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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.

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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