Oct 17, 2009

24FPS at LFF: Day 1

DIR: Gaspar Noe
CAST: Nathaniel Brown, Paz De La Huerta,
Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander

Gaspar Noe’s last feature film, IRREVERSIBLE, was a shock to the system; a caustic masterpiece that was, despite its brilliance, impossible to recommend. Enter the Void is a desperate, grasping, attempt to make something equally shocking and controversial.

Enter the Void, Noe told us before the screening, is about life, about death. Well, yes, that’s what it wants to be about, but in striving for profundity Noe finds only pretension. The film is seen almost entirely through the eyes of Oscar (Brown), a young American living in Tokyo and working as a small time drug dealer. Early in the film Oscar is shot and killed by Police, and for the rest of the epic running time he floats freely through the world, watching his life pass before his eyes and looking on as the lives of his sister (De La Huerta) and friends (Roy, Alexander) go on. There is actually an interesting central idea at the centre of Enter the Void, a film about the process of death, and the out of body experience that may go with it, is genuinely intriguing but it is an idea that belongs to a short film. Enter the Void lasts 160 unbelievably long and tedious minutes.

I can’t deny that Enter the Void is, visually speaking, the work of a master filmmaker. It looks quite unlike anything else I’ve seen, and the POV construction is realistic even down to the fact that the camera regularly ‘blinks’. For the first 20 minutes I was dazzled by the visuals, but then you start to realise that there is nothing but dazzle, that this construction really has no purpose. Noe’s shot selection gets really irritating after Oscar is dead. For the next 140 minutes half your time is spent at ceiling level, looking down at people and the other half is spent just behind Oscar’s head. Add to that more neon than you’ll find in 20 Joel Schmacher Batman films, a constantly moving camera and enough strobe lighting to induce epilepsy in a previously healthy person and you’ve got a film that can be genuinely challenging to watch. I’m not against that on the whole, but there has to be a point. Noe’s visuals end up feeling like a very talented film student showing off. Just like the film’s thematic content the visuals seem to bellow, “look at me, look at me”.

Noe’s screenplay is thin, and his characters are all impossible to care about because we never really get to know much about any of them (even Oscar, whose whole life we see through his eyes) and even if we did they are all such terrible people that there is no reason to care about them anyway. The acting also happens to be pretty awful. The worst offender, just as he was in the absolutely appalling Tormented, is Olly Alexander, who can’t even say, “I’m sorry” in a way that sounds vaguely human. He honestly sounds so unnatural that I find it hard to believe that he understands the words he’s saying.

Cyril Roy may actually not understand some of his dialogue, and his thickly accented English lacks any emotion. The only exceptions to each of these complaints are the two actresses playing Oscar’s sister Linda. As an adult Paz De La Huerta gives her a moving pathos and makes her search for connection in an unfamiliar city, especially after the death of her brother, a really genuine quality. However she, and everyone else in the film, is outshone by Emily Alyn Lind, whose work as the young Linda gets to places of deep, searing emotion that seem so real they are almost uncomfortable to see in a child.

With IRREVERSIBLE Gaspar Noe offended and shocked a lot of his audience. I’ve seen people walk out of films before, but when I saw IRREVERSIBLE several ran out of the cinema. Enter the Void is almost goading its audience, begging us to find it offensive and extreme. I didn’t, I just found it tiresome and adolescent. At times Enter the Void feels like a film by a teenager who has just discovered girls. How else to explain the repeated shots of naked women - Linda, both in her job as a stripper and just sitting around naked; Oscar’s mother, who is often seen breastfeeding him or Linda; Oscar’s older lover (a terrible Sara Stockbridge), who seems to exist purely to be a topless plot device. This impression is only reinforced by the utterly pointless explicitness of the film’s last 20 minutes. We drift through the hotel love, watching an endless succession of couples having sex, much of it very evidently hardcore.  This sequence culminates with Linda and Alex (Roy), whose sex scene ends in a close up, from the inside of Linda’s vagina, of Alex fucking her. Never mind that the final result of this sequence was already done in, of all things, the opening sequence of Look Who’s Talking, it’s completely pointless. It doesn’t tell us anything except that Gaspar Noe has a desperate need to shock.

Initially intriguing and technically dazzling though it may be, Enter the Void is a huge step backwards for a man who had previously threatened to become cinema’s foremost provocateur. This is a pretentious, pointless, masturbatory film, that smacks of desperation at every turn.

DIR: Yorgos Lanthimos
CAST: Hristos Passalis, Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni,
Christos Stergioglou, Anna Kalaitzidou, Michelle Valley

The one problem with seeing as many movies as I do? I’m almost never surprised. Well, Dogtooth took care of that for me. I really have never seen anything quite like it.

Not everyone is going to warm to Yorgos Lanthimos’ third film. There are only two types of review on IMDB; those that dismiss it as a total waste of time, and those proclaiming it a masterpiece. Dogtooth is rather standard in form. In fact it is almost textbook, if minimalist, filmmaking. What really makes this film so strange, and as a result so beguiling, is its story and the way it creates an entirely believable world all of its own. The film centres on a family; Mother and Father (Valley and Stergioglou), and three children who all appear to be between mid teens and mid twenties. Only the father is ever allowed to leave the house. The parents have forced their children to live in a hermetically sealed world, which stops at the large fence surrounding their property. The only person allowed into their world from the outside is Christina (Kalaitzidou), a security guard from the father’s workplace, who he has engaged to teach his son (Passalis) about sex, practically.

From this odd starting point Dogtooth builds a truly strange world. It’s a slightly formless film, with little narrative drive and no exposition - we discover this family’s way of life by being plunged headlong into it. In the absence of an overarching story what we have is a series of scenes that almost seem like vignettes, but which build piece by piece into a compelling whole. Because the children (who, like their parents, are never named) never go outside they spend much of their time playing. The games are truly bizarre, and always competitive. At one point the elder daughter (Papoulia), who appears to be the family doctor, even though all her information about the body is wrong, announces that she’s got a new anaesthetic, and proposes that she and her younger sister (Tsoni) both take some and the first to wake up ‘wins’. Like much of the film this scene has a truly disquieting undertone, and because events play out so against the grain of social norms you never know where Dogtooth is going to go next. In an age of movies that you can predict almost every beat of by just looking at the poster, this is truly refreshing.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ direction is formal, chilly, and somewhat distant. Shots are often very composed, even theatrical at times. Yet, because of the peculiar atmosphere in which his film takes place, this approach seems entirely natural, and a perfect fit for the material. Another thing that might be off putting is the acting. The performances of the actors playing the children are very stilted and unnatural; their tones have an unnatural evenness, an almost robotic air. You have to remember, though, what it is they are playing. When you accept that these are people who have never been outside the grounds of their home, only ever seen one person from the outside, know little of film, TV or music and have spent a lifetime being deliberately misinformed by their parents, the performance style too seems completely appropriate, and it begins to dawn that these are in fact three brilliant pieces of acting. The forced way in which the children relate to each other, and especially to Christina, the confusion with which they greet the unfamiliar (see an horrific scene with a cat) and the slightly robotic way they do certain things (a truly odd dance scene, for example), all these things and more combine to make up a compellingly realistic portrayal of these rather unique people.

The only concession to standard plotting comes rather late in the day, with the revelation that when the children lose their ‘dogtooth’ (the first incisor) they will be judged mature enough to leave the nest. This information comes back around in a viscerally painful ending, which is perfectly executed by Lanthimos. He demonstrates an admirable willingness to leave us with questions, leave us wanting to know more, and yet the film isn’t unsatisfying. Dogtooth is a strange and haunting piece of work, one that you’ll be going over in your head long after its abrupt finish.

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