It is an amazing fact of human existence. They would have made a documentary about it, were it not the subject of almost every feature film ever shot. Somehow we have populated the earth by regularly conjoining two sexes who – there is no other way to put this – hate each other.
So it has been for two million years. Love, hate, love, hate. Look at the proof this week. A film by a female Iranian calls itself, assertively, Woman without Men. () (Take that, Hemingway.) Hollywood’s Brooklyn’s Finest () is about men without women, male cops doing their testosterone-ish thing in defiance of the few, annoying women in their lives (Richard Gere’s wife, barking-mad police martinet Ellen Barkin). In the plague-torn Britain of Black Death () men are responsible for religion while women declare enmity with witchcraft.
Letters to Juliet () tries to establish an entente between the genders, at the risk of being laughed off the screen. Helpless with disbelief, we watch Amanda Seyfried, a wannabe New Yorker journalist, fall for priggish Brit Adonis Christopher Egan in Verona and its environs, where he is helping his grandma Vanessa Redgrave find her lost Italian love. The script, sighing, twittering and doing D.H. Lawrence lite (“Well, you see, he loved the earth”), would be rejected as too whimsical by Mills and Boon. The scenery once was rejected, by Merchant Ivory, who preferred Tuscany – less like a parodic wine commercial – for A Room with A View.
The feature film week’s only other attempted rapprochement between the sexes is Greenberg () , a comedy (so intended) from writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). Ben Stiller plays a pill-popping egomaniac just released from a mental clinic, a role for which most actors would need no audition. Stiller, though, loses his natural comic appeal chasing after the hero’s frowns and tics, while the girl in his life – Greta Gerwig as the personal assistant left behind by the vacationing brother Stiller is house-sitting for while the brother’s dog, oh never mind – does what every good girl should do (according to male-chauvinist Hollywood), which is soothe the hero’s worried brow. There is an ex-bandmate played by Rhys Ifans. He isn’t funny. Nor is the script. Let’s move on.
Black Death is the week’s best fiction film, if only on the basis that being hit by a medieval corpse cart is preferable to being hit by a pantechnicon carrying the world’s patriarchal prejudices. Like the recent Valhalla Rising, this journey-allegory involving a band of warrior Christians trekking to a promised land is filmed in stripped colours and scarified textures and scored to electronic music.
Sean Bean is the chief soldier-monk, moving in with his men on a plague-free village said to be practising sorcery. Dutch actress Carice Van Houten (Black Book), fetching in lipstick and blonde hair, is the alleged witch and necromancer. A sexually conflicted young monk (Eddie Redmayne) seems to have wandered in from Greenberg. Otherwise everything is rather good in a style that Tarantino would call “getting medieval on your ass”.
Women without Men is a series of tableaux to which no one brought the vivants. Filmmaker Neshat Shirin, an Iranian in US exile, better known as a video artist, has an agenda and began by putting it on gallery walls. Hints of kinesis in stillness are effective there. More-than-a-hint of stillness in kinesis can vitiate a movie. Four stories of Iranian women confronted by male prejudice and cruelty – living in the same house in the countryside on the eve of the Shah’s return to power in 1953 – are presented in desaturated colours and inexpressive, decaffeinated acting styles.
When purely pictorial the film is striking, even Tarkovskian: an opening camera movement across an eerie mist-touched landscape contoured with hand-of-man decay. (Shirin finds the poetry in the broken wall of a crumbling estate.) But the human stories never live, even in the notionally dynamic space between extremes: between banner-waving demonstrations on the streets and the private agonies of a prostitute, between government-raided printing presses and the cold words of a man to his female domestic internee: “If you leave the house, I’ll break your legs.”
With Brooklyn’s Finest you feel your pulse returning, for a few minutes. An American cop thriller: this has got to have some zing and adrenalin. It has got Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes. But a voice soon comes moseying up to us like the character at the end of Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s June. It’s the silly season. Jettison hope.”
Each of the three stories of cops in extremis is schematic, formulary, hokey. The corrupt cop tempted by drug-bust dollars (Hawke). The imminent retiree bracing himself for one last showdown with danger and heroism (Gere). The undercover cop (Don Cheadle) frightened of exposure as he prepares to shop his criminal best pal (Snipes). The tales converge at the end, unconvincingly, by which time Gere’s eyelids seem baggy with age. Banality, not evil, does that to a Hollywood cop.
The women are nowhere in this film, except in caricature-land, just like the men in Women without Men. For a film that truly bonds the genders – truly, not synthetically as in Letters to Juliet and Greenberg – you need the drama of this week’s documentary.
Shed Your Tears and Walk Away () showed at the London Film Festival, where it walked away with everyone’s tears. First-time director Jez Lewis (who wrote and produced Ghosts, Nick Broomfield’s re-enactment of the lives and deaths of the Chinese cockle-fishers who drowned in Morecambe Bay in 2004) takes a Sony digital camera up to Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Here he films the slow ruination – by drugs and alcohol – of the lives of townsfolk he grew up with.
Eight suicides, far above the national average, had caught his eye. Hebden Bridge is a tourist mill-town and part-time artists’ colony tucked into a Pennine landscape that puts the gorge in gorgeous. When the drug culture first leaked into the indigenous population, compounding the alcoholic propensities of the jobless, it spelled calamity. Now Lewis finds his contemporaries staggering round parks like zombies. Their right arms are surgically attached to their beer cans. Their voices are slurred. Their spare arms reach trembling for the nearest joint.
He escorts his friend Cass to London for rehab. Cass is a mound of wobbly flesh, with a survival instinct peeking out like a worm from decomposing cheese. Will he make it? We come to love him, so we care. When he fishes a beer can from his luggage pack on the train back to Hebden Bridge, witnessed by Lewis and his camera, we gasp in horror. Maybe he won’t drink it?. . .
The filmmaker plays killjoy throughout. He accuses Silly, the bearded alkie with film-star looks, of being in denial. Silly sulks. He berates Cass on finding him drunk at night in a park: “You’ll be robbed blind.” He fastens his camera on Di, Silly’s girlfriend, when she sheds a single, secret, desperate tear, trying to direct it into the street shadows. Lewis shows no mercy, knows no defeat. He gets the reward of unpopularity. No one likes a party pooper, even when the party’s theme and agenda are self-destruction. This is sobering, determined, marvellous filmmaking.