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Gainsbourg (France 2010)

Eric Elmosnino as Serge Gainsbourg

Gainsbourg is a biopic about Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), born Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 into a family of Russian-Jewish émigrés. He was a major figure in his native France as a songwriter, singer, actor, novelist, and all-round provocateur, one of the most sacré of all the monstres sacrés in modern French culture. He might be seen a cross between John Lennon, Bob Dylan and, in the final stage of his life, the late Oliver Reid. Gainsbourg is generally little known in the English-speaking world – apart from the ‘succès de scandale‘ of the heavy-breathing number,  ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ in 1969, banned by the BBC and incurring the wrath of the Vatican. Gainsbourg embraced the myth he had created too fully, and eventually drank and smoked his way into oblivion, dying of a heart attack aged 62 in 1991. On his death, President Mitterrand said Gainsbourg “elevated song to the level of art” and compared him to Baudelaire and Verlaine. His former home on the Left Bank has become a shrine even more popular than Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s. I came to this film with mixed expectations.

As a fan of the both Gainsbourg and the French chanson tradition I was curious as to how Gainsbourg and his associates would be portrayed. On the negative side, however, the biopic is probably my least favourite genre. There is a something about its familiar tropes that can crate a dull and predictable viewing experience: the awkward  introduction of famous characters, (“Byron, meet Shelley. Keats is over there.”), the ponderous exposition, historical events being signalled by a newspaper headline or newsreel, the inevitable rise-and-fall trajectory, the childhood trauma or period of difficulty as an adult followed by affliction/addiction which is duly overcome, leading to triumph.

Part of the problem I find with the biopic is that the plot is usually structured in what are deemed to be important episodes in the lives of their subjects and the films often stagger from episode to episode like a filmed Wikipedia entry, frequently lacking in any real insight into what inspired the characters to achieve what they did. Another problem is that biopics tend to adhere the pretence that the screen can be an unmediated window onto the past which the biopic shares with its close relative, the historical film. For the historian and film scholar Robert Rosenstone, a better strategy than traditional realist film when portraying history (and by implication, biography) is an approach which in which the film foregrounds itself as a construction, playing with the past and creatively interacting with its traces – what he calls postmodernist history films which are fragmentary, partial, playful or incomplete.

Some biopics successfully adopt this approach, such as the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007) which uses six actors of both sexes to portray the various ages and facets of Dylan (and in which, interestingly, the role of one of the wife of one of the Dylan’s wives is played by Gainsbourg’s daughter Charlotte). And Agnès Varda’s film on her late husband Jacques Demy, Jacquot de Nantes (1991), which mixes a ‘re-enacted’ narrative of Demy’s early years with actual footage from his childhood, punctuated with voiceovers and cuts across to clips from his films, as well as contemplative shots of the ailing Demy.

Gainsbourg is not entirely free of the pitfalls of the biopic but by employing a number of non-realist techniques Joann Sfar has  brought a refreshing originality to the genre and avoids the pretence that “this is how it was.” (Significantly, in the title sequence, the film is referred to as a conte, i.e. a tale, and the end credits quotes Sfaar’s disclaimer that “ I love Gainsbourg too much to hem him in with reality. It’s not the truth about Gainsbourg that interests me, but his lies.”) Sfar manages to liberate the story from the genre’s predictabilities by his fantastical artistry. Significantly he comes from the world not of film but of the bande dessinée (or ‘BD’) – i.e.  cartoons which are very popular in France and with adults as much as children.

Sfar’s main departure from cinematic realism is to create an alter ego for Gainsbourg, a sort of animated manifestation of his psyche, a tall, rather elegant, chain-smoking caricature of Gainsbourg (or, rather, how Serge sees himself), sporting a ridiculously oversized nose, beady eyes. and prominent ears (one of the film’s major themes is the idea that Gainsbourg was chronically ill-at-ease with his appearance) who informs Serge that he is his guelle (‘gob’ or face in French slang). La Guelle is relentless in his efforts to advance Serge’s music (at the expense of his painting, his children and his character), encouraging him to abandon painting and burn his canvasses, to write bubblegum songs for teen pop singers (French rock was pretty poor and derivative then), to play a cruel trick on the naïve, eighteen-year-old singer France Gall, and so on. Some reviewers found this device to be intrusive and distracting. I found it an ingenious way of dealing with a complex life while avoiding some of the pitfalls of the traditional biopic.

Doug Jones as La Guelle de Gainsbourg

Another strong point of the film is its superb casting and performances. Gainsbourg is played by a theatre actor new to film, Eric Elmosnino who, with a little help from prosthetics, achieves a remarkable resemblance to the singer whose mannerisms he captured to an uncanny degree. Also notable is the performance of Kacey Mottet Klein as the young Lucien, portraying him as a smart-alec of a precocious child – perhaps a projection back from Gainsbourg’s adult persona, as biographical sources suggest a shy insecure child and adolescent. Another outstanding performance was by Lucy Gordon (who tragically committed suicide during post-production). She captures the young Jane Birkin’s gamine looks and breathy delivery to perfection.

These were supported by a number of excellent cameos of people involved in Gainsbourg’s life, both romantically and professionally. In her five minutes on screen, Anna Mouglalis perfectly conveyed the feline charms of Juliette Greco (and it was almost appropriate that her maid is a talking cat! – another of Sfar’s audacious challenges to realism).

Anna Mouglalis as Juliette Greco

Sarah Forrestier displayed the ingénue qualities of singer France Gall and Doug Jones deserves special mention for his performance as La Guelle which he carried out with the same aplomb as he did for the creepy faun in Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and as one of the Gentleman monsters in ‘Hush’, the ‘silent’ episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the veteran new wave director Claude Chabrol puts in a brief comic shift as Gainsbourg’s music publisher for the scandalous recording, ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’, playing with relish a combination of anxiety about the inevitable backlash when the song hit the airwaves and delight at the prospect of loads of money flowing in.  (see clip below)

Even more theatrical and explosive is Laetitia Casta’s performance as Brigitte Bardot  as she strides onto the screen in slow-motion down a long hallway, in leopard-skin coat and thigh-length boots, a performance marked by an uninhibited sensuality as she captured BB’s mannerism’s and voice (which seems to me to be modeled on Bardot’s performance in the opening scene of Godard’s Le Mépris /Contempt). This was one of the most memorable and enjoyable portions of the film and the standout among several tremendous cameos, all the more laudable since Casta is s known as a ‘supermodel’ rather than an actor. Here’s the opening of this sequence.

One problem the film poses for non-French/non-francophone audiences is the lack of familiarity with some of the characters and incidents in the film. (Perhaps when the UK version of the DVD comes out they should insert hyperlinks to the many YouTube clips which are bound to compete with any biopic about a modern subject!) Brigitte Bardot is well know in the UK, even to younger audiences, but probably not the singer Juliette Greco, muse of the post-war Left Bank existentialist movement. Boris Vian, who influenced Gainsbourg’s early career, was a novelist, trumpet player and singer-songwriter, again part of the Sartre-Beauvoir circle, who wrote one of the most powerful anti-war songs, ‘Le Déserteur’.

The ‘Sucette’ scandal is alluded to in the film but probably wouldn’t make much sense to those who aren’t familiar with story of how Gainsbourg writes a song ‘Les Sucettes’ (lollipops) for 18-year-old France Gall (for whom he had written a song which won the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest – for Luxembourg, not France) which is ostensibly about a girl’s love for lollipops but actually about the joys of oral sex. The film hints that she was aware of what Gainsbourg was up to although Gall later stated that she felt betrayed. However, she said it was impossible to be angry at  Gainsbourg and continued to work with him.

Overall, I was impressed by the film’s ambition (especially from a first time director) and if such ambition sometimes goes hand in hand with a certain clumsiness – it can be a bit incoherent and fragmented in places – I would rather have this film than a dozen safer approaches. Without  completely losing steam, it feels far heavier toward the end, perhaps because Gainsbourg himself grew increasingly dissolute towards the end of his life. The strength of the film was in its mise en scène (including performance) rather than the screenplay.

But that’s a relatively minor complaint and the film has a wonderful scene near the end celebrating Gainsbourg’s heroic defiance of French right-wing anti-Semitism with his  reggae recording of the national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, a recording that caused an even bigger furore in France than ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’. He was accused in the right-wing press of provoking anti-semitism and there were calls for his French nationality to be revoked (despite the fact that he was born in France). In the film we see an angry ex-paratroopers demonstrating in Strasbourg. The Wailers, Bob Marley’s backing band, were due to be there but were told not to come for their own safety and we see Gainsbourg deciding to confront the demonstrators by declaring, clenched fist raised in the air, that it is a revolutionary song and inviting the audience to sing it with him in the original spirit, thereby discomfitting the rightists who didn’t know whether to boo or join in; after a moment’s hesitation they did the latter. (Incidentally, in the original French release, the scene ends with the young Lucien observing this scene and then going up on the stage  himself. This was omitted in the version I saw the other night and I can’t think why. An earlier omitted scene was of the young Lucien asking his mother for a toy revolver as he loves cowboy comics. This scene, although it doesn’t quite explain Gainsbourg’s obsession with hand-guns, does contextualise it. Since these cuts together last just over a minute they can’t be due to reducing running time and so it’s all the more annoying. I didn’t notice any other cuts).

Overall, Gainsbourg was a refreshingly ambitious take on the life of an artist, which I found poetic, elegant and touching. It must be in with a shout of Cesar Awards (probably too ‘French’ for the Oscars) in a whole number of categories.

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La famille Bélier (France-Belgium 2014)

Paula (Louane Emera) and her father (Francois Damiens). He is trying to 'feel' what she is singing .

Paula (Louane Emera) and her father (François Damiens). He is trying to ‘feel’ what she is singing .

A big hit in France and now distributed around the world, La famille Bélier is notable for two reasons. First it deals with music and singing. This is topical in two ways. As in many other countries, French TV has picked up on the popularity of talent shows with viewer participation. This is how Louane Emera, the lead actor in La famille Bélier, first came to the attention of French audiences. She reached the semi-final of the French version of The Voice in 2013, after being ‘saved’ by the audience, possibly because of her own tragic story of being orphaned a few months earlier. The television appearances helped her to get the role of Paula in the film and since then she has won an award at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and in 2015 has had a No 1 single.

In the film, Paula is a teenager who discovers she has a voice almost by accident and is forcibly encouraged to learn how to use it by her school’s music teacher who wants her to audition for a prestigious music school. The irony of the popularity of the film is that the songs that Paula learns are by Michel Sardou who was a giant of chanson in the 1990s but who is now thought old-fashioned. The film reminded audiences of the songs at a time when the French government is asking for more quotas on French radio to make sure the invasion of English language pop music is kept at bay. The chanson tradition puts great emphasis on the lyrics of songs and the main song in the film ‘Je vole’ (‘I fly’) was originally written about a teenage suicide but for the film the words were altered to refer to leaving home. The role of the music teacher is taken by Eric Elmosnino whose biggest success recently was as Serge Gainsbourg in Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in 2010. Gainsbourg was perhaps the most notorious and most celebrated composer and performer of popular music in France in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The other notable feature of La famille Bélier is that it is also a film about how discrimination affects hearing impaired people. It is quite a challenge to attempt to do this through the medium of comedy and perhaps predictably there has been a controversy about the casting of the film. Paula’s parents and her brother on the family farm in Normandy are all deaf mutes. Consequently she has to translate through sign language during all their encounters with officialdom, businesses and the general public. The film’s producers cast two well-known French actors without hearing impairments as the parents and a deaf actor as Paula’s brother. Campaigners for actors with hearing impairments have protested about this decision and such campaigns are not unusual across a range of films with characters in wheelchairs, characters of ‘small stature’ or other physical differences or with learning difficulties. The parents carry much of the comedy potential in the film (and this is even more noticeable through their signing actions compared to their son) and this perhaps aggravates the casting questions. Is the script the problem? Would the film be better without the comedy? If hearing impaired actors were cast would the film work in the same way? These are questions audiences might like to consider alongside an overall judgement as to what the film as it stands says about hearing impaired farmers in France.

Director Eric Lartigau does make one obvious attempt to draw the audience in to these questions when he cuts the sound of Paula’s singing voice at one point and effectively underlines the experience her parents have of her success as a singer. The other major element of the narrative is the political campaign – to become mayor of the local community – undertaken by Paula’s father. This does seem to lose in importance as a story towards the end of the film when Paula’s audition takes over. Lartigau’s two previous films, I Do (2006, a comedy with Charlotte Gainsbourg) and The Big Picture (2010, a thriller with Romain Duris) both got a UK release. Costing an estimated €11 million, La famille Bélier is a big budget film. A similar UK production might expect to work on less than half that amount. The budget difference is largely down to the higher fees paid to French film actors.

La famille Bélier was taken up for a UK release by the Canadian multinational group eOne – possibly through links to its French operation. However despite its popularity in France (where it was one of the major hits of Christmas 2014) the UK cinema release was only to a handful of cinemas and festival screenings. The DVD came out only a couple of weeks later. I was fortunate that our local community cinema was able to show the DVD to an appreciative audience only a few days after its release. We had a good discussion after the screening and various points came up. There was some concern about the casting of hearing actors in deaf roles, but also a suggestion that the comic exaggeration of signing as ‘performed’ by Karin Viard and François Damiens as the deaf parents was perhaps appropriate since as non-speakers it was otherwise difficult for them to express emotions. This seems a reasonable argument but the comedy in the film is often very broad and there is another signing character who is ‘laughed at’ partly because he has poor social skills. Many of the comic scenes depend on the potential embarrassment of parents who must have their teenage daughter translate for them with officialdom (e.g. questions about sexual health at the local surgery).

Part of the issue is connected, as one audience member pointed out, with the setting of the story in Normandy and therefore the conventions of rural comedy (e.g. comparisons with the sophistication of the Paris music school and characters from Paris ‘stuck’ in the sticks) and also the French tradition of stories about local politics and the importance of mayoral elections. These are mixed in with the ‘family comedy’. But there are at least two other generic repertoires in play. One is the youth picture involving teenage sex, school feuds etc. and the other is the ‘feelgood’ film built here around the nurturing of Paula’s talent and an inevitable dash to get to the conservatory audition.

In the end I watched this film three times, twice in community cinema settings. I enjoyed it each time, especially because of the singing and the performances, especially by Louane Emera. It is a manipulative feelgood film and I can understand the concerns of deaf actors but I think it could have attracted significant audience numbers given a proper cinema release (and some promotion). If that had happened, at least some people would have become more aware of issues within families with deaf members.

Finally, a few weeks after our screenings, one of the audience members gave me a copy of a German film called Beyond Silence which he said was very similar in its story. I’d heard suggestions that this German film existed but I’ve only just watched it and I’ll blog about it soon.

If you can find the DVD give La famille Bélier a chance. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

Un poison violent (Love Like Poison, France 2010)

Anna (Clara Augarde) enjoys spending time with her grandfather (Michel Galabru)

Anna (Clara Augarde) enjoys spending time with her grandfather (Michel Galabru)

Here is an example of auteurist cinema which justifies the French approach to nurturing young talent. After a series of short films over a period of six years Katell Quillévéré (then aged 30) directed this, her first feature, in 2010. Written with Mariette Désert, the film features a riveting performance by Clara Augarde as a 14 year-old girl at a crucial moment in her young life. Winning the Prix Jean Vigo after a Cannes screening for Un poison violent, Quillévéré and Désert went on to make Suzanne in 2013, this time achieving several César nominations. Successful careers have been established with the hurdle of the ‘second feature’ having been cleared to acclaim.

Both the films appear to have had UK releases which I missed and I’m grateful to BBC2 for a late night screening of Un poison violent which I recorded. An auteurist film in this context means a feature which receives funding support from a range of French public funding bodies. In this case a budget of €2.32 million was put together by the independent production company Les Films du Bélier with pre-sales and co-production investment from Arte France Cinéma, pre-sales from Canal + and Ciné Cinéma, and backing from the Brittany and Pays de la Loire regional funds (details from Cineuropa). Similar deals in the UK for first time writer-directors would probably mean a much smaller budget and the need to focus on a genre narrative of some sort. Un poison violent is arguably a ‘coming of age’ story but the approach is much more about character than narrative drive.

The film’s title derives from a Serge Gainsbourg song (from a soundtrack album Anna with Jean-Claude Brialy in 1967) and Katell Quillévéré chose to make the connection because:

“. . . . a Serge Gainsbourg song, [which] uses this expression to define love. In a more profound way, to me it refers to everything that makes us feel like we’re alive, including things that can make us suffer. It’s a contradictory impulse that guides our relation to the world. For Anna, the heroine, the “poison” is in relation to the freedom she is going to experience, which is inherently a form of solitude.” (See the interview on the Artificial Eye website for the UK DVD)

Anna with her mother in church.

Anna with her mother in church.

Anna starts her summer holidays, returning to a family house in Brittany from a Catholic boarding school where she has been sent because her parents are in the process of splitting up. Her mother is in the house alongside her father-in-law, Anna’s grandfather, and an older couple whose relationship to Anna is less clear. In this ‘bourgeois provincial family’ (the director’s description) Anna’s mother has turned to her beliefs and to a young local priest (an interesting performance by Italian actor Stefano Cassetti ‘cast against type’). Anna herself is due to be confirmed and the film narrative begins in the local church. I was surprised to be shown a packed church with some glorious choral singing – far too beautiful a sound for any church service I’ve ever witnessed! In fact music of all kinds (mainly folk music) plays a major role in the film alongside excellent camerawork (Tom Harari, another young filmmaker on one of his first feature film jobs) and use of landscape and mise en scène.

Anna with Fr François

Anna with Fr François (Stefano Cassetti)

The ‘poison of freedom’ quoted by Quillévéré manifests itself in Anna’s emotional reaction to her parents’ separation and the expectation of her commitment to Christ and the Catholic church. She struggles with how she feels and is drawn into two contrasting relationships – one is with her elderly grandfather, a wonderful old rogue played by the comic actor Michel Galabru and the other with a local boy Pierre. These are healthy relationships in which Anna is introduced to all kinds of pleasures which are probably not what the church might approve of for confirmation candidates. However, the use of music and camerawork/mise en scène suggests that Anna feels an erotic surge in church as much as with her two companions – she faints twice during formal services. The scenes with Grandpa and with Pierre work very well because of their sense of realism. Michel Galabru was in his late 80s when he took the role and Youen Leboulanger-Gourvil as Pierre is shorter than Anna – creating that familiar couple of young teenagers in which the girl is more fully developed. Katell Quillévéré again on how she cast the film:

“I wanted earthy people, not ‘models’. The religious theme called for bodies that personified their character powerfully, otherwise the film’s stance would seem redundant. I only chose actors having a body filled with life and sexual energy, for that is precisely what the Catholic religion tries to smother, and something that a camera will immediately capture.” (DVD interview)

Anna and Pierre kiss . . .

Anna and Pierre kiss . . .

Clara Augarde as Anna was also a non-professional actor at this point. She plays the role so wonderfully mixing a genuine sense of innocence with a maturity that suggests she knows what is happening in terms of her developing sexuality and desire that I confess to perhaps neglecting some of the other cast members in focusing entirely on what happens to her. Quillévéré argues that the film is also about the family and that sometimes Anna’s story must make way for an exploration of what is happening to her mother (played by the Portuguese actor Lio), the young priest and her grandfather (who faces his own death as he relishes Anna’s journey of self-discovery).

The director discusses her story in terms of other “pious young women” (the interviewer’s term) in French film and literature, stating that she loves the heroines of Georges Bataille. The interviewer suggests that this interest in religion and desire is unusual in ‘young French cinema’ (i.e. among younger filmmakers). I certainly can’t remember too many recent French films like Un poison violent and I found it a riveting watch. I’m surprised it didn’t make more of an impact in the UK or North America. 

UK trailer (with Radiohead’s ‘Creep’ – in a choral version):

Samba (France 2014)

Samba (Omar Sy) is interviewed by two migrant support workers, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) (centre) and (right) Manu (Izïa Higgling)

Samba (Omar Sy) is interviewed by two migrant support workers, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) (centre) and (right) Manu (Izïa Higgling)

Samba is the follow-up to the second biggest global hit in French film history, Intouchables (2011) – a film I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. Perhaps watching Samba will prompt me to do so. The same writing-directing duo (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) and the same star (Omar Sy) feature in this $20 million budget film. Omar Sy is the French TV star who became a surprise film star in Intouchables – as an African-French character given a lead role in an industry not noted for its representations of Africans in mainstream films. In Samba he plays a Senegalese migrant who has been in France for 10 years but who has still not achieved legal residency.

I missed this film during its (very brief) run in UK cinemas but I still wanted to see it even though I could see the flaws in Intouchables. I was worried by some of the negative reviews but in the event I did enjoy Samba – but I can understand some of the critical responses. Part of the problem is that the film mixes several distinct genres in a way that might certainly confound some audiences and which provides good ammunition for critics.

Samba is both a comedy and a drama. It also mixes a quite complex visual style – a pre-credits sequence aping Scorsese (in his Goodfellas period) – with both absurdist and slapstick comedy and some social realism. In genre terms it includes elements of the buddy movie mixed with the rom-com and social commentary. All in all it is a strange mixture but its good points shouldn’t get lost. It isn’t really very helpful to dismiss films because they try to do something different.

'Wilson' (Tahir Rahim) and Samba

‘Wilson’ (Tahir Rahim) and Samba

Headlining alongside Omar Sy are Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim. Gainsbourg provides the ‘romance-comedy-drama’ potential and Rahim enables the buddy movie. Gainsbourg’s character is a marketing executive who has ‘burned out’ and has decided to take a sabbatical as a support worker for a refugee/migrant charity. This is how she meets Samba (Sy) who has been imprisoned and given an order to leave France despite 10 years illegal residency and steady employment in kitchen work, albeit with a struggle to get from dish-washing to food preparation. Rahim’s character, another migrant with a similar history, eventually teams up with Samba in a series of casual jobs leading to various comic escapades. Although the narrative resolution suggests a ‘feelgood’ film, the ending is to some extent still ‘open’ and it is triggered by one of the important debates around identity and legal status. The resolution is only possible after a tragic event. The style of the film’s ending also echoes the ‘excess’ of the opening, using popular songs under a slow motion image sequence much as the whole narrative has used songs and ‘mood’ music throughout.

Samba and Alice

Samba and Alice

So what is wrong with the film? Ashley Clark, currently one of the UK’s most respected critics of African-American and Black British films, states what he sees as a fundamental flaw directly in his indieWire review:

Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)

It’s hard to argue with that view and Clark does recognise that the film is genuinely trying to widen its potential audience, but, he argues, the narrative needs more grit and more background about Samba and his family – mother is back in Senegal and Samba lives with a (legally resident) uncle. Clark argues that Sy ‘soars above’ the material. I agree but perhaps this is also part of the problem? Sy is such a charismatic performer that audiences may simply be entertained by his playing rather than led to think through the social problems that Samba faces. Something similar was also true in Intouchables.

Omar tries to 'disguise' his identity with suit and tie and briefcase to avoid random police checks.

Omar tries to ‘disguise’ his identity with suit and tie and briefcase to avoid random police checks.

The strength of the film is that it does reveal the dreadful state of immigration policy in France and the absurd bureaucracy that attempts to control it. I’m not sure it is better in the UK – represented in the superior Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. The other issue at stake here is the star turn by Omar Sy in a mainstream film. His scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg do fleetingly remind us of her notorious scenes with two (anonymous) African men in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part II (Denmark/Bel/Fra/Ger 2014). I mention this only to ask how much of a breakthrough it is for French mainstream cinema as distinct from art cinema to see a white woman with a black man on screen? Tahar Rahim’s presence in the film (which I very much enjoyed in spite of some reviewers’ misgivings) reminds us that Maghrebi French actors have not faced the same problems in French cinema (and international cinema) as West African French actors.

In Sight and Sound (May 2015), leading French cinema scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a critique similar to Ashley Clark’s. She makes a good point in pointing out that like Intouchables, Samba involves “the pairing of an under-privileged-but-vigorous black with privileged-but-etiolated white (Gainsbourg at her most annoyingly wan)”. I disagree about Gainsbourg but it’s an important observation. Too often film narratives that should be about the black character end up diverting our attention to the trials of the white characters. But Vincendeau also picks out two specific scenes as ‘unworthy’ of the actors or supporting her argument above. The first sees Sy and Rahim in a take-off of a well-known soft drinks ad and the second sees “white people attempt, not very well, to dance to black music (in this case Bob Marley)”. I think this is going too far. The first may be a ‘clunky ‘ visual joke (but still funny), but the second is something that has happened throughout the last 50 years in the UK. Is it really a clumsy and at times dubious representation of racial difference? Perhaps it’s different in France? We have to grant Samba some slack as a mainstream movie. Yes, it could be a lot ‘better’, but it isn’t that bad and overall it does something useful.

International trailer:

Yves Saint Laurent (France 2014)

Pierre Bergé  (Guillaume Gallienne) and Yves Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) in the dressing room for a fashion show.

Pierre Bergé (Guillaume Gallienne) and Yves Saint Laurent (Pierre Niney) in the dressing room for a fashion show.

It’s time in the UK for the annual rush of French films onto our screens but first there is Yves Saint Laurent which has been around for two or three months in various locations and appears in Bradford next week. I should confess from the outset that I’m not interested in fashion, brand names or celebrities so you might wonder why I went to see a film about a celebrity fashion designer back in March. There are two reasons. First I’m interested in biopics as a form and second, this was the only non-Hollywood film showing in the town I was in.

Yves Saint Laurent is a handsomely-mounted film presented in 2.35:1. I didn’t recognise any of the names of actors or creatives in the titles but I did note that the two lead actors were each given the prestigious appendage of ‘de la Comédie-Française’. Only later did I note that the names of the director (Jalil Lespert), composer and others in the crew suggested a North African link and the film does indeed begin in Algeria in 1958 when Yves is 21 (and already a young star of the fashion industry) and the War of Independence in Algeria is putting pressure on the French colonial families. With this starting point amidst a colonial war, the brilliance of the young Yves and his gay sexuality there is a mix of elements waiting to be exploited in a biopic. What follows does not unfortunately create the drama we might expect.

The triumph of the film is also perhaps its biggest weakness. The clothes are presented reverentially in sumptuous settings and anyone interested in fashion, costumes and set design will have a field day. Again, if you have knowledge of the fashion industry you will enjoy coming across well-known names and how they are involved in the workings of the industry. I do understand that ‘YSL’ is an important figure in the history of fashion. The problem is that with the narrative constructed around the next challenge to present a show more challenging/radical/daring etc. than the one before, the fashion events themselves become increasingly sterile presentations of clothes. Given the characters involved the possibilities for human drama are certainly there and the two lead actors (Pierre Niney as Yves and Guillaume Gallient as his partner Pierre Bergé) certainly could deliver the performances, but my feeling was that the writers were too reverential in their presentation of Yves Saint Laurent himself. As it is we get some familiar stories about the pressures on celebrities and the ways in which they respond. The more sensitive early references to Yves’ sexuality and vulnerability give way to more familiar scenes of degradation with booze and drugs. I began to lose interest and was then shocked to realise that the film just suddenly seemed to end with Yves in his 40s. Since he lived a further thirty years (at a time when his designer brand presumably grew in importance in the fashion industry) I felt like something was missing. I think perhaps I was looking for something similar to the biopic of Serge Gainsbourg.

The most surprising aspect of the film is perhaps its large budget (€12 million) and its popularity in France (box office of $13 million) and the rest of Europe (another $5 million). Clearly there is a big audience for this kind of ‘official’ and safe extravaganza (Saint Laurent’s friends and family seem to have supported the film). It also consolidates the niche genre of the ‘designer biopic’. Following two films focusing on periods of the life of Coco Chanel, we now have this and a second film (‘unofficial’ and scheduled for an October release in France) focusing on Yves Saint Laurent. Enjoy the frocks but don’t expect too much else.

Nymphomaniac Pt 1 (Denmark-France-Germany-Belgium-Sweden-UK 2013)

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer's character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer’s character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

I’m not sure why I wanted to see this film. I’d previously seen  only one Lars von Trier film (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), not wanting to see the others after reading about them. However, Nymphomaniac seems to have had some decent reviews and I thought I needed to see something else of the work of the provocateur extraordinaire since he clearly attracts audiences.

The ‘plot’ of Nymphomaniac explores the sexual life of Jo from her early teenage years to her late 40s. The narrative structure uses a long flashback so the film begins with the older Jo lying bruised and battered in an alleyway in a nondescript urban setting, where she is found by Seligman, an older man who has a small apartment close by. He takes her in and she begins to tell her story – how she became a nymphomaniac.

There is a strange lack of identity in the film. This European co-production is presented in English (the Press Pack is in American English – the character is written as ‘Joe’ which I would usually think of as a male name). This in itself is not unusual for an ‘international film’ but, though filmed mainly in Germany, various aspects of the dialogue suggest that this is supposed to be the UK. It’s not clear to me if von Trier is trying to present a kind of ‘everywhere’. It would make sense to do so as otherwise we might attempt to read something from the UK context. Perhaps the film is a Danish joke about British attitudes to sex?

It’s a big ask for a young actor to be on screen for so much of the film in her debut role, but Stacey Martin does very well as the young Jo. Many reviews have picked up on the brief but powerful cameo by Uma Thurman as an angry wife and mother. The rest of the cast are also good but I don’t think that the script helps them – or the flat lighting and drab mise en scène. I wasn’t really provoked or excited by what was shown except by the scenes of Jo with her father on his hospital bed which did seem to have some emotional content. The numerous explicit sex scenes are not erotic. OK perhaps there was the occasional flicker of eroticism, but I think it is safe to assume that von Trier’s intention is not necessarily to arouse. Much of it is tedious and especially the repeated dialogue exchanges in which Jo (in her older self played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) that she is a “bad human being” and he assures her that no such thing exists. I think we get the point Lars.

I think I’ll have to see Part 2 in order to say anything sensible about how I read the film. It’s slightly worrying that it might include more of the moralising banalities from Seligman  – and the chunks of erudition about fly fishing and other pursuits. On the other hand we will get more of the mature Jo played by Gainsbourg. Does Von Trier have something profound to tell us about nymphomania/sex addiction and/or the human spirit? Watch this space.

Look at Me (Comme une image, France-Italy 2004)

Ettiene (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and his daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)

I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.

Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.

‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.

Agnes Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

Agnès Jaoui on set (from the blog at http://jaouibacri.blogspot.co.uk/

I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.

Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!

Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):

Submarine (UK 2010)

Jordana and Oliver

Submarine is likely to split audiences but although I’ve heard people say that it has no likeable characters and isn’t funny, I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of very positive reviews on IMDB. I enjoyed it – though I found it more poignant than funny. I did snigger and chortle a few times but I think it is younger audiences who have found it hilarious.

Submarine is Oliver’s story – Oliver Tait, 15 year-old Welsh schoolboy, pre-occupied, pretentious, egocentric etc. He literally narrates his own story. This could be infuriating if you don’t like extensive voiceover narration (Nick doesn’t and he didn’t like the film) but it worked for me. Oliver (Craig Roberts) has two primary concerns (outside of his desire to become ‘cultured’). He wants to lose his virginity and finds himself in a relationship with a classmate, Jordana (Yasmin Paige). But in the midst of this emotional journey he also sets out to ‘solve’ the marital problems of his parents (played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins).

Authorship

The novel from which the film was adapted appeared in 2008, written by Joe Dunthorne and immediately acclaimed for its original take on adolescent life. I’ve not read it but a brief glance at some of the reviews suggests that both the tone and the characters in the novel (and its first person narration) have survived the adaptation process. Submarine was Dunthorne’s first published novel after graduating from UEA’s creative writing programme. The Joe Dunthorne website carries some interesting material – including the covers of the book from various translations (e.g. in Russian, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Brazilian). This augurs well for an international film release.

When Warp Films bought the film rights their selection of a director was clearly going to be crucial and Richard Ayoade was an inspired choice. He was known to them for his video direction (see below) but to the wider public he is a TV and stand-up comedian. He has now become internationalised so there must be many outside the UK who recognise Ayoade as a supremely talented comedian and comic actor. I only know him through his incarnation of ‘Moss’ in the IT Crowd, but a little research reveals the breadth of his creativity. I hadn’t been aware that he has directed videos for several leading bands, including the Arctic Monkeys – which presumably explains the raft of Alex Turner songs on the soundtrack for Submarine.

The film offers direct references to the ‘authorial influences’ on display – J. D. Salinger, Serge Gainsbourg, Woody Allen etc. Many reviewers have mentioned Wes Anderson and the similarity to Rushmore in particular is quite marked. However, I think Ayoade is going back to what influenced Anderson and Allen – the French New Wave. The film’s titles and the use of intertitles/chapter headings are directly lifted from Godard along with the literary and cinematic referencing. But in some ways, I think that the true auteurist link is to Truffaut – not least because of the first person narration and literary adaptation, the repeated shots of Oliver running across the shore à la Les quatre cents coups and the deadly seriousness of Oliver/Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s young alter ego in several films). The scene in which Oliver takes Jordana to a screening of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc (1928) after first plying her with Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Catcher in the Rye is a wonderful pastiche of Godard/Truffaut topped off with a joke. The direct reference is to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) in which Nana (Anna Karina) goes to a screening of the same film. Jordana, of course, has been given a version of the Louise Brooks/Anna Karina hairstyle to complete the allusion. So, Ayoade is just as clever as Oliver – but a lot more playful.

Anna Karina as a bored prostitute in Vivre sa vie

Setting and Representation

Dunthorne’s story was set in South Wales and Submarine was produced with funding from both The Wales Creative IP Fund and The Film Agency for Wales. The film was shot in a Swansea school and around Barry Island (location for UK TV comedy series Gavin and Stacey). I think this setting is important as it allows a range of locales from the funfair to industrial sites, rather comfortable suburbia to the windswept shore. The locale also becomes a little mysterious or at least ‘other worldly’ because the narrative is not set in a specific time period. ‘Sometime in the 1980s’ is one possibility but the usual indicators – cars, clothes, pop songs etc. aren’t used here to tell us the precise time period. Besides the two young leads the three adults featured are all made to look a little odd. Paddy Considine plays a pretty loopy character spouting psychobabble and wearing silly outfits with a strange haircut. The role reminded me strongly of the Patrick Swayze role in Donnie Darko (but not quite as dark). Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor) is clearly suffering from depression and his New Zealand accent adds to the strangeness of his overall appearance (I mean ‘strange’ only in the sense of  the whole tone of the film). Presumably this is also part of how Oliver views his parents. I felt sorry for Sally Hawkins who is asked to play Oliver’s mother. She often seems to get unsympathetic roles (so good to see her in a positive light in Made in Dagenham). Here she is dressed in awful outfits in attempts to age her enough to be credible as the mother of a 15 year-old.

In interviews during the opening week of the film’s release, Richard Ayoade maintained a fairly lugubrious stance, stating that Oliver wasn’t a particularly pleasant young man but that the film and its comedy were more interesting because of that. I think he’s right but it is a gamble with a popular audience. The film looks like finishing its run with around £1.3 million from its UK cinema release. That’s pretty good for a film of this type and I expect it to do equally well on DVD. The US release will be June 3 – no other territories yet to my knowledge.

Press Kit (from Toronto International Film Festival)

Here’s the UK trailer: