My week in film: Carol, Sunset Song and more…

As the red curtains are soon to close on 2015, the impetus to catch up on films I’ve missed has set in. It’s also the time for ‘Best of’ lists and for my part I’ve already contributed to one – in early November I was asked to select my ‘preferred five films’ of 2015 for Sight & Sound magazine’s annual poll. Since then I’ve seen more that I would have included, but luckily the CineVue top ten will be revealed later this month, so those missed in S&S will get their chance. Of those in Sight & Sound’s top ten, I’ve seen eight (though only if you count joint eleventh position) but not their number one film, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin and only one is in my top five, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows. You can read my full list and rationale behind my selection here.

Rooney Mara as Therese and Cate Blanchett as Carol

At the cinema meanwhile, there’s also been plenty to see. Todd Hayne’s Carol, starring Cate Blanchett in the eponymous role and Rooney Mara as shop clerk Therese, who fall in love in 1950’s New York, is perhaps one of the most accomplished and affecting works of cinema I’ve ever seen. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the 1953 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and shot on Super 16mm, Haynes has created a film so utterly glorious it’s hard to know where to begin praising it. Instead I’ll attempt to recall those moments that moved me so acutely. Both performances by Mara and Blanchett are fantastic. Blanchett demonstrates that Carol is first of all a mother, dedicated to her daughter Rindy (Sadie and Kk Heim) and possessed of a will strong enough to know that abandoning her identity would be more damaging than partial custody of Rindy. At the same time, her chemistry with Mara is palpable, showing their instant attraction and developing tenderness for one another.

Rooney Mara

Mara as Therese reveals the agony – frequently internalised – of having no name for what she’s feeling, but becoming aware that her lack of investment in her heteronormative life might have an explanation that she can share with someone else. Carol shifts its narrative focus between Therese and Carol, demonstrating how they both experience a questioning of their identity, struggling with, by turns, the reconciliation of being a mother, but not a wife, or where one’s allies and friends might really lie. As with Far From Heaven (2002) Haynes recreates the 1950s’ period with a cinematic nostalgia that nods to the work of Douglas Sirk and the paintings of Edward Hopper and has even been open about stealing the opening scene’s set up from David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), where a hand on a shoulder is the only expression of affection permissible in public. The film’s identity theme is also expressed in the use of reflections, as the characters gaze into mirrors, or are seen through rain-soaked glass, or a camera’s lens. Here, love is about how one identifies not only with one’s lover, but with the image of oneself.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in Sunset Song

Also at the cinema, I rushed to see Terence Davies long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, Sunset Song. Set in the years just before WWI, the film tells the story of Chris (Agyness Deyn), a young woman who lives with her family on their farm in rural Aberdeenshire. Throughout Sunset Song, Chris’s coming to terms with her own autonomy, her own desires and the responsibilities of motherhood allow Deyn the opportunity for a spirited and sensitive performance. Chris’s changes as a woman are compared to the mutability of the seasons, and cinematographer Michael McDonough’s choice of 65mm for the exterior scenes celebrate the drama and beauty of the landscape. Much like Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), an overbearing father is again a central element, yet the revelatory use of nature, opens up Sunset Song to a make it more than a set of explored themes for the director.

Elizabeth Moss as Ashley in Listen Up Philip

Other films viewed in an effort to ‘catch up’ include Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, in which a luminous Juliette Binoche plays an actor facing up to aging, role reversal and the ‘truths’ of performance alongside a fantastic Kristen Stewart. A Pigeon Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence was the latest from Roy Andersson this year, which again follows Songs From the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007), in depicting the inherent tragi-comedy of modern life. I also checked out Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry, a comedy about a total bastard novelist ‘struggling’ with success. The film says very little of any originality about the torment of creativity, but it does take an interesting route by spending almost as much time with Philip’s (Jason Schwartzman) ex, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), and her development into a single person again contains some very thoughtful moments, not to mention a stunning performance by Moss

My week in film: Amour, Bachelorette and The Myth of the American Sleepover

The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) was a revelation; like Dazed and Confused (1993) and American Graffiti (1973)before it, the plot concerns the longings and wanderings of suburban teens over the course of one night, employing a hazy, nostalgic aesthetic.

Deliberately avoiding references to a particular decade, the characters are nevertheless unencumbered by the constant communication provided by mobile phones, suggesting that we are in 1990’s territory. This lack of instant messaging also bolsters the films key theme: that adolescence is a confusing and sometimes lonely time, represented by characters that are cast adrift from new friends or in search of an old connection. To seek out his forgotten crush, college student Scott (Brett Jacobsen) surprises twins Ady and Anna (Nikita and Jade Ramsey) by driving out to visit them at their freshers sleepover; sophomore Maggie (Claire Sloma) leaves a note, rather then a text message for ‘pool boy’ Steven (Douglas Diedrich). Communication, or lack thereof is at the heart of the film with dialogue as naturalistic as the performances, which are striking for the way they present a combination of youthful invincibility and crippling insecurity. A debut as good as this has left me excited to see what Mitchell does next.

Bachelorette (Leslye Headland, 2012) was a film I admittedly wasn’t overly keen to see based on the trailer, which presents a Bridesmaids (2011)type comedy shot with crass humour and warring females. The film is a whole lot better than the trailer would have you think. Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan play old friends Regan, Katie and Gena, enlisted to be bridesmaids at the wedding of Becky (Rebel Wilson) whom they used to ridicule back in high school. All three initially behave deplorably, being in turns, selfish, bitter and inconsiderate and seemingly only enthusiastic about getting trashed at the ‘Bachelorette’ party. Through their various travails and screwball antics however, more rounded characters emerge, ones whose insecurities and regrets come to induce a more sympathetic view of their dynamic. Fisher is hilarious and sad as Katie whilst Kirsten Dunst’s memorable and convincing portrayal had this viewer almost in tears with the words “Fuck EVERYONE!” The only dud note is perhaps Caplan’s story arc, which sees her reconciliation with old flame Clyde (Adam Scott) and perhaps allows too many of the wedding film clichés to creep in. Whether the film will get a UK theatrical release remains to be seen but if you ever get a chance, Bachelorette is recommended viewing.

On current release, the much praised and Palme d’Or winning Amour by Michael Haneke proved (with great relief) to live up to the hype. Concerning the deteriorating health of one half of octogenarian couple Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and George (Jean –Louis Trintignant) when the former suffers a series of strokes, the film is as uncompromising as could be expected from the director of Funny Games (1997, 2007). Mostly set in their Parisian apartment, Haneke tightly controls the framing and sound, creating a calm and quiet space for his incredible lead actors to inhabit, utterly convincing as a couple with a lifetimes’ history. Despite the seeming banality of the subject – almost everyone experiences the ailments and restrictions of ageing – Haneke brings freshness to the subject, noting the horror of incapacity and lack of control. It could even be argued that the characteristic mean streak in his past films is present here in the simple observation of this intensely private couple; George is pushed away by Anne at times and he likewise tries to keep their daughter (Issabelle Huppert) at a distance from her mother’s suffering – nevertheless the films audience remains spectator to inevitable decline. In the final scenes the true weight of George’s devastation takes hold but the total lack of sentimentality is remarkable.

An unusually quiet week for film, this one – perhaps due to the cinematic saturation of the last. Coming up – The Master, Silver Linings Playbook and more at home viewing.