Tulip mania

July’s Sight & Sound includes me on Four Corners, the South African police-procedural coming-of-age gangland hybrid which might act as a decent calling card for director Ian Gabriel if he opts to make one or another of those in North America at some point.

More gangsters in Timbuktu, this time with the power of faith behind them. Suggesting that the world isn’t a more informed place for Abderrahmane Sissako having made the film would be an insult to the many living and dead to whom the film pays honest respect; but that doesn’t mean that it’s immune to some pointed interrogation. The inherently non-judgmental approach avoids the escape hatch of mocking its fundamentalist busybodies, and I’m all for art that leaves you room to decide exactly where the people it’s depicting fall on the stupidity scale without drawing you a diagram. But when the stupidity in question arises from organised belief systems rather than personal failures, it opens up the questions always to be asked of art situated somewhere vaguely on the left, the ones which occupied Amos Vogel for a few decades before he did accessible film criticism a favour by writing them down: Are you in the business of solving or just exploring? Atmosphere or answers?

By that measure Sissako opts to whisper truth to power, well aware that the sound of rocks cracking open the skulls of innocents will shout for him. There might even be a hint of mild connivance, or at least of convention, in the faces of the lonely jihadist with his eye on another man’s wife and the hard-line judge busy explaining why marriage doesn’t need the consent of the woman or indeed her presence; they both have the flinty look of big-screen villainy in the eyes, if you squint a bit. But maybe you shouldn’t be squinting; maybe you should be looking that other man’s wife straight in the eye, where her fortitude and awful resignation are fused together in plain sight. Sissako’s plan becomes clear when you spot the ways that communication is so ineffective: dialect issues ensure that the accused and the accusers can’t comprehend each other half the time, and the mobile phone coverage is terrible. The chewier tactic is the way that those marriage issues are explained in explicitly religious terms, making sharia law the subject of deadpan explication, while the main plot of a man’s trial and death sentence is debated without scripture entering the discussion much at all. Sissako’s view of human nature is robust enough to leave the goon squad’s actions to speak for themselves; he might have considered asking how they got that way.

Mad Max: Fury Road got this way by design, and since Brendan McCarthy is involved, those designs are bullet-proof. When the tulip mania over its progressive feminist politics has broken, we can discuss the oddity of sticking the P-word onto anything still hypnotically in thrall to the myth of redemptive violence which saturates popular culture like a sharp odour from the drains. In the meantime the film is the very model of a modern fun-times big-bombs exploitation quickie, in that it cost $150 million and rumbles on for two hours.

Clouds of Sils Maria might be Olivier Assayas’ least progressive film in a while, a mild backwards step not really countered by the sight of Nora von Waldstätten in a wig borrowed from Gabrielle Drake on UFO. But even here he’s enough of a feminist to give George Miller a migraine.

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