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The International Writers Magazine:Film

A World Apart
Gabriela Davies on film

When will Hollywood make a film that will make us think? Endless reels of high budget films with average casting and direction have left us, hungry audiences that we are, raring for talent. Talent often comes to Hollywood from abroad. This is a generalisation, and is not to say that Americans cannot make good films. They do. The Hollywood industry has given us much ‘home-grown talent’, but the arrival of international players on the scene certainly brightens the current cinematic spectrum

An example of this is the Danish director Susanne Bier, known within the Danish cinema niche for her naturalistic dramas. When her American production Things We Lost in the Fire came out in late 2007, starring household Hollywood names Benicio del Toro, David Duchovny and Halle Berry, something about it set it aside from the Hollywood norm. America is still present, in the luxurious houses and the accents of the cast. However, the plot of Things We Lost is so tragically sad, pessimistic and quiet, that it becomes an unusual film in its simmering rhythm. Big bucks came from producer Sam Mendes, director of the seminal American drama American Beauty (1999). But what keeps this film from being a Hollywood blockbuster, as it slips its way into home rental and DVD?

It is clear that Bier has no intention of compromising her auteur style. You can see an influence from Scandinavian founding father Ingmar Bergman in the slow-paced, bleak shots, as well as inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard’s signature handheld camera work. The film has a very European feel to it. For the mainstream cinemagoer, these traits can become tiresome, so it is the narrative pull of the plot and the dramatic acting that brings it along. Halle Berry plays a grieving mother who has to come to terms with the reality of life without her husband (Duchovny), who dies whilst trying to defend an assault victim. Berry’s grief is quiet, and noise only arrives with Benicio del Toro, her husband’s best friend, to whom she transfers her utmost devotion.

The film comes as a clean break from the happy endings we are used to. The narrative is strong, yet simple. Dialogue is to the point and acting is superb. Berry’s desperation is utterly believable, and Del Toro manages to do the classic ‘going cold turkey’ scene without falling into cliché. This is European talent on an American budget. I look forward to more.

A parallel to this and recently at cinemas is Funny Games U.S., an American remake of German director Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games. Haneke also directs the remake. He remakes it word-by-word and shot-by-shot – even the soundtrack is exactly the same. Why, we ask?

There are two different frames of reference for watching this film – knowing the director’s intent, or just watching the film for its face value. Working within the former, I knew what to expect. Haneke wants to bring a message first filmed ten years ago to its most relevant audience – mainstream American cinemagoers.

The 2007 version counts with stellar performances from Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, both established British actors. Both share European links in cinema, Watts was in David Cronenberg’s 2007 Eastern Promises and Alejandro Gonzalez Innáritu’s 2003 21 Grams. Tim Roth has starred in a few British typically anti-Hollywood productions, namely Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, The Wife & Her Lover, and Alan Clarke’s Made in Britain. The film also brings young American talents Michael Pitt (who was in Bertolucci’s 2003 The Dreamers) and Brady Corbet, the psychotic teenagers whom the plot is based around.

Haneke’s stroke of genius is to bring the plot so close to ‘home’; home being the place we have all seen dozens of times in films. The pretty American couple are vacating at their lakeside home in the Hamptons. The family itself is representative of this all-American ‘family’ – its outfits, mannerisms, sing-along-songs, ‘mom’, ‘pop’ and the big friendly dog. Haneke knows we have seen this all before, making his attack on it superb. He understands the cultural silence of a foreign film in mainstream global society, and knows the way to make it louder.

The film provides a shocking insight into youth culture and its values, the fragility of human bonds, the insanity of brutality, and the sheer banality and pace with which it can come. It also, on a sideline, exposes the reality of the hegemony of English language, and the fact that a director must film in the U.S.A if he/she is to bring his film to a wider audience. The film is not directly aimed at the U.S., but merely uses that acronym to get it noticed – which works like clockwork.

As an audience, independent of our nationality, the film is a frustrating, psycho-torturing clever ensemble of jump and fade-away shots. Camerawork is toyed with constantly, violence is seen in the off screen sphere; someone else’s reaction to torture, blood as it sprays itself from a body to the living room wall. At one point one of the teenagers faces the camera and asks us a question, completely removing the fourth wall concept that keeps cosy viewers in their own reality. This deconstructs the figure of audience as voyeur and takes that audience hostage too, a terrifying experience. You forget your tub of popcorn and the parking meter ticking on outside, you become part of this insane experience, claustrophobic and unnerving. Corbet (who calls himself many names throughout the film, part of the psychotic trait of both boys) asks the critical question: do we want them to stop now, or do we want it to end with a logical plot progression?

The answer does not matter, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet cannot hear us, or they can and they choose to ignore. So why not take the lovely happy all-American family and just shoot them in the first ten minutes of the film? Because, Brady Corbet would say, we shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.

© Gabriela Davies May 2008
gabrieladavies at

Gabriela is agraduate from the University of Portsmouth working in London

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