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Is climate change becoming apocalyptic? Here in Britain, with floods, frozen hailstorms, political regime change and terrorism, one could begin to believe in the unmaking of Creation. Wimbledon has become water tennis. Airports have become wagers with death. Authority figures are playing musical chairs. What better month, or week, for the cinema to cry, “Summer? What summer? Let’s have some thoughts on change, suffering, mortality and a topsy-turvy planet.”
Leading the chorus is Flanders. French filmmaker Bruno Dumont won a second successive Cannes Grand Jury Prize with this dolefully brilliant film. The earlier prize went to Dumont’s Humanity, a weird rural crime drama, Zola-esque and semi- cataleptic, that received jeers among the cheers at Cannes. Dumont hasn’t mended his ways. (Why change a winning formula?) His northern French villagers glump through the landscape, impassive of feature, speaking in stricken monosyllables. They have passionless, animal sex in fields. Two men, Demester and Blondel (Samuel Boidin, Henri Crétel) are love rivals for Barbe (Adelaïde Leroux). Yet they barely compete, content to alternate sexual shiftwork while the rutting season lasts. The film is – for a while – that bleak, that bestial.
When the two men go off to an unspecified war, she has a mental breakdown. They get on with the job of institutionalised violence, far away in a Middle Eastern desert. (One comes back, the other doesn’t.) Dumont provides no emotional cartography: the affectlessness is unrelenting. So is the sense, amid landscapes of life and death, that existence is a pageant beyond our controlling power. Rape, mutilation and death – the horrors of war are here, more horrible for Dumont’s refusal to editorialise. Love, sex, regeneration – the bounties of peace are here, but made eerie by Dumont’s refusal to lend them radiance.
As an essay in spiritual strip- mining, the film has a slow, cumulative, coruscating power. There are lessons, audible though never strident, about love, hate, cruelty and the truth that few of us can influence the shapes our lives take when elemental forces storm in, from either everyday nature or the freak maelstroms of history. Dumont is an artist of l’anomie in a great French tradition (Camus, Sartre), though he demands that you come to his projects willing to work as hard as he.
The week’s doom-accounting continues with Die Hard 4.0. This comes in the ledger marked “ridiculous” rather than “sublime”, but is still welcome. You have to admire the technical brio, sense of fun and surreal single-mindedness. Bruce Willis, grim-visaged and follically challenged, resembles a 10-minute egg deployed to save America. Domestic villains, using computers to destroy the nation’s infrastructure on the Fourth of July in a plan nicknamed a fire sale (“everything must go”), try to crack this egg where it hurts. Note the growing circlet of blood around the Bruce temples (a little messianic too). But they reckon without the law of multiplying returns (also messianic). Every time Willis, playing Detective John McClane, the humble cop habitually drawn into world crises, gets biffed beyond recovery, he recovers. Every time there is no coming back, he comes back.
Hurled down lift shafts, bonked by bouncing cars, strafed by a Harrier jump jet, avalanched by a falling flyover, he is also verbally abused by his own colleagues. An analogue cop confronting cyber-terrorism should be a useless item: “John, you’re a Timex watch in a digital age.” But if so, he is self-winding. He defends, virtually unassisted, truth, justice and the American way of clonking baddies. (“That’s enough of this kung fu shit,” he says, taking to plain fisticuffs halfway through a fight with Maggie Q’s martial artist.) Twentieth Century Fox has taken only one box-office precaution. Knowing Bruce is no Adonis, it surrounds the hardboiled egg with enough eye candy – a pretty, imperilled daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), handsome villains of both sexes, teen heart-throb Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers) as computer geek Willis rescues to save Washington and America – to mitigate damage to the audience’s sex-appeal receptors.
Edmond, scripted by David Mamet from his stage drama, is the week’s third meditation on violence. Where does it come from? What do we do about it? I never saw the play, but it must have played better than this. The title hero (William H. Macy) is an ambulant hard-luck story, a thesis on legs. He is a Bruce Willis without the survival skills but with a dictionary stuck in his throat. Self-slung out of a loveless marriage – “You don’t interest me spiritually or sexually,” he box-tickingly tells Rebecca Pidgeon – he walks the streets in a confrontation-filled Joycean nocturne. His wordy rages are triggered by his racism, his misogyny and his belief that everyone is overcharging him. (As the other Irish wag said, he knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.) Finally, he commits a murder.
Jail brings redemption, but a loony one: a plot twist too far. Mamet on this form is like an over-the-top preacher. The fist pumps, the eye glitters, there is a certifiable drivenness to it all. “Every fear hides a wish,” is the text of this sermon. We fear the other race, gender, culture or religion; we want to kill it; but beyond that – really, (says Mamet) – don’t we want to embrace it?
Perhaps on stage we do. The vituperations against political correctness, that it exacerbates rather than anaesthetises enmity, are sound enough. But the structure of successive tableaux, vivants and partly vivants, is too schematic for the cinema. And there is a sense that no speech will let us alone until each “i” has been dotted, each “t” crossed and each spoken paragraph ended by a basilisk stare as if to say, “You listenin’ to me?”
Dead Silence is, however, the true farrago of the week. Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the writer and director of Saw, assemble all the spare parts they find in the rummage bag marked “ventriloquist’s dummy horror cinema”. The resulting assemblage of Dead of Night, Magic and Child’s Play (inter alia) is patchily acted, risibly scripted and best watched after downing several gottles of geer.