SWEET COUNTRY: SOMEWHERE BETWEEN THE FLESH AND THE PITH

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First came the upward sweep of Samson & Delilah (2009) into the annals of Australian mythology, one of the few departures from the colonial trend of Australian storytelling. Following in those steps, Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (2017) aspires of a similar folklore, but doesn’t reach the mark.

 

Sweet Country is the story of a hunted-man, Sam Kelly, on his flight from a false murder charge through the outback. The film attempts to carve into the cultural complexities of 1929 frontier Australia. Having dug out an important niche in the oft colonially-slanted perspectives of Australian storytelling, Thornton’s work dons an Indigenous Australian perspective on Country. This in mind, the breadth and ambition of Sweet Country fails to meet the task it sets for itself – to unpack the complex and long woven prejudices of culture between colonial and indigenous Australians. Taking on this challenge in any sense, and falling short of it, is, in itself, an important creative move. That said, these explorations in Sweet Country backslide into damaging representations that draw the barrel of scrutiny and criticism down to the very feet of the piece.

 

The mythological grandeur of Sam Kelly’s story – a pursuit through the bush, rife with romance, violence and fragile masculine egos – falls in the no mans land between mythos and between realism. Flat and inconsistent characters fail to carry through the prejudices of the context in a believable way, instead remaining half-cooked archetypes. These include the silent tracker man, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), soft-spoken and wise. The religious man, Fred Smith (Sam Neill), who scrutinizes and perceives all wronging, but fails to intercede. The Lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown), whose prejudices are a matter of personal ego, making him all the more dangerous. And, most fractured and flat of them all, the silent woman, Lizzie, who does not speak of her abuse and does not show independence of any kind during the film. These characters – who sit in a fascinating backdrop of colonial Australia – fall blandly short of the nuance of their very context. In this complex landscape or clashing cultural tides, they are flat and unconvincing. There are moments in the film when we hope – beg – for characters to speak up, or show some level of motivation for self-preservation, but instead there is a stagnancy. Yet this stagnancy does not feel calculated, but instead a product of poor writing, and the silted direction of the actors’ performances.

 

That said, there is a stylistic flair that lends this film backbone in places where narrative momentum and structure are lacking. Without music, the soundscape emulates the emptiness and danger of landscapes unmastered, yet shows the relative peace afforded in those same spaces to those who are familiar with the country. The layered images of Lizzie, Sam & the Sergeant moving horizontally across an at once close-and-distant landscape provide a sense of theatricality and sentient landscape that ‘channels’ the characters on their journey. Eucalypts, Ooraminna Station’s dry grassland surrounds, and the red earthen bluffs of the Simpson Desert seem to glide in layers between which the characters roll, unaware of their predetermined paths. The slowness of scenes, intercut with the ‘flash-forward’ glimpses build a sense of inevitability, yet, when these destinies land true, they don’t serve by way of conclusion but as a blockade to imagining the futures beyond characters. We are stuck in the 2D, cardboard present. Whilst the stylistic delivery of Thornton made this film more cohesive and quite immersive, this attempted weave of mythology arrives only as a half-delivered tragedy, weakening the film at points when it needs to be hitting the hardest.

 

Sweet Country continues the long-woven tapestry of Australian into realms lesser explored – those perspectives of the people of the First Nations. Our colonial perspective represent the outback as a place of hungry terror – a space that eats colonials and holds mystery and the unknown, as in Wake In Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971), or Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). However, as Sweet Country explores, the landscape is equivalently a space of retreat, stasis and safety for non-colonials (Samson & Delilah, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002)) and even sometimes outcast individuals as in Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). The same stylistic notes as Samson & Delilah that lend insight into the remote reaches of landscape that are peripheral to our everyday existence, yet have been the structural tenants of modern Australian culture.

The style lends strength to a film that seeks to deliver an important and still resonant message of prejudice, and the self-feeding loop of illogical inequalities that continue to shape Australia’s society. I shy away from stating that ‘Sweet Country’ ‘flew too close to the sun’ of Australian political commentary, because of the importance of shifting the balance of perspectives we have on Country. Yet I left the cinema feeling dissatisfied with the story, which felt like tragedy endured to make a point, but instead delivering dry and reckless social criticism with no room for improvement. Fred Smith’s parting lines – ‘What hope does this country have?’ – leaves little wiggle room for development towards something better, and this film does not deliver a mythological lesson that is easily wielded. That said, the craft and steeped knowledge of the landscape in this film shows great promise for the future of new perspectives of Australian storytelling.

 

The Florida Project: No Pot of Gold at the end of the American Dream

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“I wish that leprechaun was nice.”

This line is delivered by six-year-old Jancey ( Valeria Cotto) who, alongside her best friend in a Florida carpark, stares whistfully at a rainbow, wishing for promised gold. So runs most of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017), the director’s first fetaure since the acclaimed Tangerine (2015). The Florida Project continues Baker’s thread of realism by impressing upon us the realities of both sex work and the worldwide vein of poverty.

The film’s focus is The Magic Castle, a motel-turned home for many low-socioeconomic tenants run by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Crucially, The Magic Castle is in the heart of Disneyland’s tourist ‘belt’ where the long shadows of wealthy tourists and their Disney™ demands are cast onto the cyclically poor tenants of the region. Focusing on six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), and her mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), The Florida Project maps their downward spiral towards destitution over one summer. Both the internal choices made by Halley (and Moonee), and the vicious loop of social and financial pressures speed their downwards slide.

Sean Baker is establishing a reputation for a hyper-realist, immersive style, as created in Tangerine by shooting close-hand on iPhones, a realism he further develops in The Florida Project. The child actors perform in a natural, rambling style, shouting lines over one another. Equally, the adults are constantly fighting to make themselves heard, and the natural delivery of lines makes the near mockumentary film highly evocative. Painting in hyper-realist strokes the settlement The Magic Castle, Baker produces an oppressive sense of wealth and weight in the area. The endless drone of helicopters and highway traffic to and from the area — visitors to the fabled Disneyland — press upon the motel from all sides, the financial and legal pressures of life made manifest.

The performances and nebulous-narrative style of The Florida Project was reminiscent of Gareth Edward’s earliest feature, Monsters (2010). Both wielded real locations and improvisational performances to create an immersive realism in their works. This realism lends both films an emotional and socio-political credibility that makes the plight of these characters more resonant and relatable. Importantly, The Florida Project does not express back-story for any character. Even for Willem Dafoe’s hard-done-by-nice-guy Bobby, we are given only the tidbits that come up in strained conversation, tangents that Dafoe’s character immediately shut down. Equally, his tenants do not discuss the past. The overall emphasis is on the now, on the next paycheck, the next week’s rent, that the journey to get to this point, not the choices or circumstances that led the characters to the motel. On these spiraling slopes to destitution, there is a terrifying (but unacknowledged or unwanted) relate-ability to the small-scale fetishizations of commodities these characters undergo daily. Purchases of fast foods, plastic toys, clothes, alcohol and more extravagant and seemingly excessive purchases — such as an Ipad — merely reflect the same processes most of us go through with or own paychecks, whether or not we make exerted efforts to counteract the cycle of blind consumption. We each are sucked into the brief high of a well-rounded paycheck and the lows between.

Funnily enough, these images conjure in us the general emotion that perhaps, given access, we might make ‘a better job’ of things. Watching Scooty (Christopher Rivera), Moonee (Prince) and Jancey (Cotto) running about the swampy highways of Florida, we see them eat endless begged-for ice cream, waffles drenched in syrup, soda cans and cheese pizza. All the while, they are lighting things on fire, smashing windows and screaming abuse at passers-by. These kids are little terrors, incredibly disrespectful and inconsiderate of their fellows, behavior we blame upon poor parenting. My fellow filmgoers were equally anxious about — of all things — the lack of vegetables that the kids were given access to, yet we could not deny the near inevitable slide of Halley into reliance on full-service sex work for money. Meanwhile, the children’s independence and resourcefulness in their post-apocalyptic (it seems) surrounds is to be admired. Halley’s hands-off approach to parenting is often wince-inducing, yet somehow Moonee still evokes sympathy and admiration for her fierce loyalty to her loved ones and her ‘screw the man’ attitude, a full circle of emotional alliance that Baker has strategically built into the film’s otherwise structurally lacking narrative.

Without stepping expressly into the ring to battle it out with (capital C) Capitalism, a debate too large and complex for me to begin here, I would argue that The Florida Project instead of mapping the future doom of USA citizens, instead sheds light on the already ongoing apocalypse of capitalism worldwide. These limbo spaces, such as The Magic Castle, Las Vegas’ underground homeless network or Kowloon Walled City, exist in pockets of every society, dells so deep that the likelihood of escape from them seems very low. These films most importantly do not focus on condemning characters for their choices, but with equal strokes of the palette, illustrate the battle between individual and system in trying to carve a life using a paddle pop stick.

Blades, Stakes, And Losing Numbness.

Blade Runner Sketch

Dennis Villeneuve (Sicario [2015], Arrival [2016] and many other features) has taken up the Ridley Scott torch with confidence and precise attention to detail. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) interrogates the central question of the original Blade Runner (1982), but insistently presses the questions of human versus technology-based life, responsibility for creations, consumption and resource-stripping. Simultaneously it honours the original film without stomping all over the territory the 1982 classic marked out.

Examining Blade Runner 2049 brings to the fore of discussion the divergence of sequels, a bivalve opening in cinema of late. Sequels tend to go either by way of Marvel-mode franchises (branching from root stock films such as Thor [Kenneth Branagh, 2011], The Avengers [Joss Whedon, 2012]). The second branch is mad eup of those that expand the peripheries of their predecessors into new territories — arguably exemplified by films such as 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007), the series Fargo (FX, 2014) spin off of the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name, Mad Mad II: The Road Warrior(George Miller, 1981), Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015) and now Blade Runner 2049. It’s difficult to honor an artwork by recreating it in near replica in the Marvel-mode of sequels, though it is arguable financially ‘safe’. Instead, to produce divergent sequels, concessions must be made around screen-time and centrality of the previous protagonists (e.g. Harrison Ford’s character, Rachel, and minor characters beyond) must be shifted aside to peripheral, retrospective weight-bearers rather than the same characters found ~yet again~ in the pickle they were last time. Motivation-less overlords threaten the future of humanity, again.

Blade Runner 2049 has a twofold strength as both a sequel and a dystopian film that undercuts the mucky coating that gets left in your mouth after most recent blockbusters, these being a) attention to detail and b) writing strength.

A) Never underestimate the importance of a few dents, some dust and some reality in your scenes. Living in the years predicted by Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner now –where we can call someone on the other side of the planet — is by no means a slick clean one, but is instead filthy, gutter-garbage-clogged, rude, prejudice riddled and inhabited by an incoherent garble of cultural clashes. So, too, should the world of the near future be. Goddamned production value is high in this film (meaning, namely, the effects are nuanced, realistic, gritty-real and not overrun with digital fingerprints. Let me sniff the stink, not feel the slick cold press of CGI.) No film is limited by the era in which it is made, only by the methods of production it uses. To illustrate, the practical effects of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) stand the tests of time well, and remains true to the context of the film’s time without being rendered unbelievable by Gameboy-sized, pixelated raptors. In contrast, Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) is so densely saturated by the CGI that was limited by its time of production aged so rapidly that romantic dramas have employed similar quality computer generated images.

B) The writing worked with believable — expectable stakes. This is not a direct world ender in the form of a laser-beam wielded by a cackling super-villain. The notion of ‘Super’ (which has been rendered bland and definition-less in a backdrop of films where, as Dash of The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004) says miserably, ‘if everyone’s special, then nobody is.’ The endless drive for distinct and fear-awe-love-inducing characters (an endless battle which is a central tenet of cinema — creating relate-ability and inspiration, escapism in one) has recently created the flux of large-budget, CGI, tech and star-studded films. These films I refer to include Marvel’s The Avengers and other branches of superhero films, but ‘super’ as a high-concept character trait has crept into other non-superhero media, including John Wick (Chad Stahelski and Davud Leitch, 2014), BBC’s Sherlock (2010), Lucy (2014), throwing off the baseline’s for accessible protagonists. We can never match them on the ‘super’ level. Somehow our characters are only worthy of admiration or able to rise above the tide of supervlllains by their own non-normative traits, be it photographic memory, physical strength or fighting prowess.

In Blade Runner 2049, K is pressed upon by a complex political situation of which he is a pawn. The stakes are felt viscerally precisely because he is largely helpless within the ‘race’ system that dominates the Earth of 2049. Instead of being above and untouched by the rising political complexities (as say Tony Stark would remain exempt, as would Thor and others), K is tossed in the tide of prejudice directly. He is hit and bleeds, feels pain. Paradoxically, the ‘skin walker’ robot of the Blade Runner dystopia triggered more empathetic pain in me than the ‘human’ protagonists of many films of late.

I hope that Blade Runner 2049 can set a precedent for the allocation of film budgets to tell stories that interrogate our representation of women, our use of technology, and our consumption practices (food and resources and commodities all). The fetishized world of Marvel and other franchises obscure any potential the films have for productive storytelling. Instead they remain hollow vessels for the parasitic side-products of the franchise to travel onwards. Film as host, consumption as parasite.

MACHINES: VOYEURS & VILLAINS

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Rahul Jain’s debut, Machines (2017), investigates the inner workings of a textile factory in India. The film explores the factory floor, the managerial staff, and the selling floor where the value of goods is decided. Reminiscent of Farida Patcha’s My Name Is Salt (2013), Jain’s film reflects the obscured and distanced sources of the objects we consume, using rhythm, time and stagnancy to throw us into a hellish landscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

 
http://www.rebelcircus.com/blog/the-garden-of-earthly-delights-from-heaven-to-hell/

Machines takes us into a labyrinthine silk factory in Sachin, India. Windowless floors and basements show the many laborious processes that produce screen-printed silks. The factory could have been borne of Ridley Scott’s imagination (somewhere between the spaceship tunnels of Alien[1979] and street levels of Blade Runner [1982]). Composed of interviews, interspersed with long, unbroken takes of workers performing repetitive physical labor, Machines deftly cuts a portal through the machine of international consumption. It lends us sight into what is otherwise a process hidden and distant from the everyday lives of the middle to upper class westerners who may encounter the film.

https://dogwoof.com/machines/

Perhaps the most troubling and important element of the documentary is our position as viewers. The finger of blame is pointed somewhat at us, the larger consumers of the products being made in the factory, and the whole documentary is steeped in the frustration of the worker underneath the systemic layers of profit above him. Yet the film manages to avoid spiraling into a flat-out critique of capitalism, which may be a strategic choice to retain the allegiance of the broader swathe of viewers. In an interview Jain states the confusion of the workers he was filming. “They’re coming up to me and saying, “Who’s the hero in this movie? Who’s the villain in this movie?” I say, “You’re the heroes. I’m the villain.” Crucially Jain’s choice to position himself as the villain — one who would uninterruptedly watch a young boy fall asleep at his work post, in an uncomfortable, unflinching take — reflects our own position too. We are given the comfortable view of the factory. We are voyeurs, left undamaged by the processes we see. We watch from a distance but are not necessarily provoked to action, something addressed by the gathering of workers towards the conclusion of Machines, who question what Jain is doing to help them. And the bad taste that lingers afterwards: what does this documentary do for the workers?

Most directly it informs of us of the distant and obscured origins of things, perhaps promoting us to make different choices about how we consume. But does the diversion of funding to a workplace like this address any of the problems experienced by the worker? The issues surrounding wage and labor disparities globally are complex beyond individual comprehension. Perhaps the only minute level of control we can excise as consumers is to recognize the use value of objects we own, maintain them rather than replace them, and to stay aware of our own position in the many-fold hierarchies of production. We should remain aware that costs of purchase go beyond the financial. But still, it is hard to shake a feeling of helplessness after watching the unflinching Machines. The face of reality is not reconcilable with what we had conjured up.

MY HAPPY FAMILY: NOT MANANA, BUT TODAY

My Happy Family

The second feature from directors Nana Ekvitimishvili and Simon Groβ (self titled duo ‘Nana & Simon’), My Happy Family (2017), follows matriarch Manana (Ia Shugliashvili), who decides to leave her family home, much to the outrage of the multigenerational occupants who live by her cooking, cleaning and care. My Happy Family tracks her attempt at finding freedom from the suffocating closeness of convention.

I have recently learned that this feature (alongside others including Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days [2007] and more recently Child’s Pose [Călin Peter Netzer, 2013]), is considered part of the post-communist Romanian Cinema wave. Watch these ears prick! A niche characterized by this…

“Set of factors: the determined unpicking of recent Romanian history and the Communist ideology whose legacy still continues to frame discourse; an unabashed irony and black humour; and the lo-fi visual aesthetic that was most often the direct result of a total lack of state funding.”

As a part of this movement, the political implications of citizens’ stories are not displayed with prominence, but are instead subtly interwoven into the domestic and (exotic to these Melbournian eyes) banal motions. Nana & Simon’s developing style is characterized by lingering takes and moments of quiet solitude for characters, allowing emotions to fully play out on actor’s faces. It was established in their first feature, In Bloom (2013), which explored similar themes of gender and generation in 1992, post-Soviet Union Georgia — particularly the simultaneously oppressed and structural role women play in Georgian society. My Happy Family is similarly nostalgic — Tbilisi seems to steeped in tea itself, houses are lived-in, occupied fully, until the cracks form, and these are left run rampant, yet poverty or malaise do not overrun tradition, food, music. The film’s context is real enough- and already suffused with tradition (even, it seems, into the structural bones of the cracking apartments families pack into), so that Nana & Simons moments of creative, decisive clarity ring out without interrupting the realism of the narrative and world.

The lack of additional soundtrack in My Happy Family makes the passing moments of music impactful — Manana’s resistance against performing at her school reunion makes her song all the more enrapturing, the men’s multifarious harmonies in traditional songs lend a depth and intensity to the dinner scenes that seem so often to sent Manana running the other direction. The houses are labyrinthine and the women resistant, strong, the men (though hard fought) are actively contracted to be water brushed off the backs of women who have been told (and still are told) that family and marriage and submissions are their sole passage of self-worth and means. Some reviewers have criticized the film’s “slice-of-life” pace, particularly at the film’s conclusion, which cuts us away from moments of climactic tension, excluding us from, what will be, perhaps, the result of Manana’s long battle for freedom. However, the cutting of us as viewers from these moments shows with a deliberate awareness, Nana & Simon’s foci for the film — not the bubbling points of familial tension and personal wrongdoing, but in Manana’s slow, second-stage metamorphoses into her own self, who can sing you to tears on a Russian guitar and eats halva for dinner whenever she damn pleases. Shugliashvili’s portrayal of Manana is deft enough that she doesn’t need to battle her Husband for our voyeuristic satisfaction, but easily sways us to emotional vulnerability with her skillful performance. I would readily argue against this film being ‘quiet’ — in fact, it is steeped in Manana’s depression, and a broiling need to release, to scream, to flail for room. Only Manana is to strategic and wise of a protagonist for that to occur.

Again, the duo’s feature seems to adeptly use family as a lens to explore the social niche, the mihrab of post-independence Georgia. The film is slow to unspool from the distaff, but it remains clear Manana’s turmoil is that of many women the world over, and her stalwart persistence in chasing freedom.

DOUBLE FEATURE… Watch with In Bloom to get a sense of Nana & Simon’s themes. Would parallel well with Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erg üven, 2015) or perhaps, to venture to the land of extremes within the same thematic terrain, Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, NARCISSUS

Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is Luca Guadagnino’s fifth feature. A nostalgic and lust-riddled Bildingsroman, the film was adapted from Andre Aciman’s novel of the same name. It catalogues a romance between a seventeen year old Italian-American boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and a visiting American scholar, Oliver (Armie Hammer) in 1980s summer, “somewhere in northern Italy”.

As with Luca Guadagnino’s prior feature, A Bigger Splash (2015), the director creates absorbing and immersive quality in attention to ‘trivialities’, the moments of cultural and contextual detail that colour the on-screen character’s experiences as much as our own. Just as in A Bigger Splash, Marianne and Harry watch the making of fresh ricotta in Pantelleria, Elio and Oliver linger over commemorative WWII statues, and find secret water-holes to lie beside in the sun, and antidote to the time-hungry and overwhelming motion of modern cinema. Characters are afforded the space to contemplate, and appreciate, affording us the same room as viewers.

Equal to the rhythm of the narrative, the blocking of Call Me By Your Name is immaculate — allowing us access to the expressions of characters that on-screen fellows are not privy to. There is a symmetry between blocking and symbolism as we watch Elio and Oliver circumnavigate the statue in the town circle, so their paths may intersect — albeit fleetingly, at the far side. Something close to comedy arises from the blatant imagery which could have been (non-tastefully) under played, but is instead conspicuously exploited, to the point of cringingly intimate use, re-sharpening the role of symbol in film — and reminding us of filmic intent, that props do not roll into the mise-en-scène unintentionally, but are placed there by design.

The soundtrack features some original songs by Sufjan Stevens, and some existing. The scored piano soundtrack   (I was unable to hunt down the composer, as she/he/they have been obscured by the flurry of activity over Stevens’ songs, unless it was also Stevens himself who was composing) was complimentary to the simple, pragmatic beauty of the Italian summer. That said, the use of Sufjan Stevens angst-riddled and lyric-heavy songs was simultaneously too bold and directly linked with narrative events, yet equally appropriately teen-like and harmonious with ‘real-time’ events for Elio and Oliver. In an equivalent alchemy, the film is rife with symbols. The fetishizing of male bodies and of artistic form give this film a high-brow ‘self-awareness’ and breadth of imagery, yet remains accessible, reflecting on the ways music and image are conduits for our in-the-moment experiences.

What sets Call Me By Your Name apart from other coming-of-age-romances, particularly those with a focus on queer sexuality, is that it does not shy away from intimacy, or force is into a repression that manifests in other ways — the chewing of pencils or obsessions with teachers. Such repressions and ‘cutting away’ might have otherwise led us to believe that Oliver and Elio’s relationship as one of exploitation rather than mutual pleasure. Instead, there is no ‘light bulb’ moment for Elio. He is self-aware yet does not label himself, but instead (realistically to his precocious character) acts upon his desires, which makes his narrative of self-actualization one that lingers upon the positives of his relationships, rather than the limitations of them.

Whilst I appreciated the ‘ambiguity’ of sexuality portrayed in the film, with both Elio and Oliver’s sexual preferences remaining undefined and individualized, the women of the film are overlooked. Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio’s brief summer fling, gives an admirable — and largely unacknowledged — show of strength in forgiving Elio for his treatment of her, yet her role in his actualization is diffuse and peripheral. The mother, is a complex and wise character, Annella (Amira Cesar) but is left unexplored and undermined in the final bonding moments between Elio and his father. She is cast as an ignorant accessory to the family, rather than scholar, wit and structural support she is. In addition, the religious significance of Oliver and Elio’s relationship remains largely unexplored. Given the weight placed upon the Jewish-Italian-American heritage of the family, this seems like a point of conflict much broader and internal than what is portrayed within this film’s particular window.

This film is too immersive and captivating to conclude without dragging us with Elio’s heartbreak. Elio’s sorrow entombs us as the season shifts and snow falls — a near-sardonic show of pathetic fallacy, but a forgivable one, because the film did manage to leave a sad tang in my mouth, for all its bright positivity. Guadagnino got the salt and rubbed it in the wound, and our shared heartbreak with Elio is a testament to this film’s excellence.

WATCH…on the big screen. This film is beautifully shot, and worthy of the ticket price.

DOUBLE FEATURE WITH…For Guadagnino’s traits, watch A Bigger Splash for a bill that’ll give a dose of summer proper. For contrast, watch back to back with Blue Is The Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013), though be warned of the scandalous history to the filming.