Talking Pictures

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Out of Blue, Britain, USA 2018

Posted by keith1942 on July 2, 2021

This movie received mixed reviews on release,however Mark Kermode in his television preview was really positive. I saw it on release and I was very impressed. Now it has been aired on BBC2 and is available on the BBC I-player until mid-July. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

‘We are all stardust’.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships, dark nights paralleled by talk of ‘dark matter’ and ‘black holes’, and visually chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments. The editing is deft and precise with cuts at a particular micro-second.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller. The supporting cast are also excellent.

Detective Mike Houlihan investigates a death with her two assistants; the violent death of Jennifer Rockwell. Her father is a war hero: her brothers run the family business in electronics:her mother is at home with a pet dog [Tibetan Lhasa] and a large portrait of Rockwell senior’s mother.

In one of the edits which make the narrative cryptic and ambiguous it seems that Houlihan and a young local reporter, Stella, both attend an Alcoholics Anonymous therapy session. Her problems with drink provide an important plot turn but they also reveal the tortured psyche of Houlihan; stemming back to her youth, obscure parentage and a problematic sojourn in an institution. Clearly police work provides order for Houlihan life. At one point she states that life only started for her

‘when I joined the Academy’.

Film noir is often as much about an investigation of a woman as it is about a hero. In this title Houlihan is the women investigated; investigated by herself as she gradually trawls up suppressed events from her childhood. These are associated with a selection bric-a-brac. Jennifer apartment is full of them; and a warehouse at Rockwell Electronic is also full of them. Houlihan herself carries at least one example on her person.

The philosophy in the film is important to the development of the plot. It also offers some moment of delicious irony. Morley and her team use visual clues to assist in the investigation but also to draw out the parallels with characters’ intellectual forays. One recurring such foray is talk of ‘Schrodinger’s cat’. Houlihan shares her apartment with a Siamese cat who also has cryptic moments. At one point she jokingly offers the cat in a box, [just like Schrodinger] to Daniel, one time lover of the dead Jennifer.

As well as scientific references the film seems to offer homages to key movies. I have mentioned the Powell and Pressburger title. At other points I detected some sort of trope connected to The Birds (1963): Blade Runner (1982): Chinatown (1974), Citizen Kane (1941): and Pursued (1947).

These fit into a dramatisation and play with the noir discourse; critically revisiting some of the key aspects that so fascinate viewers and critics.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The plot is challenging as viewers have to distinguish actual and mental worlds. The film does bring these together in its resolution. Even here though there is an ambiguity with the colour blue pointing to the outcome; ambiguity that runs right through the film. The editing is elliptical and it takes seconds sometime to recognise which character and setting we are viewing. The mise en scene is full of meanings; characters and props seem to disappear as very slight ellipsis lead the plotting on.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997), changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. Morley’s version changes the character of the detective, the plotting of both the deaths and the investigation and, finally, the resolution. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist as detective in the April 2019 edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

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