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Unrequited obsession

Two films this week, one assiduously without heart, and one which may suffer from a surfeit, so you pays your money and takes your pick or you don’t pays your money and you stays in and has a jacket potato and watches TV.

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

Two films this week, one assiduously without heart, and one which may suffer from a surfeit, so you pays your money and takes your pick or you don’t pays your money and you stays in and has a jacket potato and watches TV.

Two films this week, one assiduously without heart, and one which may suffer from a surfeit, so you pays your money and takes your pick or you don’t pays your money and you stays in and has a jacket potato and watches TV. Makes no odds to me.

I’ll review in the order in which I saw them, as that seems only fair so, first, Heartbeats, which is so heartless it is almost daringly heartless, and although it did win the special youth prize at Cannes, I’m kind of thinking the youths can keep it. It’s a French-Canadian film, set in Montreal, and the second film from the startlingly precocious Xavier Dolan (his first was the prize-winning I Hate My Mother) who is still only 22, which is annoying, although perhaps not as annoying as the film itself. It’s about a pair of romantically infatuated twentysomethings and while I have nothing against infatuated twentysomethings per se, how long do I want to be in the same room with them? No time at all, it turns out.


Our pair are Marie (Monia Chokri), a chilly, chain-smoking intellectual who dresses affectedly in ‘vintage’ clothing, and her gay bestie, Francis (played by Dolan himself), an Emo fond of wallowing in dejection. At a dinner party, they encounter Nicolas (Niels Schneider), who is pretty beneath his corona of blond, bouncy curls — ‘Who is that Adonis?’ asks Marie, lingeringly — and both are instantly besotted. Marie and Francis then spend the rest of the film slyly trying to woo him as their own relationship becomes increasingly competitive. They buy Nicolas gifts. They plan ‘accidental’ meetings. They hover swooningly. They sleep three in a bed, platonically, hoping something will happen.

Meanwhile, Nicolas remains the most elusive of dreamboats. He never shows his hand. Does he like one? The other? Neither? Is this ambiguity his point? Is it that he doesn’t have to be a proper person with an inner life because infatuations are all about our projections, and never about what is actually in front of us? Fair enough, but by fetishising unrequited obsession in this way, the film seems as empty and hollowed-out and chilly as its characters.

So it doesn’t cut it as a tale of erotic desperation, but stylistically? Tediously pretentious, padded out as it is with slo-mo sequences that are neither moody nor relevant — although nothing much of anything happens in this film, it just delays that nothing much of anything — and young people delivering overwritten speeches about love. Also, there are many shots of the characters’ feet, although I couldn’t tell you for why. All I can tell you is that I was pleased to get shot of Marie and Francis, and although I did not call out condescendingly over my shoulder, ‘Goodbye, dears. Come back when you’ve grown up a bit,’ I was sorely tempted.

And now a switch of countries and a switch to a film so packed with heart its shortcomings seem trivial. The narrative of Life, Above All may be too issue-driven, and the dialogue sometimes stiltingly explanatory, but it does deliver a mighty emotional punch. Directed by Oliver Schmitz, a German raised in South Africa, it is dedicated to the country’s 800,000 Aids orphans and follows just the one: 12-year-old Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), whose mother falls ill and whom the community eyes up suspiciously as Aids is still taboo and much denied. Indeed, the word ‘Aids’ isn’t even mentioned until at least an hour into the film, and then only secretly.

It is Chanda who must fight: fight for the truth; fight for the right to nurse her dying mother; fight the hospital to offer help; fight to prevent her orphaned best friend from entering into prostitution, and while this all sounds horribly miserable it is bought spectacularly to life by Ms Manyaka, a wondrous little actress who carries the weight of the world on her spindly shoulders, but whose eyes always shine with dignity and humanity. Schmitz directs without sentimentality — the facts rather speak for themselves — and focuses his camera not on exotic, travelogue vistas, but on the everyday: washing flapping in the wind, old carts on dusty roads, rubbish balling along in the breeze.

The ending, alas, is formulaically uplifting — if the Aids taboo were so easy to overturn, why does it even exist? — but mostly this is a film that seems genuine and true, plus you will learn something and there are no silly-billies swooning over Nicolas. Like I said, you pays your money and you takes your pick or you stays in. Makes no odds to me. (I say that, but would actually love you to see the second film. I’m just too proud to come out with it straight, that’s all.)


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