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.

The ‘Doris, Rock and Tony’ Trilogy; three ‘delicious’ romanctic comedies celebrating the battle of the sexes

How could I describe how I feel about the films that this amazing Hollywood trio made together?  Well…

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Cupcakes! They are easy, fun, smooth, sweet, old-fashioned, colourful and interesting-looking sweets..eh..films! Just like with cupcakes, you never realise how soon they are over, and you always crave more than one. You enjoy them with a hot brew, and they surely lift your spirits.

The “Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall Trilogy”, as I enjoy calling it consists of three delightful, romantic comedies; “Pillow Talk (1959), “Lover Come Back” (1961), and “Send me no Flowers” (1964). In these wonderful, light cinematic creations you can expect to find; phone conversations, antagonism among the sexes, stereotypes, advertising accounts, intoxicating candy, annulled marriages, sexual harassments, divorces, pregnancies, moose photography, product inventions, classy and colourful wardrobes, bromances, funeral arrangements, golf cart malfunctions and many, many more memorable moments.

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Brad: Look, I don’t know what’s bothering you, but don’t take your bedroom problems out on me.

Jan: I have no bedroom problems. There’s nothing in my bedroom that bothers me.

BradOh-h-h-h. That’s too bad.

Jan Morrow (Doris Day), an interior decorator, has to share her party line with Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), a womanizing composer with a fetish to make long, romantic calls to his many lovers, to whom he dedicates the same ballad, changing only the lucky lady’s name in the lyrics each time. They are both single, independent and passionate; Jan is serious, hard-working, and composed, whereas Brad is playful, superficial, and afraid of commitment.

Jan can barely get a call through due to Brad’s endless calls and decides to confront him, and so begins their antagonistic relationship. The dialogue is quick and catchy, resembling an enjoyable ping-pong match (the usage of split-screens during their phone conversations were truly unique at the time). Being two strangers who fight over their line, and exchange ironic remarks, they have never actually met. One night, when Brad’s on a date with one of these delightful ladies, discovers that Jan is sitting in the next table. Knowing he stands no chance with her if he reveals his identity, he decides to pretend to be Rex, a Texan rancher who is visiting New York for the first time on business.

Except for the party line, the two protagonists have another thing in common;  Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall). As Brad’s best friend, and Jan’s client and wanna-be boyfriend, Jonathan interferes when he discovers his friend’s deceiving plans, and remains the most comic figure throughout the film (the highlight of which is the scene at the diner with a crying Jan, in my opinion…). Jonathan is a rich, spoilt, sweet, spontaneous and goofy boy who employs a hilarious deep-voice to project the serious image of authority and prestige.

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The story is simple and the ending predictable, but sharing a party line serves as a convenient and yet, pretty original storytelling mechanism and won the film the Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). Rock and Doris are a radiant couple on-screen, as a result of their captivating chemistry that is both visual and intellectual. They are arguably more shiny and sophisticated than the average couple you see on the street but it is as if their real-life friendship Doris and Rock had is transparent through their characters on-screen, making them the coolest and funniest couples in Hollywood comedy.

The film managed to transform Doris’s image from the ‘girl-next-door’ to the ‘classy, independent and sex symbol’ of her era, and the legendary costume designer Jean Louis played a major role in that. Pillow Talk was also Rock’s first break from melodramas, and revealed his potential to do comedy, which is unexpectedly natural and refreshing. Doris’s shocked goggling and Rock’s sweet smirk become their comic signature that spreads laughter. Even after having watched the film several times, Brad’s masquerade still gives me a good laugh, and especially Rock’s imitation of the accent and macho-ways of a Texan man.

Lover Come Back (1961)

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Carol Templeton: You kissed me and I was thrilled!

Jerry Webster: A kiss? What does that prove? It’s like finding out you can light a stove. It doesn’t make you a cook.

Jerry Webster (Rock Hudson) and Carol Templeton (Doris Day) are both Account Executives working in rival advertising agencies in Madison Avenue. Jerry’s unethical tactic of winning clients over is relied on partying, drinking and visiting strip clubs with them, which comes in complete contrast with Carol’s work ethic and thus, makes him a despised figure in her eyes.

The main idea behind the film doesn’t differentiate from that of Pillow Talk as mistaken identity works once again as a key plot device. The two characters have never met, and a simple circumstantial accident gives Jerry the chance to masquerade this times as a Nobel Prize-winner chemist, Dr. Linus Tyler who is the inventor of a promising new product for Jerry’s agency. Carol jumps at the opportunity to steal the account by trying everything to please the sensitive, intellectual, and too innocent scientist.

Irene, the Award-nominated costume designer for her work in B.F.’s Daughter (1948) and Midnight Lace (1960), created Carol’s wardrobe as a favour to her close friend Doris Day. Irene was one of the greatest fashion designers of old Hollywood and has dressed  Ginger Rogers in Shall We Dance (1937), Constance Bennett in Topper (1937), Carole Lombard in To Be or Not to Be (1941), Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Esther Williams in Jupiter’s Daughter (1949), to name a few.

Send Me No Flowers (1964)

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Dr: Is it a sharp pain, is it a dull pain, or does it grip like a vice.

George: Yes, yes!

Dr: Nonono, pick one! 

George: I guess it’s a sharp pain, hurts like the dickens when I press it.

DrThen don’t press it!

In this one, Rock and Doris are no strangers bound by mutual contempt but a happily married couple; George and Judy Kimball. The only problem is that George is a hypochondriac who lives on countless pills, enough to fill an entire bathroom cabinet! George visits his doctor after experiencing chest pains and although he is reassured of his well-being, he overhears a conversation that leaves him convinced he has a terminal disease. After the initial shock, he takes it upon himself to makes sure Judy is taken care of after he is gone, which in the 1960’s naturally meant that she find a new rich and loving husband to replace her late one. So George attempts to find that new husband for Judy so that she doesn’t fall in the wrong hands and in all this he has his loyal friend and neighbour Arnold Nash (Tony Randall) by his side.

The film thrives off of confusion and a chain of amusing misunderstandings that provide a pure and simple avenue for comedy. The two funniest scenes by far are delivered by Paul Lynde who plays Mr. Akins, the operator of the funeral home that George visits to buy a burial plot (another business he had to take care of before his final hour…).