London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Day 25 (Part 2)

THE MONK (Dominik Moll)

Dominik Moll’s first two films (Harry, He’s Here to Help and Lemming) are both tense, contemporary, Hitchcokian tales. The Monk, about a man (Vincent Cassel) adopted into an order of monks at birth who becomes great preacher, but is tempted first by a young woman (Deborah Francois) who comes into the monastery disguised as a masked burn victim and then by a beautiful young parishioner (Josephine Japy) into escalating sin, is departure in style, but not so much in tone or subject matter.

Cassel is perfectly cast as the monk Ambrosio; charismatic and intense, he’s equally convincing as pious preacher, inflexible confessor and rampant sinner, while Deborah Francois is intoxicating as the first woman to test Ambrosio’s vows and his resolve and young Josephine Japy’s serene beauty is perfectly suited to the innocent that Ambrosio wants to corrupt. The film isn’t long, but Moll takes his time, revelling in the extreme darkness and almost stereotypical gothic content of the story, it’s made creepy, rather than silly, by the strong performances, the seriousness with which it is played, and Patrick Blossier’s photography, which seems, much of the time, to be composed entirely of subtly different shades of black.

Moll’s style is sometimes classical to the point of being archaic – the use of the iris in and out, an editing technique most common in silent films, is striking in this respect – and so one scene in which he uses much more stylised techniques; solarised images, multi layered dissolves and more, sticks out like a sore thumb. I know what he’s doing with that scene; trying to convey Amborosio’s unconscious reaction as Valerio (Francois) first saves his life then has sex with him, but it feels like it’s out of a different film, as do the last five minutes, where the film finally gives in to its inherent silliness with and ending that just doesn’t work (despite a cameoing Sergi Lopez).

Overall, The Monk has some very striking things; Cassel’s sermons; the sad fate of a pregnant nun and Ambrosio’s increasingly complex relationship with Valerio all work well, but sometimes the gears clunk a little.

3.5 / 5

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Andrea Arnold)

There is no denying that, when the camera manages to stay still for more than half a second at a time, Andrea Arnold’s third feature (following the accomplished Red Road and Fish Tank) is stunning to look at, notably beautiful even in the year of Tree of Life, unfortunately that happens very infrequently, and an overactive camera style more suited to Bourne than Bronte is not the only, or even the worst, problem the film has.

Arnold has made her name with hard hitting, realistic modern dramas about some of society’s poorer people (and more broadly about class). Having not read the book (sorry) I don’t know how readily Wuthering Heights would appear to fit into that, but Arnold certainly seems to have to work to make it fit her preoccupations. Though the film is clearly set in the 19th century, Arnold inserts incongruous modernity into her limited dialogue (I’m guessing that, were Emily Bronte still alive, hearing the young Heathcliff say ‘F**k you all, you c**ts’ might just kill her), but again, that’s a rather small issue compared to some others.

The big problem, sadly, is the casting. Arnold has previously drawn brilliant work from both professional and non-professional actors (Katie Jarvis’ searing performance in Fish Tank, for instance), but here she comes horribly unstuck. The film divides roughly in half, with Heathcliff and Cathy about 13 (Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer) in the first half and about 18 (James Howson and Skins actress Kaya Scodelario) in the second, and neither pair of actors puts in anything like a decent performance, the two Heathcliff’s are especially poor, and their flat, rote, reading of their dialogue makes you wonder whether this is why Arnold has chosen to depict the story largely without characters speaking. There is also a complete dearth of chemistry, which is a fatal flaw, because this is (at least on the evidence presented here) supposed to be a tragic romance about two people’s obsession with each other, and not once did I buy into the idea of that need, that hunger for each other. This is a passionless film, and that strikes me as not good enough.

That missing element also renders the film quite a dull watch, yes, Robbie Ryan’s photography is arresting, but Arnold’s obsession with tiny details seems to have swamped the big picture, almost every interior shot is a shaky hand held close up, while exteriors alternate between this style and wider shots of the foreboding, mist filled moors. This, along with the film’s 4:3 ratio suggests that Arnold is trying to convey claustrophobia, but she never pulls back enough to let us see or experience what her characters feel, which makes Wuthering Heights a distant and dull experience.

2 / 5

WHEN THE NIGHT (Christina Comencini)

Christina Comencini’s film asks some uncomfortable questions at the outset but, sadly, answers them, then veers off in an increasingly unbelievable other direction and crashes and burns by the end. It’s about Marina (Clauda Pandolfi), who is taking a month long holiday in the mountains with her toddler Marco. Marco often cries for a very long time and one night Marina’s landlord Manfred (Filipo Timi) hears Marina yelling at Marco, then a crash, then silence. They take the injured child to hospital, but though Marina insists there was an accident, Manfred suspects her of hurting her baby. This begins a long and ever deepening relationship between Marina and Manfred.

I’ll give When the Night this much; it’s more articulate about the struggles of being a parent than Lynne Ramsay’s bafflingly overpraised We Need to Talk About Kevin, and it deals with the issue in a well shaded way. We may suspect that Marina hurt her child, we may fear she’ll do it again, but nothing is black and white, it’s never suggested that she did it because she’s evil. She’s flawed, and Claudia Pandolfi’s strong performance makes that abundantly clear.

Comencini, working from her own novel, sets up a tensely understated adversarial relationship between Marina and Manfred, which Pandolfi and Timi both play well, the problem comes when they must become closer. There is such suspicion between them (at one point Marina thinks Manfred is attempting to take her son from her) that their connection never convinces, especially in a risible 15 years later epilogue. Comencini doesn’t seem to have the courage to let the dark questions linger, which is a shame, because the setup is promising, but the change of emphasis hobbles the film.

2.5 / 5

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One Response

  1. Traxy

    Wuthering Heights the book is broadly about class (as in, there’s a bit of that in there, but it’s not perhaps the main focus of the story) and Heathcliff is one of society’s poorer people, so in a way, it fits. From what I’ve gathered so far, this WH adaptation is going to be very arty … which normally means I’ll be bored out of my skull. Can’t honestly say I’m looking forward to it. Good to read a review that doesn’t just say how awesome it is, because while it’ll probably be beautiful to behold – like you say – it doesn’t sound very … entertaining.

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