The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor HoffmanThe Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman by Angela Carter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Struggled a bit with this one. It took a certain amount of willpower to keep picking it up, and I found I was more easily distracted away from reading it than with other books. The problem is two-fold – a picaresque plot with little to propel the reader forward, and dense, florid prose that is impressive but occasionally (and sometimes purposefully) inpenetrable. The imagery Carter conjures up is absolutely unique and most chapters build to a climax that is engrossing and disturbing, but it takes a bit of work to get there, and ultimately its exploration of the clash between reality and fantasy did not strike me particularly novel or profound.

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Being John Malkovich

This is a film about film, right? Malkovich is the screen through which our desires and ambitions are mediated. The power of fantasy can lead to us realising who we really are, but also inspire absolutely lunatic behaviour.

But let's start from the beginning. Maxine is the foxy femme fatale and a source of erotic obsession for all the characters in the film. For Craig and Lottie, marriage and the prospect of children is disrupted by the fantasy of having an affair and subsequently of inhabiting (or fucking) a celebrity for 15 minutes. Interestingly the film circles back to having a family at the end. Being John Malkovich is an avenue through which Lottie and Maxine discover that they are queer and circuitously affirm their love for each other. Mediated by Malkovich, they form a relationship and create a truly happy family with daughter in tow.

John Cusack’s Craig Schwartz has a darker fate. His sexual frustration turn him into an abusive husband and a quasi-rapist. He is a failed artist given the opportunity to inhabit and control a successful one. It's a situation played for comedy, but Craig's jealousy and violence lead to a suitable punishment. His ability to manipulate others is denied to him, and he is condemned to observe a family life that he rejected because he indulged his daydreams of affairs and unearned success. He ends up trapped in a film he can no longer direct – the object of his desires forever denied to him.

The film is an absurdist comedy, but also a tragedy, with a bit of horror mixed in. Its meanings and significances are not entirely stable – Malkovich is also a portal through which a group of old people can escape death. Him tumbling into himself leads to a terrifying world where everyone is Malkovich, which could be a comment on self-obsession, or just a silly joke. There are more subtle threads to pull out though. The menagerie of animals Lottie looks after is clearly a way to displace her desire for a child, and a contrast is drawn with Craig's obsession with puppetry – wooden figurines that do exactly what he wants them to. This film packs a lot in and doesn't always show its workings. It takes its mad idea and tries out the different things that can be done with it. It's kind of great, and we're lucky the real Malkovich agreed to go along with it.


Whore of New York: A Confession

Whore of New York: A ConfessionWhore of New York: A Confession by Liara Roux
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slight but wise. The insight into sex work is interesting, but the book is more affecting and thought-provoking as an account of a collapsing marriage. That relationship was both hurtful and caring in turn, making the dilemma of leaving or staying difficult to navigate. It’s a situation that resonates, leads the reader to reflect on what makes any familial or romantic relationship work in the long term.

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In The Cut

Much maligned when released but now reappraised. Quite right, too. I love Mark Ruffalo, both generally and in this. He's so wonderfully caring, charming and sweet. Howevermuch the film tries to put him in the frame as a suspect, it can never really pull it off. This dude is sound as a pound, and can also really look after a lady in the bedroom department. I was a lot more suspicious of Kevin Bacon, who puts in a marvellous (and rather funny) performance as the neurotic, love-sick stalker. Meg Ryan also does wonderful and brave work, doing something very different from what she is known for. In her famous romantic comedies Ryan keeps her emotions on the surface, but here Frannie keeps a mask on when navigating the thrills and dangers of New York City.

The conceit of the film is how we misinterpret what we see. Frannie thinks she sees Molloy at the beginning of the film, and by the end suspects him of being a serial killer. Campion opens her film with Frannie mistaking the falling blossoms outside her window as snow from a dream, a knowing nod to this theme. But the more potent symbol is the association made between Frannie's father, who seduces and leaves a string of women and children behind him, and the serial killer, who's signature is an engagement ring. Frannie romantic vision of her father proposing to her mother is linked to the brutal murders in the film. Campion turns marriage into a sick fetish, and has Frannie dispatch both the serial killer, and the myth she has built up of her father, at the end.

In contrast to all that we have the sexually exciting but mysterious and possibly dangerous Molloy. The film reveals that he is divorced, but sleeps on the couch in his ex-wife's place so he can help with the kids. Marriage is not a fetish for him – the relationship didn't work and he got a divorce. But he's also responsible. The mother of his kids needs help and he sticks around to provide it. He doesn't promise Frannie anything but a good time, and even then he keeps getting distracted by the case and trying to stop the killer before more girls get the chop.

Campion is less explicit about this, but her film is playing around and reversing some of the gender dynamics of the erotic noir genre. A woman is the protagonist, the men are the femme fatales. The film centres Frannie's desires in what are quite naturalistic and low-key lovemaking scenes. The film twists the male gaze into something sinister – often shooting Ryan on the streets as if she's being stalked. Frannie's closest relationship is with her sister, who is less reserved about loving too much. Their friendship is a powerful testament to female solidarity in the face of unlucky love affairs and the perils and disappointments of dating in the big city – something that the wedding-obsessed serial killer also ruins.

The film was shot entirely on location in New York, and looks magnificent. The mise-en-scene in the indoor locations is very ornate and crafted – candles, medallions, scraps of paper stuck on the walls. The camerawork is impressionistic. The pressures of the shoot meant some parts were shot quite quickly, with not a lot of thought applied to framing and blocking. But the unsteady camera and dodgy focus works to unsettle our expectations, not least about what happens next. The lack of precision also meant the actors had a bit more freedom to just inhabit the space – their performances were probably better for it. Basically this is a brilliant, unusual and quite beautiful piece of work. It's a shame it wasn't considered as such when it came out 20 years ago.


Anne and Muriel (Two English Girls)

Very much another go at Jules and Jim – Truffaut again adapting a book by Henri-Pierre Roché with his writing partner Jean Gruault. This is set at the turn of the 20th century and is in full costume-drama mode. Beyond a couple of outré radial wipes the direction and editing is subdued, and some scenes are so static they feel almost like tableaus or paintings. There are occasional misfires, like the gauche zoom to a bloody sheet when Anne loses her virginity. The rapid-speaking third person narrator makes a return from Jules and Jim, and the shots of the book from which the film is adapted in the opening credits emphasise the literary qualities of the film.

It's another love triangle, not so much a ménage à trois as in Jules and Jim but a two sisters falling in and out of love with a young man. Muriel is more worldly and outgoing – she becomes a sculptor that takes many lovers and has adventures in Persia. Anne is more intense – with a religious sensibility that fills her with guilt about her sexuality. Jean-Pierre Léaud is absolutely wonderful as the dashing Claude, floating about like the perfect gentleman. His character is precision-designed to have women fall in love with him, but Léaud is also good at demonstrating a teenager's confusion about the prospect of marriage and children. His composure is rattled by the mercurial Anne, who confronts him and leaves him at the end.

The film was a flop, but has a good reputation. Anne and Muriel don't have the mad charisma of Jeanne Moreau's Catherine, but their desires and heartbreaks are understandable and interesting nonetheless. This being Truffaut, there is a death at the end, and as usual with him it's a bit random – adding a weird unearned melancholy to the closing moments. Truffaut was obviously affected deeply by this strange romance, and was hurt by the indifference that greeted his film. To me it is most notable and unusual in its frank attitude to sex in what is otherwise a classic costume drama, suggesting that this period was more sexually liberated than we might initially assume.


Dark Souls

I'm lucky I got into games so late because I just get to play the greats one after the other. If Dark Souls isn't the greatest (and plenty of people think it is), then it really is up there. I've just beaten it and have also watched and listened to a bunch of people who really love the game talk about what makes it so special (The Bonfireside Chat podcast has been a great companion during my playthrough, and this recent YouTube essay on the trilogy by Noah Caldwell-Gervais is also very insightful). All of that discourse has clarified for me what makes the game work so well, but also why it doesn't quite find its place in my personal pantheon of RPGs.

A lot of that is down to my preferences when it comes to story and character, which I've found is usually more important to me than mechanics and gameplay. What is Dark Souls about, anyway? In a lot of ways it's about the experience of playing Dark Souls. The plot of the first two thirds of the game is explicitly about testing you on whether you are good enough to progress to the final third. The powers-that-be are on the lookout for a chosen one, and set up challenges to see if the player passes – escape from a prison, ring two bells on opposite ends of the world map guarded by (many) bosses, navigate a trap-filled castle and finally break into the capital city and defeat the last remaining champions of the gods. The world is searching for an individual with the discipline and determination to get through its toughest challenges. Achieving that makes you a powerful enough sacrifice to keep the world going. Ludonarrative consonance is a revered property in games, and Dark Souls takes it to the nth degree. It even hangs a lantern on its demanding nature. Giving up on the task is to "go hollow" – a metaphor for losing purpose and giving up on the game. Dark Souls is littered with these hollows, emphasising that most players won't get to the end. It also makes your achievement if you do feel that much more special. 

There is actually a choice at the end of the game. You can do as you are told and sacrifice yourself to keep the age of fire going, or you can keep your power and walk away ushering in the age of dark. The consequences of these two choices on the world are ambiguous, and future games will reveal that the two ages recur endlessly anyway, making the decision less significant. It’s more meaningful from a role-playing perspective. Is your character a chivalrous sort who will sacrifice themselves on behalf of others, even if the world they save is imperfect and its masters are liars? Or do you prefer to kill all the gods and have the remaining powers-that-be (and the game) explicitly acknowledge your greatness, even if that makes you a lord of nothing? Kindling the flame is selfless but foolish. Walking away is selfish and sinister. It's not a clear-cut good or bad decision, but it holds weight in terms of how you wish to view your character. Its broader meaninglessness may be another ludonarratively consonant comment on the game itself. Well done, but was it really worth the effort? The New Game Plus starts immediately after anyway – your story also recurs endlessly. All players eventually have to get of the treadmill. We all go hollow in the end.

The approach to storytelling in the game is inspired by the Japanese lead designer's teenage love of Anglophone pen-and-paper RPG game books and monster manuals. Reading in a different language meant he could only partially understand the descriptions. He was piecing together fragments, often relying on visual clues. Dark Souls replicates this experience. NPC dialogue is short, ambiguous and cannot be trusted. You can learn a bit more by reading item descriptions (your character has no history or memory but does have a psychic ability to glean knowledge from their possessions, i.e. their D&D lore ability is at 100). Any connections you make are always provisional, and most are tenuous. The pieces don't always fit. Moreover, when it comes to choosing between having more consistent lore and making the gameplay work, the developers usually go for the latter. For example, the fact that bosses and minibosses don't respawn, but hollows do, doesn't make a huge amount of sense. Surely more powerful creatures would be able to withstand death better than minions. But that would make the game too difficult and irritating to play, so very wisely the developers don't do it.

For me, the evocative suggestion of something is not as powerful as a deeper exploration of something. Dark Souls does a lot with minimal dialogue and item descriptions, but ultimately I find RPGs with a surfeit of dialogue and writing more narratively and emotionally engaging. Solaire and Siegmeyer are probably the most fully-developed characters you meet in the game. They are well-written and well-voiced, but you can sum them up in a sentence. Their stories are tragic, and much of that tragedy is effectively conveyed visually at the final point you meet them. That might be powerful enough for some players, but it wasn't for me. In Solaire's case there is a bit more digging you can do to connect him to other characters in the game, but making that link is intellectually rather than dramatically or psychologically satisfying.

Bosses and areas also have backstories that relate to each other. That's commendable, but it also doesn't add up to very much for me. The daughters of chaos may be the best (and saddest) example. These fire witches made a decision with good intentions that had horrible and profound unintended consequences. That’s mostly it. The epic nature of their mistake has a pathos to it, particularly as it’s communicated by a whole environment, but it’s still quite depersonalised. The situation is so far removed from your experience that it's difficult to engage with it. It's interesting background while you go around dealing with the demons they have unleashed.

The emotional satisfaction of the game is in the play of it. It's a wild rollercoaster compared to the subtle character moments you glean if you look hard enough. The sense of relief at finding a new bonfire, the checkpoint from which you can comfortably bank your winnings and start taking risks again, feels like a sigh made with your whole body. The adrenaline rush of whittling away a tough boss’s health while trying not to make mistakes, and the sense of achievement at getting it right, is just as physical. Your heart beats faster at the sight of these monsters you have to fight. The game does everything to heighten that experience – bosses are always bigger than you, sometimes ten times bigger, which adds to their intimidating nature. Famously, Dark Souls audio is mostly diegetic. Non-diegetic music is mostly saved for bosses and that contrast significantly ups the tension. The challenge-reward loop is the basic building block of a game – Dark Souls focuses on that and refines it.

You cannot play Dark Souls in a lazy way. Weak enemies will murder you if you don’t put the effort in. Eventually I levelled and min-maxed to the point where that wasn’t true, but for most of the game I couldn’t just let my guard down and underestimate an encounter, even one I had done many times before. If you let three hollows in the Burg gang up on you, you could be in some serious trouble. The game is less taxing on your reflexes than later entries. Enemies move slowly, and you do too. The trick is to read an encounter, learn the move set, execute a plan, and iterate when it doesn’t work, rather than constantly reacting quickly to new information. Getting impatient is usually a recipe for disaster, and players often talk about the wisdom of taking a break when you get stuck or hit a wall.

Dark Souls is notorious for being difficult. Actually, the game is more welcoming that the discourse (and perhaps the community) around it might make it appear. There is no difficulty slider or story mode in the options menu, but you can make the game more or less difficult by the decisions you make in the game. The most obvious way the game helps you out is giving you the opportunity to summon help for certain bosses. There are costs associated with it – it's tied to a resource that feels rarer than it is, and it also gives the boss extra health. Even so, in most cases it makes the boss easier to beat by dividing its aggro, giving you more opportunities to safely deal damage while it's distracted. 

Dark Souls is an action game where mastering your move-set and the move-set of enemies is important to your success. Reacting to an enemy's actions – attacking, blocking, healing and dodging at the right time – is part of the play. Brilliant players who have mastered this dance can rush in and duel enemies ‘fairly’, but there isn’t a mechanical reward for it. The only reward is the player’s own sense of achievement. The idea that the 'real' way to play the game is to dedicate the time to mastering your movements to the point where you can beautifully take down everything and avoid getting hit is a fiction. Most players won’t (and some players can’t) do that. The developers knew this and made sure there were a range of options available to tackle the challenges they set for the player.

Reactivity or reflex is in any case something that becomes more significant in the successors of Dark Souls than Dark Souls itself. The sense of direction is evident from the DLC, where bosses start to move faster. For the most part though, Dark Souls is quite generous with telegraphing an enemy's intentions. They move slowly, and their wind-ups are often quite easy to read. The job is to learn how they move, bait their attack, block or avoid it, and counter-attack while they are in their recovery animation and therefore vulnerable. You also move slowly and may have your own wind-ups and recovery animations, but generally the pace of combat is generous enough to accomodate players who lack twitchy reflexes, as I do. You have more time to decide what to do than you might think.

Some expert players challenge themselves by trying to get through the game without levelling at all – a "soul-level one run". That just goes to show that Dark Souls is still an RPG and levels do eventually count. The game is very explicit about this – the branches from the opening area can lead to places with tough enemies that you will struggle with when you start out. It's a signal that you should come back when you are stronger. It's a lesson that applies throughout the game – if you're in a tough spot, you might need a boost by grinding up a few levels and upgrades. Every level not only allows you to increase a stat, but slightly improves your defence. I survived Manus, the final boss of the game, mostly because I had over-levelled and upgraded to the point where I could soak the collossal amount of damage he was dealing out, and could button-mash my way to victory. It wasn't very elegant, but it worked.

One thing that is very elegant is the economy in the game. Souls are experience points but also currency – you use the same resources to improve your base stats and your gear. The latter might be even more important than the former. Upgrades are gated by finding one-of-a-kind embers, as well as a resource called titanite which you can buy from merchants or find as treasure or drops from enemies. These items are indications of where in the upgrade path you need to be in order to find a level manageable. This added bit of complexity might be confusing or annoying, but it also means that any weapon you find can be viable if you upgrade it. Move-set is more important than stats, and if you find something you like you can stick with it to the end of the game. The variety of weapons and builds that you can try out also means the game is very replayable.

The game gives several opportunities to grind up levels and upgrades. A famous exploit to do so in Darkroot Garden could have been patched out, but it wasn't and you could see that as a concession to players having a hard time. Although move-set is important, this is still an RPG, there is a power curve and you can work to stay ahead of it. Even if you don't want to grind your way out of problems, a big part of playing the game is working out the tools and strategies that can mitigate a difficult encounter. I’m a coward with bad reflexes, so mastering the move-set wasn't going to get me over the line. Cheese did instead. The simple trick of using a bow to pick off enemies one by one, and bait them into environments where I was more comfortable fighting them, is viable throughout. There aren't many ambushes in Dark Souls. Enemies don't patrol – you can look at them as much as you want before you decide how to attack. The bow meant I could break up what looked like impossible encounters into manageable bits. There's no penalty for this – whatever works. In my head cannon I was wily rather than brave. I used the environment against my enemies. My bag of tricks, including very powerful limited-use fire spells, meant I could beat bosses who are far more powerful than me.

Dark Souls is not always clear about where to go or what to do next. There are many secrets. Some very important resources and checkpoints are hidden away. This is mitigated by the online elements of the game, where players can leave each other messages pointing you in the right direction (or the wrong one). The game also has a more explicit multiplayer aspect, where you can duel other players or call on their help to defeat bosses. Unfortunately, the discovery of a dangerous exploit meant that the Dark Souls servers on PC were down during my playthrough (the developer is apparently working on a fix). That meant I avoided getting randomly murdered by more able players, but it also meant I didn't participate in the sense of community that this game could generate. That shared experience might be a part of why some players have such an affection for this game, although as someone not particularly interested in multiplayer generally I didn't see it as a great loss.

Although I had to lean on external guides and commentary to find my way around, it's undeniable that Dark Souls is a masterclass in level design. As Duckfeed's Gary and Kole like to say – knowledge reduces distance. Progress in Dark Souls is governed by bonfires, and the game withholds your ability to teleport between them until the final third. Instead it wants you to fight your way through to each new bonfire. Unfamiliar new areas feel huge and daunting – but you will eventually be able to run through them without a care in the world. It's most impressive trick is to use verticality to create shortcuts between seemily distant parts of the world map. The opening up of such shortcuts, allowing you to bypass entire areas with enemies you've struggled against for so much time, provides a huge sense of achievement and relief. And seeing how the world connects together provides its own sense of satisfaction.

So much of the significance of Dark Souls is wrapped up in the experience of playing it. It is about the emotional journey of finding safety after danger, overcoming an enemy or situation that seemed impossible, and the determination to keep going despite the hostile and desolate world you find yourself in. These ups and downs are what games are about, and for all its evocative but ambiguous lore, Dark Souls is a very gamey game. It's perfectly legitimate to ignore the story entirely and just enjoy the ride – the finely balanced combat and the expertly designed encounters and levels. Dark Souls is a very honed product – story and character stuck tightly to mechanics rather than spinning outwards to create new significances. My favourite RPGs (New Vegas, Torment, Bloodlines) are more diffuse, where NPCs and side-quests peel off more easily from the gameplay. They also tend to have a much higher word count, and that might be the underlying factor in my appreciation for them. For me, writing in games matters an inordinate amount, and Dark Souls cannot compete with these other overwritten western RPGs. It's a fantastic game, but not among my very favourites.


The Soft Skin

Truffaut can't help himself, can he? Love triangles and then a murder. This strips back the pyrotechnics of Jules and Jim and is more sedate, almost stately, in its pacing. We spend a lot of time on the minutiae of this adulterous affair – which reveal Pierre to be gentle but muddled. The film includes several instances of the female characters getting harrassed on the street to demonstrate that our protagonist isn't a rapacious monster. And yet desire, stress and shame twist him this way and that, and in the throes of indecisiveness Truffaut consciously has him make the worst decisions possible. His young mistress is wiser than he is, and sees that the relationship has no future, not because he's married, but because the little irritations that have dogged their affair will build up and overwhelm the initial erotic thrill that kicked it off.

Truffaut is well aware of the sacrifices and compromises that strengthen a marriage. Pierre is spun about by a beautiful woman, but he still loves his wife and child. Truffaut uses his own appartment to shoot scenes of domestic bliss, affection and contentment, before moving on to show how a successful life partnership can be slowly broken apart by Pierre's impulsiveness and cowardice. Pierre's jilted wife Franca is certainly no coward – she instigates the separation and when she finds out about the other woman starts loading shells into a shotgun. The finale of the film is sub-Hitchcockian, but our time spent with the characters makes Franca's mania more explicable than Catherine's madness in Jules and Jim. It's a more conventional film, with a very conventional story, but in playing by the rules it becomes more dramatically successful than its predecessors.


The Bright Book of Life: Fifty-Two Novels to Read and Re-Read Before You Vanish by Harold Bloom

The Bright Book of Life: Fifty-Two Novels to Read and Re-Read Before You VanishThe Bright Book of Life: Fifty-Two Novels to Read and Re-Read Before You Vanish by Harold Bloom
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Self-indulgent, repetitive, occasionally bizarre, and seemingly unfinished, and yet I can't get enough of Bloom and his bottomless enthusiasm for the books he writes about. An encouragement to read and re-read and read some more – which can't be a bad thing.

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Everything Everywhere All at Once

I laughed, I cried – often simultaneously. This isn't particularly subtle moviemaking. The jokes are broad – every opportunity for silliness is grabbed at. The concluding message about the importance of kindness and community is universal to the point of being banal. That said, this film is undeniably quite clever, and not just because its multiverse-jumping premise is complicated. That premise is used as a metaphor to explore some pretty  dark and heavy stuff.

Michelle Yeoh's character Evelyn is overwhelmed. Everything is happening all at once and she can't cope. But some of this she brings on herself – she's so stressed and inflexible that she treats others poorly, and her family in particular are suffering as a result. Keeping their lives on track is proving difficult even before the alternate realities start to impose themselves. That just adds to the confusion and the general sense that Evelyn cannot assert agency over events. She's buffeted along – struggling to contain her anxieties and disappointments.

The idea of a branching universe highlights the doubts the characters have about the choices they have made. Would Evelyn's life have been stuck in a rut if she had decided not to get married, or move to the United States, or have a child. Her alternate selves seem more beautiful and successful than she is. The film physically confronts her with these alternatives, but this just literalises the poisonous regrets that gather in the depths of depression – the feeling that your life has been wasted, that you've made a mess of it.

Evelyn's daughter Joy is ironically named. Her mother's cold and exacting attitude is suggested to be the cause of a spiral into nihilism and self-destruction. The multiverse metaphor is bent in this direction as well – used as a way to highlight our smallness and meaninglessness in a vast, inexplicable and uncaring cosmos. Joy's lack of support at home has created a monster. Her coping mechanism has been to denounce everything and everyone as worthless – to let go of all attachments, because it's less painful to be alone than to keep caring about what others think of you.

Joy almost succeeds in dragging her mother down into this pit. What saves them isn't yet another invasion from a different and happier reality, but rather a recognition of what they already have. Evelyn doesn't give up on her daughter, even when facing the threat that she'll turn into a terrifying supervillain. Their eventual reconciliation is powerful because the film is so good at depicting the anxiety and depression that have pushed them apart. It feels real and earned, notwithstanding all the jokes and inventive martial arts that accompany it. It's a silly film, but also a smart one, and one that's bursting with heart.

Jules and Jim

This is an adaptation of a semi-biographical novel, so it should be closer to realism than the genre exercise of Shoot the Piano Player. The friendship between Jules and Jim is believable – both in the manic throes of their first meeting and their subsequent struggles over loving the same woman. But Jeanne Moreau is less a person than a force of nature that sweeps people away. Her capacity and appetite for love, both affection and sex, is insatiable. And the deprivation of it drives her mad. Truffaut and his two male heroes cannot resist indulging her every whim, even the most bizarre. It gets to the point where she threatens Jim with a gun and yet at their next meeting he still jumps in her car as if nothing has happened. Her madness is catching, her obsessions become our obsessions. She is beautiful and we cannot resist.

The blistering energy of the first hour is what the film is known for, where cuts are rapid and the voiceover narrates at triple time. But I'm old and found the love triangle that develops in the middle part of the film a lot more interesting. The film slows down a bit and allows the two male leads to put in some great work depicting the effort and labour of keeping Catherine happy. For all his formal ingenuity and cinematic tricks – and this has plenty of wild crane shots, outre wipes and extended tracking shots – the film works because the actors manage to realise what this bizarre menage a trois might be like. Until the very end, that is. As Moreau's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic I stopped believing in her ability to charm the men around her. Truffaut's idolatry defeated me, and the absurd and abrupt ending to the love triangle fell very flat. I get the sense that Truffaut relies on random death to supply the finale of his films almost as a reflex. In Jules and Jim, the ultimate fates of the characters diminishes rather than elevates the passion and strife of their relationship.


Shoot the Piano Player

Starts with a man describing the difficult work of love and marriage before it sprints away from all that boring adult stuff. A curiously adolescent film – the main character has a teenager’s shyness with his crush but is comfortable with paying the prostitute next door. It’s almost as if he can only relax around women when the sex question is settled.

We’ve all been there when we were 14 or so. We know what we should do – we rehearse it over and over in our mind – and yet when the moment of action comes we hesitate and run away. It’s Hamlet syndrome applied to the perilous process of asking girls out. Not just that – in the flashback Truffaut makes clear that the main character struggles whenever the compromises of life and love are revealed. Despite the title the piano player is never shot – its the women around him who die as a result of his timidity.

I get the sense that piano playing, or indeed any kind of creative endeavour, might be a way to sublimate the anxiety of living in the real world. That kind of emotional turbulence and paralysis might fuel great artistic achievement, but the real heroes are the guys who are home every evening to care for the wife and kids.


The Dragon Waiting

The Dragon WaitingThe Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ford exerts an impressive control over his story – a huge span of events, locations, intrigues and magical tricks wrestled down into very tightly-packed scenes and chapters. The compression makes catching all the details difficult, and readers are advised to refer to the excellent annotations of the Draco Concordans to make sense of the book. But the effort is worth it to see just how well Ford keeps the plates spinning. Ultimately his creation of a ‘good’ Richard III feels more like an intellectual exercise than a profound statement about the different turns history or historical interpretation can take. The triumph of the book is in its characters, particularly the four protagonists, each of whom are victims of history and empire who by extraordinary efforts, willpower and solidarity manage to turn the tables and transform their fates.

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The Great Beauty

No doubt Jeb is supercilious and self-indulgent, and perhaps some would find both him and the film insufferable. For all its drifting atmosphere and perverse non-sequiteurs, it's not even particularly subtle about what it's about. Jeb fell in love at 18 out in the country and wrote a novel that was acclaimed as a masterpiece. He moved to Rome and spent the next few decades partying, shagging and doing a bit of journalism about the absurd cultural scene in the city. He never published another book. Jeb's Rome is a distraction. The quote that opens the film spells it out for you: "travel is useful". The saint's words of wisdom at the end underline the point: "roots are important". Rome is rootless – a hypnotising froth of sex and architecture and blasting dance music. Jeb's friend's literary ambitions don't get him anywhere, and he leaves. At the end of the film, Jeb does as well. He returns to the site of his first romance, and starts writing again.

Sorrentino does his best to make Rome as dazzling as possible – full of glamorous, beautiful women and even more glamorous and beautiful scenery. His camera swoops across vistas and details of the city, but doesn't linger. It cuts to the next gorgeous image, flitting about without resting or absorbing anything. The film is a bit of a portmaneu of short stories Jeb wafts through, and some of these sequences can feel pretentious. I think that's offset by the very funny scenes of the bizarre artistic happenings Jeb and his circle of decandents attend as a way of relieving their ennui. At the end the film seems to suggest that art is all a bit of a trick, a semblance of profundity and meaning without much to substantiate it.

What grounds the film is Jeb himself. We spend a lot of time with him and his talkative pals, and get quite a well-developed sense of his character. His life is so saturated with pleasure that he's become desensitised to it. This is quite a sexy film only to show that Jeb is very, very bored of sex. And then people start dying around him – first his long lost love, who broke off their youthful passionate romance to marry a man who was good company. Then the suicide of a friend's rather intense son, the funeral for which Jeb expects to be one big insincere performance, until the melancholy of the occasion breaks through to him. Finally, a dalliance with a stripper, who disappears quite suddenly from the film and his life. All of this punctures the frivolity of his life in Rome. Underneath the jaded exterior, Jeb is still a romantic – his 35-year creative block more of a swerve away from a broken heart.

The references to the 1960s Marcello Mastroianni-fronted masterpieces by Fellini and Antonioni are so blatant they almost become jokes in themselves (Jeb wears the same glasses). La Notte is undoubtedly a more profound and beautiful film – but it's also a more difficult one. Antonioni was fully committed not only to the listlessness of modern life, but to its inexplicability, and his film is weirdly abstracted from the humans it depicts. Fellini is more invested and more troubled by the end of faith and the licence that gives to sexual and moral depravity. The Great Beauty is quite a bit closer to La Dolce Vita (not least in the echo of the name), but is less eager to wag a finger at hedonism, and is ultimately more hopeful that these lost souls can find a kind of redemption in the art they make, even if their attempts look ridiculous and the meanings they produce are just circus tricks.