Sunday 11 April 2010

Stuck in a hole (ST 07/03/10)

Alice in Wonderland (PG) 103 mins **
Father of My Children (12A) 110 mins *****

Curiouser and curiouser. For once, the carefully constructed hype surrounding a major studio release has been all but drowned out by backroom squabbling. Disney wanted Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to make like the Cheshire Cat and vanish from cinemas after mere weeks, the better to seek its true fortune on DVD; multiplex bosses were, understandably, somewhat miffed at this arrangement. As it turns out, the film itself - a gaudy, boring self-indulgence - proves regrettably easy to boycott. I’d wait for the DVD, if I were you; apparently it’ll be along soon enough.

Burton’s Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a willowy, pallid, perfume-ad blonde fleeing a dullard’s proposal when she tumbles into Wonderland, where the inhabitants are half-CGI and seven-eights British: the Blue Caterpillar boasts Alan Rickman’s languid tones, Helena Bonham Carter is an oddly-proportioned Red Queen, while Matt Lucas essays both Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The Mad Hatter, inevitably, is Jack Sparrow, or Johnny Depp as was, once again concealing his talent behind silly frills and unintelligible gestures: green contact lenses deaden the star’s eyes, while the portions of Jabberwocky he recites form his most coherent contribution.

In 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl’s narrative grounded Burton’s wilder flights of fancy, but here the imagery runs rampant, starts cancelling itself out: each frame fills up with so much pixellated grotesquery that very little of it comes to seem unique. “I’m frightened,” the Mad Hatter admits, trashing his workshop. “It’s terribly crowded in here, and I don’t like it.” One begins to see how the new digital technologies might enable a particularly oppressive form of directorial imagination. For all the additional space 3D gives Burton to play with, the film feels stiff and static when set against the immersive environments of Avatar; it lacks for fresh, non-virtual air.

Burton has spent 25 years at the frontline of the bizarre now, and it may be that a certain staidness has started to creep into his vision. His latest becomes less curious by the minute: when Alice dons warrior-princess armour to face the Jabberwocky, we could be watching one of those dreary Narnia adaptations, while the bathetic coda finds our heroine back in the real world, overseeing her father’s merchant trading activities. She looks independent enough, it’s true, but wouldn’t we prefer our Alices to emerge from the rabbit hole with something more magical to show for themselves than an MBA and an Avril Lavigne single to play over the end credits?

This weekend’s real wonder is Father of My Children, the second feature from erstwhile Cahiers du Cinéma critic Mia Hansen-Løve. Inspired by the life and death of leading European producer Humbert Balsan - the director’s earliest sponsor - this exceptional drama considers the question of what exactly a man can create and nurture, in terms of both cinema and the relationships he forms. It’s a film, accordingly, of two halves. The first - what we might call “The Father” - offers a portrait of Grégoire Canvel (the enormously charismatic Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), mobile phone-juggling head honcho of Paris-based Moon Films.

Grégoire’s life is founded on risk. Pulled over for speeding, he’s obliged to start taking the bus to work, and ends up backing a young fellow traveller’s screenplay. Trouble is, risk requires capital, and debts are mounting like the cigarette butts in Grégoire’s ashtray. Two aspects keep us rooting for this flashest of Harries: the great warmth he displays around his family; and his evident faith in a higher power than the marketplace. Yet his lifestyle is clearly extracting a heavy toll. Grégoire half-jokes to one confidant: “I can always throw myself out of the window.” As it is, his exit is no less sudden and shocking.

The second half - the “Of My Children” part - shifts the focus onto those who loved Grégoire as they try to make sense of what just happened. The producer’s Italian wife Sylvia (Chiara Caselli) picks up her husband’s scattered receipts; their teenage daughter Clémence (Alice de Lencquesaing), a French-Italian co-production, starts seeing the boy on the bus. Hansen-Løve has a rare sense for how cinema brings people together: she makes fascinating the ostensibly tedious business of international co-financing agreements by demonstrating the impact Grégoire’s negotiations have on his own household.

The director’s amatory surname is apt, for her film is steeped in cinephilia; it understands the internal workings and the romantic appeal of the movie business better than almost anything I’ve seen. Yet we come to care as much about Grégoire’s nearest and dearest as we do his pet projects: they were all, ultimately, expressions of his love. Hansen-Løve’s acclaimed 2007 debut Tout est Pardonné never arrived on these shores, but this follow-up succeeds on every level: as a timely reminder money need not be everything, a superbly wise and tender study of a family emerging from crisis, and an act of tribute from a major new talent to an individual whose assets may have frozen, but whose heart never did.

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