Home     Articles     News     Forum     Lists     Sport     Movies     Stags     Rankings     Bathurst     Who's hotter?      Profiles     Gallery     Music     Gingers     Funny     Events     Links

Reviews     Ratings

Lost the plot

They may be instant classics, but certain films only get more complex and confusing with each viewing. Neil Armstrong of The Guardian replays some puzzling modern mysteries and looks for clues

Beautiful and brilliant but also bloody baffling, cult Russian film The Return is a masterpiece that leaves audiences wondering what the hell just happened.

On the surface, it's a tense psychological drama. Two teenagers take a trip with the father who abandoned them 12 years ago. Naturally, this being Russia, tragedy ensues. But it's obvious there is a deeper layer of meaning which would be so much more rewarding if only we could figure it out. Where has the father been all this time? Why can he no longer eat fish? What's in the box?

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev was asked to shed some light on his haunting movie. "I believe everything that one needs to understand the film is in the film," he says. "If the director has to explain what the film is about, the question is, why make the film?" Right. Thanks for that, Andrey. While we're on a roll, let's unpick some other enigmatic classics.

1. Donnie Darko
(Richard Kelly)

In a nutshell
It's the old troubled-teenager-stops-taking-head-medication-then-sees-demonic-rabbit-warning-of-impending- apocalypse story.

What's so baffling about that?
Repeated viewings of the DVD with its director's commentary and deleted scenes reveal it to be an Escher-like circular tale of divine intervention, tangent universes and time portals. Possibly. Anyway, the soundtrack's great.

Kelly took a break from pre-production work on his new film Southland Tales to tell us: "The puzzle pieces were always in place. I wasn't able to come up with a solution to the puzzle until I completed the pages to The Philosophy Of Time Travel (a book featured in the film). That happened during the editorial process. I think the film became more enigmatic because of the restrictions put on me to deliver it in under two hours.

"There is a solution, although it is buried deep down. The director's cut (released in Britain later this year) brings it closer to the surface. I will say that the solution itself can have multiple interpretations and the implications of the solution have additional layers of meaning. I guess it's like receiving a solution in the form of a new clue to an even deeper mystery. This story can never have complete closure because that is not the nature of the story."

The key
Kelly says: "The question that I am proposing is: can God be contacted via time travel? Would a disruption of the space-time continuum prove His existence?" But remember, this is entertainment not the Special Theory of Relativity - it doesn't have to be mathematically watertight.

Really not helping
Watership Down is one of Kelly's favourite books.

2. The Draughtsman's Contract
(Peter Greenaway)

In a nutshell
A draughtsman in 1690s England accepts a commission to produce a series of drawings of a grand country house and its gardens. He is paid in sexual favours by the lady of the house.

What's so baffling about that?
It's sex, lies and garden landscape. It gradually becomes apparent that the draughtsman is being implicated in a murder plot, clues to which mysteriously crop up in the scenes he draws. The dialogue is literary, rich in allusion way over the heads of most of us. There's also a mischievous statue spying on the human characters. Is it some sort of complex allegory?

Anthony Higgins plays Mr Neville, the eponymous draughtsman. "The script was outstanding, about 300 pages long," he says. "The film's proper length is well over three hours. It was cut down to its present time (104 minutes) for release so a lot of things that appear wilfully obscure are actually explained in the longer version."

Not everyone was impressed. Director Alan Parker dubbed it "The Draughtsman's Con-trick". He obviously just wasn't clever enough to get it.

The key
"It's really about powerless women's revenge," says Higgins. "The only power they have is their desirability and they use that to take control." For a full appreciation, a knowledge of Caravaggio, Alain Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad, and the Married Women's Property Act wouldn't hurt either.

Really not helping
Millionaire crime writer Lynda La Plante has a small role in the film.

3. Eyes Wide Shut
(Stanley Kubrick)

In a nutshell
A well-to-do doctor, shocked by his wife's admission that she once considered infidelity, has a series of sexually-charged encounters.

What's so baffling about that?
There is a dream-like ambience throughout and some of the doctor's adventures are so bizarre that it has been suggested the whole thing is meant to be a fantasy. Colour is very significant with red and blue both featuring prominently. And what's with the sinister secret society?

Conspiracy theories abound on the internet, with some fans interpreting Eyes Wide Shut as an exposť of secret societies. Many specifically link it to Bohemian Grove, an annual clandestine gathering of rich and powerful men in the US. Writer and film-maker Jon Ronson is a Kubrick nut and has also produced a body of work on secret societies. "I infiltrated Bohemian Grove a couple of years ago and I sent Jan Harlan, Kubrick's brother-in-law and executive producer, a copy of the film to see his reaction," he says. "He was gobsmacked by it. He'd never heard of Bohemian Grove. That led me to think that Eyes Wide Shut maybe wasn't divulging any amazing secrets."

The key
"It's all about fidelity," says Paul Duncan, author of Stanley Kubrick, The Complete Films (Taschen, £9.99). "EWS is asking if just thinking about betrayal is the same as actually doing it. At each stage of the film the doctor is presented with an ethical dilemma. The secret society orgy is merely a device for highlighting these moral problems."

Really not helping
Anthony Frewin, Kubrick's assistant on several films including Eyes Wide Shut, writes for the conspiracy journal Lobster.

4. Memento
(Christopher Nolan)

In a nutshell
Leonard Shelby is trying to track down his wife's killer but was injured when she was attacked and now has anterograde amnesia, rendering him incapable of forming new memories. He keeps annotated Polaroids of significant places and people and tattoos really important facts on his body.

What's so baffling about that?
It's all in the editing. Pay attention. One storyline, in colour, runs backwards. Each scene depicts events that actually took place after the next scene we see. Another storyline, in black and white, follows chronological convention. Colour and black-and-white scenes alternate. Eventually the black-and-white thread segues into the colour thread at the end of the film, which is actually the middle of the sequence of events depicted. If you found the plot of Van Helsing, say, challenging, don't bother with Memento.

The structure isn't some sort of smartypants gimmick but an ingenious means of placing the viewer in Leonard's position. Like him, we frequently don't have a clue who is doing what to whom or why - Lenny's forgotten; we don't yet have the information. Nolan muddies the waters further by dropping hints that not everything Lenny tells us is gospel truth. Fans are still arguing about whether Leonard is faking his condition, whether he killed his wife and even whether she is still alive.

Movie critic Andy Klein wrote a detailed explanation of Memento for "I received an extraordinary number of letters after that piece, probably more than I've gotten from the rest of my 20 years as a critic put together," he says. "I accused Nolan of playing 'dirty pool' at the end of the article. Now I'd be more inclined to say that he included some stuff so subtle that it eluded me even after multiple viewings."

The key
On some part of your body, tattoo "Leonard Shelby is an unreliable narrator. Do not believe his lies." Or you could just read Klein's perceptive analysis. The film's website also offers new information.

Really not helping
Nolan is known for wearing a blazer.

5. Mulholland Drive
(David Lynch)

In a nutshell
An aspiring actress comes to Hollywood and meets a woman suffering from amnesia. Together they try to find out who she is.

What's so baffling about that?
How long have you got? Two-thirds of the way through there is an extraordinary twist which throws into doubt everything seen up to that point and, for that matter, afterwards. There is lesbian lovemaking, the usual Lynchian array of wildly eccentric characters and an atmosphere of dread and menace.

Debate still rages about what it all means. The most popular interpretation is that the first part is the dream of a disillusioned and failed actress who wakes up two- thirds of the way into the film.

But veteran film critic Barry Norman believes there is no solution. "I interviewed David the day after I'd seen Mulholland Drive. He asked me what I thought. I said: 'It's a wonderful movie but I haven't the faintest idea what it means.' He said: 'Yes you do, Barry.' I replied: 'Honestly David, I really don't. Tell me.' He said: 'Think about it. You know.' I concluded that he didn't know what it was about either."

The key
Perhaps the tagline gives it away: "A love story in the city of dreams." However, Colin Odell, co-author of David Lynch (Pocket Essentials, £3.99), says: "It's a puzzle that has many solutions, none of them correct, few of them wrong. Every mystery is contained inside another one like a Russian doll but one where each shell is the same size as the last, a recursive puzzle." With the DVD there is a leaflet in which Lynch offers "10 clues to unlocking this thriller" - they are no use whatsoever.

Really not helping
Lynch will not tolerate hot food in his house.