The Last Mistress

Catherine Breillat, known for stark, provocative art-house films, turns to costume drama. And she brings a little of her previous style to the genre, particularly in the cinematography, which avoids soft or filtered light for brilliant, bright 'real' colour. Breillat says she was drawn to the material because the author of the original 19th century novel challenged the mores of his day, while also living with the guilt imposed by a Catholic society. That struggle between yielding to desire and living with sin seems to be the motivating force of the film.

Breillat casts the libertine young – he's supposed to be 30 but Fu'ad Aït Aattou was in his early 20s when he got the part. Asia Argento is also probably too young – the film (and book) literally translates as 'The Old Mistress' in French. But Breillat was looking for a rock n roll dimension to the character of the courtesan, and Argento certainly comes with an insouciance that tears right through the mannered performances of all who surround her – slouching, smoking, grimacing like Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow. Aattou is a model, and is mostly there to look like a Renaissance boy – big lips, big eyes, tousled hair. He's there to be ogled as much as to act.

The film is framed by the libertine telling the grandmother of his betrothed about his 10-year love affair with a courtesan, and there's certainly something of Breillat in the kind, accepting matriarch listening to the sexual liaisons of a beautiful youth. But Breillat also identifies with Aattou's character, and his death-defying passion for Argento. Aattou takes a bullet for her, and at the end of the film she begs him to shoot her if he cannot continue their relationship. This image of violent penetration is an obvious stand-in for the depth of their obsession with each other, although the love-making scenes are rather languid, as if they are both in the middle of a heroin kick.

Aattou's bride is a blond, chaste beauty who is horrified by sex, but that seems to be a turn-on for Aattou, who portrays himself as a genuine lover rather than a duplicitous rake. He is torn between the respectability of a traditional marriage in which the husband is the head of the wife (as the priest intones during the wedding) and being a slave in Argento's boudoir. Interestingly, Breillat isn't particularly interested in the pleasure he receives during his sessions with Argento – her pleasure is the focus instead. Aattou is either dominant or submissive, but there isn't really an option between the two, or a chance to trade roles in a contented, healthy relationship.

Perhaps Breillat's point is that the two sides are mirror images of each other at a time when religion warped human sexuality into sadistic or masochistic forms. Or perhaps she thinks there's no middle ground, and women are just there to conquer or be conquered.


The Eel

It's interesting to have Imamura's clinical documentarian eye turn to melodrama. What you get is still pretty raw – there's drunken scuffles, mental illness, sexual harassment, an attempted rape, an attempted suicide and a pretty toxic financial entanglements. All of those things make sense from the director of The Insect Woman. But while that film was based on a real story the director gleaned from a woman he met and interviewed, The Eel is based on a novel. It therefore has structure, and its metaphors and symbols are denser, if not particularly subtle.

The film is bookended by two violent scenes. The first is bloody and ethereal, almost out of an Argento serial killer film, with blood spraying the camera. The main character Yamashita discovers his wife in bed with another man, and butchers her with a knife. He gives himself over to the police and serves an eight-year prison sentence before being released on parole with a pet eel as a companion. Yamashita prefers the company of the silent and obedient eel to that of people, who have the annoying habit of not doing what he wants. Perhaps prison sent him loopy. Or perhaps the pathology was always there, and his wife was murdered because of it. The film is about Yamashita learning to embrace other people and their messy lives. He lets go of the eel and his own solipsism when he becomes a member of a community.

The film begins with shots of office blocks and Yamashita at work. This is a different kind of prison, and Imamura suggests that a move away from the big city is the first step towards rehabilitation. The film is laden with further symbols and contrasts. After his horrific knife-work, Yamashita trains as a barber, almost as a way to learn to keep his blades under control. This is a not-too-subtle nod to the sexual repression Yamashita imposes on himself, as well as his sense of sexual inadequacy. He refuses to use a spear to catch eels with his fisherman friend, preferring to lure them into a long tube – a feminine rather than masculine way of killing things.

It's good that the romantic interest Keiko has also had enough of sexually rapacious exploitative men, finding the sullen but protective Yamashita the one safe harbour in stormy weather. She also lures him in with bento boxes while he's out fishing, underlining Yamashita's identification with the solitary eel that refuses to bite. The final moment of violence in the film is a chaotic brawl in which she accidentally hits Yamashita over the head, and then smashes the tank of his pet eel, setting it free. This is shot in the clear light of day, and it feels real rather than hallucinatory. It's about life breaking in and purging the demons that set in when you spend too long chasing a paycheck in a soulless megalopolis.


Solo: A Star Wars Story

It's a shame this thing bombed when going up against Infinity War, because it's an enjoyable space heist / western and exceeded my low expectations. Solo is a trainee cowboy who learns how to ride his first spaceship, embark on his first train robbery, and generally cross and double cross with the big bad sheriffs of the universe. There is even a hint of colonised Amerindians and enslaved robots. Both groups get the chance to cast off their chains because of Solo's shenanigans, which means the film doesn't avoid reiterating a white saviour complex. The way the mute oppressed fuel refiners are depicted is particularly cringey.

That aside, this is a lot of fun. Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover have the tricky task of impersonating the performances of other actors, but apart from a few ticks they settle into their own groove, for which we should be grateful. More interesting than either of them is Woody Harrelson's grizzled veteran shyster Beckett, and Emilia Clarke as the ambiguous Qi'ra, both of whom have to make their own compromises with the powers that be. I'm kinda hoping to see more of Qi'ra, and Solo leaves open the possibility of an appearance in other standalone Star Wars stories. I have a hunch that although they may not be as successful as the new trilogy, these one-offs may end up being better films.


Gave a bit of thought about why Qi'ra was such an intriguing character over the week. She's there ostensibly as the love interest, but the expectation is sent up by her decision not to follow Solo at the end of the film, and instead join the bad guys. That choice highlights the fact that she is a woman trapped by other men, and that includes Solo. There's an intriguing bit of symbolism added to this. Han Solo has a lucky charm of two dice on a chain which he gives to Qi'ra at the beginning of the film. When we see her next, she is an employee and possible lover of Dryden Vos, who dispatches underlings with a double-headed laser knife. At the end of the film, Qi'ra upgrades Vos to Darth Maul, who lights up his double-bladed lightsabre to show off what a great guy he is to work for. Qi'ra gives Solo back his trinket. He's unreliable, like his dice – and his luck. The red weapons are more deadly, but also more powerful. They hold out the prospect of her being her own woman.


Tale of Tales

This is right up my street – baroque, grotesque fairy tales with astonishing attention to detail and with the special effects dialled right down. Guillermo del Toro would be proud of the sets and costumes, but Tale of Tales is less controlled than a Del Toro film, where ideas are carefully explicated. Matteo Garrone is more relaxed on set, happy as he says to follow his gut.

The film is an adaptation of a 17th century collection of Italian fairy tales that inspired the Brothers Grimm. They are early, more adult versions of the child-friendly stories we're familiar with. Garrone's focus seems to be on the workings of desire in women, as teenagers, mothers and spinsters, who want a husband, a child and their beauty back respectively. All three get a version of what they want – which doesn't last.

The film isn't coy about its theme: violent desires end violently. But whether it's better to be content with your lot isn't clear, at least in Garrone's retelling. Selma Hayek's overbearing mother engineers her own downfall. But the heroine of 'the Flea' (which departs quite a bit from the original tale) kills the ogre, humbles her father, and becomes Queen. Desire is an inevitable part of the human personality. It's often (self-)destructive, but sometimes it works out anyway.


Floating Weeds

A gorgeous film by Yasujirō Ozu, and fittingly given it’s a story about a theatre troupe, a showcase of fine acting talent. Ganjirō Nakamura plays a hammy actor paying a visit to an old flame and an illegitimate son who thinks he’s just an embarrassing uncle. It’s a very subtle performance, conveying the ironies of a man trying and failing to lead a business and a family, someone who expects authority but doesn’t earn it.

The title is entirely metaphorical, perhaps a way of evoking how exposed the itinerant actors are to the whims of fortune. But floating weeds tangle around each other and clump together, which is exactly what we see the characters do in the film. Nakamura has two families, the acting company and his former lover's household, and they intertwine in ways he doesn’t want but cannot prevent. His arrogance leads to him losing both, and having to set out again on his own.

Nakamura is backed up by a veritable who’s who of Japanese acting talent. Machiko Kyō (of Rashomon fame) gives a star turn as the jealous Sumiko, and Ayako Wakao (who will become Masumura’s favourite in the 60s) is stunning as the young actress who is a master of seduction. Ozu stalwarts Haruko Sugimura and Chishū Ryū also give fine performances in minor roles. And the three horny actors trying to chat up the town’s young ladies are great fun. This is one of Ozu’s most enjoyable films.


Avengers: Infinity War

Spoilers. I don't usually care about spoilers, but for some reason I wanted to go in clean for this one, and I'm glad I did. I didn't expect what was coming. Up until the very end I thought the film was playing by the rules and would pull off a defeat of the bad guy. To have Thanos win was a glorious send up of expectations.

Joel over at the London Graphic Novel Network has written a very good three part piece (even think pieces now come in trilogies) on the film called 'the audacity of hopelessness', which is an excellent title, as this really is an audacious move by Marvel. In previous Avengers films Joss Whedon established the protocol of having a minor character die permanently in order to generate pathos and a certain amount of tension about who would make it. It never worked because you knew almost all of them will. The chat in the run-up to Infinity War would have been who would bite the bullet this time, a popular theory being that Iron Man would be retired. What a safe option that turned out to be. Instead the four founding Avengers (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk) are spared, but Thanos wins and it's the new characters who turn to ash.

Joel loves the chutzpah of the ending, and takes issue with another good piece by Film Crit Hulk, who complains that the audacity is only skin deep. Like the Marvel comics before them, the cinematic universe will retcon the superhero cull and we'll return to our regular scheduled programming of two to three films a year. The safe option is simply deferred, and there won't be meaningful consequences. It's a justified fear, which is why I'm hoping Avengers 4 is a working title and the next film is just called Thanos. Perhaps it can even go in the direction Film Crit Hulk suggests, and explore Thanos's abused childhood and unfulfilled romance with a goddess of death. The only way the audacity of Infinity War can be earned is if Marvel continue to be audacious.

Film Crit Hulk is rather adorable in his fretting about what the Marvel films are teaching people:

I think about how many people can’t handle the basic dramatic stress of Infinity War and seeing our heroes in danger. I worry about how all the old lessons of Walt Disney’s original ethos, and the emphasis on understanding loss and consequence, could help prepare us to face the pain that we experience. For so many stories are designed to teach us the incredible healing and human power of sadness.

At my screening in the Peckamplex a lot of the kids were running around the aisles during the talking bits, so forgive me if I downgrade the importance of the Marvel Universe's underlying message. Those inured to the workings of retcons may well be annoyed at the probable lack of consequence to Infinity War's finale. But the mood in the screening was palpable – even the kids were silent in the last 10 minutes. Hulk is criticising the film to come, maybe justifiably. But the impact of Infinity War is real.

It's always about perspective. I would guess that most people still experience these things as individual films, rather than as threads in a wider tapestry. And the films are never less than enjoyable. The wider tapestry on the other hand is pretty threadbare, little more than a ploy to get you interested in the minor films (like the acclaimed Black Panther or the quirky Ant-Man) which would otherwise not have the audience they do.

And for all Film Crit Hulk's fretting about the film's disinterest in loss and consequence, even he recognises with a bit of squinting that Infinity War is trying to say something about sacrifice. In order to get the soul stone, Thanos must destroy something he loves, and he has the will to do it. He is a believer in the greater good, despite the bodies that have to pile up in the meantime. Meanwhile Gamora and Scarlet Witch fail the test, refusing to sacrifice their loved ones to stop Thanos (this gets slightly ridiculous in the latter case, as it would appear quite a few Wakandans give their lives in order to save Vision). In the end it doesn't matter, but at least Gamora and Vision both consent to their destruction. Heroes sacrifice themselves, the villain sacrifices others.

And there is some pathos to the deaths – Spidey and Stark obviously, but Don Cheadle wandering around looking for Falcon hit me quite hard. Hulk having to cope with Black Widow being gone would have been even more poignant, especially given their brief reunion, but the film spares her for some reason. The indiscriminate deaths are bewildering, quite difficult to process. But that's exactly as it should be. "Thanos will return" is a gesture worthy of Jonathan Hickman, and future films will not be able to take away the finality of that experience. I'm cautiously optimistic that Marvel will find a way to mourn the dead before righting the ship.


The Breakfast Club

Kinda like Moby Dick if the ship was detention and the whale was an asshole teacher. Or like a retelling of the origin of the United States – the castoffs from the old world rebelling against their elders and writing a new constitution. The twist being that their new fellowship will collapse at the start of the following week.

If the film is supposed to represent America in microcosm, it's not a particularly diverse one when it comes to ethnicity or sexuality. There are however some broad brushstroke explorations of class, where delinquency is peeled back to reveal an abusive or uncaring family environment. That shouldn’t excuse the behaviour, which Molly Ringwald has written about here. Bender gets the hero shot at the end of the film, and he doesn’t deserve it.

Where Hughes is on stronger ground is how he shows the male characters burdened with a very oppressive view of masculinity, involving frequent instances of threats, fights and homophobia. Andrew’s long confession lays bear the emotional scars patriarchy can leave on teenage boys – his ‘old man’ almost belongs in the Old Testament with Abraham, Lot and the other patriarchs.

The film was shot in sequence, which is surprising as it feels like a collection of disparate scenes that have no follow through. Characters scream at each other in one moment and are thick as thieves the next. The pairing up at the end makes zero sense to the modern viewer, particularly Ringwald's character hooking up with the guy who has relentlessly harassed her for the last 8 hours. It’s bizarre, and goes to show that the film, and Hughes's sensibilities, have aged very badly indeed.


"Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that's what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies – and they don't even have to be first-rate, much less great – can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper – to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they've been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they're not showing higher, more refined taste; they're just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you're afraid of movies that excite your senses, you're afraid of movies."


"People feel that there's violence out there, and they want to shut it out. Movies, more than any other form of expression, are capable of bringing us to an acceptance of our terrors; that must be why people are afraid of movies" - Pauline Kael, 'Fear of Movies', from When the Lights Go Down


The Villainess

A preposterous Korean martial arts film, with a loopy plot and absurd fights. The first is probably the best, starting out like an arcade shooting game before switching to first-person knives, kicks and a grim bit of garrotting for the finale. The film is very enamoured of the long-take action sequence, in which the camera whips around the protagonist as she slaughters foes by the hundred. The cuts are disguised by CGI and rapid camera turns, and a lot of it does end up looking like a particularly intense video game. But it’s something new in cinema, if a bit headache-inducing.

It’s a rather weird title (I put the Korean through google translate and got wicked or evil woman). She’s not actually a bad person, she’s more a victim of dastardly fathers, gangsters and intelligence agencies. The end of the film seems to imply that the wretched influence of all the above create a monster, and that villainy is a product of a corrupt society. There is a slightly annoying gendered dimension to this though, in that the protagonist is set down this path by being a dutiful daughter, girlfriend, wife and mother. She does a very abrupt turnaround as soon as she learns she’s pregnant, from wanting to end it all to wanting to live and protect her child. It’s almost as if the maternal instinct switches on automatically to overcome all prior trauma or depression.

For all the awesome killing she does, the protagonist has very little agency – being directed by others (mostly men) for the duration of the film. Even her boyfriend for the romcom interlude in the middle is there to manipulate her. Perhaps that’s the point, and it’s only when all the people who have ‘made’ her (as the big bad boss claims) have been dispatched can she be free to set her own course in life. Perhaps The Villainess is an ironic title. It’s the bad guys that call her a bitch. They can’t see a woman trying to escape their influence as the heroine.