Thursday, June 28, 2018

A quick sketch

Sometimes I find myself hungering to write about nothing - no, that isn't right. Hungering, rather, to write about not something, about a not-topic or an anti-story: to write as an exercise, a stretching of my limbs, or as you might crack out a pretty and insignificant tune on a piano, on a hot summer's afternoon, while waiting for everyone else to get changed into their swimming things so you can set off to the sea in a succession of sun-baked cars. Wanting to write as you gargle water, swilling words around, getting pleasure from their swoosh and flavour, making them bubble, roiling them into a song.

When I was little I used to drink in a funny way, shunting the liquid around my mouth at every gulp before I swallowed, rather than simply sending it straight down like other people do. My grandfather took my brother and sister and me to his Saturday art class once - a parochial affair in a little village hall by a field with a swing and a slide and a roundabout - where a woman with airs trilled, upon seeing us drink water, "Stop! Their magnified faces at the bottom of the glass. I must, MUST paint these children!"

My grandfather took up art - art is too big a word; took up painting - in his retirement, after a lifetime working in a glove factory. He was an intelligent man who had been made to give up school early - at thirteen or fourteen I think - in order to earn some money to help his family along. He was gentle and funny when I knew him, but I gather that he had been violent in his earlier years, and given to rages. Almost certainly he felt a sense of what he could have been, of a potential gone to waste. In his old age, having been a churchgoer all his life, he re-read the Bible cover to cover, and became a devout atheist. His artistic efforts were hilariously poor - dull landscapes; thick daubs of yellow to suggest a lemon in a decidedly still life. He was a small, portly man with quite dainty legs. He had a comb-over of nine hairs, and a Mr McGregor beard.

My mother never won a race against him as a child, even though she would have been faster than him from a very early age, because the sight of him running made her laugh so much that she had to stop running to catch her breath. My father's impression of his father-in-law's way of swimming is still going strong 26 years after my grandfather died: it takes the form of a very slow front crawl, purposeful, face determinedly down in the water, with a heavy arm movement, and a slightly desperate face turning upwards like a great beast to take vast gulps of air at regular intervals. In the mornings, when visiting, we children would get into bed with our grandparents for tea; they had a kettle in the room, and an enormous tupperware box of biscuits, and the whole room was wallpapered over, including the ceiling, in a dizzyingly drab geometric pattern of tiny flowers. My grandfather would entertain us by doing his 'exercises', which he may well have been advised to do by some well-meaning doctor, but which, at some point, had taken a turn for the comical: they consisted of about one press-up, a crouch, and (funniest of all) a puffing-cheeked attempt to jump up and touch the ceiling.

When painting, my grandfather would sometimes get flustered, and, if painting a landscape, would shout, "Bloody greens!"

My grandmother, on my father's side, can paint. At thirteen or fourteen she would already have been painting, and in her adult life she could indulge in it as much as she liked, as a well-to-do headmaster's wife; she occasionally taught a class or two. Once or twice, I think, my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother painted together; and on a couple of occasions that I can remember my grandfather showed her some of his paintings, which she, having studied at the Beaux-Arts, must have looked over in something like horror. My grandmother still draws every day, taking a notepad with her everywhere - a real artist, a true painter, whose hands are moved to sketch, who is happy to spend any minute adding fuller reds and purples to a quickly rendered mountainside. Here, a few pen-strokes to represent a dog nearby; there, a little gouache for the corner of a lake.

I want to write like that sometimes, to carry something with me for jotting down, for seizing a sight on the quick, or a missed connection - a way of pinning down a moment and looking at it anew. This morning on the tube I saw a serious-looking man wearing a t-shirt that said, in white Comic Sans on a tomato red background, "Guatever. Guatemala." That man can't be a character in a book; he isn't the start of an article, but I don't want to lose him. Perhaps he can be someone in a skit, a lightly shaded silhouette; maybe he can just live here for a bit.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Complete List of Forthcoming Queer Characters in Tentpole Studio Movies

Purple Man
Bi-Curious
An arch-villain from the MCU, seen in the popular Jessica Jones series, Purple Man will be getting his own spin-off in 2019, and there are plans afoot to have him look at a man in episode 4.

Aryal Landers
Agender
Aryal is set to be an important secondary or tertiary character in the developing Alien franchise, with five crucial lines spoken to Michael Fassbender's David in the final act. A representative for 20th Century Fox stated: "It's important to us to represent all of the different possibilities for people out in space, and Aryal is a fantastic character who we see in many scenes in the film."

Swamp Thing
Polysexual
A popular character from DC Comics, Swamp Thing will integrate the next effort by the studio. Voiced by Michael C. Hall, the humanoid/plant creature's many humorous one-liners about things it wants to fuck, whose inclusion in the completed movie are subject to positive test screenings, are sure to delight all audiences keen for a multiplicity of sexual experiences to be reflected in the cultural output they favour.

Brian Kuyt
Asexual
This character in the upcoming sequel to Terminator Genisys has no desire for sexual intercourse. Actor Charlie Tahan, playing Brian, says: "I'm so blessed to be playing Brian, and I'm particularly proud that nobody ever mentions Brian's sexuality in the film at all. It's done super respectfully of his identity and I can't wait for people to see what we've done."

Night Raven
Trans
This supporting character in the planned Black Widow film from the MCU is apparently set to be trans, with the full support of leading actress Scarlett Johansson, who said in a statement: "I'm so honoured to share a scene with Night Raven, and we're casting around for someone who will be able to play them with exactly the right sensibility. Night Raven is not just trans, they're kick-ass, and I think that's so exciting." No-one has been cast to play Night Raven yet, although Kate Mara is said to be an early favourite for the role.

Jane Woziek 
Lesbian
An I.T. expert in the forthcoming Jurassic Park movie, played by Jane Adams, Jane Woziek is heard speaking to her wife on the phone. Known for her acidic put-downs, Woziek also has a crucial moment in the film where she sacrifices herself to save someone who has children.

Aadyk
Pansexual
It's heavily implied that Aadyk, an A.I. life-form in the next Star Trek film, currently in pre-production, has a more than platonic relationship with the Danny Pudi character Fi'ja, with several lines hinting that the affection between the two amounts to something a little more romantically involved than simply a functional connection between a human and a machine.

Patrick Chang
Fat
A key character in the new Mummy series, Patrick Chang is set to be played by a plus-size actor. A rep for the studio said, "We're unclear whether fat is actually a sexuality but we're keen to do the right thing here."

Friday, April 13, 2018

Thoughts on Queer Eye

This is the text of a talk I gave as part of the BFI's Hot Take event on masculinity onscreen. Please note: the audience were instructed beforehand to read out in a monotonous, robotic voice the signs that I held up at various intervals in the talk. 

The most invidious episode of the new series of Queer Eye – in which five cis-men who aren’t queer remake straight men so that they can earn more money and get their dicks wet – isn’t the Bobby Van Camp episode. To jog your memory, Bobby Van Camp is the smug and sanctimonious father of nine who gets remade by the so-called Fab Five to look exactly like Karl from Neighbours. That episode misses the boat by offering nothing but the merest, most feeble rejoinder to Bobby’s ostensibly gay-hating religion, as our five hosts gratefully and tearfully accept Bobby’s smug and self-regarding speechifying on the topic of “gays: you’re just humans like me.”
Audience: SLAY
The worst episode of Queer Eye isn’t even the one which invokes racist police brutality in a completely confected scene where an officer pulls over one of the hosts, Karamo, only to reveal that he’s actually a good guy playing a trick on them. As with the oppression of the church, police violence is given nothing but the most cursory clapback, as the genies need to get on with the business of showering their heterosexual Aladdins with money – because nothing could be more queer than making a Faustian pact with Mammon.
Audience: YAS QUEEN
The worst episode, and the most boring, is when the mincetrels visit Remy, a boring schlub with no style or interests, do up his house with expensive self-styled ‘Cuban’ murals without even a jot of irony, and dress Remy to emulate his style icon Don Draper, a misogynist pig from the 1960s. They remake his home to look less ‘feminine’ – it used to belong to his grandmother – and give him a manly style.
Audience: WERK IT MAMA
Here are enacted all the worst facets of Queer Eye – its repulsive grovelling towards our historical oppressors; its mortifying boner for capitalism, the machine purpose-built for crushing minorities; its snivelling adoption of supposedly queer tropes for the benefit of ‘acceptance’ rather than revolution; its actual or implied misogyny; its inability to propose a valid queer universe with a new or interesting language; and its refusal to address patriarchy and masculinity as ills to be fixed or nuked.
In the world of Queer Eye, it's possible to sell off the secrets of our minority existences, all the tricks we have squirrelled away through millennia of murder and oppression, all the timeworn codes we have developed in order to embody an alternative to a grotesque mainstream culture of self-advancement and violence. It’s possible and even advisable, they believe, to maintain masculinity as it is and make adorable cosmetic changes to it, which will hopefully make the big man stop hitting us.
Audience: MY WIG IS SNATCHED
Thank you for listening.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Swagger

Swagger is a title you earn - and if Olivier Babinet's documentary, about children in an underprivileged cité just outside Paris, amply deserves its name, it's less for the attitude on display amongst the kids themselves, and more for the reckless, thrilling, way over-board filmmaking that Babinet chucks at his otherwise minor project. This is a film that cocks about town, strutting, preening, feeling itself. It's a film to make you chuckle with its chutzpah, its brazenness. There's a great deal of sensitivity and delicacy here too, but it's vastly outdanced by the fun-size wallop of Babinet's aesthetic - and there is something beguiling, unerringly touching, at the idea of bringing such big means to a small documentary about the dreams, hopes, loves and sadness of disadvantaged children. 

Babinet worked with the children on a filmmaking workshop for a year, as part of a project to teach them about cinema. He also interviewed them - and the film is composed of one-on-one interviews with the youngsters, interspersed with weird, dreamlike, fantasy sequences. After a strange opening at nighttime, where the camera flits among the tops of the high-rises, filming the zone like a sci-fi land at rest, we meet the gang as they introduce themselves to camera: Mariyama, Elvis, Paul, Naila, Regis, and a whole load more. The tone is set: odd, buzzing, fantastical visuals; a pulsating imagination - and then tender, naturalistic, artlessly seized candour. For the rest of the film, Babinet will use his subject's startling, strange, enchanting confessions, to create luridly conceived set-pieces that metastasize the ideas of the powerless and unlistened-to into bold, entrancing visions. 

Even when Babinet's camera is at rest, he manages to throw some pop at the screen - Naila is filmed in a backdrop of candy Technicolour in a stairwell, as she empties her funny mind out to camera, disserting on Mickey Mouse and how frightening he is; on white people; and on her dream of becoming an architect so as to stop babies from falling to their death in inner-city high-rises. Paul, dapper and shy in a sharp black suit, is filmed against a lush dark blue; Régis sits in a deserted locker-room. Everywhere you see Babinet's music video-maker's touch, in the slightly too glossy, but still inviting plasticity of these interviews. 

Babinet then devises riotous sequences in between these talking head segments, ranging from a disquieting surge of drones hovering over the projects like a dystopian nightmare, to a sort of jailbreak scene when two kids ring a fire alarm bell in a corridor and escape through a hole in a wire fence into a Pasolini-like field of long brushy grass where a camel is tethered to the ground. The viewer rushes with the boys in a flurry, the hand-held camera keeping the beat as they leap and skedaddle out of the building, before the camera rises in a swoonsome movement once they've made it through the fence, to encompass the whole surrounding environment, signalling a burst of delicious freedom. Or Babinet gifts Paul a Jacques Demy-like dance sequence where he skitters through a disused marketplace and out along the abandoned concrete walkways of his hometown, freed from some of the cares he has shared to camera, the fear of rejection, the shame of his father's mental illness. As Céline Sciamma did in Girlhood, Babinet grants his subjects the chance to be seen the way they wish to be seen. 

These are children who have never met a white person; these children of immigrants talk of 'French-born' people as of another species, so fully ghettoised are they in their suburb. They talk calmly of dealing being a job that you can do. They tell of a schoolmate who was shot. Many of them have never been to Paris. All of them long for great wealth; some dream of being President. The great power of Swagger is that it extracts these wholly astounding nuggets without ever dwelling on their potency or underlining the tragedy of these lives. On the contrary, Babinet loves and celebrates these people, gives them time and care, frames them well, and lifts them. 

Speaking of which: no article on Swagger can do justice to the film which does not spend some time on the film's clear star turn (and someone who, in my view, is one of the great LGBTQ onscreen characters of all time): the great, delightful, scenery-chewing, perfectly named Régis Marvin Merveille N'Kissi Moggzi. Obviously afforded extra screentime in light of his charisma, Régis burns up the screen as he talks about his love for his mum, with whom he talks about make-up and fashion; or about his love of the soap opera The Young and the Restless; or about the dreadful fashions sported by his classmates; or the time someone stepped to him and he fought them and won. Régis, a fat, black, funny, stylish, screamingly camp, seemingly perfectly happy, balanced and accepted teenager from an underprivileged background in a social housing development in France in 2016, is nothing less than the most positive and galvanising depiction of an LGBTQ person I can think of in recent times. From the moment we first see him, sewing at his table at night, to the scene when he struts through school wearing a fur coat in one of Babinet's punchy imaginary sequences, via a scene where he adjusts his bow-tie in a mirror before the camera pans out of his window to film the building from a great height, ten floors above ground, Régis is a star - but more than a star, he anchors the film, gives it further pizzazz. He is the only teen mentioned by any of the other kids, and when he's named it's by a straight boy, who cites him as an inspiration. 

Régis has swagger in spades; Paul has some of it too; Naila has also. Swagger, don't forget, is attitude to wear like a new shiny coat over torn or dirtied rags; swagger represents the act of papering over inadequacies, of shining a light to detract from fears or misgivings. The swagger of the children in Swagger - and the swagger of Swagger - is there in the act of taking some of our time to ask us to believe in the dream. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Fantastic Woman

"A Fantastic Woman" is a terrible title. In Spanish, where the phrase is much more idiomatic, the title apparently plays - certainly more clearly than it does in English - on the idea of the fantastical woman, and of the fantasised woman. Both notions are interesting, and key to understanding the film, which, in its brash and expressionist mode, riffs on those concepts in an endearingly head-on, mulish way. In so doing, the movie offers up a bracing, heroic portrayal of a transwoman in combat, but it also ends up fetishising her gender identity, making for an ambivalent depiction.

The film centres - quite literally so, in the sense that it places Daniela Vega wham-bam in the middle of its frame - on Marina Vidal, a transwoman whose older cis-male partner, Orlando, dies suddenly one night, leaving her homeless, without any legal claims to mourn him, and at odds with his transphobic family. Throughout the film, as Marina fights to get her dog back, attend her lover's funeral, and be recognised in her gender identity by his kin, Sebastian Lelio presents her as a kind of gunslinger in a Western, in a series of face-offs against various foes, standing up for what she knows is right. In between these bouts, Marina is shown jabbing a punch-bag, or walking alone, presented in long backwards hand-held shots that frame her determination and make her a hero. While she is banished to the margins of the world she exists in, in this film she commands the centre-ground, ceding on-screen territory to no-one. 

There is, though, a queasiness in the discrepancy between the way other characters view Marina and the way the film presents her. The film rightly lambasts its secondary characters for deadnaming her, misgendering her, or reducing her to her physicality. In their brutality, Orlando's family treat Marina like a monster, at one point kidnapping her and strapping her face together with tape, in an act that functions as a degradation but also, clearly, as a belittling comment on the way she is seen to have created herself a new physique. The tape, roughly stretched across her face, turns her nose up and squashes her features, making a monster of her. 

At the same time, the film performs a not wholly dissimilar exercise in the way it presents Marina as a magnificent beast. In an extraordinary scene (which, in a scarcely believable coup de theatre, nods to Jurassic Park (!)), Marina climbs onto the roof of the car belonging to Orlando's family, crashing and stomping above the people trapped inside it, like a vengeful monster. It's a positive depiction for sure, glorying in Marina's indefatigability, her resourcefulness, her self-belief - but it's still the other side of the same coin. It objectifies and sensationalises Marina's physicality, making her a species of creature. Marina is never dehumanised, in part because of Daniela Vega's controlled, enigmatic performance, but Lelio's film is so expressionistic, so full-on, that its candid acts of valiance make an object out of Marina's resilience. 

We see this too in the way the film presents Marina's nudity, which ties in to the film's work on the fantasised being and the fantastical being. In one measured, disquieting scene, a female doctor asks Marina to strip in order to take photographs of her body as part of the investigation into Orlando's death. A male doctor is also present, which introduces a level of discomfort into the interaction. The doctors are unyielding, and Lelio's camera doesn't blink: the full tension of the moment is sounded, so that we feel how othered and objectified Marina is; how she isn't allowed to present herself on her own terms. There's sensitivity there, but a touch of prurience too: this accords with how brash the film is in general, how overt and generally full-blooded it is, in its script and its visual cues. But in a later scene, where Marina's (partial) nudity isn't imposed on her by one person, Lelio seems to be playing games, which sensationalise Marina's gender for the viewer. 

In this scene, Marina has to find out what Orlando had left in his locker at a male sauna he patronises. To this effect, she must go to the sauna herself; therefore, in a scene that is uncomfortable because of the way it presents a reversal of 'passing', she has to present as male in order to enter the building. Tricked out in just a towel across her waist, with her incipient breasts registering only as a 'male' chest and with her hair tied backwards, Marina manages to enter the building unperturbed. But this scene, which Lelio after all devised, has a somewhat leering tone, a rather jesting flavour, revelling in Marina's liminal aspect, and using her physicality as a plot point or ploy. 

Marina's descent into the depths of Orlando's sauna, to recuperate a secret that he had left behind, plays I think on the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, a fantastical woman of legend and her departed lover. There is much in the film that pertains to the register of hell and devils: Marina's dog is called Diablo, and scene after scene shows her descending from a point of height - to help her lover after he has fallen downstairs; driving into an underground car-park to do battle with Orlando's ex-wife; visiting the sauna below ground. There's a preponderance of red, too, in many of these scenes, playing on a register of the infernal. In the end, Marina sees a glimpse of her dead lover, Orlando-Orpheus, before he disappears from view. In the sauna, the near-naked Marina-Eurydice is clearly passing through a land that is not hers, that is ruled by other people; there are codes and instructions for her mission into this Hades. This adoption of the legend serves to champion Marina, but I think it also robs her of agency and plays too strongly on her physical presentation. 

Ultimately, A Fantastical Woman is an unendingly bold, combative, interesting, often visually marvellous film, pulsating with ideas - and its odd, unsubtle, often cheering, sometimes clunky discourse on its protagonist, is one of many aspects to crunch over in one's mind long after the lights have gone up.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Lady Bird

Two scenes show you the mettle of Lady Bird, display exactly what the film is made of. In the first of these, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) wakes on her birthday, to find her father bringing her a cupcake with a candle in it. Greta Gerwig's camera - grainy and companionable - pulls in, right up close to the central character, drawing morning heat from Lady Bird's just interrupted slumber, delighting in the texture of her undone hair, and dwelling with a measure of sweetness on her blotchy adolescent skin. Such a scene would pass without comment were it not for how unusual it is in a cinema industry where young women routinely wake up with a face full of slap, arching their sexy backs, etc etc. But Gerwig knows her character so well, is so kind and honest in the view she trains on her, and brings such sensitivity to bear on this hopelessly questing girl, that it feels of a piece with the film.

A second, fleeting moment that drew my attention: in New York, having finally evaded the cloistering Sacramento of her youth, Lady Bird crosses a sunlit street in Manhattan, filmed at a distance, slightly from above; nearby, another young woman, an extra who graces the movie for all of one second, runs past her with a folder of papers in her hands. It may sound preposterous to have alighted on this moment, but I don't believe I've seen an extra running before, when in my normal life I run to get to places all the time and see people hurrying all around me. In instructing this young actor to run, Gerwig not only shows what care she gives to the world she is drawing, and with what pains she evinces a tangible authenticity from her performers, but gives her film a welcome freshness, something jumpy and winsome; there is real pleasure to be drawn from looking at her movie.

 Gerwig's subject is ostensibly hoary and boring: the American high-school movie; the coming-of-ager; the misfit who goes to prom. We've seen everything in it a hundred times, from its laughable sports teacher to the roll-ups-smoking cool kid, from the forbidding mom with a heart of gold to the moment the protagonist learns she's got into her university of choice. How, then, does Gerwig's film feel so different, so new and easy? In part it's that she's so confident in her voice, and that her plain, serviceable directing style marries with her script so well. 

There's something still of the Baumbach influence in her screenplay, not least in the characters' quirks and the somewhat startling way they have of stating their intentions or their personality upfront. This trait is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos' writing, in a way: it's disarming and fairly modern, and makes the characterisation teeter on the brink of caricature. Gerwig certainly deals in types, but she also finds a way, through her direction of actors, to steer her types into different, surprising territory - or to give them a singularity in their voice or mannerisms. And her personal experience, her eye as a still young woman, enable her work to feel free of the mockery and facility that has infected Baumbach's recent films (not least Mistress America, which Gerwig co-wrote). On the contrary, because Gerwig attempts so little with her filmmaking, the script is allowed to sing, and there is even something in the film that exalts her characters. Part of the trickery is that, afterwards, you can't really remember what was so enrapturing: was anything here stark or memorable, did it hit me in any way? No - but while it was happening I was acquainted with these people, I heard them and knew them. 

Two things confirm this purity of purpose, this courtship of what is real & alive. The costumes in Gerwig's film are so perfectly devised, so beautifully true for each character. In a coming out scene where one character cries on the shoulders of another by the bins outside a cafe, almost the most touching thing was the disastrous length of his bootcut jeans, flopping over his shoes as he leans in for a hug. Lady Bird's long, flattening shift dresses perform the same job, as do her bell bottoms at the end of the film when she is becoming a woman in New York, which are on the very verge of coolness but, in the end, not at all there. These are the touches of someone who knows her character inside out, who remembers feelings and smells, who is able to share with us every aspect of a person's existence in a way that just fits, that is somehow heady in its veracity. 

The other aspect of Gerwig's film, returned to again and again, in a way which marks it out, is money - the way Lady Bird and her family have none, and how it sets them apart. In another movie less at pains to convey that want, we might get a few lines from the central character about wanting to afford more things - but in Lady Bird, this need, the financial precarity, is a whole system, informing the very story of the film, giving impetus to the action, and manifesting in various, distinct narrative threads, from Lady Bird's parents' jobs to her choice of college via her relationships with other kids at school. 

Money is in the language of the film, in the shabby setting of Lady Bird's house and the vulgar pretensions of the people whose company she aspires to, in her prom dress and her school grades, in asides from her mother about her own upbringing. Everywhere this asperity is felt, this fear of slipping through the cracks or not making it; everywhere this is seen, which peculiarly marks Lady Bird out, not just as an honest film, but as something richly conceived, which perceives the full socio-cultural compact of its microcosm, and which views its setting with a dry, critical eye rather than with hackneyed nostalgia. 

All of this is played with fervour and delicacy by the cast - Gerwig's work as an actor must have helped her secure these sensitive portrayals - to an extent that overrides the film's handful of flaws, such as its tendency to overstate, especially in its final scene which takes an emotional misstep. It will be interesting to see Gerwig invent more stories, to see her carry her original voice over to other projects, and grow as a filmmaker so that - hopefully, and quite naturally - her lexicon expands beyond the beautiful, breathy intimacy on display in this tiny, inexpensive, well-meant, endearingly badly wrapped Christmas present of a film. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Film 2017

In May of this year, I left the screening room in Cannes where I had just seen L'atelier, a film by Laurent Cantet, feeling full of vigour and excitement. I had seen a film whose brilliance I longed to write about: I wanted to give voice to my feelings of elation as it had begun to dawn on me what Cantet was up to in his sharp, gleaming, deceptive movie. The film is about a writer of thrillers who mentors teenagers in a creative writing workshop in the south of France over the summer. The youths are from all sorts of backgrounds, and have enrolled in the course for a number of reasons: the idea is that together they will write a crime novel set in their own town of La Ciotat, drawing on its culture and history.  To begin with, the writer, Olivia, engages her charges in a series of conversations about the crime that will occur in their book, which gets them onto the wider topic of violence, where it stems from, and what might cause someone to kill. The youngsters, being contemporary French citizens, are all only too aware of recent mass shootings in the country, particularly the attacks at the Bataclan in Paris:  this gives their conversations a political edge and causes them to tip into anger and racially tinged insults.

So far, so worthy and Socratic. The film displays all of this perfectly competently, with naturalistic writing, good ensemble acting, and a pert and ironic eye in the way it paints its main character, a well-meaning but patronising writer who believes she has a greater understanding of the world than her students. But there remains something a trifle academic, a touch programmatic in the way the film sets out its stall, airing contemporary issues through conversation, and seemingly scoring easy political points via its set-up. But this is where Cantet flips his film, and sends the viewer off into a much harder tangent. One of the students has been displaying racist, violent tendencies that are increasingly evident in his writing and his interactions with the other pupils - and Cantet leads his narrative off into worrying, dark territory by focusing on the growing opposition between him and Olivia. The film, gradually, and then very suddenly, descends into complete chaos, throwing all of its carefully hedged considerations out of the window. Suddenly, the viewer is faced with something more primal, which is the meaninglessness of violence, the sheer panic of terror. The film's production itself mirrors this tilt into the unknown, going from sun-dappled wide shots and searching close-ups into deep, disquieting long shots in semi-obscurity as it drifts into the realm of the thriller, except with no hard and fast thriller rules to reassure us. We are faced with a void. The film's shock is that it flips in on itself and punches the viewer into the stomach. After this crescendo, a coda comes about that scarcely reassures you much more, leaving the spectator punch-drunk and buzzing with thoughts about violence, destruction, extremism, but also the role of the artistic creator in dealing with these topics. It's a heady mix, showing everything the cinema can do in terms of talking about its time and reflecting the world back to us.

I left the film, then, abuzz with sensations and ideas, and after an elated conversation about the film with a friend, set off up the hill from the harbour, to my lodgings. The sea was glinting in the lamplights behind me, and as I progressed through the town tweeting my excitable thoughts the town was quiet and still around me. I finished tweeting, and then looked to see what other people were writing about. Then I saw that, an hour behind me, in Britain, people were just then getting the news of a terrorist attack at a concert in Manchester.

I don't want to be facile; the attacks are not the occasion of a beautiful realisation for me, the deaths of innocent people cannot be weaved into an easy story about the power of cinema. My stomach flipped, for a second time that evening - this time with the jolt of reality. A friend of mine had been considering going to the concert; my friends in Manchester were offering their houses to people in distress who needed a place to stay. I felt sheer anguish at the thought of a senseless killing in my country. Still, though, something of the film remained in me - a line that a student from the writing group had uttered, positing that what might induce somebody to kill could be not so much rage or religious conviction, as boredom; the wish to do something, anything. As people online looked for meaning in the events, I thought to the film that I was fresh out of, which had taken such a valiant stab at the question and ended up with so despairing and bleak a conclusion. It's too simple to say that art had given me hope, but I was, rather, invigorated by the sense that the art I love and follow - cinema - was trying, with all its might, to respond to my world.

Something pressing seemed to make itself felt, at least for me, around that time, and grew in amplitude as the year went on, until it became a deafening roar. I search films for ways in which I feel they speak about politics, the topics of our time - but I realised, also, that the very methods of those films must be challenged; that the industry itself, from film directors to festivals via distributors and film-going punters, have also a duty to change, and reflect our new world order, with its questions of globalisation, oppression of women, racial hatred on the rise. While some films I saw this year tackled these issues, it is the actual industry itself that has to change, because it is itself complicit in abuse and injustice.

Already in Cannes the repeated non-selection of female directors in competition had become a recurring topic in the film world. But with the Harvey Weinstein story, I grew to see this injustice to the work of women not as an accidental foible of the film world, but a tacit scheme, however unspoken, to sideline women, ignore their voices and stories, in favour of telling the same male stories over and over. It seems obvious to me now that helping foster this imbalance in any way, for instance by reviewing films made by male abusers of women, or by distributing the work of known attackers, or by pretending women aren't capable of directing major studio films, plays directly into the gender imbalance that allowed Harvey Weinstein to prey on women. I feel clearer than ever that allowing women's work to flourish, granting women power to make decisions and not be seen as pawns in the stories of men, would start to create a society in which men exploit and silence them.

This year brought all this into relief: the micro-politics of my filmgoing, of the work I watch, of the work that is made. Being a good and conscientious filmgoer comes down to simple things like highlighting gender and racial imbalances in festivals and awards, or pay inequality and poor employment conditions at cinema chains. I would go so far as to argue that the spate of superhero films we now see carries an extremely potent political charge, playing into a bankrupt political worldview where good and bad are the two warring sides, and where superheroes (mostly male) get to save the day by being on the right side. On the contrary in the last year , at least in the film world but arguably right up to the presidency of the United States, we've seen that evil is systemic and purposeful, using a hierarchy of privilege to reward the few at the expense of the many. The task of repairing the world will be so knotty, and will involve comprehensively dismantling and rebuilding the institutions that propagate inequality. Can cinema rebuild? Will Hollywood cinema grow up a little, and stop painting itself as merely a provider of harmless escapism and fantasy, to take on bigger questions?

Watching Get Out this year gave me a shock, because for once (at last!) I was watching a big, open, engaging film that wanted to kick me in the arse. I remember going hot and cold with sheer joy, something like pure euphoria, at the succession of events that Jordan Peele had so artfully orchestrated in order to smuggle through his political wallop. The horror of Get Out's set-up was compounded by an almost unbearable feeling of white guilt, and also the queasiness of seeing my smug right-on-ness, itself, be beaten to death. I felt such extraordinary tension, something phsyical in the pit of my stomach, at not being the hero of the film; watching the movie as one of the villains, and waiting for my comeuppance, gave me a mounting but elating feeling of anguish, which rendered the film's jump scares, narrative shocks and twists, and general climate of racial dread, all the more savage. Meanwhile, all around me, the audience was reacting in ways I have never seen in a cinema in all my life, with screams, whooping, and several spontaneous rounds of applause. I joined in the cheering after a while, daring to clench my fist and shout "FUCKING COME ON" at the film's most glorious final moment of unexpected catharsis, and once again felt myself go hot all over. I will never forget the experience of watching Get Out in a cinema, as long as I live.

Get Out isn't the answer, even though the way its phrases and tropes have entered common currency give me hope for more confrontational films that can address our times and start to redress a gaping imbalance. The work ahead is so much harder than that.

On the way back from my stay in Cannes I read a magnificent, astringent piece by Hisham Matar in the London Review of Books, which considers the role of the writer in times of conflict. Matar concludes:

"If we say that at one extreme there are those who believe that literature has nothing to do with politics, and at the other end those who insist that everything, literature and even the way a child speaks, is a political act, then to hell with both. Both positions are tyrannical."


I personally tend to think that everything is political, and I do believe that the way a child speaks draws unknowingly on the child's socio-political circumstances. I sympathise with the view that film does not have to answer questions, and I respect and even sometimes adhere to a school of film-viewing that seeks sensory pleasure in film, a way to experience visual and sonic joy through the beauty of pictures. Many films this year even gave me that, from the glitchiness of Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama to the popping colour schemes of Leonor Serraille's Jeune Femme.  But I hope too for greater awareness in films, more willingness to fight, to include, and to query.