Cinema on demand: the top five places to watch new films online

Cinema is dead, long live cinema!

The second most famous line in Sunset Boulevard comes near the beginning. Joe Gillis has broken down and is looking for help with his car. He pulls into the garage outside a seemingly empty mansion, where he is assumed to be an undertaker by the Miss Havisham-like figure lurking inside. She is wrapped up in a leopard print robe and hides behind dark glasses. Gillis turns to leave. "Wait a minute, have I seen you before?" he says. "Get out!" the woman commands. "You used to be in silent pictures, you’re Norma Desmond! You used to be big.” Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, straightens her back and lowers her gaze. “I am big,” she informs him. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

She was right. Today many of us are as familiar with watching movies on a tiny laptop, mobile phone or tablet screen as with going to the cinema. You can order DVDs through the post, download new releases legally from iTunes or stream on demand from a growing number of back catalogues online. The model that held following the advent of video – cinematic release, home release, television – has broken down. With House of Cards and Arrested Development being funded and released simultaneously on Netflix, what reason is there to stop movies being produced in the same way? While mammoth international releases are unlikely to relinquish their box office potential; small, independent productions limited to big city art houses, are taking advantage of the potential for immediate release online.

A contemporary example. The German film Lore is currently on limited release, mainly in independent and specialist cinemas. Its distributor, Artificial Eye, is part of the same company that owns the Curzon Cinemas and launched Curzon on Demand last year. Now you have a choice: watch the film at home or at the cinema. This is exciting because it has the potential to provide greater exposure to films – art house, foreign language, short, experimental and documentary films – that would otherwise fail to make it to widespread release.

But what does this mean for film as an art form, cinema as an experience? Squinting in the dark, listening to baseless audio and leaving poor Joe Gillis floating in the pool while your broadband buffers itself stupid, or worse, you are subjected to adverts - is this really the way we want to watch films? The jury is out and the precise direction of simultaneous distribution is unclear. Below are five of the most interesting services available in the UK, each approaching on-demand viewing in their own way. The list is by no means exhaustive, so let us know of any (legal) alternatives below.

The most famous line from Sunset Boulevard comes at the end. Norma is lost to her cinematic delusions. The times have changed and so have the pictures. “All right, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up," she announces to the camera. She's not alone.

Curzon on Demand

Currently available online and on Apple devices, Curzon on Demand works much like a bespoke iTunes for independent cinema fans. New releases cost £10 (£9 for Curzon members) and viewers are provided HD streaming for seven days. Because CoD isn’t a subscription service, there is no free trial. Because they are connected to Artificial Eye, arguably the finest selection of independent and foreign films released in the UK rests at your finger tips, for £3 or £4 a pop.

HBO UK

In Britain we have are used to receiving light versions of successful US services. A number of companies (Xfinity and Hulu, for example) have designs upon the UK market, but like Netflix before them, are likely to encounter licensing and pricing difficulties. In the States, the cable TV provider HBO (aside from providing box sets in advance at the rate of one episode a week) is responsible for producing feature-length television dramas and high quality documentaries. They have a little-known British cousin: HBO UK. Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God was made for HBO, and is available to stream online in the US, while on at a small number of cinemas in the UK.

Mubi

Mubi has existed in various forms since 2008. The Turkish-born entrepreneur Efe Cakarel decided that given so many people were already watching films online, there had to be a way to “monetise” the phenomenon. In its current form, Mubi offers users a new film every day, available to stream for one month, curated by the company’s editorial team. They also run a neat digital film magazine, Notebook, which keeps users up to date on film news, and explains the rationale behind their selections. For example, We Have a Pope became available when the current pontiff announced he was doing a runner, Proud to be British kicks off a Nick Broomfield retrospective, and Martin Scorsese’s personal account of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy, was made available to coincide with the general election. The service costs £2.99 per month, a price which is liable to rise, but you can get a free month here.

Blinkbox

Tesco entered the online streaming bizz in 2011 when it bought a majority share in video-on-demand service Blinkbox. The service attempts to rival iTunes by offering a massive array of TV shows and movies priced between 99p and £3.49. Interestingly, it also offers a number for free, with adverts spliced into the heart of the action 4od or SkyGo style. It does not offer the same video quality and easy of use iTunes does (particularly for Mac users), but because it is Tesco, in-store promotions are quite common.

Film4oD

There is a lot of power behind Film4oD. Not only does Film 4 play a large part in distributing a great many British films, their video-on-demand provider FilmFlex is co-owned by Sony Pictures and Disney. As a result, it offers wide-release movies – Skyfall, On the Road, Taken 2 – somewhere between initial launch and DVD/rental release. Among these are excellent indie films which fall into the same category: This is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi, Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio and the superb documentary McCullin. It offers 48-hour online streaming or download options, and films cost up to £3.99. There are no subscription fees and the site is neatly curated. One to watch.

The market for on-demand viewing is in flux. Google, Amazon and Apple all have nascent “instant” or “on demand” services, mostly channelling diverse subscriptions into one place. The Guardian has established a “screening room” which provides content via Distrify, a business which tries to sell premium "content" through already popular sites. The BBC’s iPlayer should not be underestimated. Its films come and go quickly, but there is always something there worth a look.

A still from the film Lore, recently released in cinemas and online.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism