Valley of Love – Film Review

Valley of Love

Gérard (Gérard Depardieu) and Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) are a long divorced couple sent from their native France to California’s Death Valley by their son’s suicide note. He has asked them to spend the week together and put together a precise schedule for them to follow. Forced together after years apart the couple reminisce about their son and their marriage while an unsettling undercurrent runs through each scene.

The couple are visibly uncomfortable. Not only is the intense Californian heat almost too much to bear they are forced to confront their past and in what ways they might have let their son down. All the while spending time together with someone they chose to divorces decades before. Depardieu and Huppert are seasoned pros and tackle the low-key drama with aplomb. It is easy to believe there’s a real history between them and their conversation is filled with a relatable blend of tenderness and bitterness. If Valley of Love were just this, two great actors performing against a beautiful backdrop, then I would have loved the film. Sadly there was another element at play that muddied the waters.

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That unsettling undercurrent I mentioned earlier grew throughout the film and bloomed from a subtle element into something a little distracting. How do I phrase this? There was a hint of the other to the film; an exploration of the idea that death may not be the end. My issue is actually not that this idea was included in the film but that it wasn’t delved into a little deeper. As an emotional drama the film was complete but as the supernatural element felt unfinished and unsatisfying.

Again let me stress that my frustrations do not come from the performances. Everything about the two leads is authentic, heartbreaking, and subtle. Guillaume Nicloux as a director is also praiseworthy as he gives the actors room to perform whilst capturing the majestic landscape that lay behind them. Where my issues lie are with Nicloux’s script. Whilst excellent at the human element it fails to follow through on the unnecessary additional of otherworldly influences.

It could have been perfect but instead was sullied by a bold idea half executed.

Valley of Love is in UK cinemas now.

Men and Chicken – Film Review

Men and Chicken

Mads Mikkelsen is a fine figure of a man and I am sure his cheekbones have been praised on these pages before now. As Hannibal he is the ultimate in suave as the serial killer who never dresses down or has a hair out of place. Let this film be a testament to his skills then as he takes on a role as a decidedly non-suave, crumpled, socially awkward, and just plain odd man.

Mikkelsen and David Dencik play a pair of half-brothers who discover upon their father’s death that he was not their real father. On a mission to find their real father and information about their respective mothers the pair travel to a remote Danish island and find far more than they bargained for. With their father confined to his bed the brothers have to instead spend time with a surprise new trio of half-brothers, each more bizarre than the last, and sleep in a house filled with chickens, pigs, sheep, a bull, and a lot of cheese.

During their stay the now five brother struggle for dominance and our original duo fight to discover just what is going on; what happened to their mothers and what secrets their father is keeping in the locked basement.

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Men & Chicken is a deliciously dark comedy surrounding five disturbed individuals trying to get along. Fans of Danish television will be delighted to see Mikkelsen alongside the likes of Søren Malling, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicholas Bro, and Ole Thestrup in a feature far less serious than their usual fare. There are plenty of laughs to be had as the film is filled with slapstick violence alongside surprisingly dry humour. Eventually though certain strands of comedy wear a little thin and you fear what you might be forced to witness. Suffice it to say that the big reveal was actually more grim than I had anticipated.

This is my first experience of the work of writer and director Anders Thomas Jensen so I can’t compare it to his previous work but viewed in isolation this was a fun comedy, just not one I am likely to return to.

I admire the film’s tenacity but ultimately can’t fully get behind it. I feel like I should like it more that I did but there is a point at which bestiality and masturbation stops making me laugh. Spoilsport I know.

Men and Chicken screens again on the 10th and 18th and tickets are still available online.

Queen of Earth – Film Review

Queen of Earth

Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) is in a troubled place. Left by her boyfriend a few months after her revered artist father committed suicide, she looks for solace in her old friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston) and a lakeside retreat. Bad choice. Catherine is with the last person who can help her come to terms with the tragedies that have come her way, while arguably, Ginny has no good reason to offer help in the first place.

I knew almost nothing about this film before seeing it, only that it was a low-budget drama led by two women, pretty much putting it in my wheelhouse. Another Martha Marcy May Marlene, maybe? I was excited!

Queen of Earth switches its timeframe between Catherine and Ginny’s present break in the cottage and their equivalent stay the year before. It shows how their actions on the first holiday have had consequences for the second and Waterson and Moss both put in thoughtful performances of two friends who really shouldn’t be any more.

Everything about the film is designed to maximise your discomfort. From too-close shots of people’s faces that make you want to physically lean away from them, to the suspenseful music that never once lets up. By the end of the film I was exhausted from being bullied into feeling tense for the whole 90 minutes. Despite the score’s hard work though, I was frequently bored.

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Long monologues – expositional turnings over of past, personality-shaping relationships – can easily be imagined in the context of a conversation with real-life friends who are trying to analyse how they got to where they are now. However, they’re just tedious when you are the spectator of characters who you don’t even like. Without exception, I grew to loathe everyone on screen, as the behaviour of both main and supporting characters pushed the believable boundaries of what a person would be willing to put up with from their ‘friends’, let alone strangers. Despite the strength of the lead actors, the script failed to convince me that Catherine and Ginny were ever friends in the first place and so I had nothing on which to hang my belief that they’d be willing to endure each other’s unpleasantness now. It was also surprising how, for a film that almost never leaves these two women, it struggled to pass the Bechdel Test.

It isn’t hard to imagine this as a very different review. A parallel-universe me could be praising Queen of Earth for its suspense, dark reading of interpersonal relationships and insightful portrayal of depression. Sadly, in this universe Queen of Earth left me frustrated and worn-out, and no amount of admiring the craft can mitigate that.

There is an interesting film to be made about growing away from your old friendships but not breaking the bond. I don’t think this is it.

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) – Film Review

Bang Gang

In a French suburb a Bang Gang is formed; a group of teens who meet up to party and have orgies. This being an era in which everyone carries a camera in their pocket they share photos from their events online and it is only a matter of time before the news leaks and STDs spread.

Bang Gang is the debut feature from Eva Husson and there is a lot to admire about her work. The imagery of the film is gorgeous and she has coaxed naturalist, and appropriately brave, performances from her young, and mostly amateur, actors. This is an attention grabbing first film but sadly it doesn’t manage to smuggle in any surprises amongst all the attractive naked people.

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Once you are over the shock and titillation of teenage orgies there is not much left to Bang Gang. There are some friendships that become rivalries and a sweet potential romance between a quiet boy and a betrayed girl but for the most part the film plays out exactly at you might expect. Lots of fun is had and then people have to face the consequences. I don’t what else to say.

Maybe I am missing something. There is a heavy emphasis on hamsters and train derailment (not at the same time) so perhaps there is some symbolism going over my head? As it is I just saw Bang Gang as a very stylish feature-length episode of Skins. I will certainly keep my eye on the future work of Husson but won’t be returning to her debut.

If you choose to see the film after reading this review then we’ll all know you’re just going for the sex.

The Keeping Room – Film Review

The Keeping Room

Having made a bold debut in 2009 with the violent British drama Harry Brown director Daniel Barber has gone in a completely different direction in his follow-up. Rather than contemporary Britain The Keeping Room is set in rural America as the American Civil War comes to a close. As the Union Army approaches two sisters and their slave find themselves forced to defend their farm from two brutal soldiers who are taking advantage of women and towns left unprotected as their menfolk have turned to soldiering.

Sisters Augusta (Brit Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) have a close but tempestuous relationship as Augusta tries to control her younger sister; a young woman not enamoured by hard work and who takes against their slave Mad (Muna Otaru). When Louise is bitten Augusta is forced to leave the farm in search of medicine and in doing so draws the attention of two roving soldiers whose modus operandi is raping and killing. When Augusta returns to the house the two men follow and a battle for survival begins between three women and two trained soldiers. Can the three survive and is their way of life going to be intact if they do get through the night?

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The Keeping Room opens with a scene of harrowing violence and does not pause for a moment of levity from that moment to the film’s close. With a tight running time the simple plot is artfully stretched with a slow menacing pace as the film luxuriates in each scene. Nothing is rushed here and every last drop of tension is extracted where possible. Most scenes feel like a standoff between two characters and it is never obvious who will flinch first and who will come out alive. Maintaining this endless suspense shows skill in Barber’s direction and is nothing short of exhausting for the audience.

Marling, Steinfeld, and Otaru all give subtle understated performances as the three women with only each other to rely on. Marling and Otaru in particular play characters who have to outwardly project a level of control and stoicism whilst allowing the audience to see the uncertainty and fear that simmers beneath. Whilst it is always a shame to see another film portraying violence against women The Keeping Room does not glorify or revel in the violence that takes place, even choosing not to show what other films might feast on. Ultimately this is not the story of women being victimised but of a group of women choosing to take a stand, fight back, and protect their home. These are female characters with complex personalities and vulnerabilities but who stand strong in spite of their fear.

In many ways The Keeping Room is an unpleasant watch with its savage but non-gratuitous violence and infinite levels of suspense and tension. If you can stomach these and are in the mood for a thriller with some admirable female characterisation then I advise you look in on this bleak story of survival.