The Saturday Matinee
The Saturday Matinee is a new partnership between the Seamus Heaney Centre and our friends at the Queen's Film Theatre. Each week one of our students gets an opportunity to engage with new cinema, so they can tell us what they find.
Director Terence Davies’ Benediction refuses easy denotation – it is a montage-work, a re-enactment, a chamber piece, a melodrama, a comedy, a psychological study, a love story, a death story, a biopic, an anti-biopic.
It stops and starts, conforming to no consistent register; an aesthetic undermined by the intrusion of distant voices and decaying newsreel and the sense that time is out-of-joint. It is a retelling of gay history through someone who somehow navigated its centre while living on its peripheries. Most importantly, it is a film about trauma, of war, of repression.
Its subject, Siegfried Sassoon (as played by both Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi in twin performances across time), is a poet reduced by history to the twin states of War Poet and Tragic Homosexual. Sassoon was changed by the first world war, and Capaldi has never given a greater performance than as a man who has lived through his life the long-way-round carrying its ghosts upon his back. In its wake, he cannot say what he means, nor can those around him. He becomes increasingly self-denying, blaming the cruelty of others for the cruelty he begins to enact himself. Still, he wants to touch and to be touched in return, but he cannot articulate what kind of touch he needs just as he cannot decode that which is wanted of him. This is his problem, that he sees everything as a problem of language, rather than addressing the need for sensation. He cannot just ‘be’, as he feels his being to be irreparably compromised, subject to enclosure and confusion, salvageable only in increasingly-meticulous and outmoded artistic expression and a pivot towards outward respectability. This is perhaps why Terence Davies, a man unashamed to publicly-articulate his lifelong struggle with a uniquely queer loneliness, has been able to produce a film of such unprecedented empathy, with a paucity of easy answers.
Benediction is unafraid to depict pain through the ageing of faces, the confusion of want and Siegfried’s refusal to be happy. There are moments of extraordinary tenderness and understanding though, of quiet solidarity. So much is communicated within the slightest gestures, and the phenomenon of humanity is never condemned or seen as anything other than a phenomenon. There may be ghosts, but Davies knows that cinema is made from ghosts. Benediction draws pure cinema from verse.
An Cailín Ciúin, or The Quiet Girl, is the Irish language debut from writer and director Colm Bairéad, based on Claire Keegan’s 2010 novella Foster.
This is a quiet movie, guiding your hand through the countryside of Ireland and its people with gentleness and care. Set in 1981, a young girl named Cait leaves her impoverished, emotionally cold family to stay with a childless couple for the holidays. Cait is a withdrawn observer who struggles to make friends, but during her time away she feels deep affection, perhaps for the first time, and must reconsider the definition of family.
An Cailín Ciúin builds slowly, showcasing the world from the protagonist's perspective. Shot on 35mm with a 4:3 aspect ratio, there’s a claustrophobic feeling to the naturally lit shots of rooms and hallways that reflect the characters’ entrapment. Kate McCullough’s camerawork brings out the humanity in every frame, using static shots and slow zooms to rest on her subjects, pulling you further into the intimacy they feel. The little details that make a place special are brought out; the camera lingers on train-patterned wallpaper, soap smeared arms, a macaroon resting on a table. Most scenes are unaccompanied by score, soaking the audience in Cait’s silence, so when Stephen Rennicks’ beautifully minimalistic additions do come in, their impact is felt.
From its warm cinematography to its minimal script, An Cailín Ciúin lifts up quietness, gentleness, and small acts of love. The characters grow in compassion and understanding, proving how the little moments of life can make a big difference in deciding who to trust. From helping scrub floors to offering someone a tight embrace, Colm Bairéad’s film proves that sometimes you don’t have to say anything to tell someone you love them.
A banal horror; the missed period. Mundane evil and long periods of pain define Happening, directed by Audrey Diwan. Which is to say, I was on the edge of my seat and felt physically ill by the third act.
Happening is an adaptation of Annie Ernaux's memoir which traces her pregnancy and numerous attempts at trying to obtain an abortion as a university student. We begin with Anne, played by Anamaria Vartolomei, in the hazy end of a university semester and follow her to the cold hopelessness of seeking help to the fever pitch of the final act. Time in the movie is marked by captions reminding us how many weeks along the pregnacy is. The reminders externalise the urgency that bubbles under the surface of the narrative.
Happening is a dutiful portrayal of what illegal abortion is and never shys away from it, and yet never borders into a territory in which it is for our entertainment. The sunny hope of the first act wanes along with Anne's naivety that an abortion will be an easy thing to obtain. While a period piece, being set in rural France in 1963, it still resonates with stories that emerged during the Repeal the Eighth campaign in the Republic of Ireland in 2016 and stories that emerge from Northern Ireland even now.
The perniciousness of a misogynistic society is found in every interaction Anne has when she confesses she is pregnant. The GP who prescribes her an anti-miscarriage drug when she approaches him for an abortion. The married male friend who attempts to sleep with her as she is already pregnant. The friend who stops talking to her after finding out she is intent on getting the abortion. The abortionist who tells her she'll stop the procedure if she makes a sound, to the prudish girls in the shower room asking if the rash Anne has is syphilis. Yet, these are also the people who save her. The abortionist who takes her hand as she inserts the wand, the classmate in a prudish night dress gown who hands her the scissors to cut the umbilical cord and calls the doctor.
It is pieces of media like Happening that remind us why reproductive rights activists do what they do. Diwan’s film shines a harsh light on what it means to deny people autonomy, and above all, is one of the strongest tools that exists in a political movement: an unflinching story.
How do we know what’s important? Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World reflects on this question through the chronicles of four years in the life of Julie, a thirty-year-old woman who feels like Bambi on ice, utterly out of control as she attempts to navigate her place in the world.
Flipping from professions as a doctor to a psychologist to a photographer, Julie hasn’t a clue how she wants to live her life or who she wants to live it with, especially when she is given a glimpse into a life that could be permanent. When she’s faced with the possibility of having kids or pursuing a new partner, Julie does the only thing she knows how to: wait, and see where time leads her.
“Time” here is presented in twelve chapters, the only structure we can rely on in a story full of chaos and uncertainty. Each chapter is accompanied by a title that foreshadows the content to come, allowing the audience to set their expectations before entering a scene. Unlike Julie, we get the luxury of knowing what’s to come.
The film wanders with Julie around the streets of Oslo following each reckless decision she makes. Kasper Tuxen’s camerawork, much like our protagonist, is rarely stationary, gently mirroring the character's movements, shaking ever so slightly on shots that would traditionally remain static. Trier’s script honestly appeals to a generation who feels pressure to reach a place of certainty about their futures. Julie is constantly waiting for some greater alternative, some confirmation of what’s important, but sometimes what’s best is right in front of us. Sometimes it’s not enough to wait for certainty–we must compromise, make shortsighted decisions and figure it out in the process.
The Worst Person in the World celebrates wandering, confusion, and processing. The film settles on a comma rather than a period, suggesting that what is most important is not finding an answer, but holding close to those who share in your questioning.
Red Rocket is a film about a bad person who does bad things, a user who uses whilst possessing the ability to buy into his own delusions.
It is a film that has the courage to force its audience to draw its own conclusions, to question its own responses without guidance. Mikey Saber, played by Simon Rex, is our eyes -- we follow his worst-made-plans, his predation. He is in many ways the hero his country and his country’s cinema deserves, a hole without a donut who can only break what he touches. Rex is fearless, making himself the literal butt of the joke whilst performing every action with the kind of manic intensity that calls to mind both Jerry Lewis and Johnny Knoxville.
Few directors know how to zoom in like Sean Baker, both in terms of deployment of the lens and in his innate understanding of the small boring particularities and immoralities that define a country in slow decay. He is a director of rare empathy, the kind of courageous empathy that enables him to show people as they are. There is an innate courage of depiction that unifies all of his work, a love of humanity that acknowledges the contradictions and cruelties of humanity as part of that love. We hear Trump & Clinton on the television, but we witness a ‘flyover town’ wherein none of that makes any difference -- a world either ignored, dismissed, or used.
This is a film that evokes Jesse Stiles’ observation that “if anything could mean nothing at all while signifying everything at once, then this must be the centre of America.” It is the only film on record with a title that evokes both a dog’s penis and the U.S. national anthem. And it is very, very funny.
It’s an ancient cliché to infer that music be the food of love, but in Ali & Ava, the cliché comes alive.
A joyful romance set across two neighbourhoods and the surrounding country of director Clio Barnard’s beloved Bradford, the film depicts the kind of lovers we don’t often see on camera. Ava is a teaching assistant and recent grandmother, hiding the abuse of her late husband from her son. Ali is a techno-obsessed British-Asian musician living with his younger wife as they hide their separation from his family. When Ali and Ava meet the chemistry crackles; the spark between the two leads, Claire Rushbrook and Adeel Akhtar, is the thing that movies are made for. Together, Ali and Ava see a future they didn’t realise was missing.
Ava listens to country and traditional Irish music, and she lights up when she talks about it, filling her with images of her father singing in the pub. Ali retreats to music in times good and bad, dancing to the heavy beats coming from his large boxy headphones, the movement and energy keeping him alive and connected to the world around him. Ali and Ava get to know each other through their music, teasing each other about their preferences, sharing what it means to them.
At her house, they wear their own headphones and dance to their own music, the sound mix sliding between their own tunes, shifting us from one perspective to another. Then, they share their music too; Ali listens to Bob Dylan, Ava Daniel Avery’s techno. The scope of their world expands with the experience of the other. Music helps them connect with the supporting characters too; in one memorable scene, Ali calms the suspicious children on Ava’s estate throwing rocks at his car by blasting a song they can all sing together. Through their music, the lovers share their worlds, and assert that we are all living in the same one.
Damian McCann’s Irish language thriller Doineann, set on a remote island, is an example of the exciting output in the Northern Irish cultural scene at the moment.
On the surface this is a classic, pacy whodunnit with all the necessary ingredients: a missing family, encroaching criminal entities and a (literal) incoming storm. But it is also a complex representation of male violence and a quiet masterpiece of tension, from the claustrophobic island setting with its recurring motif of broken transport to the ever hovering threat of Dublin’s criminal underside.
Household items are intelligently used as narrative vehicles as well as talismans of the deceptive domestic situation between Tomás and his wife Siobhán, from a baby thermometer used as a murder weapon to a bottle of ketchup misplaced deliberately to gaslight Siobhán. In scenes in the house, the mise-en-scene produces excellent levels of tension, like one simmering shot while Tomás argues furtively on the phone while the baby cries and an egg burns on the stove.
It is rewarding to have the chance to watch an excellent Irish language film at our local independent cinema, and the film deliberately plays with language and power in interesting ways too. English is spoken by Tomás as he tries to convince a GP that Siobhán has postnatal depression, notably in her absence, and when his anger explodes on phone calls. English in Doineann is the language of male power and violence, whereas the tone of Irish dialogue is often measured and collected in comparison, especially in Brid Brennan’s focal performance as retired detective Labhaoise. This sense of antithesis culminates in the startling use of a perspective switch, a kind of halfway volta from which the film begins to feel more serious and resolute.
Billed as ‘Storm’, it is worth noting that Irish speakers have taken to social media to point out that ‘Doineann’ translates more accurately to ‘Hurricane’. Yet Doineann, the film, is best described as the moments when a storm gathers: moment to moment this is a neatly assembled thriller that takes its time.
Mike Mills last two features, Beginners and 20th Century Women, track the relationships he has with the people who raised him. C’mon C’mon finds Mills turning that parental gaze inward, making a film loosely based on his experiences of becoming a parent.
The film follows an audio journalist, Johnny, played by Joaquin Pheonix in a gentle Her mode, who minds his nephew Jesse (played by a brilliant and eccentric child actor named Woody Norman) for a few weeks while Jesse’s mother Viv (Gaby Hoffman), tends to her husband’s mental health crisis.
In an interview, Mills mentions that they shot the film in black and white to let the film lean into its own sentimentality. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography stays close to the characters, focusing on the joyful intimacy of the ways we look and touch one another. Mills’ editing in C’mon is essayistic, cutting around the timeline to emphasise moments, and including Johnny reading real-world texts as he explores parenting. Throughout the film, Johnny interviews real kids from across America about their thoughts on the future. He’s constantly amazed by the kid’s emotional intelligence, their ideas, hope and energy. Listening to kids lets them know their voices are worth being heard.
Mills’ work is attuned into the everyday tragedy – or miracle – that we can’t understand everything about a person, no matter how much we love them. For much of the film Johnny struggles with his own situation, his past loves and his relationship with Viv. In becoming Jesse’s temporary parent, he’s forced to talk honestly about his own feelings to prepare Jesse for a life that will never turn out the way you think. It’s better, perhaps, to give kids the skills to navigate their feelings honestly in an unreliably beautiful world, than teach them that that same world will keep them safe.
Céline Sciamma follows up her masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire with the new film Petite Maman. Maman is a decidedly low-key affair, a slim 79-minute film with an amusingly high concept; what if you could meet your mother when she was a child?
Eight-year old Nelly’s (Joséphine Sanz) grandmother has just passed away, and she heads to her old house at the edge of a forest to help her parents clean out the old house, haunted with memories. Her mother, Marion (Nina Meurisse), finds the process unbearable and despite Nelly’s best attempts to cheer her up, goes away for a few days. Lonely, Nelly finds herself exploring the woods next door, where she meets another young girl who looks exactly like her; also named Marion (played by Joséphine’s twin, Gabrielle).
In classic Sciamma fashion, however, the film’s fairy tale set-up is downplayed with naturalism, making the break from reality seem even more magical. There are no explanations or fairies; this is just what is happening. Scenes play out in long wide takes, with long gaps between dialogue and no music. Sounds are placed high in the mix, translating a huge amount of intimacy as in the scene where Nelly shaves her father’s face. You can almost feel the scrape of the razor on his skin. There’s something in it that speaks to the tactility of childhood, when all sensations feel new.
With Maman, Sciamma returns to the themes of childhood that run through her earlier work, but with a different focus this time. Like Sciamma’s break-out trilogy of films, Water Lilies, Tomboy and Girlhood, Maman is a story about the journey between childhood and adulthood; but unlike those films, it tells its story in reverse. Nelly discovers the child in her mother, rather than vice versa. Through the magic of the film’s premise, she recognises her mother’s grief, and grows to understand her a little better.
In Wes Anderson’s newest film The French Dispatch, the editor of the eponymous, fictional magazine (Bill Murray) gives all his writers the same advice; “Whatever you write, try to make it sound like you wrote it that way on purpose.”
The French Dispatch is an anthology film, its structure replicating that of the fictional magazine, modelled after the New Yorker. There are three feature articles about the fictional French city Ennui-sur-Blasé, some detours, and the odd scene following the editors of the magazine putting the issue together. Everything about the film is playful; each moment, shot, gesture, line of dialogue or production detail is packed with unexpected wit. The balance is delicate; having so many unexpected things happening on screen almost overwhelms. Yet for me, the ultimate effect is so seemingly controlled that it retains a singular vision.
While the film structures itself around the articles, it’s really about the journalists who write them. Each section is framed by a journalist as they narrate their article, becoming a part of their subject’s lives whilst trying to stay subjective. These characters are observers first, whose relationships with their subjects, while meaningful, will always be fleeting and transactional. They try to hide in the stories they tell, but end up revealing themselves in their reporting.
Bill Murray’s character becomes a guide to the reporters, looking after their interests while pushing them to reveal those hidden parts of themselves. These writers become his subjects in the process; Murray doesn’t get much screen time, but through his absence the film shows itself as his vision. All the chaotic flourishes and strange digressions become one with his erudite, detached persona; much like the director himself.
Anderson’s films are a vibe unto themselves, but Dispatch feels like a culmination to his approach, an anthology that embraces its distractions and flights of fancy. For better or worse, it feels like he made it that way on purpose.