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Semaine De La Critique, Cannes Film Festival, May 2008

The first feature film by Duane Hopkins, a young English filmmaker and author of several notable shorts, Better Things elevates itself from the very start by setting a distinctive tone, exploring a cinematographic language quite different from the somewhat intrusive norm of contemporary film auteurs. Far removed from the schools of Ken Loach / Mike Leigh, worthy though they are, Better Things belongs rather to another, forgotten, English tradition, one that is more eccentric and visual - one of whose most celebrated representatives was Nicholas Roeg. Thus, instead of a classical, linear narrative, Better Things opens and develops via a succession of faces, of moments superimposed upon moments, which ultimately reveal certain points of convergence and an interconnectedness of meaning. At the centre of the story is in effect a bereavement, that of a girl who has died of an overdose. This loss feeds the entire film, casting a shadow over both the love lives depicted and the many sequences in which characters stave off their boredom by feeding their habit, achieving oblivion by any means possible. All of these instant, interwoven portraits present a sombre picture of modern English society in both youth and old age. However the themes thus portrayed reach far beyond the framework of their country in terms of their universality and their ability to move any viewer. They include the loss of a loved one, intolerable boredom, a desire to escape, old age, solitude and the suffering of love. All of these feelings are filmed with discretion, creating a production which by virtue of the originality of its narrative development and its undoubted plastic beauty, shuns any complacency. Better Things is a spirited film without being off-putting and without allowing us the temptation to reflect; its rhythm is terse, overt and firm, breaking into a palpable unease. Finally, the work of Duane Hopkins recalls that of certain American authors of the 1980's, little or badly adapted to the cinema, such as Douglas Coupland or especially the Brett Easton Ellis of Less than Zero. He shares that same desire to create a story through short scenes, avoiding any need for psychology and concentrating on the lives of young people addicted to drugs, disenchanted and prisoners of repetitive gestures. Hopkins' film thus extends the approach of his compatriot Thomas Clay, author of The Great Ecstacy of Robert Carmichael, imagining a new English cinema devoid of the cliches and conventions which gave it its grandeur but which paralyses it today, ready to enter the modern world and resume its place at the heart of international cinema.

 

 

Edinburgh International Film Festival, June 2008

Duane Hopkins’ extraordinary feature debut is set among stifled, stricken lives, but ultimately its intertwined stories are statements of hope. Its disarming power rests in its exacting, compassionate attention to the emotional lives of apparently insignificant characters; those very figures that customarily only make it into the movies as set-dressing – to assert a social point or disrupt the best-laid plans of a more respectable protagonist – in this case take centre stage. The network of romances that form the film’s plot include a schoolgirl tormented by a jealous ex-boyfriend, an elderly husband and wife whose relationship remains clouded by her long-past indiscretion and a couple whose idyll is constantly threatened by their shared weakness for hard drugs.

Hopkins’ characters have painful priorities not normally brought to the fore in film narratives. One girl is too nervous and depressed to leave her house, and lives through books alone; another keeps an anxious tally of which friends have graduated from simply smoking heroin to injecting it. But these bleaker elements are played as the everyday sorrows they are, and are neither glamorised nor judged. What’s emphasised in Hopkins’ film – thanks to a focused, empathetic humanity that recalls the post-war Italian neo-realist school – is the fact that every ‘dysfunctional’ action has a real emotional context: unrequited love is agony even if you’re an inarticulate teenage yob; unfaithfulness still burns when you’re a sweet old man; dead smackheads are mourned with no less intensity than dead ‘decent’ people.

However, class isn’t the unifying factor here: rather, the film relates to its characters through their struggles to sustain self-respect and hope. Though subdued and sometimes tragic, Better Things is never cynical: when a character finds his or her voice, whether to protest an injustice or forgive one, it is a transcendent moment. Lol Crawley’s stunning cinematography, marked by precise framing and poetic use of landscapes and faces, further distinguishes a profoundly moving work of film art.


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