Review: SUSPIRIA (2018) [Leeds International Film Festival]

Viewed at Hyde Park Picture House as part of #LIFF2018.

It would be remiss of me to not mention that Suspiria is gory. While the original poured deep red colours into its set design and cinematography, the gushing blood red in this incantation of Suspiria are reserved only for the acts of body horror that occur. The violent body transformations are shocking and nauseating, and dreamlike fast cuts of disturbing imagery have a trance-like, subliminal power. Certain scenes will last for a long time in the memory, that’s for sure.

Welcome to Luca Guadagnino’s reimagining of Suspiria, a 30-year ambition finally realised and hot off the heels of his evocative  2017 sun-drenched tale, Call Me By Your Name. A switch to horror and a ‘remake’ of a Dario Argento classic befuddled many, but with a stellar cast, an updated but equally unforgiving plot and flashes of gore, Suspiria tantalises and mystifies in equal measure once again.

Set in Berlin in 1977 at the prestigious Markos Company dance school, Tilda Swinton is Madame Blanc, the austere but brilliant principal who is immediately drawn to new American student, Dakota Johnson’s Susie Bannion. As Guadagnino has been keen to point, Swinton also plays Lutz Ebersdorf as Dr. Josef Klemperer, a kindly psychiatrist that is more or less the emotional centre of the film.

Chloë Grace Moretz’s cameo as Patricia looms large over the opening acts, a young student targeted by the teachers within their secret coven, but determined to escape their grasp. Johnson, previously seen in Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash (2015) alongside Swinton, is mesmeric as Susie, unknowable and seeming naive to the real trade of the Markos Company. Johnson and Swinton’s scenes together, even those as they stare at one another within a mirrored rehearsal room or appear to be talking without speaking across a crowded restaurant, are electrifying.

As points of view shift, the well-worn narrative of ‘an American in a strange country’ is left behind as Susie soon becomes a dancing conduit for the coven’s sadistic spells. Contorting, tribal dancing are never too far away from seeming like demonic possession and the camera, and Madame Blanc’s gaze, lingers on Susie’s unexpectedly libidinous movements. We are left to wonder if this is just her dancing style or has her time at the Markos Company transformed her already?

A history of the coven’s acts are hidden deep in the bowels (wrong choice of words there) of the school, horrific antiquities and weapons of choice such as the swift metal hooks that swipe as Thom Yorke’s haunting soundtrack swells. Berlin in 1977, the backdrop of the film seen on TVs or echoed through a radio, is a turbulent time that saw the hijacking of a plane and kidnappings by the Red Army Faction. The real world events act as a counterpoint to supernatural violence and its struggles for supremacy. Female autonomy, expressed through cruelty and occultism subterfuge, is attainable, if only as a result of atrocity and suppression. Taking place in a decade that rode the wave of radical feminism and when Germany continued to grapple with its position as a post-war nation, the coven’s secrets mirror the setting’s overwhelming struggle for normalcy. The coven’s power is an affirmation of the period’s feminist movement operating on the fringes of mainstream society.

The abuse of power is an overwhelming force throughout Suspiria, from the long-lasting generational guilt and Vergangenheitsbewältigung, to the coven’s secret manipulation and disposal of unsuspecting students. The school’s faculty are like a rubber band, stretching and contorting between the need for secrecy and culpability. As Susie, Patricia, Sam and Dr Klemperer become further entangled in the dance school/coven’s acts, the more they become manipulated, enlightened and repulsed by the coven’s violent tyranny.

A warped, unsettling and nihilistic film that slips from grasp just a handle on it seems within reach, Suspiria is likely to frustrate as many as it is devilishly delights. Immaculately directed and designed, Guadagnino shows once again why he is a contemporary master at period detail and sensuality on screen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Review: THE HATE U GIVE (2018)

“I’m very aware of the fact that the young people I write for today, will be politicians with Twitter accounts tomorrow. I can’t do anything about the current politicians with Twitter accounts, but if I can affect them and I can reach them right now, then maybe, just maybe, 10, 20, 30 years from now, we won’t have to say ‘Black Lives Matter’, it’ll be understood.” 

So said Angie Thomas, the writer of the source material at the heart of George Tillman Jr.’s adaptation of The Hate U Give, at its premiere at the BFI London Film Festival 2018. The Hate U Give (2018) is hopefully having a wider impact than Angie currently imagines right now. Released before the US goes to the polls for the midterm elections, probably the most important and decisive election in recent years, The Hate U Give feels like a rallying call for young and old alike, transcending its YA bracket and being both an important text and film for our times.

Witnessing the murder of her childhood friend by a police officer, Starr Carter (the incredible Amandla Stenberg) is catapulted into the centre of events that unveil the disharmony and inequality of her surroundings, from her predominately black local area to the privileged white majority private school she attends in the next town over. Starr takes us through her daily routine of code switching at the opening of the film, all the while juggling a new relationship with her well-meaning if slightly misguided white boyfriend and formative friendships.

Daunting themes are tackled deftly throughout and handled with such maturity that you are often left breathless at the close of vital scenes or conversations. Breaking the boundaries of the typical ‘teen movie’ genre, a label that does not portray the varied subjects and issues that a film with teenage protagonists can and ought to depict (note The Miseducation of Cameron Post this summer), The Hate U Give is a powerful and an oftentimes difficult watch, succeeding in not shying away from the experience of being a person of colour in America, at any age. The film starts as Starr and her siblings are being instructed how to behave when stopped by police by their authoritarian but loving father, played by Russell Hornsby. A shocking but unsurprising exchange that informs the rest of the film at key, harrowing points.

The narrative remains firmly with the family, switching from Starr’s witty and insightful voiceover to the parents’ conflicted discussions, sometimes heard by Starr or watched from afar as she sees those around her remain beholden to a menacing local druglord, played by Anthony Mackie. The Hate U Give lingers on the struggles of living with and moving on from the mistakes of generations past, and as Starr grapples with high school life, her conflicting identities, and a new political and moral awakening in the harshest of circumstances, the Carter family are a compelling unit that offer laughs, warmth and solidarity throughout.

The “politicians with Twitter accounts” of tomorrow are the activists of today and as  events unfold, Starr is given an uncompromising view of a broken, divided America. Over the course of the film, she is tasked with picking up the pieces, eventually turning to activism when the system fails her community, leading into the final few scenes that will stay with the viewer and inspire many. A radical teen movie for our troubled times, I recommend you take the time to see this gem.

 

 

 

Review: HALLOWEEN (2018)

If you have been listening to the hit podcast My Favorite Murder, you might be a tad more clued up on the horrors of serial killers lately than most, and you will know that serial killers were pretty prolific in the 1970s – operating slap-bang in the Vietnam War, before the Cold War preoccupied 1980s and the ‘satanic panic’ of the decade. The period informed the horror monsters of cinema from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to Friday the 13th (1980).

So it’s easy to see why John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) itched at the fears of so many upon its release. Now 40 years later, are these fears still terror-inducing? As one character in the latest reboot-sequel, Halloween (2018) says, there are so many more scary things to be afraid of these days, why focus on a long-imprisoned middle-aged serial killer wearing a (warped William Shatner) mask?

But as the new instalment, directed by David Gordon Green, posits, the societal fear might have changed, but the bogeyman of trauma will still haunt. This rings true in a world that is seemingly constantly having to cope with the reveal of past and hidden crime, from the abuses of the casting couch, a would-be senator’s college frat parties and most public spheres across the spectrum. Crimes can be buried, perpetrators might even be caught, but the slate is rarely wiped of the vivid trauma that will affect whole lives and communities. This is part of the reason why Halloween unexpectedly gets to be a relevant tale for our times. The slow-moving man in a mask might induce the odd titter from modern viewers of the original, but Michael Myers works as a reincarnated spectre of our world-weary anxiety.

Jamie Lee Curtis, one of the original ‘final girls’, is finally given an opportunity to put demons to rest, namely Myers, who first murdered her friends four decades earlier in 1978. The quiet, bookish 17 year-old Laurie has transformed into a hard, jacked-up action woman in the intervening years, isolating her family in the process. The film demonstrates how Laurie has coped, for better or worse, choosing life as a self-created recluse in her fortress-like compound.

Laurie’s strained relationship with her family, namely her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak), is excellently depicted, hinting at a childhood scarred by a mother’s maniacal determination to better equip her family to eliminate invading evil. One scene where Laurie implores Karen to take hold of a gun for her own familial home’s protection is a particularly telling moment, saying plenty about the cognitive dissonance that occurs in the people of Haddonfield, Illinois when seeking revenge on a murderer…with murder.

Halloween manages to be a satisfying generational story as well as a truly blood-splattering gorefest, upping the scares of Carpenter’s original for a modern audience without slipping into lazy gratuitousness. The score, also updated by Carpenter himself, is more lavish, much like the rest of the film (the Halloween of 1978 was made on a shoestring and the gloriously understated Carpenter always stated he was the cheapest composer he could afford). The same haunting piano stabs once again, but this time with added modern synths, playing ominously over the nostalgic opening credits.

After the countless sequels and reboots that Halloween inspired (when even WAS Halloween III: Season of the Witch, though!?), David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley managed to make a continuation worth telling, a rare feat in Sequel City, Hollywood. It does descend into the well-worn horror tropes, much of them first conceived in the first Halloween, but manage to play out as affectionate nods rather than tired rehashes.

Just a final note to say what a thrill it is to have Jamie Lee Curtis headlining a movie again. She really gave her all to this role and it shows. Long live the mature female lead and the final girl. Now thanks to Halloween (2018), that’s the same thing.

 

 

 

Review: THE WIFE (2018)

A lesser known quote from Maryon Pearson goes: “Behind every successful man, there stands a surprised woman.” In The Wife (2018), Glenn Close is anything but surprised as the titular spouse of an American writer Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), who wakes up to the news that his has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

As the Nobel circus descends on the Castleman clan’s seemingly deferential Connecticut set of admirers and family and whisks them off to Stockholm, Close’s Joan is a myriad of emotions, all serenely displayed on her icon-making expressive face. At times she is demur and contemplative, and at others, cracking with bridled trauma and resentment. Jonathan Pryce plays the typical Great American Writer type and charming elder statesmen of literature, a sort of Philip Roth meets Alan Alda, still trying to seduce the impressed ingenue but now also worrying about the amount of butter in his diet.
He is erring on the side of simpering in his instance that is his wife the support that allowed his career to flourish, and its just off-kilter enough to want to peel back the layers to discover more about this marriage.

And peel it back it does, based on the novel by Meg Wolitzer, a writer ripe for adaptation and directed by Björn Runge, the action goes back to 1950s to see the genesis of their relationship, initially as college professor and pupil. Close’s daughter Annie Maud Stark impresses as the younger Joan, determined in her pursuit of a writing career despite abrupt advice to give up her dream in a male-dominated era: “Don’t ever think you’ll make them listen” Elizabeth McGovern’s resigned author tells her – a disturbingly relevant situation that could still play out today.

At times Joe’s ego infuses the stifling family unit, irritating their overshadowed and under-worked son, David (Max Irons), and causing Joan to constantly be in the role of subjugation. The direction is unshowy, the camera at all times drawn to Close, even as the rest of the cast steps up to her mark, especially in the two-handed scenes. Christian Slater appears to put his trademark Jack Nicholson smarm to work as a ruthless writer desperate to write Joseph Castleman’s biography, and letting neither fact nor fiction get in the way.

As can be expected, there is more going on under the surface than I can give away, but as events unfold and Joe gets closer and closer to receiving the Nobel Medal, now the film’s very own MacGuffin, the film remains focused on woman’s silent role in male achievements. Close says at crucial juncture “I am a kingmaker”, the real meaning of this statement still reverberating. In a climate where women seem unable make their voices heard, it’s a telling moment that will resonate.

 

Review: THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

Stifled characters imprisoned in a crumbing country estate battle demons both seemingly imaginary and mental in director Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger.

The penultimate novel in Waters’ oeuvre and a move away from the hidden queer stories in period Britain, The Little Stranger is a more radical take on The Turn of the Screw-esque haunted house (see also: haunted family, or nothing at all?) stories popularised in throughout early to mid-20th century. A class-driven family drama set in a restrictive post-war Midlands during political and social upheaval, literary fans were riveted by the evocative ambiguity of the storytelling, if not delighted with the move away from what has now become Waters’ trademark of ‘lesbian historic romances’.

Dysfunctional aristocratic family, the Ayres: Ruth Wilson, Charlotte Rampling and Will Poulter encounter Dr. Faraday, played by Domhnall Gleeson, an aspiring provincial doctor haunted by his repulsion of his own class position and childhood memories of Hundreds Hall, the Warwickshire estate, in its heyday. His ‘in’ with the Ayres family is his faltering and nervous exchanges with Caroline Ayres, played by an expertly cast Ruth Wilson, who is helpless in her Sisyphean task to repair the exposing cracks of the family’s reduced circumstances. Same goes for Will Poulter,  as Caroline’s veteran brother Roderick, physically and emotionally ravaged by service in the Second World War while the serene Charlotte Rampling is the coldy officious Mrs Ayres, a woman preoccupied in longstanding grief. The house decaying around them serves as a living tool of torment for each of the major players, from the admiring outsider to the intelligent but “unfortunate” Caroline.

Sure to frustrate the non-book readers who will not have been party to Waters’ trademark vivid scene-setting and characterisation, Abrahamson attempts to make up for this with sumptuous production design and cinematography choices. Certain moments are so crisp in beaming sunlight while others are murky and gloomy as the characters creak around the dilapidated family property that is as much oppressive as it is impressive.

I personally loved The Little Stranger’s more politicised backdrop, one oft-forgotten in favour of more patriotic mid-century stories that are ripe for historic writers. The advent of the NHS and a housing estate on the edge of the Hundreds estate is just as horrifying to the characters as the supposed presence of a poltergeist, expressing a societal anxiety of monetary upheaval and the destruction of the upper classes as they knew it.

Much like the original text, Abrahamson’s cinematic retelling of The Little Stranger (2018) is a claustrophobic and at times, grueling chamber piece, a classic psychological interplay that the director  showed considerable talent in handling while adapting Emma Donoghue’s Room for the screen. Marketing the film as an horror-inflected ghost story is bound to confuse those expecting some “quiet-quiet-bang” moments that have suffused the genre lately, but The Little Stranger does attempt to truly unsettle in its latter half, even if it takes a while to get there.

“It’s a curious, wanting thing”: Sarah Waters on screen (so far)

Tipping the Velvet

If you’ve ever seen Tipping the Velvet (2002) or read the novel, there’s a good chance it’s seared in your memory (it certainly was on mine, discovered as a secretive sixth form read). Outrageous, camp, brave and filled with vaudeville charm, the scope and scale of the story had the hallmarks of a Victorian romp. It emerged so fully formed into book lovers’ and queer lives that it was almost impossible to imagine that it was someone’s debut novel. It demanded attention, and attention it got.

Starring Keeley Hawes, the doyenne of Spooks at the time (and some really cool music videos for 90s faves Suede and James) and Rachael Stirling, shocked Daily Mail readers and delighted many. I’m still in a bit of disbelief that the BBC took a chance on this story, and for not compromising on some of the more eyebrow-raising aspects. Screenwriter Andrew Davies, no stranger to adapting period stories to the screen, can most certainly relied upon to emphasize the more sensational aspects of a story. The section that includes the dastardly Diana Letherby (Anna Chancellor) will never not be thrilling.

Watch out for a small role for future Sarah Waters’ lead, Sally Hawkins too!

Fingersmith

With Waters’ third novel, Fingersmith, praise was rightly showered on the author for this ambitious tale of betrayal, love and greed, once again set in Victorian England.

The bravery to upend the narrative of a significant chunk of the novel will remain a literary ‘water-cooler’ moment for many, and the TV adaptation in 2005 had the unenviable task of recreating that shock factor on screen. Even Hitchcock might have struggled with such a twist! Leads Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy have incredible chemistry and are individually able to convincingly convey facades of naivety and cunning at various points of the story, vital for making the highly charged plot seem remotely plausible.

That challenge neither daunted lauded Korean director Park Chan-wook, taking the source material as a major inspiration for his latest film The Handmaiden (2016), which keeps all of the clever tonal and plot shifts intact, despite relocating the setting to Japanese-occupied 1930s Korea.

Affinity

Waters’ second literary outing is perhaps less-remembered for its televisual counterpart, but is worth a watch for completists all the same.  Affinity is a hearty nod to Wilkie Collins that won Waters the Somerset Maugham Prize in 1999, and the TV adaptation aired on ITV at Christmas nine years later. Once again with an adapted screenplay by Andrew Davies, Affinity (2008) a thriller set during a time when Victorian spiritualism was both feared as a dangerous view into other worlds as well as merely a fun palour game jaunt.

Though atmospheric and moody and lavished with a £2 million budget (quite a lot in the telly days before the likes of Game of Thrones),  Affinity doesn’t give viewers the time to really get to know the two characters – Anna Madeley (Margaret) and Zoe Tapper (Selina) – so much so that when the famous Waters’ twists take their turns, they don’t really feel like the discombobulating rug pull they did in the novel.

The Night Watch

The Night Watch (2006), which on the whole I believe was poorly served by the constraints of a feature length format and running time, was impeccably cast once again, starring some of the most high profile British actors working today,  including Jodie Whittaker and Claire Foy. Anna Maxwell Martin, who can never be accused of choosing ‘safe’ roles, is a swaggering ghostly figure haunting the streets of postwar London.

Sarah Waters’ once again experiments with the form, telling a story at the end and working its way back, and in the visual form it’s a striking and unnerving device to see unfold. The period is impeccably recreated, a struggle as the adaptation had the difficulty of depicting London before and after the Blitz, but on the whole succeeds in demonstrating how the ravages of war obliterated a city and relationships within it.

 

Review: THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST (2018)

Some films make you angry, some films make you cry, and some films make you squirm, and some of the best make you feel them all. The Miseducation of Cameron Post is one of those films.

It’s a hard sell to a mainstream audience I suppose – the story of a young LGBT+ person’s experience of gay conversion therapy – but it’s a vital watch for anyone in doubt that these issues are no longer prevalent and affect lives daily. Like Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansman, also out in cinema, both are period stories that starkly reflect the fractured and disturbing prejudices and methods of discrimination that still pervade throughout in the US today. It’s easy to factor in that this film was made during the 2016 presidential election, a putrid time that uncovered a swath of uncertainty and fear about how minorities, including the LGBT+ community, would be treated in Trump’s American nightmare.

The director of TMOCP, Desiree Akhavan first came to my attention with her writing/directing debut, Appropriate Behaviour (which may still be on Netflix if you have a quick search), a funny and seemingly personal tale of an Iranian-American bisexual person navigating the single life and familial relations in New York. The non-tropey bisexual on film is such a rare find, so Appropriate Behaviour was something of a revelation to me. I couldn’t think of anyone more suited to take on this new story of another LGBT+ experience.

The 1993-set TMOCP is adapted from the novel of the same name by Emily Danforth, and the film takes the core plot of Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz), who after being caught having sex with her best friend on prom night, is shipped off to a Christian camp called God’s Promise to be cured of her “same-sex attraction.”

The camp is an eerie place of fake smiles and hushed tones, where even Cameron’s cassette tape of The Breeders is even too risqué for consumption. We watch in disbelief as Cameron’s and the other camp members’ “sins” are explained away as symptoms of prior traumas. Being over indulged with sports by a parent is weaponised as tool for shame. Thankfully, the film creates moments that allow for humour, piercing what could be unbearable into a more manageable, if still shocking, world to witness. There’s a rendition of 4 Non-Blondes ‘What’s Up’, as much an anthem for confused discontentment now as it was in 1993, that raises genuine smiles. And in case you wondered, ‘Blessercise’ is a real thing.

Moretz is excellent, her eyes are incredibly expressive as they scan the rest of her therapy group as she tries, or perhaps hopes to not, see herself in them. At times we’re unsure if the ‘therapy’ is finally working on Cameron, just as we are party to the devastating affects of what is essentially, sanctioned torture. My joy at seeing Jennifer Ehle (please cast her in everything please) was short-lived due only to her stand-out depiction of Dr. Marsh, a softly spoken Nurse Ratched, rigid in her belief of being on the right side of morality.  Co-stars Sasha Lane, winningly called Jane Fonda,  and Forrest Goodluck are Cameron’s cool-for-school kindred spirits as they come to terms with just how they got to God’s Promise in the first place and if indeed, they will ever get out as the same people. I particularly enjoyed Cameron’s assigned roommate, Erin, who easily could have been used simply as a mode of diffusing the tension, but like everyone in this film, gets a chance to show many facets of themselves.

Though the ‘doctors’ of God’s Promise attempt to reduce everyone down to their own  unique behavioral ‘iceberg’ diagrams, the characters constantly, with varying degrees of success, break free from their icy surroundings and assigned gender/sexual  straitjackets. I was reminded also of Todd Hayne’s Safe, another film that dealt with clinical psychologies and enforced communal life in the 1990s.

The final wordless scenes in the film are as optimistic as we can hope to expect in a tale that so rooted in realism, and though we cannot know what the future holds for these characters, the morning sun has never felt more liberating.

Celebrating Ingrid Bergman in NOTORIOUS (1946)

“A man doesn’t tell a woman what to do. She tells herself.”

29th August marks the anniversary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth (and death, she died on her 67th birthday), and it seemed as good a time as any to reflect on one of her best screen roles.

There are many eras of Bergman’s career you could focus on – from her work with David O. Selznick to the cruelly banished years in Italy days, and of course her iconic role in Casablanca (1942), but her portrayal of Alicia Huberman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), her third film with the director, has always been of fascination to me. A multilayered and contradicting depiction of a woman caught within a web of espionage, Bergman’s Alicia eventually uses her wiles AND her intelligence undercover in a cutthroat enemy territory cunningly disguised high society in post-World War II.

Notorious is essentially the story of one woman used as a political pawn to reveal the secrets of Nazi criminals for the American intelligence based in Brazil. Traces of feminine perception and intervention continually drive the plot as well as highlighting the masochistic tendencies of the male characters surrounding the female. Furthermore, it typifies a trend of emerging post-war cinema in which the female narrative helms the film and highlights male inadequacy. The schemes in Notorious heavily rely on Alicia’s compliance in the mission, and though from the outset we are aware that she is being used (and being asked to essentially ‘sleep with the enemy’), Alicia remains the active participant among passive men: Devlin (Cary Grant) and Sebastian (Claude Rains).

As Slavoj Zizek concluded, Hitchcock’s films in the 1940s are “thematically centered on the perspective of the female heroine, traumatized by an ambiguous (evil, impotent, obscene, broken…) paternal figure” with Notorious being the archetype of this. Devlin, unable to admit his love for Alicia, cruelly rebuffs her and encourages her mission to investigate Sebastian. Sebastian meanwhile appears to really love and care for Alicia but is unaware of her double-crossing until his manipulative mother influences him. Both men appear weak and emotionally volatile, while Alicia, though prone to excesses (alcohol and, shock horror…parties), is forced to put aside her emotions at every development of her mission. We as viewers are invited to side with Alicia and become frustrated at Devlin’s detached character.

A year earlier, Bergman had starred in Spellbound (1945), a film bursting with strange imagery and essentially works as the prototype gender swapped Vertigo (1958). A love story of two damaged, compromised people (Bergman and her on and off-screen lover, Gregory Peck), this description works to define Notorious too. Bergman enthralls her co-stars and viewers within intelligently realised female narratives. Spellbound is mostly Constance’s movie, just as Notorious is finally Alicia’s.

Hitchcock’s gaze lies firmly with Alicia during the film, it is through her binoculars we spy on the other players in the tense few movements at the race day,  and though we are witness to a female being influenced and cajoled into action, the camera sympathises with Bergman throughout. In the famous ball scene we see the camera in one smooth, descending close-up zoom into Alicia’s hand to show her holding the key which would open the wine cellar and reveal Sebastian’s criminal plot. We are left in no doubt that Alicia’s agency is being acutely emphasised and Alicia is a ‘heroine’ indeed.

“I am Mrs De Winter now!” – Female Plight and the Patriarchy in Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (1940)

In 1940 came a film which has generated much discussion, despite Hitchcock’s insistence “it’s not a Hitchcock picture” in his interviews with Truffaut.

Adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood, and his first in contract to David O. Selznick, the producer-tycoon behind such epics as Gone with the Wind (1939). Rebecca is a contentious film in that, it remains sceptical of male and female relationships and especially highlights the plight of a woman in an oppressive aristocratic setting. This is a common topic of many of Hitchcock’s earliest films and within Rebecca it meets its zenith. It also remains one of the more overt instances of queer storytelling. Though the iconic Mrs Danvers’ (Judith Anderson) predilection for Rebecca may have been missed by the audience at the time (though that is impossible to know for sure), the monstrous housekeeper has become something of a classic Hollywood touchstone for repressed female sensuality.

Women get a bit of a hard ride in this dreary but captivating tale. Joan Fontaine, playing the unnamed second Mrs De Winter is at once pitiful in her marriage to Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier) who seems intent on keeping her as his “little girl” whilst brooding over the titular Rebecca, his first wife.

Rebecca is a film which, in its critique of male and female relationships under the patriarchy, tests the second Mrs De Winter’s endurance of her flawed marriage and sets Rebecca free from the constraints of Maxim’s intense expectations. It resists painting Maxim as the cold-blooded murderer of Rebecca (as in the novel),  she is simply instead a victim of his inability to love anything other than a wife over whom he can exert total control, but we are under no illusion by the end of the film that Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter’s marriage is near to irreparable in the aftermath of the film’s events. As a modern viewer, it is irksome to see the film tiptoe around making Olivier be completely villainous (Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) paid similar caution with Cary Grant), but with news of a new adaptation on the way (as ever), perhaps we will see more careful consideration for how men often feel emasculated, resulting in tragic consequences.

Returning to Mrs Danvers, you can imagine that at the time, her devotion to Rebecca could be happily be dismissed as servile devotion to the lady of the house, but upon the spine-tingling reveal that she keeps Rebecca’s undergarments and expensive clothes enshrined in the house for her to fondle and touch, we are under no illusions of her feelings for the late Mrs De Winter. Indeed, in the TV mini-series of the story in 1997, Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers really drives home her desirous intentions, perhaps in view of a potentially more receptive contemporary audience.

The pleasure in viewing Rebecca from Mrs Danvers’ perspective is that of a woman’s film or melodrama through a queer lens, even if Hitchcock would never admit it or even consciously know of it.  When the film is viewed from her perspective, we can understand and sympathise with her pain, even if her cruel reception to The Second Mrs De Winter is uncalled for. Maxim suffers in his marriage to Rebecca and thus finds another woman, less powerful than his femme fatale wife and eventually moves on. He remains a well-off man within a patriarchal society while Mrs Danvers’ loses everything to a relationship that was fraught with the difficulties of class hierarchy and ambiguous sexuality.

Through Hitchcock’s disregard for Rebecca later in his career and his preference for the unsentimental and humour in his original adaptation (an early draft had Maxim and his anonymous wife meeting on a channel steamer, with Maxim bringing on her seasickness by blowing smoke in her face) Selznick’s instance on being faithful to the original text eventually won out. Selznick, it appears had some understanding of the psychology of the women in the novel, resulting in a natural sympathy for the second Mrs De Winter for an audience. In a note sent to Hitchcock, he explained the importance of maintaining the ‘feminine’ voice in Rebecca:

“…her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucheries are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind…just how bad a picture it would be without the little feminine things are so recognizable and which make every woman say. “I know just how she feels…I know just what she’s going through…”

The making of Rebecca could be regarded as a ‘trial by fire’ for Hitchcock as he began to learn how female audiences in America dictated box office success. In his long interview with Truffaut he addressed this: “…it’s generally women who has the final say on which picture a couple is going to see. In fact it is generally the woman who will decide, later on, whether it was a good picture.” And though Hitchcock may have been reluctant to indulge in “feminine literature”, it seems he did have aptitude for creating empathy within female subjectivity.

 

“A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…it sounds like a spy story” – Women in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock’s British Era

From the 1920s to the late 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock was establishing himself as a film director in London and working from a mixture of original scripts and adapted works.

Hitchcock revelled in the genres of melodrama and thriller and would begin to explore the themes which would prove to be dynamically synonymous with the Hitchcock name. Hitchcock’s formative years in Britain, as well as his time spent in post-World War I Germany, was the period in which he developed his unique filmmaking style as well as cultivating a reputation which would precede him in America. Filmmaking in Britain was still relatively unsophisticated when Hitchcock began to work as an art director under the formidable Graham Cutts (a hostile collaboration according to Donald Spoto in Spellbound by Beauty,  2009) and Michael Balcon of Gainsborough pictures with whom he made The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927). Generally regarded as the first picture which included the themes that would make Hitchcock famous and loosely based on Jack the Ripper, the treatment of women in his film was of great fascination. Film historian Philip Kemp notes:

“Like Hitchcock himself, the serial killer in The Lodger seems to have it in for blondes…[and] Hitchcock’s mischievous, semi-sadistic treatment of blondes hit its stride in Hollywood, perhaps provoked by the flawless glamour of its screen goddesses.” (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999).

Throughout Hitchcock’s early career, he would continue to direct stories which would reinforce the motif of the ‘blonde woman’ that would develop further prominence in his later films. Madeline Carroll as Pamela in The 39 Steps (1935) for instance typified this notion. Stuart Y. McDougal in Mirth, Sexuality and Suspense: Alfred Hitchcock’s Adaptation of The Thirty-Nine Steps (1975) describes how the film’s source literary material was transformed “into a quickly paced work of suspense, greatly simplified the plot…” which altered the structure, used the settings functionally and made the work an exploration of the nature of male-female relationships.

Richard Hannay’s (Robert Donat) interactions with Pamela and initially Annabelle (Lucie Mannheim), the mysterious woman pursued by gunmen who seeks refuge with Hannay, offer a dynamic opportunity to portray two different kinds of women in one quick-moving narrative. Annabelle (or “Miss Smith” as she calls herself) exudes sexuality and danger, and as Hannay remarks: “A beautiful mysterious woman pursued by gunmen…It sounds like a spy story.” Annabelle soon meets a bitter end, but her few minutes on screen are indelible. Annabelle is “the archetypal femme fatale: dark, beautiful, mysterious and foreign” McDougal explains, and is the complete opposite of the crofter’s wife (Peggy Ashcroft) or indeed Pamela. Her active role in the plot of the film (the firing of the shots in the theatre in the opening scene and her shocking death) is the first of the three women in The 39 Steps who propel the story along to its dramatic conclusion- she after all, is the one who ‘picks up’ Hannay and invites herself to his flat. The narrative progress which Annabelle initiates, may involve her own death, but also vitally, persuades the protagonist out of a malaise.  The crofter’s wife for example, strikes out on her own against her god-fearing highlander husband and secures Hannay’s escape whilst Pamela’s initial distrust of Hannay results in one the most satisfying character transformations of the film. As Saptarshi Ray of The Guardian concluded in his appraisal of the film, “[though] this was an era of rampant male chauvinism…pretty much all the women are strong and smart.”

In Hitchcock’s first sound picture, Blackmail (1929), the subject matter within the film also indicate themes which have been noted as significant throughout Hitchcock’s filmography. Indeed as Tania Modleski in The Women Who Knew Too Much, 1988 claims, “Some critics have even argued that Hitchcock’s work is prototypical of the extremely violent assaults on women that make up much of our entertainment today.” Blackmail then, deals with an especially difficult subject matter in which a young woman, Alice (Anny Odra), defends herself against a rapist, resulting in his death and the subsequent investigation by her detective boyfriend. It is a dark subject for a commercial hit which took advantage of new technology, but is another example of Hitchcock’s early style permeating through a still youthful medium. The film also launches a debate about the “episode in the artist’s studio”. In The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 2000 by Donald Spoto, he shockingly describes it as “violent love” whereas Hitchcock, refreshingly frank for the time, simply called it as it appears to a modern viewer when interviewed by Francois Truffaut, as an attempt at “rape”. The film is rather uncompromising in its ability to demonstrate Alice’s immediate guilt, take for instance, the famous scene in which she listens to a gossiping neighbour discussing the knife as a murder weapon. The camera moves to Ondra’s traumatised face, and Hitchcock imaginatively distorts sound. The audience hears only the subjective impression of what the girl hears, as the neighbour’s words blur together until only word “knife” stabs out at her and at the audience from the soundtrack.

The film’s sympathy in dealing with the reaction of female guilt after experiencing the trauma of sexual violence also emphasises the female position in the patriarchy, especially in regards to the law, the accountability of crime and for the creation of identification with the female outlaw. The film does this at various moments in the film, in particular with the point-of-view shots which implicate the spectator in Alice’s guilt. The depiction of Alice is “hardly the one-dimensional vamp of so many films of the period”, as Modleski points out, making it impossible for the viewer to condemn Alice for her predicament. Indeed, Alice must exist at the mercy of the law-abiding (her detective boyfriend, Frank) and a blackmailer (Tracy), inciting a lack of resolution in the conclusion of the film, and as Modleski concludes, is a theme which we will see repeated again and again in Hitchcock’s work, attributing not a “sadistic delight in seeing his leading ladies suffer” but an obsession which takes “the form of a particularly lucid expose of the predicaments of and contradictions of women’s existence under patriarchy.”

In Richard Allen’s Hitchcock’s Romantic Irony, 2007, Allen discusses the most successful of Hitchcock’s British films, The Lady Vanishes (1938) which uses the “joint quest narrative”, whereby “masculine reason and female intuition combine to yield knowledge of the criminal” and results in these cases, the wronged man/woman’s exoneration. Allen’s analysis of these narratives highlight a largely forgotten aspect of the feminine voice in many of Hitchcock’s films, saying how in Hitchcock’s “‘wrong man’ thrillers the hero is often much weaker: the wronged man needs the heroine’s help and her active agency, in order to clear his name and restore his identity…” for instance, in The 39 Steps.

Though the female character is often transformed into the male character’s romantic conquest by the end of the film, it is not without the female character first demonstrating some detective agency and intuition, a characteristic which Allen believes to be one of the distinguishing factors of Hitchcock’s British films. The female protagonist of The Lady Vanishes, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is alone in her insistence that an older woman, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) has disappeared from the train in which they were both travelling independently. Iris is met with disbelief at nearly every turn, even initially from Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), Iris’ eventual love interest and partner in her investigation. The equalling of gender in Iris and Gilbert’s ability to solve an inexplicable mystery may even, as Allen deduces, “involve the realignment of traditional gendered epistemologies, and sometimes issues in an ambiguous stance toward the romantic resolution…”

The emergence of the feisty and determined female hero of films such as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes it seems therefore, were the forerunners to the ‘guilty women’ film viewers would become accustomed to in the Hitchcock oeuvre from the 1950s and beyond.

Review: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)

I broke the code to tell my cinema companion that the colon was in the wrong place on the BBFC titlecard, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying this action ‘six-quel’ (which no one is calling it), Mission: Impossible – Fallout.

My relationship with the M:I series has been a rocky one. The first film was first viewed on VHS, thanks to a friend’s enviable video collection, while the second film lasted only in my memory thanks to it’s nu-metal soundtrack and for first making me aware of Thandie Newton. The Gillette advert opener with Tom Cruise scaling a cliff was not enough to save the rest of it. Fast-forward to the third installment, I eventually caught it on TV after an alarming number of people had claimed “it’s actually good, I’m promise!”

My personal favourite was actually Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, probably thanks to going into the film with zero expectations, other than vaguely hoping to see Tom Cruise once again scaling a building, a plane or some other death-defying stunt. The story was spy-lit lite but easy to follow, the villain (Sean Harris) was genuinely creepy at times, and most surprisingly of all, we had an interesting female character to encounter – Ilsa Faust played by Rebecca Ferguson. I could watch the scene in the Vienna opera house over and over again.

I was pleased then that this latest film, Fallout, continued the winning formula of the fifth, with Christopher McQuarrie remaining as writer and director (for the first time in the series) and hurrah, Ilsa Faust returning!

I’d recommend seeing Rogue Nation before tackling Fallout, but Fallout most definitely covers new ground, creating a whole new narrative despite picking up on tensions and emotional ties from previous outings.

The IMF spring into action again when nuclear weapons are stolen by a shady syndicate (of course) called the Apostles, hell-bent on chaos throughout the world in order to create a new world order. Ethan (Tom Cruise), Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) are tasked with reclaiming the bombs, taking them across Europe in quick lightning speed, and encountering a CIA operative (Henry Cavill) and a black market arms dealer (Vanessa Kirby) along the way.

Everyone in the cast gets their share of scenery to chomp and the action sequences were relentless but ingenious. Wringing my sweating hands as I watched Cruise race to the Tate Modern or motorbike through famous Parisian traffic, I gave myself over to the mindless thrill of seeing accomplished action scenes click effortlessly into place as if operated by clockwork. So many action/thriller films rely on fast cuts and shaky camera work to obscure the action and disorientate viewers, but the fight scenes, particularly the one in the silent club bathroom, was like a ballet of sinew and white-tiled fury.

Six films in and the series is now attempting to reflect on the destruction the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), namely Ethan Hunt, has created in the name of keeping the world and the people closest to them, save. When so many of the installments in the series have been individual ventures – thanks to idiosyncratic directors like Brian De Palma and John Woo picking up the gauntlet – the era of ‘cinematic universes’ has forced the producers to attempt to weave these wildly varying films together to create a narrative arc for Ethan Hunt. I appreciate the effort… just maybe for the next one they could resurrect Kristin Scott Thomas and complete the circle?!

M:I works best when it acts as an heist movie in the spy genre. Seeing a dastardly plan be thwarted or Ethan Hunt attempt another daring escape has always been where M:I excelled, even if the characterisation and plot was lacking. Ethan Hunt, in my mind, is just a cipher for a more palatable Tom Cruise. Less jumping on sofas more running across the roofs of London please.