Daphne(4 / 5)
The feature debut of filmmaker Peter Mackie Burns, Daphne isn’t so much about finding yourself as just figuring out you’re lost.
Daphne (Emily Beecham) is a stylishly insouciant redhead in her early thirties, living and working in contemporary London.
She gets drunk on a nightly basis and hooks up with random guys. She owns a pet snake named Scratch, presumably as in “Old”; gets a giggle out of reading Slavoj Žižek; and has a live-and-let-live relationship with her local food delivery guy. She also has a difficult relationship with her posh, recently spiritual mother (a coolly disapproving Geraldine James; playing for empathy rather than laughs), whose calls Daphne screens, but who nevertheless makes a habit of popping by announced.
Daphne tries, knowingly or otherwise, to move through life without commitments. She rebuffs the cheery attentions of would-be boyfriend David (Nathaniel Martello-White) in favour of hanging out with her boss Joe (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), sharing a cigarette or the occasional French delicacy. She’s self-aware enough to know how empty her day-to-day existence is, but too smart to get drawn in to. A visit to the shrink (Stuart McQuarrie) is more likely to lead to a manically flippant commentary on the contents of his bookshelf than any soul-searching.
However, after she’s made bystander to a violent crime, Daphne is shaken up enough to reluctantly begin to acknowledge that her life is not what she wants it to be. Will that be enough, though, to cause her to change her ways? Based on their 2013 short film Happy Birthday to Me, Burns and Beecham, along with writer Nico Mensiga, manage to craft a low-key, 87-minute character study that should feel profoundly relatable to anyone who’s ever suspected they might be wasting their time.
Daphne may not be “sympathetic” – she’s directionless, dysfunctional, self-absorbed, and almost certainly a pain to know – but her fucked-upped-ness feels, crucially, authentic; largely thanks to Beecham’s lively, charismatic performance. There’s always the gleam of a challenge, the half-ironic ghost of a smirk; even when her shields are down. There’s an added familiarity for the London crowd, too; the city showcased in, for instance, a rainy midnight bus ride through Elephant & Castle – all caught with soft-eyed intensity by cinematographer Adam Scarth.
In tune with a generation of middle-class Millennials, stuck in dead-end jobs, cynically seeking short-term pleasures at the cost of any future prospects, Daphne is about getting over yourself, making the best of it, and finding quiet contentment, however briefly, in other people.
Final Portrait(4 / 5)
The fifth directorial effort of Stanley Tucci, Final Portrait is one of those rare films where, for a short time, form and content are in perfect and subtle accordance.
Armie Hammer stars as James Lord, a reputable, impeccably attired American author who, during a visit to Paris in the mid-1960s, sat for Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush).
Lord might be the subject of the eponymous portrait, but its Rush’s Giacometti who is the study of the film. A rumpled, bushy-haired neurotic who states offhandedly that the task at hand, portraiture, is impossible and meaningless – and anyway made redundant by the invention of the camera – the process of creation is understandably agonising for him; and by extension for Lord. What seems at first the work of a few days becomes a process of waiting that Godot himself couldn’t countenance. Lord’s return to The States is repeatedly rescheduled, his life there left on hold; his partner growing decreasingly sympathetic with each phone call.
Though the film strays often into the brightly-lit bars and cobbled thoroughfares of Montparnasse – their daily walks in the graveyard provide Lord and Giacometti with a chance to discuss the broader philosophy of art – Final Portrait would work just as well confined to Giacometti’s studio. As a space, it feels almost industrial: the floor concrete; the walls rough and unpainted, smeared grey with faded charcoal sketches; the space itself crowded with worn furniture, paintings; spindly human figures and Brutalist busts.
This is not to say that the Final Portrait would be better served as a stage-play: the ability of film to convey vision, specifically Giacometti’s, is vital. Even as Giacometti and Lord achieve an uneasy symbiosis – the slightest shift of Lord’s gaze can disrupt a day’s work – so Tucci’s camera aligns itself with the artist; subtly cropping the top of Lord’s head or elegantly picking out features to suggest the complexity of the individual, of any individual, the human form, that is Giacometti’s chosen subject.
Sometimes Giacometti will experience sudden inspiration, adding a few simple strokes whose provenance he cannot explain and yet add something indefinable to the piece. Another time, in a fit of piqué, he burns a handful of old sketches that cannot be made into lithographs as he intended – and, in the process, a few that could have been. Too often Lord is witness to the destructive element of Giacometti’s process and must sit by, immobile, as this man to whom he has entrusted so much time despairingly cry “Fuck it” and reaches for the grey brush, obliterating the detail, the complex shadowing and hatching, it’s taken so long to assemble. You feel like Lord could spend the rest of his life here were it not for the inevitable changes the ageing process would wreak.
Tucci’s script presents Giacometti as demanding, selfish, cantankerous: taking Lord for granted – albeit mildly so; neglectful, sometimes cruelly, of his wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) and her meagre needs while all too willing to fulfil those of the vivacious Caroline (Clemence Poesy), with whom he is besotted. Annette must plead for a second coat; to Caroline, he gives a convertible. This despite the constant influx of cash Giacometti receives from his work; impulsively hidden in bundles around his studio.
The film never gets to the heart of Giacometti’s obsession with Caroline, but achieve a moment of profound connection between the two, which Lord can only passively observe. Only Alberto’s older brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub), gently stoic and bemused, seems to be able to predict his behaviour; to maybe break the cycle of creation and destruction that threatens to keep Lord an – albeit voluntary – prisoner.
Final Portrait grapples obscurely with themes no less grand than the potential of art to create meaning, to focus the world into an object or image, and how maddening and futile the process can be. Danny Cohen’s crisp, washed-out cinematography, though slightly flat, compliments the state of limbo in which the two men finds themselves; which is kept buoyant by Evan Lurie’s light, accordion-aided score.
If the film’s open ending is unsatisfying, it is, to reference Giacometti’s preferred mode of existence, perfectly unsatisfying.