The limp that mushroomed into a castration – The Beguiled (2017), dir: Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s new film tells the tragic story of eight people brought together by circumstances, or in other words tells the dark tale born by two opposing forces, the man and the woman, the sex drive and the suppression of instincts, the punishing control and the uncontrollable freedom.

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The Beguiled is an adaptation of Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, both based on the Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil”. I strongly encourage you to watch the original film, starring Clint Eastwood only to perceive how unsimilar can be two stories drilling from one source (with many of the dialogues and scenes found in both). The tone of the films is so diametrically opposite and feels like two people told you the same story but saw its characters in an utterly different light. The first person saw a school of sexually frustrated young girls and lonely hugs that stage a porn play with a wounded soldier at the lead and the second person saw ladies, frustrated with their drained of pleasure and excitement lives whose most raw and vengeful instincts get triggered by the seductive presence of a wounded soldier.

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The original film is eccentric, crude and gripping as it strips (literally) the heroines and villainises them either through their admittedly cruel actions or through their manic claim of the Corporal’s attention. Coppola wouldn’t stand for such a simplistic depiction of sexual deprivation and carnal desire so she created an adaptation far more fair to the female psych and libido. Elle Fanning’s Alicia is a teenage girl bored to the death in this cage of a school and filled with hormones in her stage of sexual awakening and not a slutty and persistent little devil, acting with the confidence of a much older and experienced woman (Jo Ann Harris).

In addition, leaving out several controversial elements of the first movie help maintain focus on the central storyline, such as McBurney’s kiss to the 12-year old Amy after he reassures her that she’s “old enough for kisses” (eh, pervert alert right there…), or the fact that Miss Martha’s late brother was also her lover (eh, brotherly love took a wildly inappropriate turn…).

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It is no wonder Sofia Coppola won the Best Director award in Cannes Festival, as The Beguiled is a masterful cinematic piece that gently pulls you into the world of these women.  The images of the countryside with the misty landscapes and the  ghost-like whipping willows surrounding the school of white marble in classical architectural style alternate with the claustrophobic scenes that find  its inhabitants interacting under the mysterious candle light (choosing a shorter aspect ratio, resembling a box in order to transit the sense of entrapment).

The film tells the story laconically (94 minutes to be precise) and yet, achieves a deeper character analysis than the 1971 feature. The narrative develops in a perfect circle; Amy gathering mushrooms in the forest, McBurney being carried by the girls, the lens laid steady outside the main gate.

This version builds up a subtle tension in the atmosphere that facilitates our immersion into the era and the psych of those women. The stylised environment, the purity of nature and the beauty and innocence of the girls as demonstrated by their manners, their clothes and their lessons makes the unescapable decay even more painful.

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This adaptation of The Beguiled is elegant and flows with the ease of a fairytale on screen despite it being a dark and emotionally dry one. There isn’t enough drama stemming from the unfortunate sequence of events but the tension and tragic irony are effectively communicated. A great part in that plays the lack of a soundtrack, as the story is told in the silence of the Virginian countryside, with only the sound of nature (birds, wind, etc.) and the violent echo of cannons dressing the images.

There are comical elements dispersed into the narrative and the depiction of the characters too. For instance, Edwina in her silent torment and lazy movements may come across less tragic than intended and Miss Martha, being so self-conflicted and always pretending to be composed, blunt and austere might make you laugh. That is not to say that Nicole Kidman’s portrayal is a caricature of a religious, old maid. On the contrary, it is a flawless one and that’s why in her desperate state, we can perceive her repressed sensitivity as well as the ridiculousness of her behaviour.

Colin Farrell is an exceptional and gifted performer that can incorporate sensitivity, anger, pain and laughter in his act. His McBurney is particularly chivalrous and charming but also, a true chameleon that becomes instantly aware that his survival is strictly dependent on him choosing the right shades of colours to match the diverse expectations of his interlocutors.

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The scenes you’ll love…

The film is emotionally flat and visually delicate, leaving you with a sensation resembling the clean and soft taste of vanilla, enjoyable but not strong enough for your palate. Nevertheless, there are many intense scenes that anchor this period fairytale.

In fact, the scenes that draw the dynamic among the women in relation to their handsome guest are a pleasure to watch. One of my favourite scenes is the apple pie dinner scene where all of them strive to earn McBurney’s affections in the most naïve and foolish manner.

The scene where Corporal McBurney attempts to get closer to Miss Edwina by diving into her psychological portrait and giving flesh to her fantasy of an empathic and romantic lover. The trembling hands, the facial expressions betraying her agony and the shattered voice when admitting that her greatest wish is to be taken away from that soul-draining place are only a few elements of Kirsten Dunst’s performance that prove how incredible an actress she is.

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Another remarkable scene is the bizarrely erotic sponge bath Miss Martha gives to McBurney. Nicole Kidman’s careful pauses and heavy exhalations show how incredibly hard is to be a constant judge of one’s true self. I wouldn’t say that Miss Martha is facing a dilemma because unlike Edwina, she made the choice between duty and desire a long time ago. Of course, her cold masquerade is in fact transparent and underneath it defenseless lay her needs and desires, ready to be triggered by McBurney’s presence and deliberate charm.

Towards the end comes the scene where Jon confronts the “butchers” and it’s an impressive and painful act followed by Edwina’s meaningful and passionate apology.

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So who is the beguiled in this story?

I don’t believe that the ladies are deceived by McBurney. They are all certainly aroused and seduced by him but it happened due to his playful nature and not with a malicious intent.

It is perhaps McBurney who should be considered the beguiled character in this story because he was misled by the graceful women who welcomed and admired him, only to wake up one morning with no second leg, or their sympathy.

I bet that the majority of women watching the film will sympathise with McBurney on how cruelly he was treated. Jon is man that received great attention and an equal amount of temptation so he acted as nature intended. He is not a bad man or deceitful but simply playful and flirty. The ladies however, turned from innocent admirers to vicious and “vengeful bitches” when he became a threat. Nonetheless, at that time women had no power to display and many hazards to look out for, and it is well known that fear mixed with frustration make the deadliest cocktail.

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Some might argue that it is self-preservation that led them to murder but it is certainly more than that. They had the option of reconciliation but instead chose to complete his punishment and send him off for the long journey.

The turning point for the tragedy was the decision to deprive him of his limp and the reasons behind Miss Martha’s action and Edwina’s silent participation are ambiguous. The amputation could be a metaphor for the castration that women secretly desire to perform on men as the apogee of their punishment for having been oppressed by them physically, mentally, socially and sexually for centuries.

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In contrast, it could be a broader critic on the cruelty and menace that rejection brings out in every human being, irrespective of gender. Men could have performed a different but equally harsh punishment to the woman who after having toyed with their feelings choice the bed of a much younger man. Similarly, had it been a male school and a Joanna instead of Jon, the antagonistic, young boys would have conspired to get rid of her after her fall from their grace.

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After the film you might want to talk with a Southern accent, eat apple pie or/and mushrooms, admit it’s useful to know how to stitch nice & even, look up how many poisonous mushrooms exist (and naturally, avoid them for a while for no actual reason…), you might be extra careful when walking up & down the stairs and finally, imagine an alternative ending in which the heroines decide they definitely need a gardener and also, learn how to share.

Get wheeled into an intoxicating rhythm; Baby Driver (2017), dir: Edgar Wright

Can you remember the last time you watched a film, got out of the theatre and turned back inside straight away?

That’s what happened to me after Baby Driver; minutes after leaving, I made a 180 degrees turn because I just HAD to experience the whole thing again.  I wanted to imprint every scene in conjunction with its soundtrack in my memory, grasp every detail in the performances, and essentially enjoy myself on repeat. Baby Driver is a fascinating and magically entertaining motion picture that captivates the audience with its caricature characters and stylised micro-settings. Music is employed as a narrative mechanism that is equally a recipe for infectious joy and excitement.

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The first scene is an excellent example of Wright’s incredible directing style: Baby is lip-singing Bellbottoms (performed by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) while waiting for the gang to wrap up the robbery, get into his red Subaru so that an impressive and thrilling car-chase can start. This particular set-piece is masterfully choreographed and quickly gives away that Baby Driver in a few decades time will be surely enlisted in the classics.

Scenes are not merely dressed with the appropriate songs but they are purposefully designed to match their rhythm and intensity. Wright’s brilliant concept makes his film particularly powerful for everyone; just count the times you’ve attached everyday moments to particular songs and swayed to their melody by improvising scenes that resembled music videos, or the times you replayed memories while enriching them with song that could turn them into perfectly synchronised musical settings.

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Baby Driver is an amalgam of crime, violence, romance, action, thriller, drama, dark comedy, and musical and therefore, it constitutes a genre in itself. The music score is in complete harmony with every movement and sound in the scenes, in a way that music and narrative are inextricably linked.  Instead of being disorienting, Baby Driver’s musical flow bizarrely adds to its structure and storytelling goals. And it is precisely thanks to its fluidity and multi-sensory richness that it makes you crave re-watching the scenes in order to catch things you might have missed the first time.

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Baby Driver is a stylish hybrid dipped into American aesthetics; it reflects modern pop-culture through the lens of cult classics hence, notably resembling Tarantino in the ‘90’s (minus the explicit, blood- infested violence) but at the same time, it feels old-fashioned in its details, by presumably drawing inspiration from the classic Hollywood era (as indicated by the B& W day-dreaming scenes with Baby and Debora).

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the assembly of amazing and memorable supporting characters. They’re all conceived in a way that they fall into stereotypes, yet they gloriously leave their distinctive cinematic print thanks to Wright’s witty dialogues and the cast’s remarkable performances.

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Buddy and Darling represent a more evolved and sexy version of Bonny & Clyde, in that they are partners in life and in crime. Eiza González presents Darling, a seductive and vengeful thief who is also, a jewel and bubble-gum enthusiast and thankfully, doesn’t disappear under a clichéd and decorative depiction of the femme-fatale in crime films. Jon Hamm portrays her other half, Buddy who is a relatively warm, easy-going guy with a distinctive deep voice and sarcastic grim. The plot’s turn in act three gives Hamm the opportunity to branch off the attractive, macho man persona and dive into raging insanity.

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Griff’s (Jon Bernthal) frustration towards Baby’s attitude spurs a comical monologue that balances a humorous teasing against a bleak warning. Jamie Foxx as Bats is intense and funny but transmitting a very unsettling and dangerous vibe though his maniacal and dry gaze. Kevin Spacey stays faithful to a cold, distant and almost robotic portrayal of Doc, only for his unintentional paternal instincts to be revealed towards the film’s epilogue, triggered by his emotional vulnerability towards true love.

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Lily James gives us a Debora that can be easily adored thanks to her evident beauty and graceful personality that is conveniently subtle and discreet enough only to support and trigger Ansel Elgort’s lead performance as Baby (with whom she also has great chemistry). Elgort feels natural and spontaneous on-screen and ticks all the right boxes as he convincingly appears tender (especially when caring for his foster dad), romantic and innocent but also, fearless and brave.

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After the film you might want to watch it again (yeah, it’s that good!), wear your sunglasses all day & night, talk less, make your own playlists that match with specific memories or people, you might seriously consider it’s high time you fell in love (again?), exceed speed limit (and potentially get a speeding fine too), contemplate what kind of illegal activity would suit you best and finally, come up with a cool nickname for your criminal alter-ego.

 

Obsession & Old Pearls; My Cousin Rachel (2017), dir: Roger Michell

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do

I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you

And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you

 

A cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (performed by Ursine Vulpine ft. Annaca) was chosen to dress the film’s trailer and I believe there couldn’t have been a more appropriate song.

The film is an adaptation of Daphne’s du Maurier 1951 novel of the same name, written and directed by the South African director, Roger Michell. I’ve previously watched the original 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton so the instant comparison in my head favoured the most recent version. The film’s cinematography by Joseph LaShelle elevates the beauty and elegance of British countryside (the story unfolds in a Cornwall estate) and the excellent performances. In fact, My Cousin Rachel has a theatrical feel in its directing and acting, as the cast is responsible for thrilling scenes that focus on dialogue and atmosphere. Speaking of which, the lush score composed by Rael Jones designs a mysterious and gloom frame.

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Throughout the film I developed tension and discomfort that kept me company all the way through the end, which I welcomed like a breath of fresh air because it concluded my agony and sadness. The exquisite photography was enhanced by the film’s Victorian setting, where we meet a woman, Rachel who is suspected to have committed slow and well-calculated murder by poisoning her husband. Rachel, portrayed by the masterful and powerful in all her performances Rachel Weisz, is a unique specimen of her sex. She is astonishingly beautiful and cunningly seductive. Weisz brings a dark and tragic tone to her character that lies under her confidence and disarming sexuality.

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There is great mystery surrounding Rachel as not only the facts of her past are only speculated upon but also because her every sentence and full-of-meaning looks promise an insight into her soul while in contrast, they give ground to further confusion. Accused of having turned into a sinister and grasping wife who, as the cherry on top has viciously got rid of her husband, she starts a love affair with Philip, her late husband’s nephew.

Admittedly, Rachel is neither trustworthy nor frank but she should not be placed on the other tip of the scale either, in my opinion. It is wisely said that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. She’s passionate, sensitive and kind but also smart and shameless. She apparently has come to the realisation that only by achieving her financial and marital independence she can become her own person and enjoy a free life and thus, employs every mean to accomplish her goals.

It is often forgotten that in times when women were eternally dependent on their fathers and husbands, seeking independence took great courage and could trigger survival instincts similar to those of an animal who’s fallen into a deathly trap and fights for its life.

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Sam Claflin creates a magnetising and tormented Philip that falls unexpectedly in love and loses all reason. As Claflin mentions in an interview, Philip is a boy who believes he’s a man, and he successfully plays that part as a student and a loving nephew up until the point when his whole world crumbles: the man who raised him and considers his father, his Uncle Ambrose dies and leaves cues that incriminate his wife.

There is such childishness, innocence and naivety in Philip that turn him into an almost antipathetic character as he is perceived as a weak, google-eyed, untrained puppy and thus, idiotic in his altruistic acts of love. However, Philip doesn’t lack a darker side: he is possessive, impulsive and ill-tempered with violent outbursts that remind us that even the most gullible people can cause great harm. In his defence however, Philip who hasn’t interacted with women growing up is the most vulnerable prey for an experienced and manipulative woman that also happens to be his first love and sexual experience.

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In all his inner mess and outrageous, most eccentric and neurotic behaviour, he never loses one friend, the sweet and protective Louise (Holliday Grainger). Louise is not the opposite of Rachel but demonstrates another kind of strength and confidence. She is plainly in love with Philip and despite having to put up with his insults and a broken heart, she remains a loyal friend and gains our respect and admiration.

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Did Rachel poison them, or didn’t she?

She did! I believe that when Ambrose’s mental state was permanently affected by his brain tumor, she chose to poison him and set herself free from an abusive – despite it being none of his fault – husband. Later on, when Philip became asphyxiating, she had to bring back her poisonous herbs, only to regret it shortly afterwards – perhaps moved by his love and devotion, or feeling pity for his foolishness – and decide to see to his health.

The beauty in stories that leave you wondering is the complexity and sincerity attributed to the characters in the process. When a film achieves confusion to such extent then it has provided an interesting tale of mystery, deceit and complicated personalities.

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Finally, there were some incredible scenes beautifully-executed by Weisz and Claflin. Let’s take their first encounter for instance, where she offers him tea and cake, and he needs to lick his fingers from the melting butter. In the original film, it’s a comment lost between the lines and Burton’s sterile response is easily forgotten. In complete contrast, Michell and his performers take those lines and make an erotic, uneasy and utterly memorable scene out of them. The same stays true for the scene of whispers exchanged over a whipping Rachel, Philip’s outburst and many others.

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After the film you might want to read Du Maurier’s novel, listen to the lush and dark original score, remember a time when you were innocent and gullible in the matters of love, look up how many poisonous seeds exist in nature, debate whether Rachel is guilty or not, and finally make yourselves a hideous, healthy brew while pondering about the irresistibly seductive people you’ve met in your life so far.

Erotic Thriller or A Tale of Sadistic Deceit; The Handmaiden (2016), dir: Park Chan-wook

Park’s recurrent themes are prevalent here as well as sadism, deceit, violence, sex, revenge and freedom intertwine, by weaving a thrilling and sensual tale of dramatic proportions.

For weeks I’ve been passing by the film’s poster and each time it caught my eye! I was curious but I remained stubbornly away from trailers and reviews until I finally visited the theatre this evening. I needed a genuine thrill for a change but as the Rolling Stones wisely mark, you can’t always get what you want….

I might not have had the most intense experience but I liked the film as a whole. It was engaging for the most part thanks to the stirring narrative and the surprising twists and revelations. The visual art of its photography, the aesthetically masterful shots and the purposefully created costumes are some of the strongest elements of The Handmaiden. The film is a psychological thriller with a sufficient character study and sparkling sensuality. The photography is amazing by praising landscapes and interiors and by indulging us with portraits and aesthetic sexual frames.

Although, I recognise that The Handmaiden is an artful creation I did not achieve immersion into the story, or identification with any of the characters. As a result, the end arrives and despite the classic conclusion where ”the good prevail, the evil are shattered”, I am not experiencing catharsis or satisfaction (with the exception of the destructive activities that take place in the library).

The acting style adopted in the film matched inappropriately overtone facial expressions with scenes that would have benefited of strict focus on sensuality and sexual tension. As a matter of fact, I believe the last sex scenes (that also happen to last the longest) did not add to the story or the character study. The film is ultimately sweet and romantic with scenes that spur laughter in the place of tension and focus, interrupting transportation into the narrative and disconnecting the senses.

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In contrast, I particularly enjoyed Hideko’s (the lady’s) theatrical readings of Marquis de Sade’s works. Her performance is spotless, stunning and gripping. Also, the bathtub scene where Sook-hee employs her amateur dentistry knowledge to smooth her lady’s tooth provokes titillation and excitement far more than the more graphic scenes that the protagonists share throughout the film.

Finally, the way Park chooses to deliver the story is brilliant and the three-part storytelling reveals the different perspectives and inner instincts of our two heroines (1. the handmaiden’s, 2. the lady’s, 3. the story’s epilogue). The first two parts consist of repetitions that enhance the cinematic experience instead of tiring viewers (an arguably rare thing!) as moments are revisited from different angles and previously concealed facts are revealed.

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After having watched  The Handmaiden don’t be surprised if you want to wear colourful gloves, have sex, visit South Korea, read a chapter from one of Sade’s scripts, or if you happen to have a nightmare about wet, dark basements and gigantic octopuses.

Reality strikes at dinner; Perfetti Sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers) (2016), dir: Paolo Genovese

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I will start by saying that I absolutely loved, loved, loved the film!! It is realistic, funny, cruel, and tender. The idea in its core is simple, and yet brilliant. Seven friends meet for dinner and one of them suggests that they put the “black boxes of their lives”, in other words their phones on display and make their use public for the night; calls, texts, social media activity etc. The film’s epitome is that it is wiser to admit we do not really know anyone, and to avoid games that set our secrets at the risk of exposure.

As Dr. House wisely had been proclaiming for 8 seasons….

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There are three couples in the story (or four, if we count Peppe and his absent “girlfriend”, Lucilla) therefore, it is only natural to assume that infidelity is part of the many and varied revelations of their turbulent night together. Rocco (Marco Giallini), a plastic surgeon and his wife Eva (Kasia Smutniak), a therapist have a teenage daughter, then Lele (Valerio Mastandrea), a lawyer and his wife Carlotta (Anna Foglietta) have two young kids, and finally Bianca (Alba Rohrwacher) and Cosimo (Edoardo Leo) are the newlyweds. Peppe (Giuseppe Battiston), a school teacher, is a divorcee who is in a serious relationship for the first time in many years.  The guys in the group are childhood friends, and the dynamic of their relationship represents a perfect image of male friendship and the instinctive collusion among them, which leads to a phone trade that is a major turning point in the storyline.

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It is a funny coincidence to watch the film only a few days after I experienced a personal revelation of my own; someone I have known my entire life and strongly believed to be incapable of infidelity (due to his reserved nature and fear of criticism), turned out to be an expert in deceiving his family for years. Bizarrely enough, infidelity is not what one would expect in a relationship-centred film such as this, as most twists are generated under adultery’s deceiving umbrella. Despite my prejudice regarding the cliché presentation of cheating in films, I was served with a delicious secret that stripped friendship of its virtues and established cynicism’s eternal reign over human actions.

One room-set films inevitably resemble theatrical plays and therefore, should have particularly dynamic performances, an original script, and well-written dialogues that can strip their characters in a revelatory and cathartic way such as, Polanski’s Carnage (2011),  Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Mankiewicz’s Sleuth (1972), Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1966), etc. Perfetti Sconosciuti meets all the aforementioned criteria for delivering a memorable cinematic experience that reminds us of how complicated and secretive people can be, even the ones we could swear we know best.

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The performances are spotless, and the cast is evidently carefully chosen for their parts. No wonder the film managed to collect nine  David Di Donatello nominations, winning in the Best Film and Best Script categories. Drama builds up gradually, following the calibre of the respective revelations, and by the end of it everyone is numb and hurt. However, smart and humorous lines bring out the funny side of it all. Some of the themes around which the film revolves are parenting, love, sex, fidelity, separation, homosexuality, acceptance, hypocrisy, guilt, psychotherapy, relationship with exes, work, lawsuits, and of course the Eclipse, with the moon being the only supporting actor.

People in their 30’s (and over) can easily identify with the characters who are married (or in serious relationships), some of them with kids. In contrast, viewers in their 20’s, like myself, could treat the film as a cautionary tale about the consequences of keeping secrets from your significant other, and your friends in the future when life might become incomprehensibly confusing and hard. Having watched the film, I am tempted to suggest the game next time I meet up with friends for dinner in order to have a first-hand experience of the damage that such an intrusion of privacy can evoke (while enjoying biodynamic wine, naturally…).

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I adored the final scene where we are shown how the night would have ended, if the group of friends hadn’t played the game. It got me thinking which scenario would be best; the brutality of each other’s inner, indigestible reality served on a cold platter, or the continuation of hypocrisy and secrecy?! It is tempting to imagine a reality where everything is out in the open and thus, there are no deeper layers of people’s lives and feelings. On the other hand, drama goes hand in hand with human relationships and for some it would be a shame to separate those two… Also, it is undeniable that a sense of liberation and catharism occurs for all parties involved when something that has been kept a secret with great cost and mental effort is finally exposed.

Personally, I would choose to play every time.

Nocturnal Animals: A violent romantic thriller (2016), dir: Tom Ford

 

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Leaving the theatre, I felt I was never going to smile again. I had been walking for about half an hour before I reached home, feeling absolutely numb and hurt by what I had been witnessing for the past 2 hours. “Nocturnal Animals” is an incredible and a dark film, with a three-dimensional storytelling structure, an incredible cast, and an emotionally charged score by Abel Korzeniowski. Tom Ford calls it a “cautionary tale” and with good reason still,  I will call it “the lurking nightmare of missing your one chance for happiness in life”.

The film is a thriller and a strong, pure, and piercing drama about regret, revenge, and unfulfilled love. The storylines are directed with frenetic energy that is complemented by beautiful images and sounds. The film’s pulse is unnerving due to the unconcealed, rough reality that is artfully and brutally crafted by Ford, whose second work lacks the elements that made people accuse him of being a pretentiously stylised filmmaker in his first work, “A Single Man” (2009).

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The Basics: 

The film was adapted by Ford himself from the 1993 novel, “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright. Admittedly, it demands considerable talent and ability from both the director/writer and the cast to convey the intertwined storylines with clarity and undisturbed flow of emotion. Therefore, I am happy to say that despite its complexity and richness, the film is incredible in the sense that the details and allegories that were carefully placed across the narrative evoke pervasive emotions.

Amy Adams breaths life into Susan, an art gallery owner who leads an affluent life who represents the image of an accomplished and stylish woman (a role model for the western civilisation, perhaps?). One day she receives a manuscript of the first book that her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) wrote and has dedicated to her. Susan barely gets any sleep at nights, so he used to call her a nocturnal animal, and that is how he named his novel. The ex-couple hasn’t had any contact for the past 19 years, and we learn from Susan that Edward was unwilling to talk to her when she contacted him 2 years prior. Susan is unfulfilled with her job and unhappy in her marriage (her cheating and cold husband, Hutton is Armie Hammer). She starts reading the novel in her stylish, lavish yet empty and hollow home when everyone is gone for the weekend.

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The story in the book follows a peaceful Texan (like Edward, and Tom Ford..), Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter through a nighttime road trip in the middle of nowhere. At one point, they are harassed and forced out the road by another car whose passengers are meant to turn their life into a horrific nightmare. The sequence of the scenes that follow, I believe are one of the most disturbing and tense in cinema, as they are filled with agony and suspense in a roughly realistic background. The next morning finds Tony devastated in the company of Detective Andes, portrayed by Michael Shannon, following the trails of the previous night’s incidents. A year after, Tony has a chance to avenge his family but that would mean that he needs to redefine himself and his limitations.

3 stories: Reality (Present – Past): Susan reads Edward’s novel and expects to meet him during his business trip in L.A. shortly. Interwoven into real life and fictitious events, we see the flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s relationship. Fantasy: The story of the novel unfolds between the real events and flashbacks. Viewers are called to make sense of the parallelism between the protagonists’ past relationship and Tony’s painful story.

My Thoughts:

My curiosity was piqued right from the beginning, when Susan receives the novel. I wondered what were the events that led to their separation that spurred his inspiration for a book. Having watched the film, I realise that it wasn’t so much the reason of their break-up, as to its consequences, meaning the psychological impact it had in his life (and hers..). The book works as her punishment and his revenge.

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“Do you feel your life has turned into something you never intended?”- Susan

Susan projects power, accomplishment and composure. Her younger self however, wished to break free from the conformity of bourgeoisie, and passionately declared that she was completely different from her mother. She chooses to embrace the way Edward perceives her to be and she finds liberation and self-esteem by his side.

In contrast to Susan, Edward is confident about his calling to be a writer, he is also thoughtful and very sensitive, which is the opposite of what Susan has been brought up into. He reminds Susan that she has what it takes to be an artist herself and introduces her into a less pragmatic and sensible way of living. Susan’s initial instinct is to embrace the unknown beauty of freedom and self-acceptance, and so decides to marry him. Initially, she is called to justify the marriage to her mother, but later on (2 years approximately..) she has to justify it to herself, as she feels unhappy in it, despite her love for Edward.

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Is it inevitable to turn into our mothers? 

I do not believe that “We all eventually turn into our mothers.” (says Susan’s mother, played by Laura Linney), but I do believe that our mother’s (and father’s) voice does not leave us throughout our adult life. It is our job to seek our true self, buried under numerous years of constant influence and manipulation (conscious or unconscious) by our parents, in order to set ourselves free and find the life that suits us best, not others.

Our heroine, Susan made a step toward her truth, then she got scared when her real life did not resemble the one she was “supposed” to have, so she left her loved one and found a more “suitable” match, and career path. Nineteen years later, Susan has accomplished things that have definitely made her mother proud. She feels “ungrateful not to be happy” in her privileged life but she is simply not! The truth is that her love for Edward has never left her, nor the idea of the life they could have had together. She burdened with guilt for having given into fear and doubt, about not having believed in him the way he believed in her, and for having robbed him of the chance to become a father when she aborted their child (“I believe this is going to hunt me for the rest of my life.”~ Susan).

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What scared me the most?

The extent of feelings: Edward experienced excruciating pain from the ending of their relationship, which led him to the darkest places of his soul where he was able to conceive his allegorical, haunting story. The violence and pain that I witnessed in the scene where the family confronts the 3 troublemakers won’t leave me anytime soon. My stomach was tight and I could barely breathe while I watched those relentless psychopaths attack and ruin the lives of an innocent and happy family. I can only imagine that the helplessness we see in Tony, is the same as the one Edward felt. It is unsettling to think that someone might could feel so devastated by the end of a relationship that these feelings of anger and loss would translate into a story of such despair and agony.

Misjudge love, and make the wrong call: I must admit that I have never felt so strongly about anything/anyone, let alone a romantic relationship that could instantly evoke identification with the characters. However, the film conveys sentiment with such intensity that it affects even those who like myself, do not have a similar story in their past. In addition, it helped that I can perfectly relate to Susan who struggles between what her gut tells her, and what cynicism and borrowed logic dictates her to do.

It is believed that love is rare and thus, precious. It is scary to realise how easy it is to underestimate your partner, reduce the importance of “love” and thus, reject your feelings (as well as your partner’s). To make matters worse, it is also commonly held that second chances in life can be rare, which significantly reduces our chance to find happiness. I might be slightly pessimistic in that respect but don’t you find major decisions in life to be intimidating? Some people are firm in their decision-making but what about those who struggle with making their mind? (even about what chocolate bar they are going to buy.. they pick one, eat it and then regret they haven’t bought the other one…). I wonder, how willing we are nowadays to fight for our relationships? In a time where intimacy and sex are acquired quickly and easily, are we perhaps consumed with our perception of the “ideal relationship” that makes all others (the real ones…) seem expendable? Are we always on the look for the next, the better partner that is around the corner?

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Edward’s plead to Susan stayed with me:

“When you love someone you work it out, you have to be careful with it, you don’t just throw it away. You might never get it again.” 

I feel the film presents a clear warning as to how we should treat the ones we love, as apparently true love is rare. It took Edward 20 years to let go of the ghosts of his past, and being a writer he found a rather creative way to do so but imagine an ordinary person trying to manage the psychological burden, and struggling to discover a non-destructive way to release the pain… In addition, Susan’s story shows that when you launch on a new path, having left ruins behind you, chances are that it will haunt you for the rest of your life and will sabotage your potential happiness.

My views on guilt is that we should rip ourselves from what we were taught to feel remorse about and reshape our moral code. However, Susan’s guilt is not distant and moralistic but alive and personal. She is guilty about the abortion, and the impact of her cruelty towards Edward but she is mainly guilty about the life she made for herself, in other words about ignoring her true feelings.

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The End

Despite his great suffering Tony still remains a “good man”, which is mistakenly perceived as a weakness of character (especially in Texas…). In the end he kills Ray, the alpha of the criminal group (exceptionally portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose powerful performance reminded me of the obsessive tension that Tom Hardy projects on-screen), and accidentally (or not?) kills himself. It is questionable whether he would ever be able to get over such a violent and cruel part of his life, the loss of his loved ones and the person he has become therefore, his redemption comes with his death.

It is evident that in Edward’s mind Susan’s betrayal takes the dimension of Ray’s actions towards Tony however, I believe that Susan can identify with both Ray and Tony. In the beginning of the film, Susan admits that she has been thinking intensely about her ex-husband, which means that she had already started putting things together as to the reason why her life feels so empty and cold. By the time she reads the end of the book, it is beyond doubt that she experiences the same feelings as Tony who cries in despair that he “should have tried harder to protect his family”.

The cross that Tony is wearing, is the same cross that Susan has around her neck, and the red couch the Tony’s wife and daughter were found raped and murdered belongs to the apartment where they used to live together (not to mention that when Susan calls her daughter, she imagines her lying in the same position as the women in the novel). I loved the scenes where the parallelism is drawn between Susan’s and Tony’ s reality, especially the one where we seem them posing as tormented statues in the bathtub.

I feel that Edward is aware that Susan is unhappy and regrets her decision thus,  Tony is the expression of her own suffering as well. Despite the fact that Edward was deemed the weak one, it is Susan that was betrayed by her own self, due to her weakness to make a leap of faith and trust he instincts instead of the cynical world around her. As a result, just like Tony, Susan was deprived of her child and husband that the nocturnal animal took away, and in order to redeem herself and reach a catharsis she needs to “kill herself”, meaning the person she pretends to be and has been responsible for her bad decisions. By following Tony’s (and Edward’s) example, she will be free of her past regrets and will be able to find peace in her present life.

The closing scene is the proof that Edward truly did let go of his past and is no longer concerned or affected by Susan. And it is the perfect vengeance because during the hours that she is waiting for him to show up at the restaurant, she feels more and more convinced of her horrible, incorrigible mistake.

“Life on hold” summarises “The Remains of the Day” (1993), dir: James Ivory

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I must have been around 12 when I first watched the film. It was among the Academy Award nominated films that were part of my “to-watch” list and I was determined to cross it out, despite the fact that the trailer had not triggered my curiosity. The strict environment of the British society of the past century used to cause me some sort of agony as a viewer, perhaps due to the suppressed feelings that these storylines are woven into. So I sat down and watched it, only to end up feeling unfulfilled and frustrated. I was so angry that “nothing happened” between the characters, even after the second chance they were given to reunite and finally, admit their mutual affections. Twelve years later, the film had a completely different effect on me and I would like to write about that.

The film is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel and introduces Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the butler at Darlington Hall who is taking a trip to West Country to visit Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), a former housekeeper (at least 20 years back..) and convince her to resume her role. We follow Mr Stevens during his journey and discover their background story in flashbacks.

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“What I do find a major irritation are those persons who are simply going from post to post looking for romance.” ~ Mr Stevens

Mr Stevens considers his duty to be the highest principle in life, and the explanation for his self-imposed oppression is provided in the first part of the film. His father, a butler himself, has instructed him to place obligation and dignity above all other virtues. As a result, Mr Stevens becomes a servile, loyal and reliable man that allows himself a single ambition and desire; to serve his master to the best of his abilities.

The mask of duty and blind devotion that he wears in order to practice his profession make me wonder whether this unnatural avoidance of intimacy is a comfortable nest he has made for himself, and therefore blaming it on the job requirements could just as well be a convenient excuseI mean, what if he was a gardener, or a chauffeur, wouldn’t he still have found a way to abstain from earthly pleasures? (well.. except for smoking his cigars). Could the firm obsession with his responsibilities as a butler be a mere excuse for protecting himself from the uncertainties and dangers that lurk behind experiencing feelings? I realise of course that I might be projecting my own intentions and thoughts onto his, as I often trick myself in building walls that hold feelings away from my warm, cosy nest of a reality (yet by employing much less dogmatic means than his…).

However, one thing is certain and masterfully conveyed though Hopkins’ performance, Mr Stevens HAS feelings but he constantly suppresses them and often treats Miss Kenton with cruelty (e.g. after having exposed her affections ~in a subtle way~ he finds her crying and dismisses her once again by asking her to attend to a house chore). Acknowledging that fact about the film we can detect a certain similarity with “The Age of Innocence” (1993), “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), and the “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), in all of which duty prevails over sentiment.

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“Yes. I am a coward. I’m frightened of leaving, and that’s the truth. All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me.” ~ Miss Kenton

The most heartbreaking scene of the film was their final separation at the bus station after having met after 20 years for the first (and last) time. However, the most painful and emotionally charged scene shows Mr Stevens being surprised by Miss Kenton in his room while reading a romance. Hopkins’s defensive body language and piercing stare contribute to the profound sadness I experienced as a viewer. The way he is observing her from up close and the hunger of his gaze could be those of a painter who has only one chance before she disappears forever, only a few seconds to grasp every detail on a butterfly’s wings so that he can portray her most accurately later.

Miss Kenton is a sensible, smart, hard-working woman who does not share Mr Stevens’ extreme views on duty. She is shaken when Lizzy (a housemaid) abandons the stability and future prospects of her job and appoints love as the most fundamental possession in life. She feels tired of waiting for Mr Stevens to express the slightest sign of affection so that she could still hold on to her hope for a more intimate relationship. Following an outburst she experiences that same evening he suggests they put an end to their briefings and in fact, replace them with the exchange of notes. She quickly apologised (“They’re very useful. It was only tonight.”) but the damage was already done. The scene made me wonder whether he traced her apologetic tone and chose to ignore it in order to punish her, or he simply did not possess the ability to spot her emotional state. This is a perfect example of how delicate the balance was between their estrangement and their friendship. A parallelism was drawn in my head; it reminded me of the way I approach a stray cat; I want to earn her trust to feed or caress her and although I do my best not to frighten her, one wrong move, a sudden wave of my hand perhaps, and she’s gone.

Miss Kenton returns from her pleasant evening, announces her decision and confronts Mr Stevens about his cold treatment. She finds a subtle way to highlight how significant his presence is in her life. Personally, I perceive her example about his mannerisms to be translated as such: “You are important to me, so I observe you and I know you well by now. I love the face you make when there’s too much pepper in your food, just like all the little things that make you so unique. I love telling stories about you because it makes me feel closer to you.” 

Despite being shocked by Miss Kenton’s marriage announcement Mr Stevens religiously keeps up his masquerade, and so he does 20 years later when she spares him from having to make his offer only to have her refuse it. The kindness of her character surprised me, as well as her endless efforts to bring emotion in the centre of their conversation, by being open about her feelings about her husband, Mr Stevens, and her life inventory.

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Lessons I learnt from “The Remains of the day”:

  • Do not allow yourself to strive to be only one thing, invest in various roles in life instead. What good will it do you if you strip yourself from the joys of life, in order to be the best employee? In the long run your life might seem deprived of meaning, or even worse seem like a terrible waste. In Mr Steven’s case, he realised toward the end of his life that the noble man he had served for many years was far from perfect and superior in judgement (He was labeled a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor due to his naivety, and died a broken man). Be open-minded and prepared for your emotional needs to potentially shift later in life. By being proactive and adaptable, and by leading a multi-faceted life, you don’t risk facing a dead-end street along the way.
  • Always express your feelings and be honest with yourself and others, even when your pride is at stake. I will not repeat cliché phrases regarding a lifetime’s  length however, regret is a terrible punishment we inflict upon ourselves. I believe it is a punishment because we always face a choice and we should normally prefer the route with the lowest emotional cost. Regret seems to be the premium emotional burden. Therefore, we ought to realise that placing our safety and risk aversion above a new, desirable prospect is a conscious choice that we make and has repercussions for our future. I suspect that if Mr Stevens had been entirely honest with himself and had chosen to act upon his impulses instead of burying them, he would have allowed himself a far more fulfilling life than the one he led. In other words, he would have been happier and would have made others happier, which is the ultimate duty of us all.

I’d like to close with an extract from the novel that contains the essence of the story:

“In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had…..There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.” ~ Kazuo Ishiguro