Une belle fille comme moi (A Gorgeous Girl Like Me, France 1972)

François Truffaut was the subject of a major retrospective at BFI Southbank earlier this year and I’ve been trying to find time to return to a study of his films. I wonder what audiences in 2022 made of this film? It is seen by many of Truffaut’s fans as his misfire, leaving many wondering what he was up to. This is surprising, partly because the film presents many familiar Truffaut elements and connections with his other films. The most direct connection is to Truffaut’s early short feature Les Mistons (France 1957) which is included as a very welcome ‘extra’ on the Artificial Eye Region B Blu-ray for Une belle fille. I like Les mistons very much but it probably needs its own post. It features Bernadette Lafont (1938-2013) in her first film and the suggestion is that Une belle fille comme moi is Truffaut’s gift/hommage to the woman who became, in Dave Kehr’s words, “the nouvelle vague‘s most memorable embodiment of earthy sexuality”.

François Truffaut with Bernadette Lafont on set

The second connection is to Truffaut’s love of hard-boiled pulp fiction, published in French as Série noir novels and as part of American crime fiction more generally. There are four distinct Truffaut noirs/polars based on such novels: Tirez sur le pianiste (1960), La mariée était en noir (1968), La sirène du Mississipi (1969) and Vivement Dimanche! (1982). Une belle fille comme moi is perhaps related to Vivement Dimanche as a ‘comedy crime film’, but its plotting is more closely related to La mariée était en noir (which is not a comedy). The original novel which Truffaut and Jean-Loup Dabadie adapted was by Henry Farrell, whose writing career covered novels, screenplays and teleplays. He wrote the novel for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (US 1962) and the screenplays for the follow-ups, Hush . . . , Hush Sweet Charlotte (US 1964) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). These were all ‘gothic horror’ crime stories. Une belle fille comme moi is something rather different. As a crime comedy it also uses elements of the musical and the farce.

Stanislas interviews Camille in prison

Camille Bliss (Lafont) is a prisoner at the start of the film, convicted of murder. She is interviewed by a young sociologist Stanislas Prévine (André Dussollier in his first film feature role) who is preparing a thesis on ‘criminal women’. Camille begins to tell her story through flashbacks and Stanislas soon finds himself in love with her despite the lurid story she tells. He’s convinced she is innocent. In the first flashback to her childhood we get an inkling of the kind of film we are going to see when little Camille is kicked by her drunken father across his farmyard and she literally flies through the air to land on top of a hay wagon. She spends her girlhood in a ‘Home for Observation of Juvenile Delinquents’. Her later escapades involve marriage and her initial escape from that into flings with various men. In all Camille hitches up with six men over the course of the narrative. Five of them are vanquished. The 5:1 ratio is a reminder of Les mistons (five young boys pursuing Bernadette Lafont) and La mariée était en noir with five men despatched by Jeanne Moreau. I won’t spoil the narrative though the film’s critics suggest that the ending is obvious from the start.

Camille after she has successfully seduced the ‘Exterminator Man’ played by Charles Denner

So what is the problem? Critics argue that Truffaut can’t handle a full-blown feature of broad comedy like this and that he made a mistake in making his lead such a trollop. Actually, quite a few call her a ‘slut’ or a ‘tart’ or worse. Some of them seem to suggest that Truffaut’s problems with sexuality lead him into a certain kind of sour prudery. I think that if you take only a casual glance at the film, it can in some instances seem a bit like a series of Benny Hill sketches with Camille in various stages of undress running from lecherous men over whom she eventually triumphs. But look more closely and think a bit more about the narrative and the performances and a different film emerges I think. At the centre of the film is Bernadette Lafont, let off the leash and given the chance to take control of the narrative, in fact she literally narrates her own (fictional) story. She had been a dancer and she commands the screen partly through the way she moves. In my ancient guide to the ‘400 key figures in French cinema’ by Marcel Martin (1971), her entry describes her as having a “gay but unsophisticated frankness”. That seems a good call. Camille is the simple country girl who realises that she can get whatever she wants by offering herself for sex which she clearly enjoys. She may appear to be exploited but in fact she remains in control. It was still unusual in 1972 for a narrative to feature a woman with this kind of narrative ‘agency’. Although Truffaut was adapting an American property, the film does have elements in common with Nelly Kaplan’s La fiancée du pirate (France 1969). This also featured Bernadette Lafont in the lead role as a young woman in rural France living in a marginalised family who eventually turns to prostitution as a way of gaining control over the locals who look down on her. Kaplan’s film (known in the US as Dirty Mary) became something of a feminist text in the UK in the early 1970s and was screened at various conferences (including at the NFT in April 1973) as well as in late night cinema shows. It’s also worth remembering that the early 1970s was a period when there were many European sexploitation films in UK cinemas (usually dubbed) as well as UK softcore productions, whereas in New York when Truffaut’s film opened it was competing with hardcore titles like Behind the Green Door (1972) with Marilyn Chambers and at another extreme one of Bergman’s most powerful films Cries and Whispers (Sweden 1972) which was nominated for five Oscars (and won one).

The young filmmaker who doesn’t want to show his rushes

In the circumstances it isn’t surprising that Truffaut’s film should be rejected by some of the most high profile critics. Jan Dawson suggests in Monthly Film Bulletin (May 1973) that despite using a familiar structure as seen in his other films, Truffaut fails because the “breathless quality that he seeks to impose on his heroine’s odyssey is more suggestive of exhaustion than effervescence”. By contrast Diana Holmes and Robert Ingram (1998) offer a detailed analytic reading which I find most helpful. They point out that the film’s aesthetic presents the scenes involving Stanislas in an almost realist mode, whereas those presenting Camille’s re-telling of her story are much more ‘anti realist’ – drawing on cartoons, slapstick and musical numbers. They suggest that Stanislas represents the familiar Truffaut figure of the patriarchy, the representative of rules and conformity trying to contain Camille’s energy in his book. The book is intended to be about ‘criminal women’ but it is the woman who is the protagonist and the one with whom a popular audience might identify. I think every scene in the film is carefully thought out and I don’t find the overall effect to be one of exhaustion. Every scene deals in some way with the same concerns found elsewhere in Truffaut’s work. To be fair to Dawson she does discuss what she sees as an effective sequence in which Stanislas and his young secretary are searching for some film footage of Camille which could be evidence to use in court. When they find it, they have to negotiate with a 9-year old boy who doesn’t want to show the footage to them because it is not yet edited, as clear a reference to the cinema obsessed young François as you could ask for. Other reviews spend time discussing Truffaut’s various hommages to Hitchcock, Hawks and Renoir but I don’t want to go there just at the moment.

Stanislas dictating his thesis typed up by his secretary Hélène (Anne Kreis) who tries to convince him that Camille is running rings round him

I surprised myself in enjoying Une belle fille comme moi more than I thought I would. At other times I have found Truffaut’s approach to his female characters to be a problem but his approach here is consistent and makes good use of his star. The film has an excellent score by Georges Delerue and the cinematography is by Pierre-William Glenn who also shot La nuit américaine (1972) and L’argent de poche (1976). It was filmed mostly around Béziers in the South of France. There is a mystery about the intended aspect ratio for the film. IMDb suggests 1.85:1 but this is clearly wrong. A contributor on DVD Beaver suggests that it was shot ‘Open Matte’ and that it was intended to be projected at 1.66:1. The Artificial Eye Blu-ray is presented as 1.33:1 and I can’t see how many of the scenes could be cropped for widescreen without destroying the compositions.

Reference

Holmes, Diana and Ingram, Robert (1998) François Truffaut, Manchester: Manchester University Press

The Magnificent Ambersons (US 1942)

Produced at the RKO Studio and scripted and directed by Orson Welles; this film is a flawed classic, missing about forty minutes of the original version. It is screening on BBC 4 this coming Thursday [May 19th] as one of the titles accompanying the six part documentary, The RKO Story Tales from Hollywood’ [Hollywood the Golden Years: The RKO Story]. This is a six part series, each episode an hour long, originally produced and transmitted in 1987. It makes a welcome return to terrestrial television and is accompanied by a number of classic titles from the RKO Studio. The series was jointly produced by the BBC and RKO Pictures. The RKO studio closed in 1957 but had a reinvention in the 1980s as RKO Pictures Inc. This company controlled the archive of studio records and titles. These offer a wealth of information on RKO presented by Edward Asner. But what makes the series stands out are the interviews with surviving stars and production personnel from the studio era. This provides an impressive and fascinating account of the studio; something that is rarely offered in contemporary cinema programmes.

On Thursday May 19th part four of the series deals with the period in which Orson Welles worked at RKO. Following the seminal Citizen Kane Welles then made an adaptation of the novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ [Ambersons] by Booth Tarkington. Not that well known now in the early decades of the C20th Tarkington was a popular and highly respected writer; he won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his novels, ‘Ambersons’ and Alice Adams. The latter was filmed at RKO in 1935. In fact both ‘Ambersons’ and ‘Alice Adams’ were also filmed in silent versions in the 1920s.

Tarkington was the chronicler of ‘mid-western USA’; in another sense that central cultural artefact in US Americana, ‘small-town America’. As well as the two award-winning novels Tarkington also wrote a series of  ‘Penrod’ stories; following young boys growing up in a Midwestern town. Welles read these and other Tarkington works in his youth. He remained an admirer. Welles himself and his biographers frequently drew attention to the parallels between his childhood and characters and settings in the Tarkington novels. Simon Callow, in his biopic of the years leading up to Welles’ Hollywood ventures , ‘Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu’. quotes a description of a mansion in ‘Ambersons’ which was very similar to Welles’ first home.

In fact, Welles adapted the novel in his long-running series of radio adaptations; in October 1939 in the Campbell Playhouse on CBS. In this version Welles played the key protagonist, George Amberson Minafer. However, when it came to a film, with a character seen and heard, Welles settled for the narrative voice. In one of those innovations of which Welles was so fond, even the credits were voiced by Welles as narrator.

The story in the novel and the film follows the declining fortunes of the Amberson clan.

Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1878, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.

The Amberson elders with Eugene

Times moved on and the family fortunes declined as new social movements and new technologies arose. The Ambersons’ decline was symbolised in both novel and film by the arrival and rise of the motor car. The Major’s daughter Isabel was courted by a host of ‘ineligible’ young men. Finally she chose and married Wilbur Minafer,

a steady young man and a good churchgoer . . .

The marriage dashed the hopes of another young romantic, Eugene Morgan, who left town. The Minafer marriage was passionless and Isabel devoted her love and attention to the child George Amberson Minafer. He was bought up a spoilt and arrogant child and young man; one whose behaviours caused many townspeople to wait for his ‘comeuppance’. Meanwhile Eugene returned to town, a widower and with a daughter. He became a pioneer in the new motor-car business and grew wealthy. Young George disliked Eugene and his business but found Eugene’s daughter Lucy very attractive. Minafer suffered from bad investments and died. Eugene renewed his romantic interest in Isabel but George prevented the potential union. Later Lucy turned down George’s proposal of marriage, partly because of his behaviour, partly because of his arrogance.

After Isabel’s death it was discovered that family fortune has evaporated. The great Amberson mansion was sold. George and his Aunt Fanny, who for years has carried a passion for Eugene, were forced into lowly lodgings. George, for the first time in his life, was forced to work in manual labour at Eugene’s factory; ‘comeuppance!’. Then George was injured in an accident and in both versions he is visited in hospital by Eugene, but there are different resolutions in the situation of the characters.

The film of Ambersons was shot at the RKO Studio and around Los Angeles. When production finished Welles had directed a rough cut of approximately 132 minutes. Welles, in characteristic fashion, was already involved in a new film, It’s All True; to be shot in Latin America, mainly Brazil, and a film supporting the US war effort and its ‘Good Neighbour policy’ in Latin America. Welles accepted the full-length Ambersons needed cuts and entrusted this to the editor Robert Wise. After some editing and two previews the film was seen as a likely box office failure. Welles, who had the unusual option of a ‘final cut’ on Citizen Kane, had lost this option after changes in his contract. RKO bosses took over and Wise’s editing finally produced a version running only 88 minutes. There were reshot and additional scenes, [some by Wise, some by Fred Fleck]; moreover the finale of the film was reshot to produce a clear resolution.

Welles was appalled by the cuts and changes in the release version. Film critics and later audiences have tended to see the result as an example of Hollywood ‘commercial butchery’. What remains and what is known of Welles’ original version suggest a film that would have offered an equivalence to Citizen Kane though with a very different tone and some rather different stylistic achievements. The Studio later destroyed the original negatives so that a ‘director’s cut’ was not possible. In the 1970s Welles toyed with the idea of completing the film in some way but nothing came of this. There was a rough cut with sound sent for inspection by Welles as he worked in Brazil. This has never been found, though fresh searches are regularly organised, it remains  a lost ‘holy grail’ rather like Erich von Stroheim’s earlier butchered masterpiece, Greed (1924).

Welles wrote a number of letters and memos suggesting ways of reducing the film’s length; these were mainly ignored. Peter Bogdanovich in ‘This is Orson Welles’ (1993, a series of interviews and supporting materials) provides a lot of detail and extracts. At one point Welles suggested a ‘happy ending’ which differs from that imposed on the film. Bogdanovich also includes records from the preview screenings and it is apparent that the audience responses were not as bad as suggested; a minority of comments were positive. However, there was new studio management, and as with Von Stroheim and M-G-M, there seems to have been a basic antagonism to Welles and his project.

Yet the surviving film is still a fine example of Welles’ film-making. The overall elegiac tone of the film is maintained until the changed ending; Welles reckoned the first sixty minutes were a reasonable approximation of his intent.. Cinematically it has many bravura qualities reminiscent of Citizen Kane. There are great set pieces like a sleigh ride in the snow: an Amberson grandiose entertainment in the impressive mansion: the gloom of the decline as family members die and the fortune melts away: and the settings in the changed circumstances of George and Fanny. As with Kane the sets that Welles required to be designed and constructed are really impressive and innovatory; some of the ceiling effects late in the film are impressive. Many of the craft people are not credited in the film version. This includes the production design by Albert S. Agostino. Mark Lee Kirk gets a credit as Set Designer, which presumably included the Amberson mansion built with moveable walls to allow long tracking shots in the interiors. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez is excellent, there are Welles typical use of chiaroscuro and long takes: fine tracking shots: and the use of blocking and reflections in windows and mirrors.  But Welles found him too slow compared with Gregg Toland who filmed Citizen Kane and he was dismissed before the end of principal cinematography; a couple of personnel worked on late shots uncredited. The sound team are likewise only partially credited though their work is as impressive as the cinematography; both contributing to the powerful ambience created in the Amberson mansion and the later lodging house.  Wise’s editing is good, allowing for the studio imposed cuts: but the latter replaced a lengthy camera movement for the ball sequence with a number of cuts: and there was some more uncredited editing work. There is no music credit though the surviving music is fine: the score was by Bernard Hermann but his music was also cut down by the studio and replaced in places so he had his name removed from the credits.

George watching and watched by Fanny

The cast are very good. Dolores del Rio really achieves Isabel and Tim Holt makes an excellent George. Richard Bennett is the Major and patriarch. Both Joseph Cotten as Eugene and Anne Baxter as Lucy make fine contributions. And there is an outstanding performance from Agnes Moorehead as Fanny; her late scene after the family collapse is memorable. Another Welles regular, Ray Collins, as Isabel’s brother Jack, brings a slightly caustic note in the decline. But dominating the whole film is the narration of Orson Welles. Unseen but with one of the memorable voices in Hollywood cinema, much of the tone of the film is down to this audio aspect.

The parallels between Welles himself and the Tarkington character are found in his childhood and subsequently as an adult film-maker. Ambersons seemed to many a ‘comeuppance’ for this young, thrusting and egoistical artist; this was especially true in the Hollywood studios. Welles never again enjoyed the control he exercised on Citizen Kane or during the actual production of Ambersons. In the 1970s Welles appeared in a lengthy interview on BBC television. At one point he commented,

I always liked Hollywood but they never reciprocated.

One can see this, not just in Ambersons, but in later projects made in Hollywood studios. The best of these was Touch of Evil (1957) but that film was re-cut and changed. Welles produced a long letter setting out how he had envisaged and filmed the original. In 1998 this was the basis for a restored version which approximates to the vision of Welles. But to date material for a likewise restoration of Ambersons is wanting. Charles Higham in his biography comments finally,

some streak of anti commercialism drove him . . .

I t is true that Welles was more interested in art than in commerce but recognising him as an iconoclast [as does Bogdanovich] is better. He was iconoclastic about the studios: about theatre: many features of genre movies: styles of management: and the dominant political discourse. Successful directors in Hollywood needed to love, or at least fit in with, the box-office, Alfred Hitchcock is a prime example. The ironies in the making of Ambersons in many ways parallel the ironies in the Tarkington original novel and in the film itself.

Higham also recognises Welles artistic talents, his biography is sub-titled ‘The rise and fall of an American Genius’; more accurate would be a ‘US genius’, but Welles achievement in theatre, radio and film do stand out in these arts. But he was a wayward genius. His ego interfered with his work with supporting artists. He often did not give due credit where due credit was due. Stanley Cortez was taken off Ambersons because Welles found his work to slow. But the many of the replacement shots after his exit were poorly executed.

Welles and Cortez

And Welles was overly ambitious. He was always juggling a number of artistic projects; often too many even for his talent Thus in the later stages of the Amberson production Welles was involved in producing, scripting and acting in Journey into Fear (1943): He was producing an unfinished segment [Bonito the Bull] for a planned film It’s All True: preparing for his trip to South America for what was eventually the proposed but unfinished film, It’s All True: a CBS radio series The Lady Esther Show: and politically, with the Pacific war beginning, involved with the Roosevelt government in ideas for the war effort and in addition a campaign to save Soviet diplomats in danger from the Nazis. This also was typical of Welles’ career.

Even so, Welles’ career, and this particular film, stand out in the world of film, radio and theatre. The story of the vicissitudes of The Magnificent Ambersons, told many times in various biographies and studies, is a depressing one. Yet the film that remains is still a fine experience and well worth watching many times. It is some years since I saw a screening on 35mm, its original format. However, the digital facsimiles on the BBC should be of good video quality. And the impressive soundtrack of the movie will be good. A flawed Orson Welles film is still a greater experience than much of the alternative product produced in Hollywood.

The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood is available on the BBC I-Player for a short period; in a slighty different order from the transmission.

  1. Birth of a Titan

The founding of the Studio as sound arrived and its early days and films: only available until May 22nd

  1. Let’s Face the Music and Dance

The 1930s musicals, mainly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

  1. A Woman’s Lot

The woman stars, Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers

  1. It’s All True

RKO and Orson Welles

  1. Dark Victory

RKO and film noir [including HUAC] and Robert Mitchum

  1. Howard’s Way

Howard Hughes and the studio; and its demise.

Each episode has two classic RKO title accompanying it.

Episode 1 King Kong (1933) and The Thing From Another World (1951)

Episode 2 Bringing Up Baby  (19380 and My Favourite Wife (1940)

Episode 3 Top Hat (1935) and The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Episode 4  Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Episode 5 Suspicion  (1941) and Angel Face (1953)

Episode 6 Not yet listed but the BBC already screened Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) between episodes.

‘This Is Orson Welles Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’ (1993) has a detailed breakdown by the editor Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Welles original Ambersons and what remained of this in the studio version.

Louder Than Bombs (Norway-France-Denmark-US 2015)

The first English language feature by the Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier, Louder Than Bombs, was released on MUBI as part of the lead up to the launch of the director’s latest film, The Worst Person in the World (Norway 2021) in the UK. I remember the original release of Louder Than Bombs, because it seemed to be part of a cycle of films related to journalists in war zones. I’m not sure why I didn’t watch it at the time but I realise now that it is a more complex form of narrative. It represents a particular kind of European filmmaking presented in an American context which has divided audiences and it is a particularly interesting film for this blog.

Isabelle and Jonah

Trier joins a long list of European filmmakers buoyed up by success at Cannes, Berlin or Venice who then attempt to move into productions with bigger budgets and the kind of distribution muscle that international stars and English language dialogue provide. The results are often varied, but North Europeans and Scandinavians in particiular often have the advantage of more ease with English. The Danes, such as Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier, have made a number of English language films and Lone Scherfig has been particularly successful in the UK. Joachim Trier to a certain extent hedged his bets with an international co-production and four lead actors with recognition in both Europe and the US (though primarily more in relation to American Independent cinema perhaps). Trier worked with his usual writing collaborators Eskil Vogt, music composer Ola Fløttum and cinematographer Jakob Ihre.

Father and younger son

The film’s title is a play on the different effects of the trauma of war. (It’s also the title of an album by The Smiths.) The journalists here are Isabelle Huppert as ‘Isabelle’, a photojournalist and Richard (David Strathairn) who appears to have worked for the same agency. But the narrative is mainly concerned not with the direct experience of conflict reporting but with the trauma that it causes in Isabelle’s home life. In fact the narrative begins a few year’s after Isabelle’s death when her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is being shown a short video about his wife that will appear as an installation in a retrospective exhibition of her war photographs. Gene agrees to the video and learns that Richard has also been commissioned to write a newspaper piece about his colleague. Gene realises that he is going to have to speak to his sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah is a university teacher and a new father but Conrad is still in high school – the same school where Gene is a teacher. The narrative enigma involves Isabelle’s death in a road accident. Did she fall asleep at the wheel or did she deliberately allow herself to lose control? David tells Gene he doesn’t want to romanticise Isabelle’s death, implying that the strain and stress (and excitement) of reporting conflicts ‘has its toll’. Gene can’t be sure exactly what David means but he is aware of what was happening in the family. Now he must talk to his sons to prepare them for what the exhibition and David’s piece might mean for all three of them.

Gene meets a new young teacher at his school

Why has the film divided audiences, especially in the US? I think it may be because Trier does not confirm a specific linear narrative, providing a clear resolution. Instead he offers different stories concerning the father and two sons, bringing them together at various points when they overlap. We follow the grieving Conrad through some familiar adolescent rites which don’t get any easier for him when Jonah and his dad attempt to intervene. They have their own problems and memories of Isabelle are interwoven in their separate stories. The presentation too is not conventional, though with Eisenberg and Strathairn being familiar from various independent films we perhaps accept this and don’t expect ‘Hollywood’. Conrad’s story includes his fascination with a particular online videogame but the music and other elements of teen films are not there. As one reviewer suggests, the film does take teenage grief and depression seriously and there is a real attempt to explore what grief means to each of the family members. Trier presumably wants us to pick up clues  but doesn’t make this easy for us. For instance, Gene was once an actor and we see a clip from a fairly obscure film featuring Gabriel Byrne (Hello Again, US 1987). We don’t see Gene teaching and I had to freeze frame the image to see that a whiteboard carried notes about analysing Moby Dick is in the classroom where he unpacks his briefcase. It could be another teacher’s room, but an English teacher seems most likely.

The brothers together

I was engaged by the film but there is something about its presentation that I couldn’t quite clue into. I think I liked the story about Conrad the most and I felt it worked better than those concerning Gene and Jonah. I usually respond to Jesse Eisenberg’s performances but I did find Jonah to be an odd character. I don’t think his strange hairstyles helped but it his interactions with Conrad, which we might expect to be difficult, didn’t work for me at all. According to IMDb the budget for the film was around $11 million. I wonder if this is just an American production mark-up on a standard European budget for a film that seems to have been made mainly around the small town of Nyack in the Hudson Valley north of New York. Did Trier have to pay more for Huppert, Byrne and Eisenberg? Was it really necessary to cast Huppert as the photojournalist? I’m always happy to see her in any role but here she is inevitably more like an iconic portrait or a memory on tape. Would a less well-known face make for a different kind of memory? But perhaps I’m arguing for a different film. This one has introduced me to Joachim Trier and I enjoyed it enough to look forward to watching his latest film and perhaps exploring some of his other early work also on MUBI.

The Edge (UK 2019)

The Edge is a sports documentary about the England Test cricket team. Released in cinemas in July 2019 soon after England won the Cricket World Cup (50 Over white ball game) it is now available on DVD and digital download and is free in the UK on BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks. Presented in ‘Scope format with some spectacular footage and voiceovers by Toby Jones, the documentary does have the feel of a cinema feature and follows Warriors (UK 2015) the earlier film by Barney Douglas. That told the story of a cricket team from the Masai in Kenya who came to Lords in London, the home of English cricket. As well as presenting the ‘feelgood’ journey for the team, that documentary also featured a discourse about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) still an issue in the Masai community. The Edge has a similar overall approach. While it has a conventional sports documentary structure about the rise (and fall) of a team that reached a peak of No. 1 ranking in world cricket, it is also about the mental stress of top level sport and the personal stories of specific players.

The crucial question about the documentary is whether it can appeal to a wider audience than simply cricket fans (although there are many such fans around the world). How much do you need to know about cricket to appreciate the highs and lows that the players and coaches experience? The film does work as a compelling narrative about a group of young men, presenting the drama of their encounters at major Test venues but it doesn’t attempt to explain how the game works or to offer any basic facts  – the individual and team scores in the most significant games. This could be frustrating for both fans and the wider audience. Like its American equivalent, baseball, cricket is a game in which statistics are important for fans and players alike.

If you don’t know cricket and cricket culture I think some of subtexts in the film are difficult to grasp. Test cricket is the ‘highest’ and most demanding form of the game, played by national teams in a series of 5-day games. Cricket expanded from its English base, first to Australia and then to many other parts of the British Empire from the early 20th century. There are now ten Test teams recognised by the International Cricket Council with several more ‘Associate Members’. Because of the Imperial background there are issues about race and class in the history of cricket which still have an impact today and events in The Edge do in some respects refer to this history.

The narrative begins at the point in 2009 when England were at rock bottom. Zimbabwean Andy Flower, already associated with England as a coach, was appointed as full-time director of the England Test team. Flower is presented as a tough coach and a man who had left Zimbabwe after criticising the undemocratic policies of President Robert Mugabe. He was actually born in Apartheid South Africa and in the England team when he took over there were four players who had been born in South Africa. Captain Andrew Strauss and wicket-keeper Matt Prior came to the UK as children, but batsmen Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen came as adults, gaining qualification status to play for England. The squad of 13 featured in the film comprised five young men educated at private schools (which often have cricketing facilities) and six who came from state schools (plus the two schooled in South Africa). Monty Panesar, the second spin bowler in the team, was the first Sikh to play for England and the only non-white player in the squad. I mention these distinctions simply because they represent references to the colonial history of cricket and the different cultures associated with private and state schooling. Up until the 1960s English cricket teams often comprised ‘gentlemen amateurs’ and professional ‘players’ with the distinction clearly marked in terms of status. Unlike the England football team, most of whom are likely to share a similar educational background, the cricket team has potential divisions which can be damaging, especially on tour. Perhaps because of this, Flower chose to take the team squad on a rigorous team-building course in a Bavarian forest devised by the German military. They were a talented group of players and this exercise arguably helped them to become much more effective as a team.

Cricket is as much in the head as out in the middle

The trajectory of the narrative is over the next few years during which time the team won several Test series and were eventually seen as the No. 1 team in world cricket. The apogee of their journey was a 3-1 defeat of Australia in Australia in 2010-11. But it would also be in Australia three years later that the team would finally fall apart. What fascinates followers of élite team sports is as much the implosion of a team as its rise to pre-eminence. Cricket, as the documentary shows, is an unusual sport in that it is all about the cohesion of the team but also the capability of each individual to cope with the pressure of performing in their individual role to the highest possible standard. All professional cricketers are highly skilled at playing the game of cricket, but only a few have the mental strength to play a 5-day Test on a consistent basis. As a batter or a bowler or a specialist fielder each player has a lone battle on the pitch. To captain the side, especially when things go wrong, is also onerous and for a variety of reasons the successful captain Andrew Strauss in this case was under great pressure.

Each of the thirteen players speaks in the ‘talking heads mode’ of the conventional documentary but some are singled out to enable the narrative to be clearer. Strauss the captain trying to keep things under control, Graeme Swann the joker, Steven Finn as the youngest feeling the media interest or Tim Bresnan as perhaps the most bemused by the whole set-up of the team and the tour and Monty Panesar seemingly as the outsider in the squad all feature. But the biggest stories concern Kevin Pietersen, considered the best batter but also a controversial ‘celebrity’ figure and Jonathan Trott as the mild-mannered player most visibly affected by the mental health issues associated with cricket. These two are at the centre of the story and James (‘Jimmy’) Anderson is presented as the contrast, a calm figure who seems able to deal with it all. An early sequence in the film includes an extreme long-shot of Jimmy running along the sands of a river estuary, heading for a large post in the distance. Like a similar sequence later in the film of Jonathan Trott walking in his cricket gear across a crop field these kinds of ‘creative’ images contrast with the interviews, archive footage and clips of the players’ own video footage. There is a music score by Felix White of the Maccabees which works to stitch the different types of material together. ‘The Edge’ has several meanings. It refers to that sense that all élite players have that something extra that makes them Test players but it also warns us that they are often on the ‘edge’ of their self control and the stress can push them too far. But in cricket, the ‘edge’ also refers to the moment when a bowler induces the batter into a false shot and the ball makes the slightest of contacts with the bat and is edged into the hands of the waiting wicket-keeper or slip fielder. It is these tiny margins that separate the winners and losers in Test cricket.

Test cricket is only available on Pay TV in the UK and the live games are expensive with tickets difficult to come by for certain games so I haven’t watched much since the 1970s but this documentary kept me engaged throughout. Barney Douglas and co-writer Gabriel Clarke (a sports doc specialist) have crafted an entertaining documentary well worth catching.

The Souvenir (UK 2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (UK 2021)

Joanna Hogg is now established as an auteur director. These two films are her fourth and fifth features. She’s at that stage where her films tend to be nominated for various awards, but at the moment only a few translate into wins. However, The Souvenir was voted ‘Best Film of 2019’ by 100 international contributors to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Top 50 Best Films list. ‘Part II‘ screened at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2021 as a ‘Special Screening. Several of my female friends and colleagues have praised Joanna Hogg’s films highly but when I watched the first two, Unrelated (UK 2007) and Archipelago (UK 2010), I was rather ambivalent about them – impressed by the filmmaking skills, not so much by the characters and the stories. It is my problem no doubt but Joanna Hogg is an upper middle-class filmmaker who creates stories about similar people and they don’t appeal to me. To be fair, she has said in interviews that she understands that some audiences “can’t stomach them”. During Covid lockdowns I started to watch Exhibition (UK 2013) on a streamer but gave up after a short time. I would never do that in a cinema, so perhaps lockdown viewing was the problem? Because of this history I approached these two new films gingerly. I actually started watching Part II on MUBI and then discovered that the first film was scheduled to appear on the same streaming service a few days later, so I stopped and waited to watch the two films in order. I read that Hogg herself said that they should be watched together, so thanks to MUBI I was able to do that. I also now realise that Part II would make little sense if I hadn’t seen the first film.

Julie and Anthony in the Knightsbridge flat

These two films are inspired directly by Joanna Hogg’s own experiences and they follow Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman in her early twenties, as she starts at film school in the early 1980s and begins to develop her ideas about the feature she wishes to make for her graduation film. At the same time, she begins to find out more about herself through a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man she meets at a party. The two narrative strands are directly connected because Anthony questions and challenges her about her artistic intentions. The films’ title is a reference to a small painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, completed in 1778. Anthony shows the painting, which depicts a young woman beginning to carve a name or an initial on a tree, to Julie when he takes her to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone. The girl in the painting seems to be another Julie in the novel of that name by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – see this useful blog entry. The style of painting is Rococo but right at the end of that period and associated with the concept of sensibilité during the Enlightenment. The young woman’s joy at receiving a letter from her lover is presented in a carefully framed and delicately detailed image which communicates emotion. The same young woman might be shown very differently in a mid-19th century realist French painting. In Hogg’s film the painting possibly illustrates Anthony’s argument about realism which is articulated several times in response to Julie’s initial plan to make her film a form of emotional drama taking place in working-class Sunderland and based on black and white documentary photographs and 16mm footage shot earlier by Julie herself. This is one of several references to art and cinema in the film. Although I vaguely recognised the painting, I had to research it in detail to make this reading. Since the painting and the Wallace Collection are referenced more than once in the film this is setting the audience a challenge.

Camerawork and mise en scène present the difficult relationship between Julie and Anthony

Anthony presents himself as ‘working at the Foreign Office’ and speaks with a public school/Oxbridge drawl. He’s perhaps fifteen or sixteen years older than Julie and has a daughter. He is mysterious about what he actually does at the Foreign Office (if he does indeed work there) and Julie will face some serious questions when she realises how he has treated her and what he hasn’t told her. He writes her love letters, inveigles his way into living in her flat, criticises her and calmly offers advice. I’ve read several reviews that suggest he is ‘charismatic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘disturbing’. He manipulates her in ways that might be considered abusive today but he is himself damaged rather than controlling. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I’ll simply point out that many reviewers find the romance ‘delicate’ and ‘melancholic’. Anthony is certainly a complex character and the relationship with Julie no doubt engages many audiences and is described by some as ‘immersive’. Joanna Hogg’s approach is not to write a script as such but to give her characters a summary of their roles and to create interactions on set. Hogg has worked consistently with editor Helle le Fevre since Unrelated. Le Fevre edits during the shoot and discusses scenes with Hogg at regular meetings but says “I work from the cutting room. I don’t go on set, and I don’t need anybody in the cutting room. I’m as far away as possible from the set, because then I see everything fresh.” (Interview on Seventh Row) The process works well and accommodates Hogg’s practice of casting professional and non-professional actors in scenes together. Burke is an experienced actor but Swinton Byrne  had no prior professional experience as far as I can see. She appears with her mother Tilda Swinton in several scenes in which mother and daughter create alter egos as Julie and her mother. Honore Swinton Byrne is very good indeed and her attractive personality comes across seemingly effortlessly without any obvious technique. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a ‘county lady’ is extraordinary, but like Tom Burke’s, seems constructed specifically for a purpose.

Anthony introduces the idea of fantasy rather than realism to Julie in this awful location. Those Union Jack ‘drapes’!

Because the two Souvenir films have been discussed so much and Joanna Hogg has given interviews, we know a great deal about how the film was made (with support from BBC Films and the BFI). It appears that the production re-purposed a former RAF base in Norfolk which stood in for the fictitious film school and the film school scenes and those in Julie’s flat were created on sets within a former hangar. The outdoor scenes were then shot on various locations. But in a sense the location footage doesn’t add any kind of realist material. Hogg doesn’t use any of what is often referred to as dead time – travelling too and fro. But sometimes those inconsequential moments can tell us a great deal about characters. Julie is a young woman in London who never seems to be catching a bus, travel on the tube, shop in a street market. Instead we just see Harrods’ chimney from the window of her flat. This means that key aspects of 1980s London such as IRA bombings, political protests and uprisings of Black youths are only referred to on a radio broadcast, discussed at dinner in her parents’ home or as a muffled explosion outside the flat. The narrative takes place in a bubble.

Julie and Anthony visiter her parents (she’s here with her mother played by Tilda Swinton). This could be a landscape from a Michael Powell English country scene.

At one point Anthony suggests that Julie should think about Powell and Pressburger, the Archers, as British filmmakers who use aspects of fantasy in their films. I realise now that Joanna Hogg is a fan and as I type this she is discussing, with Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation’s screening of a new 4K restored print of I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) in an online recording. In the mid 1980s several of Powell and Pressburger’s films were being restored by the National Film Archive and if you were lucky you might see Michael and/or Emeric in the cinema when they were first screened. In film studies this was the period when P&P and the whole idea of a British cinema that was not solely ‘realist’ was being debated and rescued from the dead hands of earlier critics. Was Joanna Hogg there in the Odeon Leicester Square or the cinema of the Museum of London for such screenings? She tells us now that seeing I Know Where I’m Going was important for her and she has joined Scorsese’s Film Foundation – he also acted as Executive Producer on The Souvenir.

The older men who are Julie’s tutors at the film school played by Steve Gough and Dick Fontaine

Julie on set in Souvenir Part II

Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking influences are most on display in The Souvenir Part II. The second film concerns Julie’s recovery from the experience of her relationship in the first film. She follows Anthony’s advice and, as a form of catharsis/therapy she changes her graduation film into an attempt to ‘process’ what happened in her relationship. She has to deal with a bunch of older male tutors at the film school who aren’t sure about what she is doing as well as her her generally very helpful peers who become her crew but don’t always understand what she is asking of them. The part of the second film that I enjoyed most was the dream sequence in which Julie herself is presented in a fantasy world. She is played in the rest of her graduation film by Garance (Ariane Labed, the Greek-French actor-director). The dream seems to me to be very P&P and includes elements from Hogg’s film school interest in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse’s red dress. Part II is only meaningful as a companion piece for the first film. This film demonstrates that Julie is finally learning something about film. In the first film, the screen image is 1.66:1, the widescreen shape of the French New wave. In the second film all the standard aspect ratios from Academy through to ‘Scope make an appearance at some point. The students themselves discuss French cinema of the 1980s (the Cinéma du look) and there is a part for an ‘up himself’ director and alumnus of the film school played by Richard Aoyade that runs across the two films. In the second film he is making a musical and this seems to refer a specific moment in 1980s British cinema – the flop of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). I should also mention the cinematography in the two Souvenir films by David Raedecker. Occasionally this breaks away from the short takes in interiors and offers us long shots which are more expressive in their presentation of the story events. Hogg also uses several British New Wave songs in The Souvenir and other pieces of music in Part II which I didn’t recognise. Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ in The Souvenir is quite startling given the oblique references to politics in the film.

One of the long shots from Souvenir

I could happily spend more time investigating Julie’s film education but the real question is what to make of the two films together. The first film could be a standalone romance drama and the two together have been argued to be a narrative of a young woman’s gradual understanding of her own creativity. Everything is very ‘meta’ and arguably quite brave. It’s been suggested to me that Hogg’s playfulness here involves her own sense of how naive she was as a young filmmaker. It’s interesting to look up her career and to realise that her five auteur films have been made since the 2000s and that she spent around fifteen years working on music videos and television drama series, none of which I’ve seen. I think overall my view of her work hasn’t changed very much. My admiration for her skills and creativity has certainly grown but I’m still not emotionally moved by her characters. It did occur to me that a mini season of films about filmmaking drawing on memories of youth in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s might see the two Souvenir films shown alongside Shane Meadows’ This is England (UK 2006) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (UK 1999). Here’s the trailer for The Souvenir Part II – a couple of shots in the trailer remind me of Lynne Ramsay’s work? Oddly, the two Souvenir films have different distributors in the UK which might make them difficult to see together, so take the opportunity now if you can on MUBI.

Love After Love (Di yi lu xiang, China 2020)

Love After Love was screened at Venice in 2020 where its director Ann Hui was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Two of her earlier films were also screened at previous Venice festivals, including A Simple Life (Hong Kong 2011), one of her most celebrated titles. Unfortunately Love After Love has not fared so well with critics. But it is a beautifully-made film and as a sumptuous romance melodrama is expected to eventually find its audience in East Asian territories. It was released in China in October 2021 and became available on MUBI in the UK a month or so ago. The key to the film is arguably that it is an adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang. Ann Hui directed two earlier Chang adaptations, Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997). Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was a major Chinese literary figure who lived in the US from 1956. Her complicated personal history involved marriage to a collaborator with the Japanese in Shanghai under occupation that later affected her reputation in the People’s Republic. It thrived, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Perhaps the best known Chang adaptation in the West is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Taiwan-US-Hong Kong-China, 2007) set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation.

Weilong (Ma Sichun) making her way to her aunt’s grand mansion at the beginning of the film

Ann Hui was born in Manchuria in 1947 and moved to Hong Kong as a child. She has made a number of films that reference aspects of Chinese history and her own personal story including The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) and The Golden Era (2014). The Golden Era is a biopic of another major Chinese literary figure, Xaio Hong. Love After Love is adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, ‘Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier’ which was first serialised in a Shanghai magazine in 1943 and made Chang’s name as a writer in the city. The story is influenced by Chang’s own biography and presents us with Ge Weilong, a girl of perhaps 16 or 17 in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Weilong (Ma Sichun) came to Hong Kong with her parents a year or two earlier when the Japanese threat of invasion of Shanghai became apparent. But when her parents decide to return to Shanghai, Weilong decides to to try to finish her education in Hong Kong and asks her aunt, Madame Liang (Yu Feihong) if she can stay with her. Her father’s sister ‘married’ an older wealthy man and when he died she inherited the house and a rich life-style. To maintain this she lures other wealthy men to her house, attracting them with the pretty young girls who act as her maids. Weilong risks being seduced by her aunt’s wealth and relaxed life-style in the louche world of high society Hong Kong in the years leading up to Occupation by Japan at the end of 1941.

The two maids who effectively run the house (under Madame Liang’s instructions) are at first suspicious of the new arrival

We are in the territory of a Chinese melodrama presented with costumes by Emi Wada (who worked on Kurosawa’s Ran in 1985) on her last film and detailed interiors presented in compositions by Christopher Doyle reminding us of his earlier work with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige among others. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is restrained for a melodrama but becomes more prominent in sections and is appropriate, I think, for the romance depicted. I note that that all the principal creatives are industry veterans and their work is a joy to behold.

Weilong and George (Nicky Peng) on the day of the garden party

Why then does the film get the thumbs down from so many critics? ‘Empty’ is a common summation. I don’t think the length helps at 142 minutes with some critics feeling that the narrative drags. I found it engaging throughout but it was only really when I watched it a second time that I began to fully appreciate its qualities. This is a complex narrative using several narrative devices in subtle ways. Several critics, especially in the West, tend to compare this film to similar Hollywood films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The similarities are there but the cultural context is different. This film refers to a particular society at a particular time – a colonial Chinese society at a specific moment. Weilong finds herself both constrained by her own traditional background and unsure how to respond to her aunt’s world – “The British Way” in Hong Kong as her aunt puts it. I was also conscious of the class differences. The young girls brought to the house, almost as concubines, are at the lowest level and Weilong finds herself in the middle – between the girls and her aunt’s friends and acquaintances. The romance in the film involves Weilong with a mixed-race young man, the son of a wealthy Chinese man who married a European woman. It occurs to me that the Chinese view of ‘Eurasians’ is slightly different to that of the Indian view of Anglo-Indians in the same period. In Chang’s story, the wealth of Chiao’s family means the son George can’t be marginalised but there is still a stigma attached to his identity and his general behaviour contributes to this. George is played by the Taiwanese-Canadian Nick Peng, now a major star in Chinese cinema. George’s sister Kitty is played by Isabella Leung, originally from Macau.

‘Sir Cheng’ Chiao between his daughter Kitty and Madame Liang

Mr Situ who Madame Liang persuades to act as Weilong’s teacher in the social mores of Hong Kong’s ‘British Way’

I think I need to explore my partial understanding of the status of wealthy Chinese in the British Empire in the 1930s. Britain had exploited China in the 19th century and this continued through what was the unique arrangement in the global city of Shanghai for all Western powers. But the UK had also developed the colony of Hong Kong after taking the island from China during the Opium Wars of 1841 and 1860, finally acquiring the New Territories on mainland China on a 99-year lease in 1899. Hong Kong maintained strong links with Shanghai and also with Singapore and parts of Malaya. Crucial to the economic development of these colonial possessions were two groups of Chinese, the poorer migrants who could provide cheap labour and the wealthier merchants and trading families. Hong Kong and Singapore and to a lesser extent George Town in Penang developed as entrepôts –transhipment ports which facilitated British Imperial trade across South-East and East Asia. The wealthy Chinese families retained and grew their wealth, developing a distinctive culture and status under colonial rule. This is apparent in the opening scenes of Love After Love when Weilong first arrives at her aunt’s magnificent house and gardens. In the evening the maids are first outside lighting the lamps on the drive. This could almost be a scene from Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (China-Hong Kong 1991) which is set in the home of a Chinese war lord in the 1920s. Later in the evening, after the mahjong, the dancing begins and British officers are among the guests. Earlier Weilong is quizzed by Mir Situ as to whether she can play the piano and play tennis – she nervously replies that she has learned both a little in school. As she sits upstairs in her room listening to the music from the dancing below she might be a young girl in a British country house drama. I don’t think similar scenes took place under the Raj in the same way in India. As if to emphasise this, ‘Sir Cheng’ the head of the Chiao household has an Indian chauffeur. At a later garden party when Madame Liang invites the choir which Weilong has joined, there are Indians and ‘foreign nuns’ in attendance.

Lo Sui-Lun, the young man who wants to study medicine and who is attractive to both Weilong and Mme Liang

I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative. The story events are generally familiar, as are the characters. There have been some complaints that Ma Sichun is not strong enough in the central role of Weilong. I don’t agree. It is a difficult role in that she has to grow from shy schoolgirl into someone who can move through the upper echelons of colonial Hong Kong. She is us as she tries to negotiate the pitfalls and grow and learn in her social role. She is also the young woman being offered a ‘sentimental education’. It is true, however, that the real star of the show is Faye Yu (Yu Feihong) who plays Madame Liang with great relish. I do wonder what Eileen Chang wanted to say in her story and why Ann Hui chose to adapt it. The adaptation is by Wang Anyi, a distinguished writer and academic from Shanghai and seen as a successor to Eileen Chang. She also wrote the original story for Chen Kaige’s 1996 period film Temptress Moon. So, with three distinguished women involved in creating the characters, Love After Love can be seen as a female-centred melodrama with characters located in specific socio-economic strata of Hong Kong’s colonial society. Each is trying to find some form of fulfilment in her life but is constrained by the social situation. Weilong is the naïf, Ni’er is the country girl and the most constrained in her role as maid. Kitty is in one sense the most privileged but, like her brother, has to contend with her Eurasian identity: she is also the character who seems under-explored in the script. At the centre is Mme Liang whose position depends on her own wits and talent for social intercourse. Is she the feminist hero of the narrative?

Aunt and niece. Everything revolves around Mme Liang

I should mention three other aspects of the narrative. At various points Weilong offers a spoken commentary. At the beginning this is in the form of a reading of the letter she sends to her aunt asking to stay with her. At crucial points we are offered flashbacks to Mme Liang’s early life. These involve traditional rituals/ceremonies that are difficult for non-Chinese audiences to interpret perhaps. This is also true of the use of the wall of photographs in the Chiao household and the subsequent presentation of formal photo opportunities of tableaux of the family. Finally, as part of Weilong’s ‘education’, she has moments where she, in a sense, sees a ghost. This isn’t a straight realist melodrama or a conventional romance, though it has several conventional elements. Surprisingly perhaps, the narrative does not contain any further references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai or Hong Kong after the opening statement. This seems to make the whole narrative a kind of fantasy.

To repeat, this is a very beautiful film. It must look (and sound) fabulous on the big screen, where it should be seen. The costumes are similarly fabulous. Ann Hui is a great filmmaker, under-appreciated in the West.

(In this review I present the names as they appear in the subtitles on MUBI. The romanisation arguably suits the period and the Hong Kong colonial setting?)