Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A haunting exploration of loneliness

Jenny applauds Kaufman and Johnson for their 5-star animation Anomalisa

The scene: c1984, Little Angel Children’s Puppet Theatre in Islington, North London, mid performance of something bland such as Meg and Mog

Small son (screaming): I’m not staying here!
Embarrassed mother (me): Shhh!
Small son: I hate those puppets, they’re evil!
Embarrassed mother: Why?
Small son: They come alive and they’ll come and get me!

Yes, well-spotted that son, puppets have a weird, dream-like quality of their own, half way as they are between doll and human and they do so in this strange and brilliant film.

The well-named Michael Stone is in Cincinatti, chosen for its mid-west anonymity. He is an author and motivational speaker whose subject is customer care. I have done my occasional stints as a motivational speaker and I have many times stayed in anonymous hotels just like this one. The whole grisly business of checking in and being taken to your room is shown in real time and made me ache with laughter: the receptionist who has certainly absorbed every word of Michael’s book and is able to recite his welcome incantation with utterly fake empathy and without pausing for breath; the bellhop who explains that this is the bathroom and this is the window with his hand held out for the tip; the dark room (always too dark to read your documents easily except in the overlit bathroom); the shower that is too hot then too cold; the grim view; the long long corridor with identical doors; the key card that only works on the third attempt; the room service where bland food is made to sound enticing by describing the raspberry vinaigrette on the lettuce. Yes, I’ve been there.

It seems that everyone apart from Michael has an identical face in this world and their voices, man woman or child, are spoken by the same actor, Tom Noonan. That is until he meets a breathless fan who is coming to his session the following day. Lisa is a naïve, sweetly spoken young woman disfigured by a facial scar. Jennifer Jason Leigh voices this part with astonishing depth. Lisa and Michael have a one night affair.

Why puppets for this extraordinary riff on the loneliness and pointlessness of human existence? Why as a director put yourself through three whole years where the stop-action animators were doing well to produce a mere 2 seconds a day and at a total cost of $10m? Because clearly nothing else would do. The puppets have a foreshortened, stumpy appearance, their skin vulnerably fuzzy, their eyes full of pain. They make it plain that our belief in free will is an illusion: we are puppets.

The heart of the film is the sex scene. Could human actors reproduce the painful awkwardness of sex with a new lover when for instance, you accidentally bang your head on the headboard, say ‘sorry’ too much or get overcome by shyness? Or convey the experience of intoxicating and illusory connection when biology does its bit? Probably not. I have never seen a movie scene like this: funny, so tastefully done, touching and oddly erotic where I had to keep reminding myself, ‘these are puppets!’

Disaffected middle-aged fatalists are nothing new in American cinema and fiction but Michael is a special case, a man out of time and place. David Thewlis, who voices Michael, has a slow, downbeat Mancunian accent but his character is living in LA. His marriage is failing. He doesn’t believe his own advice any more. He is making a living by trudging through his life, peddling the lie that customer service brings happiness. The literal nightmare of the film is his dream where, running up that dark corridor, his puppet mask falls off, revealing a terrifying cardboard skull beneath.

This is an animated film with no talking animals or jolly ending. Yes, that small son was absolutely right, puppets do have a quality of strange otherness that in this case will haunt you long after you have emerged, blinking, into ‘reality’.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Shimmeringly shallow

Jenny gives Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash 4 stars

I really enjoyed this film. It made me recall so many holidays which start with high hopes of relaxation and sun in new and properly hot locations, interesting local food, carefree sex. As it goes on, all the tensions kick in because of course you take yourself and your familiar problems on holiday, and then it ends in too much wine, sunburn and maybe a little melodrama on the last night because without any of the normal routines to distract you, you are face to face with all the relationship tangles you came away to forget. Fortunately none of my actual holidays ended quite like the one in this film did.

The film cheekily takes its title from David Hockney’s swimming pool painting of gloriously sybaritic California in the sixties. It will remind you of the many movies you have seen where a swimming pool represents depths of desire and the wish to let yourself go. If you are old enough, or film-buff enough, you will remember La Piscine, the 1969 Jacques Deray film of which this is a remake. Tilda Swinton plays a Bowie-like rock star Marianne, recovering from throat surgery so she can only speak in a rasping whisper. Her boyfriend, Matthias Schoenaerts, is a photographer and film director who is recovering from alcoholism and a suicide attempt. They are having a lovely time in their Garden of Eden on the Italian island of Pantelleria when, Pow! In comes the uninvited ghastly supercharged motormouth serpent, a former lover of Marianne, bringing with him a sulky pouting girl (Dakota Johnson) who may or may not be his daughter and who may or may not be a teenager and who certainly represents the forbidden apple. Ralph Fiennes plays the manipulative intruder, Harry, a record producer whose phenomenal piece of Dad Dancing to a Rolling Stones record is a laugh out loud piece of utterly inspired comedy. Forget his Mr Lugubrious of so many period films and plays. Here he is loud, brash, often naked, all unrelenting manic Ups without any of the Downs.

I suspect that the director wants his film to seem as deep as the pool which figures so largely in the plot. It may be. The trouble is that his characters are so very narcissistic. None is what they seem. All are seduced by the tinsel of appearance: they work in film or photography or rock music. They all behave badly. The adults have experienced fame, money and the world’s adoration, yet they are voids inside. The film suggests that they have either never achieved what they wanted or are past their best. But it seems that the director simply cannot help himself: he adores the very things that the film implies are so empty: Tilda’s exquisite wardrobe is by Dior, her face with its chalky skin and androgynous sharp planes, her slim boyish body - all are made for the camera. Matthias Schoenaerts smoulders handsomely as the lover; Dakota Johnson as the maybe-daughter is enticing in her sheer youthfulness.

Guadagnino has said that he does not see himself in the Italian film making tradition http://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/a-bigger-splash/interview-luca-guadagnino-tilda-swinton-ralph-fiennes/but I think he may be fooling himself. When I saw L’Avventura as a naïve young filmgoer I was instantly enraptured while simultaneously accepting that I didn’t understand a single frame of it and had no idea what was going on. More recently, watching Paolo Sorrentino’s film A Great Beauty, and finding it stupendously boring, I realised I was seeing something in the Italian tradition that did not work at all for me. But A Bigger Splash has the swooping zooms and pans, languorous enigmatic sex and tortured, reflected close-ups that all Italian films need, with wonderful performances to match.

This film is operatically melodramatic, a lush, slightly bonkers, over the top psychodrama about self-involved, beautiful people with too little to do that ends in tragedy. And do you care? Probably not but you’ll have a good time watching.

Joe’s spoiler

I seem to remember one of DH Lawrence's wacky ideas was that for every murderer there's a murderee. Harry is a perfect murderee. The dance, as you say, Jenny, was superb. The fight in the pool was also, in its own very different way, brilliantly done. Viewed from directly above, unsettlingly lit from below the water line, and with a sound track so subtle that I thought at first I was hearing noises from an adjacent screen, it leads to what must be the finest swimming pool death since Amanda Redmond did for Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast.

I’m not sure the effect in the end is as shallow as you suggest. Marianne is fully aware of the moral significance of what she’s doing (is there an actor in the business whose eyes give away as much as Tilda Swinton’s?) when she suggests that refugees who have recently landed on the local beach may be to blame for Harry’s death.