Just when you think there is nothing new under the sun, a film says: “Who needs to be under the sun? Let’s go to the other side or to a whole new galaxy or cosmos.”
Last May, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (a name long enough to lasso a distant star) presented the Cannes Film Festival with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (a title likewise) (). It is a total wonderwork: enchanting, bizarre, complex, original. Like any film out of this world, it was destined either for ridicule and rejection or for recognition and a Golden Palm.
It won the Palm. Which proves that some audiences like to work for their enlightenment; that straight-up storytelling isn’t always the straight route to a spectator’s heart; that in great cinema, as in great music, you don’t always “get” the melodies or harmony at first go, but you want to come back for a second and third.
Six sections piece out the story. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), dying of a kidney ailment, is revisited by the spirits of his dead wife and son. They sit down to dinner as normally as house guests, allowing for the monkey-ghost son’s resemblance, furry and red-eyed, to a B-movie Chewbacca. From a night-time veranda, the film then soars out through time and space. Under a waterfall, a catfish makes love to a princess. A journey to a cave becomes a Mozartian trial of the spirit. Jungle animals pop up with gleaming eyes. In a hotel, two souls leave two bodies to go for a meal out …
Buddhistically, it is all about reincarnation and transmigration. Simultaneously, the film is for all creeds and continents, a rapturous unfolding of realities within realities. We are the sum not just of other, connected lives – ancestors, offspring – but of shape-shifting states of being (dreams, hopes, illnesses, fears, premonitions). Only Apichatpong among contemporary filmmakers dares to realise these themes in their unapologetic allegorical glory. He made the luxuriantly symbolic Tropical Malady, where meanings grew like jungle plants and where, as here, the charm of naivety – only partly faux – rioted in an Henri Rousseau primitivism incandescent with wonder.
For contrasting realism, the spaghetti-like tubing that emerges from Boonmee’s belly is the film’s umbilical cord to actuality. The early domestic scenes depict the main character’s kidney ailment and humanise the fantasy, grounding it in everyday life, everyday dying. They make what follows seem even more miraculous: the conviction, or visionary conjecture, that there may be an “everyday” afterlife too, or many. By the close, the film’s stories have become like the colours of a prism. You feel you have walked into the heart of a rainbow.
In movieland there is magic and magic: real enchantment and commodity sorcery. Watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 () was close to being an out-of-body experience. My physical self sat in its seat, while my soul, growing delirious with boredom, started climbing the walls of the Odeon Leicester Square. At one point it looked down from the chandelier and said: “Why are you still sitting there? You have no interest in Hogwarts, Horcruxes or things that go ‘Help!’ in the wizardly night.” To which my body declares back: “I’m a critic. I’ve got to sit here.”
If you haven’t read the book, do so. This is the first 150 minutes of the final novel adaptation (part two next spring) and to me it was virtual gobbledegook. Harry, Hermione and Ron dash about the landscape, from craggy uplands to snowy forests to sorcerer Rhys Ifans’s tower shaded by a “dirigible plum” tree (I liked that), gathering the runes and tools to defeat Ralph Fiennes’ no-nose Voldemort. Fiennes’ scenes seethe stylishly, proving, along with his scary snake, the old truth that Satan gets the show-stopping numbers.
Elsewhere, the dialogue is like wandering accidentally into a Berlitz lesson for a rare language. “How is it you happen to have the sword of Rippenhall [sic?]?” The pace is slow – even, surely, for addicts – except when things whoosh into life a little with the special effects, which include power toilets designed to vortex undesirable people to the nether regions. (Don’t give Ryanair ideas.) Stuart Craig’s production design, including his black-tiled, gold-trimmed enormity of an underworld, is still the saga’s classiest asset.
Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins (), a pastoral/sociological/historical documentary from the British director of London and Robinson in Space, also tries your patience. Towards the end of my notes, taken during a first viewing, I wrote: “These combine harvesters have finally done for me.” There is a shot of machinery crossing and recrossing a field that lasts for 10 minutes – in movie time close to eternity – and there is a similar-length shot of a thistle hovered on, without commentary, by a butterfly.
Even so, Keiller casts a spell. His “psychogeographical” methods unearth secrets about Britain not merely physical but spiritual, cultural, economic. Retracing the paths and diaries of his fictive double “Robinson”, an intellectual Crusoe prone to casting himself adrift from the law, even possibly from life (might he be dead?), the film-maker finds grim or apocalyptic secrets everywhere: from Hampton Gay manor house – with its one-time view of a historic rail crash – to the fields of Harrowdown Hill, where weapons expert David Kelly killed himself. Or did he … ?
The close scrutiny is obsessive. At times it seems a little mad. Paul Scofield, an earlier Keiller overvoice, caught the gnomic wackiness better than this film’s narrator, Vanessa Redgrave. Irony is not a strong arrow in her quiver. But you forgive a lot here, perhaps everything, for moments like the recurring close-up of a road sign magically, beautifully encrusted with lichen. Yes, time and history do crawl over everything, and finally colonise it, with their subtly infinite forensic clues.
A Manx-Spanish co-production of an animated feature about a star-crossed romance set in the heyday of Cuban and American jazz: why not? That’s Chico & Rita (), a bustling, melodic charmer from Spanish co-directors Fernando Trueba (one-time Best Foreign Film Oscar winner with Belle Époque) and Javier Mariscal (artist and designer).
The swirly, stylish, serio-humorous draughtsmanship – Hispanic art deco meets Belleville Rendezvous – conjures magical streetscapes from Havana to Manhattan. The music is a splurge of euphony, featuring re-recorded classics from Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker (all seen in animated cameos). The romance at the story’s centre is more hand-me-down. A Star Is Born meets New York, New York as two Afro-Cuban musicians – she a beautiful crooner, he an ambitious pianist – struggle to synchronise their ascents to fame. Will love triumph even so? Can it survive Castro’s takeover of the Caribbean “playground of the rich”?
I liked the drawing. I liked the music. I liked the sassy dialogue: “I’d kiss the ground you walk on if you lived in a clean neighbourhood.” Only the love affair, maybe, should have gone back to the drawing-board.