Have we met before? The mutable Oscar Isaac.
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Welcome to Oscar season — Oscar Isaac season, that is

Oscar Isaac exploits his unique charisma and mutable appearance in two of the biggest films released this awards season.

A Most Violent Year (15)
dir: J C Chandor

Ex Machina (15)
dir: Alex Garland

I’m a sucker for Oscar season. Oscar Isaac season, that is. When I failed to recognise him last year in Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January it occurred to me that this Lonely Planet compendium of a man (he has Cuban, Guatemalan, French and Israeli branches in his family tree) might be a born star. In that sun-kissed Patricia Highsmith adaptation, it was tantalisingly unclear whether his true designs were on a chirpy young bride or her shady older husband. Where had this matinee idol sprung from? It was as though the film-makers had travelled back in time and kidnapped Ramon Novarro.

I’d seen Isaac only a few months earlier in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. He looked entirely different with his inky beard and his curls like black lianas; his sleepwalking presence as a forlorn folk minstrel was spellbinding. The magic is in those coolly insinuating eyes, not so much “Come to bed” as: “Come back to bed, we haven’t finished yet.”

It transpires that Oscar Isaac amnesia is a common ailment. At the premiere in Cannes of the Coens’ film, reporters wondered if he was a real folk singer. All memory of him as a smouldering jailbird in Drive had been erased. (His turn as a piano-playing security guard in Madonna’s WE had also been forgotten, which was probably a blessing.) Now Isaac has arrived, as proven by his presence in two new films and the next instalments of X-Men and Star Wars. But do the movies know what to do with him?

The answer, in A Most Violent Year, is: sort of. He plays Abel Morales, an immigrant businessman whose rise as New York City’s leading fuel supplier in the early 1980s is threatened by competitors. His drivers are being ambushed and his fuel stolen. Still he never raises his voice above a soothing rumble. Stalking the concrete plains of the city’s waterfront, all weeds and warehouses and crumbling walls, Abel is like a magnificent lion in his desert-coloured, box-shouldered camel-hair coat. What a pity that his pronouncements – “I like to own the things I use”; “I will not allow the weaknesses of others to affect me” – make him sound like a capitalist fortune cookie.

Imagine a New York version of The Long Good Friday and you’ll have some idea of where the plot is heading. Jessica Chastain, as Abel’s brassy mobster wife, even seems to be channelling Helen Mirren. Unfortunately, the writer-director, J C Chandor, extinguishes drama at every opportunity. When he isn’t resorting to ponderous wide shots of men exchanging briefcases under the gaze of the grey Manhattan skyline, he is filling the screen with tasteful images of the Morales family home; this tale of crime, corruption and soft furnishings resembles a Sunday-supplement Scorsese. Abel has two young daughters who pop up only when the plot needs them (one finds a loaded gun; the other has her birthday party interrupted by police) but there’s not a toy to be seen in the house. These lives don’t look lived-in.

A Most Violent Year draws any potency it has from its leading man. His strongest scene, when Abel is teaching the sales team to captivate customers (“Hold the eye contact longer than you’d like – you see what happens”), is like an Oscar Isaac acting masterclass. Ex Machina also exploits his unique charisma and mutable appearance. He swaps Abel’s sleek hair helmet for a shaved head and a beard like a hairy nosebag; his face seems to be on upside-down.

Isaac plays Nathan, a billionaire who is developing artificial intelligence at his remote mountain hideaway. He invites a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend time with his synthetic creation (Alicia Vikander), to determine if she can pass for human. There are sweeping helicopter shots and chic cinematography but this three-hander isn’t cinema: it’s a Ted talk shot in a boutique hotel, with ideas about consciousness and evolution itemised rather than dramatised. Isaac delivers a detailed study in derangement, whether breaking into a dance routine or experiencing perverse delight as the megabytes hit the fan (“This is fucking unreal!”). But if it’s complex female characters you want, stick with the Fembots from Austin Powers.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Europe’s last Blairite: Can Manuel Valls win the French presidency?

He first made a name for himself protesting against halal supermarkets. Now, he could be the man to take down François Hollande.

The election of François Hollande as the president of France in 2012 coincided with the high-water mark of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. That year, Labour posted its best local election results in 17 years, gaining 823 councillors and winning control of 32 councils in a performance that has not yet been surpassed or equalled.

Gazing across the Channel, the Milibandites were given hope. Hollande showed that a wonkish career politician could triumph over a charismatic centre-right incumbent.

The UK’s shattered Blairites looked to a different star rising in French politics: Manuel Valls. At the time of Hollande’s victory, Valls was the mayor of Évry, a small suburb of Paris, where he made a name for himself by campaigning against halal supermarkets.

His father, Xavier, was a Spanish painter and his mother, Luisangela, was Swiss-Italian. They met and married in Paris, and Valls was born in Barcelona while the couple were on holiday.

In 2009 Valls urged the Parti Socialiste (PS) to drop the adjective “socialist” from its name, and he ran for the presidential nomination two years later on what he described as a Blairiste platform. This included scrapping the 35-hour working week, which hardly applies outside of big business and the public sector but carries symbolic weight for the French left. Valls’s programme found few supporters and he came fifth in a field of six, with just 6 per cent of the vote.

Yet this was enough to earn him the post of interior minister under Hollande. While Valls’s boss quickly fell from favour – within six months Hollande’s approval ratings had dropped to 36 per cent, thanks to a budget that combined tax rises with deep spending cuts – his own popularity soared.

He may have run as an heir to Blair but his popularity in France benefited from a series of remarks that were closer in tone to Ukip’s Nigel Farage. When he said that most Romany gypsies should be sent “back to the borders”, he was condemned by both his activists and Amnesty International. Yet it also boosted his approval ratings.

One of the facets of French politics that reliably confuse outsiders is how anti-Islamic sentiment is common across the left-right divide. Direct comparisons with the ideological terrain of Westminster politics are often unhelpful. For instance, Valls supported the attempt to ban the burkini, saying in August, “Marianne [the French symbol] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”

By the spring of 2014, he was still frequently topping the charts – at least in terms of personal appeal. A survey for French Elle found that 20 per cent of women would like to have “a torrid affair” with the lantern-jawed minister, something that pleased his second wife, Anne Gravoin, who pronounced herself “delighted” with the poll. (She married Valls in 2010. He also has four children by his first wife, Nathalie Soulié.)

Yet it was a chilly time for the French left, which was sharply repudiated in municipal elections, losing 155 towns. Hollande sacked his incumbent prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appointed Valls in his place. He hoped, perhaps, that some of Valls’s popularity would rub off on to him.

And perhaps Valls, a student of “Third Way” politics, hoped that he could emulate the success of Bill Clinton, who turned sharply to the right following Democratic losses in the US 1994 midterm elections and won a great victory in 1996. Under Valls’s premiership, Hollande’s administration swung right, implementing tough policies on law and order and pursuing supply-side reforms in an attempt to revive the French economy. Neither the economic recovery, nor the great victory, emerged.

With the date of the next presidential election set for 2017, Hollande was in trouble. His approval ratings were terrible and he faced a challenge from his former minister Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned from the government over its rightward turn in 2014.

Then, on 27 November, Prime Minister Valls suggested in an interview that he would challenge the incumbent president in the PS primary. After this, Hollande knew that his chances of victory were almost non-existent.

On 1 December, Hollande became the first incumbent French president ever to announce that he would not run for a second term, leaving Valls free to announce his bid. He duly stood down as prime minister on 5 December.

Under the French system, unless a single candidate can secure more than half of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, the top two candidates face a run-off. The current polls rate Marine Le Pen of the Front National as the favourite to win the first round, but she is expected to lose the second.

Few expect a PS candidate to make the run-off. So Hollande’s decision to drop out of his party’s primary turns that contest into an internal struggle for dominance rather than a choice of potential leader for France. The deeper question is: who will rebuild the party from the wreckage?

So although Valls has the highest international profile of the left’s candidates, no one should rule out a repeat of his crushing defeat in 2011.

He once hoped to strike a Blairite bargain with the left: victory in exchange for heresy. Because of the wasting effect of his years in Hollande’s government, however, he now offers only heresy. It would not be a surprise if the Socialists preferred the purity of Arnaud Montebourg. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump