LFF 2014: Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary | LFF 2014 | Film Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★★☆ 

Heavy frocks and tightly bound corsets typify Sophie Barthes’s retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary; an unromantic film of stuffy inertia that wears the clothes of Sunday teatime period drama, but locks its conflicted, opaque emotions somewhere far deeper. The skies are perpetually overcast and there is a spider in the bouquet of flowers.

Pitched as the first of the novel’s many adaptations to be helmed by a woman, Barthes may not exactly seek compassion for the doomed Mrs. Bovary, but she guides us towards sympathy for the life she has been thrust into, shifting the central focus to Emma rather than her husband Charles. Groomed as a ‘lady’ and married off to a respectable provincial doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), her fate was never in her hands. So as Emma Bovary’s dreams of education and spiritual enrichment one by one fall by the wayside, and the shapeless rigmarole of married life with her wet blanket of a husband reveals itself, it is no surprise she seeks pleasure, or passion, or anything, elsewhere. There are carnal affairs with the travelled soulful Leon (Ezra Miller) and the all-powerful Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) – but it is with her reckless spending with local merchant Monsieur Lheureux (a sparkling Rhys Ifans) that she finds most trouble, stockpiling oriental fabrics, furniture and oysters; grasping for something to plug her emptiness. But from the opening flash-forward and Galperine’s score that airily lilts with foreboding, we know there is a wound in her that will continue to bleed.

Never explicit in motivation, it is unclear – to Bovary and us – what the young woman is seeking. Her affairs and lavish spending bring intermittent joy, but the empty soullessness of her own existence consumes all. Madame Bovary conveys this increasing apathy splendidly, transforming Wasikowska from a carefree, unruly student to the listless woman crushed by her marriage. The experience drags its thick, ornate petticoats through deeper and deeper mud, always on the verge of relinquishing our interest entirely. But there is something in this remote, melancholy character that draws us through her every turmoil. Actions are not excused, but neither are they spiteful. Wasikowska is, again, superb, continuing her rise to dominance, selecting challenging work that provides her with real character to delve into – and here silently exhibiting the level of alienating detachment and fragility that this odd, conflicted anti-heroine requires.

Madame Bovary explores the constraints of sex and circumstance placed upon Emma. Keeping to the lines of a conventional structure, it merely suggests counterpoints to her decisions as the drama elegantly unfolds. While the narrative may not be punchy enough for some, and the aforementioned prelude dulls any suspense, as a singular mood piece of sumptuous period imagery that admirably explores its themes Madame Bovary is hard to fault.

Its retelling now in a culture of encouraged superficial pursuits and rampant consumerism feels somehow right. Real Housewives of 19th Century Provincial France. To Lheureux she is just a blank cheque, to the Marquis she is just a trinket; but Emma Bovary is a thoroughly modern woman – albeit one worn down, suffocated and mistreated by the men in her life. But under this near-feminist reading lurk several moral shades of grey that keep Barthes’s Bovary an engrossingly conflicted soul.


[ 2014 — Dir: Sophie Barthes — 118 mins — TBC cert — IMDb ]

Madame Bovary screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Find out more here.

LFF 2014: Black Souls

Black Souls | LFF 2014 | Film Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★★☆ 

Told in moody shadows and the washed colours of a grim inescapable reality, Francesco Munzi’s tale of three brothers within a Calabrian criminal family unfurls with a mindful pace and a sombre, immersive atmosphere. Loosely based on Gioacchino Criaco’s Anime Nere, a novel derived from the author’s experience of the Italian Africo region, Black Souls profits from a remarkable level of detail and authenticity – melding sleek black Mercedes with gritty rural environments – finding something intensely compelling in the process.

On the peak of the Aspromonte, eldest brother Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane) lives a humble existence in ramshackle farm buildings cut from a different time, choosing to farm goats, as his father did, a world away from the shady underworld dealings of his siblings Luigi (Marco Leonardi) and Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta). But the criminality Luciano has strived so hard to avoid is brought to his doorstep by his own 20-year-old son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo). Hotheaded and part of an honourless disenchanted generation, Leo looks to his cocksure, drug smuggling uncle Luigi for guidance, spurning his father at every opportunity and leading himself – and the family – deeper into old grudges and forgotten rivalries. 

Initially propelled by this narrative transparency, a sharp violent turn in the dead of night sets Black Souls on a different course. Invigorating before any hint of stale formality takes grip, Munzi works the underlying mafia backbone admirably, finding something richer to portray in the overplayed genre. What this squanders in narrative satisfaction – the climax feels like a hurried stab at conformity – it gains in freedom and space to coherently build a tangible world.

A black casket. Black cars. Black jackets. Right down to their black souls, there is something poisonous in these mountains. A calf is stolen and slaughtered unflinchingly. Think what other horrors these men have inflicted in their long lives. Faces weathered like toughened leather are often shot in silhouette, features hidden in dark shadows. The priest evangelises, “ I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me”, and truer words were never uttered. Fatalism rules Black Souls, lives hurtling towards tragedy because it is where they are destined. 

Francesco Munzi has not reinvented the mafia genre with Black Souls, but he has found an intensity and a poetry that stems from the very environment itself. The hardened thugs and reclusive brother are faint, schematic characters in the mountainous landscape – an alluring melange of new world machismo and ancient preordained devastation. 

[ 2014 — Dir: Francesco Munzi — 103 mins — TBC cert — IMDb ]

Black Souls screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Find out more here.

LFF 2014: White God

White God | LFF 2014 | Film Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★★☆ 

This is a boldly adventurous genre experiment from Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó that plays on themes of superiority and oppression – supplementing a national ruling on anything other than pure blood pedigree dogs for any number of social injustices. Beginning with the most striking sequence in recent memory, a young girl on a push bike is pursued in lush slow motion through deserted Budapest streets by a marauding pack of dogs. Slipping back in time, we learn this is Lili (Zsófia Psotta), a preteen trumpeter who, along with her faithful mutt Hagen, is dumped with her reluctant father (Sándor Zsótér). Under the new law, mixed breed dogs require an extortionate payment to be kept so, understandably, her father gets rid of him as quickly as possible, to Lili’s obvious despair. Here White God splits from domestic drama into something of a strange hybrid.

Hagen’s journey is soundtracked with the pumping beats of a thriller and the alleyway pursuits of Jason Bourne as he eludes dog catchers, gets sold into a dog fighting ring and generally discovers that ‘man’s best friend’ isn’t always a truth. The canine acting on show is genuinely remarkable – the film won the, apparently real, Palm Dog award at Cannes – with the wordless exploits portraying every conceivable emotion seamlessly in flapping ears, wagging tails and fierce bared teeth. Building up to the early glimpsed apocalyptic carnage, a bizarre doggy horror revenge flick takes shape, as Hagen forms an army of sorts, and rights the wrongs inflicted on his species – yes, really.

Meanwhile Lili rebels against her father and the dry formality of her orchestra teacher – caring of little else than bringing Hagen home. Lili’s father’s fear runs further than the ravenous hounds on the streets, to the imminent puberty of his daughter: she will soon be smoking her first cigarette and kissing her first boy, an uprising that can only be quelled for so long. In a universal story of oppression and revolt, Lili is our human entry point but it’s down to the hounds to bring the cautionary tale pounding home.

Despite its brazen fun, White God is still a difficult watch that will trouble dog-lovers – this London Film Festival screening saw several walk outs – with some intensely alluded to moments of canine cruelty. For those with the stomach, though, the vengeance arrives with a powerful catharsis and a black comedy that are a justifiable reward.

The two disparate stories are at constant odds and in reality shouldn’t work – but by virtue of Mundruczó’s sheer audacity and confidence in the warped material it cavorts to its climax in a euphoric mix of bloodletting and youthful rebellion. Sensational work from cinematographer Marcell Rév treads the line between social-realism and genre admirably, pulling us into unexpected places as the thundering paws move the very ground beneath our feet.

A revenge thriller for the subjugated – on four legs or two – Mundruczó nimbly covers much metaphorical ground, but refuses to spell out his intentions, instead delighting in genre tropes and swelling fearlessness to visually tell the story. A wildly unique experience of unexpected darkness and pulsing ecstasy. You won’t see a better canine revenge coming-of-age horror thriller in your lifetime.


[ 2014 — Dir: Kornél Mundruczó — 119 mins — TBC cert — IMDb ]

White God screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Find out more here.

Le Jour Se Lève

Le Jour Se Lève | 1939 | Film Review | SHELF HEROES

★★★★★ 

Agitatedly chain smoking, as police hammer bullets through the window of his cramped inner city apartment, Jean Gablin’s François drifts off into a hazy flashback of how he became the murderer now hunted by the law. This stunning opening to Marcel Carné’s pioneering Le Jour Se Lève (known as Daybreak in some quarters) could be transposed to any tower block or favela, any period or setting: a testament to the enduring power of the 1939 masterpiece.

Far more than a noir thriller, the economical deftly deployed flashback structure was a visionary achievement from Carné, elevating the film’s winding, partially obscured motives to a gripping centrepiece that pulls us through the ebb and flow of François’s tragic journey to daybreak. An infatuation with a beautiful young florist (Jacqueline Laurent) is revealed, the subsequent courting and sweet nothings pierced by the intentions of the pompous dog-dancing entertainer Valentin (Jules Barry). A dismissal that dejectedly leads him into the arms of Valentin’s sultry assistant Clara (Arletty) – a supposed affair that propels François towards his ruinous downfall amongst smoke and bullets. Roaming between past and present Carné permits the story to take shape at its own pace, favouring a realist tone that builds François’s character with every elegantly scripted scene.

With one twinkling eye, and one of deepest sadness, Gablin cuts a protagonist of considerable conflicted depth. A soft hearted romantic. A callused handed working man. Stung by love, and stung by the misery of life – his fate is written in relentless routine and preordained tragedy. It is with this poetic allegory for the life of the blue collar stiff that Carné bathes the entire picture – culminating in a stunning closing shot that rivals any in cinematic history for its composition, lingering pathos and sheer tragic beauty.


“People in love are said to be more alive than others.”

Receiving an immaculately restored reissue in celebration of its 75th anniversary, what is perhaps most staggering is how fresh and current its themes feel. Sure, the monochromatic shadows cut dramatically, the focus blurs into vaseline soft vignettes, and the performances have that pinched quality of the era – but here is a film about something; forgoing melodrama and convention it powers beyond thrills to comment on the world of its setting. Class war, the macabre media fascination with death, rash police action in urban Paris – Le Jour Se Lève hasn’t aged a day.

Poetic realism of the highest order, Marcel Carné’s classic will be as relevant and gut wrenching in a further 75 years. There will always be sorrow at daybreak for those at the bottom. Stepped on, stepped over and broken hearted – François is all three.

[ 1939 — Dir: Marcel Carné — 93 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]

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