Labour of love – God’s Own Country (2017), dir: Francis Lee

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Francis Lee’s directorial debut is a raw, realistic, and sensual love story between a miserable farmer and his newly hired worker. In an attempt to present the harsh realities of the farming life in addition to not fitting in as he’s experienced it himself, Lee gives us a story so impactful and true to human nature that is impossible to leave one apathetic.

The material is tough but the lead performances are superb, with both Alec Secareanu (Gheorghe) and Josh O’Connor (Johnny) enjoying a captivating chemistry and being exceptional in delivering the emotional depth of their characters. Ian Hart (Martin) and Gemma Jones (Deidre) are brilliant and crudely affective as Johnny’s disabled father and firm grandmother.

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Our first image of Johnny is that of a lonely alcoholic, trapped in a torture of a life. He is not enjoying the company of friends, lovers, or his family and his work is in fact, forced labour. He has no control over his demise and that leads his family to treat him with contempt, pushing him even further to the road of alienation and anger. Johnny’s idea of human contact is so distorted that he is not able to tolerate being touched or kissed, resembling that of a scared animal that first attacks and then runs off.

Gheorghe on the other hand, is calm, grounded, confident and tender. Being an immigrant, he employs sensibility and discipline which comes in complete contrast to Johnny’s carelessness and indulgence. It is remarkable how piercing and emotive is Secareanu’s expression opposite to O’Connor’s tormented look. Johnny’s cry for help is answered in the most compassionate and loving way, granting him acceptance and leading him to a precious connection with a fellow man. The cathartic scenes that follow his surrender to Gheorghe’s affection are disarmingly affective. As Johnny opens up little by little, we witness his life’s shape changing as well.

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Apart from the great scenes between the two leads, there is another I truly loved between Johnny and his father. The particular scene brought East of Eden (1955) in mind, where Cal (James Dean) and his father (Raymond Massey) have a similar purifying exchange marked by those two little words, “Thank you” that seem able to wipe clean years of harshness and bitterness in seconds.

Experiencing the film, it felt as a sensational piece of reality, a precious lesson on the transformational power of love and on the strength necessary to seek a better life by being truer to oneself. In God’s Own Country the silence and loneliness of the Yorkshire countryside is beautifully captured and the relentless and yet, rewarding labour of its people is explicitly presented with honesty and realism. The romantic story that is born and evolves in those landscapes has an impressive intensity and passion that fits the absoluteness of its surroundings.

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After the film you might feel like praising the power of love, experience compassion for the lonely, avoid eating lamb or any livestock for a while, take a trip to the countryside, contemplate about how your surroundings reflect upon your mood and behaviour and finally, you might judge whether you’d be brave enough to oppose to your family’s expectations regarding your work, love life, etc. by following your own path.

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Love’s GLOrious epilogue – Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017), dir: Paul McGuigan

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The film is a personal portrait of a love story, no matter how unusual and morbid it becomes. The early memories of their affair interwind with the last days of Gloria’s life and in fact, are only two years apart, which makes it feel even more an unfair and tragic a conclusion. Flashbacks and the present are smoothly alternated in a way that will make you think about parallel universes and the relativity of knowledge and time. The reality is that because we are set to see Gloria’s end since the very beginning, this tragic disposition sets a tone of inescapable misery and grief that affects the lightness and playfulness of their early days of carefree loving.

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It is an affectionate yet sad story of an improbable romance. The 30-year age difference between Gloria and Peter challenges the credibility of this love affair but given the charisma of this woman and her brilliant acting career it makes sense why in the eyes of a young man, a struggling actor nonetheless she would be the most desirable woman.

And to be fair, she truly is. Annette Bening (Gloria Grahame) is so powerful, charming and piercing that you won’t be getting enough of her. Glo’s voice is hypnotising and smooth like a fingertips caress, her body moves with grace and her eyes sparkle with childish vitality and excitement. Annette Bening’s presence is so strong and mesmerising that fills the screen and your heart with admiration, anticipation, sorrow and tenderness.

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Jamie Bell is excellent as Peter Turner, his energy is infectious and his affection transparent as it feels incredibly original. It is an amazing gift he has to always appear authentic and emotionally charged with his physicality playing a great part in that.

I loved the dancing scene they share when they first meet because it a splendid prologue of their later affair and a glimpse of who they truly are. They are not synchronised but they are a pair, he is energetic and passionate, she is delicate and craves for attention and desire. The restless movement of the camera transmits the sexual tension, the eagerness for closeness and the curiosity for each other. The Romeo & Juliet scene towards the end was also an unforgettable experience as performances were sensational and the gesture in itself is the most moving declaration of love.

If nothing else, the film gives room for great, impactful performances and a bittersweet feeling about love. In that sense, Film Stars is a film about giving someone what they need, offering affection, sharing amazing moments, standing by them when trouble appears and finally, coming face to face with an immeasurably painful loss.

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After the film you might re-watch some Gloria Grahame films, question whether age difference limits sexual attraction, think about what makes you fall in love; could admiration be an integral part of it? Also, you might start picturing yourself in 30 years from now and wonder whether love will have a central role in it and finally, you might be entertained by the thought that experiencing a great romance could occur in the most improbable time and place (like Liverpool…?)

Sexual repression unlocks magnificent powers – Thelma (2017), dir: Joachim Trier

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Thelma opens with a mysterious, ice-cold act that introduces us to the character by posing a grave question. What is wrong with Thelma? What terrible things is she capable of that pushes her own father to the edge?

Thelma is a slow-burn existential thriller and a beautifully-shot supernatural Nordic tale that is uniquely scary, sexy and empowering. There is a dreamy, alluring and magical ambience that Trier orchestrates, especially through the exquisite slow movements of the camera, the indulging portraits and the sensuality of Thelma’s fantasies and dreams. The film presents an amalgam of drama, romance, coming-of-age adventure, thriller and mystery.

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There is a precious serenity and smoothness in the sequence of shots that are dressed with a cryptic, intense and rough soundtrack. It is impressive how a language contributes to the telling of a story, is almost a character in itself and fits perfectly the surroundings and idiosyncrasies of the protagonists. The Norwegian language, rich in musically intonated consonants, of the likes of F, S, L and R (at least to the ears of someone who doesn’t speak any of the Germanic languages) is sweet and hard at the same time, just like our heroine. Her face is perfect, like that of a porcelain doll but is also tormented and desperately emotional. Eili Harboe is excellent at conveying fear, confusion, lust and joy and so delivers a captivating and piercing performance.

Thelma is young, inexperienced and shy when she leaves home to study in the capital. Like a scared animal she slowly and carefully makes her first steps out in the world, which she has been taught is full of dangers and corruptive temptations. She takes little bites at a time and seems to surrender control and gradually lose herself, or to better put this, reinvent herself.

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Thelma is a victim of controlling parenting and that is a much relatable element of her story. She struggles to make her own decisions, to establish her limits and personal space and be the master of her mind and heart. Her catholic upbringing dictates her to feel shame for experiencing sexual attraction for her friend Anja (Kaya Wilkins). The pair has a beguiling chemistry that enrich their masterfully-directed scenes together.

This unprecedented passion for her friend sets off a vicious cycle of repression for Thelma and pills off her conditioned reservations by allowing her true self hesitantly immerge. Guilt and fear around homosexuality begins as her main trigger but later on, it is just the tip of the ice berg as she is called to trace the origins of her inexplicable powers and shed light on her complicated relationship with her parents. It is only through crisis and struggle that Thelma gets in contact with her original identity and instinctive desires that unlock her long-banished potential.

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Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt stage Thelma’s suffering, confusion and self-discovery with a brilliant script and Trier’s visual style is masterful and aesthetically compelling. Remarkable scenes unfold throughout the film such as the still of the broken glass of milk stained with blood, the frightening swim in the deep, blue pool, the reptilian erotic hallucination, the intense opera incident and towards the end, the flaming punishment in the lake.

The director collusively winks at the audience with the closing scene that addresses universal agonies, such as the ambiguity of liberty of choice, the exertion of one’s power over others and the strength needed to accept one’s true nature. We have witnessed Thelma go through fire and water to liberate herself from the ghosts of her past and the shadows of her present, so we naturally find ourselves on her side in her decision to embrace her powers. With the ending credits came a huge smile on my face because I have immersed into the story of a kind and loving survivor who has taken life by the horns and has found her place in the world, just the way she is. With the last seconds of the film came pouring ethical questions around Thelma’s choice but by that point I loved her too much to care.

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After the film you might crave a (forbidden) apple, bring yourself to recall the times you felt you had supernatural powers (might as well be when you were five…), think how you’d use your powers, would you be selfish or share them with the world? Also, you might think about your life choices up till now, be honest with yourself and count the ones that you made entirely on your own but then, you might think…are we ever free to choose when we are forever shaped from our environment?! Finally, you might have some weird dreams involving burning boats, birds, reptiles, thunders and beautiful but dangerous creatures lurking in the shadows.

An unbearably wise and peachy beautiful dream – Call me by your name (2017), dir: Luca Guadagnino

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Feel intensely… like you’ve been thrown in the most freezing river, like the first time you heard your all-time favourite song, the first time you saw the one who monopolised your mind to the expense of your whole being, like the sunniest, most relaxing and cosiest summer afternoon. Funnily the most emotionally poignant moments in life are identified as our first contact with something or someone exceptional. This magical coming-of-age cinematic love story consists of firsts both for its protagonists and its audience.

Guadagnino’s new film tenderly touches upon our senses as a stroll down memory lane given that the story of a teenager’s sexual awakening is incredibly identifiable. As the title betrays, transference and immersion into someone else’s experience is what the masterful director and brilliant actors achieve here for us, and it is an absolute joy and a painful test at the same time.

Call Me by Your Name - Still 1The rhythm is lively, playful but also, slow and sentimental with Guadagnino shooting from different angles, adjusting height and speed around the rooms and the stunning Italian province. The sensuality found in nature matches perfectly and harmoniously the insides of the culturally-rich villa, and the characters’ personalities.

Guadagnino’s canvas is the exquisite nature of his home country that he somehow manages to emerge us into to the fullest extent; biking in rough country roads, biting a ripe peach, driving your fingers into the warm grass, swimming in a cold lake, touching another’s skin in the zenith of passion and greedy appetite.

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Timothée Chalamet is fresh, passionate and brave in his performance as the 17-year old Elio. In a part that strips the actor of all his defences and proves that this level of emotional vulnerability allows for the greatest performances. And Chalamet is certainly remarkable and leaves no doubt of his ample talent and zeal.

Armie Hammer oozes sensitivity and painful pride as Oliver, a post-grad student interning under Elio’s father and staying with the family for 6 long weeks. He is magnetising and dizzily attractive by being an amalgam of bipolar energy, the smoothness of his voice switched to arrogant, laconic expressions, and his elegant posture alternated with rapid and decisive movements.

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The chemistry of the two is so welcome and evident, particularly in the scenes where a flood of emotions and delayed gratified yearning is victoriously reciprocated. The sensual physicality of these scenes is a hymn to love and magic of human connection.

The film is painted with the warmest colours and the tone starts relaxed, shy and explorative. Elio’s curiosity and romantic anticipation slowly emerge and keep us tense and hopeful. The sexual tension and ambiguity equal to an emotional thriller. And when the feelings are reciprocated, we see a passionate love story evolve in the dramatic proportions that every doomed romance deserves. History teaches that it is the most devastating sentiment and yet the most powerful and enduring that of the forbidden love.

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I felt Call Me By Your Name can be divided into three parts, the first being the exploration and realisation of burning sexual desire for the first crush, the second being the gratification of reciprocated acceptance and of emotional and physical connection, and the last being the torment of separation and learning how to embrace pain.

Michael Stuhlbarg, as Elio’s father, delivers one of the most heart-breaking and wise monologues in recent cinematic history, in my humble opinion. His devastatingly piercing words hold great meaning not only to his son but to all of us. It is a difficult and momentous revelation that accompanies a tender and loving advice, delivered in such an authentic and forthright way that will grab your soul and never let it go.

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Being homosexual in the 80’s Elio would have to make a choice, live life to the fullest or lock his true desires away for the sake of a normal life, which is arguably the most difficult situation one could be and thus, cannot be compared to the tests of love everyday folk are put under. However, it touched me so deeply and acutely because it is a lesson for us all; it invites us to be brave by embracing pain, anger and disappointment so that we are able to welcome love again.

To sum up, words don’t do the film justice so please head to the cinema to experience it yourselves and to get lost into the dreamy world of lovers that only Guadagnino knows how to construct. The aforementioned honest monologue of the father, the phone call that seals the faith of the first love, the bitter and unfair deprivation of it and the lack of control in this and finally, the last, extended shot of Elio’s face is a tremendous epilogue to a beautiful romance of eruptive emotions that teaches a young boy how to love.

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After the film you might have temporarily blurred vision due to the river of tears you’ll cry, and when there is none left, you might dance to the rhythm of the film’s amazing 80’s soundtrack, recall your first great love and the level of devastation you had to overcome because of it, eat a peach or two, book your next holidays for Italy, imitate Oliver’s deliciously arrogant “Later” and strive for everyday magic and passion as life is indeed too short for regrets.

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.