Submarine is likely to split audiences but although I’ve heard people say that it has no likeable characters and isn’t funny, I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of very positive reviews on IMDB. I enjoyed it – though I found it more poignant than funny. I did snigger and chortle a few times but I think it is younger audiences who have found it hilarious.
Submarine is Oliver’s story – Oliver Tait, 15 year-old Welsh schoolboy, pre-occupied, pretentious, egocentric etc. He literally narrates his own story. This could be infuriating if you don’t like extensive voiceover narration (Nick doesn’t and he didn’t like the film) but it worked for me. Oliver (Craig Roberts) has two primary concerns (outside of his desire to become ‘cultured’). He wants to lose his virginity and finds himself in a relationship with a classmate, Jordana (Yasmin Paige). But in the midst of this emotional journey he also sets out to ‘solve’ the marital problems of his parents (played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins).
The novel from which the film was adapted appeared in 2008, written by Joe Dunthorne and immediately acclaimed for its original take on adolescent life. I’ve not read it but a brief glance at some of the reviews suggests that both the tone and the characters in the novel (and its first person narration) have survived the adaptation process. Submarine was Dunthorne’s first published novel after graduating from UEA’s creative writing programme. The Joe Dunthorne website carries some interesting material – including the covers of the book from various translations (e.g. in Russian, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Brazilian). This augurs well for an international film release.
When Warp Films bought the film rights their selection of a director was clearly going to be crucial and Richard Ayoade was an inspired choice. He was known to them for his video direction (see below) but to the wider public he is a TV and stand-up comedian. He has now become internationalised so there must be many outside the UK who recognise Ayoade as a supremely talented comedian and comic actor. I only know him through his incarnation of ‘Moss’ in the IT Crowd, but a little research reveals the breadth of his creativity. I hadn’t been aware that he has directed videos for several leading bands, including the Arctic Monkeys – which presumably explains the raft of Alex Turner songs on the soundtrack for Submarine.
The film offers direct references to the ‘authorial influences’ on display – J. D. Salinger, Serge Gainsbourg, Woody Allen etc. Many reviewers have mentioned Wes Anderson and the similarity to Rushmore in particular is quite marked. However, I think Ayoade is going back to what influenced Anderson and Allen – the French New Wave. The film’s titles and the use of intertitles/chapter headings are directly lifted from Godard along with the literary and cinematic referencing. But in some ways, I think that the true auteurist link is to Truffaut – not least because of the first person narration and literary adaptation, the repeated shots of Oliver running across the shore à la Les quatre cents coups and the deadly seriousness of Oliver/Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s young alter ego in several films). The scene in which Oliver takes Jordana to a screening of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc (1928) after first plying her with Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Catcher in the Rye is a wonderful pastiche of Godard/Truffaut topped off with a joke. The direct reference is to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) in which Nana (Anna Karina) goes to a screening of the same film. Jordana, of course, has been given a version of the Louise Brooks/Anna Karina hairstyle to complete the allusion. So, Ayoade is just as clever as Oliver – but a lot more playful.
Setting and Representation
Dunthorne’s story was set in South Wales and Submarine was produced with funding from both The Wales Creative IP Fund and The Film Agency for Wales. The film was shot in a Swansea school and around Barry Island (location for UK TV comedy series Gavin and Stacey). I think this setting is important as it allows a range of locales from the funfair to industrial sites, rather comfortable suburbia to the windswept shore. The locale also becomes a little mysterious or at least ‘other worldly’ because the narrative is not set in a specific time period. ‘Sometime in the 1980s’ is one possibility but the usual indicators – cars, clothes, pop songs etc. aren’t used here to tell us the precise time period. Besides the two young leads the three adults featured are all made to look a little odd. Paddy Considine plays a pretty loopy character spouting psychobabble and wearing silly outfits with a strange haircut. The role reminded me strongly of the Patrick Swayze role in Donnie Darko (but not quite as dark). Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor) is clearly suffering from depression and his New Zealand accent adds to the strangeness of his overall appearance (I mean ‘strange’ only in the sense of the whole tone of the film). Presumably this is also part of how Oliver views his parents. I felt sorry for Sally Hawkins who is asked to play Oliver’s mother. She often seems to get unsympathetic roles (so good to see her in a positive light in Made in Dagenham). Here she is dressed in awful outfits in attempts to age her enough to be credible as the mother of a 15 year-old.
In interviews during the opening week of the film’s release, Richard Ayoade maintained a fairly lugubrious stance, stating that Oliver wasn’t a particularly pleasant young man but that the film and its comedy were more interesting because of that. I think he’s right but it is a gamble with a popular audience. The film looks like finishing its run with around £1.3 million from its UK cinema release. That’s pretty good for a film of this type and I expect it to do equally well on DVD. The US release will be June 3 – no other territories yet to my knowledge.
Press Kit (from Toronto International Film Festival)
Here’s the UK trailer:
The French movie channel Cinémoi is currently free for a two month period on Virgin cable in the UK and I’m trying to see as many films as possible. Les plages d’Agnès is Agnès Varda’s autobiographical essay about her life and work and I wasn’t sure what to expect – despite being a fan. I needn’t have worried. This is a magical film which is as much about Varda’s visual ideas as an artist as it is about cinema. The title refers to various beaches (or at least coastlines) that feature strongly in her life story plus a beach of the imagination that she creates to represent the Parisian period when she met Jacques Demy, her partner for 30 years before his death just as she finished her film about him, Jacquot de Nantes in 1990.
Agnès Varda (born 1928) left Belgium in 1940 when the Nazis invaded and ended up in the Mediterranean port of Sète in Vichy France. This is the second ‘beach’ – although she spent her time on boats and the dockside. The first beach is in Belgium. From Sète she eventually graduated as an art student bound for Paris. Art led in turn to photography and film and her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, was set in a fishing village close to Sète. Other beaches are near Nantes and on the coast of Southern California where she went with Demy in the late 1960s.
This is a fascinating film in terms of structure as well as ideas about cinema and art and various filmic techniques. The beach on the Île de Noirmoutier in La Vendée, Pays du la Loire, takes the place of a stage in a one woman show – complete with actors and circus performers acting out aspects of memory. One of the interesting visual devices involves mirrors and frames with a central moving image framed by smaller static images. Perhaps the standout device that I almost feel tempted to try out myself is a film of the streets and characters in Sète shot in the 1950s which is projected onto a small screen. The projector and screen are secured on a cart which is then pushed around the same streets in the dusk, which makes the black and white images clearly visible – and stunning and beautiful in the simplicity of the sequence.
We learn a lot about Varda, her love for Demy and her two children – who appeared in many of her films. We also learn about her friends including Godard, Resnais and Chris Marker and something of her politics and thoughts about being in California with the Black Panthers amongst others. As many other commentators have noted, what is so uplifting and inspiring is the sheer vitality and imagination of this remarkable filmmaker, scampering about (a “plump and pleasant person” as she describes herself) and producing beautiful and fascinating images. I think anyone despairing of cinema at a time when it seems to be losing some of its magic should watch Beaches and rejoice.
This trailer illustrates some of the points made above:
When Venicelion’s blog on Jacques Demy appeared some time ago, I started to write a comment on the politics of Demy’s but I became ill and abandoned it. However, I was recently researching for an article on Demy for The Media Education Journal and, having had the opportunity to watch some of Demy’s lesser-known works, I thought it worth revisiting the question. The starting point was Roy’s suggestion that Demy “had little in common with the politics of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker” [leftist directors in a group known as The Left Bank Group which was part of the French New Wave in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The other group were known as the Cahiers group, being based around the journal, Les Cahiers du Cinéma]. This reflects a position among many commentators that Demy’s work was “fluffy”, “lightweight” and “whimsical”, an attitude echoed in that most clichéd of oxymorons frequently applied to Demy: bitter-sweet. Many of Demy’s biggest fans share this view of the director and recently in The Guardian, an article about the best 50 films for children suggested that Les Parapluies de Cherbourg/The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was suitable for six-year olds! I feel that Demy reputation requires defending as much from his defenders as his detractors.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Although less overtly political than Resnais and Marker, in many of his films Demy shared the political leftism of the others in the Left Bank Group (including his wife Agnes Varda). In his most successful film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), he implicitly criticises the Algerian War at a time when the heavy political censorship in operation made it very difficult to refer to the conflict at all. The war separates a young couple by conscripting Guy, a 20-year-old garage mechanic; he is wounded in an ambush and he returns, limping and embittered, to find his girlfriend who was carrying his baby, gone. His disillusion is shown in the sequence where he limps around the town revisiting places he had visited with Genevieve before he left for Algeria.
The idea of social class permeates the film. Even in the “happy“ opening section, when working-class Guy suggests they get married and run a petrol station, Genevieve, daughter of the petite-bourgeoise proprietor of a chic umbrella shop, remarks, “What a strange idea”. When he is away in Algeria, she gives in to the subtle pressure of her mother and marries a rich jeweller. The American critic Jonathon Rosenbaum remarked about the ending:
The name of the Esso station is Escale Cherbourgeoise; this means literally “Cherbourgian Stopover,” but if we consider that escalader means “to scale or to climb” and escalier means “stairway,” we can read traces of a buried pun: “a bourgeois step up.” Guy has become comfortably middle-class, Geneviève has become upper-class, and the class difference between them seems even more unbridgeable than it was before.
The Pied Piper
Demy’s only US-based film, Model Shop (1968), flirts with the anti-Vietnam War counter-culture but his 1973 English language film, The Pied Piper, is essentially about class struggle. (The on-line journal Jump Cut referred it as a “Neo-Marxist fairy tale”). It is set in the middle ages in the town of Hamelin and the Baron, the Mayor and the Bishop – representatives of the ruling class – plot behind closed doors to increase their wealth and power while the people, kept in fear and ignorance, are outside. The main event in the film is the marriage of convenience between Franz, the Baron’s son, and Lisa, the Mayor’s daughter, a purely political and financial transaction: she hates him and he is interested only in the dowry. In this extract during the wedding ceremony the cake – ironically in the completed form of the unfinished cathedral that the church and civil authorities have been squeezing taxes from the population to build – is discovered to be full of rats. The cake falls apart and they are inside, thus linking Christianity – the ideological buttress of the ruling class – to exploitation and the bubonic plague.
Even in some of Demy’s minor pieces, commissions rather self-generated projects, such as Lady Oscar, the class struggle makes itself felt. This is a 1979 Japanese film (made in English), based on the best-selling manga “The Rose of Versailles” by Riyoko Ikeda, about a woman raised to be a man and serving in the court of Marie Antoinette. She becomes torn between class loyalty and her desire to help the impoverished as revolution brews among the oppressed lower class and she eventually joins the ranks of the revolutionaries. While Demy is not attempting a realistic historical drama and there is a strong fairytale element to the film, he is at pains to show how the aristocrats treat the poor as an inconvenience, as vermin, or as sexual playthings.
Une Chambre en Ville/A Room in Town
This 1982 film is Demy’s most overtly political film, involving a confrontation between the notorious CRS riot police and the strikers in the 1955 naval shipyard workers strike in Nantes and in which, like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, the dialogue is completely sung. It is interesting to note that Demy frames the opening and closing confrontations in a very similar way to the scenes in Lady Oscar when the people enter the scene after the fall of the Bastille as the revolution explodes onto the streets of Paris.
Here are clips from the two films:.
Incidentally, the very idea of a group of CRS policemen singing would have been a bit much for an audience aware of the CRS’s reputation during the events of May ’68 and subsequently. Demy solves the problem by having them chant rather than sing which makes it very Brechtian in style. The fact that it starts in black and white before segueing into colour is meant I think to reference to the contemporary black and white news footage.
Perhaps the most explicit statement of Demy’s political position is, ironically, given to a baroness, the widow of an army colonel, who has come down in the world due to her late son’s debts so that she has to rent out a room to Francois Guilbaud, a metal worker who later has a love affair with her daughter. At first she disapproves of Guilbaud since he is a striker and demonstrator and even more so because of his affair with her daughter, but gradually she mellows in her attitude. The following words are the baroness’s but they are perhaps an expression of Demy’s own political creed. (In most of the film, the words are a kind of recitativo and are therefore laid out as prose rather than verse):
Does it shock you when a bourgeoise lets her hair down? You know, Guilbaud, I don’t give a shit about the bourgeoisie. I’m not one of them. I’ll tell you something: I prefer you and your comrades to the bourgeois. You’re fighting for something, fighting to survive, just like me. The bourgeois are rotting in their material wealth. They wallow in the comfort of their complacency. But I swear they won’t have me as one of their own.
(The subtitles on the DVD are, necessarily, more compressed).
I don’t suggest for a moment that Demy was a political director in the way that, for example, Loach, Costa-Garvas and Godard etc are. In Une Chambre en Ville, the love affair is mostly in the foreground, the strike in the background. Despite the fact that the narrative is punctuated by announcements by the strike leader, Demy shows little interested in the tactics or strategy of winning the strike. However, several French critics have highlighted the political in Demy’ films and not just in Une Chambre en Ville. However, I think I would go along with Gerard Vaugeois‘ caveat that, while Demy is one of the most political of French directors in French cinema, he is so “in his own way” .
The Left Bank Group and the Cahiers Group
On the whole question of the divisions in the New Wave, I wonder, from the vantage point of today, how useful it is to use Richard Roud’s distinction between the so-called Left Bank group (politically on the left) and the supposedly right wing Cahiers group (although there arguably broad stylistic differences between the groups). Some in the Cahiers group certainly adopted a right-wing stance (and continued to do till the end – see Rohmer’s L’Anglaise et le Duc /The Lady and the Duke (2001), quite a different take on the French Revolution from Demy’s). But there were also Marxists such as Pierre Kast in the Cahiers camp. In other respects the delineation isn’t clear. Jacques Rivette is in some ways closer to Resnais than to the rest of the Cahiers group. Many of the accusations of being right wing were directed at the Cahiers group because of the New Wave’s championing of Hollywood cinema in the Cold War period when American cultural artefacts were viewed with suspicion by many on the left.
The issuing of the whole of Demy’s work on DVD will, hopefully, lead to debate and reconsideration of this and other aspects of Demy’ cinema.
Our third day began with the Arts Picturehouse’s regular archive film screening, enhanced during the festival with a double-header programme. Jane Jarvis, Screen East Digital Heritage Co-ordinator, presented the results of a joint project with the French archive responsible for Normandy in a programme that promised ‘Bon appetit!’ and included extracts from a range of films dealing with regional foods, the highlight of which for me was eel fishing, both in the Fens and in the open sea. Alex Davidson from the BFI Film and TV archive then unearthed a number of food related clips. These were well-chosen. A three minute extract from a 40 mins Peak & Frean’s film from the 19o6 showed the operation of the biscuit factory in Bermondsey.
This is in the BFI Mediatheque (which has an access point in the Cambridge City Library) and looks very interesting. Wartime ‘Food Flashes’ are always fun and a Lotte Reiniger animation from 1951, Mary’s Birthday, was wonderful in its creative presentation of food hygiene issues. But the main treat was a 1967 TV programme from one of the first celebrity chefs, Fanny Craddock. The food she prepared (and the context – ‘The Bride’s First Dinner Party’) had the audience gasping in disbelief.
Two in the Wave is the title of Emmanuel Laurent’s documentary about the relationship between François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. This documentary was quite similar in format to yesterday’s Glenn Gould doc. So much archive footage exists plus the films themselves, newspaper clippings and magazine articles that the subjects could virtually tell the story themselves, despite Truffaut’s relatively early death and Godard’s current reluctance to be interviewed. I’m not sure that there is much ‘new’ in the documentary, but if you don’t know the details of the story they are entertainingly presented here. I was particularly struck by the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma that made those articles that we used to read in translation seem so fresh in their original page layouts. Equally, Laurent has access to some wonderful stills and crisp new prints of New Wave films. It seems extraordinary now that audiences in paris in 1961/2 were not much interested in films like Godard’s Une femme est une femme or Jacques Demy’s Lola. Enjoyable and informative, the film is a treat for both nostalgists and younger film fans.
The third film of the day was an intriguing prospect that in the end was I think disappointing but still interesting. Empire of Silver (HK/Taiwan/China 2009) is a Chinese historical drama with epic pretensions. Set at the end of the 19th century and up to the 1911 Boxer Rebellion it looks stunning with shots over cityscapes and desert landscapes filling the CinemaScope frame with beautiful imagery. The story, adapted from a novel by Cheng Yi, concerns the Kang family of bankers from Shanxi in the North of China who are involved in building up and modernising the banking system in China. I missed part of the opening credits, but the story seems to be told in flashback by the youngest member of the family who is a babe in arms in 1911 and is therefore addressing the current generation as a very old man.
The Kang family has four sons, one of whom is a deaf mute. When the eldest and most likely heir is seriously disabled in an accident and the fourth son has a nervous breakdown, the wayward third son becomes the family’s only hope for the future. This means liaising with his father, but apart from disagreeing as to how to run the business, No 3 son also has a major issue concerning his father. As a young man he had a young woman ‘assigned’ to teach him English and with whom he fell in love, only for her to be married to his widowed father and thus become his stepmother. If all of this wasn’t enough for a family melodrama, the backdrop of the narrative is the clash between the decaying Imperial order, the Christian churches in China and the Boxers who oppose them and the troops sent by Western powers to support their business interests. It ought to be a potent mix, but I don’t think it works. One serious problem for non-Chinese audiences is that there are no recognisable stars (i.e. from either international arthouse cinema or popular Hong Kong action films). The third son (they don’t have names in the family) is played by Aaron Kwok who came out of Cantopop in Hong Kong and then became a Taiwan/HK star, but I don’t recognise the titles of his films. The remainder of the cast are mainland stars, mainly of TV and films not released outside China. Jennifer Tilly is rather wasted as an American churchman’s wife. In a story where most male characters dress in a similar manner with shaved heads, it is quite difficult to follow individual characters in what is a complex plot. Star recognition helps the audience get a foothold.
The obvious question is why release this film internationally. It has taken eighteen months since Berlin in 2009 for this film to be prepared for release in the West via Hanway Films. Jeremy Thomas is Executive Producer and the post-production seems to have been carried out all over the world – why? Clearly a film that features a narrative of banking crises and a debate about the morality of banking, as this film does, possesses a USP during the current international banking mess. However, I don’t think that this mostly talky film with a couple of brief action sequences is likely to intrigue audiences. I have to agree with Variety‘s reporter who suggests that the film looks like the “carcase of a bigger film”. I kept thinking something was missing. Theatre director Christina Yao with her first film (directed and co-written) needs a bit more help in getting audience juices flowing. As it is, they will mostly appreciate the efficient camerawork and production design from Hong Kong regulars Anthony Poon and Chung Man Yee.