First a confession. I found this a puzzling film. It was difficult to watch for various reasons but it made me think and there are many good things about it. I first wrote a blog post asking questions and making guesses about what it all might mean. Then I discovered the Press Notes and most of the answers. I turned out to be more or less correct on several points but there were some things I didn’t know and I certainly hadn’t picked out all the ideas behind the film. I think you need the notes to ‘read’ the film successfully and I’m not sure that is a good thing. Here are my revised notes informed by the Press Pack.
During the screening I thought of an important but little-known film by Jean Renoir, Toni (France 1934). Often quoted as the film that provided the spark for neo-realism, Toni tells the story of Italian migrant workers in South-Eastern France filmed mostly on location. Grand Central is set in the lower Rhone Valley where there are three nuclear plants. The central characters are two experienced workers at one of these plants (one of whom is called Toni) and they accept the responsibility to take into their team three young workers who are marginal characters with backgrounds in petty crime. The older and younger workers live together in a caravan park by the river. One of the trio of young men, ‘Garry Manda’ (Tahar Rahim) then becomes involved with Toni’s young fiancée Karole (Léa Seydoux) who also works in the plant.
The Renoir connection is strengthened by a sequence in which Gary and Karole have a midnight tryst which takes them in a boat down the river and Toni is cuckolded just like the innkeeper in Renoir’s Une partie de campagne (France 1936). I’m not suggesting that the film’s aesthetic approach matches Renoir, but there is certainly a shared sense of seeing the narrative from the point of view of the working-class characters. A second connection to Francophone cinema’s realist wing is the casting of Olivier Gourmet (from the Dardenne Brothers’ films) as Gilles, the senior figure on the works team. Toni is played by Denis Ménochet, best known from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. (These observations are matched by comments from the film’s director in the Press Pack when she says that she consciously drew on the 1930s films with working-class characters. As well as the naming of Toni, ‘Manda’ is a reference to the lead male character in Jacques Becker’s 1952 film Casque d’or. Denis Ménochet reminds the director of Robert Mitchum.)
The visual and aural style of the film does not necessarily relate to realism. Co-writer and director Rebecca Zlotowski employs shallow focus shots with ‘pulled’ focus transitions and a distinctive mix of interiors, seemingly shot inside a real nuclear power station, contrasted with pastoral scenes by the river. The interiors were shot on digital cameras to capture the detail of the harshly illuminated scenes but the ‘warm’ exteriors were shot on 35mm film. The music is often menacing from an electronic score involving various collaborations – most of the music was composed specifically for the film. The menace in the plant comes from the threat of contamination while outside it hangs heavily in the mainly outdoor scenes of a kind of communal life around the caravans and on the river bank creating a nervous tension between the men and relatively few women. I’m kicking myself now for not making the connections with stories about other kinds of industrial life with ‘workers camps’ – fruit-pickers, road-builders, railway-builders etc. The director refers to the bar and the camp found in certain kinds of Hollywood Western. These kinds of narratives all work with the combination of dangerous occupations and strong emotions amongst the camps’ inhabitants.
We learn about the procedures required inside the nuclear plant but very little about the backgrounds to any of the characters themselves. What is clear is that Gilles and Toni see themselves as skilled workers with an informed perspective on the inequalities of the working conditions in the plant whereas the the younger men (and possibly younger women) have no political awareness and are reckless in terms of the dangers posed by contamination. In this divide is the basis of an interesting film about collective v. individualistic behaviour and a critique of labour relations in the nuclear industry. (The scenes inside the plant – and some outside – were shot in a mothballed plant in Austria.) However, Ms Zlotowski presents the ‘worker’s story’ through the prism of the sexual relationship between Gary and Karole, her two attractive leads. There is an emphasis across the film on the bodies of the workers. We see them dressing and undressing and being examined for evidence of possible contamination from radioactive materials. After possible contamination they are hosed down and scrubbed. Outside the plant it is Karole who is clearly ‘exposed’. She wears an extraordinary outfit – a tight, close fitting ‘body’ garment of soft white cotton emphasising her breasts with similarly tight and short cut-off denims. This provocative outfit is both revealing and constraining – and clearly far too much for Gary. Léa Seydoux appeared in Zlotowski’s previous film Belle Épine and she was one of the twin stars of the controversial film Blue is the Warmest Colour. Her ‘exposure’ raises some questions about the intentions of her female director.
In the Press Pack Zlotowski suggests that she deliberately presented Seydoux as an erotic figure and that she had in mind something like the appearance of Marilyn Monroe in Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (US 1952) in which Robert Ryan pursues Barbara Stanwyck in a small fishing community. Tahar Rahim is a star actor who can suggest both vulnerability and fortitude but here it is quite difficult to understand what might be going on in his head. We do learn something about his difficult family background and there is the suggestion that he might have found a new family with Gilles and Toni like surrogate father/uncle/mentor. But he appears determined to ‘prove himself’ – partly by taking great risks with his own health. This threatens to break up his working group and the relationships in the caravan park. The two young lovers are not a conventional heroic couple.
The mixture of ‘romance’ and the Western helps to explain the focus on the saloon bar (with its mechanical bull, reminiscent of John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy of 1980) as the focal point for the ‘showing off’ of the ‘strangers’ who come into town. Rebecca Zlotowski tells us that she also admires the Hollywood films featuring strong and tough working men and she quotes Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (yet another 1952 film) with Robert Mitchum as one of the rodeo riders.
I can now see how the film narrative is supposed to work. I’m not sure it quite does for me and the politics of labour conditions isn’t explored enough for my taste, but this is a much more interesting film than most out there, so please give it a go. The original story comes from a novel titled La Centrale by Elisabeth Filhol and was then developed by Gaëlle Macé, Zlotowski’s screenwriter. So, three women as creative forces behind a film about men at work and the possibly disruptive eroticism of a woman in their midst.
The helpful UK trailer:
The ironic English title of this film refers to the name of a social club with a range of classes and workshops for retirees. Caroline (Fanny Ardant) is given a trial membership by her daughters when she is more or less forced to retire from dentistry aged 60. (Her husband carries on working, even though he is a few years older.) The French title translates as ‘The Beautiful Days’ – perhaps ‘Golden Days’ in English? The novel by Fanny Chesnel has a title which translates as ‘The young woman with white/grey hair’. I mention these different titles since the nuanced differences between how we might interpret them gives a clue to the difficulty of pinning down the tone of the film. As baby-boomers age they inevitably create new categories/genres – as a ‘cohort’ with more expectations than previous generations and often more resources to deploy. There have been several films in the last few years that reflect this social change. UK cinema has produced The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet both played mostly as comedies with underlying dramas. A Song for Marion then developed a twist on the May-December romance. All three UK films have a kind of populist ‘feelgood’ factor about them. Do we expect a French take on the issue to be less sentimental and more aspirational?
In the UK/US film culture older actresses have sometimes (quite reasonably) complained about the limited roles available to them. French female stars of a certain age have had other opportunities similar to that opened up for Fanny Ardant here. Charlotte Rampling springs to mind in more than one film. Our expectation is that these glamorous stars will remain so after 60 and Fanny Ardant certainly fits the bill. Her Caroline quickly falls for the attractive IT teacher running the ‘silver surfers’ workshop. Not quite 40, Julien offers what the BBFC warning (for a 15 film) describes as ‘strong sex’ and Caroline responds. What will happen when her husband finds out – which he surely will since Caroline is anything but discreet? How will the 30 plus daughters react?
The story is set in Dunkerque and the sometimes rainy and chilly Nord-Pas-de-Calais coastline offers an interesting backdrop to what in some ways is quite a conventional romance. The windy beaches, the rain, fairground rides and big skies all seem to offer some kind of referent to the state of the romance. They also help to provide scenarios for how the story might end. The director and co-writer (with the novelist) is Marion Vernoux, who has made similar films that I don’t think I’ve seen. She has an excellent cast with Patrick Chesnais as the husband and Laurent Lafitte as the lover. I’m not sure that the story alone would have held me without a central performance as strong as that from Ms Ardant who is completely convincing. A key moment for me was when Caroline referred to the expectation that the ‘right thing’ to do for a relatively affluent retired dentist was to offer her services to voluntary groups helping those less fortunate. “But, I want to live” she tells Julien. I’m not sure why that line made such an impression, but possibly it just made her less ‘admirable’ and perhaps more human so that I felt for her as she drank too much and became vulnerable. That dilemma about wanting to ‘give back’ something to society but also wanting to enjoy freedom and independence is something many people over 60 experience (assuming that they have enough income to make the choice realistic).
Bright Days Ahead is only showing twice at Hebden Bridge Picture House and it got a smaller audience for the first screening than is usual for Hebden. That’s a shame. This is the kind of adult romance that UK filmmakers find difficult to make (though there are as good and arguably better narratives of a similar kind on UK television).
Export trailer (with English subs) from Unifrance:
This is certainly the most intriguing film I have seen so far this year. It’s tempting to suggest that something is definitely happening in mainstream Hindi cinema. For the first half an hour or so of Highway I thought I was watching an independent film. Only when the A.R. Rahman songs start to come thick and fast does it begin to appear conventional. Even then, the performances by the leads Randeep Hooda and Alia Bhatt are extremely good. Bhatt in particular is beautiful and vital in a tricky role without having any of that false Bollywood glamour. Because I don’t follow Bollywood gossip, her performance was very fresh for me and I could enjoy it without the hype. I did wonder if she was related to Mahesh Bhatt (she is his daughter) and she lives up to her family name. The film appears to have had a reasonable budget (around $4.5 million) and most of that seems to have gone on the wonderful cinematography in some difficult locations. The feel of authenticity in many scenes again suggests an independent aesthetic. There is also a device whereby each half of the film starts with what appears like a home movie/video academy frame sequence which then morphs (for no reason I could determine) into a full ‘Scope framing. I’d be grateful for any reading of what this might mean.
Highway is a road movie and a romance as well as a social drama. Writer-director Imtiaz Ali first explored the narrative idea in an episode of a TV series in 1999. Two strong elements of the story appeared in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). In the first of these, a bride from a wealthy Delhi family escapes from the wedding preparations, this time with the reluctant groom. Their car is parked at a petrol station when a robbery takes place and the bride is taken as a hostage. She proves to be a lively captive and when her captors learn of her background they swiftly move her out of the region. The ensuing road trip moves through Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. The leader of the gang, Mahabir, knows that because of Veera’s status, ransom demands are going to be met by a police (and military) response. What he doesn’t know is how Veera will behave.
The first part of the film is likely to be difficult for mainstream audiences. There are long periods when little happens plot-wise but we begin to slowly understand why Veera behaves as she does. Veera experiences something akin to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’ when hostages develop relationships with their captors. But Veera’s responses are also informed by her childhood memories and her unhappiness as a rich urban young woman, seemingly cut off from the world around her.
I’m not sure that the film has been helped by the hype that surrounded its release in India (including, I read, tie-in fashion merchandising!). But if you are happy to watch a film with relatively long passages of beautiful scenery, pretty good music and a young actress giving her all, I’d recommend Highway.
Vicky Donor is a successful example of the ‘New Bollywood’ trend. With a relatively small budget and an ‘edgy’ theme it pleased both critics and popular audiences and became a hit. Produced by the Bollywood star John Abraham, it is the work of the pairing of writer Juhi Chaturvedi and director Shoojit Sircar, the latter pair first meeting in the advertising industry. The trio have recently worked on Madras Cafe, a critical success, albeit much more controversial. Since its release was abandoned by my local multiplex chain, I’ll have to wait to see it but on the evidence of Vicky Donor, it should be worth seeking out. Perhaps, like Vicky Donor, it will get an airing on Channel 4 in the UK?
The ‘taboo’ in Vicky Donor is the subject of sperm donation and infertility treatment – a subject for comedy in many film cultures I think and Vicky Donor has been seen as similar to the Québécois film Starbuck from 2011 (now being remade in Hollywood). However, the Indian cultural context is quite different and what we get here is a ‘romantic comedy-drama’. Vicky is a young unemployed man living quite comfortably off his hard-working mother who runs a beauty parlour in the Punjabi ‘colony’ district of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi. One day he is spotted by Dr. Chaddha (veteran actor Annu Kapoor) who runs an ailing fertility clinic which needs to find a new donor of high quality sperm as soon as possible. Dr. Chaddha can tell just by looking at his face that Vicky will have a high sperm count. In one of the sensitive themes explored in the film we learn that Chaddha is looking for his ‘Alexander’ – a sperm donor who carries the genes of the Macedonian general who arrived in what is now the Punjab in 326 BC. This ‘Alexander’ represents what the subtitles call the ‘Pure Aryan’ legacy, a tricky concept for European audiences and many Indians I think. In the context, I would let this go but a serious drama around this issue would be interesting.
Vicky takes some persuading to become a donor but eventually the monetary rewards win him over and the next phase of the narrative deals with his meeting and courtship with Ashima, the rather aloof young woman at his local bank. I confess that I found the first part of the narrative rather slow and hard to get into but when the romance begins it picks up markedly. I realise now that it is important to set up the specifics of the Punjabi community. Vicky lives with his mother and his grandmother – a remarkably ‘progressive’ woman by comparison with her daughter. Ashima is a Bengali, so the second ‘sensitive’ issue is the play on the stereotypes of Punjabi and Bengali life. I was reminded of the Chetan Bhagat novel 2 States where the couple comprise Punjabi boy and Tamil girl. My impression is that Punjabis, Bengalis and Tamils are the most circulated regional identities in Indian popular culture. Interestingly writer Chaturvedi and director Sircar are from Punjab and West Bengal, but they have exchanged genders in creating the two lead characters. I was quite taken with the young couple and I think part of the charm of the film is that they were not stars (though the film’s success has now helped them get more lead roles. Ayushmann Khurrana has come out of TV where he has been a presenter and VJ. Yami Gautam similarly began in TV (ads and soaps) and this was her first Hindi film.
The final part of the film deals with the fall-out of the revelation of Vicky’s earlier ‘career’. By this stage I was enjoying the film very much and I thought the ending, though conventional, worked well. Overall, Vicky Donor does confirm the emergence of a new kind of Bollywood film. There is more reference to the realism of the lives depicted (at least in terms of regional culture) and the central issue is handled with some intelligence (although there does appear to be a major plot hole in the resolution). There are eight songs carefully integrated in the action, including this one sung by Ayushmann Khurrana that acts as a promo for the film – enjoy!:
The latest Studio Ghibli anime has received rather grudging reviews on the whole, being described as ‘bland’ and ‘minor Ghibli’ or at best ‘pleasant and light’. I enjoyed it a great deal but I can understand why the less enthusiastic responses have come from some fans and critics. But I should also point out that this was the biggest-grossing Japanese film of 2011, so plenty of fans did like it.
Based on a shojo manga (i.e. a girl’s comic book story), the film has a screenplay by the studio head Miyazaki Hayao and Niwa Keiko. It is directed by Miyazaki Gori, Hayao’s son, whose 2006 anime Tales of Earthsea was generally panned. This time he seems to have had a smoother ride with critics prepared to delay judgement after a film that works – “not amazing” but “simple and cute” as fans have described it. I’ll try to explain why I think it is more than that.
The most obvious category/genre of the narrative is ‘teen high-school romance’. But it is also a ‘period film’ set very precisely in the port city of Yokohama in 1963, a year before the Tokyo Olympics when Japan is poised to ‘leap forward’ in terms of its modernising economy and society. The students in the last two years of high school were born in 1945-6 and they have lived through the painful and difficult period of Occupation and ‘recovery’. The central character Umi has a busy life running her grandmother’s house and catering for lodgers and her two younger siblings, having lost her father, the captain of a supply ship which sank during the Korean War. Her mother is an academic working for a spell in America. Every day Umi shops and makes food before and after school. She also runs up signal flags outside the house in memory of her father. One day she meets Shun, a senior at school who is the editor of a school newspaper. The potential romance develops (with the approval of the older women in Umi’s household) but an unforeseen obstacle lies in the way – a plot development that might surprise some viewers (and which one character refers to in terms of ‘cheap melodrama’). However, the teen romance also involves that classic high school element – saving something valuable which the school authorities want to close down. The boys occupy a rambling old house that offers accommodation for various clubs and societies, including the newspaper ‘offices’. Given the title ‘the Latin Quartier’ the building represents an old, but culturally important aspect of the school community but there are plans to sweep it away to make way for a modern building.
The ‘problem’ for fans is that this film is a change from the fantasy films usually associated with Studio Ghibli, although there were a couple of such films in the 1990s, rarely seen in the West and, most famously, Grave of the Fireflies in 1988. Miyazaki Gori’s direction is also perhaps a little prosaic but I’m not sure that this matters since I found the story to be strong. There are several themes and set pieces which bring Miyazaki Senior’s work to mind. So we see the focus on preparing meals (and shopping) and the sequence in which Umi organises the girls in the school to clean and renovate the Latin Quartier in order to impress the school administrators is reminiscent of both the cleaning of the country house in My Neighbour Totoro and the many sequences featuring the great bath-house in Spirited Away. Like these two buildings, the Latin Quartier house (built probably in the Meiji period in the 19th century) is a symbol of a Japanese tradition that needs to be preserved. This aspect of the story is potentially problematic in the context of the school.
The Japanese convention/tradition of dressing students in identical uniforms with military connotations does mean that a lively student debate can sometimes feel like a fascist rally with uniformed ranks chanting in unison. But in fact, this is all about collective action and collaboration. There is no sense that the students want to persecute others or make themselves more important. And it isn’t sexist either. In Studio Ghibli films young women are active agents. Umi has to run a household without adult males. She knows how to get things done – although she initiates the cleaning, the boys also contribute.
Watching the film, I found myself thinking about classical Japanese cinema from the 1950s and links kept popping up – the train journey into Tokyo was reminiscent of Ozu, the house on the hill and the city below form the basis of Kurosawa’s (very different) story in High and Low, also set in Yokohama. Both Ozu and Kurosawa made ‘youth pictures’ celebrating the vitality of young people. I think I’ve read that Miyazaki Hayao was a big fan of these films. I also wonder about the naming of the ‘Latin Quartier’ – is this a nod towards the Japanese New Wave cinema in the 1960s or, more likely, a reference back to the importance of European culture in the mix of Japanese education practices in the early 20th century? Most of these references won’t mean much to contemporary audiences but they point towards the care with which the best Studio Ghibli films are constructed. Contemporary Japanese politics seem to be swinging right and there are worrying signs about a revival in interest in the militarism of the 1930s and the disavowal of the post-1945 ‘reconstruction’ of Japanese identity. I hope that the investigation of tradition and heritage in Studio Ghibli films acts as a counterweight to those swings.
Here’s a very short Japanese trailer for the film. I watched the subtitled version of the film. In the UK specialised cinemas tend to show the American dubbed version in matinees and the Japanese version in the evenings. The trailer features one of the songs and I loved the music in the film which features choral singing (from the students) alongside contemporary Japanese popular songs. I’m used to Joe Hisaishi but the music in Poppy is by Takebe Satoshi.
Finally, here’s one of the most useful reviews of the film by Andrew Osmond (who also reviews the film in Sight and Sound, August)
This is the film that I have enjoyed most in the cinema this year. I found it compelling entertainment for two reasons. One was the casting of Romain Duris and Déborah François and the other was the use of costume, colour, lighting, graphics and music. Duris and François are my favourite francophone actors of the current crop and that might explain why I am so taken with a film which too many critics seem to have dismissed as simply ‘conventional’. Philip French has announced his retirement from the Observer but in one of his last published reviews he gave the film the full works and found many interesting connections – whereas his colleague on the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw, dismissed it with hardly a second glance. That’s a big mistake because there is plenty to see.
Budgeted at a whopping €14.7 million, Populaire has been inevitably linked with The Artist and Mad Men because of its meticulously presented period detail. It shares The Artist‘s female star Bérénice Bejo (in a small but important role) and its cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and it’s set in 1958-9 with the same attention to period offered by Mad Men. But that’s where the connection to the TV series ends – and the lazy hype perpetrated by distributors has arguably damaged the film’s box office. Think instead an hommage to the American sex comedies of the 1950s with Duris as Cary Grant or Jack Lemmon and François as an amalgam of all those greats such as Doris Day and before her Judy Holliday – but also decidedly Déborah François. This feeling of borrowing from Hollywood is underlined by the clever use of colours and lighting – like the bright colours of early Technicolor. The music is also well chosen with a mix of French and Anglo-American popular styles. There is a real sense of that keen French interest in American modernity associated with the need for speed – the typing competition is an excellent vehicle for this. Populaire is the first feature by director Régis Roinsard who had the original idea and co-wrote the script. It has its flaws and weaknesses but overall it works extremely well. Of course, a romcom/social comedy set in the 1950s raises questions about gender and we’ll come to those later. First though a brief outline.
Rose is a young woman bored by live in her Normandy village where her father owns the village store. When insurance agent Louis advertises for a secretary in a nearby town she applies for the post and gets it – because she is pretty and Louis is a letch, we assume. In fact she is hopeless as a secretary but she can type like a whirlwind. Louis keeps her on and begins to train her for the typing speed contests which were apparently all the rage in the late 1950s. From then on the narrative structure is highly conventional with Rose going on to contest the ‘World Championship’ in New York. Along the way there are a couple of innovations and some tricky decisions over what to show/hint at in terms of offering what might be seen as nostalgia to a contemporary audience. (The ‘Populaire’ is a model of typewriter manufactured by the Japy company of Paris who become Rose’s sponsors when she wins the national title.)
The romcom demands that Louis at first doesn’t recognise his own desire for Rose, allowing him to be quite determined and distanced in his ‘use’ of her typing skills to achieve the success as a trainer that eluded him as an athlete himself. He is that familiar figure, the man in his late thirties running the family business but feeling that he has not succeeded. Rose loves him from the start but is too proud to show it, going along with his madcap training schemes to please him. The narrative material that Roinsard attempts to work with here includes a backstory that involves Louis as member of the Résistance in the latter stages of the war – which in turn led to his separation from his childhood sweetheart (Bejo), now married to an American who parachuted onto her parents’ farm in June 1944. For me, none of this worked, partly I think because despite his many talents I just couldn’t see Duris in the Résistance – but perhaps the fault is mine, there is no reason why a man looking good in a sharp suit in 1958 shouldn’t have a wartime past. But the back story does lead into some potentially darker sides to the drama. Allied to this the sudden appearance of Louis’ family at Christmas provides one of the highlights of the film.
In the end, the film stands or falls for me on the performance of Ms François and she is formidable. She has the ability to move convincingly from village shop assistant to flirtatious romcom heroine, from childlike student to steely contestant and from clumsy office worker to assertive and confident young woman. In all of these roles she is convincing and she dominates the screen. The criticisms of the film’s ‘sexist’ and ‘gendered’ view claims that the film is conservative and backward looking and this is linked by some commentators to the inclusion of one sex scene and one ‘gratuitous’ ‘wet blouse’ moment – see the image at the head of the post. In the UK the film was given a 12A certificate which seems about right – but in the US it seems to be heading for ‘Restricted’. The sex certainly is an issue for a film which I’ve suggested is attempting to work like those 1950s Hollywood comedies with their Hays Code approved scripts. A similar problem comes up when characters appear to be speaking ‘out of time’ – e.g. with references to smoking and when Rose cries “but this is 1959″ (and therefore she can be a ‘liberated’ young woman). I think, on balance Populaire gets these decisions right. I also think that, like Doris Day and Judy Holliday before her, Déborah François is capable of taking the script away from its ideological implications of a submissive and restricted female underclass. Rose is a strong woman who works hard to get what she wants, standing up to whoever gets in her way. The narrative does validate the skills of the typist and it underlines the fact that secretarial work was one of the ways by which women were able to become independent and to establish themselves in the office before moving into a wider range of white collar jobs. The film has suffered because of some of the negative reviews. I hope more audiences are able to see it and enjoy it for what it is – a conventional romcom with great performances that recalls some of the under-rated popular films of the 1950s. It has already created a buzz among the collectors of antique typewriters!
And if you do enjoy this, can I recommend Déborah François in the generically very different La tourneuse de pages (The Pageturner) which nonetheless has some narrative similarities?