White, Red and Topkapi

Das weiße Band, Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon, a German Children’s Story, Michael Haneke, 2009)

Topkapi (Julius Dassin, 1964)

Red Joan (Trevor Nunn, 2018)

The White Ribbon has the same slightly frustrating and unnerving feel as Happy End, this time set in Germany (or possibly Austria) in the year leading up to World War One. An unnamed teacher (played by Christian Friedel) narrates (Ernst Jacobi) his memory of a time in a small village, where the pastor (Burghart Klaußner) fills the children with fears of sin and damnation, forcing the guilty parties (including his own children) to wear white ribbons as a symbol of wrongdoing. This seems to invite wrongdoing — an attempt to kill the doctor, vandalism, masturbation, violent revenge — and presumably is building a narrative that will lead to the Second World War. The right people aren’t necessarily punished.

Meanwhile, Topkapi is a much lighter confection — for which Peter Ustinov won his second Academy Award. Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) and Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) hatch a plan to steal a treasure from a museum in Istanbul. Simpson (Ustinov) is meant to be a patsy, but gets recruited into the scheme. There’s some odd fourth wall breaking, especially at the beginning, and Mercouri, presumbaly not acting in her own language, can’t quite carry the film. Schell, meanwhile, is handsome in a way I’d never noticed before, knowing him better for The Black Hole (1979). But Ustinov steals every scene he is in and the whole thing is almost a dry run for The Italian Job, with a less clever ending. I really ought to read Eric Ambler one of these days.

I watched Topkapi knowing nothing about it — it popped up on BBC iPlayer. This led me to Red Joan, which takes the real story of the exposure of an old woman, Melita Norwood, as a Soviet spy. Here she is Joan Smith (Judi Dench), initially defended by her son Nick Stanley (Ben Miles, who I keep confusing with Ben Miller), arrested for sixty years earlier leaking of atomic secrets and occasionally has to look like she has indigestion so we can flashback to 1949 and Sophie Cookson being Young Joan. The politics is frankly botched and the sexism of the the 1940s is a little underplayed. Dench is always worth watching — and Iris did a more interesting double casting and flashback (although Kate Winslet was still less interesting). 

If You’re Happy and You Know it

Happy End (Michael Haneke, 2017)

On a scale of 1 to to Von Trier, this is about a seven.

The Laurent family run a formerly construction firm near Calais and in the second sequence, a long shot from a security camera, we see a collapse of earth next to a huge set of foundations, complete with a Portaloo falling into the abyss. We are already on the edge, having seen smart phone footage of Eve Laurent’s mother in a bathroom and apparently taking sedatives, and of Eve (Fantine Harduin) doping and possibly killing her pet hamster.

Eve goes to stay with her father Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) and his new wife Anaïs (Laura Verlinden), elderly grandfather Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and aunt Anne (Isabelle Huppert). The Laurent family is in crisis — Georges wants to die, Thomas is having an affair, Anne is considering marriage to Lawrence Bradshaw (the as-always splendid Toby Jones) and Laurent family firm manager Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is out of his deoth and drinking too heavily.

Haneke expects us to fill in a lot of the gaps — he likes filming from a distance, softening the suicide attempts and violence, sometimes letting us imagine it. There are skips in time where we have to infer events. And Thomas’s sexting is almost illegible, given the tiny surtitles, although that might be as well.

There are other lacunae — the class positioning of the Laurent’s servants, Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari) is fairly obvious, but the role of the illegal migrants in the Jungle camp at Calais seems underdeveloped. There’s something here about white, upper middle class privilege, but it ends up more to Anne’s favour and Thomas’s detriment than might be helpful. Are these the same people that Georges has talked to in a long shot, a moment tinged with potential violence as that’s the filmic language of Happy End.

The title is of course ironic, or at least ambiguous, as those of us who have seen Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) or even La Bonheur (Happiness, 1965) can attest. But perhaps that’s all too obvious.

A Short Love About Film

Krótki film o miłości (A Short Film About Love, Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1988)

Young language scholar and postal worker Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) hides from Miss Poland in a room of his godmother’s (Stefania Iwinska) flat, obsessively using the telescope on his desk to spy on the older Magda (Grażyna Szapolowska) who lives in the opposite block. He steals her mail, sends her fake notifications about money orders arriving, silent calls her and even becomes her milkman.

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Ida Thought

Ida (Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)

I somehow missed Pawlikowski’s Cold War (2018) by blinking at an inopportune moment, but  I remember enjoying his Margate-set, faintly post-apocalyptic immigrant drama Last Resort (2000) with Dina Korzun and Paddy Considine. There I might have reached for Ken Loach and Lindsay Anderson, but here there is a feel of Tarkovsky without quite so much striving for poetry, in glorious black and white. Continue reading →

Manic But No Dream Girl

Pixie (Barnaby Thompson, 2020)

There is a great film in here trying to get out — but it just throws too much into it. This isn’t the first two men and a woman crime caper movie — it’s a long time since I saw it, but Shooting Fish springs to mind — and its rural Irish/Northern Irish location gave it a feel of some of the films Channel 4 made in the 1980s. Musically, it wants to be a western, especially of the western variety, but the caption Once Upon a Time in the West of Ireland gag is a one off and risks being mistaken as the film’s actual title.

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Fathers and Sons

My Rembrandt (Oeke Hoogendijk, 2019)

Rembrandt Let the Little Children Come to MeThere’s a telling moment early on in this documentary, when Jan Six discusses Rembrandt‘s portraits of his son Titus over the years: I’ll do it for you Dad, but on my own terms.

(I paraphrase.)

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Watching Paint Dry

Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma, 2019)

Some point after 1725, the artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned by a Milan-born countess (Valeria Golino) to paint the portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), whom she intends to marry off to a Milanese nobleman after the death of her elder daughter. Héloïse, formerly a novice at a nunnery, has other ideas and has already worn out a (male) painter. Marianne must pretend to be a companion, and paint in secret. Continue reading →

A Family of Charlatans

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)

This was on my list to see since I first caught the trailer – a narrative of a young working class student becoming a tutor to an upper middle class girl which was clearly going to take a right turn into horror territory. I caught up with it after the Oscar win (a win that apparently means a broken system has been fixed) and it was surprisingly or unsurprisingly full.

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