Writer-director Robert Eggers, who previously wowed us with The Lighthouse, returns in style with a brutal, bloody Viking epic, based on Amleth, the figure in Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s the first of his films to see a wide, mainstream release and large-scale ad campaign to match, and it’s perhaps for that reason that it is in some sense less demanding that its audience put the work in to understand and interpret it – although there remains plenty of room for that, and it’s in a different league to the blockbusters with which it’s competing. It’s a film to put down what you’re doing right now and see at the cinema – it’s vicious, atmospheric, and beautifully shot, and you won’t regret seeing it where it’s meant to be seen.
We are joined by Celia Nicholls, film wiz extraordinaire, for a discussion of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a careful drama following a Protestant minster’s personal crises and relationships with his parishioners and community. Comparisons with Robert Bresson, informed by Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, are drawn; we consider how trite or meaningful we find the film’s moral questions; and we pick apart the film’s flat aesthetic and occasional flights of fancy.
Before Midnight is adult, focused on character and relationships; with smart non-stop dialogue, almost musical in the jazzy way characters riff on ideas and interact and improvise with each other, that dramatises, hides, highlights, symbolizes, but is nonetheless recognisably the way emotionally intelligent and highly educated people speak. It’s filmed in long fluid takes that focus on people and show off the skill of the director and the actors.
It’s a film about the important things in life: love, loneliness, family, sex, children, work; one that requires patience. It insists you submit to its gentle beat but then rewards you with laughter, emotion and thought. It’s modern in the way Celine (JulieDelpie) fights for her choice of life and in the way it shows Jesse (Ethan Hawke) giving in to her whilst still seeming so ruggedly male; it’s old fashioned in the way she flirts and in the way he courts. The bickering is the bickering in all relationships; the preference to remain two solitudes together, and the wisdom of that choice, is not.
I didn’t like seeing Patrick (Walter Lasally – is he based on Patrick Leigh Fermor? Leigh Fermor is the British war hero who also wrote two famous books on his travels walking through Europe as a young man – A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water – and who ended up living in Greece), the semi-sage in the writer’s colony or the rest of the Greeks we see at a writer’s colony – they seem to prick a pin through the bubble of charm that is my idea of Before Sunrise (1995), the first film; as if introducing other people darkens the warm romantic glow. But Before Midnight is a more sombre, more mature film than even the equally touching Before Sunset (2004). I suppose the film had to be opened up in some way but the other people seem to prick a pin through the bubble of romance, though I suppose that’s the point — it’s no longer a bubble, it’s no longer a holiday romance, it’s no longer a romance — it’s a relationship. And love. But love in a relationship, as the film so beautifully dramatises, is not quite the same..
The film begins with Jesse saying goodbye to his 14-year old son at the airport. The talk is awkward and loving. He leaves his son so that he can go back to his mother whom Jesse has a terrible relationship with. Celine seems to be part of the problem. She’s too opinionated, self-centred, can only see her point-of-view, has obviously poured oil on flame. She gets some of the best laughs in the film. He’s overwhelmed with sadness and self-doubt. Has he been a good father? Should they move from Paris to Chicago to be near his son? Her whole life and that of their daughters is in Paris, and the very question threatens Celine’s whole life and begins a questioning of the relationship itself.
It all takes place in one day, once again in a beautiful location, this time the Peloponnese, full of ruins of civilisations past and of beautiful churches with murals choc-a-bloc with icons that have had their eyes removed. They talk about Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, and what to make of Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in Voyage to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1954) seeing those skeletons wrapped in an eternal embrace in Pompeii. They know they are not the ideal or romantic lovers but maybe they too are blind to what is in front of their face: that they still love. American directors in the 1960s used to look enviously at the works of art being produced in Europe and wonder what cinema they might be able to create had they the same freedoms. Just as with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Before Midnight would have proved a very satisfactory answer.
The Purge is a B-movie in conception and execution but, as is often the case with B-movies, it is also a timely and entertaining commentary on present-day America.
The film is set in 2022. The economy is booming, unemployment is barely 1% and America seems to have recovered from the violence and unrest of its recent past (i.e. our present). Why is that? Well because once a year Americans are legally allowed to go and kill anyone they feel like for a 12-hour period. This ‘purge’ is seen as a patriotic duty as it gets rid of all the criminals, all who are seen as ‘detritus’ (here black, poor, homeless) and simply anyone who is hated (which could include pretty much everyone, even in, or especially in, a gated community).
This purge is believed to flush out all bad people as well as all bad feeling leading to both social and psychological well being for the rest of the 364 days. Households are allowed to protect themselves against those who want them purged from this world of course…but that takes money. Thus at the heart of this seemingly banal sci-fi horror is a scathing critique of race and class in contemporary America. It’s been released under the title of American Nightmare (not Le cauchemar Américain).
The film is rather wonderful at inverting some of the conventions of the genre (What happens to nubile young girls who do naughty things? What’s the cost to the hero of protecting his family?), at re-attributing symbols (what it does here with the Occupy movement masks) and at indicating how close the language of politics, society, identity and community in America now is to that depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The Purge is also excellent at communicating a sense of social hatred for the poor, for the failures, for the different or simply for those that have what you want.
The Purge cops out at the end (it wants to do the moral thing but also keep the diamond rings), its analysis and critique are a bit muddled and it is perhaps not as scary as it should be. I note that some message boards find the premise unbelievable because they can’t imagine emergency services not running for 12-hours (though welcome to most of the rest of the world friends!) or, as the film rather underlines, because of the psychological, social and economic cost of those 12-hours of purge.
If you allow yourself to buy into the film’s premise, however, you’ll find that the film moves well; that Ethan Hawke is rather wonderful as an ordinary, slightly put-upon middle-class father; that he makes a good couple with Lena Hedley (best known for her Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones); that Rhys Wakefield is a superbly chilling villain and that the film is enjoyably scary whilst leaving you with a thing or two to think about.