The great and grisly tradition

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Euripides did it. Shakespeare did it. Pasolini did it. Cruelty in art has had a long history and an intermittently honourable one. In our time, censorious folk have tried to chase it from the screen with cries of “gratuitous violence”. But what does that mean? Life is gratuitous. (It comes uninvited and unexplained.) Art is gratuitous. All we do in culture is stumble through existence trying to communicate with each other. Sometimes that is rough work, nasty work, make-it-up-as-we-go work.

Hostel: Part II is the best film of the week. It is as ghoulish as Salo, as visceral as the style abattoir of Hirst or the Chapmans. Yet this is a bizarrely moral movie by a sagaciously wrongfooting writer- director. Eli Roth (who made Hostel and contributed to Tarantino’s Grindhouse) never quite lets expectation sit still long enough for our drool glands to work. Horrible things happen to the three girl trippers who re-route from Prague to Slovakia for the “spas”, while being BlackBerry-auctioned, unknowingly, as torture fodder for jaded millionaires. Yet the comeuppances confound clairvoyance. A beastly wit delivers, in some cases, a reverse kismet and a kind of justice.

Horrible things? Think of scythes, drills and chainsaws. And don’t go weak on me: the Greeks had poisoned shirts, Shakespeare had hand-lopping and eye-gouging. This is what humans do to humans, not least in the age of fanatical religion and extraordinary rendition. That some humans do it for “fun”, for the thrill of hunting their own kind, may be no more ghastly than doing it for God or democracy.

The girls begin as standard airheads, hunk-hunting through central Europe (“Is he hot, or is he too eastern bloc?”). But they toughen and individualise. To prove there is no misogyny of belittlement on Roth’s part, a sprinkling of females season the other side: grim Amazons happy to be splashed with blood like the butcher-aproned men. Moving deeper into its high-design underworld – the settings suggest some doomsday- futuristic Ring production – the movie ends on an appalling, bleakly uproarious note. We depart (I speak for males) a whiter shade of pale, clutching our masculinity in a new awareness that cruelty, not weakness, may be the sin that neuters us.

The true torture porn this week is Shrek the Third. Persons in leather aprons embossed with the word “DreamWorks” come into the cinema, strap us to our seats, attach the popcorn-feeding machine and force us to watch the drivellings of an exhausted digimation franchise.

In this dire threequel the jolly green ogre and his consort journey to “Worcestershire” to collect a lad called Arthur, rightful heir to the kingdom of Far Far Away. Arthur is a pupil at Worcestershire High and is voiced by Justin Timberlake, proving that even special-relationship England has now become a meaningless minnow in the ocean of Americanisation. I laughed twice: once with mirth when Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) and Donkey (Eddie Murphy) add a paw and a hoof, respectively, to a close-up of hands piled in a pact of honour, once with joy and relief when the DreamWorks people came to release us.

Les Petites Vacances seems to float into view unaided. This French film barely even seems scripted or acted. Olivier Peyon’s beguiling road movie-cum-human comedy tells of a granny going Awol with the young siblings – a teenage girl and her little brother – whom she is meant to be weekend- escorting to their divorced dad. Dad is absent on business, so gran and the kids take to the hills around Lake Geneva. The youngsters oscillate between resentment and delight. The older woman sips the air, tastes a romance (veteran Claude Brasseur, more than ever resembling Charles Aznavour’s lost twin), then becomes a little mad in her possessive pouncing on the past – or is it the future?

Gran is the toujours jeune Bernadette Lafont, once a heroine for Truffaut and Eustache. She plays the role like an open book, so open that the pages rustle and turn in the summer breezes, presenting as many faces as a human being has in a single life, or in the poignant prelude to that life’s closure.

Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door (Nuovomondo) is like the last truck from the magic realism circus. Perhaps it broke down on the road before arriving like a lost Taviani film. A Sicilian dad (Vincenzo Amato) ups roots to emigrate to America, taking his family. The weird wackiness of early novecento peasant life probably helped his decision – snails in hair, snakes coming out of wombs – but those who do not learn from life-as-surrealism are condemned to repeat it. His dreams of the future include rivers of milk swum by men and donkeys. And “What are those long things like towers?” is his spooked, epiphanic utterance on sighting New York skyscrapers. (Hadn’t previous emigrants sent back photos?) Unlike the Italian director’s Respiro, that potent tale of a disturbed wife’s mind going walkies, this scrapbook diaspora never comes alive: least of all when Charlotte Gainsbourg is on screen, prominent, inexplicable and largely mute as a rich Englishwoman travelling steerage.

Sketches of Frank Gehry, Sydney Pollack’s docu-tribute to the man who made us go “wow” in Bilbao, is an 83-minute chat between old friends. It should have been thrilling: an insight into an architect’s ability to take the imaginary contents of a waste-paper bin – named by Gehry as a main inspiration source – and turn them into twisty, gleaming museums and monuments.

Here he is in his studio, playing origami with his models. Here are the buildings. Here in brief interviews are clients, friends, even the architect’s psychotherapist. For contrast Professor Hal Foster of Princeton is allowed to say Gehry’s buildings are rubbish (without saying why). It is all watchable, affable, humorous – yet oddly forgettable. Isn’t there more to a one-man architectural revolution than these bits and pieces? The title is too right: all sketches, no holistic vision of a unique talent.

The ripping yarn of the week, in the old-fashioned not the Hostel, sense, is The Flying Scotsman (Douglas Mackinnon). It is all true: in the 1990s racing cyclist Graeme Obree (Johnny Lee Miller) broke world records on a bike he built himself, mainly from spare parts and washing-machine components. The World Cycling Federation tried to stop him, citing rules or creating new ones. But when a Scotsman’s head is down and his mind made up – as Britain may be about to discover – no force on earth gets in his way.

The drippy yarn of the week is Paris Je T’Aime (). All the world loves a lover, but not two dozen of them. Strung together like onions, without the power to make you cry, they people this multi- director tribute to the city of love and heartache, of art and accordions, of Jean-Saul Sartre and Simon Bolivar (the film’s best joke). Alexander Payne, Gurinder Chadha and the Coens work a little magic. The rest just work the audience.

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