Archive for Terence Stamp

Losey Week Revisited

Posted in FILM, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2020 by dcairns

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I did a week’s deep dive on Joseph Losey, years ago. This is another, larger deleted sequence from the essay I’m working on. Poor Evan Jones got cut, because it was just too sprawling and diffuse.

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Joseph Losey had been forced to leave to avoid testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He would gradually, by talent and sheer force of will, reinvent himself: in America he had specialised in thrillers; in Britain he slowly transformed into a maker of art films, a form which had almost no history in the UK.

But his first collaboration with writer Evan Jones was made for Hammer films. The Damned (1961), AKA These Are the Damned, is often falsely grouped with the sci-fi thriller Village of the Damned (1960) whose success the studio probably wanted to cash in on. In it, a teenage gang’s conflict with a visiting American (the dependably dull MacDonald Carey) brings them into contact with a group of children are kept underground and rendered immune to radiation, primed to take over the world “when the time comes,” as the head of the project says, bears more relation to Losey’s debut The Boy with Green Hair (1947) and his juvenile delinquent picture The Sleeping Tiger (1954).

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Look behind him! It’s The X-Files!

Jones was tasked with adapting H.L. Lawrence’s source novel, The Children of Light after blacklistee Ben Barzman’s legal troubles stalled his progress on the script. Talking to Michel Ciment, Losey sketched out a brief bio of his chosen replacement: “Actually he hadn’t, so far as I can remember, ever worked on a film before. His parents were landowners in Jamaica. He’s milky-coloured, and he makes no secret that his father was black. He was educated at Oxford, I think. His play was pretty strong and dealt with the relationships of a landowner and his peasants in Jamaica. We had a certain political kinship and we got along very well in other respects, too.”

The job had to be done fast: at Losey’s urging, he largely threw out the original story, keeping only the premise. He was still writing until the day before shooting started. It’s a bizarre movie with many dysfunctional elements: disparate plot threads are introduced in haphazard fashion, and the attempts to wrestle with youth culture are terribly square and unconvincing. The sci-fi aspects made Losey very uncomfortable too: he couldn’t believe in them. But somehow a certain stark force is realized: the subterranean children, who are cold to the touch, are a metaphor for both Britain’s public school system (in Britain, for some topsy-turvy reason, private schools are referred to as public schools) and for the populace as a whole: literally kept in the dark. One very effective touch is that rather than building up a single villain in charge of the scheme, Jones emphasizes the team, which includes favorite Losey actors Alexander Knox and James Villiers.

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Though nobody involved can breathe convincing life into the gang of delinquents led by a young Oliver Reed, who has not yet learned to whisper huskily, there are commendable efforts to avoid the tabloid news clichés: Reed’s character is obsessed with protecting his sister’s purity, “…because you’ve never had a girl yourself,” she charges. Losey’s command of visuals was increasing as he found more and more talented collaborators. Here, production designer Richard MacDonald creates frightening and dreamlike caves and classrooms for the little troglodytes, enhanced by  Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures of wingless, decayed birds. “Life has the power to change,” intones Knox, “After the first great explosion, strange, wonderful flowers, unknown before, bloomed in the desert.” The film continually aspires towards poetry, is dragged down by plodding convention, then soars again.

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Arthur Grant’s black-and-white widescreen images are edited by Reginald Mills, who cut Michael Powell’s classics and would go on to cut The Servant (1963, written by Pinter) and King and Country (1964) for Losey. The sound design, dominated by crashing surf, anticipates the roaring breakers that give Losey’s later Boom! (1967) its title (“the shock of each moment of being alive.”)

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Losey was able to make Eve the same year, a true European art film based on a novel by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, a prolific British plagiarist who established a career penning American pulp fiction despite never having been to the States, armed only with a dictionary of slang and a map. The star, Stanley Baker, was Welsh, the son of a coal miner: his stardom anticipated that of later working-class heroes like Connery and Caine. Here he plays a novelist whose book has elevated him into high society, apparently cutting him off from the wellspring of his talent: but in fact he’s an utter fraud, who stole the manuscript from his dead brother. His destructive relationship with the title character, played by Jeanne Moreau, and with the vulnerable Virna Lisi, leads to tragedy.

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Losey hated the book and got Jones to change the setting from Hollywood to Italy, incorporating footage captured at the Venice Film Festival. There’s no sense that this is meant to be a thriller, and the producers were aghast at its running time (168 minutes in Losey’s original cut). But the remaining hard-boiled elements help balance Losey’s tendency to self-serious artiness, resulting in one of his most fully-achieved films, and there’s a much stronger sense that Jones knows the kind of people he’s writing about here (his best character in The Damned is the sculptor played by Viveca Lindfors: Jones feels the strain when called upon to script the inarticulate). He also had a gift for acid camp, here personified by James Villiers as an aloof screenwriter, who protests at a wedding, “Why should an intelligent man like myself be subjected to this kind of tribal ritual?”

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Losey likes stuffing his films with art: the setting of Venice gives him a valid reason to do so. In fact, art is inescapable there. And Baker’s tortured intellectual, self-destructive and lashing out, suits him admirably. The pairing with Jones (blacklistee Hugo Butler also worked on the script) was proving fruitful.

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Next, Jones adapted King and Country (1964) from a radio play written by one of the participants in the true life story it told: during WWI, a private is tried for desertion. It’s a clear case of shell shock, what we now call PTSD, but the court of officers cannot accept that because they daren’t allow any excuse for a soldier not “doing his duty.”

The tiny budget and cramped sets are overcome by Losey putting the focus strongly on his central performances. Dirk Bogarde, his other favorite actor of this period, plays the officer charged with defending Hamp, played by Tom Courtenay. Courtenay, the star of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) is another of the new breed of regional, working-class actors (in his case, Yorkshire) who retained their original accents and introduced a new, understated naturalism. There’s an electrifying contrast with Bogarde, a Rank Organisation matinee idol who successfully rebelled against his image and, like Losey, made the transition to the arthouse, eventually working with Fassbinder, Visconti and Resnais.

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The play had been essentially a transcription from memory of the trial. At Losey’s behest, Jones opened it up to include a mock trial conducted by enlisted men in which a rat, captured from a horse carcass, is prosecuted. Jones wrote this with a good deal of slang which, when combined with regional accents and somewhat difficult studio conditions (the film was originally intended for television and shot in a mere three weeks) result in some difficulties in audibility and comprehension, but this actually enhances the realism.

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Unlike many reflections on the Great War (e.g. the recent 1917), Losey and Jones’ film eschews sentimentality and heroism. It is bitter and angry. The uneducated and traumatized Hamp, who has simply turned away from the guns and tried to walk home, is as guiltless as the rat and equally doomed. What cannot be admitted is that the war is unendurable.

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The final Jones collaboration was regarded at the time as an unmitigated disaster, and is still a film maudit. In fact, in his later career, Losey practically came to specialize in the film maudit, or what John Waters enthusiastically embraces as “the failed art film.” But Modesty Blaise (1966), based on a popular newspaper strip and intended as a parody of the James Bond franchise. It was, on the face of it, an incredible case of directorial miscasting. As Losey’s friend Richard Lester later said, “The last person that would come to mind to produce a movie that fits the adjective ‘zany’ would be Joe Losey.” “Antonioni,” claimed Losey, “said […] that it was ridiculous to try and parody the thing that one was oneself doing.”

Apart from the question of humor, Losey also strongly disapproved of the Bond films’ flippant  “violence for violence’s sake,” an attitude that may seem quaintly prudish today, but it was important to him.

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The resulting film, a pop art/op art pastiche based around nothing of any importance, is very attractive and, on paper, very funny. Jones was particularly successful at writing a camp villain for Dirk Bogarde to play with bleached blond hair, getting ironically overwrought about innocent lives wasted. “A father of two children, probably with a split-levek house in Woking, and a rubber plant in the lounge. Why can’t they be bachelors?!” At its best it hits a tone not elsewhere attempted and hard to pin down. When leads Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp abruptly burst into song (the film is not otherwise a musical and neither of them can really sing) the movie is not fracturing its own approach, it’s fulfilling it.

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But part of the oddness is Losey’s approach and pacing, with his circling tracking shots which had now become a trademark: it moves like an arthouse drama, leaving way too much air around the witty dialogue. If you see it with an audience you can sense them trying to enjoy it, trying to hurry it along to be the thing it needs and deserves to be. Something like Barbarella (1968), carelessly shot and with about five good lines, works perfectly well, with a lot of burbling electronica to fill in the dead spots, whereas despite classic stuff like Bogarde pegged out on the desert sands calling out for “Champagne!”, Losey’s film seems to not know where the jokes are. Plus it’s 119 minutes long and it has no motor, because the central characters aren’t taking the situations seriously.

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The film’s failure broke up the Losey-Jones partnership: Losey went on to direct Pinter screenplays Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) while Jones worked on a scattershot collection of films without much apparent momentum or focus, but including one classic, Wake in Fright (1971).

The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns

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I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.

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Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.

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This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.

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Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.

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Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.

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Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”

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I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.

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Everybody’s Acrylic

Posted in FILM, Painting, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2015 by dcairns

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I liked BIG EYES but not as much as Fiona or as much as I expected to. It’s definitely an improvement on the awful ALICE IN WONDERLAND de-imagining, which caused me to skip out on DARK SHADOWS altogether. And it fits squarely into the oeuvre of screenwriters Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski, maybe the only writing team in America whose authorship trumps whoever’s directing. I mean, it’s recognizably a Burton movie, even without Helena Bonham-Carter, but it has more in common with MAN ON THE MOON or even AUTO-FOCUS (which they produced but didn’t write) than it does with SWEENEY TODD or the de-imagining of PLANET OF THE APES.

Adapting true stories of crazy people to the screen presents all kinds of problems — generally, it seems to help if the people are likable and have some kind of self-insight — Edward D. Wood Jnr. as written by this team, maybe have been delusional about his own talent, but he’s a clear-eyed American optimist in every other way (the real Wood, I would guess from reading and viewing, was more arrogant, sneaky and tortured than the fictional version). I guess it’s the reverse of fiction, where you try to figure out what yhe character would do — here, you know what they did but you have to discover or invent the WHY, then express it. The Keanes, at the centre of BIG EYES, present interesting difficulties.

Walter, played with ever-more-manic grin (and some hysterical chimp-like physical touches) by Christoph Waltz, lives in such a cloud of deceit that it’s hard to know how much self-insight he’s capable of. At times, he seems to know in his heart of hearts that he’s a fraud, but being an artist is so central to his conceit of himself that he can only survive without this fantasy for seconds at a time, before diving gratefully back into his goldfish bowl of delusion. Waltz plays this to the hilt, never much bothering to suggest the plausibility which would make someone fall for Walter’s stories or his charm.

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This choice, perfectly defensible in itself, puts more pressure on Amy Adams, who plays a woman who, despite walking out on one (unseen) husband at the film’s opening, allows herself to be dominated and steered for most of the movie. People in co-dependant relationships are tricky to dramatise, because in fiction as in life it’s easy to get frustrated with them for making bad choices, for being gullible, for being doormats. The movie does its best to stress Margaret Keane’s strengths, but that makes the story’s plausibility even shakier than history left it (knowing something is true doesn’t stop it being hard to believe at times). And since Margaret is still alive, and cooperated with the filmmakers, and shouldn’t be trashed after all she’s been through, there’s some particularly delicate footwork when she trades the domination of her crazy husband for the domination of the Jehovah’s Witness movement (after a flirtation with numerology).

Adams is a talented, versatile player, but holding the film together with such a passive character seemed a strain for her, or for the film. We go with her when she’s suckered in by Walter/Waltz, since the script cunningly conceals much of the truth about his background, so we’re quite prepared to accept him as a struggling minor landscape artist, like Hitler. Showing how he just sort of falls into claiming credit for her paintings doesn’t just soften his character a little, it makes it easier for us to accept her forgiving him and going along with it.

But actors like to feel positive about the people they’re playing — admirable qualities can be found even in an utter villain — and apparently being nice isn’t enough to make Margaret Keane worthy of Adams — she tries to make her smart, and strong, which I think Keane may be now with maturity and hindsight, but probably wasn’t at the time of these events. (Having her kick over a bottle of white spirits as her hubbie, gone full Jack Torrance, is shoving lit matches through the letterbox, doesn’t help convince us of her resourcefulness.)

My other problem is with the script, which has come in for near-universal praise, but which I felt was a bit talky, ploddy and expository. True, there’s nothing as bald and artless as the “As you know, I’m your father” type dialogue in HITCHCOCK and MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, but a whole lot of scenes not involving our main characters, and a whole lot of characters without any meat on their bones, have to be invented to move the events along and explain them. And we have scenes that are just characters watching TV so we can meet Terence Stamp and see Perry Mason “for dramatic purposes” as Foreign Man puts it during the opening titles of MAN ON THE MOON. This eagerness to explain everything maybe helps the average viewer cope with the unexplainable actions of the protagonists, which is what is interesting about them, but to me they felt mechanical, like the unnecessary VO and the one-note cartoonery of Jon Polito and Jason Schwartzman (Krysten Ritter pulls this off best). Although speaking personally, I was cheered to see a movie in which an art critic gets to be bad-ass. Burton obviously likes Margaret Keane’s terrible paintings the same way he likes Ed Wood’s terrible films (I prefer Wood to Keane, myself), but it was important to have SOMEONE in the film who can make the necessary point that just because Keane’s paintings are sincere, doesn’t make them any good.

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Real artists NEVER look at what they’re doing.

Side-note — I have a pet hate in movies, which is the unconvincing painter/artist. It’s great in NEW YORK STORIES when we see Nick Nolte getting slathered in coloured goop the way real painters do, but he has it easy, playing an abstract impressionist. Most actors seem terrified to make a mark on paper or canvas, and we see them scratching away at a line in tiny increments, when any competent draughtsman would have swept the pencil across the paper in a single unbroken arc. In RENOIR we see huge closeups of Michel Bouquet’s hand, elaborately made-up with a callous the size a second thumb, but what he’s actually doing with his pencil and brush is farcical. The shot doesn’t require him to do anything we can assess as good or bad, he just needs to MAKE A DISCERNIBLE MARK, and he’s evidently scared stiff of doing so. (What happens to most kids that makes them stop drawing as they learn to read? And become humiliated by the very notion of sketching?)

As Margaret Keane, Adams has a key scene which is all about her executing a painting under the watchful eyes of an audience, so it’s a shame this couldn’t have been handled more convincingly. (James Cameron hand-doubling for Leo in TITANIC works fine, except he draws like a 90s storyboard artist, all Jack Kirby cheekbones, and not like anybody ever drew in the period the movie’s set in — different eras have different bad habits.) Still, to some extent her incompetence can be explained as in keeping with the character’s lack of skill, and she’s slightly more convincing with a brush than a pencil. Though the whole thing makes me wonder if Burton ever really drew those cartoons of his. Maybe it was Lisa Marie?

I see the Keanes as a classic folie a deux. He couldn’t have perpetrated his fraud without her incredible compliance, and nor could his business acumen, such as it was, have found an outlet with the Unique Selling Point of her bulbous-eyed waifs. His own work, if it ever was his, had nothing to distinguish it. But since her paintings are not GOOD, we have to allow him his share of the credit for popularizing them.

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As with Ed Wood, the amount of narrative and talk does slightly limit Burton’s ability to be the visual stylist he’s known as, but at least it gets him away from stripes and curls and the film’s settings are gorgeous: the painterly depiction of period San Francisco is a constant delight (proving, as I trust the Wachowskis would concede, that San Francisco makes a better San Francisco onscreen than Glasgow does). The night scenes at the Keane’s lavish modern home are sumptuously coloured, evoking both three-strip Technicolor and Mario Bava, but landing in their own sweet, supersaturated spot. But only in the hallucinatory visit to a supermarket where Margaret’s subjects come to life and haunt her, does the film really come alive as pure cinema — a proper sequence! I wanted that bit to last three times as long.