Tag: Mathieu Amalric

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Luscious visuals, hilarious gags mix with an air of sadness and regret in Wes Anderson’s masterpiece

Director: Wes Anderson

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (M. Gustav), Tony Revolori (Zero), F. Murray Abraham (Mr Moustafa), Mathieu Amalric (Serge X), Adrien Brody (Dmitri), Willem Dafoe (Jopling), Jeff Goldblum (Deputy Kovacs), Harvey Keitel (Ludwig), Jude Law (Young Writer), Bill Murray (M. Ivan), Edward Norton (Inspector Henckels), Saoirse Ronan (Agatha), Jason Schwartzman (M. Jean), Léa Seydoux (Clotilde), Tilda Swinton (Madame D), Tom Wilkinson (Author), Owen Wilson (M. Chuck)

I wrote recently I could forgive the flaws I’ve found in Kurosawa’s work, for the majesty of Seven Samurai. I can totally say the same again for Wes Anderson. He is a director I’ve sometimes found quirky, mannered and artificial – but God almighty he deserves a place in the pantheon for directing a film as near to perfection as The Grand Budapest Hotel, a delight from start to finish, as beautiful to look at as it is whipper-snap funny, as heart-warming to bathe in as it is coldly, sadly bittersweet. After three viewings I can say it is, without a doubt, a masterpiece.

Like many Wes Anderson films, its storyline is eccentric, halfway between fantasy and absurdity. In 1932, in an opulent hotel, The Grand Budapest, concierge Monsieur Gustav (Ralph Fiennes) is the pinnacle of his trade: precise, fastidious, perfectionist, he can fix anything anywhere – opera tickets, the perfect table placement and a night of passion at any time for the elderly widows who visit his hotel. When one of them, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) dies leaving him a priceless painting, Boy with Apple he suddenly finds himself framed for her murder. Only his ingenuity, and the dedicated help of his protégé, best friend and surrogate brother/son, lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) will save him.

You can’t escape on the first viewing that The Grand Budapest Hotel is an extraordinarily funny film. Crammed with superb one-liners, it’s a showcase for a breathtakingly, blissfully funny performance from Ralph Fiennes whose comic timing is exquisite and whose mastery of the perfectly structured monologue of flowery language is as spot-on as his ability to deliver a crude punch-line. Anderson fills the film with clever sight-gags, bounce and a supreme sense of fun. You’ll laugh out loud (I frequently do, and I remember most of the gags) and wind back to watch them again.

But what lifts this is the wonderfully evocative, elegiac piece this beautiful film is. For all its comic zip, it unfolds in a romanticised past already a relic in 1932. We can’t escape the rise of Fascism that fills the film. Jack-booted soldiers accost and hunt Gustav and Zero. Adrien Brody’s furious heir to Madame D looks like a Gestapo officer, and his vicious heavy Jopling (Willem Dafoe so weathered, he looks like he’s been beaten by a carpet duster) has a stormtrooper menace. En route to Madame D’s funeral, Zero is nearly dragged off the train to be lynched by fascist thugs for being an immigrant and The Grand Budapest is taken over by this dreadful movement, filled with Mussolini-inspired ZZ insignia and blackshirts.

Under the jokes, the world Gustav represents has already died and been buried. We are never allowed to forget we are marching, inexorably, towards a very real-world war that will rip apart this fictional country and leave millions dead. Gustav’s gentile old-school charm ended with 1920s: and he sort of knows it. Fiennes, under the suaveness, conveys a man who falls back into potty language when he can no longer maintain his assured confidence that a straight-backed, polite assurance will solve any problem or a poetic reflection will allow them to put any unpleasantness behind them. Those days are gone and it makes for a deep, rich vein of sadness just under the surface.

It’s particularly acute because it’s made clear this is a memory piece. Anderson constructs the film like a memory box. It has no less than three framing devices. It opens and closes with a young woman in 2014 visiting a monument to a great writer, the author of the book The Grand Budapest Hotel. From there we flash back to the author (a droll Tom Wilkinson) in 1985 recounting how he met the man who inspired the novel, before heading again to a flashback to the 1960s where the young author (Jude Law) meets the man we discover is an older Zero (F Murray Abraham) who recounts the story we then watch. Each layer of the film descends deeper into Anderson’s artificial, carefully structured visual style, with its heightened sense of reality.

Old Zero – beautifully played by F. Murray Abraham – is introduced as a man of acute loneliness and sadness, who tells us early on the woman his young self loves, Agatha (a radiant Saoirse Ronan) will die and shuffles around the nearly abandoned The Grand Budapest (now a concrete nightmare of Communist architecture) with only his memories for comfort. No matter how jovial and bright the events of the 1930s are, we can’t forget that these are the reflections of a man full of regrets.

When old Zero’s narration turns to remembering Agatha, the lights around him dim: Agatha even enters the narrative almost by the side door: Gustav is arrested and imprisoned before she appears, along with a series of flashbacks-within-flashbacks to Zero and her meeting and her first meeting with Gustav, as if Zero had to steel himself to remember her (as reflected in Abraham’s tear-stained face). Later, when remembering the fates of Gustav (his best friend) and Agatha (the love of his life) he almost draws a veil over it (even their final scenes in flashback play out in monochrome). There is a deep, moving sense of humanity here, a powerful thread of grief that adds immense richness.

But don’t forget this is also a funny film! Anderson is an inventive visual and narrative director at the best of times, and here every single beat of his playful style pays off in spades. The entire 1930s section of the film (the overwhelming bulk of the narrative) plays out in 4:3 ratio, which to many other directors would be restrictive, but seems a perfect fit for a director who often composes his visuals with the skill of an expert cartoonist. The frame is frequently filled in every direction when within the grandeur of the hotel, but then feels marvellously restrictive for Gustav’s prison cell or the train compartments that seem to constantly carry Zero and him to disaster.

Anderson’s wonderfully precise camera movements also reach their zenith here. His camera is deceptively static, often placed in a series of perfectly staged compositions that places the characters at their heart, frequently looking at us. But then the camera will turn – frequently in a fluid single-plain ninety degrees to reveal a new image of character. There are Steadicam tracking shots that are a dream to watch. It’s combined with some truly astounding model shots (parts of the set are not-even-disguised animated models and miniatures, adding to the sense of fantasia) and the detail of every inch of the design (astounding work from Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock) is perfection. The film is an opulent visual delight.

It’s a film of belly laughs and then moments of haunting sadness. But also, a wonderful celebration of friendship. The bond between Gustav and Zero is profound, natural and deeply moving – grounded, fittingly, in adversity from the agents of a hostile, oppressive state – and carries real emotional force. Newcomer Tony Revolori is hugely endearing as naïve but brave Zero, making his way in this new world (fitting the theme, he left his homeland after his family was destroyed by war) and sparks superbly with Fiennes and Ronan.

There is a wonderful beating heart in The Grand Budapest Hotel, amongst the farce, perfectly timed gags and cheekiness, that makes it a rich film you can luxuriate in. Anderson’s direction is faultless, Fiennes is a breathtaking revelation, both hilarious, affronted, decent and fighting the good fight. Gorgeous to look at, thought-provoking and laugh-out loud funny it’s a dream of a film.

Sound of Metal (2020)

Riz Ahmed as sudden deafness means he can no longer hear the Sound of Metal

Director: Darius Marder

Cast: Riz Ahmed (Ruben Stone), Olivia Cooke (Lou Berger), Paul Raci (Joe), Lauren Ridloff (Diane), Mathieu Amalric (Richard Berger)

Spoiler Warning: Much of the end resolution of Sound of Metal is discussed here – so watch it first!

Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) is a recovering drug addict and drummer in heavy metal duo Blackgammon with his singer girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke). Touring together, their life is made up of performing gigs across the States. That changes overnight when Ruben suddenly loses his hearing, with a diagnosis confirming 80% of his hearing is gone and what’s left may only disintegrate further. With Ruben sliding into depression, Lou helps him find a place in a deaf recovering drug addict camp run by Joe (Paul Raci). There Ruben must learn to adjust to a life without hearing – and decide whether or not he will undertake a hugely expensive ocular implant surgery to try and restore some vestige of his hearing.

Sound of Metal is an extremely thought-provoking and highly immersive piece of cinema. It’s extraordinarily well-edited and shot and its sound design is faultless. I can think of few other films that so successfully throws the viewers into its main character’s experience. Much of the opening Act is a stressful, tense and even terrifying, watch as Ruben’s isolation, fear and frustration is powerfully communicated to the audience. An early morning routine is shown first from a “hearing” perspective then the next day in chilling silence. Sign language goes untranslated onscreen until Ruben has learnt it, we can barely see the notes Lou is forced to scribble to communicate with him. It all gives a powerful sense of the terror and loneliness of Ruben’s isolation.

The film also skilfully enters the debate around the treatment of disability. Joe’s colony is founded on the principle that deafness should not be ‘treated’ as an illness or a problem to be fixed, but instead as a part of a person’s identity, with presents challenges which can be rewardingly overcome. It’s an attractive and admirable idea, and the points the films make about removing the stigma and shame of disability (a perverse shame consumes Ruben about his deafness). But on the flip side, if you had lost your hearing wouldn’t you be attracted to a surgery that might help restore part of that? Is that wrong – even if it’s a betrayal of what Joe believes in?

The real issue is Ruben’s motivation for continuing to pursue surgery: because he is ashamed of being deaf. One of the beauties of the film is how it avoids straight forward and trite solutions to its problems. There are no simple answers and no Hollywood endings in Sound of Metal. All the characters make mistakes, and many remain unresolved. Obvious narrative tropes are side-stepped: it looks like Ruben is travelling the familiar arc of self-loathing into evangelical convert. This predictable narrative is avoided. Someone can still be a warm supporter of other people and yet also lie and cheat to make improvements in their own lives.

It’s the secondary plot in Sound of Metal: Ruben, an addict, becomes addicted to the idea of hearing again. Told early by a doctor – and the film is a damning indictment of the money-first nature of American healthcare – that a treatment might cure him, Ruben fixates on this. He ignores the risks (it will destroy his remaining hearing) and negatives (it will never be like actually hearing again) and disregards and ignores any other options. In turn, you can argue Joe – so concerned with his evangelical stance and maybe even a little smug in his purity – fails to identify Ruben’s personality flaws and places undue pressure on him to swiftly follow directly in Joe’s footsteps.

All of which makes Sound of Metal sound rather depressing. But it truthfully isn’t. It’s just a film that’s beautifully in tune with real life. It understands that relationships and friendships can change and drift apart over time, due to changes of circumstances, without heartbreak or resentment. That the person we need at a particular point in our life, might not be the person we need later in life. Ruben is a complex, troubled person, but he’s also a decent, good one quick to offer acts of great generosity and kindness. It’s the part of his personality that would make a good teacher of deaf children (a role he engages in with delight while living in Joe’s camp). But it sits alongside an addict’s tendency to put his own desires first and assume others will fit in with them.

In some ways the film is a dramatization of mourning. Ruben must learn to mourn the loss of his hearing and this ending of his dreams of becoming a star – even with his implants he will never have the same affinity for music as he had before. We see him go through shock, pain, anger, depression and the film shows him just beginning the process of acceptance and hope at its conclusion. But the film doesn’t lie about this being a difficult and challenging journey – and one where mistakes will litter the path.

As Ruben, Riz Ahmed gives an outstanding performance. Fully committed – he spent months learning to drum and speak ASL – Ahmed is powerfully emotional, and much of the film’s success in immersing us in the horror of finding yourself suddenly isolated, scared and confused is due to the rawness of his performance. Ruben is a man of strong feelings and loyalties, loving and caring but also angry and defiant. You understand every inch of his frustration, even if you sometimes want to slap him for being selfish. Just as good is Olivia Cooke as Ruben’s supportive and fragile girlfriend Lou. Paul Raci – son of death parents, playing a character heavily derived from his personal story – is superbly genuine as the caring but overly evangelical Joe, a mentor who blinds himself to things in his protégé he doesn’t want to see.

Sound of Metal is beautifully shot and filmed by Marder. It expertly builds our empathy with Ruben and his situation – helped hugely by Ahmed’s superb performance – and allows us to feel an uncomfortable fraction of what it must be like to find yourself suddenly isolated in the world. It enters with fascinating points on both side, into a very even-handed debate on disability and its treatment (or not), but never forgets it is also telling a very real, human and emotional story. Side-swiping conventional narrative tricks, it’s highly engaging, a superb piece of technical film-making and brilliantly done.

Munich (2005)

Eric Bana leads a team of Mossad agents in Spielberg’s uneven terrorism drama Munich

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Eric Bana (Avner Kaufman), Daniel Craig (Steve), Ciarán Hinds (Carl), Mathieu Kassovitz (Robert), Hanns Zischler (Hans), Geoffrey Rush (Ephraim), Ayelet Zurer (Daphna Kaufman), Mathieu Amalric (Louis), Michael Lonsdale (Papa), Marie-Josée Croze (Jeanette), Lynn Cohen (Golda Meir)

At the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist cell, Black September. The world was shocked and appalled. Israel responded with a hard-line anti-terrorist campaign, that saw Mossad teams traversing the globe, assassinating Palestinian leaders involved with Black September. They learned not only was terrorism a hydra, but that the moral high-ground erodes quickly when the shooting starts. Can terrorism be defeated by violence? Munich argues not: instead suggesting violence is a beast that feeds itself – an argument that, in 2005 in the fourth year of the War on Terror (the film ends with a shot of the World Trade Centre) was increasingly relevant to another country, traumatised by the slaughter of innocents.

Adapted by Tony Kurshner and Eric Roth, it’s based on a book Vengeance by George Jones about the man who claimed to be the leader of the Mossad cell (whether that is true or not is debated). He’s fictionalised here (to side-step that issue) as Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana). His team consists of driver Steve (Daniel Craig), explosives expert Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), forger Hans (Hanns Zischler) and clean-up man Carl (Ciarán Hinds) with Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) as their handler. The team hunt down and eliminate their targets – but as the mission goes on they pay a heavy cost, both in their eroding of their own moral certainties and in blood as they become targets for repercussions.

Spielberg’s film is his least flashy, least sentimental and (I suppose) most mature film, a cold-eyed, even-handed look at the Middle East conflict that acknowledges faults and consequences on all sides, draped in the muted colours and bleached out photography of 1970s conspiracy thrillers. It’s also a very long and very self-consciously important film, that makes mis-steps and at times is crudely obvious as well as being more interested in posing questions than presenting any answers. Where it is at its best, is demonstrating how campaigns like this are tasks worth of Sisyphus.

Munich takes a long, hard look at the cost of violence – both on its victims and its perpetrators. Death in this film is slow, painful and frequently disturbing. Shot people stagger and slump in drunken shock, dying slowly. Bomb victims are ripped apart, recognisable limps left hanging from walls and ceilings. Machine gun bursts tear bodies apart. The cost of inflicting this violence leaves increasingly deep psychological violence on the team (we don’t get to see if it does on the Palestinians, a limit to the films even handedness), as it becomes harder and harder to treat those they kill as faceless monsters, rather than men with families of their own.

Spielberg reconstructs the horror of the killings in Munich with a documentary realism, not shying away from the horror. It follows the appalling opening moments of the attack, with the athletes taken hostage and the shocked world media reaction. Spielberg returns later in the film to restage the final murder of the athletes at the Munich airport with sickening detail (perhaps too much – but more of this scene later).

Showing the impact of violence from both sides, Munich strains at always being even-handed (despite this both sides attacked it for bias). It’s an Israeli story so we mostly see the psychological impact of carrying out the violence on the Israeli team, and little of the Palestinian perspective. But the film throws in a chance meeting between Avner and what-could-be his Palestinian equivalent, where Avner is brutally told that, when fighting for their home, the Palestinians will never give up, and consider any price worth paying – attitudes he can’t help but recognise as he fights for his own home. The film has clear sympathy with the sufferings of the Jewish people, and their need for a home of their own – but wonders if this is the right way to defend it. Spielberg is a friend to Israel – but wants to be an honest one.

What starts out as clear and simple (a campaign against terror) becomes morally complex. The team’s first targets are sympathetic, family men. When Avner talks to a later bomb victim, he’s friendly and welcoming. A Palestinian cell they (accidentally or maliciously) end up sharing a safe house with, thanks to their mutual French contacts, are surprisingly relatable. The mission’s accomplishments are unclear – the targets are killed, but all that happens is more people take their place. Worse, those that do are only more infuriated by the campaign of violence.

That’s the question – how do you fight terrorism? It breeds on a belief of injustice and persecution – and Spielberg’s film suggests, all the campaign does is pour petrol on that fire. Avner becomes a paranoid psychological wreck by the end of the film, plagued with a loss of moral certainty. The film argues that the only result of all this has been the price he and other have made – an end to the violence is further away than it was at the operation’s beginning.

Spielberg’s film is strong on showing the pointlessness of this campaign. What it’s less strong on is answers. In many ways, the film boils down to a simple “deep down we are all the same, why don’t we just get along” message. While handsomely filmed and daring in its questioning about the futility of anti-terrorist (and indeed terrorist) action, it’s a simplistic film, largely lacking nuance. The characters are ciphers – Bana, for all his skill, plays a shell of a character, designed to make statements, who is alternately ruthless or questioning as the plot demands. Because the film strives so hard to remain even-handed, it brings little to the table itself in terms of proposed solutions, merely focusing on telling us what we know: an eye for an eye eventually makes his all blind.

It’s also a film that has more than its fair share of clumsy mis-steps. It’s view of the world is picture post-card in is simplicity. First thing we see in Paris, is a shot of the Eiffel Tower. Go to London and it rains. First shot in Holland is our characters on bikes. Its characters are largely plot devices, well played but rarely fleshed out in people who feel like human beings, more like mouthpieces to express viewpoints.

Most atrocious of all, the film concludes with a penultimate sequence staggering in its misjudgement. Retired and living in America, Avner makes focused, vigorous love to his wife intercut with the showing of the final deaths of the athletes in brutal detail. It’s tasteless, ill-judged and horrendously unclear. I suppose we are meant to think Avner is purging himself of his burden of guilt – but the scene is so appallingly done, so grossly detailed it comes across as both offensive and insultingly twee in using the deaths of real people (staged in detail) to help our lead character feel better about himself. When Spielberg does sex, he invariably gets it wrong – and does again here.

Munich is a very worthy film, but it’s too-long, dramatically simple, for all its daring commentary on the war on terror. It’s well-acted – Michael Lonsdale and Matthieu Almaric are very good as Avner’s French contacts, while Hinds is a stand-out among the team – but the characters are ill-formed and the entire film takes a very long time to make a very simple point. Well-made but a film trying a little too hard to always be profound.

At Eternity's Gate (2018)

Willem Dafoe is the great Van Gogh standing At Eternity’s Gate

Director: Julian Schnabel

Cast: Willem Dafoe (Vincent van Gogh), Rupert Friend (Theo van Gogh), Oscar Isaac (Paul Gauguin), Mads Mikkelsen (Priest), Mathieu Amalric (Dr Paul Gachet), Emmanuelle Seigner (Woman from Arles/Madame Ginoux), Niels Arestup (Madman), Vladimir Consigny (Dr Felix Ray), Amira Casar (Johanna von Gogh-Bonger)

Vincent van Gogh has a constant fascination for film-makers. Perhaps it’s because, as this film suggests, he sat permanently “at eternity’s gate”, painting for those yet to be born. It’s well known van Gogh only found success, fame and artistic recognition after his death. The sad tragedy of his life – he was a deeply troubled man, who struggled profoundly with depression – has been fuel for many films with van Gogh played by actors ranging from Kirk Douglas to Benedict Cumberbatch. Now Willem Dafoe – a very close physical match to the painter (even if he is almost 25 years older than van Gogh at his death) – takes the role on in artist Julian Schnabel’s film.

You’d expect Schnabel, a renowned artist and film-maker, to create a film that offers insight and even revelations on van Gogh and the process of art creation. It’s a shame then that At Eternity’s Gate doesn’t quite succeed in doing this. Schnabel stated in interviews that the existence of the Kirk Douglas/Vincente Minnelli Lust for Life (a far more conventional narrative retelling of van Gogh’s life spliced with melodrama) removed the need for him to worry about telling the clear facts of van Gogh’s life. While I guess it’s true that the basic litany of van Gogh’s final years (which the film focuses on) of Arles-Gauguin row-ear removal-asylum-Gachet-suicide is pretty familiar to many people (and I suspect everyone likely to see this film!), Schnabel’s film drains the drama from this.

Instead Schnabel offers up a film straining at complexity, but which feels rather slight and unsatisfactory. It only seems to scratch the surface of art and the thinking behind van Gogh’s creations. In fact, whenever the film actually tries to talk about art it largely comes across as stodgy and lumpen. Oscar Isaac in particular is saddled with several speeches and dialogue exchanges on art that fall lamely to the floor. Van Gogh gets a few more poetic contributions, but these are few and far between and essentially seem to sum up to a wistful love of nature and the beauty around us.

On top of this, I don’t feel like I get a real understanding or insight in this film into van Gogh’s inner life. In 2011 an episode of Doctor Who written by Richard Curtis made profound and moving material out of Van Gogh’s depression in the episode Vincent and the Doctor. The pain of inner turmoil, the volatility of depression, the way joy can switch to anger and suicidal self-loathing as if a switch has been flicked – it’s all there in that episode. It’s a side of van Gogh that seems missing in this film. The demons, for want of a better word, are missing. 

The film indeed averts its eyes from van Gogh’s bleakest moments. The arguments with Gauguin happen mostly off-screen – I guess the film is placing us in van Gogh’s shoes in that it’s as much a surprise to us that Gauguin announces he can’t bear it any more as it clearly was to van Gogh. The ear cutting is related to us by a calmer van Gogh days later. The film also follows the line of the recent 2011 biography of van Gogh in believing his death was not suicide but manslaughter, a theory that I’m not sure I can really support (since it seems to be founded on a lack of understanding about how the depressed can seem fine one day and then suicidal the next) so maybe this is all intentional.

What the film does do well is get a sense of van Gogh as a soulful and gentle man. Willem Dafoe, as well as being a remarkable physical match for van Gogh, is also an actor made for both suffering and imbalance. After a career of martyrs, the intense, the unhinged, the mutilated and Jesus Christ, his face seems lined already with the cares of the world. Dafoe is very good here, soulful and vulnerable but with a monomania for painting under the surface that guides all his actions. But he has a wistful, childlike tenderness to him and a sense of a gentle man adrift in a world he can’t understand.

It’s a shame the film doesn’t have slightly more to it. Visually it gets a good sense of van Gogh’s striking colours. But I was put off by Schnabel’s addiction to using a wild hand-held camera. Often sloshing woozily around the frame, the camerawork is clearly an attempt to capture the urgent brush strokes and movement of van Gogh’s painting in its visual style – like his paintings it never sits still. It’s also perhaps an attempt to capture the mania of van Gogh’s inner life: it’s noticeable the camera work only calms when van Gogh himself is calm (i.e. painting). But it’s still not exactly easy to watch – like reading a book on the upper deck of a ship during some particularly choppy seas.

At Eternity’s Gate feels like it should be a better film than it is. Irritating camera work aside, it is well made and it has a fine performance at its centre. There are some decent cameos from the other performers – best of all Mads Mikkelsen as a kindly priest who gently, and with great sadness, breaks it to van Gogh that his work is clearly rubbish – but it never really feels like it gives any real insight into either van Gogh or his artwork. For all its panache, it’s strangely empty.