Category: European Cinema

Father (Apa, Hungary, 1966)

A memory of father

A memory of father

Szabo Istvan’s second feature takes Billy Liar‘s (UK, 1963) premise and makes it philosophical rather than funny. Takó is growing up in post-War Budapest and trying to come to terms with his dead father; the same situation as Szabo found himself. However, the director insists that the film is not autobiographical because, he states, 60% of the children in his class had lost their fathers; it is, he says, ‘the autobiography of a generation’ (quoted in Hungarian Cinema: from coffee house to multiplex by John Cunningham). Takó’s, like Billy’s, fantasies are made flesh by being dramatised in the film but, unlike Billy, the father is the hero of the scenarios rather than himself.

The film starts with stunning archive footage from the war, including a devastated bridge and a man sawing off a dead horse’s leg, before segueing to his father’s funeral. Takó’s remark that he was impressed by how many people came to the funeral immediately marks him as an unreliable narrator as there are few there.

So Takó imagines his father in a variety of heroic roles that makes him a national hero. However, we learn right at the start, he only has three very brief memories of his dad who was an ordinary man; like Szabo’s father, a doctor. Although the fantasies, unlike in Billy Liar, do outstay their welcome the narrative conceit is quite brilliant, as coming to terms with the loss of fathers stands in for recreating a past after the devastation of war. The trauma of war has to be healed but Takó comes to realise, as a young adult, that he needs to deal with reality rather than fantasy. In a marvellous sequence, Takó interviews people who knew his father and most don’t have anything more to say than he was ‘nice'; a bland but positive epitaph.

Women aren’t completely marginalised in this entirely ‘vital’ Oedipal activity, Takó’s friend Anya is a Jew who would rather forget the past, her parents were victims of Auschwitz, in order to forge her identity as a Hungarian Jew. The print, of the Second Run DVD, is immaculate and shows Szabo’s imaginative direction, characterised by the use of telephoto lens, to best advantage.

European Catalyst Films Seminar

The Sun in a Net

The Sun in a Net

This ‘round table discussion’ was presented by the Centre for World Cinemas at Leeds University as part of the Leeds International Film Festival. I should start by confessing that I was out of sympathy with most of the seminar as it ticked quite a few of my prejudice boxes. In fact the title was a misnomer. The definition of catalyst was not fully explicated, and several speakers had reservations regarding the use of the term. Moreover the European dimension was under-developed. We actually got comments on Hollywood, Latin American Cinema and Mumbai or Bollywood cinema, but not a great deal on the actual catalyst films screened in the Festival. The seminar appeared to be directed mainly by the research interests of the academic speakers. I would have preferred speakers chosen to elucidate the titled topic. In fact the panel was composed of four academics and one industry person: not as varied as suggested in the Catalogue which also specified ‘media practitioners’. The ‘conversation’ [a term used at least twice] was mainly between the panel. Even when the seminar opened up to the audience we were asked for questions rather than comment. The seminar seemed like one presented for students at the University. There were indeed students from the Centre there. However, as an event that was part of the public festival I thought a rather different approach would have been better.

And there were technical deficiencies. A microphone was only switched on after I pointed out the introduction was not really audible. And nearly all the stills and all of the video extracts presented were in the wrong aspect ratios. 1.85:1 clips looked about 2.2:1 and scope extracts were over 3:1. I did note that the panel turned to view the extracts on the screen, but no one seemed to notice or think this mattered much. They did, though, mainly avoid the often obscurantist language favoured by some academics. We did get one or two specialist terms, notably polycentric: “the fact, principle, or advocacy of the existence of more than one guiding or predominant ideological or political centre in a political system, alliance etc in the communist world.” (Collins 2000 English dictionary). The academics were using it in a rather different sense but I think they thought of it as addressing ‘ideologies’. As a Marxist I do not use ideology in the sense that they appear to use it.

The introduction started by setting out the catalyst films programmed in the Festival: it was pointed out all these films in some way fit into a ‘new wave’ or new film movement category.

Ossessione, Italy 1943.

Le Beau Serge, France 1958.

The Sun in the Net / Sinko v sieti, Czechoslovakia 1962.

Yesterday Girl / Abschied von gestern1966

Festen, Denmark / Sweden 1998.

Stuff and Dough / Marta si Bani, Romania 2001.

Le Beau Serge

Le Beau Serge

Presumably that is why two films in the Festival that would seem to fit the topic, Peeping Tom (UK 1960) and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium France 1975) were left out. The latter’s omission seems to me a serious one. Moreover this film was screened in 35mm. Only two of the catalyst films were screened in what was their original exhibition format. The others were all on digital video. And there were other films that could have graced the Festival. At one point we had a mention of Turkey as a possible E.E.C. member. Turkey has had its own ‘new wave’ and a catalyst film: Hudutlarin Kannu / The Law of the Border (Turkey 1966. Director: Lüfti Akad. Scenario, dialogue: Orner Lufti Akad, Yilmaz Güney). The film has been restored by the World Cinema Foundation and is available on 35mm.

The session was introduced by Stephanie Dennison, Reader in Brazilian Studies at the Centre. She introduced the panel members and then displayed four questions on the screen. They were not up long enough for me to copy them. The first addressed how particular films might help us understand the impact of ‘new waves’? The second how the films might help us understand their catalyst role? But since there was little comment on the individual films I don’t think the questions were much discussed. She went through the list of films screened at the festival, making the point about ‘new waves’

She then moved beyond Europe to talk about examples from the New Latin American Cinema, specifically Ukamau’s Blood of the Condor (Yawar Maliku, Bolivia 1969) and the Cinema Nuevo’s  Black God White Devil (Deaus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, Brazil 1964). The latter was directed by Glauber Rocha and she specifically mentioned his manifesto The Aesthetics of Hunger. I remember that these films caused a stir among European critics in the 1960s. However, I cannot think of European films that show a great influence from them. Rocha was influenced by the nouvelle vague. However, both he and Jorge Sanjines [of Ukamau] clearly make the point that the cinemas fighting colonialism and neo-colonialism are distinct from cinemas of the colonisers. Rocha comments on ‘hunger’, “For the European, it is a strange tropical surrealism. For the Brazilian, it is a national shame.” Two other Latin American filmmakers, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, went further and coined the term Third Cinema. This is an oppositional cinema over and against both mainstream or first cinema and auteur or second cinema: the latter applying too much of the output of European art cinemas. Stephanie Dennison went on to question the distinction between ‘centre’ and periphery’, a distinction which does not seen to accommodate Third Cinema.

Paul Cooke is the Chair of the Centre. He discussed the way that the “Centre’s work looks to rethink the notion of a catalyst film by adopting a ‘polycentric’ approach”. He also wanted to rethink notions of centre and periphery. He made the valid point that films are labelled catalyst, though he did not clearly define the notion of catalyst. He talked mainly about German Cinema and Alexander Kluge, director of Yesterday Girl. He also pointed up other aspects, including Kluge’s role in working for changes in the German Film Industry and State funding policies of film: a key factor in the development of the New German Cinema.

Alan O’Leary, Senior Lecturer in Italian Cinema at the Centre, wanted to address notions of art cinema and the mainstream. He also used display material of posters, stills and video clips. His main example was a popular Italian genre of Christmas movies. The key film was Vacanze di Natale (1983), a popular box office success that spawned something like 20 sequels over a couple of decades. This was an interesting example of his argument to study popular mainstream films with the rigour applied to art films. He drew a distinction between ‘catalyst’ [art cinema] and ‘prototype’ [mainstream film]. He also went on to offer a definition of catalyst from an English language dictionary, “Effect produced by a substance that without undergoing change itself aids a chemical change in other bodies.”  This is a chemical definition, I don’t think he actually addressed the sense in which it is used in humanities, “person or thing that causes change”: a rather different sense.

His follow-up for this seemed to me to take us away from the European focus of the films screened at the Festival. He argued that one example of a prototype was the Hollywood Blockbuster. He showed a clip from one example The Matrix (1999). And then as an example of its influence he showed an extract from a Bollywood film, Robot (2010). The problem with this is that long before the appellation of Bollywood to the Hindi cinema of Mumbai there was a clear line of films that ‘borrowed’ heavily from foreign language films circulating in India. Another example of a prototype film that he presented was A Fish Called Wanda (1988). I do wonder how much influence this exerted outside the cinema of the UK? Given the European focus I thought better examples could have been found in the cinéma du look, for example films produced and directed by Luc Besson.

The final part of his argument was ‘against cinephilia’. He seemed to regard cinephilia as the same as a strong penchant for art films. I think this is very debatable. Even among directors this is not a clear distinction, Werner Herzog would be a good example. It certainly is not a valid distinction among audiences. Someone pointed out in the question section that cinephilia could equally apply to fans of horror films. And during the festival I had friends who both attended and enjoyed films characterised as art cinema and films that fell in the horror genre.

The fourth speaker was Mariana Liz, a new member of the centre. She talked about Europe and the European film industry. She raised some interesting points, both about what constituted Europe and what might constitute European film. One example was where might one place Turkey? However, again she said very little about the films that we had actually watched in the Festival.

Finally we had Bill Lawrence, who has worked extensively as a film programmer and now offers consultancy work with Reel Solutions. He provided a number of telling criticisms and questions regarding the essentially academic categories already offered. He made the point about ‘plagiarism’ in Bollywood. He also stressed circumstance over other aspects. An interesting example concerned the Danish Dogme movement. It seems that in earlier times a Senior Lecturer at the highly regarded Danish Film School advocated to his student groups a return to film basics and an avoidance of unnecessary extras. Much of what he advocated bore a striking resemblance to what became the Dogme Manifesto. You can guess that one of his students was Lars von Trier. Bill remarked that the Lecturer was rather disappointed that he never received any credit when the Manifesto appeared.  Bill also provided some interesting examples of the dominance of money and box office take in the industry.

After this we opened up to questions, though fortunately several of these were actuality comments. One of the other centre members produced some interesting examples from mainstream Spanish cinema, including a genre of bigoted cop films. He suggested these might have influenced the successful Irish film The Guard (2011). Another audience member made the point I mentioned earlier regarding what constituted cinephilia. In response Alan O’Leary bought up the aspect of what we call ‘realism’, arguing that ‘realism is a value in our culture’. Moved at last I suggested that realism was also a political issue, and that there had not been direct address of the political in the discussion of the catalyst films. In response Stephanie Dennison explained that they had wanted to avoid the ‘obvious talking points’.

This was my most serious concern about the seminar. I think all the films in the Festival programme have a political dimension. But in particular I find it difficult to agree that one can discuss, for example, Neo-realism or the Czechoslovakian new wave or New German Cinema without addressing both their politics and the political context. And as Jean-Luc Godard pointed out with reference to the zoom: even style has a political aspect. In fact, we probably should have had a Godard film included. If Godard’s work has not been a catalyst I wonder whose has? And given the absence of British films we could have included a work by Ken Loach, Cathy Come Home (1966) whilst made for television is clearly a catalyst film.

Equally important the political dimension is a central aspect of how audiences relate to film. One distinction one can make is about how audiences respond to and even seek out the political dimension. Most films are commodities, with an exchange value. This is paramount in mainstream cinema. Audiences purchase a set amount of time in the cinema and the entertainment can be judged on how well that times is filled with interest and enjoyment. There is a whole gamut of art film and of independent film where this division between the world inside the cinema and the world outside is more fluid. Much of the expectation about art film is the stimulation that a film will provide for post-screen activities. So Alan O’Leary has a point about how we tend to treat art cinema and mainstream cinema. However I disagree that this constitutes cinephilia. If we take the work of Sergei Eisenstein, whose Battleship Potemkin was also screened during the festival, the way he distinguished his audience was the degree to which they were willing to engage with advanced ideas. And that would certainly apply to contemporary filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard or from a different slant Chantal Ackerman.

So my criticisms of the seminar include a whole dimension which it failed to address. I rather feel that if we had focussed more closely on the actual films that such a discussion would have been more likely. I had one other worry at the end of the seminar when the Chair advised us that the Centre was already in discussion with the Festival about 2014. I should now reveal an interest; I teach and lecture on film. But 2014 is the centenary of World War I and there are certainly plans to provide some sort of cinematic perspective. I am sure the academics at the Centre can address interesting issues around that topic. But it would be nice to see something which works outside the limitations of academia. And if that WW I is not a central political issue in European cinema I wonder what is.

European ‘international’ productions

There was a bit of a stink last week when The Family was released in the UK. This film, written and directed by Luc Besson for his EuropaCorp was panned by virtually all the leading UK critics. They may well be correct in giving it the thumbs down. I haven’t seen the film, though I’m tempted to check it out (if it lasts long enough in cinemas). I’m intrigued because I read the source novel a few years ago. The novel – about an American mafia family, hiding under ‘witness protection’ in France – was written by Tonino Benacquista who despite his name is French and he has a generally very good reputation. The original title was ‘Malavita‘ which translates as ‘Badfellas‘. I thought the novel was a diverting amusement, but my interest now is in the ignorance of some UK critics who a) fail to notice that it is a French story and b) that it is essentially a French film, albeit filmed in English and starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard wondered how much of the film was shot outside LA (apart from a sequence in New York most of the film was shot in France). The main problem, I suspect, is that Luc Besson’s mix of extreme violence and comedy just doesn’t work in Anglo-American film culture.

So far  the $30 million film has grossed over $50 million worldwide and will probably eventually make a profit. Besson consistently turns out commercially successful ‘international’ films in English with Hollywood stars and production budgets small by US standards but high for Europe. I’m using the term ‘international’ to stress that these films in English are not necessarily addressed directly to a domestic European market but are intended to compete with Hollywood product in the international market. The Family has an American (independent) partner, Relativity Media, but is essentially a French production. Nearly all these films are condemned by critics but audiences want to see them. Little is written about Besson’s success but I’m interested now because I’m starting to watch some of the better films produced on a similar basis in Europe (mainly France and Italy) in the 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve seen some crackers so far and I’m going to discuss them in an evening class course running next term at Cornerhouse in Manchester. Watch this space!

Little secret/Strach (Czech Republic 2013)



This was an entry in the Louis Le Prince International Short Film Competition at the Leeds International Film Festival. The film, which runs for 20 minutes, is based on actual events in 2012. I missed the beginning of this film – an occupational hazard at festivals.

Apparently the main protagonist Tomás, attending a party with his girl friend Lenka, fell down a stairwell. He sustained serious injuries and ended up in hospital where he had to have a kidney removed. Partly to protect Lenka he claimed the injuries resulted from an attack by Romany youths. I joined the film at the point at which he has given a statement to the police to this effect.

The rest of the film tracks the increasing pressures on Tomás and Lenka as his ‘attack’ becomes a major issue. This is fuelled by a television interview at the hospital re-iterating his accusation. This feeds into what appears to be media frenzy and an atmosphere of racist prejudice against Romany.

The film has very good production values and performances. I was particularly struck by the excellent use of modern computer graphics. There is one impressive sequence which mattes the hospital ward, the television, and Facebook and Twitter entries. And the editing is also extremely effective. There are several brief flashbacks, including one in a deserted city street. This then becomes the site of a fleeting glimpse of a large and heated demonstration.

Given the liberal critique that obviously informs this film you can probably guess that Tomás comes clean on the events of the earlier night. The film leaves it to the audience to fill in the resolution of the narrative ending at this point. We then get the credits, in bright red. Appropriate.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (Belgium, France 1975).


This was the most impressive film for me personally at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is an almost flawless masterpiece. I write flawless because it seemed to me that the film perfectly captures the intent of its writer and director Chantal Akerman. It is a film where the distinction that we usually make between form and content is almost redundant, because they are in complete synchrony.

The film charts almost three days in the life of the widow Jeanne and her son Sylvain. That she is a widow is important: a photograph of her wedding day, with her husband, stands on her dressing room table. The critics quoted in the Catalogue uses the term ‘single mother’, but certainly in English ‘widow’ and single mother’ have very different connotations.

On the first day, Wednesday we join the routine of Jeanne as housewife and mother. Her day includes looking after a neighbour’s baby, shopping, domestic duties and preparing meals: and of a different order, servicing regular male clients whilst her son is out at school. Her activities are all performed with methodical care. And this is also true of the evenings when her son Sylvain returns home. There is a simple meal. Reading to help retain his French accent as he is attending a Flemish school: reading a letter from a married sister in Canada.  And there is a constitutional walk before bedtime. Of a slightly different character is the bedtime exchange when the son probes his mother’s past emotional life.

Sylvain and Jeanne

Sylvain and Jeanne

Thursday the second day seems very similar. But we notice small discords that intrude on Jeanne’s routines. Another male client attends, but the transaction seems little different from the preceding day. The son’s bedtime questions are more probing and personal, including emotional comments on the dead father.

On Friday, day three, the discords become much more apparent and Jeanne’s growing disquiet moves from subtle expression to clear disruptions. It is on day three that a dramatic event occurs. This completely breaks down Jeanne’s life of orderly routine but also shines a strong illumination on all that has gone before. The ending of the film leaves a number of conventional plot questions unresolved, but exposes the contradictions under which Jeanne has laboured.

The film is shot predominantly in mid-shot with occasional long shots. The rhythm of the film is slow; whole sequences are often filmed in one take. And the sound track on the film is natural and diegetic. The audience is asked to watch and consider. Since the film runs for 201 minutes this is quite an ask. But I found, and other audience members concurred, that the film did not seem anywhere as long as that.

As the title suggests Jeanne’s labour as a prostitute is presented as an example of commodity exchange. And the routines that she follows when preparing for her clients emphasises this aspect. In fact we do not see the actual acts of intercourse on the Wednesday or Thursday. However we do enter the bedroom for the coitus on the Friday. This act is clearly of a different order from those of the preceding days. Essentially the use value and exchange value of Jeanne’s sexuality come into conflict at this point.

Whilst the events on the Friday are likely to take the audience by surprise, the film is careful to prepare the ground, though this is done in a low-key and fairly subtle manner. But the methodical behaviour that Jeanne follows, and the increasing discrepancies that become apparent, both lead up to the climax. Seeing the film again I noted the neon sign in the street creates a flashing reflection which is seen on the sitting room wall in the evenings Jeanne spends with her son. Now this seems like a premonition with a strong film noir flavour.

The Catalogue refers to the influence of two of the USA avant-garde filmmakers, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol. This is noticeable in the importance of space and time in the film. Ackerman herself has acknowledged the influence of Marguerite Duras and Jean-Luc Godard. The latter possibly influenced the way that the film uses repetition and ellipsis to present the routines of Jeanne. What struck me was the way that the film uses props in the mise en scène, also relying on the depth of field, and recalling the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. I found the similarity especially pronounced in the long shots along corridors.

If the film’s direction is beautifully modulated then this is also true of the central performance by Delphine Seyrig. Her Jeanne is some way removed from her character in Last Year in Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Indeed that film’s director Alain Resnais is another obvious influence. Whilst the two films are very different, what they share is a formal rigour.

The screening used a fairly good 35mm print, with only a few noticeably worn sections. So it showed off the production skills of Babette Mangolte’s cinematography, Patricia Canino’s editing and Alain Marchall’s sound editing. If you missed this, the fortunate news is that there are plans to circulate a package of Ackerman’s films in 2014: hopefully this will include Jeanne Dielman.

Certified Copy (Copie conforme, France-Italy-Belgium-Iran, 2010)

Beauty and the beast?

Beauty and the beast?

Unlike Keith I didn’t find style triumphed over content in this film – see here. Like the Before Sunrise-Midnight films, Abbas Kiarostami relies heavily on long takes, long conversations and entirely convincing performances. Of course Juliette Binoche can be expected to be absolutely wonderful but William Shimell . . . ? Kiarostami had directed him in a performance of a Mozart opera so knew he’d be up to the task; it’s inspired casting. Shimell has since appeared in Amour (2012).

Befitting of Kiarostami’s art house status, Certified Copy is more obviously intellectual than Richard Linklater’s films; which is not to say it’s better or worse. I wasn’t particularly interested in the philosophy of authenticity in art, or in relationships, but was riveted by the conversations, and the Tuscan landscape, that ran throughout the film. There’s a brilliant twist, about half way through so stop reading now if you plan to see the film.

It has appeared so far that Binoche’s Elle (a ‘universal’ ‘she’?) has been flirting with the intellectual James (Shimell) but, when they are mistaken as a married couple, she plays along with the error and then he too plays along . . . But are they or are they not actually married? It is a brilliant sleight of narrative that raises issues of longevity in relationships, memory, as well as gender roles. Unsurprisingly Kiarostami doesn’t bother to tell us the ‘truth’ of the situation, leaving us to ponder if we wish. I’m sure we’ll ponder the actors’ brilliance and, maybe, Kiarostami’s too. I’m not suggesting that his film is derivative in any way, he often uses long takes in his films and may have patented the car dashboard camera.

One clue to the film’s playfulness is surely the casting of Jean-Claude Carrière in a minor role. Carrière scripted a number of Luis Bunuel’s late films and  surrealism is expertly interlaced with the ostensible realism of this film’s visual style and the performances.