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Dieter Dengler’s story is awe-inspiring. Though we’re prone to exaggerate, the phrase is absolutely bang on in this case. The narrative evokes a mix of wonder and horror: amazement at his strength, terror at what humanity – and fate – can do. It’s one of the most subtly affecting films I’ve ever seen: there were no tears at the end but it may have changed how I see the world.

As for Herzog’s craft, there are two decisions which I think are particularly interesting. The first is his method of presentation: flying to Vietnam, he gets Dieter to recreate moments from his ordeal. In the jungle, it produces a gesture that is haunting because it cannot help but reveal a certain vulnerability. As the elderly man runs with hands tied and guards in front and behind, we see him, after a few metres, stop and glance back over his right shoulder at the camera. Usually armed with a staggeringly upbeat and forgiving mood, it seems that fear and uneasiness fill his head at that moment. Perhaps he worries that it’s all a dream and that he’s woken up back in the jungle.

The second is the reference to Dieter’s fiancée. She is a domestic detail that is only hinted at – mentioned once and never picked up again. Dieter talks about her briefly and Herzog does not question him. Rather than made clear, her absence is marked simply by the silence that surrounds her in the rest of the picture and we’re left to wonder what happened to her. A bit like the sub-plot involving the social worker in Read My Lips (2001), the mention of the fiancée poses more questions than it answers.

See this film.


A friend recommended Audiard’s Read My Lips (2001) to me almost a year ago. For a while, I struggled to get hold of a copy and, having seen A Prophet (2009), I watched The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Self-Made Hero (1996) instead. Now though, finally, I’ve seen the picture. It seems to mark the beginning of a move in Audiard’s canon towards an idiosyncratic shooting style, a development perhaps continued in his later films by the use of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine for both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.

At the same time, visual echoes key the film into earlier cinematic traditions, as Hollywood is both invoked and reacted against. In its first few scenes, Read My Lips presents a lonely protagonist and establishes a situation familiar to a romantic comedy. The opening series of close ups, showing Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) fitting her hearing aids and washing her mouth with water, root us to the secretary’s sensory perception. Yet in the tedious everyday surroundings of her workplace, we see her socially separated and sensorily sealed-off – despite her aids, unable to interact. Tight framing, often claustrophobically filled with coworkers that ignore her, reinforces that she is alone.

There’s a gesture in this opening section which is reminiscent of an earlier work from  Hollywood – Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby (1938). As Carla returns to her desk after completing a task, she sits on some spilt coffee which has been (accidentally?) left on her seat. When called again into her boss’s office, panicked, as well as upset, she tries to cover the stain on her skirt. Devos moves her hand and herself in such a way that the gesture and the particulars of the framing bring to mind Katharine Hepburn’s ripped dress in Bringing Up Baby.

Read My Lips both invokes the earlier Golden Age comedy – chiefly through similarities of gesture – and distances itself from it. The different means used by Devos and Hepburn to resolve their parallel problems construct two distinct social contexts. While Hepburn must fill an absence (a large hole in a ripped dress) with Carey Grant, Devos seeks to hide an unexpected and unwanted addition (a coffee stain) simply with her own body. While Hepburn and Grant are left to stroll hilariously through the convivial setting of a bar and restaurant, Devos must walk unnaturally through her place of work, avoiding the harsh gazes of her coworkers.

So Bringing Up Baby‘s social situation is hinted at before quickly being recast in a minor key. As Grant’s parallel in Read My Lips is not an archaeologist but a criminal, the divergence between Audiard’s picture and a comic Hollywood hinterland only gets greater as the film progresses. In fact, by casting Vincent Cassel (who plays a skinhead hoodlum in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995)) as Paul, Audiard gives Read My Lips an iconically French cinematic face. Furthermore, the entrance of Paul in the picture begins to usher in a shift in genre, as the criminal world of La Haine starts to pervade the (albeit already slightly more tragically presented) situation of domestic loneliness.

Carla stands as a bridge between the two worlds, as the film blends the generic expectations of a thriller with a relationship drama. So, having dressed herself for a night out in the club in which Paul works, Carla becomes enmeshed not in a lighthearted fling but trapped in the threat of rape. The situation (which Paul rescues her from) reinforces the violence of his criminal past and its inescapable contiguity with the present situation. Earlier, when Paul tries to jump Carla, attempting to repay a flat and an advance on his wages with sex, it’s clear that he also struggles to adapt from one mode to the next. For him, sex – like keys or cash – is something simply to use and to exchange.

Despite what is, in some senses, an excellently neat resolution of the criminal and emotional elements through Carla’s deafness, Audiard’s script (written with Tonino Benacquista) refuses to settle entirely. The picture’s haunted by a sub-plot involving Paul’s parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier). Only given a few fleeting moments, this story is revealed almost in a series of set pieces: in one scene, for example, Masson sits drunk with opera loudly leaking from his headphones; later, he covers his head with a bag and screams; finally, as Carla and Paul drive away, we’re given a glimpse of him being arrested by the police. Carla reveals, reading his lips, that he says he loved her, though whether he killed her is left uncertain.

At its best, Polanski’s Frantic (1988) runs like clockwork. The film presents a single narrative, free from sub-plots, which develops quickly and is, for the most part, controlled. (After the first two-thirds of the picture, it all starts to unravel into silliness, as an apparently drug-motivated kidnapping becomes about an unexplained and underdeveloped threat of nuclear war.)

As I suggest about Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), causation is presented as seamless: though Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) is overwhelmed by the situation – unable to understand how one event leads to another – the viewer witnesses a story that unfolds so naturally that it only becomes clear retrospectively quite how far the picture achieves a Pynchonesque strangeness, ascending the rooftops of Paris and locating the end of the world in a miniature Statue of Liberty.

The ticktock of the story’s well-crafted progress is paralleled in the camera’s movement. The picture often preempts the orchestration of the actors or the props, nuzzling into or drawing away from what is at first blank space, creating a frame that is more ready to present the objects within it in rich and ambivalent ways. Just like Walker around Paris, the viewer is led around the scenes, as the camera moves before the props or the actors (rather than the other way round). The result is a slick mode of visual storytelling. It is a shame that the script cannot maintain such class, eventually running out of control.

It’s a commonplace of film theory that the gaze of a camera is more invasive than it is cooly objective. D.W. Griffith was aware of this tension. If A Drunkard’s Reformation (1909) represents his early faith in the power of cinema to produce moral improvement, presenting the titular drunkard’s reformation during a theatrical performance, by the production of his later picture True Heart Susie (1919), Griffith has tempered his enthusiasm for his medium and nuanced his understanding of the camera, an object that is morally ambiguous in its voyeurism.

We see, in Susie‘s closing scene, that Susie (Lillian Gash) finally kisses William (Robert Harron), her long-pursued childhood crush. She receives a peck in an intimate close two shot. The pair pull apart and we see amazement and pleasure on her face. Griffith, perhaps feeling that he is unjustly invading this private moment, pulls his camera back, reframing to a more discreet wide two shot. Finally, he cuts to an inter-title, entirely removing the pair from our (and the camera’s) gaze.

By forcing Susie and William’s absence upon us, Griffith acknowledges the transgressive nature of cinema. We are allowed to see the characters’ most intimate and private moments; this luxury becomes obvious when the embracing pair are removed from the silver screen, when we are not allowed to look.

In Patrick Keiller’s London (1994), many of the images are similarly – in fact, on occasion, more immediately – voyeuristic (in the etymological sense of to see without being seen). We watch a girl and a boy playing in the street with a crushed can, builders doing very little and the Queen Mother unveiling a statue to a crowd. The picture is a mosaic of shots captured on an almost always static camera with an unnamed narrator providing a commentary. The design is reminiscent of Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962), which consists almost entirely of still black-and-white photographs. It also brings to mind the tradition of cinema vérité. Keiller is unique, though, because he doesn’t seem to mind if his camera is detected. While it often isn’t, it certainly is from time to time. Passers-by glance down the barrel before walking on.

In fact, though, people don’t often figure in this picture. The majority of the shots are of London – its architecture, its literary curiosities and its banality – and the protagonists (the Narrator and Robinson) are both unseen. In this mode, the writer/director establishes another relationship between the camera and the subject matter that is interwoven with the more expected voyeuristic mode of filming. Every now and then we feel like the camera has arrived too late. When he speaks of meetings, we become aware that his cinema is one of absence. Like Griffith’s final inter-title, the Narrator provides a commentary on an event that is not to be seen. In a shopping mall, as the camera moves up an escalator, he mentions a friendly man with whom Robinson spent a few hours (though later, when he tried to call, he only reached a public telephone box). It’s jarring to realise that this event is long since passed and that all we are left with is second- (or third-) hand report.

The film is more engaging because of this shadowiness, a quality shared between the Narrator, Robinson and  many of the events detailed. Keiller sets up a trail to be followed, pynchonesque in its slipperiness and aptly suited to the Narrator’s theme of social degradation. The best has past or is, at least, not now.

A friend of mine recently showed me Alexandra Monro + Sheila Menon’s short film No Way Through (2009). One of five winning scripts entered into Ctrl.Alt.Shift’s short film competition, the picture tries to ‘highlight […] mobility restrictions imposed in the West Bank, that are limiting its habitants’ access to health care, thus violating a fundamental human right.’ On the whole, it’s an effective film. You can watch it here:

The picture is quickly rooted in London. We recognise the squashed together suburban housing of the opening and notice the almost obscured ‘LONDON’ on the front of Rob’s (Tim Plester) folded-over roadmap. Almost as quickly, we feel this is not the city we know; as Rob approaches a roadblock, rather than a hospital, greeted by armed guards, rather than paramedics, we begin to wonder where we are. Monro and Menon convincingly establish a sort of dystopian Never Never Land. Their London invites comparison with Gilliam’s unidentified city in Brazil (1985) or Jeunet and Caro’s post-apocalyptic France in Delicatessen (1991): all three films present, with varying emphasis, worlds that are both governed by seemingly strange political situations and at the mercy of authoritarian military control.

But Brazil has its steam-machines and Delicatessen has its cannibalism: these films make more telling comments than No Way Through because of their surface absurdity. There is, perhaps, in both the feature films, a moment of insight, when the distorted world of the picture snaps in line with ours. I’m avoiding phrases like ‘political comment’ because I’m not sure that Brazil or Delicatessen attempt to make any; it’s also reductive to root all the joys and questions that come from watching these films into a single ‘pop’ of realisation. Nonetheless, we’re sure that No Way Through has a political point to make. The directors outline it explicitly in their accompanying text.

The one weakness of the short is that Monro and Menon try to bring their dystopia too close to reality too quickly. The epiphanic ‘pop’ becomes instead an instance of dramatic irony. The pieces of graffiti really rubbed: ‘FREE PALESTINE’ written on corrugated iron, for example.

With this political signpost obviously positioned, we’re invited simply to join the dots. If references to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are removed, though, notice how much freer we are to revel in the nightmare. The situation would seem so absurd that we would take solace only by thinking that it doesn’t really happen. (How, after all, is a crying child comforted after seeing a particularly scary film? ‘It’s only a film,’ The accompanying adult says. ‘It never really happened.’) Equally, a niggling notion that something like the situation presented on screen happens somewhere in the world is not the same: the loss of specificity is enough to maintain the illusion for a time.

Instead, then, of waiting for the text at the end of the film to explain the link already made between ‘PALESTINE’ and the picture we’re watching, the revelation would be more shocking and longer-lasting if this link were cut. We are told that ‘Around Jerusalem the average ambulance journey time for a Palestinian is now almost 2 hours, compared to 10 minutes in 2001.’ It’s fair to wonder how much more brutal the realisation would be if we weren’t already expecting this grim punch line.

Despite this one arguable point of structure, there are moments of wonderful craft in the picture. My favourite shot in the short is a beautiful image of Amy (Amy Loughton), bloodstained, looking through the car window. The camera is positioned above her and outside the vehicle so we’re presented at once with the girl and the city through the filter of the window.

It’s horrible to realise that Amy will die before she reaches hospital (and we have such a suspicion quite early on). We wonder what she’s thinking and we wonder whether the world reflected in the window is the one in which she wants to live. Just like a similar shot in Midnight Cowboy, Monro and Menon manage to blend Amy’s subjective experience and the objective reality in one shot, finding room for her implicit hopes alongside the grim actuality of her situation.

Very quickly into Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I (1987) came to mind. Both films seem to hinge on their leading pair’s drug-induced fancies, producing narratives driven by associations rather than obvious causation. The excitement is initiated by some sort of journey (a trip to Las Vegas or a weekend in the country) but the aims become quickly clouded (if they were ever clear at all).

Both pictures are also rooted in a specific time period. Withnail rests at the end of ‘the greatest decade of mankind’; Fear and Loathing, based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, presents ‘the brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord, 1971’. This specificity is more important that it may seem at first: yes, plenty of films demonstrate a temporal unity but, in vague terms, as I was watching Fear and Loathing, I began to feel that the film’s setting influences its aesthetic beyond simply providing a period backdrop for a potentially universal story. Instead, the broader feelings generated by the social climate of California in the early 1970s affect the way the narrative is told. It’s less about a story that is specific to the seventies than about Gilliam’s attempt, in the late 1990s, to tell it using an aesthetic design that is apt for the subject matter.

An important scene for defining this aesthetic comes about halfway though the picture. Over stock footage of San Francisco from 1965, Duke (Johnny Depp) tells us that: ‘There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.’ He tries to describe the belief in ‘that inevitable sense of victory over the forces of old and evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail.’ (My emphasis) Film noir lingers here but only in a transformed state. In a short attempt to define a notoriously slippery term, noir is used here to refer to American films from (say) the 1940s and 1950s that present the sleazy side of life: sleazy in the sense that they move away from an everything-is-OK postcard aesthetic and attempt to show an anti-America (which is, it should be noted in passing, no more real, no less stylized, than the other extreme). Often populated by individuals that feel separated from society for some reason, the films present an alternative and more challenging moral system that competes with simple right and wrong. These complexities are reflected in cinematographic choices that involve low-key and high-contrast lighting setups shot on black-and-white film. Within such a varying genre, it’s useful to lean on specific examples of film noir to illustrate points of comparison with Gilliam’s picture.

So, in Fear and Loathing, the pair are, in a sense, victims of their circumstances, as is Bigelow (Eadmond O’Brien) in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. (1950), but we notice that they don’t feel much dread: instead, any urgency is swapped for a trippy ride on universal energy. The Las Vegas that Gilliam presents places no emphasis on guns or firepower and the corruption that comes with them (‘We didn’t need that’): instead we witness the psychedelic degradation of a pair of minds that are emblematic of the society in which they play. I limited the use of film noir to American films above because I think there is a larger and specifically American story here: the alternative moral system generated during the Depression is replaced in Fear and Loathing by no morals at all.

But the diffracted half-similarities of plot are only preamble to what is, for me, the strongest link between film noir and Fear and Loathing: the lighting. I believe the cinematographic choices of Gilliam’s picture reveal a desire to load the lighting with significance, an importance reminiscent of that given to the set-ups in, say, Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo (1955). In both films the lighting is stylized and noticeably low-key and high-contrast. But the startling black-and-white chiaroscuro that suits the violence and danger of The Big Combo becomes instead the psychedelic rainfall of always-changing always-blinking Las Vegas advertisements.

The emphasis shifts from tone to colour but black and darkness still linger behind it all. Furthermore, as the sights, sounds and opportunities of Las Vegas infect Duke and Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), we see the disintegration of personal boundaries played out visually: there is, for example, a beautiful and loaded scene where the bright lights of the city are refracted in the the pair’s car window. What we see is an underworld in which universal vibrations are temporarily on show in glorious saccharine technicolor. As I (Paul McGann) wonders in Withnail: ‘The purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals is back. Will we never be set free?’

What a shot. It brings to mind the beautiful interior scene near the beginning of Inception (2010) or the mountain training centre in Batman Begins (2005).

In a fit of enthusiasm for Christopher Nolan’s work, I recently watched his 2006 film The Prestige, from which the still above comes. The story of a rivalry between two magicians is told with an elusiveness typical of the director: extensive fragmentary flashbacks are intertwined with elements of trickery that the subject matter allows. (‘I think he’s dead.’ ‘No, wait, he’s not.’ ‘What?’) The film invites comparison with Inception, though its narrative arrangement feels closer, for me, to that in Memento (2000).

It’s interesting to note that Neil Burger’s The Illusionist also came out in 2006. I don’t know the details of the two releases, though it’s funny to think about the timing. (Was it a similar case, for example, to the production of  Antz and A Bug’s Life, both of which were released in 1998?) I’ve not seen The Illusionist recently enough to make any comparisons between the two pictures, though the similarity of subject matter is enough to think themes and images may echo between the two.

When I was trying to place The Prestige in a context, The Illusionist was the first film that came to mind. Inception, Memento and others directed by Nolan were also floating around. The parallels that formed quickest were both those drawn with a broad thematic brush and those from within the director’s own body of work. That’s probably normal. As I was watching the picture, I also found a number of weaker echoes – in the sense of those less well formed – coming to mind from other films. They feel all the more enticing because they are fleeting and difficult to explain. I mean brief similarities both formal (for example, the construction of a particular frame, the camera movement or the lighting) and narrative based (a section of dialogue, an actor’s movement or a series of events). Such comparisons that are not restricted by chronology or genre but instead centre on thematic and visual parallels are, for me, often the most vivid and the most exciting. (That’s not to say, of course, that chronological or generic study is useless. It isn’t.)

So, for example, when Angier (Hugh Jackman) luxuriates in the applauds of the audience, achieving a moment of success and adoration tinged with an (at the time) ambiguous sadness, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) standing on top of a turnbuckle for his (possibly) final finisher in The Wrestler (2008) comes briefly to mind.

I felt a similarity between Spike Jonze’s Being John Malcovich (1999) and the moment when Angier reveals that, each time he performs his greatest trick, his machine produces an identical copy of himself and that, to combat this oddity, he must endure a process of suicide and rebirth.

As Borden (Christian Bale) walks out of Angier’s storage facility, surrounded by flames as the building burns down, I was reminded of a similar shot from Barton Fink (1991).

It’s also quite fun to imagine who would win in a battle between Wolverine and Batman, though that’s a different sort of connection.

It seems Christopher Nolan does not agree with Mercutio. Quite early on in Romeo and Juliet (1594- 5), we learn what the latter thinks of dreams:

Romeo ‘Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.’

Mercutio ‘True. I talk of dreams’ (1.4).

Nolan clearly places, however, a lot of structural importance on the dreams in Inception (2010): each one provides a different narrative thread, all of which are tied together by someone asleep in the film’s real life. Indeed, some go so far as to say that dreams, rather than nothing, are everything in the film.

While this suggestion seems to tie up some apparent loose ends (such as Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio’s) children that do not age), it is, in a sense, too neat a reading for a film that revels in oneiric ambiguity. Part of the enjoyment of watching the picture derives from the tensions between dreamscape and (the possibility of) reality: we’re invited to ask how these two states affect one another. Romeo also wrestles with such questions: ‘If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, / My dreams presage some joyful news at hand.’ (5.1) The question that lingers behind the first line (‘can we trust what we see in dreams?’) is a warning, of sorts, to those who wish to draw thick lines between dream and reality and to expound confidently how they relate: Romeo evidently can’t trust the ‘flattering truth’, as, in the end, he and Juliet lie, not married, but dead.

My favourite shot from Inception also has a parallel in Romeo and Juliet, though this time I mean the 1996 film version by Baz Luhrmann. Despite the whizz-bangs of folding cities and paradoxical staircases, it is a (relatively) simple interior near the beginning of the film that stays with me: it is when Cobb meets Saito (Ken Watanabe) in a room decorated with gold and in which innumerable hanging lanterns are doubled in a large reflective table. The shot reminds me of the closing of Romeo and Juliet, when the camera moves slowly upwards, revealing the two corpses surrounded by countless small candles.

Whether or not multiple light sources are actually Nolan’s signature remains to be seen, but the shot is a beautiful way to open a provocative film. It’s exciting to see a picture cause so much discussion and debate. Nonetheless, before a viewer tries to suggest too forcefully that she has worked out what’s definitely going on, she could bear in mind Bottom’s words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595): ‘Man is but an ass if he go about t’expound this dream.’ (4.1)

I think Kubrick hints at a way of viewing Eyes Wide Shut (1999) towards the end of the film: when Dr. William (Tom Cruise) and Alice Hartford (Nicole Kidman) are Christmas shopping in the final scene, they discuss the distinction between “reality” and “dream[s]”. As they edge around the events of the night before, they settle upon a middle ground of sorts, placing the goings-on somewhere between consciousness and slumber. While Alice accepts she can’t know entirely what Bill did, he points out that her dreams can’t just be dismissed as subconscious babbling: “the reality of one night, let alone that of a whole lifetime, is not the whole truth.” “And no dream is entirely a dream.” It is a complex and loaded exchange but, in one sense, the blurred distinction between the experiential truth and a dream provides a useful lens through which a viewer can consider Kubrick’s last film: it’s neither the whole truth nor just a dream but instead something in-between.

As Bill’s journey through the night unfolds, causation is presented as seamless: events lead so easily to other events that Bill seems to be guided by a force other than his own will. The impeccable logic of the flow of occurrences and locations lends to Bill’s movements a sense of inevitability. If the viewer thinks back from the climax of this section, from the orgy scene, to the normal beginnings of the Hartford home, she is jarred by how far Bill has come: the sense of inevitability is retrospectively tempered by the night’s sheer oddity. The night is dreamlike because Bill moves with an ominous ease towards the strangest of spatial and moral places without receiving answers about what’s really happening.

The narrative unfolds linearly but tangentially, then, as Bill moves (or is moved) from the Christmas party to a secret ritualistic orgy, apparently without scope to escape once his journey starts. Kubrick’s aesthetic choices strengthen this dreamscape in a different way: colours, images and linguistic phrases interact associatively, remaining present, rather than leading sequentially from one to another. While the narrative unfolds in time, motifs interweave throughout the picture, being refracted as the film progresses but consistently resurfacing. If the events of the narrative have the strangeness of a dream in their progression, the visual and aural motifs of Eyes Wide Shut achieve a kaleidoscopic playfulness.

Take, for example, Bill’s exchanges with the two girls at the opening Christmas party. He asks “Where we going girls?” One replies “Where the rainbow ends.” The other asks “Don’t you want to go where the rainbow ends?” The question is allowed to hang for a moment but Bill quickly forgets the proposition as he is drawn away to more practical matters: he must help an overdosing girl who is lying naked upstairs in the host’s room. The end of the rainbow, then, hints at carnal satisfaction (with the two women, in this instance) but in fact leads to a more ambiguous blend of sexuality, vulnerability and, in a sense, self-objectifying voyeurism (the overdosing girl is unaware of her own nakedness, when Bill enters). This cluster of images – the rainbow, idealistic carnality and a more complex reality – embodies Bill’s larger movement. 

Later in the film, the first image resurfaces: the shop from which he hires his costume is called Rainbow. An aural utterance (“where the rainbow ends”) is transplanted onto the shop’s sign, an image accompanied by printed text (RAINBOW). The second image also appears: while he does not take it, his brush with a prostitute presents Bill with an opportunity for pure sexual fulfilment.  Such idealistic carnality slides into something more complex: when it is revealed later that the girl has been diagnosed H.I.V. positive, Bill is left ambivalent, thankful that he did not sleep with her but nonetheless sorry for her situation. At the out-of-the-way mansion that holds the ritualistic orgy, the motif of carnal delight is intensified: the women increase in number and beauty, if Nick (Todd Field) is trustworthy; he apparently has “never seen such women.” The purity of the moment is increased with anonymity: these beautiful women, as well as the men, are objectified with their identities hidden behind masks. Sex becomes nameless, an action free from individuals.

The forced removal of Bill’s mask muddies the social hierarchy within the mansion. It restores his identity among this group of faceless bodies, in one sense, returning his subjectivity. Equally, the action renders Bill the ultimate object: in an environment in which people wish to hide their identity he is made to flaunt his own. He cannot stop the combined gaze of everyone in the room, as they take more than he wishes to give, at once understanding who he is in the world proper. He is exposed, vulnerable and emphatically himself.

Throughout the film, the apparently inevitable progression from one event to another combines with the kaleidoscopic resurfacing of images and phrases  to achieve the dreamscape quality. Alice ends the picture with a monosyllabic snap: “there is something very important we need to do as soon as possible.” “What’s that?” “Fuck.” In contrast with the earlier dreamlike presentation of carnality, Alice’s vulgarity feels pragmatic: it is something that needs to be done to set things right. The bluntness of delivery, as well as of sentiment, brings the dream to a close and confirms that, as Alice says, “We’re awake now.”

There is a formal struggle in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) between unflinching realism and filmic self-consciousness. Much has been made of the picture’s sociological importance but an awareness of its cultural implications should not cloud an appreciation of its sophisticated construction.

The film presents a day in the life of three youths in an unidentified Parisian slum. It begins with black-and-white documentary footage of real riots and starts, as a result, with a feel of historical authenticity. The cinematographic choice to shoot in a similar black-and-white look seems to bind the film proper to the stock footage with which it opens: on the one hand, the fiction of La Haine is allowed the authority of history. The story begins the day after a riot in which a police inspector’s gun has gone missing: on the other hand, then, history fills in narrative blanks, as the tumult recorded in the stock footage acts as a surrogate for the fictional riot that we are not allowed to see.

The narrative is full of similar holes, as well as tedious stories, dead-ends and unfunny jokes: it appears as uneven as life. Take, for example, when, sat killing time in a park, a young boy tells Vinz (Vincent Cassel) a story about a celebrity who’s been set up for the television show Candid Camera. The tale crescendos as the celebrity tries “to act cool” but, as he gets more uneasy, inevitably “starts ranting at [a] guy”. Finally, the story climaxes only in a bathetic petering out: “They start fighting and the Candid Camera guys have to break it up.” “Then what?” “That’s all.” “Who was the celebrity?” “Dunno, but he was real famous. I don’t remember.” Later, Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) ruins a potentially funny joke by over-telling it. He begins, “Heard the one about the nun?” He recounts how a drunken man, leaving a bar, comes across a nun in a long black cape. He starts beating her up and, after about five minutes, finally says “You’re not so tough, Batman!” The comedy is defused when Saïd exclaims, after a brief pause, “He thought the nun was Batman!” Vinz rounds off the deadening by saying, “I heard it was a rabbi.”

The film ends with what feels like a true to life stroke, when it is Vinz and not a policeman that is shot. Throughout the film we are allowed to see Vinz enacting (in his head) the desire to shoot a “pig”. His fantasy is to avenge the death of his friend Abdel Ichaha who dies at the hands of police brutality. He shouts at Hubert (Hubert Koundé) that he’s learnt from the streets: “Turn the other cheek: you’re a dead motherfucker!” When, though, he is handed a skinhead to kill (one apparently worthy of death, as Hubert antagonises him, screaming, “There are good cops. But the only good skinhead is a dead skinhead!”), he finds he cannot. He knows he’s not a gangster. Neither does he die a glamorous death: he is shot only because a gun goes off by accident. It is a realistically unflattering end to a head that was filled with fantasies.

But his blood runs on the pavement black not red. While the black-and-white cinematography may appear to lend a sense of authenticity to the picture, it instead creates a distance between the film and real-life and places it in the realm of self-conscious cinema. There are references to colour throughout the picture that jolt the viewer and make her aware of its absence. Vinz, talking about the riots of the previous night, says, “It was war against the pigs, in living colour!” If colour is a sign of life, then the decision to shoot La Haine in black-and-white separates it from reality. In a shop, buying peppers for his grandma, Vinz does not have enough money for the green ones, only the red, which she hates. As the viewer sees Vinz and the shopkeeper argue over the peppers, all uniformly grey, she begins to feel that, if everything were in colour, if there was some hope, everything would be fine. The world of La Haine becomes painfully black and white; the absence of colour is felt. Read the rest of this entry »