The Birth of a Nation (US-Canada 2016)

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This film is now getting a general release in the UK. I saw it at the Leeds International Film Festival. The Catalogue quoted ‘The Playlist’,

“In script and performance, the film is an articulate howl of anguish and rage given depth by a discerning comprehension of the ways various communities can rely on faith for very different means.”

However, Nick Pinkerton in Sight & Sound took a rather different tack, savaging the film in his review. Pinkerton has form as he equally savaged Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq. In both cases he has a certain amount of justification and I agree with many of his criticisms. But I also have strong reservations about his critique. For one he mixes ‘art’ and ‘artist’ in his comments: and the relevance of this escaped me. More importantly he does not discuss the substance of the film, concentrating on its form and style.

But it is the substance of the film that makes it both very interesting and important.

“Nate Parker’s directorial début is a searing account of the life of Nat Turner, the enslaved African-American who spearheaded an insurrection in 1831. Turner believed that revolutionary violence would awaken others to the infernal mistreatment of slaves, and he died for this cause.” (LIFF Catalogue).

I would think that this slave rebellion is not that well known in the UK but it would be in the United States. I read an account some years ago in William Styron’s fine but controversial novel ‘The Confessions of Nat Turner’ (1966). Turner was born into slavery but grew up literate and with an intimate knowledge of the bible. He frequently had what he believed were visions and was an influential figure among the slaves. In August 1831 he led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 white people were killed before the rebellion was suppressed by armed whites supported by troops. About 50 black rebels were killed but subsequently several hundred black slaves were murdered by outraged and fearful white mobs.

Styron’s novel concentrated on the rebellion and presented this through the voice of Turner himself. The Birth of a Nation works as a biopic presenting Turner’s life from childhood to the actual rebellion. The insurrection only comes at the end of the film and I was expecting it to be treated in much greater detail than the film offers. We only see a couple of deaths until the confrontation with the armed whites and the military. Much of the film is given over to Tuner’s life and his religion. The visions that he experienced are not really adequately presented. And there is an amount of screen time devoted to his romance and marriage to a  fellow slave. There are plot motivations for his turn to violence but the film does not really evoke the apocalyptic drive that seems to have motivated the historical Turner.

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The film is conventional in form and style: note the film is presented by Fox Searchlight. Whilst there is onscreen violence it seems aestheticised by the widescreen cinematography and production design: emphasised by the accompanying score which is often rather lush. The acting also seems conventional and dutiful rather than impassioned.

The director, Nate Parker (who also plays Turner), references 12 Years a Slave in an interview. One can see the influence but whilst that film tended to anaesthetise the violence it also had a strong sense of place and character. Farther back there is the influence of the televisions series Roots but that drama offered a much stronger representation of the grim reality of slave life.

The Festival Catalogue quotes Parker:

“The thing I wanted to get right was Nat Turner’s humanity. That this was a man. In history he’s painted as a religious fanatic that just wanted to kill people. I think that was the narrative that was important for white supremacy and the safety and conservation of racism in that time.”

Certainly my memory of the Styron novel is not that of a religious fanatic. And in ‘humanising’ Turner, Parker seems to have reduced him to the conventional. So the film is a disappointment. However as far as I am aware this is the only film or television version of the important historical event available in the UK. And the film is sufficiently well done to hold the attention.

It does not though live up to its title. This is presumably a riposte to the seminal but racist film by D. W. Griffith from 1915 of the same title. But a riposte already exists in the form of Oscar Micheaux’s masterwork Within Our Gates (1920). As far as I am aware there have not been theatrical screenings of this film in the UK. I have been fortunate to see it twice at European Festivals. Perhaps the BFI could arrange for a theatrical format version as part of its ‘Black Stars’ programme. And it would be good to also be able to see the documentary directed by Charles Burnett for Public Television in the USA, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003).

 

Les innocentes (France-Poland 2015)

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Les innocentes (previously titled ‘Agnus Dei’) proved to be a rather different film than I expected. I didn’t really have any expectations other than having enjoyed director Anne Fontaine’s earlier films such as Gemma Bovery (France 2014) and Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) and I wasn’t expecting such a powerful and deeply moving film. I found it harrowing but also deeply humanist as well as sensitive in dealing with issues of faith. It’s based on the experiences of a historical character – a French doctor who had worked with the Resistance in Paris in 1944 and risen to the rank of ‘Lieutenant Doctor’. In 1945 she became the chief doctor in the French Hospital in Warsaw, in charge of repatriation of French citizens who had been prisoners of war or wounded in Poland and the Soviet Union. Madeleine Pauliac led a team of female ambulance drivers, the ‘Blue Squadron’, searching for the soldiers who would her patients and this is how she came across the incidents developed in the film. In 1946 she died accidentally during her work. Her nephew, Philippe Maynial, was the source of this historical account which was then developed by a team of writers including Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial as well as the director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer.

A baby delivered by Mathilde (Lou de Laage)

A baby delivered by Mathilde (Lou de Laâge)

The film narrative focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is younger than Madeleine and an assistant rather than the doctor in charge (and therefore more vulnerable). One day in December 1945 she is working in the hospital when a Benedictine nun is brought to her by one of the street children. The novice wants a doctor to visit the convent but Mathilde tries to shoo her away because she is only supposed to treat French citizens. When she reflects on her decision she decides to go to the convent anyway and is shocked to discover a nun in the last stages of labour and a difficult birth. Eventually she will realise that several of the nuns are pregnant following repeated rapes by Red Army soldiers. She has entered the convent secretly because the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) would not approve of her presence but once inside she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French fluently and acts as her interpreter and guide. Mathilde now finds herself doubly ‘disobedient’ – absenting herself from the hospital and entering the convent. She will later also find herself confronted with a group of Red Army soldiers on the dark road out to the convent in the by the forest outside the town. But there is no way back once Mathilde is committed. She can’t allow women and children to die in the circumstances she discovers.

Mathilde with Maria (Agneta Buzek) and the Mother Superior (Agneta

Mathilde with Maria (Agata Buzek, left) and the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza, centre)

Mathilde with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne)

Mathilde with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne)

What follows is a drama that develops the conflict between faith, humanity and practicality that underpins Mathilde’s battle with the Mother Superior and individual pregnant nuns in the face of further contact with the Russians and Mathilde’s issues with her superiors. A parallel narrative follows Mathilde’s growing relationship with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – a Jewish man who lost his parents in the camps while he was overseas with the Free French. At first, I thought this might be a step too far in adding another layer to the complexity of the central story but it won me over.

One of the painterly compositions

One of the painterly compositions

There is an excellent Press Kit for the film available from Films Distribution and some of the following comments are drawn from it.

The look of the film and the overall tone of the story is measured and astutely handled. Veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier does an excellent job. She also shot the similarly themed but very differently located Of Gods and Men (France 2010). The setting is very distinctive with the isolated convent (a ‘real’ abandoned convent) set close to woods and snow-covered fields, the nuns in their blue and white habits and the shadows inside the convent. Anne Fontaine describes the look in these terms:

We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes. The air had to be palpable.

This is a setting little changed from the Middle Ages suddenly disrupted by the arrival of khaki-clad men and women in jeeps and trucks. Anne Fontaine has constructed a narrative that moves effortlessly through dramatic confrontations, intimate scenes births and deaths and scenes of contemplation and prayer. I found the film’s 115 minutes sped by and I was reluctant to let it go when the credits rolled.

Praise must go to Anne Fontaine and her collaborators in a genuinely successful co-production. In must have been difficult to work for much of the time in a foreign language (and I note that quite a few discussions on set were conducted in English as a shared language for many actors and crew). She chose very well in casting two of Polish cinema’s most accomplished performers in Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. I always find convent-set stories slightly problematic since so many distinguishing features (hair, neck and shoulders) are covered. Both the lead actresses were familiar to me but couldn’t place them. Later I realised that Agata Kulesza gave a stellar performance as the judge and aunt of the novice nun in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) and that Agata Buzek was the lead in Rewers (Poland 2009), both great films. Lou de Laâge as Mathilde is one of the rising stars of French (and European) Cinema. In one or two scenes I wondered if she looked impossibly beautiful for a doctor under stress but Anne Fontaine comments about her:

She is graced with a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed that this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, along with her freshness and a fragility that lie just beneath the surface, would well serve the film.

That seems a good call. I’d finally add that the music in the film which included Handel and Rossini alongside chants by Hildegard von Bingen is beautifully integrated with a score by Grégoire Hetzel which as, Anne Fontaine suggests, is minimal and never overwhelms a film that feels intimate and natural.

Chi-Raq (US 2015)

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This is the new Spike Lee film set mainly in Chicago (or Chi-Raq) and which ‘The Guardian‘ review praised with four stars. It added a comment

“magnificent, rage-filled drama.”

I saw the film at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Catalogue quoted the director, who commented

“I think that we have the same indignation and hatred and anger when we do it to ourselves . . . “

on the ‘black-on-‘black violence that is the subject of the film.

I was underwhelmed by the film and found it rather scattergun in its treatment of the important topic. A couple of friends at the Festival offered similar opinions and one of them only gave it one star out of five.

The problem seems to be that the parts are better than the whole. The film uses rap-style dialogue, dramatic scenes, large scale set pieces including musical numbers and sequences that are predominately realist and other sequences that are fantastic even fanciful. I thought the set-pieces worked best, with Lee’s usual panache. The realist drama is based on actual figures in Chicago, a woman campaigner and a male priest. Replaying actual people and events can be tricky and I found some of the dramatic scenes somewhat ineffective.

Peter Bradshaw’s review adds

“It interestingly looks like a filmed stage play in the Aristophantic or maybe Brechtian style.”

Those two playwrights were skilled at balancing drama, irony and satire. Moreover, they worked in the theatrical medium and translating their ideas and practices to the medium of film is often problematic. This only works well when the filmmakers can translate these into the distinctive form of film. Spike Lee did this in a masterful fashion with his seminal Do the Right Thing (1989). Chi-Raq never achieves that level.

Peter Bradshaw also comments that

“it shows women of different ages banding together, organising, taking action.”

I found this aspect less than convincing. There are a series of short sequences where the activists in Chicago are supported by women in other lands and cultures, but there are not really convincing factors to explain this.

And Bradshaw also draws a comparison with Spike Lee’s own

Bamboozled (2000) or Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America (20034).”

The first is a masterful satire and one of the exceptional US films of the last couple of decades. The latter is cartoonish and heavy-handed. Though Chi-Raq is better than that it does suffer from the same weaknesses.

I really like Spike Lee’s work so I was seriously disappointed on this occasion

Les valseuses (France 1974)

Depardieu et Dewaere

Depardieu et Dewaere

Watching this film more than 40 years after it was made was a strange experience. I sought it out because it features an early appearance by Isabelle Huppert – but she has only a small part and it occurs in the last section of the film. After the first 20 minutes or so I was wondering whether I could stand watching it all the way through, but gradually it became easier to watch.

Les valseuses was written and directed by Bertrand Blier (born 1939) who had also written the novel from which the script was adapted. It tells the story of two ‘ne’er do wells’ who turn to stealing cars and whatever cash they can find in their travels around France. They are young men in their 20s played by Gérard Depardieu (‘Jean-Claude’) and Patrick Dewaere (‘Pierrot’) and worse than their crime spree is their treatment of women – sexual assault, violence and a complete lack of respect. The film is explicit in depictions of their behaviour with a succession of women but it is Miou-Miou as Marie-Ange who bears the brunt of it, playing a seemingly submissive woman prepared to put up with virtually any treatment in the first half of the film when she is revealed as unable to orgasm despite the best efforts of the two would be studs. She seems to accept her treatment as in some way ‘normal’ and that’s almost more shocking than the violence of their assaults on her. The film’s title has been variously translated as ‘Making It‘ (UK) or ‘Going Places‘ (US) – neither of which make much sense. The slang meaning of the title is ‘testicles’ or in plain Anglo-Saxon, ‘balls’. This might refer to the first action in the film when Pierrot is shot with the bullet grazing his groin and requiring stitches – or it could simply refer to the two men.

It’s worth remembering that in the mid-1970s French cinema was heading towards the domination of the local industry by sex films and there is plenty of nudity (female and male) and explicit sexual activity. In fact, the film was not granted a certificate by the BBFC in the UK in 1975 and was only seen in London where it had a GLC (Greater London Council) viewing licence. (It was re-released in the 1990s as an ’18’). In the US this might have been one of the films which gave French films the dubious reputation of excessive nudity and explicit sex. Roger Ebert suggested it was:

” . . . the most misogynistic movie I can remember; its hatred of women is palpable and embarrassing. There are laughs in it, yes, but how could anyone take this as a comedy?

Its story involves two loutish, brutal and unclean young men . . . I guess they’re supposed to come off as pathetic anti-heroes, driven to their cretinism out of terminal ennui.”

Several critics followed this line and sought to align the film (not necessarily favourably) with earlier films like The Wild One (US 1953) as devised to shock the bourgeoisie. I’m not sure that this is the case. I suspect that Blier was trying to make something ‘counter-cultural’ but that he was too heavily ‘marked’ at the time by sexist ideologies. I certainly didn’t mind the nudity or the sex in the film, though I flinched at the sexual violence. And I have to admit that despite their actions the two young men do have a certain kind of charm – which is perhaps even more disturbing. Depardieu in particular is young (25) and slim and has ‘dangerous charisma’. In fact this is the film that made him a star. It registered 5.5 million admissions in France and was a big hit. It’s worth reflecting that films in which men mistreat women have historically sometimes been popular with female audiences (James Mason’s films in the UK in the late 1940s offer examples).

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

What is to me extraordinary is the way in which the film begins to change halfway through when the two men wait outside a women’s prison and offer a ride to a woman being released (on the grounds that she will be looking for some kind of sexual release). She’s played by Jeanne Moreau, a major star of French cinema. An earlier sequence on a train sees an unusual form of sexual assault on a woman played by Brigitte Fossey, another leading actor of the time. It does seem strange that alongside Miou-Miou and Huppert, Blier could attract actresses to roles like these. However, as I’ve suggested, Moreau’s appearance seems to change the men’s behaviour, if only in the sense that they begin to allow the women to take more of the initiative. Jean-Claude is particularly gentle with her. Later when the men return to Marie-Ange she appears to have a change in self-awareness. Towards the end of the film the trio meet Isabelle Huppert’s Jacqueline who is a 16 year-old on holiday with her parents (Huppert was actually 20 – Miou-Miou was 22). Jacqueline is desperate to get away from her bourgeois family and to lose her virginity. The trio treat her almost tenderly. So, sexist thugs are human too.

To go back to Ebert, is this film a comedy? There are certainly comedic moments and as per the change of tone in the second half, when Jean-Claude and Pierrot throw Marie-Ange in the canal it is more in celebration than an act of violence towards her. But two people die in the film – and not in a way to imply ‘black comedy’. Miou-Miou and Patrick Dawaere had begun their careers as founding members of a Paris acting troupe at Café de la Gare in 1968 and became lovers. (Depardieu also worked there at some point.) All three leads received a boost from the success of Les valseuses, but I find Miou-Miou’s ‘bravery’ (‘recklessness’) the most striking feature of the film. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I think I learned a lot about a period of French cinema that I know less well than I should.