Lars von Trier: "I am not Mel Gibson"

Lars von Trier stunned the media in Cannes with his comments about Jews and Nazis. But what did he really mean?

Danish cinema's not-so-enfant terrible, Lars von Trier, came to Cannes this year trailing Melancholia, a beautifully mounted apocalyptic drama, which, compared to his previous cinematic assault, Antichrist, had all the shock value of a children's tea party.

There was no graphic sex, no horrific close up of clitoral self-mutilation, no violence - just an extremely depressed heroine, convincingly played by Hollywood actress Kirsten Dunst, essentially willing on the end of the world. The most shocking thing about Melancholia was that it wasn't shocking.

This time, it was up to Von Trier to personally up the ante at the now notorious post-screening press conference that sent shock waves along the Croisette. Seemingly unable to control himself, the filmmaker embarked on a series of rambling answers about the link between German Romanticism - which he was playing with in Melancholia - and the Third Reich, during which he declared that he was not a Jew but a Nazi, and that he understood Hitler.

Some journalists took the director at his word and branded him an anti-Semite. The festival itself pronounced him "persona non grata" and banned him from coming within 100 metres of the Palais and red carpet. It was a swift and dramatic fall from grace for Von Trier, whose musical, Dancer in the Dark, won the Palme d'Or in 2000.

Taken literally, his comments were shocking and bizarre. Even during the press conference, though, it was clear that his meaning was being misinterpreted. What was missing was the context.

When he talked about not being a Jew, Von Trier was actually refering to his mother's deathbed confession that the Jewish man he had grown up believing was his father, Ulf Trier, wasn't in fact, and that his biological father was really her boss, a German by the name of Fritz Michael Hartmann. But why, I asked him recently, had he used such provocative language?

"A German, in slang in Denmark, is called Nazi," he explained. "So I was not a Jew, I was a Nazi. Not meaning I was a Nazi, meaning I was a German. Which was, of course, stupid. It's a matter of me putting things in a forum where they shouldn't have been."

Clearly stung by the charge of anti-Semitism, he said: "Everybody that knows me, knows that I have a very, very famous Danish Jewish name. All my children have Jewish names . . . I am not Mel Gibson, I am the opposite. I have been through all these f****** concentration camps and I think that the Holocaust is the worst crime against humanity that, in my knowledge, has ever been."

By saying that he understood Hitler, he did not mean that he condoned what the Nazi leader did, he said. On the contrary, he was acknowledging the dictator's humanity and, albeit weakly, trying to imply the risk of not recognising some of his qualities in ourselves.

"It is extremely easy to say that [what happened] is Hitler's fault and that, I think, is dangerous for all of us. I still say there is a little bit of a Nazi in all of us, somewhere. And that's not Hitler's fault. He used it. If it hadn't been him, then there would have been somebody else."

Whatever his real intention, the director's long links with Cannes now look to have been damaged beyond repair. He said he is sad because of his long friendship with the event's president, Gilles Jacob. On the other hand, having taken every one of his films to the festival, he no longer feels a pressure to finish a movie in time for Cannes. As for being persona non grata:

"My parents would be so proud of me," he laughs. "I mean, I am a kind of persona non grata deep down in my soul. But this was a stupid way of becoming it."

Melancholia opens 30 September


Pablo Larrain Discusses Post Mortem

Chilean director Pablo Larrain talks about Post Mortem, his unsettling follow up to Tony Manero, set during the coup in Chile in 1973.

Why have you returned to this period after Tony Manero?

“It's not enough for me yet. I didn't live it and it's like a big ghost in my generation. Think about it: Pinoche died three or four years ago, with $30 million, and free. We still have three-thousand people disappeared, we have nobody in jail. If somebody thinks it's enough, I would say, 'I don't agree with it.' And since I didn't live that period, I think it's important for me and my generation to go back there and to re-feel it, re-think it."

And you're doing this purely from imagination?

"Yes, I just have what I've been reading and what I've been told by others. I think it's interesting to create something from nothing, just imagination. We want to talk about it because I feel that I still don't get it. So I want to go there and sit in front of that again, see it and feel it."

You're trying to understand what happened, even though you weren't there?

"Yeah, it confuses me. I'm going to do another [film about this]. It's going to be a trilogy, and that's it. I swear I will go and do something else.”

You have said that there are some parts in the film that came from concrete and historical information. Would that be in the hospital scene, for instance, where the bodies are piling up? You seem to capture a feeling of hysteria?

“Yeah, you know we didn't have enough room to show the real amount of bodies that were there. Fiction is never enough. Even though you try it, you will never even be close to it. If you get in to the research, if you read [Salvador] Allende's autopsy, if you get close to it, you will figure that it's something that you're not going to grab. But this is not a statement. This is not a Che Guevara statement or whatever. It's just a movie.”

The script developed over an extended period. Can you talk about its development?

“The script used to be huge. It used to be like 150 pages, which would almost be a three-hour film. But it was the same with Tony Manero. It's a good way of working, I guess. You write a lot more than what you need, and then you start to be economic and then you go back to the essence of the film, and you pull out a lot of things before you shoot, and then you pull out a lot of things after you shoot. It's a process. The films that I have done are a process. It takes you a lot to get there, but it's a beautiful experience.”

You show Allende's autopsy in forensic detail. Is it as it happened?

“You go to Google and it's the official autopsy. It's what I read. It's the entire plan. And we shot it entirely. It was like a 40-minute scene. The autopsy is absolutely real.”

Is the real Mario, Alfredo Castro's character who is present at the autopsy, alive or dead?

“He's dead. But his son, who is also called Mario Cornejo, works in the same job today, and he acts in the film. he's the guy who helps the doctor. He's always beside him.”

That's weird.

“Well we invited him and he said okay.”

How did you find him?

“It's amazing because Mario Cornejo's father never talked about it in 30 years with his son. This is how it began: I was reading the paper and there was an article about Allende's autopsy. I read it and I thought it was amazing. It's like the autopsy of Chile there. If you read it, it's the whole history of Chile synopsised in three pages. And there were three people: two of them are very well known doctors who lead their entire lives talking about it. And then there is this third, lesser-known one. I said, who is Mario Cornejo?"

What did you do?

"I started to research and I hired a guy, like a private investigator, and we found him [the son]. Wow! We went to his home, and said, 'Hello', and he got some information. He didn't know much because his father was a guy who didn't speak. So then from there we started to create the story that's in the film.”

The fictional Mario is a mysterious character, in a sense, because we don't know what happened to the real Mario?

“Yes, but I don't know what's going on in your head and you don't know what's going on in mine. Films today have done some sort of damage in the culture in that you have to know everything about them. They have to be morally respectful. You have to learn something. There has to be redemption at the end. I don't really respect that, because it's not exactly the way we are.”

Is the coup and the CIA involvement still something that you think is of interest outside Chile?

“It's a good question but I just do what I feel. There are two types of directors: people who lived it and people who didn't live it. So there are two different types of movie. I'm the one who didn't live it. So it's so different.”

The last scene seems suggestive of the way people disappeared and haven't been found.

“Yeah, you know what they did in Chile? They would throw the bodies in to the sea, 400 kms from the Chilean coast. It was a very long trip. Those bodies completely vanished. Three thousand people disappeared in Chile. We don't know where they are. So it's a metaphor. And what I like about it is it's not a political move, it's a passionate move. So I twist everything. It's very common: you have a neighbour and then the neighbour would do something bad to you and you would call the military and say, 'This guy's a Communist.' So this interest was used with a different purpose. Not everything was connected to an ideology. The Nazis were the same. They would accuse you of being Jewish without being Jewish. It was used with a different purpose.”

Some Germans have said that they're tired of being reminded of the Holocaust. Is it important to keep reminding people what happened in Chile, and do you need to find new ways to do it?

“Yes, of course. You see The White Ribbon [Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning film about the roots of Nazism]? Whether you like it or not, it's an interesting film because it uses the same subject but from a different point of view. I want to talk about [what happened in Chile] and in my country they say, 'Why are you making this film again about the same subject? Why don't you make a surfers film or whatever.' I want to do it because I don't get it yet, I just don't understand it. There's something missing.”

Families are still touched by what happened, you've got to talk about it, even though you weren't there?

“Exactly. You've got to talk about it because if we were Romans and we were living 2000 years ago we'd be talking about the invasion or the massive killings or whatever. We're talking about what's going on now.”

It's about memory.

“Yes, without memory you are dead. You're plastic. See what's going on with the Jews and the Palestinians today. And the Americans are still in Afghanistan and Iraq. South of Chile there are heaps of [Generals?] who are Nazis. South of Argentina, hundreds. They're there fly fishing every day, having smoked salmon. Alive. So this is not finished.”

© Stephen Applebaum 2011

On "The Road" With John Hillcoat

It is hard to imagine a more suitable director than John Hillcoat to bring Cormac McCarthy's gritty Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road to the screen. Since his 1989 AFI-nominated debut feature Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead, the Brisbane-born filmmaker has specialised in telling stories set in extreme worlds.

Even so, next to the post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road, the maximum-security prison of Ghosts, the unpredictable and violent jungle environs of Papua New Guinea in To Have and To Hold, and the brutal 19th-century outback of The Proposition look, almost, like paradises.

Hillcoat agrees that the new film has "taken the extreme to the extreme". However, calling The Road "dark" makes him bristle. This, he insists, is far too glib a description for a film in which life-affirming sparks of love and humanity (more of which later) pierce the sepulchral atmosphere of its deathly setting. "So this whole dark thing just drives me nuts," Hillcoat snaps. He immediately apologises for his sharp tone, explaining that he's "a bit stressed". And hungry, too. Though not as desperate, I'm happy to say, as the cannibals that constantly threaten The Road's protagonists.
By placing characters in extreme situations, Hillcoat's films test them against their environment, each other and, often, their own moral values. Driving people "back into themselves" by stripping away the "habits and rituals of daily life" helps to reveal their core, forcing the question: who are you really? "When we're pushed to extremes there's certain qualities that come up that wouldn't otherwise come up, and it's those kinds of environments and those kinds of situations that really expose a kind of inner humanity," Hillcoat explains. Watching his tough and sometimes harrowing oeuvre leads one to conclude he has a rather gloomy opinion of what lies beneath our, arguably, thin veneer of civilisation. 

It's a feeling strengthened by his citing of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as an influence on his second feature film, To Have and to Hold, a rich stew of tormented passions and social commentary in which expat lovers Tcheky Karyo and Rachel Griffiths's romantic dream is transformed into a nightmare of obsession and violence when he tries to turn her into the image of his dead wife.

"I do think humans have an incredible weakness and are very self-destructive," Hillcoat says. "That's why I think it's amazing that there are also moments of brilliance and compassion and incredible human strength. Extreme pressure brings out really dark qualities in some people, whereas other people, in the face of the most horrendous circumstances, show an amazing resilience and more positive sorts of qualities." Even the act of filmmaking, he has noticed, "brings out the best and worst in people. To me that's really interesting; sometimes exhausting, sometimes very rewarding, sometimes not."

Born in 1960, Hillcoat, 49, had a transient upbringing that took him to the US, Canada and Europe. He started out painting and drawing but gradually gravitated towards the moving image. He enrolled at Melbourne's Swinburne Film School where he produced two short dramas, The Blonde's Date with Death and Frankie and Johnny. For anyone creative, it was the perfect time. "There was a whole kind of music, art, film culture thing that was going on, very vibrant, in the late 70s-early 80s, in Australia. It's since been called punk but I think there was more going on as well. Because I was brought up in America for a lot of my life, I was raised on blues, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, that great renaissance of music during the 60s and 70s - it was also the last great age of cinema - and from all that influence I was doing these student films."

He and the singer-songwriter Nick Cave gravitated towards each other, sowing the seeds of an artistic relationship that has continued to this day (they're practically neighbours in Brighton, England, where Hillcoat has lived for nine years). "We realised that we loved a similar sort of music, books, literature. Nick really liked Frankie and Johnny, so he was quite keen to collaborate on something." The result was Ghosts ... of the Civil Dead, which Hillcoat wrote with others including Cave, who appeared in the film and co-wrote the music.

The film garnered nine AFI nominations, but it would still take Hillcoat seven years to make his next film, To Have and To Hold (in between films Hillcoat has a separate, very different career in music videos). The nominations were "a little bit token", Hillcoat told me in 1998. "They're very political, the awards. They wanted to prop us up as the kind of alternative, whereas the ones that actually picked up the awards were like Dead Calm, so it was very much just an industry thing. Initially there was no support for Ghosts ... , and it wasn't until it had a really good response overseas that it started to get a much better response here. But even so, it still scared a lot of people off. It's great to make strong powerful films but in terms of people wanting to finance those sorts of films, it does almost the opposite."

That he and McCarthy would one day come together seems inevitable in hindsight, given that the author's notoriously brutal Blood Meridian (now being adapted for the cinema, although not by Hillcoat), from 1985, had been an important influence on Hillcoat's Cave-scripted 2005 breakthrough feature, The Proposition.

Hillcoat wanted to make an American film next, and went to LA and New York and "met loads of producers", including Nick Wechsler. "I was particularly interested in dark and challenging material," says the director, "and basically just talked to him about how I like to make genre films but elevate them, or find something new about them. We then discussed McCarthy, actually, because I was just talking about American writers that I love and influences."

Although the meeting was positive, Hillcoat did not hear from Wechsler again and got on with other projects. Then, out of the blue, the producer contacted him about a new McCarthy book. Wechsler had been beaten to the rights for No Country for Old Men, so as soon as The Road became available, he and his producing partners optioned the property. Hillcoat received it as a still-unpublished manuscript.

Wechsler's alacrity worked in Hillcoat's favour, the filmmaker recalls, because "the studios were all over it as well", though its grim details meant that "they also ran a mile from it". Of course it might have been a different story, he concedes, after the Pulitzer and the Oscar success of the Coen brothers' No Country adaptation.

Hillcoat candidly reveals that despite being a "raving McCarthy fan", he was "actually dreading reading the book". When he heard it was an apocalyptic tale, he says, "I went, 'Oh Jesus, that is not what I am looking for.' Just imagine all the cliches." With images of Mad Max - the kind of film he definitely did not want to make - possibly racing around his imagination, he thought, "Give me sci-fi, give me the gangster genre, give me romance, give me anything but that".

Happily, his initial reservations were quickly swept aside; he was "floored" not only by the power of McCarthy's simple yet thought-provoking story, but also by "an emotional layer that was so real and intense and moving that I hadn't experienced in his other work".

Set after an unexplained cataclysm, and inspired by McCarthy's relationship with his young son, John Francis, and his fears for the kind of future in which the boy will grow up, The Road chronicles the nightmarish odyssey of a nameless father (played by Viggo Mortensen in the film) and son (Romulus, My Father's Kodi Smit-McPhee) through a barren America rife with cannibalism, paranoia and violent death. Heading south to escape the encroaching winter that will almost surely kill them, they struggle not only to preserve their physical selves but also their humanity: "the fire", as they call it.

The author sets their love against the nihilism of the world around them, and it is this, Hillcoat argues, that burns through the darkness. "I agree with McCarthy that what he is trying to do is highlight human goodness, and that light is all the more bright and the more relevant the more it is surrounded by fears and adversity."

Having a son of his own - eight-year-old Louie - meant the story struck Hillcoat on a personal level. Moreover, he found the protective, fearful father of McCarthy's book a refreshing contrast to the "tyrannical or absent father" types he says generally appear in films. "To me this was really moving in a beautiful way."

Looking at The Road in the context of his other films, it has drawn him to a love story "that for me works much better than To Have and To Hold, and actually is about genuine, unconditional love. To Have and To Hold was the opposite. In The Proposition, there is a very special relationship between the Captain [Ray Winstone] and his wife [Emily Watson], and the brothers [Guy Pearce, Danny Huston] in their way, but to me that father-son relationship in The Road was the single attraction. It is a beautiful story about human goodness."

It's about many other things, too, prompting moral and philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life. In a world with no future, for example, what is the point of living? Suicide - the option taken by the boy's mother (Charlize Theron) - is surely the sanest response, isn't it?

Yet death is an inevitability we will all face, so the issue of how one gives life meaning and value in its shadow - in the shadow of our own personal apocalypse - is relevant to everyone. For most of us in the West, life's distractions, including the majority of mainstream cinema, help to push such questions to the backs of our minds. On the other hand, The Road, like, say, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot - a play that is also about two characters on a desolate road - creates a scenario where they become unavoidable for the spectator.

This is perfect territory for Hillcoat, who constantly alludes to the 60s and 70s as a period of filmmaking that had a major formative impact on him. He refers to a global dumbing down and suggests that if Robert Altman's Nashville were released today, it would probably struggle to get into an art-house cinema, let alone feature on the cover of Newsweek the way it did.

"I think reality TV, and the cynical manipulation and exploitation of easy money to be made out of it, has really been not helpful at all, and I think people's expectations are so low that they just accept it. I hate to sound like a kind of old fart, but I don't like the complacency and comfort of handing your mind to valet parking," he says, explaining that as a filmmaker and consumer of culture, he wants always to be challenged.

The Road, he says, "makes you consider what is really important in your life. Like what really matters. What is it that really makes us human? And those are just fundamental questions that I think are really important and that most of humanity, like it or not, shares."

They are also questions that are becoming increasingly hard to ignore, and this is being reflected in the rising number of films - 2012, The Book of Eli, 9 - being made about apocalyptic events and their aftermaths.

"There's definitely a Zeitgeist," says Hillcoat, "in that we're becoming much more conscious of the environment collapsing; and then on top of that the economic collapse, political problems, endless cycles of violence. In terms of the West, those things have come into the bedroom, almost. We've become more aware. So in this way [The Road's] trying to be a bit more of a wake-up call for the things that are important and what we stand to lose."

This partly explains why Joe Penhall's screenplay contains extended flashbacks featuring the man's wife, who now casts a much bigger shadow than in the book. "I was fascinated by her point of view," Penhall told a British newspaper. "Why not just despair? The man is haunted by these simple, ordinary things: his wife, his horse, his piano. The mother's suicide haunts every decision, motivates their living."

Essentially faithful to McCarthy, the film follows the novel in refusing to address the possible cause of the catastrophe that has devastated the planet. "It's almost like inverse logic in that you don't even think about the big event and that you're in the here and now," says Hillcoat. This unknowability, he believes, makes The Road almost unique, "because, for me, the apocalyptic genre films are all about that question. They all are about the big event. So much so that it kind of overwhelms the human dimension. So there's suddenly this authenticity [in The Road] that's quite shocking, and it's so simple".

Authenticity has, in fact, always been a key feature of Hillcoat's films and in The Road has been aided by his decision to take his cameras to America's "apocalyptic zones", rather than use green screen and large-scale CGI effects. "So we filmed in Mount St Helens. We filmed in Oregon, because the sand on the beaches is grey. We filmed in Pennsylvania, because trees lose their leaves [in winter] and there's a lot of mining land that's really stark and depressed areas. There was even an interstate that had been abandoned for decades, with tunnels." 

People often assume that a striking image of two boats marooned on a freeway is computer-generated, whereas it came from 70mm IMAX film shot two days after Hurricane Katrina. "What we had to change, of course, was the bright blue sky. So it was really taking real locations and then adding visuals." Some of these additions, such as plumes of grey smoke taken from September 11 footage, or an allusion to a photograph of bloody footprints in the snow following a Bosnian Serb slaughter of Muslims, were used to tap directly into the subconscious. "We wanted to make the point that, actually, this isn't so much about the future, but is, quite literally, apocalypse now."

He knew that creating the kind of experience he wanted would mean cast and crew working in often difficult conditions. Making The Proposition, however, encouraged him to think people would rise to the challenge. Because they "slipped into the summer months" on that film, which was shot in the central-west Queensland town of Winton for several months from mid-October, they had debated whether to pull the plug on the project. But instead "we all teamed together and it ended up being an incredible bonding experience", he says. "And what was amazing, although it was really tough, is that we all, including the crew, had a much more heightened sense of the sort of film we were working on."

The blazingly hot terrain was like "another great actor" that the cast "fired off", and the same thing happened on The Road. "If you're working in post-Katrina clean-up, and where half your crew lived through that event and are talking about that, for the actors it helps fuel the authentic reaction to this stuff. It's like enforced method [acting]. I think it's actually harder to make that kind of detailed, emotional, nuanced stuff if you're in a green-screen room."

Mortensen went so far beyond the call of duty physically in his bid for authenticity that Penhall has since described him as "mad as a snake". "He was very intense," Hillcoat nods. "He'd be stepping out into the rain in the middle of winter and be hosed down by the effects department. We'd be like, 'What is he doing?' He'd put dirt in the eyes. He went with it all the way."

With The Road now behind him, what's next for Hillcoat? He wants to do something with "a lot more energy and colour", and is "also looking forward to doing a very female-dominated, female-centric film", he says, giving nothing away. There are reports of a film set in West Virginia during prohibition, scripted by Cave, called The Promised Land, but at the time of writing nothing was confirmed.

One thing for certain is that whatever the director decides to do, it probably won't be a barrel of laughs. Indeed, the first Hillcoat comedy looks like being a long way off yet.

"That is a genre that I am in awe of," he says. "I think it takes a comic genius behind a script and-or behind a camera, and that's something I haven't quite got my head around yet." And there's another reason: the comic geniuses he has encountered have often been "some of the scariest, darkest, most unsettling people to be around. So I'd rather stay intact and stick to tragedy."

First appeared in The Australian, 16 January, 2010

68th Venice Film Festival Awards

Golden Lion for Best Film

 Faust by Aleksander Sokurov (Russia)

Silver Lion for Best Director
Shangjun CAI
for the film Ren Shan Ren Hai (People Mountain People Sea) (China - Hong Kong)

Special Jury Prize

Terraferma by Emanuele Crialese (Italy)

Coppa Volpi for Best Actor
Michael Fassbender
in the film Shame by Steve McQueen (United Kingdom)

Coppa Volpi for Best Actress

Deanie Yip in the film Tao jie (A Simple Life) by Ann Hui (China - Hong Kong)

Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best New Young Actor or Actress
Shôta Sometani and Fumi Nikaidô
in the film Himizu by Sion Sono (Japan)

Osella for the Best Cinematography
Robbie Ryan
for the film Wuthering Heights by Andrea Arnold (United Kingdom)

Osella for Best Screenplay
Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthimis Filippou
for the film Alpis (Alps) by Yorgos Lanthimos (Grecia)

Lion of the Future - “Luigi De Laurentiis”Venice Award for a Debut Film

Là-bas by Guido Lombardi (Italy) - International Critics' Week
and a prize of 100,000 USD, donated by Filmauro di Aurelio e Luigi De Laurentiis, to be divided equally between the director and the producer

Orizzonti Award
(full-length films):
Kotoko by Shinya Tsukamoto (Japan)

Special Orizzonti Jury Prize
(full-length films):
Whores’ Glory di Michael Glawogger (Austria, Germania)

Orizzonti Award
Accidentes Gloriosos (medium-length films) by Mauro Andrizzi and Marcus Lindeen (Sweden, Denmark, Germany)

Orizzonti Award
(short films):
In attesa dell'avvento by Felice D'Agostino and Arturo Lavorato (Italia)

Special Mentions:

O Le Tulafale (The Orator) by Tusi Tamasese (New Zealand, Samoa)
All The Lines Flow Out by Charles LIM Yi Yong (Singapore)

Controcampo Award
(for narrative feature-length films)
Scialla! by Francesco Bruni

Controcampo Award
(for short films)
A Chjàna by Jonas Carpignano

Controcampo Doc Award
(for documentaries)
Pugni chiusi by Fiorella Infascelli

Special Mentions
to the documentary Black Block by Carlo Augusto Bachschmidt
to Francesco Di Giacomo for the cinematography of Pugni chiusi

Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement
Marco Bellocchio

Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award 2011

Al Pacino

Persol 3D Award for the Most Creative Stereoscopic Film of the Year

Zapruder Filmmakers Group (David Zamagni, Nadia Ranocchi, and Monaldo Moretti)

L'Oréal Paris Award for Cinema
Nicole Grimaudo


Venice Film Festival Screening: A Dangerous Method

David Cronenberg is regarded as the king of "body horror", but it would be a mistake to think that the focus of his films was always purely corporeal. In his latest film, A Dangerous Method, he goes straight for the brain.

Working from Christopher Hampton's play The Talking Cure, Cronenberg charts the changing relationship between up-and-coming psychoanalyst Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortenson), and masochistic Russian Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) – who goes from patient to lover to child psychologist – in what the director calls an "intellectual menage à trois with sexual overtones".

With its themes of sexual repression and liberation, and the dangers and pleasures of letting go, the film echoes Cronenberg's work as far back as 1975's Shivers. A Dangerous Method doesn't, however, indulge in bodily fluids (apart from a lingering close-up of post-coital blood after Spielrein loses her virginity). Betraying its stage origins, this is a film very much rooted in dialogue.

Visually, it is lush and handsomely mounted, while Knightley surprises by throwing caution to the wind as the hysterical beauty whose beatings by her father as a child have left her with a penchant for being spanked. Fassbender notches up another intriguing performance as a man whose moral compass and optimism shift as he gives in to his urges, while Mortenson brings gravitas and wisdom to Freud.


Originally published in The Scotsman

Venice Film Festival Screening: Carnage

Roman Polanski was absent from Venice but his new film, Carnage, was been one of the most entertaining movies of the festival.

Adapted from Yasmina Reza's play, the film puts two couples who hate each other in a room, and watches as they rip each other to shreds. For a moment, it seems that Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz) have come to an amicable agreement with Penny (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C Reilly) after a violent altercation between their young sons in a park.

It doesn't take long, though, for their bourgeois manners to desert them, their masks to slip, and their true feelings – and mutual loathing – to burst out to hilarious and draw-dropping effect. Before long, a treasured book has been covered in vomit, and a bunch of tulips indecorously thrashed to pieces.

Polanksi expertly choreographs his actors in the film's apartment setting, while they throw themselves into their roles as if their lives depended on it. Thanks to everyone operating at the top of their game, this small gem is not to be missed.


Originally published in The Scotsman

Venice Film Festival Screening: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The tortoise to Bond and Bourne’s hares, this classy adaptation of John Le Carre’s Cold War spy novel moves at an unfashionably slow pace, but gets you much further in the long run.

Directed with an obsessive eye for period detail and a strong command of atmosphere by Thomas Alfredson, the Swedish director of the subtle vampire film, Let the Right  One In, the film follows the recently dismissed career spy George Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) bid to smoke out a mole in the higher echelons of MI6.

Favouring intricate plotting, dialogue and character over frenetic editing and ballistic action, the film does a wonderful job of illustrating the loneliness, paranoia, personal sacrifice, and isolation that come with being a part of the spying game, in which a breach of trust can mean the difference between life and death.

It is a beautifully crafted piece of work with a fine cast including old hands such as Oldman and John Hurt, exciting rising stars like Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and, of course, the ubiquitous Mark Strong.  

However, whether it will appeal to a generation raised on a type of filmmaking where speed is often of the essence, remains to be seen.


Originally published in The Scotsman

Venice Film Festival Screening: Shame

If Michael Fassbender's roles in X-Men: First Class and Cary Fukunaga's adaptation of Jane Eyre suggested he'd stopped taking risks, then Shame, his second film to screen at the Venice Film Festival, provides shocking evidence to the contrary.

A jolt to the system when seen at a 9am screening on Sunday, the film reunites the German-Irish actor with the British artist Steve McQueen, whose 2008 film Hunger put the actor on audiences' radar, and stunningly launched the artist as a feature director.

It was Fassbender's body that was wasting away as Bobby Sands in Hunger, but it is arguably his character's soul that is atrophying as Brandon, an office worker in Manhattan, whose fastidious outward appearance masks a messy inner life.

Brandon has an insatiable sexual appetite that prostitutes, one-night stands, pornography, and frequent masturbation cannot sate. Yet he seems to have his life in order – at least until his troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives in his apartment unannounced, sending him into a tailspin. Their closeness and physical familiarity, and the way that the nature of their bond is initially withheld, suggest that theirs could once have been more than just a straightforward brother-sister relationship, but McQueen is too subtle a director to spell everything out.

Fassbender and Mulligan dazzle as siblings struggling with their demons in different ways, while the former's descent into a kind of fleshly hell is both shocking and disturbing. Meanwhile, McQueen fulfils the promise of his first feature, and further cements his reputation as probably the UK's most daring director of the moment. 

The film is my tip for the Golden Lion, while Fassbender should collect the festival's acting award.


Originally published in The Scotsman

Venice Film Festival Screening: The Ides of March

The Italians love George Clooney, the Hollywood heart-throb who bought a villa on Lake Como and who gets a marriage proposal practically every time he gives a press conference at the Venice Film Festival. So Clooney's latest directorial outing, the vivid political thriller The Ides of March, was an obvious choice to open the prestigious event on the Lido last week.

The film boasts a fine cast, including man of the moment Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Clooney himself. The problem, however, is that The Ides of March is so deadly serious, and so seriously downbeat, that it immediately made me worry what was to come later in the festival.

Set during the last lap of a presidential primary in Ohio, Clooney's fourth film as director (he also had a hand in the writing) presents an utterly jaded and cynical insider tale of political power games, personal ambition, loyalty, betrayal, sex and spin, that feels at once timeless and contemporary. If you, like Tomei's journalist, believe that all politicians are destined to disappoint, then you won't be disappointed.

It is certainly what Gosling's idealistic press spokesman discovers, as the Obama-like governor he puts his hope in for a better, brighter future for America turns out not to be quite the man he thought he was.

The film touches on the issue of private and public morality, and whether we should expect our politicians always to practise in private what they preach in public. Is there an argument for putting the greater good first when a politician slips up? Is it possible, in these times of round-the-clock news and the internet, to keep a sense of perspective about such matters? And would the fall-out from the Clinton-Lewinsky affair have been different if Americans were more relaxed about their leaders' sexual peccadilloes?

These thoughts came to mind as all around Clooney's apparently decent governor, people vie for a little piece of power, sit in judgement, or, in Gosling's case, shift from idealism to pragmatism.

Taut, intelligently written and grippingly acted, The Ides of March may not have been the most cheerful film to open the festival with, but it provided a satisfying curtain-raiser. 


Originally published in The Scotsman

Venice Film Festival Screening: Contagion

Part of the fun of 1970s disaster movies like Earthquake and Towering Inferno was wondering which members of their starry casts would make it to the final reel. Now Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Contagion allows you play a similar game of ‘spot the victim’, as the likes of Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marion Cottilard find themselves caught up in a deadly viral pandemic.

Working with a multi-threaded plot that cuts between ordinary people’s efforts to survive and scientists’ attempts to trace the origin of the virus and create a vaccine, Soderbergh builds a convincingly realistic picture of the chaos, fear, and death that might happen in such an event.

But while the film effectively makes one palpably aware of the ease with which a contagion could be spread, and the huge number of lives that could be at stake, it fails to really grip or be emotionally involving. Nor is it a Threads for the SARS generation.

At least Soderbergh is as unconcerned – up to a point - about his actors’ star status as a virus would be. So you might be surprised to see who ends up on an autopsy table with their scalp pushed over their face.


Originally published in The Scotsman

Venice Film Festival Screening: Madonna's W.E.

The question hanging over Madonna's W.E. was whether the pop chameleon had managed to reinvent herself as a credible film-maker. For some, the question was clearly moot, and I could practically hear the sound of pens being filled with acid and knives being sharpened. Unsurprisingly, there were critics who instantly pronounced W.E. an unmitigated disaster. But while it never really coheres as a fully realised piece of work stylistically, W.E. is nevertheless an enjoyably eccentric romantic hotchpotch which is never boring, sometimes moving, both charming and unintentionally funny in its moments of naïvety, and always visually appealing.

Traversing past and present, the film switches – or maybe thrashes – back and forth between the burgeoning romance between unhappily married Wally Winthrop (Australian rising star Abbie Cornish) and a Russian security guard at Sotheby's in New York, and the history-making love affair between Wallis Simpson (Andrea Riseborough), with whom Wally is obsessed, and King Edward VIII (James d'Arcy).

Wally has fallen for the fairytale and seeks solace and guidance in Simpson's story. Madonna, though, goes some way to deconstructing the myth – and, arguably, the myth of celebrity – to reveal the truth of Simpson's life: that far from being happily loved-up and living the dream, she felt isolated, trapped, and rejected by society.

But the film never achieves a consistent tone, with Madonna throwing in everything from Simpson dancing wildly at a riotous party fuelled by benzedrine and champagne played out to the Sex Pistols' Pretty Vacant, to a moving reconstruction of Edward VIII's abdication speech, and a piece of silliness involving pugs.

While W.E. won't convince anyone that Madonna should give up her day job, it is by no means the thoroughgoing embarrassment that some have claimed. Forget the name at the helm and enjoy the oddness.


Originally published in The Scotsman