A daft, devout determination to be debonair

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

We are surely reaching the age when ambitious parents put their children down for James Bond, as for Eton, at birth. Somewhere in London’s Somerset House records office or Pinewood Studios, I suspect there’s a document signed by Mr and Mrs Craig of Chester, England, offering their son to the 007 franchise. “He’s a lovely boy with blue eyes, a boxer’s nose and an ability to deliver pert one-liners over poleaxed villains.” Mr and Mrs Craig know this because the delivery room, seconds after his birth, is carpeted with horizontal midwives and doctors, struck down as suspected Smersh agents.

What a piece of work is a Bond. This hero is now so secure in his mythologised status that he can even go blond. He can even conduct a gadget-free mission. (No sign of “Q” here; no ballistic biros or Polaris Peugeots.) And in Casino Royale he can even aim putdowns at his own character’s bygone fads. “Shaken or stirred?” asks the Vodkatini-mixing barman in the luxury Montenegro casino. “Do I look like I give a damn?” coolly replies Daniel Craig’s Bond.

Craig is more Connery than Moore, and a definite reverse flip after Brosnan. (No preening, self-pleased pleasantries.) And he is built like a brick outhouse: we know this from his frequent shirtlessness. When the waves part for the traditional Bimbo Emergent shot, hallowed by past Aphrodites such as Ursula Andress and Halle Berry, the bimbo-turned-himbo is Craig himself. Eva Green, the new Bond girl, just gets to carry the Treasury cash as 007 runs around Europe chasing an arms-running money-cleanser (Mads Mikkelsen), whose favourite launderette is the gambling casino.

The action is as good as we expect. The preludial set-piece is a running, jumping and biffing tour de force in a building site, with death-disdaining leaps from crane to crane and roof to roof. The film’s climax is the collapse of an entire canalside palazzo in Venice, its façade sliding slowly into the water like a tipsy diner making a date with the underside of the table.

The Bond series itself is now
collapse-proof. If it could survive George Lazenby, it could survive anything. And although Daniel Craig is on a zinger-reduced diet, he has the technique and timing for the jokes if and when supplied. The charm of this franchise remains its daft, devout determination to be debonair. It is as if some ancestral memory of British sang froid is still out there in cultural space, insisting on regular touchdowns. “Christ, I miss the cold war,” says Judi Dench’s M, yearning for a time when international tensions could be solved by a dinner jacket, a polite assassination or an exchange of telegrams. But Bond fans still live in that era, that simple paradise of war-free, trigger-ready world diplomacy, when we were all on our toes without having to be in the trenches.

How do you like your marriage – neat or on the rocks? In Gabrielle it is both. Patrice Chéreau’s film, like Joseph Conrad’s source story The Return, says: Beware of over-tidy conjugality, it may conceal unguessable gulfs, reefs and abysses. So when self-satisfied businessman Pascal Greggory comes home to a letter from his wife (Isabelle Huppert) indicating that she has walked out, his inner world crashes. His inner world is then helpless – astonished, grateful, humiliated, enraged – when she returns the same night.

“Well, I forgive you,” he pronounces with strangled magnanimity. She laughs derisively.

Dressed for 1912, accessorised with mini-flashbacks and camouflaged in chameleon tone changes (now colour, now black-and-white), Gabrielle stands on a bridge between the belle époque and brutal modernity. Before his
history-hopscotching films (La Reine Margot, Intimacy), Chéreau, we remember, staged Berg’s Lulu in its first complete version and Bayreuth’s Industrial Revolution Ring. Gabrielle is as much Strindberg as Conrad, Munch as Manet. It threads a prolonged scream into its dialogue, helped by performances that strip their characters bare long before the stairway rape that climaxes this one-night quarrel standing for the quarrel of a married lifetime. Greggory plays a man watching his self-image crack in a mirror. Huppert has the killer lines – “The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable” – but is no less ferocious and expressive, being Huppert, when projecting emotion from a faced fixed in silence.

37 Uses for a Dead Sheep sounds like a stocking-filler to go with those uproarious joke-books you bought in previous yuletides about cats and dogs. It isn’t: it is an ethno-documentary about the Pamir Kirghiz, directed by Britain’s Ben Hopkins (Simon Magus) with three parts respectful wonderment to one part antic extemporisation. He chops into chapters this nomadic people’s history, chronicling a near-century of flights from Soviet communism, into first China, then Pakistan and Afghanistan. Today the Pamir Kirghiz are settled in eastern Turkey, where the director persuaded them to enact scenes from their past, shot by Hopkins in period-pastiche styles suggesting now D.W. Griffith, now a newsreel, now an Asian western.

Since no filmmaker could address this people’s story without an incredulous smile – from their account of yoghurt as a poison antidote to their games of dead-goat polo – the film’s humour is integral to its ethnography. (And yes, there are three dozen uses for a deceased ovine, but watch out for the 37th.) So is the film’s Brechtian baring of its illusory techniques, its insistence on revealing the “off-screen” realities, including the day the camera chewed up the film while dozens of costly-dressed Kirghiz stood by waiting to roll.

Hans-Christian Schmid’s
Requiem and Christian Alvert’s Antibodies prove there is life in modern German cinema, and Christianity of a spooked, ambiguous kind. Antibodies () is the lesser film: a thudding psycho-melodrama about a childkiller with a hotline to God and the Devil. The killer’s name, Gabriel Engel, tips you off to the film’s symbol-toting self-importance.

Requiem, far better, is Germany’s version of a true native story recently borrowed by Hollywood (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). Anneliese Michel, a student, died in 1976 after a series of exorcisms. Electrifyingly played by Berlin Best Actress winner Sandra Hüller, this teenage soul wrestling with opaque torments – diagnosed one moment as epilepsy, the next as possession – seems more “normal” than her carers and case-handlers. These include an ineffectual father, a coldly domineering mother and a young priest alternating compassion with Biblical-literalist notions of hellfire and satanic occupancy. No wonder the poor girl sinks beneath seas of interventionist mysticism, watched by Schmid’s implacable, insightful, immaculately realistic camera.

“Superheroes could just as easily be normal people suffering from psychotic delusions,” opines Jeremy Passmore, joint writer-director of Special. In a cinema of proliferating riffs on comic-book heroism, he and co-creator Hal Haberman offer a counter-riff to The Incredibles. Instead of a real superhero family creaking back from retirement, Les (Michael Rapaport), no less creaky, only thinks he has special powers. Participation in a clinical drug trial can do that for you. Les thinks he can levitate, fly, and biff the daylights out of neighbourhood thugs. So he dons a manky superhero outfit, looks for trouble and gets it. Funny in bits. Less effective when it tries to be touching.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.