The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral questions. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.
A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:
My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production anddirection) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.
The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.
The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or the ‘night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.
If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):
Linklater’s latest film appears to be acting as a lightning rod for critical reaction to his work. There is a great deal of review and commentary, a sudden rediscovery of Linklater as auteur, as he was first embraced when he brought out Slacker during the indie explosion at the end of the 1980s into the early 1990s. Linklater, I think, has suffered from his ability to match form to the material. He has talked about envying the kind of career Vincente Minnelli could have in the Hollywood studio system, directing a wide variety of material on call. For Linklater, this ability has meant that he has been underrated – both in his treatment of form and content. Perhaps a willingness just to direct – such as Bad News Bears – might reduce his value in the eyes of some. How useful is it to think of him as an auteur, now the term has resurfaced.
The obvious – and great – achievement of Boyhood is how it maintains one consistent tone in the visual appearance of the film, in the performances in filming (shooting on film and not digital) over 12 years. There’s a nice scene, as part of Gabe Klinger’s totally engaging documentary portrait: Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2014) where Linklater shows Benning some of the work-in-progress on Boyhood. Sandra Adair, his long-time collaborator as editor, talks about how their relationship was formed. (Long-time collaboration is a characteristic of auteurs – and Linklater). Slacker – his defining feature (his second feature film) – demonstrates not only the crafting of a complex narrative structure, but Linklater’s passion for a community of literary, philosophical and artistic engagement and his strong roots in Austin, Texas. These traits have been constantly apparent through films from Slacker, through Waking Life (2001) and up to Bernie (2011). This latter film failed to gain commercial distribution (emphasising how increasingly difficult it is to release independent work, even when you have the kind of name and track-record Linklater does). It represents the parts of East Texas, Linklater’s home turf, with humour, with sympathy and with a writer’s eye for a great story, however uncomfortable the revelations or strong the local feelings about them. (Bernie is after all, a tale of the convicted murderer of an elderly lady and still continues to generate controversy – not least following Bernie Tiede’s release on the basis he lives at Linklater’s property).
Art and life intertwine in the above. Linklater’s work is generally all about connections – in the structure of his films, in the empathic way he draws people so that we recognise their feelings and relate to them strong. However, there is a detached intellect drawing these connections and making them work successfully as narratives in the cinema which avoids sentimentality. This makes me question the parallels made in reviews with documentary, and highlights a crucial difference between what a documentarian is attempting to do compared with a fiction film writer. Linklater is art not life – a storyteller rather than an observer. What is most visible in Boyhood is the European influences Linklater draws on – and how he develops them in a parallel narrative structure. Mason Junior reminds us of Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s (self)exploration in Les quatres cents coups, not in control of his own fate and acted upon by the adults in his life. Linklater, though, likes to construct a narrative out of the different threads and see how they throw up comparisons and contrasts as it unfolds. He signals this connectivity – and this construction – through metaphors running through, visually, in the frame. Patricia Arquette’s single mother raises the two children working hard, limited by her circumstances whilst Ethan Hawke as the father works and travels away on a whaling ship. The nearest she comes is the whale on the side of the removal van and the artwork on her children’s walls. Strong symbolism to emphasise the difference in circumstances. One of the greatest strengths of Linklater’s episodic design is how the threads of both adult and children’s lives intertwine and we shift perspective constantly to walk a mile in each of their shoes. It’s filmmaking of great control and detail which appears to unfold as naturally as documentary observation.
As part of a showing at Bradford with its hard-core of dedicated cinéphiles, a member made an interesting observation about those directors who have place associated with them and mentioned another native of Austin, Texas: Terrence Malick. It’s an interesting comparison – how each of these filmmakers use their understanding of space (and their place) in a different way. There are the parallels between something like Boyhood and Malick’s Tree of Life, both epic in their treatment because they explore the idea of growing up and maturity (and what those things mean). Tree of Life tested audience’s staying power because Malick introduces his modes of reflection by moving out of the diegetic, narrative space. Linklater, as evident throughout the Before trilogy, is ‘the auteur’ of staying in the moment with his characters. This might be one reason that many of the reviews focus so heavily on the documentary models, ignoring how highly-wrought his work is. It’s curious to see the parallels with Seven Up, the Michael Apted-directed British series that has followed a number of children through their lives. Their stories have a resonance for all of us. Linklater’s purpose, though, is much more like Malick’s than Apted’s. He wants to explore what boyhood means, how the kind of childhood we have affects the kind of adults we might become. And, as sprawling nineteenth century novels did, weave in philosophical and intellectual reflection around our emotional engagement with the characters. The casting becomes a narrative device and productive in itself. We watch in parallel as Ellar Coltrane (and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater) grow up through the production of the film – whilst we are strongly rooted in the present tense in each episode. Just as we watched Hawke and Julie Delpy talk, argue discuss and fall in love in the long takes of the Before trilogy but grow up/grow older across the trilogy. Linklater is fascinated with all these aspects – reviews that seem to centre him as an auteur of ‘boyhood’ seem reductive. Perhaps his own boyish face is to blame for this review ‘chatter.’ (As an aside, how fortunate that he chose the kinds of actors who can/are prepared to age on screen. The close-up on the smooth, modern star’s face is eliminating that very thing that makes Linklater’s films so fascinating – being able to empathise with the characters and see ourselves reflected in their faces).
Boyhood, therefore, was the ‘indie epic’ – to use Linklater’s own description. As another of our Bradford group commented, he is in control of structuring emotion – of creating scenes of our lives which convey emotion acutely. His work creates a real sense of connection and connectivity. He’s the guy who made School of Rock after all. Boyishness aside – Linklater’s body of work is a masterclass in narrative filmmaking.
Sight and Sound July 2014 – carries an interesting inteview with Linklater as part of their feature: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-boyhood
Although I’ve always been aware of this film, for some reason I don’t remember watching it in the 1980s. Watching it now I was surprised at how accessible it was. I remember the critical backlash against the film which attracted the attention of the mainstream press because it featured Julie Christie – during her 1980s stint as champion of independent and political film. There are several notable features of its production which are key to its high status in the history of feminist filmmaking in the UK. As well as Sally Potter as writer-director it had a largely female crew and creative team. It was also one of the first films to be produced by the BFI Production Board and the new Channel 4 working together and this means it was in the vanguard of the British experimental and new art film movement of the 1980s. In her succinct and very helpful entry on the Screenonline website, Annette Kuhn comments on the film’s beautiful black and white cinematography by Babette Mangolte, suggesting that it has the qualities of the best European art cinema such as Ingmar Bergman’s films. Mangolte had already worked with Chantal Akerman and was herself already a specialist in photographing dance and performance art as well as working on experimental film and theatre productions.
The Gold Diggers was shot on 35mm with a budget of around £250,000, most of which went on the shoot itself as all the participants, including its star, were on the same basic wage of £30 a day. The look of the film is thus very different from the 16mm low-budget Thriller. Its narrative is, like Thriller, a feminist investigation of patriarchy but with a much wider remit. The story concerns two women, one a computer operator (Collette Lafont from Thriller) and the other an actor/performer (Julie Christie). The computer operator wants to discover how men control the economy through possession of gold and she teams up with the actor who, born to a ‘gold digger’ (scenes shot in Iceland to represent the Klondike) later finds herself as the ‘queen’ in a parade of bankers. She is in effect investigating her own image as a ‘woman in film’. The film’s title is also a clue to this second narrative investigation into the history of cinema itself from Chaplin’s Gold Rush, through Busby Berkeley musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933) to later melodramas and costume pictures. The investigation is both a celebration and a critique of mainstream cinema and, via the chase and the dream sequence, the ways in which those narratives use female stars. Rather than linear, the narrative is circular so the investigation ‘reveals’ many things but never finds closure – the ‘riddle’ of cinema as an art form underpins everything. If this sounds ‘difficult’, rest assured it isn’t. There are songs and dances (music by Lindsay Cooper, choreography by Sally Potter, who also sings) and sly digs at the pompous men who are definitely not in control of the action. All the performers acquit themselves well and this is not ‘minor’ Julie Christie work.
Intrigued as to how the film was received at the time, I sought out Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound. In 1984 (when the film was released) the two BFI journals were still separate publications and they had distinctly different writing cultures. MFB in May 1984 included an interview with Sally Potter by Sheila Johnson alongside a detailed and perceptive review of the film by Pam Cook. In Sight & Sound by contrast, the film receives a mainly positive but limited ‘thumbnail review’ in the Summer 1984 issue, but earlier in the Spring issue, Jonathan Rosenbaum had reported from the Rotterdam film festival to the effect that: “Shown only in the Market, it has not yet found many defenders”. To be fair to Rosenbaum, he did write that he found the visuals “deserved applause” and the avant-garde tropes were “consistently fresh and unpredictable”. According to this 2010 review of the BFI’s DVD package of the film and Sally Potter’s shorts, Jonathan Rosenbaum has produced a new essay on the film which refers to him being “taken aback” by the reaction of Janet Maslin (then New York Times film critic) who described watching the film on its 1988 American release as “pure torture”. I have to agree with Rosenbaum. Pure pleasure was my reaction watching it now. I hope more people find the DVD. There are more films from this era to be re-discovered. I note that The Gold Diggers was released alongside another BFI-distributed film, Bette Gordon’s Variety with a script by Kathy Acker. Variety is reviewed in that same MFB issue with an interview with the director conducted by Jane Root. When was the last time two feminist filmmakers were reviewed together in this way?
Sally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.
Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.
The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.
90-plus minutes of talking heads anyone? I think the thought of that is why Sally Potter’s Rage is rated a mere 4.7 by imdb users. In reality, of course, it’s – at the least – an engaging film that relies on its excellent script and performances to allay any ‘poverty’ in the image. Riz Ahmed, Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law and David Oyelowo are the stand outs in what can actually be called a ‘star studded’ cast. The monologues are ostensibly, we never see him, shot by a student for his school project; though he’s actually posting them on a blog. His subject is a fashion show, which is going ‘pear-shaped’, and Potter’s intention is to skewer the pretensions of the industry.
Not a difficult target, I would suggest, but Potter also goes beyond that focus by implicating western consumerism, and wars, into her film. We are invited to read between the lines of what the self-justifying characters are saying. Inevitably, most of them are as two-dimensional as the green screen; which is almost any colour but green, background. The actors perform the shallowness of the characters to perfection; Bob Balaban talking about his new ‘opportunities’, having being sacked, is particularly good.
But why this form? Potter’s targets are valid but are monologues to camera the best way to offer a subversive look at our capitalist world? I suspect it’s a case of form winning over content. Potter’s purpose was to make a film for mobile phones and chose the best – only? – visible format that would be effective on such small screens. This is not to say it doesn’t look great on the big screen, it makes the performances literally ‘towering’. Rage is worth seeing as Potter, and her performers, have risen to the challenge created by the form’s limitations, but it is more an exercise than a entirely convincing piece of cinema.
Sally Potter was the recipient of the 2014 Bradford International Film Festival Fellowship, awarded after ‘Sally Potter in Conversation’ with Rona Murray. Potter’s certainly a worthy holder of the award and proved engaging in conversation. We know that women struggle in the resolutely sexist film industry and Potter, because she works on the fringes of the mainstream, must surely find it even harder than most of her sex to get her films made. The fact that she’s built up a substantial body of work, all screened during the festival, is a testament to her determination, as well as that of her producers.
Potter and producer Christopher Sheppard, who was also in attendance, set up Adventure Pictures in 1988 and the conversation was illustrated by extracts, provided by the company. I’m sure that even those, in the sizeable audience, that were unfamiliar with Potter’s work would have gained much from her observations. Particularly interesting were the ‘behind the scenes’ footage of the screen tests, including Quentin Crisp for Orlando, and examples of the 2000 girls who, via Facebook, submitted their own tests for Ginger and Rosa; though none were cast.
The conversation offered an insight into Potter’s way of working, which very much concerns getting close to actors to build mutual trust. Potter has managed to work with an impressive array of talent, given the non-commercial bent of her cinema; she says that she’s only failed to get ‘on’ with one (who remains nameless). In the Q & A, that followed the conversation, she was asked about the formal experimentation of her films; she replied that was rooted in her London Film Maker’s Co-op background. The fact that everyone, including Julie Christie, was paid £25 a day on her first feature, The Goldiggers (1983), suggests her political orientation, as does her feminism. Though, she noted somewhat ruefully, that didn’t mean some on the set didn’t work much longer hours than others. I was surprised to learn that Goldiggers was the first British feature directed by a woman since World War II; and shocked to hear that Barry Norman, on the BBC Film Night programme, likened Potter to Dr Johnson’s quip about a dog on hind legs. Yes, the industry is still sexist but not as bad as it was 30 years ago.
When asked if being able to draw on recognised ‘talent’ made it easier to get funding for her films I was surprised to hear that it was only a ‘marginal’ advantage. Then again, it’s true that the influence of Hollywood stars are in decline, with the rise of special effects ‘spectaculars’ dominating what’s bankable.
Mention was made of Potter’s new book, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, which is described as the book she would have liked to have read when she started making films. That in itself is enough reason to read it.
As to the awarding of the award: it was a little anti-climactic, it was more thrust upon her; though Potter’s short acceptance speech was entirely gracious.