Wednesday, February 07, 2018

219. Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” (2017), based on his original story/script: A modern social satire on urban hypocrisy that will unsettle most viewers in different ways

 “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations” 
---Explanation written for an abstract art installation, a square ground in front of an upscale museum. The square is demarcated with white borders painted on the open cobbled space, on which pedestrians can walk

The year 2017 has thrown up three wonderful, thought-provoking films from three different countries, all receiving nominations for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar in 2018: On Body and Soul from Hungary, Loveless from Russia, and The Square from Sweden.  All three are weird movies, far removed from the style or content of a popular Hollywood blockbuster. Beyond the individual subjects of the three films, all three are tales originally conceived by their respective directors. The directors of such films need to get the status that one often gives to authors of novels, and not be restricted to the more obvious role of the director. Most of the commercial films are based on novels, plays or real events.  These are directors who deserve more respect and admiration from the public who goes to the movies. Few realize the distinction between directors who are truly originally creative and those who merely adapt existing works or build on incidents that have occurred somewhere.

The white glow of the square replaces
the conventional statue of a man on horseback
in front of the art gallery

Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s previous original screenplay and feature film Force Majeure (2014) had looked at a split-second instinctive reaction that jolts the tranquillity of a perfect nuclear family. It presented a situation that could have happened within the best of families. In Östlund’s next film The Square, the director’s carefully conceived original script is built around a white successful male named Christian. Though the film has no religious overtones—the viewers in Scandinavian countries and much of Europe will easily identify Christian as the average European,  financially secure, well-bred, courteous, politically correct and good looking. Now that’s perfect material for Östlund to use make the viewer look inwards within the familiar world of not-so-financially secure immigrants dotting the European demographic landscape. Östlund is a master of the unpredictable and makes very interesting tales/films out of unsettling yet believable situations.

"You have nothing" is the title lit up on the wall to describe
the abstract installation of heaps of gravel which gallery viewers
respectfully view from a distance

In The Square, the main character Christian is convincingly is played by actor Danish actor Claes Bang who deservedly won the Best European actor award for his performance in this film. He is the chief executive of an upmarket art gallery with very interesting abstract installations.  One of the current installations is room full of small equal heaps of gravel placed at intervals with geometric precision. The amusing title of the abstract installation is “You have nothing.” People look at the installation with incredulous and yet respectful demeanour while gallery security are watchful that the visitors do not tamper with the heaps.  Much later in another sequence, we see the hall with the same installation being cleaned with vacuum cleaners and some of the soil from one of the heaps being inadvertently sucked into the machine. The cleaner adjusts the heap to resemble the original. No words spoken.  It is for the viewer to understand the jibe of Östlund. Östlund watchers could recall the final sequence of Force Majeure where once again no word is spoken but the silence communicates more than words.

The controversial scene from a video clip to promote the gallery
and the controversy relates to the race of the girl

The Square is a film that would strike a chord with Europeans who have accepted immigrants into their society.  These immigrants beg for alms from rich Europeans such as Christian. In a preoccupied moment, he ignores the plea for alms. In a thankful, happy frame of mind the good “Christian” offers a meal to the needy woman in a fast-food restaurant.  But then note the script of Östlund: the immigrant dictates to her benefactor what specific meal she want to have and Christian obliges.

The film is a critique of the well-meaning people of Europe. On a busy street full of pedestrians, Christian comes to the aid of a passerby who screams for help unlike many others who do not. That well-meaning man is robbed.

Aftermath of an unplanned sexual encounter: Anne (Elisabeth Moss)
confronts Christian (Claes Bang)

Not many films have scenes of unplanned sexual encounters where the male uses condoms. Christian uses one and Östlund spins off an unpredictable yet responsible and thought provoking post-coital conversation on who should be disposing it without consequences, when the woman wants to keep/dispose it.

The film has more unusual Östlund situations:  a well-to-do female Caucasian journalist who lives with a grown-up chimpanzee as a pet.  A formal fundraising dinner has an actor who terrorizes the invitees acting as a baboon and even trying to rape a scared woman invitee in public view.  People who often rush to help the needy do not rush to stop the show which has exceeded its limits.  A clever, well-meaning scheme by Christian to get the robber who stole his wallet, cufflinks and mobile phone to return the articles anonymously without the robber identifying himself/herself  or getting into trouble with the law, spins off a new collateral controversy involving an innocent, immigrant kid. A split-second decision not to review a promotional video for his art gallery cascades into controversy that costs Christian his comfortable, high-paid job again because Christian is not averse to  accepting responsibility for a video he did not make but had merely hurriedly approved.

Christian (Claes Bang) explains one of the installations in his gallery
that helps visitors to choose a route to view exhibits.
Evidently more people visiting his gallery tend to trust others.

The Square can make you laugh. Then it will make you squirm. That’s the power of Östlund. Christian in The Square may be the well-meaning Caucasian male in Europe today. It could be you, if you put yourself in Christian’s shoes. On Body and Soul from Hungary, Loveless from Russia, and The Square from Sweden are examples of superb scripts and mature cinema, superior to most films made elsewhere in 2017. Holywood is waking up to this Swedish director and remakes of his films are likely to be made in USA.

P.S. The film The Square won the Golden Palm for the best feature film in competition and the Vulcain Prize for its Production Design at the Cannes Film Festival; and swept the European Film Awards winning the Best European film, best comedy film, best director, best actor, best screenwriter and best production design awards. Ruben Östlund’s previous feature film Force Majeure (2014) has been reviewed earlier on this blog. The 2017 films On Body and Soul from Hungary and Loveless from Russia have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access that review.) The Square is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

218. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film “Nelyubov” (Loveless) (2017) (Russia), based on his co-scripted original screenplay with Oleg Negin: Indirectly encapsulating the state of politics in Russia from late 2012 to December 2015 and religion as practised today in that country.

On the very obvious level, Loveless is a modern tale of a middle-class family living in Moscow. Boris and Zhenya, the parents of a 12 year old schoolboy Aloysha, are on the verge of a divorce.  This might appear to be a tale of the disappearance of the anguished kid deprived of parental love—but the film is much more.  What is not so obvious in Loveless, is precisely what makes the film outstanding—as is the case of any Zvyagintsev feature film. The key to appreciating Zvyagintsev is to “suspend your belief” in the obvious and re-evaluate what was presented. And every shot of his films is loaded with silent commentary for any astute viewer to pick up and relish.

There is a special flavour that exudes from original screenplays conceived by directors in contrast to adapted screenplays based on novels, plays and historical events. That  flavour will make an erudite viewer sit up. Barring the exception of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Banishment (built on the framework of the US novelist William Saroyan’s The Laughing Matter) all four other Zvyagintsev’s films are based on the original screenplays.  The last four of the five Zvyagintsev feature films were co-scripted with Oleg Negov. If there is one common thread that binds all the five works --it would be love and absence of love, often within the walls of a family. To the more astute viewer, there are two other common perspectives in all the five films: the political state of Russia and religion in Russia, as practised by the Russian Orthodox Church today.  These statements are explained in the paragraphs that follow.

Aloysha: at the mercy of parents who want to divorce

Zvygaintsev in an interview with Nancy Tartaglione published in Nov 2017 in stated ( “These events (in Loveless) take place against a very specific historical background. The film begins in October of 2012, when people were full of hope and were waiting for changes in the political climate, when they thought that the state would listen to them. But 2015 is the climax of their disappointment: The feeling that there is no hope for positive changes, the atmosphere of aggression and the militarization of society, and the feeling that they are surrounded by enemies.” This statement is further testimony to what any Zvyagintsev film enthusiast already knew; that all Zvyagintsev films’ plots can be viewed as political metaphors. Zvyagintsev’s and Negin’s Aloysha is an obvious metaphor of Russia today.

Boris: the father who is more worried about keeping his job after the divorce
than looking after his son

Zhenya: the mother more interested in a richer lifestyle after the divorce

Zvyagintsev’s first film The Return was about two young boys who grew up in the apparent absence of love from their biological father and their affinity to him when he does return.  When the kids understand their father’s love, it is too late. In his second film Banishment, the focus is on love and absence of love between mother and father, as also between father and children.  When the husband ultimately appreciates his wife’s love for him, it is too late. In Zvyagintsev’s third film Elena, a rich man has a hedonistic daughter from his first marriage, a grown-up offspring whom he loves but that love is only reciprocated by her in an aloof manner. Elena, also has a biological son, daughter-in law and grandson from an earlier marriage, whom she loves and cares for financially. The focus of Elena is also on the love or the lack of love between husband and wife. In Zvyagintsev’s fourth film Leviathan, the husband forgives his erring wife and obviously intensely loves her and their son.  That film had included a sermon by a Russian Orthodox priest in the church (towards the end of the film) that stated "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Thus, love or lack of it within the family connects all the five Zvyagintsev films.

Apart from Zvyaginstev, much of the high quality of the last four films ought to be attributed to co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin. Their collaboration is akin to late career collaborations on scripts of director Andrei Konchalovsky with Elena Kiseleva, of director Krzysztof Kieslowski with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, of director Aleksandr Sokurov with Yuri Arabov, and of director Ken Loach with Paul Laverty. Each of these collaborations has been spectacular. In Loveless, the script reflects the socio-political Russia (mention of the Ukraine war on television is like a loss of a child to father Russia), partially cut trees preparing the ground for more concrete constructions, while older buildings are crumbling, uninhabited and neglected. (In doing so, they seem to be paying a silent tribute to Andrey Tarkovsky’s films Stalker and Solaris.)

Loveless may seem to be lacking in the religious fervour of the scriptwriters more obvious in the earlier works such as Leviathan and Banishment.  Is it really so? Boris and his co-worker at work talk about their boss (they refer to him as “Beardy”) as a fundamentalist Christian who wants all his employees to be happily married, if they want to keep their jobs.  Another worker, it is revealed, who was not happily married, paid someone to act as his wife and progeny at an official get together to keep his job.  Zvyagintsev revealed in an interview that the character of Beardy was built on a real Russian industrialist with a similar mindset.  Zvyagintsev is a deeply religious director who is disapproving fundamentalist religious fervour indirectly in Loveless.  Similarly, when Zhenya’s mother invokes God briefly, it is not a religious outburst but more of a reflex comment from a “Stalin in skirts,” as Boris describes his mother-in-law, invoking God.  Zvyagintsev and Negin are clearly pointing to the lack of understanding of religion of those who profess their faith but act to the contrary. Another commentary on Russia today!

When the police force gives up on locating Aloysha, social groups get into the act without any monetary reward. Even though Zvyagintsev protests that his films are universal and not social or political, it might be a strange coincidence that the age of Aloysha is precisely the number of years Putin has headed the Russian government.

The mother is more concerned with her smartphone
than looking after her biological son,
who she claims is even beginning to smell like his father

The absence of love in Loveless is not merely between a set of divorcing parents and their growing son.  There is no love lost between Zhenya and her mother, the “Stalin in skirts,” who lives alone in a fortress, hardly ever in touch with her daughter.  In the search for the missing Aloysha, the police find a body of a similar 12 year old—evidently there are other Aloyshas in Russia today. Perhaps the current generation is behaving thus because of how their parents behaved and acted religious in the past when they did not translate their belief into actions.

What are the reasons for these instances of absence of love? Loveless suggests that it could be hedonism, the love for modern smart-phones overtaking interest in their immediate family, or it could even be the pursuit of wealth and comfort.

Much of these opinions are not said overtly but effectively captured by Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, as they did together in four of the five Zvyagintsev films. Krichman’s camera lingers to capture more than the action, he focuses on the environment that plays a silent role in the events. Krichman is emerging as a major cinematographer alive and making films today.  The best sequence of Loveless is the silent scream of Aloysha, reminiscent of actor Rod Steiger’s final anguished scream towards the end in The Pawnbroker (1964).

Zvyagintsev is also a master of using silent sequences for effect followed by pulsating minimalist music. He had used Philip Glass’ music very effective in both Elena and Leviathan. In Banishment, he had used the music of Arvo Part.  In Loveless, he asked Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, a French duo, to compose the music by merely providing the story.  They came up with “11 cycles of E” made of one note and one rhythm, which is quite similar to the soundtrack of Elena.  The Galperines won the European Film Award for Best Composer with the interesting citation that stated the intelligent piano effects made the score work like an extra character added to the unfortunate family.

The first and closing sequences of both Elena and Loveless have a similar and familiar Zvyagintsev signature: the sound/images of a hooded crow cawing on leafless trees in bleak and cold exterior shots of an urban setting. It is depressing. Yet the subjects of these five films are broadly, truly universal. 

One of the final sequences with "Russia" in bold
to reiterate the unsaid 

Is this the best work of Zvyagintsev? Though the film Loveless is remarkable in most respects, the lengthy hedonistic scenes make the previous works of the director more palatable. Leviathan was definitely more complex than Loveless. Yet Loveless might prove to have more universal appeal than his other profound works.

P.S. The film Loveless won the Jury Prize award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Film award at the London and the Zagreb Film Festivals. It won the Silver Frog at the Cameraimage festival for its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who also won the best cinematographer award at the European Film Awards. Zvyagintsev won the Best Director award at the Asia Pacific Screen awards.  The four Zvyagintsev films The Return, Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access each review). Loveless is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author. Zvyagintsev is one of the top 10 active film directors for the author.