The Case for Global Film

Discussing everything that isn't Hollywood (and a little that is).

Posts Tagged ‘Realism’

Grand Central (France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 31 July 2014

The lovers: Gary (Tahir Rahim) and Karole (Léa Seydoux)

The lovers: Gary (Tahir Rahim) and Karole (Léa Seydoux)

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.

An emphasis on bodies – the young men during the recruitment process for new workers in the plant. Gary (Tahar Rahim) is in the centre of the group.

An emphasis on bodies – the young men during the recruitment process for new workers in the plant. Gary (Tahar Rahim) is in the centre of the group.

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.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of CLASH  BY NIGHT (photo from http://www.thisismarilyn.com)

Marilyn Monroe on the set of CLASH BY NIGHT (photo from http://www.thisismarilyn.com)

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:

Posted in Films by women, French Cinema, Romance | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Hidden Agenda (UK 1990)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 5 June 2014

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

Frances McDormand as Ingrid and Brian Cox as Peter Kerrigan

With Jimmy’s Hall in UK cinemas at the moment I’m looking back and re-viewing the films Ken Loach has made about events in Ireland. Hidden Agenda is one of the two ‘odd’ films that Loach made in the 1980s (Fatherland in 1986 is the other). Hidden Agenda is odd for both institutional and aesthetic reasons – but in other ways it ‘fits’ the general trajectory of the director’s work with his various collaborators.

Ken Loach found it very difficult to get TV commissions or to raise money for films in the 1980s and this project was initially taken up by David Puttnam at Columbia in 1987. When Puttnam left Hollywood, his endorsement nevertheless enabled Loach to raise the money from Hemdale, the UK-US company founded by David Hemmings and John Daly. Hemdale already had a reputation for producing controversial films such as those from Oliver Stone (Salvador and Platoon) and a political thriller set in Northern Ireland presumably appealed to Daly as  a sound commercial business proposition. I do wonder though if he realised what kind of story he would get from Jim Allen.

Allen was in some ways Loach’s mentor in developing political ideas and he had written Days of Hope in the mid 1970s plus three of the more controversial of Loach’s TV plays, including The Big Flame (1969) about a dock strike in Liverpool. Allen was from an Irish Catholic family in Manchester and it’s interesting that the name of the central character in Hidden Agenda is Peter Kerrigan – the name of one of the regular actors (and trade union organisers) in Loach’s TV plays including The Big Flame.

Outline

The film’s narrative combines elements of two conspiracy stories of the 1970s and 1980s. The plot begins with the final press conference of an international ‘Civil Rights Monitoring Team’ which has been collecting evidence of the maltreatment of suspects held by the British security forces in Northern Ireland. One of the lawyers, an American Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif), has been given a cassette tape by ‘Harris’ (Maurice Roeves), a mysterious figure who is clearly being watched by undercover British agents. Having listened to the tape Sullivan attempts to meet Harris again but is assassinated. Deputy Chief Constable Kerrigan (Brian Cox) flies in to investigate the murder. He meets resistance from both the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and various figures from British secret service groups. Initially at least he is prepared to push and to find out the truth with the help of Sullivan’s partner Ingrid (Frances McDormand). Kerrigan’s investigation is arguably a reference to the so-called ‘Stalker Inquiry’. John Stalker was the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester who investigated the alleged ‘shoot to kill’ actions of the RUC in 1983, but who was then controversially removed from the case. (A 1990 TV drama, Shoot to Kill, covered the affair in some detail.) Hidden Agenda also draws upon the stories of conspiracies by right-wing British politicians and security personnel to destabilise the governments of Heath and Wilson in the 1970s in order to ensure the election of a more right-wing Tory government.

Production

Apart from Jim Allen, only Jonathan Morris as editor and Martin Johnson as production designer were present from Loach’s usual crews. Rebecca O’Brien was a co-producer alongside Eric Fellner (who with Tim Bevan later became the main mover behind Working Title). Stewart Copeland was responsible for the score. Later he also worked on Riff-Raff and Raining Stones for Loach. Copeland had co-founded the pop band The Police with Sting but had started composing for films in the late 1980s. His was one of the more unusual collaborations with Loach. He’d attended Millfield, the public school associated with sport and his father was a senior member of the CIA. But Hidden Agenda includes a couple of Irish Republican songs featured in a Republican club and linking the film to both Days of Hope and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Cinematographer Clive Tickner had just completed photography on the award-winning mini-series Traffik for Channel 4 and this and his documentary experience clearly recommended him. However, the production overall was invariably caught between the kind of political struggle film – the personal and collective struggles over conscience and actions delivered by Allen with the generic thrills of commercial cinema. Added to this, the production was forced to abandon Loach’s preferred ‘authentic locations and performers’ strategy. Parts of the film were shot in Belfast and its environs but the film’s insurers forced some shooting in England. Brian Cox and Maurice Roeves were well-known British actors at this point, Frances McDormand and Brad Dourif had been together in Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning (US 1988) for which McDormand had been Oscar-nominated. Put all these elements together and the result is a production that resembles one of those Hollywood international thrillers directed by a European filmmaker. Sometimes they work in interesting ways – and sometimes they don’t.

Commentary

Hidden Agenda does work as a thriller on one level. Loach, Morris and Johnson capture some of the street feel of Belfast and the action is generally well-handled. All the performances are good I think and there are several set-piece arguments between the principals that are exciting in terms of political ideas. There are also a couple of very neat devices signalling the history of Irish struggles against British colonialism. The film opens with a quote from James Fintan Lalor (1807-49): “The entire ownership of Ireland, moral and material, up to the sun and down to the centre, is vested of right by the people of Ireland”. This is soon juxtaposed with a shot of an Orange march and a quote from Margaret Thatcher (about her ‘ownership’). Later in the film, a patrician British security chief opines that Ireland would be a “lovely country if it wasn’t for the Irish”. There is also a clear link made via the McDormand/Dourif characters with Chile in 1973. “It couldn’t happen here” one of them says – but it does, in a way. These moments promise us something that the film can’t really deliver and though I was gripped throughout the narrative, I realised afterwards that the script doesn’t manage to resolve the contradiction in the mix of genre and politics. It would be good, for instance, to know more about the background of Kerrigan. What lies behind his ‘professional’ career policeman persona? At one point he suggests that he might be prepared to lose everything to expose the truth. What motivates this?

Hidden2

Hidden3

Of course, whatever the film managed to produce in terms of readings it wouldn’t matter to Loach’s right-wing critics. Alexander Walker (a Unionist) famously denounced the film at Cannes (where it won the Jury Prize) as ‘IRA Propaganda’. This is nonsense of course. Certainly the film is pro real freedom for the whole of Ireland but the focus is completely on the behaviour and the ideology of the British security forces. And there is the problem. Perhaps Walker was referring to the film he expected to see. In her review for Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1991) Verina Glaessner identifies a character played by Michelle Fairlie as a young mother whose IRA husband is in Long Kesh internment camp. This is the kind of Irish character who needs to be central in the narrative to root the political discourse in the personal lives of ordinary people. John Hill (1997), one of the best analysts of Loach’s work, offers a detailed account of his problems with Hidden Agenda. He suggests that it is the constraints of the ‘conservative genre’ of the political thriller/detective story that undermine Loach and Allen. The generic narrative constrains the possibilities of different types of engagement by audiences – i.e. they must follow the conventional ‘uncovering’ of the conspiracy – and, as we noted, the personal story is focused on the ‘maverick investigator’. (There is actually a second detective, confusingly played by John Benfield (often a police chief, e.g. in Prime Suspect) who seems to disappear from the action early on.

Hill also refers to the way in which the generic mise en scène of the police thriller clashes with Loach’s more usual naturalistic style. He suggests that Loach finds only clichéd generic images to represent the Northern Ireland setting which doesn’t allow audiences to reflect on the political issues. The film becomes an entertainment featuring a vulnerable hero – the ‘good policeman’. This ties in with Glaessner’s complaint that Loach’s overall embrace of naturalism/realism, for which he was heavily criticised by left media/film theorists in the 1970s, is not suited to ‘political filmmaking’. Hill refers to the debates around the film as Costa-Gavras style thrillers rather than Godardian, self-reflexive policiers (like Pierrot de fou?). All of these are valid points, although I would argue that the tradition of Swedish crime fiction suggests that it is possible to re-cast crime thrillers in a ‘non-Hollywood’ way in visual terms without losing the politics (see my review of Bo Widerberg’s The Man on the Roof (Sweden 1976)).

I don’t want to end on a negative note. Hidden Agenda didn’t offer the alternative view of the Irish struggle that Loach and Allen’s supporters might have wanted, but to get the film made and released in 1990 in the face of the British media’s distorted view of Ireland was a triumph in itself and Ken Loach made up for some of its failings with The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006. Hidden Agenda put him back in cinemas and he has not been kept out over the past 25 years. I’m looking forward to Jimmy’s Hall.

Reference

John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, Flicks Books

Theatrical trailer:

Posted in British Cinema, Politics on film | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Stories We Tell (Canada 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 14 July 2013

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

I was very much looking forward to Sarah Polley’s film. I hoped that I would enjoy it and I did – very much. This is a wonderful film in many different ways. A great deal has been written about the film and so I’m wary of spoilers. Having said that I found that the ‘twist’ in the final frames that I’d heard about didn’t seem very surprising after what had gone before. It’s very difficult to say anything about the film’s formal qualities and its overall approach without a SPOILER about how scenes are presented. So if you want to see the film ‘unprepared’, read no further until you’ve seen it all the way through.

At one point in the film Sarah Polley is interviewing her brother and he suddenly stops and says “what is this film about?” (in that Toronto accent that I can’t work out how to write down). Polley hesitates for a moment and then says that it is about many things – and indeed it is. It’s produced by the National Film Board of Canada, famous for the quality and range of its documentary projects. This ‘project’ started in 2007/8 and has had a long time in preparation, shooting and editing during which time Sarah Polley an actress and filmmaker best known for fiction material joined a documentary filmmakers ‘lab’ and was mentored by, amongst others, Wim Wenders.

Ostensibly Polley’s film is a story about the Polley family from roughly 1967 to the present day. It begins as a story told by Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, literally by him reading a narration, presumably based on his own memoir, in a recording studio under his daughter’s watchful eye (and being asked to repeat lines – she’s a perfectionist). But gradually a cast of characters appears, commenting on aspects of the story and in particular on their memories of the only missing family member, Sarah’s mother Diane who died when Sarah was only 11. Eventually too, the story will change its focus to become not just an investigation of the mystery of who Diane was and what she did, but also the truth behind a long-standing family joke that Sarah doesn’t resemble her father.

It did occur to me at one point that this was at least associated with a Rashomon type of narrative – the same story as seen by different witnesses. As similar questions are asked of a group of interviewees, they give similar and sometimes one-word answers. Polley cuts them together in a staccato montage – just as one of the interviewees predicted she would. Now if all the answers to all the questions were the same it wouldn’t be at all like Rashomon, but in fact they do differ slightly at first and then much more as the narrative develops. This is sophisticated filmmaking.

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

At the beginning of the film, Polley ‘exposes’ the artificiality of the interview process. We see the cameras, lights, microphones etc. and hear the embarrassed asides of some of the interviewees. But in the closing sequences of the film, when Polley returns to showing some of these distancing devices, we realise that the layers of meaning and the artifice of constructed documentary realism is much more subtle than we had imagined. We know now that one of the things the film is ‘about’ is documentary itself as a narrative form. The most obvious instance of this – which has certainly ‘shocked’/puzzled audiences – is that Polley has interwoven ‘real’ home movie Super 8 footage of the Polley family with ‘staged’ scenes similarly shot on Super 8 in which actors play the principal ‘characters’ in important scenes set back in the 1970s and 80s. The actors are very carefully chosen and no indication is given as to which footage is ‘real’ and which is ‘reconstructed’. Added to this are further sequences taken from other film archives (Sarah’s parents were well-known Canadian actors and they appear in some of these clips) and footage taken by Polley herself on Super 8  – we actually see her with a camera on a few occasions. Sometimes she cuts between these different sources of digital film and Super 8, showing the same scene in the different formats. The producer Anita Lee tells us in the Press Pack that: “the Super 8 film format is loaded. It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It’s a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people’s basements for the right Super 8 camera”.

The reception of the film is interesting. I suspect it is slightly different in Canada where Sarah Polley is a leading figure in the Canadian film and TV industry, but in the US and here in the UK, while the majority of critics have lauded the film, a minority have seemed to find it slight or indulgent or just not interesting. I can only think that they just haven’t seen things in the film or that they don’t have any interest in families or memories or ‘truth’ – fundamental I would have thought to our existence.

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

The film opens with a quote from Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace (which Polley is set to adapt) and soon after, Michael Polley quotes Pablo Neruda “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. Polley skilfully pulls at the different skeins of wool in the ball to reveal the complexity of memories and viewpoints and indeed who it is who is trying to exert control over the narrative. Contrary to the reviewer who moaned that the film is too long, I immediately wanted to watch it all over again. On a second and third viewing I think I will learn even more about how the different viewpoints are developed. Polley is fortunate that her siblings and her ‘fathers’ are highly articulate and also, for me at least, very engaging characters. This is certainly one of my films of the year. Please go and see it, and if you haven’t already, do try and catch up with Take This Waltz (2011) and Away From Her (2006), her fiction features which apply the same intensity to family relationships but as comedy-drama and melodrama. Stories We Tell confirms Sarah Polley’s talent as a filmmaker and also marks a triumph for the National Film Board.

Posted in Canadian Cinema, Documentary, Films by women | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Before Midnight (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 July 2013

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) check-in to a hotel.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at check-in in the hotel.

So here is the most talked about film of the moment – a film which must mean something to anyone who has ever been in a relationship of any kind that has lasted more than a few years. It’s a beautiful-looking film with terrific performances by its two leads speaking the lines they created with director Richard Linklater – who demonstrates just how well he understands cinema as an art form. There are thousands of words already out there in which fans describe how much they love the film and a smaller number by those who want to find fault. I’m going to try to look at the film a little differently by thinking about in terms of its formal properties and the questions it raises about representation and ideology.

I should explain that I didn’t see the film in which the couple played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke first met – Before Sunrise in 1994. I did see the second film in which they re-kindled their relationship in Before Sunset (2004) and I remember that I enjoyed it very much but, possibly because I hadn’t seen the first film, nothing really stuck in mind other than the general idea of a film narrative based on a long conversation  between two people. I think that the third film stands up on its own. No doubt those who have seen all three will argue that it is much better viewed as a three-part long-form narrative. Linklater’s brilliance is that he can clearly please both camps.

The central question about the film for me is how the narrative, both in its content and in its formal strategies negotiates what I see as a series of contradictions or ‘binarisms’. The first of these is the use of cinematic devices connoting realism/naturalism v. the tightly structured and controlled two-hander acting displays. The devices include the long take, long shot sequences including the 14 minutes in the car, the scenes at the house, the walk through the village and the long hotel room sequence. In fact, after adding in the opening at the airport, there aren’t many more locations/set-ups in 109 minutes – most of the ‘action’ takes place in just five settings. If you haven’t seen the film, I should briefly sketch the outline (without giving away spoilers). Jesse (Hawke) is an American novelist who met Celine (Delpy), a French environmental project worker, on a train and then spent time in Vienna in 1994. In 2004 they meet again when Jesse is in Paris and decide to live together. Jesse has to leave his wife in Chicago with his young son. At the start of Before Midnight we meet Jesse saying goodbye to his son (now 14) at the airport in Kalamata in the Pelopponese region of Greece. The boy has been enjoying a vacation with his father and his new family and is now returning to his mother in Chicago. Outside the airport Celine is waiting. The boy’s departure is the ‘inciting moment’ because Jesse realises how much he has enjoyed being with his son and it prompts him to think about how he could be a much bigger part of  his son’s teenage years. But this is something which would clearly affect Celine and her future. The couple will have to talk.

The long take, long shot approach is associated with realist filmmaking, stretching from Renoir and Mizoguchi in the 1930s via a host of filmmakers, but perhaps most notably the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s, up to the present. Although it does occur in aspects of Hollywood cinema it is generally anathema to the streamlined, central-character-based Hollywood narrative form. In Before Midnight Linklater makes his strategy explicit by having Celine talk about a film she saw as a teenager. She doesn’t name the film, but its unique plot details – a married couple wandering through the ruins of Pompeii and being affected by the bodies of parents and children preserved by the lava flows – can only be from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954). Many of the audiences for Before Midnight won’t understand the direct reference so it isn’t particularly useful to compare the relationships between Delpy and Hawke and Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in the Rossellini film. Even so, by making the reference at all, Linklater looks ‘out’ from the naturalism of the couple on the streets of a Greek village to the artifice of a cinema feature.

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax while the women work in the kitchen!

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax – while the women work in the kitchen!

The outdoor scenes, captured by the Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris offer a ‘real place’ utilising the fantastic light. Linklater also includes some local colour caught in the long shot framing. More strikingly he elects to include passages of dialogue in the background in Greek that are not subtitled. There is also a moment when Celine talks in rapid French, also not subtitled. In neither case is the lack of translation a problem in moving the narrative forward – but what it does do is underline the sense of this being a film narrative that is taking place in a real location (in Rossellini’s ‘real world’) rather than a Hollywood confection that needs a colourful background. However, in the long hotel sequence, the verbal exchanges between Delpy and Hawke become more like a stage play – I thought of Coward’s Private Lives. This tension between the ‘natural’ (artfully constructed of course) and the skilfully contrived is linked to a second set of binarisms of character and actor and then of male and female, French and American, scientific/social/rational and artistic/romantic.

Delpy and Hawke are ‘film stars’ who manage to resolve the conundrum of the star image – how to project that sense of being somehow ‘special’ but at the same time just like you and me, to use their fantastic skills of timing and verbal dexterity to make the scripted seem naturalistic. This is highlighted in the scenes around the dining table when Patrick (Walter Lassally) speaks. Lassally at 85 has had a remarkable career in the cinema as a German refugee who became a leading cinematographer in the UK in the 1960s, eventually winning an Oscar for Zorba the Greek in 1965. Now he lives in Crete, so although he has not (as far as I know) acted before, his presence in the film is perfectly understandable. Yet when he speaks, he can’t manage the naturalistic speech of Delpy and Hawke and his lines therefore point towards their performances. Delpy by contrast can suddenly switch into another kind of performance when she pointedly plays the bimbo for everyone’s entertainment.

At times during the screening I actually closed my eyes because I found some of the dialogue just too real and too painful. At other times I allowed myself to become distanced from the conversation so that I could think about what the two characters represent. I felt at times that Delpy was being very ‘French’ and Hawke very ‘American’. There has been a great deal of discussion about the scene in which Julie Delpy plays topless. What’s more to the point, I think, is that she plays a romantic lead in an American film in which she is a 42 year-old woman with a real woman’s body, a little thicker and broader in places, but still beautiful and very sexy. By comparison Ethan Hawke seems rather brattish and definitely less mature, less ‘rational’ in his attitudes. It’s never clear how much the audience is expected to see Celine as at least in some way based on Delpy and Jesse based on Hawke. This is relevant because the plot includes the idea that Jesse has had successful novels published, supposedly based on the two earlier encounters between himself and Celine.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

Reading interviews with Julie Delpy after the screening I’m a little puzzled as to what she was aiming for in her contributions to the script. She talks a lot about her feminism and she clearly alienates some American audiences with her atheism. These two facets do figure in Celine’s make-up as a character. Watching the film I did feel that at times Celine seemed too whiney and shrew-like – though most of the time I was completely with her. By contrast Jesse seemed too much like a little boy lost who had some useful practical arguments but who perhaps didn’t want to face up to facts. But perhaps this is the brilliance of the film? These are complex developed characters, not romcom cardboard cut-outs. I’m still thinking about the film. Go see it – you won’t be disappointed.

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Woman in the Fifth (La femme du Vème, France/UK/Poland 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 June 2013

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often 'penned in' by his environment.

Ethan Hawke as Tom Ricks. This is representative of compositions in the film which show the character often ‘penned in’ by his environment.

There are many interesting ways into The Woman in the Fifth. It’s another French film in which Kristin Scott Thomas plays a role which requires her character to adopt a background to explain the fact that she speaks English and French and up to five other languages. It is also  an entry into the relatively small world of films by Polish-born directors working out of the UK and travelling to Paris (Polanski ‘s films have a slightly different combination of the same factors). It’s a film in which Ethan Hawke plays an American in Paris who doesn’t end up spending the night with Julie Delpy and finally it follows another adaptation of a Douglas Kennedy novel, The Big Picture (France 2010) with Romain Duris.

Put those four ‘ways in’ together and you’d expect there to be a fair amount of interest generated by the film, but it seemed to do poorly in UK cinemas and I was lucky to catch it on Film 4 – where non-anglophone films now seem to be becoming more marginalised. It isn’t hard to see why the usual audience for Scott-Thomas or for Hawke’s Paris romances wouldn’t be attracted. Hawke’s character is a man seemingly ‘on the run’ and the narrative offers little about what has happened earlier except that he is a lecturer and a writer visiting Paris where he has a 6-year-old daughter and an estranged partner who has taken out a restraining order to prevent him seeing the child. Tom Ricks (Hawke) soon finds himself effectively ‘down and out’, having had his suitcase and money stolen. Chance lands him in a dingy room above a café in a working-class district of the city with a dubious job offer that will allow him to pay the rent. What happens after that demands quite a lot from any audience expecting a mainstream thriller.

Kristin Scott Thomas, "elegantly erotic".

Kristin Scott Thomas, “elegantly erotic”.

Director and adapter Pawel Pawlikowski came to the UK as a teenager and was first a documentary filmmaker before directing two of the best British films of the last twenty years Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004). These two films appeared to combine elements of British and East European  filmic realisms, the first bleak and satirical in its depiction of a seaside town used to hold asylum seekers, the second more lyrical, but also slightly disturbing in its representation of adolescent passions in a beautifully rendered West Yorkshire summer. The Woman in the Fifth offers a similar mix of elements reminiscent of both British and Polish cinema, but also French cinema that probes into the world outside the Paris tourist traps and aspects of film noir.

The film’s website offers statements by both Pawlikowski and Hawke. Whether you want to visit it before or after the watching the film is an important decision to make. I read the comments afterwards and that was the best decision for me. I ‘ll try not to spoil the narrative. This is a film where casting and all the key aspects of film language from costume through cinematography, set dressing/choice of locations, costume and music combine to create a very distinctive ‘feel’ to the narrative. Pawlikowski’s previous collaborators, Polish cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski and British music composer Max de Wardener,  contribute a great deal. Visually the film inhabits a Parisian world which I recognise from the films of Claire Denis and Jacques Audiard with interiors which remind me of Polanski’s The Tenant and one or two non-Parisian locations. Pawlikowski and Lenczewski spent a long time looking for unusual locations and then for ways of shooting them to create an expressionist world in which Tom Ricks seems forever to be hemmed in or made vulnerable i some way. The music is sparse and again unsettling. As the director’s comments suggest in the ‘Production Notes’, the music doesn’t conjure up the horror film but instead is quietly seductive but just a little ‘off’ or atonal – and therefore disturbing.

The script requires that Ethan Hawke be dishevelled and weighed down by his heavy black spectacles but that he interacts with three women. Delphine Chuillot as Nathalie, his wife, has a relatively small role, mainly in long shot, but Kristin Scott Thomas as an elegant and eroticised femme fatale figure is as good as you would expect. As the Polish waitress, Jania, Joanna Kulig is equally good and very sexy in a completely different way to Scott Thomas.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

Ethan Hawke sans specs for once with Joanna Kulig.

I don’t really want to say much more about the narrative. I thought at first that it was going to be like Dirty Pretty Things and that Tom would uncover some shady goings-on, but though the milieu is similar, it is a very different kind of film. Pawlikowski suggests that his Paris and the story he has moulded belong to an imaginary world, presented as they are via an American story with American, French and Polish characters. Perhaps this is why I was also reminded of Orson Welles’ version of Kafka’s The Trial with Anthony Perkins as poor K stumbling about a city he doesn’t know.

The more I think about the film, the more interesting I find it. Approach it with an open mind and don’t worry too much if you really don’t understand what is going on – you can think about it afterwards! The ‘Fifth’ in the title by the way refers to the Fifth Arrondissement in Paris, one of the oldest parts of the city on the Left Bank and in the ‘Latin Quarter’ – and a long way from the district where Tom finds himself.

Posted in British Cinema, French Cinema, Polish Cinema | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

BIFF 2013 #11: MDF Films of Toronto

Posted by Roy Stafford on 16 April 2013

Two of the 'users' for whom the daily visit to the pharmacy is part of a social routine.

Two of the ‘users’ for whom the daily visit to the pharmacy is part of a social routine.

BIFF19logoThis screening offered a double bill of recent films from the Canadian independent film producers MDFF or ‘Medium Density Fibreboard Films’. Trying to research the group online I’ve found http://www.mdfproductions.com/ a ‘crossplatform production company based in Toronto’, which I think is connected and a Facebook page which certainly is. I think I need to put my cards on the table here. I’m a fan of many aspects of Canadian culture and I’m always happy to when I see that Bradford has programmed something Canadian since it’s often hard to find the films elsewhere. So I’m pre-disposed to look kindly on this double-bill. But there are some things that can put me off.

The first film screened was East Hastings Pharmacy (Canada 2012) by Antoine Bourges. This a 46 minute fictionalised observational documentary. In other words what we see is a ‘drama’ played out by a pair of actors playing the pharmacists in a dispensary for methadone users in Vancouver. The users are ‘real’ and members of the local community (which, according to the Montreal Documentary fest is the district in Canada with the highest proportion of drug users). The pharmacy was built as a set a few doors down in a shopfront close to the real pharmacy (see an interview with the director here). So, while the film looks like a classic slice of the Direct Cinema school of US documentaries of the 1960s it’s actually much calmer with some of the stress taken out of the encounters at one level, allowing the audience to gradually understand what is happening and reflect upon the lives of the methadone users – which aren’t all grim, even if they are stories of loss. Shauna Hansen as the dispensing pharmacist is very good. She has both strength and vulnerability and we get to understand what the job entails as well as what is happening with the users. The whole film is non-judgemental about the issue of drug dependency and I found watching it a rewarding experience. Here is a brief trailer that conveys the calm observational style (you can also use this link to see the a trailer for the next film, Tower:

 

 

Tower (Canada 2012) is rather different. This is the first feature-length film from MDFF at 78 mins and it has been seen in cinemas, first at the Royal in Toronto. It’s directed by Kazik Radwanski, one of the founders of MDFF with Dan Montgomery. I had no problem with the subject matter of the film but I found it almost unwatchable because of the visual style. Now this may also be associated with watching the film on the IMAX screen, i.e much bigger than it would usually be (standard format films take up roughly a third of the IMAX screen, still much bigger than in a small arthouse screen). Radwanski films everything and everybody in Tower in medium close-up/close-up, even BCU, in shallow focus using a handheld camera. There are just the occasional mid-shots and perhaps a couple of long shots in the whole film. I can see that there is a logic to this and it takes us into the cheerless world of ‘Derek’ a thirty-something man, losing his hair and getting nowhere in terms of work or his social life. We spend the entire film with Derek, still at home with his parents and working part-time for his uncle in the construction business when he isn’t painstakingly creating a computer animation in his basement. We follow him to clubs, desultory dates and social gatherings and in his war against a raccoon which is attacking the dustbin at his parents’ house.

A rare composed MCU of Derek (played by Derek Bogart)

A rare composed MCU of Derek (played by Derek Bogart)

Several of the reviews contrast Canadian cinema’s approach to characters like Derek with their Hollywood equivalents, who would either be ‘redeemed’ or there would be another kind of real ‘closure’ of the narrative. Derek is also compared to literary fiction’s anti-heroes. Again, I can see the connections but I found the visual style so alienating that I couldn’t engage at all. Towards the end of the film I found myself very worried that something bad was going to happen – and I feared most for the raccoon. I should mention also that in the opening scenes Derek gets drunk at a club and when he comes to on the floor of his parents’ home he has a deep gash near the bridge of his nose. This stays with him as a livid scar (as his mother predicted) throughout the rest of the film (i.e. over several weeks). Alas, poor Derek! I think I’ll pass on Tower. The filmmakers clearly have talent and ambition, so it’s probably my loss. The film was presented in English with French subtitles. I wondered if this was a requirement for screenings in certain Toronto or Montreal cinemas? Anyway, it meant that I could practise translations when I found the screen image too off-putting.

Posted in Canadian Cinema, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Garage (Ireland 2007)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 January 2013

Pat Sortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

Pat Shortt as Josie in the bar with Carmel (Anne-Marie Duff in the orange top)

The recent release of What Richard Did by Lenny Abrahamson (reviewed here) has prompted me to go back to look at his earlier release from 2007. Both this and his 2004 first feature Adam and Paul were on my radar but I hadn’t found time to watch them. I’m glad now that I finally made the effort.

Garage is set in an unnamed small town in rural Ireland (it seems to have been shot in several different parts of the country, but mainly in the ‘West Midlands’) and its central character is Josie (Pat Shortt), a 40 year-old man who ‘runs’  filling station/garage situated outside a small town on the main road. In reality he is mainly the caretaker as business is slack and we never see Josie actually serve anyone. He’s employed by one of his old schoolmates who is now an entrepreneur in the town and he lives a fairly solitary life, bedding down in a backroom of the garage. Josie is considered as a little ‘slow’ by the local community – but he is cheerful and friendly and most of the locals don’t make fun of him or abuse his trust. The one lout who does bully him in the bar is the exception. Josie’s life begins to change when his boss decides that there is more passing trade and that the garage should stay open longer. Consequently  Josie is joined by an ‘assistant’, a shy and gawky 15 year-old, David. Well-played by Ryan O’Connor, David is a ‘blow-in’ to the small community and therefore initially an ‘outsider’ like Josie in social terms. He’s intelligent and sometimes a bit spiky – a ‘normal’ adolescent – but he gets on with Josie and they become friends. This friendship leads Josie into contacts with the other local teens and perhaps makes him reflect on his loneliness. Indirectly, David’s presence will lead to a series of tragic events.

My first thoughts about the film were that this was a low-budget European art film. There are no genre indications as such except towards the setting of the small town and its possibilities for drama. The town and the handful of local inhabitants are presented in a realist manner and my thoughts turned towards the Dardenne Brothers – but Garage doesn’t have quite the same intensity. A review I read mentioned Bresson. There is gentle humour in the initial representation of Josie’s mundane daily rituals and his contact with various characters. There is also a sense of the relative tranquility of rural Ireland and the potential for some kind of magic in the evening light – although the skies that Josie so enjoys seemed foreboding to me with their scudding clouds. Gradually however, we realise that happy though Josie appears to be in his own little world, he still seeks the possibility of intimacy in a relationship. Eventually too, we realise that Abrahamson is using Peter Robertson’s beautiful cinematography to compose shots very carefully and to look for various forms of symbolism in the mise en scène. The film is slow and nearly always calm. Pat Shortt’s performance is exceptional. He was first a comedian specialising in physical comedy and he uses the skills of a physical comedian to create a distinctive gait for his character, as well as an appropriate voice. His performance also has a resonance since he is well-known in Ireland for a comedy series set in the same kind of location as that in Garage.

I was a little surprised to read in the Press Pack this quote from Lenny Abrahamson:

“Josie is really a contemporary village idiot character but the Irish village doesn’t have any place for him anymore.”

I’m not sure I would use that term to describe a character in a contemporary drama. Of course, I know what he means but it does raise what might be the uncomfortable question at the centre of the film. If this is a realist depiction of Irish rural life, it suggests that there is no modern infrastructure to replace the traditional village community in what is usually seen as one of the more affluent and ‘developed’ societies in Europe. On the other hand, as events transpire, we might argue that the ‘regulation’ of contemporary society is what really makes Josie suffer – that and economic developments. The town’s residents who know Josie and tolerate him don’t really listen to him or help him with his problems. They are just glad that he seems happy. I was interested to read the range of IMDb comments. They include many Irish commentators, but also other Europeans. While most clearly liked the film and thought it praiseworthy, there are a couple of gainsayers, including one who argues that it isn’t a very good representation of a character with mild learning difficulties and another who argues that the residents are too morose and that the rural Irish are more likely to moan and get angry about their lot. These are fair points but as an arthouse film Garage works very well. The excellent production is enhanced by the presence of George Costigan in a small but vital role and Anne-Marie Duff as Carmel (who could probably act as a focus for another story). I can see why the film won one of the Cannes prizes and why Abrahamson and his collaborators are seen as one of Ireland’s most important filmmaking teams.

The final shot of this rather good trailer offers an example of the very effective lighting and composition:

Posted in Irish Cinema | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

LFF 2012 #1: Memories Look at Me (China 2012)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 October 2012

Song Fang and her mother in Memories Look at Me

Memories Look at Me was a good place to start my visit to the 2012 London Film Festival. Writer-director Song Fang is known to arthouse audiences in the West as the young Chinese film student who appears in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Paris-set Flight of the Red Balloon (France/Taiwan 2007). In this, her first feature, she has Jia Zhangke as executive producer. With two of the leading masters of Chinese cinema as mentors, it isn’t surprising that she has absorbed something from both filmmakers and that this feature seems so confident and composed. Inhabiting that territory between fiction and documentary that features in much of Jia’s work, Memories Look at Me is a meditation on growing up and growing old – and also a critique in many ways of the changing China and, in particular, the one child policy.

Song plays a character like herself, on a visit home to her parents’ small flat in Nanjing. Her real family play themselves (though, presumably, as fictional characters). Almost all the ‘action’ takes place in the flat and this, for me, was the only disappointment in that I would have liked to see more of Nanjing. It was frustrating to be peering through the rain-spattered windows of a car and to be told that a decaying building was the cinema where Song’s parents often went, only for her doctor father to receive an emergency call part way through the film. But then, the film deals with the interior lives of the family members and what they remember as they talk in the confined space of the house.

The film is almost an exercise in restraint and it works very well in allowing us to begin to understand the characters and their circumstances. There are relatively few moments of real drama such as when a neighbour brings the family a chicken which seems then to be kept temporarily in the shower room. Song proves inept at securing the chicken’s legs and we see no more of the bird. I presume that somebody must kill it so that they can eat it?

There are several references to Song as an unmarried woman who has passed 30 and I confess that it might have been interesting to see how she got on with the blind date that her brother and sister-in-law were keen to arrange for her. But this is one of the moments of restraint – nothing more is heard of the idea. The ‘one child’ policy crops up several times, e.g. when Fang asks her mother why she seemed so old when Fang was a child and her mother explains that she was five years older than the other mothers in Nanjing because she had already had Fang’s brother – and all the other mothers only had the one child. Fang’s uncle had no children and so Fang’s brother was important to him and later Fang visits her parents’ friends who are worried about the health of their only child.

I think it is remarkable that a woman in her early 30s should make such a mature film about getting older and realising that you have simply not taken in the import of the things that have happened to your parents’ generation. I wish that I had been that aware and mature at her tender age. Not a film I would recommend for a rollicking Friday night out, but definitely one to savour at a more sober time of the week. I hope this gets a wide distribution.

Posted in Chinese Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Films by women | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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