News of American audiences gibbering or swooning with terror had already reached us. So we UK critics, barely stepped from the Monday morning shower, knew it would be a tough press screening. A bare bedroom, rumpled bedclothes, noises like disturbed plumbing, mysteriously slamming doors, a stressed-out partner – those were the things we had left at home. Now we looked at the screen. Was it possible? Exactly the same things were happening.
Paranormal Activity () does a fine job of showing how macabre ordinary domesticity can be when given a Jamesian turn of the screw. The film (which leaped straight to number one at the US box office) is made, like Blair Witch Project, with a grainy-juddery camera, a small-change budget ($15,000) and a cast of unknowns. Two of these, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, play the young couple setting up lens and tripod in their bedroom to record the “ghosts” suspected of cohabiting with them. (A third unknown actor, Mark Fredrichs, plays the visiting supernaturalist, who seems as rational as Richard Dawkins until push comes to scream.) A turning clock in the corner of the camcorder’s viewing frame indicates night elapsing while they sleep. We also witness the moving, creaking door; the lights going on and off; one night an invisible hand tugging at the bedclothes. Finally, frighteningly, we witness – but no, I won’t go there. Have the fun yourself.
If we critics expected to be a little more scared, that is only because the screams coming across the Atlantic have been seismic. Strictly judged, didn’t the story and characters need more development? All we get to know of this couple is their suggestibility, their hyperkinetic mannerisms by day and their sound sleeping patterns at night, when not woken by Judgment Day thuds. Paranormal Activity shows how little it takes for inventive filmmakers to do a lot. With a tiny bit more invention, we just feel, they could have done a lot more.
Law Abiding Citizen () has also caused outbreaks of panic, this time in the United States of Syntax. Missing, presumed abducted: one hyphen. Where did it go? Is its life in danger? What happens when “law” and “abiding” are no longer joined-up language?
Psychotic killer Gerard Butler may have made off with it and slain it, like the ill-fated human hyphens who join up the disparate traumas of his life. When his wife and child are murdered by two thugs, the justice system in Philadelphia – birthplace of American democracy (ironic “Ha!”) – allows one killer a drastically reduced sentence on a plea bargain after shopping his crony. Butler, an undercover avenger as ubiquitous as this actor’s earlier phantom of the opera, darts about the city’s infrastructure seeking whom he may dispatch, and appears to continue seeking and dispatching even when put in jail. Is Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay ingenious or just far-fetched? A little of both. Is F. Gary Gray’s direction more earnest than the material requires? Almost certainly. When reality melts and major US cities become porous, we need some of the mad panache recently demonstrated by Roland Emmerich in 2012.
How differently things are ordered in France. All you need for screen success here is a good, simple, truth-based story, a few ideas about art and the human spirit, and a main character who looks like an elf blown up by a bicycle pump. Séraphine () swept the 2009 French awards, winning Césars for Best Film, Best Actress and Best Screenplay and leaving The Class (last year’s Cannes Golden Palm winner) gasping in its wake. The wondrous Yolande Moreau plays the big-boned elf who strides across the screen, Séraphine of Senlis, a primitive painter who found fame in the jostling heyday of Braque and Picasso, but whose mental health as a religiously obsessed woman-of-all-work, pitied or patronised by Paris exurbanites, finally steered her into an asylum.
Her paintings, judged by those we see, are dazzlers. They are still lives that don’t stay still: flowers that whirr like stars in a demented galaxy, fruit that looks as if it would eat you first. Filmmaker Martin Provost lavishes two reverential hours on his heroine, perhaps too reverential, since this woman’s no-nonsense mysticism surely deserved an answering sense of the briskly beatific. Provost offers cloistral colours as if he were doing Corot or Chardin. And he positions Ulrich Lives of Others Tukur as a sane human counterweight, playing the German art critic Wilhelm Uhde, who championed Séraphine when no one wanted to listen. (Cue rumbling sub-themes of Franco-German tension in the years between two world wars.)
But Moreau’s stellar performance and the astral intensity of the paintings keep taking us where this story belongs, up into the skies. This Séraphine, madly bowling along with her spherical shape, elfin face, umbrella and visionary gaze, is like an inflated Mary Poppins barely tethered to the quotidian French countryside. That countryside – or part of it – has now become Disneyland. The punishment for ignoring profound and pure-bred fantasy, when offered, is that you get the ersatz stuff dumped on you decades later.
Across the Channel, another punishment is handed to another suffering nation. The penalty for accepting plaudits as a great comedy culture – from Charlie Chaplin (though he decamped) to Ealing Pictures, from Monty Python to The Full Monty – is that you are tied to that reputation like Ixion to his wheel. British comedy can also produce, as this week direly teaches, Bunny and the Bull (), Mr Right () and Nativity () .
Reading from first to last, they are: a buddy-based road movie with fetching cut-out sets foregrounded by non-fetching cardboard characters; a gay romantic comedy that earns 10 points for PC outreach work and one for wit; and an overzealous, sentimental kidcom with Martin Freeman putting on a Christmas school musical, despite warnings of advancing schmaltz and a heavy Webber system moving in on the score and lyrics.