Thursday, May 21, 2015

Little Sister (Zusje) (1995)

Now who could've known a family home video would be so engrossing! While Lars Von Trier's Dogme 95 movement was underway in Denmark, Dutch filmmaker Robert Jan Westdijk was already experimenting with the handheld camera and natural setting and aesthetics for his debut feature, "Little Sister" (1995).

A camera obsessed Martijn (Romijn Conen) lands up at the doorstep of his 20 year old sister Daantje (Kim van Kooten) after several years. Daantje initially seems startled at Martijn's sudden arrival, but soon absorbs the shock, and goes on with life, with Martijn close on her heels all the time. He insists on keeping the camera on and focused on Daantje's every move, claiming he is making a movie on her. Filmed with a subjective camera, the narrative unfolds almost entirely from the point of view of Martijn. Thereby, "Little Sister" practically becomes the movie that Martijn is filming, even with title credits in the beginning attributed to Martijn and Daantje!

Time passes, and the loving brother-sister banter enters darker territory. The whole fixation on Daantje begins to shape into an uncomfortable, voyeuristic gaze, especially when some flashbacks, also conveyed by way of old family home videos, hint at a possible incestuous fling between the siblings.

Thanks to a strong premise, a crisp narrative and fluid editing, "Little Sister" rises above the experimental nature of it and provides for a wholly absorbing film experience. We are taken up, close and personal with Daantje, with Kim van Kooten occupying almost every frame. No complaints there, for she is arguably one of the most gorgeous women to ever grace celluloid. Only the feeling that we are looking at her through Martijn's eyes, somewhat creeps us out!

Although a little obfuscated about her brother's visit, Daantje initially takes all the camera craze in her stride. She doesn't seem to mind all the attention and is hardly camera conscious. Martijn, and hence, the camera follows Daantje everywhere, capturing everything, even on outings with her best friend. Gradually, the encroachment on her privacy seems to become a matter of concern, when Martijn begins to overstay his welcome, especially when Daantje's goofy boyfriend Ramon (Roeland Fernhout) arrives and feels uncomfortable with big brother around.

In an awesome display of restraint and mature character handling, Daantje however, exhibits mixed reactions. It is not clear whether she really wants her brother out or in. There is always an awkward sense of tension palpable between the siblings, even though we don't really see Martijn's face for the most part. Much of the conveying is done through Daantje's nuanced expressions and their exchange of words. Her mixed feelings about her brother's presence make a lot more sense later when the fog begins to clear to reveal the true nature of their relationship and what really transpired in the past. It is clearly a memory that Daantje wants to repress, while for some reason Martijn makes periodic attempts to remind her of it. Is it Martijn's sickness that is making him stir up the episode again? Or is there another side to it and Daantje doesn't want to remember?

Everything is balanced on a neatly ambiguous thread, while more twists and turns appear in adequate measures. Power shifts occur, control is transferred, perceptions are created, and then thwarted as the film proceeds towards a finale that is confounding as well as creepy. And while it doesn't answer everything in black and white, it surely shakes the foundation of our judgment thus far. One seemingly non-serious comment that Martijn keeps throwing about, also falls into place in a freaky way.

What's commendable is, despite some of the shocking, revolting elements of the story, much of the mood maintained is quite buoyant, especially with some comical moments revolving around Ramon. What happens on screen isn't exactly pleasant; a childhood innocence is lost, a brother-sister bond loses its way. Some of the happenings on screen are downright offensive, but astonishingly, nothing appears or gets really ugly in any way. You don't really walk out with a repulsed feeling.

"Little Sister" is a compelling watch that demands your attention. This is low-budget indie cinema at its finest. Forget those horror found footage films; this is the closest that fiction can get to reality.

Score: 9/10

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Shrew's Nest (Musarañas) (2014)

Nothing would quite prepare you for this dark, macabre story set in Spain of the 1950s. What begins as a quiet, but unsettling exploration of a not-so-perfect sisterhood soon turns into a disturbing, explosive tale of blood-soaked murder and mayhem, the kind of stuff nightmares are made of.

A freaky looking seamstress, Montse (Macarena Gómez) resides with her much younger sister (Nadia de Santiago). Montse suffers from a psychological disorder, possibly a form of agoraphobia, that prevents her from stepping outside her door. For years, the god-fearing, religiously devout Montse has lived within the confines of her moderate apartment and raised the sister single-handedly, for their mother died while giving birth to the younger one, and their controlling father left them for the war and never returned.

Montse's hard life and illness has clearly taken a toll on her being, something she manages to hide from her patrons, in particular, the kindly Dona Puri (Gracia Olayo). The sister doesn't like her domineering ways, but does not have much choice, for they only have each other as family, and all said and done, she owes it to Montse for taking care of her all along.

Chance brings a stranger to their door, a handsome young neighbour (Hugo Silva) residing upstairs, who seeks help at Montse's door after falling down some stairs. A reluctant Montse lets him in, and nurses him. His arrival creates ripples in the scheme of things, especially after Montse's altruism gradually takes malevolent form.

"Shrew's Nest" (2014), the title alludes to the way of life of certain rat species who hide away in underground burrows far away from other animals. They appear harmless but also possess some venomous glands. The lead character Montse is somewhat similar. In fact, this film is more a showcase of this woman's strange psychosis. She is quite protective of her sister and has raised her with care, despite her troubled state of mind. However, one glimpse of the sister with a boy invites her wrath and the girl is punished with a cane!

This wrath is much more than a product of mere protectiveness, as shades of jealousy are also seen in this woman deprived of any kind of healthy relationship with a man. The evidence of a life ruined under the shadow of a tyrannical father (Luis Tosar, in yet another chilling performance) is unearthed in the form of flashbacks that meld with Montse's present reality in intelligently filmed scenes that blur the line between hallucinations and memories. Her general attitude towards certain things hint at a stringent adherence to religious beliefs, but her views are definitely muddled and it is easy to see why.

We also learn that perhaps her agoraphobia stems from being denied the freedom to go out of the house from an early age. Montse is a character portrait that simultaneously evokes feelings of sadness as well as resentment. Montse's current existence is the unfortunate result of a family tragedy and subsequent affected upbringing. This plot development is not without some usual cliches associated with justifying the mental instability of certain dangerous characters in cinema, but somehow the handling of Montse's character is much more sensitive and hence perhaps, far more believable. She is a victim as well as a perpetrator at the same time, thereby making it difficult for the viewer to take sides. Macarena Gómez portrays Montse with a rare sincerity, in an act that is the backbone of this film. She delivers a powerful performance, that's aptly over-the-top and fitting the behavioural pattern; exactly the kind of reactive, nervous wreck that Montse is expected to be.

The root cause of the situation in the film is the neighbour, Carlos played by Hugo Silva. His predicament brings obvious memories of Rob Reiner's "Misery" (1990). He is no James Caan, but with whatever material the script offers him, he puts up a decent performance. Carlos also harbours a secret, and the events leading up to his falling down the stairs are revealed much later, again somewhat ruffling up viewer perceptions. The introduction of a character closely related to him leads to a major shift in the events and some very heart-stopping moments.

The ultimate onus is left with the younger sister who has to cope with something much more than what her sister has unleashed. The situation gets out of hand in the third act and we enter a territory that is darkly comic, violent and gory as hell! Surprises are thrown at the viewer at various junctures, although there is one major twist that one can see coming. No harm is done, however, to the momentum or the overall quality of the picture in any way.

"Shrew's Nest" is another solid offering from Spanish horror. This is delicious, wicked fun at its best; thrilling enough for anyone to have a bloody good weekend.

Score: 8/10

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy (2014)

British filmmaker Peter Strickland, who left us wanting more with the excellent "Berberian Sound Studio" (2012) returns with his highly anticipated new film. In this reinvention of sorts, Strickland dabbles with material usually found in lowbrow underground sexploitation cinema and translates it to more refined cinema by adding plenty of art-house polish to it. "The Duke of Burgundy" (2014) is an atypical Gothic romance that explores an aberrant relationship between two women, with strikingly deviant ideas of intimacy, based on bondage and discipline, and rife with lurid fetishism.

Oh no, this is no "Fifty Shades of Grey", that god-awful watered down romantic chick flick with zero depth, posing as an erotic drama. Strickland's film is serious cinema, a mature product, oozing oodles of sensuality and he doesn't even need any explicit on-screen sex or nudity to deliver potent erotica.

Strickland transports us right into the world of a Gothic ghost story. A solitary castle-like mansion surrounded by woods and streams is the center of all the action. A beautiful, 40-something lepidopterist, Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) resides there alone, with her enormous collection of pinned moths and butterflies. She has an odd looking maid by the name of Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna). Evelyn has a queer stare most of the times, sometimes unaffected, and other times meek and curious. If Evelyn makes a mistake she is punished in a sexually domineering way, sometimes in kinkier ways, perhaps involving urolagnia! It is soon revealed, that the two women are in fact lovers, indulging in this kind of servant-master role-playing, for kicks, as a means of gratification. The rest of the film examines the shifting dynamics and co-dependencies in this strange bond, as its limits are tested and the dominant and the submissive appear to switch places.

Like his earlier films, "Duke.." is inherently a mood piece, a visual and aural feast, employing all of the oneiric aesthetics, thereby rendering a hypnotic quality to it. Right from the title credits, accompanying a haunting song by Cat's Eyes, Strickland gives us a glimpse of the quirks to come. Credits like "Perfume by:..." and "Dress and Lingerie by:..." bring a smile of curious delight and it becomes clear, that the ride isn't going to be entirely straightforward. 

The world in the film is unreal, albeit not entirely unrealistic like an elaborate fantasy world. This could be more like a scene from an idyllic dream or a nightmare of loneliness, depending on how you look at it. All those gorgeously captured frames, give off the vibe of a Gothic ghost story, as mentioned before, especially in the scenes indoor in the dark, with all the baroque interiors and furniture. The score and sound design isn't as meticulous and noteworthy as in "Berberian Sound Studio" but it still exists as an essential part of the package.

A largely striking aspect of Strickland's world is the lack of men. There's not a single male person to be found in the narrative dominated entirely by an all-female cast. Adding an absurdly surreal touch to the proceedings is the conspicuous presence of mannequins sitting in an audience in the Lepidopterology seminars.

These seminars and gatherings and one single scene with a carpenter are perhaps the only instances when we see more characters on screen. All of the other times, the focus and our attention is directed towards the two leading ladies. The study of the insects serves as a major parallel to the story if we take into consideration their life cycle progression. Much like these women are studying the species under a microscope, we are given front row seats with 3D glasses, and made to witness the development of this strangely intriguing relationship between the women. 

The exchanges between the two range from sweet to downright brazen to the level of discomfort. A palpable, irresistible force is at play. Strickland keeps most of the kinky action off-screen, thereby playing mischief with the viewer and poking his/her voyeuristic tendencies, much like how only bits and parts of Cynthia's comely physique are visible to a curious Evelyn as she peeps through the keyhole! Given that their relationship involves rituals or role playing to satiate, most activities are repeated and recur throughout the film, like a daily cycle. This furthers the intrigue by giving the narrative the form of a recurring dream. The theme of ritualistic repetition that is an important part of their existence, mirrors the repeating life cycle of the moths and butterflies. It is no surprise that "The Duke of Burgundy" is a title derived from a rare butterfly species, Hamearis lucina. 

There are several scenes filmed through mirrors or glasses, showcasing distorted or multiple reflections perhaps hinting at the characters' mental distortions and twisted fantasies. At one point, the camera longingly scans Cynthia's outfit from the bottom to the top as Evelyn, on her knees, caresses her, real slowly. Cynthia's torso in this outfit strangely resembles the back of a moth. Such slow, lingering shots are aplenty in the film, kind of like a visual meditation. The camera sometimes gazes at multicoloured soap bubbles and gives them time to pop before our eyes. It also pans across similarly diversely coloured panties strung out to dry, pretty much like the series of butterflies of various colours pinned into exhibits in Cynthia's study.

Role-playing and the desire for surprises by one partner makes it ambiguous as to what is enacted and what is real. It is also a matter of debate as to how much is real and how much imagined. We often hear words and whispers that don't appear to be part of a first-hand dialog. Could they be voices in someone's head? Evelyn is also often seen with a steady gaze at the camera, perhaps an indication that she drifts off into daydreams. In one superlative scene of hallucinatory brilliance, Strickland makes it clear that at least some part is imagined as the camera slowly zooms in and out of the dark recesses between a woman's legs. 

On paper, the plot of "The Duke of Burgundy" may seem thin. But there is no denying that this is one exquisitely crafted romantic psychodrama that offers a lot to ponder on. Evoking memories of some of Luis Bunuel's best films, especially "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977) and even Joseph Losey's "The Servant" (1963), "Duke.." is not all style and eccentricities. There is a lot more at the core. At the heart of all the fantasies and the fetishes is a strong desire that borders on obsession. The women's love for each other almost rivals their love for the butterflies; an obsessive love that is best expressed only through physical bondage; the butterflies are pinned, and partners are tied and locked up in caskets.

Score: 9/10