Berlin Syndrome

After delivering an outstanding feature film debut in 2006 with Somersault, Australian director Cate Shortland opted against following in the footsteps of her contemporaries and heading to Hollywood, instead turning to Europe in search of opportunities. In 2012 she delivered Lore, the well received WW2-set drama in which a teenage girl sets out to save herself and her siblings from the advancing Allied armies, and now, after another lengthy break between projects, Shortland returns with her second German-Australian co-production. Starring Aussie actress Teresa Palmer, whose career also kicked off in 2006 when she made a stunning debut in 2:37 after being cast on the spot with no audition and no previous acting experience, Berlin Syndrome begins as a holiday romance that quickly descends into a tense, claustrophobic thriller in which Clare (Palmer), a naïve tourist from Brisbane, finds herself at the mercy of psychologically scarred high school teacher Andi (Max Reimelt). Adapted from a book by Melanie Joosten and with a title that is obviously a play on Stockholm Syndrome, the term coined for a condition that causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors, there is nothing new in the narrative premise of young woman being held against her will – we have seen Room and 19 Cloverfield Lane cover similar territory in recent months and you can even add Don’t Breathe to such a list – so this needs to be special to stand out from this crowd.

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The key difference between Berlin Syndrome and these other films is that Clare willingly accompanies her captor to the apartment in which she will subsequently be detained for an extended period, a passionate one-night stand becoming a nightmare of humiliation and degradation. It is when wandering the streets of Berlin that budding photographer Clare meets Andi who, it must be said, doesn’t present as particularly charming. However, intoxicated by the adventure of her first overseas experience, Clare falls under his spell and abandons her hostel accommodations to accompany Andi to his apartment within an otherwise abandoned building. The morning after a night of steamy sex, Clare awakens to find that Andi has departed and left her locked inside the apartment with her mobile phone having been stripped of its SIM card. From this point, she finds herself at the mercy (or lack thereof) of her captor, who carries on with his daily routines – work, visiting his father – and whose demeanour fluctuates between affable homeliness (Do you like pesto?) to violent perversion.

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Shortland switches between Clare’s increasingly perverse captivity and Andi’s reasonably normal exterior life but never makes any attempt to make Andi sympathetic, offering very little by way of an explanation for his behaviour, other than resentment at his mother having abandoned the family. Shortland does a good job of maintaining tension throughout, but the apartment is filled with potential weapons that Clare could use to incapacitate Andi and make her escape, so you need to be prepared to overlook such gaps in logic to accept what transpires, which is easy enough to do with a low-key, yet powerful, performance from Palmer, who also starred recently in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. Starting out soft-spoken and introverted, Clare’s inhibitions disappear out of necessity as she realises that even if she does scream, there is nobody around to hear her. Palmer handles this transformation very well, taking her character into places that some actresses would consider as being too vulnerable.

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The story ultimately plays out as a retort to the idea of the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, because Clare never develops any attachment with her oppressor. Yes, she is compliant in the interests of self-preservation, but she never elicits any empathy for her captor. The production design delivers an effectively foreboding atmosphere but neither both Palmer nor Reimelt allow the confines of the space to diminish the scope of their performances. Perhaps my biggest bugbear with the film is that it is never really clear what Shortland is trying to say. If she is making an effort to examine the minds of captive and captor, she has failed to present enough information about either of them for the audience to really understand what makes them tick. Unsettling and confronting at times, albeit not as graphic as it might have been in other hands, Berlin Syndrome is a tense thriller that marks a welcome return from one of Australia’s best filmmakers.

Colossal

With an ingenious premise, talented leads and a trailer that suggests something really unique and interesting, it is disappointing that Colossal fails to fully realise the potential of the scenario. Sure, in a time where there are very few original ideas emanating from Hollywood, it is very refreshing to see something like this to come along. However, originality alone is not enough and Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo needed to do more with the material to make this something truly memorable. The scenario certainly lends itself to laughs and the film has even been marketed as a sci-fi comedy, but anybody expecting to find themselves laughing uproariously will be disappointed as Vigalondo takes diminishing advantage of a premise that seems prime for satirical treatment, instead opting for a seriousness that belies the preposterousness of the situation in which our characters find themselves. Characters, it must be said, that we learn little about and who are not really likeable enough to secure an emotional investment in their plight. Whilst the digital canvas on which he gets to articulate his vision is much bigger here than in his previous films, Vigalondo seems unsure how to best use the freedom that a more substantial budget and higher profile cast affords him.

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Following a brief prologue of a giant monster sighting in an unidentified Asian country, we meet Gloria (Anne Hathaway), a 30-something mess whose life consists of excessive drinking and not much else. Irresponsible and unemployed, Gloria is summarily booted from the New York apartment she shares with her condescending boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens) after staggering home from yet another night on the town. Seemingly with no other options, Gloria returns to the childhood home that her parents have (somewhat conveniently) vacated and left empty. She soon happens upon Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a former school friend who offers her a job in the bar he inherited from his parents. Of course, Gloria working in a bar is a recipe for more drunken misadventure, but the problem is that Hathaway and/or her director seem reluctant to make her character appear too down and dirty, either in appearance or behaviour, forgoing an opportunity to present a far more grotesque lead character, such as the one that Hathaway delivered to great effect in Rachel’s Getting Married. Gloria certainly doesn’t present as the train wreck we are supposed to believe her to be and Hathaway always looks pristine, even when she wakes from a night spent on a park bench.

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Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the large monster has suddenly reappeared and is wreaking havoc in Seoul. Gloria soon makes a connection that at first seems ridiculous but ultimately proves to be true. It is only when she is in the local playground at a specific time that the monster appears. Furthermore, the monster mimics Gloria’s every move, which at first she finds amusing, playing up to the worldwide television audience that is watching the events unfold. However, when she realises the potential consequences of her power – falling down drunk could result in the in the deaths of hundreds of Korean – she vows to sober up. A flashback explains how Gloria came to possess this ability and also sheds some light on the true nature of her relationship with Oscar as a child. Initially presenting as an amiable loser, jealousy transforms Oscar into a snake and it is certainly interesting to see Sudeikis take on such a reprehensible character, but we never get any insight into why Oscar behaves in such a way. The flashbacks suggest that maybe he has always been an arsehole, which makes it difficult to understand why Gloria was so willing to re-establish a friendship with him.

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Of course, the whole thing can be interpreted as an allegory of American imperialism in Asia and elsewhere, with Gloria’s monster alter-ego representing the way in which the United States exerts itself onto other nations, often at great human cost. Such a reading actually makes for a more interesting viewing experience, but leaves you wishing this idea wasn’t explored further. Vigalondo uses the digital effects sparingly and the ending comes as both surprising and satisfying, which is not something that can be said for a lot of films these days. Whilst it is a pleasant diversion from the predictability that plagues so much Hollywood cinema, if more effort had gone into character development – Austin Stowell and Tim Blake Nelson feature in supporting roles that are ill-defined and ultimately so inconsequential that it feels as though quite a lot has been left on the cutting room floor – then Colossal may well have been something quite special.

Denial

Watching Denial should make you angry. You should be angry that holocaust denier David Irving and others like him even exist, but you should be especially mad that Irving and his ilk have no obligation to support any of the claims they make with evidence. On the contrary, British law dictates that no matter how ludicrous Irving’s claims may be – such as his declaration that the holocaust never took place – it is not his responsibility to support his claims with evidence, the burden of proof lies with anybody who dares to challenge Irving’s twisted view of history. This, effectively, means that Irving is free to say whatever he wants, no matter how inaccurate or offensive, until somebody is prepared to challenge such views in court. That somebody is Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish-American university professor and author who finds herself being sued for libel by Irving when she dares to state the obvious; that Irving is a racist, an anti-Semite and a liar.

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Directed by Mick Jackson and with Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall facing off as Lipstadt and Irving respectively, Denial is a riveting examination of a case that held Irving accountable for the deliberate skewing of facts in a bid to rewrite history to suit his own agenda. Despite the very broad implications of the outcome of the trial, this is a very contained film with most of the goings-on confined to lawyer’s offices and court rooms, a visit to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp the only exception. Very much privileging dialogue over action, the film relies very heavily on the performances of the various actors to make the course of events engaging and easy for the audience to understand. As such, everybody does a terrific job in that regard with Weisz and Spall leaving you in no doubt how much these two real life characters hate each other. Andrew Scott is very disconcerting at times as the creepily clinical, but highly skilled solicitor Anthony Julius, the man who represented Princess Diana in her divorce from Prince Charles, while Tom Wilkinson is the perfect combination of weariness, wisdom and courtroom cunning as barrister Richard Rampton. Also remarkably assured in her role as Laura Tyler – a young paralegal assisting Julius – is South Africa-born, New Zealand actress Caren Pistorious, who cut her teeth on Australian television. Starting off with a deer-in-headlights naivety in what is a remarkably important case with which to launch a legal career she’s not even sure she wants, Laura cannot hide her distaste for Irving when they first meet, but she ultimately emerges as a highly competent and critical member of the legal team.

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It is easy to dismiss films like Denial as awards bait, with high profile actors re-enacting true events, but this is very much a story worth telling, ensuring the atrocities of the Holocaust do not fade from public consciousness. It is a complex fight though between the two parties and screenwriter David Hare’s adaptation of Lipstadt’s book makes it easy to follow for those of us who are not lawyers or historians. The filmmakers have endeavoured to remain faithful to actual events, with all of the dialogue in the courtroom scenes taken verbatim from the trial records, albeit edited for brevity, clarity and dramatic license. However, Denial never presents as condescending or overly manipulative. Yes, Irving is characterised as a loathsome individual, but it would be difficult to present him as anything else and it is to Spall’s immense credit that he is willing to take on a despicable character;  delivering a knockout performance to boot. Weitz is equally impressive as the feisty American who struggles to understand both the British legal system and the tactics being employed by Julius and his team in a case that ultimately spans four years before the 333-page judgement is delivered.

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This might not be the most searing rendition of real life events we have seen on the big screen, but it is pretty impressive nonetheless. Solid performances across the board make Denial an engrossing, thought-provoking, insightful and emotional story. With his first feature film since L.A. Story and The Bodyguard back in the early 1990’s (although he did win an Emmy for his work on 2010 TV movie Temple Grandin), Jackson has made a triumphant return to the big screen with a powerful drama that should make you angry, but should ultimately leave you feeling satisfied that justice prevailed.

 

Things to Come

It is hard to imagine a circumstance in which a collaboration between revered French actress Isabelle Huppert and writer/director Mia Hansen-Love (Father of my Children, Goodbye First Love) could result in something altogether tedious, but that is exactly what has transpired with Things to Come, a drama that, like its central character, is more interested in being intelligent than interesting. There is plenty of potential in this story about Nathalie Chazeaux (Huppert), a middle-aged university professor who endures a series of setbacks in her personal and professional life over the course of a year, but nothing that happens really amounts to anything remotely interesting or insightful. The premise certainly lends itself to numerous of moments of self-reflection and reinvention, but Hansen-Love never capitalises on these opportunities. As a result, the story plays out as something that is, like its protagonist, not particularly interesting.

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Nathalie is a philosophy teacher who possesses such a highly inflated sense of self-importance that you take an instant disliking to her and, as a result, it is impossible to engender any sympathy for anything that happens to her over the course of the film. Sure, her husband Heinz leaves her for another woman, she loses a publishing deal and her sick mother is forced to take up residence in a nursing home, but none of that is dealt with in any way that makes for an interesting viewing experience. I mean, despite these issues, she still leads a pretty charmed existence and never engages in any introspection or self-reflection; seemingly unable to accept that she could possibly have any role to play in the course of events. In her mind, she is simply a victim of other people’s failings, her arrogant demeanour on show in the opening moments via her disdain for student protestors who dare to disrupt her classes. In Nathalie’s mind, there is nothing more important than Nathalie and when the biggest burden she endures through it all is having to take on the responsibility of caring for her mother’s cat, it is hard to muster much interest in what transpires, which is actually very little anyway.

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Her friendship with Fabien (Roman Kolinka), a former student and wannabe anarchist, promises to inject some life into proceedings, but even this narrative thread fails to develop into anything more than another opportunity for Nathalie to exercise her sense of superiority, dismissive of the ideological idealism that Fabien and his comrades possess. In fact, she continues to visit the commune on which Fabien lives only because, it seems, with her children now grown up, Heinz having moved on, her mother no longer needing her and no other friends to speak of, it serves as her only form of social interaction. Of course, lead characters do not have to be nice to be interesting and some of the best movie characters have been particularly evil people, but there is nothing about Nathalie that makes you care one way or the other about what happens to her. She is arrogant and perhaps delusional about her place in the world order and this never changes. There is no moment of great revelation and there is no point at which she is called upon to question, or even acknowledge, her over-inflated sense of self. It is Heinz (Andre Marcon) who emerges as the most interesting character of all, conflicted about his decision to leave and struggling to cope with the changes it brings to his life.

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Whilst the overall sense of Hansen-Love’s intention with Things to Come seems to be that you are just watching a life unfold, the problem is that this particular life, and the person living it, is neither pleasant nor particularly interesting. If I wanted to watch somebody living their life from day-to-day, I could just watch my neighbours going about their daily grind. There is little reason to care about what things are to come for Nathalie because we can be pretty sure that it will be more of her looking down on all and sundry, blissfully ignorant of anybody else’s problems.

 

The Salesman

Stunningly realised from the opening moments to the final frame, The Salesman is a thoroughly engrossing and perfectly performed work from one of the most gifted directors working today. A mesmerising psychological and moral drama about guilt and the pursuit of vengeance from Iranian film maker Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman is the latest in a series of very impressive films to emerge from Iran in recent years. Whether it is the subversive work of Jafar Panahi (Offside, Tehran Taxi) or Farhadi’s two previous productions – the Academy Award-winning A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013) – or the recent Daughter from Reza Mirkarimi, there has been an influx of films that not only deliver compelling narratives, but also offer considerable insight into the vitality of life in contemporary Iran.

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The film opens with a shot of a double bed before the camera pulls back to reveal that the bed is, in fact, part of a set on a theatre stage. From here we cut to the frantic evacuation of a crumbling apartment building where we meet Emad and Rena Etasami, the married couple at the centre of the drama that unfolds. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher and both he and Rena (Taraneh Alidoosti) are part of an amateur theatre company performing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with Emad in the lead role as Willie Loman. Now homeless, the couple are offered accommodation by a member of the acting troupe and the apartment seems perfect – well as good as you could possibly expect under the circumstances – until one night the apartment’s buzzer sounds and Rena, thinking it is Emad, buzzes him in and returns to her shower, only to be attacked by an intruder.  We never witness the attack, nor do we have any knowledge about who is responsible until much later in the film.

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Emad sets out to find the culprit who, in his hasty retreat, has left behind some significant clues, not the least of which are the keys to the car that remains parked outside. Frustrated by Rena’s refusal to involve the police and plagued by his guilt at being unable to protect his wife, Emad begins to unravel in his relentless pursuit of the attacker, all the while trying to juggle his teaching responsibilities and his rehearsal and performance schedule at the theatre. As Emad’s obsession grows, his relationship with those around him – his neighbours, fellow actors, his students and even his wife – deteriorates. The primal vindictiveness that possesses him is a far cry from the compassionate Emad we meet in the opening moments of the film as he helps a neighbour’s disabled son out of the crumbling building. His hip, sophisticated, easy-going nature has long since disappeared by the time he – and we – learns who is responsible. It is a subtle yet supremely powerful performance from Hosseini as a guy so fixated on his mission that he seems prepared to sacrifice everything he holds dear and, when he finally realises what he stands to lose, it may well be too late.

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There is nothing particularly ethno-specific about the story or the course of events as the narrative could have been set anywhere in the world without any real changes necessary, but there are a couple of fleeting moments that remind us of the government scrutiny that operates in Iran. At one point, one of Emad’s cast members raises concerns about whether they will need to make changes to the play should the censor turn up for the opening night show, while another scene sees Emad informed that the text he had chosen for his students was deemed inappropriate. Neither of these is given any great emphasis by Farhadi, who also wrote the screenplay, and it could be argued that the latter is hardly any different to the debates around the appropriateness of particular texts that seem to emerge quite regularly in western educational discourse. The performances across the board are exceptional, with Alidoosti imbuing Rana with an underlying decency despite the state of disorientation in which she finds herself. Even the supporting players deliver fine performances and there is one in the latter stages that is so effective it will leave you questioning whether you should feel pity or anger for the character. Full of moral ambiguities and constructed with precision by Farhadi, cinematographer Hossein Jafarian and editor Hayedah Safiyari, The Salesman is an exemplary example of a film in which style and substance are delivered in equal measure.