The bobby-cars are having a bad day. One by one, they are hurled at the shatterproof glass door, which separates the grey and sparse courtyard of the youth detention centre from the inside of the building. Even though the door withstands, it isn’t over yet. With a loud groan, nine-year-old Benni runs to crash one of the toy vehicles into the door. A little CGI crack shows in the glass, just as the neon-pink title-card foreshadows that this is so much more than just about a broken door.
Some films make you emotional, some render you contemplative, while others fill you up with a creeping sensation of hope or despair. But only few manage to completely sweep you off your feet by offering a nuanced, empathetic portrayal of trauma and mental illness. In this respect, the recent German arthouse film System Crasher arrives like a furious marathon runner with a megaphone. A more apt description of is “wucht”, the German synonym to “stunner.”
Cinema does not need to be coherent to be understood. Some art is not made to be chronological, or easily understandable, or accessible to a wide audience. Equally, however, criticism has the right – or even the responsibility – to dismantle the layers of a film and peer at what’s underneath, so that we may debate the meaning which lofty imagery may convey. The problem with I Was at Home, But, is that this meaning never really appears, leaving nothing but frameless minimalism masquerading as a greater film.
Twenty-four year old Julie (Honor Swinton-Byrne) wants for nothing in life, bar artistic inspiration. As a film student, she avoids the starving artist stereotype by calling up her parents every time she needs supplies – “Mummy, I need two hundred pounds again!” – in order to continue treading water on multiple fruitless projects. Her airily considered ideas trace working class struggles that she will never experience, exemplifying the voyeurism of rich filmmakers for whom the dying towns beyond the Watford gap represent nothing but artistic potential. Through her character, Joanna Hogg has created the perfect representation of the precocious young woman, for whom opportunities will be created via wealth, rather than talent or work ethic. When the arrogant and manipulative Anthony (Tom Burke) comes swaggering into Julie’s life, however, she is soon forced to learn the heavy weight of adult responsibility, in the most painful way possible.
To watch this relationship develop is unpleasant to say the least. Each grotesque leer that Anthony throws in Julie’s direction is enough to make bile rise in the throat, and the feeling only worsens as the film continues to expand on his true nature. Hogg is careful never to romanticise the abuse that our heroine suffers, casting a largely negative light on his actions through an incredulous gaze: as Julie returns to Anthony again and again despite his behaviour, we despair for her, and collectively long for her to escape his clutches. It’s not an easy watch by any means, but Hogg’s refusal to counteract Anthony’s exploitation with any redeeming qualities thankfully precludes any kind of apologism.
To capture a lifetime of greatness in just two hours seems like an impossible task, but in ‘Varda by Agnes’, the French New Wave legend accomplishes this and more, producing a documentary which feels almost like an embrace from a wise relative. As she casts her eye back across six decades of her work, Varda recounts anecdotes from her past, accompanied by friends and colleagues, whilst delving into her fond outlook towards film as a medium. In this age of cynicism, 90-year-old Varda’s eternally bright acceptance of modernity feels like a breath of fresh air, and makes for a viewing experience which is truly magical for any film fan.
As an auteur, Varda is confident and passionate when discussing her work, outlining her motivations in an accessible and welcoming manner. The film traces her career with a rough chronology, beginning with her best-known Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), moving through films such as La Pointe Courte (1954), Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985), before changing tone to consider the artistic installations that she created in her later career. The completeness of this overlook amplifies just how far the filmmaker’s reach has travelled; from narrative film, to documentary, to modern art, there seems to be very little that she cannot perfect. Each piece is woven with Varda’s acute observational skills, driven by an intrinsic appreciation for humanity.