Friday 9 July 2010

Last shot at happiness (ST 11/07/10)

Leaving (15) 85 mins ****
London River (12A) 87 mins **
Eclipse (12A) 124 mins ***

A banner week, this, for British actresses working under the eyes of French filmmakers, with the release of two dramas on the theme of women and violence. Both open with a bang. In Catherine Corsini’s Leaving, an erotic thriller that develops into romantic tragedy, Kristin Scott Thomas’s insomniac Suzanne arises from bed one night to fire a rifleshot into the snoozing form of we-know-not-whom. Flashback to six months earlier, when Suzanne was embarking upon a physiotherapy career, and we observe she had a very different rapport with the male body.

Suzanne’s dismissive businessman husband Samuel (Yvan Attal) has invited a burly builder (Sergi López) into their home to oversee an extension. When the builder - good with his hands, attentive to a woman’s needs - breaks his foot trying to spare Suzanne’s car from a forgotten-handbrake disaster, the fledgling physio ends up overseeing his rehabilitation, and eventually massaging more than just his metatarsal. By which point, worldly viewers might well be thinking: oh, come on - all this needs is a cheesy organ soundtrack, and we could be watching any 1970s skinflick.

Yet Corsini emerges from the French tradition of explicitly feminist directors striving to subvert the framework of pornography, and do something constructive with desire. The physicality of Leaving is double-edged: it encompasses both the lovers’ bedroom romps and Samuel roughing up his wife. Since we know the ending, the affair assumes the look of another form of entrapment. Scott Thomas plays the opposite arc to Tilda Swinton in I Am Love: cheeks that once were tanned and rosy turn gaunt and haunted as Suzanne confesses her deeds to a spouse who grows ever more possessive.

And possession is key here: there is, in this love triangle, an implied critique of the unhealthy links society forges between love and money, and how much capital is required to sustain a relationship. It’s galling that a heartless swine such as Samuel should be able to provide Suzanne with greater protection than her jobbing paramour; though not as galling as seeing Suzanne begging at a petrol station for the freedom to move on with her life. The gunshot, when the film returns to it, is a full stop of sorts, but also the only way Suzanne can see out of a dire financial and emotional situation.

This layer of social comment staves off any suspicions of conservatism: yes, Suzanne is punished for her actions, but in a manner Corsini demonstrates is plainly unjust. A less comforting proposition than 2008’s Kristin-starring success I’ve Loved You So Long, Leaving is nonetheless punchier and more provocative, directed and performed with exceptional economy. We need take but one look at Scott Thomas’s face as she first crosses her lover’s threshold to know this affair isn’t likely to conclude well - but that Suzanne feels obliged to proceed all the same, as a presumed last shot at happiness.

Released to mark the fifth anniversary of 7/7, Rachid Bouchareb’s oddly unconvincing London River finds Brenda Blethyn’s Elisabeth living in isolation on Guernsey when news of the terrorist attacks first breaks. Unable to reach her daughter via telephone, she heads to the mainland to track her down in person, only to find London - in her words - “crawling with Muslims”. Also making his way into town - again, magically avoiding any of the travel chaos the bombs triggered - is Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté), a French-African Muslim whose son has similarly disappeared without a trace.

The actors are the film’s strongest suit: the late Kouyaté strikingly dolorous, Blethyn gamely trying something away from the foghorn-broad end of her range. Elsewhere, Bouchareb betrays signs he’s operating in a second language. Themes are spelt out almost phonetically, the plotting both schematic and curious: could Elisabeth really have this little awareness of other cultures, and - as a loving mother - zero grasp of where her own offspring lived? The occasion demanded substantial emotional truths; it gets merely good-to-woolly intentions.

Finally, a Twilight Saga update: Eclipse is the one where Bella Swan graduates, and there’s a sense the series has started to grow up - and out. Director David Slade has raised the action ante with the arrival of “new bloods”, a passing, naggingly irrelevant sideshow of debutante vampires. The mythology, meanwhile, gets ever more floridly self-involved: it sometimes seems as though every minor character is getting their own expositional flashback.

Yet whenever it threatens to crush the delicate rhythms that sustained the first Twilight, Eclipse can pull back to show Bella and her bloodsucking beau Edward tentatively testing out the parameters of their relationship; it’s a franchise of restraint, through and through. Again, it’ll be a swoony nonsense if you’re not, or have never been, a 14-year-old girl. But if you are 14 years old, and a boy has just refused to hold your hand, I could see how it might mean the world to you.

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