Film Festival Review

Review: Burning Cane (Dir. Phillip Youmans, 2019)

LFF 2019

Much will be made of Phillip Youmans’ age when the writer, director, DoP, and camera operator made, this, his first film. Just look at Xavier Dolan following his debut, the ‘wunderkind’ label was bandied round for at least five years of the last decade. However, that surliness and juvenile (albeit brilliant) edge to I Killed My Mother is largely missing from Youmans’ debut Burning Cane; a mature Southern Gothic drama which belies the (then) High Schooler’s age (he’s 19 now).

Set in rural Louisiana, our leading lady Helen (Karen Kaia Livers) sits on her stoop smoking, her voiceover discusses her dog Giorgio. It has the ‘mange’ and she is attempting to prolong its life anyway she can. Helen has been surrounded by ‘diseased mutts’ most of her life – her late husband succumbed to an AIDS-related illness while her Pastor Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) and only son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) are fighting with alcoholism. Tillman continues to drink on the job following the death of his wife and won’t accept any help, least of all from his flock, choosing instead to drive home each night after sermons, inebriated, his car swerving all over the road.

Daniel, on the other hand, has to contend with keeping house while his partner (Emyri Crutchfield) goes to work and supports their family. He cooks, cleans, and fixes things around the place but it’s taking its toll. He’s questioning his masculinity and is steadily on self-destruct mode; he’s the man and should be the one providing, not staying at home looking after son Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly).

‘Looking after’ may be somewhat of a stretch, the boy is mute – presumably a nod to the weeping prophet he is named for – unable (or choosing not) to talk and accepts his father’s love in the form of an occasional meal and glasses of milk laced with whatever liquor the older male is guzzling down. There’s a hint at something darker going on between father and son but the level of abuse remains at the booze-pushing and never leads anywhere else, beyond the steady decline of a man who would rather use his fists in a drunken stupor than work through any of his issues.

Youmans utilises a number of camera angles and shots which suit the oblique storytelling, however, at times poor lighting and a literal lack of focus feel unnecessary especially when considered alongside the already slow pace. Being unable to see much within the frame is problematic, however intentional but it does help build mood with the extreme dichotomy of light and dark. As the claustrophobia hits its peak, the humidity and sweat are palpable. It’s a pensive narrative, and while its foundations are embedded within the art film, it is largely raw, grass roots filmmaking.

This is Helen’s struggle to reconcile her faith alongside her relationship with her son. It’s a film about sin, despair, drink and poverty. One which examines a mother’s love for her child, deep-rooted toxic masculinity – the definition of what it means to be a man – and the role religion plays within the black community onscreen. Many pray to a Father for guidance, and yet few have fathers to guide them. There is condemnation of the Church and yet at no point does the institution feel demonised.

Colours are kept to a minimum too, greys, greens, browns with the occasional flash of orange (courtesy of the fruit trees Jeremiah finds solace in or the burning umber of a lit cigarette). Daylight is also a rarity – while we’re so used to the depiction of a light, bright sunny South on film, in Helen’s world, everything is tinged with a dismal grey while heavy clouds hang in the sky. The film’s title relates to the annual process of harvesting sugar cane; fields are set alight before the valuable part of the crop is harvested, an apt metaphor for the film’s narrative.

While as a whole, the film never feels completely cohesive and ends somewhat abruptly, it is a promising vérité style debut which feels reminiscent of early Burnett and Malick. Following its trifecta of wins at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, It’s safe to say there will be plenty of interest in what Youmans creates next.

Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Les Combattants (Dir. Thomas Cailley, 2014)

Somebody once sang that love was a battlefield (okay, it was Pat Benatar in 1983) and it immediately sprung to mind when watching Thomas Cailley’s feature debut survivalist melodrama Les Combattants, as it has moments in which it is quite literally the case. This multi César award winning film is a surprising delight and one surely to feature on many a film-fan’s end of year list.  The film opens in a small French coastal town with brothers Manu (Antoine Laurent) and Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) incredulously arguing with an undertaker about the inferior grade of wood used and extortionate price of their father’s coffin. Although Manu is older, he looks to his younger sibling for help and at times guidance but it would appear that Arnaud is just as lost; unsure what his future holds but happy to help out in the family carpentry business over the summer. Apparently, in France following the recession the second largest recruiter (after McDonald’s™) is the Army. Cue stoic men in fatigues setting up their mobile office and offering anyone who will listen to their drafting spiel, an inflatable lilo and tips on focus and self-defence. During these beach combat sessions, Arnaud is pitted against Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) whom he initially refuses to fight because she’s a girl. He needn’t worry for she can handle herself.

A chance shed-building leads Arnaud to the Beaulieu’s home and their daughter… Madeleine is an only child; an avid swimmer who drinks raw mackerel smoothies for breakfast and is determined to join the army. Her view of the world and its eventual destruction is rational and profound but labels her ‘weird’ and yet her preoccupation with survival attracts Arnaud and in true romantic fashion, he attempts to impress her by impulsively signing up to the Army training camp she is enlisted on. If Madeleine is impressed she makes it impossible to tell with her increasing deadpan expression. There is something incredibly convincing about both characterisations but it is Madeleine who produces the laughs, much like a 30s film dame only quirkier. Sensitive, nature-loving, amiable Arnaud and sullen, sporty, survivalist Madeleine make a strong team. The camp comes as a surprise to both of them and their capabilities.

Cailley’s film is an unusual one in the sense that it doesn’t quite fit a genre; to call it a romantic-comedy is to do it a disservice. Nothing is forced. It is slight, wry and a little odd but wholly persuasive in not only its gender roles but resounding in its depiction of a country coming out of a recession, heading for ruin and a race of people to (eventual) extinction. The cinematography provided by David Cailley (brother of Thomas) is beautifully simple and while he manages to depict so much physical gorgeousness, there is always a sense of foreboding present, an atmosphere which pays off strikingly pre-denouement. Its electro soundtrack by Hit ‘n’ Run keeps things relatively upbeat amidst the threat of melancholia and existential crisis.

Visually, it has a very simplistic palette; mostly greens, greys and muted blues which is complimentary to not only the camouflage colours of the army uniform but also the organic elements of nature which are so often shot – water, sky and foliage with occasional sunshine yellow warmth. Cailley’s direction, his brother’s cinematography and Lilian Corbeille’s almost carefree editing serves the narrative well; natural lighting gives way to gloomy grey by the end. Given the integral use of colour, a Blu-ray release of the film would serve it greatly especially enhancing the already picturesque mise-en-scéne. Sadly, there are no extras on the disc either.

Les Combattants makes for an intelligent, sweet-natured, amusing film. Figuratively speaking, Madeleine and Arnaud could be the last two humans on earth (or indeed animals), passing the time without thinking, engaging in aggression and affection of equal measure and above all surviving but when you’re in the early throes of love, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

*sings* Heartache to heartache we stand…