‘THE NIGHTINGALE’: AN INTENSE AND UNSETTLING ACCOUNT OF ENGLISH COLONIALISM

SCORE: 90%

Australian writer and director Jennifer Kent, who made a splash with her 2014 horror debut, The Babadook, returns with an intense period thriller about English colonialism in Tasmania at the beginning of the 19th century.

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Unlike her narratively inventive debut, this film has a straightforward story. Clare (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict living as a servant in Tasmania under the charge of an English officer named Hawkins (Sam Claflin), entertaining soldiers by singing and working to earn her ticket back home. She lives in a small hut with her husband, also an Irish convict, and their infant child.

One day a confrontation between her husband and the abusive Hawkins escalates to a tragic outcome, one too gruesome to describe in words. The director’s camera doesn’t flinch, however, staying right in the middle of the frenzied scene in the claustrophobic hut, making the violent action unsettling to watch.

Following this inciting incident, the story becomes one of revenge, as a changed Clare seeks out a native guide (Baykali Ganambarr) to lead her through the Tasmanian wilderness in pursuit of her attackers.

As the pair slowly get to know each other and overcome obstacles, the audience gets a glimpse of the different forms oppression takes. On the one hand, the violence women are subject to in a patriarchal society, and on the other hand, the clear racial and nationalistic stratification, where black Tasmanian natives are shot on sight and just for sport, and Irish convicts are humiliated and forced to serve their English captors, who occupy the top position in this hierarchy.

Nonetheless, the story is one of empowerment of the weak and down-trodden. Both Franciosi’s and Ganambarr’s characters show bravery, cunning, and nobility of purpose, unlike their oppressors. The two actors shine in this performance-driven film, especially Aisling Franciosi as Clare, whose resolve is continually tested in the treacherous wild.

The scenery, too, is a thing to behold, and something Kent makes great use of, capturing the pristine beauty, as well as the untamed ruggedness, of the land that the English stole from the native population.

This film is a compelling look at the history of a place that’s often sidelined when talking about the crimes of colonialism.

MARIANNE AND LEONARD: WORDS OF LOVE’: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF LOVE

SCORE: 100%

This documentary, directed by Nick Broomfield, tells a beautiful story about how the song So Long, Marianne, came into existence—and what happened after.

The main setting is the Greek island of Hydra, where Leonard Cohen, then a poet and writer, not yet a famous singer, met a beautiful Norwegian girl named Marianne Ihlen. They were lovers then and remained so even after Cohen left the island to pursue his musical career.

The story is told through archive footage, photographs, audio recordings, and video interviews of those who saw Marianne’s and Leonard’s love story unfold firsthand. The audio recordings of Marianne and Leonard talking about their affair at Hydra are especially illuminating and have a haunting quality to them when set against archive footage of them on the island, in slow motion, as if stuck in time for perpetuity.

Despite occasional moments of humor, there is a bittersweet sadness to this document, not unlike the sadness of Cohen’s music. It was inspired by Leonard’s last message to Marianne as she lay on her death bed. The poet died not long after her.

This is the story of one couple, but it cannot help but deal with questions of a more universal nature, like the artist-muse relationship, the nature of celebrity and fame, and what love is, ultimately. As one interviewee remarks, “poets don’t make good husbands.” This seemed to be true in Leonard’s and Marianne’s case, too, but the film convinces you by the end that the love they felt, however momentarily, was nonetheless true, and certainly spanned a lifetime – and beyond.

The film should be of particular interest to fans of Leonard Cohen, as it will provide a rich background for his well-known work, whether his songs, or poetry, or novels. But even those not yet familiar with the great poet would likely become fans after seeing this gem.

‘HOTEL BY THE RIVER’: A MEDITATION ON LOVE

SCORE: 100%

This black and white South Korean drama from HIFF Love and Anarchy’s Asian Cuts category is a subtle meditation on falling in and out of love. Mostly out of love.

Directed by the prolific Hong Sang-Soo, the film tells the story of a famous and aging poet who is spending his days in the titular hotel by the river, where he was invited by a fan of his work. We meet him as he is about to receive a visit from his two sons. They wait for him in the hotel cafe, while he naps at a nearby table, hidden from sight. In the meantime, a young woman suffering from a recent heartbreak is staying in the room down the hall, and also receives a visit from her married friend.

As we learn more about what brought the poet and the young lady to their present lodgings, it becomes clear the place is something of a heartbreak hotel. It turns out the poet’s sons, too, have untold secrets that relate them to the other two characters, as well as their particular resentments towards his father.

However, the hotel is not a sad place, and the people in it are not aimless and destitute. The scenery is beautiful, as the characters themselves notice, although the poet complains about a wilting flower climbing the wall of the cafe. But his insistence that the flower should be watered is proof that the people we meet here have goals and desires.

One scene in particular stands out in terms of its aesthetic quality: when the old man wakes up from his nap in the cafe, he sees the young lady and her friend standing on the riverbank outside, next to a bare tree, after it had just snowed. This shot has all the beauty of East Asian paintings and poetry, and it inspires the old poet as well.

The dialogues are subtle, indicating secrets underneath what is said, but at times also funny, in the way that suggests the characters had no intention of being funny.

One wonders if there is anything at all that South Korean filmmakers cannot do extremely well.

BUNUEL IN THE LABYRINTH OF TURTLES’: ANIMATION AND SURREALISM GET ALONG SWIMMINGLY

SCORE: 80%

Salvador Simó’s Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles is a colorful reimagining of the circumstances under which the great surrealist director Luis Buñuel made his 1933 documentary Las Hurdes, or Land Without Bread.

Ostracized by the Parisian art scene following the controversy surrounding his last film, L’Age d’Or, and unable to find funding for his next project, we meet Luis in a crisis. Then a friend gifts him a book about the famine affecting the people in Las Hurdes, which inspires him. Still short of funds, he visits another friend of his, the anarchist Ramon Acin, who soon after wins the lottery and decides to use the winnings to help Luis make the film.

This is how the adventure begins. A four-man film crew takes a road trip to document the people’s suffering, but tensions arise as Buñuel’s surrealist view of reality seems ill-fitted to the demands of documentary filmmaking. At the same time, he is haunted by his past, most notably the larger-than-life presence of his stern father, which keeps invading his perception. Add to this the recent and acrimonious split with Dali, and the artist-turned-chronicler has a lot to balance on his plate.

Simó creates a beautiful, dream-like visual image for this historic episode, full of flickering oil lamps and fluttering shadows. He also interrupts his animated vision of how the filming happened with actual footage from the film, giving you insight into how certain shots were achieved.

The characterization of Buñuel is likewise noteworthy. He is a combination of virtues and vices that ring true to life. He has a fiery temper and can be headstrong and proud, but he is also compassionate and attentive to the suffering of others, and ultimately, a good friend. The conflict with his friend Ramon, who has a different idea of what truth is than the surrealist Luis, is central to the plot and articulates the underlying theme of the film effectively.

This film is a valuable piece of art, not just because it cleverly uses animation to depict the surrealist vision of reality, but also because it sheds light on a piece of cinema history that is often forgotten.

THE LIGHTHOUSE’: A TEMPESTUOUS TALE YE CAN BELIEVE

SCORE: 100%

American director Robert Eggers, who burst onto the cinema stage at Sundance with his 2015 debut The Witch, brings us another virtuoso historical horror/thriller.

The Lighthouse is a mad, Melvillian dies irae, a dark curse brought forth from the depth of the sea. It is the story of a lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and his assistant (Robert Pattinson), who arrive on a remote island to man the lighthouse on it for a period of several months.

We see the story unfold from the perspective of Pattinson’s character, as he tries to get to the bottom of the mysteries that beset the foreign place he found himself in. Sirens at the bottom of the sea and tentacled Leviathans lurk beneath the crashing waves, or possibly within one’s own imagination. The old man, too, while being very chatty after a drink, keeps secrets hidden in the off-limits lightroom.

As the two men go on in this isolation, a relentless storm hits their island. This makes the setting for the gradual descent into insanity, aided by copious amounts of alcohol. Since the underlying conflict between the two characters is often punctuated by a brotherly singing of sea shanties and dancing—well, attempts at dancing—the otherwise dark and ominous film also has great moments of humor.

Both of these elements are present in Willem Dafoe’s performance in particular. His pirate-like dialect is funny when it needs to be, poking fun at the young apprentice, but also serves to deliver the most poignant scene in the film, when he unleashes a curse of oceanic proportions on the head of his rebellious protege. His monologue is one not even Melville himself would be ashamed of.

The screenplay in general is incredible. Reportedly, Eggers based it partly on Melville’s writing and partly on actual journals of 19th-century lighthouse keepers, which really makes the dialogue feel authentic. Other elements, too, are masterfully employed. The dark chiaroscuro photography, the dynamic camerawork, and the rhapsodic music, coupled with eerie and well-timed sound effects. It is arguably the first time ever that the excessive use of foghorns didn’t bother me at all.

Picture on the cover: Song Seonmi and Kim Minhee in ‘Hotel By The River.’ Picture: Courtesy of Cinema Guild