Day: January 4, 2012

Archipelago (2010)

Archipelago concerns a family gathering on Tresco in the Isles of Scilly. Edward, the son is going to Africa for a year to do charity work and it will be the last time his family see him. A chef has been hired for the week as has a painting teacher. This is a seriously middle class family. The arrival of an Ocado delivery van stuffed with quince jelly interrupting a game of charades based on the plays of Harold Pinter wouldn’t be a surprise.

Two things spring to mind on the first watch of Joanna Hogg’s sophomore feature. One is Five Easy Pieces and the other is Waiting for Godot. Which as reference points go is hardly Porky’s 2: Back in the Habit. Rafelson’s Pieces is evoked simply through the act of a  family gathering in a remote location and the bones of long parted relationships being picked over. Godot‘s influence is at least as obvious, as all the family are expecting the arrival of the patriarch who (unbelievably) seems to be able to pull this disparate lot together.Other artist’s fingerprints are visible; Ozu rears his head in the long takes and static camera, and again in the confined location and family breakdown and there is a certain level of fun poked at the middle classes which brings Godard at his best (and worst) into view. All in all, Archipelago’s influences and inspirations alone speak of a serious film by an artist serious about her (serious) filmmaking.

The relationships between the characters is what we are here to see. The beautifully rugged landscape is largely ignored, the soundtrack consists of some birdsong and nothing else. The camera stays too long on people so their reactions and inner mechanics are lain bare. Joanna Hogg strips back everything extraneous until only the cold, hardly beating, core of ths family is left on display, broken, yet still limping along, as we must.

The dialogue and it’s delivery is excruciting, jokes that aren’t funny are made, memories are unearthed that should remain buried, wildly differing opinions are voiced  and then left unargued as the family are unable to even continue discourse, knowing it to be futile. This is not Loachian, Nil By Mouth British cinema, all broken bottles, sink estates and women screaming “cunt” whilst their husband beats them. Archipelago brings the British traditions of politeness, silent resentment then bitter recriminations to the fore. It is telling that the two genuine emotional outbursts are too uncomfortable for us to witness, occuring firmly off camera we only hear them. A technique Scorcese used in Taxi Driver when Travis apologises over the phone for the adult cinema date, the camera moves away, unable to watch his discomfort and embarrassment.

Calling Archipelago a triumph would be a severe mis-use of such a joyful word. Severe, understated, believably uncomfortable and buried deep, deep, deep down, a streak of humour thin and dry waiting to be discovered. Every scene sits there, blaring silence, screaming indignity and all of it smothered by years and years of emotional repression. There are films that hit the heart, the funny bone or the guts. This aims for the soul and nearly breaks it.

All this and we haven’t mentioned the title. Archipelago (as the DVD cover says): A scattering of Islands in a large expanse of water. Hmmmmm…..says it all really.

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) (2011)

Ace surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), has spent half a dozen years holed up in his home/surgery developing, what he claims, is a skin that cannot burn. Aside from a few colleagues he talks to at work functions and presentations, he spends the majority of his time with his maid, Marilia, and a woman called Vera (Elena Anaya). The latter he keeps locked in a room next his bedroom and on whom he conducts his skin experiments. To say anymore would do the film no real justice.The Skin I Live In is macabre melodrama that reaches out to sci-fi with one hand and strokes the cheek of horror with the other. And, like the previous sentence, it’s a little bit pretentious. Only a bit mind.

The film is broken up into three definable acts. The first comes across as a hurricane of information. People shout, point, run in and out rooms, get raped, shout some more, get shot and then finish off the day shouting. It does what it was in doubt intended to do; grab you by the throat and encourage you to pay attention. The second act is a slower affair detailing the events that led to all the shouting, shooting and pointing. Like coming off the motorway onto a residential street, the change of gear is noticeable and somewhat jarring, but before long Banderas becomes brooding and psychotic and your throat is grabbed again. The final and shortest act can be seen as a bit of a let down. Vera’s story ends in such an understated manner that you feel a little bit cheated. Oh yes, there’s more shouting and pointing, but it doesn’t last very long.

Opening with Anaya performing yoga, Pedro Almodóvar ensures that his leads are immaculate and that each scene they’re in is equally beautiful. The beauty of the photography reflecting  Ledgard’s quest for perfection, whilst, like Vera, hiding the layers of revenge and violence beneath. The Skin I Live In is not an easy film to watch from a moralistic point of view. With the exception of Roberto Álamo as Marilia’s demented son, no one is entirely good or bad. Banderas, himself, goes from sympathetic to repulsive to sympathetic a number of times, whilst the reveal of Vera’s backstory will have you pondering which side you’re on long after the film has finished.

Overall, The Skin I Live In is one of the last great films of 2011 and 2012 will hopefully see it get some more recognition.