Corpus Christi – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Directed by Jan Komasa

Written by Mateusz Pacewicz

Taking inspiration from real events, Corpus Christi, named after the Christian feast the film builds towards, centres around the spiritual awakening Daniel receives while serving time in a Polish detention centre for youths. Upon release, Daniel wishes to repent; in search of absolution, he desires to become a priest but is unable to do so due to his criminal record. Unwilling to work in a sawmill for the rest of his days and stumbling upon a chance encounter with an ailing vicar, Daniel takes on the name of the prison chaplain, performing sacramental rights in the vicar’s absence and he begins to find a sense of forgiveness in a village suffering from a tragedy.

As fragile and unsettling as he is charming, Bartosz Bielenia carries Corpus Christi, there is no question about this. Side characters play their part, but all receive a lift in scenes they share with Bielenia. Closer to the start of his career than the end, Bielenia commands a measure of emotions which is enviable to even seasoned experts. Using a concoction of troubled confusion, anxiety and lashings of aggression, he still achieves Pacewichz’s humour in the script in a natural way with co-star Eliza Rycembel.

The film is a rare piece which communicates much by saying little; few issues are drawn out or laid bare to the audience. The symbolic struggle of political over religious influence or power is not spelt out, but rather proffered up for our interpretation. A crucial idea is that no matter the influence office possesses, only one form of authority can force the other to, quite literally, bend the knee. Power-play, particularly masculine, is intrinsic to the plotline. In recognising Daniel’s influence over the community, Leszek Lichota’s Mayor of the town gives a subdued performance, resonating with Komasa’s stringent realism in direction. There are multiple opportunities for melodrama, for exaggeration and outright antagonists, but thankfully we never fall into these pitfalls.

With reverence, even while acknowledging the declining faith in Europe and that many churchgoers do so out of habit rather than belief, Mateusz Pacewichz’s script refrains from petty jabs at religion. Instead, it allows commentary of the church’s apparent confusion over redemption, confession and forgiveness. Sexton for the vicarage – Aleksandra Konieczna as Lidia – is the representative of the judgement which dictates these communities, with a sense of self-conflicting authority, which hinders future generations’ opportunities to grow in this brutal coming-of-age drama.

Corpus Christi is a quiet film, unafraid of holding both the moment and indeed the shot. It paces itself to the beat of the audience’s breath, stilling in the poignant moments of death or reflection, with cuts occurring in quick succession via the introduction of club-anthems, drug abuse and strobe lighting. Piotr Sobocinski Jr’s cinematography works, but struggles to find a reflective vision for the film, unsure of how to stylise the aesthetic. In aiming for realism, the film has choice moments of spectacle, usually at the hand of effects, lighting or performance, rather than editing or camera work. There’s a blur, which complements interior shots of smoke or incense, but one can’t help feel the hollow coldness of the blues and greys aren’t being used to full effect, excluding, of course, an uncomfortably brutal climax.

Viscerally, the conclusion absconds from the perverse silence which has set the pace before it. A gut-punch, this finale is a shattering of the illusory happy ending, a reminder of the film’s subcutaneous message that the young are the ones paying for the attitudes of established communities. Following his previous feature film Warsaw 44, Corpus Christi is principal evidence of Jan Komasa’s spectacular ability as a filmmaker, in and outside of Poland. The elements are there, and further collaboration with Bartosz Bielenia is hopefully on the cards as the two evolve together.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/corpus-christi/

La Belle Époque – Edinburgh Filmhouse

Written & Directed by Nicolas Bedos

Westworld, but closer to reality, La Belle Époque places the addictive nature of nostalgia at the forefront of its narrative. Posing that this re-enactment of the past has its benefits, but it’s drug-like properties are far from a healthy escape, that the past is pleasurable but has capabilities of crippling the future. When disillusioned artist Victor crosses the path of screenwriter Antoine’s invitation to take part in his ‘time travel’ show, in which wealthy individuals embark on nostalgic trips, Victor uses this as a means to travel back to the 70s’, where he met the love of his life.

And really, the love of his life could arguably be the time-period itself with how Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography frames the nicotine-stained air permeating Victor’s memories. Theatrical in illusion, there is a tremendous sense of the performance ability on show throughout La Belle Époque. As his God-complex reigns supreme, director and screenwriter turned cupid Guillaume Canet’s character of Antoine offers a dissection of the behind-the-scenes skeleton to movies, theatre and media. Earpieces and set designs, sudden changes to the script and orgy direction – it’s a tough gig.

Canet’s ambition, to re-ignite the creative furnace of Victor’s talent, seems to tie itself into his failed marriage with the Cheshire grinning cheat, Marianne. Fanny Ardant achieves a rarity within romantic comedies. A redemptive arc, from callous, understandable frustrations, to an empathetic character without reversing everything which made Marianne interesting. It comes as no shock, that the love of his life has always been Marianne, and the young woman Victor meets in the café, Margot (Doria Tillier), with whom he falls in love, is a refreshingly engaging performance, echoing Brigitte Bardot or Anna Karina. And who would deny a revisit to the sound score of the best days they had?

In a world in which you could dine with Marie Antoinette, get royally leathered with Ernest Hemmingway, or chat it out with the Third Reich (for whatever reason) the beauty of Nicolas Bedos’ script comes from the sincerity of Victor’s request to not live the life of another, or to piggyback stories, but merely replay his own. Daniel Auteuil’s transformation from beleaguered, pathetic punching bag of a man who resigns himself away from social media and digital dominance into rejuvenation, though reliant on the past, is as humorous as it is charming. His chemistry with all other performers, from lead to side, is exceptional, suggesting a genuine sense of believability as he delves deeper into Antoine’s French cafes and weed dens.

A cautionary word, Bedos’ film is for the sweetest of teeth. Straying from outright happy endings, there are heapings of sepia-tinted sentiment. Keeping La Belle Époque somewhat grounded, Bedos stringently maintains its plot device, refusing to deviate from the narrative mechanics, where so many other romantic-comedies would fall back into a traditional third act structure. The resolution sticks within the boundaries Bedos’ has set-up, a finale which certainly offers a distinct difference from the opposites the genre would habitually fall upon. 

La Belle Époque is perhaps the closest a French romantic-comedic farce will achieve recognition from a Hollywood audience. In certainty, the most recent with pangs of Richard Curtis. It’s this dedication to its plot-devices and characters make Bedos’ film a rousing success of comedic gold, with just enough drama to drive forward our leads. You may leave with toothache, but sometimes an indulgence in sucrose serves to remind us to unburden ourselves of pessimistic attitudes, gander at the past, but continue to move forward with our lives. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/la-belle-epoque/

Hitch Hike to Hell

Written by John Buckley

Directed by Irvine Berwick

Ah, the exploitation genre of cinema. A bounty of films which attempt success, or creativity, through touchy, niche or even lurid events and narratives. They often range from B-movie schlock to the entertaining and even impressive in design, to the downright absurdly offensive in how little hindsight the filmmakers take into consideration. Then there are these middle-ground ones; the attempted video nasties which can’t even get their hands dirty.

Borrowing heavily, chiefly from the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, and of course, notorious pieces of rape-revenge and hitchhiking sub-genres (The Last House on the Left, The Hitch-HikerIrvin Berwick and John Buckley had an image for Hitchhike to Hell, an exploitative movie depicting the rape and murder of women who run away from home. Guising it with the ‘moral’ compass circulating in America at the time, of young girls leaving conservative (even abusive) homes and finding themselves assaulted by men on the highways.

After his sister flees the family home, devastating his mother, Howard cannot comprehend why anyone would choose to run away from home and ‘hurt’ their parents. This includes those leaving genuine life-threatening, abusive homes, and in the film’s most teeth-gritting scene, a fourteen-year-old runaway. Working as a laundromat deliveryman, Howard begins a life of picking up hitchhikers, and ‘punishing’ them for their cruel actions.

Arrow Film’s dedication to re-releasing films is a triumph, with successes in bringing treasures to the public and breathing fresh life into undead classics. Here though, they’ve managed an impressive feat – producing a 30-minute documentary extra and further piece, Road to Nowhere: Hitchhiking Culture Goes to Hell by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas which far exceed the film in terms of production, intent and even lampoon Buckley’s flaccid attempt at concealing his bias towards women.

Even more staggering is that while Harold’s overall performance redeems paint drying, the writing behind this Bates-light character contains relative decency with a slow, categorical depiction of a suffocating mother-son relationship, at least substantially for films of this ilk. Robert Gribbin’s Howard, who flips so frequently from good Samaritan to serial killer in the mere mention of family problems encroaches on ludicrous in depiction. Whereas the amateur performances from the women he abducts make for an unsettling realness to the crimes, Gribbin’s ‘turmoil’ at his actions and his love for his ‘Mamma’ feels hollow. By no means, in-depth, or even redemptive, Berwick’s direction at least seems to attempt multiple dimensions to the narrative, with Russel Johnson turning in the only decent performance as Captain J.W. Shaw.

Hitchhike to Hell fails to delve into the depravity others within the genre submerge themselves. Is this a positive? Not necessarily. While it means we thankfully abstain from morose depictions of sexual violence, it trivialises the matter with how little care is taken. The depictions of rape, set to hideously inappropriate music, become comedic in poor acting and tone, and this isn’t A Clockwork Orange, these score choices are not the decisions made for shock or atmospheric tone, there’s just no thought process here at all. 

Hitchhike to Hell tries capitalising on the exploitation genre it so desperately wants to be a part of but fails to be, and in failure brands itself as even worse a film by its inability to go that extra mile, to be creative or obscene. It commits a cardinal sin of any exploitation film – it’s dull – and for all the things of which it could have been guilty, this is perhaps the worst. While Arrow has once more released a well-maintained cut of the film, keeping the scratches, grit and grime of the film’s footage, it’s one of the video ‘nasties’ which should have been left at the roadside.

Available on Blu-ray now.

Review originally published for The Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/hitch-hike-to-hell/