Interview: director John Boorman on QUEEN AND COUNTRY

John Boorman is reflecting on reflecting. “You know, memory operates in a funny way. I was reading about memory recently, which said that if you relate a memory, you impose a layer on top of that memory. Each time you tell it, another layer is added.” This weekend sees him bringing more of his memories to the cinema screen, adding another layer to his eclectic, but always interesting CV. We meet him in the gilded lounge of Dublin’s Intercontinental Hotel to talk about the past, and how to bring it into the present.

Queen and Country is the long-awaited follow-up to his 1987 hit Hope and Glory. Based on Boorman’s own memories, we go from the 9-year-old Billy Rowan experiencing the Blitz to 18-year-old Billy (played in the film by Callum Turner) being conscripted. Why has Boorman chosen to revisit his cinematic alter ego now? “I always had it in mind to do it, but other things intervene. Also, when I started to think about it again, that period seemed somehow more historically interesting than it was right at the time, because it was a period when everything was changing. After the war, Britain was broke, and within a few years the greatest empire in the history of the world was gone completely.”

He continues optimistically, “At the same time, when the Labour government came in after the war, they did two very significant things. One was the National Health Service, and the other was the establishment of Secondary modern schools. For the first time, every child learned something about art and music, and that produced the kids that became the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, and the arts scene of the ‘60s.” Boorman found himself caught between the old and the new. “I remembered this generational gap,” he explains, “and how ‘we, the young’ could see that everything was going to be different now, whereas the older generation of soldiers were hanging on to the imperial Britain. So I thought it was suddenly more worth doing this tale than earlier, because of the distance.”

Despite all this change, Boorman recognizes its failure to completely take root. “It’s extraordinary that, sixty years ago, the coronation took place and she’s still on the throne. I mean, we all felt that that would all be swept away. The class system has been modified, ameliorated certainly, but it exists still supported by the notion of royalty and aristocracy. She’s a very nice lady, but what she stands for is, I think, so old-fashioned.”

Queen and Country is based closely (sometimes surprisingly so) on Boorman’s army experience. In adapting such a personal story for the screen, how does one draw the line between fact and fiction? “It’s very difficult to say exactly. Once you cast it, you’re changing things. It’s a bit of a mystery, the relationship between imagination and memory, because if you tell me the story of something that happened to you on the way here this morning, you’re already applying imagination to an event, and so that obviously has an effect.” As we go on, Boorman exercises his own memory, but we stick with Queen and Country for the moment.

“But what I can say is that all the characters in Queen and Country are based on actual people, and all the events took place, like the story of my first cigarette (It was smuggled in a jar of jam, before being dried and smoked), and the stealing of the clock.” The theft of a prize clock from the sergeant’s mess is one of the main plotlines in the film. “I’ll give you an example of how the needs of a film alter things: the Percy character (played by Caleb Landry Jones) actually stole more than one thing. He stole something every two weeks, and got it out of the camp by posting it. He did it four times and each time it brought the camp to a standstill. It was a deliberate policy of obstruction and terrorism, really, but I whittled it down to one incident; there wouldn’t be room to do the whole thing.”

Boorman was determined to do justice to his memories, even though certain elements were changed from Hope and Glory “When I was casting Sinéad Cusack to read the part of the mother (replacing Sarah Miles in the original film), she asked if I wanted her to impersonate the character from Hope and Glory. I said I’m not concerned about appearances; I’m concerned about the characters. What I did, when I was writing and shooting it, I asked myself the question: is it true? And that really was my guiding principle; did it ring true? Did it seem right to what really happened?”

That last question might be harder for Boorman to answer as the years go on. “The only regret I have is, with Hope and Glory, it’s based on my memories as a child of the Blitz, and I can no longer remember the memories; I can only remember the film!”  He laughs at this point, but his voice suddenly gains a hint of melancholy “And I suspect the same will happen with Queen and Country.”

Despite his pursuit of truth, circumstance prevents Boorman and most any director from shooting in the exact locations where events take place. “We shot for three days on the Thames, at Shepperton where I lived. That’s where we moved to after our house was destroyed in the war. We shot the rest in Romania, because it was the only way we could afford to make the film. We built all the sets there, the army camp, the interiors of the house on the Thames, the street with the ‘50s shop exteriors. When you make a period film, everything has to be made or borrowed. Clothes, props, light switches, everything was different.”

John Boorman on the set of HOPE AND GLORY.
John Boorman on the set of HOPE AND GLORY.

This approach, of building everything from scratch, is a hangover of the making of Hope and Glory. “When I was trying to make Hope and Glory, it seemed like a small film. When I said we needed to build the whole street, one of the biggest sets ever built in England actually, they couldn’t believe this ‘small’ film would cost so much.” Still, the demands of the script and the setting must be met. “When you’re working in period,” Boorman explains, “it’s always expensive. A lot of the time, you can go to a costume house and get all the costumes for that period, but it’s more things like furniture, props, all the detail. Tony Pratt, who designed the film and whom I’ve worked with a lot over the years, is meticulous, even to the cables running down the side of a door. It has to be the cable that you would have at that time!”

In the film, Billy is court-martialed after he (unwittingly or otherwise) persuades a recruit to leave the army. Boorman did the same thing, and is keen to explain himself. “First of all, you have to say in any conflict that only about one in ten soldiers is in the front line. I think we went into the army very reluctantly. We couldn’t see the point of the Cold War or the Korean War; it seemed a futile exercise. When I had the job of lecturing soldiers who were going to go to Korea, I read up about it and it was clearly a war that shouldn’t have happened, based on a series of misunderstandings. So, this boy was the son of a left-wing Labour MP named Ian Mikardo, and he decided he didn’t want to go to Korea after listening to my lectures. MI5 came down and I was investigated.” The paranoia was inescapable, explains Boorman. “Everyone was afraid of Communism back then; they wanted to establish if I was a Communist sympathizer. The slogan at the time was ‘There’s a Red under every bed.’ So I was clearly subversive, but I did my best to conceal it, and I hid behind facts, and the facts made it pretty clear that it was an immoral war.”

The film deals with the fallout of Billy’s (and Boorman’s) actions, but the director ensures it’s not heavy-handed. “There’s nothing overtly ideological or political in the film, but it’s right under the surface all the way through. All the class differences between Billy and Ophelia (played by Tamsin Egerton) which make their relationship impossible at the time, and the attitudes towards royalty and empire, were all lying in there. It’s very representative, I think, of how people felt at that time.”

So, Boorman hasn’t softened his views in the intervening years. “No, not at all,” he declares emphatically. “George Bernard Shaw said two things. He said ‘if they pass a law that only men over 40 could go into battle, wars would soon come to an end,’ because it’s children who fight wars, 18-year-olds. He also said, ‘If a man is not a socialist when he’s young, he has no heart. If he’s not a Tory when by the time he’s 40, he has no sense!’ I was a rabid socialist when I was young, and I’ve always held those views, and I’m a passionate opponent of consumer capitalism.”

All this being said, his affection for the period and the people is what drives the film, rather than any regret or bitterness. “Any bitterness I felt at the time has been washed away by…” Boorman descends into a coy laugh before he can finish the sentence, leaving a pleasant air of mystery. “I certainly had a feeling of affection for that time and those events. And my family, of course. My sister’s return from Canada was volcanic.” Billy’s sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby) makes the same homeward trek, bringing colour and a certain amount of disruption to their riverside home. “The extraordinary thing was that she stayed, and she did have an affair with the Percy character. That didn’t last very long, but her son was about 19 when she met his friend, who was 20, and she married him, a man 15 years her junior, and they were happily married for 30 years. When she died, he was absolutely distraught and became a recluse.”

One of the main talking points of Queen and Country is the fact it’s been billed as Boorman’s last film, not least by the director himself. He puts his decision to retire simply on the toll the filmmaking process takes. “When people ask you ‘Are you making a film?’, they usually mean ‘Are you shooting a film?’, which of course is the shortest part of the whole process. It takes 2-3 years to make a film, and the shoot only takes 6-7 weeks, so what discourages me from going on is the length of time it takes to get the money, casting, designing and all of this.” By ‘this’, he motions to our opulent surroundings. He’s clearly not a fan of the publicity circuit. “I did two weeks of promoting the film in America. I spent ten days in France. It’s that more than anything. I think I have the strength and the intelligence to make a film, but I’m not sure I can withstand everything that surrounds it. It drags on the energy.”

With Boorman retiring, that leaves a number of proposed projects hanging in the air, such has Broken Dream, which has been around long enough to have had River Phoenix once slated to star. “I have two or three things I’d like to have made, Broken Dream being one of them. Another one I have, which I’m very devoted to, is called Halfway House, which is a kind of version of the Orpheus legend. The Halfway House is a place where people go when they die, and my invention is that you go there, and you’re given a tape of your life. You have to edit it down to three hours before you can get out!” We’re intrigued, but Boorman is resolute he’s not the one to make it. “Sometimes I think maybe I will try to do it, but there are mornings I wake up and my bones are creaking and I think ‘No, I won’t.’” The walking stick in the 82-year-old’s hand hints at the creaking bones, but he’s perfectly able to chat and reminisce with perfect recall.

Sinéad Cusack and Callum Turner in QUEEN AND COUNTRY
Sinéad Cusack and Callum Turner in QUEEN AND COUNTRY

As much as we like the idea of Halfway House, it’d be a hard sell. That said, Boorman has found no ease in trying to fund his films over the years. “It’s actually gotten more difficult,” he explains.  “You notice every weekend there are seven or eight films released, and most of them disappear. I don’t know how people get the money to make them, and there’s all these outlets like Netflix that films filter into. But to make a film and get distribution is very difficult, and I’m glad I’m not starting my career now.” In Boorman’s view, there’s too big a gap between the biggest and smallest films. “There used to be a middle ground, which is gone now. You have American mainstream movies, and then a huge gap down to the independent film ghetto, where you can’t really make a film for more than $2-$3 million. If it’s more than that, it’s very difficult, so you have there rather impoverished films being made, with the support of the Irish Film Board or the British Film Institute, and it’s very unsatisfactory.”

Boorman is used to studio work, and acknowledges the pros and cons. “If you work in the mainstream, it’s great in the sense that a studio will supply the money and they will distribute it and advertise it, and spend money on that. On the other hand, you have the studio pressure, in that they send you reams of notes about the script. It’s all about the script. They will try to get you to change the script to what they want it to be before they give you the green light. That pressure didn’t used to be there at all.” He references a famous example. “When I made Deliverance, I never had a single note from the studio. I went off and made the film, came back and showed it to them, and they made no suggestions about changes and that was it. That was very much my experience at that time, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which was the Golden Age, when studios believed in directors.”

Sean Connery in ZARDOZ
Sean Connery in ZARDOZ

Impending retirement seems to have made Boorman keen to reminisce. The mention of his 1974 oddity Zardoz causes his ears to prick up. “Oh, yeah! I made that after Deliverance was a big hit. I made it for $1 million, negative pickup. That means I delivered the film and then they paid me, so I had to borrow money to make it. It was very ambitious.” He seems bemused but thankful for the film’s cult status “I got a call from Fox to say they were restoring it, and would I contribute to that. I asked why, and they said there was a lot of interest in it.” Boorman can’t help but laugh. “Every time in America, whenever Zardoz gets mentioned, there’ll be a cheer. This film went from being a failure to a classic without ever being a success!”

One of the director’s films that never enjoyed success with audiences or critics was Exorcist II: The Heretic, but even that seems to be getting a second wind. “It’s coming out on Blu-Ray shortly, and we’ve restored the colours, which I was very, very happy about. Geoffrey Unsworth was the cameraman, and he had a special technique to produce these kinds of pastel colours that we were trying to achieve. [On the Blu-Ray] we managed to get the back to how they were at their best.” Even in a work as lampooned as Exorcist II, there’s beauty to be found.

There’s a sincerity to Boorman as a filmmaker, but his works often contain a rich satirical streak. It’s clear in later works, like his 2001 adaptation of John Le Carré’s thriller The Tailor of Panama, but the director traces it back to his early career, and his Fellini-inflected 1970 film Leo The Last. “In a sense, this theme you have in Leo The Last, which is the gap between rich and poor, when Leo discovers his money is coming from slum rents, is in a sense the same theme in Zardoz. The starting idea was the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. The rich were living longer as they had better medicine. I thought that if you extend that into the future, you could certainly get to a point where you’d achieve a kind of immortality through science. So, that’s been a theme disguised in many of my films.” Is he suggesting Zardoz could be a sequel to Leo The Last? “Yes.” He doesn’t elucidate on that point, but the suggestion is enough to leave us amazed.

Boorman’s always had his pick of the stars. Even his stranger efforts will have a role for the likes of Sean Connery and Richard Burton. However, as evidenced by Hope and Glory, he doesn’t cast stars for the sake of it. “The financiers always want you to get stars; that’s the perennial thing.” So, how does you get the stars you want? Boorman’s answer is to aim high. “When I made Deliverance, they had very little confidence in it at Warners, actually. They said, ‘We’ll do it if you can get two stars.’ So I got Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. Warners asked how much did they want. I told them, and they said that makes the film too expensive. This is the same conundrum I’ve had all my career, and many other directors too.” Still, Deliverance worked with Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight, so no harm done. “Warners suggested making it with unknowns, and making it very cheap. So, I went in the other direction, and they kept beating me up over the budget. In the end, the only thing I could cut was what I had for a composer and orchestra. I cut them, and just did variations on the theme of ‘Duelling Banjos’, which became the score. It probably turned out to be a better score than had it been composed with an orchestra!”

John Boorman on the set of DELIVERANCE
John Boorman on the set of DELIVERANCE

That happy accident leads us to the topic of film scores. His Exorcist II collaborator Ennio Morricone recently bemoaned the state of modern film music, but how does a director approach what he needs musically? “I never think about the music until after I cut the thing together. The only exception was Excalibur. I went to see the Ring Cycle by Wagner, and that was a huge influence on the film, and I felt from the very beginning that Excalibur needed Wagner. I had a score for it, but Gotterdammerung and Tristan and Isolde were key. Wagner said ‘I don’t make operas; I make musical dramas.’ I think that he’d be scoring movies if he lived in our age.”

Stephen McKeon’s IFTA-winning score for Queen and Country is a handsome accompaniment to Boorman’s images, though you can never be sure what will work. “I’ve always had an ambivalent feeling towards music, but there are some instances in the cinema where scores have made a film.  Morricone’s an example. His music is absolutely crucial to the Spaghetti Westerns. They’re an identity for the film; they connect to them. I suppose I got that with ‘Duelling Banjos’. It’s so much entered the language, in a way.”

The success of Deliverance, and its assimilation into popular culture has not escaped its creator. “Just the other day someone sent me a t-shirt with two Peanuts characters on it paddling a canoe, and one says to the other, ‘Paddle faster! I hear banjos!”’ Now, that’s completely obscure unless you know the film.” Of course, most people know it. “It’s a curious thing. If a film connects to the zeitgeist and locks in with an audience. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does that movie becomes part of the culture.” What greater accolade could a director hope for?

Advertisements

Review: Queen and Country (2014)

Director: John Boorman

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com. Read my interview with director John Boorman here.

At one point in Queen and Country, a character admits to infidelities past and explains them thus: “It was the war. We all did silly things.” With Queen and Country, John Boorman paints a portrait of a country and a family still paying the price for such silly things, war being the silliest of all things, and that family being his own.

Queen and Country, for all its militaristic trappings, is a largely joyous and gentle affair. It invokes the spirit of its predecessor, Boorman’s 1987 triumph Hope and Glory, not least by opening with that film’s closing scene. Besides sharing characters, both films find the simple pleasures amidst the harshness of militaristic reality. This time around, reality is coloured many shades of green, from the prefabricated army sheds to the hard-wearing uniforms. Amongst the cadets is the young hero of Hope and Glory, Billy Rohan (Callum Turner). Nine years on from his Blitz-scarred childhood, Boorman’s cinematic alter ego has been conscripted, as Her Majesty’s Finest prepare to battle the Red Menace in Korea. Billy trains new recruits in typing, alongside his pal and fellow conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones, chewing on his accent). These close friends compliment each other; Billy’s the handsome upstanding chap with a cheeky grin whilst Percy is a perpetual japester, inspired/egged on by another skiver, Pat Shortt’s Pvt. Redmond. Queen and Country is a film about relationships, whether it’s the camaraderie between troops or the flirtations that lead to first romance.

It’s a testament to Boorman’s life that even the most outlandish of events in Queen and Country turn out to be largely true. Billy begins a relationship with Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton), a society girl who enjoys the arrival of this lower-class lad, but gives no hint their liaison will actually go anywhere. We’re keen to see how this unlikely romance will end, if only for Billy’s sake. In his feature debut, Turner is a magnetic leading man, by turns charming, intense and vulnerable. His skills are put to the test by a script that hops back and forth between many plots and moods across its ample 114-minute runtime. Two main plotlines define the scenes at the military base. Billy’s pacifistic opinions and influence see him charged with military sedition, while Percy has stolen a prize clock from the sergeant’s mess, and the camp is turned upside-down in an effort to trace it. Boorman’s script never manages to gel this battle between lighter and darker tones together, thus robbing the film as a whole of a defining throughline. His direction, on the other hand, keeps the film from flitting from the mind entirely. Aided by the film’s production design and cinematography, Boorman creates a definitive sense of place and time. Hope and Glory offered a template for British nostalgia fiction that Terence Davies subsequently perfected. Queen and Country runs by the Davies playbook (detailed design, relatively un-starry casts), but it lacks the backbone of something like Distant Voices, Still Lives.

Billy won’t be posted to Korea, but his battles rage on the home front. Tapping the nostalgia vein for all its worth, the film works best when Billy faces more personal demons. His viewpoints, as exposed by his being court-martialed, lead him into conflict with hard-nosed Sgt. Bradley (David Thewlis, in arguably the film’s best performance), whose own experiences haunt him yet. Meanwhile, his visits to the idyllic family home on the Thames sees gently-boiling issues slowly manifest themselves. Running concurrent with the buildup to Elizabeth II’s coronation, Queen and Country pitches Billy as a symbol of Britain shaking off the burdens of war, to mixed effect. As Billy’s father (David Hayman) warns, “Do not underestimate the power of tradition.” Yet, for something that deals with that stark clash of old and new, Queen and Country is perhaps too idyllic a reflection to wholly grapple with the issue. Still, it’ll doubtlessly make prime Sunday afternoon viewing (accompanied by cake and tea, of course) in years to come. How very old-fashioned.

Review: Listen Up Philip (2014)

Director: Alex Ross Perry

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Throughout Listen Up Philip, not once does Philip listen. It’s a pity, because you’ll wish Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) would just shut his overly-opinionated gob. He doesn’t, and thus he drags some ripe filmmaking materials down into the vortex of hate that is created around, and by, this character. We hate Philip, so we hate Listen Up Philip. Shut up, Philip!

Is it fair to judge a film solely on its hateful leading man? Even if it’s not, Listen Up Philip warrants an exception. Right from the start, his bitter brand of self-aggrandisement gets in the way of forming any connection. The opening scene sees well-heeled and acclaimed author Philip run into an old girlfriend (Samantha Jacober). They start discussing his new book, but it basically turns into a session of boasting and chastising for Philip. The 100-odd minutes that follow proceed in much the same fashion. Alex Ross Perry’s film could have been a worthy exploration of artistic temperament and alienation, but Perry has shot himself in the foot in one crucial way: he’s made a character piece centred on a character no-one wants to be around. Granted, Schwartzman has played variants of this kind of irritability before (think of Max Fischer’s over-confidence in Rushmore), but this is a new level of hatefulness, spiralling from controlled ego into full-on asshole-ry. Bugger off, Philip!

Philip is on the cusp of publishing his second novel, Obidant, and his ego is becoming more fragile, and thus his demeanour becomes more prickly, to the detriment of all around him and the audience. First in the firing line is Elisabeth Moss’ Ashley, who Philip has somehow convinced to stay around long enough to earn the title of long-term girlfriend, but even she acknowledges he’s “a cruel, miserable person.” Declarations like this are when Listen Up Philip earns its few laughs, because this grown-up problem child deserves all the scorn he can get. There’s no respite from his largely-monotone poison. Aided and abetted by Eric Bogosian’s bone-dry voiceover, Schwartzman spends most of the film looking his nose down at people, and repelling them with bile. He’s crushingly, boringly unlikeable. That writer/director Perry would think this would be an interesting lead character simply boggles the mind. WTF, Philip?!

Mercifully, and despite what our protagonist might like to think, he’s not the centre of the universe. Philip befriends Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-alike who invites Philip to use his home in upstate New York as a country retreat for writing. We get to know Zimmerman a bit, and he proves to be the most interesting role Pryce has had onscreen in a while. He’s almost as bitter as Philip, but his ego and bitterness is at least partly justified by experience and success, plus a dose of moral turpitude on his part (Krysten Ritter shows up for a brief-but-welcome spell as a resentful Zimmerman Jr.). Meanwhile, Perry also allows us to spend a little time with Ashley and her adjusting to life while Philip’s away. She must be a masochist to even feel a little guilty about enjoying it, but let’s be thankful either Philip or the script allow her to breathe. Aside from her adorable feline companion Gadzuki, Moss probably comes out best from this; stylistically she’s far from Peggy Olson here, but there’s still a blend of naïveté and grit to Ashley that marks her as the warmest character in this film by a country mile. Couldn’t we make the film about her instead? Stay away, Philip!

The production values of Listen Up Philip add to the irritation, as they feel like choices Philip himself might have made. Keegan DeWitt’s jazzy score could soundtrack a thousand chin-stroking dinner parties, while Sean Price Williams’ cinematography is afraid to keep more than four feet away from its subjects, with self-aware filtering by Instagram. Listen Up Philip plays like bizarro Hal Ashby. It’s self-consciously chintzy and aged, and populated by egos so sour, they were probably born with lemon wedges in their mouths. Its prime distinction is that it has birthed the most repugnant lead character in recent American cinema. The fact that he shares his name with this reviewer does nothing to redeem it. Oh, **** off, Philip!

Interview: director Miroslav Slaboshpyitskiy on THE TRIBE

This interview was originally published on Scannain.com

“Some woman asked me did someone ever abuse me or rape me, so… yeah. It was very funny.” Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is a man with an interesting sense of humour. To make a feature debut like The Tribe, he’d have to be.

No matter where it’s played, The Tribe’s reputation precedes it. Told entirely in sign language, and without subtitles, this tale of a group of deaf Ukrainian teenagers operating a crime syndicate has been acclaimed for its confidence and its unique treatment of very stark material. We meet Slaboshpytskiy in Dublin, having presented the film to an audience the night before at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. It was at the resulting Q&A session that the question of his experience with abuse cropped up. “I think Ireland is the first place with such nice questions!”, he laughs. The 40-year-old director is a very affable chap, and quietly charming. Bearded and dressed in a zip-up hoodie and jeans when we meet, the unassuming exterior belies a man possessed of great skill and intellect. The Tribe is unlike any feature seen before, but Slaboshpytskiy makes it about more than the lack of spoken language. An interpreter joins us, but her skills are required only sparingly. Slaboshpytskiy knows what he wants to say.

When we ask him about the reaction to the film thus far, he readily rattles off a list of festivals where it has played, the enthusiasm betraying a man who can scarcely believe what he’s achieved. “I’ve been presenting this film to different audiences in different countries, starting in Cannes last May, and San Sebastian, L.A., Sundance, Park City, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Milan, Paris, and via Skype with Russia. In general, audiences really like the film.” He seems to appreciate the curveball thrown at him at the Dubin screening. “Unfortunately, I haven’t had quite the same questions from other countries. Always accepting, people are always very nice, shaking hands, but they ask the same two questions: how did you shoot the last sequence, and how you managed to direct the deaf actors. I think sometimes I just have better places, but people accept the film, especially at London and L.A. I have no problems; nobody wants to kill me so far!”

The question of how one directs the deaf is inevitable, not least because the deaf are relatively lacking in representation onscreen. Indeed, the fact the cast of The Tribe are deaf informs the film’s style, but Slaboshpytskiy admits he’s not necessarily any more attuned to a deaf cast’s needs than anyone else.  “I was studying in the same school where we shot The Tribe, and on the opposite side of the road we had a school for deaf people. I saw the people and how they communicate with each other. Sometimes we’d have a battle with them, and sometimes we’d communicate with them. I think that was all my experience with deaf people. I have no deaf people in my family. I’ve never been in love with a deaf girl. There were no reasons”.

“My real relationship with the deaf community was struck when I shot Deafness.” Slaboshpytskiy’s 2011 short served as a dry run for The Tribe, allowing him to demonstrate what the full film would look like. “I had the concept of the full-length feature film for a long time, probably over twenty years,” he explains, ”but I had no financial possibilities of shooting the full-length feature. I had the possibility of shooting a short film when I met the people from the Ukrainian Society for the Deaf. The short premiered at Berlinale, and screened at a number of festivals.” The film was something of a breakthrough for its director and the deaf community onscreen. “After the Berlin screening that February, we screened it for the Deaf Culture Society in March. They made it a celebration! They made concerts, sang songs in sign language, invited a lot of TV and press. It was then I started to be in touch with the deaf community in Ukraine. I would meet a lot of people from this community, from deaf boarding schools. Later, it really helped me to work with this community and work on The Tribe.”

For all intents and purposes, the film is necessarily silent. The lack of dialogue is but a part of its disorientating atmosphere, with only occasional sound design creeping to make its mark in a number of genuinely disturbing scenes. It’s a world away from the silent masters of yore, but was Slaboshpytskiy influenced by them? “If you speak about any one of them, it would probably be Buster Keaton, of course. Also Harold Lloyd, Charles Chaplin. But to be clear, of course it’s an homage to silent movies, but I didn’t want to make an homage to the form of the silent movie, but I hoped to the spirit of the silent movie. Like, I mean a very young and very fresh universal art form which audiences can understand from ocean to ocean.”

Try as Slaboshpytskiy might, even a film as daring as The Tribe will be analysed for hints of metaphor and commentary. “If you shoot a film about a boarding school or in a prison, the audience always accepts it like a metaphor for society. Concerning Ukraine, when I studied in film school, I studied film history and read about German Expressionism, and those are people who feel the coming fascism and dark times, and so for this reason they feel a need to express it in film. I’m always doubting it, thinking, “What is this stupid thing? These films, they just tell stories!”. But later, after coming up with The Tribe, I’m thinking I’m wrong about that, because no-one thinks “I feel something happening and I must express it!”

the-tribe-posterSo, is The Tribe a commentary on Ukraine, or its hostilities with Russia? Slaboshpytskiy says no. “I finished the script of The Tribe in 2011. Then, no-one’s thinking about Maidan; no-one’s thinking about war with Russia. Nobody can imagine it. I live in Kiev, I breathe the same air as other people who will sit in the protest camp in the central square in a few years. And I think I felt something in the air, but I didn’t shoot a metaphor. I just tried to tell a story.”

That’s not to say The Tribe doesn’t have a basis in reality. “I talked about the deaf mafia at the Q&A session,” explains Slaboshpytskiy. “It’s an issue, especially in the former Soviet Union. I know that, a few years ago, Interpol arrested former Soviet citizens which produced an illegal network of deaf people!” Slaboshpytskiy is so keen to tell all, he gives the translator a spiel. “The leader’s an Israeli citizen nicknamed ‘Nose’, and he’s been put into jail for organising an illegal network of deaf beggars. I can’t tell a lot about the deaf mafia in film; I can tell about the lowest level, which is a school. But I’m thinking about it, and I want to make a film about it. The Ukrainian state was modelled on the basis of criminal groupings, and a lot of people perceived it as mafia. It’s one of the reasons why there was a revolution.” The last mention of mafia is uttered by the interpreter in a cautious whisper. Is she afraid they’re listening in?

If Slaboshpytskiy is venturing into new territory with The Tribe, he’s taking no prisoners. The long takes alone are a riveting way to keep the audience on its toes, though this wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. “We found the style of shooting on the set,” admits Slaboshpytskiy. “I would be happy to tell you that when I finished the script I knew everything because I’m a genius and I was sure of what I do. But it’s completely untrue.”

The film makes no concessions to taste or expectations. Scenes of sexuality and violence continue well beyond the point a cut might normally interject. So, what motivated the way Slaboshpytskiy depicts the lives these deaf mobsters lead? “We had a number of reasons,” he explains. “The first reason: when deaf people communicate with each other, you couldn’t shoot over their shoulders. You must always see the person.” This practicality is compounded by realist, unflashy cinematography and design. “My DoP (Valentyn Vasyanovych) is a fine documentary director, and we made a decision to try this style.”

“Finally, we got the calculation of the different elements. We have a long sequence. We have in-frame editing. We don’t change the point of view. The camera is your eyes. The audience is one of the Tribe. You are personally taking part in the robbery, you’re always involved.” If we are made complicit in the crimes committed, then the consequences must also be accentuated. “It’s a film without verbal language, so it must involve you deeper and deeper. So, for this reason, I completely agree that violent scenes are more effective.” That effectiveness is summed up in an anecdote Slaboshpytskiy tells when seeking support for The Tribe. “When I had just finished the film, I sent a cut to a friend of mine, a film critic who lives in Paris. I asked for his opinion and his support, and he said a very strange sentence: ‘During the first hour, you were getting us more and more involved, closer and closer, and at the end you just cut our eyes with a blade.’ ” With praise like that (and a reference to Un Chien Andalou to boot), you know you’re on to a winner.

Review: Mommy (2014)

Director: Xavier Dolan

****

This review originally appeared on Scannain.com.

Xavier Dolan is annoyingly brilliant. The brilliance is clear to see in his CV to this point; the annoyance comes from the fact this wunderkind has achieved so much, and he’s still only 26.

(Not that this 28-year old writer is bitter. Not at all. Not in the slightest. *grimaces* *sobs*).

His filmography to date has seen Dolan grapple with issues of sexual identity and gender politics, all the while invoking the spirit of many great influences (For example, Tom At The Farm is essentially Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train with more sex and less trains). With Mommy, Dolan comes full circle, as he homages his own debut I Killed My Mother. As that title suggests, relations there are fractured. With Mommy, we switch from familial animosity to love, but still told with a signature style of confidence that’s pure Dolan. Indeed, the methods used here mean Mommy is his most self-aware work. Yet it’s arguably his most accessible film, a brutal but honest treatise on how the love of a mother can overcome (almost) all obstacles.

Dolan courts accusations of being precious, even precocious. His accusers will find more fuel in Mommy’s use of a 1:1 aspect ratio. Dolan used this aspect ratio is his music video for Indochine’s ‘College Boy’, and it proves a mesmerising way of ensuring his characters dominate the visible landscape. We are offered a voyeuristic view of lives torn between mental illness and family ties. Also borrowed from that music video is its star, Antoine-Oliver Pilon. He plays Steve, an adolescent ADHD-sufferer prone to violent outbursts. Pilon’s babyface matches his character’s childish emotional responses, but does little to diminish the brute force of his performance. His screams are already loud enough but, in the little viewing square Dolan gives us, they seem deafening.

At the receiving end of much of this grief is Steve’s mother, Die. That’s pronounced ‘Dee’, because this mother is a never-say-die kind of woman. Anne Dorval, a star of a number of Dolan’s previous films, gives one of the year’s most touching performances as Die. Recently widowed, she is forced to bring Steve home to live with her after he commits arson at his residential care home. Her clothes suggest white trash, whilst her potty mouth can match Steve’s at his worst. Beneath that world-hardened exterior, however, is a heart that bleeds for her son. All mothers have dreams for their children, but hers are constantly thwarted by his violence. In the midst of this mercurial life, Die has to try to hold it all together. Dorval ably brings out the heartbreak through Die’s outward sharpness, only for Pilon to wipe away a tear and call her ‘babe’. It’s a relationship that’s hard to read, albeit helped by two intense performances.

Also along for this wild emotional ride is Kyla, Die and Steve’s new neighbour played by another Dolan regular, Suzanne Clément. A mousy, diffident type, former teacher Kyla is initially drawn into her new neighbours’ lives by neighbourly good stead, which turns into a necessary affection. Through many highs and lows, the three grow to depend on one another. The lows often involve Steve becoming violent, and the highs are accompanied by a cheesy but undeniably upbeat selection of ‘90s pop and ballads. Simple but profound joys are on show when Celine Dion, Oasis or the Counting Crows accompany this trio sorting out their lives. Kyla’s involvement could seem superfluous under greater scrutiny; the mother-son bond should be enough to drive the drama. Still, she adds chances for levity and redemption; Clément’s tender turn and Dolan’s clear affection for all three characters ensure she fits into place.

I Killed My Mother was sharply biographical for Dolan, but Mommy feels no less personal. Dolan’s trademark energy and style are in obvious supply. That said, he owes no small debt to cinematographer André Turpin (who also shot Tom At The Farm). The 1:1 framing is a gamble, but it works because there’s very little else in the film that feels gimmicky. The film is set in the near-future, with a subplot about a law which allows parents of troubled children like Steve to put them directly into state care, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. That’s more down to the heightened emotions on display that subpar writing, even if Dolan’s script isn’t as brilliantly transgressive as Laurence Anyways. Still, Dolan’s direction is as brash as ever, yet always under control. Even compared to Laurence Anyways or I Killed My Mother, emotions run high in Mommy. By reducing the screen to a square, little else else but faces can be seen at the height of the emotional battles herein. A holy trinity of director, cinematographer and actors combine to bring out the very best in Mommy. Whether this is Dolan’s best work is debatable but, even if it were, there is still better to come. After all, he’s still only 26. His mommy must be proud.