Six films, six countries, six languages. And not one of them English. Don’t think I’ve managed that before. And yes, Sebastiane is a British film. But the dialogue is entirely in Vulgar Latin. (On the other hand, there’s some English dialogue in Force Majeure – but the main language is Swedish.)
Sebastiane, Derek Jarman (1976, UK). I’m fairly sure I watched this back in the 1980s, perhaps even when I was at boarding school – although the likelihood of a bunch of fifteen or sixteen year old boys watching a homoerotic film set during Roman times with dialogue entirely in Vulgar Latin seems a bit far-fetched. Maybe I watched it during a school vacation. Or maybe when I was a student. Certainly, some parts of the film as I watched this time were familiar to me. The title refers to Saint Sebastian, who was a member of the Diocletian Guard in fourth-century Rome, and exiled to a remote garrison after trying to prevent the murder of one of the emperor’s catamites during an orgy. The orgy opens the film, and pretty much sets the scene for the rest of it. This is not a movie which makes a secret of who it is aimed at. At the garrison, Sebastiane declares himself a pacifist, and is eventually executed for refusing to fight. There are a lot of male bodies in very little clothing either lying around on a beach or fighting with wooden swords. According to Wikipedia, Sebastiane “was controversial for the homoeroticism portrayed between the soldiers and for being dialogued entirely in Latin”, and while I can see the latter being controversial – as indeed is the misuse of “dialogue” as a verb – the former should really not have been a problem in 1976. True, it would limit the film’s release – to pretty much a handful of cinemas in London, I imagine – but even in 1976 a gay film could hardly be controversial. It’s not like Jarman had built up a reputation for making heteronormative crowd-pleasers – Sebastiane was his first feature film after a number of avant garde shorts, many – if not all – of which had gay content. For all that, Sebastiane is… mostly dull. The opening orgy has its moments, is almost Fellini-esque in parts, but once the title character is exiled, the pace slows to a crawl and it often feels like the film is making more of a meal of its nudity and Latin than it really needs to. Despite that, for a first feature, this is quite a polished work, although the camera-work often impresses more than the acting. The more Jarman I watch, the more I’m glad I bought this box set.
Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund (2014, Sweden). I was lent this film by David Tallerman, although I’m not sure what prompted it as he normally lends me weird Korean or anime films. Not that I’m complaining, I hasten to add. A Swedish family are holidaying in the French Alps. One afternoon, while eating lunch on an outside deck of a restaurant, a controlled avalanche is triggered. But it looks much more severe than it is, throwing up lots of snow, which covers the restaurant deck and causes the diners to panic. The husband runs away, leaving his family to the their fate. And when the, er, snow has settled, he tries to make light of his, um, flight. But his wife is not so forgiving. And the rest of the film charts the disintegration of their marriage. It’s one of those films that isn’t at all funny but is described as a comedy, a black comedy. As a general rule, even black comedies generate one or two laughs. This one didn’t. Which is not to say it’s a bad film. It’s actually really good. Just not very funny. Worth seeing, though.
L’humanité, Bruno Dumont (1999, France). I’ve yet to figure out what to make of this film. It was… odd. Emmanuel Schotté plays a police inspector in a small town in the north of France. A young girl’s body is discovered – she has been brutally raped and murdered. Schotté’s character seems a bit, well, not all there. Almost child-like at times. He reacts badly to the crime. He also spends time with his friends, who seem to accept him on sufferance, and lives with his mother, who bullies him. He interviews two Brits who were on the Eurostar, which passed the crime scene around the right time, but their testimonies prove completely useless, contradicting each other repeatedly. Eventually the crime is solved, but it’s not Schotté’s character who does it. L’humanité is essentially a crime narrative, and sort of the follows the forms, in as much as it features a crime, an investigation, and a resolution. And it mostly follows the unspoken rules of the form, as the killer proves to be a known member of the cast. But the nearest I can get to the way it treats its protagonist, Schotté, is that subgenre of crime novels which feature long angsty paragraphs focusing on the mess the protagonist detective is making of his or her life – although not quite as dourly as in Nordic noir. Scottish noir, perhaps? But the French version of it. Pascale Garnier, maybe? I’m not that well-read in the genre. Nonetheless, worth seeing.
Cruelty, Anton Sigurdsson (2016, Iceland). I stumbled across this on Amazon Prime and thought it worth a go. I’ve now seen four Icelandic films, and I have to ask: do they ever make happy films? Because the Icelandic title of this movie is Grimmd, and that’s pretty close to the English word which best describes it. Two young girls are found murdered in a wood. A female detective is put on the case. Her boss teams her with an ex-partner against her wishes. The detective focuses on a man she arrested for sex offences years before but never managed to prove her case against him. Registered sex offenders are pulled in, and her partner bullies a confession out of one of them. But that quickly falls apart. It turns out the detective’s brother is a sex offender, but he has been rehabilitated – but this crime results in someone digging up his past. And so his co-workers near beat him to death. Did I mention this was not a cheerful film? I have to wonder if the Icelanders are capable of making cheerful films. And yet it’s a lovely country and the people are extremely friendly. But I have yet to find an Icelandic comedy. If you like Nordic noir, then Cruelty, AKA Grimmd, is a good example; others may find its appeal limited.
Ceddo*, Ousmane Sembène (1977, Senegal). This is one of two films by Sembène on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and he is the only representative of his country, Senegal. The other film is Moolaadé (see here). Moolaadé was given a UK DVD release by Artificial Eye in 2004. It’s since been deleted, but copies can still be found. But Ceddo never was, and copies are really hard to find. (For the record, Sembène’s only other film available on sell-through in the UK is Black Girl, released in a dual format edition by the BFI in 2015.) But, Ceddo… The film is set around the time Westerners discovered the tribes of Senegal. And so too has Islam. The traditional monarchy in under threat on two fronts – the local imam wants to convert everyone to Islam, and the white traders are happy to accept anything that doesn’t disrupt their trade in slaves. The common people – the “ceddo” – kidnap the king’s daughter in order to force him to reject both the Muslims and the whites. But the king sides with the Muslims, and various attempts are made to “rescue” the princess. This is not a film that presents a nuanced picture of white/Islamic colonialism, and that’s fair enough as there’s little that’s nuanced about it. A traditional way of life was destroyed in the name of religion and/or commerce. The film is very declamatory, which is a style that appeals to me, with the opening scenes consisting of cast-members appealing to the king for judgement in various matters. The film also looks like nothing you might have seen before – unless you’ve watched other films by Sembène – and if not, why not? – or perhaps a film like Yeelen – and is a fascinating depiction of what I suspect is now a long lost way of life. This is my fourth Sembène film and they really are very good. Given that Ceddo is an historical film, it doesn’t have the punch of Moolaadé, which is set in the present-day. You should still watch both, however.
The Village of No Return, Chen Yu-hsun (2017, Taiwan). It looks like a Taiwanese distributor has gone and dumped a load of films on Amazon Prime, Not that I’m complaining. Admittedly, I watched this because it starred Shu Qi, one of my favourite Chinese actresses, although I’ve not seen her in anything for a while. At some point in China’s past, a village survived by collaborating with a local troop of bandits. But the local warlord needed the village under his control before making a play for the throne. So he sends an agent provocateur in to blow up a few houses, etc. Except the plan goes wrong from the start. He is accidentally poisoned by his wife (Shu Qi), who is kept chained up and had planned to commit suicide – but she couldn’t do it, and he innocently ate the poisoned sandwich. And then a con man poles up to the village with a machine that allows him to selectively edit people’s memories. And after a couple of demonstrations, he uses it to seize control of the village and convince everyone he has always been the chief. But then Shu Qi’s boyfriend, who had joined the bandits, returns and everything falls apart. This film was amusing, if somewhat confusingly plotted. The memory device was presented well, with memories displayed like they were silent films. I don’t think the title is especially accurate, but The Village of No Return is a lot fun.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 912