Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Alps (2011)

A talented gymnast, her older coach, a nurse and a paramedic form a secret group offering services to fill in the shoes of the recently deceased. In return for a sum of money, these individuals engage in impersonating and play-acting the characteristic traits and daily routines of the dead, in the company of their relatives, parents, spouses, friends or colleagues over multiple sessions. The purported goal is to alleviate the relatives' grieving process by filling in the void created by the loss of their loved ones.

Absurd? Well, don't knock this one 'til you try it. "Alps" (2011) has a bizarre premise at its center that somehow works in Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos' minimalist, deadpan universe. The talented filmmaker knows exactly what he wishes to convey here, and with a rare panache, narrates this story by establishing a steady control on the aesthetics and tone, thereby making one appreciate the inexplicable material presented, which otherwise could've been in a grave danger of misfiring or being misunderstood.

From the very first frame, Lanthimos subjects us to a lot of off-kilter dialog and impassive line deliveries involving some very strange characters who engage in stranger exchanges. We are introduced to this group who call themselves 'The Alps', headed by their self-appointed leader, the paramedic, who calls himself Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis). While bringing in an accident victim, rather than assuring or pacifying her, he tells her that she might die soon, and begins jotting down details about her family, likes and dislikes, possibly as groundwork for the next substitute assignment for his business!

The nurse (Angeliki Papoulia) works with the paramedic, and she is perhaps the most warped of the lot. While the agenda or the motivations of the group to carry out what they do is unclear, her motivations grow murkier, as it begins to appear that perhaps she has other things to gain from this underground project of theirs.

But just when you think she is the one with at least some shred of an emotional tissue in her when she appears to strike a bond with the dying accident victim, Lanthimos unmasks her as a shrewd businessperson who is quick to make an offer to the girl's parents to substitute her, even throwing in a freebie, in the same breath as she condoles them! Shrewd, she is though, as is later seen when she tries to bend the rules a bit, much to the ire of her leader.

The gymnast (Ariane Labed) and her coach (Johnny Vekris) are an odd pair. She appears to be quite dependent on him and very submissive too. When they argue about the style of music to use or even when a rather stern warning is issued, it is done in a manner so poker-faced, one begins to wonder what they are on. As the film progresses, it subtly raises doubts in our minds. How credible is the identity of these characters? The man is the girl's coach...or is he? Recurring dialog and repeating situations between people seem to hint at a wholly different perspective. It is tough to pinpoint reality against role-playing, as the line between the actual existences of this lot and their acted lives begins to obfuscate.

There are no easy answers to what is happening on screen, but gradually it all begins to make sense in a weird sort of way. One could think of Lanthimos' film as an absurdist black comedy that works as somewhat of a satire on feigned relationships and emphasizes on how unknowingly, there is an underlying pretense in almost every social connection. Don't we all put on an act in real life, no matter how small? Acting has become such an inherent part of our lives, that we tend to ignore it. Isn't it very common for an employee to put on a smiling face in front of his boss, despite not being given a raise? Aren't we all polite in the face of that untimely entry of an uninvited guest?

"Alps" simply amplifies this idea and makes it a way of life of our central characters. He taps into the very concept of replacing the loved ones and poses the question; how loved were they really if merely mouthing their commonly used words, wearing their clothes, and exhibiting their behavioural traits like a ritual, could be enough to substitute them?

The nurse comes home to her father at the end of the day and they follow a routine almost like clockwork, but their exchanges are very reserved. We learn later, how little she really knows her father, automatically planting a shred of doubt in our minds about even this father-daughter relationship. Is it for real? Or is it subconsciously turning into another acting assignment for her? And if it is real, then how appallingly detached this relationship is!

It is possible that perhaps, the people who actually buy these services are doing it out of sheer guilt or a desire to make amends for not being there for the ones who died. Cracks may have appeared in their bonds and the sudden deaths awaken them from their slumber. The Alps serve as a gateway to salvation, an alleviation of guilt rather than sorrow. How ironic, though, that the alleviation process itself borders on hilarity, owing to how mechanical it is. We see a man hire the nurse to fill in for his Canadian wife who presumably died from Diabetes. Their conversations in English are the strangest and funniest of the lot; right down to a deliberately fake orgasmic utterance during a feigned cunnilingus!

The peculiar camerawork is suggestive of the theme of an inherent alienation or emotional distance between individuals. The extensive use of shallow focus puts one character in the sharp forefront, while the other individual (or two) remain out of focus and blurred in the same frame, despite not being placed very far from this character. Sometimes, the head of a person or his/her entire body is cut out from the frame. 

This could be the filmmaker's way of withholding the emotions on his characters' faces, thereby not revealing or creating any sort of emotional bias. Or perhaps, more befittingly, it could be symbolic of total detachment. In tune with this idea, one could also think of the methods of the Alps and acting as a means of reconnecting alienated individuals, a theme explored in an extraordinarily ambiguous fashion in Abbas Kiarostami's wonderful "Certified Copy" (2010).

Lanthimos goes one step further. He makes acting actually look like acting by stripping it of the histrionics as well as the naturalism. The film is primarily about role-playing, and there is a deliberate pretense about it, accentuated with the deadpan and visibly rehearsed kind of line deliveries of these characters, given their daily acting routine. And this part reflects that awe-inspiring idea of how acting takes over real life, essentially nullifying the actual existence of an individual, as was explored in a more explicit and unequivocal fashion in Leos Carax's "Holy Motors" (2012).

It is no surprise then, that the characters are all obsessed with actors and more notably, Hollywood. A recurring line of conversation always pertains to enquiring about someone's favourite actors or singers. Hollywood seems to be either mocked at or paid tribute to, with a lot of references to various celebrities, living or dead. A blind woman would rather listen to a Winona Ryder interview about her day to day life than to other current affairs. Even a tiny detail about a coffee mug is shared, that incidentally has the name "Los Angeles" inscribed on it!

"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players", goes an old, almost prophetic Shakespearean quote. Yorgos Lanthimos melds it with our reality as we know it, and demonstrates just how unreal it could be.

Score: 9/10

Friday, August 14, 2015

Blind (2014)

What happens when complete darkness surrounds you? All you can do is visualize. You can use your memory of a place, perhaps grope in the dark based on your best judgment of it. In a way, when you cannot see, your mind becomes your eyes. And when one is visually impaired, the darkness is permanent; an infinite blank space beyond comprehension. The only way to give something any kind of tangible shape is to imagine. The mind becomes the ultimate gateway to reach and feel a world that cannot be seen. Only where there is imagination, there is also the limitlessness.

Norwegian writer-director Eskil Vogt demonstrates this through the mind of Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Petersen), a woman recently gone blind due a hereditary condition. Despite her husband Morten's (Henrik Rafaelsen) adequate support and insistence that she must step out and try to resume normal life, Ingrid chooses to stay indoors. Whilst being confined to her apartment, mostly sitting by the window and writing away on her laptop, she resorts to endless musings in a thought process voice-over.

We are introduced to two other primary characters, who are presumably Ingrid's neighbours. Einar (Marius Kolbenstvedt) is a single loner and avid porn addict, and Elin (Vera Vitali) is a lonesome single mother with a child who comes to spend the weekends with her. Ingrid's narration gives us backgrounds of these characters, seemingly from her memory, and then the story arc gradually begins to develop as the lives of these characters intertwine. However, after an instance or two of wild imagination concerning her husband, a big question mark is put on the credibility of Ingrid, exposing her as an unreliable narrator, especially when the events unfolding on the screen begin to border on the absurd.

"Blind" works impressively as a rich, layered film that serves as both a character sketch of Ingrid, and also as a fascinating psychological drama that focuses on her repressed fantasies that take shape in the darkness. While most other films portray the blind as being victims in a predicament, with excessive dependence on others, Vogt chooses to show his blind protagonist using the handicap to her advantage. It is Ingrid who is in control here, because she is confined to her home. At home, she feels safe, more confident than anywhere else, and with confidence, comes power. Vogt eschews most of the usual tropes associated with such films and far from making his Ingrid a pitiable character, he makes us marvel at the extent of her imagination, and the ability to take her limitation in her stride.

Ingrid is a deeply lonely person, much like Einar and Elin, but her loneliness becomes an outlet for her desires. Sexual repression and total darkness combine forces to fructify into a new world, not strictly of an otherworldly kind, but rather, very human, very grounded in reality. And therefore while she doesn't wander off to a fantastical world with odd beings and surroundings, she still manages to make something unreal out of her real world with somewhat of a Bunuelesque touch. She somehow finds release via these fantasies, which are mostly to do with loneliness and sex.

The characters and the events surrounding them are shown from her perspective, and when eventually fantasies start permeating the facts, revealing Ingrid's mischievous side, the viewer can't help but cheer. It eventually becomes all too clear, with the director leaving little to the viewer's interpretation, the moment Ingrid more or less begins to play God when it comes to the fates of these characters.

Vogt infuses a fair bit of comedy in the mix, especially when Ingrid gets into a more playful mood. Some bravura editing is used to shift scenarios in a manner that you might find yourself rubbing your eyes about what exactly it was that you saw. Elin is shown to have a son, and in the next scene, the son turns into a daughter! Is this the product of Ingrid's memory failing her, or is it a product of her fickle imagination? It is all very subtly done until it comes out in the open.

Vogt's attention to detail about a blind person's thought process is commendable. This is a woman, deprived of romance following her blindness. She can only imagine the changes in her physical appearance thereafter. Following an evening of fine wine, when she gets in a rather romantic mood, and her husband doesn't make an advance, she peeps rather casually "Has my hair turned greyer lately?"

As a blind person, Ingrid is somewhat insecure, as her fears of being left alone manifest in the form of her husband Morten's attempts at infidelity. But imagining this infidelity in the form of an elaborate sex chat full of lurid details hints at the possibility that she is somehow even deriving excitement from this imagination which is not really in her favour. And therefore, after a fleeting moment of self-pity upon being rejected a sexual advance, Ingrid drifts off into a detailed date fantasy about her husband and his imagined mistress, that ends badly albeit in a humourous fashion!

This is a woman craving attention from her husband, but also appreciates that he is still there by her side, despite almost cutting down on the romance. And in, perhaps, the quest for that attention, and in sick desperation, Ingrid sheds all her clothes and presses herself seductively against her glass window for the whole world to see, fully aware of the fact that she can neither see any reaction from anyone, nor can she see for herself what they can.

It is in scenes like these that one can admire the talent involved here. Petersen dishes out a bold and applause-worthy performance as Ingrid, and seems to do it quite effortlessly, considering the film's effectiveness and appeal mostly comes from watching her. Ably supporting her are Kolbenstvedt and Vitali, in acts that almost rival hers in creating characters that one can easily connect with.

With some fine talent on board, a strong script and expert handling, Eskil Vogt has created a masterpiece. This is one director whose work will be looked forward to.

Score: 10/10

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Double (2013)

A classic 19th century doppelganger tale from a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella gets a modern twist in Richard Ayoade's "The Double" (2013).

Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg) is your archetypal pushover loser, working in a claustrophobic, bureaucratic workplace that looks like a miniature model of Josef K's office in "The Trial" (1962), albeit with cubicle partitions. A typically meek individual, he is the kind of person who would quietly take a cold snub from even the security guard at his own office where he has been working for the last seven years. Almost always unable to muster the courage to speak out or retaliate, Simon leads a doormat existence, even to the point of not being recognized or acknowledged by some of his colleagues.

Enter James Simon, his exact physical double but characteristically exact polar opposite, who shows up as a new employee. Much to Simon's shock and dismay, others around him seem to accept this double rather nonchalantly, without any kind of disbelief or amazement regarding their physical and namesake resemblance. Simon's already tenuous position is further jeopardized when this new entrant, his phenomenally charismatic doppelganger threatens to take over his job, his love, his life, even his entire existence.

"The Double" is essentially a Kafkaesque nightmare that plays out like a deliriously funny, absurdist black comedy. A pitiable protagonist makes a good subject for some wickedly humorous writing, and Ayoade and co-screenwriter Avi Korine hit all the right notes with the tragicomedy that ensues. The story is not necessarily original or unheard of, thanks to the existence of various interpretations and re-imaginations of Dostoyevsky's story in several films and shorts of the sort, but "The Double" is a product that still manages to stand on its own. Despite obvious influences that leap out, Ayoade's film makes a big impression thanks to some crackling wry wit, oodles of atmosphere and a strong lead performance.

Indeed, Jesse Eisenberg hits a home run with his brilliantly segregated dual act. Despite almost the same makeup on both James and Simon, Eisenberg successfully creates two drastically distinct individuals with entirely disparate body languages and speech mannerisms. On one hand is the submissive mouse, Simon who can hardly get himself to utter two words audible and assertive enough for the other person to hear, while on the other is James, the smooth-and-fast-talking smart-ass, evoking memories of his "The Social Network" (2010) performance. It is a masterstroke for both the filmmaker and the actor, that they are able to elicit extreme emotional responses from the viewer for the same guy in a single frame.

The heart almost weeps for the poor, rejected bloke that is Simon and at the same time loathes that same face that we see on James. Rivaling this dual act is Mia Wasikowska as Hannah, the object of Simon's silent affection, who seems to have some schizophrenic tendencies of her own, what with her switching from uber cute to uber rude in a visible transformation, physically as well as behaviourally. Of course, finding a normal individual in Ayoade's film is a bit of a task, considering, but not limited to, the fact that we are looking at the events on the screen mostly with Simon's lens. Plenty of eccentric looneys show up, a la the films of David Lynch, particularly that creepy old woman with short pigtails who ominously declares, "Your mother says you are a strange boy!".

And hence it is a matter of personal interpretation as to what happens in that maddening third act when all hell breaks loose with James' increasing influence, as Simon's personality begins to nullify. With a rising existential crisis, his sanity gradually spirals out of control and desperation gets the better of him. He struggles to keep his identity, with the film now changing tone from a light, fun comedy to a genuinely unsettling nightmare, especially when it appears that there are doubles of some others around as well!

Apart from an engrossing plot of a formidable predicament, Ayoade's imaginative depiction of the dreary world inhabited by our hapless protagonist goes a long way in making the film so immensely watchable. Simon appears to be a part of some draconian society led by a Big Brother like figure known only as "The Colonel". With mandatory dos and extremely bureaucratic adherence to rules, including the refusal to admit even an old, familiar employee without an ID, this world resembles a sort of hybrid between the one in Michael Radford's adaptation of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1984) and Orson Welles' Kafka adaptation, "The Trial" (1962).

An industrial setting, with an environment that is mostly dark, evokes memories of "Eraserhead" (1977). We never really see any daylight, it is mostly only night time on screen, beautifully illuminated by moody lighting with shifting shades and colours. A low rumble, again a common Lynch trait, fills the air for the most part, when it is not the heavy strings score. Choice songs occupy the soundtrack, and the incorporation and placement of the classic Japanese number "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto is a stroke of genius, rendering a magical touch, arousing feelings of sweet romance and nostalgia. Closely constructed apartment buildings and instances of voyeurism are a respectful nod to Kieslowski's The Decalogue - VI ("Thou Shalt not Covet") (1988).

2013 was a year that saw the release of another spectacular doppelganger thriller, "Enemy", directed by Denis Villeneuve. "The Double" is no exact double of Villeneuve's masterpiece, but it is one of the finest psychological thrillers out there. Grab it without hesitation.

Score: 9/10