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Review: Song of Songs

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Testing the limits

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- Josh Appignanesi’s austere chamber piece set in London’s Orthodox Jewish community provides another training ground for Natalie Press

Review: Song of Songs

An alumna of Cambridge University where he studied anthropology, Josh Appignanesi made six short fiction films including Nine ½Minutes with Laurence Olivier Theatre Award nominated actor David Tenant (Doctor Who) which premiered at Edinburgh 2003 and won second place in the BBC Filmmaker Talent Award on BBC3. Song of Songs [+see also:
film focus
interview: Gayle Griffiths
interview: Josh Appignanesi
film profile
]
was first shown at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2005 where it won a ‘Special Commendation’ for the Michael Powell Award for Best UK First feature Film. It was then selected in official competition in Rotterdam and in Sofia earlier this year.

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Hailed by film critics as a "distinctive and bold new voice in British cinema", Appignanesi’s Song of Songs [+see also:
film focus
interview: Gayle Griffiths
interview: Josh Appignanesi
film profile
]
is an auteur film 'à la française', intentionally made with strict financial and technical limitations to allow greater freedom within such a defined framework. For the director, fascinated by the complexities of human minds and behaviours who was drawn into filmmaking by Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice and admits Bergmanesque inspirations, his first attempts at feature length filmmaking also had to be challenging in its content. He chose to explore human transgression in the religious context of Orthodox Jewish community in London. Devoutly religious and unmarried Ruth (Nathalie Press) returns from Israel to care for her dying mother. She sits at her mother’s side, reading in Hebrew passages from the Bible, trying to emulate her mother’s strong religious belief. She is asked by her mother to bring back to her side her estranged brother, a teacher in English literature who has distanced himself from his religious past. Immediately, the siblings who haven’t seen each other in three years resume their intense and troubled relationship of sexual desire and repression and familial rivalry. David agrees to return home but on his own conditions, hiding from his mother in his upstairs childhood bedroom. There, David who sees his sister as a slave to religion introduces her to a sado-masochistic game -sometimes even violent , similar in many ways to the sexual game between Isabelle Huppert and Benoit Magimel in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher but with devotion to music replaced by devotion to religion.

Superbly played by Natalie Press (not yet made famous by My Summer of Love [+see also:
film review
trailer
film focus
interview: Jean-Paul Rougier
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
interview: Tanya Seghatchian
film profile
]
) and Joel Chalfen who had previously worked with the director on some shorts, the film is both compelling and intriguing. Little is said throughout the film, apart from when David the rebellious questions the Jewish lore, religious fanaticism as a whole or when he and Ruth use quotes from the Bible to play their game. But the rising tension and feeling of claustrophobia emanating from the characters’ inner frustrations and the religious background are masterly rendered in the film, enhanced by the use of over-the-shoulder camera shots and black, grey and dark green colours. The film is an artistic achievement with a challenging style and content that has propelled Appignanesi among the names to watch in the UK.

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international title: Song of Songs
original title: Song of Songs
country: United Kingdom
year: 2006
directed by: Josh Appignanesi
screenplay: Josh Appignanesi, Jay Basu
cast: Natalie Press, Joel Chalfen, Julia Swift, Leon Lissek
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