‘The Northman’, classy video, yawn

The Northman

What you think of The Northman will depend on whether you’ve heard anything about it before seeing it. Unfortunately, its director, Robert Eggers, and his PR team have done such a sterling job promoting it that the chances of you coming to it fresh are almost negligible. 

You’ll be as well versed as I was in how meticulously researched it all was, and about the many and great pains that they all went to to realise his vision. So you’ll very probably be as baffled and as quietly irritated by it as I was. 

What all that painstaking research was aimed at was, apparently, in giving us a window into what life in 9th and 10th century Viking Europe actually looked and felt like. Doing then for the Viking world what Robert Altman and Jacques Audiard did for the western, with McCabe and Mrs Millar (1971) and The Sisters Brothers (2018). Or what Bergman, Eggers’ favourite film maker did for medieval Europe, with The Virgin Spring (’60) and The Seventh Seal (’57). All of which brilliantly redraw a genre’s borders to reimagine its parameters.

Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Millar

But The Northman doesn’t look or feel anything like a film. It’s plainly part of the music video/advertising/video game landscape. All the physiques are perfectly sculpted, everyone’s hair falls just so, and all that killing and mayhem has that choreographed look and feel that we’ll all so familiar with and comfortable watching. 

We know that none of the figures we’re looking up at are actual, real people. They’re just more of those character avatars. Some of whom get decapitated, others of whom survive. None of which matters, because the stakes are necessarily almost non-existent. And the whole thing has that flattened, monochrome look that you get with video, further dulling any interest you might have had in it. 

Worst of all, you never get to hear, and therefore experience, any of the physical things that they’re supposed to be doing. Like, say, taking a bite out of something, or sitting down exhausted into a chair, or taking off a piece of clothing, because all its sounds are neutered by the constant drone of atmos.

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

If you’d heard nothing about it before sitting down to watch The Northman, you’d very probably consider it a perfectly pleasant way to while away a stray couple of hours. No doubt you’d have found all that cod, ye oldie, mittle-European dialogue mildly amusing, rather than risibly pretentious.

And you’d probably conclude that Eggers was the younger brother of Baz Luhrmann, determined to treat the world of comic book heroes and D&D with deadly earnestness. Unlike that older brother of his, ever ready to settle for the cheapest thrill and the easiest laugh.

But you’d never for a second imagine that either were working in anything other than the world of video. And when it comes to video, there’s no two ways about it. Eggers is a class act.

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

I love music videos, and video games. Just not at the cinema. As a matter of fact, they’re exactly what I go to the cinema to escape.

You can see the trailer for The Northman below – and, by the way, a 2 minute trailer is exactly how the Northman should be best experienced. Just don’t ruin your memory of it by watching the actual film.

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Winter Sleep, the 2014 Cannes Film Festival winner.

Winter Sleep.

Winter Sleep.

Turkish film maker Nuri Bilge Ceylan made his international breakthrough with the powerful Once Upon A Time in Anatolia in 2011, reviewed earlier here. It won the Grand Prix, the runner up prize at Cannes that year, and his latest went one better, winning the Palme d’Or there last year.

As with Once Upon A Time, Winter Sleep was inspired by the short stories of Chekhov, and is in fact loosely based on two of them. But it doesn’t feel as obviously Chekhovian as the earlier film. Rather, it is the spirit of Ingmar Bergman that permeates his latest outing.

Bergman’s favourite film from his own body of work, not merely the one he was least dissatisfied with, but one of the few that he actually liked, was Winter Light. And it’s not hard to see what appealed to him about it. It’s his most unremittingly bleak film. And the only one of his mature films that he doesn’t saddle with a brief and unconvincing coda that tries to suggest some sense of reconciliation.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Indeed, the up-beat beat that Wild Strawberries, Autumn Sonata and most glaringly Through A Glass Darkly end with are so fleeting and out of character, that you wonder whether you really saw them there.

Ceylan claims that his film is in no way inspired by Bergman. But given its subject matter mood and title, he clearly doth protesteth too much. You can see why he might. Who wants to be compared to Bergman? He needn’t have worried though. Winter Sleep comfortably justifies such lofty praise.

Winter Sleep.

Winter Sleep.

At the core of this intense, intimate and unforgiving character study are two quiet if monumental arguments. Aydin, a former actor, is now the owner of the only hotel in an isolated village in rural Turkey, making him the one fish in a non-existent pond. In the first of these rows he is confronted by his sister, who is living there with him having separated from her husband.

And in the second, he and his younger wife clash in a monumental show down that has clearly been building for months.

Melisa Sozen in Winter Sleep.

Melisa Sozen as the long suffering wife in Winter Sleep.

The stifling sense of suffocating claustrophobia, and the strong feeling that you are witnessing a family row that you really shouldn’t have heard any of are quintessentially Bergmanesque. But in contrast to some of Bergman’s, Ceylan’s images are as meticulously constructed as his characters are complex. And as with Once Upon A Time, the film comfortably justifies the three hours it unfolds over.

In short, another major film from one of the few serous film makers working today. You can see the trailer to Winter Sleep here.

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Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”, Comfortably the Film of the Year

Farhadi's "A Separation"

Iran’s A Separation has just cleaned up at this year’s Asian Film Awards. Before which it had won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best foreign-language film. And last year it similarly triumphed at the Berlin Film Festival where it first surfaced. So there you are then. Sometimes good guys do come first.

This is Farhadi’s fifth film, but his first to break through internationally. Before which he’d worked extensively in theatre. So it’s unsurprising to hear him site Ingmar Bergman as a key influence in the interview he gives on the dvd extras, and to hear him alluding to Scenes From A Marriage from 1973. Impressively, it’s a comparison that A Separation comfortably merits.

According to Jan Fleischer, the National Film School’s script guru in London, a well told story needs to move through five distinct phases: Exposition, where we are introduced to the various elements of the story, Conflict, Crisis, Catastrophe, and finally Catharsis, as the story is brought to a definitive end.

This film illustrates that dynamic progression brilliantly. Indeed, it’s a long time since I’ve seen quite so much plot shoehorned into to a single story. Practically every scene turns, as yet more twists are revealed and yet another surprise is unveiled. Which might have proved problematic, were it not all handled so very deftly, and in such a subtle, nuanced and all too believable way.

It’s a foot perfect realisation of Strindberg’s famous wish to see a drama performed as if in front of a fourth wall. So seamless and confident are the performances and the direction here, that you find yourself perched forever on the edge of your seat, watching as two families descend into all too avoidable tragedy.

Robert McKee maintains that the reason that Bergman is one of the most important film makers of the 20th century is because he was one of its greatest scriptwriters. A Separation strongly suggests that Asghar Farhadi has confidently taken up that mantle.

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