To be a slave: power struggles and social class in “Blade Runner” (1982)

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En español a continuación.

To be a slave: power struggles and social class in Blade Runner (1982)

***Obviously, SPOILERS for Blade Runner (1982).***

Many people have written more vastly and better than me about the most important themes in Blade Runner: what makes a human human, fear of death or artificial intelligence. Today, I want to address a minor, more hidden theme: the power relationship between humans and replicants and how those themes echo social class issues.

In the wake of Blade Runner 2049, I rewatched Ridley Scott’s film after well over a decade of watching it for the first time. I found it to be wonderfully lighted and shot; its main theme has been revisited, expanded and toyed with so many times in the past years that it can seem simplistic and stale. In any case, Blade Runner, along with Neuromancer, inaugurated the genre of cyberpunk by taking noir tropes and themes and adding to them the first kicks of the newborn society of information.

In this rewatch, there was something in particular that striked me: Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael’s (Sean Young) relationship, romanticized in the infamous theatrical cut and kind of absorbed by pop culture as a tragic love story, is actually presented as cringeworthy abuse on the part of Deckard. After running a Voight-Kampf test on Rachael and finding out she is a replicant, Deckard is ordered to retire her. Instead, he chooses to claim her as a prize and she knows it: she tries to flee his apartment saying that she’s too distressed about having found out her childhood memories are not hers for love, Deckard stops her at the door and forces her to say “kiss me” and “I want you”. Later on, she tells Deckard she loves him, but we know that’s not true; she knows that she has to choose between submitting to Deckard or being retired.

What Rachael is to Deckard is a special case of what replicants are to humans in general: objects, not human, not worthy of rights or respect. In the prologue, we are told that replicants were used as slave labour in colonies and space exploration until a Nexus 6 combat team rebelled and, since then, they are being exterminated following the government’s orders. What do we know about replicants? They’re not robots: Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Sebastian (William Sanderson) and Chew (James Hong) are all genetic engineers. The eyes that Chew is growing when Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Leon (Brion James) pay him a visit seem pretty much fleshy to me. Replicants are stronger, more resistant and at least as intelligent as baseline humans, as evidenced by the prologue and by Roy Batty helping J. F. Sebastian beat Tyrell at chess. So, basically, they are genetically enhanced humans, strictly better than baseline humans. Why are they slaves, then? Because baseline humans say so. Why are they inhuman, then? Because baseline humans say so.

The movie goes to great lengths to show that replicants are human and have human feelings. They show intelligence, compassion, fear of death and have a complete theory of mind (Rachael knows that if she leaves Deckard she will be retired). On the other hand, humans are shown as dehumanized and beast-like: Deckard hunts down replicants because he was ordered to, everyone in Los Angeles is sullen and behaves mechanically. Nexus 6 models are given false memories to try to make easier to control, but that’s not the point: a being with no self-awareness is incapable of agency and therefore cannot revolt. It doesn’t matter whether they believe they are human or not, they have all the properties of a moral subject and are in consequence entitled to rights.

In the end, the question about what makes a human is not as relevant as the question of who decides who is human and who isn’t. In Blade Runner, there are first- and second-class citizens. Replicants are deprived of a living being’s most precious treasure: their lifespan. That’s what Roy Batty wants from his creator, and he’s told it’s not possible. Replicants are also deprived of dignity: if they can die, it means they were once alive, so instead they get retired. J. F. Sebastian, a friendless twenty-five-year-old suffering from progeria, uses his knowledge of genetics to build friends for himself to keep him company. Does he build equals? No! He builds miniature humans who greet him at the door when he arrives home, closer to pets than to friends. Deckard is physically attracted to Rachael and uses his leverage to possess her as a commodity, in a gritty deconstruction of the typical relationship between the hardboiled detective and the femme fatale.

What we learn is that, if you want to exploit and alienate your fellow human being, it is very effective to deprive them of their humanity. In real life, the difference between classes is not that clear-cut, but discrimination can be based on a variety of factors, such as race, religion, education, income, ability, so on and so forth. In two words: social class. In this context, the whole discussion over Deckard being a replicant or not takes on a new hue: Deckard the replicant is somewhere below J. F. Sebastian in the social ladder but still above the rest of replicants in that he abides by the establishment’s rules. He’s acting against his own interests because he is unaware of his true place in society. And that’s a really tragic kind of protagonist to have.


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Ser un esclavo: luchas de poder y clase social en Blade Runner (1982)

***Obviamente, DESTRIPES de Blade Runner (1982).***

Muchos han escrito más vastamente y mejor que yo acerca de los temas más importantes en Blade Runner: qué hace humano a un humano, el miedo a la muerte o la inteligencia artificial. Hoy quiero abordar un tema menor y más escondido: las relaciones de poder entre los humanos y los replicantes y como esos temas se hacen eco de problemas de clase social.

A raíz del estreno de Blade Runner 2049, volví a ver la película de Ridley Scott bastante más de una década después de verla por primera vez. La encontré maravillosamente iluminada y rodada; su tema principal se ha revisitado, expandido y se ha jugueteado con él tantas veces en los últimos años que puede parecer simplista y sobado. En cualquier caso, Blade Runner, junto con Neuromante, inauguró el género cyberpunk tomando los temas y tópicos del género noir y añadiéndoles los primeros balbuceos de la recién nacida sociedad de la información.

En este revisionado, hubo algo que me llamó especialmente la atención: la relación entre Deckard (Harrison Ford) y Rachael (Sean Young), romantizada en el infame montaje para salas de cine y de alguna manera absorbida por la cultura popular como una historia de amor trágica, se presenta de hecho como un abuso espeluznante por parte de Deckard. Después de hacerle a Rachael un test de Voight-Kampf y descubrir que es una replicante, Deckard recibe órdenes de retirarla. En lugar de eso, decide reclamarla como un premio y ella lo sabe: trata de huir de su apartamento diciendo que está demasiado afectada por haber descubierto que sus recuerdos de la niñez no son suyos para un momento de amor, Deckard la detiene en la puerta y la obliga a decir «bésame» y «te deseo». Más tarde, ella le dice a Deckard que lo ama, pero sabemos que no es cierto; ella sabe que tiene que elegir entre someterse a Deckard y que la retiren.

Lo que Rachael es para Deckard es un caso especial de lo que los replicantes son para los humanos en general: objetos, no humanos, indignos de derechos o respeto. En el prólogo, se nos dice que los replicantes se usaron como mano de obra esclava en colonias y exploración espacial hasta que un pelotón de combate Nexus 6 se rebeló y, desde entonces, están siendo exterminados por orden del gobierno. ¿Qué sabemos de los replicantes? No son robots: Tyrell (Joe Turkel), Sebastian (William Sanderson) y Chew (James Hong) son todos genetistas. Los ojos que está cultivando Chew cuando Roy (Rutger Hauer) y Leon (Brion James) le hacen una visita me parecen bastante carnositos. Los replicantes son más fuertes, más resistentes y al menos tan inteligentes como los humanos sin modificar, como se muestra en el prólogo y en la escena en la que Roy Batty ayuda a J. F. Sebastian a ganar a Tyrell una partida de ajedrez. Así que, básicamente, son humanos genéticamente mejorados, estrictamente mejores que los humanos sin modificar. ¿Por qué son esclavos, entonces? Porque lo dicen los humanos sin modificar. ¿Por qué son inhumanos, entonces? Porque lo dicen los humanos sin modificar.

La película hace grandes esfuerzos para mostrar que los replicantes son humanos y tienen sentimientos humanos. Muestran inteligencia, compasión, miedo a la muerte y tienen una teoría de la mente completa (Rachael sabe que, si abandona a Deckard, la retirará). Por otra parte, los humanos aparecen deshumanizados y bestiales: Deckard caza replicantes porque se lo ordenan, todo el mundo en Los Angeles es silencioso y se comporta mecánicamente. Los modelos Nexus 6 tienen recuerdos falsos para que sean más fáciles de controlar, pero eso no es lo importante: un ser sin autoconciencia es incapaz de autonomía y, por tanto, no puede rebelarse. No importa si creen que son humanos o no, tienen todas las propiedades de un sujeto moral y, en consecuencia, les corresponden derechos.

A final, la cuestión de qué nos hace humanos no es tan relevante como la de quién decide quién es humano y quién no. En Blade Runner hay ciudadanos de primera y de segunda. Los replicantes quedan despojados del tesoro más preciado de cualquier ser vivo: su tiempo de vida. Eso es lo que Roy Batty quiere de su creador y le dicen que no es posible. Los replicantes también quedan despojados de su dignidad: si pueden morir, eso quiere decir que una vez estuvieron vivos, así que, en lugar de eso, se los retira. J. F. Sebastian, un veinteañero sin amigos que sufre de progeria, usa sus conocimientos de genética para construirse amigos que le hagan compañía. ¿Construye iguales? ¡No! Construye humanos miniatura que lo reciben cuando llega a casa, más cercanos a mascotas que a amigos. Deckard se siente atraído físicamente por Rachael y usa su posición dominante para poseerla como una mercancía, en una deconstrucción tenebrosa de la relación típica entre el detective duro y la mujer fatal.

Lo que aprendemos es que, si quieres explotar y alienar a otro ser humano, es muy efectivo despojarlo de su humanidad. En la vida real, la diferencia entre clases no es tan clara, pero la discriminación puede estar basada en una buena variedad de factores, tales como la raza, la religión, el nivel educativo, el nivel económico, la capacidad, etcétera. En dos palabras: clase social. En este contexto, el debate acerca de si Deckard es un replicante o no adquiere una nueva tonalidad: Deckard el replicante está algo por debajo de J. F. Sebastian en la jerarquía social, pero aun por encima del resto de replicantes en tanto que acata las normas del sistema. Actúa en contra de sus propios intereses porque no es consciente del lugar que ocupa en la sociedad. Y un protagonista así es un protagonista muy trágico.

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand planets (Luc Besson, 2017)

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En español a continuación.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, directed by Luc Besson (2017).

Score: takes off with a bang, goes out with a poof.

When I was a kid, in the late Nineties, my dad subscribed to cable. The Fifth Element had just come out, they aired it several times a week at different times and it became a family tradition that we watched it to the end every time it came up. I always went to bed on a cloud, lulled by Korben and Leeloo’s kiss in Eric Serra’s “Little light of love.

So I went to see Valerian quite gingerly, having seen the mixed reviews. The first and second acts of Valerian are a crazy flurry of action and colour, insanely fun and light-hearted, but at the same time visually and technologically ambitious and unrestrained. Then, for some reason, the third act deflates and has you leave the cinema with a bad taste in your mouth.

Major Valerian (Dane Dehaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne) are a pair of special operatives, who happen to be sexually involved, tasked with recovering a stolen Converter, a small animal that is pretty much the goose that laid the golden egg. Valerian has had a vision of a distant planet where these beings lived, inhabited by pearly humanoids that got exterminated from orbit by a mysterious dreadnought. Back in Alpha, the eponymous City of a Thousand Planets, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with protecting Commander Arun Filitt (Clive Owen) in the wake of an unknown blight that is infecting the core of Alpha.

The similarities with The Fifth Element are not just due to Besson’s tastes: both are based on Valérian et Laureline, a French comic book series running from 1967 to 2010 (Star Wars also borrowed heavily from it, for what it’s worth). Valerian is visually stunning: hypersaturated colour, careful art and costume design in the best tradition of space opera and state-of-the-art special effects. It is also action-packed from the very beginning: after introducing the Pearls, we dive head-first into the fun and compelling section of the Big Market, an ingenious retrieval mission on multiple dimensions. Back in Alpha, Valerian and Laureline get into exciting adventures and meet quirky characters when trying to unravel the mystery of the dead zone in the heart of the massive space station. And then, when it is time to wrap everything up, for some reason, the whole thing becomes utterly uninteresting, which is really weird because the challenges of the first two acts are resolved very efficiently.

If you are a fan of The Fifth Element or light-hearted space opera in the vein of Futurama, I’d advise you give it a try. Even though it crumbles towards the end, I’d say the experience was positive overall.

I’ll try to figure out why the ending fails, but for that I need the SPOILER TAG!

***SPOILERS***

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I’m not there. (Todd Haynes, 2007)

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En español a continuación.

I’m not there., directed by Todd Haynes (2007),

Score: deeply poetic.

See, this is what I was talking about when I complained about A quiet passion.

I’m not there. is a freeform biopic graviting the figure of music legend and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan. Six different actors approach the artist from six different angles: Woodie Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a young black boy travelling the country, represents Dylan’s origins and influences; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) is the young, folk-singer Dylan who later converts to Christianity and explores gospel music; Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) is the electric, insanely famous, alleged sellout Dylan; Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) is an actor who plays Jack Rollins in the in-universe biopic Grain of Sand and who struggles with his relationship with his wife Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg); Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) lives in a Western movie in the little town of Riddle and represents the elder, recluse Dylan; Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) ties them all together as the figure of the poet and the bohemian, using aphorisms and quotes from the real Dylan.

A biopic always implies a personal vision of the subject person, so why try to pretend objectivity? I’m not there. is a dialogue between Haynes and his experience of Dylan, and intending to make anyone believe that a biopic can be anything other than that is a plain lie. I’m not there. strives to capture the multifaceted essence of Dylan’s art and doesn’t bother so much with the historical events: the straight biographical approach is completely exhausted after rise, fall and optimistic-ending efforts such as Ray and Walk the line.

I’m not a fan of Dylan as of now (though this movie has contributed to my interest in him), so I don’t really have an opinion on the man. The only thing I know is the film shows the reluctant leader of thought, the wanderer, the visionary poet, the decadent rock star, the arrogant celebrity, the womanizer, the failed husband, the middle-class bohemian, the sensitive soul, the voice of a generation and the chainsmoker, and they are all true and a construct at the same time. It’s a profoundly poetic movie: the song lyrics are intertwined with the verse-ridden dialogue and the evocative images: music is poetry and poetry is music, feeling and reflection. Cate Blanchett is simply stunning.

All in all, a bold and brave biopic that actually makes an effort to capture the spirit of the subject, enter a dialogue with him and present him to the world. Delightful to watch.


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I’m not there., dirigida por Todd Haynes (2007).

Puntuación: profundamente poética.

Veis, de esto hablaba yo cuando me quejé de Historia de una pasión.

I’m not there. es un biopic de forma libre acerca de la leyenda musical y ganador del Nobel Bob Dylan. Seis actores diferentes se aproximan al artista desde seis ángulos diferentes: Woodie Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), un joven negro que viaja por el país, representa los orígenes e influencias de Dylan; Jack Rollins (Christian Bale) es el joven Dylan cantante de folk que más tarde se convierte al cristianismo y explora la música gospel; Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) es el eléctrico, absurdamente famoso y supuestamente vendido Dylan; Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger) es un actor que interpreta a Jack Rollins en el biopic intradiegético Grain of Sand y que tiene problemas en su relación con su esposa Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg); Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) vive en un western en el pueblito de Riddle y representa al Dylan anciano y recluso; Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw) los une a todos como la figura del poeta y el bohemio, usando aforismos y citas del Dylan real.

Un biopic siempre implica una visión personal de la persona en cuestión, así que ¿por qué tratar de pretender una cierta objetividad? I’m not there. es un diálogo entre Haynes y su experiencia de Dylan, y tratar de hacer creer a nadie que un biopic puede ser nada más que eso es una pura mentira. I’m not there. se esfuerza por capturar la esencia polifacética del arte de Dylan y no se molesta mucho con los eventos históricos: el enfoque biográfico directo está completamente agotado después de intentos con la estructura de auge, caída y final optimista como Ray y La cuerda floja.

No soy una admiradora de Dylan por el momento (aunque esta película ha contribuido a mi interés en él), así que realmente no tengo una opinión formada sobre el hombre. Lo único que sé es que la película muestra al líder de opinión reticente, el vagabundo, el poeta visionario, la estrella del rock decadente, el famoso arrogante, el mujeriego, el marido fracasado, el bohemio de clase media, el alma sensible, la voz de una generación y el fumador compulsivo, y todos son verdaderos y una construcción al mismo tiempo. Es una película profundamente poética: las letras de las canciones se entrelazan con el diálogo plagado de versos y las imágenes evocadoras: la música es poesía y la poesía es música, sentimiento y reflexión. Cate Blanchett está increíble.

En conclusión, un biopic atrevido y valiente que realmente hace un esfuerzo por capturar el espíritu del retratado, entrar en diálogo con él y presentarlo al mundo. Una delicia de ver.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

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Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright (2017).

Score: extraordinary.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a melomaniac getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus. He lives with his deaf foster father Joe (CJ Jones) and meets the girl of his dreams (Lily James), but as much as he wants to turn to an honest life once he has paid off his mentor in crime Doc (Kevin Spacey), his godfather won’t let him make this heist the last one.

Much has been said about Wright’s visual style, and his evolution continues with Baby driver. He had already worked with scenes set to significant music, but his latest movie takes it to a whole new level. From the opening sequence, Baby is established as a character for whom life has a soundtrack, and every moment must be set to the right tune. We all like to walk down the street with our headphones on and pretend we’re in a music video, he just takes that as seriously as it’s humanly possible. And so the whole movie is set to an awesome playlist and carefully choreographed, car chases and gunfights included. We hear what Baby hears at all times, including a faint ringing in the rare moments of silence. Colour is used to cue us into the tint and hue in which Baby sees the world at any given time.

It’s a very fun movie to watch. The car chases are frantic and beautiful, completely immersed in the music. I was worried I was bothering the other moviegoers because I was literally dancing in my seat. It makes me very happy that some young directors are instilling new life in the musical genre (I already wrote about Damien Chazelle): this is no West Side Story but there is no denying it’s a musical, in that music is an integral part of the experience, in a new, exciting way.

It’s not a parody or a pure comedy like the Cornetto Trilogy but it still has some brilliant comedic moments, such as “you’ve got a tattoo that says ‘hat’” and Samm at the post office, but don’t expect to laugh out loud all the time because that’s not the point.

But wait! There’s more.

***SPOILERS***

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Only God forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

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Only God forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2013).

Score: thoroughly uninteresting, unless you look at it from a very particular point of view.

Winding Refn is style over substance, always. That’s just what he does. Only God forgives could very well be a collection of neon-lit shots of Bangkok’s underbelly, and nothing more. And it would be a gorgeous collection indeed. The long, panning shots in overly saturated colours, everything bathed in a neon glow, renders the scenes unnatural and seedy. After all, neon is for cyberpunk megalopoli and brothels.

But a movie is not an art book: it must tell a story. Only God forgives follows drug queenpin Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her two sons, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling). After Billy gets killed for raping and murdering an underage prostitute, mother and younger brother try to avenge him and fall into the hands of vigilante corrupt cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). There’s not what you could call suspense or action, really. The movie not so much paces as slithers through ninety minutes that feel like two hundred. Two smartass Americans get their asses handed to them by a middle-aged Asian cop and that’s more or less the end of it.

Nevertheless, there is something that sets this movie apart from Drive or The neon demon: it is heavily laden with Freudian symbolism, which makes it not only the most aesthetically beautiful of the three, but also the one with the most hidden substance. Britt Hayes wrote a superb piece on it that made me appreciate a little more a movie that had me yawning for an hour and a half.

***SPOILERS***

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What we do in the shadows (Clement & Waititi, 2014).

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What we do in the shadows, written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (2014).

Score: bloody hilarious.

What we do in the shadows is a mockumentary that follows the everyday lives of four vampires who share a flat in present-day Wellington. Viago (Taika Waititi), 379 years old, was a German dandy and even to this day he is delicate and easy-going. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), 862 years old, was known as Vlad the Poker for his favourite torture method and still has his way with the ladies. Deacon (Jonny Brugh), 183 years old, is a young, wild, Bela Lugosi-like vampire who got turned by 8,000-year-old, Nosteratu-ish Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in their basement and is not very social.

The false documentary attests to how the flatmates argue over who has to clean the huge pile of bloody cups or to how Viago tries to convince Vlad to cover the couch with towels before eating someone so everything does not get messy. The vampires have real trouble clubbing because they cannot walk into any pubs unless they are invited in, and a running feud with a local pack of werewolves (not swearwolves).

What we do in the shadows is extremely genre-savvy: virtually every vampire trope you can think of is mocked, spoofed and deconstructed, all in the fragmented style of a reality show; ad-libs add to the hilarity and the special effects are pretty nice. Waititi looking meekly at the camera as Viago and smiling with his little fangs while everything goes to shit behind him cracks me up every time. Needless to say, there are copious amounts of black comedy, like Deacon’s familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) bringing her school bully and her ex-boyfriend to be eaten.

To wrap it up, totally worth it.

 

 

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

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Coherence, directed by James Ward Byrkit (2013).

Score: rather poor.

You don’t want to know a lot about the plot of Coherence, but so you get an idea of the kind of movie it is, it takes place almost entirely inside a house during a dinner party with eight guests. A comet is passing quite close to Earth that night and freaky things start happening.

Coherence has appeared in several lists for best 21st Century science-fiction movies, obscure science-fiction movies and low-budget science-fiction movies, but I find that it has a worldbuilding problem, is not very original at all and has maddening cinematography.

The movie was apparently mostly improvised, with the characters just given a paragraph with their character’s motivation, so the actors themselves were discovering the plot as they went. I’m sure it was terribly fun to shoot, but not so much to watch. That kind of experience is better suited for a room escape design or a roleplaying game, but not for a movie. If you want believable reactions, hire the best actors you can, but for goodness’ sake, don’t sacrifice watchability for that. The camera is shaky, unfocused at times and has terrible angles. Some reality shows are better shot than this, really. And apparently it was all done so the actors could move around freely.

***SPOILERS***

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Zwartboek (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)

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Zwartboek, directed by Paul Verhoeven (a.k.a. Black book, 2006).

Score: sober.

The Hague, near the end of Nazi occupation. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a young Jewish singer from a wealthy family; when the Christian family who was hiding her dies in a bombing, she is approached by police officer Van Gein (Peter Blok), who offers to take her to Allied territory. She takes a loan from her father’s lawyer Smaal (Dolf de Vries) and reunites with her family, but the barge they’re travelling in is raided by a nazi boat and everyone is killed except for Rachel. She decides to join the resistance, led by Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), dyes her hair and adopts the name Ellis de Vries. After some of her comrades are arrested by the Gestapo, she decides she must seduce SS Colonel Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) in order to save them.

On one level, Zwartboek is an exciting thriller with spies, double agents, deceit and strategy. Every character must make choices and take chances, not only in the context of war, but also looking at how their actions will be judged when the Allies eventually win the war. Ellis learns that the attack on the barge which killed her entire family was far from being a coincidence, but she can’t start to imagine how convoluted the truth about it is.

On another level, Zwartboek is a war movie, and one that focuses on a topic that is not frequently discussed, especially as World War II is frequently considered the good war: how in civil wars, or occupations, your friends, neighbours and acquaintances will make decisions you despise or show their true colours, and once the war is over and strife is no longer coercing people, there can and will be consequences.

Ellis’ feelings towards Müntze are not spelled out for us. Has she fallen in love with him? Does she just respect him, or feel sympathy for him? Does she think she’s a good man, despite the circumstances? Does she separate the personal from the political? When the war is over, she barely makes any effort to deny she was a collaborationist, despite the fact that she was in the resistance all along. One great virtue of this movie is the way it portrays grey and grey morality in the context of something as fucked up as war.

To wrap it up, an exciting thriller and an interesting reflection on the controversy between resistance and collaborationists in the occupied Netherlands.

La grande bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

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La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (a.k.a. The great beauty, 2013).

Score: contemplative.

Some works of art are born looking at another work of art. Admiring it, wanting to revive it, to make it eternal, to tell the world how much it meant to the creator. Some works of art are born grabbing the ankle of that masterpiece that came before: La grande bellezza came into the world grabbing La dolce vita’s ankle.

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a sexagenarian socialite in present-day Rome. He writes for a magazine, parties all night and sleeps all day. Forty years ago, he wrote a novel that went unnoticed and everybody keeps asking why he never wrote another one. It might be because he spent those forty years too busy trying to find trascendence in the unredeemably banal.

La grande bellezza is made of vignettes so brief and minimalistic they might as well be social network posts and lavish panning shots of Roman iconic locations so painfully beautiful they might as well be pornographic. We get glimpses of the life around Jep: his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), trying to make it big as a playwright and begging for the love of his abusive, narcissistic girlfriend; his Platonic romance with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the forty-something stripper; Botox parties, priests and nuns right next to drugs and orgies; children raised by butlers while their parents are out for dinner.

Unlike La dolce vita, La grande bellezza is ambiguous about whether it loves or despises the void debauchery it portrays. It’s probably both. The past century has really made artists lose interest in trascendence; we’ve become so hedonistic we look at these people drinking, smoking and arguing that they’re the greatest artist in the room and don’t think much of it.

For obvious reasons, the debauchery needed to be amped up. Having sex at a prostitute’s house is no longer enough, we need to introduce things like a middle-aged stripper who works at her father’s club; he’s disappointed she doesn’t like drugs, since they would have a hobby in common, then. The fake miracle scene is updated as an interaction with an elderly nun, clearly alluding to Teresa of Calcutta.

All in all, desperately beautiful and a love letter to the void, to all those things we desperately want to give meaning to our lives but simply won’t.

Les parapluies de Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964).

Les_Parapluies_de_Cherbourg

Les parapluies de Cherbourg, directed by Jacques Demy (a.k.a. The umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964).

Score: endearing.

Though The umbrellas of Cherbourg has consistently been on various Best Films of the 20th Century lists, it recently came back to the spotlight for being one of Damien Chazelle’s favourite movies and an essential influence on La la land.

It tells the story of Geneviève Emery (Catherine Deneuve) and Guy Foucher (Nino Castelnuovo), two young lovers in the small town of Cherbourg, Normandy. Guy works as a mechanic in a gas station, while Geneviève helps her mother (Anne Vernon) with the umbrella shop she owns. Being in a dire economic situation, Madame Emery would very much rather that Geneviève married rich and handsome jewellery merchant Roland Cassard (Marc Michel). Everything becomes more complicated when Guy is drafted for the Algerian war.

The umbrellas of Cherbourg is a very special kind of musical drama, in that every line of dialogue is sung in a recitative style, but there are no actual songs in it. Recitative is used in opera to accelerate narration and introduce a scene or aria; it’s not common to use it on its own because it gives the impression that the characters are going to start singing a song soon but they never do. This can make this film annoying if one was expecting a musical in its conventional mode; when all is said and done, it’s an artifact that the director decided to use in a certain way and achieves an effect. Nothing more, nothing less.

While La la land is very different, once you finish The umbrellas of Cherbourg, you can see very clearly what Chazelle lifted from it.

***SPOILERS FOR LA LA LAND AND THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG***

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