This week, Maxwell Tait looks at Beginning, Déa Kulumbegashvili's audacious debut representing Georgia in this year's Academy Award for Best International Feature Film. Plus, Blood Simple & Booksmart, two more excellent first films that announced the arrival of new and exciting directors.
Jeanne Dielman meets Funny Games in this slow-burning, hard-hitting drama
It takes a bold filmmaker to open their debut feature with a 10 minute long static shot. Any concerns of boredom are incinerated midway through Beginning’s first scene, when a Jehovah’s Witness meeting is assaulted by firebombs, crashing into the paralysed frame and burning the newly-constructed building to the ground.
It’s a shocking introduction, and sets the tone for Georgian director Déa Kulumbegashvili’s unflinching first film. We’re introduced to Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) and David (Rati Oneli), as the married Jehovah's Witnesses face the rebuild of their now-razed place of worship. Despite the entire incident being captured on CCTV, the police are uninterested — clearly the couple’s faith is unwelcome in this remote, Georgian community. Yana has other problems: she openly explains her impending existential crisis to David, but her unmoved husband travels to Tbilisi hoping to secure funding for the rebuild, leaving his wife and their young son vulnerable to the harassment of a man claiming to be a police officer.
Kulumbegashvili illustrates this story with intense discipline. The abrupt chaos of the opening scene skilfully demonstrates the displacement that trauma causes, putting the audience on edge thereafter. As you may have guessed, there is little dialogue, and across two hours the film unfurls itself in a number of shots that you could probably manage on a big night out. Camera movement is also rationed — you can feel it digging its heels in during the first significant slow-pan across a scene, roughly 45 minutes through. Artfully captured on 35mm, the squarish 1:33 aspect ratio throttles the expressive beauty sought by the camera, a reflection of the demanding contradiction at the film’s core; a tranquil aesthetic that serves moments of repugnant violence.
Understandably, this makes for difficult viewing. A pivotal scene of sexual violence has come under scrutiny, as all such scenes should, but it seems inappropriate to tell a female director how to conduct such a powerful moment, not least in a week that has seen disturbing announcements of record low rape prosecutions in England and Wales, despite a rise in the number of reports. There are more than enough scenes of sexual violence written and directed by men to criticise the motives of, Beginning is a considered work that earns the right to confront its audience.
That said, the film is not an unmitigated success. Beginning occupies a slow cinema middle ground — between the mesmeric hypnosis of The Turin Horse & Jeanne Dielman, and the bastard entrapment of Michael Haneke — and somewhere in this unenviable balancing act it drops a shade of focus. But you forgive this when there is so much ambition to admire. The sound design is flawless — after his reggaeton inspired Ema soundtrack, American/Chilean electronic composer Nicolas Jaar delivers an atmospheric masterclass. Alongside sound editor Séverin Favriau, Jaar weaves an incredibly measured soundscape that has the rumbles and drones of a house at midnight sounding like the pumps and gulps of human organs.
In case it needs mentioning twice, the film is visually stunning, with plenty of truly memorable imagery. The deliberate pace is suited to painterly depictions of raging fires, river baptisms and Georgian plains, but equally augments the unexpected sensibilities of a Hollywood horror/thriller — honestly, at times it doesn’t feel too far removed from Paranormal Activity. And the ending offers a moment of genuine surprise. There’s considerable potential on display in Beginning that rewards patience, and if you stick with it, a lot of it will stick with you.
Blood Simple (Coen, 1984)
Here’s a perfect example of putting your best foot forward. Blood Simple would be held in higher regard if it was made by someone else. But it wasn’t — it’s the film that launched the career of your dad’s favourite filmmaking-duo, the Coen brothers, and is therefore dwarfed by the monstrous catalogue of first-class pictures they’ve overseen since. Spare a thought for the films competing with Fargo, No Country for Old Men & Barton Fink for the top-three films in their canon, a situation as farcical as Harvey Barnes and Bukayo Saka potentially not making Southgate’s twenty-three (to clarify, Raising Arizona is Michail Antonio, Jamie Vardy is A Serious Man).
Blood Simple is so tightly written. It has a pace-perfect winding plot, yanking you into a world where bad people pay other bad people to do morally abhorrent things badly (choose your own Conservative party punchline). There’s a risky extramarital affair, there are private investigators, there are guns, cash, and comic misunderstandings. Huge characters misplace incriminating objects, phones ring with dramatic timing, and it’s all delivered with a cheeky side-eye. These would become Coen staples, but kept perpetually fresh thanks to their knack for reinvention. It’s a riot seeing worn-in film-noir tropes rejuvenated in this era, like a punch of miso in french classics. The last act in particular has some technically marvellous seamless transitions between scenes that would make Orson Welles sit up. And look out for the greatest pronunciation of Uruguay you'll hear this side of Homer Simpson.
We’re treated to mammoth performances, from M. Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedaya. But speaking of debuts, Frances McDormand is the star here. Some things never change, and her performance — Marion Crane meets Alien's Ripley via Texas — is fantastic. So, come for a young McDormand kicking a man between his legs so hard that he vomits, stay for the white-knuckle poetry of the finale — one of the best you’ll see.
Booksmart (Wilde, 2019)
There’s a great bit at the start of 21 Jump Street where Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum go back to school as undercover cops, and realise that they’ve lost touch with what’s hip to the woke, two-strapping, environmentally-conscious youth — ‘Hey, park in that handicapped spot, it’ll make us look cool’. I understand that watching Booksmart as a cisgender, straight man a decade out of school has a similar vibe to this scene — see also Steve Buscemi’s ‘How do you do, fellow kids?’ — but as humans, what are we if not capable of empathy?
Superbad but with girls seems like a lazy (if complimentary) tagline for Olivia Wilde’s smart and fun debut Booksmart, until you realise that star Beanie Feldstein is literally Jonah Hill’s younger sister. Beanie plays Molly, BFF of Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) — together they are likeable, clever High School seniors (that means in their final year) that are ostracised by their classmates for their over-enthusiasm. They’re the kind of girls that have really nice parents, are on the student council, and individually label their clothes drawers. The pair suffer a rude awakening when, on the day before graduation, Molly finds out that all of their less-bookish classmates are coasting into the very same prestigious colleges (universities) as them, while still maintaining a healthy social life. The only thing left to do is to make up for all that lost time, by cramming in as much partying as possible in one chaotic night.
Obviously Booksmart resonates in a different way with me as it does to someone with a more tangible connection to Molly and Amy, but it’s a very thoughtful film about FOMO, identity, inclusion, and plenty of other topics that, in case you were worried, are not gender exclusive. As an English state school student, the most difficult thing to connect to is the enduring slickness of American High School films; fortunately, I have The Inbetweeners, which remains an eerily accurate depiction of my generation’s formative experience. But for a lot of girls and women, the wild, charming, and relatable fun that Booksmart makes look easy is long overdue, a particular highlight being a prophetic Cardi B joke. Like the best of Seinfeld and The Office, it’s always contagious when you can tell the actors are trying not to laugh.
Booksmart is available to stream on Netflix.