Thought in action
CONVERSATIONS ABOUT CINEMA - 2019/20 SEASON
By Georgia Harrison, Communications Coordinator for Thought In Action
On a cliffside manor on an island off the coast of Brittany, Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire explores the all-consuming love affair between two women Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and Marianne (Noémie Merlant) amid the patriarchal customs that existed in the 18th Century. Through this masterpiece, we see film theorist Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze be casted far out at sea from the island our protagonists live on in favour for the female gaze.
Isobel Carrol (UWE Philosophy student) in the discussion mentioned how class division lines are skewed between Héloïse who is to be wed in an arranged marriage; Marianne who is a for-hire painter brought to the mansion to secretly paint a portrait of Héloïse, and Sophie (Luána Bajrami), the maid of the house. Albertine Fox (University of Bristol) believes this happens due to the lack of male characters for the female protagonists to fight over. Through the lack of male presence, there is less assertion of patriarchal customs, so our three protagonists are not as constricted in their roles and can claim more freedom and autonomy. The fluidity of power flowing between them from one scene to the next echoes the flow of the sea that surrounds them. However, whilst the power of men and the patriarchal societal system is not as apparent, Sciamma does not let us forget about its controlling force through the words of the women.
I think there is something very beautiful about the scenes of painting that string together Marianne with memories of her past. Art lives on beyond our death. It’s a way of transcending memories beyond that moment in time. The themes explored are channelled through the strokes of a paint brush and immortalised on canvases to live even through our society, revealing how the way we view women on screen is similar to how women were viewed at that time in society and on canvas. This is one way that Sciamma masterfully uses the period setting to mirror contemporary feminist issues and lift this period drama into a contemporary world.
During the 18th Century, women were often painted so that their portrait could be used as an offering to an undecided male suitor. Their autonomy gets stripped from them and are seen as nothing more than a pretty picture. This is exactly why Héloïse refused to be painted; she wanted to hold onto her freedom. However, as the two women work collaboratively on this new portrait, the objectifying grasp of the male gaze has disappeared and Héloïse still retains some semblance of control.
Whilst watching, I couldn’t help but think of how fitting it is with International Women’s Day that has just passed on the 8th of March as it empowers and recognises those who are underrepresented in society and are often not protagonists in film. A subplot about the maid Sophie who deals with an unwanted pregnancy uplifts the taboo of abortion, radically showing us the strength behind closed doors and the power of sorority whilst confronting the societal representations enforced upon women.
Through the female gaze, Sciamma masterfully depicts the power our protagonists hold, while balancing it with their limitations. The setting of the film reveals exactly this. Much like in today’s society, we are only as free as our environment lets us to be. Being set on an island surrounded by water, they exist in a liminal space and can only go so far. Just like Héloïse who cannot swim, their love would not stand a chance and nor would she against the natural force of water and the forces of patriarchal customs.
Playing with typical conventions seen in Romances, we are given the pervasive crackling of a fireplace carried throughout to fill the silence with ambience and reflect Héloïse and Marianne’s slow burning affair. Though this is almost always juxtaposed with the sound of the harsh waves, not letting us forget the forces of the Patriarchy. In the discussion, Isobel Carrol mentioned how she thought the water only stood for the support of the fact they’re on an island and as a contrast to the fire seen throughout, but I would argue that water holds just as much importance and symbolism. When Héloïse’s dress catches fire, the flame is smothered by a blanket held by another woman showcasing the works of female solidarity. In the scene where Marianne accidently sends the canvas by the previous male painter up in flames, she decides to throw it into the fireplace. Through destroying the previous painting that tries to objectify Héloïse, she gives back her autonomy and fights against patriarchal customs for their love. However, if a wild fire did take place, the water surrounding the island would prevent it from travelling further. Whilst their love uncontrollably encapsulates the island, water controls fire and essentially controls and entraps their love.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautifully constructed film about the power of women and the female gaze. Whilst it is a period romance, the messages embedded within have no time constraints and are relevant today. Sciamma brings to life a mesmerising plot that revolves around patriarchal representations and ignites a contemporary debate about past and present customs. This wonderous story endlessly provokes thought and emotion and I urge that you watch it with our society in mind.
By Georgia Harrison, Communications Coordinator for Thought In Action
“All you’ll need to do is go up the stairs” – sounds simple right? We walk up flights of stairs every day without thinking about it. However, Parasite ingeniously depicts one very complicated staircase. Through this sentence said at the very end by Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik), the Kims’ son, the reality of class hierarchy and social mobility is deafening. The director Bong Joon-ho (Okja, Mother) supports this with a soundtrack that is dark yet hopeful to represent “All you’ll need to do is go up the stairs” – sounds simple right? We walk up flights of stairs every day without thinking about it. However, Parasite ingeniously depicts one very complicated staircase. Through this sentence said at the very end by Ki-Woo (Choi Woo-shik), the Kims’ son, the reality of class hierarchy and social mobility is deafening. The director Bong Joon-ho (Okja, Mother) supports this with a soundtrack that is dark yet hopeful to represent the Kims’ social standing and follow them on their journey. The melody is structured in repetitions of ascension and descent as they move between their shabby semi-basement flat, to the rich family house in the hills and the bunker that is hidden below. Crossing over many genres; comedy, drama and thriller, the social critique seen from the very start is there every step of the way, giving us a dramatic but real portrayal of the effects of Capitalism.
Parasite is a heart-wrenching story of the infiltration of one family, the Kims, into the world of another, the Parks. Trying to survive somewhere they don’t belong; we are taken along the Kims’ journey of battling for a life to leech off the wealthy. Though this is brought to an abrupt ending. As the sky goes from blue to grey, we are taken from comedy to tragedy and see the splattering of rain become the splattering of blood. Any hope we had for the Kim’s is crushed by Bong’s bleak, unrelenting, portrayal of the harsh truths of class division in South Korea.
JongMi Kim (University of Coventry) mentions how through Mrs. Park we see the typical Korean ‘Tiger Mum’, a parenting technique that demands academic excellence from their children. In South Korea, educational attainment is valued highly for its ability to help you break free from the bounds of social mobility, but because of how society is stratified between two extremes of rich and poor, it is not easily accessible for everyone, which we see through the Kims, highlighting one of the many struggles of class status on family culture.
Aligned with the masterful depiction of class division, we are shown its function to increase the lack of solidarity among those who are poor. Through the Kims’ cunning plan, we see the Parks’ old housekeeper Moon-Gwang (Lee Jeong-eun) replaced with their mum Choong-Sook. One night, Moong-Gwang turns up and desperately asks to be let in and we discover that her husband had been secretly living in the basement – which the Parks don’t even realise! A symbolic representation of their oblivious state towards the lives of those under them in class hierarchy.
Whilst both families have endured suffering at the hands of the wealthy, the Kims are hesitant to align themselves with Moon-Gwang and Guen-Sae’s (Park Myeong-hoon) hardship. Shocked by the Guen-Sae living in the basement and stealing from the Parks fridge for survival, they dismiss Moon-Gwang’s call of being “neighbours in need.” In a brutal battle between the two, we see Choong-Sook kick Moon-Gwang down the stairs to stay at the very bottom of the food chain in fear of losing her position. The social standing of the Kims is embodied in their semi-basement. As they can still see over ground, they believe they haven’t completely hit rock bottom to basement level like Guen-Sae and Moon-Gwang. Why would they want to liken themselves to those lower when they are trying to climb the ladder?
Whilst Parasite can be outlandish and metaphorical in many scenes, it doesn’t fail to provide a realistic depiction of what life can be like in the semi-basement, flood-prone apartments. Since released, it has drawn much attention to the horrible living conditions that many have to endure in South Korea, and has spearheaded the government into providing financial aid for many dwellers; functioning as a life preserver to prevent them from sinking further underground. Sadly however, in Bong’s reality, the Kims do not receive anything of the like.
Bong utilises the contrast between housing to propel the film’s social commentary. Astounded by the glass-walled rooms, we see the Kims using them as windows to their dreams; to the green landscape and sunshine that their semi-basement showcasing the local drunks’ favourite urination spot could never provide. In one scene, Ki-Woo gazes out onto the Parks’ garden party and asks “Will I ever fit in?”, followed by a sigh of unanswered melancholy, the scene tellingly sets us up for the answer we all know – he never will.
In the final scenes we are given Ki-Woo’s point of view, which Maria Rousso (San Raffaele university) believes to be out of sync with the rest of the film as the Kims are presented as an ensemble piece but I think we see through his eyes to be given the harsh reality that there is no hope for even the next generation. Bong doesn’t want to leave any space for even a glimmer of hope as Capitalism doesn’t either.
We are taken on a journey to figure out who the parasite is between the family dynamics presented but we soon come to realise that the true parasite is Capitalism. Due to class division, both families fail to liken themselves to each other, and in the end, all humanity and division is lost in a bloody fury of anger and heart-ache. During the pitiless fury of Guen-Sae who seeks revenge for the death of his wife Moon-Gwang, Da-Song’s (the Parks’ son) dream birthday party becomes that of nightmares. They say that grass is greener on the other side, we are certainly shown how that can be true, but this grass however, is stained with the blood of the rich and poor and at the end of the day, they’re not so different when their mortality is shown. Capitalism has forced those at opposite ends of the staircase to live completely separate lives but survive off each other, and essentially Bong shows us the imperfections of the system and how it effects the South Korean Society in a satirical, but dramatic piece of contemporary cinema.
By Georgia Harrison, Communications Coordinator for Thought In Action
With two wickies isolated on an island to face the elements, spirits and each other, we are gripped throughout Robert Eggers (The Witch) second feature ‘The Lighthouse’. Exploring many themes with references throughout made to myths and legends, no second is spared for your mind to wonder away from the life of these two men. Essentially, you are watching two men battle with insanity and their own male ego for 109 minutes. If you fail to catch the nuances and embedded messages, you may, like I did, leave the cinema feeling confused and, possibly, disturbed. The discussion thankfully provided clarity on the themes and my sense of disturbance was lifted. Although, some scenes make such an impact that I am sad to say, an analysis cannot relieve the burden put upon your poor eyes and mind. If you have seen it, you definitely know of one scene I am referring to – I do feel very sorry for that poor seagull.
Shot on 16mm and in academy ratio, The Lighthouse takes us along on a trippy journey of madness, loneliness and power dynamics. An older Wickie, Thomas Wake (William Dafoe), who has spent 13 Christmases manning the lighthouse, and his new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson).
Through the exceptional performances of Dafoe and Pattinson, we are sent back to the 1890s to witness a battle for survival, for power, for truth and to hear a foghorn more than you would ever expect to in your life. We are introduced to our two protagonists as they stare directly into the camera upon their arrival; made to feel as if you are there, you’re pulled to the edge of your seat. However, we swiftly realise that they were looking right through us, watching the boat far at sea, disappear into the fog. Stuck on the island, we see the impact of isolation and the spiral to madness. Winslow, exhibiting this spiral, reveals to be an unreliable narrator. We are left questioning what truly is happening at the lighthouse and whilst it may feel that you’ve lost the plot, I think we’re all in the same boat. Ultimately, the wavering stability of Winslow’s account leaves us to decipher what the truth is behind their own reality.
Supernatural or not, this film tackles the raw collapse of identity of the two characters and raises many questions. Who are they really? Are we watching one man’s struggle with loneliness? The stunning shots of the raging tempestuous waves were a welcomed break from the madness. This is the pure delight of the wondrous skills of Eggers, making you feel more freaked out and on edge by the actions of Winslow and Wake over the uncontrollable forces of nature.
The discussion raised the idea of the two merging into one intricate and layered character. We find that they are both called Thomas, are both demoralised and dehumanised by being treated as a dog by one another, and both exert the same dominance at different points. As we are presented with an Alpha VS Beta dynamic, but we are left to question who the Beta truly is, we could be watching the portrayal of one seaman going mad due to isolation.
The panellists discussed the question we all were thinking. Why does this happen? Miltos Hadijosif (UWE Psychology), from a psychological background immediately wanted to know about their parents and their past, but this is not what Eggers wants you to think about. We are given very little information about their pasts as we are supposed to focus on the direct link of the lighthouse and their madness, male ego, and hysteria. Henrique Tavares Furtado (UWE Politics) stated that often violence is a predicament of the situation you are in - this is obvious with the two characters, but there is definitely another element to it that is not revealed. This is where I found myself wondering about the role of myth.
Katrina Mitcheson (UWE Philosophy) pointed out the reference to thelegend of Prometheus. Prometheus defies the gods by stealing fire for humanity, this is echoed through Winslow who is obsessed with Wake’s duties of manning the light, which represents the fire. Winslow eventually defies Wake and makes it to the light wounded. After looking into the light booth and as it appears, being affected in some kind of mystical way, he falls down to the very bottom of the lighthouse. It then cuts to a scene of Winslow laying naked on the rocks of the coast being pecked out by seagulls – imitating Prometheus’ death of being chained to a rocky mountain top to be pecked at by a bird for the rest of his life. Obviously, Winslow is not immortal, which makes you question the part myth plays to reality and to male ego. What is the underlying message? Perhaps the reason why Winslow imitates Prometheus is because myths are said to be man-made, and as humans are obsessed with life - our capabilities and living longer - we would only put so much dissimilarity between us and the legends of these myths.
At the end of the day, all stories are made by man, but what if the ones of supernatural, or mythical elements are products of the road to insanity when we are lonely and have nothing but the fruits of our mind for entertainment. Overall, whilst I left quite disturbed, there is beauty in this film’s ability to orchestrate so many readings, and undoubtedly each person who watches will have a different experience.
By Georgia Harrison, Communications Coordinator for Thought In Action
Through their mutual devotion to the Catholic faith, retiring – and we are repeatedly told that a Pope cannot retire – Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his successor, Cardinal Jorge Bergolio (Jonathan Pryce) ultimately taking on the title of Pope Francis, develop a heart-warming, although initially unexpected, friendship. Raised in the discussion by John P. Falcone from the Union Theological Seminary, the film depicts two approaches to spirituality. Through Pope Francis, we see the embracing of ordinary and modest life amongst his people; a passion for tango, for music, football and a universal journey of love and heartache we can all relate to. The second being through Pope Benedict XVI, preoccupied with upholding the name of the Catholic Church that his isolated way of life was conservative to say the least. Their opposing approaches to their faith and political ideologies mirror that of contemporary society. What is revealed is that even those appointed to provide a path to their flock also struggle to know the way.
Written by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) and directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God), the film explores a journey of friendship founded on a spiritual and political plane. This beautifully crafted drama is inspired by true events but does not shy away from artistic license. We are made aware of their foreboding struggles through the use of ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’ which couldn’t help but make me question whether Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Bergoglio (Pope Francis) were indeed “having the time of their lives”? It became apparent they were not. When in the face of their sins, they both were struggling. Our Two Popes bond over their relationship with their personal demons and their confidence in upholding the name of the Catholic Church.
Mentioned by Tina Beattie (University of Roehampton) was the never-ending life of the Catholic Church. The Church undergoes a continual change and this is depicted to us through the contrasting views of our Two Popes. Whilst its organic structure changes, meaning who currently holds the role of Pope along with their own political views, the Church still keeps its
DNA. Despite the film expertly highlighting the Church’s internal change of the voice, it shies away from the Church’s stagnation in response to societal changes, namely discussion around the acceptance of homosexuality; and does not address recent scandals within Catholic history with conviction. The film momentarily sheds light on the child abuse cases through the troubled eyes of Pope Benedict. However, the lack of focus on this reflects the Catholic Church’s own failure to recognise the weight of the scandals and be able to heal and move forward. Throughout the film, Pope Benedict XVI wears a Fitbit that nags him to ‘keep moving’, the irony’s not lost of us that he’s not moving with societal changes.
Beattie raises that the film is a little too soft focused, stating that the film had many other possible avenues it could have explored that could’ve strengthened its informative value. George Ferzoco (University of Bristol) within the discussion highlights a ‘big weakness’ being the lack of exploration of the concept of ‘papa Emeritus’ – what Pope Benedict XVI chose to be referred to after his resignation, meaning that he can still “stick his oar in” with regards to how to Church is run.
McCarten’s dialogue is light, witty, entertaining is juxtaposed with scenes of Bergolio’s past indiscretions, primarily him not denouncing Argentina’s military junta of 1976. The film illuminates the relevance of one’s past to their present and future and its effect on a person’s faith. The power of guilt towards one’s own discretions can leave you struggling to hear the voice of God, which was ingeniously alluded to us through McCarten’s writing in the voice of Pope Benedict XVI, who claimed he may need a “spiritual hearing aid”.
Approaching the end of the film, you are provided with a foundation of knowledge to support you on your own investigative journey into the Church but in a way that is funny and pulls at your heart strings. It leaves you with an insightful gaze into people’s relationship with faith and the intricacy of the challenges that arise.
By Georgia Harrison, Communications coordinator for Thought In Action
“Spiderman is the greatest superhero of all time” the Doctor states on the radio to inform people that she is indeed alive. A short sentence carefully crafted to resonate with an international audience whose mainstream film culture is dominated by superhero universes. Those few words illuminate how a conversation we often have in our society, especially amongst children, regarding many superheroes we see across our screens, is one that does not belong in the environment the Doctor is currently in, even though it is an environment of kids.
Panellist Rachel Randall points out that “children in conflict are the ones that often suffer the most.” This is reflected in the opening scene of the group of the young child soldiers - collectively named Monos - playing football blindfolded. In the metaphorical game of chess that is guerilla warfare, the group are being used as pawns; they are a line of defence and are disposable. Further to this, Randall remarks that this scene acts as a heterotopia. On the one hand, it mirrors society and the innocence of the youth. Yet, on the other, the anonymity surrounding their identity eludes to an eerie notion that what we are seeing is not quite a perfect depiction of our society. It is in fact a refracted representation, connected and yet dissociated from our world.
What emerged within the discussion is that although the director Alejandro Landes aims for us to connect with the characters, we do not know anyone’s real name. The prisoner is referred to as ‘Doctora’ and every member of Monos has a nickname. This creates an overall sense of anonymity, highlighting that these characters could be anyone. While this guerrilla group undoubtedly eludes to the conflict Colombia has experienced with FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia/Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the lack specificity speaks to its universality. It reaches out to the Western world through the prisoner; it reaches out to parents and to young people through these characters being adolescents, and to a national audience through the Messenger being played by a former Colombian child soldier.
Landes uses cinema to unite the audience on a discourse of current world issues . Although panellist Humberto Perez-Blanco stated that the film is trying to be too universal in a setting too complex, I disagree. I believe Landes is trying to ensure that the audience can connect with the story on any level; so that they can feel that their voice is being heard. Which thus brings forth the beauty of the anonymity. It could be us. It could be you.
There are two realities existing simultaneously in this film; that of the guerrillas and the ‘real world’. These two realities are brought together when Bigfoot and Lady ambush the home of the family sheltering Rambo - who has deserted the group – and kill the parents and then the camera pans across to their children hiding underneath the table; vulnerable and alone. This act of killing brings home the reality in which Bigfoot and Lady exist. We are told that Bigfoot was raised by Messenger and therefore he may not know any other reality. He is vulnerable in his identity and succumbing to the animality within him, which is a play on ‘Monos’ meaning monkeys. Francesco Tava in the discussion stated that the characters are “totally detached from reality.” However, one could argue that they are detached from the reality in which we exist. As the civil conflict issues Colombia faces with FARC goes back to the 1960s, this is the only reality which these guerrillas know.
Monos is a beautifully crafted film that provides something for everyone to resonate with. While the film is surreal and complex, the intricacy of the cinematography mirrors the intricacy of the issues of life to which we can relate. Yet more specifically, issues that stem from the civil conflict in Colombia that feed into the heart of the country and the heart of its people.
For Sama has left everyone speechless. Thankfully, our guest speakers Ammar and Razan kindly helped us comprehend the meaning and context of the film, which was unforgettable. Thanks to those who enriched the conversation with their very insightful questions and comments.
An intimate and epic journey into the female experience of war. The story of Waad al-Kateab's life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while conflict rises around her.
"For Sama powerfully mixes the personal and the political to thought-provoking, emotional ends. The result is one of the best documentaries of 2019." - Ian Freer, Empire