Tagged: social realism

Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy 2014)

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral questions. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.

A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:

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My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production anddirection) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.

The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or the ‘night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.

If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):

Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (UK 1960)

Working class sitting-dining room

Working class sitting-dining room

Part of the freshness of the British New Wave was the films’ use of relatively unknown actors such as Albert Finney (above) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was one of the first New Wave films to focus on working class life. The film that heralded the ‘wave’, Room at the Top, had a protagonist, Joe Lampton, who is desperate to join the middle classes whereas Saturday Night’s Arthur Seaton (Finney) relishes his working status with his ‘chippy’ attitude as his opening voice over states, above an image of him working in a factory:

Don’t let the bastards grind you down. That’s one thing I’ve learned . . . I’d like to see anybody try to grind me down. That’d be the day. What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.

Finney’s brilliant performance shows both the charisma of the rebel the immaturity of Seaton, particularly when his face breaks out in a childish grin when he fires pellets at a local gossip. Despite the fact that, in common with other films of the time,  it represents popular culture negatively, Seaton criticises his dad for watching television all the time (see above), its treatment of race, although incidental, is progressive. During Seaton’s introductory monologue he says ‘I’m like him’, and at that moment the camera frames one of the few Afro-Caribbean workers. Seaton identifies himself via his class and rebellious attitude and not race.

At the end of the film it appears that Seaton has been recouped for a conventional lifestyle, as he decides to wed Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) after, it is implied, they’ve had sex. However, this doesn’t stop him throwing stones at a site where the ‘nice’ semi-detached homes he’s destined for are being built.

The cast is brilliant giving a debut to some who would become stalwarts of British cinema: Colin Blakely, Bryan Pringle and Norman Rossington. Hylda Baker is a standout as Seaton’s Aunt Ada and Rachel Roberts, as the married woman with whom Seaton is having sex, is heartbreaking when faced with an abortion.

Those in Peril (UK 2013)

George MacKay is Aaron, seeking his dead brother

George MacKay is Aaron, seeking his dead brother

I wanted to see this because it is one of the films identified as part of the raft of new Scottish films that appeared in 2013 when it was first shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Two central questions are whether it is indeed a ‘Scottish’ film and, if it is, what it suggests about Scottish cultural identity. Both questions are pertinent during the run-up to the Scottish independence vote in September.

Not many people have seen For Those in Peril which didn’t receive a significant release in the UK (though it has been seen at several overseas festivals). I was able to watch it projected from a DVD in a community cinema operation. The film includes a mix of video and Super 8 as well as higher resolution material and the DVD projection wasn’t ideal. Unfortunately, there is no Blu-ray as far as I am aware. This début film from writer-director Paul Wright is set in a Scottish fishing village (and filmed mainly in Gourdon in Aberdeenshire). The relatively simple narrative follows the psychological breakdown of Aaron (George MacKay), the only survivor of a fishing tragedy which sees four men drowned, including Aaron’s brother Michael. The people of the village appear to blame Aaron in some way for what happened and he can’t remember anything about the accident. Only his mother (Kate Dickie) and his brother’s girlfriend Jean (Nichola Burley) offer him any support. Gradually Aaron loses contact with reality and begins to pursue a memory of his mother’s stories about the ‘monster of the deep’ which she told him as a child. He becomes convinced that the monster has taken Michael and that he must bring him back from the sea.

Wright initially plays the film as a quasi-documentary story, including faux documentary footage with voiceovers and home movie clips. Then he moves into social realism and finally into a fantasy sequence (which may also offer the subjective experience of someone suffering from schizophrenia or something similar). In visual terms, the film is quite disturbing with a camera style that features hand-held shooting with big close-ups and shallow focus. Occasionally the film moves into long shot, framing the protagonist in the landscape – much the better option for me. The performances are generally very good. Kate Dickie and Nichola Burley are solid performers and George MacKay has a real screen presence. I don’t know if his acne was real or painted on, but he appears the real lump of a 19 year-old that the script requires.

I wish I had seen this on a DCP or film projection. I still wouldn’t have ‘enjoyed’ the aesthetic, but I might have been able to make a more balanced judgement. When we left the cinema, Nick said that it didn’t work but the interesting question was what went wrong. I tend to agree but also to be a bit more forgiving. The reactions by reviewers generally seem to have been more extreme, both in praising the film and condemning it.

To return to the initial questions, the film is Scottish only to the extent that the writer-director is Scottish and it’s located on the Aberdeenshire coast. The main producers are Warp X films from Sheffield working with funding from Film 4’s ‘Low Budget Film Production’ scheme. Some further funding came from Creative Scotland and Screen Yorkshire.  I’m not sure how the latter organisation justified funding. Apart from supporting local producers, Nichola Burley is from Leeds. Otherwise I wonder if any of the post-production took place in Sheffield? BFI supported the release of the film for export with £19,000 going to sales agent Protagonist Pictures. It’s not really a great promo for the Aberdeenshire coast however! Soda Pictures released the film in the UK but only on 3 prints for three weeks as far as I can see.

In the end, I’m not sure that the film represents Scottish culture directly. The village could be in Ireland as easily as in Scotland – or indeed anywhere with fishing boats and a fish-processing industry. The fact that this is a low-budget film makes it much more like a typical Scottish production (since there are no established studio facilities to make Scottish films in Scotland). Of the three lead actors only Kate Dickie is Scots and she’s from the Central Belt not the North East. Still. it shows that there is Scottish talent and as a drama this is much more interesting than most of the films that come out of London. It does in some ways share a mixture of realism and fantasy in a Scottish setting with Under the Skin. I’ll return to discussing contemporary Scottish cinema soon.

BIFF 2014 #19: Diego Star (Canada-Belgium 2013)

Isaka Sawadogo as'Traoré' on the Diego Star

Isaka Sawadogo as ‘Traoré’ on the Diego Star

Portrait Without BleedFor several years Bradford’s International Film Festival offered the opportunity to see anglophone Canadian films that rarely got a UK release. Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any this year. Instead the festival has picked up on the recent successes of Québécois cinema such as the films of Philippe Falardeau, Kim Nguyen, Jean-Marc Vallée, Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve creating a stir wherever they have been shown. Will the next in line be Frédérick Pelletier with Diego Star? I think it deserves to be and already the film has begun to win prizes at international festivals.

I’m a fan of Canadian cinema and very impressed by the recent Québécois films that I have seen and I was pre-disposed to enjoy this film. It didn’t disappoint. Bradford screened a Pelletier documentary short before the feature and this set up expectations with its portrait of a retired seaman and his wife in their small house in the city of Lévis on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence opposite Quebec City. Diego Star uses the same location and tells a simple but powerful story.

The title refers to a cargo ship registered in Cyprus with a crew comprising a Russian captain and a crew from Africa, the Middle East and further afield. The ship breaks down and is to Lévis on the St. Lawrence seaway with one of the biggest shipyards in North America. The crew are offered accommodation in Lévis at the shipping company’s expense while the ship’s problems are investigated. The ship’s second engineer is an experienced sailor from Ivory Coast who tends to be known as ‘Traoré’ since his personal name is too long/difficult to remember. Early on we realise that he is a man of principle who has told the captain several times that the ship’s engine needs to be serviced. Traoré is billeted on Fanny, a young single parent who needs the money for his bed and board to supplement her wage from kitchen work in the shipyard’s cafeteria. At first hesitant about being too friendly towards Traoré, she soon realises that he is a family man who is good with children and she accepts his help with her infant.

The Canadian authorities question the crew about the ship’s service record but most of the crew are prepared to keep quiet as they are still owed their wages for the last trip. Traoré decides to tell the truth believing that the authorities will support him. But he soon discovers that the company have suspended him – withdrawing his right to enter the shipyard. Fanny loses his bed and board allowance and their friendly tentative relationship breaks down. Traoré finds himself without any support in a country he doesn’t know. Diego Star is a bleak tale and, without giving away what happens, there is no artificial happy ending.

I think this is tight, muscular filmmaking with terrific performances by the two leads played by Isaka Sawadogo and Chloé Bourgeois. Both Traoré and Fanny are abused by the system and struggle to maintain relationships in which others let them down. The overall aesthetic is a form of social realism probably more akin to the French mode of Laurent Cantet in Ressources humaines (France 1999) or the earlier work of the Dardennes Brothers than to the social melodramas of Loach in the UK. We do learn about Traoré’s family through the photographs he places in his room and the interaction with Fanny and her child and the film does move into a dramatic final sequence, but always without non-diegetic music. Pelletier doesn’t resort to any kind of conventional narrative devices. He deals in the realities of the lives of sailors far from home and a young woman facing the problems of bringing up a child in difficult economic circumstances. The film looks very good and the freezing Canadian winter (beautifully captured in the stately progress of the snow blower moving down the narrow street) is almost another character in the drama. This was one of the most impressive films that I saw at BIFF and is highly recommended.

The Selfish Giant (UK 2013)

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Arbor (Conor Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas). Photo by Agatha A. Nitecka http://film.agathaa.com/the-selfish-giant

This is Clio Barnard’s second feature and I feel much the same about it as I did about the first, The Arbor, in 2010. It’s extremely well made with excellent performances and it acts as a challenge to anyone who has a complacent view of the lives of working-class families in the less salubrious parts of the UK’s major urban areas. I admire it very much but it disturbs me. The film is again set in the housing estates of South Bradford, but this time less precisely than in The Arbor. Indeed, the camerawork at times uses shallow focus to obscure road signs and blur backgrounds so that we can’t be sure exactly where the story is set.

Audiences in Bradford have been very healthy for what is a specialised film with only a restricted distribution to cinemas. The bigger than average audience I was part of was noisy and appreciative in the early stages of the film but very quiet at the end. As usual for a film of this kind, the major public reaction has come from metropolitan critics who don’t venture up here that often – they can treat it as an art object, safely ‘cased’ in a specialised cinema, but to me it feels much more compelling as a form of public document. A couple of features of the Leeds/Bradford conurbation are important for the narrative. Bradford has a large and dispersed population as a ‘Metropolitan District’ – over 500,000 people, many of them living in smaller communities in rural areas. In both Leeds and Bradford the richer leafy areas of middle-class accommodation are mainly to the North of the cities and the ‘badlands’ are to the South. It is the latter that are featured in The Selfish Giant. I live in the Northern part of Bradford Met and I don’t make any claim to know the area the film is set in. Perhaps that’s what leads to my discomfort – so near yet so far in terms of what the film depicts.

I’ve seen references to ‘post-industrial’ Bradford and even Clio Barnard herself has made references to Ken Loach, Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold as well as the Dardenne Brothers in terms of ideas about social realism. I think that these comments should be approached with some caution – simply because these different filmmakers tend to focus on different aspects of an overall realist approach. For instance, I don’t think that The Selfish Giant has much to do with the view of a working-class mining community in 1969 offered in the Barry Hines/Ken Loach presentation of Kes (which Barnard herself compares to the horse in this film), but there certainly is a parallel of sorts with the Paul Laverty/Ken Loach world of Sweet Sixteen set much later in 2002 in post-industrial Greenock.

The inspiration for The Selfish Giant came from the Oscar Wilde short story with the same title. I haven’t read the story but I understand that it involves an ogre/giant who at one point prevents children from playing in his beautiful garden with the effect that the garden dies until children find a way to sneak back in. The theme of the story appears to be redemption, ultimately involving a form of Christian religious allegory (I was surprised to learn this). Barnard certainly pursues the idea of exclusion and offers some kind of hope at the end without resorting to religious meaning (as far as I could see). She creates a kind of magical tale that involves tragedy before the final sequences. I can see that there might be some connections to the Dardennes Brothers’ stories – and particularly the most recent ‘inspired by fairy tales’ story of The Kid With a Bike. In the same way, I can see a kind of ‘magical’ touch in the presentation of the urban meets rural landscape that is also there in Lynne Ramsay’s wonderful Ratcatcher.

In all of these films there is the warmth of a humanist depiction of families in difficult situations. Is it there in The Selfish Giant? I think it is, but it is presented with a bleakness and the almost complete absence of social structure/social networks – in short, any sense of community apart from the culture that surrounds the scrapyards of South Bradford. Clio Barnard has spoken about the research she has done into the traveller communities in the region and this is evident in the depiction of the scenes featuring illegal ‘trotting’ races using ‘sulkies’ – two-wheeled lightweight carts – on major roads in the early hours of morning. The film has to tread a fine line in these kinds of representations – there is a danger I think that they might be viewed through the lens of the reality TV camera. Bradford has been the subject of several recent reality TV programmes. The most recent of these, Bradford City of Dreams on BBC2 in May this year, was actually quite a decent stab at representing the city’s diversity but I am reminded of the scene in La haine when the youths chase off a TV crew who have come to shoot on their estate for a news report on local protest marches. What Bradford needs most is investment and economic regeneration rather than more attention from cultural commentators.

The two central characters who are ‘excluded’ are Arbor and Swifty, 13 year-old boys excluded from school because of behavioural problems, marginalised in society generally because of poverty and unemployment and struggling in families with other social problems including alcoholism and drug use. Swifty escapes into communion with horses but Arbor is more active in seeking to earn money ‘scrapping’ for anything he can find. This leads the pair into the dangerous world of copper cable theft and into the ‘giant’s den’ – a local scrapyard run by ‘Kitten’, an unscrupulous dealer who also owns a prize trotting horse.

I don’t need to spell out what happens in the narrative. The dangers associated with stealing copper wire from the railways, electricity sub- stations or telecommunications hubs are obvious. I suppose what disturbs me is I can’t see any way out for the lads. There isn’t any political solution or indeed any form of collective action put forward to rescue these communities from their exclusion. I can quite understand why Nick Lacey, as a local teacher, despairs at the depiction of the school that excludes the pair (see his blog entry). And watching them in the opening scenes make off with a length of cable stolen by other scrappers from a local railway line isn’t really ‘magical’. I’ve sat on too many trains delayed by signal failures after cable thefts.

That opening scene by a railway line reminded me of Ken Loach’s The Navigators, so I wasn’t too surprised to find that The Selfish Giant was shot by the same cinematographer, Mike Eley. There are other names that stand out in the crew including Harry Escott for the music and production design by Helen Scott. It’s great that Clio Barnard and her collaborators have had international festival success and the shoot did bring a production team to Bradford, but perhaps we could have a comedy next time?

Les neiges du Kilimandjaro (The Snows of Kilimanjaro, France 2011)

The opening shot of Snows of Kilimanjaro – the union meeting in which the 20 men to be made redundant are chosen.

I’d almost forgotten about Robert Guédiguian – which is a terrible admission since I like his films very much. This one left me in tears and emotionally drained with just a small nagging doubt about the politics. My emotional response suggests that this is a very effective family melodrama and I do think that it is a perceptive and intelligent film about contemporary political ideas. The whole enterprise has been undertaken with love and a clear principled stand.

The basic premise is not unlike the beginning of Couscous (La graine et le mulet, 2007) with an older worker made redundant in a dockyard and the consequent issues around marriage/partners and family conflicts. In this case however, Michel is also a union steward faced with redundancies that the union can’t (or possibly won’t) fight. He puts his own name into the lottery to decide which twenty men will go and duly picks himself as one of those to go. We learn that Michel is a lifelong socialist whose hero is Jean Léon Jaurès (the great French socialist leader from the turn of the century who was assassinated in 1914) but now he is contemplating retirement in his late 50s.

At first everything is fine and Michel and his wife Marie-Claire are given a wedding anniversary present of a safari holiday in Tanzania including a trip to Kilimanjaro by their children. But then something very disturbing happens that shakes up the couple and their closest friends, Raoul (Michel’s closest workmate) and his wife Denise, who is also Marie-Claire’s sister. I won’t spoil the narrative, but what happens certainly puts Michel and Marie-Claire into a difficult position and forces Michel in particular to question his own actions. Did he really fight for the jobs of the younger workers who were made redundant. Has he become old and complacent, just another passive member of the bourgeoisie? What he and Marie-Claire do then (she has her own concerns and takes her own line) causes a rift with their grown-up children, both of whom have families, in a scene that has echoes of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. At the same time, a potential rift between Michel and Raoul also hinges on what we might see as traditional working-class politics and the response to moments of crisis.

Robert Guédiguian is perhaps the nearest French equivalent of the Ken Loach-Paul Laverty school of filmmaking. He has made several films set in the working-class districts of Marseilles. All of these films feature Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s wife) and often Jean-Pierre Darroussin – and here the two play Marie-Claire and Michel. Like Loach, he also has a regular script collaborator, Jean-Louis Milesi. Guédiguian also sometimes makes specific use of his own Armenian ancestry, here represented by the references to Jaurès who was also part Armenian. The other inspiration for the film was a poem by Victor Hugo. The poem and a speech by Jaurès can be found in the Press Pack from Mongrel Films.

The political observation at the centre of the film is that in Guédiguian’s view there is no more a ‘working class’, at least as a coherent entity. Employment has changed in France as in most of Western Europe so that unionisation has been weakened by the loss of large-scale employment in factories, shipyards, mines etc. Younger workers especially have only experienced the individualist ideologies of the modern workplace. Subjected to consumerism, de-regulation and all the other soul-destroying aspects of modern capitalist culture, they have never experienced the solidarity of the unionised workforce, nor realised what those working-class movements won in terms of employment rights. It isn’t their fault and in many ways they do face a tougher world.

Milesi’s script and Guédiguian’s direction produce a film narrative that manages to be both provocative in terms of asking difficult political questions and also warm-hearted and celebratory of the central loving relationship between Michel and Marie-Claire. I think that you could argue that the ending is still in some ways ‘open’ and that not all issues are tidied up, but certainly on a sunny day, eating outside on a terrace overlooking the port, Marseilles isn’t quite like a wet Wednesday in Greenock or Salford which might be the location in a British social realist equivalent.

My nagging doubt is the omission of any analysis of the reasons for the collapse of unionised employment – or real engagement with what the union needs to do to support and educate younger workers. The film isn’t really interested in the work of the men – we never learn what exactly they do, whether they are dockers, ship-repairers or whatever. Perhaps I’m asking for too much. This is a romantic melodrama with a leavening of contemporary political concerns – and it is very enjoyable. The title has a double meaning referring to the dream of visiting the mountain, and a popular chanson which has memories for Michel and Marie-Claire.