THE GOLDEN FIVE

THE GOLDEN FIVE

‘Ideas that eat up our life and burn us to the flesh!’

So says the old man Alavantia, the narrator of the highly acclaimed film The Golden Five (2016) which won awards at New Jersey and Cardiff and numerous other festivals, and is an impressively nuanced study of betrayal and forgiveness: meaning it is an eye opener in more ways than one. It is about lethal gangster-style oppression by the state in the former Communist Yugoslavia of the early 1950s, something that it is easy to believe was the exclusive preserve of Stalin and his cronies, who of course practised it on an industrial scale in the former USSR. The Yugoslav leader Josip Tito (1892-1980) at various times stood up bravely to the demands of the Soviets, as well as ultimately breaking off relations with the Stalinist Albania of Enver Hoxha, so that he might be myopically regarded as some kind of notional liberal. Authoritarian or not, certainly his greatest achievement was to weld the various small republics of Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia etc into a functioning and unified whole, and to hold together this labile entity which accommodated Muslims and Orthodox and Catholic Christians in a nominally atheist state. He did that so well that Yugoslavia managed to hang together for a good 47 years, until it began to implode in 1992, with the beginning of the Bosnian War.

The Golden Five was directed by Goran Trenchovski (born 1970) who is a former Macedonian TV producer and dramatist, and the author of several incisive works of film and theatre studies. He is also for the record the brains behind the annual short film festival Asterfest which takes place in his native town of Strumica in North Macedonia.  His film is set in Strumica in 1951 when it was in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and the communists had been in power for little more than 5 years. Scripted from a controversial novel by Bratislav Tashkovski, it is based on real, appalling, and barely credible events. In a nutshell a group of 5 boy students from Strumica, studying variously in Zagreb, Belgrade and the Macedonian capital Skopje, are engaged in low level dissidence which at times seems comically innocent. As well as an antique copy of the Bible, they also read smuggled translations of Theodore Dreiser’s American Tragedy which is soon to appear as a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and with whom one of the boys is romantically besotted. The town’s cinema ‘The Balkan’ is about to show the movie and tickets are at a premium. Meanwhile the local security police who parade around in trilby hats looking ironically like Mafia gangsters, monitor everything going on amongst these bumptious and educated types. They keep turning up in jeeps and strutting threateningly past these insolent kids who like to dance to bourgeois American pop music. The sinister head policeman Lamarinic is played to perfection by one of the Balkans’ best-known actors, the Emir Kusturica veteran Slavko Stimac (born 1960). Like Tito, Lamarinic was a partisan during the War, fighting the legendarily cruel Croatian Ustashe Fascists whose atrocities disgusted even the German Gestapo. Coming from a hard school, perhaps explains why he believes so fervently in the will of the people and the infallibility of his beloved socialist republic. His henchwoman and chief interrogator is called Zagarieva or Zago and is played by Biljana Tanevska, who you might recognise from the 2014 Children of the Sun by Antonio Mitrikeski, another gifted Balkan director. Zago is equally ruthless and she also happens to be cousin to Jiji (Igor Angelov, born 1977) a tailor and friend since childhood of the students. But while they are all brainy intellectuals debating about Tolstoy and French literature, Jiji is just a simple youth who is silently in love with Kata, and this becomes the signal pivot in this subtly paced film. For though Kata is fond enough of Jiji, she is deeply in love with handsome Maki (Alexsandar Ristoski) who studies in Zagreb and wishes to marry her, and in an Orthodox church at that, a procedure which in 50s Yugoslavia was likely to lead to draconian reprisals.

Early in the film, Zagarieva has a student called Alavantia pulled in by her goons, and orders one of them to start choking him round the neck with a rope. Alavantia as a young man is played by Vasil Mihail who you may have seen in the commercially successful Macedonian-US movie Dust (2001) starring Joseph Fiennes and directed by Milcho Manchevski. In old age in 2016 and also doubling as the film’s narrator, Alavantia is portrayed by Nenad Milovslavjev (born 1941). Six and a half decades earlier, Zagarieva had informed him that one of his student friends has escaped over the Greek border, and she wanted to know what he knew of his plans. She had also learnt that Alavantia was a trained printer, and there were currently these treacherous antisocialist leaflets being distributed around the town. To cut to the quick, if he agreed to spy on this student scum for her, she would let him go immediately. Terrified as he is, Alavantia points out the obvious, that he cannot possibly snitch on his childhood friends, and as a result is thrown in jail.

The Golden Five begins harrowingly in tender woodland with the sight of five trussed student corpses, all blood stained from bullets. We then move from 1951 to 2016 where the narrator Alavantia is in his mid-eighties, and is an academic in Australia returning to his native Strumica. He is attending a symposium in a smart hotel about the effect of displacement on persons in recent Balkan history, and is surprised to see that the hotel manager looks very much like Jiji 65 years on.

As narrator, Alavantia muses: ‘Then some of us fell asleep. But I haven’t.’

He adds with the mordant honesty of old age. ‘Although sometimes I wish I also were dead.’

The five corpses were of course Maki and his four student friends, including the one who had boyishly adored Elizabeth Taylor. One night, Lamarinic and his henchmen had turned up with a lorry, and taken them off at gunpoint in full view of the townsfolk. By then Alavantia was out of jail and had managed to escape the swoop, but he had paused to pick up an engagement ring given to Kata by Maki, which had dropped off in the mayhem. Lamarinic had muttered that they were being taken away for ‘summary proceedings’ meaning there would be no nonsense like a trial, and that they would be promptly disposed of. Jiji was conspicuously absent during the raid for previously his cousin Zagarieva had secretly ordered him to spy on his friends the students, and who knows he might even be rewarded for his pains. In this context, one of the most impressive things about the film’s scripting and direction, is that until the end of it we simply don’t know the actual nature of Jiji’s betrayal. I for one assumed he had blabbed about the origin of the printed leaflets, and had warned the police that they would be gathered together at such a time and place convenient for a raid. All of this is subtly compounded by the film’s narrative structure, which is essentially switching backwards and forwards between 2016 and 1951 via the musings of the octogenarian Alvantia. By chance, the hotel which is the venue for the symposium is owned by Jiji (played in his old age by Petar Arsovski, born 1945) and the two old men eye each other suspiciously before deciding on their respective identities. Jiji’s life these days is far from happy, doubtless in part because of his historical betrayal, but also because his daughter and son in law had been killed in a car crash. Worse still, his beloved granddaughter Stefanija (played by Stefanija Chobanova) is ill in hospital with a serious heart condition and urgently needs a transplant.

Back in 1951 the bodies had been reclaimed by their families from the forest to be given an Orthodox burial, and an ornate communal mausoleum was constructed in their memory. Some time later, Zagarieva had got her lackeys to sledgehammer this to pieces, as she claimed the former partisans were complaining these traitors were luxuriously commemorated, while their own comrades were not. Again, Trenchovski’s direction is subtle enough for Zago to suddenly relent half way through the demolition, as if to suggest that even monsters are capable of contrition, or perhaps we should say painfully mixed feelings. In the meantime, Kata is desperate with grief at the loss of her fiancé, and she goes around in black, eats very little, and is attended by Jiji who not only silently loves her, but takes her for cathartic pilgrimages to the forest where Maki and the others were shot. Pained by her heartrending sorrow, he gathers wild fruit and feeds her with it, and cannot restrain himself from kissing her. Kata gently reproves him and says it is impossible that she should forget Maki, but later a young priest rebukes her excessive mourning on spiritual grounds (as for death, God draws to Him the ones he loves), and adds:

‘Hate corrodes the heart and gives no space for love…’

So it is that Kata relents and before long  marries Jiji, and decades later Alavantia turns up at the old woman’s door bearing a single rose and the engagement ring she had lost in 1951. Fresh from Australia he had stopped off at Belgrade to research the communist archives, where he had found an ancient document instigated by the Secretary of the Strumica Communist Party, Zagarieva. In it was a false statement signed by her cousin Jiji the tailor, that he had seen all five of the students plotting to escape over the Greek border, and had done his duty and informed the authorities. They had been shot while attempting treasonous desertion of their homeland, not for the ideological deviance of leafleting and singing American pop songs. Again, Trenchovski’s crafty direction encourages us to think that the old woman Kata will turn on her traitor of a husband who evidently had caused the murder of her fiancé, and had sat on that appalling fact for 65 years. Instead the film ends with TV cameras interviewing Jiji, who of his own initiative had invited them to witness his public confession. After describing the terrible lump of guilt he had carried about with him for all of his adult life, he tearfully describes what actually took place. Cousin Zagarieva had held a gun to his head to get him to sign that document, and he was so terrified he had wet his trousers. The simple truth was that Jiji was not a sly Judas at all, but just a young man as frightened as an innocent animal of being slaughtered on the spot.

The film concludes with this convincingly stereoscopic view of the past, in which someone like Jiji was as much a victim of totalitarian cruelty and ideological heartlessness, as was Maki and his four friends. Kata has forgiven her old husband for what he could not avoid, and even better Stefanija their teenage granddaughter has had a successful transplant operation. It was she Stefanija who had organised a new monument in the centre of the town in memory of The Golden Five, and the work of reconciliation and forgiveness as urged by the young priest has begun to purge the nightmare of their past.

NB The Golden Five by Goran Trenchovski can be viewed with subtitles on YouTube

The next post will be on or before Friday 28th February

COMEDY, NIGHTMARE AND MARIA SAAKYAN

COMEDY, NIGHTMARE, AND MARIA SAAKYAN

One reason for choosing to watch world cinema, or for that matter reading world literature, is that the subject matter might well stir your pity and/or your political conscience. It might deal with, for example, bitter ethnic or religious conflict in East Europe or the Middle East, hence the ultimate business of life-or-death survival. Alternatively, it can be an exploration of harrowing poverty, poignant collective tragedy or other extremes, meaning that the content is inevitably gripping and engaging from the start. In the case of the 2007 Mayak (The Lighthouse) made by Armenia’s first ever female director Maria Saakyan (1980-2018) in this first full length feature she performs the unique feat of blending unhinging and instructive farce with the grim nightmare of civil war. In that respect the director’s own experience is broadly parallel to that of the film’s heroine Lena (Anna Kapaleva, born 1979). Saakyan was a victim of the Nagorno-Karabakh war (1988-1994), where that unstable province within Azerbaijan which had an ethnic Armenian majority, led to Armenia inevitably taking the side of the secessionists. Saakyan was 8 years old when the war started, and at the age of 12 she and her parents fled the Armenian capital Yerevan for the safety of Moscow. Her film is set around 1992 which was 2 years after the USSR imploded, and when the former Soviet republics of Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan etc had to swiftly come to terms with their new autonomy. For decades the lingua franca for all these countries, was Russian, and much of the film’s dialogue is in that language, which of course has guaranteed it a far larger audience than if it had been scripted entirely in Armenian. Ironically not only Maria Saakyan was displaced by ethnic war, but the scriptwriter Ghivi Shavgulidze (born 1979) had to leave Abkhazia, formerly part of Georgia, because of a secessionist conflict, and ditto the Serbian set designer Ivana Krcadinac was displaced by the Balkan conflicts of the early 1990s.

It is 1992 and Lena who is in her early twenties is returning by train to her remote Armenian village from Moscow. She is hoping to get her elderly grandparents to flee the war zone, and come back to Russia with her, and has fallen asleep on the primitive locomotive with its hard, wooden seats and peasant passengers. En route the train stops at a little station where an Armenian wedding is taking place, complete with accordion music, graceful dancing, and a touching light-hearted gaiety, and which is shot in black and white. So it is that despite the murderous war, lightheartedness is still a poignant possibility. Another black and white element is the recurrent image of massed flocks of flying cranes which is surely a graphic tribute to the great Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (1903-1973) and his 1957 The Cranes Are Flying. Other appreciative critics have discerned the influence of Tarkovsky (1932-1986) and his haunting cinematography, evident in his legendary films Ivan’s Childhood (1982) and Andrei Rublev (1966).

Prior to meeting her grandparents, Lena has to find her way to her own apartment along a wretched dirt road cloaked in fog. Fog and mist are ubiquitous in this movie and later we meet a village idiot (who is also in his own way very wise) improvising a sagacious two-line poem about it.

A mist is mysterious

And mystery is misty!

Because she is in a war zone, the electricity in Lena’s house is fitful. She tries fixing the sitting room light but in the end resorts to a candle in a special holder shaped like a lighthouse, hence the film’s title. Lighthouses are of course both reassuring and warning objects, and the next symbolic motif is when she puts on her favourite record from childhood, the sound track to a Russian animated version of Alice in Wonderland. The latter you may recall is both an unpredictable adventure set in two separate worlds, and also is a regular nightmare, i.e. just like a war. The next day walking the village comprised of high and stilted wooden houses, she hears neighbours who are both amiable and rowing angrily, and observes young women handwashing in metal tubs, and two very old ladies sawing up massive pieces of firewood. When she does locate her grandmother, who clings permanently to her mongrel dog for reassurance, the two of them end up accusing each other of negligence. Lena says there was no option but for her and her parents to get out of Armenia for their safety, and the grandmother (Olga Yakovleva, born 1941) insists it is all too late now to remedy matters. Later when she meets her adoring grandfather (Sos Sargasyan, 1929-2013) he assures her that neither of them wishes to leave, and even if things get very bad, because they are old, any enemy soldier is bound to leave them alone. At times these and other exchanges are shouted to the accompaniment of hovering enemy helicopters, people running for their lives, and at one point a small child screaming at the sight of a corpse floating down a rushing river…

That said, heart-warming farce allied with harrowing personal obsession, is never far away. There is neighbour Rosa (Ruzana Avetisyan) a middle-aged widow with her only son in the army, who is increasingly less in touch with his mother. Rosa’s remedy is to regularly pack a ton of luggage and wheel it on a trolley to the railway station, so that she can go in search of her boy. She does this routine every week, futile on each occasion, because the trains are all cancelled and the only ones going are those carrying troops. Worse still, she is pursued by the village idiot who eloquently dotes on her, and addresses her both as his wife and his mother. This crazy man is a splendid creation, aged about 50, spindly tall with a colossal bulbous nose, a floppy woolly hat, high boots, half-mast pants, and a strong line in megalomaniac patter.

‘My Queen Rosa!’

‘Go away!’

‘I am the great Maradona. And this is my wife, Rosalinda! These flowers are for you.’

‘Get lost!’

‘But Mummy, don’t you recognise me?’

‘Go away! Just leave me alone!’

‘The doctor says not to worry, Mummy!’

On her first morning in the village, Lena accompanies Rosa and the idiot to the railway station, and en route they behold the village accordionist bullying the life out of his small son as he tries to teach him the same instrument.

‘No, not like that! No, no, no! Tell me. Are you a man, or not?’

The accordionist is also put in charge of doling out emergency rations of bread from a lorry, and which the idiot ingeniously tries to steal from behind. The enraged musician batters him over the ear with a loaf for his pains, and it is this Charlie Chaplin aspect which swiftly reminds us of two unhinging things. One is that life really does go on with its inevitable comic side even under war conditions (the same object lesson is there in Emir Kusturica’s 2004 hilarious Life Is a Miracle where a Bosnian Serb falls for a Bosnian Muslim girl, when the two of them are supposedly at war). The second is that an idiot rather like a small child cannot comprehend what a war is, and that for him it has no meaning and in fact does not exist. Thus, we later have the dizzy set piece where at a funeral the idiot with a small boy next to him is watching an outdoor TV, on which the progress of the war complete with strategic maps is being explained to the viewer. Lena’s friend Izolda (Anastasya Srebennikova, born 1984) walks over and gives him a second clout to the ear for such disrespect at a funeral, though of course death is something else that both a small child and an idiot are incapable of comprehending.

Things continue in equally surreal fashion among the non-idiotic in the village. The elderly mother in law of Izolda, Kasiana (played by veteran Soviet actress Sofiko Chaureli, 1937-2008) starts noisily smashing all her windows, as she’s heard that war encourages burglary, and if she has no windows the burglars will assume the place has nothing of value inside. Lena points out it will be very cold but Kasiana thinks it worth the risk. Meanwhile after the funeral, the grieving old mother of the young woman who died of cancer, complains to Lena that her daughter is literally calling to her from the churchyard. Lena does not know how to reply, but it is a poignant irony worth noting that the director Maria Saakyan herself died of cancer at the tragically young age of 37.

Lena’s friend Izolda brusquely informs her that her return to the village here is completely pointless. Izolda herself has problems with her boyish husband Levan (Mikhail Bogdasarov) who is a compulsive womaniser. His latest village conquest Izolda nicknames Hamster-Looking Woman, and dourly adds:

‘Men rule the world.’

Levan arrives just then and says, ‘I am the world’s dictator. I talk when I wish and I don’t talk when I don’t wish!’

The following evening there is an impromptu party with plenty of home-made brandy, where Levan’s mother passes round old family photos, and mocks her philandering son for being so bald these days. After which, frightening war zone or not, we find ourselves firmly in the tradition of the East European surreal, and the tone changes to that of directors like Jiri Menzel or Pal Sandor where the preposterous and the non sequitur have their day. The daughter in law Izolda drunkenly turns to Kasiana and says:

‘Tell him to kill that woman (the Hamster-Looking Woman)’

Kasiana to Levan, ‘Kill that woman…’

Promptly from her son. ‘Sure. No problem.’

His mother, ‘But aren’t you ashamed? You’ve got a beautiful young wife and you go and take a mistress?’

Levan picks up a boiled egg and commences to berate it for taking a mistress, tapping it punitively on the head with a spoon.

Izolda, ‘The problem is there is no female solidarity.’

Kasiana mockingly, ‘What is that? When it happened to me, I just picked up a saucepan and battered him over the head.’

To round off the fractured table talk, Lena who is also very drunk, lifts up a rifle lying nearby, accidentally fires it, and sends a number of wooden screens flying…

Fascinatingly old Kasiana turns from pragmatic to prophetic the next day. She tells Lena that she has had a dream where she was a tree and couldn’t move.

‘But then I realised I had the whole of the world inside of me when I was a tree! Water and air and fibre and everything else. So that I didn’t need to move!’

Afterwards Lena goes to visit Izolda who has a handsome little dark-eyed son called Ghivi. Ghivi is in the bath and without thinking Lena picks up his toy helicopter and starts making pretend combat noises as she runs it the length of the child’s arm. After that she takes Ghivi out for a walk and as they explore a bird’s nest lying on the ground, an enemy helicopter descends above them and Lena freezes with terror for herself and her charge.  The helicopter moves off, but for sure it wasn’t a toy, and the lesson when it comes to little boys’ playthings is all too ominous.

Finally the first of a series of passenger trains arrives at the station, and it takes off Levan, Izolda and Ghivi to start a new life in Moscow. Lena without her grandparents will also depart very soon, and the film ends with archive black and white footage of a madly grieving and gesticulating Armenian woman who has lost her husband or perhaps her child. Then as abruptly it changes into an exquisite red and white streaked Armenian sunset, which wordlessly assures us that Hell and Hope and Grief and Hilarity and Ugliness and Divine Beauty, will never be completely set as worlds apart, no matter what.

NB The Lighthouse by Maria Saakyan (not to be confused with the 2019 film of the same name) is available on Second Run DVD

The next post will be on or before Tuesday 25th February

IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

IS IT A ROPE OR A SNAKE?

The most dramatic misperception I’ve ever experienced in my life, was almost exactly 30 years ago in the spring of 1990, when I was a youth of 39, didn’t need glasses for short or long distances, and had perfect hearing. I, my late wife Annie, and daughter Ione then 9 months old, were living in a very fitting location inasmuch as it had a strange hallucinatory identity, for it went by the name of the Debatable Lands, meaning where the English and Scots fought over the demarcation of the Border in the 16th century. Or to be more precise (and just to refute the heroic Carlisle Tourist Office account), where the Border Reivers whose favourite currency was stolen animals rather than bitcoins, raped, murdered, pillaged, stole each other’s cattle, and just to round things off nicely, burnt down each other’s farmsteads. We were renting a very old farmhouse in the far north east tip of Cumbria, about a mile from the Border where the latter followed the path of the much lamented and highly scenic old Waverley railway line between Carlisle and Edinburgh, and which also paralleled the route of the river Esk. The village we lived in, Penton, had a preposterous identity as it was composed of four separate hamlets all about 2 miles apart, some of whose names could not be located on any available map. There was Catlowdy where the Post Office and only shop were soon to close; then en route to the border village of Newcastleton, Roxburghshire was Bushfield, composed exclusively of forestry cottages… and between these poles was Penton itself comprising the railway station that had been closed for 20 odd years, and a small and touching riverside picnic area called Penton Linns. Half way between Penton and Bushfield was Nicholforest which subtended the handsome eponymous church and the imposing new village hall, and which is mentioned in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet as ‘The Nickle Forest’. Many a map pinpointed Catlowdy and nothing else, so that the parent which is to say generic village of Penton where we lived apparently did not exist…

So it was that my 1990 hallucination happened on the usually trafficless road from Nicholforest church to the renovated railway station, both of which emphatically and tangibly existed that pleasant spring day, as much as myself and my 9-month-old daughter who I had in a pushchair, and whose locomotion usually encouraged her to have an extended afternoon snooze. For suddenly I saw before me at some 200 yards distance, a quite inexplicable vision. It would seem to be some bizarre reciprocal analogue of myself and Ione, inasmuch as I perceived a small child of say 8 to 10 years old was sitting on an armchair plumb in the middle of this remote North Cumbrian backroad and was facing my daughter and me. At first, I thought this furniture object was static, until no I realised it was intermittently and clumsily being propelled along in my direction. Weirder still, immediately behind the seated child was either what looked like a walrus (!) or an Old English Sheepdog which had its chin resting squarely on the back of the chair. I should point out at this stage that I hadn’t been drinking, nor was I on any medication or psychedelic stimulant, whilst also sheepishly confiding that the floridity of my vision does not end there. On either side of the sofa, which item is of course not as a rule propelled unlicensed along the public highway by a Lewis Carroll animal, were what seemed to be a pair of custodial or perhaps I mean heraldic flamingos.

Beat that, is all I can say at this point…

As I moved with extreme hesitation towards this Debatable Lands vision, after some 100 yards the mirage resolved itself into something a good deal more intelligible, albeit still very much an epistemological rarity. For a start it wasn’t a sofa that I was looking at, but a capacious wheelchair that was in the middle of the road and trundling towards me, a vehicle that was broader than the run of the mill kind, given that its occupant, an elderly and short lady was a bit on the stout and billowing side. The Alice in Wonderland walrus cum sheepdog I soon learnt was simply her old husband, who was white haired and had an enormous beard, and he was in the habit of regularly stooping down to chat with her, so that from a distance it seemed as if his walrus and/or Old English fizzog was permanently flush with her chair.

Nor were the flamingos flamingos, for they were in fact two beautiful peacocks, in themselves permanent exquisite hallucinations, two majestic pets kept by the gamekeeper who worked on the estate that this old couple lived on in a peppercorn rent cottage. The wheelchair lady fed them with the choicest of titbits, which obviously explained why the pair of them were following the old couple like ceremonial courtiers. The couple did not work for the estate, but as Harriet and Joe eventually explained to me the estate was looking for loyal tenants, long stay and reliable, not fly by night kids who would be here for a month or two at most. Then, after she had complimented the touching beauty of my sleeping daughter, Harriet told me from her wheelchair:

“Long stay alright.”

“Are you?” I asked her in all ignorance.

“You betcha! I ain’t going anywhere in the next five minutes …”

The next post will be on or before Friday 14th February

ANGRY WOMEN AND ANGRY SONS

ANGRY WOMEN AND ANGRY SONS

The 2009 movie I Killed My Mother by French Canadian Xavier Dolan (born 1989) which received 3 Cannes Awards and a standing ovation, is remarkable in several ways.  Aside from the provocative title (don’t worry, the teenage protagonist Hubert, a part autobiographical creation, and played by Dolan himself, doesn’t actually kill his Mum) there is the fact the director was only 19 when he made it. Though bear in mind in this context, that there have been at least two major French Canadian artistic prodigies in the last couple of generations. The acclaimed novelist Marie-Claire Blais (born 1939) author of A Season in the Life of Emmanuel and Tete Blanche, two harrowing studies of lonely childhoods, made her debut aged 19 in 1959 with that incendiary autobiographical work, Mad Shadows. As for inordinately youthful film directors, we would need to look across to Iran, where the miraculously talented Samira Makhmbalaf (born 1980) made her poignant masterpiece about two incarcerated children, which was based on real events, The Apple, when she was all of 17.

Xavier Dolan’s debut is equally outstanding for the painfully explosive exchanges between the son aged 16 and his late-forties mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval, born 1960) where clearly Hubert loves and hates her with an equal intensity. As he puts it:

‘If anyone hurt my mother in any way, I would kill them. I would, I would kill them. But the fact is, there are hundreds of people I know who I like more than I like my mother.’

Chantale is a single parent as her husband Richard vanished when Hubert was small, unable to cope with the mundane demands of parenthood. He sees Hubert only at Christmas and Easter, and when the rows between mother and son reach boiling point, she slyly challenges him to go and live with his father. That is never going to happen of course, and perhaps explains why Hubert’s rage is often so volcanic. The exhausting dynamic is illustrated vividly at the start of the film, where she is driving him to his Montreal school and en route to her busy office job is both eating her breakfast and applying make-up. Hubert tells her the cream cheese at the corner of her mouth is disgusting to behold, and orders her bit by bit to remove it, so that in effect he turns into a tyrannical parent admonishing a child in the form of his mother. He also berates her for putting make-up on while driving as it is so dangerous. Pushed to the limits by his humourless nagging, she responds that he is just like his Dad, haughty and arrogant and considering himself better than everyone else. This is true as far as it goes, for when the next day she kindly asks him how his day has gone, aside from contemptuously lecturing her on the feebleness of her small talk, he says all the other schoolkids are illiterate morons…

As they row in the car, we are mostly on Chantale’s side, and when she says she is not just a machine for making meals and washing laundry, we can hear the authentic tones of the routinely if invisibly oppressed. In the end she kicks him out and orders him to walk the rest of the way to school. There he rapidly gets his own back when requested by his teacher Ms Clouthier (Suzanne Clement, born 1969) to survey-style quiz his parents about their jobs and work routines. He tells Julie Clouthier truthfully that he never sees his Dad, and as for his mother, she is dead.  Chantale learns of this monstrous lie the following day, and actually storms into the class room, saying she wants a word with him outside:

‘Do I look like I’m fucking dead?’ she shouts at the assembled pupils.

This is where director Dolan shows his class, which is to say his even-handedness in terms of the petty selfishness and embarrassment factors. Hubert is not only humiliated by his Mum’s ranting in front of his peers, but by the fact she is wearing a mad and fluffy white hat that adds 20 years to her. Later she is seen sporting a blue sweater with a bright orange winding creeper pattern on it. Worse still, when he comes home excitedly to say he has a solution to their problems, because he and his friend Antonin (Francois Arnaud, born 1985) will rent a flat together, she asks him to delay the discussion while she watches her favourite awful quiz show. This distraction is responsible for her vaguely agreeing to his plan for independence (his grandmother has left him money, so he can afford it) but then the next day, still watching the rubbish quiz show, she retracts her permission and says it’s crazy letting a 16 year old kid live away from home. Her fickleness drives Hubert insane of course, so that he rushes out and seeks out Julie Clouthier, and ends up spending the night at her house. The teacher is reluctant to have him there for obvious professional reasons, but she is moved by his plight as she herself has not spoken to her own father for a decade. Hubert also has a precocious literary talent and Julie is submitting one of his essays for an important competition on his behalf. At one point she rests her hand rather too long on his shoulder, and we wonder whether she is attracted to her very handsome pupil, and this again is where our teenage director has kept some of his thematic aces up his sleeve.

So far, we have seen Hubert and the equally handsome Antonin smoking dope together in the latter’s bedroom, and his laid-back single mother Helene (Patricia Tubasne) the polar opposite of Chantale, looking on approvingly and offering them alcohol. Helene also has a strong line in gorgeous young men half her age as one-night stands, and they parade around naked while grinning at the two stoned schoolboys. Even better, she works for an advertising agency and invites the pair of them to come in and do an avant garde collage on its walls, in the style of Jackson Pollock and his dripping technique. However, we are at least half way through the film before Helene surprises both Chantale and you and me, by coyly telling Hubert’s Mum that he and Antonin have been together, as an item, for 6 months now. Chantale had no inkling that her son was gay, so she is hurt by his secrecy and the fact that babbling Helene realises that Hubert has been keeping her in the dark.

Their reality becomes more explicit as after they have finished their avant garde dripping, Hubert and Antonin end up naked on the office floor and then have passionate sex. All of which notional personal liberation fades into perspective, when Hubert’s gruff dad Richard (Pierre Chagnon) invites him to his house at short notice. His fatherly embrace is stiff and perfunctory for he has also secretly invited Chantale there, as the pair of them have been plotting their son’s future. Because of his terrible school report, they are sending him to a boarding school out in the country, noted for its regime of discipline and hard work. Hubert of course goes berserk at this point and commences a four letter tirade against his unfeeling Dad, the one who never comes near him but is engineering his future by sending him to the equivalent of a country jail.

‘Fuck you, you motherfucker!’

Richard moves threateningly towards him, but of course at 16 years old there is nothing Hubert can do, if both parents are determined to have him incarcerated. When he enters the fearsome school, it proves to be a mixed bag. There is discipline right enough, as incredibly the pupils are penalised for handing their assignments in too slowly at the end of the class. Nevertheless, Hubert starts an affair with an attractive schoolmate called Eric, who sneaks him out to a nightclub where the pair of them take some speed. Cue Hubert ending up back at his mother’s house high and gabbling and ecstatic and repeatedly telling Chantale how much he loves her. She says she loves him too, but sends him back determinedly to school, and the next day he is badly beaten up by 2 homophobic pupils. He then succeeds in running away, for Antonin turns up with his mother’s car, but as he drives his lover away he tells Hubert that he is completely selfish. Then after a pause adds:

“But I love you.”

Still on the run, Hubert makes a second visit to Ms Clouthier, where she stresses how dangerous it if for her to have him there. Julie then reveals two significant things. That her stern old Dad who she hadn’t spoken to for ten years, had suddenly written to her offering reconciliation. More important, she is also leaving her teaching job and will be travelling the world with a friend, starting tonight as it happens. So, this is goodbye for herself and Hubert…and she has no idea when she will return to the school if ever.

In the meantime, Chantale gets a phone call from the unctuous boarding school headmaster, who informs her that her son has eloped. The fugitive has also left a note saying that he can be found at his Kingdom.

‘What is the Kingdom, Madame?’

‘He means the house by the sea where we lived when he was small.’

The head then makes a catastrophic mistake by pointing out that Chantale being a single mother, perhaps Hubert needs a male presence in the house to instil some needful discipline. There is a pause of perhaps a second until Chantale ignites and delivers the most enjoyable rant in the film, outdoing even Hubert at his most ferocious. She tells the teacher that she herself grew up with a manic-depressive mother who spent half her life in mental hospital. Then came a husband who was a coward and couldn’t face grown up responsibilities, and ran away. She meanwhile has been getting up at 5.30 every morning for 15 years to get to her exhausting job. As for the headmaster with his Bugs Bunny tie and his cheap and sexist insinuations, what the fuck would he know? Why, he is the kind of idiot who would put red in with white in the washing machine…

‘Do you really like pink underwear, you moron? Fuck you, you motherfucker! And if I don’t get a refund for the school fees within a week I will be round there at your office and I will…’

Afterwards she drives round to the Kingdom, the beautiful seascape of Hubert’s infancy, and she finds her son and Antonin together on the beach. The film ends by switching without preamble to some crackling home movie where a beautiful child is playing joyfully with his handsome mother, and the tenderness between mother and son is manifestly eternal and indestructible

The next post will be on or before Friday February 7th

CHARITY BEGINS SOMEWHERE

CHARITY BEGINS SOMEWHERE

A week ago I was in a charity shop in North London that was staffed by a single elderly East European gentleman, and virtually all its contents were completely inaccessible. The books were stacked on shelves at head height, and went up to about 10 feet, and as no step ladders were provided, you would either need brilliant nay freakish long sight, or a good pair of binoculars, or even a telescope to read the titles. But then the place was so badly illuminated, your nifty optical instruments might not have functioned, and add to that that a huge immovable carousel with crime paperbacks was lodged in front of and only four inches from the book shelves, so there was no way of getting nearer the focus of your interest.

I am as you’ve probably guessed a second hand books and second hand DVD man, and the DVDs likewise were stacked at a remote altitude, but far flung as they were, I was able to spot the familiar covers of those blockbuster films that monotonously people every single charity shop. Stop me if you haven’t also spotted in Oxfam and Shelter and Scope, industrial quantities of the following: Taken (2008) the action thriller scripted by Luc Besson and starring Liam Neeson, an ex-secret service man whose daughter is abducted in Paris by Albanian sex traffickers; Heat (1995) another bluff one-word titled blockbuster, with De Niro, Pacino and Val Kilmer, which is all about the cop who decides to stop a legendary criminal busy planning his last pre-retirement heist. Finally, of similar historical longevity, and with a two-word title is the 2004 Napoleon Dynamite, a quirky US comedy about an awkward Idaho schoolkid and his attempts to help his friend win the class presidency. The hero Napoleon’s grandma breaks her coccyx in a quadbike accident, so although I haven’t seen it, it does sound a mite less formulaic than other transatlantic high school ‘romps’. Though to be sure, not all of the most popular charity shop films are formula thrillers or goofy comedies, which is to say that on occasion quality really can shine through, and especially if grotesque violence is part of the mix. So it is that with Javier Bardem as the bloodless psycho toting the lethal gas gun, the DVD of that fine movie the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men (2007) featuring Tommy Lee Jones as the old-fashioned principled cop, is absolutely everywhere, often 3 copies per charity shop. The same goes for the excellent Amelie (2001) a stereoscopic parable about the comic arduousness of finding real love. Starring Audrey Tautou, whose remarkable talent is as much in her ingenious facial mobility as her words, it might well have been a worldwide hit, but for once, with its idiosyncratic and stylised direction, it actually deserved to be.

I am as you know a world cinema freak, and you might say subtitles are my middle name, but sad to say in certain parts of London that conspicuously are chockablock with top notch posh girls’ grammar schools (whose pupils might notionally wish to learn what e.g. the French and the Italians think about love in all its contradictory aspects) there is not a single subtitled film in the charity shops. High Barnet for example is a prosperous middle-class area and has about a dozen charity outlets, none of which boasts even one foreign movie, not even Amelie. Yet by inscrutable perversity, in other affluent areas where they do actually contravene the stereotypical Brexit mentality, inasmuch as they boast a single foreign movie on their Oxfam or their Shelter shelves, it is nearly always the same one, a brilliant but shocking apocalyptic satire on human greed called Delicatessen directed in 1991 by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. It is about a leering butcher (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, born 1946) with a busy turnover in handymen as he keeps killing them and recycling them as food. Why I ask myself do these parochial and clearly chauvinistic areas, go for of all things, a tale about a gruesomely homicidal butcher, at least as frequently as they do for the charming and elfin Amelie, someone who has a not a trace of violence in her person and indeed is often taking on bullies and monomaniacs who try to dominate others?

The next post will be on or before Friday 24th January

LONDON LANGUAGE

LONDON LANGUAGE

There is a sandwich bar here in Hackney which calls itself ‘Freshly Sandwiches’, and that must surely be run by a foreigner, possibly a Turk or a Kurd who own many of the catering and supermarket businesses in this area. The point is that adverbs like ‘freshly’ are so called, because they ‘add to’ a verb, and of course in Freshly Sandwiches there is no verb. The proprietors have obviously confused Fresh Sandwiches with Freshly Made Sandwiches (‘made’ being a verb) and have produced a delightful fusion phrase, which let’s face it has a superior sound to it, as, to call your carry out joint ‘Fresh Sandwiches’ is to be rather on the prosaic and anticlimactic side, a bit like christening your handsome little son My Boy instead of say Benny or Montague.

Not that long ago, Hackney was regarded as a deprived area, so that businesses using faulty grammar and spelling were to be expected and tolerated. Nearby Hampstead, of course, home of the glitterati and literati, is a horse of another colour, so it was bemusing last week to see a shop front, a newsagent’s, where the hallowed area was boldly spelt Hamstead, a solecism little short of cultural treason. It reminded me of my native Cumbria, where for at least 20 years a rural slaughterhouse in a small village outside Carlisle, was signposted by the County Council Highways Department as an Abbatoir, which always made me think of a cross between the saccharine pop group and the Hebrew word for father. Being a vegetarian, I found such a ludicrous misspelling inordinately insensitive and unpleasant, and I kept thinking of penning my indignation to the same Department, but after 20 years of prevarication, someone else got there first, and now at last they have the rustic charnel house properly designated.

With London shop signs, it is not just typos like ‘confectionary’ and ‘stationary’ (used as a noun) that abound, there is also a fondness for tongue in cheek word play, frequently related to the specific metropolitan area. Hence in Brondesbury, there is a café called Brondes Age, and ingeniously in Kew Gardens the optician is called EyeQ, in line with umpteen local businesses revealing the chic letter Q as opposed to Kew in their title. Yesterday I visited the Caledonian Road and Barnsbury area (part of Islington) for the first time in my life, where I saw more of the same compulsive word play, though this time of the entertainingly laboured variety. On a plaque outside a pub called Doyle’s Tavern I beheld the following ingenious poem:

Alcohol is not in my vodkabulary

However, I looked it up on whiskeypedia

And learned if you drink too much

It’s likely tequilya

That last word saves this cautionary tale from jovial sentimentality, and the spelling of whiskey confirms that Doyle is or was an Irishman.

Further down the road, I was truly shocked to see that right in the middle of the community is a huge prison with all the usual trappings of barred windows and coiled wire at its highest reaches. I had no idea that prisons could be plonked down in the public eye so to speak, nor that this notorious one was 2 minutes walk from an overground station. HM Pentonville Prison is on the Caledonian Road, and it has a cheerful welcoming sign for the general public, and one wonders if its inmates ever see the same salutation on arrival. If they do, they are also likely to see something even more startling, for directly opposite the prison on the same major thoroughfare, is an enormous café that is called, wait for it, The Break Out Café. A quick scan online reveals that the blackness of this title is well understood, as you read from one Brian C, ‘So I ended up at the Breakout Café, ironically because I had to go into prison. But only to run a training course thankfully…’ Meaning you were only a cheerily whistling day tripper, Brian, and could have sat there all day, a free man in the Break Out after your teaching was over, had you so wished.

As for myself, I’m so naïve I am genuinely surprised the authorities haven’t forced the café to call itself something else, as that jokey name seems to be treading the precarious unknown land between incitement and vicarious wishful thinking. Because of course, every time we watch a film where the criminal is fleeing to evade the relentless cops, we always want him or her to succeed, as on some primal level we always identify with the panicking hunted rather than the determined hunter…

The next post will be on or before Thursday 16th January

CYPRUS FOR BEGINNERS

CYPRUS FOR BEGINNERS

My daughter Ione, her partner Ado and I, have recently spent the week before Christmas in Cyprus, my very first visit to what is regularly called the gateway to the Middle East. Meanwhile, if you’ve lived 6 years on a tiny Cycladean island like I have, you are bound to find the Greek half of Cyprus where we stayed, a radically different experience, and to feel as if your cosmopolitan registers are continually out of synchrony. For a start the place is full of an unusually random assortment of foreigners, with a scattering of expat Brits (some of the forlorn and gabbling barfly variety) but many more émigré Russians, so much so that nearly all shop signs are in Greek, English and Russian, and some in Russian only. For reasons I could never understand, even when explained at length, there are an inordinate number of Punjabis, working mostly as waitresses, and even as proficient chefs in Lebanese restaurants, some of them with good English, and some of them with barely any of the lingua franca, or much Greek come to that. Time and again in cafes, whether one spoke to the young Punjabi women in English or Greek, they did not understand, and had to go and get their Cypriot colleagues to translate. Given that they barely know a single handy tourist language, the obvious question is why are they taken on, and the cynical and half accurate view is that they undercut the locals when it comes to wages, and thus do them out of a job. In which patriotic connection, Greek Cypriots are proud to be precisely that, and politely correct you when you ask them in Greek are they Greek, by which of course you mean are they Greek-speaking, not are they Hellenes. As a relevant side issue, approximately 70% of the people of Larnaka, where we were based, evidenced numb incomprehension when I spoke to them in Greek, and more or less obliged me to speak in English. The other 30% had no problems at all with my admittedly home-made doppio, paradosiaki Greek, and I had an extremely lively conversation with a bespectacled ice cream seller by the side of the salt lake near the airport, just possibly because I was his only customer he informed me for the last 4 hours. I don’t think it too fanciful to evidence a modest amount of combative paranoia at this point, for over the years I have experienced the same thing in France, Germany and Greece (though interestingly never in good old Portugal), where they have frowned at my use of their language, feigned incomprehension, and insisted on speaking English. Perhaps not always, but it can at times turn into a dreary, not to say puerile game of irritating one-upmanship, where God knows why, they really like to see you one down.

Cyprus, as everyone knows, is half Greek and half Turkish, thanks to the mainland Turkish junta intervening in 1974, when the lookalike Greek junta of the day tried to annex the whole of the island to Greece (enosis or union as it is called). There were atrocities and bloody massacres on both sides, with massive displacement of citizens on ethnic lines, so that the Turkish Republic of Cyprus (TRNC) has very few Greeks left, and ditto with the few Turks living in the south. Though travel between the 2 halves is relatively easy these days, it is still the case that Northern Cyprus is only recognised as a legal entity by Turkey, and if you want to fly there, it has to be via Istanbul. More colourfully, as the TRNC has no extradition treaty with the UK, it was for long the case that loot-laden British criminals could go and live there lordly gargling G and Ts by their majestic villa pools, and be completely safe from the arms of the law.

Larnaka is a handsome and attractively positive city with an exhilarating sea front marked at the far end with an Ottoman castle and behind it the beautiful old Grand Mosque, the Buyuk Camii, which is still used for worship by the town’s few Muslims. Another thing to praise is the inordinate number of small independently run art galleries, often showcasing mainland Greek artists as well as Cypriots, and with the standards on display, for this relatively small city, being surprisingly and movingly high. Away from the immediate centre, predictably most of the architecture is modern faceless suburbs, interrupted by supermarkets or often enormous kiosk peripteros, and the ubiquitous souvlaki joints. There are lots of restaurants in Larnaka, the bulk of them serving Cypriot cuisine which tends towards the grilled meat of kebabs and souvlaki, and vegetarian main options invariably resolve to the native halloumi cheese, which for the first time in my life I found myself getting sick of. If you are used to the generous variety of Greek meze and ladhera, things like tomato and courgette keftedes and fava bean puree, gigantes and yemista stuffed tomatoes, you will be seriously disappointed by the Cypriot option of either tzatziki or a plate of olives. As well as competing for lunch and dinner customers, most of the promenade eateries offer bargain inclusive breakfasts which range from the hideous Full English to a Cypriot version of fried eggs, mushrooms, olives, grilled halloumi and salad, usually accompanied by toast, butter and jam. A winter season indolence can sometimes manifest itself in the latter context, for one day my Cyprus breakfast had everything present apart from the customary 2 butter pats. I said as much to the waitress who agreed there was indeed none, but added it was presently defrosting and would be ready for me in an hour’s time. As I gasped my astonishment, and echoed, an hour! Ione urged me to do something about it, and get some butter from a shop. Cue my sweating a good half hour trying 4 supermarkets over a mile-long trek, before a Polish place yielded 4 pats at a 10 humble cents each. By that time of course both coffee and toast were stone cold, but better to eat cold buttered toast than its unspeakable dry analogue.

The other curse of lazy Cypriot restaurants is the prevalence of frozen as opposed to freshly made chips/French fries. One or two breakfast places boastfully chuck them in as part of their Full English or Full Cypriot munificence, so that you have a pleasingly mountainous plateful on the lines of those scoffed by the gluttonous Three Bears in The Beano circa 1968. Yet it is impossible to exaggerate how depressing frozen chips can be on the tenor of an otherwise promising morning. To start the day with them is even worse than ending the day ditto, for it is a kind of gnawing prelude to nameless discomforts, frustrations and anticlimaxes that will unerringly keep coming your way, for no other reason but plain existential cussedness and to teach you the important moral lesson that no matter how hard you try, you will never really be in control of your life, not when someone is prepared to ruin your eggs and mushrooms by the addition of chip shaped Polyfilla. You can of course try making them palatable with the addition of Heinz tomato sauce, but you will have about as much success with that as you would by rubbing your inner thighs with the same item prior to anticipated bedroom intimacy.

The next post will be on or before Saturday 11th January