The week’s most engrossing film is the most ill-finished. Polisse, a French documentary-style drama about a Child Protection Unit team in Paris, is so amorphous, volatile and multi-plotted it could be a rough cut. To which actress/writer/director Maïwenn might respond, “So could life.” Stories are pitched in, higgledy-piggledy: here a sex abuse case, there a broken home, there a Romanian pickpocket family. Feuds and friendships flicker among the team: here a budding romance (Maïwenn’s lonely photographer and the good-hearted firebrand played by rapper JoeyStarr), here a crypto-lesbian tension that will end in suicide …
Many movies at once, but mainly two: Good Movie, Bad Movie. Good Movie stands over us, patiently coaxing our intelligent participation. Bad Movie hits us over the head and drags us round the room. Many scenes dull our skulls as successive teens and pre-teens are put through the paedophilia Q and A while confessions are haled from interchangeable guilty elders. Then Good Movie comes back, slows the clock and shows us something worth our patience. Actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (one of those French faces you know but can’t name, let alone pronounce) gives a chilling masterclass as a remorse-free daughter-molester, a sly, suave, self-possessed businessman who thinks he can hotline a pardon straight from the Elysées Palace. In a later episode – a tinderbox tour de force – a woman officer angrily bangs a Koran down in front of a Muslim patriarch who believes in forced marriage, asking him for chapter and verse on the legacy and legitimacy of paternal coercion.
At 125 minutes, though, the tone becomes progressively frazzled and the miscalculations creep in. There’s a horrible scene when an interview team starts giggling helplessly at a girl confessing to having “given head” to boys to get her stolen mobile back. (Hilarious? Not really.) The price of being all-things-to-all-audiences – the way Maïwenn seems to have intended her movie – is that you have to have comedy. And romance. Polisse needed an editor with police chief powers: someone to bang heads together, or frames, with no consideration except the best and tightest job with the best and tautest artistic outcome.
“The great modern American novel” is a much fought-over title, with many championing Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. Speaking personally, I can barely read DeLillo. The gnomic pomposities of his style – at once portentous and hardboiled as he sets out to decode a putatively self-destructive universe – irritate the hell out of me. They are faithfully rendered in David Cronenberg’s screen adaptation.
There’s a difference, though. DeLillo can write. Cronenberg, it astonishingly seems after all those years of blithe sci-fi prolixity (Rabid, Videodrome), cannot make films. His last, A Dangerous Method, was a rigor-mortised Freud/Jung drama. Cosmopolis is all about Robert Pattinson sitting in a moving limo for two hours, give or take this New York boy-wonder financier’s occasional sorties, on a day of disintegrating destiny, to meet a hairdresser or an adventitious would-be assassin.
If DeLillo talks a lot, that’s his job: he’s a writer. When Cronenberg movies talk – and the density of dialogue here has no mercy – they die sitting up, like a teacher at his desk. The capitalist age, in this story’s vision, is expiring; the world has fallen into a black hole. But instead of a novelist using that to burrow outwards or inwards, here is a film-maker filming a star reciting lines. (Pattinson doesn’t recite badly, but an actor with more inner dynamite would help: a Willem Dafoe or a young William Hurt). Sometimes another star jumps on board: Juliette Binoche to have brief sex, finance maven Samantha Morton to explain at length that money has lost its “narrative quality” … By the time we reach the hairdresser we have lost the will to live. By the time we reach the potential assassin (Paul Giamatti) we want to say, “Kill me. Please. Anything. Just put an end this cerebro-sensory inanition.”
If I say I prefer Rock of Ages, it is only in the way a condemned man might say, “I prefer the electric chair to the lethal injection.” Hollywood wires us up to a maximum-voltage ex-stage musical. When the lever is pulled we have hallucinations – they can’t be reality, can they? – of Tom Cruise playing a debauched, bare-chested rocker with tattooed nipples, of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand “coming out” in a gay duet, of Catherine Zeta-Jones camping it up as a queen of mean, of production numbers berserk with noise and Sturm and Drang. Adam Hairspray Shankman steers the juveniles, Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, through the plot about a funky Sunset Strip rock joint threatened with closure by clean-up campaigner Zeta-Jones. It all ends in tears: audience tears of helpless mirth and near-disbelief. When something is this off-the-meter, you at least admire the chutzpah.
A Royal Affair also steals into the kingdom of camp. It is Danish – out of Zentropa (Lars von Trier’s company) – and it stars snake-lipped ex-Bond villain Mads Mikkelsen. You could call the film, with apologies to Pulp Fiction, a royale with cheese: lots of 18th-century court shenanigans, flavoured with hokum, delineating the arranged marriage between mentally unstable Christian VII and English-born princess Caroline Mathilde.
Johann Struensee (Mikkelsen), a German doctor, stepped into the marital fault zone, becoming the king’s political advisor and the queen’s lover. He was like Rasputin, only better turned out. The movie is oddly gripping. Gripping, because history decided here to sketch a chapter stranger than fiction. (After Struensee’s disgrace, his and Caroline’s son Frederick assumed the throne and re-implemented many of dad’s liberal reforms.) Odd, because the film plays like a Dogme95 weirded-out tragicomedy – school of Festen or The Idiots – afflicted with costumes rather as a person might be afflicted with psoriasis. Such a modern-seeming story; such strange, foreign eruptions on the characters’ bodies.
You never know what a British filmmaker will fashion when starved of finance. Jon Sanders’ spellbinding Late September looks as it was made on half a wing and a quarter of a prayer. A barely moving digital video camera records the improvising actors, all unknowns. A family and friends celebrate a dad’s 65th birthday in a darkling Kent country home. Sanders makes it Mike-Leighishly come together. He and Anna Mottram (co-devising the story and playing unhappy, divorce-triggering mum) create the best kind of magic here, the kind that comes from a seemingly empty hat. These faltering, humdrum people, making their stricken jokes, essaying their perceptions, get into your heart and mind. They make you realise we’re all humdrum when reduced to the basic griefs and needs. If the ending is quietly harrowing, it is only because what goes before, so painstakingly put together, gives power to the coming apart of the key characters’ lives and dreams.
Kosmos, a praised-by-some fable from Turkey’s Reha Erdem, is my early nomination for Arthouse Clunker of the Year. A snow-blitzed town; a Russian-style holy fool on the run (from Boris Godunov is my guess); allegorical stigmata by the dozen; the portentous ostinato of distant army manoeuvres. You need a ledger to keep track of the film’s solemn, showy, ramshackle, empty symbolism.