Vinyan, Fabrice du Welz, 97 mins (18)
The Beaches of Agnès, Agnès Varda, 110 mins (18)
Army of Crime, Robert Guédiguian, 139 mins (15)
There's a rumble in the jungle but it's blissful on the beaches
Sunday 04 October 2009
Shocking, captivating, disturbing, groundbreaking ... the opening credits of Vinyan are quite something. First you're thumped between the eyes by screen-filling white-on-black block capitals that are probably used in secret brainwashing experiments, and then there's a low rumble that builds to a dentist-drill screech. If you're disorientated by the nightmarish psychodrama that follows, you can't say you weren't warned.
Once you've recovered from this initial barrage, you meet Jeanne and Paul Behlmer (Emmanuelle Béart and Rufus Sewell), a couple who have stayed on in Thailand as aid workers after the loss of their son in the 2004 tsunami. At a fundraiser one evening, they're shown some footage of children in a Burmese jungle, and Jeanne is startled to see that one of them is wearing a familiar football top. It's a blurry rear-view image, but it's enough to convince Jeanne that her son is out there somewhere, alive and well. Paul is just as convinced that she's mistaken, but he agrees to accompany her into the jungle. Their first step is a hellish Phuket nightclub, where they pay a gangster to ferry them across the border to Burma. "We've just got to be careful," says Paul, which must count as one of the all-time great understatements.
There's a lot that's questionable about Vinyan if you take it too literally. Would anyone go on such a perilous trip with so little preparation? And isn't it a bit dodgy that all of the non-white foreigners are either gun-toting sleazebags or painted savages? But from those title credits onwards, the film boots you too far out of your comfort zone to let you do much questioning. Jeanne and Paul's misadventures become more and more hallucinatory; the soundtrack throbs and buzzes, and the picture shudders madly. Vinyan has the same cinematographer as Irréversible, Benoît Debie, which is a sure sign that you should gulp a handful of seasickness pills before buying your ticket.
Despite all this, one of the distinctions of Vinyan is that it's not an ordeal. To the chagrin of horror fans, no doubt, the film never takes away its protagonists' options, instead allowing them to continue on an odyssey that's weirdly beautiful, even if it isn't what you'd call a relaxing holiday. Directed by Fabrice du Welz, the Belgian director of 2004's Calvaire, the film is where Don't Look Now meets Apocalypse Now. It's both a devastating drama about a loving couple's grief, and a demonstration of how intense cinema can be.
Fabrice du Welz's fellow Belgian, Agnès Varda, is the New Wave grande dame best known for 1962's Cléo from Five to Seven. Now in her eighties, and bearing a marked resemblance to Ann Widdecombe, Varda has made a sprightly memoir, The Beaches of Agnès, which takes us through her quayside childhood, her photography in China and Cuba, her directing career in France and in Hollywood, her marriage to the late Jacques Demy, and her recent rebirth as an installation artist.
Varda tells her life story in delightfully offbeat, inventive fashion, bustling between chats with friends and relatives, clips of old feature films and documentaries, and scenes from her past re-created as surreal tableaux. Her energy and creativity would be remarkable in someone of any age, let alone someone who collected her bus pass in the 1980s, but Varda is modest enough to give her own achievements less attention than the beaches where she's always felt at home (hence the title), and the many friends she remembers with heart-warming affection. It's also impressive that a film permeated with such a sense of loss and longing can still be so lively and frothy: imagine Terence Davies's Of Time and the City remade by Michel Gondry. And it doesn't matter whether or not you've seen any of Varda's films. The Beaches of Agnès is definitely one of her best.
After Lust/Caution, Defiance, Black Book and several others – even Inglourious Basterds counts – the latest in the current spate of wartime resistance thrillers is Army of Crime. It's set in Paris, but not many of its heroes are French. They're a group of Armenians, Italians, Spaniards and other immigrants who fled from persecution in their own countries to the land of liberty, equality and fraternity, only to see their families hauled off to Gestapo headquarters by French policemen. It's a well-made saga of heroism and camaraderie, although its heritage costumes and episodic structure are more suited to a TV mini-series than a film.
Also Showing: 04/10/2009
Driving Aphrodite (95 mins, (12A)
Nia Vardalos became an overnight sensation when she wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but she was an overnight nobody shortly after. This feeble comedy won't change that. Vardalos plays a history professor who works as a reluctant guide on coach tours of Greece. She gripes about how she hates her job, which is quite annoying, then she realises that she loves it, which is worse. The jokes are woeful, the characters thin, and the life lessons sicklier than a ton of baklava. And most of it was shot in Spain.
Pandorum (107 mins, 15)
Spaceship-bound thriller that tries to take the claustrophobic horror of Alien and the existential angst of Solaris, and spice them up with mutant cannibals and a kick-boxing supermodel. It might have been fun if it weren't so humourless, or if it hadn't been shot in half-light. You'd think they'd have more powerful torches in the 22nd century.
District 13: Ultimatum (97 mins, 15)
Slick action movie set in and around a dystopian Paris ghetto a few years from now. Luc Besson writes and produces, which would have been a recommendation a decade ago. Now it means that there's not much to think about, but there is some entertaining martial artistry.
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