Tuesday, 20 September 2011

No surprise that The Skin I Live In has many layers

Almodóvar once again envelops the viewer within a host of different visual motifs and references, in his latest work, The Skin I Live In.

On this occasion, I feel that a short review would be enough for the great Almodóvar – just see this film. For all its baroque themes and aesthetics, even a professed Almodóvar sceptic would get some nourishment from this film. It is pure cinema. I say that in the sense that other arts forms are present and correct, with references to literature and such evocative music, not least of all fine art in the paintings by Titian and sculptures by Louise Bourgeois. The film has so much to offer the viewer, both as an aural and visual feast and all the while encompassing such grand themes as betrayal, revenge, passion and hysteria.

As with the Spanish auteur’s previous films, such as Talk to Her (2002), Volver (2006), All About My Mother (1999) and my personal favourite, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988); The Skin I Live In moves across many genres, and is all at once melodrama, horror, sci-fi and comedy. Now arguably the most successful Spanish filmmaker of all time, Almodóvar’s mish-mash cauldron of influences could almost be a genre unto itself - there is no doubt his work can be instantly recognised.

Discussion of these many references can be found in countless reviews and articles elsewhere (in fact it is very hard to review the work of a director who has been so widely discussed!), so instead I’ll concentrate my efforts on one particular pleasure of the film, namely the scopophilic one. A love affair with looking is demonstrable by the numerous inventive ways the characters are seen to engage in staring, spying and gazing.

Held captive in the Cigaral, Vera (Elena Anaya) wears a body stocking to protect her artificially engineered skin. The architect of this doubly layered outerwear is her captor, Dr Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) who has used transgenesis to grow a new super skin that will withstand burns and insect bites. Contained within the four walls of her room, Vera is the subject of camera surveillance, and is watched by Robert on a giant flat screen, reclining on her bed, much like the Titian nudes hanging on the walls of his home. It is because of this manifold mediation, that of seeing Vera in the frame of a widescreen TV, wearing a stocking to cover the skin that is not her original - that Almodóvar’s lingering shots of her eyes have such great resonance, as becomes apparent in the film’s revelatory third act. These gateways’ to the soul sparkle and emote, and it is testament to Anaya’s performance that she conveys so much with her eyes in a role that demands a great deal from her whole body.

Equally, in a case of mistaken identity, Zeca (Roberto Álamo) desires Vera after seeing her in one of the many smaller screens in the house’s kitchen and displays a fervent, frustrated, passion in his attempts to overcome the boundary that separates him from the object of his craving.

In another beautifully directed scene, the problem of personal perspective and what is hidden from view is brought to the fore. At the wedding of a friend, Robert keeps an eye on his socially awkward daughter, Norma (Blanca Suárez). A series of shot-reverse - shots show Robert to be peering at Norma through the bodies on the dance floor, glimpsing her exchanges with her peers. In the meantime Norma is looking at a young man, who reciprocates her gaze. What follows is a masterful revealing of the actual and speculative events, as Robert infers one conclusion, and the viewer is made complicit in the real interaction between Norma and her young beau. This Hitchcockian sleight-of-hand is a pleasure to behold, as the foundations are laid for the characters dark intentions and even darker actions.

The Skin I Live In offers much for the viewer to revel in. Especially Banderas, who shows how great his range, is when compared to his other collaborations with Almodóvar, Women on the Verge… and Tie me Up! Tie me Down! (1990). He expresses a cool and distant presence, but one who nonetheless feels deeply for those he loves.

Still, for all its genre-bending inventiveness, the film is most successful as a horror, and it is the ideas and images expressed in that vein that will linger in my mind …

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Life on Earth, no small concerns in Attenberg.

In Attenberg, the producer of 2009’s Dogtooth presents another orally fixated exploration of the world, from the perspective of an isolated young woman.

Director Athina Rachel Tsangari has crafted a curious and detailed portrait of four people living in a Greek coastal town, built around an industrial plant. The film focuses on Marina (Ariane Labed) daughter of Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis), an architect dying of cancer. The film’s title comes from Marina’s passion for watching David Attenborough documentaries with her father, something that has lead to her habit of mimicking the animals in the programs (Attenberg being a mispronunciation of the name by Marina’s friend Bella). In fact, it could be said that some of the most honest and poignant communication in the film derives from the more animal-like exchanges between characters. Attenberg begins with Bella (Evangelia Randou) teaching her repressed counterpart to French kiss. Marina’s literal distaste for what she considers to be a repulsive act eventually overcomes her impulse to learn and the two women resort to ape-like displays of aggression in the grass. This scene, when considered in relation to the film as a whole, is actually the perfect introduction to the central female relationship – intimate, inquisitive, partially dependent and ultimately tinged with an instinctive jealousy.

I really enjoyed Attenberg. Initially I couldn’t verbalise why, but the more I think about it, the richer it gets, as the characters interactions with each other and their environment are actually beautifully composed gestural encounters, (Cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis also worked on Dogtooth). It is telling that the themes of the film are the grandest; Marina comes to terms with adult relationships and responsibilities via her experiences of sex and death. Tsangari doesn’t explain why Marina has such a limited experience of life, other than in scenes between father and daughter in which Marina expresses her frustration at her Dad’s desire for her to get out of her comfort zone, despite him raising her in opposition to this. At one point she describes herself as asexual, and declares that she wished her Dad didn’t have genitals.

It is in the portrayal of the sheltered central character that Attenbergs similarity with Dogtooth is revealed. In both films the absurdity of human behaviour in the 'adult' world, is exposed by young people seeing it for the first time. When Marina is eventually attracted to a man, (an engineer, played by Giorgos Lanthimos, director of Dogtooth) their forays into lovemaking are made comically endearing by her instinct to narrate their actions as though they were animals in an Attenborough documentary. The oral fixation is shown in both base actions – spitting, and in word play as Spyros and Marina volley rhyming words back and forth eventually devolving into grunts and growls. This repetition of play and games is also present in the interspersed scenes of Marina and Bella marching along a neglected strip between houses, in a beguiling tribute to Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. At first these sequences can seem too contrived, but on second thought are no less ridiculous than the other human rituals on display. Notable in this category is the detailed process necessary to allow Spyros to be cremated after his inevitable demise. In a scene weighted with pathos, we see the funeral director explaining the choices for the casket and the urn, and the irony of Marina’s insistence on a non-synthetic coffin lining for her allergic father.

Attenberg isn’t simply a study of human behaviour, however, nor is it entirely similar to Dogtooth; Tsangari having created a funny, beautiful and sad film that also reflects on the ‘failed revolution’ in Greece, represented by the damaged and ruined buildings, and lamented by Spyros who (at least in the film) designed them. Ariane Labeds’ performance is both brave and tender, and it won her the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival. It is delights such as this and an almost music video style karaoke section with Bella and Marina that means the film will stay with you a lot longer than any mainstream coming-of-age tale.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Super 8 - a little bit super.

The director of Star Trek (2009) and Mission Impossible 3 (2006) once again demonstrates his immense love for lens flair in this nostalgic ode to films and filmmaking in the 1980’s.

Some may find it irritating, but I really appreciate a director who steadfastly adheres so an aesthetic choice, even if it makes little sense to the plot. What’s that in the sky? Is it a UFO? Nope, in this case it’s just light reflecting off the lens. Brilliant. Lenses are an important factor of the tension in Super 8, which sees a gang of early teens, in the style of The Goonies (1985) or E.T (1982), investigate an alien presence in their small town in Ohio. Shot on a combination of RED digital, the eponymous 8mm and 35mm – the tradition of analogue filmmaking is very much at the heart of Abrams’ Spielberg distilled Sci-Fi. The tension comes from the deliberately 1980’s aesthetic - the production design seeming to owe so much to Spielberg’s 1982 classic, from the brown home interiors to the nod to the emergence of the Sony WALKMAN. This combined with the appearance of the grain on the filmstrip – a visible signifier of the pre-digital past. The grain is all part of the nostalgia, but this being a film made nearly thirty years after Elliot discovered an alien in his back yard, the effects are far from attributable to the analogue. As a result we get beautiful scenes of the chaos of small-town life looking as if it has been literally lifted from E.T and a motion-capture CG alien running tearing up a train crash and running amok at the local gas station. What’s interesting is where the love of the grain colludes with the necessity of delivering a creature that will comply with a 21st century’s audience expectation. No longer can we be satisfied with Bruce the shark, in all his rubbery menace. Two scenes in the film show the gang watching super 8 films, in which the alien can be seen, all fluid movements of its spider-like limbs. Knowing that this is a digital effect, presented as supposedly the past within the time frame of the films’ events, juxtaposes old technology with new, in a brilliant demonstration of multiple mediation in the post-photographic age. We love the grain, but we don’t need the grain in order to signify the past, we can fake it with digital effects. A film that is so obviously a love affair with past filmmaking practices belies its integrity through the force of invention.

This is not to say that the film isn’t hugely enjoyable. Though lacking originality – (any parent would be wise to simply sit their kids down with a screening of E.T rather than this: it’s for those who can remember riding a Chopper or using a CB radio). Abrams creates enough thrills and humour to entertain for the duration of the running time. The choice to cast relative unknown’s as the kids, (with the exception of Elle Fanning as Alice who was last seen in Sophia Coppolas’ Somewhere) is also an effective one and the chemistry between them as they bicker their way through making a zombie film and escaping death-by-alien is very entertaining. Unfortunately the film’s Spielberg-ness extends all the way to its conclusion, with the creature defying expectations based on its previous behaviour, in favour of a family friendly face-off between boy and deadly extra-terrestrial.