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Films you must see: About Elly

about-elly-dvdLast year, two Iranian films made my top five best of the year, The Circle and No One Knows about Persian Cats, and a further two I gave honourable mentions, A Separation and The Wind Will Carry Us. About Elly (2009) is an earlier film by the director of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi. Three young middle-class couples from Tehran, with children, are spending the weekend on the shores of the Caspian Sea. Also along is Ahmad, visiting from Germany where he now lives, and recently divorced from his German wife; and Elly, the teacher of Sepideh’s young daughter, who Sepideh is hoping will make a good wife for Ahmad. Right from the start, it’s plain Sepideh is desperate for the weekend to work. When it turns out the villa they had originally booked is only available for one night – and Sepideh knew this – the group end up taking a near-derelict one on the beach. They clean it up and settle in, and so the weekend starts.

Elly, however, appears to be uncomfortable with being treated as a prospective wife for Ahmad. Though the two seem to like each other, Elly is stand-offish. When she tries to leave after the first night, Sepideh persuades her to stay, and even goes so far as to hide her bag.

The following day, the kids are playing on the beach. Nazy is making sure Arshad, the young son of Peyman and Shohreh, remains safe in the water. She goes inside to do some cleaning, and asks Elly to keep an eye out instead. But Sepideh’s daughter is having trouble with her kite, so Elly goes to help her…

Minutes later, Sepideh’s daughter runs up to the men, who are playing volleyball behind the house, screaming that Arshad is in the water. The men rush to rescue him. After some frantic searching they find the boy, floating face-down, but they manage to revive him. Then they notice that Elly is missing. Did she drown while trying to save Arshad? They hunt for her but find nothing. They call the police, but they too cannot find her. Or perhaps she left without saying anything? Was she the sort of woman who would do that?

It soon transpires that no one knows much about Elly, not even Sepideh. They contact her mother, but she didn’t even know Elly had gone to the seaside. From Elly’s mobile, they ring the number she last dialled, and get through to her brother. They tell him she has had an accident and is in hospital, and he immediately leaves Tehran for their villa.

But he’s not Elly’s brother, he’s her fiancé. As Sepideh reluctantly admits when she learns he is coming. For an affianced woman to go away to meet another prospective husband is not good. Elly’s honour is now at stake. If she did it without the knowledge of the party… While Sepideh’s husband, Amir, admits that he and his wife see nothing wrong with this behaviour, others in the party are less tolerant.

About Elly is not just a slow-burning thriller, it’s also a very clever character study of its cast. It begins innocently enough – a group of friends going away for the weekend, laughing and joking among themselves – then settles down to a friendly domestic drama… before taking an abrupt and horrifying turn. When Elly vanished, I will confess I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some additional twist to compound the tragedy. But About Elly is an Iranian film, and the turn it takes after Elly’s disappearance is entirely Iranian. It’s not about twisty turny plots, and how many times the director can wrongfoot the viewer, it’s about character and people and Iran. As a result, the ending is even more affecting.

The cast are uniformly excellent, with Golshifteh Farahani as Sepideh especially good. The direction throughout is also excellent, with Farhadi managing to evoke the mood of each section of the story without using any incidental music whatsoever.

On balance, I think About Elly is a better film than A Separation, even though the latter did win an Oscar; but Farhadi is certainly a director worth watching. I think I shall be tracking down some of his other films…


Films you must see: Only Yesterday

onlyyesterday_54849I vaguely recall seeing Porco Rosso (1992) back in the early 1990s, but the first Studio Ghibli film I ever watched knowing it was a Studio Ghibli film was 2001’s Spirited Away. It was only a couple of years after its release. I’m not a huge fan of anime or animated films, though I’ve seen most of the big ones, so I only bothered adding later Studio Ghibli films to my DVD rental list if someone had recommended them. And that’s how I came to see Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Tales from Earthsea (2006) (though the latter wasn’t exactly “recommended”…).

But a couple of years ago, I decided to work my way through all of the Studio Ghibli films, so I stuck them on my DVD rental list in their order of release. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), which is not strictly speaking a Studio Ghibli film, I found an interesting, if slightly odd, sf film. Laputa – Castle in the Sky (1986) was also fun, especially some of the steampunkish bits. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) I described here on my blog last year as a “sad story spoiled by mawkishness”. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) I thought were overly twee.

But then last weekend I watched Only Yesterday

Released in 1991, Only Yesterday is unlike the other Studio Ghibli films in that it is a realistic drama, and contains no genre elements at all. It was adapted from a manga of the same title by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, and written and directed by Isao Takahata. The plot is relatively straightforward. Taeko, a young woman resident in Tokyo, decides to get away from city life for a while and travels out into the country to help a relative with the safflower harvest. During the train journey to Yamagata, Taeko remembers incidents from her life when she was ten years old. The film then flips back and forth between Taeko’s present in 1982 and her childhood in 1966. The sections set in the past are drawn with backgrounds which resemble watercolours, while the 1982 sections are much more realistic – and in many cases, quite beautifully painted.

Given my previous experience with Studio Ghibli films, Only Yesterday was completely unexpected. It wasn’t just that the quality of artwork seemed to stand out more because it depicted the real world, but also that the characters were so well-written. Taeko is both an interesting and engaging heroine, at both ages, and the two narratives played off each other extremely well. Even the supporting cast were good – from the grandmother who’s perhaps a little too blunt, to Toshio, the love interest, whose understated matter-of-factness anchors one of the film’s best scenes. And the ending, where Taeko’s childhood self and her school friends appear and help her make a decision which changes her life, was beautifully judged. I’ll not be surprised if this film makes it onto my best of the year list.

Meanwhile, I still have eleven Studio Ghibli films to watch, though I suspect I’ve just watched the best of them…


Films you must see: Red Desert, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

Red Desert (1964), Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film in colour, forms a loose quartet with L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962). I have seen the first and third of those – though I do own a copy of the eureka! edition of La Notte. In fact, it was L’Avventura which introduced me to Antonioni’s films, and persuaded me to seek out more by him.

Like the earlier three films, Red Desert stars Monica Vitti. She plays Giuliana, the wife of a director of an industrial plant in Ravenna, Italy. She has just come out of hospital following a car accident which, it is later suggested, was actually an attempt at suicide. Certainly, Giuliana is… fragile. A friend of the husband – Zeller, played by Richard Harris, with his dialogue dubbed into Italian – arrives in Ravenna, looking for engineers for a project in South America. He finds himself drawn to Giuliana, and something in her responds to him more honestly than with her husband.

Film is a visual medium, and yet it often seems that few directors take true advantage of that fact. They use visuals as a short-hand for world-building, or by using special effects to overload the spectacle. Red Desert, however, is an extremely painterly film. Though it is set in an industrial area, it boasts rich colours – which are themselves commentary on the world of the story: in the final scene, Giuliana’s young son asks his mother why a nearby factory’s smoke is yellow. And so it is: a vivid yellow against a grey sky. “Because it’s poisonous,” Giuliana replies. In another scene, Giuliana, her husband, Zeller, and some of their friends spend an afternoon in a decrepit hut on a quay. The “bedroom” of the hut is a tiny space filled with a mattress and with walls painted a bright red. The horseplay inside the bedroom turns distinctly sexual before being defused by the appearance of a ship at the quay. It is so close that it looms over the hut, entirely blocking the view from the window. Later, when they leave the hut, a fog has drawn in, turning the entire world white and shapeless.

Other scenes notable for their use of shape and colour include Zeller’s visit to Giuliana’s “shop”, an empty building in a monotone street, in which Giuliana plans to start a business. She has yet to decide what her shop will sell, however. Outside, the two stop to talk beside a barrow of fruit – and all of the produce has been painted varying shades of gray. Later, Giuliana and Zeller visit an offshore wellhead platform – for reasons not entirely clear, though it’s something to do with Zeller’s project in South America – and the two act out their lines against the bright colours of the equipment on the platform.

In some respects, Red Desert resembles “poetical cinema” – it is not a film with a three-act structure, or any form of narrative closure. However, it does have readily-identifiable characters, and they interact in a way that apes the real world. Red Desert is, I think, a better film than L’Avventura and L’Eclisse – it is certainly a more beautiful film than those two. Recommended.


Films you must see: Red Psalm, directed by Miklós Janscó

I bunged Miklós Jancsó’s Red Psalm (1972) onto an order of Christmas presents at the beginning of December, though I can’t for the life of me remember why. I’d seen Janscó’s The Red And The White before – in June 2010, and wrote then that it was “definitely worth seeing” – but what possessed me to buy a Jancsó DVD is something of a mystery. Perhaps it was a review in Sight & Sound. No matter. I bought it. And now I’ve watched it.

I think I was expecting a paean to socialism when I put the DVD in the player. The title, and Jancsó’s politics, certainly suggest as much. Even the film’s original Hungarian title, Még kér a nép (The People Still Demand), fosters this impression. Except Red Psalm, while certainly a socialist film, is no paean. It is based upon a number of peasant uprisings in Hungary between 1890 and 1910, and melds these into a single extended dramatic piece – though it has no plot, no characters, and no dialogue per se.

There are the workers, represented by a group of young people in peasant costumes. And there are the authorities, represented variously by the rural police, a bailiff, the army, the local count, and a priest. Most of the cast have 1970s haircuts, which does make it look all a bit hippie. The film takes place at a rural farming community and the countryside surrounding it, though no effort is made to give the story any real sense of place.

The workers walk around, either singing folk songs (often with socialist lyrics) or making small speechlets about socialism. The soldiers and policemen also walk around (or ride around on horseback), trying to either intimidate or charm the workers. No one stands still, everyone moves. This “balletic” movement is a feature of Jancsó’s style. One soldier defects to the workers but is shot. Later, he reappears, as if resurrected. A worker is shot through the hand, but her wound becomes a red rosette. Later, all the workers wear such rosettes.

The local count attempts to explain the benefits of capitalism to the workers – though it is an unconvincing argument – but seems to die of a heart attack when his words fall on deaf ears. His wife subsequently attacks the workers with a whip. A priest exhorts the workers to obey the authorities, claiming it is the godly thing to do, but is forced back into his church, which is then set on fire.

Throughout Red Psalm, there is a sense of a story in continual evolution. Characters exchange roles, dialogue is declamatory or explanatory, but does not progress anything as bourgeois as a plot. At the end, the workers and soldiers come together to celebrate but, at a signal, the soldiers then separate, form a cordon about the workers… and massacre them. Tellingly, the cordon is in the shape of a heart.

But even that death is not final, as the workers later re-appear. And one takes a soldier’s gun, and then kills all the soldiers.

Red Psalm is an argument, framed in song, movement, political oratory and the interactions between opposing groups. If its young and good-looking cast make it appear more of a hippie film than a socialist one, it’s an illusion that is quickly dispelled. It’s perhaps not to everyone’s taste, but I thought it excellent and have even bought The Miklós Jancsó Collection box set. And I think more of Jancsó’s films should be released on DVD.