See CJ Live In Sydney!

After presenting a sell-out series of three lectures at the Art Gallery of New South Wales earlier this year, I’m returning with a new monthly series of lectures, The Art of Cinema, so far programmed through the end of 2022 . You can book the whole series or individual lectures, and you don’t need to be a member of the AGNSW. All details and booking information here:

https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/whats-on/events/art-of-cinema-series/

The Lectures:

Weds 24 August

THE ART OF FILM NOIR

Film noir is more than shadows, trench coats and femmes fatales. So what is it, exactly? How did it originate, develop, and what are its classic examples?

Weds 14 September

UNDERSTANDING CASABLANCA

It’s one of the most beloved films of all time; one of the most quoted, referenced, revived, rewatched, parodied and pinched from. But what is really going on in this staggeringly entertaining 1942 Warner Bros. classic? CJ offers an eye-opening deep read of a film you think you know.

Weds 5 October

THE CINEMA OF ORSON WELLES

Orson Welles has a claim to being the ultimate filmmaker as public figure, celebrity, star and auteur; his life was even more fabulous and dramatic than any of his unique films (including his masterpiece Citizen Kane). CJ offers an entertaining ride through an astonishing life and bumpy career.

Weds 09 November

THE FRENCH NEW WAVE

What exactly constituted this major 1960s movement? Who drove it, what films did they make, and how – if at all – did it change cinema?

Things To Come

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***

Mia Hansen-Løve’s fifth feature film as a director plays out a little like an archetypal country-and-western song: our hero (in this case, Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie) loses a succession of the most valuable things and people in her life, yet somehow gets by, and even gets stronger. It works as a fascinating companion piece to Elle, Huppert’s Oscar-nominated film from last year, in which her character put on a brave face following one of the most wretched traumas a human being may be put through. Here, the traumatic events are more mundane, but her resilience is similar. She smiles at fate.

Nathalie is a Parisian philosophy professor, and her philosophical approach to life seems to be the film’s raisin d’être, for it otherwise eschews a lot of dramatic practice, and a lot of drama. Life happens to Nathalie, but the ramifications aren’t necessarily going to be contained within the movie’s brisk hundred and two minutes. You might call it a character study, or a slice of life, but it’s a bit more than that. Nathalie’s resistance to self-pity is quietly inspiring, and her advocation of philosophy and intellectual engagement to deal with life’s blows – its unfairness – is good advice in troubled times.

Huppert plays Nathalie with her customary brilliance and sense of detachment. She’s become invincible and so, it seems, have her recent characters. The chink in her armour may be her interest in a past student of hers, Fabien (Roman Kolinka, tall, handsome, and so perfectly cast that you’d swear he was off to a discussion on radical thinking the moment he leaves any frame.) Fabien has taken Nathalie’s philosophical teachings to heart, and taken them further; he’s moving  with a group of like-minded young people onto a farm, where they continue a post-graduate academic lifestyle of self-sufficiency and revolutionary ideas. In this context – Nathalie visits the farm twice – she is visibly old and bourgeois, stuck in the comforts of academia. To her, the students may seem comically idealistic, or they may be living the dream; her attitude to Fabien is similarly conflicted, and the film’s most tantalising question is, of course, whether the relationship is going to take a sexual turn.

Hansen-Løve shoots sunnily; Nathalie’s Paris is relatively calm and spacious, with a glorious riverbank which she takes her students to occasionally. Watching this group of smart young people discuss philosophy on the banks of the Seine will scratch your Francophile itch, c’est pour dire. Whether the film scratches your dramatic itch depends on how much you need; Things to Come is, like its protagonist, hardly prone to hysteria of any kind. It is based directly on Hansen-Løve’s mother, and observes the casual reality of life.

Berlin Syndrome

BS_Poster*** (out of five)

Opens April 20th in Australia

Movies where disturbed men imprison women actually began on the A List, with 1965’s The Collector, directed by William Wyler from John Fowles’ novel. Starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, it was nominated for three Oscars. Since then, the idiosyncratic sub-genre – call it the “Female Captive Movie”, perhaps – has taken a stroll into more exploitative territory, through such diverse fare as Boxing Helena (1993), Black Snake Moan (2006) and Captivity (2007), the last one being a definite B Picture. (Last year’s excellent Room cannot be considered part of this sub-genre; it doesn’t focus on the captive/captor relationship, nor does it follow many of the genre’s primary tropes).

Australian director Cate Shortland gives the subject the A List treatment with Berlin Syndrome, and in doing so highlights its limitations. Impeccably directed, shot and acted, there’s no denying that the script is just another take on an unhinged man who kidnaps an attractive woman and holds her captive; it is tense and suspenseful but really has nothing new to say.

As a thriller, though, it’s great fun. Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a solo tourist in Berlin. She gets picked up on the street by Andi (Max Riemelt) and, after a promising and very sexy start, things go very, very wrong. There’s not much else to say about the plot – if you know the genre, you know the story. But the execution is above average for the material. Palmer is terrific; she paints Clare in more colours than the script would seemingly allow. From the moment we meet her, we suspect Clare has more going on beneath the surface than most poor backpackers taken hostage in Europe; it feels like she’s trying to escape some sadness or tragedy, though, if so, it’s never made explicit. Once a captive, Palmer is vividly proficient at all the stages of Clare’s terror, desolation and resolve, but the actress brings even more than that, creating a physicality of fear that brings to mind Mia Farrow’s performance in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) – and that’s high praise indeed. Riemelt is a strong presence too, although his character’s mental imbalance calls for him to present as dispassionate and immoveable, which limits his performance.

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Shortland uses the camera well, creating some beautiful images, but she continually falls back on her favourite trick, which is to fall into a dreamy, slow-motion montage with over-reliance on an increasingly intrusive soundtrack by Bryony Marks. If you’ve seen Shortland’s debut feature, Somersault (2004), you’ll know the technique; it’s ill-used here, interrupting and slowing down the narrative and contributing to its significantly overlong running time of 116 minutes. In trying to elevate her lurid material, Shortland ignores one of its basic demands: she drops the tension. The result is an entirely watchable movie with some excellent elements, but which is an uncomfortable fit, a square peg straining to squeeze into a round hole.

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