One thing we’ve learnt from cinema over the years is that if something seemingly beneficial is about to go ahead, if somebody is due a moment of happiness or a new beginning, some ray or glimmer of hope, chances are if it’s established within the first 5 minutes, it’s probably not going to see fruition. If it does, it sure as hell won’t be an easy ride. Francesca (Bobby Paunescu, Romania, 2009) is the latest Romanian offering from the festival lineup; it’s also the name of the lead character, a beautiful kindergarten teacher with plans to emigrate to Italy and start over. However, her boyfriend has got into business with some unsavoury criminal types, owing a large sum of money and pleading week after week for them to hold off the debt just a little longer. Things begin to take a turn for the worse, and Francesca soon finds that the failings of her lover are standing in the way of her ambitions.
Bobby Paunescu began his career as a producer, with this being his debut directorial effort, but you can tell he’s learnt a few tricks from his contemporaries. Most scenes are comprised of just one shot, as the goings-on are given space to unfold freely and unedited, which effectively becomes a testament to the ability of the actors and also the director’s aim to mount drama and suspense without the need for quick cuts and theatrics.
The film’s aesthetic enables Francesca and her boyfriend to come across as actual people, and their looming threats seem all too real as well, so when the moments of sadness occur and remain uninterrupted in one single shot, we feel as if we are helplessly watching, from a safe distance, the continuing hard luck of these characters. Highly reminiscent of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, although not as accomplished, Francesca is yet another victory for the Romanian New Wave.
The Australian Outback is closely examined in Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, Australia, 2009), a rich, textured love story, unconventional in its presentation, an unflinching portrayal of an Aboriginal settlement. The title characters inhabit this landsape with their families, experiencing endless days of boredom, monotony and repetition that is reflected in the rhythm of the film. Samson is unable to speak, so he and Delilah communicate in other, physical ways, and as the film goes on, these methods of connection signify an understated affection between the two.
Thornton creates a futile environment for Samson and Delilah to live through, but when they finally escape the confines of their settlement and reach the city, they find their ordeal is far from over. The hostility they are met with is ever-present but never overemphasised, and so each instance speaks for itself.
With very few lines of dialogue spoken, the images are left to tell the story, and Thornton effectively evokes a feeling of unselfish love surviving amidst a hostile environment through poetic visuals and standout performances from two young actors. Almost hypnotic in its repetition of places and actions, this depiction of self-proclaimed ‘True Love’ is highly resonant storytelling.
Millenium: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Niels Arden Oplev, Sweden, 2009) had an even bigger queue than A Serious Man did the night before, which came as a total shock to me. Having not even read the synopsis, simply believing the title to sound ‘cool’, I was informed that the film was based on a popular book, so understandably people were eager to see how it had been adapted for the screen. That would explain the 152-minute running time.
The film initially concerns itself with two unrelated stories. The first follows reporter Mikael Blomkvist, asked to solve the disappearance and possible murder of a girl that occured 40 years ago, the case remaining unsolved ever since despite the best efforts of many to crack it open. Never mind, once our Mikael gets on board he manages to find the first solid lead in 39 years. Good job, Mikael!
The second plot revolves around Lisbeth – the girl with the tattoo from the title – a stereotypical ‘bad girl’ who is asked to collect information on Mikael through use of her expert hacking skills. At one point she asks for her legal guardian to buy her a PC capable enough to support her work. Agreeing to hand over the cash sum, the creepy bugger asks for something in return and does what any scary old man does in this type of film, proceeding to rape her. Following this, he gives her less money than she asked for; feeling short-changed, she strips him naked, slaps on the handcuffs and shoves a giant dildo up his backside. The scene immediately following this shows her happily playing at her new PC. The whole ordeal is given sugarcoated context much later in the film, but at the time this 10 minutes of sequential rape seemed highly irrelevant to the overall arc and for that, oddly amusing.
When Mikael and Lisbeth eventually find themselves on the same trail, the investigation starts to heat up, and before long the Biblical references come into play. Oh, I get it now. This is a Swedish version of The Da Vinci Code. And here I was hoping it was going to be a Japanese revenge flick! True enough, we’re granted little involvement and given no reason to wish to play along with the mystery. We’re simply forced to watch these two run around explaining their findings for the next 2 hours. Bobby Paunescu could teach this lot a thing or two about suspense.
I feel as though I should mention ITV’s Midsomer Murders at this point. Stay with me here. Midsomer Murders is, to me at least, enjoyable viewing because in every instalment it endeavours to create a sinister atmopshere within whichever village its set in, and everyone who inhabits that village or is implicated in the crime is always painted as mysterious-even-if-innocent, and so we yearn to find out more about not just the killer but the community at large. A good murder mystery will make you want to learn more about the dysfunctional relationships of all those involved in the tangled web. Millenium fails to engage its audience simply because the procedural is drawn out, dull and ultimately, most importantly, full of boring characters.
Alfred Hitchcock put it best when he explained the reason for never returning to a whodunnit after the only one he ever made, Murder! He stated that the key problem with the whodunnit is that it spends the majority of its time working around the machinations of the crime that it fails to create an emotional engagement with the audience. With this 152-minute cure for insomnia, he may have been proven right. Still, despite its shoddiness, the film received a hearty round of applause over the end credits, and I thought to myself, “if this was in English, starring Clive Owen and Liv Tyler, none of you would even consider seeing it.” (No offense, Clive Owen and Liv Tyler.) Then I thought, “well, hang on, aren’t these the same people that queued up for the Coen Bros. only yesterday?” Then I lost all hope in humanity.