Film Festival Review

Review: Apples (Dir. Christos Nikou, 2020)

We are introduced to the nameless protagonist of Apples [Mila], played by Aris Servetalis, in his apartment through a series of cuts (or polaroid snapshots) in his apartment: restlessly listening to the radio…staring impassively into space… banging his head against the doorframe before venturing out to buy the flowers himself much like the eponymous Mrs. Dalloway. Though there is no party in sight for Aris as he wanders aimlessly through the city and eventually falls fast asleep on a bus taking him from A to B. When the driver awakens him, Aris doesn’t recall where he should have alighted, his name or where he lives – his lack of identification only confirms it and he is packed off in an ambulance to the Disturbed Memory Department of the Neurological Hospital for evaluation.

From there, he is assigned a number (14842) and afforded a new life as an amnesiac. Sudden onset amnesia is not seen as unusual as the seemingly irreversible epidemic sweeps across a modern, yet strangely analogue Athens, with neither sight nor sound of a mobile device. All amnesiacs (at least those not claimed by family members) are given tape recorders and polaroid cameras. The cassette tapes containing prompts of how to manage their “new beginnings” and the cameras are to snap proof of how they spent their days; photos stored in albums for posterity.

Christos Nikou served as Yorgos Lanthimos’ AD on Dogtooth and it initially shows. His film – based on a screenplay he co-wrote with Stavros Raptis – does fit within the so-called Greek Weird Wave in which filmmakers and writers such as the likes of Panos H. Kontras, Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Angari, and Efthymis Filippou have given us some brilliantly strange pieces of work that have painted a unique, often ideological, versions of Greek society. Yet, while his predecessors liked the darker, mordant aspects of life, Nikou’s film is far more heartfelt and poignant.

Aris throughout plays it deadpan even when he meets fellow new beginner Anna (Sofia Georgovassili) and as he chomps his way through, roughly, an orchard. Servetalis is a combination of Daniel Day-Lewis and Buster Keaton, the line between bizarre and funny grows increasingly blurry as the film progresses, as to the linearity of the whole thing is anybody’s guess. The 4:3 aspect ratio harks back to the silent era and helps to further detach from reality – although the whole Athens-epidemic-as-narrative-device strikes close to home as we, like Aris, find a new weird normal – in our case remembering to smile with our eyes beneath the material which covers the rest of our face.

The film is a very quiet and wry allegory with several laugh-out-loud moments involving a Batman, and even a nod to an Outcast lyric. Its use of colour is gorgeous, the daylight palette tends to be muddy blues, greys and muted greens while the nights tend to be oranges and ochres much like the innards of a mouldy apple. The use of music is astute with all feeding into the theme of memory and remembrance: “Scarborough Fair”, “Seal It With A Kiss”, and “Let’s Twist Again” (although, this arguably has a dual meaning) – tenuous it may be but even “Ave Maria” mentions fruit!

Apples is a brilliant and absurdist rumination on loss, memory, identity and human connection. It ponders selective memory – the want to forget what’s in the memory bank, the fight to remember by heart and if there’s a difference, and what the hell did we do before the smart phone and documenting our days.

Apples will be available exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from Friday 7th May.


Review: Summer 1993 (Dir. Carla Simón, 2017)

Grief, sorrow and loss are overwhelming emotions in the wake of a family member’s death, as you struggle to make sense of their departure and the huge gaping hole they have left. It’s easy to dwell on the finality of death and the unfairness of it all, and that’s as an adult. Now imagine, you’re just six years old.

It is the summer of 1993 – a period when the AIDS virus is claiming lives – and the nighttime sky in Barcelona is lit by bursts of colour and light as fireworks go off with a multitude of bangs and whistles, and groups of children run around the neighbourhood, squealing with joy. There is little in the way of it for Frida (Laia Artigas) as she vacantly watches her belongings being packed into a van. She’s moving, leaving behind everything she has ever known following her mother’s death. She is going to live with her mother’s brother, uncle Esteve (David Verdaguer) and his wife Marta (Bruna Cusi) out in the Catalan county of La Garrotxa, surrounded by trees and fields of green. A complete departure from the urban city dwelling she has grown to call home.

This film – based on the childhood experiences of its writer-director Carla Simón – uses the urban setting and casts it against the neo-rural in a changing Spain. The surrounding leaves dappled with sunshine, and the revitalising greens and blues of the film’s palette create the perfect childhood idyll but this new and unfamiliar landscape is, seemingly, at odds with Frida’s perceptions of death, she is often preoccupied with both. At night, the child searches by torchlight for her ‘lost’ mother as if she has been stolen away by woodland creatures or leaves gifts, such as cigarettes, with the hidden statue of Our Lady guarding a cavernous hole in the wall.

Typically, there’s a split between the generations – history and tradition seen through a grandparent’s Catholicism and the gegants i capgrossos (the folkloric festival with its 15th century origins), as well as the obvious differing parenting styles of Esteve and his mother Àvia (Isabel Rocatti). Parental duties are divided between Verdaguer’s lovely uncle and Cusí’s patient Marga – although all family members are united in their love for their girl – who seemingly want to support, help repair the lost orphan and help her understand, accept her loss and acknowledge her grief all in her own time (though it is far from easy). To that end, this film never feels over-sentimental rather a beautifully tender and transformative experience as a small child grapples with rather overwhelming adult feelings. Brava to Simón who, in one sequence, normalises period cramps albeit while sensitively showing just how terrifying it appears to a child that has experienced a parent’s painful death.

While Summer 1993 [Estiu 1993] is a relatively simple narrative edited together detailing such a small window of time, it is beautifully measured and made up of small moments which only deepens meaning and enhances the story. None of which, it has to be said, would be quite as transfixing if not for the two wonderful little girls. The casting is sublime, the physical differences between the two are evident, but their life experience(s) or lack thereof are displayed in their facial expressions, open innocence, and the way they both ‘act’. Laia Artigas and Paula Robles inhabit Frida and Anna so naturally the heightened realism shapes the overall tone; Santiago Racaj’s largely static camera is always observing, sometimes in tightly framed shots yet it never feels intrusive.

The camera is often at Frida’s eye level as she cradles her doll – one of a whole army, all with names and showered with kisses for they are a measure of just how much everyone loves her – the frame opening as her new surroundings envelop her and she starts to accept her new way of life. The little girl is quiet, withdrawn and while her level of understanding is never truly known, she observes everything (her cosplaying her mother proves that in spades). In complete contrast is Esteve and Marga’s daughter Anna (Paula Robles) who is always singing, climbing and generally following her cousin around. Frida, not only has to process her new habitat, family and grief but negotiate her new status as a big sister which leads to regression, cruelty and, understandably, petty jealousy.

Preceding this, Simón wrote and directed three shorts: Born Positive (2012), Lipstick (2013) and Las pequeñas cosas (2015) with the London Film School before completing Lacuna (2016) which was made using her late mother’s letters. She manages to inject her gorgeous feature film with a sweeping verisimilitude, concentrating on the complexities and minutiae of familial relationships which will warm your heart and swiftly break it (catharsis is such a powerful tool, especially during this dénouement). It goes a long way to communicate that a family may be reconstructed but it is still a family, and those who are no longer with us in body live on in memory.


Review: Almost Heaven (Dir. Carol Salter, 2017)

Nominated for Best Documentary at the 67th Berlin Film Festival, Carol Salter’s feature debut welcomes us with an intertitle. “In China, job opportunities are limited for teenagers.” This is then followed with multiple shots of vast, wide open corridors, silent doorways and car parks before being interrupted by an interaction between two extremely young co-workers discussing mosquito bites. It is then that we realise that these stiflingly quiet and desolate surroundings belong to a funeral home.

17-year-old Ying Ling works at the Ming Yang Mountain Funeral Home, far from home, at which cadavers arrive and depart via a hydraulic lift in the car park. In order to pass her exams and progress within the company, she must learn how to prep and cleanse a body before it can be viewed by a grieving family. One could argue a harrowing prospect for a such a sweet and young girl, one who is afraid of ghosts, made all the more understandable given the nature of the job and the eerie labyrinthine place of work.

Juxtaposing these expanses of space with tight close-ups of the frequently worried expression on her subject’s face, Salter elicits a shared social and psychological space. We watch as this kid – who observes everything, works 24-hour shifts, and whose cruel mother refuses to let her return home even for winter clothes – as she advances in her career whereby one day she is charged with keeping the plant life alive, before death becomes her one and only daily job. Refreshingly, these teenagers don’t see their future in the dead and yet by the documentary’s denouement, this is exactly where Ying Ling’s colleague Jin Hua finds his business.

Their friendship is an uplifting aspect of an otherwise uneasy watch, although humour does punctuate the documentary throughout. It needs to. Ying Ling and Jin Hua do everything together – live, eat, laugh, share days off, prepare the dead, and the affection between them is sweetly endearing; it rivals siblinghood yet teeters on something more. Jin Hia is Ying Ling’s beacon, her little piece of heaven amid the depressing, mosquito-pestered mortuary.

As for the funeral home itself, it’s ran as mostly highly efficient businesses are; preoccupied with making money, receiving cash and occasionally berating its staff. There’s a coldness to it, perpetuated by the long takes and the silence, and while respect is paid to the dearly departed, the same can’t be said for the living as money disputes rear their ugly heads during the most unfortunate moments.

What follows the second half is a number of harrowing scenes in which blood violently stains some sheets and shrouds and we, along with, Ying Ling, are confronted with the visceral horror of death and the wailing sorrow and melancholy of grief. While Salter’s camera stays on the periphery of those scenes, and can never be accused of being disrespectful, it nevertheless feels intrusive. Grief and mourning is such a private experience, having a camera record these moments feels almost voyeuristic in their candidness.

That said, it never strays into being overtly maudlin. Almost Heaven is an observational coming-of-age documentary where childhood is slowly diminished (in 75 short minutes) by approaching adulthood, and life and death is played out quite literally between takes. It is a gentile rumination on migratory workers, a reflection of life, death, and all the things in between.


Review: Antichrist (Dir. Lars von Trier, 2009)

antichrist (1)

It is a fair assessment that Lars von Trier courts controversy, to the extent that some viewers now expect to be shocked. Personally, for me, there is a level of indifference when approaching von Trier’s work, he is a sporadic captivator, and not always in a positive sense. His films demand engagement  and provoke reactionary feelings which is said of any piece of subversive art, and that is to be celebrated. However, I never expected a film would provoke such a reaction as to make me turn it off. Antichrist did and yes, during *that* scene. I’m no prude but seeing such self-mutilation up close prompted me to cease watching. Months later, after the sheer joy of Melancholia, I decided to give it another chance. To be clear, von Trier does not need to justify why he makes the sensationalist, lurid fare he does but this, more so than his other texts, adds provocation to his chauvinism and disdain for the female sex, in addition to his fascination with Catholic ideology and iconography.

A couple ‘He’ (Willem Dafoe) and ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg) engage in energetic sex while their toddler son, supposed to be asleep, escapes his crib and displaying a final act of dare-devilry climbs upon a chair and tumbles out of an open window to his death. Devastated by the loss and rapidly losing faith in medicinal therapy, ‘He’, a psychiatrist, decides to treat his grieving wife himself using exposure therapy techniques. They retreat to their cabin in the woods, know as ‘Eden’ and both attempt to work their way through their grief, pain and despair; here depicted as three talisman in the opening prologue and then as an unholy trinity of animals, in the form of a roe deer, fox and raven.


Had this film been solely about the emotional turmoil of losing a child then perhaps it would have elicited heightened feelings of empathy and identification thereby making the experience a more enjoyable one. Instead, von Trier muddies the waters with allusions to Adam and Eve, Satan and concentrated evil personified in the figure of ‘woman’. Here, woman is aligned with nature…’She’ is a body of impulse, instinct and desire and is, apparently, beyond rational control. ‘He’ attempts to control her and when that fails, she must be punished – first mutilated at her own hand; then irrevocably at his.

The cinematography deviates from linear and transition shots, lens effects and from black and white stock to colour seemingly to create the idea of chaos while in reality it adds to the over-indulgence of the whole ‘horror’ text. There serves little purpose to ‘She’s Gynocide thesis plot-point other than to further elicit the Nietzchean  ideal upon which the film is seemingly based. The director claims that this is his most personal film, however, I would suggest that the man has willfully set out to create a pretentious and rebarbative piece of art with the sole and deliberate intention of exasperating people to the point of irritability. Job done.