Friday, July 13, 2007

Red Road. SIFF

The Dark Route Through Female Psyche.
Andrea Arnold's 'Red Road'.

June 21

'Red Road' was one of the two films that I anticipated most for over a year, the other one being 'Inland Empire'. There's some kind of weird symmetry to the fact that I got to see them back to back on the same night.

Arnold's film screened in the main competition at Cannes last year - almost an anomaly for a debut feature - where it garnered exceptional notices and a Grand Prix award. Everyone was talking about a potent new voice on the scene and I could not wait to have a taste of it. What made it even more fascinating was that it is the first film in a series of three that are going to feature the same characters. Each film will be directed by a different filmmaker (the other two will be helmed by two Danish members of the Dogme project)

But anticipation is a double-edge sword, ready to topple down your enthusiasm to the ground. 'Red Road' did not prove to be what I expected to say the least. Not because of any inherent faults. Rather, it was akin to taking a boat to Tahiti for a rowdy holiday and ending up in a cold Edinburgh port instead.

I'm not passing judgement here, Edinburgh is beautiful, but I felt out of sorts with this film, completely understanding its aims but not being able to give a shit anyway.

The central figure in the film is Jackie (Kate Dickie), a single woman in her mid 30s who works as a CCTV monitor operator. Jackie seems detached from the world around her, preferring to live life vicariously in her God-like position up in (literally) air. She does have an occasional passionless encounter with a fellow officer, but something has obviously died within her. That is until she spots a red-haired man (Tony Curran) on one of her screens. Her demeanour changes completely. We learn that the man has committed a crime and Jackie isn't too happy seeing him out of prison. She soon descends from her omnipotent throne into the stinking dump of Glasgow's urban wasteland to take matters into her own hands (again, literally). The film takes its time to get to this point and I sunk in my seat comfortably expecting a bracing thesis on justice from a female point of view. And Arnold, who is an Oscar winning director after all (for a short film), holds the suspense remarkably well, constantly teasing us with her character's seemingly left-off field actions. It's a device that would be best described as "cropping" - giving us only certain information without the necessary caption to make the context clear. It reminds us just how deceiving "information" can be - particularly visual. We think that we can read a situation by just seeing it, but as they say... it's only the tip of the iceberg. For example, in once scene, we see Jackie follow the man, Clay, into a pub. Just before she goes in, she picks up a stone from the footpath and puts it in her handbag. We assume, it's there to protect her. It's obvious and logical, yet the implications of this action turn out to be completely different a few scenes later.

While manipulative and slightly contrived this is an approach that has been used by most of the great suspense masters and it's what I like most about 'Red Road' - the complexity of its narrative construction, the exceptional understanding and mastery of visual language. Yet, like any road, this one must end at a certain destination. In this particular case, where you've been second guessing yourself constantly, the final point begins to grow to an almost unsustainable importance. The audience MUST be surprised at any cost. It's the kind of promise that 99% of films, especially thrillers, fail to deliver. When they do... well... just look at what happened to 'Sixth Sense'.

'Red Road' does deliver a surprise... but one that is so underwhelming that I momentarily found myself completely thrown out of the film, wondering how elaborate the gilded plasterwork in the State Theatre was. It's a beautifully tacky building, constructed in a neo-baroque style, deliberately mixing a myriad of influences in its decor to create a dreamy, magical atmosphere. A perfect movie palace really, where the mystery extends to the corridors even after the film is finished. Built in 1929, the State Theatre...

I'm so sorry... where was I?

The punchline in this film is not, as I might've insinuated, weak. It's simply rather conservative.

I watched a 1960s Mexican horror film recently based on the legend of La Llorana. It featured a woman, a witch to be more precise, bent on gaining "absolute" power and knowledge. Even if it meant sacrificing everyone around her. What is exceptional in this case is the purity of this desire, its blatantly empowering motivation. Something I believe that La Llorana shared with the femme fatales of 1940s. But then they were all evil right?

I only bring this up because I feel that the "good" heroine of 'Red Road' could have made for a fascinating analysis of guilt and gendered notion of power because she is a character that is at once extremely natural and recognizable yet full of contradictions and mystery. Jackie (and Clay for that matter) is not a movie cypher put there by the director to explore some abstract theory (as happens in a lot of French films recently). She presents a rare chance to see a woman who is not only in control, but also takes action. The sex scene that comes at a... uhum... climactic point (just like in Nuri Ceylan's 'Climates'), hints at a truly twisted sensibility behind the ordinariness of this woman's face. Of course, the trick is in the motivations and unfortunately Arnold can't help but trap herself and her heroine in yet another 'woman's picture'... apron strings and all...

Monday, July 9, 2007

Turkish Sour Delights: 'Climates'. SIFF

June 20


She stands... silently looking at her partner. It's hot and there's a hint of annoyance on her face. He seems not to notice her as he takes photographs of some Hellenistic ruins. Finally she approaches, gently brushing against him, making her presence known. He asks if she's bored, she lies and then leaves him again to sit on a hill opposite of the ruins. She looks on some more and then starts crying.

It takes a good couple of minutes (or so it seemed) for a tear to appear and then ever so slowly to glide down Ebru Ceylan's ravishing cheek. Edit that Harvey Weinstein!

It's a tell-tell opening scene of a film that has become somewhat a cause celebré among online film enthusiasts. Battle lines have been drawn and positions have been established, either embracing or attacking Nuri Bigle Ceylan's new film for its meditative stylistics and its relentless ambiguity. So what's all the fuss about?

A softly spoken architecture professor (Bigle Ceylan) is vacationing with his partner, the much younger art-director Bahar (Ebru Ceylan) in Turkey's South West. Their relationship is on the rocks, presumably because the professor can't keep his fly zipped. They separate after a particularly violent quarrel and Bahar disappears from the picture while the professor takes up with his fiery ex with whom he obviously enjoys a much more... lets just say interesting, sex life. His peace is however disturbed when he finds out that Bahar has left Istanbul, possibly with another man, to go on a long location film shoot in Turkey's East. Soon, he's off printing photos of their summer vacation and picking up romantic trinkets in the hope of enticing Bahar back.

That's about it really. Yes, its minimalist, its simple, there's hardly any exposition... whatever. I won't indulge in facile arguments about boringness, slowness or any other base reactions. We should always approach the filmmaker on his own terms, without demanding that he dress down to suit what we want. In fact, the film is actually compulsively watchable. You're carried along from one scene to the next, just because you don't know where it's going to go. It's a significant advantage that is achieved by keeping the characters shrouded in heavy fog: "Heavy ambiguity ahead! Turn on your brain searchlights please!"

So, herein lies the charge: Is Nuri Ceylan masking a rather embarrassingly simplistic tale of love turning sour with a heavy coat of bullet-proof pretentiousness or is he really making a profound statement about alienation and the emotional malaise of the modern man?

Herein lies the evidence: take a female character, put her in a shopping centre and have her sobbing in front of a shelf full of detergent. In one version she's shouting to a woman standing next to her that her husband's been cheating on her. In the other version, she's just standing there, looking at the detergent bottles and silently sobbing and sobbing while people pass her by. Version one is what you're likely to see in a 'Neighbours' episode and it'd take a really great director and actress to make the scene anything but trashy. Version two could be a scene from Nuri Ceylan film. And lets face it, we're going to be much more intrigued with version two, simply because we don't know what is making the woman cry. If it sounds suspiciously easy... well, I'm afraid it is. A clever director always makes good use of the unknown quantity and mystery - David Lynch has built his whole career concocting impregnable puzzles. Yet, as always, it's a question of degrees. Compare what Lynch does with a similarly cliched 'relationship in crisis' story in 'Lost Highway' to Nuri Ceylan's film and you'll know what I mean. It's like exploring a new galaxy as opposed to a small Caribbean island. Ceylan has neither the astounding imaginative power of Lynch, nor the philosophical depth of Antonioni to transform his film into a path-breaker. Which does not mean it's not successful on its own, smaller scale. Granted, the film feels like the bastard child of Rossellini's 'Voyage to Italy' and Antonioni's 'La Notte' and it shows in every sprocket of its celluloid DNA, but it's not a mere clone (read: simulacra). I do think that 'Climates' takes up the very same thematic concerns of these earlier films, but travels much further in its deconstruction of a romantic relationship. In a way, Ceylan has made a transgressive film, but made it so covertly, most people seem not to notice. Those who love it are enticed by its romanticism, tending to read it as a quiet emotional roller coaster. Those who hate it, blame it for the same reasons - it's short in its reach and doesn't do much more than whine about banalities.

To me, the transgression lies in the fact that this is an anti-romantic romantic movie. The central relationship is constructed around something that the characters perceive of as LOVE - a notion that Ceylan progressively begins to dismantle. When Bahar instigates a near-fatal accident this act is immediately read as a passionate gesture on her behalf, proclaiming her love and frustration towards Isa. But looking closely, it's a rather pathetic imitation of amour fou, its impact weak and embarrassing. Bahar is playing a role she thinks she must fulfil because the scenario calls for it, like an impressionable child acting out a scene from a Hollywood movie since she has no better way to respond. Similarly, her constant sobbing is usually interpreted as a genuinely earnest statement by the filmmaker - an indictment of Isa's actions. The crying is an important detail since not only does it become a kind of emotional apex in the film, but also causes much irritation or admiration in the audience. But it is meant to be irritating! Bahar's tears hint at the theatricality inherent in this relationship. She's unable (or unwilling) to comprehend that their problem is not because Isa has an occasional fuck outside of their non-matrimonial unit, the problem is that they're absolutely uninterested in who the other person is. Isa wants Bahar only because she looks good on him. His narcissism is implicit in the way Ceylan acts out the character, rendering him almost infuriatingly passive; his blankness is not a result of stupidity but dismissiveness. He doesn't care what his partner thinks (never mind about feelings) and once he's "used" Bahar, he discards her through a persuasive double-speak by arguing that she can find a more appropriate partner because she's still "young and attractive". His coldness and detachment are only underlined by the fact that they're in an idyllic setting - a context that is rife for romantic regeneration. But Bahar is masochistic, which is mainly self-induced and Isa simply hates people. She has a dream during which Isa mistreats her and the rest of time milks his infidelity for all the self-pity she can get. He, on the other hand, can only sustain interest by reducing his partners to objects of possession, his ex-girlfriend, Serap, for example. Once he sees her in a bookshop with a friend, his interest is suddenly piqued. Serap knows Isa all too well and her long, knowing laugh reduces Isa to a stale nut - something which he later forces her to eat in the ambiguously staged, highly borderline sex scene.

This subversiveness is the most fascinating aspect of the film. Here we have two very unlikable characters, rather fearlessly portrayed by the director and his real-life wife, playing a charade which they wish to will into reality by sheer play-acting. Maybe Ceylan's film would've been more successful if he was more upfront about his intentions. But I like the deceiving nature of this film. By conning the audience into 'buying' this cheap melodrama, Ceylan seems to be saying that we're all involved in "playing the game". And it's a cruel one but as it transpires in the end, the characters (and maybe the audience too) are only too happy playing it.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Flanders, Eye in the Sky, SIFF Day 12

June 19

I don't think I've ever missed watching a film to which I'd bought a ticket. Come rain or snow, I'd be there in front of the cinema, like a pilgrim awaiting religious ecstasy in the darkness of the temple. So it says something about my mindset that on the morning of June 19 I simply couldn't give a fuck... Or maybe I simply forgot that I had a 12.00pm screening of Susan Bier's 'After the Wedding', I'll never know for sure. In any case, after feeling sorry for myself throughout the day for losing 8 bucks (cheap tickets with a multiple pass, but still...) I realised that I'd see the film on DVD in couple of months anyway. Besides, this gave me a lot of time to prepare for a vicious attack from Bruno Dumont at 6.30pm in the evening. I only had a light lunch, just in case...

Dumont is not exactly a household name, but in France, he's a formidable presence, at least in many critic's books. Many of them love him, most of the public loves to hate him, for this is a director seemingly bent on making unlikable films. Sorry, make that utterly detestable.

'Flanders' is no different. Set in a farm somewhere in Northern France, the film follows André - a boorish looking young fella - as he works the land and has very awkward meetings with Barbe - his neighbour's daughter and a childhood friend. Barbe is a nymphomaniac and seems to only know how to connect to people through her body. After Andre refuses to acknowledge their relationship, Barbe picks up a new guy in a bar and starts fucking within two minutes of meeting him. Quel Poésie!

'Flanders' then makes a sharp turn into war film territory as André and Barbé's new beau are sent to an unspecified war somewhere in the Middle East. They're in the same regiment and are soon caught in some heavy fighting. If this is starting to sound like 'Pearl Harbour', let me give you this flash forward - somebody gets his balls cut-off in real-time. Meanwhile Barbe has a breakdown and is sent to a mental hospital.

And herein lies Dumont's hardline stance. He does not buy into myths or romantic notions. Hell, the guy even refuses to give us a single, mildly likable character to root for. Everyone's liable for their selfishness and innate cruelty towards fellow human beings. Dumont's anti-war vision is certainly not new, but rarely has it been so bleak, so frankly pessimistic. He posits no allegiances and simply stares passively at the ugliness of the human animal. Stuck in a foreign war, these soldiers have off-loaded their morals at home and they are truly frightening in their blank disregard and brutality. They've become machines. Although treated slightly more sympathetically, the oppressed are not seen to be much different. They just don't have as many guns. The parallel universes of Flanders and the war zone are intercut to emphasise the underlying crisis of human condition in general. We are in a constant state of war Dumont seems to be saying.

Watching this film, I realised with astonishment how most war movies fail to make a truly anti-war statement by indulging in heroism, something that 'Flanders' is completely devoid of. This makes the film into a most discomforting, wrenching experience imaginable, yet at the same time... isn't that what a war is? In a way, the film confounds our own selfishness by making us aware of our desire to be "elated" and "inspired" by cinema - to be lied to. I admire this filmmaker for his integrity even if I invest more in his films than I get back. Dumont's indulgence, his grating superiority and his love for human filth is an obstacle that is hard to surmount. A Dumont film is often like watching a corpse being dissected - humanity reduced to banal, rotting matter. And call me selfish, but I do like to leave the cinema with some spiritual charge rather than making me want to slash my wrists.

Ever since watching his previous two films, I've felt that Dumont's problem is in his inability to provide a closure or leave a door open. Once you step into his inferno, there's no way out. Even Pasolini gave us a feeble hope with the closing shot of 'Salo'. Here (wisely), Dumont makes a tentative move and gives his new film a sense of redemption towards the end, which makes this work his most complete and successful to date and among the best examples of the new cinema of violent chic.

Just in case you're wondering what cinema of 'violent chic' is (you read it here first), think American torture porn ('Hostel', 'Saw') French style. The leading proponents of what I consider to be definitely a new movement akin to the 80's cinema du look, are filmmakers such as Gaspar Noe, Alexander Aja and our topic of discussion - Bruno Dumont. What makes their films so different (and so chic) is the way the violence is orchestrated and who it is directed at. If Eli Roth in his 'Hostel' films tries to push the body horror to the extreme, Noe and Dumont go for irreversible psychological damage (pan intended). Just an example here to clarify their approach. In 'Irreversible' Noe stages an epic 9 minute rape scene. Static camera no cuts. Pure, unfiltered "action" that is as much about our endurance to sustain "looking" as about the Bellucci character surviving. The most disturbing element about this scene is not so much the actual violence, but the framing device the director uses - the moralistic, political, psychological implications of the violator and our implication as a spectator. Dumont stages a very similar rape scene in his highly contentious '29 Palms' (2003), but this time, the victim is a man. It becomes immediately apparent that Dumont's aim is not to out gross jaded sensibilities, but to disrupt moral barriers and send a shock-wave of Foucaldian panic. Sex and violence are above all polemical tools in these filmmakers' hands (another example might be Cathrenie Breillat's 'Romance') who want to draw the dark side of the audience into the open and play a dangerous game of extreme ethical disengagement. Yet, to me, the fire under the unease of watching a film such as 'I Stand Alone' (Noe) or 'Humanite' (Dumont, 1999) is their unrelenting stylishness - the chic of it all. There is a sensory thrill as you watch Noe's mesmerising formalistic experiments even while what he's depicting is a man's head being pulped into a mashed potato. You're violated but at the same time can't help but gasp at the ultra cool of it all. The same goes for the more restrained, dour elegance of Dumont, whose style, ironically is the anthitesis of formalism. What you get is neatly framed, monumental canvases filled with drabness and silence, draped in mystery and dread (Dumont purposefully avoids "pretty" shots). The stylishness here is derived from ambiguity that is very Antonionesque in its semiotics (again, landscape as a language). The viewer is informed from the first frame that he'll be getting a philosophical enquiry rather than entertainment out of the experience. It's a long way off from 'Kill Bill' indeed but I like travelling the distance.

I could feel the grunt rising inside about two minutes in. Three minutes later I could hold it back no longer.... Uuuuurghhhhhh.....

Disappointments are as common in film festivals as revelations are rare. And I purposefully took a chance on the Hong-Kong thriller - 'The Eye in the Sky' - to offset the debilitating effect of Bruno Dumont's 'Flanders'. Dammit, I wanted to be entertained for a change. And there is no other film genre that does it better for me than thrillers. Alas, not this time.

'Eye...' is the feature debut of Nai-Hoi Yau, a writing collaborator of that latest John Woo wanna be - Johnny To. That should've rang some warning bells as To's films are laughable imitations of American gangster films that somehow manage to shoot their through to festivals like Cannes and Venice.

The plot sounded intriguing enough though. A young woman is training to become an SVU, basically a surveillance officer who has to follow and report on suspected criminals without being noticed. Her supervisor is a wise old goose, who takes a chance on the woman because she's too dumb looking to be suspicious. Soon the team is tracking down a highly organised group of jewel thieves, at the head of which is a slippery crim played by the indefatigable Tony Leung Ka Fai (is he like in every Hong Kong movie or what?).

There's much ominous music, much surveillance camera footage, some rudimentary shooting (on a completely empty motorway no less!) and some silly humour Hong Kong style. And then it all disintegrates into a one-note boring cops and robbers chase film with stock characters that might've been ordered from a 'ready to film' catalogue. Awash in bland cinematography, bland performances, some idiotic dialogue and absolute predictability, this is by far the most wasteful film I've seen during the festival.

'Nikita' it aint certainly, but the film ignores also the rudimentary largess of ridiculous pomp that is such a fixture of most Hong Kong action films. By choosing to opt for a subtler approach, where the thrill is derived from psychological cat and mouse games rather than car chases, the director has completely missed the point. He doesn't give us fully-fledged characters who can possibly exist in the real world (we know practically nothing about these people outside of their job) and he takes out most of the action? What is this, a con? That's what I consider a film that fails to deliver on almost every level.

I have never been enamoured of Hong cinema with two very big exceptions - Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo. This film proves that that's exactly they are - exceptions.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Poison Friends and Family

June 18

Is the Art House film almost like film noir, with certain stylistic conventions that cross over from one genre to the other? Of course not, but on a purely superficial level, you can't help but group them. After all... it's the same kind of people that are going to see those films. Isn't that a strong enough convention? My definition would be thus. Art House = pseudo intellectual cinema watered down for middle-class urban audiences. These two films are perfect illustrations of what makes or breaks this kind of cinema.

Maybe only the English can elevate writing to a matter of life and death the way French do. So when I saw a French 'literary thriller' on the SIFF menu, I couldn't resist taking a bite.

Unfortunately the film in question - 'Poison Friends' (dir. Emmanuel Bourdiau)- turned out to be more like French cuisine than Balzac; a lot of dressing and no meat.

The concept is fascinating. A bunch of literature students studying in Sorbonne fall under the influence of a brilliant fellow called Andre (Thibault Vincon, in a magnetic performance), who rubs everyone under his thumb by ridiculing their writing aspirations. 'Why do people write?' he quotes I can't remember which quotable writer - 'Because they're too weak not to'. Now anyone who has a healthy suspicion of their creative ego can't possibly not shake in terror at this "profound" assessment. People like Eloi (Malik Zidi in what appears to be sleepwalking rather than performance) and Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger). They soon become Andre's adoring groupies, hanging to his every word, letting him direct the course of their lives. What's more is that Andre takes almost an erotic pleasure in controlling the silly buggers. The power play between the group depends not only on the inflation of one's ego, but the deflation of the other's. It is immediately obvious to us that Andre's attempts at preventing his friends from writing has less to do with his nihilistic philosophy but much more with his deep insecurity as a writer himself. He is a man of ideas who is never able to consolidate more than hot air in the drab Parisian weather.

OK, the question is posed. To write or not write? It's a question that is asked not only by the characters; it is distinctly aimed at us - the audience. And Bourdieu takes it very seriously. Which is where he makes a fatal mistake. The question is superfluous because it views writing as some kind of an autonomous media that is separate from any other field of creativity. To me, the question is much larger - why create? Isn't writing and by that I mean literature, simply one form of self-expression? Is it any more important than music, painting, architecture or... well... film? It's not an accident that the Greeks sent out the muses together. They were a group - interdependent, interconnected and always performing essentially the same function - inspiration.

At one point Andre 'forgives' Alexandre (who wanted to be playwright) because he has decided to become an actor. "That's different" he states. Why? Is it much less of an intellectual pursuit hence less threatening or simply because Alexandre is not a literary threat anymore? The film never aspires to make its position clear on this point. And even if we disregard these obvious lapses of logic, the filmmakers still don't rise up to the challenge of providing a satisfactory solution to the initial issue they've raised. I must turn to Bergman again for some guidance. In one of his watershed films ('Through a Glass Darkly), Bergman showed a writer as unmerciful and cruel as they come. A man outwardly caring and gentle, but who is driven to exploit his sick daughter and naive son for the sake of his pen. Bergman was unsparing in his assessment of the creative ego - it is all consuming and in many ways above humanity. To him, art is as terrifying as a faun-splaying Apollo, but that's what constitutes its greatness, period. Granted, Bourdieu's aim is different. He's not so much concerned about what takes to write but more about what it costs not to write. A wonderful example of this dilemma is Hal Hartley's 'Henry Fool' - a remarkably similar film in many ways, which at least has the courage to argue for a place under the sun for its brilliant 'con artist' (for isn't being 'brilliant' an art in itself?).

But it's this film's nastiness is exactly what puts me off. It's just about the calibre of a mosquito bite. Irritating. At one point Andre deletes his librarian girlfriend's (Natacha Regnier in a wasted role) short story from her computer. "It was crap" Andre states. And you know what? It probably was, but Bourdieu doesn't let us enjoy this moment of delicious malice. The short story must be rescued at all costs, because God forbid that this hot little librarian should be prevented from expressing her point of view. Have even the French gone PC? What is the world coming down to?

Alas, Bourdieu's formula is as bogged down in mechanics as any previous screenplay about the nature of writing - success is the best revenge. Maybe so, but here it's not even sweet. The supremely passive Eloi overcomes his fear of literary 'exposure' only because his mother (a famous writer) rescues his manuscript from the rubbish bin and gives it to her publisher (nepotism goes a long way, but the director fails to even milk this ironic faux-pas). His half-hearted reaction to his success is as suspicious as everything else in the film. It's like "Oh... you mean I'm brilliant and all I had to do is write about myself?" Indeed, the only character who seems passionate enough about the art of letters is Andre. Perhaps he knows too much about it to be able to make a go at it himself. When your standards are up there with Dostoevsky, naive confidence is perhaps the best medicine the doctor can prescribe. But 'Poison Friends' is ultimately like its protagonist - confused and lost, unable to harvest the irony or the tragedy from a very classic set-up (where art-thou Chabrol?). In the end, the whole thing feels like an overpriced dessert made of lettuce: a bland concoction that is pretentious enough to fool some into thinking that they just ate a Kirsch Soufflé.

On the other hand there's 'Wolfsbergen'. Even the title, with its frightening challenge to pronounce itself, spells out a certain foreboding - it is NOT going to be a Woody Allen film. It's not even (gasp) French! I can already see the crowd thinning out... Which is a pity.

Nanouk Leopold's film is what soap operas are made of: a large middle-class family in crisis. And indeed, almost every screw in this story has been screwed before, after all, there aren't that many ways you can destroy a patriarchal unit in two hours. But the originality comes in the packaging, the presentation of this well worn material.

A father sends out letters to his daughter and two grandchildren, telling them that he doesn't want to continue living after the death of his wife. The women, each suffering from their own pent-up problems refuse to take the matter seriously, one of them doesn't even get the letter. The daughter is having trouble communicating with her husband on any level, her eldest daughter is in turn trying to hard to do the right thing while completely disregarding the fact that her love-affair and constant clashes with her husband are psychologically hurting her two children. And the youngest granddaughter has a strange affliction (she cries constantly without any reason) which renders her anti-social and lonely.

Taking her cues from Chekhov, Leopold makes these seemingly banal relationships twist and turn in quietly fascinating ways, relying on perfect doses of understatement and dead-pan, sometimes ink-black, humour to elevate a dime-a-dozen story into something utterly compelling and moving.

Yes, at times it is pretentious... Some of the characters are crafted with not much more than blank looks and long stretches of silence (silence being cheap and all), as if the refusal of communication automatically constitutes profound depth. But the film is any many ways about silence - moments that can describe a situation equally as well as words (awkwardness, hesitation, shock, grief) and that is why I like this film so much - it wears its pretentiousness (in the form of ambiguity) on its sleeve. As with Antonioni, the cinematic gesture and posturing become a mode of communication in itself. And you learn to read it as you go along, thanks in large part to the director's consistency and commitment to her vision.

It is all composed of static mid shots, not a single camera move in sight; exquisitely arranged compositions framed by doorways, corridors and windows, superbly chosen colour scheme and almost mathematical precision of rhythm, timing and editing. The whole film feels like a Vermeer re-imagined by Mondrian and crafted by Bauhaus: a majestic style that is all about balance, harmony and cerebral introspection. You'd know it's Dutch even if the film was silent.

Leopold succeeds in a faultless combination of form and content - a tough task to pull off in any director's hand - and with three films under her belt, she's already a bonna-fide auteur.

The ending of the film, with its reassuring calm and quiet (yet wrenching) power reaches almost philosophic heights. It is a benign meditation on life and death that is surprising and reassuring in its all-encompassing sense of normality. Translated into American, you'd probably get a double episode of the Jerry Springer show.