Incarnation is the latest DVD release by Matchbox Films. It’s a first time effort by Filip Kovacevic, a 27 year-old maths graduate who also produced and co-wrote this low-budget film. The basic narrative concept he uses is the ‘time loop’, a familiar idea that can be applied to various generic narratives. The few reviews I’ve found of the film refer mainly to American films and to science fiction. That’s not surprising perhaps and many young filmmakers worldwide look to major Hollywood product for inspiration. I haven’t seen many of the American films reviewers reference (such as Looper quoted on the poster below) but Source Code is an interesting comparison, though the vast difference in budget and therefore lack of stars and effects pushes Incarnation in a different direction.
The basic premise is that a young man (played by Stojan Djordjevic) wakes up on a bench situated at a junction of five pedestrianised streets in the centre of what I assume is Belgrade. He doesn’t know who he is and he hasn’t made much progress in working out his situation before four men in black suits and white shirts wearing white face masks corner and shoot him. After a few seconds of blank screen, our hero wakes again on the same bench and the cycle is repeated. It takes a few more loops before our hero begins to make some progress, realising eventually, for instance, that there are five potential escape routes.
The film I was actually reminded of was Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola, Run, Germany 1999). In that film, the cycle is only repeated three times and the ‘chase’ is about delivering a sum of money in time so Lola can save her fiancé. I was reminded perhaps by the running through the streets of Belgrade (instead of Berlin), but also by the sense that the film was like a videogame (much discussed in 1999) with the central character ‘learning’ each time and improving his/her chances of success. Much depends on the other characters on the street – and whether they are part of the same fictional world as the hero. In Incarnation, our hero does learn something from other characters, though never enough to fully understand what has happened – he’s going to have to work that out himself. The videogame references are strengthened by the clues the protagonist finds (which will perhaps take him to the ‘next level’) and by the pounding score for the chase sequences. I’ve no intention of spoiling the narrative pleasure in the film. All I’ll say is that the cycle is completed many times but that the film is relatively short for a feature. Some reviewers have not been satisfied by the ending but I thought it was quite appropriate.
It’s worth focusing on the film’s strengths. Belgrade looks an interesting city and it’s unusual to see a Serbian film in the UK outside a festival. With little money available, Kovacevic must have spent most of it on hunting for locations and then setting his cinematographer Uros Miltunovic loose to create some exciting chase sequences. There are a few scenes set away from the bench and the streets and these too work well. The choice of outfits for the mysterious hitmen also works very effectively. It’s a relief that though their look has been copied from various sources including the Matrix films, there are no special effects as such (apart from the fake blood for wounds!). The film has minimal dialogue and much of it is actually the young man voicing his own hopes and fears. In the UK trailer below the film appears to have been dubbed (the version I saw was subtitled) but I don’t think that’s much of a drawback in a film mainly focused on action.
You’ve seen it all before, so is it worth another go? I’d say yes, partly to enjoy the thrilling camerawork and also to see Belgrade. Stojan Djordjevic is an ‘everyman’ most audiences will be happy to follow. There is also the question of whether a Serbian take on this kind of familiar narrative offers something new. My thoughts certainly turned to that image of the Balkans as a very beautiful region (especially in the sunshine on the streets in a handsome city) which has experienced such terrible acts of violence as little as twenty years ago. Don’t worry, I haven’t given the ending away, but metaphor never seems far away in these kinds of narratives. Incarnation is certainly worth 80 minutes of your time and, who knows, perhaps an hour or two arguing about what it all means?
The DVD is released on 21st May.
I think I must be in the prime target audience for Wind River. It certainly ‘works’ for me but I’m a little wary of certain aspects of the narrative – so, a good film to write about? The film’s pedigree is good as written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, whose earlier writing on Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016) was certainly appreciated in these parts. It also has a strong cast, music by Nick Cave and a snowy landscape (Utah masquerading as Wyoming). It also has antecedents. The idea of a murder investigation on Native American lands was explored in Thunderheart (US 1992), directed by Michael Apted and including in its cast Graham Greene (Canadian First Nations actor) who repeats his role as a tribal police officer in this new film. Jurisdiction on land designated for Native American tribes is a complex business and that becomes one aspect of this story alongside the familiar issue of indigenous peoples and how they suffer through poor education, lack of employment opportunities and loss of cultural identity. A third element that features strongly is the potential ecological/environmental damage to the land via oil exploration and wildlife issues.
The narrative sees an 18 year-old young woman dying as she runs barefoot through the snow on a winter’s night. The explanation of how cold bursts the blood vessels in the lungs and causes the victim to drown in their own freezing blood is a lesson I won’t forget. But what has caused her to do such a thing? She’s found by Cory Lambert, a wildlife ranger played by Jeremy Renner. The local tribal police chief who is, coincidentally, Cory’s father-in-law, does not have the manpower or authority to conduct a murder investigation, so the FBI, who have jurisdiction on tribal lands via the Department for Indian Affairs, is called in. When she arrives, agent Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) from Fort Lauderdale via Las Vegas is certainly unprepared for what she is expected to do.
What follows seems like a carefully calculated attempt to cover the bases and confront the issues. The choice of Agent Banner by the FBI seems not to be thought through – not because she’s a woman, but because she’s relatively young, doesn’t know this kind of territory and its culture and is poorly equipped for outdoor work in freezing temperatures. But the decision does open up several narrative opportunities. She can easily offend people, not through malice but through lack of specific experience and knowledge and she needs to rely on the help of wildlife ranger Lambert. Lambert knows the territory, the snow hazards and the people – and he’s closely connected to the victim’s family. He married into the community and his backstory is skilfully woven into the narrative. But he is a white man whose status still raises questions. Against that, one of the most affecting scenes sees Lambert and the dead girl’s father Martin (played by Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water) in one of those almost silent intimate male relationships found in the best Westerns.
I was struck by how much the narrative reminded me of Indigenous Australian films and I’m sure there are Canadian narratives that cover similar issues. The policing of these communities is problematic. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but I did find the long final sequence (or rather the penultimate sequence) slightly disappointing in the way the murder mystery was ‘solved’. All the performances by the leads were good, though the heavily typed secondary characters were just too predictable in their behaviour. Andy Willis at HOME in Manchester told me he thought Renner’s role was Nietzschian with its emphasis on survival and the kill or be killed philosophy. I can see this and I was also concerned by the presumably legal killings of predators that Lambert is required to carry out as a ranger. (Wolves are being re-introduced in many parts of Europe but Lambert is sent out to dispatch the wolves on Wind River reservation for killing a steer.) The narrative also seemed to suggest connections (direct or metaphorical) between the animal predators that Lambert shoots and the humans who pose a threat to Agent Banner. I’m still trying to figure out what worries me about this but I guess it’s that everyone in the territory seems to have guns (and often high-powered automatic rifles) and the assumption that a wildlife ranger (or a police officer) can use a gun with so little obvious regulation or restraint. Having said that, the UK government sanctions killing badgers when scientific opinion says it achieves nothing.
Is it a Western? I think so, yes. It’s a ‘contemporary Western’ but I’m not sure it is a ‘twilight Western’ since it has a very different kind of narrative structure and set of characters. In some ways it is quite a traditional Western story as oilmen from Texas arrive on Native American land in Wyoming – and a loner, the hunter, has to deal with them. The revisionist twist is to add the female FBI agent.
Wind River has been widely praised and in the UK it has been a surprising success on a limited release. It is distributed here by STX Entertainment, a new name in cinema for me but I see that in North America it has been active in cinema and TV distribution for a few years. It has significant Chinese investment and is targeting growth in East Asian markets. In the UK and Ireland, Wind River is one of its first releases and the release pattern seems to have been idiosyncratic – in some chain multiplexes, but not others. Even so the film reached the Top 5 in midweek, suggesting a skew towards older audiences. It’s worth keeping an eye on STX I think.
The title Berlin Syndrome is very suggestive in this feature about a young female tourist who finds herself trapped after a casual sexual encounter in Berlin. How will the reference to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that idea that a captive becomes literally captivated by their gaoler, become manifest in the narrative? Not perhaps as you might expect. This is a film adapted from a critically-praised novel by Melanie Joosten and directed by Cate Shortland, who made the wonderful Lore in 2012, a film about a not totally dissimilar young woman in Germany in 1945. I was a little surprised that the script was by a man – Shaun Grant. This does feel like a female-centred narrative and Ms Shortland has several female collaborators on her team. In his dismissal of the film, our old enemy Peter Bradshaw suggests that this is a ‘lite’ version of Room (2015) or the Austrian film Michael (2011) (which I haven’t seen). These are not really sensible comparisons since both of these films feature children as prisoners and even though Room does feature a woman prisoner as well, it isn’t a film about the relationship between a gaoler and his captive(s) since we learn little about him.
Clare (Teresa Palmer) is a young woman from Brisbane who has come to Berlin on a whim to photograph the architecture of the GDR and hoping for a life-changing experience – but not the kind of experience she walks into. Soon after she arrives she meets Andi (Max Riemelt) an English teacher in a local Gymnasium. They spend a day together and she decides not to go on to Dresden but to spend the night in his apartment. Bad move. The sex is good but when Andi goes to work, she finds that she can’t leave his apartment in an old abandoned apartment block. At first she wasn’t worried to be in this old building, but now she realises that there is no one else about. Even when Andi returns she still thinks it might be a mistake, surely he didn’t mean to lock her in?
Peter Bradshaw’s other condemnation is that this is just a familiar genre narrative with nothing new to say and that Clare is obviously the ‘final girl’ in the horror film right from the beginning of the narrative. It’s true that it does increasingly become a ‘psycho-sexual thriller’, especially in its resolution but also at various moments along the way. The idea of a man holding a woman captive is by no means unfamiliar and as other reviewers have pointed out there are some parallels here with William Wyler’s film of the John Fowles book The Collector (1969). However, the important difference here is Clare’s sexual desire and her vulnerability as a tourist in a strange city. I think it’s quite legitimate to read the film in terms of Clare’s self-discovery – of her resourcefulness and strength as well as her sexuality. It’s also interesting that on the two occasions when she sees a glimmer of hope for an escape, it’s when another woman appears – but I won’t spoil the narrative. Andi is the other central character and we get to see him at school, in his classroom and in the staffroom. We also see him in the company of his father. There is just enough of a hint about his extreme obsession with control peeping out from behind his ‘normality’ as a schoolteacher.
I was impressed by both lead actors. I didn’t think I’d seen them before but researching the film later I discovered that both are very experienced and Teresa Palmer has a mainstream Hollywood career that I’ve missed entirely, though I did see The Grudge 2 (2006), where she played alongside Sarah Michelle Gellar. She looks and acts younger than her age in Berlin Syndrome and I did think about how she reminded me of Kristen Stewart (again, something I later discovered is a common reaction). Max Riemelt was in The Wave (Germany 2008), a film I’ve watched several times and I’m surprised that I didn’t recognise him. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ this film and I found Clare’s predicament distressing. I was surprised to find myself thinking about it so much afterwards. The script is carefully written and there are some nice touches that again I didn’t really think about until afterwards – such as Clare’s interest in a book of Klimmt reproductions that makes a re-appearance and Andi’s choice of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room as a text for his English class. I also hadn’t thought too much about Clare’s journey from Brisbane to Berlin – an example of that ‘cultural cringe’ that seems still to be relevant in Australian narratives about travelling to Europe to gain experiences beyond Australian suburbia. The thoughts of the women working on the film about travelling alone in Europe are worth reading in the Production Notes. The interesting aspect of the production itself is that it was shot on location in Berlin and then Andi’s apartment was recreated on a soundstage in Melbourne. It’s a seamless fit and this is an impressive production. The film has not been that well reviewed in the UK. I think in some cases it has been dismissed without due attention and I’m glad I saw it. I’ll keep looking for Cate Shortland’s films. If you missed this in cinemas in the UK it’s on Curzon online.
Three points struck me after watching Elle. The first is that though Paul Verhoeven is in his late 70s, he can still make films with more energy and flair than many younger filmmakers. Second, Isabelle Huppert demonstrates once again that she is in a class of her own when it comes to female actors. Finally, if Elle proves anything it is that the distinction between mainstream ‘entertainment’ and arthouse cinema is not particularly helpful if this film is classed as the latter just because it is not in the English language. Verhoeven doesn’t make ‘art’ movies as such. That doesn’t mean his films aren’t examples of the art of film, rather that he seeks to entertain with sex and violence to the fore. He will also ask questions, sometimes serious questions but there is also the suggestion that he is poking fun at those who think art cinema is ‘better’. I’ve only seen a limited number of the director’s films but I recently enjoyed Black Book (Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belgium 2006) and I’m an admirer of Starship Troopers (US 1997) as a satire on fascism.
I tried to avoid reviews before seeing Elle but afterwards I picked up suggestions of a Buñuelian satire, especially in the use of a formal Christmas party. I guess these reviewers are referring to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). I didn’t really think of that connection. Chabrol is mentioned by some because of Huppert’s presence. For me the film was more reminiscent of 1980s films like Dressed to Kill (1980), Fatal Attraction (1987) or indeed of Verhoeven’s own Basic Instinct (1992). I’m not thinking of the plots of these films but their sex, violence and ‘glamour’. I did get a strong whiff of Hitchcock from Elle, especially in the dialogue exchange at the end of the film with the Catholic neighbour. The difference is that Huppert as Michèle Blanc becomes the ‘(anti-)hero’ of the narrative rather than the usual ‘woman in distress’ or ‘romantic partner’. For anyone who doesn’t know the outline of the story in Elle, I’ll just note that at the beginning of the film, Michèle is attacked by a masked assailant, but she doesn’t report the violent rape that ensues and only tells her ex-husband and friends some time later. Verhoeven replays the initial rape– I’m not completely sure why we have to see it again, but Verhoeven says the narrative is about the ‘aftermath’ of the rape, so maybe she is thinking it through in the flashback. Michèle’s investigations then initiate a complex sequence of events, including more rapes.
Elle is an ’18’ certificate film in the UK and there is a great deal of sexual violence in the film. The initial rape is brutal (we see it and other similar attacks later) and the use of shocking violence in this way distinguishes the action from what sometimes appears in mainstream cinema as more aestheticised ‘rape’. Isabelle Huppert’s performance then suggests a woman who is able to put aside the pain and the shock of the assault and plan what she is going to do next. In one sense this is a typical Huppert performance. She is able to portray incredible strength of character by doing as little as possible – apart from commanding the screen (and everyone/everything shown in its space). Perhaps it is this that has caused such a controversy around the film. Sight and Sound (April 2017) offered five contributions on the film – an interview by editor Nick James, two ‘comment pieces’ organised as a ‘For’ and ‘Against’ the film’s take on misogyny, a review of Verhoeven’s early work in the Netherlands (arguably more controversial than his Hollywood work) and finally a conventional review. I say ‘conventional’ but Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz write this review together – without any explanation as to why it needs both of them. The review of Verhoeven’s Dutch work by Craig Williams is very interesting and makes me think I should look for more of his films that now appear to be available on DVD with English subs. Verhoeven’s interview is revealing about the production background of the film – its origins as a French novel, the decision to re-work it for an American production and then the shift back to a French production. Verhoeven makes a number of comments about the differences between US and French cinema which I don’t necessarily agree with and overall I’m wary of such interviews since so many directors contradict themselves. I sometimes think they make up answers to relieve the boredom of so many interviews. Still, it’s an interesting read. But the controversy lies in the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ pieces, headlined as ‘Crossing the Line’.
Arguing ‘for’ Verhoeven in this battle over its sexual politics is Erika Balsom and opposing her is Ginette Vincendeau, both members of the same Film Studies department at Kings College, London (one of the most prestigious film departments in UK academia). Ginette Vincendeau is one of the leading authorities on French cinema, whose work I’ve read and used for many years. She argues that Elle:
. . . validates a culture that condones male violence against women, arguing that, deep down, ‘they want it’. The film and its reception are a demonstration of how deeply internalised misogyny is, including by women.
She goes on to argue that Elle is not a rape revenge fantasy nor is it a horror narrative in which the ‘final girl’ kills the monster, but it is a film that plays with the codes of the French thriller and which “deliberately mines French extreme cinema, a genre in which Huppert excels”. I agree with all of that, but I think that when Vincendeau starts to offer readings of different aspects of the narrative, things start to unravel a little. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I would have to contest the argument that Michèle is ‘punished’ as a woman with power, through her portrayal as a ‘castrating woman’. Vincendeau is possibly correct in suggesting that all of Michèle’s relationships with other women are about hostility and rivalry. However, I often find that single scenes/sequences from films stay with me and form the basis for my later readings. The last sequence of Elle seems to refute both the idea that Michèle has been punished or that she can’t develop relationships with women that are positive and comradely.
I don’t know Erika Balsom’s work but the department’s profile of her suggests that she is concerned with cultural studies and visual art/experimental cinema more broadly. She argues that Elle is not a misogynist film. Elle is a film about misogyny. Balsom’s point is that Verhoeven and Huppert recognise the seriousness of rape but also that its gravity comes partly from its banality. Rape is integral to the patriarchal system. The film is a fable or allegory exploring what happens if a woman ‘refuses’ to conform. I don’t want to summarise the piece any further but is an interesting argument that will enrage some readers. I was taken by the closing paragraph in which she writes:
. . . The spurious humanism of Hollywood – with its likeable characters and its ideological attachments to morality, innocence and redemption – is bankrupt. Too often, it serves the very system that Verhoeven recognises as pathological. Instead, Elle, like the cat-witness of its opening shot, stares down the ugly scene with eyes wide open.
Reading over what I’ve written, I discover that I seem to be ‘for’, when I thought that I was somehow caught between the two pieces. But it’s not quite as simple as that. There are two aspects of Elle I haven’t mentioned. One is that Michèle is the co-owner with Anna (Anne Consigny) of a company making videogames – violent, ‘erotic’ games. Most of the game designers and coders are young men who at one point Michèle encourages to produce work that is more arousing in its use of sex and violence. Any of these men could be the rapist from the opening scene. The second sub-plot involves Michèle’s family. Her father is serving a life sentence as a mass murderer who killed many people in the neighbourhood and the then 10 year-old Michèle experienced the aftermath of the murders. This history perhaps explain some of Michèle’s behaviour towards her mother, her ex-husband and her son (now in his twenties). The combination of these two sub-plots perhaps explains why Ginette Vincendeau condemns Elle as a ‘trashy movie’. That’s a difficult term. The film certainly isn’t ‘trashy’ in terms of production values, performances etc. It is sensational and exaggerated and provocative. It seems very much a Verhoeven movie. Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz don’t really address this central controversy around feminism, misogyny and sexual violence directly. They argue that in the final third Michèle, “against all likely odds, turns her story turns into something positively therapeutic in its affirmation”.
The other way to think about the film is in terms of its narration. Nick Lacey was astute about this as we left the cinema, pointing out that Isabelle Huppert is in (nearly?) every scene. She is the sole protagonist – everything happens to her and she responds and initiates the next action. I’d have to watch the film several times to see whether this actually is the case, but it seems so in my memory. If so, what does it mean? It’s unusual for a single female protagonist to control the narrative in this way, especially in mainstream cinema, but possibly not for Ms Huppert. This control does suggest evidence for the argument that Michèle is a woman with power. She effectively narrates the story. In it she is physically and possibly mentally damaged by her experiences but appears to ‘recover’. She has financial power and ultimately the power in the relationships she develops (again possibly at the expense of her mental well-being). Whether her behaviour and her story ‘help’ women in society or challenge patriarchy, is a moot point. I suspect that neither Verhoeven or Huppert see that as their prime objective. They want to do the best professional job they can and in doing so provide entertainment and provoke discussion, which seems reasonable to me. Though I appreciate Ginette Vincendeau’s critique, I do think she makes a mistake in calling Elle ‘trashy’.
Looking at Amazon’s US DVD reviews, I can see a dramatic split in audience responses between the ‘no stars’ and ‘5 stars’. On IMDb the User Rating is 7.3. In the UK, Elle had taken over £650,000 after its third weekend, meaning it is battling it out for the biggest foreign language (non-South Asian) title of the year in the UK with Toni Erdmann. I’d really like to hear other views on the film.
It’s a moment to celebrate when a major South Korean film gets a UK release and from this weekend in the UK you have the opportunity to see it – as long as you live in one of a handful of major cities. When films from the revived South Korean film industry arrived in the UK from the late 1990s onwards it quickly became apparent that most of them were beautifully produced with a high level of technical skill and aesthetic understanding and that there are plenty of accomplished actors as well as skilled directors. It then quickly emerged that there were certain directors who were interested in marrying genre ideas from other cinemas with forms of Korean story-telling and aspects of Korean history and culture. Kim Jee-woon is one such director, first introduced to UK audiences with the immaculate horror film A Tale of Two Sisters (2002) and the slick gangster/crime film A Bittersweet Life (2005). Since then we’ve had releases for his ‘kimchi Western’, The Good the Bad and the Weird (2008), the hunt for a serial killer, I Saw the Devil (2011) and Kim’s American outing with Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Last Stand (2013). There are other titles that I don’t think have made it to UK cinemas.
The Age of Shadows is at heart a ‘resistance movie’, although technically it isn’t set in wartime. Ignore all the taglines that say it is a ‘spy movie’. I watched the film on a plane, poorly screened and cut by several minutes I think (it is listed as a 140 minutes in cinemas) and I missed the credit that all the press reviewers picked up. Consequently, I struggled to place the time period. The story is based on real events – a plot by an underground resistance group to explode bombs inside a government building in Seoul during the 1920s. The Japanese had been in direct control of Korea since 1910 (and indirectly since 1876). Kim’s film goes beyond a tense thriller to embrace two major action sequences and the soul-searching drama of a central character torn between personal survival and complicated feelings of patriotism. This is Lee Jung-Chool, the Korean who has become a Captain in the Japanese Police – and who is played by the great Song Kang-ho. He must report to his Japanese commander and attempt to infiltrate the resistance group represented by two star actors, Kim Woo-jin (recently in Train to Busan (South Korea 2016) and Lee Byung-hun (seen briefly in The Magnificent Seven (US 2016)) with Han Ji-min as the female lead. Han is not really given enough to do and this, for me, seemed to be the weakest aspect of the film.
The action scenes are terrific with wonderful set design and well integrated CGI. The action ranges from Shanghai (where the resistance collect explosives) to Seoul with the excitement of the train confrontation in between. Song is very good and the narrative and his playing mean that we are never quite sure how he is going to act, torn between pragmatism and idealism. In his Sight and Sound (April 2017) review, Roger Clarke suggests that the film’s title is a reference to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic World War Two resistance film Army of Shadows (1969). That certainly fits in the sense that Kim would surely know the film (and I’m sure he knows the Hitchcock films that might inform his train confrontation). It’s also an interesting reference to cultural exchanges after Melville’s adoption of East Asian film culture in Le samouraï (1967). It’s almost as if Kim is retrieving Melville’s borrowing. Melville is also borrowed by various Hong Kong filmmakers for gangster films (see Vengeance (HK-France 2009). But Kim may also be borrowing from Ang Lee’s Lust Caution (China/Taiwan/US 2007). I think the real force of the Melville allusion is in the torture scenes when the resistance members are captured by the Japanese. The film suddenly got serious for me at that point.
I’d love to watch the film again on a big screen where I’m sure it will look wonderful. Unfortunately the distributor Soda’s engagements seem to miss out Leeds/Bradford completely. Outside London the film is screening at the major independent arthouses such as Watershed, HOME and Showroom and various Cineworlds and Odeons. Bizarrely, however, if you live in Manchester or Sheffield, you can choose an arthouse or a multiplex but if you live in Liverpool, Leeds/Bradford, Hull, Nottingham, Leicester or several other big cities, you are denied an opportunity. See the full list of screenings on the Soda website.
The Salesman has become indelibly connected to the idiocies of Trump’s attempted bans on Muslims entering America. Director Asghar Farhadi’s film duly won the Foreign Language Oscar with the director unable to attend the ceremony. In the UK, where the film is scheduled for release this week, preview screenings were arranged for Oscar night in response to the ban. If all this publicity means more people are encouraged to see the film that will be a good thing. The Salesman is an excellent film and it continues Farhadi’s astounding run of productions. In many ways the film uses a similar narrative form to Farhadi’s earlier films and this is the only reason why I would personally have preferred to see Toni Erdmann win the Oscar as something new.
The Salesman is most like Farhadi’s earlier films About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011) in the way it demonstrates how the restrictions on social behaviour and the barriers to open discussion in Iranian society lead to potential tragedy. It’s also ‘different’ for two reasons. First, it operates as a mise en abîme – a narrative featuring a play within a play and encouraging the audience to consider how in this instance Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman might offer a commentary on the lives of the characters and on Iranian society generally. Second, Farhadi supplies a dramatic ending with something of a twist in the narrative (which I don’t intend to spoil).
The film opens with an urgent evacuation of a building. The reason for the evacuation is not immediately apparent, but will eventually be revealed as a consequence of poor building regulations – a literal weakness in the fabric of Iranian society. A couple is forced to move out of their flat. They are Emad, a high school/college teacher and his younger wife Rana (whose occupation I didn’t catch, but I think she is a student/writer?). They are also leading players in a theatre company which is staging Death of a Salesman. The director/producer of the play and a family friend, Babak, finds the couple a new apartment at short notice but unfortunately the previous tenant has left behind much of her furniture and belongings that must be stored until she collects them. There are early indications that Emad and Rana are going through a rough patch in their marriage and it may be partly related to a lack of children. Emad is clearly having problems with his teaching and a class of young men who can’t really see the point of a screening of the classic Iranian film The Cow (1969) directed by Dariush Mehrjui. The young men are not ‘bad lads’ – rather, we get the impression that Emad just doesn’t have the time to prepare his classes properly. More problematic is an incident in which Rana appears to have been assaulted in the bathroom of the new flat, requiring stitches to a wound on her head. Emad is shocked by what has happened to his wife and decides to take matters into his own hands (Rana does not report the incident to the police) and we, as the audience, don’t have a clear idea of what happened. I don’t think I’ll spoil any more of the plot development, only to say that what follows is in many ways a critique of masculinity in contemporary Iran. Farhadi cleverly introduces this issue by showing Emad being humiliated in a taxi by a middle-aged woman who, for no apparent reason, refuses to sit next to him. The humiliation is compounded by involving a third party, one of Emad’s own students who feels embarrassed for his teacher. The more Emad discovers about the previous tenant of the flat, the more obsessed he becomes about finding out what happened to Rana and trying to find someone to blame. At this point the narrative begins to resemble an almost Hitchcockian thriller.
The production of Death of a Salesman is clearly affected by these events involving two of its leading actors. I don’t know the play well enough to comment on the possible links between the two narratives except to recognise that Miller and Farhadi are both concerned with characters who are suffering from their own inadequacies as well as from the problems in the wider society. Farhadi in interviews mentions the importance of the humiliation of different characters and the sense that in both Miller’s play and his own group of characters there are questions about how much certain characters are able to cope with the modernising forces of city living. He suggests that Teheran today and New York in the late 1940s display similar influences of this modernising process. He does explain the links in interviews, but to discuss them here would spoil the narrative.
The Salesman is a deftly plotted film with marvellous performances from its ensemble cast led by two of Farhadi’s regulars. Shahab Hosseini appeared in both About Elly and A Separation. Taraneh Alidoosti has appeared in four Farhadi films. She was ‘Elly’ and also the young female characters in both Beautiful City (2004) and Fireworks Wednesday (2006). Babak Karimi as the producer of the play and all round ‘fixer’ has also worked on earlier Farhadi films. He is a major figure in Iranian cinema with a career as an editor and on one occasion as a producer for Abbas Kiarostami on Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). Farhadi has honed his methods through work in theatre and on TV and now he is able to work with these talented actors to produce complex dramas that seem simple on the surface, but which contain so much in their many layers of meaning. I note from the recent preview screening of The Salesman in London that one of Farhadi’s UK champions is Mike Leigh and looking back at my review of About Elly in a festival screening I see that I mentioned Mike Leigh in thinking about the three films from Farhadi I had seen at that point. Now it is five films and Farhadi’s talent is visible to an international audience. There is a lot more to say about The Salesman, but ‘opening up’ the text at this point would spoil the film for readers and anyway I would need to see the film again to understand more about how Farhadi does it.
The trailer below reveals slightly more of the plot, so don’t watch if you want to avoid any clues as to what happens.
The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.
Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.
At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.