Last Friday I sat down at Yelmo cinema’s pokiest screen under a cold blast of air-conditioning to watch a sequel 36 years in the making.
I wasn’t much looking forward to it.
I am assertively on record as stating the original Top Gun is one of the best movies ever made (…despite the derision inevitably produced by this claim) and, with the exception of the original Star Wars trilogy, it’s the film that I’ve sat down to watch most often.
After the disappointment of The Force Awakens (and 20 years previously The Phantom Menace), I’ve become aware of the terrific set of circumstances that need to come together to make a bona fide brilliant film. And that, while copying a few superficial details from a classic predecessor might fool an expectant cinema-going public into some generous reviews, once the recency bias fades most people see these sequels for what they are. Watchable light entertainment that doesn’t come close to its genesis material in terms of storytelling.
Once I heard Harold Faltermeyer’s Top Gun anthem resounding over a montage of fighter planes jetting off the runway of an aircraft carrier however the hairs on my arms stood up (and not just because of the aggressive A/C): my cynicism was dispelled and I braced myself for an epic 2 hours of chasing sunsets on mighty wings through the danger zone.
Sadly, that frisson of genuine excitement lasted as long as it took to get to the film’s first plot scene: a plodding and pedestrian affair in which four men stand awkwardly in a hangar exchanging artificial dialogue in order to set up what is supposed to be a character-revealing scenario. Unfortunately, it just comes across as rather ludicrous, as TC decides to melt a supersonic jet and then inexplicably survives the offscreen crash.
Anyway… thanks to his old buddy Iceman, this opening incident is overlooked by top brass and he gets called back to Fightertown USA to train some previous TG winners for a daring aerial mission.
What follows is an overly long and clunky bar scene in which the scriptwriters attempt to set up the film’s romantic subplot, and introduce an entire new batch of naval aviators and their rivalries, and foreshadow the tension between Maverick and Rooster (Goose’s son). Tom Cruise meanwhile is unceremoniously lifted and turfed out of the bar for not being able to cover his round (it reminds me of that time James Bond is mistaken for a valet in Casino Royale… a scene which undermines the authority and charisma of the hero).
It’s not disaster level film-making, and some things are handled well in this overly-ambitious set piece. There’s a nice echo between Hangman calling Maverick ‘pops’, and having a hand in his ejection, not knowing that he will be instructing him the next day, and Mav embarrassing himself with McGillis in the original. But is it as smooth as the original (when, for example, just a look across a lecture theatre is enough to establish the start of a rivalry between Maverick and Iceman)? Not even close.
It’s not the only thing that doesn’t compare either. The script in general is eminently forgettable. There are maybe four memorable lines in the whole movie, one of which feels like a dad joke (“I don’t like that look on your face Mav”. “It’s the only one I’ve got”), one of which is a watered down version of a better one from Aliens, one of which rips off Game of Thrones and anyway doesn’t make sense (going extinct is a process… so saying it is not happening today is a poor retort), and one of which is copied from Top Gun the original and also doesn’t make sense (when Goose says “do some of that pilot shit” it is a great line because he’s a RIO… when Rooster, a pilot, says it, it’s nonsensical).
The acting is average to poor.
The humour is inappropriate and often unfunny. When two plane wreck survivors greet each other in enemy territory and act like two friends from a mid-90s sitcom it’s just dumb filmmaking.
I am glad Val Kilmer was in the movie, and obviously his throat cancer ruled out any substantial dialogue, but the whole text relationship between the two old rivals was just weird… and did they have to dress Iceman as a camp English aristocrat?
Opening credits aside, the soundtrack sucks. How can you be making a sequel to Top Gun, a film that – if it did nothing else – taught us how rock music and action scenes are an awesome combination, and then stick on twee ’emotional’ orchestral music during a dogfight?
While incredibly contrived, I do kinda respect the plot, which was cannily developed to create multiple scenarios for Maverick to kick ass… the results of which I thoroughly enjoyed. In doing so, however, it also lacked a LOT of credibility and the film crossed over into both Star Wars and James Bond territory at times, which felt off brand. (As astutely noted in this clip, what Top Gun is really about is guys waving their dicks around… not saving the world).
A final word on the plot, and TG:M pulls that preposterous ‘saved in the nick of time’ trope about three times in the final sequences 🙈🙈🙈. You can get away with that ONCE a movie at best, and this is lame and lazy film-making that makes me want to missile lock those responsible and blow them out of the skies.
Overall, despite my many gripes, I enjoyed Top Gun: Maverick. I had low expectations and I’m grateful it was at least able to meet those… it mostly didn’t trample on its predecessor, and indeed many of its best moments echo those of TG, while it successfully leveraged some of the fondness and emotions from 1986.
Of course the real cinematic thrill of the weekend transpired two nights later… when I rewatched the original. They really don’t make them like they used to.
I’ve been trying to get on with my life, but I can’t. Not whilst J.J. Abrams’ heavily flawed vision of Star Wars continues to dominate headlines and Facebook feeds. Nor can I sleep whilst a cinema-going public – who seem to have forgotten the basic elements of film-making – need educating. So changing the title of this blog for one moment to Just Awful Movies, let me lay out in no uncertain terms why The Force Awakens is the worst movie you ever thought was good.
1) It is a lame rip off
I don’t think anyone can even deny this… oh no wait some idiot did try… but what I don’t understand is anyone above the age of 5 not being outraged by this? If you want to watch a Star Wars film with the original feel of Star Wars, watch A New Hope again. It’s a great movie. Retelling the exact same story with a couple of new characters thrown in is like telling the same joke twice. Ie. not only completely lame, but it even detracts from the first time you told it when it was genuinely funny. If there’s only one thing any true fan would ask of a Star Wars director is at least please don’t trespass on our beloved episodes 4-6. Thanks Abrams, way to ruin everything.
In the world’s most famous fantasy universe, one of infinite story-telling scope and potential, to see someone slavishly copy the franchise they are supposed to be enhancing is a bad joke of galactic proportions. Couldn’t you even change the desert planet to a jungle or fucking-any-other-terrain planet? Did the epic confrontation really have to also take place on a bridge as with The Empire Strikes Back? Nearly every scene was simply an inferior shadow of a former great, and even half the jokes were copied from the originals. With a near infinite budget and no doubt the entire world’s film-making talent at your disposal, for Disney to settle for this is so lazy, half-assed and lame as to be completely unforgivable.
2) Credibility Zero
The first thing an idiot says when you criticize The Force Awakens, or indeed any sci-fi film, for being unbelievable is “It’s a sci-fi film, what do you expect?”. Such people shouldn’t be allowed to have opinions on films or literature. Credibility, for a fantasy or science fiction film, means creating the rules of the universe/world you’re telling your story in and sticking to them (Game of Thrones for example does a fantastic job of being credible, within the world of its own making, despite the appearance of magic and dragons). And then on top of that it should be credible in the same way that every other film should be credible… we should believe in the characters and their actions should make sense given their unique personality and motives, the action scenes should try to at least vaguely take into account the laws of physics (and in this case as well what we know of The Force). In fact The Force Awakens failed in almost every sense to be credible. Here are some things I can remember off hand… (although to be honest I stopped paying careful attention about half way through as my hopes that this would even be a vaguely satisfying Star Wars experience had withered and died by then).
i. Finn’s rejection of being a Storm Trooper. This was particularly disappointing as it was one of the Abrams’ only original ideas and could have been an awesome story line that ran through the whole film… I loved Finn’s inner conflict in the opening scenes and the fact that watered-down-Darth-Vader might be onto him injected some early drama. When they asked for Finn’s blaster report I was getting nervous for the poor guy. However a few minutes later and the scriptwriter spunked his pants early and ruined everything. For the rest of the film Finn was a gloopy stain embarrassingly clinging onto parts of the plot where he didn’t belong.
ii. The next bit that jarred was BB-8 taking sides with Finn and not Rey, the girl he had seemingly formed a loyal bond with. It was obvious that the filmmakers’ had decided that the droid had to take Finn’s side in order to drive the plot forward, so (not for the first nor last time) they simply didn’t give a fuck about whether that was really likely or not and crowbarred the plot in the direction they wanted it to head in.
iii. Han’s involvement in general. Almost the only joy for me in the whole film was seeing the veterans back in business, but in terms of Captain Solo’s appearance contributing to a plot line that made sense this was strictly a marriage of convenience. (As a side note I absolutely loathed the two pronged ambush of him on the spaceship by the debt collectors, a ridiculous scene that the the filmmakers managed to make yet more risible by adding some CGI beholders [ripped off from Dungeons & Dragons btw] inexplicably bouncing around the place in an ill-advised and unnecessary attempt to artificially ramp up the adrenaline at a completely inappropriate moment of the film).
iv. It’s a lamentable trait of nearly every action movie these days to include preposterous stunts to show just how god damn epic they are (or rather to disguise how piss poor the storyline really is) and I wonder if modern audiences have seen so many of these ridiculous sequences that they are now immune to their implausability… Hollywood recalibrating our brains to accept, and even demand, increasingly ludicrous stunts (after all they are easy to deliver… especially now with CGI)? The one that got me the most was The Millennium Falcon breaking through the defense shields of the new Death Star (yawn) at the speed of light. Considering that navigating through hyperspace ain’t supposed to be like dusting crops (thanks Abrams for another good trampling over the originals!) the fact that they could navigate this particular light speed exit so precisely and then screech to a theatrical halt instead of atomising themselves on the sun-munching superweapon was convenient to say the least.
v. Which draws me onto a superweapon that consumes suns. Really? I mean really? Well no need to bother firing the thing as all the planets with life would presumably die out very quickly anyway once you’ve destroyed their solar system. Inevitably the more epic one tries to be, the more ridiculous the results. Playing a game of one upmanship with your own franchise is plain dumb.
vi. Another thing that bothered me was that after the heroes return to the rebel base without Han, Leia walks straight past her longtime friend and Han’s closest buddy Chewie to console instead a girl she hardly knows. This ties into the director’s amateurish handling of time (see below) that doesn’t allow him to let anything happen offscreen, as well as his constant willingness to sacrifice credibility for convenience… after all Leia has something to say to Rey to keep the plot moving, so fuck what should happen, we’ll get out the crowbar again.
vii. I think many other people have criticised Ren’s sudden mastery of the Force. This seems a relatively minor evil given the constant and flagrant transgressions against credibility the film perpetrates throughout, however the frustration for me stems here from the fact that it could easily have been fixed. Why could she have not accidentally used The Force in one of the opening scenes? Maybe an accidental Jedi mind trick on the alien scrap trader when they were bargaining over the cost of her finds? This would have told us that she has some raw untrained powers, and when they come to the fore it would be credible – and not simply convenient. Credible and not convenient. Credible and not convenient. Repeat after me…
viii. Another really dumb-assed poor action movie cliche is the chasm opening up exactly between Kylo Ren and Rey in the middle of their lightsaber duel. I can almost imagine the scriptwriter’s internal monologue: I can’t think of any good reason why one of these two doesn’t kill the other… I know how about we stick a fucking great chasm in there. Genius, that’s why they pay me the big bucks! Lazy, lazy, lazy.
The thing about credibility is yes, it will be stretched by nearly every film, especially in the sci-fi genre, but it’s like the energy bar of your avatar in an arcade game. It can survive and even recover from one or two minor or even major blows, but if you repeatedly hammer at it, without any reprieve, it will quickly die, and no discerning film fan will be able to enjoy your movie any more.
3) Weak Characters & Casting
Now this might be personal, but I didn’t really take to any of the new characters. Finn was likeable enough and John Boyega did his best with him, but as I said I think his journey should have been taking place as a separate and more fleshed out storyline (if at all). Rey has an offputtingly plummy posh English accent, but was spunky enough and probably the best of the new wave (although hardly on par with Carry Fisher’s Princess Leia in the originals), whilst Poe Dameron felt to me like a horribly cheesy throw back to the Buck Rodgers school of space fighter pilots.
Undoubtedly the biggest let downs however were the baddies. Both Kylo Ren and General Hux (can no one come up with more than four letter names any more by the way?) looked like kids fresh out of drama school, not two Machiavellian faces charged with ruling the galaxy. Here are two hints for you Abrams… 1) if you want us to fear your main villain, don’t make him smash up a control panel with his lightsaber – the effect was that of a petulant toddler throwing his toys out the pram. 2) watch a couple more episodes of Scooby Doo. You unmask a villain at the end of the story, not before. Especially when unmasked he appears about as menacing as a prepubescent Marilyn Manson. When you compare them to Vader, The Emperor and Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin… well in fact there is no comparison. Bad guys need bad faces if they are to be taken seriously: they need to be cold-eyed, lined, aged and asymmetrical, if not downright deformed. The originals would be nothing without their bad guys, and here TFA falls sadly short.
Two more horrendous casting/character decisions were that ineffectual Scottish kid masquerading an intergalactic debt collector and an annoying mystic who looked like she belonged in a Pixar movie, not a Star Wars one.
Even the aliens hadn’t got noticeably better since 1977.
4) Televisual Style
The first scene, of the Storm Troopers in the dropship, was hats off fantastic. You knew the shit was about to go down, and the strobing lights gave these masked harbingers of death a real kick ass menace that I hoped was going to set the tone for the movie. However apart from that and Rey sledding down the sand in front of the wrecked carcass of a Star Destroyer (also fantastic!), lightsabers hissing in the snow and the sweeping landscape shots at the very end, there were not as many stand out visual moments as I would have liked. For the most part the film had the slick feel of a high budget television series, with too many close ups, too much make up and nowhere near enough wear and tear on the costumes and props (here the originals’ lower budget may have been a boon). Star Wars should have the feel of an epic film, not something for the small screen.
5) Truly Amateurish Handling of Time
A far bigger problem than the look however, was the pacing of the film and the handling of time in general. Characters would arrive on and off set like actors on stage, with little thought about how they might have actually got there. Meanwhile one episode would segue right into the next one. This is how idiots write a novel or screenplay. A good script is edited to just include the key details needed to tell the story, but what you don’t do is bend and shape the plot (beyond credibility) so that these details happen in one uninterrupted chain all directly after each other. You have a cut, and show the characters in a change of clothes in a different location to show the passage of time. Meanwhile in those bits of time which you don’t show the characters can do boring things like fill in each other on what has happened, mourn a lost buddy, and you know things that humans have to do like eat, sleep and shit. Abrams’ inability to handle time correctly leads to a simplistic cartoon universe, undermining once again the film’s credibility.
6) Inappropriate Humour
When this (now famous) reviewer in The Vatican says The Force Awakens is not appropriate I have to agree completely, and nowhere is the film’s inappropriateness manifested more evidently than in its humour. The distinctly modern banter between Finn and Rey is modelled on the Friends and How I Met Your Mother brand of American TV humour and – whilst it did produce a few laughs – it felt completely out of place in Star Wars, especially when these 21st century jokers are standing right next to protagonists from the originals (who by the grace of all the gods at least keep their own humour in character). This was pure pandering to a new audience. (Which I get, but I am critiquing the film as a work of art, not as a commercial exercise…).
As for those clever jokes knowingly referencing the original films (“you’ve changed your hair” – in fact Leia had already changed her infamous buns for plaids by The Empire Strikes Back, a detail which I’m sure the scriptwriters knew but ignored, so the joke falls flat) are another cheap way to get a laugh from your casual movie goer, but in fact they wrench us out of what should be a convincing fantasy and squarely remind us this has all been made in a studio. Knowing references like these are for metacinematic films like Scream, Wayne’s World and Spaceballs. Star Wars should not be taking the piss out of itself, however tempting (and guess what, easy) that might be. Another bad call by Abrams and co..
I really can’t see how any Star Wars fan would like this movie and even less any discerning film fans. From a story telling point of view The Force Awakens is a disaster, ditching a credible storyline and well worked character development in favour of jumbling up all of the most popular elements of the series with a few new characters into a messy rip off almost completely bereft of originality. Watching it left me with that grubby feeling that I’d just bought into a carefully marketed product of mainstream franchised cinema, much like the recent Batman and Bond films (that require an ever-increasingly low IQ to be able to sit through). And far worse than the damage done by episodes 1-3, which at least have proved easy enough to ignore, with its bastardisation of episodes 4 and 5 and emotion trading on the original characters this felt like the worst betrayal yet perpetrated on Star Wars fans.
If however story credibility and integrity are not important to you (maybe you are celebrating your 6th birthday soon?) then I can see how you might have enjoyed some of the funnier jokes, passable action and sci-fi imagery – whilst seeing Han, Leia and Luke back in action again, even in these highly compromised surrounds, was genuinely and spine-tinglingly brilliant.
Reaction to the Reactions
Given that TFA was so obviously and painfully a poor movie, naturally I find the vast outpouring of positive reviews all over the world (including by many respected media and friends) all the more perplexing. I can only surmise that expectations were so damaged by the Lucas-led prequels, and that fans were so desperate to enjoy this movie, that they’ve watched it through squinted eyelids unable or unwilling to see its layer upon layer of plot, character and style flaws or to call out its consistently lazy story telling. In fact one sign of the desperation for people to love this movie is the ardent defences and far-fetched explanations ordinary folk are putting together to cover up plot holes and defend all of the many nonsensical details that passed during the 2 hours and 16 mins. I’ll point to this one of how Darth Vader’s helmet reached Kylo Ren as an example. Quite how Disney has achieved this mass hypnosis of their combined sense and sensibilities and turned them into a collective, and angrily defensive, PR machine for the franchise is beyond me… could it be the best Jedi mind trick of all?
I wish I could join in this renewed global celebration of Star Wars, but right now all those preaching that The Force Awakens is a fantastic and triumphant return of the series appear to me just like delusional religious fanatics preaching the certainty of blissful eternal life in heaven. I’d love to be dumb open-minded enough to believe them, but I know what I’ve seen with my own eyes – and it was purgatory at best.
Nope, for me to feel the true power of The Force once again there’s only one thing for it: I’ll have to dust off my Widescreen VHS edition of A New Hope and go back not just to A Long Time Ago, but to A Long Time Ago in 1977.
A student risks becoming the lead actor in a snuff movie, when her macabre curiosity puts her on a killer’s trail. This low budget Spanish thriller garnered seven Goyas.
In a Bigger Nutshell….
In 1996 at the Complutense University of Madrid, Angela is studying “Audiovisual Violence” for her Thesis. To gather appropriate material for her project she enlists the help of both her professor, who has access to the university’s private library of elicit material, and class weirdo Chema, a known collector of hardcore gore and gash movies. When Angela stumbles across her professor dead in front of a lecture theatre screen, it’s clear that whatever he found in the university archives was gruesome enough to give him a heart attack; but instead of reporting his death, she steals the tapes and contacts Chema. Reviewing the tapes together they are shocked to find graphic footage of a missing student from their university being tortured and killed in a garage. The unlikely due begin an investigation which points directly to fellow film student, Bosco, a spoilt rich kid and former friend of the deceased who just happens to be a dab hand at operating a XT-500 camera, a recorder with a digital zoom which they deduce must be the model used by the killer (it’s 1996 remember, so digital zoom was state of the art!). Complicating matters, Bosco, seems to be pursuing Angela for other reasons, although it’s unsure if he has sex, or something more sinister, on his mind.
Why Is It So Awesome?
If this movie was an academic paper, in nature as well as name, it’s hypothesis would be: “as human beings we enjoy watching acts of violence, torture and death… so shouldn’t we just admit it?”
Right from the opening scene, when the protagonist Angela is forced to disembark from the Madrid metro because of a suicide on the line, the director sets out his stall. “Don’t look down at the track”, implores the rail worker responsible for breaking the news, “the guy was ripped in half”. Whilst most of the passengers file out of the station in an orderly fashion, Angela however can’t help veering towards the edge of the platform, where a crowd has gathered, for a look at the mangled body… but just as she strains her neck for a view, she is pulled away by the rail worker and told to move along. A nice touch. She – and we – will have to wait for our fill of blood and guts. (This frustrated curiosity put me in mind of Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita and how he blamed a truncated sexual experience as a young boy, for his continuing obsession over prepubescent girls as an adult. As with Nabakov’s character, Angela’s morbid desire is heightened).
Most of what I love about this film is the playing with the theme, and the enjoyable contrast between Chema, the oddball, who admits that he loves some good ol’ sex and violence, and almost everyone else, including Angela, who deny they enjoy this kinda stuff, but can’t help watching all the same. Whether it’s the soon-to-be-dead professor, who seems secretly pleased that he can justify raiding the library’s X-rated stash because it’s for a student’s thesis, or the new head of department declaring “give the public what they want” to a crowded lecture theatre of would-be film directors, or the old men and other assorted patients in the public hospital glued to the gruesome TV News, the theme is constantly explored. At the same time of course the director is gloating that the very act of us choosing to watch his horror movie proves his hypothesis… the clever git.
On top of the darker thrills of the movie (which are sadly not as sustained as I would have liked… see “Gripes and Grievances” below), there are some great bits of understated humour. Chema is at the heart of all of them, either with his Sheldon-honest dialogue, or other assorted antics… the moment he tries to jack a door with a knife, before realising it’s already open, was a personal fave (an oldie but a goodie!).
On top of everything the director want us to enjoy, the film appealed to me in a way he couldn’t have predicted… via the comical fashion sense and customs of 1996 Madrid. You have to dig the nation-wide fetish for blue denim, the nonchalant smoking at work, and – in the case of one shop assistant – the most ridiculous rat tail ever to be seen on screen.
The Star Performer
Whilst I was tempted to give this to Eduardo Noriego for his unnervingly creepy portrayal of Bosco (it’s hard to say what’s scarier, the idea of being tied to a chair and tortured to death, or simply his rapist’s stare boring into you from underneath those fearsome Spanish eyebrows), but it’s hard to imagine this film without Fele Martinez’s foul-mouthed and painfully direct Chema. The character bears all the classic traits of the socially inept, sex-starved and unhygienic weirdo at University that you were scared to hang out with, even though you thought they were pretty funny, and the interactions between him and Angela give the story its human aspect and humour.
The scenes that should have had me digging my nails into my girlfriend’s hand and burying my head in her shoulder, whilst she stroked my hair and told me “it’s all right, it’s only make believe” were unfortunately quite disappointing. Which means the best scenes for my money were the ones of Angela and Chema reviewing snuff footage at Chema’s freakily decorated dead grandma’s apartment. “Joder, esta es muy fuerte,” says Chema, casually tucking into some potato chips, whilst the screams ring out and Angela hides her face behind her hands.
Angela asks how come Chema has let him view his well-guarded collection of hardcore horror flicks…
Chema: Por que estás muy buena.
Chema: Olvidalo. No es mérito tuyo.
It doesn’t translate well though sadly…
Anyone in the mood for a quirky European thriller with a b-movie vibe
With your girlfriend. Then at the end of the movie go and get your camcorder, a knife from the kitchen and try out your most menacing look. Later she’ll agree that was a hilarious joke.
Gripes and Grievances
The film suffers quite a bit on the credibility front at times, with some contrived dialogue and some pretty damn implausible decisions / behaviour, from Angela in particular. Perhaps the most incredulous moment of the film though is when we discover that Angela, played by a 30-year-old Ana Torrent (who if anything looks older!), lives with her parents still. Madre mia, it’s time to move out Angela.
Those relatively minor points aside, my major gripe with the film is that it isn’t anywhere near graphic enough. Nor does it make the most of one or two situations that could have been horrifyingly scary… but instead were just a little bit uncomfortable (at one point Angela is told she is going to die quickly without being tortured… wtf call yourself a horror writer Senor Amenabar!). I agree with the director’s decision to not show too much of the original snuff movie to the audience (just a few jets of blood here and there!), allowing us to imagine the worst to a soundtrack of screams and pleas for mercy… but later in the film he needs to make us see at least some of what we’ve been imagining / dreading / looking forward to for this to really succeed as a horror/thriller movie.
Original Title: Tesis
Director: Alejandro Amenabar (a year later he directed my favourite ever Spanish movie, but more on that another time!)
Runtime: 126 min
Art house French lesbo epic, replete with sizzling sex scenes and Palme d’Or award.
In a Bigger Nutshell….
Blue Is The Warmest Colour is essentially a small, personal story: that of Adele, an averagely mixed up 17-year-old school girl, who falls for the enigmatic, older and blue-haired art student, Emma. The film can be divided in two parts, the first part dealing with Adele’s emotional and sexual awakening during her affair with Emma, the second about their resulting relationship and Adele’s feelings of isolation and insecurity. Parts of the story are based on a graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh.
Why Is It So Awesome?
There’s a neat scene towards the start of the film, when Adele is discussing literature with her soon-to-be (but not-very-long-lasting) boyfriend. He confesses that the only book he ever enjoyed was Liaisons Dangereuses (fantastic book btw, if you haven’t read it yet) and only then because his teacher helped him analyse it and see meanings and texture that he would otherwise have missed. Adele counters that she prefers to interpret a novel on her own, using her own imagination, without some professor forcing her to “overanalyse every word”. In highlighting these two opposite ways of enjoying literature, I can’t help feel the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, is holding up the same choices for us, regarding his film. It’s his way of saying, “I’m making a film packed full of artistry, clues and contrivances… so have fun unravelling the layers. Or else just order some popcorn and take from it what you like.”
I love the film just for that. It’s a story rich with symbolism (starting of course with the use of the colour blue, and its symbolic representation of the French ideal of liberty… in this case to the emotional and sexual freedom that the cobalt-coiffeured Emma offers Adele) and plot echoes (most obviously in the form of the classroom literary discussions), but they never threaten to turn the film into a pretentious art house exercise. In fact, most of the symbolism is the opposite of obscure, such as Adele’s conversion from shellfish spurner to oyster lover, a stunningly unsubtle metaphor for her newly acquired tastes in the bedroom.
Aside from the effective use of artistry, what made BITWC such a pleasure for me to watch was the myriad of “real” details in every scene. Right from the very start, when Adele leaves her house, we see her pulling up the back of her jeans in classic awkward teenager style (nota bene: despite being extremely easy on the eye, and the inherent eroticism of a lesbian coming-of-age movie, Adele is never portrayed as some idealised screen siren) and running for the bus, like all good over-sleeping school girls do. These small touches set the tone immediately and ground the film in reality. The director then serves up a masterful vignette of a literature class that everyone should be able to relate to, as the smarmy male teacher (reminding me of my own English professor and arch-tosser Mr. Loader) forces students to reread passages of the examined text (for no good reason), and then, after inviting the collective to give their opinions, proceeds to shoot down the first kid brave enough to offer one… a reaction met by guffaws by the rest of the class. Just beforehand the camera lingers on another pupil, who we see think about daring to answer, half raising his hand, before (wisely) bottling it and allowing his classmate to be humiliated instead. The scene could hardly be more convincing.
The Star Performer
When the Palme d’Or was awarded to this film, the jury insisted the director share it with both the lead actresses…. but make no mistake: this is the Adele Exarchapoulos show. Every emotion, and even thought, of her adorably naive and guileless character is communicated with an impressive inventory of subtle gestures, glances and changes of expression, yet all as plain as a letter in their meaning (any idiot can do “inscrutable”). I honestly couldn’t take my eyes off her (to the extent that I barely noticed Lea Seydoux, as Emma). I think this might be my favourite ever performance ever by a leading lady. She even managed to steal the highly coveted Actress-most-able-to-make-me-cry Award from Natalie “Just Take My Picture” Portman. Sorry, Nats.
Spoiler alert: you might want to skip this section if you haven’t watched the movie yet.
The attention to detail in each scene of this film, the slick composition and the clever editing is such that I could choose from about twenty favourite mini-dramas. And that’s without due prejudice for the five minute long, fierily passionate – bordering on pornographic – lesbian love making scenes (if you thought scissor sisters was a band, then you’re in for a wake up call). In the end I can’t consider this review complete, without shouting out a top two, starting with the obvious candidate: the big break up scene.
There’s a sick tension in your stomach as you watch Adele kiss her (male) lover goodbye and step into the flat where a if-looks-could-kill Emma is there waiting for her. The is she/isn’t she busted suspense continues as Adele tries to play innocent and even concocts a semi-plausible defence. But it’s quite at odds with her forlorn and guilty expression. Her jaw starts wavering, her resistance cracks, and her face melts into a blubbery mess of contrition (and if you managed not to cry as well, then you’re clearly a kitten-torturing monster of a human being). There’s some slightly predictable histrionics as the truth comes out, and then, just for a moment, we are allowed to think Emma might be in a forgiving mood… (oh so sly Monsieur Director!) before she forcefully evicts her schoolgirl lover. The scene ends with the camera, positioned inside the flat, viewing Adele standing stranded outside the flat through the window. The sense is clear: she is being excommunicated from Emma’s life.
Whatever I hear you say… she is a cheat and she got caught. Where is the drama in that? Why should we sympathise? But the fact that we’ve been witness to Adele’s isolation in amongst Emma’s older, art world, circle of friends – and the fact that Adele herself doesn’t even realise what drove her into the arms of another lover and can’t communicate this to Emma – makes the emotional tragedy painfully acute.
Ok onto my other favourite moment and I will give a quick, honourable mention to the school yard bullying scene, when Adele is called out for being gay. It’s a deliciously uncomfortable drama. The nastiness of the ringleader is so viscerally-rendered that you can almost feel the jibes and incriminations yourself, as the under pressure Adele, taken completely unawares by the ferocity of this surprise attack, tries to stammer out a defence. Now, I’ve never been unexpectedly accused of being a lesbian in front of all my peers, but after watching this scene I’m pretty sure I know exactly how it feels.
‘A worm crawls out of a plate of spaghetti and says, “Wow, that was some gangbang!”‘
Not at all representative of the film as a whole, but hey the best line is the best line… It’s uttered during the garden party, given to celebrate Emma’s graduation (if I remember correctly), during which Adele is tasked with the subservient role of preparing food for Emma’s pretentious mates… she does so with a symbolically simple dish. Despite the hipsters (feigned) enthusiasm for the spagbol, it’s clear she does not belong.
Arty types, who prefer style over substance. And dirty old men, who like plenty of teen lesbian love action. If like me, you happen to fall into both categories, so much the better.
Alone. So you can cry salty tears…
Gripes and Grievances
The intense close ups, whilst allowing us to all the more easily read the small print in the characters’ emotions, feels a little bit claustrophobic at times and restrictive. It’s like we’re being forced to view the world through a pair of toilet roll binoculars. I get why the director did it, but at times I just wanted to scream at the cameraman to zoom out a bit and let me see what the f@ck was going on.
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
Runtime: 179 min