A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014

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When I bought this DVD, the cover informed me that this was ‘The best vampire film ever made’. Wow, I thought, those are some very big shoes to fill. But this is no ‘Inteview with the Vampire’ or ‘Lost Boys’. It is a completely different beast. It doesn’t ever need the bloody shoes, it’s leaping gleefully barefoot into unchartered territory. Upon it’s release most critics agreed that Amirpour had invented a new genre altogether. The Iranian Vampire Western. Too niche, you ask? I mean, Katherine Bigelow already covered Vampire Western with ‘Near Dark’. But bear with me, it IS different, it totally works and it is amazing.

Shot entirely in black and white, it is set in ‘Bad City’, a fictional place in contemporary Iran. An industrial backdrop of oil fields and factories lend it a lonely, frontier town feeling. It is populated with pimps, drug dealers, prostitutes and junkies. Bodies lie rotting in open mass graves. Sheila Vand plays Girl, the cities avenging angel. A hipster vampire devouring pop culture in her basement who dons a chador at night and ventures out to terrorise the male inhabitants. Arash Marandi plays……… Arash, a lonely guy dealing with the death of his mother and the erratic behavior of his junkie father. This is the story of an unlikely love that transports them both into the unknown.

Sheila Vands Girl is one of the oddest vampires I’ve ever encountered. She is just as powerful and terrifying a presence as any of your favourite vampire characters. Her kills are lightning quick, brutal, vengeful blows. But despite never cracking the slightest smile, or uttering more than about 10 lines in the whole film, she is an undeniably playful character. Amirpour says that when she first tried on a chador, she immediately felt like a badass and wanted to go skateboarding in it. That experience has given life to one of my favourite scenes in this film where Girl cruises under the streetlights on her stolen skateboard, chador billowing behind her. It’s as though, after hundreds of years of living, she’s become so bored of the world and the depths of degradation humanity can sink to that the skateboard, and Arash, come as a complete surprise to her. She can’t quite organize her feelings but she’s willing to follow wherever they take her. I have a great affection for her.

Arash Marandi has been described as an Iranian James Dean but the smoldering eyes and all too earnest delivery made me think more of Nicolas Cage in Wild At Heart. So when I heard Amirpour was so obsessed with David Lynchs film that she’d channeled it in the making of ‘Girl’, I felt very smug indeed. His softness and sincerity is the perfect foil for Girls implacable silence. At their first meeting he is stumbling home from a costume party and is dressed as Dracula. The simplicity of it is perfect. Their burgeoning love is touching, electric, utterly compelling.

The other character definitely worth a mention is the local Pimp, Saeed. Dominic Rains has done an outstanding job of playing Amirpours charismatic, pumped up, misogynistic thug. He is intimidating but his sheer narcissism is kind of hilarious. And he gets his comeuppance in a scene that I like to think would make Feminist Film Theorist Barbara Creed do a little dance of excitement. Vand is the epitome of Creeds Monstrous Feminine or female castratrice. With the mirroring of a sex act performed on the lucky pimp earlier in the film, Vand suggestively sucks his finger before biting it clean off and taunting him with it before finishing him off on the floor of his plush apartment. Pure vampiric GENIUS.

In terms of style, theres a definite B movie/spaghetti western feel to it but it’s also incredibly ‘cool’ like a Tarantino movie. It’s weird and abstract in the way that a David Lynch film can be. It’s playfully grotesque in the way that a Tim Burton film can be. I also get glimpses of the New Queer Cinema director Greg Araki in the epically desolate, industrial landscapes. Amirpour has obviously had an absolute ball making this film and it shows. It’s a lot of fun to watch. There are loads of brilliant contemporary references. The spaghetti western music in particular, by Collin Hegna of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, sets a playfully disorientating tone.

Some critics have disputed the validity of calling this an Iranian movie when it was shot in California and produced by an American production company. But I feel this is just petty nit picking. Amirpour, daughter of Iranian immigrants, has made a film that mirrors her dual identity. It’s set in Iran, the dialogue is in Farsi and the actors are all of Iranian descent. But more importantly, Amirpour points out that there are very few films set in Iran, with Iranian characters that don’t just centre around the Iranian experience. She’s made a film, set in Iran, where the characters all just ARE Iranian and yet that is not the main focus. Just like American films don’t need to constantly examine the American experience.

In writing and directing ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’, Amirpour has created something totally unique, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I was constantly surprised by it, I laughed out loud, I leaned closer to the screen in wonder, I hid behind a pillow in suspense. It is surely destined for Cult Classic status. AND it passes the bechdel test. Total WIN.

Selma – Ava DuVernay, 2014

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Ava DuVernays father grew up in a small town in Alabama, between Selma and Montgomery. As a young boy, he watched hundreds of protestors march through his town on the way to the state capitol to petition for voting rights to be enforced for African American citizens of the South. So you’d have to look pretty hard for a director with a closer connection to this story. But it’s not just close personal ties to this particular event that has her uniquely placed to take on a project like this. Her activism on behalf of women and filmmakers of colour gives her a unique perspective on the world of politics and protest.

This is the story of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and the man at the helm of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jnr. After leading several other campaigns of varying success in other parts of the South, King turned his attention to the matter of voting rights. Although the right to vote technically applied to African Americans at the time, there were plenty of discriminatory loopholes and requirements in the South that prevented them from voting in practice. Martin Luther King Jnr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference felt the tensions rising in Selma and therefore chose it as the perfect place to begin a 54 mile march to the state capitol, Montgomery, in order to force the issue.

This film begins by revealing both the direct, violent threats employed by white supremacists and also the insidious, but just as damaging, barriers white men in power used to keep Black men and women subjugated. DuVernay pulls no punches. The brutality in the film, mostly at the hands of law inforcement, is shocking. Most of us know some of the facts of the time, we’ve seen photographs of lynchings in our history lessons and we’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird. But DuVernay means to make sure we don’t forget that a whole race of people were treated like animals to be herded and cajoled and to be put down if they so much as dared to step out of line. And she means to make sure we face up to the fact that it’s still happening.

She also admits that King was just a man. David Oyelowo plays a man wrestling with the decisions he has made, keenly feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with being the face of a national movement. He is misunderstood, he disappoints people. Instead of deifying him, DuVernay humanizes him. My one and only criticism of the film is the failure to fully explain the reason King decided to abandon the second attempt at marching across county lines on 9th March. He was actually obeying a federal injunction which ruled against the march taking place. He knew he could not count on the court protecting the protesters if he flouted it. But DuVernay mysteriously neglects to make that clear and instead makes it look like he just lost his nerve. Perhaps people truly were in the dark concerning some of his decisions, but this seems like an odd choice.

What sets this film apart from similar stories about prominent male figures of political history, is that it doesn’t neglect the female characters around him. After all, there are hundreds of films that revolve solely around powerful white male characters. DuVernay knows that everyone is influenced by the people around them and as much as we try to self determine, the people closest to us leave a lasting impression upon our characters. Refreshingly, she makes Kings wife, Corretta, a central character. She’s not just the lonely, beleaguered wife who never signed up for an absent husband with responsibilities beyond her and the home. She plays a pivotal role in the machinations of Kings politics, as do activists Amelia Boynton Robinson and Diane Nash.

It seriously shows up another film nominated for the Best Picture award at the Golden Globes in 2015, The Imitation Game. Here, Keira Knightley played the role of Joan Clarke, but director Morten Tyldum failed to acknowledge any of Clarkes achievements apart from being quite good at Maths, piquing Alan Turnings interest and going on to become someone else’s wife. In case you’re interested, look her up, she was an unbelievably accomplished woman in her own right. In contrast, I don’t think Ava DuVernay would have ever even questioned the idea that Corretta King would play an integral role in her telling of the King story.

The film is cast impeccably. David Oyelowo is utterly compelling as King, Carmen Ejogo plays Coretta with complete sophistication and Lorraine Toussaint harnesses nerves of steel as Amelia Boynton Robinson. On the other team, Tom Wilkinson plays Lyndon Johnson, Dylan Baker is J. Edgar Hoover, Tim Roth is George Wallace and Giovanni Ribisi sports a very fetching comb-over as Lee C. White. DuVernays intention is certainly for us to revile these figures of government and they really do look untrustworthy. Despite the criticisms of historical inaccuracy that have been levelled at the film, I really enjoyed the marked divide between the bloated, apathetic, washed out white men in power and the passionate young black men and women of Kings movement.

It is a completely compelling film from start to finish. The acting is flawless, the cinematography is heady and the pace is swift. And to top it off, all the sharp, strong, intelligent black female characters make it even more of an inspiring story than it could have been. It sails past the Bechdel test finish line without even breaking a sweat with one knockout conversation between Corretta King and Amelia Boynton Robinson. So, Ava DuVernay, keep doing what you’re doing. Coz it’s bloody brilliant.

Monsoon Wedding – Mira Nair, 2001

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Written by Sabrina Dhawan, this film became the highest grossing feature to come out of India and won the Golden Lion award at Venice in 2001. With her sixth feature film, Mira Nair delivers a touching, gently humorous, beautifully rendered study of love in many forms. Set in Delhi, it is the story of the Verma family and the long days running up to their only daughters wedding.

Aditi, the bride, has been having an affair with a married man. When she finally comes to the realisation that he will not leave his wife, she agrees to let her family arrange a marriage for her. In white western circles, the idea of arranged marriage can be somewhat hard to swallow. We tend to hear a lot about young people (women mostly) forced into unhappy arranged marriages simply to fulfil familial honour and we like to feel indignant about it all. While I am sure many arranged marriages are deeply unhappy affairs, in this film Nair attempts to show us that it’s not always as black and white as we might think. After all this is 21st century Delhi, where tradition and innovation tussle with each other continually. Far from being malleable young pawns compliant to the family will, Aditi and her intended husband Hemant take control of their situation by being painfully frank with each other before the wedding takes place. This may not be the most romantic start to their relationship, but by putting all their cards on the table they come to find a great respect for one other. Which, I’ve been led to believe, is a pretty solid foundation for a successful marriage.

I do find Aditi to be a slightly annoying character. She’s a bit pouty and doe eyed. By far the most interesting character is Ria, her older cousin. An anomaly in the family, Ria is eligible yet unmarried. Instead she harbours hopes of studying in American and becoming a writer. When a family figurehead arrives for the wedding celebrations and Ria becomes agitated, it becomes clear that the two have some history. She keeps a close eye on him throughout the days leading up to the wedding and when it at last becomes clear he has made sinister advances on her young cousin, Aliya, she refuses to let things continue as they have. Ria explodes in rage, confessing to her Uncle, Lalit Verma, that she was abused by this man as a child. For a while it seems Lalit might just want to sweep the whole episode under the carpet, as we would perhaps expect his generation to do. But I did an actual, real life fist pump when he summoned the courage to eject this figure of family authority from his home and from the celebrations.

India doesn’t have the greatest track record on equality and Nair allows a few potent reminders that in wider society women receive much less respect than men. But within the family there is greater equality in terms of power and influence for men and women. This is especially evident in the relationship between Pimmi and Lalit Verma, the mother and father of the bride. They have some extremely tender scenes and some strained scenes. Combined, they make for a faithful portrait of a mature marriage. Nair especially explores the female relationships with nuance and authenticity. The best scene of the film takes place the night before the wedding when all the women of the family sit in the grounds of the house decorating the brides hands with mehndi, talking of their own marriages and singing Hindi songs of love, union, lust and desire.

But it’s not all sincerity and seriousness. It’s funny too. The wedding planner plays the fool until he becomes entranced by the maid and there are some great farcical moments between him and Lalit. There are some stylistic choices that are definite Bollywood influences but really, this film is pure Hollywood. In fact, when Derek Malcom reviewed this film for the Guardian in 2001, he said ‘We’ve probably seen it all before but not from India’. Even 15 years later, I’m inclined to say this still stands. There’s nothing particularly different about it, it’s basically a Richard Curtis film but with Indian actors. But that’s not to say it’s not enjoyable. It is a celebratory film and you will feel genuinely uplifted by the end. Nair captures all the colour and vitality of Delhi to the point where you can almost smell the marigolds and feel the heat.

However, this being a film where most conversation revolves around heterosexual marriage, I don’t think it passes the Bechdel test.

Vagabond – Agnes Varda, 1985

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The New Wave director, Agnes Varda, is often described as a feminist film-maker with a certainty that the French have always managed to command and refused to apologise for (I love them for it). Vagabond is arguably one of her most overtly feminist character studies. It is the story of a young woman, Mona, who rejects society in order to live a life of solitude and freedom on the road. She wanders through French wine country during winter, determined to survive on her own terms until exhaustion, hunger and freezing temperatures make any further journey impossible.

We begin by discovering the body of a young girl, frozen in a ditch on the edge of a vineyard. Varda herself provides narration, explaining that she does not know who this mysterious girl is or where she has come from. But as the story progresses, Varda asks us to join her as inquisitor. In a staged documentary style, we meet the people who last saw Mona and they answer questions as to her movements and their involvement with her. Some are honest, others leave out details to cover their own backs. Slowly we begin to glean a version of events leading up to Monas demise.

It becomes clear that this is a woman who, by choice, has completely shunned every societal construct out there. She has no job so she steals, she takes cash in hand jobs, she sells favours, she exploits the kindness of others. She has no house so she squats, she camps or she finds jobs that provide lodgings. She never stays in one place for long. She doesn’t wash or change her clothes. She is seen by some to be enviably free, by others to be vulnerable and by some as sinister. By existing outside society she completely polarises opinions.

The most enjoyable thing about this film is the complete autonomy Mona has. Just like Jack Kerouac in On The Road (without the whiny telegrams to his mum asking for another cash injection) or Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye (without the breakdown), Mona chooses this life. Varda never casts her as victim. It could even be argued that her death is on her own terms.

It is only her rape that stands out as a choice that someone else has made for her, but even here Varda does not linger or give Mona time for reflection. She is not blaming her for putting herself in a vulnerable situation. In another scene, Mona provides some sort of unspecified sexual favour to the owner of a garage she been washing cars for. It’s left ambiguous as to whether this is payment for letting her pitch her tent in his yard. But by viewing the film as a whole, you begin to see how Varda might be critiquing a society that prescribes roles for women and punishes them with violence when they do not adhere but never has to turn back on itself and examine why those roles exist or why men might see a woman as a target. Mona may have rejected society but she cannot completely escape the strictures of patriarchy.

I’ve read a lot of other reviews of this film, some very interesting, some vitriolic. There are some who question whether this can be deemed a feminist film when Mona seems so reliant on men for survival. I think it’s incredibly sad that someone could watch this film and come away with such a one-dimensional interpretation. Mona comes across and often stays with a lot of men, but she also comes across and has meaningful encounters with just as many women who help her survive. Those who help her have no hold over her, she retains no attachment to anyone, and in this she treats everyone equally. On the whole, it is the women in this film who find Mona fascinating, as though they envy her freedom and self-determination. Most of the men eye her with distrust or attempt to use her for their own pleasure. There are exceptions to this but I think Varda is making a pretty interesting point about the position of women within patriarchal society.

Do not expect to like Mona. At times she is completely obnoxious. She can be willful, rude, lazy, unappreciative and fickle. However, she is also courageous, fiercely independent and observant. In one of my favourite scenes Mona is the only person willing to listen to an old lady, largely ignored and imprisoned in her own house, whose nephew is waiting with impatience for her to die and to come into his inheritance. They sit drinking brandy and laughing together as equals.

Apparently, Varda was inspired to write this story after encountering a female drifter. It is plain to see how she felt about that woman when we watch Mona, she doesn’t judge or seem overly worried about her, rather she is fascinated by her. Through this film I also feel she’s exploring themes of collective responsibility. We all have a responsibility to look after those around us but first and foremost we have a responsibility to look after ourselves.

Mona is, without doubt, one of the most autonomous female characters I have ever witnessed on film. And to top it off, it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. So in my book, that makes it a pretty badass feminist film.

The Pied Piper of Hutzovina – Pavla Fleisher, 2006

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Czech director, Pavla Fleisher, decides to embark on a trip with a man she hardly knows to find out who he really is. That man is the larger than life DJ, actor and lead singer of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello, Eugene Hutz. He is a seriously charismatic guy. And if you’re partial to a moustache, as I am, then he’s definitely going to float your boat. Gogol Bordello make you happy you’re alive at the exact same time this raucous mess of hip-hop, punk and gypsy exists. This is a documentary with real spirit and personality that will, at the very least, get your toe tapping. In fact, I defy anyone not to feel like dancing at some point while watching it.

The vehicle through which Fleisher gets Hutz to open up is the passion they both share for traditional Romani gypsy music. Fleisher puts together the funding to allow Hutz to take her on a journey through Hungary, Ukraine, Russia and Siberia in search of grass roots gypsy music as well as more established performances by his musical heroes.

They meet in Budapest and embark on the first leg of the journey by rail, the countryside of Eastern Europe rolling gently by. Hutz’s excitement begins to build as he accompanies the sounds of the tracks on his guitar. His excitement is infectious. He is taking Fleisher to a gypsy camp he visited as a child, isolated in the Carpathian Mountains. It feels like an immense privilege to be able to glimpse a community and a life that is rarely seen by western eyes. The poverty is striking but the people are stoic and the warmth the outsiders are greeted with is beautiful. As soon as the guitar comes out, the dancing begins and people of all ages gather to celebrate. Hutz’s passion for gypsy music and the Romani life is clear and he describes it with eloquence,

‘You start realizing that you’re dealing with some of the most hurt people in the world. Right away it’s so striking that they are so sad. And that sadness is so overwhelming but there is this shot of optimism that makes them stand out from all the other people in the world.’  

In contrast, the pair also travel to Kiev to visit the director of the Gypsy Theatre there. This is an institution founded to preserve the traditions of Romani life and culture and the director is uncompromisingly orthodox. It is painful watching him tear apart Hutz’s work as the kind of thing that destroys gypsy music but Hutz is utterly philosophical about the encounter.

As the journey continues and Hutz becomes more and more excited about all the new discoveries he is making, Fleisher manages to peel away the layers of his personality. It is evident from the start that he is a tricky character, never giving straight answers to questions, always joking around, easily distracted. But Fleisher does manage to catch him in a couple of reflective and honest moods and that’s where things get really interesting. She manages to get him to open up and there is a fleeting glimpse of a totally different side of him. It can’t have been easy to coax that out. She is very honest about the fact that she nurtures romantic feelings for him and it becomes clear to her early on that he has no intention of returning them. At times she is so self sacrificing and amenable that you just want to shake her and tell her to man up. It’s obvious that Hutz is accustomed to a more street-wise and less emotionally available breed of female. But I admire her for being so honest. She has a lot riding on this project and every time Hutz is awkward, spiteful or un-cooperative it feels like a slap in the face for her. It’s like we’re watching her get her heart trampled on over and over again. It would have been very easy for her to edit that all out. But in being so honest, she is doing what she set out to do and showing us exactly who Eugene Hutz is, warts and all. We can all relate to her experience on some level. We’ve probably all been infatuated with someone who is unreachable at some point in our lives.

The film ends with footage from a Gogol Bordello gig in London, six months later. Eugene is in his element. Hundreds of kids dance to the rhythm of the music and throw up their hands in praise of their idol. While it is clear that Hutz is trying to bridge a gap between two cultures and introduce the frustrated punk kids of the world to the gypsy spirit, it also made me feel uncomfortable watching these middle class British kids hungrily consuming a type of music that is rooted in a culture they have little interest in engaging with directly.

However, Fleisher does sum up what Hutz is trying to do perfectly when she says,

‘I could see in him the boy from Kiev, desperately fighting the boredom of high-rise buildings. I could also see in him the gypsy spirit, which he is and feels connected to. And I admired the way he put the two worlds together to make a new world, unlike any other.’

It’s a documentary with two, equally fascinating strands to it, all brought together with Fleishers concise narration. There are moments of sadness and moments of silliness. The music is jubilant, enlivening, brilliant. And Hutz, despite some moments of chauvinism, is hilarious. (I recommend watching the mini doc in the dvd extras purely for Hutzs plan to wrap a Siberian waitress in a table cloth in order to smuggle her back to America. It’s priceless.)

Interestingly, the Bechdel test does not apply to documentaries……

Wuthering Heights – Andrea Arnold, 2011

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For her third feature film, Andrea Arnold courageously takes on an adaptation of Emily Brontes classic gothic masterpiece. Together with co-writer Olivia Hetreed she has crafted a version of the story told from the point of view of Brontes anti-hero Heathcliff in which race, class and brutality are brought to the fore.

Heathcliff is an orphan boy picked up in Liverpool by the charitable, yet strict, Mr Earnshaw. He is taken to Wuthering Heights, the family house standing in lonely isolation on the Yorkshire moors. There he strikes up an intense friendship with Earnshaws daughter, Catherine. Despite the threat of constant beatings and ill treatment at the hands of her brother Hindley and the servant Joseph, the two run wild over the moors, lost in a world of their own creation. All seems well between the two until Catherine is invited into the more civilized world of their neighbours, the Lintons. When the Linton son proposes, Catherine is forced to choose between the civility of life with the Lintons and her feral friend. Heathcliff’s sense of rejection is so keen that he disappears in the night only to return three years later determined to win Catherine back or exact revenge upon those who have wronged him.

This is not a film for the faint hearted. Through Arnolds original framing device, it becomes a story about two people destroying each other. Much more so than in the book. She has done two things I admire her for. Firstly, breaking with tradition, she has cast two black actors as Heathcliff. In the book he is described as ‘a dark skinned gypsy in aspect’ and there have been many debates about his ethnicity over the years. Secondly, she has refused to subscribe to the common interpretation of Wuthering Heights as a great romantic story. Catherine and Heathcliff have been mythologized as a pair of tortured lovers. They may have loved each other intensely, but it wasn’t a healthy kind of love. Emily Bronte wrote a story about human cruelty, repression, jealousy and control.

Arnold has said that she is interested in why people turn out the way they do and presumably that’s why she’s chosen to concentrate on Heathcliff in this way. All he experiences in his early life is cruelty, racism, bigotry and jealousy. By casting black actors to play him, this becomes more acutely understandable for a modern audience. Perhaps more so than if she had cast him as Romany. Our understanding of Black history is far more accurate (although we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go on that front). The slave trade had only been completely abolished 14 years before Wuthering Heights was published. Endemic racism plagued Britain at a time when former slave owners were being compensated by the government for the loss of their workforce. Heathcliffs origins are never fully explored in the book, but if he’d been subjected to the kind of treatment most black citizens had at that time, it’s entirely understandable that he would have grown up to be suspicious and self preserving. Catherine too has suffered as a child and becomes equally cruel and self involved.

By framing the story is this way, Andrea Arnold has given me a new perspective on one of my favorite books. She has made me wonder whether Emily Bronte was trying to write a story about the consequences of bigotry, repression and conformity in a similar way to Thomas Hardy writing Tess of the D’Urbervilles. She has also made me wonder whether Heathcliff is an emblem for Bronte’s idea of childhood. He represents a state of blissful selfishness and unfettered desire. The two children are so uninhibited that they create a bond existing outwith civil/adult/accepted behaviors. When Cathy lifts the back of Heathcliffs shirt and tenderly licks the wounds inflicted by Joseph’s cane, it is shocking how intimate the gesture is. But in their world it makes sense. Heathcliffs sense of betrayal is so easy to understand when Cathy grows up, conforms to the societal ideal and becomes a lady. He wants to stay forever in that free and feral world whereas she knows she will be damned if she does.

The film demands a lot from its audience. The harsh environment we are drawn into underscores the brutality of the story. The moors are unendingly bleak, the wind batters everything (the sound design is primarily the sound of gale force winds), sheets of rain drift their way across the landscape and only the most resilient beings survive. In a completely matter of fact way, death is everywhere. There are dead birds trussed up from the ceilings, blood seeping out through their eyes, or being plucked ready for cooking. Heathcliff breaks the necks of rabbits caught in his traps. Dogs are left hanging by their collars on gateposts. The skulls of animals and birds are sacred mementos for the two friends. The house itself has the appearance of bleached and brittle bones. And yet life teems in that desolate place. Beetles scramble through the mosses, dogs chase each other, birds soar overhead. Cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, who worked with Arnold on both her pervious features, has done some beautiful work here. He uses tones of blue and grey in high contrast to add an ethereal quality to the landscape.

Arnold has also given the film a palpably modern quality. All the costumes, sets, props and language are period. But the way these characters move, inflect and express is distinctly modern. The young Catherine in particular could be any other teenage girl you might see nipping into Primark in Leeds or Sheffield.

It’s not the kind of film you could watch on a Sunday afternoon. I would recommend a large glass of wine in hand to steady your nerves and kill the numbing void you might feel creeping into your soul. But it is brilliant. So knuckle down and stick with it, it’s worth it. Arnold has only depicted half of the book but her film is so complex I could easily write 5,000 words on it.

Sadly though, it does not pass the Bechdel test.

 

Ratcatcher – Lynne Ramsay, 1999

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What is immediately apparent from the very first frames of this film is that Lynne Ramsay is not just a director. She’s not just a storyteller. She is an artist. There is a very rich culture of artistically driven filmmaking in Scotland and Ramsay has certainly played her part in shaping the industry. I can’t help thinking that Ramsays time studying photography in Edinburgh before she moved onto the National Film and Television School seems to have been brought to bear in her film work. If you watch her earlier shorts, it’s easy to see how she has developed a bold visual language over time that is unique to her. There is more than a touch of the ‘artist film’ here. It’s in the short, closely cropped images of a boy wrapped in his mothers net curtains, a knife comb pulled from a back pocket, blood on an ice cream, a kitten dropped to the floor. It’s in the high contrast, soft focus cinematography.

The story is set in Glasgow in the 1970s, at a time when many of the tenement buildings were being condemned, cleared and their inhabitants moved out of the city and into new housing schemes on the outskirts. The bin men are on strike and the army has been called in to remove the heaps of refuse left to rot in the communal gardens and on the pavements of the neighbourhood. Rats are fair game for boys wishing to take out their frustrations.

James Gillespie is a young boy with a secret. He has been involved in the drowning of another young boy from his neighborhood in the canal. He is a quiet, sensitive boy trapped between childhood naivety and the dark secret he must keep. He is capable of a level of empathy and understanding that many adults would find impossible. Often alone, he befriends Margaret Anne, a teenage girl living in the neighborhood who is being routinely abused by a local gang of boys. It is heartbreaking to see her impassive face turn away from James’ gaze as boy after boy drags her into the outdoor lavatory to have his 3 minutes of fun at her expense. James, however, sees her as a whole person. He sees her suffering and it awakens a sense of nurturing in him. An especially touching scene plays out as James, having been de-liced by his own mother, takes it upon himself to thoroughly probe Margaret Annes hair with a nit comb.

Purely by chance James stumbles upon one of the new suburban housing developments in the process of being built. It is a wonderful visual metaphor for hope, as it becomes his playground for the afternoon. For for a while he can forget his cares and dream of a better life. Here we see a flash of Ramsay’s visual artistry as a golden field of wheat is framed in the dark window of one of the houses looking, for a second, like a serene painting. James cannot contain himself and climbs out to run with abandon through it.

The new housing schemes were seen by many to be a beacon of hope after the dilapidated and overcrowded conditions of the tenements. However,they were often cheaply built, had very few local amenities and there were no employment opportunities nearby. The displacement of thousands of families merely shifted the socio-economic problems they faced to the suburbs. The move fractured communities and many schemes became hotbeds of vandalism and crime. As a portent of this future, when James returns to the development a second time the houses have been sealed and he can only gaze through the windows into dark interiors as his dreams begin to fade.

Glasgow is a city close to my heart. It was my home for 10 years and even now my heart skips a beat every time the train rolls into Central Station on my too brief visits. Ramsay also obviously loves Glasgow. She has captured the feel of the place perfectly. The way it can be so drab and cold sometimes, how parts of the city seem to be physically mourning the lost of industry. But also how the communities can be so warm and tight-nit. She has made the canal a constant presence. There is a sense of menace as it snakes its way through the sparse wasteland behind the tenements, drawing curious boys to its murky edges.

The dialogue is sparse. Ramsay doesn’t rely on it to convey her ideas. Instead she allows this remarkable cast of actors to deliver some very fine, nuanced performances. In particular, the young William Eadie who plays James is astounding.

This is, quite simply, a beautiful film. It is poetic, moving and intensely sad. Lynne Ramsay has been called a visionary and based on Ratcatcher alone, I’m inclined to agree. I can’t wait to watch the rest of her work.

I’m pretty sure this one does not pass the bechdel test, but it is a great film nonetheless.