Judge Rafael Gamboa is amused that the film was made according to a vow of chastity, but nobody in the movie is chaste at all. Though occasionally some are chased.
There are three sides to every story.
When one reads a tagline such as that one, the dangerous prospect of a grotesquely generic romantic triangle begins to hover ominously over one's filmic psyche. Luckily, this is not the case here. Though there is one, it's a truly fascinating and subtle entanglement of overlapping narratives that definitely mandates multiple viewings for full appreciation of its content.
Facts of the Case
Gypo, directed by Jan Dunn (Joan), tells the story of working-class, perpetually flustered housewife Helen (Pauline McLynn, O, Quills), who lives with her taciturn wretch of a husband Paul (Paul McGann, Alien³) and their teenage daughter Kelly (Tazmin Dunstone). Kelly has recently given birth to a child, upsetting the familial fabric that bonds them. To make matters worse, Kelly's new friend Tasha (Chloe Sirene, United 93) is a Czech refugee running from her family and country. Her unexpected and controversial presence affects them all in surprising and revelatory ways. The story of their lives is told in reprise through the eyes of Helen, Paul, and finally Tasha.
Interesting to note, Gypo is a Dogme 95 film, and the first such British film. For those who don't know anything about Dogme 95, here's what you need to know: Dogme 95 is a reactionary film movement started in 1995 by directors Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg to counter what they saw as the decadent excess of "bourgeois" cinema and the individual film—in other words, commercial Hollywood cinema on one hand (big budget generica) and the stylistic indulgences of independent auteur artists on the other (Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino, Ingmar Bergman, etc.). It is a movement designed to provide a framework for creating films that constitute the opposite extreme: disciplined films adhering to a strict set of rules and principles that are supposed to sacrifice the individual artist's vision and the extreme artifice of big budget films in exchange for the psychological and physical reality of the stories they are willing (or able) to tell. The Dogme 95 "Vow of Chastity," as taken from the official website, follows as such:
I swear to submit to the following set of rules drawn up and confirmed by DOGME 95:
1. Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in
(if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen
where this prop is to be found).
Furthermore I swear as a director to refrain from personal taste! I am no
longer an artist. I swear to refrain from creating a "work," as I
regard the instant as more important than the whole. My supreme goal is to force
the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means
available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations.
Right. Forward, march!
Whether or not you agree with Dogme 95's manifesto or find the Vow of Chastity to be a viable set of guidelines for producing engaging films (which I think is something I will tackle in an article outside of this review), it cannot be denied that the restrictions have an inescapable visible impact on the film. By effectively neutering cinematography as an authorial device by demoting it to basic image capturing, the torch is handed off to the editing. But this aspect also finds itself emasculated. Perhaps not to the same degree, since it is still allowed to arrange events in whatever fashion it likes so long as it doesn't break rule #7, but its ability to alter the image or to introduce outside abstract images into a scene is no longer allowed. Because of all this, Gypo cannot escape the college-film-student feel that the handheld camera, puritanical lighting, and scene-stitching editing produce. What this creates is an aesthetic akin to cinéma vérité, except without as strong an emphasis on being aware of the camera as an active spectator.
This faux-documentarian look does precisely what it's intended to do: shift the focus entirely onto the story and the characters. The story, interestingly enough, is marketed as a romantic love triangle on the DVD case, although as the story is presented in the film, it doesn't actually become that until the last act. I feel a certain amount of resentment towards the DVD case for not only giving a false impression about the film, but also ruining a potentially powerful surprise by turning it into an event one spends the entire film waiting to happen. I declare shenanigans.
That aside, the story is quite interesting, made all the more engrossing by the manner in which it is structured. The first act follows Helen as she struggles to deal with her irresponsible daughter and her apathetic, moody bigot of a husband. Her friendship with Tasha seems almost tangential, nothing particularly powerfully bonding between the two of them. Then suddenly Tasha disappears, and you have no idea how or why, much less why Helen flips out the way she does. The film then backtracks, and the second act follows the story from Paul's perspective. All of a sudden, Helen is given an entirely different dimension as a nagging source of endless frustration, and Paul, while still a bigot, becomes more sympathetic and understandable. Kelly goes from being a girl who chooses friend over family to a superficial one who masks her actual disgust for her friends when she's with them. Tasha's third act is the one that finally unveils the true nature of Tasha's and Helen's relationship, reveals all the secrets, and is by far the most gripping act in the film. Kelly becomes Tasha's defender, Paul the villain, Helen the savior.
Each act contains small character reversals that alter your conception of each of the players in the film, adding on new dimensions with each new perspective, emphasizing to a startling degree the complexity of the human psyche. There are so many intersecting details that connect these three characters to each other, and personally, I find the relationship between Tasha and Paul to be the most nuanced and the most subtle.
The acting is, well, phenomenal. It really escapes description just how good the acting is in this film, in particular the performances of Chloe Sirene as Tasha and Rula Lenska as her mother Irina. Tazmine Dunstone is also impressive, particularly since it is her first ever feature film. I suppose the only negative thing that can be said of the acting is that Pauline McLynn doesn't seem to have the timing right on faking telephone conversations; the way she delivered her lines, it seems impossible that the person on the other end could have been able to form a coherent sentence without getting cut off. But other than that, absolutely wonderful performances.
The film also has inventive credit sequences and titles, which, interestingly enough, demonstrate a magnesium-bright spark of the individual artist's personality, something which seems to go against the whole point of Dogme 95's anti-authorial manifesto.
The DVD bonus features are decent. There's an interesting director's commentary, and a fairly standard behind-the-scenes featurette. It also comes with a theatrical trailer and teasers for other Wolfe Video products.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The film seems to stray from the letter of the law by the very fact it is non-linear. It repeats events, shows events it skipped prior, and then after three goes at the story, finally shows us how it ends. This seems to be in clear violation of rule #7—then again, when you really think about it, every film ever made violates rule #7. The very fact that time is skipped, truncated, or elongated through the most basic of editing techniques is a temporal alienation. The fact that a film is never shot in the exact same place you are watching it is a geographical alienation. The fact that the film's narrative is never happening here and now because what you are seeing are events that already happened during filming and not during screening; the fact that the temporal and geographical alienation of watching the film a decade into the future is inescapable—well, I guess the point is, rule #7 seems meaningless. But this is a philosophical point that is irrelevant to the quality of the film, so I'm going to shut up and get on with the pertinent parts of the review.
Gypo is not without its flaws. The ending seems a bit too contrived and neatly tied together, which grates against the overall realistic sensibilities of the film. There isn't much I can say to elaborate without spoiling the ending (which I absolutely refuse to do for a good movie), so you'll have to take my word on this.
The quality of the DVD transfer is, frankly, crummy. It literally looks like the film is covered in crumbs, that's how grainy it is. It looks even worse in the behind-the-scenes featurette—which, incidentally, should be better than it is. I want to learn more about how it was made, the difficulties in circumventing or adhering to Dogme 95 rules, and so on. This is, after all, the first British Dogme 95 film ever made; it deserves a much better documentary piece than the lackluster one provided us.
The film is good. It's interesting. It's entertaining. Watch it.
Sentenced to receive wider exposure at the homes of my readers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Wolfe Video
• Director's Commentary
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