Features

Lars Von Trier, Fabrice Du Welz, Jamie Banks, Duncan Jones - Edinburgh Film Fest Report 2

Martin Goodhead 10/07/2009

Welcome to the second part of our Edinburgh retrospective, in which we`ll be focusing mainly on the EIFF's grislier offerings- madness, visions and feverish nudity appropriate to the last two week's flu-ridden headline paranoia . Anyone who's done the ghost walk will known of the city's historical predilections for something of the grand guignol, but this year the genre has come in a weirder form, with a spate of film's sharing the same inscrutable DNA of old scares-irreducible to the old talking remedy rationales of 'it's a slasher-it's an art-house film' come to plague the festival like a new pandemic. 'Vinyan', 'Long Weekend' and the attention-grabbing by name and by nature 'Lars Von Trier's 'Antichrist' wrestle with nature and motherhood, and in their own way owing more than passing debts to famed expressionist chiller 'Don't Look Now'.

VINYAN(2008)

Traditionally a cluster of movies around similar themes, particularly in the horror genre, is seen as some kind of cultural litmus reading-or barometer of the country/the West's/ fevered state. Certainly the much-anticipated 'Vinyan'-helmed by genre auteur Fabrice Du Welz of genre-demolishing Belgium tragi-com-horror-allegory Calvaire--, is specifically topical, in a sense beyond, say, Lost Weekend and its seventies re-make earth revenge roots . Set in a tsunami and loss ravaged Thailand and hinterland Its protagonists --played by art-house siren Emmanuel Beart and stalwart Brit brooder/ sporadic Hollywood villain Rufus Sewell -- Paul and Jeanne are on the surface the perfect beautiful couple: philanthropists, reasonably affluent, socially aware, attractive—with only a fault-line of tragedy within their crystal champagne glasses; at its heart a child lost to a natural disaster which in turn metaphorically swallows up the parents world in the afterforce, just like the drowned hopes in 'Don't Look Now'. But, by contrast, the first third of the film reads as'everyone's culpable', it reads politically ; rather than the continual natural disaster magic realism of Venice's overwhelming murk rising through the gondoliers and the pole stalks, they get embroiled in exchange deals to dedicate aid-agency dollars and man power on the hollow promise of a weak pixelled red-coloured shirt—which crystallises the madness, the mixture of emperors and victims that the couple become . Like missionaries in the opium houses they're melancholy—caught right on the edge of a city where—like in nature—'certain compromises must be made'.

The unnamed tsunami in which they lost their son—as in all colonial interests, their grief confuses the grief, horror and suffering of the landscape along with its phantom beauties, as just part of the individual experience. Lurking beneath are world-weary Greene and Maugham ambivalent colonial chauvinisms; a 'realist' (again, that whisper of 'politics') foreign strategy in contrast to the aspersions of 'idealism' with Sewell's architect. As the city works itself into their dreams like poisoned fountain psychotropes, mutual friend Kim unsentimentally offers herself to Sewell; their guide a yellow-pink-brown slave trader, around them villagers bred on 100 years of two-way Siamese bribery willing to trade any 'white face'. Life, marriage vows, identity itself are cheapened in a grammar of happy bodies and self-blinding eyes, ego-ridden and dispassionate at once. Yet the further they escalate into the jungle's cycle, it seems like the rapaciousness and spirit-satisfying mysticism are only painted veneers of older, more grisly and affecting forces in the jungle scape. In practical terms the movie turns really surreal.

For thirty minutes, before turning to a crocodile-lurking molasses row-boat pace—and then again along the flood-lit candle-umbrella beach and the writhe of humid bodies in the night like ghosts--- Vinyan's one of the more visually throat-grippingly sublime pieces of film-making in years. A cinematography matched only by Christopher Doyle's Wan Lin work. Ear-drums like tribal-beats as Beart's Jeanne navigates smaller and danker sub-rooms and staircases until a pantheism, a metasemesis keeps the columns and rain-fall ablaze in a world no w existent in her soul,--air-bubbles and creeper-damps flowing from the roots of the earth within. The snaking Borgesian meets City of God alleyway dyspatia cuts, through space and association-street to strip-joint to rainwater to bleed to the lost child's football shirt, entwine culpability. Everyone's a victim and scavenger- tourist fetishistics to tourist perverts to street rats. The g-go dancers don't hear anything except for money- no matter what language.

Brutality is everywhere; Sewell gets 'offered' the chance to 're-purchase' his son and discovers instead 'monster's', changelings who he cant see for human. Throwing them back into their dirt-bowl feral existence, held to account by the impossible—for humans—law of the spirit world. Venturing further up stream, they find bodies in bird-baskets, used as target practice even by half-domesticated children who fade into the undertgrwoth with their Vinyan others along with torrential firestorms and deathly hail which smudges the cmaer lens with water and smudges over hard reality. The flesh-trader kingpip with his harem and peaked Mephistophelian beard is rightfully still afraid of the night. He loses his literal and figurative bearings in the topography of a world which seems to emerge from Beart's sublimated tangled-reeds and creepers of animal-longing and desperate invocation-filled as she is with instincts beyond carnal—as she ends up a great (controversial) totemic maternal terrible figure naked like statues , and plastered in mud and gold like the ruins. Through the jungle in fact everything culminates in a temple-stripped bare to the couple, the Vinyan and a taboo-shattering gesture, equivalent to Von Trier's over-eager circumcisions—a painterly mix of Tous Mes Enfants and a video nasty cannibal movie.

Soundtrack noises like razorblades, gurgles or shimmering foil almost breaking through the filmic skin like spluttering life revolving ad nauseum in grassy stone circles. For Vinyan-named after the ghosts of the wrongfully deceased through accident—is all about letting go; the shame of letting go which marks humanity, or the relief of letting go your humanity-whether of the place of bad karma which even the most educated natives dispel with phosphorous and chanting , or—finally, the obligation to the jungle- the survival in the quest only by relinquishing your own humanity. 'You let him go' is the film's mantra of exorcism—or rather fuelling the dervish movement into the jungle.

This isn't not a horror film in the conventional sense, more a series of images and psychological exposition sin a mythological descent, some of the horror is the light magnified on her raptured face and the joy with which she embraces the uncanny. Sociological subtexts abound and dissolve—everyone becomes the image of the frightening oriental. No light through the muggy clouds except the purple efflescent hues of leaves and a haunted ruin temple. It's something else.

'(Lars Von Trier's)AntiChrist' (2009)

Still, if advance publicity was any indicator- Vinyan would be just a vinegar-soup acclimatiser for the monkey-and-slug like main course of full on horrors in Von Trier's Cannes baiting 'Anti-Christ' the similarities-aside from the aforementioned lost-child theme are telling, as are the notable deviations from-sense, taste-logic, even at the levels Vinyan faintly adheres to but, most of all behind the curtain, its overriding sensation is testament to the power of rumour to conjure up spectres as chaser-or added piquant-to the entertainment, to raddle and jangle your senses at even the most innocuous or ill-paced, overwrought sequence. Ac's spirit lies in another mythical place—not lush tumescent canopy's but a scratchy medieval wood tied in with a feminine instinct—'nature as evil's church' with woman as high-priest. It's either lacerating angry satire, or the product of a mind as misogynist as Hustler-meets the Witch Trials/ A counter-intuitive, counter-enlightenment piece of nailed-back up iconoclasm, which puts Vinyan's soft pessimism about 'reforming' the east and all those Iraq-Democracy analogues in the shade, from Du Weitz's eastern redemption 'nature-theories, we have the Calvinist/puritanical equivalent; a self lacerating guilt which leads mischief-callously to the conclusion—you're going to burn, so why fight.

It begins with intent; a chiarusco sequence set to an aria, a style familiar to beer commercials—a tasteful European style which- ala don't look now-turns its numbness of pristine composition into a tortuous magic-realist death sequence. Juxtaposed undoctored flesh-bashing destroying the bathroom by a writhing William Dafoe—with full mugging face, and an 'intense' Charlotte Gainsbourg is as viscerally neo-classical as raging bull's photography, its glacially interposed with falling snow-flakes on Christmas Eve—at which time it teeters on overkill as their baby-son, delightfully surveying this primal scene through the bedroom crack with an off-smile- floats out of the window and disappears five stories down into a pool of black-ice frosted by snowflakes seamlessly.

After that Gainsburgh starts being scared-not just distraught but genuinely petried of—the walls—her ghost son, Dafoe? But for of its running length AC's famed gruesomeness fails to materialise- the horror ,such as it is-confined to cryptic statements about 'guilt' from Charlotte's burned-out grad student, and the assault unfiltered choreographed tactility and risk of sex scenes- similar to Winterbottom's attempt with Nine Songs to tell narratives via non-verbal connections, even to the point of an (unsimulated—and absurd) sex-doc style close-up , one which presumably had Dafoe and Gainborugh replaced with 'stunt' doubles. Dark rooms with tangles of hair and an erratic libido with a permanent sulk-30 minutes of AC are deferral through Nordic banality in a technique which suggests one could really be in the middle of 'terror-porn'—one long pre-coitus wallpaper stretch. Then all at once Dafoe's psychoanalytical pricks and prods to draw out his wife's fear suddenly climax with a full colour vision of Giansbourgh running through sylavannian spaces somewhere in the upstate foressts as if the grass were scalding her, pursued by an invisible hellhound, before she sinks into the green—like the kid, see . At which point AntiChrist begins to mutate-- into Requiem for a Dream meets Blair Witch in full tri-tone colour- a hallucinary trip into an leaf-raining country cabin, with von Trier's pictures resembling the claustrophobic seventies pictures on modern witchcraft, combined with the eternal—acorns hammering like aborted spring on this ramshackle gingerbread like house. Thickets like barbed wife and cavorting visions of hellish decadence, still in a flat Scandinavian colourless tone, will fill the screen before the screw really turns—into Dafoe. The wife's cryptic fear- the chimer puzzle solution is—herself. As one might have expected with the endless shots of rain-drop mirrors and haunted eyes.

Through her PHD notes, she declines into bloodless squiggles and 17th century torn manuscript wood-cutting replicas like Bosch. Trier taps into some pre-existent astrological symbolism about a 'three beggars' constellation and a three fold charbydidean journey.

Whether to punish or emancipate the witches invisibly in the wood-chirps and silhouettes, its unknown. But the titillation- and i use that term guardedly, given it's the opposite of eroticism- factor in the film's publicity, the pay off, comes after a beginning so onerous and ponderous and filled with guilt rather than the hyper-style of J-horror visions or the faint melancholy of Miike's Audition pre blow-out scenes, that it feels leaden and clinical...like a Haneke take on psycho-fantasy horror, with extra-layers of indulgent ennui. At the same time with its Bergman Persona meets Virgin Spring-meets Seventh Seal cribbings, with some of the bravest if hammiest performances of studied degradation from Dafoe, a operatic gravitas brought to crawling in fog-springed sound-stage mole-hills half naked in 16th century razor-sharp leg irons whilst sparring with talking foxes, with its barely scrutable three act structure, Laing-like interpretation of the modern family as hell, feminist-baiting in every sense, surface radical-reactionary sexual politics and--more talking foxed along with Gainsburgh's soul and bush-0baring gimlet-eyed bi-polarity, this is truly one of the most remarkable or utterly despicable pieces of cinema in recent years- one where it might take the risk of further viewings and meditation to sift through the wreckage for the blossoms.

LONG WEEKEND (2008)

Finally to another piece full of-well-poisonous blossoms, and perhaps the most 'mainstream' piece in this cinema extreme trilogy; last--and somewhat by critical consensus least (least batshit crazy, and least 'rewarding' alike), is Aussie flick Long Weekend. Set in Australia's great barrier on the type of abandoned beach the locals deny all knowledge of whose discovery- Camp Crystal Killer 5 (or whatever) to Alex Garlands' 'The Beach' alike-- always ends in bloody tears, this eco-horror is a reality-bending yuppie-slaughtering scenes-from-a- marriage type meltdown with ready-made stunning backdrops. Incidentally it's also a maligned remake of andipodean 1st wave director Colin Egglestone's similarly-titled 1976 film from a time when Aussie nature-horror- see Peter Weir's the last wave, or 1980's Cassandra—really knew how to terrify out the bejeez through the very scenery. Directed by Jamie Blanks of Urban Legend and music promo 'fame'—it doesn't contain any zany sidekicks but does come leavened by a hugely self-conscious dose of post-modernism akin to Van Sant's Psycho-remake. Shots are copied- then the script has them making hammer subtle references to 'long weekends' and 'nature's selection'—along with 'Egglestone's bar'. Nevertheless on another level, Long Weekend's comments on maternity, regeneration—and the desecration of nature are at least—clear, and timely (or lucky). So too certain shots-canopy's panning down into the leafy suburbs, are lushly executed. The Sat Nav dissolving into a sea of lcd green, a moored sea-cow like an offering on the beach, and a well arrayed campsite with vans and tents like a gorier Marie Celeste which swallows them in. For the first ten minutes, it pitches against its predecessors and arthouse peers with aplomb, but then—there's the couple—80 more minutes of the couple—and the editing—and, again, those injokes and fourth-wall breaks and—ad naus.

To the casual-read non obsessive cult-movie saturated-- viewer- such claims must come caveated with many 'it does what it does well' 'it isn't another hack-film' 'it occasionally treats its characters like-they have three dimensions and its viewers that they might be bored with the usual lunky jump-jolts'. It deals with Big issues. All through the second part I kept thinking that, stolen idea or not- their turbulent marriage is- the film says- contradicting natural order through its decadent suburban pressures and egos in the films subliminal symbology like Shakespearen tyrant kings or Japanese warlords in legend who bring their lands to rot and revolt. And the film intends such stuff. It's as effective-and rather less unbearable than- Wolf Creek on its own late-night- frightfest terms.

Being a reverent-ish re-make, you certainly might be glad it-and Blanks- doesn't get chance to set horizons towards further garbling the garbled histrionic mythicism of Anti-Christ's 'neurosis as good vs evil struggle like some post third-wave feminist Exorcist . Nor, being Aussie, the 'Oriental as fear' reactionary wire-teetering ethos of Vinyan's HOD, not to mention it's audience-dividing last few scenes of Emmanuel Beart as a deranged fertility bloodgoddess MILF 'worshipped' by a village of ghost-boys. Being a near-replica of the unacknowledged source movie for every-wilderness peril' horror set-up plus the supplier of at least two set-piece death-scenes unashamedly quoted throughout annals like a new Wilhelm scream, and with a built in domestic -quarrel neg-out feeling of unconsummated dread, and the Aussie wildernesses pretty-wild sublimity of coral beaches and night-creatures, Long Weekend delivers cinemax tension more accessibly than its companions at the Fest.


The problem is then, the writing missteps for one, but also that crazy and indulgent though Von Trier and the Belgium's visions may be, self aggrandizing and creating mock-theologies of their own spectacle, they at least move the mind-cause serious ripples in afterward discussion forums, allude to being more than just current themes in cinema or current discussion points and become about the great themes. Long Weekend is less likely to alienate your date or cineplex party through questionable sexual politics or teeth-grinding chair-ducking violence(during parts of A-Christ, the cinema seats were like flytraps as people snapped forward to look down into their laps, or legs were worriedly crossed like cricket chirrups).


Thank the stars too It isn't quite The Happening- the hitherto most recent notable ecological disaster anthromophised nature movie from M. Night Shazz. A tenuously rational explanation for the phenomena is suspended right until the end of the film- but, to all purposes, nature's literally a malevolent symbiotic force here, more even than the boorish despoiling character's would naturally bring upon themselves. More effectively than Night's universally derided gruesome whimsy —it lingers with suggestions of repressed guilt, the same 'nature-nature' corrective impulse which drives Marcia to will down fate upon herself.

Neither spouse-- Jim Cavaziel's gun-totting affluent outdoor enthusiast who claims to control nature with his stoves and harpoons, and Australian near-estranged wife, is particularly sympathetic. Her distrust for nature clashes with his machoismo—her destruction fatalistic homage, his filled with the arrogance of non-believers. The usual neurosis of adultery and still-born/still-borne desires fills in for their personalities. Bickering flickers back and forth like the circularised neverworld of the isolated golden beach from which they cannot escape. Peter wants to shoot-pierce, eat and exhibit the wildfire , whilst his wife is tormented by creaking life around them and the squeals of a pleading mother kangaroo - Peter's last guilty secret- struck in the rain. On the site-competing for +-ownership of the space and of the weekend, of their marriage itself with the sins of adultery and worse in the air, Chekov's third act gun' a bow and arrow, a broken egg, and shrieking eagle' manifest in the final scenes as agents of vengeance. Stuck in a land and a marriage nether can quite break-out of, nature lends a beak and claw. Indeed Nature here at least has an ethically retributive dimension to it- but is as chaotically, ultimately amoral as Vinyan's 'justice'-just not as pretty. And it delivers a nicely sour end-shot open and shut at once resolution; done with a splat and a question mark. If only it didn't keep on emphasising it could use that syntax-- on and on.

MOON

Another movie about isolation, weird landscape and human nature arrives with Duncan Jones's Moon. Winner of the Michael Powell EIFF director's prize, this Beckettian space dramedy is one of the chief British hopes in the independent-multiplex crossover sector this year. Directed--as prior publicity has highlighted, and giving rise to 'ground-control' punnery-- by David Bowie's son—it features—in the sense of Krapps last tape ( Beckett ref.) really really features solo style-- Sam Rockwell as astronaut Sam Bell -completing the last fortnight of his three year lunar posting, in a future where energy is mined from the sun-'s rays turned into moon springs. apparently beyond the range of direct visual communications, with only family photo's and golden-age of tv re-runs to maintain his sanity. Around him a combination of high-tech and grime, sophisticated surveillance equipment and unappetizing freeze-dried morsels for sustenance, automated self-repair services provided by GERTY his robo butler/tecchie/liason--a sophisticated AI (with Kevin Spacey's voice) au fait with irony, and quarters littered with flaking football posters and groan some aphorisms.

A sanity which- a grisly grizzly beard and cowboy swagger notwithstanding he appears to have preserved--until, in an echo of those past antecedents- he starts witnessing phantoms-flickers from a disturbed brain deprived of non-synthetic communication- the kind of mind that constructs a village out of matchsticks over 980 hours yet cant remember making half of it, has he been implanted? Or are they indications of another presence, corporeal or otherwise, on the moon. It starts with longing visions of his wife, then daughter then other indistinct figures in the reflections of the satellite plates and then born in the explosion chemistry of his crash. And then he starts to realise that all that time and space suddenly offers him an opportunity to discover himself--and the conclusions may be more than he can handle- may shake at the very ontological heart of himself surrounded by all that elemental blackness and height of human prowess awesomeness.

Rockwell's role involves tackling three dimensions of personality twice-over,-or even cubed and it's incumbent on his personality to provide the central dynamic. Sisphyean tragedy and wisecracks compete against themselves for the heart of the movie, culminating in a prolonged plot shift raises-again-questions about identity and who we're rooting for-what the central action means. Or at least that's the intention. Moon is at once technical volte-face;-- Jones's 5m overall budget stretching to a design-scape and lensing redolent of movie's five times its cost, a virtuoso Rockwell set as he plays (sub-spoiler) multiple aspects of himself, and existential space parable. It also conjures up the effect of warping time into slow-motion; at 98 minutes feels the length of Tarvovsky's monumental 3 hour Solaris or 2001 Space Odyssey. Jones and his team conceive an environment believably craggy and under the duress's of time, distinguishing it from those cleaner sci-fi visions—but then it still floats along like vacuum music turned visuals, with the occasional violent turbine woosh to break the somnambulistic hypnorapy.

Spacey's ship-voice is shuddering mellifluous—but as a thriller 'his 'is he/isn't he' conspiring technology paranoia is a poor facsimile of Hal. Several moments—in an abandoned wreck with a ghostly dressed girl, peeling back the layers to the forms beneath, or Sam's dim descent into a rabbit-hole hidden in the ships innards complete with—the central mystery-- mimic those genre-classic frames when you realise precisely what the Terminator Is, or Soylent Green. Moon is ponderous, otiose. Not the crunching endurance test-battery of a transformers or pirates, yet neither is it the academic exercise of cinephilic appreciation which even the soberest Tarvovsky or Murneau encourages. A movie can conceal beneath and within its set-up reflections on the nature of man- Groundhog Day gets cited on this but the proliphery of academic tomes on Woody Allen's peak period oeuvre or Golden-era screwball comedies aren't' completely spurious- but in its efforts to be a tragi-farce of nostalgia and fate's blind cruelty in a world just skewed towards the bitterly-funny enough to be totally arbitrary, whilst serving as authentic Sc-Fi with that unreflexive preponderance of details-, it becomes slow and messy as a haywire-blender on Demerol-or flu medicine.