Category: Womens Film

Gloria (Chile/Spain 2013)


This film, directed by Sebastián Lelio, features in the Leeds International Film Festival Official Selection. Before I even saw the film friends were telling me that it was an extremely good movie. It fulfilled expectations. And it is graced by a fine central performance by Paulina García which won the prestigious Silver Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. Gloria is a middle-aged divorcée. She has some sort of administrative job, a pregnant daughter who is soon to marry her lover from Sweden and a son separated from his wife and caring for their baby child. Gloria is lively and active. We see her both with her family, in social situations and at a number of dances and parties. In the course of the film she begins a relationship with another divorcee, Rudolph. Their relationship is presented explicitly, including one technique I had not seen before.

Gloria is socially active but at the same time she often has an air of detachment. The film opens with her standing and surveying a lively dance floor: after a long pause she joins the dancers. And the film closes with an almost identical sequence, as Gloria surveys a party and then joins the dancing, though she appears to be dancing alone rather than with a partner as in earlier scenes.

This is a generally upbeat film about a positive character. The director is quoted in the Catalogue: “I think that the energy in Gloria’s character is what makes the film vibrant and human. Gloria is like Rocky [Balboa – the Sylvester Stallone boxing champ]: the world strikes at her and beats her down, but she manages to get up once more and carry on forward, holding her head up high.”

This is a neat summary but the comparison with the Hollywood character would seem to be marketing hype. This film offers almost no parallels with that boxing franchise. However, there are two other films that do provide interesting parallels. One is Paulo Sorrentino’s recent art film The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, 2013). The central character in that film is Jep (Tony Servillo) and he has some characteristic in common with Gloria. Both belong to an older generation: both combine an air of detachment with the ability to engage and join in with abandon. However Jep’s emotional centre is in the past, whilst Gloria’s is clearly in the present. In that sense she is closer to another Italian film character, Giulietta Masina’s marvellous heroine in Le notti di Cabiria (1957). The two women are from different classes, and consequently Gloria has a savoir faire that Cabiria lacks. However they share an ability to meet life’s ups and downs with fortitude and resilience.

In fact, there is a slight touch of the Fellini in Gloria’ style, (as there is to a greater degree is in The Great Beauty). There is an air of the carnivalesque at times in the Chilean film. And frequently the mise en scène presents Gloria in a widescreen shot where the urban environment and landscape are prominent, (another Fellini trope). I was not clear where some of the settings were: presumably a Chilean audience would recognise them. I think we are mainly in Santiago, but there is a visit to Vino del Mar, (once the site of the Festival for New Latin American Cinema).

Lelio is also quoted in the Catalogue: “Chile is a modern and thriving country, but is social contract is very unjust. Gloria’s personal vindication subtly communicates the community’s latent discontent.” There in fact several references to protests, including what appears to be the notable student demonstrations in 2012. And one of the film’s producers is Pablo Larrain who directed the fine but disturbing Tony Manero (2008).

The film has a fairly intricate soundtrack with a range of mainly popular music. At times this seemed to comment on or to re-enforce the characters at that point. I was not able to identify enough of the music  used to be sure of all of this in every case. There is one great scene where Gloria’s daughter, with a friend on guitar, sings a flamenco song.

The film has international and UK releases, so there will be opportunities to see this very worthwhile film.

Thérèse Desqueyroux (France 2012)

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Claude Miller died soon after completing this his 15th feature film. It was a distinguished career which included a period when he was production manager for first Jean-Luc Godard and then, for some time, François Truffaut. (See this obituary for more background.) Two films from him as writer-director that I remember enjoying are Un secret (2007) and Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001). The first of these drew on Miller’s own background, born into a non-religious Jewish family, and the second was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with Sandrine Kiberlaine as the central female character under pressure. Both the anti-semitism of French society in the twentieth century and the pressure on a young woman feature in Thérèse Desqueyroux, an adaptation of a 1927 novel by François Mauriac, previously adapted for a film by Georges Franju in 1962. Mauriac is a canonical figure in French literature and won the Nobel prize in 1952. His granddaughter Anne Wiazemsky was an actor in the 1960s and 1970s and later a novelist. She married Jean-Luc Godard and appeared in several of his films.

I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier adaptation (in which Emanuelle Riva takes the central role) so I’m not able to make comparisons, but I would certainly be interested in seeing the Franju film. The lead in Miller’s film is taken by Audrey Tautou and that was one of the attractions for me. It was interesting to see Ms Tautou in a role that challenges audience assumptions about her star persona (cf her role in Delicacy (2011). The story is set in a very distinctive location – the Landes pine forests of Aquitaine, south-west of Bordeaux – in the 1920s. Thérèse is introduced as a teenager playing idyllic games with her friend Anne. Both girls come from local families which own large acreages of the forest, making a good income from wood and resin collection. But whereas Thérèse is the daughter of a radical and thinks for herself, Anne is more conventional – though her obvious enjoyment of hunting might be read in different ways. The surprise is that six or seven years later Thérèse agrees to marry Anne’s brother Bernard – like his sister highly conventional in his attitudes towards love, marriage, family and status. The mystery is why Thérèse allows herself to fall into this trap and her first test is how she will respond when her sister-in-law has a romantic affair with the handsome son of another local family. Bernard decrees that the affair is unsuitable and that the family’s good name is being besmirched. The young man clearly has Jewish blood – Thérèse refers to his family as ‘Portuguese’.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

The National Media Museum programme guide described the film as a costume melodrama which led to certain expectations and I want to explore what ‘melodrama’ might mean in these circumstances. Thérèse as the central character is certainly a potential melodrama figure – in particular as the woman ‘in peril’ in the suffocating embrace of Bernard’s family. I think that there is a case for relating this to the ‘woman’s film’ scenario. On the other hand, there is no female best friend to confide in (the relationship with Anne changes) or much of a possibility of a ‘positive’ romance to pursue. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for scenes of ‘suffering’ as an intelligent and curious woman is expected to ‘behave responsibly’. Melodramas are usually concerned with emotions that are repressed or suppressed – and which then ‘return’ or are ‘released’ through an excess of music, colour, cinematography, mise en scène etc. In this case, there is a certain austerity about the mise en scène and the music, although often there, seemed unobtrusive (mostly classical piano pieces) to me. However, the dark house in the forest is clearly Gothic and when Thérèse meets Anne’s lover it is, of course, by the sea. The internal/external world is also represented through a series of sequences which might represent Thérèse’s thoughts, dreams or nightmares.

I won’t spoil the narrative but I will reveal that the resolution is not perhaps what we might expect after Therese is driven to fairly desperate measures and if you have seen the marvellous earlier film with Audrey Tautou, À la folie . . . pas du tout (2002), you might see a resemblance in the final shots of the two films. The hint of Hitchcock is also shared by the two films. I suppose I’m suggesting here that there is an element of film noir in this melodrama. I was intrigued to discover that Claude Miller decided not to follow the flashback structure of the book but instead to tell the story in a linear narrative – which actually makes the story more mysterious (and alters the portrayal of the husband).

When I came out of the film I wasn’t sure if I had ‘enjoyed’ it, but I’ve been thinking about it since and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a form of melodrama and that Claude Miller demonstrated great skill in his last film. All the performances are good and Ms Tautou has successfully extended her range. As Bernard, Gilles Lelouche also acts against his established character type (he usually plays comedic roles) and he also succeeds. I’m not sure that the film got the promotional push it needed on its UK release so you might struggle to find it but during a summer of tedious blockbusters this is an intelligent gem and I hope that I’ve intrigued you enough to want to see it.

The film’s Press Book is here (in French and in English).

Here is the Australian trailer (it reveals something about the plot that I have largely concealed):

Fifties British Cinema: Woman in a Dressing Gown (UK 1957)

Yvonne Mitchell (foreground) as Amy in Woman in a Dressing Gown with (from left) Andrew Ray (Brian), Roberta Powell (Christine) and Anthony Quayle as ‘Jimbo’

Woman in a Dressing Gown was re-released on a DCP (digital cinema package) and Blu-ray/DVD discs in the summer. This re-release is slightly more significant than most since the film has been out of circulation for some time – not seen in cinemas, nor as far as I know, on DVD. It’s an important film, representing commercial British cinema of the 1950s at the Berlin Film Festival where its lead actor Yvonne Mitchell won a Silver Bear. Its director and cinematographer Lee J. Thompson and Gil Taylor were leading figures of mainstream genre cinema at a time when the UK’s industry was still operating a studio system. This marked the film out as a different kind of submission to a film festival to which it was usual to send ‘quality pictures’ from David Lean, Carol Reed or Michael Powell – or perhaps Ealing Studios.

However, Woman in a Dressing Gown also marked the beginning of the end of ‘studio British cinema’. UK cinema admissions started to nosedive in 1956 with the appearance on TV screens of ‘commercial television’ and this film was an adaptation of a TV play by Ted Willis previously seen on the new ITV channel. It isn’t evident from the film which is imaginatively shot (although it is possible to imagine it as a TV play in terms of the limited number of locations).

My main reason for writing about the film, apart from wanting to encourage readers to watch it if they can –  because it is very good – is to question the assertions around its status. Very well received and well-reviewed, the re-release has been most often taken as giving us a chance to see a precursor to the ‘British New Wave’, usually argued to begin with Room at the Top just over a year later. I can see that this makes sense, but I’m more open to the argument that it is part of a much longer-running idea about ‘kitchen-sink drama’ related to theatre and TV during the 1950s and 1960s. A few weeks ago I introduced a screening of the film on this basis and you can download a pdf of the notes for that session here: WIDGNotes

Since the screening I’ve had a look at the new digital archive for Sight and Sound magazine (which perhaps we’ll review in the next few weeks). I went to the online viewing copy of the journal from Autumn 1957 and read John Gillet’s contemporary review. I was interested to see that he immediately picked up the TV connection, which must have been ‘live’ at the time since Hollywood films were just beginning to appear on television. He notes that Ted Willis had clearly learned from the Paddy Chayefsky plays that had made the jump from US TV to cinema films (Marty (1955) with Ernest Borgnine was probably the best-known). Gillet likes the film, but he’s not as enthusiastic as critics today. He thinks that Yvonne Mitchell tries too hard at times and he doesn’t like the ‘tricksy’ camerawork of Gil Taylor and Thompson’s cluttered mise en scène. Ironically, the formal properties of the film are now what make it stand out as a good example of 1950s commercial cinema with a real sense of adventure. (The film was shot in academy format 1.33: 1 – which marks it as visually different to the New Wave films that followed in 1.66:1.) I think that serious film studies is also now more accepting of melodrama and therefore Mitchell’s performance.

The DVD of the restoration is well worth getting and the interview/presentation by Melanie Williams of the University of East Anglia is one of the best I’ve seen on DVD. She discusses some of her own research into the responses of female audiences to what was an important film offering a discourse about women’s lives in the period.

The milieu for the film is not ‘working-class’ as many of the reviewers of the re-release suggest. Nor is it a ‘middle-class’ block of flats as Gillet suggested in 1957. Instead, the couple at the centre of the story are lower middle-class – an important distinction in British society. You can see this in the clip released by StudioCanal on YouTube in which Amy, shocked by her husband’s demand for a divorce, rings him at work – where the ‘other woman’ (Sylvia Sims as Georgie) answers the phone. It’s an odd clip to choose as none of Taylor’s cinematic style is evident:

The First Born (UK 1928)

Ménage à Trois in The First Born

This British silent film from 1928 was re-discovered and restored by the British Film Institute. The film is a subtle and witty parable on married life and the bourgeois mores of the period. It adds to the re-evaluation of British silent film in recent years, joining a growing list of productions that are both intelligently scripted and made with a distinctive style and noticeable technical quality.

The film is also interesting because it benefits from the talents of a number of extremely able filmmakers. The film was produced for Gainsborough under the auspices of Michael Balcon. He is a producer whose impact over decades on British film is equal too or greater than many of the valued auteurs who usually garner the most attention. The film was designed by W. C. Arnold, whose distinctive sets gave such impact to an earlier Gainsborough film, The Rat (1925). And the film stars Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll.

The film was directed also by Miles Mander, less well known for directing than for acting. He was a character actor whose typical role was as ‘a moustachioed cad’: he plays a bigamist in Hitchcock’s early silent The Pleasure Garden (1925). However, Mander had some experience in theatre, as an actor-director. He had also worked with the Swedish film director Gustaf Molander. Both The First Born and later directorial outings show a continental influence in the use of the camera and in editing practices.

Mander adapted the film from his own stage play Those Common People. In some ways his fellow-scenarist in the adaptation is the most interesting, Alma Reville, usually listed as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is generally regarded as the auteur par excellence. In fact, as with many other noted filmmakers, his work relies to a great degree on the talent of his collaborators. His British films benefited from the scriptwriting talent of Charles Bennett. He worked with notable cameramen, designers, editors and gifted actors like Peter Lorre, Robert Donat and indeed Madeleine Carroll. Michael Balcon was his mentor. Quite possibly though Alma was his most important muse. She was already established in the industry when Hitchcock entered it as young man. She worked for a time as a scriptwriter, but her career was subordinated to that of her husband: very much the norm in the industry of that time. Hitchcock always acknowledged that he discussed his films daily with his wife. So there is a tantalising question mark over the status of Alma Reville.

Some light will be shed on this by the introductory talk before a screening of the film at the National Media Museum (April 25th). The talk is by Nathalie Morris from the British Film Institute. She has written on  ‘The Early Career of Alma Reville’ (in the Hitchcock Annuals, 1 to 15, 2009). This should bring an added dimension to the film, as will the live music performed by Darius Battiwalla. He has already established a high standard of accompaniment at earlier Bradford screenings such as The Rat and Cottage on Dartmoor (1930). The film screens as part of the Bradford International Film Festival.

London Film Festival 2011 #2: Wuthering Heights (UK 2011)

James Howson as Heathcliff

It’s difficult to know where to begin in relation to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights; except to say that within minutes I knew whatever else was missing, this version would not leave out the hanging of Isabella’s spaniel. In playing the race card, by casting a two black actors as the younger (Solomon Glave) and older (James Howson) Heathcliff, Arnold has not subsequently backed away from making him and Cathy the elemental creatures of cruelty and obsession that underpins the brutality of Emily Brontë’s imagining. And it is all the richer for that act of faith in realising all the parts that make them compelling protagonists.

From the start, the elements play a vital role visually. Whilst previous British versions have to a greater or lesser extent ‘prettied’ their subjects, this film is distinguished by the real, visceral realisation of how these two characters inhabit the outside better than they do the inside – the sparse moorland scrub is their wordless playground and these are children who grew up in all weathers, knowing the mud, the rain, the gorse and often wearing it on themselves as a second skin. Cathy’s wasting away inside Thrushcross Grange is entirely logical.

If you are able to see the film you won’t need, so I won’t waste time, on lengthy descriptions of its cinematography (focussed on setting you into the middle of the action) and the powerful editing. Those of us who are lucky to live near the Brontës’ Haworth home – and get to walk on those moors – can recognise the bleakness that Arnold and Robbie Ryan (her long time collaborator) have realised in the best kind of visceral filmmaking. The wordlessness is important – in this stripped down imagining (it’s pulling away from the word adaptation) – the kind of characters Arnold has conceived of here would not be given to nineteenth century verbosity and witticism. The supporting players are convincing – Hindley is especially important since the narrative restructuring places more emphasis on the surrogate Cain and Abel rivalry and bitter hatred. (An honourable mention for Nichola Burley who did much with the usually insipid Isabella). The filmic language consistently places you in the perspective of the main character – because this is Heathcliff’s story told from the perspective of the outsider who enters a world and tries to determine to make it his own. All the performances are strong, I think, notably the non-actors/new actors in the two Heathcliffs and young Cathy (Shannon Beer). The moment where Heathcliff (Howson) beats his head against the tree in anguish – a usually uncomfortably theatrical and unconvincing moment certainly in some of the previous British adaptations –is, well, exactly how this man might express his emotions.

A love story, a revenge drama, a story of a rise to power? It encompasses all of these. I loved the stillness that was at the heart of the film – there is no non-diegetic music used during the narrative – a stillness that reminded me of Red Road and how Jackie’s (Kate Dickie) world was silent, alone and contained until Clyde (Tony Curran) introduced noise and chaos. As in that film, and in Fish Tank (which by comparison was a much ‘noisier’ story generally) there is great sophistication in moving sympathy and/or comprehension between the different protagonists – particularly those characters who do not fit typical moulds of heroism or sympathy or (like Clyde, like Heathcliff) act in a way that should deny it. One of the great pleasures of the original novel is how your sympathies shift as you re-read – particularly on getting older – so Arnold’s text promises the richness of rediscovery. It also has an aesthetic I felt was familiar from Andrew Kötting’s work, especially This Filthy Earth – which reminds me of the relevance of the more European novelistic tradition such as found in the novels of Zola. However, Brontë’s original protagonists are figures out of time and society, and her novel comments on the individual and the psychological – not on class or social systems. Andrea Arnold’s interpretation, though, appears to examine those constructions of power and how they dominate even within small societies. Just as Heathcliff enters the torpid village, steeped in adherence to old ways of religion and ownership, so the wider world seeps into this gothic and elemental classic tale through her bold construction of a real outsider.

Jane Eyre (UK/US 2011)

Interior to Exterior - dramatising internal character in 'Jane Eyre'

Filmed amongst the rolling moors of the Derbyshire Peak District (to recall the moors around Haworth in Yorkshire), starring a German-Irish Rochester and Polish-Australian Jane – the new film adaptation of English Charlotte Brontë’s novel might tempt questions about authenticity. It seems that film reviewers look for modern reimaginings in relation to classic texts as much as to closeness to the original. However, in many crucial ways this film remains very loyal to the book, clearly intending to please its many fans rather than challenge their perceptions and showing an authentic eye for the detail of the period and for the core emotions of its characters. Visually, it’s very arresting at times. Light is (as described by cinematographer Adrian Goldman) bounced off the surroundings onto characters’ faces to create a more suffused and gentler effect – capturing the period and constructing a more naturalistic palette. There is subtle expressionism in its use to change mood (e.g. after the fire in Rochester’s bedroom) but this is never allowed to dominate and the emphasis is on the drama and interaction.

Stand it next to the 1943 version (starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine) and some very interesting distinctions and similarities start to appear (avoiding comments on plot structure as this inevitably brings ‘spoilers’). The earlier film expresses the gothic more liberally for example, in the use of lighting, emotion is rendered through the stark contrasts of the black and white and the atmospheric use of key lighting.

Expressive shadows: Orson Welles as Rochester (1943)

Both preserve much of the language – vital because it is through their dialogue that the central relationships (with Rochester and Rivers) live. (The ITV version – with Ciaran Hinds and Samantha Morton – makes this critical mistake of completely modernising much of the speech, which jars oddly against the period dress). Where Moira Buffini (the book’s adapter) has elided speeches, the underlying tone or the intention in the speech generally remains preserved. I think there is a real attempt to keep the wrestling between person and soul which defines the original – and, specifically, there is one moment where Jane speaks of maintaining her personhood and self-respect. Whilst not directly from the book, this deftly picks out an aspect that is part of its appeal to modern women readers and interpreters.

These are not meant as carping nitpicks of a ‘yes, but is it like the book’ variety (for starters, Brontë herself sets in “___-shire” avoiding realistic references to place and the idea of fidelity to the original literature is much less an emphasis these days). The film, interestingly to me, actually seemed to assume a substantial knowledge in the audience – often apparently playing off what we already remembered.

Director Cary Joji Fukanaga also concentrated on that conundrum of how to bring the central character’s interiority to life on screen (sometimes done through conventional montages) – and Mia Wasikowska (Jane) has a great capacity to render the conflict and her struggle passing across her at crucial moments in her face. Jamie Bell creates a convincingly repressed, and repressive, St.John Rivers. Michael Fassbender delivers the Byronic hero with a tortured soul, looking properly dissolute. There have been criticisms of a lack of chemistry – and there is something, for me, about the lack of close-up and two shot that I want to think about – creating a distance that emphasises her independent resistance of him more than her seduction? There was an occasional dramatic emphasis on his potential danger (a gothic touch) but generally (and this is despite aspects of the marketing) the film seemed to move much more towards the picaresque journey of its central character – her coming of age – rather than move towards a genre style.

This has been described as an outsider’s viewpoint on Jane Eyre, made by the director of Sin Nombre (2009) and it certainly has a clean, unfussy visual style that de-emphasises the traditional pleasures of the costume drama (BBC Films appears as a producer. No immediate info re budget but it does not appear lavish or beyond $20 million? Focus Features – the U.S. ‘Indiewood’ company is also involved). In fact, textures are used dramatically – the moment of the wedding dress arrival used very effectively to communicate more about characters than an opportunity to drool. It has a freshness of perspective in its naturalism – from the Japanese-Swedish Californian director – which places it alongside the modern versions of the literary adaptation such as Pride and Prejudice (2005), with a soft Byronic-style hero at its core (for its modern female audience). It’s the early notices for the girl from Kent’s Wuthering Heights that suggest where a taste for more radical reinvention might be found (See reviews from the Venice Film Festival of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights).