In the 2007 Morris Gleitzman story, “Give Peas a Chance”, Ben sparks a global strike of school-aged children when he refuses to eat his vegetables until the world’s weapons have been destroyed. It’s children’s fantasy, but of a new kind, concerned with the future of the world that children will soon inherit.

Tamil couple Kokilapathmapriya “Priya” Nadesalingam and Nadesalingam “Nades” Murugappan and their two daughters will stay on Christmas Island awaiting a Federal Court hearing into the last-ditch asylum claim by their youngest daughter, Tharunicaa, following a ruling by Justice Mordecai Bromberg today.

Interplanetary, mostly ordinary: James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’
Brad Pitt’s interstellar family-therapy odyssey struggles with earthbound sentiment

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.

Space: it used to be pop cinema’s final frontier, with films full of far-flung worlds, imaginative horizons and wild visions that audiences might never see outside their dreams. But somewhere along the way the world got small and cynical, special effects became too easy and convincing, and – apparently – a generation of dudes raised on late-20th-century blockbusters realised they had feelings they needed to explore. Now space is the place filmmakers go when they want to work through daddy issues, grieve for lost family or air out other creaky thematic concerns under shiny new guises. With apologies to the Carpenters (and Klaatu): the interplanetary has become mostly ordinary.

American filmmaker James Gray is the latest to take family therapy into orbit. His yearning new space movie, Ad Astra (in cinemas September 19), stars Brad Pitt as a hotshot astronaut sent on a mission to make contact with his missing dad (Tommy Lee Jones), an interstellar pioneer who disappeared in the outer solar system while searching for signs of intelligent life. It feels like a good match: Pitt, who also produces, remains one of the closest things America has to an old-school movie star, and Gray makes thoughtful, New Hollywood–indebted work that adheres to a classical narrative paradigm. The latter may explain why he’s found himself out of step with the market – despite one bona fide masterpiece (Two Lovers, 2008) and a handful of richly crafted, emotionally acute films (We Own the Night, 2007; The Immigrant, 2013), Gray remains relatively unsung outside cinephile circles and, of course, the French.

In Ad Astra, it’s the near future and – stop me if you’ve heard this one before – during a “time of hope and conflict”, humanity is looking to the stars. “I always wanted to be an astronaut, for the future of mankind,” says Pitt’s Major Roy McBride, who we see refracted, like 2001: A Space Odyssey’s all-grown-up and angst-ridden star child, over the opening moments, grappling with his lonely midlife crisis. Roy is long divorced, though his ex-wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), is readily available via video screen or dappled flashback to enrich his interior life, while being afforded none of her own. “I was harsh when I should’ve been tender,” he grumbles.

Roy is stationed on the International Space Antenna – designed by Gray and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, working in handsome 35mm, with a vertiginous, matte painterly beauty – when a freak space disturbance causes mass power outages across the globe. The source is discovered to be cosmic rays from Neptune, where Roy’s dad, Clifford McBride, vanished in an anti-matter powered ship that’s now sending ripples through the galaxy to catastrophic effect. Enlisted to make contact with his old man, Roy hitches a ride to the Moon with Colonel Pruitt (Donald Sutherland, dispensing gravitas on tap), and begins to learn the truth: Dad’s gone rogue – and insane. “I am free of your moral boundaries; I have total clarity,” Jones’s voice is heard raving over audio. If the space council can’t reign him in, they’ll terminate his command.

As widely noted, it’s all very Apocalypse Now in space, with Pitt poring over Dad’s decorated dossier (including 8x10s presumably lifted from Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, which also starred Jones) and laying on gravelly, Martin Sheen–style voiceover. “Here we go again, fighting over resources,” he growls upon arrival on the Moon, though he may as well be upriver from Saigon. “What the hell am I doing here?”

Gray has made little secret of his love for New Hollywood, and Francis Ford Coppola in particular. In a recent New Yorker profile, he even reveals that he has a pasta sauce ranking system based on the veteran director’s work – a Godfather film being the gold culinary standard. Yet Coppola was no throwback classicist at heart – the Godfather movies were studio jobs, while his more radical, fascinating work was engineered for a new generation: One from the Heart (1982), Rumble Fish (1983), Bram Stokers Dracula (1992); each mixed cutting-edge tech with avant-garde ambition. Gray doesn’t have his eye on tomorrow: in the very same profile, he laments populist cinema, and says he can’t abide viewers watching films on their phones – the digital bogeyman that certain filmmakers love to invoke in a pinch.

But you can still experience ideas on a device, and for a while, at least, Ad Astra appears to be cooking some up – however familiar the recipe. Though Gray and co-screenwriter Ethan Gross assemble the usual Kubrickian building blocks, they also imagine an almost prosaic, colonised solar system, in which the Moon has devolved into part research station, part tacky tourist destination for the wealthy, reachable via expensive Virgin Atlantic flights where in-flight comfort injections come at $125 a pop. Entrenched hierarchies persist –“You’re not authorised at this level,” an anonymous man-bun informs Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), despite the fact that she practically runs a launch base – and the Moon’s resource crisis leads to an unexpectedly thrilling buggy chase involving lunar pirates. There’s a highly disgruntled, very rabid space monkey on the loose in an abandoned ship en route to Mars, and Natasha Lyonne makes a fleeting cameo as a garrulous, mop-headed border control grunt – a spin-off just waiting to happen.

Gray is striving for something essential here: the dark passage that threatens a man terrified he’ll become his father, and the burden of a legacy that may eclipse his own. (The shadow of family has hung over his body of work, from 1994’s Little Odessa through 2016’s The Lost City of Z.) He’s also exploring a generational perspective on masculinity: the careerist boomer dad, dedicated to his mission at all costs (including his family) versus the gen-x son, who shares his alpha DNA but discovers a capacity for empathy and emotional expression. The conflict lets Pitt flex his increasingly weary features, where the once-smouldering intensity of his looks has become a sort of aggravated stillness. Whatever it is he’s leaning into, it’s becoming more compelling with age.

Still, did we really need to travel to the outer limits of the solar system for some father-son bonding? If Ad Astra’s familial themes are universal, their execution is somewhat generic, and for all its evocative cinematography and dramatic sincerity, Gray’s film struggles to reconcile its broad emotion with the spectacle, and starts to drift into a galactic funk. The film’s small-scale humanism feels deflating within the infinite possibilities of the genre, considering 2001 was envisioning life beyond humanity more than half a century ago. Even on an intimate scale, Ad Astra can’t approach the tenderness summoned by Robert Zemeckis and Jodie Foster in Contact (1997), a film that took its absent-father longing and transformed it into something truly cosmic – the departed as inter-dimensional force, at one with space and time.

To be fair, it’s hard to remember a time when space was rendered visionary on movie screens – for that you’d probably have to return to George Lucas’s maligned Star Wars prequels, and in particular Revenge of the Sith (2005), which gave us a digital pop fantasia set to a mournful opera of loss (talk about a negligent father whose single-minded actions left his family, and the galaxy, reeling.) Interstellar (2014), First Man (2018), even the technically dazzling Gravity (2013): all stories of the familial, rendered in space-age trickery. Only Claire Denis’s recent High Life (2018) – bless its chilly heart – dared peer beyond those movies’ corniness, imagining space not as some vast expanse of hope or redemption but an abyss in which humanity is doomed to repeat its mistakes.   

If Ad Astra peripherally recalls High Life’s cynicism, then its overriding mandate is hope. Gray is an astute dramatist, but his writing seems to be flatter here, and worse, its big, humanity-sized sentiment risks leaving the actors stranded in unintentional comedy. Pitt’s always excelled at hypermasculine parody, but on an off day, grand drama can elude him. There’s a should-be-wrenching moment in which he shares an emotional crisis with a touch-screen console – comparing the anger of the raging space primate to that of his father, and by extension himself. As Pitt cries, “I don’t wanna be my dad,” it was all I could do to suppress a giggle (I’m also a monster, just to be clear.) And while Jones brings weight to even the slimmest of sentiments, his presence here – with his maniacal determination to prove the existence of alien life – only serves to evoke his performance in Men in Black, in which he delivers throwaway comedy lines about time and memory from an arguably more convincing wellspring of sorrow. By the time Ad Astra had wheeled out another longueur about life, love and how “we’re all we’ve got” in the universe, I was praying for the aliens to arrive, too.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

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Image of ‘Sachiko’ my Miwa Yanagi

‘Here We Are’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

An opportunity for rethinking the position of women in contemporary art

Image of Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu and Prime Minister Scott Morrison

How good is Gladys Liu?

Scott Morrison ducks and weaves questions about the embattled MP

Image from ‘Blanco en Blanco’

Venice International Film Festival 2019

Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

Image from ‘Animals’

Girls, interrupted: Sophie Hyde’s ‘Animals’

This untamed depiction of female friendship moves beyond basic binaries of freedom and control


Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday announced yet another inquiry into the family law system, chaired by conservative MP Kevin Andrews – who has argued that the greatest threat facing Western civilisation is not terrorism or climate change but the divorce rate – and deputy-chaired by One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson.

Would-be renegade NSW Liberals Tanya Davies, Matthew Mason-Cox and Lou Amato this morning abandoned their planned leadership spill against Premier Gladys Berejiklian – who won the state election just shy of six months ago – over dissatisfaction with the handling of a bill to decriminalise abortion. Similar legislation has been passed by Queensland, Victoria, and the Northern Territory over the past 11 years.

‘Here We Are’ at the Art Gallery of NSW
An opportunity for rethinking the position of women in contemporary art

Miwa Yanagi, Sachiko, from the series My grandmothers, 2000, Art Gallery of New South Wales © YANAGI Miwa. Photograph: AGNSW, Felicity Jenkins

One of my favourite rooms in an art museum anywhere in the world was Gallery 4 of the Art Gallery of South Australia back when Ron Radford was director. It was labelled Australian Modernism, and it was only if you carefully read and compared every wall text that you might have registered the idiosyncrasy of it: every artist was a woman.

They were mostly South Australian (Dorrit Black, Stella Bowen, Margaret Preston, Bessie Da­vidson, Kathleen Sauerbier, Gladys Reynell and Nora Heysen), with three from Sydney (Anne Dangar, Grace Cossington Smith and Grace Crowley) thrown in for good measure. No signage highlighting this singular choice, no special pleading. It was as though the curators were just presenting a room full of the most exciting examples of the era.

It seems apt, given that South Australia was the first colony – and the second self-governing jurisdiction in the world after New Zealand – to give women the vote, in 1894. Unlike New Zealand, it also allowed women to stand for parliament. Tracey Lock, AGSA’s curator of Australian art for the past 25 years, remembers that South Australian Women Artists: 1890–1940, staged in 1994 to celebrate the centenary of South Australian women’s suffrage, was the first show she curated there.

Here We Are is a new exhibition of women artists at the Art Gallery of NSW. It gives an opportunity for thinking anew about the position of women in art today. The works take up four rooms and are acquisitions that date from 2015, when the gallery initiated a policy designed to increase the percentage of women artists it collected.

The exhibition contains major pieces, beautifully hung, in dialogue with each other. The preoccupations of women have long been trivialised as making for “domestic art” while the male view is considered universal. In these rooms we realise that a lot of women’s art has been inevitably preoccupied with studying their changing role in society, and is no less universal than the work of the other 50 per cent of the world. When we consider the sexual and social subjugation of women over the centuries, in art and more broadly, the relationship between women and art is profoundly political by its nature.

The rooms segue between intensely personal and wider perspectives. Njideka Akunyili Crosby portrays the intimacy of a biracial relationship set against an intriguingly busy collage of photos of Nigerian life, some of them from her own family. In the middle of the same room is Louise Bourgeois’ bronze sculpture, Arched figure, of a slim and headless man, one of several she made to show men gripped by bodily emotional reactions. One of these is titled Arch of Hysteria, which more obviously undercuts Freud’s attribution of hysteria (it’s in the name) and anxiety to the very make-up of women.

Elsewhere, the masculine gaze is satirised. Deborah Kelly’s series The Venus Variations are collages that play with famous nudes in art history, like Matisse’s Odalisque à la culotte rouge and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, doubling them up or playing with their constructions. They are ringed with the pretty flowers that once reeked of the feminine.

There are several photographs by the inimitable Tracey Moffat, from the series Body Remembers, which was shown in the Australian Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. These intense, melancholy and yet eerily distanced ochre pictures, portraying a formally dressed woman in a 1950s domestic servant’s uniform (herself) taken on a deserted country property, are a meditation both on the artist’s forebears in servitude and on the wider experience of colonisation.

Judith Wright’s suite of five paintings that occupies a whole wall has even more grandeur, and yet more intimacy too. Called Significant Others, each is a large-scale abstract doubleheader: one head coloured, the other a ghostly companion. Made of acrylic painted on beeswax-covered Japanese paper, they have a textured physicality that draws the viewer close. It is tempting to reach out and touch.

Born, by American artist Kiki Smith, is a take on an early, pre-sanitised version of the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood. The girl and her grandmother, each bearing age-appropriate versions of the artist’s own face, are both dressed in red cloaks. They stand on the belly of an upturned wolf that’s drawn like a crescent moon from which they have emerged, spurted blood merging with their cloaks. Made in 2002, it came after an intense period of thought about the relationship between humans and animals. The seconds in between seeing the subject matter and realising its viscerality is an interesting trip.

There is also humour to be found here in a wonderful set of photographs, called My Grandmothers, by Miwa Yanagi, which explores what a woman might be if she were to age free of patriarchal expectations. In saturated colours, each picture shows an older woman forsaking the modest image the title projects. In one, the woman is screaming, cigarette in hand and long dyed-red hair flaming out behind her, as she rides in a sidecar with an exuberantly laughing bikie. In another, she sits staring moodily out of a business-class seat in an aeroplane, sporting bright aqua hair.

Other works are challenging, exuberant or meditative; a few are a little bland. The still of Katthy Cavaliere, naked and facing out to sea, her arms outflung, sitting on a pile of her recently dead mother’s clothes, is from her short film called nest. It serves as the advertising image for the show, and is certainly eye catching. So is Justene Willams’s Insight, an agriculturally coloured sculpture of a man lying prone of the floor with long neon bolts firing from his pelvis. Some pieces are less memorable than others, as though chosen for their historical importance rather than viewer appeal – a forgotten priority in these days of trumpeting visitor numbers.

AGNSW isn’t the only institution to realise it is high time women in art received equal recognition. Women represent 25 per cent of the collection at the National Gallery of Australia. Acknowledging this imbalance, the NGA has adopted the hashtag #KnowMyName from the National Museum for Women in the Arts, in Washington D.C. It is also collaborating with The Countess Report, which measures gender representation in the Australian visual arts, to develop guidelines for arts organisations to achieve equality. The NGA will present a major exhibition of women artists next year.

The National Museum for Women in the Arts has collated interesting statistics. According to a survey published by the Public Library of Science, based on more than 10,000 artists in the permanent collections of 18 prominent American art museums, 87 per cent are male, and 85 per cent are white. In London in 2017, only 22 per cent of solo shows in major galleries were of women artists – an 8 per cent decrease from 2016.

Several state galleries in Australia have appointed women directors recently. The last thing AGSA director Rhana Devenport did before leaving the Auckland Art Gallery for AGSA was to purchase the entire portfolio of more than 200 works from feminist collective Guerrilla Girls. And as the first female director of AGSA she has brought her brief to support women artists to Adelaide: “There’s still a lot of work to do,” she told me last year. “When [women’s] survival and autonomy are still fundamental questions, it’s our responsibility to do all we can.”

I’m ambivalent about quotas, preferring to think that a carefully levelled playing field would allow for gender-free selection on merit. But then I realise no one seems to know who Joan Mitchell, whose work I love, is. Or Lee Krasner, though everyone has heard of her husband, Jackson Pollock. Is that about merit, or is it because the wildly masculine image of the hard-living American Abstract Expressionists left their female counterparts in the shade? And that’s not to mention entrenched cultural and commercial bias.

How is it that women have attended art schools in Australia in great numbers from the early 20th century, then (with the exception of those marvellous modernists and a scant few others) seem to have faded from sight? Think Helen Maudsley and John Brack. A pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art, critic Cyril Connolly famously said, though Maudsley, who had four children, vehemently disagrees with this claim

When one scans the statistics and realises the depth of the imbalance and how deep the cultural and psychological biases that lead to it run, and hears the sexist remarks about how raising the number of women lowers standards, quotas begin to look like an excellent idea. It was satisfying too, to see the number of young men, as well as the majority of women, who were strolling through Here We Are when I visited.

 

Here We Are is at the Art Gallery of NSW until October 13.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Read on

Image from ‘Ad Astra’

Interplanetary, mostly ordinary: James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt’s interstellar family-therapy odyssey struggles with earthbound sentiment

Image of Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu and Prime Minister Scott Morrison

How good is Gladys Liu?

Scott Morrison ducks and weaves questions about the embattled MP

Image from ‘Blanco en Blanco’

Venice International Film Festival 2019

Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

Image from ‘Animals’

Girls, interrupted: Sophie Hyde’s ‘Animals’

This untamed depiction of female friendship moves beyond basic binaries of freedom and control


The federal government is expected to introduce its “big stick” legislation to parliament this week, setting the stage for a fresh debate about energy prices. The legislation reportedly [$] includes powers for the government to compel energy companies to supply electricity on certain terms, and could even force them to sell off assets if they’re found to be “engaging in anti-competitive conduct”.

How good is Gladys Liu?
Scott Morrison ducks and weaves questions about the embattled MP

Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Source: Facebook

According to Scott Morrison, Gladys Liu is the most innocent of innocent bystanders – a naive and trusting citizen, embroiled in a brutal conspiracy engineered by the evil inquisitors of the Labor Party.

The worst that can be said is that she stumbled (or more likely was entrapped) during an interview in which she was a little clumsy about her relationship with Chinese Communist Party–associated bodies working in Australia. But she has issued a statement (or had it issued for her) clearing all that up, so nothing to see here.

What’s more, she used to run restaurants and a pharmacy, and plays the trombone. Gladys Liu is a great Australian, so all together now, once more with feeling – how good is Gladys Liu?

Well, not quite as good as ScoMo’s fulsome tribute suggests. Far from being a hapless victim, Liu is a savvy and experienced political operative, and has been years. She sought Liberal preselection a number of times, and perhaps more importantly has been an energetic and highly successful fundraiser, reportedly delivering more than a million dollars to her grateful party, even if some of that may not have been properly disclosed.

As chairperson of the Victorian Liberal Party’s Eastern Multicultural Branch, she sought to ease investment rules to allow more scope for foreign investment in Australian agriculture. There have been reports, which have not been denied, that ASIO has investigated her links with Beijing.

None of this makes her in any way disloyal, but it does prompt legitimate queries over her suitability to be a member of the federal parliament – after all, others have faced similar scrutiny and in some cases have been forced to step down. And, initially at least, all Labor sought to do was to have Liu give a coherent explanation to the House of her position.

Morrison would have none of it, and, when he could not brush the problem away, played the race card: Liu was being subjected to a grubby smear campaign that wouldn’t have happened were she not Chinese, and as a result Labor’s campaign was an attack on the entire Chinese-Australian community.

Unsurprisingly, Labor hit back: it was Morrison who invoked race, they said. When a reporter asked Morrison to explain why it was racist for Labor to question Liu’s connections to China, but not racist for Scott Morrison to call Sam Dastyari (who eventually resigned amid growing concern over his links to China) “Shanghai Sam”, Morrison, as is his wont, denied ever having done so, despite it being an easily demonstrable fact.

All of this was diversion, distraction, prevarication – of course. But it worked. By being lured into Morrison’s chosen ground, Labor had lost the argument. If Morrison is good at anything (and there is not much, but one thing’s enough) he is the undisputed master of spin, the great practitioner of evasion and deception.

The debate is no longer about what Liu may or may not have done; it is about whether her interrogators are xenophobic, even racist. They are not, and even some of Morrison’s closest allies – think Andrew Bolt – believe that Liu still faces questions that should be answered.

But they won’t be: Morrison has the numbers. How good is that?

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

Read on

Image from ‘Ad Astra’

Interplanetary, mostly ordinary: James Gray’s ‘Ad Astra’

Brad Pitt’s interstellar family-therapy odyssey struggles with earthbound sentiment

Image of ‘Sachiko’ my Miwa Yanagi

‘Here We Are’ at the Art Gallery of NSW

An opportunity for rethinking the position of women in contemporary art

Image from ‘Blanco en Blanco’

Venice International Film Festival 2019

Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

Image from ‘Animals’

Girls, interrupted: Sophie Hyde’s ‘Animals’

This untamed depiction of female friendship moves beyond basic binaries of freedom and control


Venice International Film Festival 2019
Théo Court’s masterful ‘Blanco en Blanco’ is a bright point in a largely lacklustre line-up

Blanco en Blanco. Image courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia

The official area of the Venice Film Festival, on the Lido, is ringed by a perimeter of staggered traffic blockades; such are the times in which we live. To gain access, one must pass through one of three checkpoints, manned by uniformed guards who would, for most of the event, glance briefly into one’s bag and make perfunctory gestures with metal detectors, before waving one through.

Three days before the end of the festival, however, the mood turned, and I arrived early in the morning to find a long queue of restless attendees and a level of security more suited to an El Al flight. My bag was searched, and my badge scrutinised. Was the person in the photo me? Really? Then why did I suddenly have hair, when in the photo my head was shaved? “Show me your papers,” the guard said coldly. A little way off, a crowd of nearly identical-looking carabinieri stood watching the queue and nursing semiautomatics, their eyes hidden behind dark glasses. It was annoying, sure, but also several orders of magnitude more exciting than most of what we were seeing onscreen.

Had they been tipped off to something? It seemed an odd time for a terrorist attack. The event was winding down: most buyers and critics had decamped to Toronto, the next stop on the festival calendar. Timothée Chalamet had gone – and Robert Pattinson, arguably the program’s biggest draw, had never turned up. Any action would take out only poor suckers like me, determined to catch every last entry in the hope of being delighted, even if only for a few hours. But as with so much else in Italy, the answers were never forthcoming.

It had opened, seven days earlier, with La Vérité, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first production outside his native Japan. Starring Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche (and a visibly befuddled Ethan Hawke as the latter’s husband), it finds the usually dependable director floundering. Absent the penetrating eye of his best socio-realist work – Nobody Knows (2004) and last year’s Palme d’Or winner, Shoplifters – and devoid of the beauty and mystery of Maborosi (1995) – his first fiction film, and his best – it settles into a kind of drab middle-ground, playing at times like a “French movie” made by someone who’d watched a lot of them, but might never have actually visited Paris.

The plot, confusingly, seems drawn from real life: Deneuve plays… well, herself: a distinguished grand dame of the French screen; Binoche is her daughter, a screenwriter. But the publication of maman’s memoirs occasions family hostility, much of it to do with a long-dead rival, Sarah, generally considered the more talented of the two; as such, Sarah seems uncomfortably reminiscent of Deneuve’s own sister, Françoise Dorléac, who died in a car accident in 1967, aged just 25. The characters talk a lot. They drink wine. There’s an unforgivably bad scene where they all waltz in a town square, while a trio of “local musicians” plays. Ah, la belle France! I felt particularly sorry for Hawke, who wears an expression of mild panic throughout, and spends most of the film outdoors, playing with their child, while the adults inside get on with things.

Swedish auteur Roy Andersson made a surprising return with About Endlessness – an unnecessary addition to the trilogy that made his name: Songs From the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007) and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, which won the Gold Lion here in 2014. A series of sketches, like those films, it offers up another helping of his sad, absurdist comedy, this time to distinctly meagre effect. He’s had five years since his last film – and this was all he’d come up with? This lame string of failed bits? The jokes aren’t funny enough, the insights not acute enough, the sense of existential despair (Andersson’s preferred register) not nearly deep or unnerving enough.

Intended as a commentary on the infinite – its terrors and wonders – it becomes little more than a demonstration of his signature visual style: the meticulously constructed sets, the dreamlike lighting (so evenly dispersed that radiance seems to hang in the air like fog, leaving no shadows anywhere), the diagonal compositions. Running just 78 minutes, it at least honours its theme in this one respect, feeling every bit as endless as a bad stand-up set.

I found Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story programmatic and overlong, far less satisfying than his last film, The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) – though it didn’t lack for admirers on the Lido. Billed as an even-handed study of a marriage’s dissolution, and reportedly inspired by the filmmaker’s acrimonious break-up with Jennifer Jason Leigh, it actually comes down far harder on the wife than her husband (whose point-of-view we mostly occupy), and neatly exculpates the act of infidelity, on the husband’s part, that led to the break. (Baumbach has consistently denied rumours that he had an extra-marital affair with his now-partner, Greta Gerwig.) As the warring couple, Adam Driver and Scarlet Johansson are both good, though neither is quite as electrifying as Dustin Hoffman was in Meyerowitz. Only a sequence late in the film, when Driver, in a bar with some friends, launches into an impromptu, surprisingly accomplished rendition of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”, feels truly cinematic or surprising.

For much of its duration, I had a quarrelsome relationship with Ema, the latest feature from Chile’s Pablo Larraín, a director I mostly admire. Constructed as a series of tableaux, its brief, mostly enigmatic scenes at times feel reminiscent of Jackie (2016), the Natalie Portman vehicle that is by some margin his least successful film. Ema (Mariana Di Girólamo) is a bisexual reggaeton dancer with a skanky hairdo and a faintly malevolent air; Larráin, clearly smitten by his leading lady, lets his camera linger on her, whether naked or clothed, with a rapturous, almost holy fascination.

Fragments of domestic drama (mostly to do with Ema’s break-up with her husband and artistic director, played by Gael García Bernal, her attempt to regain custody of their allegedly disturbed son, and her seduction of an older female lawyer) bump up against excerpts from her dance performances, many of which are stunning. The tone, though, remains consistently chilly, distant; I admired its craftsmanship, even as I wondered what the hell was happening. But in the final half-hour, following a kind of multi-stage pansexual orgy that unites the various strands of the narrative, the pieces of this puzzle begin to lock together, until finally the film reveals itself to be less an art installation (as I had first suspected) than a pitch-black comedy in the register of Buñuel and Lanthimos. Minor Larráin, perhaps – but still several times smarter than most filmmakers at their best.

Polanski’s J’accuse (AKA An Officer and a Spy, a retelling of L’affaire Dreyfus) is immaculately crafted, slightly dull and utterly anonymous, lacking any discernible trace of its maker’s personality or preoccupations. Worse still, apart from Louis Garrel’s bracingly unsympathetic portrayal of Dreyfus, it adds precisely nothing to either our understanding of that case, or to the three screen versions that have preceded it. None of which stopped it walking away with the Grand Jury Prize.

Beside Atom Egoyan’s entry, however, it is a towering masterpiece. Guest of Honour represents yet another chapter in the extraordinary decline of this once-acclaimed filmmaker. Playing like a remix of his older, better films – the scrambled chronology of Exotica (1994), the mundane work-drama of The Adjuster (1991), the multiple framing devices of The Sweet Hereafter (1997) – it only serves to illustrate how far he’s fallen. The direction was workmanlike, but the writing is little short of execrable, one of those “well-made” scripts where every element must fold neatly into every other, until you have a hermetic, entirely artificial construct, one in which no trace of actual life is allowed to intrude. It’s ironic, since Egoyan is clearly at pains to make naturalistic dramas set in a recognisably “real” world – yet every detail he fills in only adds to their contrivance.

James Gray’s Ad Astra, by comparison, was merely a disappointment – confused, irresolute, and so lackadaisical with the laws of physics as to make High Life look like Apollo 13. (Shout-out to the New York–based critic who hails it as being “as realistic as space futurism gets” – always nice to see someone demonstrably stupider at the physical sciences than myself.) And Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network was just befuddling. A dull would-be thriller about the Cuban Five, sent to America by Fidel Castro to infiltrate anti-Cuba terrorist groups in the US, it plays like a third-rate Netflix drama that has been cut down, apparently at random, to feature-length. Characters appear suddenly and vanish, storylines seem to skip a beat or two… Surely, I thought as I watched, he hadn’t written this? It felt like a job-for-hire. But no, there he was in the credits: sole screenwriter. Go figure.

The two best films I saw were polar opposites: from Hollywood, Todd Phillips’s Joker (which shocked pretty much everybody by taking the Golden Lion for Best Film, but since I’m reviewing it in next month’s issue of The Monthly, I’ll refrain from discussing it here), and Blanco en Blanco, by Chilean director Théo Court, screening out of Competition in the Orizzonti section, for which he earned a well-deserved Best Director prize. That it stars the great Alfredo Castro – I think my favourite working actor – was a bonus. (As a colleague remarked afterwards, just seeing Castro’s name in the credits guarantees a film will be at least 20 per cent better than it might otherwise have been.)

In this one, set in the early 1900s, he plays Pedro, a photographer who has been summoned from Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego to photograph the wedding of one Mr Porter, a wealthy landowner. But when he arrives, there’s no sign of his patron – who, in a nod to Kafka’s The Castle, remains unseen and inaccessible throughout – and the bride-to-be is revealed to be a recessive, rather frightened 12-year-old girl.

The photographer quickly becomes obsessed with her, but his fascination, we learn, is less sexual than aesthetic. An artist, he’s preoccupied by an almost Keatsian equation of the beautiful with the true; outside this formulation, everything else is irrelevant. Setting up his first shot of the girl, he repeatedly asks her governess if there’s more light available – there isn’t – and the insistence of this question prefigures his own journey into darkness, as he continues to photograph her. All the while ignoring the genocide going on around him.

Beaten for these transgressions on the orders of the still-absent Mr Porter, and with no way of either fulfilling his official duties or escaping the island (boats off the archipelago are few and far between), Pedro succumbs slowly to the madness that has already claimed the property’s German foreman, played vigorously by Lars Rudolph. Soon he’s taking part in one of the colonists’ forays against the indigenous inhabitants – whose slaughter, typically, he attempts to somehow render “beautiful”, fussily adjusting and re-adjusting the position of their bodies in the frame of his camera.

Classical in form, but imbued with distinctly postmodern themes – the legacy of colonialism, the social responsibility of art – and making breathtaking use of the stunning, desolate landscapes of the region, this chilly study of self-delusion is as masterful as anything I’ve seen in recent years. Like Portugal’s Pedro Costa, Court is a poet of darkness, more comfortable in the shadows than in daylight. What he uncovers there is darker still: a vision of pitiless cruelty, greed and indifference. Reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, this is a great film.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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Revelations today that embattled Member for Chisholm Gladys Liu failed [$] to declare a $39,675 donation to the Liberal Party’s Victorian division three years ago have contributed to the already considerable controversy surrounding her. Depending on the lens you’re using, Liu is either a potential agent of foreign influence or a victim of a “grubby” partisan attack that verges on racist.

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