MUBI: April highlights

While the world remained locked in over April, MUBI offered a wonderfully diverse catalogue, either releasing standalone titles or continuing/beginning new categories. “THE CRIMES OF JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE” was wrapped up, “THE INNER DEMONS OF INGMAR BERGMAN” continued, “OUTLAW AUTEUR: JOSEPH LOSEY” and a “FOCUS ON CÉLINE SCIAMMA” started – all consolidating the service’s place as a major player alongside Netflix, Amazon Prime, and NOW TV during the current streaming golden hour.

Read on for April’s highlights…

PRIMER (Shane Carruth, 2004)

At the risk of hyperbole, Carruth’s debut feature is one of the most miraculous success stories in sci-fi this century. Made for a mere $7000, shot with a skeleton crew of five and in as many weeks, Primer won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes before establishing itself as a cult favourite. By the end of 2004, it had become the film everybody wanted to talk about and nobody could quite put their finger on.

Carruth himself stars as Aaron, and David Sullivan as Abe: two engineers supplementing their day jobs with entrepreneurial tech projects. Their garage experiments escalate, leading them to stumble on time travel, the film to tie itself up in as many structural knots as there are tests and manipulations. It’s not perfect, but the audacity and ambition are near unparalleled for a debut work.

Follow-up Upstream Color came a whole nine years later and was comparatively impressionistic, another love letter to “DIY” science fiction but not one so preoccupied with overwhelming its spectator. Watching Primer, as MUBI made possible last month, is a delightfully bewildering eighty minutes that will stick with you for much longer.

SISTERS (Brian De Palma, 1972)

De Palma’s directing career has now spanned six decades and thirty feature films. He’s a household name firmly cemented in the American canon – alongside Scorsese, Spielberg, and others of the same generation – who can do no wrong at this point. Recent efforts such as Domino and Redacted may have fallen flat on their face, both a suggestion that the world has caught up with De Palma and introduction of a new problem (how best to package violence/desire in a world where they run rampant)… but it’s fine: there’s so many great De Palma titles to go back to.

This is certainly one of them. Released during his time collaborating with Robert De Niro, remodelling Hitchcock, and adapting Stephen King, Sisters echoes Polanski and Argento and paved the way for Goodnight Mommy and Unsane. It’s worth a visit for De Palma completists and psychological horror fans alike.

BLUE VALENTINE (Derek Cianfrance, 2010)

Like Sisters, Blue Valentine relies on a distinctly two-part structure, but Cianfrance crosscuts rather than present Side A followed by Side B. We see both ends of his title’s oxymoron at almost the same time: Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) meeting and falling in love; an uncomfortable motel getaway years later, as they desperately try to save their marriage.

Their problems become holistic, a predicament daughter Frankie is caught in the middle of. Dean struggles with alcohol addiction and episodes of violence, painting houses for a living while Cindy works as a nurse, distracted by thoughts of jealous ex-boyfriend Bobby (Mike Vogel). Though not one for Valentine’s Day, it’s a memorable piece of work from Cianfrance. Icings on the cake include a score by indie rock outfit Grizzly Bear (a reworking of 2009 album Veckatimest), and an iconic scene where Dean courts Cindy by playing the ukulele.

THE SERVANT (Joseph Losey, 1963)

American film and theatre director Joseph Losey was blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s, so moved to the UK and made the rest of his films here. The most critically and commercially successful of these were the trilogy The Servant, Accident and The Go-Between, all written by one of the most influential British dramatists of modern times: Harold Pinter. All three were available on MUBI last month – the chronological first, in particular, is a bracing mix of comedy, psychology, power dynamics, and social division.

Dirk Bogarde plays Hugo Barrett, manservant to wealthy Londoner Tony, played by James Fox. The film seldom leaves Tony’s house, confining its central clash of wealth and worldview to these four walls. It informs Tony’s treatment of Hugo and Hugo’s subsequent, retaliatory manipulation, rarely escalating this tension beyond wry comment or sardonic aside. But Tony’s childishness speaks for a more dangerous ignorance, as Hugo’s rebellion does for a more urgent appeal for equality. Don’t be fooled by Pinter’s propensity for narrative game, or Losey’s for humour; there’s something more sinister beneath The Servant’s surface.

COFFEE AND CIGARETTES (Jim Jarmusch, 2003)

Midway through his career, Jarmusch compiled his three Coffee and Cigarettes short films (originally released from 1986-1993) as a feature, with added vignettes. It’s one of his strangest, most minimalist works – which is saying a lot – and boasts a cast including Roberto Benigni, Cate Blanchett, Steve Buscemi, Steve Coogan, Bill Murray, Iggy Pop, RZA, Tom Waits, and Jack and Meg White.

As one might expect of a Jarmusch project, not much “happens.” Our encounters with these characters are fleeting, eavesdropping on conversations drifting from obsession to absorption, from joy to addiction, with the connective tissue of, well, coffee and cigarettes. The two words fluctuate between symbol and concrete object, depending on the characters talking about them. It’s a thoroughly amusing and intriguing conceit, and a nice point of entry for anybody yet to discover Jarmusch’s filmography.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Céline Sciamma, 2019)

Sciamma’s latest (and best) film appeared first as a MUBI exclusive, before changing to the start of a FOCUS ON CÉLINE SCIAMMA, to be added to in early May. Its appearance on the service highlighted the company’s quick turnover for theatrical releases, coming a short six weeks after it hit UK cinemas.

Noémie Merlant stars as Marianne, commissioned to pain the portrait of Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse, a young woman on an isolated island in Brittany preparing to be married off to a Milanese nobleman. The employment quickly develops into a passionate affair between the pair, the stage for some moments of genuine cinematic magic: Marianne facing Héloïse facing elsewhere, their switch as Héloïse notices, another switch as Héloïse looks back out to sea; a shot of a baby playing with a woman’s hand as a separate abortion is carried out.

These are just two examples of Sciamma’s ability to pack a whole world of theme and idea into a single frame. Portrait is a real ode to artistry and creative living, in love with the subject but never overwriting it; it’s unmissable, and only on MUBI until the tenth of May.

Also Read: MUBI: March highlights

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