The luvvies gather in force in Quartet. Dustin Hoffman’s debut directing feature reminded me a lot of The Birds. The audience gazes innocently into the story’s middle distance – where will it take us, this wistful, elegiac plot set in a home for retired musicians? – while the actor-luvvies gather at the screen’s edges. One by one, flapping into view almost unnoticed, they mount the climbing frame of Ronald Harwood’s screenplay from his stage play.
Then, squawk, flutter, shriek! Up they fly and straight at us. We are pursued down the plot’s headlong winsome gradient by Sir Michael Gambon, Dame Maggie Smith, Sir Tom Courtenay, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Sir Billy Connolly (only a matter of time), Pauline Collins and many, many more. Somehow Dame Judi Dench didn’t get in: perhaps she is in disgrace.
Set in a British version of Milan’s Casa Verdi, the film is endearing in a way, in another way excruciating. Did Harwood’s sentimental piece really slay them in Shaftesbury Avenue? Courtenay, Smith, Connolly and Collins agree to sing the quartet from Rigoletto at a concert to save their old folks’ home. (It’s “let’s put on a show” for the culturally upscale.) Save it from what, is fleetingly mentioned and hardly matters: it’s the catalysed character interplay that counts.
But even Merchant Ivory, purveyors of cinematic porcelain to the gentry, would have hesitated over this particular tea set. There is a subplot about once-married Smith and Courtenay patching up old grievances. There are a couple of half-funny lines from Connolly (“Your singing brought tears to my ears”). Gambon, supposedly a famous music director, whatever that is, incorrectly pronounces “Celeste Aida”. And the drama’s high moment comes when Dame Maggie says “Fuck you” loudly in a crowded breakfast room. One imagines the orgasmic shudder of shock, or naughty glee, at the matinee performances. After that everything on screen quiets down and returns to normal: a deep doze state at artistic-hibernation temperature.
French film-maker Bruno Dumont, twice winner of the Cannes Special Jury prize (Humanity, Flanders), presents windblown northern landscapes violent with nature’s freedom. At times in Hors Satan the boom of the elements is as loud as the boom of war guns. Life is a battlefield, especially when a mysterious itinerant poacher (David Dewaele) shoots dead a village girl’s abusive stepfather, then bashes to death a forestry land guard who molests her. He also “heals” women by having sex consensual or coercive with them – forget political correctness – and platonically befriends the girl, a lovelorn goth teenager (Alexandra Lemâtre) with whom he spends much of the movie tramping the countryside. The soundtrack is surreally filled with their post-synched heavy breathing even when they are in distant long shot. Life is a Calvary. We all sing, or pant, from the same suffering hymn sheet.
Is the hero an atheist’s version of a messiah? A Christly Antichrist? Dumont is an unbeliever who makes obsessively religion-referencing movies. His poacher is a miracle-working drifter like Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Theorem. Hors Satan sometimes seems completely mad: a wind-torn, lyrical, savage, gnomic doodle at once aleatory and alea iacta est. Everything seems both ungovernably random and fatalistically predestined, a passable summation of how life appears to many of us most of the time. As an artist Dumont was under tighter self-control in his best film to date, Flanders. Even so, to paraphrase Shakespeare, madness in gifted ones, or eccentricity at once errant and forthright, must not unwatched go.
“Even my darkroom is a haunted place,” says the man before the documentarist’s camera in McCullin. A lifetime behind the camera and then this: a face squinting into the light, pasty-pudgy-handsome, tousled hair now white, flat-batting his memories and wisdoms in that affectless brogue always suggesting that war photographer Don McCullin saw no drama, or personal danger, in any of the hotspots he survived and indelibly memorialised. “War junkie” he styles himself. “I wouldn’t like to go through a year without being in a war.”
That was then – lots of the young McCullin in interview, sprung from the archives – and this is now. When the Dirty Digger took over the Sunday Times and editor Harold Evans was cast out, McCullin became an ex-prodigy. By the end of the 20th century no one wanted agonised faces and bleeding bodies on their breakfast tables. And Her Majesty’s Armed Forces didn’t invite him to the Falklands.
Today McCullin takes landscape photos (very beautiful) near his home. Jacqui Morris and David Morris’s documentary is a labour of love with both words operative. Lots of love lavished on McCullin’s craft and courage. But the structure is pedestrianly linear and the multiple box-ticking of themes could have included some more challenging inquisitions. (For instance, did McCullin never tweak the truth by posing those graphic images of extremity?) Add Melvyn Bragg and you’d have a South Bank Show essay in mutual admiration. Even a rose needs, or is completed by, its thorns.
I don’t know what would complete Grabbers. An upended bin of outtakes, perhaps, from every monster cheapie ever made on a scream and a prayer. This is an Irish tale of alien squid-like things – including the giant mother squid, all arms and mouth – moving in on a fishing village. For a horror comedy it needed some comedy and some horror. The “so bad it’s good” culture will take you only so far. At some point you have to produce the actually good or the wittily bad.