Film in Oxford: Snapshots of 2013

This week’s column consists of a handful of short pieces on films released in the past year. Rather than attempting to condense an entire film into three hundred words, each focuses on a specific feature or point of interest in greater detail. The discussions below may contain spoilers.

Birth Imagery in Gravity

The release of Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuáron) this year well and truly dispelled the notion that blockbuster entertainment and artful experimentation are mutually exclusive. The film’s title was intended by Cuáron to denote a lack of groundedness, and the recurring birth imagery present allegorically plays with this double meaning. For most of Gravity’s seventeen-minute opening sequence, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is shown making minor repairs to a shuttle as Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) jokes and loops around via jetpack. Stone, a newcomer to space, is tethered in umbilical cord-like fashion to the (mother)ship, while Kowalski, a veteran astronaut, is not. The first disaster of many occurs when orbiting space debris tears through Stone’s tether, sending her spinning uncontrollably into space.

Later, in a simple yet beautifully effective scene, Stone clambers into the International Space Station and removes her suit. Curling into the foetal position, she remains suspended, slowly revolving. Seeking security, Stone’s entry to the ISS marks a retreat to the womb, with weightlessness analogous to amniotic fluid. This temporary safety also brings with it the return of umbilical cord imagery, as can be seen in the screenshot above. This introspection graphically resembles Stone’s own personal life, or what little we know of it. After the death of her young daughter, Stone spent her time either at work or driving – the car itself of course being an insular vessel – and isolated, emotionally at least, from the outside world.

Stone’s eventual re-entrance into the Earth’s atmosphere marks a kind of rebirth. As the capsule crash-lands in a large lake, she sheds her suit once more and escapes. Liberated by the greater control of her movement, she swims to the surface. Gravity ends with Stone hauling herself up from the mud and tentatively stepping onto solid earth for the first time in the film. Like a baby taking its first breath, this marks her presence in a new world, and the beginning of a new life.

Gravity is playing at the Ultimate Picture Palace from Friday 13th December to Thursday 2nd January.

Landscape in The Selfish Giant

Within the violent instability of The Selfish Giant (dir. Clio Barnard), fixed shots of semi-abstract landscape are regularly inserted to great effect. These images – whether electrical pylon wires forming strange, geometric patterns; weighty chimneys of power stations; or distant horses against a bleak, grey sky – linger for just a little longer than is comfortable for the viewer.

The inorganic blankness of these industrial landscapes, appearing to us as pure form the longer we look at them, momentarily relieves the tension of the traumatic existences of the young protagonists, Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). The images seem to have a slow and steady rhythm in their lengthiness, providing a sense of escapism that feels almost illicit, comparable to the use of sex or violence in many other films.

When we return to the danger and abuse facing Arbor and Swifty, the potency of disorder is increased due to the foil of these extended, still shots. These intersections contrast with and amplify the trauma of the film and lend it an ambiguity, suggesting that there might be redemption somewhere in the bleakness that the characters are never quite able to realise.

Repetition in Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon is a self-professed modern Don Juan who prefers watching pornography to having sex. Early on in the film, Jon recites a short (and clearly rehearsed) list of his loves in life: his body, flat, car, family, church, friends, sexual conquests, and porn. The majority of the film cycles through near-identical scenes addressing the above items one after another, and some have criticised the seemingly excessive repetition that this causes.

These recurrences, however, are intended to portray the pitifully cyclic nature of Don Jon’s life, and do so effectively: they depict not harmless routine but harmful addiction. The opening line, in which Jon admits to finding the Mac start-up sound arousing (albeit in blunter words), indicates the Pavlovian hold that pornography has over him. The repetitions that Gordon-Levitt employs throughout the film perform a similar function for the audience: each full-screen shot of a buffering Mac brings with it a sense of growing shame and entrapment. That such repetitions become grating is perhaps a necessary technique for a film that otherwise handles addiction from a surprisingly light-hearted perspective.

Don Jon’s problem lies, perhaps, in the ease with which the endless cycle is eventually broken. The film’s didactic bent is evident, as Jon’s misogynistic expectations of sex and his misconceptions about pornography appear naïve and ignorant. Jon does not become aware of this himself, however, until a fellow night school student (Esther, played by Julianne Moore) ‘teaches’ him that mutually loving sex is more fulfilling. The film’s close thus preaches the message that a certain approach to sex can act as an immediate antidote for porn addiction, one which ignores complexities and difficulties that would realistically remain. Subsequently, Don Jon’s resolution seems jarringly sentimental, losing the power that a more open ending might have had.

Don Jon is playing at the Ultimate Picture Palace from Friday 13th to Wednesday 18th December.

Resolution in Jeune & Jolie

François Ozon, director of Jeune & Jolie, is clearly aware of the danger that overly tidy resolutions can bring. At several points during the film, he toys with the audience through his manipulation of filmic conventions, and creates visual clues that act as structural signposts. The motivations of the film’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old prostitute Isabella (Marine Vacth) are uncertain, her emotions unreadable, and her actions unpredictable. Vacth plays the role with appropriate opacity, instantaneously flitting between vulnerability and sexual provocation.

Jeune & Jolie is divided into four sections spanning the course of a year, demarcated by changes of season. It is at the close of the third section that Ozon cannily plays with the expectations of the audience. Having turned her back on prostitution after involvement in a traumatic incident, Isabella attends a party and kisses a classmate, Alex (Laurent Delbecque). In the following scene – the final scene of the section – Isabella and Alex stand at the centre of a bridge covered in ‘love locks’ (padlocks attached to bridges by couples to symbolise their desire for commitment). The padlocks’ presence here is ironic, but initially the audience is unaware of this. As the camera zooms slowly outwards, Ozon hints at finality before tugging the rug from beneath us with the announcement of the final section. By touching upon the possibility that the film could have ended here, unsatisfactorily, Ozon knowingly emphasises Isabella’s inability to return immediately to living a normal teenage life. This reading is confirmed when Isabella ends her relationship with Alex without reason.

The actual resolution is, more fittingly, one of ambiguity. After reaching the lowest point of her prostitution (the ‘traumatic incident’ previously mentioned), a shot showed Isabella descending a metro station escalator into darkness. At the close of the final section, and in an inverse of this earlier scene, we watch over Isabella’s shoulder as she ascends the same escalator into light, implying redemption. This reversal of earlier occurrences continues as Isabella visits the hotel room where the incident happened, and the film ends with Isabella waking abruptly, alone on the hotel room bed. The camera initially focuses on her reflection in a wall mirror, and as Isabella glances at herself, any metaphorical connotations of self-reflection become apparent. Despite the uncertainty of her future, this resolution seems hopeful, while avoiding the directness of approach that Don Jon opts for.

Jeune & Jolie is playing at the Ultimate Picture Palace from Friday 10th to Wednesday 15th January.

J. Wadsworth & L. Brown

For up-to-date cinema listings and to book tickets for any other films currently showing please follow these links: Phoenix PicturehouseUltimate Picture PalaceOdeon George StOdeon Magdalen St. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at theoxfordculturereview@gmail.com

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