Controversial European Directors. Films reviewed: The Favourite, The House that Jack Built

Posted in 1700s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Horror, Lesbian, Movies, Psychopaths, Royalty, Satire, Thriller, UK, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 7, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

This week I’m looking at two movies in English by controversial European directors from Denmark and Greece. There’s a satirical horror movie about a Jack in his house; and a historical dramedy about a Queen in her palace.

The Favourite

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s England in the early 1700s, a time of heavy makeup, high heels and elaborate wigs. (I’m talking about the men here). Women, on the other hand, rule the country. At the top of the heap is Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) a long-suffering widow. And always by her side is her childhood friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). Her husband is leading a battle in France, leaving Sarah free to her own devices. She advises the Queen about when to go to war and whose taxes should pay for it. Together, they – not the male politicians – decide where the country should head.

Until one day, when a new woman appears on the scene, upsetting the delicate balance. Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s naïve cousin, shows up at the palace gates asking for a job. She is pretty and speaks with an upper class accent but she hasn’t been rich since her father, a compulsive gambler, lost her in a card game when she was still a teen. Now she’s single again and penniless. They put her to work as a scullery maid where the other servants treat her cruely. But gradually Abigail learns how to play the game.

She seduces a young aristocrat she meets in the woods with the aim of marrying up. And she manoeuvres her status in the palace by “accidentally” running into the Queen as often as she can. She expresses sympathy for the sad Queen and the rabbits she keeps as pets to replace all her lost children. While Sarah can be cruel and domineering – she dresses in dominant, tight black bodices, and sends withering looks at Anne when she gets too sentimental – Abigail presents herself as a dainty ingénue, devoted to the Queen’s happiness.

Is it all just an act? And can she replace Sarah as the Queen’s favourite?

The Favourite is a brilliant comedy – based on historical facts – about two women fighting for the Queen’s favour. It’s also a love triangle, about what happens in the royal bedchambers behind closed doors. It’s by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose unique style I’ve loved since his first film Dogtooth almost a decade ago. All his movies (Alps, The LobsterThe Killing of a Sacred Deer) have a strange stilted, faux-naïve style to them that puts some people off. His characters always seem slightly out of place in their suburban homes. But by setting it in an 18th century royal palace, suddenly the dialogue (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara) seems witty, not stilted, and everything makes perfect sense.

With its exquisite costumes, beautiful musical score and great acting, especially Coleman and Weisz, this is a great movie.

The House that Jack Built

Wri/Dir: Lars von Trier

Jack (Matt Dillon, in a despicably good performance) is an independently wealthy engineer who would rather be an architect. He is building himself a house. But he is also a perfectionist with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) which makes him a captive of his own fear of failure. Each version he tries to complete ends in frustration. So he turns to other ways to express himself artistically.

But he’s also a psychopath with no moral sense so first he has to teach himself to fake normal emotions so people will trust him. He uses these new skills to meet women, often at random, and murders them. He takes the bodies to a huge walk-in freezer, poses them, and then send his photographs to the tabloids as Mister Sophistication. These are his “works of art”.

And despite how obvious and blatant his killings are – he even brags to the police that he’s a serial killer – nobody ever tries to stop him.

The film is narrated by Jack’s voice, off camera, confessing all to a man named Virgil (Bruno Ganz) in a reference to Dante’s Inferno. Jack tells Verge about a few of his more than 60 murders, which are shown in explicit detail on the screen. The unnamed victims – strange characters all – are played by Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sophie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough (Elvis’s granddaughter).

Is Jack the epitome of evil? Or just an amoral idiot? And will he ever be punished for what he did?

The House that Jack Built is Lars von Trier’s latest work, and like many before – Antichrist, MelancholiaNymphomaniac – it’s a tough movie to watch. Excruciating, actually, because you know there’s going to be more horrible violence coming up. I was in a constant state of cringe through most of the movie.

But in retrospective it seems very elegant and funny, a self-referential exercise in comedy/ horror/satire. Like most of von Trier’s movies, it’s told in chapters and sub-chapters, bookended by Jack and Virgil’s conversation. It’s also filled with repeated cultural references, visual and audio, including Glenn Gould Plays Bach, Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video, David Bowie’s Fame, William Blake’s drawings and Delacroix’ The Barque of Dante… even clips from von Trier’s own movies.  Jack compares his “art” — the murders themselves and the arranged bodies — to the works of these great artists.

This film is Lars von Trier’s reply to past accusations of being a nazi, a misogynist, a bigot and a narcissist. Here he invents a character that combines the worst elements of all of these, and spews it back at the viewers in triumphant, hideous glory.

One thing: the screening I went to was a total sausage fest. The audience was maybe 99% male — rockers, hipsters, film geeks, von Trier fans and Incels — so when parts of the audience burst into laughter and applause when Jack violently attacks and mutilates yet another nameless female victim, it just added to the general creepiness of the experience.

The Favourite opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and The House that Jack Built opens next Friday in theatres and on VOD.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Mind Twisters. Movies reviewed: A Field in England, Divergent, Nymph()maniac (Parts 1 and 2)

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Brain teasers, mind-bogglers. This week I’m bringing you some real brain-twisting films. There’s a sci-fi-action-romance about a young woman caught in a futuristic caste-system determined by personality; a Euro comedy/drama about sex; And an absurdist British period piece about … I’m not quite sure what.

A Field in England Poster stacks_image_236A Field in England

Ben Wheatley

It’s 17th Century England in a field near Norwich. The civil war is raging. Three scruffy wanderers end up travelling together. They are heading toward a legendary alehouse where all their problems will be solved, all their differences will disappear. But things get complicated when O’Neal, a tall, sinister man, appears — seemingly out of nowhere — with a nasty henchman. The necromancer’s servant (one of the three travellers), tries to arrest O’Neal. But a warrant without a musket to back it up isn’t worth much in an English field. Instead, O’Neal press gangs the three men to dig for treasure. At least I think that’s the plot, but I’m not exactly sure.

People in this movie appear, disappear, die, un-die, turn into wooden posts, and drop magic mushrooms into unwatched soup pots.

Shot in beautiful black and white, with excellent contemporary experimental music, it leaves me scratching my head. Is it all just an acid trip by men wearing three-cornered hats in an historic battle reenactment? I cannot say. But it definitely belongs in the movie file labeled “WTF”.

DIVERGENTDivergent

Dir: Neil Burger

It’s Chicago a hundred years in the future. Society is divided into five castes, each with its own rules. Erudite is for the intelligent professionals who wear Wall Street suits. Abnegation is where the sympathetic and selfless helpers go — they control the government. And Dauntless is for the paramilitary – brave and aggressive.

Young Tris’s family (Shailene Woodley) is Abnegation. They wear beige, meditate, and eat whole grains. Tris only looks in the mirror for a few seconds each day. But when she attains age of majority and takes the annual test — to determine personality and faction – something strange happens. The test doesn’t work on her – it can’t assign her to a particular faction. This could mean she’s “Divergent” — someone who displays a personality that transcend a single type. And if the authorities find out, they’ll kill her.

To everyone’s surprise, she ends up joining Dauntless, trading beige burlap Divergent Theo Jamesfor black leather. She eats her first hamburger. She and the other Dauntless newbies are thrust into a world of violent, brutal competition, runaway L-trains and parkour jumping. She answers to a sadistic trainer Eric (Jai Courtney). Only her new best friends like Chris (Zoe Kravitz) help her hang on. But when she meets a Dauntless named Four (Theo James) is it love at first sight?

Divergent Kate WinsletIn order to stay in the faction she has to pass a series of tests that subject her to her worst phobias — her mind is read and recorded by a computer. Tris has to keep reminding herself: it’s not real.Will her secret be revealed?  Is Erudite, headed by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) plotting against the Abnegation faction? Is Four on her side? And will he ever understand how much Tris loves him?

Although Divergent occasionally veers into Twilight territory, with a few too many dewy-eyed moments, it mainly sticks to plot, action and great special effects. I liked it: a simple but neat concept, great special effects, and Shailene Woodley and Theo James are good as a team of romantic fighters.

nymphomaniac_mongrel_03_medium

Nymphomaniac

Dir: Lars von Trier

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is lying half dead in a dark alley, when an elderly intellectual (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her. He takes her into his home and nurses her back to health. She says she’s a nymphomaniac. And she proceeds to tell him the story of her life;  specifically, the sexual parts.

The stories she tells are based on the pictures she sees on the wall of his room. Is Nymphomaniac 13 photo by Christian Geisnaesshe an unreliable narrator? Maybe, but her stories are fun to watch.

Her first orgasm makes her levitate and leads to a visit by the Virgin Mary. (The Whore of Babylon, says Seligman.)

Later, she intentionally loses her virginity to a man named Jerome (Shia LeBoeuf). She describes it like this:  first I lay on my back and he thrust three times. Then he turned me over and thrust five times. And here’s how Seligman responds: Three, then Five? Why that’s part of the Fibonacci number sequence!

Joe is unadulterated sex. Seligman (an asexual virgin) represents pure reason.

chapter1As a young woman, she and a friend compete to see who can pick up – and have sex with — the most men, sequentially, on a train. The winner gets a bag of candy. Seligman: Why that’s like fly fishing – you send out the lure and try to reel it in at just the right moment!

Joe describes how she dates many nameless men simultaneously, avoiding all emotional entanglement. She actually rolls dice before calling a boyfriend to decide whether to be nice, pouty, or to drop him altogether. But she discovers her game affects many people besides just the men she has sex with.

Love rears its ugly head. Jerome is back, and she falls for him hook, line and Nymphomaniac Uma Thurman & Stacy Martin photo by Christian Geisnaessinker. But are they sexually compatible?

She describes encounters with anonymous men,  a long relationship with a BDSM master (Jamie Bell),  her try at a 12-step program, and finding a protege (Mia Goth) to take her place.

This movie is much too long to describe in a short review. It’s full of cinematic quotes from Von Triers’ earlier films – his own movie scenes reenacted. He Nymphomania chapter_2_photo_by_Christian_Geisnaes_2insults critics, pundits, himself… and occasionally the audience. For example, a  scene about Joe and two (supposedly) African men dredges up hoary racial stereotypes — it’s intentionally offensive. But it’s followed by an equally long scene with Joe and Seligman debating “political correctness”. The ridiculous sex scene is Jamie_Bell_LOWreally just a straw man to make way for a long discussion.

It’s also a movie full of explicit sex and nudity: at one point there are a hundred consecutive penis pics, but mostly it’s vagina, vagina, vagina. This movie could be subtitled The Vagina Mia_Goth_LOWDialogues. The symbols are everywhere: tunnels, alleys, window curtains, sliding doors, and holes in walls. It’s a woman’s sexuality filtered through the eyes of a male director.

There is also some repulsive, graphic violence, especially in Part 2. But above all, the movie’s a comedy. And I liked it – all four and a half hours.

A Field in England is now playing, and Nymphomaniac (Parts 1 and 2 — separate tickets), and Divergent both open today in Toronto – check your local listings. The Pasolini retrospective continues at TIFF (tiff.net) and Cinefranco, Toronto’s francophone film festival, starts next week: details at cinefranco.com.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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