Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael (2005) Film Review
I am always wary of taking too instant a dislike to a film. Look at it a month later and you might see it differently, or dig it up after 50 years on a different continent and some cult followers might find something stylistically remarkable that went unnoticed at first. After sitting through The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael at its UK premiere, it came as no surprise to me that I found the question and answer session afterwards more interesting than the film itself.
Shane Danielsen (Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival until 2006), aided by the film's director, Thomas Clay, and producer, Joseph Lang, gave a spirited defence of a movie that received an overall negative response from the audience.
Edinburgh Festival audiences are not easily shocked. Only one person walked out in disgust. The criticisms of the film included articulate and constructive ones from the lay public as well as an actor and a woman who teaches film directors. This was not an overly 'shocking' film. There was a degree of uninterrupted sexual violence, but far less extreme than many movies (most actual weapon contact was obscured, as were aroused genitals).
The audience disliked it because they had sat through two hours that were quite boring, where the acting standards were not high, where the plot was poor, predictable and drawn out, and where they had been subjected to clumsy and pretentious film-making on the promise of a controversial movie. Metaphors about the war in Iraq are contrived, over-emphasised and sloppy (apart from a general allusion to violence, any deeper meaning is unclear) and the 'fig-leaf' reference to the Marquis de Sade, as one audience member put it, seems a mere tokenistic excuse for lack of plot development toward the finale.
We have the story of an adolescent who has a certain amount going for him (he stands out at school for his musical ability) but takes drugs and hangs out with youths who have little or nothing going for them and whose criminal activities extend to rape and violence. When pushed, Robert seems to have a lot of violence locked inside him.
The film is not entirely without merit. The audience is left to decide how Robert got that way: was it the influence of his peers? Why did all the good influences and concern from parents and teachers not manage to involve him in a better approach to life? Cinematically, there is a carefully-montaged scene where he hangs back (whether due to too many drugs, shyness, a latent sense of morality or just waiting his turn is unclear). Several of his friends are raping a woman in a back room, partly glimpsed and framed in the centre of the screen. In the foreground of the bare bones flat, a DJ is more concerned that the girl's screams interrupt his happy house music than with any thought for her. Ultimately he is a bit annoyed if their activities attract police attention. The stark juxtaposition of serious headphones enjoyment of his music even when he knows a rape is going on points up his utter disdain in a deeply unsettling way. Robert slumps with his back to us in the foreground.
Unfortunately the rest of the film, including its supposedly controversial climax involving considerable (if not overly realistic) sexual violence, is not up to this standard. Some people have had a strong reaction to it (the filmmakers' stated intention: "If they vomit, we have succeeded in producing a reaction") but mostly - and as far as I could tell - the Edinburgh reaction seemed to mirror reports from Cannes.
They asked "Why have programmers subjected us to such inferior quality film-making?" Director Clay can talk the talk but has not developed artistic vision. His replies about holding up a mirror to life to tell the truth about things that are swept under the carpet, even his defence that there is little plot development because he didn't want to do a standard Hollywood movie - are good answers to criticisms, but unfortunately they do not apply to his film, any more than they do to holding up a mirror while someone defecates or wastes film while playing ineptly with symbols.
Wanting to try to give him the benefit of any lingering doubt, I spoke to him for a few minutes after the screening, but I found him as distasteful as his movie and soon moved to the bar to wash my mouth out with something more substantial. There are many truths. One aspect of art is to educate, another to entertain, another to inspire. I had asked him if he had any social or political agenda and he mentioned Ken Loach (one of the many great names he takes in vain) without going so far as to admit any agenda himself. He then fell back on his mantra about his job being to tell the truth. I am left with the feeling that this was an overambitious project for a new director, or else a disingenuous attempt to put himself on the map by courting publicity for second rate work.
Andy Warhol could paint a tin of soup and it was art. Clay would like to emulate the great directors who have made controversial cinema and pushed boundaries. Sadly, his ability at the moment only extends to making high-sounding excuses for a publicity-seeking film.Reviewed on: 05 Oct 2006