Monday, November 7, 2011

BIFF Reviews: Taking Shelter under Las Acacias

Take Shelter: Serious spoilers to follow; you really don’t want to read this if you have any intention whatsoever of seeing Take Shelter. Spoilers can really suck, I know, but this is one of those films which is simply impossible to discuss without talking about the ending.

For much of its length Take Shelter is an excellent study of man struggling with mental illness and the effect his illness has on his family. I can see why some might have issues with the grandiose nature of his hallucinations (we’ll get to that) but in every other way it’s an antidote to other, more histrionic films of its ilk: the mental illness film as a “psychological thriller” (I really hate that term). For the most part it treats mental illness as a serious health issue instead of an excuse for game-playing by carefully tracing the way it upsets Curtis' day-today life in small but unsettling ways, by taking note of how embarrassing it is to admit to and by laying out how he wants to take control of it personally. 

It also does an excellent job of situating itself in a well-drawn time and place. Michael Shannon is a particularly important part of what makes this work. It often seems as though the working class man is a particular struggle for actors to play but Shannon is convincing as a blue collar man – never playing the dullard and never overplaying the histrionics his part tempts him with, yet always embodying a very particular type of masculinity.

As you can see I was pretty well hooked by this film. Indeed by the time it got to the grand climax in the storm shelter I was weeping like a babe (I should probably apologise to the poor guy sitting beside me) so I was all the more pissed off when the film (a) didn’t stop with the shot of the family huddled by the storm shelter and (b) took them away from the shelter and then dumped the storm on them. 

Granted it didn’t come totally out of the blue. The visit to mum is probably intended to clue the audience in on how Curtis’s hallucinations are on a grander scale than that of the “average” person afflicted with schizophrenia, and the beach holiday house is flagged quite early on in the film as a possible future destination. But the rest of the film is such a moving, convincing portrait of a struggling family that it really makes the “nope, this is all real” ending fell like the cheapest of all possible rug pulls, a rug pull which turns a film about trying to fight one’s way through mental illness into a film about how sometimes mad prophets are right and, boy, you are going to be screwed, like really screwed, if you don’t take them seriously. Which is a different, and rather less interesting, film altogether.

Las Acacias and Blue: And we have our first misfire of the festival. Granted I was not encouraged by the Q&A in which one of my least favourite broadsheet critics (the former Courier Mail scribe Des Partridge) asked the most prosaic questions imaginable of Professor Charles Tesson and, while doing so, displayed his complete lack of knowledge of/interest in Cannes by conflating the Palme D’or with the Camera D’Or. Then, halfway through the five minute quizzing, he decided he didn’t have much he wanted to know about critic’s week and its 50 year history (ostensibly the reason the guy is out here) and proceeded to ask even more banal questions about the French film industry in general. 
Things didn’t improve a great deal from there with Blue, the Grand Prix winning short from New Zealand. As is the case with far too many shorts it leans too heavily on its trippy concept: In this case the idea of a teletubbie-esque children’s entertainer whose costume is his actual body is used to enliven a pretty generic story of a down and out former star. However there are some signs of a promising filmmaker here. Stephen Kang's camera work is quite strong and he builds scenes well. Most notable is the way he slowly escalates the trippyness of a key dream sequence: Beginning with no clues to tell us we’ve left reality he introduces an apparently dead character and then slowly pulls the camera back to reveal the house has become a set before orchestrating what is undoubtedly one of the more unsettling evocations of children’s tv captured on camera. Hum, on second thoughts maybe I was just in a bad mood...

Las Acacias, on the other hand, was so completely underwhelming as to suggest that this year’s committee are playing a joke on audiences worldwide. The film traces the unendingly bland, predictable first steps of a burgeoning couples’ relationship as one is forced by his boss to take the other and her baby cross-country in his truck. 

The director’s choice to largely confine his movie to a truck’s cab; with its attendant limited opportunities for clever framing, suggests that he had a lot of confidence in his script and actors. In truth it seems he had a lot of confidence in the power of baby close-ups to melt his audiences’ collective heart. The adults are potentially interesting people: it’s not every day we’re treated to an aging truck driver and a struggling single mother as a potential couple. Unfortunately though, their bonding occurs largely through unrevealing scenes in which the truck driver shows that he gives a damn about the woman’s kid and the kid grins to show how well he’s getting on with the driver.

There are some moments which, in a meatier film, I might consider to be telling details: little uncommented-upon actions through which we’re invited to imagine a larger story, such as the driver showing his softer side by stopping at a memorial. However in a film this unable to elaborate on its characters’ inner lives they come across as missed opportunities which feel ever more missed as the story surrenders to its bigger, more dramatic moments  - most of which would be equally at home in a generic romcom (although they would be played at a much higher pitch).

Ultimately Les Acacias, despite the obvious attention paid to its dramatic structure, its refusal to sensationalise and its admirable attempt to tell a story of the ordinary, day-to-day lives of the world’s real 99% is simply not insightful enough to truly make the journey worthwhile.

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