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Renoir (France 2012)

Renoir (directed by Gilles Bourdos) was released at Cannes in 2012 but is only now getting a UK release. I didn’t have too-high expectations of the film, not only because of the fairly negative reviews (Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, for example, called it a “cloying movie” covered by “a syrupy drizzle of tasteful prettiness”) but because it is a biopic, a genre I’m not usually very fond of, especially those of famous artists. Moreover, films about art raise the problem of how the practice of the art is represented and often find it difficult to get it right. But I was intrigued to see whether it offered any insights into the connection between one of the greatest painters of his era, Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) and his son, Jean, (Vincent Rottiers) one of the greatest exponents of the art of cinema, then still in its infancy. In the end I’m glad I saw it. It’s not a great film but I found it neither “cloying” nor “tastefully pretty” and I enjoyed it a lot despite weaknesses in plot and dramatic tension. The film, a meditation on art, love, war, life and death, is adapted from Le tableau amoureux, a biography of his great-grandfather by Jacques Renoir, grandson of Renoir’s oldest son, the actor Pierre. It takes place on Renoir’s farm near Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur in 1915, four years before he died. The First World War is in its second year and although the front line is hundreds of miles away, Renoir’s two older sons, Pierre and Jean, have both been seriously wounded.

Here’s the UK trailer.

Spoilers – but it’s not really the kind of film which is spoiled by knowing the plot. 

The film opens with a young woman riding a bike into Renoir’s farm. She is greeted by a sullen urchin who we later discover is Claude (Coco), Renoir’s youngest son (played by Thomas Doret, the kid in the Dardennes Brothers’ Le gamin au vélo (Kid on a Bike) (2011)). She is 16-year-old actress and model Andrée Heuschling (though played by 22-year-old Christa Théret) who has been recommended to Renoir by his friend, the painter Matisse. Andrée (nicknamed Dédé) enters Renoir’s employment as a replacement for Renoir’s lead model, Gabrielle, whom Aline, Renoir’s wife, who has recently passed away, had got rid of, fearing Renoir was becoming “too fond” of her. Andrée, a voluptuous red-haired beauty, soon reinvigorates his painting, leading to a late resurgence of creativity in a series of nudes and landscapes. When Renoir’s son Jean returns from the war to recuperate from his leg wound, he too finds inspiration through Andrée. They become lovers and talk about their dreams for the future. She wants to be a film actress and wants him to direct her. However, Jean feels a sense of duty to the comrades he left behind and re-enlists, this time as a reconnaissance pilot, and returns to the front. The end-captions tell us that Renoir-père dies in 1919, having completed his great work, “Les Baigneuses” (Women Bathing). Jean survives the war and he and Andrée marry. He starts on a film career and she becomes his leading actress (under the name of Catherine Hessling) until they separate in 1931. They die in the same year, 1979, he a celebrated filmmaker, she all but forgotten.

The heart of this gentle film is a very convincing and detailed portrait of the artist as an old man, of a decrepit painter’s passion for the naked body of a beautiful woman. There is much nudity as Andrée poses for several canvases from Renoir’s “Bagneuses” series but they never feel exploitative. I don’t think Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze” comes into play here (ie the conventional device which presents the exposed female body as titillation to the male audience through which the female audience is also positioned to adopt the this gaze). Here we see the woman not as objectified in bits and pieces (as Godard does with Bardot’ body in the opening scene in Le Mépris (Contempt) (1963)  either an exemplification of the practice or a satire on it, I’m never quite sure) but as a glorification of beauty which the aging artist uses to combat the forces of mortality. I think that when we see so much of her naked we begin to see her as pure form, reflecting the soft light of the Mediterranean sky. (Interestingly, for a French film, in the love scenes Andrée is fully clothed or else the action takes place off-screen). Christa Théret, whose father is a painter and her mother a model, has interesting things to say about painting, nudity, eroticism and sex in an interview here, where she also tells us she had to put on weight for the part, suggesting a shift in body-shape norms since Renoir’s time:

If you are looking for sexual politics, it might be more fruitful to look at the role of the female staff of his household, mostly maids who become models and then maids once again. There are five or six of them who tend to his needs, cooking for him, nursing him, bathing him, putting him to bed, carrying him in his wheelchair up to his studio on the farm and outings down to the river. They refer to him as “patron” (boss). It is a demanding patriarchal order but a benevolent one: they seem to regard their work as a vocation, playing a part, however humble, in a successful artistic career.

The strongest feature of the film is not character but beauty – of the model, of the painting, of the cinematography (shot by the Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Ping Bing Lee who also worked on Wong Kar Wei’s In the Mood for Love) and mise en scène (not to forget the sound and the music), with several instances of stunning circular tracking shots and pans. Bourdos alternates scenes of Renoir painting joyously in luxuriant nature under the Mediterranean sun and with dark interiors where we see him struggling with his infirmities, especially his dreadfully deformed hands, forcing him to cry out in pain at night and have his helpers, including Andrée, bathe his inflamed joints.

(This clip doesn’t have subtitles. Andrée asks if it would bother him if she moved. He replies that if it bothered him he would paint apples. He goes on: “What interests me is skin – the velvety texture of a young girl’s skin.”

The look and feel of the film made me almost – but not quite – ignore the weaknesses in the narrative, its lack of dramatic tension, the pace that is just a little too languorous. There’s not much real conflict, even when Jean returns from the war on crutches and falls under Andrée’s spell. Renoir does ask him if he is “behaving like a gentleman” with her and if there is just a tinge of jealousy, it is as much a general awareness of youth and age than the tortures of individual possessiveness. And despite potentially Oedipal elements, it is clear that Jean loves and admires his father.

What there is of conflict in the film (apart from the 14-year old Claude’s resentment at his father who he feels only speaks to him to reprimand him) comes from Andrée’s self-assertiveness. She may be a muse (to son as well as father) but she is not a passive one. After her first session posing for Renoir, he tells one of his assistants to pay her 5 francs but she tells him her fee is 10 francs. When he remarks that for an actor she is rather “pudique” (modest), she retorts that actresses aren’t whores. She is outspoken, a feminist without necessarily being conscious of the concept, who knows what she wants – and it it’s not to remain an artist’s model, much less a kitchen maid. She resents being treated as such (by the other maids) and in a temper smashes a number of plates. Not any old plates but hand-painted by Renoir and no doubt worth a fortune. (A bit of a cliché, I suppose, using the smashing plate routine as an index of female stroppiness. It goes with the red hair.).

The film is helped by a strong cast. Renoir is played 87-year-old Michel Bouquet, mainly a theatre actor. Apart from a couple of Chabrols a few decades ago, the only film I remember Bouquet being in is Robert Guédiguian’s Le Promeneur des Champs de Mars (The Last Mitterand) where he was a completely convincing President Mitterand. His performance as Renoir is excellent, gruff and terse one moment (not when he’s painting, he tells Andrée), genial and tender the next. He manages to resemble the older Renoir, as shown in Sasha Guitry’s film which can be seen here:  (The actual footage of Renoir begins two minutes into the clip):

I thought Christa Théret’s performance was pretty good on the whole, especially given that her role was limiting from a dramatic point of view. (A sequence near the end where she escapes both Renoirs to spend time in a strange brothel-come-Weimar avant-garde theatre club is the least convincing in the film). Vincent Rottiers plays Jean as passive and lacking in focus. When he tells Andrée that he has neither dreams nor ambitions, she tells him not to say that to the woman he loves or she’ll have contempt for him. His passivity perhaps reflects the state of mind of much of the youth of Europe at that time, coming of age in the slaughterhouse of the First World War.

Renoir belongs to a substantial sub-genre of the biopic dealing with the life of painters and sculptors. Creative genius of any kind is difficult to capture on film but I thought the film did a pretty good job on the representation of the act of painting. It made quite a contrast with another French film dealing with the relationship between painter and model, Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991), which made the whole act of creation seem incredibly violent and painful, for the painter (Michel Picolli) and , especially, for the model (Emmanuelle Béart) as the demonic artist twists and stretches her limbs as he hacks away at his painting. By contrast, Renoir presents the process as almost serene. When Andrée asks Renoir if he minded if she moved a bit, he tells her of course not, otherwise he would just paint apples. Bourdos recreates the act of painting very effectively with the aid of Guy Ribe, a master forger who had just completed a three-year stretch in prison for selling works ‘by’ Picasso, Chagal and Renoir. Ribe (whose own story would make a great screenplay) didn’t copy known works but created work that simulated the style of paintings that might have been done by these artists, paintings that had languished (he would tell naïve collectors) in private collections for years. There is an interesting piece in the New York Times on Ribe which can be accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/movies/guy-ribess-paintings-lend-realistic-touches-to-renoir.html?pagewanted=all . In the film Michel Bouquet is shown outdoors, a brush in Renoir’s bandaged, arthritic hands dabbing paint onto the canvas and when the camera cuts to the painting, it is Guy Ribes’s hand applying the paint. Dozens of false Renoirs appear in the film which I assume was cleared with the Renoir estate. Here are a couple of clips of this process.

As for the film prefiguring Jean Renoir’s career as a filmmaker, it does show him focused on repairing a film projector which looked to me like an early cinématographe, which functioned both as projector and camera though we don’t see him filming. And, the film implies, it takes Andrée to galvanise him in that direction. He buys a one-reel film from a traveling peddler and shows it to friends and members of the household, including his father whose only comments on this new form – which he would never have called an ‘art’ – were disparaging. And there is a nice piece of dramatic irony from the his brother, Jacques, who tells Jean that the cinema is for the ignorant mob and the French will never be good at filmmaking – it’s an American skill. We see a clip from the film they are watching – it’s DW Grifiths’ Intolerance (1916) projected onto a large Renoir painting covered by a sheet but I resisted the urge to read anything into this. The audience seems totally absorbed by the huge close-ups. This clip begins just after Jean has calmed Andrée down from the plate-throwing incident. He tells he arranged the film show for her, for which she thanks him at the end. It’s what unites them and will unite them further in the future. Here’s the clip.

And so this is a film which is weak in narrative and a little nebulous in character development which (almost) succeeds because of its aesthetic and performative qualities.

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Lease of Life (UK 1954)

Robert Donat as the Rev. Thorne and Adrienne Corri as his daughter Susan

Ealing Studios as a brand has become so associated in the public mind with the comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s that many of its most interesting productions are barely seen or discussed. Fortunately, the ‘Ealing Rarities’ collections of DVDs, first published in 2013, have made several titles available for the first time on disc. The series runs to 14 volumes, each of which comprises a 2-disc set with two features on each disc. The four titles are a mix of films from the whole of the period 1930-1959. This makes sense as a way of selling the older titles but punters can benefit too, picking up unknown gems from the 1930s. The volumes were on a limited sales offer this week and I bought three volumes for £4 to £5 each.

I was most excited by the prospect of watching Lease for Life from 1954. This drama in Eastman Colour offers the major star Robert Donat in his only Ealing role, supported by a fine cast. With a screenplay by Eric Ambler, direction by Ealing regular Charles Frend and cinematography by Douglas Slocombe it promised to be a fascinating watch – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s worth emphasising that Donat was arguably the major male romantic star of the 1930s in the UK, a man loved by millions who spurned Hollywood and preferred to work in the UK (sometimes on American-financed films). Because of ill-health (chronic asthma) he made only 21 films and died in 1958 in his early 50s. In Lease of Life he plays a country vicar in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He was only 49 at the time but looks much older, possibly because of make-up and greying hair. He hadn’t made a film for three years and he would make only one more after it, so part of his appearance may be down to his own state of health. The plot involves his character being told that he only has a year to live, but if this makes the film sound grim, Donat’s performance soon alters such a view. He’s magnificent.

The vicar attends the dying man, Mr Sproatly (Beckett Bould) watched by a stern-faced Mrs Sproatly (Vida Hope)

The plot is very simple (so I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative pleasure by outlining it in some detail). Ambler gives the vicar (Rev. William Thorne) two problems to worry about (and then lands him with the news that he is going to die in about a year’s time). First he is asked by a dying parishioner to be his executor and to keep the will and a sizeable sum of money away from the man’s younger wife (Ealing regular Vida Hope) – the money is to go to the man’s son, still missing after the war. Reluctantly, the vicar agrees, knowing it is his duty to do so. He’s a kindly but not very inspiring vicar and he hasn’t saved any money. His second problem is that his talented daughter Susan (the fabulous Adrienne Corri who so graces Jean Renoir’s The River, 1950) wants to go to a music school in London, but he can’t afford to support her. A possible solution to his worries is that the local public school wants a new chaplain and the Dean of the cathedral in ‘Gilchester’ suggests Thorne. Thorne himself doesn’t realise why he has been invited to give the sermon at the school’s Founder’s Day service (but his wife Vera (Kay Walsh) realises that it is a kind of test of suitability). The chaplaincy would be a considerable step up in terms of income. The sermon comes halfway through the film and Thorne, in a moment of inspiration, tears up his prepared sermon and delivers an impassioned call to the boys to live their lives without the fear of breaking rules and to simply go out and fulfil themselves in finding God in life. Thorne is ‘re-born’, he has a new ‘lease of life’. The school’s headmaster is not enthusiastic about Thorne’s reference to a ‘Headmaster God’ as the wrong concept of religion for boys to have.

In the final third of the film the two problems prove difficult for Thorne to resolve in a satisfactory way and Ambler complicates things to create a climax. What is important too is that both June and Vera become active in their own right rather than just supporting Thorne. The other main character is June’s music teacher, the young organist at the cathedral, handsome (and quite cruel) as played by Denholm Elliott.

A parishioner calls on the vicar, concerned about the newspaper coverage of the sermon

The main attraction of the film is Robert Donat’s performance. In the pulpit delivering his sermon to the school he is transformed and energised but it is his voice and trademark delivery that stands out. I think mellifluous is the adjective often used to describe Donat’s voice. Here it sounds both soft and melodious, but also strong – and a big change from the character’s usually mild demeanour. So, in narrative terms it works to give the vicar in ailing health the energy to continue and to overcome the obstacles that lie before him. One interesting aspect of the film is the media interest generated by the sermon which gets everybody talking. In the early 1950s Ealing made films satirising the rise of television and, like this one, using the media as agencies in moral debates.

The other interesting aspect of the film is the use of location shooting to create ‘authenticity’ of setting and a feature of many Ealing films during and after the war. I was reminded of The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947), also directed by Charles Frend and set on the Romney Marshes. That was a black and white film and here the same cinematographer creates a rural landscape using Eastman Colour. The shoot was located in what was then the East Riding of Yorkshire with Beverley’s Minster standing in for the cathedral (Wikipedia suggests that the Minster is larger than many English cathedrals) and the village of Lund a few miles away acting as the vicar’s parish. The film is a transport enthusiast’s treat with footage of the town centre including the specially adapted buses needed to pass beneath the 15th century ‘Bar gate’. Railway scenes were filmed at Eton and Windsor and there is a scene featuring Susan’s arrival in London in a train hauled by Britannia Pacific 70020, only built in 1951 as a BR standard locomotive. Overall the Eastman Colour on the Network DVD is OK, but I did wonder about the make-up and how it appears in HD on a TV set.

The DVD set includes a slide gallery (see the images above with a lobby card and publicity stills). It also includes a Press Book from the period and I would recommend this for any student of British cinema history. The Press Book includes the kinds of ads to appear in local newspaper display listings as well as competitions and other ways of attracting audiences. It also features interviews and articles on the stars. The piece on Kay Walsh is interesting, pointing out how this ‘glamorous star’ of 1930s and 1940s cinema was prepared to be made-up as the older and ‘dowdy’ vicar’s wife in order to play opposite Robert Donat. There is also coverage of the outfits worn by Adrienne Corri, an important ‘tie-in’ feature for films of the period.

I’m pleased to have been able to view this film and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Ealing back catalogue in the Network DVDs.

The UK release of Toni Erdmann (Germany-Austria 2016)

toni-erdmann2

Ines (Sandra Hüller) and Winfried (Peter Simonischeck). He’s not yet the full ‘Toni’, but he has got the teeth in.

Keith reported on Toni Erdmann as the closing film of the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) back in November 2016. The film had wowed Cannes in May 2016 and there was general dismay that it was not recognised by the Festival Jury despite almost universal acclaim. After the all too common long delay before a UK release (well done Soda for acquiring the title), Toni Erdmann has become one of the most hyped/heavily promoted arthouse releases I can remember for a long time. Most of the promotion has come on social media from people who have seen the film at festivals or on release in other territories. It is also significant that it is the first foreign language film to get a release on more than a handful of screens in the UK for two months (since the Dardennes’ Unknown Girl). I’m bored now with repeating the shaming fact that the UK exhibition sector offers no foreign language releases in December/January and that this has been the case for several years.

In these circumstances, I think it’s necessary to revisit the film and Keith’s festival report. Two quick points first. The film is 162 minutes but to me felt like 100 minutes. Second, it is at times very funny (raucous laugh-out-loud funny) and I have to agree with all those comments I read beforehand. I agree with a lot of what Keith said about the film as well, though I think we read some scenes differently.

I’ve seen reviews that describe Toni Erdmann as a ‘screwball comedy’ and others that compare it to Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) and I can see that both descriptions have some merit. The film’s length gives writer-director Maren Ade the opportunity to move from one genre to another and to shift the tone of different sequences. The result is that most audiences will find something they really like in the film, but also that they might be frustrated by other parts. If you have managed to avoid reading about the film so far, let me briefly outline the narrative without spoiling it. The film’s title is the name of the alter ego adopted by Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a sixty-something living on his own in suburban Germany (although I guess it could be Austria). He seems to be a music teacher, probably retired, with an aged dog and an aged mother and ex-wife both living nearby. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a management consultant in her mid 30s, working too hard and juggling projects in Bucharest and Shanghai. Events convince Winfried to make a surprise visit to Bucharest where he attempts to challenge Ines to reflect on her life. His strategy involves donning a wig and clip-on dentures and posing as ‘Toni Erdmann’, a ‘life coach’, who introduces himself to Ines’ colleagues and friends – with predictable, and sometimes unpredictable, results. There are several amazing set pieces that depend on script, direction and wonderful performances by the two leads.

'Toni' and Ines on their way to visit an oilfield.

‘Toni’ and Ines on their way to visit an oilfield.

Many reviewers have commented on the father-daughter relationship and this certainly runs throughout the narrative and carries an emotional heft. However, my own interest and enjoyment was mostly in the different perspectives and strategies the two characters adopt in their engagement with the work and social environment that Ines inhabits in Bucharest. I’ve had only a limited experience of working on international projects but my viewing companion worked as an executive for an oil industry services company and we both agreed that Maren Ade had captured the tone of business presentations and small talk at receptions/parties perfectly. Ines works for a consultancy company called ‘Morrison’. There are several real consultancy companies called Morrison/Morison some with a global reach but it was odd seeing the film in Bradford, home of the major UK supermarket chain ‘Morrisons’. Ines is a consultant who has to devise a strategy for a team with Romanian and German members to present to a multinational which is attempting to ‘modernise’ the Romanian oil industry (one of the oldest in the world) and this inevitably will mean reducing the workforce with all the subsequent social damage that will cause. This is an environment in which Germans and Romanians use their own language to talk to their compatriots but English to talk to each other in public. Nobody ever says what they really mean in public discourse and this provides the basis for comedy (and satire) – and tragedy. Ines is prepared to play the game, Winfried/Toni finds it more difficult. The contrast between the glamorous world of global capitalism and the reality for the mass of Romania’s population is well captured in the dialogue (the observation that the new shopping malls are far too expensive for Romanians) and by the camera when Winfried looks down from Ines’ cold and minimalist designer apartment to see in the streets below a working-class household living behind a high fence. The sexism inherent in the ex-pat world of consultants is another well-observed element in Maren Ade’s script. Overall the treatment of modern global capitalism reminded me of Christian Petzold’s Yella (Germany 2007). Sandra Hüller is herself from East Germany – like the character played by Nina Hoss in Yella.

A comedy classic in the making – Ines and her party dress.

A comedy classic in the making – Ines and her party dress. Good job there’s a fork handy.

The final third of the film shifts into what might be seen as surrealism. At one point I did think of Buñuel. But I still think the situation is believable given the circumstances. One of the funniest scenes involves Ines trying to get into and then out of a particularly tight-fitting dress. I’m trying to resist pointing out that such a scene is much more likely in a film written and directed by a woman – as is the unusual sex scene earlier in the film. I don’t want to give away what happens in the final scenes because the shifts in tone are surprising and revealing.

But is this like Renoir? I suppose it is in the sense that there is certainly a ‘game’ and that the film reveals the inequalities that exist in the globalised world of Romanian ‘modernity’. We get to know just about enough of the lives of a small group of characters to realise that none are totally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Having said that, the multinational boss Ines has to please is very worrying. Some audiences appear to find it difficult to identify with either Ines or Winfried but I think we get to know both well enough to see them as ‘humanised’ characters. What at first might seem like a comedy of embarrassment eventually becomes a humanist drama. Winfried/Toni is, as Catherine Wheatley in Sight and Sound (March 2017) points out, a child of the 1960s. For those of us similarly inclined he’s ideologically and emotionally ‘correct’ – but not necessarily entitled to force/coerce/persuade Ines to feel the same. The film’s ending is worth thinking about. It’s a terrific film and I’d really like to see Maren Ade’s two previous films.

GFF16 #8: Panique (France 1946)

M. Hire (Michel Simon) in a noir composition

M. Hire (Michel Simon) in a noir composition

Julien Duvivier was an established director from the 1920s onwards perhaps best known in the UK for the proto-noir Pépé le Moko (1937) with Jean Gabin, although he ranged successfully across several genres. Like Jean Renoir, Duvivier spent the war years in the US and on his return he struggled to re-establish himself in the climate of mistrust surrounding those who had left France under Vichy and the Occupation. By the late 1950s his kind of cinema was going out of fashion as the New Wave came in. He died in a road accident in 1967. Duvivier’s earlier films from the 1930s had often been highly praised and GFF16 mounted a mini-retrospective of three films.

Panique was scripted by Brussels born Charles Spaak and based on a novel by the great Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon. The same novel was adapted again as Monsieur Hire in 1989 directed by Patrice Leconte. Spaak was a former colleague of Duvivier as was Michel Simon who played the mysterious M. Hire in the 1946 version. The simple story sees a small town (a Parisian suburb?) community in which M. Hire is a man of independent means who roams the town with his camera and fusses over his shopping. He clearly isn’t ‘one of us’ to use Margaret Thatcher’s unpleasant phrase. The disruption which kicks off the narrative is the arrival of an attractive woman, Alice played by Vivian Romance. She has just been released from prison and threatens to be the femme fatale who will provoke both Hire and the man for whom she ‘took the rap’ (and who in the same period in the UK would be called a ‘spiv’ – marked as a criminal type by his dress and demeanour). At the same time, a fair comes to town and the body of an older woman is found when the fair sets up. Murder and robbery are suspected.

The narrative is constructed around an extensive studio set in which M. Hire has a room which overlooks the hotel where Alice is staying. Apart from a brief excursion the whole plot is worked out on the set – a familiar approach from 1930s French cinema. Duvivier uses every possible narrative device to drive M. Hire to his doom. We will find out a little more about his background and why he is the way he is but mainly we are transfixed by how he is set up for the murder and the way in which the townspeople are whipped up into a frenzy about his presumed guilt. In one memorable scene he ‘escapes’ onto a dodgem car in the fairground only to find that every other couple on the rink ‘bumps’ into him deliberately. The use of these devices and the close control over mise en scène creates exactly the kind of social commentary about collective self-deception that must have been very uncomfortable for French audiences when everyone is likely to be identified as being in the résistance or a collaborator. The final scenes are a tour de force with a final tragic revelation. I’m certainly up for more Duvivier films if I can find them. The other two titles in the GFF retrospective were La belle épique (1936) and La fin du jour (1939). Although it was in the smallest auditorium at GFT, this screening was packed – an encouraging sign that a foreign language film can still generate an audience on the big screen.

LFF 2015 #5: Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960)

The French poster for the restored film showing Annie Girardot and Alain Delon. (The image from the film has been inverted for some reason.)

The French poster for the restored film showing Annie Girardot and Alain Delon

LFFRocco and His Brothers has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Film Foundation and it reappears complete with a couple of UK censor’s cuts now included. It’s quite simply magnificent, demonstrating Luchino Visconti’s great strengths of realism and melodrama as presented by a passionate opera director. It also features three central performances, each of which is worth the price of admission alone and which together keep our attention riveted to the action over nearly three hours.

Like many major films of the period this was an Italian-French co-production with two of the three leading roles taken by French actors. Alain Delon would go on to become one of the major French stars of the next twenty years and alongside Plein soleil in 1960 this was the film that established his international reputation. Annie Girardot was a major new female player in France in the 1950s, surprisingly ignored by the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers in the early 1960s but here getting the international exposure she merited. Visconti himself began his film education as an assistant to Jean Renoir in the 1930s before making Ossessione (Italy 1942), often regarded as the first neorealist film. I was reminded of Ossessione several times in watching Rocco and His Brothers, especially by scenes around Lake Como and by the bleakness of the outskirts of Milan. The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Rocco (Delon) is the third of five brothers and at the start of the film the four youngest brothers arrive with their mother in Milan to join Vicenzo the eldest, already trying to start a new life. The family comes from what is now known as Basilicata in the far South of Italy. The brothers struggle to establish themselves but eventually the second brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), wins some fights as a professional boxer. This will eventually prove to be an unfortunate development as his success attracts the attention of a beautiful but dangerous prostitute, Nadia (Girardot). She later develops a rather different kind of relationship with Rocco and the resulting love triangle tears the family apart. Salvatori gives the third great performance. He has the look and the body of a boxer, something he trained for in preparation for the role. Several commentators have suggested that Coppola and Scorsese were both very impressed by Visconti’s film. Nino Rota wrote the score for Rocco and His Brothers and went on to work on The Godfather for Coppola. Salvatori’s performance was perhaps an inspiration for De Niro in Raging Bull?

Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon) get their first glimpse of the lights of Milan through the window of the bus that takes them from the station at the start of the film. (A screengrab from the MOC DVD on the DVD Beaver website.)

Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon) get their first glimpse of the lights of Milan through the window of the bus that takes them from the station at the start of the film. (A screengrab from the MOC DVD on the DVD Beaver website.)

The script is not without flaws. Visconti presents it in five chapters titled after each of the brothers in turn, but they don’t each get the same screen time and it is as if Visconti uses the other three characters to explore the sociological and cultural questions about the migration to the North while the melodrama rages around Rocco and Simone. Vicenzo marries the respectable Ginetta (an under-used Claudia Cardinale) and begins a family. Ciro, the fourth son, continues his education and becomes a ‘new worker’ – a skilled man at the Alfa-Romeo factory. The fifth brother is still a child at the beginning of the film and his main contribution (apart from running errands) seems to be to prompt Rocco into thinking of moving back down South to reclaim the family’s roots. (Rocco is named after San Rocco – the saint associated with the city of Potenza in Basilicata.)

In some ways the film’s story runs counter to the idea that the South is the source of corruption (and organised crime) and that the North is the new modern, ‘civilised’ Italy (a view partly derived from Gramsci). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith links Rocco and His Brothers to Visconti’s other ‘historical’ ventures, including his similarly long film on the tuna fishermen of Sicily, La terra trema (1948) and the rather different Senso (1954) set at the time of the Austrian loss of Northern Italy in 1866. It’s fascinating to read Nowell-Smith’s 1967/73 ‘Cinema One’ book on Visconti some forty years later. He points out that Delon is both ‘wrong’ as a peasant from the South, and as the boxer who is drawn into the fight game by his brother’s actions – but also very ‘right’ as the seemingly weak, puny character who has great strength in his convictions. Smith also recognises that Rocco is actually much more concerned about his traditional view of the family than he is about the safety of Nadia. There is great complexity in the triangular relationship of the melodrama and it requires analysis and reflection to work through the links between the two types of drama. Max Cartier as Ciro doesn’t have Delon’s star power. In a different film his performance would have worked well. Here he comes across as a vehicle for statements of aspiration and his action in exposing his brother’s crime seems like a betrayal of family. In a different way the high melodrama performance of the Greek actress Katina Paxinou (an acclaimed international theatre star) as the mother of the family works in terms of the central melodrama but perhaps not in a neo-realist narrative.

I’ve noted that positions on Rocco and His Brothers have tended to change over time. Nowell-Smith in his entry on Visconti in Richard Roud’s Cinema, A Critical Dictionary in 1980 seems to have moved towards a more damning criticism of the melodrama narrative. He seems to feel that the problem with Rocco is that Visconti does not have a literary source which might ‘reign in’ his melodrama and opera tendencies. Other critics have in fact tried to find literary sources that might have influenced Visconti, including Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Part of the problem for critics has been that the films of Fellini and Antonioni from the same rich period of Italian cinema have to some extent pushed Visconti into the background. My own preference would always be for Visconti and I think it’s time his work was re-evaluated. Many of Visconti’s films are not ‘in print’ as either cinema prints or DVDs in the UK and this makes it difficult. However, Rocco is part of the Masters of Cinema DVD offer (2008) which also had Bellissima from 1952 but that now seems to be no longer available.

I haven’t mentioned Giuseppe Rotunno’s excellent cinematography on Rocco (and many of Visconti’s films) and he is listed as ‘supervising’ the visual qualities of the digital restoration at the age of 90. The other feature of the film which probably now gets more attention is the narrative importance of a homoerotic attraction that underpins Simone’s boxing career when he is taken on by a promoter who will eventually be drawn into the struggle between Simone and Rocco. That struggle in turn seems to involve more than just brotherly rivalry in its brutality and sexual humiliation. I’m going to have to watch the film again.

The original Italian trailer refers to the controversies in 1960s about the frankness of some scenes:

Vie sauvage (Wild Life, France-Belgium 2014)

WILDLIFE

This film is showing as part of ‘Summer of French Cinema 2015‘, six films screening across six different cinemas offered by a partnership between Picturehouse Cinemas and the French film export agency UniFrance. I’m guessing that this means that the three films won’t get a full UK release so we should be thankful that Picturehouse is providing this opportunity to see them. However, they are showing just once, each one seemingly randomly scattered across the standard film programmes at the participating cinemas (three different films at each cinema). You can download the full programme here – there are further screenings on July 20, 27 and August 3. A further selection of French films can be watched online at Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/unifrancefilmspro/vod_pages

I’m not sure quite how to take Vie sauvage. It is an adaptation of a non-fiction book, a ‘real life story’ written by the central character and directed by Cédric Khan. Khan is probably best known in the UK for 2002’s Roberto Succo. That too was an adaptation of a real life crime story and there are some similarities with Vie sauvage, including the focus on a man ‘on the run’ from the police. However, it would be misleading to think of this new film as a crime suspense narrative. The central character is ‘Paco’, a man of strong convictions played by the always excellent Mathieu Kassovitz complete with beard and a ponytail. Paco is a refusenik in terms of contemporary capitalist society and at the start of the narrative we find him living with ‘Nora’ (names in this story are often in quotes) and their three boys enjoying an alternative lifestyle outside urban French society. Nora (Céline Sallette) ‘incites’ the drama by deciding that she’s had enough of living outside society and takes her boys back to her parents’ home. Paco is furious and tries to take them back. The law eventually places the boys with Nora but after one of his ‘access visits’ Paco flees with the two youngest boys (the eldest, Thomas, elects to stay with his mother – he is Paco’s stepson but Tsali and Okyesa are Paco’s sons). The trio then successfully evade the police search for the next eleven years. The original story title is translated by Google as something like ‘Eleven years outside the system under the star of freedom’ – clumsy but not a bad description.

During this long period ‘on the run’, the trio have to change names and stories as they move from one commune to another, working on the land with the two boys being ‘home schooled’. Paco also attempts to instil his own ideas about living with nature and without modern technologies and consumer culture. The boys (who are six and seven when their adventure begins) at first take it all as a game but of course they will become ‘normal’ teenagers and rebel against parental authority when they are older. Nora does not reappear until the end of the narrative (apart from in a flashback) and it is interesting that the focus is on the father. In the ‘real’ story the French media told the story from the mother’s perspective, emphasising her loss as she and the police searched for the boys (with Paco facing two years in prison). I can’t really ‘spoil’ this narrative but I won’t describe the plot in detail. Since this is not a Boyhood type project, Kahn faces the problem of needing at least two pairs of actors to play the boys. Possibly he would have been better advised to have three sets but these multiple pairings are always difficult to make work and here I found the younger actors more credible. This isn’t a criticism of the older pair, more an issue about the big leap from small boys to young men.

Beautiful to look at with great use of natural light (camera by Yves Cape), always engaging and interesting as a narrative, I’m still not quite sure about the film – although I would certainly recommend it. The main issue is the mix of genres. I’ve already suggested that the suspense elements only carry parts of the narrative and at other times the film is perhaps best described as a family drama. It seems fairly obvious what attracted the Dardenne brothers to act as co-producers (it is an official French-Belgian production). The boys and their relationship with their father could easily appear in a Dardenne film, but I’m not sure about the long story time over so many years. The Dardenne films are also more intense as realist melodramas. As I watched the film I reflected on what might be termed the rural/pastoral realism of French cinema as featured in something like Renoir’s Toni (1934) or Will It Snow For Christmas? (1996). There are also moments when the film seems to draw on American cinema, especially Westerns, in those scenes in which the boys are happy rebels having fun holed up in a shack in the hills, plucking chickens and bombarding each other with feathers. The director himself was brought up in a rural commune in the 1970s and these scenes do indeed feel authentic. I was amused, however, to discover that the commune in which Paco first met Nora was based around tepees and Native American culture. I guess there is a sense in which Paco tries to take his sons through a kind of ‘natural’ rites of passage.

If you get the chance to see this film you might wish to compare it with The Wonders (Italy/Ger/Switz 2014) released in the UK today. The films have very similar elements but produce rather different narratives. Both are well worth seeing.

Trailer with English subs:

French Connection II (US 1975)

'Popeye' Doyle arrives in Marseilles on April 1st  when the police are dealing with an April Fool joke – a fishy story?.

‘Popeye’ Doyle arrives in Marseilles on April 1st when the police are dealing with an April Fool joke – a fishy story?.

This sequel came out four years after the success of The French Connection. The only characters who carry over into the second film are the drug dealer Charnier (Fernando Rey) who escaped at the end of the first film and Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), the New York cop who first uncovered Charnier. The follow-up was written by Alexander Jacobs and Robert Dillon, both with crime thriller experience, and they invented what might have happened if Popeye went to Marseilles. The director too is changed. John Frankenheimer was an important filmmaker in the 1960s and into the 1970s. He lived (and worked) in France for a period and he spoke French. Apart from film editor Tom Rolf and composer Don Ellis (repeating his stint from the first film), the cast and crew are French with the distinguished cinematographer Claude Renoir and set designer Jacques Saulnier as the most notable figures.

Frankenheimer offers an audio commentary on the DVD telling us that he was a big fan of the first film and that he wanted to keep to the same documentary-style approach to shooting the film. But then, as he explains what happened, it becomes apparent that the film is slightly different in style – and very different in terms of the story. The story is simple. Charnier is still operating out of Marseilles and Doyle arrives in the city, on his own, with the intention of finding the dealer and closing the case. Of course, he expects to be working with the local police. But they don’t seem particularly willing to help him and he doesn’t speak French. Early on we learn that Doyle may be being set up but we are never introduced to his superiors in New York and we don’t know how ‘official’ his investigation is. (Also, we don’t know why he hasn’t got his partner with him.) With his porkpie hat, Doyle is very visible and is soon kidnapped by the villains. What follows is a tour de force by Gene Hackman – a character study of a man under great pressure. Doyle is a boorish lout but also a committed investigator. When the local police Inspector finally sets out to help him, Doyle will still be able to deliver the goods.

In his commentary Frankenheimer speaks of his huge admiration for Hackman’s acting. He explains that Hackman is often seen in longer shots (i.e. Medium Long Shot or Long Shot) because to frame him in closer shots would mean losing his expressive use of his body. Because of these long shots – emphasised sometimes by the visible use of zoom lenses – Marseilles plays a similar but differentiated role as an extra ‘player’ compared to the part played by Brooklyn in the first film. Frankenheimer is a master of large scale crowd scenes and the chase sequences here are more like those in vintage Hitchcock than the more tightly-focused chases in Friedkin’s film. We do get the chases through the streets (with an athletic Hackman doing his own stunts), but also we see tiny figures framed in wide vistas of the harbour and sea-front. Overall, the combination of cinematography, set design and choreography of action is excellent. The heart of the film, however, is the focus on Popeye when he is held by the drugs gang – reminding us that Frankenheimer was the great director of men under pressure in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seconds (1966).

In the first third and the last third of French Connection II, this does feel like a possible sequel to the first film, but in between it becomes something else. This is emphasised by a key decision. Whereas in the first film, the French dialogue between members of the drugs gang was subtitled, here there are no subtitles – we experience the world as Popeye does. French conversations are not translated and Popeye flounders in his attempts to question suspects (the Poughkeepsie joke survives from the first film and becomes even more surreal). This works very well when Popeye is told by the Police Commissioner (in French) to pack his bags. “Do I need to translate?” says the Inspector. Popeye shakes his head – he isn’t so dumb that he can’t ‘read’ intonation and facial expressions.

As I’ve argued many times, French and American crime films are often in dialogue with one another. Here, Popeye abuses French police officers, the French language, French culture generally and causes mayhem with his violent methods. But his hosts do accept that his loutish behaviour is accompanied by persistence, bravery and single-mindedness as well some good investigative skills. Most of all, they admire his vitality – not a bad representation of American-French cultural relations, perhaps?

The 2014 French film The Connection (La French) offers quite a different take on the original ‘true story’ – and on representations of Marseilles – review to follow.

Suite Française (UK/France/Belgium/Canada 2014)

Michelle Williams as Lucile and Matthias Schoenaerts as Bruno.

Michelle Williams as Lucile and Matthias Schoenaerts as Bruno.

I’m glad I saw this World War II romance drama – one of the best of recent co-productions. I fear that many audiences will have been put off by reviewers like Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who seem to be completely oblivious to its better points. It isn’t without flaws but mostly it is very good.

It’s worth mentioning the production background in some detail since it’s unusual in some ways. ‘International films’ made in Europe in English have been a feature of mainstream cinema since the 1950s, but usually these are in some way ‘Americanised’ even though they have European settings. Despite a credit for The Weinstein Company (the US distributor) and an American in the lead role, Suite Française is a French property made by Europeans (mostly British) in Belgium, but with a major French partner in the form of TF1 Films and Canadian input from Alliance/eOne. I mention this because some commentators have referred to a ‘Hollywood film’. Suite Française will get a major French release, presumably dubbed into French? It seems to have had a substantial budget and I wonder how many of the actors (mostly Brits and Germans) could have worked on a French language version at the same time? Just to clarify, the French characters in the film speak (British) English with accents and dialects that represent their position in society. The Germans speak German (with subtitles), except when they talk to the French, when, of course, they speak English. It all works fine. As the convention goes (in for example Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series), all the printed material on screen is in the local language, i.e. in French.

Suite Française was published as a novel with two parts in 2004. It was written in 1940-1 by Irène Némirovsky, the emigré Ukranian Jewish writer, successful in France since the 1920s, who was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her notebooks were re-discovered by her daughter in 1998. The first part of the novel tells the story of the flight from Paris at the time of the German invasion in June 1940. This is briefly alluded to in the opening scenes in the film which then goes on to adapt the second part of the novel. This deals with the early period of German Occupation of Northern France up to late Summer 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and the troops billeted in the small town/village of Bussy are sent to the Eastern front. Némirovsky had envisaged five parts for the overall story.

The German soldiers display themselves in the village

The German soldiers display themselves on several occasions

The film reworks this second story, ‘Dolce’, and focuses on Lucile (Michelle Williams) a young woman who had barely met her husband before he joined the French Army (and became a prisoner of war) and who must now endure being bossed about by her fierce mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). Because they live in the best house in the village the two women are forced to accept a German officer as a lodger. Bruno (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a musical composer from a military family, an Oberleutnant, both cultured and ‘gentlemanly’ yet prepared to endorse the ‘spirit of community’ in the German Armed Forces. His fellow Leutnant is more aggressive and creates disturbance in another billet. The ‘other ranks’ are generally boisterous as in most successful invading armies. These are not necessarily the conventional Nazis of Hollywood war films – but they do carry out draconian policies in dealing with the local people.

Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lucile (Michelle Williams) with the other women as a German aircraft drops propaganda leaflets.

Madame Angellier (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Lucile (Michelle Williams) with the other women as a German aircraft drops propaganda leaflets.

Various French films of the 1940s have similar themes. For instance the classic Henri Clouzot film Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) includes poison pen letters written by villagers about each other during the Occupation and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) shares several key elements. This latter film was based on a novel published in 1942 by Jean Bruller but it seems unlikely that there was any connection between Bruller and Némirovsky. However, one link between the narratives does point to a major weakness in the new film – the voice-over narration by Lucile. In the Melville film the narration is essential since the French couple who have a German officer billeted on them refuse to speak (a strategy initially employed by many ‘occupied’ people – including Lucile’s mother-in-law). We learn about their thoughts from the old man’s narration which continues throughout much of the film. In Suite Française the narration comes at various points from Lucile but it is unnecessary in my view – we can see what she is thinking from her facial expressions, posture, actions etc. Not only that but it is mixed in an odd way and sounds ‘wrong’.

However, apart from the narration, everything else works OK. Bradshaw is very critical of Michelle Williams, arguing that she gives “a worryingly awful lead performance . . . [she] looks like she’s got access to serious amounts of black-market Mogadon cut with Temazepam”. I went back to the novel and the first description of Lucile suggests that she is “beautiful, blonde with dark eyes, but a quiet, modest demeanour and ‘a faraway expression'”. I’m not sure what Peter Bradshaw expects here. The narrative is about a woman from a region where middle-class society shows (in Némirovsky’s words) “a complete absence of any forms of emotion”. This is a woman who slowly blossoms and falls for the younger man who has invaded her home – where she is miserable under her mother-in-law’s gaze. I find that an interesting story. My impression is that overall, the adaptation follows the book’s narrative – some scenes are presented almost as written.

I could go on and pick Bradshaw’s review to pieces and I’m tempted because his approach with its ‘witty’ put-downs angers me so much. Instead, I’ll just focus on the issues of realism and social class. There are several interesting video clips on YouTube in which the various HoDs in the crew discuss how they researched French fashions and make-up in the period and how they studied various films including Le corbeau and Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939). They found a village close to the Belgian border which had been by-passed by progress and they were able to dress it effectively. Saul Dibb was appointed director of the film partly because of his success with The Duchess in which he managed to make a film which appealed to modern audiences without losing the sense of period setting.

Bruno with his motorcycle – the novel makes him a cavalry officer on a horse. This is one of the relatively few 'updates' in the adaptation.

Bruno with his motorcycle – the novel makes him a cavalry officer on a horse. This is one of the relatively few ‘updates’ in the adaptation.

Social class is crucial to the story. Némirovsky herself was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Russia and she carefully delineates the social strata of village society. At the top are the Vicomte (and Mayor) and his wife. Lucile’s mother-in-law is the richest non-aristocratic landowner. Lucile’s female friends are tenants she tries to protect from her mother-in-law’s avarice. There is also a Parisian woman and her daughter – Jewish refugees able to pay a higher rent (and in some ways representing Némirovsky herself?). The two Leutnants are both clearly ‘gentlemen’ and this is important in their dealings with the women. The women after all are living in a community where most of the fit young men have disappeared. It may be a cliché but we know that the one young man, a farmer disabled by a war injury, will be important in the drama that follows. Bradshaw refers to “a golden-tinted saga of everyday French collaborating folk”. This is an insult to Némirovsky who has actually provided us with certainly a ‘golden moment’ in the Spring and Summer but also a complex set of relationships and behaviours in which both collaboration and resistance are explored, much – one imagines – like they must have been across France in 1940-1.

I’m going back to the novel (which has re-entered the paperback chart) to see in more detail what Saul Dibb and Matt Charman have done with the characters and storylines in their adaptation. As my defence of Michelle Williams makes clear I have a lot of time for her acting skills and I found her scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts worked well. The film has clearly missed attracting the big audience its makers envisaged (it’s unlikely to make £2 million in the UK). I think it may find that audience on the small screen. I’m intrigued to find out what will happen to the film in France – it feels very British to me.

Official UK trailer:

Other French ‘Occupation’ films on this blog include:

Un sécret (2007)

Un héros très discret (1995)

Le silence de la mer (1949)