Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Britain in the nineties produced many remarkable and innovative film directors, but none of them have had more of an impact on me than Blackburn born Michael Winterbottom. Winterbottom has proven more consistently brilliant and prolific than almost any of his often more publicized peers. If he hasn’t had a break out hit comparable to directors his age like Guy Ritchie or Danny Boyle, he has had a remarkable staying power, and nearing his twentieth year of filmmaking Winterbottom’s vision seems as fresh and as vibrant as ever.
Winterbottom was born in the spring of 1961 in the period where the so called 'Kitchen Sink Drama' was really beginning to flourish in England. Like many of the best directors of the sixties, Winterbottom’s own career has adapted the rather unique capability of marked genre hopping while following similar thematic obsessions. Critics of his career often frown upon Winterbottom’s fearless embracing of all types of cinema, but they often overlook the distinct patterns that connect even his most seemingly diverse work.
Michael got his start in the same way many of his peers did, namely in the British television of the eighties. His work almost always focuses on the idea of how people relate to each other in the context of the society they are living in, and his earliest television work reflects this from the get go. It isn’t a coincidence that one of his first projects was a documentary on Ingmar Bergman, another director whose obsessions led him towards the sharp bonds and breaks that exist between families and most often couples.
His films, regardless of their stylistic differences, almost always feature characters engaged in an obsessive and dangerous love. Winterbottom's films share this obsessive nature with another one of his idols, Ranier Werner Fassbinder, and while each new film might seem as different as night and day to the last it's this obsessive interest in people relating to each other that sparks all of his work.
One of Winterbottom's least seen major films, I Want You, was released in 1998 to the usual batch of mixed reviews and apparently had distribution problems from the get go. Its history in the States has been very problematic to say the least. After being granted a surprising R Rating (more on that later) it had a brief theatrical run followed by a VHS release that quickly slipped out of print. It has become available in Europe on DVD but has never found it's way to that format here.
Used video copies fetch high prices on eBay, and the only way to see it currently in America is on Sundance Channel as they occasionally run it. Unfortunately, the version running on Sundance while apparently uncut, with it's graphic sexuality intact, is full screen and Winterbottom's masterful widescreen compositions' certainly suffer from this.
Winterbottom, and screenwriter Eoin McNamee, apparently got the idea for his film from Elvis Costello's classic obsessive track "I Want You" off his searing mid eighties album with the Attractions Blood and Chocolate. The song is played throughout the film and plays an important role at one point to the plot. The song is rightly considered one of Costello's finest as well as darkest. It matches the film's dark worldview and increasingly oppressive nature perfectly, as the film's bright opening expansive outdoor shots viewed from a train soon begin to sink into more foreboding and darker interiors.
I Want You features the incredible Rachel Weisz in one of her first starring roles. Her character Helen is the object of three obsessive characters. Helen is also hiding something which gives the film a final act twist that isn't entirely satisfying but work's due to the future Oscar winner's greatly nuanced and touching performance.
The film also features a young Alessandro Nivola as the mysterious Martin whose character is revealed more fully as the film progresses. Much like the song it's based on, the film reveals more and more clues as it progresses. It short running time of 87 minutes is as deceptive as the main characters as this is an exhausting, but rewarding, film to watch.
The strongest aspect of the film, along with Weisz, is the cinematography by Slawomir Idziak. Winterbottom was obviously inspired by Idziak's great work for Kieslowski and I Want You is visually a feast of color. This is especially evident in the earlier brighter scenes of yellow and gold that play such a crucial contrast with the later dark blues and greys of Martins and Helen's homes. Weisz's underwater swimming scenes throughout the film also clearly invoke Juliette Binoche swimming in Blue. Both films use the pool and Idziak's color scene to reflect internally what is happening with the characters. The pool, as in Blue, also becomes an invaded sanctuary. Kieslowskis' extraordinary shot of Binoche surrounded by diving children as she is attempting to deal and escape from the death of her own family is mirrored here stylistically by the nude Helen attempting to sink to the bottom to forget her dangerous relationship to Martin.
Winterbottom, as evidenced by the controversial 9 Songs, has never been a director to shy away from sexuality. It is perhaps surprising that I Want You was granted an R Rating in America considering that it has two things the rating boards typically can't tolerate; explicit sexuality and explicitly adult ideas. The actors might all, at one point or another, be nude but it is ultimately a film of thought and the character's fulfillment of separate cycles of abuse that give it its strength.
Winterbottom has made better films than I Want You, with Jude, Wonderland and 24 Hour Party People springing immediately to mind, but it's a very much a film worth seeking out. It's the last film that features this type of look by Idzaik, which isn't to take away from his great more mainstream subsequent work, and one of the first great performances by one of our great modern actresses. Most importantly it's an authentically good adult film, one that exposes as much of the heart and mind as the flesh.
***This particular article contains sections from two older ones I have written that can be read here and here.***