Sunday, 21 July 2013

Bleak Moments (1971)

Mike Leigh's first feature is certainly embryonic but equally it perhaps wears his chief fascinations (social clumsiness, the trivialities of human behaviour, self-importance and conceit, frustration and desperation and how we perceive each other and ourselves) far more clearly on its sleeve than some of his later work. There's little interest in polish here (though Bahram Manoocherhi's cinematography is wonderful) as Leigh explores the ponderous and awkwardness between his protagonists head on. 

Ricky Gervais would later extol and practice the virtues of embarrassing human behaviour as a source of comedy to great mainstream success; getting on film situations that the cringing viewer may only be able to stomach via a hand over the eyes or a slightly averted gaze, but here is proof that Leigh had beaten him to it. Bleak Moments is utterly uncompromising in its mumbling mordant depiction of social awkwardness and gaffes and in the bold move of getting the reality of facial twitches, clearing of the throat, hand wringing and almost kisses onto the screen. It's a fine line between watching excruciating interplay and the product actually being excruciating to watch but Leigh just about manages this tight rope well, dazzlingly well when one considers this is his first film.

It's certainly bleak, but it is equally not without hope too, simply because of the obvious resilience of spirit at the film's centre. It is Anne Raitt as Sylvia, a young woman utterly trapped by an unfulfilled life who takes that position and its a real tragedy to see someone so beautiful - Raitt looks like and is certainly lit like a heroine in a classical painting, like something by the Dutch Masters - in such titular bleak moments, solo bingeing on sherry of an evening as she endlessly waits for Eric Allen's obnoxious coldfish of a teacher to make a move. And yet, in her care for Hilda her mentally ill sister, her moments of dry and subversive wit and her achingly slow interactions with the hippy Norman, we see a woman not just isolated but strong, determined to do her best for her sister - a care home, for example, is simply never broached and her outright refusal of her colleague Pat's offer to take Hilda on is telling.

Not entertaining in the conventional sense, but nevertheless an excellent and important piece of filmmaking and an impressive debut from one of the true great in British cinema.

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