The Beast in the Jungle

 

The Beast in the Jungle (2019)

The Beast in the Jungle (2019)

Directed by Clara Van Gool. Written by Glyn Maxwell and Clara Van Gool

This debuted at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2019 and is an imperfect yet quite daring take on the Henry James short novel of the same name. Van Gool is a well-known Dutch director of television and short films and has a penchant for dance in her work. Here she uses professional dancers Sarah Reynolds and Dane Jeremy Hurst to play the leads. The story concerns May Bartram and John Marcher and John’s obsession with the notion he is destined for something that is going to pounce upon him at any moment – like the titular beast in the jungle.

The film is beautifully framed and shot in muted tones by DoP, Richard Van Oosterhout and the opening act in particular reminded me of Merchant Ivory films, such as Maurice (1987) and A Room With a View (1985). The production design by Rosie Stapel and Diana van de Vossenberg works brilliantly here too. These scenes gave me a distinct feeling of melancholy, very similar to the novella, which I found a positive sign.

But Van Gool and Maxwell’s script brings the protagonists into the 20th century while maintaining the same muted colouring, which gave these scenes a very drab feel. I can see how this would fit with the source text, the unrequited love and overarching sadness but the bouncing back and forth is confusing for the audience and does little to propel the story. A far better recent example of this technique would be Greta Gerwig’s wonderful Little Women (2019)

The dance elements of the film are probably its best feature. Reynolds and Hurst might not be the greatest actors delivering lines, but through their bodies provide all the longing, uncertainty and pure physical attraction of this most chaste of love stories. At 87 minutes, it isn’t an overly long film but I felt the story wasn’t strong enough to carry a feature length work.

Van Gool’s experiments with temporal shifts often don’t play out well but I can understand why she tried this. It’s another example of risk-taking in film to try and find a new way to visually tell a story – and for that I applaud her!

Ether

Eter (2018)

Ether (2018)

Written and directed by Krzysztof Zanussi.

This is the latest release from Polish auteur, Krzysztof Zanussi and is an interesting, and at times, quite disturbing watch.

Without spoiling the movie – all this happens in the first 10 minutes – this is a retelling of the Faust story, starring Jacek Ponidzialek as a doctor totally committed to science, who is experimenting with ether in early 20th century Russia. When one of his experiments (and attempted rape) goes wrong and the subject dies, he is sentenced to hang. This is commuted at the last moment to exile and he ends up as doctor to a garrison in the remote edges of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Here the doctor continues to experiment and be fascinated by ether and its effect on his subjects.

The big takeaway for me was how beautiful this movie is and how that is juxtaposed by the doctor’s increasing fascination with control and his spiral into madness. DoP Piotr Niemyjski has done stunning work here, as have Production Designer Joanna Macha and Costume Designer Katarzyna Lewinska. The visuals are simply sumptuous and framed in many instances like a painting. This also offsets some of the more grisly aspects of the film and the increasing tension as Europe heads towards WW1.

However, this takes risks with the narrative that I’m not sure a lot of 21st century audiences will get. For me, the doctor becomes too much a mad scientist and a thoroughly unappealing lead I felt no sympathy for. While this is no fault of Ponidzialek who does well with what he’s given and brings moments of complexity, my lack of sympathy made me feel increasingly distanced from the film – I was never truly immersed in it as I have been with some of Zannusi’s earlier works (in particular the 2000 release Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease). And I found the ending a little over-blown and unnecessary – I’d already worked out who was pulling the strings – but maybe that goes over the heads of people not familiar with Goethe.

It’s flawed and some of the risks don’t pay off but I’d always rather watch something that dares to take a chance. For the cinematography alone, this is certainly worth watching.

The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse (2019)

Written by Robert & Max Eggars. Directed by Robert Eggars.

As anyone who comes here regularly would know, I watch a lot of movies. Sometimes they are perfectly fine while up on the screen but don’t stay with me, and within hours I need to refer to notes made in the cinema to jog my memory into writing a review. Not so with Robert Eggars’ latest film – I found it truly memorable and cannot stop thinking about it!

The Lighthouse is many things, which makes it difficult to adequately describe without giving away massive plot spoilers – which I have no intention of doing. Suffice it to say, I found this seemingly simple story of two men alone in a lighthouse a riveting cinematic experience that becomes increasingly complex and deep. From the opening scene, this is a film that demands your full attention and becomes (at times) uncomfortably intense.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star in this two-hander and both are excellent. I’ve come to expect this of Dafoe, who never disappoints, but Pattinson is extraordinary here and has become an actor of depth and serious value. There is surprisingly little dialogue between them but that is delivered with intent and tension. For a relatively quiet film, it’s very loud, with superb diagetic sound and a score that weaves through this isolated and desolate world.

For film nerds (like me), the movie was shot on 35 mm black and white film stock, using vintage Baltar lenses, which required much stronger lighting for the interior scenes, creating deeper contrasts and also forcing the almost square 1.19:1 (or Movietone) aspect ratio. This makes so much of the film ultra close up and at times, downright claustrophobic despite being so isolated. There are many seemingly small things like this that combine together to make this film a cinephile’s delight – the haunting sound design, the very specific dialects used by the actors, the atmospheric score by Mark Korven, the brilliant cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and the superb editing by Louise Ford. All combine together to make a truly memorable cinematic experience.

Narratively, the story was drawn initially from an unfinished work by Edgar Allen Poe and a real-life incident from an early 19th century Welsh lighthouse. But at its heart, I think this has more in common with Greek tragedy – particularly Proteus, the prophetic sea god and Prometheus, the trickster who stole fire from the gods and was punished so horribly. Set in the late 19th century, this is a period piece that doesn’t exclude modern viewers. There are strong themes of the performative nature of work and masculinity, which are relatable audience entry points and become so very obvious as the layers of social norms are stripped away from the characters and their true natures revealed. And above all, the lighthouse – which almost becomes a character itself, in all its intense and claustrophobic isolation.

At times, The Lighthouse is a hard watch and if you’re not a fan of being challenged by a piece of cinema, I cannot recommend it to you. However, if you like horror that is cerebral as well as visceral, you’ve come to the right place. If there is a fault, it is a little over-long with a running time of 109 minutes, but I wonder now if that was intentional. Like Eggars’ previous feature, The Witch (2015) there are questions posed that are never answered. The existential horror at the core of this drama is arguably something that exists in all of us and here, Robert Eggars in concert with his excellent cast and crew, gradually peel away the artifice of societal expectations to reveal that dark heart.

The Lighthouse is currently in (relatively) wide release across Australia and I’d like to thank Monster Fest for the opportunity to see and review it.