Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, France 1949)

The German officer (Howard Vernon) and his orderly

The German officer (Howard Vernon) and his orderly

I’ve been meaning to watch this film for a long time and now, with the release of Suite Française, it seems appropriate. This is the first film to be directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the major influences on the French New Wave. The ‘silence’ of the title refers to the mute ‘resistance’ of an elderly man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) in the face of the German Occupation of France in 1940 and specifically the ‘occupation’ of their house when a German officer is billeted there. The film is an adaptation of a major novel of the Resistance published by ‘Vercors’ (Jean Bruller) in 1942 and one of the first post-war films about ‘résistance‘ (which was highly mythologised at the time). Bruller was reluctant to allow an adaptation that might misrepresent his novel and the resistance itself, but Melville, himself doubly ‘signed’ as both a member of the Resistance and a Jew, persuaded him – and indeed then got the author to agree to his own home being used as the main location of the film.

The background to the production is described in detail by Ginette Vincendeau in her excellent introduction to the film on the Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD. Melville was fiercely independent, putting together a crew and a small group of actors from outside the French industry. (I’m not usually in favour of using non-unionised crews but Melville who had a very limited budget couldn’t afford to do it any other way.) He had no formal training but chose his team well. The photographer Henri Decaë had never shot a fiction feature but here found a very effective approach. Later he would become one of the principal creators of the look of the French New Wave. Nicole Stéphane and Jean-Marie Robain had not been credited before and they both went on to have film careers and to work with Melville again.

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The German officer speaks to the couple every evening but they ignore him. The uncle smokes his pipe, the niece carries on knitting or sewing.

The film is highly unusual in that the central couple remain silent throughout the film. I think the uncle might utter one line, but the rest of the time he ‘speaks’ to us via voiceover narration. The niece never speaks. The narrative proceeds through the uncle’s narration and the German officer’s monologues, all addressed to the couple in beautifully enunciated French that even a cloth-ears like me could follow at times. Played by the Swiss actor Howard Vernon, the Leutnant is a music lover and a francophile. He explains that he loves German music but that he thinks France has the greatest number of literary giants. Later in the film he has a short holiday in Paris, trying to view the famous sites. However, as he mingles with his fellow officers he realises that the war is not being conducted in the way he thinks it should be. Eventually he will leave to go to the Eastern front.

Our first view of the Leutnant – a hint of Boris Karloff?

Our first view of the Leutnant – a hint of Boris Karloff?

I hope I haven’t spoiled the narrative. This isn’t a film about plot development and very little happens in an obvious way. I should say that there are subtle presentations of the impact of the Occupation revealed by posters on the wall. Otherwise the film works through the metaphor of the ‘occupation’ of the house. The Leutnant is an interesting figure, both disturbing and seemingly benign at the same time. Melville works with a low-key lighting style and elements of a film noir mise en scène to create a disturbed domestic setting and the first shot of the Leutnant’s arrival is very dramatic with a low angle shot of his face illuminated from below by the key light and framed in the doorway against the dark night sky. Howard Vernon has an unusual face and I wasn’t surprised to learn that later he was cast as the heavy or in roles in horror films. The camerawork generally is ‘disturbing’ with several close-ups and framings from low and high angles. One particular shot is repeated in which the Leutnant stands in the room (he’s quite tall) looking down on the couple who ignore him. We see Nicole Stéphane from above, behind or over the shoulder, baring her beautiful white neck, almost as inviting an attack. At other times, out of his frightening Wehrmacht uniform, ‘Werner’ talks about art and civilisation and incidents from his youth – each of which show him to be sensitive.

The presentation of the ‘occupier’ is such that we see the presentation of the Occupation as almost seductive, like a ‘test’. The couple resist by refusing to engage, although at points as the narration (and the musical theme) emphasise they find themselves drawn to the Leutnant’s monologues. Mute resistance does not sound dramatic and it is difficult to make it ‘cinematic’, though as Vincendeau points out and I certainly noticed, he emphasises the silence by making the ‘ticking’ of the clock louder at times and sound is very important in creating the atmosphere of tension. I was completely engaged over 80 plus minutes.

In the first years of the occupation, silence was in fact a good strategy. In 1940 there was little co-ordinated resistance. This would come later with control from London (where Melville was at one point) and support from active resistance within France. The first step was to give nothing away, to retain identity, to observe and prepare for the future. The original novel by Vercors was an inspirational text in 1942 and Melville alludes to this in the opening and closing scenes of his film. Melville went on to make another two films in the 1960s specifically about the resistance and for a long time he was one of the few filmmakers in France to really understand how to represent the period of Occupation.

Melville’s great resistance film is L’armée des ombres (Army of the Shadows, 1969). Another more recent (and excellent) film exposing the mythology of the resistance is Jacques Audiard’s Un héros très discret (Self-Made Hero, 1996). Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre 1961 is on my future viewing list.

Dark Horse, UK 2014

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This is a feature-length documentary due for release by Picturehouse in April this year. The film is about actual events in the horse-racing world between 2008 and 2011, hence the release close to the date for the Grand National. The presenter suggested that this would be a ‘feel-good’ release offering a tale of ‘making good’. The plot follows a small group in a Welsh mining village who raise and train and thoroughbred race horse. The form of the film involves cutting between interviews with actual participants and either actual footage or recreations that present the story of events. I could see that the film has that ‘feel good’ factor and it has a central character of a horse: surely a winner with the British public. I was interested in how the film constantly offered contrasts between the working class Welsh villagers and the world of racing, very much dominated by the aristocracy and land-owning faction of the bourgeoisie. However, there was a lack of a political edge to this. There is at one point some stills and found footage from the miners’ strike of 1984: and it is clear that the village has suffered economic deprivation since that event. But this does not really feed into the stony or characters, [Brassed Off (1996) or ….. do a better job of this aspect]: this is very much about ‘making good’ from the other side of the tracks. I also found the style of the film rather repetitious: for most of its length the film cuts between the filmed interviews and ‘found footage’, usually of relatively short length. The lack of variation in rhythm does not help developments. There is at some point also a problem with visual or aural quality, as the film uses material from a variety of formats. I was puzzled why the feature itself is presented in 2.39.1. This leads to the cropping or stretching of much of the ‘found footage’ and also often emphases the inferior quality of some of this material. There are also quite a few really conventional, if not stereotypical moments, as when we hear Tom Jones’ ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’ over a long shot of the Welsh landscape.

The story and the interviewees are attractive and that may help the film on release. But I felt that there as an opportunity missed. This did rather look like a lot of TV documentaries rather than having a real cinematic feel. In fact, the director and writer Louise Ormond, has mainly worked on television and in documentaries.

The film is in colour and runs 85 minutes. Not to be confused with The Dark Horse (New Zealand, 2014).

Official trailer:

Welcome to the Rileys (US 2010)

James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart

James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart

Following the success of Kristen Stewart at the Césars in February when she won Best Supporting Actress for Clouds of Sils Maria, I’ve decided to go back and look at some of her roles in American independent films with a view to exploring how acting performances are evaluated.

Welcome to the Rileys is a ‘low budget’ family drama (by Hollywood standards – it cost $10 million, though I’m not sure where the money went since this kind of film would cost half that in Europe). Directed by Jake Scott and produced by father Ridley and uncle Tony from a script by Ken Hixon, the film puts Kristen Stewart alongside two of the best character actors in the US at that time, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo.

The story is familiar. Doug (Gandolfini) and Lois (Leo) have been married thirty years and their relationship has stalled since the death of their teenage daughter. Lois has withdrawn so much that she cannot now leave their house in Indiana. Doug owns a small business and during an industry convention in New Orleans he goes into a strip joint where he meets a teenage bar girl, Alison/Mallory (Stewart). He ‘just wants to talk’ to her and eventually she allows him into her life. Lois meanwhile decides that she must overcome her fear and drive down to New Orleans.

The story is simple and no doubt predictable in how it turns out. However, the three central performances and Scott’s restraint in presentation drew me into the story and I thought it worked well. The IMDB entry on the film is interesting. The professional critics were split down the middle with the detractors particularly scathing. Audiences did not go for the film in cinemas, but the ‘user ratings’ on IMDB create an average score of ‘7’, suggesting that audiences that did find the film enjoyed it and thought it worthwhile.

The major weaknesses identified by Hollywood Reporter and others turn out to be why I like the film. At times it’s like a European social realist film in its refusal to look for exciting camerawork and fast-cutting. Jake Scott also makes the best use of a small number of locations. He avoids the touristy images of New Orleans and places Alison’s grubby crash-pad in a poor district. I particularly like a meeting outside a run-down po’ boy cafe. Gandolfini takes the film in his stride. I never watched The Sopranos but I agree with the reviewers who argue that he moves very comfortably for a big man and that his physical bulk is carried lightly so he doesn’t become in any way threatening.

Melissa Leo has in some ways the more difficult role which requires her to change as a character – to move from frightened middle-aged woman to a much more confident and active woman after she has been in New Orleans for a while. She also has to hold together a quasi-comical sequence when she tries to get Doug’s car out of the garage, having no knowledge of modern car electronics.

With these two highly competent actors offering quality performances how does Kristen Stewart stand up? Very well actually. I sneaked a look at one of the later Twilight movies made around the same time in which she has smooth white skin like alabaster. Here, rake thin with tousled hair smudged kohl eyes and skin marked by pits and scars she looks the part of the runaway and she is able to generate the energy verbally and visually to match Gandolfini’s calm. She can also match Leo’s similarly calm approach. It isn’t easy to move through acceptance, anger and then playfulness in the same few scenes and to switch at the drop of a hat but I think she manages it.

This was a good start to my Kristen Stewart in the Indies tour.

Red Tails (US 2012)

David Olewoyo as Joe 'Lightning' Little

David Olewoyo as Joe ‘Lightning’ Little

This played on BBC2. I missed it on its very brief appearance in UK cinemas. The two observations that spring immediately to mind are firstly that it is a story that deserves a big mainstream film release and secondly that what actually appears in the film is something of an insult to the talent on screen and the audience watching. The ‘Red Tails’ were a substantial group of African-American fighter pilots who formed the 332nd Fighter Group in WWII. In the context of the Jim Crow laws in the US at the time and the segregated American armed forces these pilots were extremely successful, especially in their role of escorting daylight raids on Germany by American heavy bombers. The ‘Red Tails’ were those painted on the tail fins of the P51 Mustangs they used on bomber escort duty.

The pilots involved were all trained at Tuskegee Alabama and aspects of their story and related stories have been covered in an HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen (1995) and various documentaries and independent productions. In 1988 George Lucas started thinking about an epic three hour film that would tell the story complete with detailed action sequences of the air war in Europe. Lucas appears to have been sincere in his attempts to put the story on the screen and to draw on the knowledge of surviving members of the group. However, in the long process of getting the project into production several dubious decisions were taken. The result is a two hour film that focuses mainly on the CGI/green screen dogfight scenes (remarkably similar in their choreography to the dogfights in Star Wars). Most of the ‘back story’ about the experiences of the men in training and their interaction with white officers and airmen is left out. And, as Film Comment‘s reviewer Ina Diane Archer (daughter of one of the surviving airmen) points out, there is nothing about the families at home or the African-Americans who followed the exploits of the airmen in the US media. There are one or two lines of dialogue that convey the backgrounds of individual flyers (the pilots were mainly officers with college degrees or professional training), but in the most part the dialogue doesn’t expand far beyond banter and war-whoops.

The film’s director is listed as Anthony Hemingway, an experienced TV director, but many commentators suspect that Lucas himself is responsible for the action scenes. The tragedy is that the film has a stellar cast with Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the senior officers and David Oyelowo as the most glamorous ‘ace’ pilot. Howard’s character has to deal with the racist postures of the top military and Oyelowo gets the romance with a beautiful Italian girl. The main setting is an Italian air base which at times reminded me of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Unfortunately there is nothing of either the absurdist satire or the psychological depth of that film in Red Tails.

It’s generally agreed that the action scenes in the film are exciting – but I also find them ludicrous. It’s partly a fault of the script by John Ridley (who scripted 12 Years a Slave) and partly the other-worldliness of the digital creation. It does a disservice to brave airmen to depict them as so successful immediately. They are highly trained but have no experience of combat – yet they easily out-manoeuvre German fighter pilots who are veterans. This a film where bombers and fighters fly in tight formations of equal spacing through clear blue skies as if in a manga or anime presentation. The damage to American aircraft and the loss of pilots is minimal compared to the total devastation they cause on German airfields, trains and shipping as well as in the air. The ‘real’ results for the 332nd were impressive but the exaggerations here diminish those achievements.

Rather than watch this film, I recommend the Spike Lee film The Miracle at St Anna (2008) and Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story 1984. These are films about African-Americans in the US Army (rather than USAF) in World War II, but they deal with the realities of the war-time experience that are missing in Red Tails. The CGI aircraft catch fire, explode etc. in dramatic fashion in Red Tails but I don’t believe a frame of it. I think I prefer the realism and pathos of David Niven in a burning Lancaster bomber limping home to the UK in A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, UK 1946).