Ida (2014)

As the opening credits of Ida began I realised I had almost unrealistically high expectations for this film. I had seen posters littered with hyperbolic praise and adorned with awards from across Europe and watched the breathtaking trailer several times. I suddenly worried whether it was possible for the film to sustain so many preconceived hopes. However, it soon became apparent that Paweł Pawlikowski has focused on the small details of Ida’s story allowing the larger subjects of the film to remain undamaged by a heavy hand. This lightness of narrative makes Ida both a completely absorbing and painful film to watch.

The eponymous Ida, Agata Trzebuchowska, is an orphan novice nun who is about to take her vows in rural Poland during the Soviet rule of the 1960s. Although she has already agreed to spend her life in the stark nunnery her Mother Superior insists she must meet her remaining family, an aunt, before she makes an irreversable commitment. Ida reluctantly makes her way to the city where she discovers from this aunt, Wanda Gruz played by Agata Kulesza, that she is Jewish. Her complete faith in a Christian god is then faced with an identity crisis as she realises she knows nothing about this new culture and family which have laid a claim on her. Pawlikowski also demonstrates throughout the film that it is not only traditional Jewish culture that continues their separation but the overwhelming and inescapable grief the recent generations have faced following the loss of so many communities in the Holocaust. Ida is drawn into this shared emotion as she travels with Wanda to discover her parents’ fate and understand why she was left at the nunnery for so many years.

Although this quest to reveal Ida’s past might sound unremittingly bleak the film does also raise questions about how lives should be lived. As Ida begins to experience the full possibilities that the world has to offer, ranging from beautiful clothes to the social interaction offered by a bustling city and the suggestion of a male friend, it seems as if she has closed herself off from the world before even understanding it. The audience sees this strange new world through her eyes, as even a traffic jam appears exotic in comparison to the barren, snowy lands surrounding her previous home.

Ida was a film that I think will stay with me and in my thoughts for a long time. While many people wished they could forget the terrible things which war brought with it to Poland it is clear that this would always remain impossible without an acknowledgement of the wounds that lay across the surface of society.
Unfortunately Ida appears to have finished its run in cinemas but I think it is worth buying the DVD of this film as the clear and simple visuals will not bore with rewatching.

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Babette’s Feast (1987)

I must admit that I had high hopes when the opening scenes of Babette’s Feast began as one of my favourite films and books ( Out of Africa ) is based on the life of Isak Dinesen, the author of the short story on which the film is based. Dinesen, who wrote under the pen name Karen Blixen, lived an unconventional life which included both the plains of Africa and the colder shores of Denmark. However, while watching Babette’s Feast I was struck by how quickly the rhythm of the community was evident, just as it is soon clear in her tales of African life. While this clarity is partly due to Gabriel Axel’s direction it also demonstrates that Dinesen understood that inherently communities share a common humanity wherever they are based.

The film revolves around two elderly sisters and their French maid Babette in a remote town in Jutland, Denmark. All three women are loved throughout the village due to their devotion to the poor and community spirit. However, Babette has not always lived in this small village and the film returns to past events to explain her presence. The two sisters had both been very beautiful in their youth but their father, a preacher, encouraged them to remain above worldly desires and passions. One sister watches as a shy military suitor gives up hope while another gives up her beloved singing lessons to dissuade her teacher from falling in love with her. This asceticism leaves the sisters elderly and alone when Babette arrives at their door and begs them to take her in, having been sent by the spurned music teacher.

Babette is alone and has lost everything due to the French Revolution. After several years of looking after the sisters in Jutland she discovers that she has won the lottery, her only remaining link with France, and is now very rich. She decides to make a real French dinner for the sisters and their friends to thank them for their kindness. The sisters agree and suddenly watch on as their humble kitchen becomes host to exotic ingredients and exquisite china. However, what the viewer finds enchanting and exciting the sisters find terrifying as they increasingly imagine Babette to be cooking temptation itself for them to eat. The guests agreed that although they must eat the food which Babette has made they will refrain from discussing it so that they can demonstrate they remain above worldly delights.

The final scenes around the dinner table focus on each guest’s face as they attempt to not register a single moment of enjoyment. However, not only do faultless dishes keep arriving from the kitchen but Babette ensures that every wine glass remains full. Eventually it becomes clear that despite their best efforts the guests do not remain immune to the effects of Babette’s feast. The dimly lit scenes encourage an intimacy with the group and demonstrate that Babette is not only providing them with a meal but an unrepeatable experience. Although the food is shown, as each course appears including caviar, turtle soup and duck pastries, this is second to the social interaction which takes place – the dinner table makes the guests equal, even with the decorated military general, and differences are forced aside.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this film, in part because I have discovered that it is Pope Francis’ favourite film. I expect that he appreciated the calm meditation on artistic riches set against the Danish coastline as much as I did. It is a film which I have thought about often since watching it and I intend to watch again. However, I would also recommend any of Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) work as it is the slightly ethereal nature of the plot which provides such a simple film with such a fascinating effect.

Double Indemnity (1944)

I read Double Indemnity by James M. Cain last summer and ever since then I have been planning to watch the film. The book creates a heavy atmosphere which involves the reader without mercy in a dark and cynical world. When Billy Wilder directed Double Indemnity in 1944 he visually recreated this atmosphere through meticulous attention to both the lighting and the set presentation. He would ‘dirty’ up sets just before filming would begin in order to present a slightly sordid image of the characters’ lifestyle – ashtrays would be overflowing and dust would be visible in the air. Due to the nature of black and white filming the lighting of a set becomes even more overt as contrasts are emphasised. Characters stand with bars of light thrown across their faces by blinds and hide away from the California sunshine in dimly lit rooms as they plot their selfish actions.

The plot follows an insurance salesman, Walter Neff, played by Fred MacMurray as he falls for the original femme fatale played by Barbara Stanwyck. Without much hesitation Neff promises to kill Phyllis’ husband and ensure that they get a ‘double indemnity’ payout from the insurance company he works for through this death. However, they need to make sure that every alibi is irreproachable, every circumstance planned for and that no one is able to link them together. They are forced to meet in supermarkets, as if by chance, and plan in the open.This creates a web of carefully organised events which the audience waits in suspense to fall apart. However, due to their forethought this is not an inevitable occurrence but only a possibility in the presence of laxity.

Nevertheless, it is Walter Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes played by Edward G. Robinson, who is unable to accept a narrative of accidents surrounding Phyllis. Through working at the insurance company for so many years he is able to sense a false calm even without explaining how or why. This ensures that Walter is forced to look on while his boss searches for evidence of the murder he committed even as he is trying to stay a step ahead. Billy Wilder had originally filmed a different ending for the plot but realised that this relationship between Neff and Keyes was central to the film and could be developed in more subtle and interesting ways.

Although Double Indemnity was advertised as a story of love as well as murder it noticeably also details how quickly love can turn to hate or be misunderstood. Walter and Phyllis might be the dysfunctional couple at the centre of the plot but Phyllis’ step daughter also has trouble with a jealous boyfriend and Keyes is constantly aware of the huge numbers of spouses who cheat their partners. Double Indemnity was at the beginning of the noir tradition and it set the bar high. I would definitely recommend watching it straight away, although not if you’ve recently signed up for life insurance!

Orlando (1992)

Orlando , directed by Sally Potter, is an exquisitely beautiful film. It lavishly covers the centuries from dying years of the Elizabethan era to the present whilst Tilda Swinton performs the chameleon title role.

Orlando’s youth is frozen when Elizabeth I promises him his familial home in return for his everlasting youth. The years wash over him, with only the change in costume indicating any change in time. He experiences the transition into civil war from the isolation of his manor and only leaves when harsh criticism of his writing makes familiar scenes uncomfortable. The change of scene to a hot, dusty and unknown East as Orlando becomes an ambassador appears more surprising than the following sex change the eponymous character then experiences. Orlando must then struggle with new restrictions on her life as a female and the lowered expectations of others.

The film regularly breaks the fourth wall and segues smoothly between the centuries as Tilda Swinton moves through mazes and rooms in the house, employing the same characters for different roles. This experimental filming makes the unusual and (partially) unexplained plot much easier to accept and invest in. Orlando’s romances with both Sasha and Shelmadine are tender and yet bitter-sweet as the audience is aware that they will always remain apart from the world. This separation is visually encouraged by Swinton’s unusual and androgynous looks which create a timeless aura, inescapable despite the luxurious clothes.

Orlando is a film I plan to watch again soon and somthing which I believe will improve with every rewatch. I would recommend it without a doubt.

The Ipcress File (1965)

The Ipcress File , directed by Sidney J. Furie, is one of Michael Caine’s finest roles. Based on Len Deighton’s novel of the same name Caine’s character Harry Palmer was billed as the anti-Bond. He has narrowly avoided prison and is very sceptical towards authority, including his bosses. However, his unconventional methods gain results which Palmer modestly produces during meetings.

The opening sequence (of which a still is above) is a fascinatingly careful construction of Palmer’s character as he wakes in the morning, gets ready and heads into work.

Palmer is man of many talents, not only being able to shoot a gun but also discerning the various qualities of tinned mushrooms available. He is able to crack eggs with one hand and is happy to whip up a supper for ladies who drop by his flat. This is truly a modern man who can support himself domestically, financially and in any fight.

However, The Ipcress File is not solely a study of Harry Palmer’s character. The plot also revolves around the attempt to stop a “brain drain” out of 1960s Britain as academics either defect or suffer amnesia. Along with his colleagues Palmer follows a trail which includes surprises, treachery and violence. No one can be trusted and nothing is as it seems. The film is worth a watch not only for the unusual plot but also the views of 1960s London which it provides.

Give the trailer a watch here: