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What a year for drama queens. At the Venice Film Festival, Dame Helen Mirren won the Best Actress prize for impersonating, with treasonable panache, the woman who made her a Dame. At Cannes the French were insulted by a film that didn’t insult their best-known queen. They hurled boos at Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, a revisionist period romp suggesting there were sparks of decency and honourable self-will in the Austrian-born consort who lost her head to Mme la Guillotine.
Drawn from Antonia Fraser’s biography – or riffing on it – this slyly seditious comedy escorts sacred verities of French history and culture to the scaffold. Heresy number one: the Palace of Versailles is depicted as the gaudy, vulgar wedding cake it was and is. Heresy number two: the French Revolution is presented as a bad thing, a national essay in utopianism that became – don’t they all? – a blood-drenched dystopia. Heresy number three: Coppola pre-sents her heroine (Kirsten Dunst) not as a bubblehead who bankrupted France by piling self-gratifications as high as her hair, more as a casualty of high birth who tried to retrieve a little human life from the rubble of royal obligation.
If Dunst’s tones are more Valleyspeak than Viennese, that is the point. As an aristo lost in Wonderland, she is part Alice through the pier glass, part Alicia Silverstone from Clueless. She lassoes social graces as they pass by. She loves parties. And she delivers birdbrained bons mots, although allowed to deny ever having said “Let them eat cake.”
In Coppola’s film, casting is destiny. Louis XV (Rip Torn) is a rough canoodler banging away with Asia Argento’s Mme du Barry, Jason Rushmore Schwartzman lends a nerdy modernism to the Dauphin. And a supercilious Judy Davis, her uptilted neck-cords like gothic fan vaulting, presides over protocol in the royal bedroom, where some 50
valets, priests and ladies-in-waiting stand by to tuck up the newlyweds.
That this Marie Antoinette never reaches the guillotine – she is last seen waving goodbye to Versailles – infuriated the sans-culottes at Cannes. They no doubt also hated the modern pop songs plastered over the consumerist montages (shoes, hairdos, cakes), as if Coppola saw a perfect, forgiving rhyme between then and now, or between every moment in history when self-fufilment’s simple needs have battled against the burdensome gifts of pomp, prerogative and privilege. Anyone for Princess Di comparisons?
England’s south-east coast is becoming a Beckettian wonderland for dyspeptic filmmakers. In these tide-lapped limbos all seasons are off-seasons. Life’s post-
millennial Limeys, waiting for Godot or for Gordon, pass the time clogging their arteries at cheap cafés, lubricating their outlaw careers by proximity to the Channel, and gazing for recreation at a listless sea.
The Margate of Jan Dunn’s bitter-funny Gypo, like that of Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2000 The Last Resort, could be renamed Miserablism-on-Sea. And Thomas Clay, director and co-writer of The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, has (re)discovered Newhaven, a nasty bruise on the coastal map where the fishing industry is dying amid ageing monuments to the second world war.
Clay’s title character is an introverted, cello-playing schoolboy (Dan Spencer) who falls among druggy friends and sleepwalks, mentally and morally, towards the shocking climax. It will shock you, that is, if you have never seen A Clockwork Orange. Any viewers carrying Kubrick’s famous cosh-job around in their brains will take early note of the wealthy suburban-
Bohemian couple, a TV cook and wife who live in a
vandal-tempting villa, and expect blood before bedtime.
The Greek cinemato-grapher Yorgos Arvanitis, who has been the eye of Theo Angelopoulos, brings some of that vastness and mute vigilance to Newhaven. This is a handsome-looking film. If only Clay’s dramaturgy matched his pictorial instincts. Instead he jumps in with both boots to argue that violence in the UK is caused by multigenerational warmongering. Tony Blair’s head on TV, blustering about Iraq, vies with the screams of an abused girl. A little later poor Winston Churchill is archived in, to suggest he too is responsible for drug-crazed kids who bash up celebrity chefs.
In Gypo a family of homeland Brits interacts with a mother-daughter duo of homeless refugees. In the three-part structure of Jan Dunn’s hugely likeable debut film, the stridently sympathetic Margate mum (Pauline McLynn), her bigoted husband (Paul McGann) and the Romany Czech girl (Chloe Sirene) looking to them for help, even for a home from home, each play protagonist in turn.
Some scenes of miserablist hilarity or Jurassic social grace are worthy of Mike Leigh. “Do you need a fork or do you eat with your hands?” asks McGann of Sirene at the meal table. Other scenes have a simple gale-force candour about the refugees we’d all be if there were asylums from loveless marriages or bickering families. The only thing this droll, vivid, encompassing movie has spared is ex-pense: it cost a tiny, exemplary £44,000.
Is there fresh earth to turn on the Holocaust? Are there any horrors left under the harrow? Rex Bloomstein’s documentary KZ starts like an amateur tourist film, shuffling through the sights and guide-gabblings at Austria’s Mauthausen concentration camp, then drifts from the group to dig deeper and wider. Mauthausen town is a quiet nest of surviving SS wives, old Reich lags and a priest who cannot answer the question, “Is there a God after Auschwitz?”
We also meet an ageing local guide, now on alcohol and antidepressants, who is obsessed with pushing yesterday’s cautionary horrors at today’s youngsters. We get a description of the gas chamber’s effects that will make your stomach turn, your hair go grey and your knees turn to jelly. Not easy viewing. But better we learn from history than repeat it.
Historical cinema takes the guesswork route – “what if?” – in Serge Le Péron’s I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed (★★★☆☆). What if Mehdi Ben Barka, the Mor-occan revolutionary leader who vanished, presumed murdered, in France in 1965, had been about to make a docu-feature about decolonialisation? What if his collaborators were Marguerite Duras and the director Georges Judex Franju? And what if his notional producer Georges Figon (Charles Berling) were an ex-convict and scoundrel, implicated with Ben Barka’s kidnappers?
At times you want to ask: “What if you stop speculating and give us some fact?” In the film’s defence, the two celebs were involved in this phantom project, even if in the 1960s Duras didn’t resemble Mrs Magoo (as played by Josiane Balasko) or Franju (Jean-Pierre Léaud) a mad, black-wigged cousin to Lindsay Anderson. But, handicaps and all, this is an intriguing tale, trippingly told.
The Last Kiss (Tony Goldwyn ★★☆☆☆) is the week’s soap truck from Hollywood. The driver just opens the rear doors and out whoosh the suds. Struggling among the schmaltz-bubbles are a multi-character plot about love and infidelity, a sopping-at-the-edges script by Paul Crash Haggis, and a gifted cast (Zach Braff, Blythe Danner, Tom Wilkinson) probably cogitating a class-action suit against their agents.