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The Piano Teacher – Michael Haneke

9 Sep

The Piano Teacher

Nationality: German

Spectacular, unflinching and appropriately enigmatic and non-judgemental plunge through the darkest places of sex and attraction – and classical music

Apologies for the absence of pictures for this review.  I don’t own this dvd yet myself.

The Piano Teacher tells a story of how sexuality can become twisted and destructive/self destructive – and within a classical music setting.  I must admit that I approached Piano Teacher with some trepidation – maybe to my shame and in spite of Haneke’s superb reputation and the considerable number of people violently offended by this film (which is, as we all know, always a sign of how good a film is!).  Why?  Is it just that there is no story subject that can inflict pain more than sex gone haywire?  Or had I seen just one too many films becoming dirges and hymns to the creator’s own emotional problems?  Maybe all of the above.  Maybe none.  But one thing I will say – it was perhaps the fact that the film was centred on music that alarmed me the most since music seems to be the one place where fiction comes crashing to the ground, with lack of understanding producing a weird kind of artificiality that I have come to dread.  For example, Jane Campion’s The Piano, though a beautiful film in many ways, suffered from this flaw big time, with music becoming this ethereal fantasy land or fairyland.

In the event though, I needn’t have worried on any count here.  Far from it.  Because Haneke pulled it off with superb skill and success.  This portrayal of the music scene is an unusual one because it makes no attempt to shy away from the sense of the dark and twisted that can linger in a lot of classical music – among performers more than composers, I am tempted to suggest – while the listeners sit there and politely applaud with no CLUE as to the reality.  Haneke’s portrayal has something subtly satirical about it, sometimes providing a welcome touch of light relief.  But at the same time it also provides a cloying sense of surrounding darkness – something almost imprisoning and very restrictive.  Like ballet and professional sports, classical music demands an essentially superhuman discipline and dedication that goes far beyond what is natural or healthy.  Completely chucking out any notions of classical music as something sweet and romantic, the film shows it as a dangerously refined force that you must surrender and capitulate to utterly – all life and emotion – and it demands this with a completely cold and rewardless cruelty.  Like a kind of religious chastity and restraint, it doesn’t sit well at all with the deeper darker places of the human soul and provides the perfect companion the main character’s twisted sexuality – both as inevitable results of the other.  Classical music in its pure salon form: probably the least sexy artform in the world, in spite of all the ‘high passions’ and romance and emotion it attempts to deal with or pretends it deals with.

And hey – I am saying all this as one who quite likes classical music!

Erica Kohut is a frosty lady working as a piano teacher.  She has moderately good piano skills and extremely BAD teaching skills (like a lot of musicians who end up supplementing their careers with teaching).  Seemingly obsessed with control and domination, and above all with preserving her icy exterior, she nevertheless still lives with her mother in a Steptoe and Son style relationship – not surprisingly an edgy relationship, almost totally under her mother’s thumb but straining rather vaguely against it.  And underneath that, her sexuality is predictably twisted.  She finds what fulfilment she can by haunting the porn booths and indulging in minor voyeurism, all the while carefully maintaining her frosty exterior.  And probably the last thing she ever expected was for someone to come along and love her.  Maybe she assumed that this was just not something that happened to people like her.  Maybe she hoped that her icy wall was sufficient to protect her from this basic human urge.  But it does happen, in the form of a very self-assured young pianist named Walter who is almost completely her opposite.  He becomes her student and has no problem whatever in declaring his love for the icy professor, in spite of her initial harsh reaction.  But the strange thing about love is that it tends to find ways in spite of what any conscious mind tries to do.  Unfortunately the result is not the blossoming of a character liberated from a sad state by the warm glow of love.  The result is a terrifying downward plunge and disintegration and a reminder that love and sex are both forces that can be as dark as you want them to be.

Things happen and eventually she finds herself accepting him in encounters rendered grotesque by her need to keep that icy control and domination of the situation.

Then more things happen in which she begins to reveal a more self-effacing and masochistic side.

Then further things happen in which she completely cracks and becomes something completely crawling and desperate.

In other words – the ice shattered (not melted) under the sudden appearance of his love and left her completely naked and terrified, even as her manipulative mind is still ticking over, working its way through things like a machine breaking down but still only able to carry on attempting to do what it has always done.  And no classical music can help her now.  I do wonder how much of this was deliberate on some level?  The shattering and the painful consequences, the begging to be degraded and hurt, then begging for forgiveness for her own perversions – was all that deliberately taken on in order to smash through what she was before, her icy isolated self, which obviously caused her infinite grief?  There are always many levels to things after all – levels of the mind, levels of the personality, levels of the soul . . .

And his response during all this?  That is very sadly human.  “You are sick – not my problem – I don’t want to know – I love you.”  Face it – this once-confident but largely innocent and never very clever young man is completely out of his depth here.

And all this until the gloomy conclusion.  At last the clash of two contradictory characters is complete and at last the whole thing comes home to roost.  He turns up late one night with one incoherent intention – of showing her just what all her confused masochistic desires and wishes imply.  It is a spectacular encounter – and filmed with amazing subtlety considering the subject matter.  He beats her up, rapes her, essentially demanding “Is this what you really want?” – simultaneously trying to ‘teach her a lesson’ and release his own frustration a bit as well.  The whole event proceeds with its own momentum now, until she is left battered and bleeding and ruined on the floor.

This is what I mean about the enigmatic nature of the film. It would be easy to sit back and see this as nothing more than a man, driven to frustration and finally raping her.  But it is so much more complicated than that (as reality usually is).  It is the logical and maybe inevitable conclusion of this dance of characters.  No longer is he the easy-going person of the start of the film – and there is no getting away from the fact that it was her that made him into what he has become now.  This is simply about understanding the mechanics of what is going on, not a matter of assigning blame or picking out a good guy and a bad guy – that is all way too trite.  It is infinitely to the film’s credit that it took on such an emotionally enigmatic and non-judgemental / non-black-and-white attitude to its subject matter.  If either of the two lead characters had been portrayed as somehow the ‘bad’ guy in this, then the film would have instantly failed.  Instead, Haneke somehow managed the remarkable job of taking us through this very dirty and painful story that shows neither male or female sexuality in any very good light without alienating either character!  And for that, my respect is vast.

As an aside, the attitude of the camera to the more extreme goings on is interesting.  You certainly can’t call it a voyeuristic lens here – Haneke shoots his material with what sometimes seems an admirable restraint and subtlety, sometimes almost seems to stray into the coy territory – as though the film is standing there stiff with distaste, trying to focus its eyes on something other than the nasty thing it is trying to show.  However, this could also be construed in a different way – as though it is responding to the audience’s own emotions and their own way of watching these things.  Maybe even forcing us to observe in such a manner to remind us of our role in all this and what we are watching.  Maybe.

Of course, the film itself can be as non-judgmental as you like, but the reactions of the viewer are another matter entirely.  Witness the spewing resentment that the film sometimes generates.  For one thing, it is almost impossible to keep your own sexuality out of this and almost impossible not to start making personal reactions.  It would be so easy to sit back and loathe that mixed up woman and her dangerously, selfishly manipulative mind that essentially breaks down completely the moment she is no longer in complete charge of the situation.  Especially if you are a man, lets be honest.  And likewise, it is easy to condemn Walter, for his harsh eventual reaction to that – and also maybe for being such an annoying cocksure ass at first.  Especially if you are a woman, lets be honest.  In doing this, Haneke has made the film into a very sharp reminder of just how easy it is to give way to the flaw of being judgemental.  Of just how hard it is to really get inside the kind of emotions and feelings that both these characters are going through (or that anyone is going through, real or fictional) – and understand the whole thing in its entirety.  In that event, if you take the non-judgmentality of the film as the ideal, the whole film thus becomes a test for the viewer – and a gruelling one as well.  And, if the film enrages you, then it is a sign of failing that test.  And likewise, if you end up rooting for one character – he is a saint, she is a bitch or she is marvellously human and he is just a little prick – then that is also a sign of failure.  I am sorry if that sounds arrogant on my part and maybe I am suddenly being judgemental about being non-judgemental (now there’s a nice paradox for philosophers!) – but this kind of testing of our own emotional awareness is rare indeed (normally directors seem to ask us to follow a specific emotion that they are trying to convey) and, in this case, it became one of the most prominent aspects of the film for me.

Many times during the film, I just wanted to hold my head and yell at the characters, demanding “Why?”  As in, why are you doing this to yourself?  What sort of sick pantomime are you enacting here?  Of course though, this is just a measure of the unflinching realism of the work and its power of conveying what it wants to convey.  Words like ‘bleak but necessary’ spring to mind – as in a necessary view for everyone if we are ever to figure out this mess called life that we have got ourselves into as a species and STOP ruining ourselves and everyone around us in this stupid way.  The reason being that the admittedly quite extreme goings on in this film can stand as a mirror to just about any and all of our own sexual interactions, no matter how ‘normal’ they seem.  It is there in the clash of icy and unreal ideals and dirty, smelly reality that encompasses just about our entire existence.  In the terror we all feel – have all been educated to feel – of the dark depths that can exist.  The stink of Piano Teacher is the stink of our entire lives!

At the back of my mind is the feeling that this story could have had a happy ending if either character had just been able to find that key to it – and the key was there.  The realism of Haneke’s film left that in no doubt, even up to the end.  Even during that climactic and hugely enigmatic ‘rape’ scene.  If he had realised X or if she had only realised Y, both of which were there to see.  Likewise though is the other realisation that it could never have had a happy ending – that the characters were doomed from the start by their own natures . . . and it is a tribute to the film’s subtlety and reality that I can talk like this so speculatively.   It is the great sadness of the film that this key was never found – just as so often in real life when you look at your own relationships or would-be relationships or unrequited relationships with confusion and uncertainty – and lack the trust, of both yourself and the other, yet can never forgive that other for the same mistrust and fear.  It is so easy to just let things go – to dismiss things as being simple when they are not.  He’s a bastard.  She’s a bitch.  Instead of actually looking at it all.  So easy to just be nasty and bitter and angry instead of just sitting back a moment and thinking “now wait a minute – WHAT is going on here?”  But then again, that is easy to say from without or with hindsight – easy to say that when you are in the audience.  It’s much harder to actually do it, because sometimes the hardest thing in the world to trust is your own instincts.

Were I using a ranking system here (which thankfully I am not!), Haneke would get a full 10/10 for this brave and virtuoso performance.  The human race on the other hand would score somewhat less well.

But then – since when is that anything new?

The Naked: A Psychological Film – Witold Swietniki & Krzysztof Jaworski

9 Sep

The Naked
Pros: Quirky, chuckle-out-loud comedy, the absurdity and silliness of the mundane nicely emphasised by the complete absence of clothes.

Cons: Gawd that mundane world is soooo depressing!!!

I suppose someone just had to do it.  It’s one of those ideas that is almost inevitable.  That of taking a mundane real-world environment – in this case, a dreary little Polish office where very little work gets done among all the cattish gossip and low-grade slice-of-life tribulations – and throwing just one spectacular and unmissable spanner into the works of this reality . . . because, in a nutshell, everyone is naked.  Yup – not a stitch of clothes to be seen anywhere.  Not even on the TV.  This is a nudist film – set in a world where clothes just . . . don’t exist.  And where there is nothing odd about that at all.

Of course, this being mundane reality, this is no glamorised flesh.  White floppy bellies and slightly wobbly backsides proliferate everywhere.  Just like yours or mine.  And it is this surreal reality that drives this film.  One can of course use this as a kind of tool for all sorts of speculation about the cultural meaning of clothes or, better still, as a nice way of highlighting the lunacy of real life.  I don’t quite know why it is, but people without clothes seem to have far less right or licence to behave stupidly than those with them – maybe because without clothes it is impossible to convey illusions about yourself.  But one is left with a strong sense of displacement here and a startling realisation of just how alien and strange the normal discourses and intercourses of everyday life are.  More so, I suspect, than if the same characters performed the same script fully clothed.The Naked

But all that high-brow speculation aside, there is a wonderful vein of sly and mischievous humour going on here.  That feeling that one control slider in this reality has been jerked up to maximum – where everything is just a little bit more extreme than it should be.  Where absurdity goes to its limits and the normal mayhem of the office is amplified.  Not outrageously – indeed, it is all done with great subtlty and an admirable crescendo – but just enough to make you shake your head and laugh.  It could be called a farce, in the good old sense of the word – a naked office farce.  Pity the poor and much-pressed new girl, trying to transcribe several wardrobes-full of documents on a computer that keeps crashing, while at the same time continually having to make the tea and fetch and carry.  Cringe at the colleague just back from a health spa, filled with tales of acupuncture and loosing weight.  Giggle guiltily at the cattish discussions of fat canteen staff (not present at the time of course), annoying husbands or the current soap operas.  Shrink in terror at the colleague who had to bring his kids in for the afternoon and what happens when they get their hands on the kitchen knives.  And where has the boss got to and is he really suffering from rabies?  And what the hell is this continual reoccurring reference to a bomb that nobody seems to pay any attention to?The Naked

The fact that the entire action takes place in one small room (and the corridor outside), along with the way that all the plot elements are so neatly bound up, make this feel almost like a stage play.  This is perhaps helped by the fact that it is shot with a very informal camera, glancing around casually and right in there following the action just as though it was a person.  Maybe there is a hint of Beckett in there, in that juxtaposition of mundane wittering with the surreal.  Like Beckett also is that blend of humour and a disquieting bleakness and depression in the environment and characters.The Naked

This is no mighty and profound work that will move you or shock you to your foundation.  But it is a quirky and clever little film that can make you shake your head with a grin and maybe look at the world just a little differently.  And if you work in an office, I guess you wont be looking at your colleagues in quite the same way again either.

Brass Eye 2001 Special – Chris Morris

9 Sep

Brass Eye Special

Pros: Satire at it’s most vicious and necessary.
Cons: Certainly not for everyone. But if you can forgive it’s occasional clumsiness and handle it’s close-to-the-bone and bad-taste humor, there is not much wrong really on its own terms.

Brass Eye 2001 Paedophilia Special - Chris Morris

“There’s a child there- no more than a blue speck.  But the fact is, if you showed this picture to a Paedophile, he’d actually try and attack it, in an attempt to reach the child.  That’s the sort of warped mindset we’re dealing with.” – Gary Lineker

Brass Eye 2001 Paedophilia Special - Chris Morris

“Genetically, paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me.  Now that is scientific fact.  There’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact.” – Dr Fox, DJ

“We believe that paedophiles are using an area of the internet the size of Ireland, and, through this, they can control keyboards” . . . Syd Rapson, MP
“Online paedophiles can actually make your keyboard release toxic vapours that make you suggestible.”  Richard Blackwood, Comedian
“So come on experts.  Why is no one telling us about this stuff?  There’s a kid in Canada who has gone almost completely 2D and no one is doing anything about it” . . . Kate Thornton, Broadcaster

It is extremely rare for TV to venture into the really strange and radically bizarre territory.  As a rule of thumb, the closer you get to the mainstream, the less you can let your hair down and really let your imagination run wild – and it is possible to imagine NOTHING that is the essence of the mainstream more than TV, either in the US, the UK or elsewhere.  This is a world where a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ that lead to some presenter accidentally flashing a breast on live tv gets the same coverage in the shocked media as a small war and where a few four-letter words in the wrong place can cause as much panic as a gang rape.  However, very very occasionally something occurs on TV that is a little different to the normal.  That reveals that, just sometimes, TV isn’t the tame beast people assume.  When that happens, the BBC news shakes at its foundations and streight-faced announcers are overworked, the tabloids scream and thousands of calls come in to whoever has the LUCKY job of taking them, all from the good citizens of the UK, who cant wait to express their outrage that a media that should be tame, suddenly goosed them.  And when that happens, you know that a blue moon has struck and that something interesting has happened on our most enslaved of media.  And such happened in 2001 when one of TVs few real renegades and bad boys, comedian Chris Morris, struck and struck hard – hitting the island nation where it hurt the most and doing so in beautiful and savage style.Brass Eye
Chris Morris’s Brass Eye is a series of spoof documentaries – deliberately provocative and aggressive in its mockery – and with a characteristic and unpopular twist of getting celebrities and public figures to record the most unbelievable nonsense for TV and to back blindingly obvious spoof ‘causes’.  Eg: the fake drug called Cake, of which Bernard Manning told the world that “One kiddie on Cake cried all the water out of his body. Just imagine how his mother felt” and “… you can puke yourself to death on this stuff – one girl threw up her own pelvis-bone… What a fucking disgrace”.  Apparently this drug works by affecting the part of the brain called “Shatner’s Bassoon” and was known on the streets as “Hattie Jacques pretentious cheese wog”.  Another such incident was the time he played a talk-show host with an admirable discriminatory attitude in favour of those with “Good AIDS” (from blood transfusions) compared to those with “Bad AIDS” (from sex or drug taking) – taking familiar modern prejudices and dragging them to gloriously lit centre stage and leaving them there squirming.  Morris is merciless and an absolute terror, always ready to lampoon the stupidity of people’s morals and values.  As a further illustration of who we are dealing with here, when the panicked chief executive of Channel 4 Michael Grade insisted on editing the series to protect the fragile British public, the result was a single-frame subliminal message slipped in and broadcast to the nation reading “Grade is a cunt”.
Brass Eye was short – just six episodes in the original series.  And it can’t be repeated because his trickery is now exposed for all to see.  But it serves beautifully to illustrate the general thoughtlessness that rules the world of the media and politics, the crass hypocrisy and brain-dead drooling of tabloid culture and the pomposity and prejudice that still rules the minds of far too many people.  All in all, with Morris around, heaven help you if you are not willing to think for yourselves.


In 2000, a grim event occurred that shocked the nation – the murder of 7 year old Sara Payne.  A nasty and sad enough incident – but saddest of all is that her name is perhaps remembered most as the instigator of one of the most despicable moral panics and witch hunts in recent years, mostly lead by the News of the World, one of the worst and most drooling of the British tabloids.  The british have always had a kind of obsession with children – a subconscious mind that wants to keep children locked away behind a nice comfortable white picket fence and wrapped in cotton wool so no stimulus from the real world, natural or artificial, can possibly invade.  At least until they reach 18, shed their skin one last time, immerge into the light and become an ADULT. And, nasty though child abuse is, the british obsession with paedophiles can seem alarmingly like the way we are said to have treated witches.  Ie. regardless of whether you were an actual witch or no, if you have a funny-shaped mole – you die horribly! News of the World played on that like a master musician, yelling Sara Payne far and wide, both wallowing in and fueling the outrage of the whole nation. That paper simply howled.  It even demanded public access to the sex-offenders register in a name and shame campaign – and poor Sara even had her name given to that part of the campaign: Sara’s Law. What an unhappy legacy that would be to have attached to your name, if it ever happened*.  In the end, News of the World et all whipped up such a frenzy that, in incidents that sound like ancient history rather than the modern world, there were cases of angry mobs terrorising suspected paedophiles, with the inevitable cases of mistaken identity and misguided suspision.  Most ludicrous (and frightening) of all was the case where a paediatrician had her house vandalised – the word was obviously close enough to set someone off and their ignorance is now British legend.

*Of course, similar events happened in America.  Unfortunately that crazy law was somehow passed – known as Megan’s Law (another really truly depressing legacy to have attached to your name).  And of course, the predictable results came to pass.  Vigilantes, mistaken identities, people killed, increased stereotyping  etc – and, with the depressing state of the US sex offender list where people convicted of urinating in a public place have ended up on it, classified alongside the rapists and murderers, that is actually genuinely terrifying.

Brass Eye

Brass Eye

In the face of craziness like that and the News of the World’s despicable howling, it is no surprise that Morris was compelled to act, producing this last ‘special’ episode of Brass Eye, turning his aim on britain’s greatest chew-bone of all. No one – certainly not Morris – is trying to say that paedophilia is not a bad thing.  No – it is the hysterical and obsessive attitudes to it that Morris is aiming at.  Aiming with savage mockery, gleefully attacking the immense hypocrisy and thoughtlessness of the media and in the way Britain handles it’s younger generation, producing what may be one of the most rapier-sharp pieces of satire ever made, and certainly the most effective and controversial Brass Eye episode of all.

The wonderfully straight-faced Morris brings you the news from the studio as the UK begins the fight against ‘Paedogeddon’ by gathering the children of the UK together into all the major stadiums of the country where they can be safe (though Morris himself is keeping his kids comfortably in a filing cabinet in the studio).  Other news covers a paedophile just released from prison, who immediately falls into the hands of the waiting vigilantes and is burned inside a 25 foot phallus.  In between the news and current events, the familiar Brass Eye public figures present interesting and relevant science and analysis, with Dr Fox’s statement that paedophiles have more genes in common with a crab than with ‘you or me’ and the bizarre interview on art with Michael Hames, former head of the Obscene Publications Branch, being among the most interesting.

It fair makes you quail!!
If all this unhappy British history that surrounds Brass Eye is depressing (as it should be), then one can take some comfort from the legacy of this program.  It’s original broadcast generated 2000 complaints, but also approximately 3000 calls of support and over 9000 ‘notices of consideration’.  Some people who hadn’t seen it condemned it roundly and demanded that the rules be changed.  And of course, those baying tabloids roasted both it and Chris Morris over a slow fire.  But at the same time, the show also developed a certain legendary status and was even broadcast again several times.  It even won a Broadcast magazine award in 2002.  All of which proves that the world is not entirely without sense and not entirely enslaved in the tabloid mentality, however it seems when you read the news.  But in a world where tabloids have the power that they have and where too many people seem incapable of thinking beyond their flimsy sensation-dripping covers, you need things like this, so long live Chris Morris and the few other real bad boys who work in that most enslaved of media, the TV.

Sweet Movie – Dušan Makavejev

9 Sep

Sweet Movie

Nationality: Yugoslavia/serbia though not filmed there.

Pros: Unique historical artefact.  Strange and unexpectedly haunting.  Brilliant and very brave performance from Anna Pruncal.  Tribute to anarchic and revolutionary film making.
Cons:  Many ‘faults’ and embarrassing moments.  Show it to an average British viewer and you would probably be hung from a lamp post.  But on the film’s own terms, that is a pro rather than a con!

Unlike Possession, this film by Yugoslav director Dušan Makavejev is certainly out to shock.  Almost totally.  Let’s get that clear from the start.  Sweet Movie is a full-throated and unrestrained, last-straw, finally-cracked-and-laughing-with-the-insanity-of-it-all shriek in the face of all the forces of complacency and repression and dirt in the world.  And yet, the strange part of this is that, in doing so, Makavejev has created a unique and totally bizarre and haunting – even touching work of art.  It manages to be all sorts of things at once.  Absurdist fantasy.  Lunatic Sex Satire.  Terrifying portrayal of troubled souls generated by a troubled culture and of those kicking out and rebelling against it, swinging back to the other extremes of liberation and freedom.  But alongside that, one thread of this story tells of Anna Planeta – a bleak and disturbed woman who captains a ship (named the Survival and carrying a huge bust of Karl Marx on the prow) that sails the Amsterdam canals, filled with sugar and sweets and corpses, picking up children and lovers for sex, revolutionary talk and murder – in various combinations.  That is a storyline that taps into a deep thread of fairytale – the witch in the gingerbread house.  Anna is beautifully realised and a stunning and somehow exhilarating performance – remarkably raw and touching in spite of, or more likely because of, the fact that the actor is no polished professional.  Instead of the seductive and dangerous stereotype of the female anti-heroine, Anna is a beautiful, twisted, fragile and very human-looking person, filled with desolation and despair, who creates an unforgettable image standing on the prow of her surreal ship, the Survival.

Sweet Movie

Anna is an inevitable, in a way, and as such deserves an open eye, not mere shocked repulsion.  She is the inevitable product of the stifling complacency and repression of Yugoslavia, which this film is essentially pitting itself against (though it is equally mocking of capitalist society as well).  This was a world where writers who didn’t write according to the ideology of the state had their passports confiscated – a world only just recovering from a time when where even scientists and researchers and historians were told what to say, to make sure that it fitted the requirements of that ideology.  Where everything had to revolve around the perpetuation of a specific mindset.  Failure to go along with that or daring to think originally and for yourself could lead to persecution – sometimes of a terminal kind.  People who dared to use their brains fled into emigration if they could, where they were left simmering about the state of the homeland left behind (possibly reflected in the distinctly cosmopolitan nature of this film).  It sounds like a fantasy – an Orwellian or Kafkaesque nightmare.  But this world was very real.

Sweet Movie

Sweet Movie

As an environment like that crumbles, shock tactics and back-lashes like this – described on the DVD cover as a ‘full-throated shriek in the face of bourgeois complacency’ which kicks things wide open in bleeding artistic rebellion – are not only inevitable but, I would say, essential as a part of the artistic scene.  This film pulled out all the stops, leaving out nothing in either its mockery or its exploration of the limits of liberation.  Inevitably the film was banned and smothered and forgotten just about everywhere, even in the so-called non-repressive places in the world.  One scene – of Anna doing a seductive dance for some children in her sugar-filled boat, was too much for England, where the film was quickly banned and has still never been released on DVD. Anna Pruncal, who played the part of Anna Planeta, was forced into exile from her home country of Poland because of this role – not even able to return to see her dying mother.

Sweet Movie

Sweet Movie

Finally though, after lying long forgotten and unknown, the film surfaced again when Criterion in the US produced a proper DVD of it.  Uncut and in all its strange and offensive and sometimes beautiful glory.  It’s a very nice release, with subtitles for the parts that are not in English (the film itself uses about 4 languages) and some nice extras.  Interviews and talks that help put the film in context, which is invaluable here, and a film of Anna Pruncal performing one of the songs.  And, on that note, it is worth mentioning that the music here (when not a part of the satire and mockery) is really exquisite.  Very delicate and folksy and with haunting little melodies that linger for a long time.

Sweet Movie

Sweet Movie

One could say that this film is so much of it’s time and place – so much a backlash against the Yugoslav bourgeoisie – that it can only be viewed as a historical artefact.  I am not so sure though.  Unlike so many ‘shocking’ movies, in the mere act of being offensive and mocking, this film raises endless fascinating questions about society and its morality – and it contains a few scenes that would reduce the average viewer to hysterics even today, showing that it still has the power to kick you exactly where it hurts, even now. And still take an unflinching look at what true liberation and the rebound from repression can mean, in terms of both dark and light – perhaps proving that the world still has it’s complacency that needs lashing.  That there is still a long way to go yet before the human mind can possibly be called free. And that there are many pitfalls and dangers on that road as well. And endless pain and suffering.

Whatever way you look at it, one thing is for certain.  A film like this will never be made again.  And therefore it remains an invaluable part of recent history.  And, even though it is not without its faults (the best cinema is the stuff with faults in, I sometimes think, because that way you get closer to the hearts and minds behind it.), there is something very genuine and heartfelt – and brave – in the way it is put together that transcends all the fuss and hype it caused.

Sweet Movie

Possession – Andrzej Żuławski

9 Sep

Pros: One of the finest horror tales ever.  Period.  Superb depiction of a decaying and impossible relationship when love and hate are no longer opposites.  Incredible enigmatic last scene.  Breathtaking performance from both leading roles.

Cons:  None.  Almost perfect in every way.

Possession

In a way, this film perfectly captures everything that is wrong with the horror world.  Not in the film itself of course – I would stick my neck out and call Possession one of the finest horror films, in the familiar sense of the word, ever to be created – but in the reaction to it.  It is a searing, mindblowing view that leaves you stunned and drained and shaking all over with that feeling of having experienced something truly and emotionally powerful.  And that is a positive feeling.  At least – it is a searing, mindblowing view if you watch the proper original unmauled version.  The (first) American version on the other hand was released under the name “The Night the Screaming Stops” (!?) and was cut by an incredible 45 minutes, effectively turning it into an incoherent, empty gore-fest.  Why people felt the need to turn a powerful masterpiece into an empty gore-fest – I don’t know!  The minds of the censors and cutters are a mystery to me.

Possession

Possession

Aside from that, the film has proved controversial and provoked strong negative feelings.  but I really don’t understand why.  In a world of various Saw movies and Texas Chainsaw Massacres and Cannibal Holocausts, why should this film get such a stormy reception?  Some films are indeed out to shock you – and that is a perfectly valid creative tactic in some cases.  Not this one though.  Not directly. I am not even going to dignify the more ‘extreme’ scenes in the film by discussing them in terms of their controversial value.  It has a ‘creature’ in it, and a certain amount of blood and violence, and a painful and very sad scene where Adjani has first a fit, then a miscarriage in a berlin subway – but there is nothing even close to many films which look more like a badly cooked red soup than a story!  When I first watched Possession, I was almost nervous, expecting something to live up to that controversy and maybe cheapen itself in the process – but instead I found myself staring at a superbly and subtly told movie that is out to do nothing more than tell its story with icy and uncompromising precision and bluntness and make you feel the emotional agony that the characters feel – very human emotions, supremely well presented.  And even the movie’s ‘monster’ stands as nothing more than a direct extension and externalisation of that.  Something born from the horror of human emotions rather than something that comes rampaging in from nowhere and causes those emotions.  If this amazing film has a ‘real’ horror, it is the portrayal of the physical and psychological and emotional mess that humans are capable of tangling themselves in their relationships with each other.  That is the pain and he shock of the film.  The fact that the film is set in Berlin in the time of the Wall, also adds an additional and very creepy element to the brew, making this film another example of the cinema connected with places that were once beyond the Iron curtain.

Possession

Possession

Possession

So why the controversy?  Aside from the obvious faff with authorities still not recovered from the communist mentality, in the end I cant avoid the conclusion: it appears that there was no reason beyond the simple power of the thing, which must have unnerved people who expected the blood and guts and lack of emotional involvement that comes with a ‘horror’ flick.  Both Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neil put on such a spectacular performance that it was no longer possible to see this as a horror movie and suddenly the horror elements were right there, in the face and forcing you to deal with them at a much deeper level that Saw 27 or Chainsaw Massacre Seriously Ultimate Edition.  You cant just comfortably dismiss either Adjani or Neil as a psycho and sit back and enjoy the fun as the pretty girls get murdered.  And that makes the US cut release of the film nothing more than an attempt to bring the film down to the level of American horror.  To clip its wings if you like.  Needless to say – if you look for this film, make sure it is the uncut version you are buying – even if it means paying a little more or getting it imported from an obscure location.  We all owe Żuławski that much.

Possession

Possession