Friday, September 28, 2012


Well thanks to a sneak preview, courtesy of BAM, I finally got to see Andrea Arnold's (loose) adaptation of Emily Bronte's classic story: Wuthering Heights - the doomed love story about Catherine Earnshaw and her mysterious adopted brother Heathcliff. And I don't use the term: “loose” simply because Heathcliff is black in this adaptation. Enough hoopla has already been made of that even before the film hit the festival circuit last year. Long before this version came out there’s been tons of speculation of Heathcliff’s ethnicity from gypsy to moor. The problem with Arnold’s version is that the ambiguous race thing gets distracting at times because it becomes more about race than it does the love story (although there is one interesting line in the film - "your mother must have been an African queen and your father a Chinese emperor”).’s been a while since I've read Wuthering Heights but I don't remember lines like; "Fuck you, you cunts" and I don't remember the Hindley character (Catherine's brother) being a modern day skinhead/football hooligan. That’s part of the problem with this adaptation of Wuthering Heights - It feels like a modern day remake trapped inside of a remake that’s trying to stay true to the original that’s trapped inside of a whole 'nother jungle fever/Othello/tragic interracial Romeo & Juliet love story with mumbly dialogue (sounds like a mouthful, huh?). I mean really tho, watching this kinda made me think; "is this is Wuthering Heights or Othello?" Now this isn't the first time a director has mixed modern day elements in to a period piece (Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette & Derek Jarman's Jubilee come to mind) so I'm not trying to crucify Arnold for doing something that other filmmakers have already been doing for decades. It just seriously didn't feel like I was in the 19th century while watching this. There are a few moments but overall it felt like the story took place today and the characters were just dressed up in dated clothes (which was my main complaint about Coppola's Marie Antoinette). In Arnold's version, almost 60% percent of the story focuses on Healthcliff & Catherine as kids and huge chunks of the rest of the story are left out (literary purists will probably be furious at this adaptation). This is a film that's been haunting me for over a year ever since I overslept through the screening at Toronto last year. As many of you who read this blog know, I'm an Andrea Arnold fan (mostly due to Red Road and her music selection in Fish Tank). For some reason I was expecting a masterpiece (or a misunderstood masterpiece) but what I got instead was a problematic, flawed film with a few beautiful elements (that we'll get in to later). Dammit, I wanted to love this. Chris Funderberg, who warned me about this, wasn't lying in his Sundance write-up. This IS a rough one to sit through- The lingering shots of bugs & mud started to get on my nerves and Its very difficult to understand what the actors are saying half the time due to a combination of mumbling & whispering on top of the thick accents.

At the Q&A after the screening, a silly & jetlagged Andrea Arnold brought up an interesting/reasonable point in reference to all the people who complained about her re-working and/or leaving out so many things from the book. Arnold's reasoning was that the original Wuthering Heights story is so complex and layered that it’s impossible to put all of that in to one film. I guess that’s Understandable (even if that didn’t seem to be a problem for all the other countless film adaptations of Wuthering Heights in the past). The problem I have with her saying that is the film is 130 minutes long, which is more than enough time to tell the bulk of the famous love story between Heathcliff & Catherine (in my opinion). It’s just strange that the adaptation of such a wordy book has hardly any WORDS in this new film version…you know what I mean? I would understand the reasoning/excuse from Arnold if the film wasn’t full of so much void space, dialogue-less moments or lingering/long unedited shots of bugs, animals, hills and the sky. Maybe if there wasn’t so much focus on those things, that some may consider unimportant, she could have used her 130 minutes to focus more on the story. So I’m not buying it. But at the same time, I don’t think that’s exactly what Arnold wanted to do so even if you don’t like this film you can’t exactly call it a total failure. Even though this isn’t the best thing she's done, I think it’s what she's been working for since the beginning of her career. The handheld/P.O.V. perspective that we saw in Wasp is magnified times 10 in Wuthering Heights. The element of the unspoken/conveying something without dialogue that we saw in Red Road was taken to another level in Wuthering Heights. Arnold’s focus/fascination with youth, seen in Fish Tank, is magnified in this adaptation of Wuthering Heights as the majority of the film focuses on Catherine & Heathcliff as children. On a side note, Wuthering Heights may make some of you uncomfortable as there’s tons of serious sexual tension between kids in this (there’s one moment where young Catherine is looking young Heathcliff up & down while biting her bottom lip like she’s sizing him up to make out). Other Arnold staples, like her love for animals, are found in the film as well (although I will say that if you are a hardcore animal lover you may wanna turn your head at certain parts). And with the exception of the song in the end (which felt very out of place), this is her first score-less feature unless you count the sounds of the wind and tree branches scratching up against the windows. Seriously, sometimes it felt like Arnold intentionally picked the windiest days to shoot some of the scenes. It’s like she put the boom mic right up to the wind and just hit record on extra loud. Given the film’s vibe & ambience, I wouldn’t have been opposed to a brian eno/cliff martinez-style score.

I AM an Andrea Arnold defender and there are a few things in this film that I liked. I did enjoy the cinematography overall (but after a while it starts to get a little droning and painful...I mean CUT already). If Arnold wanted to make a book of images & stills from this film and put it out I'd buy it without question. Somehow they managed to make depressing shit like endless rain, grey weather and heavy fog look beautiful...

On the other hand, the cinematography may make some dizzy after a while. The camera work is a little too free sometimes and you could get lost.

This adaptation of Wuthering Heights had..."something". Like, there was an honest attempt at trying to do something different but there was too much emphasis on the atmosphere, ambiance and "look" of the film and not enough attention to anything else. Behind all that thick fog is a pretty empty film.

There's something attractive and fascinating about this film’s cold, isolated, up-close & personal feel that I can’t completely put in to words. You just kinda have to see it to get what I mean. The sound of the wind that’s present through most of the film along with all the shots of the foggy mountains reminded me Valhalla Rising (minus the violence) and I like that kind of atmosphere a lot these days. For further examples check out; The Spirit Of The Beehive, The Nest, la Cienaga, Solaris (specifically the first 10-15 minutes), Japon or Once Upon A Time In Anatolia. The only difference is that these films pull that style off much better than Wuthering Heights. It’s more of a personal preference and I wouldn’t waste my time trying to defend it. I understand if people don’t like that stuff. Unfortunately cinematography and atmosphere is about all I can come up with in terms of things that I really liked about the film (and that’s still not enough). There aren’t any standout performances and there doesn’t seem to be much of a traditional script to comment on. Sure the young Heathcliff & Catherine do an ok job of expressing their fascination and love for one another, but then other times they have no chemistry at all (we all know that chemistry between actors is KEY in a film that doesn’t have a lot of dialogue). I guess if you haven’t figured it out by now - approach this film with caution.

There were just too many clichés that didn’t need to be there like the interracial love angle and the intolerant racist community that hated Heathcliff. Had the casting choices been different (possibly professional actors) and the racial angle been taken out, Arnold could have focused more on the angst and pain in the Wuthering Heights story. There was clearly an attempt at showing that pain of losing the one you love in the last 45 minutes of the film, but due to the actor’s poor/flat performances (especially the actor who played the older Heathcliff) it just didn’t work. I understand Arnold was trying to approach this adaptation differently, but it ended up backfiring. How many film adaptations have there been of Wuthering Heights already? It just makes things worse when unnecessary clichés are thrown in to a remake (which is kinda cliché in itself). We seem to be in an interesting era as far as cinema is concerned. Since the start of this new decade, some of the most talked about films have the most flaws and get the most boos yet manage to bring up more discussion and dialogue among film lovers than perfect/flawless masterpieces like The White Ribbon. Think about it - Uncle Boonmee, Black Venus, Tree Of Life, Post Tenebras Lux, Road To Nowhere, To The Wonder (which will probably split humanity right down the middle just like Tree Of Life did), etc. Even early "best of the decade" candidates like Once Upon A Time In Anatolia have drawn some serious haters. Just like Wuthering Heights, all these films could easily be described as tough or difficult to sit through yet they have "something". They bring out emotions in people (even if its intense hatred). These films have the same amount of haters as they do fans and both sides have valid arguments that make for endless debate & conversation. That’s a good thing as far as I'm concerned. I've had more fun writing about and discussing recent films I don’t like (Road To Nowhere) or am conflicted about (Tree Of Life & Wuthering Heights) than I do recent films I love unconditionally. It feels like I’ve either written about or mentioned the Tree Of Life on PINNLAND EMPIRE more than any other film in the last year and a half. It makes me wish certain directors, which could be described as "tough" or "challenging" like David Lynch, Lodge Kerrigan, the old Lynne Ramsay or the 2002-2007 Gus Van Sant were present right now.
In closing, I'll say it once again - approach Wuthering Heights, which opens at the film forum on Friday, with caution.

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