Thursday, 5 August 2021
Wednesday, 4 August 2021
In the wake of The Host's global success and before Parasite's international triumph, Bong Joon Ho was courted and eventually signed up by Harvey Weinstein to make his English-language debut. 2013's Snowpiercer was an unhappy project to assemble, by all accounts: after intervening several times in post-production - and being carefully batted away by his director - Weinstein afforded the finished work only a belated, begrudging release, and no release whatsoever in the UK. Perhaps both parties knew what they had on their hands: an openly Marxist fable, drawn from a French graphic novel and depicting the class struggle aboard a train bulleting around a world in the grip of a second Ice Age, Snowpiercer seems to fold the ongoing, offscreen tension between management and labour into its own front-and-centre storytelling. Guided by an extra-wisened John Hurt, Chris Evans, Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer are among the would-be revolutionaries seeking to overturn the train's repressive social order; Bong's lucky charm Song Kang-ho is the drug-addled safecracker they entrust with getting them from steerage to first class; Tilda Swinton the resident queen bee, apparently styled after Margaret Thatcher, yet with an overbite, spectacles and broad Yorkshire accent that's pure Victoria Wood (or Aardman). For all the behind-the-scenes turbulence, the production they find themselves in runs on rails; narratively, there may be no straighter line in 21st century cinema. Our heroes begin the film at the very back of the train, in gloom and grime, and scene by scene they fight or think their way through to the front engine and a final confrontation with the mysterious "Wilford". (I'm sure some blogosphere nabob will have already nailed down the echoes of The Wizard of Oz - no bad influence - with Wilford as the Wiz, the Swinton character as the Wicked Witch, and an elevated level of gatekeeping in between.)
The characterisation is refreshingly minimal: these are briskly sketched movers-and-shakers, burdened by precious little of the baggage the movies have recently started to pile onto their Batmen and Batwomen. Bong's focus looks to have been on keeping the scenery changing around them. To give Weinstein some due, he evidently forked out a fair old sum on workspaces for his employees, which makes his reluctance to recoup the expense theatrically seem more perverse yet: we pass at breathless speed through onboard kitchens, nursaries (where we find a chilling Alison Pill in the role of Stepford schoolmarm), aquariums, solariums and nightclubs, stopping only to note how this society has inculcated a certain, self-sustaining set of values in its populace. We go up in the world as the movie goes on, yet for once, this isn't just passing spectacle; rather, everything this camera witnesses accumulates into a vision of a world converted into a grinding machine so as to preserve the status quo. (I watched the film for the first time in the middle of the pandemic, and it helped me better understand just why things felt so eerily quiet at the beginning of lockdown.) That mobility - the search for bypasses and backchannels, for ways around and ways out - is by now a recognisable directorial trait. For all his facility with pausable, individual frames, rendered as striking in their simplicity (and yet as loaded with meaning) as the best comic-book panels, Bong is one of the few contemporary filmmakers with any kind of a feel for how to keep a motion picture moving. The pre-pandemic progression of Parasite - which set similar themes and ideas circulating around an entirely static location - would provide further proof of this polite radical's own ability to outrun, outthink and overthrow any order Hollywood (and its Weinsteins) might still seek to impose on its subjects.
Snowpiercer is available to rent via Prime Video.
Friday, 30 July 2021
Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 23-25, 2021):
My top five:
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
1. Pride & Prejudice (Saturday, BBC2, 6.30pm)
Thursday, 29 July 2021
Saturday, 24 July 2021
Do we blame the strenuous warblers of TV's The Voice and The X Factor? Either way, it would appear that lousy singers are set to enjoy a cinematic moment, all their duff notes fired at us in Dolby surround. In a few months, we'll see Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears' tale of the tonedeaf socialite who tormented early 20th century eardrums, with Meryl Streep building on the, ahem, success of Mamma Mia! in the lead role. By way of an opening act, we have the recent French hit Marguerite, with Catherine Frot as a fictionalised Gallic variant of the wayward chanteuse.
Here is a costume drama with a tongue that's never too far removed from its cheek. The tenor (as it were) is set during the opening setpiece, a lavish 1920s soiree raising funds for war orphans. After soaring performances of pieces by Handel and Delibes, Frot's Mme. Marguerite Dumont steps up to the mic to stun a captive audience with her unique take on Mozart's "Queen of the Night" - within seconds demonstrating that not only can she not handle a tune, she barely sounds capable of picking it up. (The character's name, with its echoes of the Marx Brothers, may not be entirely coincidental: here's another screwball wreaking havoc on high society.)
The gag is that Marguerite's yelping, as with Jenkins's, should be met with amused tolerance and polite applause; somewhere in this story, there lurks a parable of undue deference. Very quickly, our heroine's house floods with white lilies from admirers and euphemistic newspaper reviews she seizes upon as proof of her genius. As a character, Marguerite could have been no more than a joke herself: a cossetted, self-deluded mediocrity possessed of the money to have bought Puccini's handwritten score for Tosca, but not the talent to do it justice. Yet the writer-director Xavier Giannoli - who pulled off a similar feat with Gérard Depardieu's contemporary lounge lizard in 2006's The Singer - works hard with Frot to humanise his heroine.
While noting her absurdities (posing for publicity shots as a Wagnerian Valkyrie), the script positions Marguerite as a woman using music as an escape from a husband (André Marcon) who's plainly embarrassed by her exhibitionism. Their Marguerite is a champion of free speech, partly because only in a truly free France would anyone be allowed to caterwaul as she does; her self-expression is regarded, perhaps a shade too fondly, as a positive rather than a grotesque indulgence or waste of everybody's time. Frot, tucking into this oblivious diva's all-white diet, even succeeds in suggesting how the Marguerites of this world might be dottily eccentric fun to be around, for a bit.
In this process, you can spy the softening that has traditionally guaranteed solid box-office returns. The chandeliers in the Dumonts' palatial estate are lit and gently rocked rather than brought crashing down, which sets Marguerite in opposition to the revolutionary urge in French cinema. (It remains to be seen whether the generally iconoclastic Frears will make more mischief with this set-up.) As it is, the incongruous jolt provided in Giannoli's film by one of Michael Nyman's Draughtman's Contract cues only points up how cosy the surrounding material is.
Siding with the performer over the rest of the world means framing those bad reviews kept from Marguerite by her faithful manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) as acts of cruelty rather than, say, public service or an encouragement to do better, and you can't help but think Giannoli is relying upon the broadly uncritical dynamic of reality show and reality-show consumer. Ultimately, the film wants us to give the old girl a big hand for trying - to politely defer, as audiences of the time did. (Once again, a costume drama reminds us of the conservatism of the era.)
For all that, Marguerite is handsomely turned out within its monochrome palette - production designer Martin Kurel and cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert displaying a discernment absent in Marguerite Dumont's closest admirers - and the performance setpieces are reliably amusing, Frot belting something out like a sham-dram Liza or Barbra while Marcon tersely clutches his hunting rifle in the wings, primed to put either the poor woman or the assembled crowd out of their respective miseries. Those actors, intuiting the proximity of a much tougher film about the power of truth to wound or crush the sensitive soul, elevate the material and really do merit our applause - though I still wouldn't go near the soundtrack album, if I were you.
(MovieMail, March 2016)
Marguerite screens on BBC2 at 12.55am tonight.
Friday, 23 July 2021
Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of July 16-18, 2021):
My top five:
1. Judas and the Black Messiah
1. Die Hard with a Vengeance [above] (Friday, ITV, 11.05pm)