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Conversation with a Cigarette [Russell Brown, USA, 2014]

A throwback to the glamour of film noir movies of the 1940s, Conversation with a Cigarette is a ‘one-man chamber piece’ starring Ian Hart as both the tempting, devilishly charismatic cigarette, and as the poor shmuck desperate to kick the habit. It is at once both a love letter and a reproach of the life of cigarette addiction, throwing up some surprising angles in its highly philosophical musings.

The film’s design is excellent, with everything from the costumes, set, colouring, crackling of the fireplace, and the lilting period musical accompaniments, doing everything in their power to instantly transport you deep within their own nostalgia. With an approach popularized by such hits as The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, USA, 2011) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle, USA, 2016), Conversation with a Cigarette does its best to help the viewer “reminisce about the old, care-free days”, by disguising itself behind the façade of production methods belonging to a bygone era.

At its heart, Conversation with a Cigarette gives its audience one very important thing, an absolutely masterful performance by British stalwart Ian Hart, best known for his role in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus, UK, 2001), but also highly respected for turns in such films as God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, UK, 2017). The highlight of his performance is undeniably his beautifully restrained delivery of Johan Sebastian Bach’s poem, 'Edifying Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker', which even in the 21st century does really woo you into wondering, ‘yer, but how bad really is a cigarette anyway?’ As Hart’s cigarette spectre himself queries, “if I was so bad, then why wouldn’t everybody die from it?”

In truth it is the alluring double performance of Hart that makes sure that the piece doesn’t fall guilty of feeling overly self-important, just about subsiding the sensation that the writer is giving himself a little too much of a pat on the back for his most learned observations on such a nefarious and lustful pastime. The devil on the shoulder aspect of Hart’s characterization is wonderfully realized during a sequence where he seems to float upwards into the atmosphere, ethereal, lingering like smoke, and yet still somehow wielding strength and a power.

Conversation with a Cigarette does genuinely feel like it gives catharsis for cigarette smokers, toying with their better intentions, and yet unable to totally kick the habit. Hart’s performance reminds us of a passionate love affair, one half the debonair bachelor with charm to spare and nothing to lose, the other half, a marriage bound codger, longing for excitement, unable to reconcile a guilty conscious. The short embarks forth from an interesting premise and delivers something highly memorable.


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