20 April 2010


I've been itching to write about these two films together because of the obvious hook it provides, but apart from that, they don't have much in common. Read to find out which one's superior: the Cannes Camera d'or winner or the Cannes Grand Prix winner.

One supposes that the ideal purpose of going to prison is rehabilitation. Malik (Tahar Rahim), the young Arabic protagonist of A PROPHET, Jacques Audiard's meditative, sometimes mesmerizing prison drama certainly betters himself during a six-year stint serving time for a crime never alluded to, although it would be a stretch to say he's rehabilitated to a morally good end. Early on during his sentence, he's immediately chosen as a pawn by fellow inmate Cesar (Niels Arustrup), an older Corsican crime boss. He offers Malik "protection" in exchange for a horrific favor but basically threatens him into it. Malik deals with the guilt of this deed and his subservience to Cesar while slowly ascending through the prison's hierarchy. He eventually gains power via some illicit side business at odds with Cesar's interests.

Tempering a no-nonsense, documentary-like style with occasional scenes of magic realism and lyrical uplift, Audiard's film remains engrossing and well-paced throughout its 150+ minute run. Rahim and Arustrup are both excellent as, respectively, a young petty thief often in way over his head and the wizened but volatile monster passive-aggressively molding his protégé. Unfortunately, for all of Audiard's assured direction, something key is missing at the end. We're left wondering what exactly Malik has taken away from his prison term, and whether he is worthy of his fate. I wanted to appreciate this ambiguity Audiard leaves us with, but I also wanted to know whether he thought prison had an altogether helpful or hurtful effect on Malik's life. Given a week to mull over this, I'm still not certain.

HUNGER depicts the fatal 1981 strike conducted in Belfast, Ireland by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender, absolutely magnetic but plausible) and his fellow IRA inmates. For these men, the idea of prison as rehabilitation is completely irrelevant. Jailed primarily for political rather than criminal acts, neither they nor the audience are ever under any pretense that imprisonment will alter their beliefs. The English government sees them as pests one can control but not exterminate, so they respond via an extreme means of protest—first, by not washing (covering their cell walls with their own feces and simultaneously pouring chamber pots under their doors into the corridor, creating a surreal urine river of sorts) and then by not eating.

In his impressive first feature, director Steve McQueen (a visual artist, obviously not the long-dead iconic actor) goes to great lengths for his audience to really feel the shit and piss that dominates the film’s first half, but he does so with such unexpected, understated grace. Employing tight close-ups, precious little music or dialogue, lighting as the focal point and a subtle, nearly dreamlike pace (even the sudden dark-to-light contrasts never overwhelm or disengage), McQueen constructs an uncommonly personal biopic of Sands. Midway through, as a bridge between the film’s two acts of protest, he temporarily breaks the silence with a ten minute dialogue between Sands and a priest. This simple, beautiful sequence effectively outlines why the hunger strike must occur and why it will render Sands more than a mere martyr. Presented in a lengthy two-shot without an edit before separating the two men in a series of back-and-forth cuts, it provides all of the context and rationale any viewer will need. Since imprisonment offers no rewards in this case, we see and fully understand how only sacrificial protest can hope to bring about the greater good.

01 April 2010


Atom Egoyan's latest opens with Catherine (Julianne Moore), a gynecologist, describing an orgasm to her patient while practically draining all the life out of one (to her, it’s simply a “series of muscular contractions”). Soon after, her professor husband David (Liam Neeson) appears as an impossibly irresistible object of desire to his female students during one of his lectures. Both scenes felt exaggerated to a point that when the couple’s fidelity problems came to the fore as they tooled around their ostentatiously ultra-modern home, I was left wondering why I should care about them.

Thank goodness that Catherine meets Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a high class prostitute half her age in a restaurant ladies’ room. Suspecting (with good reason) that David is cheating on her, Catherine hires Chloe to approach him in a café he frequents, flirt with him, and see what happens. When Chloe reports the results to Catherine, she is understandably hesitant to hear what has transpired between this girl and her husband, but voyeurism gradually gets the best of her. She probes Chloe for more details, and asks her to meet with David a second time. Soon, Catherine is living vicariously through Chloe, almost receiving an erotic charge by osmosis as she listens to her describe sexual acts with David with an intensity that eventually proves fatal for one of the two women.

Working for the first time with another person’s screenplay (SECRETARY scribe Erin Cressida Wilson), Egoyan directs far less cerebrally (and somewhat less elliptically) than usual, although his landscapes (in this case, Toronto’s posh Yorkville neighborhood) are as visually seductive as ever. It all threatens to turn into the lurid, sexual melodrama past works such as EXOTICA only slyly skirted around the edges of, but a neat, late twist elevates it considerably from your usual FATAL ATTRACTION-derived trash. Moore brings a visceral depth to Catherine, just barely keeping in control as the world crashes around her. Seyfried both serves as a worthy foil and a believable confidante, her expressive eyes (and lips!) providing a revealing counterpoint to her words. CHLOE is not great cinema like THE SWEET HEREAFTER (the impossibly high standard I’ve held Egoyan to ever since he made it), but at least he’s made a thoughtful erotic thriller and not another empty one—at times, it’s also good campy fun.