Search results for: nobody else but you

Nobody Else But You/Poupoupidou (France 2011)

I never quite understand why some French films (and foreign-language films in general) get a UK release and some don’t. OK, there’s something of a star system in operation (though not necessarily the same one that works for French audiences – where Danny Boon, relatively unknown in the UK, is currently the highest paid French actor). I suppose we’re looking at actors such as Audrey Tautou, Marillon Cotillard, Kristin Scott Thomas, Romain Duris, Cécile De France, as well as those of an older generation such as Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani and Danielle Auteuil – not to mention veterans such as Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu. In most French films I see, even when I can’t name the actors I usually recognise someone, even if its from the recent TV series exported successfully to the UK, Engreneges (Spiral) or the more mundane stuff to be found on TV5 . With Poupoupidou, the only actor I recognized was the one who played the small part of a teenage delinquent, Dylan (Finnegan Oldfield) who tries to blackmail the lawyer Clément over an alleged sexual assault in Season 3 of Engrenages/Spiral and plays an equally small part here. It’s a pity that some interesting French films don’t make it across the Channel or even onto DVD for lack of familiar actors, even with films nominated for or even winning the Césars (French equivalent of the Oscars).

All the more interesting then that I happened on Poupoupidou when I was aimlessly checking out the foreign films on offer from Netflix – and not even the UK version but the US one. The DVD cover shown on Netflix – based on a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe – clued me in and the English title, Nobody Else But You, wrapped it up. It was a reference to Marilyn Monroe’s song on Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. And indeed, the Monroe persona is at the centre of the film, a sort of MM reincarnation in rural France.

Marilyn Munroe, Playboy photograph 1953, and Poupoupidou DVD cover

Marilyn Monroe, Playboy photograph 1953, and Poupoupidou DVD cover

A few spoilers but not on the fundamental “whodunnit” question

David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is a ‘polar’ (crime) novelist who arrives at Mouthe, the coldest town in France, on the border between the Jura region and Switzerland, on family business. Before he leaves he stumbles on a mysterious death – a young woman has been found dead in the snow with sleeping pills by her side. The dead woman is Candice Lecoeur (Sophie Quinton), a small-town beauty and minor celebrity, mainly due to her sexy and quirky news weather forecasts for the local TV station and erotic advertisements for a local brand of cheese. Her death is ruled as suicide although Rousseau realizes that no real investigation has taken place – partly because the crime scene is (conveniently) in a no-mans-land between France and Switzerland – and he thinks that investigating this case may end his writer’s block. The more he investigates, the more he is sure that there is something fishy going on. Candice (real name Martine Langevin just as Marilyn Monroe’s was Norma-Jean Baker) was a Monroe-obsessive and her life has parallels that of Monroe which helps Rouseau to get to the bottom of the mystery as well as providing him with the raw material for his most successful novel.

Comment

It’s enjoyable seeing the similarities with Monroe take shape. She, like Monroe, is blond (peroxide), beautiful and good-natured but also desperately depressed. And Candice’s love affairs shadow Monroe’s. Her ex-husband Gus (Lyes Salem) is an Italian winter sports champion who is devoted to her and also beats her up from time to time (cf. Joe DiMaggio). Next there is the ‘intellectual’, Simon Denner (Eric Ruf), book reviewer or the local paper (cf. Arthur Miller). By this time we’re cued for the arrival of a JFK character but we actually get a JFB (B rhymes with K in French), Jean-Francois Burdeau (Ken Samuels), and of course he is also a president, but the regional president of the area. And of course she sings “Happy Birthday Mr President” but in an even more provocative way than Marilyn’s famous birthday wishes for John F Kennedy. And JFB’s little brother (whose initials are BOB) comes to warn her that the affair is over. And so on.

Now the problem I had with the film, at least at first, is that of tone. From the above it points to comedy or spoof with the string of coincidences making Candice’s story seem superficial rather than something substantial. And there is a lot of cinephilic fun to be had. From the start, sly little intertexts such as the brand of the cheese she advertises is ‘Belle de Jura’, cf. Belle de Jour, Bunuel’s provocative 1967 film, about a young bourgeois housewife who spends her midweek afternoons as a prostitute while her husband is at work. The lead role is played by another iconic blonde, Catherine Deneuve, and in one of the weather forecasts Candice is dressed up in a donkey skin, surely a reference to another Deneuve film, Peau d’Ane, directed by Jacques Demy in 1967.

Candice as Deneuve in Peau d'Anne; Deneuve in Peau d'Ane

Candice as Deneuve in Peau d’Anne; Deneuve in Peau d’Ane

The Coen Brothers’ Fargo is another intertextual allusion, dealing with, as it does, with ear-flapped cops investigating a murder in a snowy terrain in a whimsical mood. And when Rousset goes home having written his most successful best seller, he has changed his pen name to Magnus Hørn, no doubt a reference to recently-successful ‘scandi-noir’ writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell.

Right at the start of the film there is another clear intertextual allusion, to David Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-91), particularly the similarity between Candice lying dead in the snow and the murdered Laura Palmer.

Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks); Candice (Poupoupidou)

Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks); Candice (Poupoupidou)

Now Twin-Peaks was one of the earliest examples of postmodern television, heavily laden with such ‘spot-the-reference’ diversion. However, I eventually tired of this and gave up on the show, as did many others, as a third season wasn’t commissioned. I no longer cared about who killed Laura Palmer. One of the problems of this relentless quoting and the barrier that it can put between audience and story is the failure to engage emotionally with the audience.

But, paradoxically, in Poupoupidou I actually found myself becoming more and more involved in the story and the characters and eventually found it quite poignant, just like the tragedy of the real Marilyn. There’s a melancholy in the deep structure of this film that helps anchor its sometimes-manic ingenuity.

Candice narrates her own story, as written in the diaries Rousset discovers as he frequently camps in her flat. The most recent (and ultimately incriminating) volume has gone missing. She seems to have continued writing the diary after her death, Sunset Boulevard style. Again I found this a little uncomfortable at first but eventually accepted as a valid way of telling the story.

Part of the attraction of the film for me were the performance of Rouve as a mopey sad sack of a character with a downbeat demeanor and sardonic sense of humour. Rousset is an archetypal character, the outsider who stirs up trouble and causes resentment from some of the locals. (And the ‘writer’s block’ plot device shows that the old ones are sometimes the best). Quinton’s small-town reincarnation of Marilyn lets us glimpse the parochial banality behind sex-kitten exterior and allows the film to considerthe advantages and disadvantages of fame.

And their relationship (even allowing for the fact that she is dead by the time he comes across her) is fascinating. He falls in love with her based on her diaries; dreams that she comes to his hotel room; and he is enchanted to discover it is in a sense ‘reciprocated’ – as he is leaving Mouthe receives a fan letter she sent before her death. (Or is this another intertextual allusion? To Otto Preminger’s Laura in which a character finds himself falling in love with a dead woman?)

And it looks pretty good, director Gerald Hustache-Mathieu and his cinematographer Pierre Cottreaux making best use of the stunning snow-filled location.

Here’s the trailer.

Shoplifters (Manbiki kazoku, Japan 2018)

Lily Franky as Shibata Osamu and Kairi Jyo as his young accomplice Shota

I watched Shoplifters on the day it opened in the UK over three weeks ago but was too busy to write about it. I worried that opportunities to see it might be limited but miracles do happen and it seems to be still going strong. I’ve been surprised to see mention of watching the film not just in film reviews but also in more general newspaper columns. It seems to have caught and held the attention of commentators who are not cinephiles and has become one of the few foreign language hits of the year. Obviously, I’m very pleased that one of global cinema’s most effective and affective directors is getting recognition – but it also begs the question of why many of his earlier films failed to make the breakthrough in the same way. Is it really down to winning the top Cannes prize? Is it the promotional clout of the still relatively new Canadian distributor Thunderbird Releasing (taking over Soda Pictures) or are there other reasons?

Kore-eda Hirokazu finally won the Palme d’Or with Shoplifters and in some ways it offers a summation of the group of his films that deals specifically with ‘families’ and young children. Starting with Nobody Knows (2004), the group would also include 2011’s I Wish and Like Father, Like Son (2013) and perhaps more marginally After the Storm (2016) and even Our Little Sister (2015). In his Sight and Sound review Trevor Johnson begins like this:

It’s a critical truism that Kore-eda Hirokazu’s domestic dramas have made him the modern heir to the likes of Ozu and Naruse. Those Japanese old masters, however, never cut and diced the nuclear family in the way Kore-eda has done so assiduously in the course of his expanding and increasingly valuable filmography.

Johnson’s review is a well-argued attempt to place the film in relation to Kore-eda’s previous work and also offers a sympathetic reading which doesn’t spoil too much of the story. And this is a film that works very effectively when the audience knows as little as possible in advance. I’m not going to spoil the pleasures of the storytelling but I will recommend the film if you’ve managed to avoid the commentaries so far. Instead I want to expand some of Johnson’s points and add my own questions about audience readings. Johnson points to the two Japanese directors who became celebrated for their contemporary-set films, defined in Japan as gendai-geki and particularly forms of melodrama, including what Western scholars have dubbed the shomin-geki – ‘realist films’ about the working-classes. The preferred Japanese term is actually shōshimin-eiga referring to ‘lower middle-class’ people and this distinction is important. Ozu Yasujiro and Naruse Mikio worked at more or less the same time over a period of 30 years from the 1930s to the 1960s, Ozu at Shochiku and Naruse at Toho (two of the three major Japanese studios between 1930 and the 1960s). They therefore worked through the very different periods in Japan of the growing militarism of the 1930s, the severe economic hardships of the Allied Occupation post-war and the recovery and growing affluence of the 1950s/early 1960s. They dealt (differently) with all kinds of family situations but perhaps mainly the lower middle-class. In the late 1940s in particular they did tend to deal with families that had suffered break-up in different ways. Ozu’s The Record of a Tenement Gentleman (1947) and A Hen in the Wind (1948) both feature families ‘broken’ or ‘constructed’ in different ways. Naruse’s films perhaps veer more towards adult relationships rather than families with children.

The family together

Kore-eda is working in a different Japanese context – in a society that has now lived with twenty years or more of ‘stagflation’ – economic stasis – but slow changes in family structures with rising divorce rates and an ageing population profile. This is evident in many of the families depicted in his films. Most of them are perhaps lower middle-class, though in Like Father, Like Son we get a narrative directly about two families from different social class positions. Some of these films seem more ‘Ozu-like’ and some more ‘Naruse-like’. But Shoplifters seems most like Nobody Knows in terms of its social setting. In this earlier film Kore-eda presents a story, based on a news report, about a woman who has four children with different fathers and who constantly moves accommodation. At the start of the film she moves her ‘family’ again and then abandons them, having placed the two older children in charge. This is the film that Shoplifters seem to refer back to, though I think the new film is not as immediately harrowing. It was only recently that I began to note Kore-eda’s comments about his interest in the films of Ken Loach and it looks as if Shoplifters is deliberately Loachian rather than related to Ozu or Naruse. Kore-eda says that this is his most ‘socially conscious’ film and that he felt angry making it. As is often the case, he starts from his own thoughts and feelings, often triggered by news stories.

The first thing that came to my mind was the tagline: “Only the crimes tied us together”. In Japan, crimes like pension frauds and parents making their children shoplift are criticised severely. Of course, these criminals should be criticised but I am wondering why people get so angry over such minor infractions even though there are many lawbreakers out there committing far more serious crimes without condemnation. Especially after the 2011 earthquakes, I didn’t feel comfortable with people saying repeatedly that a family bond is important. So I wanted to explore it by depicting a family linked by crime.

 . . . I started to think about which elements were unfolded and would be examined deeply after the casting was settled. As a result, this film is packed with the various elements I have been thinking about and exploring these last 10 years. (See the Press Notes.)

As this quote suggests, Kore-eda introduces us to different members of a family who live in a decaying traditional house in a Tokyo suburb. We are told nothing and must watch and listen carefully to understand how the family survives. Some of the activities involve jobs that are on the surface conventional, others less so and some are clearly criminal as the father figure played by Kore-eda regular Lily Franky and the boy in the family expertly shoplift from stores that seem remarkably insecure. Other activities are less straightforward to fathom at first. The family also ‘adopts’ the little girl that they find and who appears to have been abandoned on a cold night. Inside the ramshackle home there appears to be warmth and a real feeling of working together for the benefit of all in the family group.

Kiki Kilin is the grandmother figure here with Matsuoka Mayu as Aki

Shoplifters is beautifully made with fabulous performances by the great Kiki Kilin in her last film (she died earlier this year) and Lily Franky as Kore-eda regulars and by the rest of the principal cast, Ando Sakura as the mother figure, Matsuoka Mayu as the younger woman and Kairi Jyo and Sasaki Miyu as the children. As for the aesthetics of the film, Kore-eda again in the Press Notes:

Before the shoot, I was thinking of this film was kind of a fable and sought ways to find and build poetry within reality. Even if the film was realistic, I wanted to describe the poetry of human beings and both the cinematography and music came close to my vision.

Kore-eda chose the veteran musician Hosono Haroumi (one of the three founding members of Yellow Magic Orchestra in 1978) to compose the score and Kondô Ryûto as cinematographer. They clearly provided what he wanted. I loved the film and I can’t find fault with any aspect of it, but I do feel out of line with many of the reviews. The only thing I’d consciously absorbed about reactions to the film was that the final scenes presented a ‘twist’ on the narrative and that many audiences were emotionally overwhelmed by what they saw. Perhaps because I was waiting for the twist, I didn’t feel that it was really a twist at all – I’d been asking myself all along why social services hadn’t turned up or why nobody else in the neighbourhood had noticed the activities of the family. When the resolution came I found it sad and a little surprising in terms of what happened to the individuals in the family group, but not something overly dramatic. In an odd way, I found the situation vaguely familiar since similar settings and characters might be found in the J-horror films of the late 1900s and early 2000s (I’m particularly thinking of Ju-on (The Grudge 2002)). The one moment that struck me most was when the elderly shopkeeper, whose store was often the target for some petty pilfering, admonished Shota and pleaded with him not to teach his young companion the shoplifting tricks. Later, we see that the shop has closed.

Ando Sakura as Nobuyo with Yuri and Lily Franky as Osamu

But I’ve not answered my original question. Why has this film made more impact than earlier Kore-eda films, equally good in my estimation? Is it because this kind of almost social-realist melodrama is more familiar in the UK than some of the more subtle familial tensions in a film like Still Walking (2008)? Is the film read in some way as more ‘universal’ and less ‘Japanese’? The comparison then comes with Like Father, Like Son which is still apparently ‘meandering’ towards an American re-make (see this Slant Magazine interview for Kore-eda’s comments on this). Kore-eda tells us that many people around the world have told him that similar stories about these ‘invisible people’ could be found in many different countries. Perhaps because American films are so popular in Japan, Shoplifters and Like Father, Like Son, with their ‘universal’ and therefore ‘Hollywood relatable’ stories, have been Kore-eda’s biggest box office hits at home.

Kore-eda Hirokazu is a tremendously good filmmaker. I’m glad Shoplifters is so successful, but please dig out his back catalogue, much of which is available on DVD or digital download in the UK and US.

Kaala (India, Tamil 2018)

One of many posters for KAALA – Rajnikanth sits symbolically in the centre of Dharavi, on his Mahindra Jeep wearing shades, black shirt, lunghi and sandals

Superstar Rajnikanth is unique in global cinema. Nobody else bestrides popular cinema in quite the same way. In 2016 he teamed up with a young and controversial Tamil director, Pa. Rajinth. The result was Kabali (India, Tamil 2016). As usual, that film tended to divide audiences with the suggestion that it might not have appealed to Tamil Cinema’s masses who worship Rajnikanth as the ultimate hero. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but I can see what might be the problem. Rajinth, according to Wikipedia, was influenced as a student by films like Battle of Algiers (Algeria-Italy 1966) and City of God (Brazil 2002) and his second feature, Madras (India, Tamil 2014), was a political drama based in North Chennai. Clearly, in Kabali, the politics were not foregrounded enough – and Rajnikanth played too complex a character for his fans. Kaala doesn’t suffer in the same way on either count.

Kaala – ‘man of the people’ and children

Kaala takes on a host of political issues in contemporary India and I’m surprised that it has only, so far, been banned in one major market in Karnataka. It’s worth noting here that Rajnikanth has decided to do what his famous predecessors have done and move into politics. The attempted ban in Karnataka followed a statement Rajnikanth made about the decades long dispute about water from the Kaveri River which runs from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu (and Kerala). Or perhaps my surprise as an outsider perspective is not shared by many Indians? ‘Kaala’ or ‘black’ is the nickname of the Rajnikanth character. He is the leader of the Tamil clan in Dharavi, the biggest (and most famous) slum in Mumbai. These are Tamils from Tirunelveli District in Southern Tamil Nadu who migrated to Mumbai. In reality, the Tamils have been an important part of Dharavi since the 1920s and Tamil films have been set in the community before, notably Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Bombay (1995).

Kaala organises celebrations and dances for his wife, Selvi

Kaala saw his father killed in Bombay and has fought to become the most powerful figure in Dharavi. As well as his close ties to his own Tamil community he has secured support from the whole area which includes migrants from different states. The local population is highly diverse with many dalits and a significant Muslim population, proportionately much bigger than in Maharashtra as a whole or the rest of India. Kaala was once a ‘rowdy’ but is now respected by all. At the start of the narrative his status is threatened by ‘Mumbai Pure’, a fascist-like organisation described as a ‘Nationalist’ political party (and waving orange flags like the BJP) which intends to take control of the slum, ‘clean it up’ (so it is ‘white and pure’) and redevelop the land. The film’s script draws on a long history of attempts to do this. Dharavi is now in the centre of Mumbai – highly desirable land that would command a high price for upper middle-class accommodation for those who currently face a long commute into the city.

‘Mumbai Pure’ leader Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar) in his ‘white house’)

The plot sees a personal confrontation between Kaala and Haridev Abhayankar (Nana Patekar), the Mumbai Pure leader, who has local politicians and police in his pocket. The ‘personal’ dimension refers to events long ago between the two men’s families. It is further complicated by a split in Kaala’s own family with his youngest son ‘Lenin’ opting for a different approach to improving the lot of Dharavi’s slum dwellers. When a local stooge for Mumbai Pure tries to demolish a washing area with police connivance, Lenin and his partner are there leading a peaceful protest. But it requires Kaala and his supporters to stop the police and the bulldozers. Lenin then brings in a specialist NGO worker who turns out to be an old flame of Kaala. She is Zareena (Huma Qureshi) and she presents another potential problem, this time between Kalaa and his wife Selvi (Easwari Rao). Lenin and Zareena attempt to find a ‘third way’ between Kaala and Mumbai Pure which will lead to development that helps the residents of Dharavi. But who knows best?

Rajnikanth and Easwari Rao

I enjoyed Kaala very much. Kabali had intrigued me because of its Malaysian setting. Kaala is, I think, a better ‘fit’ between Rajinth’s ambitions for a political film and Rajnikanth’s traditional role as hero for the masses. Reading some of the South Indian press reviews, I can see that there is a general feeling that the Rajinth-Rajnikanth pairing has this time got the balance right and in interesting ways. Rajnikanth is no longer the Superstar winning all the battles on his own. Instead he is ‘human’ – we first see him trying to cheat when he plays cricket with his grandchildren. His status is assured because he has helped his family members and others in the community to learn to fight for themselves – and he is prepared for them to argue with him, even if he still believes he has the right ideas. The community will triumph because his earlier actions have been revolutionary. At one point we even get the slogan ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’.

Zareena (Huma Qereshi) is celebrated for her work in Africa

I was also pleased to see three strong and differentiated roles for women in this action film. Huma Qureshi is perhaps under-used but Zareena is an interesting character as an educated woman with international experience and status gained through her work. Easwari Rao as Selvi is particularly good and has made a strong impression on audiences as an ‘older woman’ who can be involved in a romance. Rajnikanth the star actor rather than ‘Superstar’ spends much of his time arguing with his wife – and expressing how much he loves her. Anjali Patil as Lenin’s partner Puyal Charumathi is also excellent. It was only later that I realised Anjali Patil was one of the leads in Newton (India 2017) and one of the other leads from that film, Pankaj Tripathi plays an easily corrupted police inspector in Kaala.

There are many details in the dialogue, some of them seemingly playful ‘in jokes’ that collectively represent a certain kind of political text. Subtitles aren’t always the best way into the script but I noted a reference to Ilaiyaraaja, the legendary composer of Tamil film scores, including key Rajnikanth films. This links Rajnikanth to Tamil culture and its people (Rajnikanth was actually born in Karnataka). At another point someone jokingly refers to Kaala as being like ‘M.G.R’ – M. G. Ramachandran, the Tamil cinema superstar who became a leading politician and Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu from 1977 to 1987. This is in keeping with the film’s overall message – Kaala is a leader who will fight for the poor and the downtrodden. He makes the point forcefully that for the rich land is power (and money), but for the poor it is life. The central narrative is one that is crucial for all Indians. ‘Mumbai Pure’ is supposedly committed to helping the slum-dwellers, but in reality it will deliver wealth to the few. This is neatly symbolised when Abhayankar visits Kaala’s ‘castle’ and insults Selvi by refusing a glass of water. This is taken to be a refusal to drink from a vessel that might have been used by a lower caste person. Kaala is outraged and escalates the conflict but later he too will be humiliated when arrested. 

Kaala is a long film (160 minutes) and there is a lot going on. I’ll just discuss a couple of further points. First, the plot is structured so that we get various action scenes and two sustained sequences, one leading up to the Intermission and a second which is longer and climactic (so the structural conventions of the masala film are still in place). In the first, Kaala finds himself trapped alone in his jeep on a flyover during a torrential downpour and armed only with his umbrella – quite enough for him to despatch several goons who approach him. This bravura sequence (which reminded me of Tony Leung as Ip Man in Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (China 2013)) plays out to one of the several music tracks from Santhosh Narayanan. I’d like to show you the sequence but the best I can do is the soundtrack clip above which includes some still images of Rajnikanth in action in the rain. The film’s music is rock and rap-orientated. I was quite surprised by the rapping and by the Union Jacks on display. I’m completely out of touch with that music in the US/UK so I’m ‘twice removed’ in terms of Mumbai culture. Reviews suggest the score has been well-received.

In this image from the film’s climax, Kaala as Ravanaan is ‘black’ not just through his clothing but from the smoke and ashes of his home, burned to the ground by the white Rama

The second half of the film becomes an extended symbolic play on the traditional battle between Rama and Ravanaan. ‘Kaala’ is black as Ravanaan, ‘The Demon King’, and Abhayankar is white for ‘Pure Mumbai’, but the moral positions are reversed – white is bad and black is good. The final battle is indeed epic. The Dharavi slum seems to have been recreated in a Chennai studio and cinematographer G. Murali Vardhan who also photographed the previous two films by Pa. Rajinth has used overhead shots (drones? helicopter shots?) to suggest the exploding world of Darhavi within the wider Mumbai landscape.

Rajnikanth deserves his superstar status. He is a fine actor and easily carries the film. I wonder how long he can continue at this level. Will the urge to go into politics divert him? Who knows, but we should support his films in the meantime. Pa. Rajinth is a director to watch. making a blockbuster film which organically incorporates fundamental political ideas is no mean feat. This will be in my list of the films of the year. One sobering thought about global film culture though – I was the only person in the audience in Bradford Cineworld (admittedly for a Sunday tea-time showing). The South Indian family behind me in the ticket queue were booking for Jurassic World.

Rossellini #5: Reading Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954)

voyagetoitalyFB

This classic film by Roberto Rossellini was re-released in the UK on a new DCP in May. A more helpful English translation of the title than the usual ‘Voyage to Italy’ is ‘Travel in Italy’ or ‘Journey Through Italy’ as it covers the time spent by an English couple on a trip to the Naples region trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the impact of Italian culture. As in many of the Italian films of this period, there have been several versions of this film. In the version for the UK, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as the couple speak English. Italian characters speak Italian amongst themselves and some characters speak both languages.

One of the major issues in appraising the film in 2013 is the need to deal with its reception in the mid 1950s (it opened in Italy in 1954 and was seen in other countries over the next couple of years). In America the film flopped badly, but it is difficult to know how much this was associated with the scandal of the Bergman-Rossellini relationship, which was one of the biggest tabloid stories of its time. (Bergman and Rossellini had a child before Bergman’s divorce and her subsequent marriage to Rossellini.) The other problem in the US might have been cuts that robbed the film of some of its important scenes. By contrast, the film was highly praised by critics in France where the Cahiers du cinéma writers hailed it as the first ‘modern’ film. The enthusiasm of Godard, Truffaut et al was typically excessive and a more common reaction by popular audiences then (and to a certain extent ever since) was one of boredom because ‘nothing happens’.

It seems clear now that the Cahiers critics did have a point – and given the more favourable reception of similar films a few years later, Rossellini was once again ‘ahead of the curve’. The film is defiantly ‘unconventional’. José Luis Gaurner in his 1970 Studio Vista book on Rossellini puts the argument very well:

 . . . its subject [is] the breakup of a marriage, but it is not a tragedy. It is about reconciliation, but it is not a comedy. It revolves around Italy, but it is not a documentary . . . As a film about reality and time, it comes into the sphere of the essay. (Guarner 1970: 58)

This concept of an ‘essay’ refers us to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular – light on narrative pleasures but rich in ideas and explorations of culture and politics. This is the form of filmic ‘modernism’ that also leads towards Antonioni and others in the late 1950s and 1960s and which is still part of contemporary cinema (a film like Nuri Bilge Cyan’s Climates (2006) perhaps, or the films of Joanna Hogg such as Unrelated (2008) or Archipelago (2010)).

Rossellini is interested in the marriage between two people who are not Italian and how their relationship is affected by their exposure to Italian culture. This in itself suggests the urge to explore ‘reality’ rather than the familiar conventions of entertainment cinema. Although many couples have wonderful holidays abroad, sharing the delights of exposure to other cultures, holidays are also potentially difficult to negotiate. How do we know how different people (ourselves and our partners) will react to new situations? The usual tensions in a relationship are exposed in new situations. A Hollywood take on an Italian holiday is likely to develop as a romance or a thriller, but Rossellini is not interested in these kinds of narratives.

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

Casting, scripting and direction

Ingrid Bergman was by 1953 very familiar with her husband’s approach since she had already experienced two difficult and challenging roles in Stromboli and Europa ’51. On the other hand, Rossellini’s use of his wife/star had become almost obsessive (she wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else) and there had been aspects of the scripts of the earlier films which might in some ways have related to the Bergman-Rossellini marriage. As Katherine, Bergman was already under a certain pressure.

Rossellini cast George Sanders – one of several English actors working mainly on Hollywood productions – as Alex. Sanders had no idea of what to expect and he found Rossellini’s approach bewildering and frustrating. In interviews years later Rossellini claims that Sanders hated the way he was forced to work – and of course his discomfort is evident in his performance, which produces exactly what Rossellini wants.

Rossellini maintains that he had a very clear idea of the film he was going to make, but he refused to write it down as a script to give to his two stars. Instead he would supply the dialogue for the day’s shooting but would often change aspects of the shoot dependent on the ‘reality’ of the situation he found in the location. In one much discussed scene Rossellini was tipped off that a ‘discovery’ was about to be unveiled in the archaeological work in Pompeii. He re-organised that day’s shooting and Bergman and Saunders were required to respond to the events as they unfolded. How much of this was contrived (and embellished in later interviews) is open to conjecture but it is certainly true that the film includes several scenes in which Bergman and sometimes Sanders are confronted with aspects of Italian antiquity as well as the Catholic rituals of Neapolitan life, sometimes with quite disturbing results.

In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Rossellini also used the language differences between Bergman/Sanders and the local people who act as servants in the large house where the couple are staying (selling the house which is a bequest by ‘Uncle Homer’ is the ostensible purpose of the visit to Italy). Far from ‘nothing happening’, the narrative is a tightly-wound structure in which the tension comes from the couple’s relationship with each other and the unsettling effects of the environment on each of them separately and together. Rossellini and his cinematographer Enzo Serafin manage to frame the central characters such that the mise en scène is both ‘realist’ and ‘expressionist’, especially in the several scenes where Katherine visits the classical sites of the region and its museums. (See the poster at the top of this piece in which Katherine is shown to be shocked by the eroticism of some of the statuary.)

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

SPOILER

Reading the closing sequence

The whole film up until the last sequence appears to be about the disintegration of a marriage. In fact some of the English titles used by distributors makes this explicit. Yet from the comments above it should be clear that the characters are actually learning something about themselves and each other because of the impact of the ‘otherness’ of Italy. The last two sequences involve the visit to Pompeii when Katherine is overwhelmed by the discovery of the figures of a man and woman miraculously ‘discovered’ in the lava and then finally the car journey which ends with the couple trapped in the crowds for a religious procession.

In Sight and Sound July 2013, Brad Stevens offers a reading of the ending of the film which places it in the small town of Maiori on the Amalfi coast some distance from Naples. Maiori has been the setting for several Rossellini sequences and holds a film festival with a Rossellini prize according to its Wikipedia entry. However, the implication is that the couple are driving through the outskirts of Naples and this is how André Bazin analyses the closing sequence. This isn’t a documentary, so Rossellini simply chooses a suitable location and what is important is that Alex and Katherine find themselves trapped in the crowds in a street where a religious procession is taking place. They are forced to stop their car and get out and in the mêlée that surrounds them as believers rush towards the effigy of a saint carried in the procession, Katherine is separated from Alex. When he realises what has happened, Alex struggles to find her and when they are re-united something miraculous does indeed happen.

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

Throughout the closing scenes Katherine has become more emotional while Alex appears to be repressing his emotions – though he says that he has been ‘moved’ by the discovery of the figures at Pompeii. In the previous sequence when Katherine visits Naples with the wife of the agent who is looking after the house, she keeps noticing the number of pregnant women on the streets and the number of women pushing prams. It’s as if there is an explosion of fertility. Later when she and Alex discuss divorce, she wonders if it would have helped if they had children. This seems like an obvious set of narrative connections but Rossellini presents them in a convincingly seamless way – we have to work to make the connections and reflect upon them. The procession which eventually ensnares the couple is, according to Bazin in an essay entitled ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (1955), one of the annual events associated with Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples. The local people clearly believe in the restorative powers of the saint and we see a man gesticulating as if he is pleading for/celebrating relief from poor eyesight. Bazin suggests that what we have seen throughout the film is a subjective view of the local environment by Katherine:

“It is Naples ‘filtered’ through the consciousness of the heroine. If the landscape is bare and confined, it is because the consciousness of an ordinary bourgeoisie itself suffers from great spiritual poverty. Nevertheless, the Naples of the film is not false (which it could easily be with the Naples of a documentary three hours long). It is rather a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness. We realise now that the attitude which Rossellini takes towards his characters and their geographical and social setting is, at one remove, the attitude of his heroine towards Naples – the difference being that his awareness is that of a highly cultured artist and, in my opinion, an artist of rare spiritual vitality.” (Bazin 1971: 98-9)

In the final scene Katherine can ‘see’ another future – and Alex is finally moved to see with Katherine. Whether this will help to save the marriage is another question – which Rossellini leaves open. His panning camera eventually turns away from the couple and the film finally ends suddenly with one of the bandsmen in the background looking offscreen. It is this framing that Brad Stevens discusses in Sight & Sound. Stevens make the excellent point that this ending with its last glimpse of the bandsman, emphasises for the audience that Katherine and Alex are just another couple amidst the throng of people. Just as Katherine and Alex leave the protective shied/cage of their car, we leave the protected viewing position in which the two characters are privileged and rejoin the ‘real world’. I’ve watched the ending a few times to check these ideas and although I take Stevens’ point, two other observations interest me. One is the camera movements that are both ‘required’ in order to represent the narrative space and also ‘expressionist/symbolic’ in underlining the distance from the events felt by the audience. Rossellini has a camera placed higher up in order to see the procession in the distance. This position also allows us to look down on Katherine and Alex and to see how they are surrounded by people. This isn’t camerawork that we would associate with realist modes (since there is nobody in the scene who could have this perspective) and it would require going back over Rossellini’s earlier films to evaluate if it is a consistent aspect of his style. The second observation emphasises the understanding that Rossellini has taken his actors and crew into a ‘real’ street procession. Just behind Alex and Katherine when they get out of the car are two characters dressed in white suits/coats with white headdresses that might be turbans or something similar. The two men appear to be Indian or African and one is holding a paper cup which might contain crushed ice. I wonder if they are selling ice cream or a cold drink like sugarcane juice? Were traders like this common on the Amalfi coast in the 1950s? Any help on this is appreciated. What the presence of these two does do is to reinforce that sense of a story taking place in a ‘real’ Italy.

If you can find this in a cinema, please go and see it. If you can’t make the big screen, a DVD/Blu-ray package is available from the BFI. Here is a link to Moviemail’s offer.

References

Bazin, Andre (1971) ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (originally published in Cinema Nouvo, August 1955) What is Cinema?, Vol II, Berkeley: University of California Press

Gaurner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

BFI link to Geoff Andrew on Viaggio in Italia and the Neo-realism Season in London.

Rossellini #4: Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960)

Another gem from Rossellini, this film (which operates under various titles) is not quite what I expected given the general critical writing on Rossellini. On the other hand, if I’d never read any Rossellini profiles I would have recognised aspects of the film from European cinema generally around 1960.

The common view is that after his break-up with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini moved away from cinema proclaiming it was dead and turned first towards documentary and eventually towards historical narratives for television. In between he made a few films to make some money but these were of lesser value. I already knew this wasn’t true since many years ago I was lucky to see Viva L’Italia (1961) his Garibaldi film at the NFT in London. I think that was when I first read about his revolutionary new zoom lens device known as the Pancinor. This device enabled the operator to move freely with a subject, maintaining focus and obviating the need to cut – Rossellini devised the technology to allow him to extend the effectiveness of his long take style.

According to José Luis Guarnier (Roberto Rossellini, Studio Vista, 1971) Rossellini used the device for the first time on Era notte a Roma. I confess that I didn’t notice this watching the film – but I did think that the film was very well composed and shot and that is probably the best endorsement.

Era notte a Roma translates via Google as ‘It was night in Rome’ or perhaps ‘To Rome at night’ and actually that title makes sense – more sense than some of the official English titles. The setting is Italy in the latter part of 1943. The Nazis have taken control of Rome, Italians are moving over towards the partisans and the Allies have landed in Sicily. Three soldiers have escaped or been released from an Italian prisoner of war camp in the North of Italy and have made their way South. They are holed up in a village and the villagers arrange a bargain with a group of nuns who are looking for wine and food to take back to Rome. The nuns will take the POWs and in exchange will get ham and wine. But the nuns are actually black marketeers led by a beautiful young woman played by Giovanna Ralli. She wants rid of the POWs as well but she has a kind heart and one of the men, an American airman (played by Peter Baldwin), has an old wound that has re-opened. She ends up letting the men stay in the spacious attic above her apartment. The other two men are a British officer (Leo Genn) and a Russian sergeant (the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a talented actor and director).

The men end up staying for several weeks, culminating in a Christmas dinner. Nobody is fluent in more than one language so communication is difficult, but in the famous Christmas  dinner sequence the Russian makes a moving speech in which the meaning is clear from his intonation and facial expressions. Giovanna is also part of the partisan network and the men meet her boyfriend and others in the movement. Inevitably it becomes impossible to keep the men’s presence a secret and there is a great deal of tension before they are exposed to the fascists and their Nazi bosses. The final section of the film, leading up to the point when the Allied troops arrive in the capital, opens the narrative up further to include the aristocratic family who own the working-class apartment block. They too are on the side of the partisans and the landlord is a Vatican officer whose family entertains an aristocratic German officer. Just as in Roma citta aperta and Paisa there is a sequence involving local priests – with refugees hidden among the novices. This sequence and another in which Leo Genn pretends to be a butler to serve the German officer are played with wit and a gentle sense of the absurd. I was reminded of Fellini’s contributions to the scripts of the earlier wartime films.

Far from being some kind of ‘commercial filler’, I found this to be a moving film about life under occupation and an interesting exploration of the relationships between the occupied population and the escaped POWs. It’s a longish film – according to IMDb the official length was 138 mins in Italy, but only 82 mins in the US (which probably explains some of the negative comments). IMDb also suggests a DVD lasting 151 minutes. The Region 2 DVD that I watched lasted just under 129 mins – the rough equivalent of about 134 mins at film speed. I think Rossellini needed the longer running time to present the ‘reality’ of the lives of the men in the attic and the people who hid them.

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The performances are all very good and I was particularly struck by Leo Genn’s British officer. Genn was not only  a distinguished stage and screen actor but he had also been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery in 1943. When he recreated his wartime persona he was 55 years old, but that doesn’t seem to matter. His calm and ability to speak the Latin of his schooldays and appear to genuinely learn Italian during the course of the narrative give the film a real grounding in the period. This was an actor and trained barrister who prosecuted war crimes at Belsen and narrated both the events at the 1953 Coronation and the opening of the UN in 1947.  The Wikipedia page on Leo Genn refers to his role in “Rossellini’s remarkable and largely forgotten film”. The film is remarkable and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s not as ‘dramatic’ as Roma citta aperta but it possibly teaches us more about the experience of wartime in an occupied city.

Das letzte Schweigen (The Silence, Germany 2010)

Victims in the police station: Ruth (Karoline Eichhorn), the mother of the missing girl, watched by Timo's bewildered wife Julia (Claudia Michelsen)

Several reviewers have noted that Das letzte Schweigen bears similarities to the first series of the Danish TV drama The Killing. The formats are different but the central story about the impact of a police investigation of the murder of a young girl is similar and importantly the story is as much about the effects of the investigation on the girl’s parents and the internal wranglings of the police team as it is about the ‘solving’ of a crime.

The Nordic crime connection is not surprising since crime fiction is as popular in Germany as it is elsewhere in Northern Europe. The novel by Jan Costin Wagner, which has been adapted by Swiss writer-director Baran bo Odar, won the German ‘crime prize’ in 2008. Wagner, though writing in his native German, sets his novels in Finland where he lives for much of the time with his Finnish wife. For the adaptation, a Swiss-Finnish perspective is then realised in a South German summer landscape of cornfields, forests and lakes and an oddly sterile collection of new-build houses, municipal flats and nondescript public buildings. This, I’m guessing, replaces the snowy wastes of a Finnish winter.

The film’s German title translates as the ‘final silence’, but I’m not sure why it was necessary to change the novel’s original ‘The Silence’. The title could be a reference to several things but the most likely is to the silence of Timo, who we first see in 1986 when he is witness to, and passive collaborator in, the seemingly random rape and murder of a pre-teen girl, whose bicycle is thrown into a cornfield. Timo immediately splits from the murderer and we see him again 23 years later as a successful architect with a beautiful house, wife and two young children. But then another girl on a bicycle goes missing on the anniversary of the earlier unsolved murder with her bicycle discovered in exactly the same spot. After a police retirement party, the news of the missing girl is taken badly by the retiring officer who failed to crack the earlier case and he sets out to investigate the new one. He’s aided by a younger detective returning to work in a dishevelled state after the death (from cancer) of his wife. The new case stirs the memories of the mother of the girl killed in 1986 and we witness the bewilderment of the parents of the girl who is now missing. Timo is immediately traumatised by the news, having kept his silence for 23 years. Is the missing girl a victim of the same man who was his friend – or is it just a terrible coincidence?

The presentation of this relatively uncomplicated story is stylish with good use of a CinemaScope frame and the dramatic landscape properties of cornfields/forests/lakes seen in occasional overhead aerial shots. I was particularly impressed by the use of music and sound. I found the Sight and Sound review of the film by Matthew Taylor (December 2011) to be rather snotty about the film’s presentation, using words like “portentous”, “over-emphatic, almost pompous” and “lugubriously self-importance”. I think that there is a fear in some parts about genre films that attempt to use the full range of cinematic techniques. Well, it worked for me. I accept that this isn’t a realist film in the sense that the police are a motley crew and nobody who opens the door to them seems to think it would be a good idea to ask for an ID – even though the dishevelled character looks very unlike a responsible copper. But then, invesigators in crime fiction often have behavoural tics and an odd dress sense. The heavily pregnant detective is a nice touch I think and well used in a couple of scenes.

The cornfield brings to mind one of the best crime films of recent years, Memories of Murder (S. Korea 2003). Bong Joon-ho’s film managed to combine the antics (comic, but also brutal) of a similarly bizarre crew of local investigators with a subtle commentary on Korean society and politics in the 1980s. I’m struggling to find the same sense of political purpose in The Silence. However, the film’s ending and certain aspects of the police procedure do leave a lingering sense of ‘disturbance’ –just as the stylistic aspects of the film allow a sense of dread to build throughout the narrative.

The lasting impression is a well-made and highly ‘cinematic’ film which seems to have played mainly on German TV and the joint German-French channel Arte. It wasn’t just the presence of Karoline Eichhorn that made me think of similar Thomas Arslan films (and possibly also Christian Petzold’s Yella). I’m glad that Soda picked it up for UK cinema distribution and I was pleased to see it on a big screen. (This press release seems to indicate that the film received state support in getting distribution in the UK, Denmark and Hungary.)

The trailer gives a good idea about the look and ‘feel’ of the film:

Films From the South #9: About Elly (Darbareye Elly, Iran 2009)

The crucial moment in the narrative . . . when Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) flies a kite.

About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?

From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.

I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?

Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).

The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.

Shooting the scene featured at the head of this posting.

Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).

Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)

Trailer with English subs:

Un conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale France 2008)

Mathieu Almaric, as Henri, disrupts Midnight Mass

Mathieu Amalric, as Henri, disrupts Midnight Mass

The French Institute in South Kensington, possibly the most ‘French’ part of London, has recently renovated its cinema (unsurprisingly called Ciné Lumière). Catherine Deneuve reopened the cinema earlier this month and she leads an all-star cast in Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale. It seemed to me like a perfect choice – a rich mixture of French bourgeois relationships simmering and brought to the boil over the ‘festive’ season. Readers of this blog will know that we are wary of the bourgeoisie as a subject, but here I think there are reasons why the film is both enjoyable and worthwhile. I confess that I struggled for the first half hour or so in an overheated cinema (with comfortable seats and lots of leg room) at the end of a long day. The opening introduces a host of family and friends through sometimes elliptical sequences. Gradually, I managed to figure out who was who and the last half of the film was very rewarding as realisation of what some of the narrative strands might deliver slowly seeped in. The whole film is 150 minutes, but I’d watch it again, if only to try to hear all the the wide variety of music extracts and to puzzle out the literary references and those parts of the plot I still didn’t understand.

In genre terms, it’s a classic family melodrama (I think calling it a comedy/drama is quite misleading – there are comic moments, but it is all about relationships). It’s also an ‘ensemble piece’ in formal terms, with the multi-stranded narrative that implies and finally it could be assigned a tighter generic repertoire based on the timespan across a particular festive period. I think the film would probably be tough for younger students (and it’s too long for classroom use), but older students could find it both engaging and useful. It cries out to be compared with Hollywood and with similar films from China/Hong Kong and Japan. The first major difference may be that the film was not marketed in France as a ‘Christmas film’ (it came out in May). However, in America, its limited release was around Thanksgiving – possibly a more relevant American festival with the convention that family members try to return to the family home for the Thanksgiving dinner. The other odd dimension of A Christmas Tale is that although many of the aspects of a French Christmas are depicted, nobody is really seen cooking or eating to any great extent. The only (quasi-) American Thanksgiving film that I can remember is Gurinder Chadha’s What’s Cooking (2001) which features several families from different ethnic groups in Los Angeles trying to cook and get through the dinner. It did occur to me that A Christmas Tale is almost a provocation to American audiences. Those critics who respond to French Cinema have named it as one of the films of the year – various ‘users’ on IMDB have called it one of the most boring films ever made! I can’t really see the boring criticism, but I’m not surprised at bafflement.

The central family is the Vuillards – three generations of the French middle class in the town of Roubaix in the North East, situated between Lille and the Belgian border. It’s the director’s home town and, I noticed in doing the research, twinned with my nearest UK city, Bradford. This isn’t so surprising since the two locations have wool textile manufacturing as central to their history. (As an aside, it’s a shame that we don’t see more of the town.) Abel Vuillard, the paterfamilias played by Jean-Paul Roussillon, is a textile dyer with his own small company. With his wife, Junon (Catherine Deneuve), he has three adult children, played by Anne Consigny (Elizabeth), Mathieu Amalric (Henri) and Melvil Poupaud (Ivan). He also took in Simon, his nephew, played by Laurent Capelluto, who grew up with his cousins. Elizabeth has a son with her husband and Ivan has two small boys with his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve’s real-life daughter). Tragedy has already struck the family twice with the early death of the first Vuillard child, Joseph from leukaemia at the age of 6, and Henri’s wife Madeline in an accident. Now it appears that Junon has a blood cancer and only a bone marrow transplant from someone in the family can give her the prospect of at least a couple of years more. Only Elizabeth’s teenage son and his uncle Henri, the family’s ‘black sheep’, are compatible. But Elizabeth hates her brother and has vowed never to see him again. It doesn’t look like Christmas will be peaceful. Elizabeth’s husband (played by Hippolyte Girardot) flits in and out and the only other two characters who join the party are an elderly friend of Abel’s mother and Henri’s girlfriend, played by the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.

The American model for the ‘ensemble piece’ might be Robert Altman’s films – possibly The Wedding, but in my view rather more Altman’s last (and under-valued) film, Prairie Home Companion with its thematic of impending death and feuding ‘family’ members. The review in Sight & Sound is by Ginette Vincendeau, doyenne of British based French Cinema academics. She argues that the film is a mix of auteurist cinema and popular entertainment (i.e. in the playing of the star cast), citing the success in France that brought in 500,000 admissions. The genre base does allow a range of other repertoires to be plundered, so as well as the comedy moments, there is certainly romance as well as the possibility of a medical thriller, but overall I think that the auteurist touches predominate. There is so much music of every conceivable genre, references to several films ranging from Funny Face and The Ten Commandments (is this the French equivalent of The Great Escape as the ultimate Christmas movie?) to what I now learn was A Midsummer Night’s Dream (I had assumed it was Cocteau). Others have spotted Vertigo references (which I think did dimly impinge on my consciousness, but there was so much else going on I didn’t really notice). Vincendeau suggests that Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander and Renoir’s La Règle du jeu are also referenced, but I thought more about Jane Austen when the children put on a Christmas play. I’d like to find out what the German text was that is quoted extensively from a book heavily annotated in French. I’ve read that it was possibly Kant. 

Throughout the narrative, there are mysteries, some of which are revealed, others not. Letters and photographs, family stories – why does it matter that Henri’s girlfriend is Jewish? One of the strands that worked well, I thought was the attempt to represent the disease which might kill Junon through a metaphor using mythological figures. The chimera, made up of parts from different animals, stands in perhaps for the DNA of the Vuillard clan. But Desplechin denies us narrative satisfaction. The ending of the film is open. I’m certainly willing to have another go at uncovering the different strands and this was one bourgeois tale that worked for me. 2008 seems to have been an excellent year for French films – at least from the ones released in the UK.