Tag Archives: drama

Hi-So | review

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Aditya Assarat’s Hi-So – a Thai slang term for ‘high society’ – presents an alluring glimpse of Thailand from the intimate perspectives of quietly privileged twenty-somethings. By focusing simply on three characters’ outlooks, Hi-So constructs a pleasant portrait of modern-day Thailand and facilitates an exploration of the effects of globalisation on a human scale. 

We track Ananda (Ananda Everingham) filming his first starring role in Thailand, fresh from a stint studying abroad in the US. He lives a charmed life, unburdened by financial responsibilities and able to freely drift between Thai and Western cultures; his only difficulty is managing companionship in this rarefied, liminal space. When his American girlfriend Zoe (Cerise Leang) comes to visit him, their old dynamic does not fit into their new surroundings, and she exits his life. Then when filming wraps, Ananda’s attentions turn to May (Sajee Apiwong), a Thai film PR. They easily live together in Ananda’s family’s apartment building in Bangkok, but as time goes on, they discover limits to their relationship. While the camera’s gaze drifts from one character’s story to another, the constant is each person’s struggle to bridge culture- and/or class-based gaps.

Full disclosure: I’m Filipino-American, studied abroad in Europe and have traveled widely. So this film resonates with me personally, since it’s preoccupied with cultural clashes that result from living/traveling abroad while depicting a Southeast Asian country from a non-touristy perspective. (Interesting fact: Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country to never be colonised.) I often get frustrated with narratives that romanticise the locals and the landscapes with naive detachment, so for me, Hi-So provides a welcome viewpoint in a way that’s accessible to both Westerners and Thai people.

Thailand is depicted in a realistic, objective way – the views of palm trees and beach resorts are idyllic but have no hazy golden glow, lit only by natural white light. The effects of the 2004 tsunami still linger, debris haunting once-posh buildings. We actually hear the sounds of tropical animals and wind instead of romantic scoring. The humidity has a subtly languorous effect on everyone and everything. The circumstances of the locals are given voice; class differences and mobility across borders – money to travel, access to visas or study abroad opportunities – aren’t taken for granted in this film. It’s a blessedly far cry from the stylised depiction of Thailand in The Hangover: Part 2, which was chock full of offensive stereotypes and exotification.

Hi-So most notably portrays language barriers and the isolation you experience when encountering them, when you can hear what’s being said but can’t understand; the film perfectly captures how trust and power balances shift when translation is involved. Ananda is the only one with access to both worlds, while all the other characters onscreen, particularly Zoe and May, aren’t as fortunate as us in the audience, who have subtitles. For me, it was also particularly validating to see onscreen how female foreigners with limited voices are easily objectified. Photo-taking is much more intrusive when there are cultural gaps, whether you’re the tourist or the local.

The charm of Hi-So is its candid, un-glorified depiction of young adults in a place often simplified to be paradise. The film meanders without being judgemental, much like the ambivalent, mildly curious youth that it features. A benign sense of ennui pervades the film, occasionally too aimlessly; the result is an un-formulaic mood piece that sometimes lags, but is always thoughtful and honest in its exploration of modern Thailand’s character. It’s my hope that those who see this film, whether they care about these characters or not, at least become more sensitive travellers and perhaps develop better insight into life in worlds beyond the West.

Hi-So is in cinemas 1 March via Day For Night

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PPH end of year round-up part 1 | Editor’s top 10, the nearlies, and the never-weres

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There seems to have been a developing trend in year-end film lists for the listmaker to casually drop a self-deprecating reference to the sheer arbitrariness of the task they’re engaging with. Well, I just enjoy making lists, and to paraphrase 90’s pop favourites The Cranberries, everybody else is doing it, so why can’t I? My ambitions for the list are fairly modest: that a) it might provoke a bit of discussion, and b) it might inspire people to go out and catch some good films they may have missed.

For consistency’s sake (and to couch the list in some kind of context), I’ve only selected films that were released in the UK in the calendar year 2012. This means there’s no place for some fare I greatly enjoyed at festivals, including Pablo Larraín’s astonishing docudrama No, Adam Leon’s sprightly New York fable Gimme The Loot, Ken Burns’ riveting documentary The Central Park Five, or Ashim Ahluwalia’s gloriously seedy Miss Lovely, all of which should (or definitely will, in No and Gimme The Loot’s cases) hit UK screens in 2013.

Here, then, is the Top 10, in alphabetical (not numerical: that taxonomic task was too tough) order.

Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

Austrian director Haneke (who “took to Twitter” this year with hilarious results), produced two truly outstanding performances from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant for this stately study of the devastating effects of dementia on an elderly, close-knit couple. It didn’t necessarily say anything overtly profound, but it was profoundly moving, not least because the two actors so fearlessly confronted issues that, owing to their advanced age, they would surely be dealing with when the cameras stopped rolling. Regardless of how Haneke’s exactitude made one feel on a moral level (Riva has a truly upsetting nude scene), it made for searing drama.

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Barbara (dir., Christian Petzold)

Petzold’s slow-burning drama about a nurse plotting her escape from banal early 80s East Germany was a fascinating, beautifully composed character study which had me hooked from minute one. In the title role, Nina Hoss was extraordinary. Her surface coldness was a vivid semi-subversion of the passion, fear and political courage that bubbled underneath. When her character eventually thawed, the monumental rush of relief and excitement I felt was testament to the poise and the sublime technical control of her performance. All that said, I also really enjoyed Andrew Tracy’s perceptive, skeptical review in the ever excellent Reverse Shot magazine.

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Bill Cunningham New York (dir., Richard Press) | full review

My favourite doc of the year profiled the octogenarian, workaholic New York Times photographer in breezy, joyous style. Likeable, eccentric, talented and ultimately unknowable, Cunningham was the perfect subject. As I gushed at the time, “[BCNY is] not just enjoyable; it transcends documentary filmmaking to become a hymn to passionate, singular creativity.” I also said, “It’s aptly titled; encapsulating his world, a breathless rush where subject and location are inseparable, indivisible. Punctuation would just get in the way. It’s Bill’s city.” So there we go.

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Breathing (dir., Karl Markovics) | full review

Like Barbara, Markovics’ initially austere (and very well-acted) directorial debut crept up on me, possessing an unexpected power. Focusing on the rehabilitation and subsequent growth into manhood of a 19-year-old offender, it was a real slow-burner about a tough subject that somehow managed to end up genuinely uplifting rather than depressing. Though such a comparison may seem a tad arbitrary, I much preferred it to the Dardennes’ The Kid With A Bike, which struck me as far more overdetermined, protracted and fantastical than many of its more effusive cheerleaders had suggested.

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Holy Motors (dir., Leos Carax) | full review

Moment for moment, Carax’s Holy Motors was the most fun I had in the cinema this year. Following a day in the life of mysterious everyman (and he really is every man) Mr. Oscar, played by chameleonic superstar Denis Lavant, it was an episodic, unpredictable and dazzling tragicomedy packed with bizarre jokes, berserk stylistic diversions, and myriad loving cinematic references. Above and beyond the craziness, the film hit me on a gut level. I saw a brave self-portrait of a filmmaker self-reflexively admitting the absolute folly of striving to present “reality” onscreen. And, most heartbreakingly of all, I saw, in Mr. Oscar, a deeply moving portrayal of the exhausting, crippling effect of the various roles which we (the human race – I’m aiming high here, folks) force ourselves to play, over and over again, on a daily basis. Oh man, and those chimps at the end: was there a more bittersweet moment at the movies this year?

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Keep The Lights On (dir., Ira Sachs)

No film swam around my head this year like Ira Sachs’ elliptical, New York-set drama. Focusing on a long, doomed relationship between a sensitive documentary filmmaker and a drug addicted lawyer, the semi-autobiographical KTLO was marked by fiercely unguarded performances, gorgeous cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis, and extensive use of the woozy music of late musician Arthur Russell. Not only that, with its plot thread about late queer artist Avery Willard (not to mention its championing of Russell), it actively looked to celebrate and excavate a particular section of American subcultural history. A deep, warm, discomfiting nightmare dream of a film.

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Killer Joe (dir., William Friedkin) | full review

Evil has a voice, and it sounds a lot like veteran director William Friedkin collaborating with playwright Tracy Letts for a second time. And guess what, evil’s a whole lot of fun too. This rollicking redneck neo-noir pushed the boundaries of taste (just ask Colonel Sanders), and provided Matthew McConaughey (an actor for whom I’ve never – Dazed and Confused aside – had much time for) with his greatest role to date. Rough, sexy and surprising, Killer Joe was the best thriller of the year. In the interests of full disclosure, I also got off on quite how much it seemed to piss people off, too.

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Magic Mike (dir., Steven Soderbergh)

Despite a marketing campaign which did its level best to make it as difficult as possible for the heterosexual male to walk up and buy a ticket, Magic Mike emerged as one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year. Expertly helmed by the redoubtable Steven Soderbergh, it was a hazily (and gloriously) shot Floridian tale which balanced a keen view of contemporary economics with a host of cutely quoted influences, from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights to John Cassavetes’ fondly sleazy The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Channing Tatum was great in the lead role, and McConaughey (again; who’d a thunk it?) shone in a flashy supporting role as Dallas, the oiled-up, stripping patriarch.

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Once Upon A Time In Anatolia (dir., Nuri Bilge Ceylan) | feature

Boringly thrilling? Or thrillingly boring? Either way, Ceylan delivered a cinematic oxymoron of rare depth and panache with this rich, long and deeply atmospheric procedural. When it finished, I genuinely felt like I’d been locked in the cinema all night with the film’s cast of exhausted, devastated characters. Existential malaise never tasted so good.

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Sightseers (dir., Ben Wheatley) | full review

The surprise of the year, for me. After the crushing disappointment of the second half of Wheatley’s sophomore feature Kill List, my expectations for this black comedy were low. But what began as a cute riff on Martin McDonagh’s play ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’ swiftly turned into something much richer and darker. Sightseers was a merciless excavation of the murkily unpalatable underbelly of the British national character, filtered through a host of key tropes from the history of classic passive-aggressive British TV comedy. What’s more, all of this venom was set against Laurie Rose’s exceptional cinematography, which highlighted England’s natural beauty like few films have deigned to do. It stayed in my head for days afterward.

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The nearlies

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There were a few films painfully close to squeezing into my top 10. One was Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson’s “non-narrative, non-verbal 65mm journey” Samsarawhich made me feel like I was flying at the time, but wore off fairly quickly afterward. Another film whose lasting effects didn’t quite match up to the visceral experience of watching it was Gareth Evans’ gripping (and absurdly violent) martial arts cracker The Raid (full review). The seediest film I saw this year was Beauty, Oliver Hermanus’ exquisitely composed and extremely disturbing tale of illicit obsession in contemporary South Africa.

I also really enjoyed a couple of big blockbusters (I’m only a preening arthouse dilettante for some of the time); Sam Mendes’ Skyfall had the lot: a good story, some great stunts, truly beautiful cinematography (kudos Roger Deakins) and, in Javier Bardem, a genuinely brilliant villain. Seeing it at a full-to-bursting public screening on its seventh (!) week of release underlined the extent to which this Bond bonanza was ‘event’ cinema at its best. I was also taken with Avengers Assemble; chaotic, overlong and in-jokey for sure, but also a hell of a lot of fun which possessed a keen sense of its own ridiculousness. It made me laugh like a drain on more than one occasion.

On the other side of the ‘fun spectrum’, Steve McQueen’s Shame, which sent me into paroxysms of praise at last year’s London Film Festival, cooled on me like few films in recent memory, not least in response to a discussion with my wife about the film’s questionable sexual politics. Her excellent piece on that theme, ‘Shame and Gender’, can be read here. Oh, and despite Mark Cousins’ pretty bizarre rant (I like him normally), I enjoyed Argo lots too.

2012 was also an excellent year for documentaries; I greatly enjoyed Malik Bendjelloul’s revelatory musical excavation piece Searching for Sugarman, and was very moved by Call Me Kuchu, a sensitive and shocking study of the day-to-day lives of brave LGBT campaigners in Uganda. Amy Berg’s West of Memphis was a powerfully made and propulsive dissection of a grim failure of US justice, but let itself down by indulging in some of the formal shock tactics it decried its villains (the West Memphis Three prosecutors) for using. Finally, though it was no doubt an acquired taste (you had to buy into the myth of LCD Soundsystem as one of the modern titans of popular music to swallow its precious combination of hushed reverence and relentless solipsism), I was ultimately seduced by Shut Up And Play The Hits.

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The never-weres

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There were a handful of films – very highly rated by people whose opinions I generally trust – that I never got round to seeing. These included: Bela Tarr’s final film The Turin Horse, James Marsh’s Troubles-based thriller Shadow Dancer, Jafar Panahi’s “not a film” This Is Not A Film, performance art doc Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, David Cronenberg’s limo-fest Cosmopolis, and child soldier drama War Witch (which I’m not sure ever actually got/will get a proper theatrical release). I hope to get around to all of these sooner rather than later.

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Thank you for reading. Do pop your head around the door for the second part of our end-of-year round-up, which will be with you shortly.

Take This Waltz | review

Two familiar female screen archetypes are the clever-yet-uptight brunette and the flighty-yet-vulnerable blonde – and I bet that your sympathies lean heavily towards one more than the other. Do you favour Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse (or Cher in Clueless if you’d rather)? A more modern pairing would be the neurotic Liz Lemon and diva Jenna Maroney in 30 Rock. Better yet, did you ever watch Dawson’s Creek’s in the late ‘90s? If you were Dawson, would you pick Joey (Katie Holmes) or Jen (Michelle Williams)?

Well, I rooted for Joey. And if you think similarly, you might struggle a bit with this film. Take This Waltz, starring Michelle Williams, and written and directed by Sarah Polley, is very blonde. It’s a bit like watching a spinoff of Dawson’s Creek starring Jen, fast forwarded 10 years, and on HBO.

In Take This Waltz, Margot (Michelle Williams), a married 28-year-old, has a chance encounter with a frustrating-but-attractive man (Luke Kirby) who just happens to live across the street. She’s a bit restless and impetuous, while her unassuming husband (Seth Rogan) is quite comfortable with their sickeningly adorable relationship. Who, we wonder, will she choose in the end?

The camera is sympathetic to Margot, catching her in golden light and framing her with fetish-y close ups. Sadly, it feels more like watching an uber-girly Michelle Williams rather than a new character, because no names are mentioned in the first quarter of the film. I ended up associating the nameless characters with their actors’ past roles, instead of getting engrossed in the film’s world.

Luckily, the film is well-cast. Williams, who usually tends toward playing characters with darker troubles than this, is charmingly naive. Rogan, in a rare dramatic role, is endearing, though his quips pack a much softer punch in this context. The relatively unknown Kirby fits as the mysterious love interest, and his penetrating stares manage to project more longing than creepiness. But the real delight is Sarah Silverman as Margot’s spirited sister-in-law Geri. She plays a recovering alcoholic, which is perfect for her brand of dark humour laced with vulnerability. It’s a relief when she’s onscreen to cut through the cuteness that pervades the film.

Unfortunately, the film’s flighty tone definitely results in some head-askance moments. It’s consciously quirky, tries too hard, and the rhythm is sometimes forced. The tonal shifts in several scenes repeat the same problematic pattern; they start saccharine until you can’t take any more, abruptly turn darkly humorous, then try to end on a genuine note. Hence the Dawson’s Creek comparison – such moments resonate on more of a TV-movie level.

Aside from these issues, Take this Waltz is largely beguiling. It’s smartly structured, giving the characters just the right amount of weight. It also manages to deal satisfyingly and honestly with the moral complications that infidelity arouses. Plus it looks fantastic, showcasing a vibrant Toronto in the summertime – the bright colours and hazy light suit the unabashedly sweet tone of the film. It achieves several striking contrasts between scenes to shift textures; the nighttime pool scene and the fairground rides are particularly atmospheric. And the fitting soundtrack is populated by acoustic guitars, xylophones and flutes to keep the mood wistful.

So should you see it? It may depend on who you’re watching it with. When I saw it, the gender divide in the room was palpable; the lead female’s cutesy nature elicited exasperated sighs and miserable cringing from several men in the audience, who may have expected it to be more along the lines of Blue Valentine. And to be fair, at several points I felt similar – but my instinctive female solidarity, plus memories of chats with girlfriends, kept me circumspect. This kind of girl definitely exists, like her or not – it wouldn’t be fair to be dismissive of the film based on its blonde tone. Ultimately, I think this film has merit, presenting an enjoyable, decidedly feminine perspective of a woman’s insecurities and fantasies. But give it a watch and decide for yourself – with someone of the opposite sex, if you’re feeling bold.

Take This Waltz is in cinemas now. Contributor Cathy Landicho can be followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur

A Simple Life (Tao Jie) | review

Think of Hong Kong cinema and your mind might automatically wander to martial arts films or crime thrillers. But, as you can infer from this film’s title, A Simple Life is not one of them. It has had commercial success and critical acclaim that was unexpected by all involved in the film, many of whom are veterans of the Hong Kong film industry. It’s the fifth highest-grossing film in Hong Kong this year so far (The Avengers and Men In Black 3 hold the top spots). Considering that the Hong Kong film industry has been struggling mightily against Hollywood blockbusters since the mid-1990s, the fact that this film has been a surprise hit is heartening for the regional business. A Simple Life is a love letter to a decidedly unglamorous and humble Hong Kong.

Ann Hui’s gentle film is led by Ah Tao (Deanie Ip), an ageing domestic servant (‘amah’ in Chinese) who tends to the needs of bachelor Roger Leung (Andy Lau), the only member of his family left in Hong Kong. Ah Tao was with the Leung family since she was orphaned by WWII and served four generations of the family, so the Leungs are essentially her family. The film focuses on Ah Tao’s relationship to Roger and how it evolves during her last years, rendering a tender portrait of the reality of becoming elderly.

There’s authenticity embedded in the film that helps it resonate – it’s based on real characters and Deanie Ip is actually Andy Tau’s godmother. It also doesn’t hurt that 23 years ago, Ip and Lau co-starred as mother and son in a film called The Truth. There’s a natural ease and familiarity to their understated onscreen interactions that is rare to see.

A Simple Life opens with Ah Tao limping up stairs with heavy groceries and then serving Roger a meal without any thanks or recognition offered. For the majority of us who didn’t grow up with in-house servants, it’s a bit off-putting. Roger hardly looks like a grown-up; he moves and dresses like a university student, despite being a big shot in the film industry. In contrast, Ah Tao acts with a strong sense of purpose and a professional dignity about her responsibilities; she never asks for anything and never complains. Deanie Ip is only 64, but her natural physical mannerisms thoroughly convince you that her body is starting to fail.

Ah Tao has a stroke, and thus retires and asks to be put in a nursing home so she isn’t a burden on Roger. Their familiar routines with each other are put in reverse; Roger goes from being cared for to having to take care of both himself and Ah Tao. Through Ah Tao, we get the nursing home experience without the smells, as she transitions from independent living to what is essentially a waiting game. The nursing home is populated with well-nuanced characters who make it clear that Ah Tao is one of the fortunate ones. It’s lucky for us in the audience, as hers is a best-case scenario of a stage of life most would rather not think about.

It may all sound depressing, but watching it doesn’t feel that way. Each character is cheerful and entertaining, complete with little idiosyncrasies, and the cinematography is crisp and naturalistic. Everything in the film serves character development in a humanist, understated manner, quite like Ah Tao herself. Deanie Ip’s performance (which deservedly won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Venice, the first for a Hong Kong woman) commands respect and holds your sympathies. The last third does drag slightly, mainly because you know what’s coming; but this reflects reality, since the waiting is quietly agonising. The film gently reminds us of our mortality and our responsibilities to our family, in a non-preachy way. If you feel like a break from grandiose blockbuster films this summer, give this one a try.

A Simple Life opens in selected UK cinemas nationwide on 3 August. Contributor Cathy Landicho can followed on Twitter @ConfusedAmateur.

Polisse – a real curate’s oeuf

Make no mistake about it, Polisse is a genuine curate’s egg. A rough, raggedy portrait of an under-pressure Parisian Child Protection Unit, it scorches an unpredictable trail from harrowing to laughable and back again in just over two unremitting, frequently melodramatic hours. In fact, it’s difficult to think of another film in recent years in which the good and the truly awful have coexisted in such close proximity.

Utilising a primarily hand-held, documentary-style aesthetic, director Maïwenn plunges us into a world where harried individuals must confront acts of unspeakable depravity on a daily basis. They are a tight-knit team prone to bickering (about anything from linguistics to gender politics) and airing their dirty personal laundry at voluble levels. The comrades’ badinage-under-duress vibe is impressively established in Polisse‘s early stages, and the film has an earthy, punchy compelling start. Sadly, as subplots pile up at a rate of knots, it swiftly begins to lose focus.

One of Maïwenn’s least wise decisions was to cast herself in the role of a roving photographer commissioned by the ministry to capture the unit’s actions. She’s less a character, more an ethereal, slightly distracting presence: the film equivalent of an Enya song coming on your radio. The group’s debating about the merits of the her role is – in script terms – clumsily self-reflexive, but at least brings her character into some sort of focus. Her burgeoning romance with the CPU’s hot-headed Fred (played by rapper-turned-actor Joeystarr) is totally uninvolving, soap-opera stuff.

A number of scenes are excoriatingly powerful as lone entities, but such is Maïwenn’s lack of tonal and structural control, they tend to exist in a vacuum. One particularly harrowing passage in which a young African boy is separated from his mother would be just as effective if viewed separately. Likewise, a late showdown in which a Muslim CPU member challenges a suspected sex offender over his knowledge of the Koran seems to have been included simply because the subject of faith hasn’t been explicitly brought up yet.

There’s also a forced levity that sits oddly with such decidedly bleak material. A tense raid on a sect of child-criminal groomers is immediately followed by a jaw-droppingly weird dance sequence on a school bus, set to disco music. And these guys don’t go to the pub to unwind, no; instead they’re granted a full-on, City of God-style nightclub tear-up. Elsewhere, we’re treated to snatches of bleak gallows humour; witness the scene when the crew fall around laughing at a gauche young girl who’s been dispensing oral sex in return for a smartphone, and another where disappointment is registered at catching a dull case (“Can’t we do a rape or a gang rape?” grumbles one character). It’s in these moments of dark observation where Polisse recalls The Wire (the landmark HBO show to which it’s been rather unconvincingly compared). Unlike David Simon’s show, though, it never gets to grips with the labyrinthine menace of institutions on any meaningful level; authority figures are summarily cast as two-dimensional husks.

There’s too much effective stuff in this messy film to write it off as a total failure. The grainy aesthetic is apposite, and the performances are generally strong across the board. Furthermore, in its own weirdly shambolic way, Polisse does a good job of painting the embattled CPU as some kind of living, gasping organism composed of raggedy, interdependent human parts, ploughing a thankless furrow in a bleak urban landscape.

However, it’s the combination of fundamental structural problems and constant recourse to hysterical melodrama which really derail things. As the film rushes headlong into an overwrought denoument (which will surely be parodied for years to come), the realisation hits you that there’s been no real narrative arc to speak of; you’ve just been beaten over the head for two hours from all angles. Narrative strands repeatedly pop up, then disappear without trace, often making it extremely difficult to follow what’s going on. It makes you appreciate the skill of, say, (the late) Geraldine Peroni and Dylan Tichenor (editors on multi-character opus’ Short Cuts and Magnolia respectively) who knew exactly when to pick up one story and leave another.

If one was to be generous in the extreme, one might suggest the film’s wayward form was designed to mirror the chaotic interior lives and profession of its characters. But that would be pushing it big time. Polisse would have made a compelling TV series, allowing space for themes and characters to flourish. As it is, it registers as a weird, passionate, misshapen lump of a film which simply has way too much going on, marshalled with nowhere near enough skill.

Polisse is in cinemas now.