Exit Music (For a Film) #3: High Life, Madeline’s Madeline, Birds of Passage and the best streaming picks


Exit Music (For a Film)

Existential science fiction, flamboyant psychodrama and an unusual Narco-thriller as Getintothis’ Chris Leathley rounds up the latest cinema releases

Sometimes, especially when you happen to write a regular film column, the lack of love for cinema can be dispiriting.

Movies aren’t for everyone and even if they are, this year’s movies might not be.

Nevertheless, one of the aims of these regular scribblings aims to engage with the wealth of talent that is trying to grasp wider attention.

For every Marvel dominated release schedule, there are films from every corner of the globe struggling to get screen time and press coverage.

Big studios and big productions spend millions on marketing that simply crowds out the competition and naturally convinces many that there is nothing else out there.

To those who haven’t felt inspired by 2019’s releases, I urge you to dig a little deeper, to seek out a local indie cinema and to consider subscribing to the likes of MUBI or Curzon Home Cinema.

The sheer scale of diversity on offer is in itself something worth celebrating.

2019 has been truly energising and exciting for all lovers of movies, as releases from China, South Korea, America, Britain, Columbia, Ukraine, Italy, Lebanon, Sweden, and Romania have wowed those privileged to see these offerings.

That is not to relegate the multiplex to insignificance. Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse remains one of this writer’s favourite 2019 releases.

It is to say, however, that before we relegate 2019 to the position of a year barren of worthwhile movies, we should explore beyond our usual haunts and access points.

As Mulder would say, the truth is out there…you just have to look for it.

Film of the Month

High Life
Dir: Claire Denis

Claire Denis first English-language film offers us that rare thing – a director eminently capable of operating within a relatively unfamiliar language and cultural context and still managing, with disarming ease, to produce something of intoxicating resplendence.

Cinema, in this sense, proves to be very much a universal medium in High Life, an interstellar journey of exploration that is, unusually, inward-focused.

The cast of this galactic drama are a diverse agglomeration of humanity.

This heterogeneity goes beyond ethnicity or gender (although, refreshingly, in that regard it is very much a cast of rich difference).

High Life is rather, a film that gives us variety of appearance and experience, proffering a panoply of characters who defy lazy stereotypes.

In fact, we get few explanations as to the background of these flawed pioneers and those that we do get are curiously opaque. Denis instead encourages the viewer to fill in the blanks, so to speak, and we are all the better for that.

High Life is situated within a vessel adrift in the deepest reaches of the cosmos.

Death Row convicts are the passengers, tasked with trying to harvest power from black holes. In doing so, not only are the prisoners exposed to lethal radiation that eventually takes a physical toll, they are also subjected to invasive fertility experiments.

These are carried out by another convict (played with erotic relish by Juliette Binoche) albeit one that seems a-top the curious hierarchy on board the craft.

Only one prisoner refuses to participate in these attempts at procreation, a man of quiet reflection and melancholy airs (a career best turn from Robert Pattinson).

Robert Patterson in Claire Denis’ High Life (Credit: HL Facebook page)

As the film progresses, we experience vicariously this extraordinary and unique approach to penal rehabilitation as it descends into the horrors of mental isolation, naked mortality and cosmological despair.

That said, Denis does not allow the narrative to be overwhelmed with loss and failure, even though the mission is an emphatic disaster.

Pattinson’s protagonist finds solace in unexpected new life and routines that, although mechanical, seem to provide a salve for his fracturing humanity. High Life avoids predictable diegetic troughs, becoming instead a complex and multi-faceted attempt to meditate on essentially human dramas in a unique, almost mystical setting.

Most of the movie takes place in space, bar one short earth-bound interlude.

The craft itself is far from fetishizing inter-galactic travel, amounting to little more than a metallic shipping container.

Similarly, the interiors are functional rather than aesthetically spectacular (although in wisely choosing this absence of definitive style, Denis ensures that the film remains timeless).

Moreover, the grimy practicalities of life on board (from recycling bodily fluids through to the ‘box’, a closet designed for the crew’s erotic gratification) are made explicit throughout. No false glamour here.

If anything, Denis’ film is driven by a desire to be provocative, both in terms of style and content.

Not only does she eschew the sensationalist elements of most other sci-fi, she disorients the audience with seismic shifts in time and narrative chronology. So much so in fact, that once the film has concluded, the viewer is forced to question the reality of all that has gone before.

Like most of the very finest science fiction (and here, I am thinking of Stalker, Solaris, Silent Running, Moon and World on a Wire, to name but a few), the effects, such as they are, take a back seat to the complicated human relationships on show.

These relationships are as much about characters’ interaction with their sterile environments as they are about engaging with other people.

The egg-shell fragility of even the most hardened convict on board, when faced with the implacable infinity of the wider galaxy, provides all the necessary dramatic tension. Denis utilises this and succeeds in a vertiginous high wire act, somewhere between morose existentialism and lugubrious sentimentality.

Yes, High Life makes no bones about mankind’s lonely position in the cosmos.

Nevertheless, Denis does tap into an oddly seductive vein of optimism that extends the possibility of salvation in new life and futures.

High Life is a work of cinema that operates at every conceivable level.

Pattinson, Binoche, Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin and others within the cast, all lend compelling pathos to roles that might otherwise have acquired a robotic quality, devoid of meaning.

From balletic space choreography through to unusual gardens of Eden within otherwise austere corridors, the visuals and sets are striking and memorable.

Visually, aurally and dramatically, High Life proves definitively what many of us already knew – that Claire Denis is one of the finest directors on the planet.

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The Best of the Rest…

Madeline’s Madeline
Dir: Josephine Decker

2018 felt very much like a breakthrough year for women filmmakers, both in terms of popular attention and mainstream appreciation.

2019 appears to have continued this trend of women behind the camera finally gaining exposure and critical respect for remarkable feats of cinema.

Josephine Decker’s third feature Madeline’s Madeline falls very much within this milieu.

A resolutely experimental and independent cinematic auteur, Decker has incorporated a kaleidoscopic range of ideas and themes in this example of restless and febrile celluloid imagination.

Madeline’s Madeline opens with a whispered mantra ‘This is just a metaphor’, intoned with monotonous conviction.

As to what this means for the movie is open to interpretation but it provides an intriguing, and ultimately rewarding subtext to this bravura film.

The movie presents us with a troubled teen (played with precocious potency by Helena Howard in surely one of the finest performances of the year) who, after recent bouts of mental illness, seeks solace in a theatre troupe.

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Buffeted by headwinds such as high school alienation, romantic adolescent fumblings and a dysfunctional exhausted mother (Miranda July in a rare, and powerful, straight role), Madeline is lost.

The sanctuary provided to her by Molly Parker’s desperate and cynical theatre director appears cathartic and consolatory.

As Madeline’s Madeline proceeds however, often in elliptical circles of storytelling, we discover that Parker’s motives and the troupe’s efficacy as a palliative for Madeline’s illness are in serious doubt.

By the film’s conclusion, Madeline’s fate, and the nature of the film’s whole chronicle of Madeline’s life, is left open to serious question.

Much of Madeline’s Madeline seems to be an interrogation of the central character’s interior psychology.

The movie’s ambiguities are therefore tied up within the intricate paranoias that are resident in Madeline’s jigsaw psyche.

Fortunately, Decker and her talented cinematographer Ashley Connor are adept at cultivating blurred imagery, alongside fuzzy focus and somnambulistic editing to help guide us through the reality and unreality alike.

Musically, the film arranges staccato stomps of a capella choruses in a manner that implies both liberation and danger.

Helena Howard appears in Madeline’s Madeline (Credit: Sundance Institute/photo by Ashley Connor).

This soundtrack is augmented by moments of discomfiting ambience, interspersed with overheard whispers and a-temporal dialogue.

Consequently, this layered sonic architecture is one of the most beguiling and creative aspects of Decker’s impressive film.

It is hard to know how seriously to take the depiction of mental illness in Madeline’s Madeline, not least because of that opening salvo of narration. Is it all just a metaphor for the artifices and (essential?) exploitations of the theatrical process? Might this even be an elaborate exercise in self-criticism on the part of Decker?

Or might it be a more positive celebration of Art’s release, of what it can proffer to those in dire peril?

The fact that Decker’s film can take on so many shapes is a reflection of the ambition of Madeline’s Madeline and its improvisational gestation, a developmental process that Decker draws upon for the nuances and mystery at the core of the movie.

It is courageous and redolent of a director who believes passionately in her craft and medium.

What more can one ask of a director or artist?

 Birds of Passage
Dir: Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego

After making his cinematic mark with 2015’s Embrace the Serpent, Ciro Guerra (in collaboration with Cristina Gallego) has moved into, paradoxically, both more familiar and more esoteric territory with Birds of Passage.

Familiar, because it depicts the evolving marijuana trade in Colombia from the 60s through to the cusp of the 80s.

The narco trade has rarely been more ubiquitous in terms of our screens, small or big, as audiences appear to have insatiable appetites for drug-fuelled melodrama.

Esoteric because this portrait of illicit drug smuggling is grounded in the lives, language and rituals of the Wayuu tribe in Northern Colombia.

The crux of the movie is the manner in which trafficking narcotics impacts upon the Wayuu culture, eventually and not surprisingly, corroding their values and traditions.

Rapayet (Jose Acosta) is a dirt poor farmer who wants a better life.

Much of Rapayet’s desire for enrichment, via coffee, drugs or any other available commodity derives from his wish to marry Zaida (Natalia Reyes). Such a marriage demands a generous dowry in order to satisfy the honour of Zaida’s clan and its formidable matriarch Ursula (Carmina Martinez).

Hence, the temptations of easy money in cannabis farming become too great for a man disillusioned by the vicissitudes of fate thus far.

Guerra adroitly illustrates how this illicit commerce is fuelled by Yankee hedonism, expressed most forcefully in the moral hypocrisy of American Peace Corps ingenues getting high, without any comprehension of the roots of their narcotic fayre.

That these interlopers would collaborate in an activity so destructive to Colombian society provides a compelling metaphor for the US’s relationship with Latin America and Guerra mines it deeply.

That said, Guerra’s focus is firmly upon the Wayuu people as they struggle to maintain an insularity that is impossible when faced with the need to work with other Columbian ethnicities locally and, of course, the ‘gringo’ buyers.

The narrative trajectory of Birds of Passage does not startle or inspire particularly.

The rise and potential decline of an aspirant family enmeshed within an illegal trade in drugs is nothing new. Nor is the idea of narcotics smuggling being a cipher for the more pernicious elements of capitalism and globalisation especially original.

Birds of Passage (Credit: Birds of Passage Facebook page)

Yet Birds of Passage does offer some unusual cinematic elements that lift it above other more pedestrian narco-dramas.

The ethno-centric context of the Wayuu tribe is endlessly fascinating.

Their courtship and coming-of-age rituals are elegantly stylised in their mystery and eroticism.

Complement that with the flowing gowns, headdresses and vibrant indigenous dress and you have a decorous, sophisticated cinematic aesthetic.

The anthropology of the movie (accurate or no, and one suspects that is accurate) is of far greater depth and interest when compared with the torrid criminality on show.

David Gallego’s cinematography, most powerfully during some subtly hallucinatory dream sequences, is a triumphant marvel.

Whilst many of the cast performances are somewhat shallow or inscrutable, the role played by Martinez as Ursula is a titanic example of benevolent tyranny.

Such a personality demands the audience’s attention and she effortlessly dominates the film.

All told then, Birds of Passage has grown in my estimation after an initially guarded reaction at the screening. While it may indeed dig seams of conventional narco-folklore, it does so in defiantly unconventional ways.

Still worth a watch…

Dir: Sergei Loznitsa

By turn raucously comic and despairingly misanthropic, Donbass depicts the moral chaos of the on-going war in eastern Ukraine.

The episodic structure of the film can hamper the audience’s attempts to immerse itself in this dystopian universe but when Donbass hits the target, it does so with garrulous panache.

Dir: Dexter Fletcher

Even if music biopics ain’t your thing, you may still want to give Dexter Fletcher’s gregarious Rocketman a look.

Full of innovative camerawork, outrageous excess and surprisingly engaging performances, Rocketman is a genuinely joyous evocation of the outsider, even one who managed to make it big.

Perhaps my most surprising viewing experience of the year and that is no bad thing.

Recommended Blu-Ray Releases

My Brilliant Career
Dir: Gillian Armstrong (Criterion)

Dir: Lee Chang-dong (Thunderbird Releasing)

Of Flesh and Blood
The Cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda (BFI)

Coming Home
Dir: Hal Ashby (Eureka)

Streaming Recommendations

Purple Noon
Dir: Rene Clement (MUBI)

Le Trou
Dir: Jacques Becker (Amazon Prime)

Eyes Wide Shut
Dir: Stanley Kubrick (Amazon Prime)

I Am Not A Witch
Dir: Rungano Nyoni (Netflix)