Madeleine Davies

The land that runs on memories: thoughts on Coco and grief

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2018 at 10:26 am


THE Land of the Dead was the “big design challenge” for the creators of Coco, according to the film’s lighting director, Danielle Feinberg. What should it look like?

“We all want to know the answer to that ultimate mystery: is there anything after death?” the director, Lee Unkrich, observes in an interview accompanying the film. “Is there a heaven? Is there a world to go to?”

What emerged from extensive research, including trips to Mexico, was a gorgeous vista of vertical cities, connected by vertiginous viaducts and lit up in a pretty palette – pink, orange and blue – evocative of enormous coral reefs. This soaring cityscape is built on pyramids that give way to pre-colonial architecture and topped by cranes signalling ongoing construction. It was in part inspired by designer Ernesto Nemesio’s visits to see his grandparents in Mexico, where he remembered close-knit buildings constructed almost on top of each other.

Although there are no living things in this world, what’s striking is how familiar it is. You arrive at magnificent iron-wrought station reminiscent of St Pancras or Grand Central, where customs staff are on hand to check your possessions (“Welcome back to the Land of the Dead. Please have all offerings ready for re-entry”). There are skyline trams, a plaza, concerts, and bureaucrats available to assist with family reunions.

“This isn’t a dream then?” asks Miguel Rivera, the 12-year-old at the centre of the film, who accidentally winds up here. “You’re all really out there? . . . I thought it might have been one of those made-up things that adults tell kids, like vitamins.”

When it was released in January, to huge critical acclaim, Coco was praised by the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin as a “zingy, sunny family adventure about what it means to be dead”. In doing so, he noted, it “crosses a frontier that most films, animated or otherwise, can only tip-toe up to at best”. Rated PG, it wasn’t too ghoulish or macabre for children, he reassured readers, but “healing and hopeful . . . in the way it makes sense of bereavement, Coco could conceivably become a means for children to better understand grief.”

I watched it this week and, while there were many things I loved about it, I’m not sure I’d entirely agree.


Religious melancholy in the 4th arrondissement

In Uncategorized on August 25, 2018 at 5:22 pm


Hadewijch is a French film about religious extremism in which the central protagonist is a tow-headed teenage novice.

We see her on her knees in her spartan convent bedroom, hands pressed together in prayer, a crucifix both set before her eyes and wrapped between her fingers on a chain. She appears both devout and somewhat self-conscious. There’s something practised and performative about her prayers, despite the fact that she’s alone.

She refuses to eat at breakfast and feeds her bread to the birds, shivering in the winter sun.

“You’re a caricature of a nun,” an older Sister tells her. “God isn’t there.”

This diagnosis, made early on, is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. We are given to understand that the nuns are wise to fanaticism – that they have seen it before and can distinguish it from piety.

“Abstinence not martyrdom,” one Sister instructs Hadewijch, gently.

“She is attached to this behaviour and I believe it testifies to a degree of self-love”, the Mother Superior rules. “For her own good, she must return to the world.”

The strange theology of Jordan Peterson

In Uncategorized on August 22, 2018 at 1:14 pm


IN the opening pages of 12 Rules for Life: a antidote for chaos, Jordan Peterson describes a vision that gave rise to an epiphany. He is clinging to a chandelier suspended in the dome of a cathedral, directly above the centre of cross. He makes his way down, but is dragged back to this point. Months later, he discovers the meaning: “what the great stories of the past continually insist upon: the centre is occupied by the individual.”

The individual occupies the centre of this book, too. Fix yourself, Peterson says. Stop looking to ideology for answers. “Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise the state until you have reordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

There’s a lot about heaven, too. He who seeks to create it on Earth (and “He” is important here) will “pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will in that manner bring salvation to the ever-desperate world”.

A coda ends the book with the revelation that, when it comes to his wife, Peterson’s task is to “Treat her as if she is the Holy Mother of God, so that she may give birth to the world-redeeming hero.” I was not surprised to learn that he is a huge fan of Nietzsche.