NZIFF 2009 Roundup: Broken Embraces/The Limits of Control/Disgrace/Antichrist

NZIFF 2009 Roundup

By Hugh Lilly

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Los Abrazos Rotos (Broken Embraces)

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is a dramatic, cinema-obsessed film noir with Penélope Cruz as the femme fatale. The film, which begins with a blind screenwriter living in the present day under his nom de plume “Harry Caine”, is modelled on the hard-boiled detective noirs of the 40s and 50s, its most obvious ancestor being Nicholas Ray’s sublime 1951 film In A Lonely Place, in which Humphrey Bogart plays a screenwriter.

Events lead the story to unravel backwards in time to the early-90s, where “Harry Caine” is a film director still using his real name, Mateo Blanco. He casts Lena (Cruz), a call girl, in his new film, which is being financed by a millionaire, Ernesto Martel. Both the director and the millionaire begin relationships with Lena, with tragic consequences.

Spectacular cinematography, an interesting soundtrack—including great use of a Cat Power track, and a wonderful score by Almodóvar regular Alberto Iglesias—and a superb lead performance from Cruz along with moments of genuine humour make Broken Embraces tremendously entertaining. Almodóvar’s cinephilia and exquisite attention to detail and are on display constantly in this film, perhaps more so than in any of his other work until now. Cut down to 128 mins from 180-something, the film still feels a little long, and much of the dénouement could have been tightened. Still, Broken Embraces stands as his most entertaining film since All About My Mother. Expect a late-August release at art house cinemas.

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The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch’s new film is the tale of a mostly-silent lone assassin, played expertly by Isaach De Bankolé (Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and Coffee and Cigarettes; Lars von Trier’s Manderlay). The film follows this “Lone Man” As he travels around Spain and goes about his daily routine: going to a café where he orders two espressos (in two separate cups) and meets with a messenger to exchange matchboxes. From their matchbox he takes out and memorises a secret code which leads to his next meeting point. Sometimes, he goes to an art gallery, but contemplates only one painting per visit.

The mysterious messengers are variously played by Tilda Swinton, Gael García Bernal, and John Hurt; a nude Paz de la Huerta hangs around his hotel room, occasionally donning a see-through raincoat. Ultimately, his target (like the boss at the end of a Nintendo-64 game) is Bill Murray, doing his best impersonation of a smug billionaire.

The film is slow, mostly quiet, and utterly beautiful. References to other films abound—particularly to Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 masterpiece Le Samouraï and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The film’s terrific, atmospheric soundtrack features tracks by the experimental (and mostly instrumental) Japanese rock group Boris, as well as Sunn o))) and Bad Rabbit; the mind-blowingly perfect cinematography is by Christopher Doyle, Wong kar-Wai’s right-hand man. Many critics have lamented the film’s lack of substance—there’s not much of a story here—but sometimes it’s nice to just sit back and soak up some cinematic style. Limits opens October 1 at the Academy Cinemas on Lorne St.

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Disgrace

Based on J. M. Coetzee’s Booker prize-winning novel, Disgrace follows a Cape Town university professor (John Malkovich) who has an affair with a student and moves out to the countryside to live with his daughter. The film exposes the political reality of a post-apartheid South Africa where race is still very much at the forefront of everyday life. Director Steve Jacobs and writer Anna Maria Monticelli are both Australian, and the film was shot almost entirely on location in South Africa.

Although Malkovich turns in a respectable performance—and certainly the other characters are well-cast, and the cinematography and set design admirable—it’s difficult, at times, to move beyond his (valiant) attempt at a South African accent; he seems almost as uncomfortable playing the character as we are watching him. Disgrace opens October 8.

Antichrist

It’s difficult to see how this film made four audience members faint at Cannes earlier this year. Brutal and shocking, but not scary, Lars von Trier’s latest film is dedicated to the late Andrei Tarkovsky, and certain scenes—particularly near the start—mirror the Russian filmmaker’s style. The self-proclaimed “best director in the world,” von Trier wrote the film as a form of therapy after a long, deep depression.

The story is of therapist Willem Dafoe and his wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, a couple who have recently lost their son. She is utterly inconsolable, so he suggests that they retreat to a cabin in the woods to expose her to her fears so that she might overcome them. She had previously been at the cabin with her son, working on a thesis on gynocide. Nature turns against them, and they against one another, as the woods—named ‘Eden’ in the film—become a living hell.

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For all its ostensible gore and gratuitous genital mutilation, the film contains moments of utter beauty—namely the opening and closing black-and-white segments in slow motion—and the grim but magnificent cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is a world away from the overly colourful flashes of Slumdog Millionaire.

It is his most overtly misogynistic, but this is by no means von Trier’s best film, nor is it even objectively good: the biggest stumbling block is the film’s religious symbolism, which is delivered with too heavy a hand—and at one point an (unintentionally?) hilarious talking fox (voiced, of course, by the director) ominously intones “chaos reigns”. The film’s international reception has been polarized. Alternately praised by critics (“a grotesque masterpiece”) and argued about by detractors (“a master director’s failed work”) the film has (understandably) come under fire for its extreme, explicit violence, pornography and masochistic spirit.

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For all its faults, though, Antichrist is an undeniably powerful, visceral and occasionally oddly beautiful viewing experience. It has been classified by the Censor (R18 for “explicit sex, graphic violence and genital mutilation”) so it should get a release date soon—unless Bob McCoskrie and his Family First lobby group have anything to say about it, as they inevitably will.

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More Festival coverage, including pieces on The Cove, Largo, RiP!: A Remix Manifesto, In The Loop, Louise Bourgeois, Examined Life and Winnebago Man are at Craccum.co.nz

The Cove, a superbly well-made, important film about whaling and dolphin slaughter in Japan, opens August 27.

Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, about the late architectural photographer, opens October 22 after the Architecture Week film festival.

Mary and Max, Adam Elliot’s clay-mation follow-up to 2003’s Harvie Krumpet, follows two unlikely pen-pals: Mary, an eight-year-old girl living in Melbourne, and Max, a forty-four-year old Jewish man living in New York, voiced by Toni Collette and Philip Seymour Hoffman respectively, opens on November 26.

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One thought on “NZIFF 2009 Roundup: Broken Embraces/The Limits of Control/Disgrace/Antichrist

  1. TOTALLY feel you on Limits of Control. one of the most impressively photographed films I’ve seen in a long time (technically speaking. and that I myself could appreciate, as a photographer). I mean, the compositions were so often.. so perfect.

    Add to that this very seductive and intriguing mystery of the character and his fellow conspirators.

    The silence and pace of the film is controlled to make us take in the visual, as well as the cold, zen-like state of the protagonist(?). reminded me of The New World (in a good way, of course), which itself reminded me of old CK commercials.

    Add to that the music of BORIS to screw with our heads and really take us out of our world and into theirs.

    Broken Embrace and Disgrace sound delicious. Thanks for the references. I will have to check Antichrist.

    This is also a good Best of list (unfortunately omits LoC!!):
    http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/editors-picks-the-ten-best-movies-of-2009-neilm.php

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