Monday, January 2, 2012

Fallen Under the Spell of Two Debuts.....!

Paradoxically enough, two debuts out of a plethora of cerebral European films I have savoured in recent times have waltzed their ways into my heart ! The first one is an idyllic brain-teaser , Australian author Julia Leigh’s debut film ‘The Sleeping Beauty’(2011).The film has already loomed large as a cynosure in the festival circuits worldwide. The other is Swedish actress Pernilla August’s directorial debut ‘Beyond’(Svinalangorna). ‘Beyond’ found a cosy berth on the global art-house circuit last year.
To encapsulate in a single sentence , ‘Beyond ‘is a haunting tale of the familiar menace of alcoholism , its resultant abuse and how it unhinges the equilibrium of domestic life often precipitating a traumatic experience for the children. Although almost perpetually pertinent a theme it is to any human society, there is nothing catchy , nothing much spectacular about it... Just ‘old wine in new bottle’ kind of stuff....But what perhaps makes ‘Beyond’ go beyond its lacklustre thematic matrix is its awesome treatment ...... An impeccable cast, unadorned and naturalistic yet kinetic cinematography and lighting style that lends the film an almost doc-like verisimilitude, highly creative and suggestive use of flashbacks, a gripping narrative technique , are all exquisitely blended together in the film to culminate in a cinematic triumph...!!! A drama set in 1970s Sweden ,‘Beyond’ is essentially the story of Leena, an attractive thirty-something mother with a caring and dotting husband, and two cute ,affectionate daughters. Her Christmas Day is shattered by a call she hangs up on. It is from her mother , a moribund patient in the distant Swedish town where she grew up. Persistent to see her daughter one last time before she departs, she has the hospital call on her behalf. Visibly ruffled up Leena ‘surprisingly’ conceals the call from her family and goes out for a swim. When she returns, it is obvious the hospital persisted, because her husband is seen gearing up for a long journey with the kids who are ‘strangely’ in the dark about the existence of a maternal grandmother. A visibly reluctant Leena has now no choice but to make the trip. The tedious 800-km journey is intercut with memories from her childhood ---memories of a turbulent home cropping up before her. A series of flashbacks gradually explain Leena’s anger and , above all ,her psyche that provoked her to cut all ties with her alcoholic mother ........Leena’s family palpably in the throes of economic uncertainty moved from Finland to Sweden to turn over a new leaf. It was a family of four----father Kimmo, mother Aili, Leena and her younger brother Sakari. Kimmo was a tippler , a wife-beater and a domestic tyrant, and Aili, too, took to drinking to console herself for the dependent masochistic mess which was her fate. Leena was forced to be mother to Sakari and keep up some facade of normality at school and before the neighbours. Quite tangibly Leena’s childhood and adolescence turned out to be nothing but a trail of endless nightmares. An ‘awfully’ sombre territory “Beyond’ takes us through...But the debutant August exudes great directorial deftness in redeeming the despair aesthetically through two well contrived ingredients---a highly spiffy and suggestive background score and an equally suggestive subplot. The background music, which alternates sombre chords with lighter classical piano melodies, helps maintain the emotional equilibrium . A subplot involving the young Leena’s penchant for swimming and her success as a swimming prodigy falls back on water as a motif --- motif which evocatively suggests the girl’s emotional edification and fortitude to survive.

Any connoisseur of cinema is sure to find ‘ Sleeping Beauty’ a mind-boggling cinematic enigma, ambiguous and unsettling……! But this can hardly dissuade him from plunging deep into the cinematic marvel that this flick is. Julia Leigh’s debut film ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is instantly reminiscent of a subversive edition of the Sleeping Beauty figure of the most popular versions of the classic fairy tale in which the Sleeping Beauty epitomizes the archetypal passive heroine. But given the multi-layered meanings this film works its way around, calling it a mere subversive modernist version of the classic fairy tale seems a gross understatement. The film palpably coaxes a discerning connoisseur into falling back on current psychoanalytical and feminist film theory to interpret the internal dynamics that make ‘Sleeping Beauty’ so catchy and cerebral a film in the same breath. It is a film about ‘Male Gaze’, about the nature of subtle commodification of woman in a predominantly patriarchal set up. It is a critique of the nature of sexual aggression as well. But all this is not enough to enable us to categorize it. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is an awesome sensory film that eludes simple explanation. The debutant director , her cinematographer and her art director have combined well to display a superb sense of visual storytelling which manifests itself in the construction of each scene. Deft employment of soft light and vivid primary colours, highly spiffy and minimalist background music add to the overall appeal of the film. But the cynosure of “Sleeping Beauty’ is none but the sleeping beauty of the film, Emily Browning who has delivered a stellar performance in a highly challenging role.
Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student who gets engaged in several jobs to meet her ends is the ‘enigmatic’ Sleeping Beauty ----enigmatic because what motivates her in life is a complete mystery . Yes, she has to work part time to fend for herself, primarily to sustain her university life .But then her attitude towards life seems one of sheer indifference and casualness. To our sheer astonishment, she decides whom to sleep with by flipping a coin .Perhaps it is this nonchalant attitude to life and ambivalent take on sex coupled with her innate tenacity to conform to the currents which provoke her to be on an astounding and somewhat absurd spree of activities. She first accepts a job that requires wearing lingerie while serving wealthy elderly dinner guests, and later takes another where she is consensually tranquilized and left alone with aged men. Lucy’s jobs obviously do not involve any actual sessions of sex or lovemaking. But they all indicate something sombre within some men that make them want to dominate women. Thus ,with Lucy drugged asleep and then awakened with no memory of what has happened, these aged folk surpass and tame Lucy the woman in an intricate power equation. From this perspective, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ exposes the nature of sexual violence as a ‘masculine’ phenomenon that springs from a callous desire to wield power and degrade and not from sexuality as such.
Lucy’s ‘casual’ attitude to sex cajoles us to probe deeper the moment we confront the film’s reluctance to show any visually explicit sexual content on screen and also to attribute any emotional essence to whatever representation of sexuality it has . A galaxy of naked or semi-naked characters permeate through , but no scene of actual sex or lovemaking. In stead the film presents a series of situations where the expression of sexuality exudes artificiality. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ might tantalise those who are perpetually in a scramble after mere erotic and emotional fulfillment in films. But the serious moviegoers are sure to be smitten by the cerebral issues the film raises and the technical finesse with which it is done.


  1. Awesome piece, I want to watch these two movies after I have read about them. Although i have not seen the films, somehow i was visualizing those films. Thats the effect of your writing.

  2. Great piece of review... Looking forward to seeing more such critiques of masterpieces on your blog!