FILM: Zéro de conduite (dir. Jean Vigo)

The fact that Zero for Conduct was banned says a lot about the atmosphere of anarchy that pervades the film. Criterion commentator Michael Temple notes that the anarchy extends even to the filmmaking itself, which randomly pulls in surrealism, animation, and anything that Jean Vigo seems to feel like. As a result, while it’s a film that builds up to an actual riot, it’s also a film that feels riotous in its very bones, taking a disciplinarian environment and turning it into a crucible for the discovery of both individual and collective agency.

A master walks down a dorm room; lines of young boys stand to attention on their beds on either side of the room.
Order before anarchy

An inspiration in many ways for The 400 Blows (which explicitly homages some of this film’s scenes), Zero for Conduct takes the form of a number of vignettes of a group of young boys surviving at school. A small group of the children are deliberate trouble-makers, and the attempts of the school to clamp down on these children’s expression only incites them to further disobedience. The film’s title is heard early on, with boys given black marks on their record for failure to step directly into line; a punishment meted out this early gives the school very little with which to escalate.

From the start, the school is presented as being overly rigid. Adult monitors patrol the bedrooms and playgrounds, and the boys are forced to stand at attention until 11pm as a punishment for one infraction, or given zero points for trying to take an extra few minutes in bed one sleepy morning. Beans seem to be the standard fare, and everything is organised in rigid lines and disciplined order.

Within this, there are individual moments of expression. One through-line concerns the tiny, effeminate boy Tabard, who has a close physical relationship with the older Bruel, manifested in the two of them sharing a jacket for cover during the rain and hanging out together in ways that the tiny headmaster flags as a problem, trying to find ways to separate them. It makes clear that one of the things that is happening here is a deliberate kind of social conditioning, and the fact that the film is on the side of the boys exhibiting signs of homosexual interest in one another is significant.

The film’s only sympathetic adult is the dreamy Huguet, who seems to deliberately work to conceal the boys’ minor infractions, who does Charlie Chaplin impressions and plays ball with the kids, and who – in one iconic sequence – drifts off when he’s meant to be taking the boys on an organised walk, or shows interest in a local woman heedless of the boys behind him. While there’s nothing Dead Poets’ Society about the way he inspires them, he’s a surprising representation of something that isn’t disciplinarian about the school, and perhaps gives the boys the sense that the chaotic can exist within this environment.

And so, the final sequence realises the potential of the smaller rebellions throughout the film. After Tabard tells the headmaster, in front of the whole class, that he’s full of shit, there’s a sudden cut to the dormitory at night as the militarised boys declare war on the school. The ensuing rebellion is utterly joyful, beautifully patterned with the feathers of dozens of torn pillows, the slow-motion flipping and somersaulting of the boys as they form their procession, and the flailing of their impotent teacher as he fails entirely to control them. The spilling out of the rebellion into the headmaster’s celebration, and the final shot of the four main rebels waving from the rooftops, gives a sense of the world turned upside down. Will the rebellion be contained? Quite probably. But it isn’t, and that’s what made the film dangerous.

Advertisement

THEATRE: The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (dir. Kara Hankard for Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble)

For a play that puts so much emphasis on being seen, and being ostentatiously seen – from the fashions of Jack Dapper to the bargaining over clothing in the streets, from the performance of canting to the insistence on visibility in one’s own chosen guise – Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble’s take on The Roaring Girl found much of the play’s humor in those characters who perhaps don’t want to be seen. Indeed, under Kara Hankard’s directorial oversight, it was often less the roarers than those seeking to silence the roarers who found themselves taking centre-stage.

Poster for The Roaring Girl, featuring someone's legs, showing a rainbow sole underneath the sneakers.
Dekkerasure

Treehouse’s staged reading series – of which this was the third, following Kelly McKinnon’s staging of James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter and Beth Harris and Madison Mayberrytake on Sor Juana’s House of Desires – usually run to seventy-five minutes; Hankard’s The Roaring Girl ran to a whopping two hours, as if each of its large ensemble of comic figures was fighting for space to be heard. Fascinatingly, though, it was Ethan Goodmansen’s Sir Alexander who became most visible precisely in his efforts to stick unobtrusively to the shadows. This exposing stage (a heavy thrust, and with the ensemble sitting upstage when not in a scene, effectively in-the-round) allowed the company to draw attention to just how much Sir Alexander depends on his eavesdropping, and made great sense of that rare moment in an early modern play where the eavesdropper is spotted by his victim (Petra Shearer’s Sebastian, Alexander’s son) and becomes in turn the victim of a reverse trick. Goodmansen’s Sir Alexander seemed just a bit too big for the stage – stumbling over obstacles, bulging out from behind the upstage curtain, staggering around the outskirts of the audience, and completely unable to hide himself from the events of which he wanted a controlling oversight.

Sir Alexander’s overblown attempts (and failures) to control the scene offered a neat way to conceptualise the play’s generational conflicts. Backed up by Sirs Adam Appleton (Harris) and Davy Dapper (Jovita Roselene), Sir Alexander began the play dominant; his peers and the younger gallants Laxton (Austen Bell), Goshawk (Katie Mestres) and Greenwit (Mayberry) hung on his every word, a captive audience acting in melodramatic concert as he wove them the tragic tale of the abused father. Shearer offered a beautifully bathetic counterpart to Sir Alexander’s propensity for performative posturing, her Sebastian rolling his eyes at his father’s grandiloquent angst. Alexander’s privilege allowed him to hold the stage, even with those who might be disposed to be less than sympathetic to his attempts to control his son’s marital prospects.

Sir Alexander’s time, though, felt like it was coming to an end even as the play began, leaving him relegated to the outskirts, ostensibly watching but unable to control what was happening, however much he impotently gasped and waited for his plans to play out. Instead, centre-stage was the playground of the young and fashionable. Some dominated with little difficulty – Jess Snellings’s Jack Dapper, for instance, only had to appear on the scene in order for the other gallants to throw themselves at his feet in reverence for his style (a burden Jack wore lightly as he passed through to the stores with his page, Harris again, in tow). Others had to fight a little harder; Bell’s Laxton and Mestres’s Goshawk, for instance, may have had the confidence to strut across the stage, but both found themselves negotiating hard to keep their places.

It was in the negotiations that the production succeeded most thoroughly in creating a chaotic, hilarious evening of misunderstandings and schemes, while also sometimes somewhat losing the thread of the stories it was telling. The Roaring Girl (oddly credited by the company to Middleton alone, in a sad bit of Dekkerasure) is a densely plotted play, and the various shenanigans of the citizenry were played for every comic line that could be milked from them. Johnny Williams III, for instance, repeatedly stole the show as the affected apothecary Gallipot, beautifully juxtaposed with the swaggering Laxton who was trying to fleece Gallipot’s wife. Shearer, as Mrs. Gallipot, played coquettish with Laxton, giggling and flirting with the young brash man, who enjoyed every moment of attention he could get. But the return of the fussy Gallipot, prompting Mrs. Gallipot’s lavish and histrionic back story of a previous thwarted engagement to Laxton, reduced the married couple to emotional wrecks, collapsing and pleading with Laxton; Bell’s expert switch from Laxton’s initial befuddlement to a decision to roll with it showed just how much the ability to fake it til you make it was necessary for survival in this world.

Where the Gallipot/Laxton storyline got plenty of space to breathe, though, Goshawk’s entanglement with the Openworks (Margaret Levin and Mayberry) felt a little more compressed, albeit with one particularly outstanding comic scene as an increasingly panicked Goshawk waved arms and tried to rescue himself as the Openworks cornered him into an unavoidable confrontation, Openwork performing an increasingly threatening version of himself for the benefit of the quaking Goshawk. In a very odd textual choice, the set-up to the Dapper plot was present and correct but – unless I blinked and missed it, which admittedly was not impossible given the production’s length – dropped without resolution. Conversely, the cut enormously privileged Trapdoor (Julia Sommer), here playing the clown with both planned and impromptu adlibs for the audience (especially at those moments where cues were missed), whose roguish energy and lavish displays of humility and subterfuge threatened to make him the main character. Trapdoor shared something of Sir Alexander’s propensity for the sidelines, and the two of them had a lot of fun sticking up post-it notes which stood in for Sir Alexander’s array of watches, chains and other objects for Moll to steal. That is, the cut privileged anything that could be played outward for laughs – which the whole ensemble did, successfully and continuously – but in doing so, the actual through-lines of characters and plots often took a back seat to the immediate playing for a laugh.

This oddly left the title character a little adrift, an impression heightened by a deliberately eclectic and gender-fluid mix of costumes in relation to actors’ bodies which removed the distinctiveness of Moll Frith’s own gender non-conformity. The distinctiveness that Brie Roche brought to Moll was, instead, one more of confidence than of sartorial appearance. Moll – or Jack – took up space, striding with ease and possessiveness across the stage. Where gallants such as Gowhawk and Greenwit were characterised by nervous energy , Moll’s relaxed comfort in her own body set her up as having an aspirational dignity. Interestingly, Moll seemed to have exactly the energy that Laxton was aspiring to; Laxton’s own swagger was only diminished when coming into direct conflict with Moll on the heath, in one of the very few scenes that wasn’t played for laughs, as Moll – with bandit-style neckerchief over her face at first – backed Laxton into a pillar to prostitute him to her. But because Moll wasn’t fighting for space in this world in the way the rest of the characters were, paradoxically, her disruption to this world felt less, and the side of the play which uses Moll as a vehicle for others’ plots came through more strongly (an effect exaggerated by splitting the epilogue between the entire company).

The Roaring Girl is a weird play, structurally. Characters like Laxton appear to be central to the action, but then disappear entirely; the central love story between Sebastian and Mary has to take place in a very few scenes; and the complex subplots all try to do a lot in a short space. This reading gave space to everything, and even small parts like Sarah Scarborough’s Tailor – who bustled in and began measuring Moll up in the street – got their space in the limelight. Shearer and Levin, as Sebastian and Mary, worked hard to set up the stakes of their love story in their time together; Mary’s clown nose costume in the opening scene was a playful touch to set up her own agency, and while the production didn’t lean especially heavily into the queer frisson of Sebastian enjoying kissing Mary in male costume later (perhaps because the staged reading’s costumes didn’t make such gender distinctions as clear-cut), the equal connection between the two established clearly the stakes of the love story. But if there was a connecting thematic thread beyond the desire to play out for the laugh, it seemed to come in the competition for visibility, and the terms by which individuals either fell flat on their faces or found ways to allow themselves to be seen.

This certainly came across strongly in the production’s concluding scene as, during the marriage plot, Moll ripped off her disguise to reveal herself, laughing uproariously at Sir Alexander and Fitzallard (WIlliams) as they scurried to hide behind the pillars, shocked and appalled at the travestying of the ceremony. In this moment, the potential unifying purpose of the production felt to me like it asserted itself in the image of Moll – the one person in the production most confident in her own body, occupying space, and sending those who try to control the fates of others off to the sidelines. In moments such as this, the production’s subversive and joyful humour became more than just a joke – it became the means by which those who try to control others can be finally sent packing, and where those with confidence to be themselves could finally be seen.

FILM: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (dir. Sam Raimi)

What exactly is the theology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? There are gods, who were initially established as aliens, but who also seem to have genuine connections to some kind of afterlife (if Jane Foster’s appearance in Valhalla at the end of Thor: Love and Thunder means anything, in addition to Moon Knight). There’s certainly no Judeo-Christian God so far, but religious belief seems to be respected. And there are explicit occult forces, such as Agatha Harkness’s witch coven. But when some Evil Dead-style demons emerge from the possessed corpse of Doctor Strange and tell him that possessing a dead body is ‘forbidden’, it really does raise the question of what evil, Hell, or demons or whatever are in this universe. As Wong says, ‘I don’t even wanna know’.

A Black woman magician holds the end of an implement and sort of smiles.
Sheila Atim instantly making anything she’s in twice as good.

Seen from a distance, the problems of Sam Raimi’s film come from what appears to be a massive compromise. This definitely feels more distinctive than a normal MCU film, from the eldritch monsters conjured by Wanda Maximoff, to the use of zombies, to the horror tropes that haven’t really been a part of the MCU since The Incredible Hulk. But that imagination seems so firmly on the leash that it never reaches its full potential – witness the fantastic montage imagining universes made up of paint or 2D animation, followed by the crushing disappointment of arriving in a slightly different version of our usual universe designed to be a vehicle for big-name cameos. Marvel’s infinite possibility is limited to its own quite small extensions of normal.

The other problem is also the film’s greatest strength. By making Wanda the villain, the stakes genuinely feel higher than ever before in this universe. Wanda’s heel turn does feel natural; she was abused badly in the Avengers films; we saw her forsaking all ethical mores when she took over a own in WandaVision, and we saw her at the end of that series still looking for the possibility of her children. Here, that arc is completed with her transformation into full villain. The problem is that the villainy is so coded as ‘hysterical mom’ in opposition to the calm rational man, and that the solution comes from another woman showing her to herself. As storytelling, it feels like a fair development for the character, but in the context of a Marvel universe where pretty much no-one gets to be a mum, and most mothers who do exist are dead or erased, it adds up to a pretty bleak picture for women.

Added to this is the disappointment of the multiverse as a concept. While it’s certainly a lot of fun to see Patrick Stewart, Lashana Lynch, Hayley Atwell and Ansel Mount back in the universe, along with John Krasinski in a first glimpse of Reed Richards, it very much feels like the multiverse is an excuse to set up stakeless battles where big names can be seen being killed without consequences. It also means that the return of Chiwitel Ejiofor’s Mordo feels entirely wasted, while instead the film depends on investment in Christine Palmer, a character so barely sketched in the first film that it feels like an enormous retcon to make her so prominent here. And while a lot of this seems to allow for the possibility of a serious exploration of Stephen Strange’s propensity for going further than he should into the occult, the film feels like it’s battling between several different stories, of which Stephen’s is really the least interesting.

This is coupled with yet another of Phase Four’s handing-over sequences, introducing a new member of a younger generation of heroes. Xochitl Gomez is charismatic and often funny as America Chavez, but because she’s the MacGuffin, she’s given very little space to develop as a character, and the asked-for investment in the idea of her discovering her true power feels very forced. Rarely, this is a film that could actually have done with being longer, as none of the ideas here are bad, but without space to develop character, the plot races too quickly.

Still, there is lots that is good here. Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, is truly excellent throughout, and even if her Crazy Mom arc has problems, it’s at least a beautifully performed arc that finds genuine grief and rage under all of the CGI. The uncanny visual effects are great, and in the smaller roles – including Sheila Atim in what is basically a cameo, Michael Stuhlbarg’s sad brief appearance, and in the larger role played by Wong – the stakes feel high. But fundamentally, the film never really wants to interrogate the rules and values of its universe. Doctor Strange continues to be right because he’s Doctor Strange, regardless of how many people (who tend to get killed) question that. But depending on where the post-credits sting leads, along with the rest of the Multiverse Sage that is Marvel’s Phases Four, Five, and Six, this may still turn out to be a film with a much larger purpose.

TELEVISION: The Walking Dead, ‘Do Not Send Us Astray’ (dir. Jeffrey F. January)

‘Do Not Send Us Astray’ is an episode of two halves, both of which have merit, and both of which compete to make a case to the viewer for what is the true threat of The Walking Dead. For the first half, it’s the Saviors, who suddenly – and with no small amount of relief – appear to be a relatively containable threat. For the second half, on the other hand, it’s the zombies who populate the world of this apocalypse who, we’re reminded, can still be a genuinely scary prospect.

Maggie, surrounded by a group of people, holds a walkie talkie up to her mouth.
The pit crew checks in

Simon has taken over the Saviors, and while he’s far less competent than Negan, he’s also unpredictable. This episode takes place entirely at The Hilltop, with the good guys waiting in the compound for the Saviors to arrive and launch a major attack. The commitment to this set-piece is commendable, and all the more so for not being yet another guns-blazin’ shoot-out. Rather, this is an intricately staged battle in which both sides manage to pull surprises on the other.

While we haven’t yet seen Maggie do an enormous amount of leading, here the emphasis is on just what she manages to pull off. She lures the Saviors in through the gates using Daryl, then boxes them in, and then starts picking them off. While the Saviors break through with their archers, the Hilltop folk then put out the lights and funnel the Saviors to where they can be blinded with sudden floodlights and picked off. For all of Simon’s bravado, the Saviors are send running with their tails between their legs, and Maggie – who admits in a candid moment that she just wanted revenge, no matter the cost – is praised for her leadership.

The second part of the evening, though, sees the shit hit the fan. Little psychotic Henry, still mad about the death of his brother, takes it upon himself to go down to the prison where the captive Saviors are being held, and opens the gate, letting them out. Half of them run, though some – having heard Simon say that he places no value on the prisoners’ lives – take the opportunity to prove their new-found loyalty to the Hilltop. But the breakdown of the prison is paralleled with Morgan’s ongoing mental breakdown; he’s now seeing the ghost of Gavin, shouting at him, blaming him for what has happened.

More alarmingly, the injured Hilltop folk start turning into zombies in the middle of the night. This is a massive disruption to the show’s mythology – the idea that being wounded with something smeared in zombie blood is enough to turn the wounded person – but it’s effective in introducing a new threat, as suddenly a threat emerges within the hospital, and within the main house where the women and children are sleeping. Yes, there’s a massive question to ask about why there appears to be no-one on watch. But the slow dread as the zombies start spreading and attacking is powerful – for all the Hilltop had a moment of victory, it’s desperately short-lived. And the sudden emergence of a traumatic set of losses from within feels like a cruel irony after Maggie’s carefully planned defeat of the Saviors.

The Hilltop don’t end up destroyed, as they put down the zombies and count their losses – and Tara, who was injured by a Savior weapon, worries she may be among the losses to come. Equally, they’ve seen off the Saviors, but only temporarily. The battle doesn’t change the overall state of play, but instead crystallises the stakes and, crucially, re-establishes Maggie as a major player in this war. But if the good guys can no longer even get scratched by a Savior’s weapon, then there are bigger problems to come.

TELEVISION: Poker Face, ‘The Stall’ (dir. Iain B. MacDonald)

With the third episode of Poker Face, some online commentators have started remarking on the suspicious frequency with which Natasha Lyonne’s Charlie happens across murders. But this is something built into the show’s conceit – her ability to instantly see through lies, where others might not know there’s anything to challenge. Here, Charlie’s suspicions are initially raised during the eulogy given by a man for a brother who has apparently died by suicide, who is clearly lying about something. It rather begs the question of, if we were so observant, might we also find ourselves surrounded by criminals?

A man in a cap, George, kneels down in front of his BBQ place with a yippy dog.
BAD dog.

The show leans heavily into its comic vibes in this episode. Charlie finds a dog in her car after filling it up with gas. It bites, it farts, it barks relentlessly, and it refuses to let Charlie listen to anything on the radio apart from a right-wing shock-jock railing against Jews, vaccines, Black people, the left, and Mexicans. The parody of this kind of radio commentator is funny enough, but even funnier when it’s built into the plot later. But more importantly, Charlie’s initial tolerance of this awful dog and eventual decision to kick it out is precisely what lands her in hot water, after the dog jumps out at a BBQ joint and eats a bunch of food, forcing her to take a job to work off the debt – until the chef apparently kills himself.

Poker Face is distinguishing itself through the tightness of its writing, and this is an episode where everything counts. The key metaphor here is that of cooking meat. George, the cook, shows Charlie how a good BBQ is like a symphony, introducing her to the subtleties and intricacies of creating the perfect bit of meat. And his care and precision, his attention to the details, wins over Charlie, who herself is interested in the fine details. So when he turns up dead, it’s the details she looks for, and satisfyingly, all the details have been there already in the episode: the sound of a regular train, the voice of the shock-jock, the tastes of different kinds of wood. There’s no waste.

As is standard for Poker Face, the audience already knows who the murderer is. We’ve seen George killed by his brother Taffy, colluding with George’s wife Mandy, after George decides he wants out of the business. In a jarring twist, it turns out that George has suddenly turned vegan after watching Okja, lent to him by Charlie, thus bringing Charlie in as part of the cause of the chain of events that led to his murder, as well as the person who pursues the case. If there’s a problem with this structure, it’s that the stakes feel somewhat lower; it’s hard to imagine these culprits getting the drop on Charlie, and in many ways we’re watching her work through the inevitable, rather than building tension either around her own safety or her ability to find out the killer.

Really, what sets the show apart is the fact that its protagonist is not a detective or cop. When she confronts Mandy, the two almost explicitly admitting what they both know to be the truth, Mandy says ‘Can you prove it?’ and Charlie replies ‘Cop prove it? No’. The real skill here is not finding out who did what, but working out the mechanism by which the crooks can incriminate themselves or otherwise be punished in ways that lead them to justice. Here, the uneasy collaboration between Mandy and Taffy is the point that Charlie is able to exploit. Critically, though, she is starting to see herself as something of an investigator, in ways that imply that, if she really commits to this, she’ll be unstoppable.

There’s also a nice through-line of compassion here. The racist dog gets hurt, and invites kindness even from those it has tried to bite. The neglected support DJ gets a star turn. And the kindly community that gathers around George’s BBQ gets to shed itself of those who manipulate the customers and monetise the love of good food. There’s a community-based justice in operation here, and Charlie’s catchphrase – ‘Bullshit’ – seeks to sniff out the things that damage these small groups of people. Long may she continue.

January 2023 round-up

A new year, a new set of peddles. Here are The Pedlar’s wares for the first month of 2023.

CINEMA: The Whale; A Man Called Otto; M3GAN; I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

OTHER FILM: All Quiet on the Western Front; The Worst Person in the World; Make Way for Tomorrow; Fist of Fury; Beast; Roald Dahl’s Matilda; À Propos de Nice; Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.

TELEVISION: The Last of Us, ‘When You’re Lost in the Darkness‘, ‘Infected‘, ‘Long, Long Time‘; Poker Face, ‘Dead Man’s Hand‘; What We Do in the Shadows, ‘The Prisoner‘, ‘The Casino‘; Wednesday, ‘Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe‘, ‘Woe What a Night‘, ‘A Murder of Woes‘; Ghosts, ‘About Last Night‘, ‘He Came!‘; The Walking Dead, ‘Bury Me Here‘, ‘Some Guy‘; The Bear, ‘System‘, ‘Review‘.

BOOKS: E. K Johnston, Exit, Pursued by a Bear.

THEATRE: As You Like It (RSC); Document (Storm Theater).

MUSIC: U2, ‘Pride (In The Name of Love) (Songs of Surrender version)‘.

FILM: All Quiet on the Western Front (dir. Edward Berger)

This is the third major adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel, and it’s not especially apparent quite why the book needed another take. In many ways, coming in the wake of other World War I movies such as 1917, it feels as much as anything like a new gloss on a very well-told story, a chance to run through the familiar beats with increasingly capable production values and displays of spectacle. For all that this is a beautifully done film, everything that feels fresh here is in the aesthetics.

A soldier sits down in No Man's Land, while others run past.e
All quiet.

War sucks, folks. In one excellent opening sequence, we see a young man killed at war, and then follow his uniform (in a cycle reminiscent of the machinistic montages in Mike Leigh’s Peterloo) as it is cleaned, recycled, and passed on to a new recruit, Paul. Paul notices a name tag and says it must be someone else’s; the officer who gave it to him says that it must not have fit the person who it was originally given to. It’s an effective if blunt metaphor for the efficiency of the war machine which churns through a never-ending supply of raw meat.

The beats here are otherwise largely what one might expect. Paul and a group of his impressionable young friends are riled up for war in 1917 by a professor-type who fills their heads with ideas of being the generation on whom Germany depends, and of heroism. But very quickly, they’re disillusioned. Their jovial convoy ride to the front line is disrupted by the commandeering of their vehicles for the dead and dying, forcing them to walk the remaining distance amid shelling. And over the next eighteen months, as they’re pushed again and again over the top, the film relentlessly subjects its viewers to the soldiers being repeatedly subjected to the horrors of war. Endless shots of men cowering in no man’s land, traumatised by the death around them; endless images of missing body parts and sudden deaths; endless indignities and dirt and mud.

It’s unfair to be critical of what is, ultimately, a pretty standard take on war. The film shows countless lives, senselessly lost, and the rest of the lives traumatised. There is no grand purpose here, no rescue. The bits of joy that are found in the camaraderie between the central group – generally winsome, some of whom have wives at home, others of whom are trying to work out how to talk to girls, some of whom are more naive than others etc. – invite understanding of the soldiers as humans who have their humanity stripped away from them. The film’s particular ironies come from the fact that many of them aren’t even killed in direct conflict; one, injured, takes some cutlery and stabs his own throat; another is shot by a farmer’s son after stealing some eggs. The waste is the point.

Around all of this, the film follows Daniel Brühl’s Matthias Erzberger, chief negotiator of the German surrender, as he tries to end the war. The emphasis here is somewhat jarring; Erzberger is presented as the humane man trying to stop further bloodshed, while the other side insist on absolute surrender or they will continue their victory. This isn’t exactly German apologia, as much as an attempt to show that the responsibility for peace lies on all sides, and that war hurts everyone. But it leads to the film’s final irony as Paul loses his life in the dying seconds of the war, during a final outbreak of fighting leading up to the 11am armistice.

This is an enormously accomplished film. Its scenes of war are harrowing and enormous, the scale of human suffering unimaginable. But it doesn’t seem to have anything new to say, beyond that this should never have happened, and must never happen again. If there is something new to gain from it, it’s in the argument that peace needs to be desired on all sides; that pursuing vengeance will only result in more harm. But above all, it’s a film that wants to remind us, in as memorably visceral images as possible, of the war that all sides insist must never be forgotten.

TELEVISION: The Last of Us, ‘Long, Long Time’ (dir. Peter Hoar)

Apocalypse narratives – looking especially at you, The Walking Dead – struggle to find meaningful hope. There are often flashes of individual connection, or brief moments of reprieve, but the idea of actually finding lasting happiness during the end of the world is, almost by definition, off the table. And so, ‘Long, Long Time’ feels like it’s, if not breaking new ground, at least acknowledging that its world can be more than despair, as it takes time out in only its third episode to introduce a new character and a whole life and love found amid the rubble.

Bill, with long hair and beard, holds a rifle in front of an electrified fence.
In an apocalypse, the only person you want around is Ron Swanson.

Bill (Nick Offerman, brilliantly building on his most beloved character, Ron Swanson) is a survivalist, who hides out during the evacuations at the start of the pandemic (when the government are rounding up people and often just killing them). Alone in his tiny town, he sets about creating a one-man settlement: he breaks into hardware stores, he sets up a generator, and most crucially, he hits the wine stores. A few years later, he’s got a whole compound with electrified fence set up, and is really living his best life. The survivalist, it turns out, wasn’t crazy to be paranoid, and he’s surviving.

Merely surviving, however, is just static. And so, when Frank (Murray Bartlett) falls into one of Bill’s traps, Bill doesn’t immediately kill him. He takes time vetting the guy, and then invites him in for dinner. Frank’s pure exhilaration on tasting rabbit paired with a good wine is intoxicating, and it’s intoxicating for Bill too. Frank has realised that Bill is gay, and the two bond tentatively over Bill’s piano, before Frank leans in for a kiss. It’s Bill’s first sexual experience with another man, and Frank is gentle, caring, full of love. And thus begins a new happiness.

Some online reviews have suggested this is ‘Gay Up‘, and it’s not an entirely unfair comparison. As the years pass, Frank and Bill build a life together. Frank is positive, looking to spruce up the neighbourhood and tidy up the shops, ahead of inviting friends around (which he does, to Bill’s hilarious horror, by talking to Tess and Joel on the radio and inviting them over). Bill, who hates people who aren’t Frank, concentrates on defense, including during one fantastically shot night-time raid where a group of gun-toting would-be robbers find themselves at the business end of Bill’s flamethrowers and electrical fence. Through it all, the two live together, and in some ways it’s the bits we don’t see, the years of peace and love in between the incidents, that stand out most powerfully.

Finally, just before the episode catches up with the present and Joel and Ellie come calling, Bill and Frank get to the end of their journey together. Frank is slowly dying, and Bill is pushing him around in a wheelchair. One morning, Bill wakes up to find Frank sitting watching him. Frank has decided that he wants one final perfect day, and for Bill to pour an overdose of pills into his wine to finish the day. The man to whom Bill once said ‘I wasn’t afraid until I met you’ cries, then agrees. But then, when Frank finishes his wine, he downs his own. ‘You were my purpose’ he says, in a heartbreaking embrace of free choice, before the two go to their final sleep together.

There’s a few minutes still for Ellie and Joel to arrive at the compound, to find a note from Bill telling Joel to protect those he loves (he names Tess, crushingly), and for Ellie and Joel to take advantage of Bill passing on his love by telling Joel to take whatever he needs. For our two main characters, it’s only a rest point as they prepare to go to their next potential stopping point. But by taking the time to flesh out Bill and Frank’s story, the episode expands the emotional scope of The Last of Us far beyond anything it had implied thus far. It shows us that there are stakes in this world, because there remains not only the possibility of happiness, but also of long and fulfilled lives that end on their own terms. And it shows that love still exists in this world.

FILM: The Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier)

For all that The Worst Person in the World has any number of talking-point scenes – a woman on magic mushrooms smears menstrual blood on her face! A cartoon animal loses his anus! A city grinds to a magical halt! Lots of sex! – the film that underpins all of the ‘shocking’ moments is thoughtful, even melancholic, and mature. This is a millennial coming-of-age story, deeply caught up in the social mores and expectations of being a thirty-year-old in the world today, emerging into adulthood and reckoning with the future. Anchored by a truly outstanding central performance, The Worst Person in the World reflects on what it means to be responsible in an age where responsibility is ill-defined at best.

A woman, Julie, looks at a man, Eivind, peeing in a urinal.
Erm are you sure you’re in the right bathroom?

Julie (Renate Reinsve) is trying to work out who she is and what she wants to do with her life. She’s under pressure by the older generation to do the traditional things – find a man, get married and have kids, hold down a job – but she’s somewhat aimless, bouncing between medical school, psychology, photography, writing. She follows her impulses, often literally – in one early sequence, she walks out of a party where she’s feeling secondary to her graphic novelist boyfriend, and wanders until she comes upon a wedding which she crashes and where she strikes up a fun conversation with another guy. Her impulses lead her to fun, to excitement, to new opportunities. But because she doesn’t know where she’s going, she also struggles to know if she’s gone the right way.

None of the men in her life are perfect, which is as it should be. At the film’s start she is bouncing between guys, including her psych professor, but soon the film settles down into a pattern with two men. One, Aksel, the graphic novelist, is older than her, and has spent his career writing edgy underground art that is being reappraised today for its misogyny, while at the same time the comic’s characters are being turned into a sanitised kids’ film. Aksel and Julie move in together, but even from the start, Julie is having to negotiate for bookshelf and closet space, and he’s telling her what to do (or not do) with the windows. And she herself settles into being adjunct to his life.

Eivind is younger, with a similar irresponsible tendency. They meet at the wedding she has crashed, and while they are both dating other people, they play with what they can do with one another without technically cheating. Eivind represents escape for her, as most beautifully portrayed in the stand-out sequence where suddenly the whole of Oslo grinds to a halt apart from the two of them, and they enjoy a passionate, out-of-time fling. He himself is escaping from a girlfriend who has learned that she is 3% Indigenous and who has fully embraced climate activism, and Julie’s more carefree nature allows him to regress; the two of them have a bizarre evening doing magic mushrooms with two friends. But as Julie’s own sensibilities become more serious, he may be too much of a child for her.

The problem for Julie is that time can’t stand still. As much as she resists Aksel asking her about children, or the expectations placed on her by family, the truth is that time moves forward. Her parents are getting older. She thinks about her career, especially after writing a short story. She suddenly finds she is pregnant. And, in a shift that changes everything for her, she hears that Aksel is dying of cancer after she has left him, and she reconnects with her dismissive, misogynist ex at a point in his life where he is vulnerable and reflective. The empathy the film finds for Aksel is a neat surprise, but also creates a complex turning point for Julie, as she reckons with what she is looking for from life.

Part of why The Worst Person in the World works is that everyone, really, is the worst person, because there’s no true yardstick for a person’s goodness. People are bouncing through the world, making connections, making choices, some of which are good, some of which are bad, and there are no right or neat answers. But in finding empathy for a generation who are trying to work out how to live in a changing world, the film seeks resolution precisely in the contradictions. It is important that Julie’s happy ending (or at least, happy point-at-which-we-leave-her) is in her work, and in a job where she becomes relatively invisible herself, taking set photographs and putting them together in her own room by herself. For all that community or relationships are so often posited as the route to happiness, the film also finds peace in a moment of quiet, productive independence.

TELEVISION: Poker Face, ‘Dead Man’s Hand’ (dir. Rian Johnson)

‘I’m not a cop’ says Charlie (Natasha Lyonne), reminding the bad guys and herself that, as much as Poker Face‘s pilot episode plays out as a private detective story, this is not going to end by defaulting to the law. Poker Face feels like a perfect complement to the Benoit Blanc films, with another quirky figure aiming to right the wrongs of the super-rich. In Charlie Cale, though, Lyonne and Rian Johnson have created an even more compelling figure, a woman burdened with a gift that puts her in the heart of trouble, and who is on the outside of the structures that might help her.

Charlie holds a beer while standing between a private bar and a billiards table.
Ready to play

The crime is set up first. Casino cleaner Natalie (Dascha Polanco) is cleaning the room of a high roller but sees child pornography on his computer. She reports it to the casino’s head of security, Cliff (Benjamin Bratt), and the manager, Sterling (Adrien Brody), who reassure her that they’ll handle it and send her home. But when she gets back, Cliff is already waiting, having shot her husband dead, and kills her summarily, setting it up as a murder-suicide. There’s no way that this casino is going to let its big spenders be taken down by a nobody.

Enter Charlie, working as a waitress in the hotel. Charlie is living in a trailer with no money, getting by on charm and drinks, and is good friends with Natalie. But – skipping back shortly in time – she has just been hired for a con by Sterling, who has learned about Charlie from his father, the casino’s owner. Charlie has a gift – she can instantly tell when someone is deliberately lying. A fair amount of time is established on the rules: she can’t predict the future, she can’t necessarily distinguish the thousands of small lies that people tell, but she can tell when people are deliberately trying to deceive. In a past life, this led her to be a killer poker player, until Sterling’s father found her out and had her blackballed, but in doing so gave her a job. Now, Sterling, Jr. is planning to use her to help fleece the very same big roller whose crimes Natalie uncovered. But just as Sterling and Charlie are going to put their scheme into action, Natalie turns up dead.

This is a typical Rian Johnson joint. It’s full of witty time shifts and callbacks, clues scattered everywhere. What makes this episode particularly compelling is that Sterling and Cliff know Charlie’s gift, but keep her around anyway. Brody is particularly good at showing Sterling’s cunning duplicity as he steers leading questions away from things that would force him into a lie. And even while Charlie begins actively pursuing the circumstances that led to Natalie’s death, Sterling is never entirely willing to cut his ties and keep himself safe, because he needs Charlie so much.

The problem is that everyone underestimates Charlie. She’s bumbling and fast-talking, prone to getting drunk or hyped up on coffee, and doesn’t seem to have her life together. But she’s sharp as a razor, and as soon as she clocks onto what is happening, comes up with her own plan. Beautifully, as she’s not a cop, she doesn’t report Sterling and Cliff to the police, especially as Sterling has already made clear that he owns the police. Instead, she blows the con, tells the high roller, and gets the casino blackballed – no professional gamblers will ever darken its doors again. The crushing revelation here is beautifully carried by Brody, as Sterling goes from elated to devastated, and then calmly walks to the balcony of his room and throws himself off.

The plot is intricate and a pleasure to watch unfold, but it’s Lyonne who really carries the episode. While there’s a certain amount of concealment from the viewer, this separates itself from other detective stories by letting us indulge in the mess of the process; Charlie isn’t a master deducer with a grand plan, she’s intuitive and instinctive and responsive, which means we get to watch her not just solve the case, but become the kind of person who solves a case. But at the episode’s end, she’s alone and on the run from Sterling’s vengeful father, with a bleeding wound as Cliff gets in a shot at her. And so, whatever happens next, any cases she solves will also be on the fly as she winds her way to, well, wherever she’s going.