controversial films

Why This Year’s Golden Bear is Bad Cinema but Good Art

Oh, the highly coveted cutie…

coveted cutie

I’d like to start by making clear that, after the initial bafflement at the Berlinale Awards Ceremony last Saturday passed, I’m actually very glad this year’s Golden Bear went to Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not.

However, this has nothing to do with the film itself, but with the strong public reaction it stirred, especially in its home country, Romania.

There is a huge misunderstanding around this film, which could explain why the press generally disliked it and why many high-profile critics wrote extremely bad reviews about it.

Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is not really cinema, it’s an art installation, in an unfortunate case where the programmers mistook the medium/format for the final product.

And if you judge an art installation by cinematic criteria, of course it falls short. First, it comes across as highly pretentious and cerebral.

One of the first things I found striking about the film (apart from its insidious visual style that draws so much attention to itself), is the fact that, although the “characters” speak incessantly about their emotions in a tentative exploration of human intimacy, no emotion is actually being transmitted to the viewer.

And for very good reasons:  cinema normally uses a dramatic framework to explore human feelings and emotions, it doesn’t make characters just talk about them.

Well, this is experimental cinema, one might argue. But according to the filmmaker, it’s not. Adina Pintilie strongly rejects this label. And who are we to contradict her, who else knows better what she made than the filmmaker herself?

Another line of reasoning could be that this is a highly conceptual, hybrid construction, more of a documentary mixing reality and fiction, with some of the people you see on the screen playing themselves and talking about their real emotions directly to each other or to the camera. But if it’s real, why does it sound so contrived? Being real and sounding real are two very different things. Good cinema makes believe, in other words, it makes things that are not real, sound and appear real. This film does the opposite – a total paradox. And this is through no fault of the actors and all those participating in it. If you read the transcript of the film, it would probably sound very intelligent. I for one blame it on the film’s style. 

Another of my contentions has to do with the unnecessary adornment of the film with all sorts of film gimmicks that give the impression of something very sophisticated (think Godard in Le Mépris) but in reality don’t serve any clear purpose: such as placing a camera in the frame, to kind of highlight the filmmaker’s intrusion into the artwork. Through this device, the filmmaker is addressing Laura: “You’re probably wondering why I’m in your bedroom”…). But the use of this technique here is ill-inspired, it only distracts and puzzles the viewer or makes him/her ask unnecessary questions (such as one blurted out loud at the press screening: “Yeah, why are you in her bedroom?”).

On the subject of questions being raised by the film, another issue is that the film verbally asks them: “How do they f*cking manage?” (Meaning: how do people manage with their conflictual emotional baggage?). This is, we were informed at the press conference, the core question the film intends to raise. Again, good cinema doesn’t need to verbalise these questions, the viewer is supposed to ask those questions himself/herself. Or are we patronisingly being told what we should ask, think or feel here? When you see a film about the Holocaust, whether documentary, fiction or hybrid, no one is musing on screen: “Oh dear, how do these people actually manage?!”

On the plus side, I’d like to argue that, as paradoxical as it might sound, Touch Me Not is good art. Why? Because of the huge reaction it stirred in the filmmaker’s own country, following news of its being awarded the Golden Bear.  Some TV personalities had very heated words to say about the film, while apparently even the Coalition for the Protection of Family is getting mobilised against it! Scary stuff.

But the film is being attacked in Romania for the wrong reasons. To quote a TV personality who posted on his social media: “A woman trying to cure her frigidity by watching a guy masturbate in front of her. That’s the film. I know, it’s me who doesn’t get wanking as art. All Golden Bears leave cinemas empty, they are cheap films with whores and swearings sold to stupid people as art. Berlinale can take its Golden Bear and shove it up its @ss…”. And on and on, he’s not the only one.

While there is no substance to this statement, while I completely disagree that all Golden Bears are bad films (one only needs to think of, more recently, Fuocoammare or the surreal Of Body and Soul), this kind of reaction points to a debate to be had about what the Golden Bear films should and shouldn’t be, what types of characters should populate them ( i.e. on the virginal side, rather than “whorey” side). How can you even begin to explain to a guy like this the depth of fascination that characters of prostitutes always held over the cinematic imagination? 

But leaving all arguments aside, aesthetic or otherwise, good art should stir sh*t up. What is its purpose, otherwise,  if not to stir things up and make the invisible (thoughts, feelings, ideas, mentality) visible?

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is cinematic perfection, but so what? If no one reacts to it, if it leaves people pleased but ready to move on, possibly energised but quasi-indifferent…Isle of Dogs is great cinema but does it function as art, in this sense?  And for that alone, for the strong emotional reaction the film triggered, Adina Pintilie’s film/art installation deserved the Golden Bear.

Regarding the film’s reception in Romania where it hasn’t even opened yet, the pertinent question to ask is: what, really, is the public’s problem with this film? It’s not that it contains sex scenes or nudity, we all know that sex sells.

My conclusion is that Touch Me Not was indeed misunderstood. But I seriously doubt that the reason critics disliked it has anything to do with the subject matter, with them being made uncomfortable by what they see on the screen (as the filmmaker herself hinted at) or with them being conservative or prude (some journalist’s misguided assumption). 

It’s simply to do with the fact that their expectations haven’t been met: this film is an art installation masquerading as cinema, it belongs in a different kind of art space, a gallery or maybe a museum. And I’m pretty sure the art world will appreciate it. 

adina.jpg

 

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The Girl Who Played with Fire, Got Burnt but Enjoyed It – CATHERINE BREILLAT about ABUSE OF WEAKNESS

Catherine Breillat
Catherine Breillat

The “provocatrice” of French cinema, CATHERINE BREILLAT is someone who likes playing with fire. Known for her unusual casting choices (e.g. casting porn actor Rocco Siffredi in the film Romance) and controversial films with a strong autobiographical slant, Breillat is always fierce at investigating human nature and her own often contradictory impulses, motivations and desires.

Abuse of Weakness is the consequence of a failed attempt at making another film, Bad Love, which was supposed to depict the strange, abusive relationship between a celebrity (to be played by Naomi Campbell) and her secret lover. Not able to resist her penchant for taking huge casting risks, Breillat chooses real-life con-man Christophe Rocancourt to play the role of the abusive lover. This led to the director becoming the victim of this ruthless perpetrator who swindled her of almost €1million even before starting to make the movie.

The film’s title, a reference to the legal charge Breillat levied against Rocancourt, depicts the relationship between the director and this notorious con-man in its most puzzling complexity. The reaction of the audience at its premiere at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013 was one of total bafflement: people did not understand how such a clever woman as Breillat could have been so naive to allow for this “abuse” to take place. Catherine herself vows that she doesn’t understand how that came to be either, hence her desire to make a film about it.

Below is an interview with the filmmaker Catherine Breillat taken on 16 October 2013 at Mayfair Hotel, London as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013 .

Dana:My reading of the film is that, despite the title, Maud is a very strong woman who likes playing with fire, and she actually enjoys the abuse.What is your reading of your own film?

Catherine: Yes but it is because she abuses her strength, which makes possible an abuse of her weakness, because you have the two. First, she is emotionally fragile like every artist in fact, and also physically very fragile.And she doesn’t want to accept that she is physically fragile. From the first time she says :”I want to love” and I think the desire to love is part of the story, because she is in love with him. Every time they behave like adolescents, it’s part of the relationship, that’s why an abuse of weakness is pleasant, when you live that, it’s delicious, the life of someone who is handicapped becomes delicious. When I’m alone in my flat and I have to wake up and first to stand up and find my equilibrium[…]. It’s very very complicated and dangerous for me, I need concentration. I never got used to suddenly not being able to take off a book from the shelf. If I want to understand really, I just sit and cry.

Dana: But she doesn’t come across as a victim at all, and the impression of strength she gives is stronger than the impression of weakness.

Catherine: Because in my case and of course in the case of the film, to be victim is for the law and also for the reason (?). The reason is that she was a victim, but her character is to refuse to consider herself a victim, either of the stoke, or of him.

Dana: She’s very dignified.

Catherine: Yes, I think so.

Dana: If you could tell us something about the nature of this fascination she has with him.

Catherine: It was very important that he was my actor, because every director of a movie has to be fascinated with the actor. It’s even the reason why I don’t want to see them more than the first or second time. Even Isabelle, I know her very very well, but when I asked her to play the role, I just gave her the script, I had dinner with her and my producer and I never talked with her and her with me. We had no such desire.

66ème Festival de Venise (Mostra)

Isabelle Huppert

Dana: How did you work with Isabelle Huppert and Kool Shen during the shoot?

[When we started filming] the first time I saw Isabelle was for the costume and the second day we shot the photo which is on her book. It’s so fascinating to see Isabelle and Kool Shen together. And the reason I wanted to cast him, it’s because I wanted to transform him in the phantasm of the character I need for my movie. It’s the same for me, for instance a violonist needs Stradivarius but you don’t talk to your Stradivarius. In this case you can have a rehearsal, [but it is important that] actors are not considered as related to anyone but as material to make the movie. It’s a very strange relationship, it’s not because you deny them as human beings, but this is not what you need for your movie. You need the phantasm, not what they are, that’s why I don’t want to see them before, because I want to dream, and not to have too much material life with them. On the set they say my word and not their word, I don’t want to hear them with their word before. The only things that passionate me is to hear my word, to put them in my costume and in this situation, and in this place, and in front of the camera, with the anxiety, and for them and for me to succeed.

It’s also why it’s so fascinating and exhilarating to make a movie, it’s a sort of creative empathy with actors and me and my movie…The movie is mine, it’s theirs, and in fact it is abstract, it’s something […] which has its own existence, it is not a biopic but I direct my actors very strongly, […] but at the same time I choreograph all the time my scenes, in very long shot, so they have to learn the choreography very well because of the focus. If they play beautifully but I don’t have the focus there’s no film. And after, when some shot is incredible, never rehearse the scene, in my opinion. I never never never repeat the scene with the sentiment, the feeling and the emotion with them. Just the place. When I film for the first time, sometimes the first time is so beautiful, so surprising, I want my actors to surprise me and I become emerveillee by them!That is my way of making a film.

Kool Shen small

Kool Shen

Dana: The film is quite a tough watch in places. How was it for you to relive those moments on the screen, and how did you feel watching and making this film?

Catherine: I cried many many times and it’s still very difficult for me to speak on this subject and the character of Maud. So yes sometimes I cry. But I can say “Maud is a transposition, in a sense it’s me but it’s not me”. I don’t know, I can’t speak of Maud, I can direct Maud but my feelings are impossible, and I cry. But on the set I don’t cry. For the actors it was much more emotional than if it was just fiction because Isabelle interprets a character very very close to the director, she knows me very very well, we have been friends for more than 20 years. So yes, there was a lot of emotion  but the most important emotion is the emotion of the film. That’s why Isabelle can be an actress and not a transposition of me. She’ll never accept to interpret me, never.

Dana: Why would she never accept to interpret you?

Catherine: Because it would be “miserable”, “mesquin”, with interest… Just to become somebody in front of the same person. And I don’t like biopics, I hate biopics, it’s easier to make a biopic than to play the person who is filming you.

Dana: So when you were on set and you were directing, were you able to have some objectivity towards the character of Maud?Were you able to see her as a separate character?

Catherine: If I have emotion as a spectator, I don’t care if it is really my emotion when I was in this situation or not, because in fact I cannot remember and understand what was my real emotion in this situation. Yes for me it is also a surprise to see that and is it really true? Or just the interpretation of the script?I don’t care. If the emotion is there, if the movie is good, it’s just that. After all, yes, I am a director and my only only thought is for my film, and more for this one, because everybody knows that it’s very close to me because it is also a story for the tabloids. So it will be more shame for the director if this movie becomes a vulgar pretext to attract an audience. […]And I want to not be ridiculous. In life yes I was ridiculous to live this story. But I don’t want to be ridiculous making this movie, nor a fool of my ego.

MORE…

“All true artists are hated” – an interesting interview with Catherine Breillat in The Telegraph

Taking Sex Seriously – a very to the point article by John Hoyles in MovieMail 

DIRECTOR CRAIG ZOBEL ON THE CONTROVERSY CAUSED BY HIS SECOND FILM, COMPLIANCE

Compliance poster

If you’re in the mood for a truly challenging emotional and intelectual experience this weekend, go and see Compliance, a film that plays in several cinemas across London including Curzon Soho, Barbican Centre, Hackney Picturehouse and Ritzy Cinema. But be warned, this film is not for the easily-offended and overly-judgemental so if you have a past history of walking out of controversial screenings, you are strongly advised to think twice about booking your ticket (there is always a Hollywood blockbuster at a different venue to delight and entertain you!).

The controversy surrounding the film is due to its honest and unapologetic depiction of the depth of human naiveté (to use an euphemism) in people susceptible of unquestioningly obeying figures of authority under duress, very much similar to what happened during the Holocaust. The writer-director Craig Zobel did not however “invent” the scenario for the film, this is a thoroughly researched movie based on true events that took place 70 times in USA during a period of 10 years.

At its LFF screening in London on 19t October 2012, about fifty people walked out of the screening, encouraging other people to do the same. This reaction was definitely not  due to boredom. Compliance is a taut, gripping and disturbing film that is indeed difficult to watch but out of respect for the filmmaker, take a moment to reflect on what he, and the film, has to say before you condemn it.

Below is an INTERVIEW WITH THE FILMMAKER CRAIG ZOBEL taken at the LONDON FILM FESTIVAL on 18 October 2012.

Dana: “What attracted you to this project, the idea of making a movie based on Stanley Milgram’s “Shock” experiment?”

Craig: “I am very interested in social psychology and when I read about the Stanley Milgram experiment I was very fascinated by its findings. This is part of a set of behavioural psychology experiments. In this case the whole experiment is about this doctor at Yale University studying people’s natural inclination to obey authority, even if they disagree personally with what the authority is saying. It’s really interesting how he did these tests, people thought they were electrocuting someone in the other room and they would say “I don’t really want to do this, this guy is screaming”. The “victim” was obviously an actor, it wasn’t really happening but they thought he was really electrocuted. And they would say “I really don’t feel comfortable doing this thing anymore” and then an authority figure would say “But you have to continue, you have serious responsibility to do so” and 65% of people would go along with this to the point that they would think they were giving lethal amounts of electric shock. So two thirds of people would do this. This experiment took place in the 60s but they redid it in 2007 and the results were similar.”

Dana:”The film is also inspired from a set of true events that took place in the USA quite recently, will you tell us more about that and how that influenced the premise of the film?”

Craig: “The true events are about a series of prank phone calls, these are not a real phone calls and the guy behind them ended up being caught but he was not convicted in the end due to lack of circumstantial evidence. So these crazy prank phone calls would lead to horrible things, consistently, and this because the people who received the call thought he was a real police officer. So the premise of my film concerns a woman who works at a fast-food restaurant as a manager, 45 years old, and she gets a phone call from the police on a Friday night when it is really busy in the restaurant and the guy on the phone says: “One of your employees stole money from a customer and I need you to question them”. And she says “Who?” and they say “It’s a young girl, she works at the front…”, “Becky?”, “Yes, Becky”. So she starts questioning Becky and Becky says “I didn’t do it”. And the policeman says “Why don’t you search her pockets? We could come there but if you could help with our investigation, it would be a really great help.” And then he asks “Why don’t you strip-search her?”. And this turns into an unbelievably crazy story as this woman strip-searched the young girl and kept her in the back room for four hours. And  similar events happened seventy times in America over a ten-year period. The most famous occurrence was in 2006 and this is when I heard about the story. And there is a case that is very similar to the one in the film although I took inspiration from other cases also”.

Dana: “The film created quite a stir at Sundance where it premiered earlier this year. Did you expect such a strong reaction?”

Craig: “Well, the interesting thing is that most people who hear about these case studies that are basically about the same phenomenon as the Milgram’s experiement,  or some of the people who watched the film , they immediately say: “But I would never do that…Not me…”. They would immediately cast themselves in the person who would not do such a thing but the fact is that two thirds of us would do it”. So for me the question was “Can I write something like this?” and yes, I can see how that would happen and still make it a film and make it interesting to watch, and follow all the other rules”.

Dana: “What were the challenges you encountered when making this film?”

Craig Zobel photo

Craig Zobel

Craig: “This is a film that I made because of the challenges involved, instead of in spite of its challenges. The film is about a pretty unbelievable subject, and you may see the film and say “yeah, you didn’t succeed at that”. And indeed it requires a pretty good performance to make that credible, because this is a kind of story that you hear and you go “How could you believe this?” So that was a challenge, making this credible”.

Dana: “Was the casting difficult?”

Craig: “Yes, partly because of the material. These roles were not everybody’s cup of tea, not everybody wants to play that. So it was a challenge to find the right people. And then the main thing was how to get the actors to have the same curiosity I had about these stories, because I think that really affected the performance. And they were pretty challenging and difficult roles because the film is dark. But for me it is about having a crew and cast that invests in the project”.

Dana: “How many shorts did you make before venturing into features?If any?”

Craig: “Not very many, I made shorts in film school and then I worked on a bunch of other people’s films. And my first film came out in 2007 and then I made this film”.

Dana: “How did you find the transition from shorts to features?”

Craig: “Well to be honest it was a bit difficult. For making this film, I got sucked into a “Hollywood development deal”- sort of situation, where you sit around talking about making a movie for a really long time and you never actually shoot one and it was very frustrating for me and made me feel like “Why am I letting people tell me how to do this?”

Dana: “Which is very similar to the actual issue of the film…”

Craig (laughing):”Exactly . So that was another challenge that I had to overcome in order to make the film. And I thought that indeed the film might be too dark and creepy and weird, or just boring and flat and not work, and it could hurt my career in some way, so I had to overcome those fears as well”.

ABOUT THE FILMMAKER

Craig was awarded the Breakthrough Director Award at the 2008 Gotham Awards for Great World of Sound, his debut feature as a writer-director which premiered at Sundance in 2007. The film was selected  as one of the Top Ten Independent films of the year by The National Board of Review, and was nominated for Best First Film and Best Supporting Actor in the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. His new film Compliance played at Sundance and SXSW in early 2012. Craig was also co-producer of David Gordon Green’s seminal indie hit of 2000, George Washington.