herself and her offspring.

Despite this, the idea of the abject remains relevant to the film’s themes, as it’s not only the woman who is considered to be ‘the other’- her unborn child also serves as a threat, because as Kristeva would argue, pregnancy is something ‘alien’to men. This alienness is accentuated by the fantasy elements that drive her difficult pregnancy, such as the strange drinks and the necklace with tannis root that Minnie gives her. But although Rosemary’s complaints result from supernatural powers, they still resemble how some women experience pregnancy in reality.

By the end of the film, Rosemary’s presumptions are only confirmed, when she is disgusted by her newborn son Adrian’s physical appearance and the fact that he is the seed of Satan. Eventually her mother instinct conquers all repugnancy and she accepts her role as a caring mother for Adrian as long as she does not have to become part of the Castevets’ religious sect.

This is an example of Rosemary’s autonomy against the patriarchal oppression; throughout the film, Rosemary is the one who makes decisions for herself, although she first seems to subject herself to the established norms and values (‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen’) and consciously seems to opt for the life as a housewife. She constantly seems in want of Guy’s permission, although she eventually does as she pleases, such as cutting her hair, calling a doctor for a second opinion, and so on.

Rosemary’s Baby seems to confirm and simultaneously deny any possible similarities between the feministic ideology and its envisioned female rights of self-determination, by Rosemary’s choice to still be a loving mother for her demon son. On one hand, she seems to accept the patriarchal norms and values of our western society by accepting the nurturing role, but on the other hand she is an autonomous – and therefore powerful – woman by staying away from the ritual activities of the sect in which her husband is involved.

It is by the above analysis of Rosemary’s maternal behavior, which is not deviant from what is regarded as natural, that I cannot fully reject nor confirm Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject monstrous feminine. Multiple aspects of her theory can be applied to the film, such as the demon baby and her unusual physical suffering, but the surrounding negative atmosphere can easily be countered by her maternal instinct and autonomy.

 Check the trailer on YouTube.

For more information about Julia Kristeva’s abject-theory, check Wikipedia.

“Hard Sun” – Canyon Prince

hs1Hard Sun is a drama written and directed in by Canyon Prince and the first feature film production for Two Guys and a Film, Inc. Although the film probably won’t make it to big commercial success, it nonetheless was nominated for Best Picture at the Carmel International Film Festival in the United States. That is also where its lead actress Robyn Buck won the award for Best Performance playing Ruth and John Bain was nominated for Best Supporting Performance for playing her younger brother Riley, who has Fragile X syndrome.

Multiple story plots seem to intertwine in Hard Sun, but it eventually all results in the one confronting notion that there is only room for one in life, and that is Ruth in this case. In short, the film depicts the life of this young woman (Robyn Buck), who becomes the primary guardian of her brother Riley (John Bain) after her parents’ death. Also, her grandfather (Myron Natwick) lives with them. But at the same time, she attempts to keep her life in balance by combining these responsibilities with a job as a waitress and her own growing romance with the caring Josh (Ben Begley).

The title of the film may refer to the sunny weather of the southern state where the film is shot. Sometimes you can almost see and even feel the simmering heat radiating from your television screen. But it might also point at the hard time Ruth and Riley have underneath this sun and the apparently not-so-beautiful and peaceful lives they have together. Ruth struggles with what she wants to achieve in life and what she is actually capable of while taking full responsibility of her brother. She gets confronted with some strong inner struggles. Their grandfather, for example, tries to push her to get Riley into a care centre, and at her job she constantly gets confronted by her alcoholic ex-boyfriend Randy (William Stamey), who becomes manic and physically abusive after a couple of drinks.

As a viewer, you sympathize with Ruth and feel the deepest respect for how she copes with her sorrows and ‘burdens’. The sometimes blurred and faded visuals as well as the tactical use of silence and soundtrack add up to the power of the message Prince wants to convey. Although the focus of the film lies on Ruth, he makes the audience encounter Riley’s sensory experiences.

hsThe performances in Hard Sun are not all screen worthy, unfortunately. The lead actors Robyn Buck and John Bain definitely stand out, but their talent gets counterbalanced by the unrealistic, and almost overacted performances by some of the teenage extras and the rather weak attempt of William Stamey to play the role of a ‘sensitive’ alcoholic.

When it comes to drama, Hard Sun is full of it, and at some times, unfortunately, it seems that the film becomes a big pile of sorrow, instead of carrying some notions of optimism or moral lesson. And when you think things couldn’t get more worse, they actually do.

Also regarding Hard Sun’s sense of reality and its approach of the controversial medical condition Riley suffers from, the viewer might still have some questions. Nowhere in the film is the name of Riley’s condition mentioned. Once in a while he is referred to as ‘retarded’, but when people don’t know anything about the Fragile X syndrome, you would rather say that he has a very severe form of autism.

After doing some research on the film and the Fragile X syndrome, I do have to confess that actor John Bain hits the sensitive spot with his performance, since he does not suffer from the condition himself. Fragile X syndrome – or FXS – is a genetic condition that causes intellectual and behavioural disabilities, which go along with various physical characteristics such as large ears, flat feet, hyper-flexible joints and ear infections (which might explain why Riley wears headphones all the time). Behavioural characteristics could include social anxiety and poor eye contact, which is also witnessed with Riley in the film. Nonetheless, I consider FXS a rather unknown medical condition that truly deserves some more public attention. In that sense, Hard Sun sets the example.

Check the trailer on YouTube.