It’s Oscar weekend. So bloated, so self-important and earnest, so conservative (in so many ways, only one is that film awards still value male performances over female. Each year alternating would be a really positive step.). And yet, I pay close attention every year. I am seduced by showbiz, and this is its apotheosis.
Not having seen the big films (I do want to see Lincoln and Argo), I’ve spent my time in cinemas this year seeing really impressive, garlanded films that are not (with the exception of one) Oscar fodder.
I saw Berberian Sound Studio in the summer of last year. It’s a compelling and disturbing film about giallo cinema, without showing anything remotely horrific on screen. Gilderoy (Toby Jones) is an emotionally repressed Englishman abroad, culturally out of place and desperately homesick for his native Dorking. He comes to work in the Berberian Sound Studio to add the post-production soundtrack to a film (never seen) called The Equestrian Vortex. Vegetables are smashed, squashed, spliced again and again whilst women stand in the sound booth and scream on demand, over and over, blood-curdling sounds of pain and fear. Gilderoy is fastidious and undemonstrative, when not at work he plays himself home-made soundtracks of the English countryside and reads letters from his mother detailing the family of chiff-chaffs that have nested in her garden. As Gilderoy’s mental equilibrium tips over, I thought the letters might have written by Gilderoy himself. That wasn’t the writer/director’s intention, but that interpretation adds to the sense of the man’s increasing dislocation from home and from his sense of self. The most shocking moment in the film comes when all sound is turned off. Gilderoy has become so overwhelmed by and consumed with the sounds of human torture and death that his descent into madness, which is also perhaps a kind of liberation, has to happen in silence. If this film is about a type of cinema that is unsubtle, it inhabits that world with great subtlety. Unusually in cinema, it is the audience’s imagination that has to provide the horror, and that is much more powerful.
Holy Motors is a riotous, confusing, funny, tragic film. Is it about anything? Only what you find in it, I think. For me, it’s about identity, the various guises we all adopt throughout the day, throughout our lives. It is about alienation and connection, where and with whom we find it. But it is also bonkers and playful and silly, qualities not often found in cinema. This is a film I could watch again and again, and each time I’d find something different in it.
A new Terrence Malick film is out today (I can’t wait to see it), and a film that owes a lot to his style is the Oscar nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild. The landscape, below the New Orleans levees, looks post-apocalytic, the people living there are off the grid, practically beyond the reach of federal agencies. When they are ‘rescued’ by the outside world they reject the intervention, and escape that sterile, confining world and return to the Bathtub, the brutal and unforgiving wilderness that gives them their freedom. It’s not clear whether or not Wink, the father, might have been cured, or at least given longer to live, by accepting modern medicine in the hospital. It is, in his mind, a moot point. This is a man who ran out into the eye of Katrina firing off his shotgun, and derides people for being ‘afraid of the water like a bunch of babies’. Perhaps what is really killing Wink is his broken heart at the loss of his daughter Hushpuppy’s mother. A heartbreakingly funny and tender scene has an imagined recreation of his words that she was so beautiful she could light the gas stove just by walking past. Zeitlin is like Mallick in his desire to foreground and tell his story through visual image, not to show his characters’ stories as superimposed on the landscape but as emerging from physical place. Hushpuppy is as the place she lives: wild, indomitable and full of wonder. The depiction of the creatures of her imagination seemed to me completely organic and in context, they are feral and enormous and powerful and incredibly gentle. Whether or not they are ‘really real’ doesn’t matter. They are ‘really real’ to her. This is a hard film to watch, the lives seem so perilous and so isolated. Who will look after Hushpuppy after Wink’s death? How will she learn to read and write? What if she too gets ill? And yet, she is part of a community, a community who know what they want and how they want to live. She has deep roots. She will flourish.
The Sessions is only nominated for one Oscar, Helen Hunt for Best Supporting Actress. How John Hawkes came to be overlooked as a nominee for Best Actor is a mystery. This is a grown-up, unashamed film about sex, specifically sex with a disability. John Hawkes is Mark O’Brien, a real-life poet and writer who since a childhood bout of polio was confined to an iron lung for all but 4 hours per day. He’s not paralysed, but his muscles are entirely wasted and he has no mobility, apart from his neck, head and face, and his penis. He’s 38, and a virgin. Desperate to overcome not only his disability but also his religious and disapproving upbringing, he talks to his priest, and then employs a sex surrogate. Helen Hunt plays her as utterly compassionate but not mawkishly sentimental. She is entirely comfortable being naked, and naked in a way that we rarely see on camera. Natural and unaffected (although it is a deeply sad world that makes Helen Hunt, a beautiful woman in her late 40s, think that having Botox and/or a facelift will keep her young). Together, they allow Mark to explore his sexuality, and finally to lose his virginity. The film is very funny and very direct, and captures the embarrassment of sex without being embarrassed. It is, in the end, a film about self-expression, and about tenderness.
A coda: I saw The Sessions with A, who told me about her time nursing on the post-operative ward. Patients would be on the ward, still under anaesthetic, and would need washing before returning to recovery. A said that she loved that work. The work would usually be done at night, the light would be low. That the patients weren’t watching, weren’t aware of her, allowed her to concentrate without embarrassment or fear of theirs. She said she found that liberating, and that she found the work a great privilege. In her view, to be able to give real tenderness, one has to be experiencing intimacy. She said she found the experience very spiritual. Giving dignity and acknowledging beauty are some of the most important gifts we can give each other.