Friday, December 18, 2015

Tři oříšky pro Popelku

The magically beautiful, heartwarming film Tři oříšky pro Popelku (English: Three Nuts for Cinderella), a film that can only be told by Czechs, the greatest storytellers for me, has been finally restored by Norway and shown to audiences as Christmas approaches and snow has already started to beset home and hearth: in the celebration of this restoration of a fine, fine film, let us revisit it.

I have not been much a fan of Cinderella films and cartoons: most of them are insipid, cast the woman in too much of some dependent light for my liking, and use elements such as a slipper made from glass that turn me off in fact. Many employ a witch or someone of that ilk, and the Cinderella of most is too much of a letdown. This Czech version shines through not only a very beautiful cinematography, taking full advantage of my much beloved Czech countryside, but also through its twist on the characters' temperaments, in particular that of Libuše Šafránková's Cinderella: she is gentle but haughty, she has pride but good sense, she is expert but witty, she can countenance fate's highs and lows but she can also court good fate. She is beautiful, bold and audacious, and it is she who is the clear superior in the match. It is she more the princess than the prince the prince.

Shot in the Klatovy area of Pilsen region, which is streams, woods and snow, the film's story plays out in the thick of winter, with good cheer, hunting and youthful spirit pervading the film: it is hard not to feel hopeful after watching the film, hard not to feel yearning to explore the beauty of this world, hard to stay put at home, unless the home be in these woods, among these birds and trees. Fairy tales on screen are often given characters with strange noses, talking animals and girls with long braids or handsome princes: and they don't work. This tale has instead the beauty of nature and winter rubbing off its charm on us: it is a beautiful lesson in how there is so much magic to show and be inspired from in our life, without a need to import technology for that. Unless it be technology used to restore such wonderful films.

Note: I write however about the non-restored film. Non-restored prints have their own charm.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Taj Mahal (2015)

Nicolas Saada's debut feature-length film Taj Mahal is a work of art, framed by aesthetic sensibilities of leaving much unsaid; it is a pity that the film has been viewed by many critics uniquely through the lens of Mumbai terror attacks or dated postcolonialism. The film is in fact not about Mumbai terror attacks: the attacks are only a catalyst. The film is about a timid, unsure, not very courageous, slightly repressed girl Louise: it is her character's development, which will not climax to any satisfactory level with the film's end, that concerns us. On the face of it, the film appears to many as just another of those films of someone trapped in some dangerous situation, the likes of which Hollywood churns out in mass numbers. But the film goes much beyond that, in terms of both actual plot and what is implied. The film does not end at the girl's release from the tragedy: it goes on, to provide us vital clues to Louise' character. It is not a Hollywood hug-and-cheer ending. It ends indeterminately: Louise is still young, and she is still to discover herself, but the incident and the India trip have given her impetus and maybe a newfound courage. She can now ignore her slightly cold, domineering mother, she can now try to reach out to people whom her parents don't ask her to talk to, she can now say "I don't know" with surety, in a world where "I don't know" is not accepted as answer, where pretensions of knowledge are what you stake your reputation on.

As I said, a lot is unsaid in the film. The embrace of Louise and the Italian woman is tight and warm, both enjoying human warmth after being trapped in an inferno. Giovanna is a woman which Louise's mother is not: it is telling that Louise prefers always to talk to her father when distressed, contrary to usual expectations. Giovanna has brought her intimacy, love and promise in one embrace, which Louise had been searching for all her life, which makes her so diffident. Giovanna is someone whom Louise could have loved passionately, if not torn apart without any addresses to exchange. But she finds only the cold, unembracing world like Pierre or her mother; the people who cared for her, the man who offered her the footwear, the room service guy, Giovanna, all are lost in time and in India. The world of India is the world where Louise steps into youth, struggles into it: she finds Paris meaningless, colourless, she finds her life sucked, tucked into a microcosm: that incident, that trip. It is not painful or an adventure for her: that world is a cocoon in which she was tightly wrapped, a sequence of life events that have changed her, that have suddenly given her something new, made her a bit more known to herself.

And how does Saada manage to achieve it? First, by selecting a fine cast, especially Stacy Martin's not very expressive face, which works wonders for the film. Then, by getting great cinematography and lovely use of tones: Paris is bleaker and colder, toned down, and Mumbai is brightened. The sound recording itself is a treat: in both Mumbai and Paris, outdoors' noises are heightened, the world of exterior collides with Louise's inward personality, ready to go into her shell. The interior world, whether it be Louise in the cafe in Paris or in the plush hotel Taj, is depressingly quiet, a troubled peace, like still water beneath which much lurks. One could accuse Saada of some things: that he didn't put a bereaving or distressed Indian family beside the French family when Louise was trapped in the hotel; that Giovanna is another European instead of an Indian. But would it not have violated the aesthetic purity and the integrity of the film? For me, it would have. Louise's world is small: it is she who sees, it is she who is feeling this world. Will she see the Indian family? Will she not find a lot of affinity with Giovanna? In this world of political correctness, we have forgotten people themselves. Thankfully, Saada sticks to his vision, not of those for whom everything is a ledger.

And to those critics who dismiss the movie as a story of some rich white girl, ignoring many others, I don't know what to say: are rich white girls not human beings? Should stories revolving around them be not made just because they are a minority in a particular milieu? Do not be deterred by critics: go and explore the several deep layers of an apparently simple film.

Friday, December 04, 2015

La Glace et Le Ciel

La glace et le ciel (int'l title: Ice and the Sky) is a disappointing film on many fronts, in spite of its Antarctic background: the most notable disappointment is that the film is a biopic, giving little by way of science, and focusing on idolising a glaciologist. It is not that a biopic is a bad idea: but it is a bad one when you make viewers expect that they are going to discover secrets and plunge into nature's mysteries; when the film is made in a heavily preachy style, with a continuous narration killing of any feeling of connection with the scientist or with science itself in spite of the extensive archival footage used; when the film uses a camera rotating for long periods of time around the glaciologist as the pivot; and when the whole film is just the story of a man's passion and struggles with nature but yet suddenly you are handed over an already-ripe conclusion that climate is changing for sure: but on what basis? Because the glaciologist tells you, with some ice cores thrust in suddenly to make that feel justified. But shouldn't that have been the whole point to develop, slowly and surely? There is a severe lack of science or philosophy or any kind of deep thought in the film: it is the complete opposite of the marvellously made The Expedition to the End of the World. A clue to how the film would be is right at the very beginning: an intense snow-white shot of Antarctica. A terrible way to begin a film which is about Antarctica anyway: wouldn't it have been better to start with a context-setting shot, which is neither a snowy landscape nor burning trees? Or, if a snowy landscape, then get it right and aesthetic? For cinematography is a major weakness in this film: something hard to believe for a film made in such a stunning locale.

The film though has its moments: notably with archival footage materials, especially that of the Charcot base. And the context being Antarctica, there will inevitably be moments where you start thinking and wondering, even though the film is too light on that and also says too much, is silent too little. In many ways, the film is very similar to the kind of films that the French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand makes: speaking too much, too often. Let the winds talk, let the coldness speak, let the snow fall, and float, softly: the special effects used sometimes in the film or the continuous narration can probably never be the voice of these elements. Such potentially great material, such great stories of human courage and will to fight and win, but such a waste: how is it possible to make a film on science that lacks in poetry? For isn't all science a most noble attempt of composing poetry?