Well, THIS was a revelation! One of the best films I’ve seen, and that only because it looked interesting on Mark Cousins’ Story of Film that we rented the DVD.
Milos Forman’s last Czech film before moving to Hollywood, this has a claim to be his finest film, surely? It’s a good-hearted but fairly black comedy set in a small town where the Firemen are preparing their annual ball, in which they are going to honour their honorary president, carry out a beauty pageant, and hold a raffle for good causes. Unfortunately, the young women don’t want to take part in the pageant and the prizes keep disappearing. And the president of their association is dying of cancer, though nobody is allowed to tell him.
This film is very funny, sometimes moving and sometimes savagely ironic about the bureaucracy the townspeople have to endure though it doesn’t lose track of the fact that these are firemen, and can be brave when required, even if they lack the means to be an effective firefighting crew – there is a scene of terrible sadness when the firemen can do little but get someone out of his house and then watch it burn.
The story follows mostly mundane people in a dreary setting but the movie itself is never mundane or boring. It’s brought to life by a properly cinematic way of storytelling, with understated acting and tremendous camera-work (some of the tracking shots following characters through the crowds are stunning) keeping everything ticking along. Probably my standout film of the year, even if was made before I’d started nursery.
The critical reaction I’d seen going into this film was a little disconcerting: a love/hate film about self-absorbed, smug ‘beautiful people’, bo-ho Manhattanites worrying about their artistic futures and their relationships with one another. It sounds an easy film to hate, and I can easily believe that many people will, but it won me over.
It is the story of Frances (Greta Gerwig), an apprentice dancer with a New York contemporary dance company reaching the age (late 20s) where she really needs to either break into the company proper or find a ‘real’ job. All she wants to do is dance and she is not willing to give up her dreams. At this crucial point in her career, her flatmate and best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) drops the bombshell that she wants to move out to share with someone else, as a flat has come up in a much better part of town, leaving Frances trying to find another affordable place to live. She ends up sharing with two rich kids on parents’ money, Lev and Benji (Adam Driver and Michael Zegen), struggling to make enough money to pay the rent until the Christmas season comes round and, she hopes, a job to see her through the holiday period. At this point, Frances’ world starts to fall apart as she falls out with Sophie, who moves out of the country with a new partner, loses her apartment again, and whose dreams of a dance career look to be collapsing.
Filmed in black and white, it looks beautiful – Manhattan seems curiously better filmed this way – and I wonder if there was a deliberate echo of Woody Allen, though it’s also been compared to Annie Hall. And there was enough self-awareness that the relative ease of the characters and the not-exactly-life-or-death nature of their problems wasn’t a deal-breaker for me; at one point, Benji upbraids Frances for complaining of her poverty, reminding her that she is not really poor, just struggling to attain the lifestyle she wants. I suppose that, to like this film, you really have to like Frances and, for all her faults (and the film doesn’t shy from showing us them) I did fall in love with her a little.
This is a billed as a ‘comedy’, though the end is a touch bittersweet and melancholy as Frances is forced to grow up a little and compromise her ideals – and all the better for that.