Sunday 20 January 2019

Films before the fall

Or, to be precise, what we watched over the Christmas period before I was hospitalised: two outright masterpieces, two American indie slices of life (one admittedly very out of the ordinary). Netflix justifies its existence by funding the Mexican master Alfonso Cuarón's Roma. Cuarón had already carved his place in cinema history with the sexy-sad Y Tu Mamá También, but I'm sure he feels for a number of reasons that Roma is his magnum opus (by the way, though I couldn't care less about the Oscars, I think it's absurd that a film like this is shovelled into the 'Best in a foreign language' category when it's surely a winner on any level).

In it, he manages so many things, above all to turn the intensely felt experience of his childhood, with incidents carried over wholesale, into the most poetic movie-making, a perfect balance of subjective and objective, and to celebrate the hitherto unsung life of a native Mexican, the much-loved family maid Cleo, a Mixtec woman from the village of Tepelmeme in the state of Oaxaca: in real life it's Liboria Rodriguez, who has seen the film several times and always cries, but for the children, not for herself, and the actor is Yaliza Aparicio, who had no previous film or stage experience and who even featured on the cover of Mexican Vogue - a first, shamefully... Netflix released this lovely photo of 'Libo' and Cuarón as they are now.

How well we get to know the family home in the (then) shabby-genteel Roma district of Mexico City, with its garage runway, always covered in dog poo, ill negotiated by the fraught father and mother when they try and drive their cars up to the door. It soon emerges that all is not well between husband and wife.

How shocked we are by the student uprising which ended in slaughter, seen from the windows of a furniture department; this is a realisation of a newspaper clipping which the 10-year-old Cuarón saw, and had explained to him by his communist uncle. 'My little middle-class bubble burst,' he says. 'I realized there was a way bigger bubble, one that was more complex'.

Also compelling (though what isn't, in this film) are the scene showing the government's military training of young men in a very specific martial art - very expensive to film because the extras all had to be taught the discipline - 

and by the heart-in-mouth single take where Cleo saves two of the children from drowning (young Alfonso was one of them, in reality).  

I wouldn't have noticed had I not read an article in a film magazine while I was in hospital that the camera starts by looking downwards and that gradually more sky is introduced into the final scenes, looking upwards; but this, I'm sure, is something one registers unconsciously. There's so much detail in every frame, though, that I regretted not seeing Roma on a big screen, and look forward to correcting that.

Just as great an achievement, in its own oblique but often very funny way (yes, a German comedy, or rather tragicomedy), though the deliberately blanched cinematography is hard to adjust to, is Toni Erdmann,  directed, written and co-produced by genius Maren Ade.

Now that Bergman is no longer with us, and Lars von Trier seems to have lost his way after his amazing earlier films - though I did like Melancholia, if 'like' is the right word, and I don't have the courage to see whether the sexually explicit and violent later works actually have a moral compass and a singular touch, as The Idiots ultimately did - Ade must take the palm for getting layered, complex performances out of two remarkable actors.

The title refers to the bewigged, false-teethed alter ego of sad clown Winifried (Peter Simonischek, whom I want to see in Shakespeare); but Sandra Hüller as his career-driven daughter Ines is just as compelling, and has a harder job winning our sympathy - though she does, in spades, and there's a sensational rendition of a Whitney Houston song which marks a turning-point in the film.

Even the outcome of the last scene is held in the balance, and the later stages are totally unpredictable. Let's just say that Toni/Winifried's last stunt, within the compass of the film, has to do with the costume in the poster.

What you get in two films about American life are a truthful performance from the luminous and versatile Saoirse Ronan in Ladybird, about a not-much-more-than-averagely-rebellious teenage girl slyly subverting what she can of small-town life

and slightly stylised, but nevertheless brilliant ones in a classy take on the true-life tragicomedy of a skating queen

from Margot Robbie (curiously turning up as Gloriana vs Saoirse's Stuart in what sounds like a turgidly-scripted Mary, Queen of Scots; surely Josie Rourke should have known to adapt Schiller's Mary Stuart rather than go for a stilted new screenplay) as well as an idol of mine, Alison Janney, who will forever be the surprisingly sexy, always sassy C. J. Cregg in The West Wing but excels here as the Mother from Hell,

and Sebastian Stan as Tonya's psychopath boyfriend/husband.

Small beer, perhaps, by the side of the two diamonds, but both beautifully crafted and acted gems. By the way, I was about to pass another evening in hospital by going to see Mary Poppins Returns in the amazing Medicinema of Chelsea & Westminster, but I was discharged two hours earlier; my 'second musketeer' pal in the bed opposite went instead with his granddaughter, and (as he told me when I popped in to see him on Tuesday) was surprised by how good it was. As I'm still awaiting the op, I'm entitled to revisit and was going to see The Favourite on Thursday evening, but that was one of my bad days so I stayed home. Outings need to be carefully spaced at the moment, though I'm proud to have made, and reviewed, two events this week: Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at the Royal Opera on Sunday afternoon, and Bang on a Can's Friday night cornucopia at Kings Place.


Susan said...

You have done more in your convalescing state than I do generally. While we have been doing a good bit of movie going, we’ve not seen most of these, though Roma is high on our list. Ladybird was a gem of a film, Ronan terrific. I will not comment on Mary Queen of Scots, which we have seen, other than to say the two stars do their best.

David said...

Watching those films came before the hospitalisation; it was a quiet, goggleboxy Xmas, punctuated from the 20th on by what I should have attended to quicker (especially as symptoms were exactly as in Bodrum, except that they went away for a day at a time). As for MQoS, that's the general verdict. And seeing that the abysmal Max Richter wrote the 'music' has sealed my determination not to go and see it.

Liam mansfield said...

Yes pacing your self is important.
I go out every second day

David said...

But there's nothing wrong with you, Liam, is there, unless I've missed something.

Willym said...

A life "crowded with incident" - pace yourself young man, pace yourself!

David said...

So far I am: three events a week, including the class, though lots of work to get through at home. And thanks for the 'young' - it's all relative, I guess.

Liam mansfield said...

Ennuie de vie

David said...

Hélas, pauvre Liam!