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Movies, minus the popcorn

A series of close-ups of women at the cinema is intriguing, but hardly great art

Shirin (PG)
dir: Abbas Kiarostami

Rudo y Cursi (15)
dir: Carlos Cuarón

Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin is comprised entirely of close-ups of women as they sit in a cinema watching a film based on a 12th-century Persian poem about two ill-fated lovers. We can hear the other film throughout – the dialogue and music, the galloping hooves and clanging swords, and a dripping noise that may be a comment on inadequate plumbing in Iranian cinemas. But all we see is the women, their faces framed by headscarves, staring out at us. They are Iranian actors, with the glaring exception of Juliette Binoche, who, rumour has it, wandered in by mistake after buying a ticket for Dude, Where’s My Car?.

Why the focus on women? “Because women are more beautiful, complicated and sensational,” according to the director. “Being in love is part of their definition.” I’ve never bought the claims for Kiarostami as an innovator. (Anything he can do, Andy Warhol did better.) And his insistence on coming out with guff like that, which could have been lifted straight from a Paulo Coelho novel, doesn’t help.

But if Shirin is not a great film, it is a great DIY film – an experience where the level of stimulation you get corresponds precisely to the extent of your input. Prolonged exposure to the women’s faces leads you to speculate, say, on why this viewer averted her gaze solemnly during one scene, or why that one’s facial muscles seem to stiffen at the line, “Haven’t I suffered enough?” (The film errs on the side of explicitness only once, showing a bruised face partly hidden by a Chinatown bandage.)

If you go with it, you can find you’ve mapped out in your head some entertaining backstories for these women which should entitle you to a cut of the box-office takings, or at the very least a co-writing credit. Despite the contemplative mood of the picture, it sometimes feels like a more highbrow version of Yoko Ono’s No 4 aka Bottoms. (Kiarostami could have called his film Tops.) There’s something prissy and bourgeois, too, about its idealised image of public cinema-going: no unhinged figures disrupting the film by rummaging noisily in a plastic bag full of spanners, no trilling mobile phones answered with the inevitable response of: “I’m in the cinema, innit.”

And where’s all the popcorn? Going to the movies in the early 21st century is nothing like attending church, even for those of us who worship film. When it comes to authenticity, Shirin has nothing on Gremlins, where our on-screen surrogates are petulant demons, tearing up the auditorium like 1970s punks at the Screen on the Green in north London, or the recent Tony Manero, in which an audience member expresses
his disgust at Grease by murdering the projectionist. (We’ve all been there.)

With his debut picture, Rudo y Cursi, Carlos Cuarón arrives flanked by the film-making equivalent of those intimidating posses that clog up the VIP sections of nightclubs. The cast is headed by Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, the likely lads last seen together in Y tu mamá también. That was directed by Cuarón’s elder brother Alfonso, who serves here as producer, alongside the other big guns of Mexican cinema, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu. With that kind of clout, it’s a pleasant surprise to find the film itself is a rather modest, jolly affair.

The title means “tough and corny” but the film is neither. It’s a comedy that knows when to get serious. It wears its ruminations on fate lightly, but it wears them all the same.

Beto (Luna) and Tato (Bernal) are poor half-brothers who are spotted playing football by a talent scout and propelled into the professional soccer league in Mexico City. For all the goofiness of its heroes, this is a flatly unromantic take on the sporting life, all homoerotic initiation rites and five-to-a-room boarding. Even the most broadly comic scenes, arising from Tato’s inability to handle fame and adoration with dignity, are shot through with melancholy, and not just because it’s too late now for Cristiano Ronaldo to learn from them.

Gradually the picture reveals itself also to be a witty homage. It has a dry, knowing narrator; gambling plays a big part in the plot; and one character loses a leg by the end of the film. If Rudo y Cursi isn’t a minor Mexican Barry Lyndon, then Ronaldo is Portuguese for “humility”.

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 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide