Thursday, November 30, 2023

omen (augure)

An intense, lingering ache permeates Belgian / Congolese multi-talented (a musician, and now a filmmaker) Baloji’s inspired and bold directorial debut (the film won the Un Certain Regard – New Voice Prize at Cannes). There is the pervasive sense that no one can ever truly feel settled. The film skillfully delves into different aspects of displacement, separated acts from the perspectives of four people, but centers mainly upon Koffi (Marc Zinga), a thirtysomething Congolese man who lives in Belgium with his partner Alice (Lucie Debay). The two travel to his hometown of Kinshasa where the film mostly takes place. There, Koffi and Alice are immediately met with distrust and quiet hostility from the townspeople and his own family. When one of his sisters lets Koffi hold her child, a sudden nosebleed accidentally starts dripping on her baby’s face, prompting shrieks of horror and accusations of Koffi invoking a curse. This is one of the many instances within the story’s subject matter and the film’s own aesthetics where tensions lie in the chasms and overlaps of superstitions, science, surrealism, “reality,” intellectualism, religion, and folklore. Artfully, the film never advocates for nor imposes a single stance, but instead explores thorny territories of morality, mortality and belonging. 

We also meet young Paco (Marcel Otete Kabeya), a dancer donning a tattered pink ballet outfit who performs in the street with a gang during Easter celebrations. Like Koffi, he also has a sudden seizure—one of the prophetic motifs in the film, alongside babies, milk and blood—symbols of life and death. Paco also engages in wrestling matches before lively crowds, and soon ends up in a turf row with another street group, who flips a school bus—the living quarters of Paco’s clan. The people of Kinshasa reside under the shadows of mines which loom imposingly over many scenes in the film. 

Tshalia (Eliane Umuhire), the fresh and lovely younger sister of Koffi, unmarried and also estranged from the rest of her family, learns she may have contracted an STD. These three characters are sympathetically portrayed as outcasts of this society. There is a push and pull of townsfolk challenging, and also, especially in Paco's sense, discarding them, but also needing them (as in Paco's performances, or when a harmonizing group of salespeople humorously appear at Tshalia’s door). 

The film is dynamically shot by Joachim Philippe; two sequences in particular are visual stunners: a Hansel and Gretel retelling (with its vibrant green trees and billowing hot pink smoke), and a dream sequence of Koffi’s mother, Mama Mujila (Yves-Marina Gnahoua). In her arresting story, set months later in September, she is grieving the death of her husband. The glowing colors of earlier have now faded into the striking, rich black and brown hues of night. Weary and alone, she wakes in bed to an expanse of a desolate landscape dotted with burning effigies (a stunning shot). At one point, she kneels and begins to desperately dig into dirt, as if to resurrect her buried husband—the scatter of rocks she tosses away above the earth hauntingly sounding like the knick-nocking of bones. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Tuesday, November 28, 2023


As with her unmissable directorial debut Promising Young Woman, Emerald Fennell continues to shamelessly overcook themes and scenes to delirious effect in her latest. Florid and gothic, with its summer heat color-saturated photography by Linus Sandgren (La La Land), the mid-2000s, mostly English castle-set tale pairs well (or clashes well) with cinematic treatments of Bret Easton Ellis (aspects of the film are reminiscent of Mary Harron's adaptation of American Psycho or Paul Schrader's The Canyons, scripted by Ellis). It also has plot elements and pervasive intense sexual longings found in Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (one of Fennell's characters may likely be named after Farley Granger from Hitchcock's film version), and André Aciman's Call Me By Your Name and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty (both of which were prominent novels published around the time Saltburn is set). 

There is sometimes a novelistic feel to Saltburn, with voice-over reminiscing from its main character Oliver Quick (derided as a "scholarship boy who buys his clothes from Oxfam" with a Call Me By Your Name flip tricky-Dickensian title; he's played marvelously by Barry Keoghan). We follow his uncomfortable, squirmy times at Oxford as he becomes infatuated with fellow student Felix (Jacob Elordi). Felix is somewhat genial, with his lanky build, floppy dark hair and pierced eyebrow, but also sort of dull and disaffectedly cool. Oliver slowly becomes part of his inner circle (there's something acutely aching about Arcade Fire's "No Cars Go" playing at their first significant bar scene interaction). Felix's longtime friend Farleigh (Archie Madekwe) who also lives with Felix's family, seems threatened by this new relationship. Sometimes Oliver is off and sort of off-putting, but soon the two re-bond. After graduation, Felix invites Oliver to spend summer at his family's rambling titular estate (humorously, Felix gives a disheveled tour of the rooms and the "dead rellys" of this ridiculous place). 

The prickly and sprawling first and second halves of the film are the strongest, and the funniest, as we watch Oliver (occasionally sadistic in his all of his times "to pretend" as the MGMT track suggests) ingratiate himself into this kooky clan spearheaded by Rosamund Pike's Elsbeth and Sir James Catton (Richard E. Grant in his second movie this year, after The Lesson, playing a wealthy father in a house near a perilous pond; perhaps intentional casting, Grant's piercing, light-eyed appearance is closer to Oliver's than Felix's). Elsbeth's friend, the mooching "Poor" Pamela (a brilliant Carey Mulligan), who Elsbeth describes as a "complete limpet," with her red-banged wig, cold, unemotional expressions and stiff movements is an absolute hoot (I wanted more of her! Maybe a whole "Poor Pamela" movie?). As Felix's sister Venetia (Alison Oliver, completely absorbing here) intones prophetically, "We are all about to lose our minds," it becomes apparent that everything is going to unravel garishly, psychosexually, and grandly.

The reputation for this film has been dubbed as shocking, but for those raised on decades of music videos and thriller junk, it won't be. In a way, it's interesting to see many "prestige" mainstream films as so staid, whereas much of television has become so artfully violent and carnal (in years past, it used to be the other way around). Perhaps because Fennell has worked in television (including Killing Eve), she seems comfortable in this register, and quite fearless. She builds good, thorny characters and helps elicit striking performances. Much hinges on the lead, I can imagine another film flatlining and collapsing without Keoghan's layered and fidgety strangeness. 

Even though Saltburn isn't nearly as meticulously plotted and executed as Promising Young Woman, the third act a saggy, over-explained disappointment (save from the absolutely fantastic resolution), watching it again, it's so elegantly filmed and deliriously engrossing. The riveting string score by Anthony Willis mirrors Oliver's delusions and freezing diabolicalness. The varied costumes by Sophie Canale (there's lots of fun to be had in the simplicity of the apparel at the Midsummer's Night Dream themed party (Abercrombie jeans & angel wings)--a funny and perfect allusion / illusion). The pop music supervision, lighting, mood (these are all such lavishly alone characters) captures a vapid melancholy of a pre-smartphone era twilight. ***

-Jeffery Berg