Preview: Holmfirth Film Festival 2014

I’ll be reporting from the 4th Annual Holmfirth Film Festival this weekend on behalf of the lovely people at The Culture Vulture!

Use this link to read my opening preview on The Culture Vulture blog and follow all my adventures in the iconic Yorkshire village of Holmfirth via my Twitter @EvieSpachis!

Preview: Holmfirth Film Festival 2014

 

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Review: HOUSE OF TOLERANCE (2011)

Days before Saint Laurent, Bertrand Bonello’s own take on the life of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent is due to compete in this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Sky Arts channel decided to revisit his last venture into feature films, 2011’s  L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close or House of Tolerance. Set in a Parisian brothel at the turn of the 20th century, the film focuses on the lives of the female incumbents, from languid evenings as they wait for their usual male clients to their regimented days of good hygiene and genuine sisterhood.

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Alternatively known as House of Pleasures in the US, which seems either a truly ironic statement or one which misunderstands the sumptuous world we are allowed into, House of Tolerance is a superficial and slow-moving film which relies on the hope that, much like the returning clients, the viewer has seen behind the red curtain and have little desire to leave. The ensemble characters go about their daily business, aware of the quasi-prison system they are locked into. The women earn or pay off “debts” which they owe to their Madam, a stern but seemingly fair woman played by Noémie Lvovsky who struggles to keep the business afloat unbeknown to her employees. Though the initial set-up appears to be the only narrative strand within the film, a number of characters make their mark on the story, each representing the troubling and sometimes dangerous situations women in this industry were/are exposed to. The beautiful Madeleine (Alice Barnole) is brutally disfigured by a client, a transformation likened to Heath Ledger’s The Joker and thus becomes known as “The Woman Who Laughs”. Kept on as a maid, she wanders the house as a ghost and is loved by her friends within the brothel. The Returned‘s Céline Sallette plays the disenchanted Clothilde, a seasoned prostitute who has begun to rely heavily on opium and regrets her choices whereas Jasmine Trinca plays a cheerful woman who has syphilis and yet is abandoned by the older, married gentleman she contracted it from. Finally, an idealistic and self-assured 16 year-old country girl (Iliana Zabeth) joins the house to be “free”, but soon realises the regime and reality of life in a brothel is anything but liberating. The Madam proudly declares “this isn’t a knocking shop” and takes pride in the service her sumptuous establishment provides, but as the film unfolds we are only too aware of the long-term stagnation and ennui which can occur in permanent exile. Though their work has granted legality, the girls barely venture outside; their existence occupying a nether world of neither respectability or complete condemnation. 

Certain moments within the film make use of split-screen in order to show the multitude of nightly activities which go on simultaneously: a myriad of strange fetishes, disinterested sexual encounters and dream-like fantasies. A definite highlight of the film is a scene in which the girls tearfully dance together to a soundtrack of The Moody Blues’ ‘Nights in White Satin’, a strange and yet fitting moment of unabashed emotion and tenderness between characters bonded in grief. Book-ended by the traumatic act of abuse against Madeleine, the film is confirmed as both a highly-stylized interpretation of a changing period and a further cementing of Bonello’s reputation as an artist associated with the ‘New French Extremity’, a new wave of French-filmmaking in the 21st century unafraid to portray shocking brutality in violence and sex.

House of Tolerance begins to pose questions about whether the sex trade has changed, improved or has any hope of being eradicated as a form of male-dominated commerce, but no answer seems to have the potential to satisfy. The girls in L’Apollonide fear the closure of the house and the prospect of having to roam the streets of Paris for their business. As the film comes to end, we are offered a glimpse of that fear come to life: a modern Parisian street is traversed by a weary Clothilde…

Review: CALVARY (2014)

The former Archbishop of New York, Fulton J. Sheen once wrote “Without God people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another.” In John Michael McDonagh’s second film, Calvary, the characters of a small town in County Sligo, Ireland are in various states of a religious malaise. Only the priest played by returning McDonagh collaborator, Brendan Gleeson, appears to be upholding religious custom in a community which has no desire for God’s mercy. 

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Dubbed as a black comedy drama, partly due to the well-received past work of the McDonagh brothers and the unavoidable droll tone that arises in most rhetoric of Irish rural life, Calvary conceals a cruel underbelly with a festering wound that threatens to destabilise a community struggling to come to terms with its religious and moral responsibilities.

The film begins with Father James (Brendan Gleeson) overseeing his weekly confessions. However, through the darkness of the booth, Father James hears that in seven days time he will be killed. Any viewer intrigue is off-set by the chilling opening lines of dialogue which renders the priest nearly speechless. We hear of how this concealed would-be-killer has suffered the most horrific abuse at the hands of a priest many years before who has since died. In order to obtain revenge, the confessor has chosen to eliminate an innocent clergyman in his abuser’s place. Father James has one week to get his “house in order”, and so unfolds what could be the last seven days of a man’s life.

The film is exceedingly dark, transforming beautiful Irish landscapes into a nightmarish setting of deception and greed. The town-folk are a sceptical bunch, no longer at ease with the tradition of the church being at the centre of their lives. If we are to view this town as a microcosm of Ireland as a whole, its inhabitants are weary, mistrusting of a system which for so long has utilised and often times, abused the god-fearing doctrine which has pervaded.  Father James is a shepherd increasingly without a flock, finding his guidance and support unheeded despite his holy vow to serve. He is a good man, wearing a uniform which has been sullied by others in his position, and struggles to understand his place in a town where his vocation is no longer respected. Despite this, Father James remains an honourable man in the face of debauchery and his own demons.

The town contains colourful, if not entirely likeable characters, and the film succeeds in making every passing conversation seem like a discussion of life and death, articulately or inarticulately offering another clue to a whodunnit where the crime has yet to be committed. Dylan Moran is the grotesque squire who openly tries to flout the “camel through the eye of a needle” parable by allaying his sins with his wealth, Aidan Gillen as the atheist local doctor (with a bizarre Irish accent from erm, an Irish actor) and Chris O’Dowd as the local butcher in a loveless marriage, playing a role he seems unlikely to be offered during his new-found fame in Hollywood.

The most heart-rending narrative however, is the relationship between Father James and his grown-up daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The film softens in the scenes where the distant, but reverent father and daughter reunite and talk openly about their lives and what they mean to one another. It presents a unique perspective to the priesthood and makes Father James’ acknowledgement that he cannot run from his destiny, vocationally or personally, all the more moving.

Calvary is not a realistic film, but something can be said in that it deals with reality in such a way that you can’t help but feel that you have been rudely awoken to things many would rather pretend are not happening. Even as you leave the darkened cinema and are kindly reminded that it is a work of fiction, the revelations and cynicism of the film are unnerving and in this way, it is successful in its ambition to jerk you with the truth. By the end it isn’t really about the ‘who’s the killer trope’, but instead asks just how does everyday life continue when blind faith seems to have poisoned a small community? Sheen claims, without God, we are liable to turn on one another. But Calvary suggests, with or without God, we are unarmed against those who victimise and the blind eyes that watch.