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In a nutshell: camp, ridiculous but very watchable

Popcorn rating: 3/5

You may think you know Roman Polanski from such films as Chinatown and The Pianist. If you do, then watching Bitter Moon will fill you with a growing sense of disbelief – what on earth was he thinking? Bitter Moon is a puzzle: did Polanski intentionally set out to make such a complete howler – a thoroughly camp riposte to arthouse fare such as Last Tango In Paris and The Night Porter; or did the material simply get the better of him – did he want out to make a dark tale of amour fou only to have it blow up in his face?

A young English couple, Nigel and Fiona meet the wheelchair-bound American writer, Oscar, and his voluptuous young, French wife Mimi on a cruise. With a plot reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, Nigel and Fiona get increasingly sucked into Oscar and Mimi’s dark, sado-masochistic world, ultimately with tragic results. The general narrative tone is all over the place: one minute Peter Coyote as Oscar is wistfully recounting his move to Paris, the next he’s Benny Hill on crystal meth, a leering caricature of middle-aged lust. Meanwhile Mimi, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, frantically munches the scenery like Jessica Rabbit channelling Zola’s Therese Raquin. As Fiona, Kristin Scott-Thomas manages to retain a level of dignity conspicuously lacking elsewhere in the film, but Hugh Grant’s Nigel is simply a reminder that it’s taken the Leveson Enquiry to finally move his public profile on from the kind of bumbling stereotype he so effortlessly displays here.

Some of the scenes are a hoot: there’s an ‘erotic’ breakfast encounter between Oscar and Mimi that has to be seen to be believed, with a pop-up toaster punchline reminiscent of Morcambe & Wise; and the climactic New Year’s Eve party on the cruise ship is more like a tawdry office do, with Mimi’s expressive dancing-in-a-circle turn rivalling David Brent’s for its banality. In fact the whole setting of the cruise is suspect, as it more closely resembles some grim, extended North Sea ferry-crossing than a luxury excursion.

This is all so comprehensively wrong that it exerts a kind of magnetic pull – you can’t help but stay glued to it to see what horrors Polanski can come up with next. The imminent UK release of Carnage suggests that he’s actually perfectly at home doing comedy, but with Bitter Moon you’re never certain of his intentions, and whether or not they match the outcome. It might well be his all time career blip (personal issues aside), but it’s worth a punt for its sheer, perverse entertainment value.

Reviewer: Tom Ridge

In a nutshell: Intense, thrilling and strangely enigmatic.

Popcorn rating: 4/5

This is an eerily sparse thriller in which indie cinema’s onetime enfant terrible, Vincent Gallo, stars as a Muslim fighter redacted from Afghanistan to an unnamed European country, whereupon chance circumstances leave him in classic fugitive-on-the-run territory.

Directed by Pole Jerzy Skolmowski, Essential Killing is virtually wordless yet utterly taut in its plotting: there’s no character development as such so the film’s central protagonist is defined by action alone, determined by the relentless forward-motion of the narrative. It’s also redolent of specific movie genres and archetypes: the western outlaw, and also the rootless ronin of samurai films. Here Gallo is a solitary figure in an alien landscape, a desert fighter transplanted to an unnamed location that’s wintry, inhospitable and hostile.

This works as an existentialist action flick with a kind of moral blankness at its centre: we only identify with Gallo insofar as the suspense of his predicament dictates it, while his character remains inscrutable. And the film’s opening leaves no doubt as to his status as a combatant, rather than someone simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. The scenes of the aftermath of his capture are brutal and dehumanising, and yet his portrayal, once freed and on the run, stays stubbornly defined by action alone. And while some of this action is interspersed with flashbacks to a pre-war lifestyle, these appear as near-hallucinatory inserts, adding an element of cinematic disorientation to the otherwise pared back scenes of flight and fight.

As the action progresses, a dreamlike sense of displacement begins to invade the narrative’s realism, ultimately leading to a conclusion that’s logical and visually arresting but also poetic and oddly elliptical.

Reviewer: TomRidge

In a nutshell: a peek into the abyss – don’t stand too close to the edge when you’re reaching for your peanuts.

Popcorn rating: 4/5

Like De Niro in his heyday, and more recently Christian Bale, Javier Bardem is an actor prepared to suffer for his art: in No Country For Old Men he sported an outrageously bad pudding-basin haircut and in Biutiful he’s got the kind of mullet Jason Donovan would have died for (and which probably still haunts his dreams). He even gets to wear it in a ponytail. But for Bardem’s character in Biutiful the suffering doesn’t end there.

The film’s narrative is more or less a descent into hell for Uxbal, the middle-aged hustler played by Bardem. Set in a Barcelona that is far from the sophisticated European destination of the average mini-break, it’s a stark depiction of an illegal immigrant underclass, for which Uxbal brokers various forms of employment, and of one man’s life spiralling out of control even as it begins to end. Early on Uxbal is diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer (cue grim scenes of bloody urine and incontinence) and the film documents his decline as he attempts to shore up his children’s security and deal with the lingering aftermath of his failed marriage while staging scenes of mounting dissipation and, ultimately, tragedy.

Written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Biutiful is a combination of fragmentary narrative and dirty realism, with a spiritual thread running through it. There’s no easy redemption on offer here though, and the film is emotionally draining but oddly rewarding. Not perhaps the best Sunday evening in – it left me with a nagging, school-on-Monday sense of melancholia – but raw and watchable all the same.

Reviewer: TomRidge

In a nutshell: Better than you might think

Popcorn rating: 3.5/5

Melancholia. In which Lars von Trier shows us the end of the world as a metaphor for depression. No wait, come back, it’s really a lot better than that sounds. Beginning with the end (or THE END rather), the film opens with a series of stunning slow motion tableaux, soundtracked by Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, culminating in the earth exploding on impact with an enormous blue planet. Beautifully photographed by Manuel Alberto Claro, these scenes are simply breathtaking.

However, once introduced to our cast as they meet their inevitable end, the film then shifts gear and moves into its first part, entitled Justine, after Kirsten Dunst’s character. Justine is a bride to be on her wedding day, the reception being held at her brother-in-law’s opulent country hotel, in its sprawling grounds. This all appears to be happening prior to widespread knowledge about the earth’s imminent demise. Von Trier develops this into a masterful ensemble piece, where Justine’s burgeoning depression is met with incomprehension from her pragmatic sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) and the remaining guests, including the groom. Ultimately Justine’s marriage is destined to end as almost as soon as it has begun and von Trier unflinchingly shows her disintegration in the face of demands she’s simply unequipped to meet.

In Claire, the film’s second half, the arrival of the blue planet, named Melancholia, is imminent and the family – Claire, her husband, her son and Justine – are marooned at the country estate, awaiting their fate. Here we see Claire’s pragmatism tested, and broken, by her fear and helplessness in the face of cosmic events. Justine, however, now seems to have found a kind of equilibrium and is fully accepting, if not welcoming, of the end of the world. The feeling von Trier creates is one of claustrophic intimacy set against the beautiful landscape of the setting and the terrible inevitability of total destruction.

Melancholia is not an easy film, but that’s hardly a surprise. Von Trier doesn’t quite put his characters through the wringer here like he did in Antichrist – there are no mutilated genitals to contemplate – but he does successfully capture a sense of hopelessness, and his big metaphor of a large blue planet inexorably obliterating life as we know it, works in spite of its obviousness.

Reviewer: Tom Ridge