Close Your Eyes”, a new film from Víctor Erice

Vet­er­an Span­ish film mak­er Víc­tor Erice emerged in 1973 with his haunt­ing fea­ture debut, The Spir­it of the Bee­hive. Ten years lat­er, he was all set to deliv­er his sec­ond, much-await­ed fea­ture, when the pro­duc­er out-Amber­son­ed him. 

Orson Welles had famous­ly seen his sec­ond film and the fol­low up to Cit­i­zen Kane uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly muti­lat­ed by RKO. When the stu­dio saw how down­beat the sec­ond half of The Mag­nif­i­cent Amber­sons was, and under­stood the irony of its title, they instruct­ed his edi­tor to cut the final 40 min­utes (yes, that’s forty) and add on an oh so tacky hap­py ending. 

Not to be out­done, when Erice’s pro­duc­er found out that El Sur (’83) had a sim­i­lar­ly sus­pect sec­ond half planned, he sim­ply refused to allow him to film its sec­ond half. So unsur­pris­ing­ly, the direc­tor has dis­owned it.

Ten years lat­er, Erice made the ele­giac doc­u­men­tary fea­ture, The Quince Tree Sun (’92). And now, thir­ty years after that, he has, at the age of 82, returned with his fourth fea­ture, Close Your Eyes

The film oper­ates on two lev­els. On its sur­face, a vet­er­an film mak­er ends up re-vis­it­ing the events around a film he’d been mak­ing over two decades ago, when the prin­ci­pal actor, and his close per­son­al friend, had sud­den­ly and inex­plic­a­bly dis­ap­peared with­out trace. Was it real­ly sui­cide, or did some­thing else take place?

But real­ly, the film is an explo­ration of mem­o­ry and loss, of roads not tak­en and the life that was lived as opposed to the many that remain only par­tial­ly embarked upon. The hand­ful of things you said yes to, and the many oth­ers that some­how slipped through your fin­gers to dis­ap­pear in the sand at your feet.

Close Your Eyes is not mere­ly one of the bet­ter films of the year, it’s one if the best. But your response, rather like the film itself, will reg­is­ter on two levels. 

Of course, it almost goes with­out say­ing, to see any­thing new from Erice is some­thing to be wel­comed with unbri­dled joy. And the fact that the film is, as I say, com­fort­ably in the top ten per cent of films made any­where in the world in 2023, is a mon­u­men­tal relief and to be loud­ly heralded. 

But The Spir­it of the Bee­hive and The Quince Tree Sun were both in the top one per cent of the films made when they came out. Which isn’t to sug­gest that Close Your Eyes is in any way dis­ap­point­ing. It’s just not the daz­zling, celes­tial tri­umph we’d all hoped it might be. The prob­lem, very sim­ply, is its length. 

There’s real­ly no need for its near three hours. As sac­ri­le­gious as this is to say out loud, I wish an edi­tor had been brought in to care­ful­ly cull it down to a trim two hours. There’s no need for any of the scenes in Andalu­cia, and those nuns, charm­ing as they are, should have been briefly glimpsed as non-speak­ing extras. 

It is of course com­plete­ly under­stand­able, not to say com­mend­able, that he should have want­ed to give as many of his col­lab­o­ra­tors as many moments in the sun as he could muster. But it’s hard not to qui­et­ly wish that he were a far less gen­er­ous col­lab­o­ra­tor and a slight­ly more rig­or­ous film maker. 

All of which is to quib­ble. Watch Close Your Eyes, it’s one of the best films of the year. And then treat your­self to The Spir­it of the Bee­hive, and The Quince Tree Sun.

You can see the trail­er to Close Your Eyes below:

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The Zone of Interest: Jonathon Glazer Comes of Age

Dur­ing the 1990s, a cohort of direc­tors emerged to team up with some of the more ambi­tious indie bands and brands to pro­duce a wave of ground-break­ing music videos and ads. 

Spike Jonze, David Finch­er, Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry and Chris Cun­ning­ham made music videos for, respec­tive­ly, the Beast­ie Boys (Sab­o­tage), George Michael (Free­dom), Fiona Apple (Crim­i­nal), Daft Punk (Around the World) and the Aphex Twin (Come to Dad­dy).

Many of whom, you’ll have noticed, went on to make the move into fea­tures. But, with the excep­tion of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adap­ta­tion, and Gondry’s Eter­nal Sun­shine of Spot­less Mind (all three of which were writ­ten by Char­lie Kauf­man), their films proved to be every bit as con­ven­tion­al and stu­dio-bound as the wave of from-adver­tis­ing-to-fea­ture film mak­ers who’d pre­ced­ed them, with the likes of Rid­ley and Tony Scott, Adri­an Lyne and Alan Park­er.

Radio­head­’s Street Spirit

And when Jonathon Glaz­er, the classi­est mem­ber of that for­mer cohort, made that same tran­si­tion, it seemed that he too was des­tined to sim­i­lar­ly disappoint. 

Glaz­er had made the icon­ic videos for Radiohead’s Street Spir­it and Kar­ma Police, and Jamiroquai’s Vir­tu­al Insan­i­ty, as well as Guin­ness’ surf­ing-hors­es and Sony Bravia’s explod­ing-paint-in-a-Glas­gow-hous­ing-estate ads.

But his ini­tial for­ay into fea­tures was decid­ed­ly under­whelm­ing. Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004) and Under The Skin (2013, and reviewed by me ear­li­er here) were thin and nar­ra­tive­ly under-cooked. So it was with some­thing of a heavy heart that I sat down to watch his fourth fea­ture, The Zone of Inter­est (2023).

How refresh­ing to be proved so unequiv­o­cal­ly wrong. The Zone of Inter­est is both a seri­ous film and one of gen­uine substance.

Guin­ness

It doesn’t seem to have much of a sto­ry, and you’d be for­giv­en for think­ing there’d been lit­tle writ­ing involved in the craft­ing of the script. But the supe­ri­or writ­ing comes in what Glaz­er leaves out from the source mate­r­i­al of Mar­tin Amis’ 2014 nov­el. As ever then, the writ­ing is in the editing.

It is the fact that noth­ing remark­able hap­pens, as the Ger­man fam­i­ly go about their dai­ly busi­ness some­where in Poland, in 1943, that makes it impos­si­ble for us not to notice that they are liv­ing lit­er­al­ly next door, not just to a, but to the most noto­ri­ous con­cen­tra­tion camp ever con­struct­ed. That then, dev­as­tat­ing­ly, is the story. 

How on earth can that be? How can human beings pos­si­bly live right next door to that, and not be con­sumed by it? As such, it becomes a sear­ing indict­ment of the Ger­mans, the east Euro­peans, and of the whole of the West. After all, every­one there knew what was going on, but almost no one did any­thing about it.

In his New York­er review , Antho­ny Lane won­dered whether an entire fea­ture film was the best way to explore what was being avoid­ed. After all, hadn’t Alain Resnais done that so much more eco­nom­i­cal­ly in Night and Fog, his 32 minute doc­u­men­tary film from 1956?

But it is pre­cise­ly because we already have Claude Lanz­man­n’s mon­u­men­tal 9 hour Shoah (reviewed by me ear­li­er here) and Resnais’s Night and Fog, both of which address the holo­caust head on, that a film which refus­es to do so becomes so potent. 

By not to fac­ing up to what ought to be unavoid­able, the film forces us to address those unan­swer­able ques­tions. And, irre­spec­tive of how unsat­is­fac­to­ry any answers might be, it’s vital nonethe­less that those ques­tions are asked.

You can see the trail­er for The Zone of Inter­est here:

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Poor Things”, More and Less of The Same

Poor Things is the eighth fea­ture from Greek film mak­er Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos and the fourth of his Eng­lish lan­guage films, which he’s been mak­ing with the Irish pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Ele­ment Pictures. 

But it was his third fea­ture, Dog­tooth, from 2009, which brought him to the atten­tion of inter­na­tion­al audi­ences and set the tone that we’ve come to expect from him.

Lan­thi­mos makes the sorts of arche­typ­al­ly Brecht­ian films designed to con­front you with your expec­ta­tions, to there­by upend them. Instead of using nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions and visu­al tropes to draw the view­er in and sub­merge them in his sto­ry, he delib­er­ate­ly draws their atten­tion to the con­ven­tions and tropes that he’s using. 

The idea being that you’re there­by forced to more active­ly think about what it is that you’re watching.

There’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with traips­ing sim­i­lar ter­rain to Lars Von Tri­er and Michael Haneke, or, for that mat­ter, to messrs Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Lind­say Ander­son, Dou­glas Sirk and Luis Buñuel before them. But it does mean that, the old­er you are and the more famil­iar you are with that well-trod­den path, the less like­ly you are to be impressed this time around. 

In oth­er words, Lan­thi­mos makes the sorts of films you loud­ly cham­pi­on in your teens and very ear­ly twen­ties, but which you lat­er become qui­et­ly embar­rassed about ever hav­ing celebrated. 

And, sure enough, Lan­thi­mos too has moved on, at least up to a point. His last two films, The Favourite, from 2018, and now Poor Things, both have rel­a­tive­ly con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tives that are most­ly told in the tra­di­tion­al way. The prob­lem is, that ‘most­ly’. 

Because he’s just not capa­ble of ful­ly jet­ti­son­ing his nat­ur­al anti-nar­ra­tive ten­den­cies. The result is a film that veers from being a con­ven­tion­al com­e­dy come social satire, to one that looks as if it could become an orig­i­nal and visu­al­ly arrest­ing art house film, before veer­ing back to being a ho-hum meat and two veg social comedy. 

All the per­for­mances are excel­lent. Emma Stone, obvi­ous­ly, as the harum scarum reimag­in­ing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s mon­ster for the me-too era. But equal­ly Mark Ruf­fa­lo, Willem Dafoe and Christo­pher Abbott. And, at times, it looks pos­i­tive­ly resplen­dent, with Rob­bie Ryan’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy com­bin­ing daz­zling­ly with Géza Ker­ti’s arrest­ing art direction.

But their tal­ents are con­tin­u­al­ly reined in as the direc­tor insists on pok­ing you in the ribs with his cal­cu­lat­ed overuse of those tedious fish-eye shots. He’s the peren­ni­al bright but over-active teenag­er who dis­cov­ers some­thing that irri­tates you, and keeps on doing it, know­ing that you know that he knows that it’s its rep­e­ti­tion that’s real­ly annoy­ing, rather than the thing itself. 

And so he’s just going to keep right on doing it, over and over again. Repeat­ed­ly. Until that but­ton in duly pushed. 

Which is a shame, because at times, that heady mix of cin­e­matog­ra­phy and art direc­tion sug­gest the film could have devel­oped into a fas­ci­nat­ing com­pan­ion piece to Dario Argento’s Sus­piria (1977) (reviewed by me ear­li­er here) and Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), if only it had been allowed to.

Instead of which, all we end up with is an unnec­es­sar­i­ly extend­ed (yet anoth­er near­ly two and half hour film), and all too con­ven­tion­al comedy.

You can watch the trail­er for Poor Things below:

Bet­ter still, watch the trail­er for Argento’s Sus­piria:

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Killers of the Flower Moon” Perpetuates the Crime it Chronicles

Killers of the Flower Moon is a sump­tu­ous beast of a film that’s impec­ca­bly direct­ed by Mar­tin Scors­ese and boasts pow­er­ful per­for­mances from Leonar­do diCaprio and Robert De Niro. And the more that the nature of its sto­ry sinks in, the more dis­ap­point­ing that is. 

Based on David Grann’s award-win­ning best­selling book, it tells the true sto­ry of the Osage, who briefly become the rich­est peo­ple on the plan­et when oil was dis­cov­ered under their cor­ner of Okla­homa in the 1920s. The result is a world that’s been turned upside down, with impos­si­bly wealthy brown skinned peo­ple being served and wait­ed upon by white maids, lack­eys and chauffeurs.

Inevitably, the white major­i­ty are deter­mined to restore the nat­ur­al order, which they do by mar­ry­ing into the Osage and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mur­der­ing any­one who stands between them and their now right­ful inheritance. 

Okla­homa, by the way, was where the Tul­sa riots took place in 1921, when planes were used to bomb the town of wealthy black peo­ple. Which was the oth­er way that the white pop­u­la­tion sought to restore the nat­ur­al order, and which was used so potent­ly as the back­drop for Damon Lin­de­lof’s The Watch­men, reviewed by me ear­li­er here.

The book of The Killers of the Flower Moon tells this sto­ry by fol­low­ing the par­al­lel nar­ra­tives of Mol­lie, one of the vic­tims, and of the FBI agent whose inves­ti­ga­tion uncov­ered what was going on. 

But a cou­ple of years into the film project, DiCaprio told Scors­ese that he was uncom­fort­able with the way they were telling the sto­ry because it was so obvi­ous­ly the sto­ry of Mol­lie, her peo­ple and what was done to them. 

So Scors­ese was faced with a dilem­ma. Does he do the obvi­ous thing, and turn it into Mollie’s sto­ry? Or does he com­plete­ly re-fash­ion the whole nar­ra­tive so that he can keep his two favourite actors cen­tre stage? 

Under­stand­ably, he opts for the lat­ter, mak­ing De Niro the regal mas­ter­mind and cast­ing DiCaprio as Mol­lie’s schem­ing hus­band. After all, mak­ing a film takes lit­er­al­ly years. And we’re talk­ing about two of the most tal­ent­ed and excit­ing actors in mod­ern Amer­i­can cin­e­ma. So what we’re giv­en is a film whose script con­demns the two men, but which shows us a pair of love­able rogues whose charm and mag­net­ic screen pres­ence make them impos­si­ble to hate in the way that their con­duct demands.

We have of course been here before. Good­fel­las sim­i­lar­ly asks us not to think too deeply about the vic­tims of the vicious thugs the film so lov­ing­ly cel­e­brates. And most of us are more than hap­py to sit back and enjoy the ride. 

So we watch as Good­fel­las tells us that crime doesn’t pay, but which shows us impos­si­bly glam­orous indi­vid­u­als, beau­ti­ful­ly lit and impec­ca­bly chore­o­graphed to the tunes of white pick­et-fence, 1950s mid­dle Amer­i­ca. And, as with The God­fa­ther, we’re pre­sent­ed with a crim­i­nal under­world that’s seduc­tive­ly roman­ti­cised and impos­si­ble to resist.

But unlike Cop­po­la, whose pri­ma­ry inter­est is in sur­face spec­ta­cle and the busi­ness of enter­tain­ment, Scors­ese seemed so much more inter­est­ing, and was and is clear­ly an artist riv­en by guilt and dri­ven by self-examination.

And Good­fel­las, it seemed at the time, was but a momen­tary dis­trac­tion that Scors­ese was divert­ing him­self with before return­ing to the busi­ness of more serous fare. And Killers of the Flower Moon is exact­ly the more seri­ous affair that we’d all been wait­ing for him to return to. Which makes it all the more disappointing. 

What a pity they didn’t all sit down togeth­er to watch Once Upon a Time in the West. De Niro could have been hand­ed the black hat and giv­en a small­er but much more mem­o­rable part as the unequiv­o­cal vil­lain, just as Hen­ry Fon­da had been in Leone’s film. And they could have made it what it clear­ly is, Mollie’s story. 

An unknown actress could have been giv­en the same kind of spring­board that Dustin Hoff­man was afford­ed in The Grad­u­ate or Al Paci­no in The God­fa­ther. And Mollie’s hus­band would have remained the very minor and irre­deemably nasty char­ac­ter that he was in real life. A revolt­ing, despi­ca­ble indi­vid­ual so blind­ed by greed that he was pre­pared to do lit­er­al­ly any­thing if he thought it might feath­er his nest. 

And DiCaprio could have mag­nan­i­mous­ly stepped aside to take on the dull but wor­thy and much small­er role of the FBI agent. So that the spot­light could have been left to focus exclu­sive­ly on where it so clear­ly ought to be, on Mol­lie and the sto­ry of how her fam­i­ly were mur­dered and their land raped and stolen.

Instead of which, we get a beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed film with a pair of impres­sive per­for­mances from two of Amer­i­c­as finest actors. And the more you think about that, the more qui­et­ly and pro­found­ly depress­ing that is. Both the film and the way that it’s been so casu­al­ly if pre­dictably lauded.

You can see the trail­er for Killers of the Flower Moon here:

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Past Lives”, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering etc etc. 

Past Lives is the fea­ture debut from Celine Song and arrives gar­land­ed with awards and fes­tooned with dew and misty-eyed reviews. 

A 12 year old boy and a girl are sep­a­rat­ed when the girl’s fam­i­ly emi­grate from Korea to north Amer­i­ca. 12 years lat­er they redis­cov­er one anoth­er on a thing called the Inter­net, and 12 years after that they final­ly meet, when he pays her a vis­it in New York where she now lives with her writer husband. 

What a joy it is to see a female film mak­er final­ly being giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make some­thing that’s every bit as for­mu­la­ic and as dogged­ly sen­ti­men­tal as any­thing pro­duced by one of her male counterparts. 

Past Lives is every bit as dull and con­ven­tion­al as any of the recent offer­ings from Steven Spiel­berg or Ron Howard. Or, for that mat­ter, as Oppen­heimer was, a film that did such a ster­ling job of look­ing exact­ly like some­thing that either of the for­mer pair could have made. 

The, yawn, Fableman.

In fair­ness, and in stark con­trast to The Fable­mans, Oppen­heimer or prac­ti­cal­ly any oth­er film we’re sub­ject­ed to these days at the cin­e­ma, at least Past Lives has the good grace to come in at under the 2 hour mark. But lordy, they’re some of the slow­est min­utes you’ll ever have to sit through

Pre­dictably then it’s being loud­ly her­ald­ed from all around the Hol­ly­wood hills. And none of us will be sur­prised when Song gets reward­ed by the bean-coun­ters with one of the vehi­cles pro­pelling one of the cere­al-pack­et, action-fig­ure, meal-deal super­hero fran­chis­es that keep draw­ing pre-teens to mul­ti­plex­es to feast on buck­ets of salt and gal­lons of sugar.

Past Lives is absolute­ly fine. It’s per­fect­ly inof­fen­sive, tech­ni­cal­ly com­pe­tent and pro­fes­sion­al­ly pro­duced. Her agent must be thrilled.

You can see the trail­er to Past Lives here:

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