UK DVD release date: Monday 4th October 2010
Running time: 95 mins
Director: Jane Birkin
Starring: Jane Birkin, Geraldine Chaplin, Michel Piccoli, John Hurt, Tcheky Karyo,
UK distributor: Bluebell
When Jane Birkin turned her hand to direction, lovers of Anglo/Franco cinema were to be treated with a strong female voice who’s experiences of working with such great directors as Michelangelo Antonioni, Richard Lester and Alain Resnais would certainly give a rise to a new chapter of a eclectic career.
Boxes, Birkin’s debut with a narrative driven feature, tells the story of Anna (played by Birkin herself), a lady in her 50’s, who while unpacking in her new seaside residence in picturesque Brittany is visited by moments and people from her past. Whether it is her three ex-husbands or her three children or deceased father Anna is forced to deal with the emotion scars, tragedies and triumphs or her live in a physically sparse yet psychologically dense environment.
For Birkin and Birkinites alike a film about memory and the overlapping presence of past and present in the one space is not a new subject matter. Fans of the made for TV French title Oh pardon! You were sleeping…will be familiar with the notion of individuals dealing with memory and tragedy in a heavily theatrical environment. Birkin’s performance is, like her direction, understated though she is never better or more complicated a character than when she is interacting with her daughters either in a one on one or all together. Adele Exarchopoulos as Lilli gives an incredibly mature performance for one so young. At times a playful child, others carrying the wisdom of her older self that Anna is clearly projecting on to the child from her foreknowledge of the grown up Lilli allows for a fascinating back and forth between mother and daughter on several occasions. The complicated and sexual relationship between Maurice Benicho (Max) and his daughter (Camille) played by Lou Doillon gives the film, which could easily drift off into the realm of arthouse pulp, a degree of gravitas that is deeply needed and is carried across by both actors so skilfully that it manages to leave the audience pondering the unasked questions as to the level of intimacy between father and child. The casting of Anna’s husbands is wonderfully eclectic with Benicho, John Hurt and Tcheky Karyo all pitching in with excellent yet short performances but also highlighting the different ages of what is surely a diverse and complicated woman (in Anna).
Cinematically there are some issues with the film, at points the lack of movement in camera only serves to highlight the fact that this is all staged, which perhaps was Birkin’s intention but in cinema it creates issues between film and audience. At other times, most notably when Anna’s parents are talking in the garden the cinematography has adopted an extremely low angle creating an almost expressionistically Weimar shot, though without the psychological devices to drive the idea home. This is momentary though and before long the cinematography is back to being made up of master and two shots which, along with the almost nonexistent score, does little to alter the idea that perhaps Boxes would translate better on a Parisian stage than a cinema screen. The deep focus master shot of Karyo, Hurt and Birkin is something that should be savoured by cinema audiences as all three actors have such rich oeuvres yet is almost too understated and stagey. Several scenes through the coast of the film screams Beckett, Endgame especially which is both a example of the directors theatrical background but only goes to highlight that it is not Beckett nor up to the standard of Beckett.
The most interesting avenue in Boxes is one that is key to the film yet almost disregarded. Notions of memory and it’s reliability are littered throughout cinema so it was probably preferable not to linger on it for too long however the fact that Hurt’s character goes without a name and is initially referred to as a ‘dick’ and is forced to break through Anna’s subconscious to force her to acknowledge that it was her who oversimplified their relationship in order to justify walking away with their child is extremely interesting. Idea’s of suppression would certainly allow you to wonder if perhaps Anna knew, at least on one level, about the unsavoury relationship between her ex-husband and her daughter or that her Grandmother, a constant source of entertainment in the film, is so deep in the final stages of dementia because that’s how Anna has choice to remember her, all notions that Antonioni would have been highly interested in.
Ultimately Boxes is a stage play that has been recorded for the cinema audience and though at times it is extremely thought provoking and rich with excellent actors and narrative it ultimately has a level of theatrically that sits uncomfortable with the cinematic audience. A theatrically that has long since been left behind for the advancement of cinema as it’s own autonomous artform and not a derivative of theatre. There are many moments in the film that should provoke excitement, warmth, rage in the audience but the misfiring format of the film ultimately leaves the narrative key points falling flat with cinema audiences at least.
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