Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: Another Year & Catfish

Another Year
Dir. Mike Leigh
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 130mins

Dir. Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: PG
Running Time: 87mins

**WARNING: This joint review of Another Year and Catfish contains MAJOR spoilers for the latter, so unless you've seen it maybe you should wait. You've had fair warning, yeah?**

Both Another Year and Catfish start in wildly different places and yet, through a series of both surprising and meandering ways end up in much the same place. Mike Leigh’s year-in the-life film may appear to be a portrait of a lovable, if excessively “British!”, Londoner couple, and Catfish may appear (appear being a very appropriate word for this quote unquote documentary) to be about a burgeoning online romance, yet by films’ end they prove to be painful and sad examinations of the lives of two desperately lonely women, both of which probably have some deep-seeded emotional illness that they decide to thrust upon the lives of others with no consideration of the immense destructive power that they wield on those around them.

Both films start at a place of happiness, betraying the emotionally frayed road bumps to follow. As Tom and Gerri in Another Year, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen seem like a typical elderly couple, living out the last few years before retirement begins and the kettle goes into maximum overdrive. They occasionally indulge Gerri’s friend Mary (a bravura performance by Leigh regular Lesley Manville) who visits their humble home every so often, humourously drinks them under the table and crashes upstairs before clamouring out of bed the next morning to face a new day. Similarly in Catfish, Schulman and Joost’s camera follows Nev Schulman, a photographer with a nice life in New York City who begins a pen-pal relationship with a wildly talented, if slightly precocious-sounding, eight year old named Abby. He’s flattered she enjoys recreating his photos with paint and he soon forms a bond with Abby’s mother, Angela, and especially her older sister, Megan.

Both take an almost puzzle like mosaic approach to their respective material with pieces slotting in to place. Leigh and his editor Jon Gregory have used the time-honoured seasonal structure to their story. Beginning in spring and progressing through summer, autumn and finally winter, they ask the audience to fill in a lot of the in between – if you think there even is a lot to fill in, which I’d argue there probably isn’t judging from the 2 hours of their lives we get to witness other than more cups of tea that you can shake a stick at – as we remain with these character for only the briefest of moments to watch an important gathering. Whether that be a dinner at home, a backyard barbecue, a meet-the-parents get together or a funeral, these few events roll ever so delicately towards the breakdown of Mary, an individual so on the edge that she’s barely hanging on by a thread. It’s all very point a to point b stuff, but a less disciplined director would have felt the need to throw kooky narrative hooks and annoying non-linear structure into the mix. It’s refreshing that Another Year is so simple.

Catfish on the other hand rapidly lays facts upon “facts”, asking the audience to assemble it alongside the bewildered Nev Schulman and his on-screen filmmaking team as it happens. If the reveal of the big secret held in the film’s grip isn’t quite the Crying Game sized wowser that the trailer had promised, it still has a power all of its own that should make more than a few audience members ask serious questions of themselves and those that they think they know.

The character of Mary in Another Year is prickly and dangerous to herself, but unfortunately Leigh seems to get more satisfaction out of watching the smug, ever-so-condescending Tom and Gerri have a laugh at her expense. Broadbent and Sheen are both good, but Broadbent’s Tom, especially, seems to all but lick his lips every time he gets to send a barbed sarcastic zinger in Mary’s direction. Why is this couple attracted to associating with losers like Mary of Ken (Peter Wight)? A regular person would have cut them off long ago, and yet – to take a line from The Supremes – they keep them hanging on. Is it because they get satisfaction out of knowing their lives are so much better than theirs friends’? What with their cute London home with greenhouse and beautiful garden, their veggie garden in a community allotment and their need to have nary a bad word to say about anyone.

Mary’s defining character traits are that she devours wine like it’s the elixir of life and that she is hopelessly single, attracted to the wrong men at the wrong time. Leigh, Tom and Gerri give Mary frequent mocking glances as she descends into her regular drunken stupor, all but deploring her life choices yet giving her a soapbox to yammer on about them. Watch as Mary deludes herself and stay for the eventual “I’m a drunken mess” comeuppance. Anybody in the audience who has been long-term single will relate to Mary on some level, and many will easily recognise the furrowed brow and the mocking tone in the voices of those in relationships. When their son, Oliver Maltman’s Joe, who Mary has an inappropriate crush on, begins a relationship with Katie – a Happy-go-Lucky-ish character played by Karina Fernandez – it’s as if Mary’s single state is made out to be even more pathetic.

It’s not hard then to figure out why she all but has a mental breakdown by film’s end. The final segment of Another Year is owned by Manville – and, to a lesser extent, Martin Savage in a brief role as Tom’s angry nephew – who can’t hide just how close she is to falling off the tightrope completely. She’s clearly unstable, relying on drink to get through the crushing depression that has set over the past year. Leigh shows no sign of wanting to help Mary, instead choosing to focus his camera on her – quite literally at film’s end, the camera lingers on her sad, miserable face in a compelling final note – and point out her misgivings.

In Catfish, however, the figure of Angela is even more disturbed. As she relies on fake and embellished personas to live a life she wished she had, she comes across as deeply wounded and in desperate need to emotional help. When Imelda Staunton is asked what she wants most in the world in Another Year’s haunting prologue she replies “a different life”. If Angela was asked the same question – and she all but is asked, just a little less directly by Nev – I can’t imagine she’d reply much more differently. She is quite open once the secrets of her deviousness are laid bare (although as the credits sequence tells us, not even her confessions are elaborate fibs).

Whether Catfish is real or not was, for me at least, a complete non-issue by the end since. From its relatively humble beginnings of filming a blossoming online friendship to its conclusion of a woman who needs professional help and guidance, it had morphed into something altogether beyond “omgwhat’sthesecret?!?!” shock tactics. Unlike, for instance, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here, which is rendered null and void by its farcical revelations, Catfish works either way. If real it’s a fascinating documentation of a woman that utilised modern technology as a means to feed her illness; if fake then it becomes a solidly acted, well-written documentation of a woman that utilised technology as a means to feed her illness. No matter the journey, the destination is very much a thought provoking and, ultimately, frightening one. Whether the film - especially the early parts - work, or feel organic enough to work I'm less certain on.

I saw these two films on the same day and was quite surprised at how much they had in common. Of course, if Another Year gives you the sudden urge to get yourself out of the single rut that you’re in because, clearly, everyone is laughing at you, then Catfish will surely make you second guess any decision to use online dating a means of finding a partner. I can only imagine what it must be like to follow these two films with Blue Valentine, which puts a fluffy bow on the trilogy of relationship woes. Let’s call it the “Life Sucks and Then You Die” trilogy because clearly being single sucks, dating sucks and if you’re married it either sucks or you have to surround yourself with miserable sods to make yourself forget how much being married sucks.
Another Year, B-
Catfish, B


Walter L. Hollmann said...

Catfish was absolutely haunting. I'm still waiting for Another Year to come out around these parts. Happy-Go-Lucky and Vera Drake did well here, so I don't know why this one is being held at arm's length. Every review I read of it makes me anticipate it all the more.

Tony said...

I enjoyed Catfish, rented it over the weekend. But I think the only reason I did (I NEVER rent movies either) was because the trailer made it seem like it was a horror movie... it's what hooked me. But it really is FAR from a horror movie, lol. But I'm kind of glad it turned out to be much more... very creepy.

Alice said...

I never would have thought to review these two films side-by-side. What a full on film day that was for you!