‘My French Film Festival’ is now running online until February 15. There are several features films that stand out plus a selection of short films. I picked out Working Girls for two reasons. It’s a Belgian film featuring three women living in France, in Roubaix, who work in a brothel in Belgium to make ends meet. I also recognised three of the leads in the film and especially Sara Forestier who impressed me greatly in Suzanne (France 2013), a film by Katell Quillévéré. I was also surprised to learn that the film had been selected as the Belgian entry for the 2020 ‘Best International Feature’ Oscar awards. It didn’t sound like the kind of film the Academy voters were likely to go for.
I’m interested in Roubaix as a location because it’s twinned with Bradford in the UK, sharing the traditional importance of the woollen industry and the more recent development of a significant Muslim population. Roubaix has been used as a location in several French films, most notably in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Unfortunately, in this film, all we see of the town is a block of high-rise flats and suburban streets (which may well have been shot in a different location). The three women of the title meet in a housing estate car park and drive into Belgium to work. The only significant image of their journey is the road sign (with the EU flag) announcing they are entering Belgium. It is a poignant moment for a viewer in ‘beleaguered Brexit Britain’. I’m wondering what will happen on Eurostar trains heading for Brussels when we can travel again after the pandemic?
I’ve read several reviews and comments about the film, many of which stress that this is “not a film about prostitution”. That’s an odd statement I think. I think the source of this is the director’s statement that the film doesn’t cover some of the conventional themes associated with brothels in films.The film represents what goes on in a brothel, it deals to some extent with the procedures of the brothel and it focuses on the lives of these three ‘ordinary’ women whose circumstances have pushed them into this kind of work. In one sense the film is unusual in that the three women are French rather than migrants from Eastern Europe or further afield. (Wikipedia suggests that many prostitutes in Belgium are Bulgarian.) The last similar film I can remember is The Receptionist (Taiwan-UK 2016) in which the ‘girls’ are from China or Taiwan. The women in Roubaix don’t have to worry about immigration authorities but they do have lives not connected to sex work (they work under pseudonyms to protect their identities) and these can also be problematic. Axelle (Sara Forestier) is a mother of three small children who are looked after by their grandmother. The man she claims is not her husband is Yann (Nicolas Cazalé) who is around and seems to think he has rights re the children. Dominque or ‘Do’ is played by Noémie Lvovsky who was so good as the mother in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015). ‘Do’ works as a nurse on the night shift. She has a husband and two teenage children to support. The third woman is Conso (Annabelle Lengronne) who is the youngest of the three, living on her own. In some ways she is the most vulnerable of the three. The three are aggressive towards each other but also supportive, realising that they must protect each other.
The film opens with the three seemingly burying a body in the rain and mud. The rest of the narrative is therefore a long flashback, at the end of which we will discover the identity of the body. There is also a three-part structure to the flashback so we focus on each of the three women in turn. It’s significant that the writer on the film is Anne Paulicevich who spent a long time researching the background to her story which was inspired by a newspaper article. She visited a brothel regularly for several months talking informally to the ‘working girls’. The Internet Movie Database credits her as co-director of the film with Frédéric Fonteyne. Cineuropa and the film’s Press Pack list her as ‘artistic director’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I suspect that she worked closely with the three female leads and with the cinematographer Juliette Van Dormael. The brothel is, in this film, a female space, at least in the back room where the women chat. I don’t see a Hollywood remake in the current climate, even with the relatively small amount of nudity. The actual sexual encounters are brief and never really gratuitous, but there is also violence. The violence comes from men both as clients and outside the brothel, but we learn little about them.
I’m not sure what to make of the film. This kind of subject matter is always difficult to handle and to pitch to distributors and audiences. Paulicevich says in the Press Pack that she sees the women as ‘heroes’ and indeed the most successful aspect of the film is the interaction between the women and how they overcome problems. Paulicevich herself wrote the film because she had only just become a mother with a baby daughter and had left an abusive relationship. Frédéric Fonteyne reveals that the film had a working title of La frontière, suggesting both the border between the two EU countries, the border between genres, social norms, emotions etc. I think that might have been a better title but he said that he realised it would be misleading for audiences if they thought it implied trafficking. Fonteyne suggests it is a ‘political film’ in its treatment of violence towards women and female solidarity. I’m not sure about that and I’d like to see some reviews by women. I understand that prostitution is not ‘standardised’ across the EU. Belgian policy is to regulate an industry that is not illegal but in France brothels are illegal so that presumably explains the original newspaper story.
The film was low budget and shot in just 30 days partly in the brothel used for the research. It is clearly an achievement to produce such a film and the performances from the three leads are outstanding. I’m not sure if in the end Paulicevich Fonteyne have achieved their aims but I found the film engaging and worthwhile, mainly for the melodrama of the three women’s interactions, and I think it is definitely worth watching.
Director Olivier Masset-Depasse, who co-scripted with Giordano Gederlini and François Verjans (based on the novel Derrière la haine by Barbara Abel), delivers a delicious thriller that at least one review suggests is Hitchcockian. It certainly opens with a master class in misdirection as Alice (Veerle Baetens, who was also excellent in Broken Circle Breakdown), prepares a surprise for her close friend and neighbour Céline (Anne Coesens). The film’s set in early ’60s Brussels and the milieux can’t help referencing (for me at least) the television series Mad Men (US, 2007-15), particularly as there’s a passing resemblance between Baetens and January Jones, who played Betty. The set decoration (by Séverine Closset) is as immaculate as the bourgeois lifestyle of the two couples as are Thierry Delettre’s costumes. The period is further mimicked with the gorgeous cinematography, by Hichame Alouie, which could be mistaken for the Technicolor of the era.
It’s a thriller so a disruption of some violence is necessary but I won’t spoil that. Suffice to say the relationship between the two, who at the start are like loving sisters, changes. The film is impressive in how it presents the psychological pressures and responses to the situation; it is entirely convincing on how two people, who are very close, can suddenly become suspicious of each other. Jessica Kiang, in her Variety review, nails it when she describe the protagonists as ‘expressive but unreadable’: ideal performers to keep the audience guessing.
Where the film trumps Hitchcock is the focus is entirely on the women; the husbands are little more than marginal. While Hitchcock used his ‘ice cool’ blondes to investigate his idea of female sexuality, here the women as mothers have agency. The men spend their time failing to acknowledge difficulty or, in the case of one, abnegating all responsibility.
I’m surprised the film wasn’t released, as far as I can tell it was restricted to festival screenings, in the UK as the Mad Men-setting could have offered a cultural handhold for those reluctant to try out difference. Then again, UK’s insularity seems to be peaking (I won’t mention Brexit); one block of flats in Norwich had messages posted on doors demanding only English be spoken. Typically, there was a grammatical error in the message emphasising the poor education of the idiot who seems to think Britain is, and was, a great country.
My first screening at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be a treat. At festivals I tend to choose films that fit with the time I have available rather than choosing specific titles. Whilst this is not necessarily the best way to select viewings, if I had read the synopsis about this film (‘the gentle nocturnal odyssey of a cleaning lady through the streets of Brussels’) I might have demurred. In the event the film was a riveting journey that inverted the usual representation of the night as a place of threat.
Saadia Bentaïeb plays Khadija beautifully, the cleaning woman who falls asleep on the last metro and hasn’t the money to get a taxi home so has to walk. The picaresque narrative allows us to meet some denizens of the dark who are, of course, ordinary people. Writer-director Bas Devos chooses not to laden these encounters with significance, though it’s not without social comment. The image above of the tropical island is an advert that tells Khadija to ‘get lost’; it’s a brilliant double entendre for we can assume that she could never afford to visit such a place on holiday.
Cinematographer Grimm Vandekerckhove manages to make the dark city streets look fascinating; out of focus coloured lights (for example, cars’ brake lights) give an abstract beauty and Devos’ framing is often quite brilliant. In the metro, for example, Khadija seems to be in a small window on a wall and then the train enters the station and we understand our position in relation to her. It’s a way defamiliarising the night, just as its representation of the dark defies expectations. It’s shot on 16mm and, unsurprisingly given the light levels, is very grainy which works perfectly well except occasionally it appears to be pouring with rain such is the grain.
I was confused by a couple of things. Near the start Khadija’s at a jovial meeting where Congo is mentioned; suggesting the tropics and I wasn’t clear what was going on. And at the end, there’s a (presumably) fantasy sequence on a tropical beach, like the one in the ad: is it her younger self we see or her daughter, who she encounters on her journey home, in the future? On the soundtrack we occasionally hear (the sound design is quite brilliant – Boris Debackere) tropical birds and there is a ‘magic realist’ moment concerning a dog. My uncertainty about these scenes certainly didn’t detract from the film and ensured we understood Devos’ intention wasn’t as a documentarian.
Incidentally the film had the best credits at the end: a blank black screen, apart from ‘A film by’ in the top left hand corner, is then filled with names with gaps in between them. The gaps are then populated, one at a time, with the role the person took. Yes, a film is made by everyone involved.
‘Walter Presents’ is the ‘authored brand’ of foreign language TV dramas offered by UK broadcaster Channel 4 via selected slots on its secondary channel More4 and on SVOD via its All4 streaming service. ‘Walter’ is Walter Iuzzolino, the Italian TV producer who finds the programming for Channel 4. The SVOD service is free to access in the UK, though it requires registration. I’m accessing it via Apple TV. Code 37 (the original title) is unusual in being an archive series/serial which ran in Belgium for three seasons in 2009, 2011 and 2012 – 39 episodes (of approx. 47 mins) in all. There was a standalone feature film in 2011, also titled Code 37. I’ve watched the first half of Season 1 and it’s been an interesting experience.
The narrative is set in the Flemish city region of Ghent (Gent) in East Flanders. The dialogue is mainly in Flemish with English subs and the occasional phrase in English. Episode 1 begins with the new boss of the city’s vice squad, Hannah Maes (Veerle Baetens) arriving on her first day at a murder scene in a hotel. She meets her new team and swiftly claims the case (of a guest murdered in her room) ahead of the homicide squad because, she argues, the woman in her 30s was clearly strangled during a ‘choke sex’ act. I’m not sure that the narrative establishes how this could be proven – i.e. whether this was a sex ‘game’ gone wrong or a deliberate act of murder. The episodes appear to be organised as one case per episode, so the team have barely 40 minutes to find the person responsible. In addition this first episode shows Hannah settling in to her new apartment after returning from working with American crime teams in Chicago. There is also a brief flashback to something that happened several years earlier in her parent’s home. This was clearly traumatic and marks Hannah as a young woman who is driven by her early experience of violent crime. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is a possible influence on the script and I note that Veerle Baetens once starred in a theatrical musical production of Salander’s ‘heroine’ model, ‘Pippa Longstocking’.
Code 37 is in many ways a conventional crime series. Hannah relaxes by playing vinyl records (her mother’s collection’) of classic Motown. One element that is different is Hannah’s ‘team’ which comprises three typical misfits. Charles is an asthmatic chain smoker close to retirement and Kevin is a young man with blonde curls which along with his wide grin make him appear like a naughty choirboy. He is the ‘computer wiz’. Finally there is Bob, the macho slob who cracks bad jokes and cranks out the sexist remarks about Hannah – out of her hearing.
This unlikely team is supposed to investigate ‘sex crimes’ and it does mean a slightly different approach to the standard police procedural. I imagine that a ‘vice squad’, like a ‘drugs squad’ will see a different balance in their work between the private and the personal. They will spend time in an alternative world which they need to understand. They may have to go undercover and they may have to make moral decisions about behaviour that they might not otherwise meet. The broadcaster may feel that with an SVOD offer it is possible to represent sexual acts more graphically than on terrestrial channels. This series has been sold to North American channels and I’ve seen one commentator suggesting that this European show might ramp up the sex but moderate the violence compared to US series. I’m not sure that is necessarily something I’ve noticed so far. The show comes complete with warnings about sex and violence but the registration process would be unlikely keep out the average savvy 11 year-old.
The weakness of the format is the short amount of time in which to set up a case for the team to investigate and apprehend the culprit(s) as well as exploring Hannah’s back story. But do the writers and director manage to get round the problem? I admit that after a couple of episodes I couldn’t really understand why the series seems to be so highly rated on IMDb. But there was something there that kept me watching (the box set binge attraction?). I’m glad I did because after eight episodes I’m enjoying the show a lot. The three team members who I thought were comic characters are being gradually fleshed out. Bob has got his comeuppance and Charles and Kevin prove to be competent and interesting characters with back stories that are slowly being revealed.
But the show stands or falls on Veerle Baeten’s Hannah and she is very good indeed. The character is similar in some ways to both Lisbeth Salander and Saga Noren but she isn’t as extreme as either of them. She has two other narratives to negotiate. The first is the trauma of a ‘home invasion’ at her parents’ house. Hannah is now trying to re-open the cold case and investigate it on her own. She is also trying to decide what to do about a possible relationship with her neighbour who lives on a barge behind her apartment. The cold case is introduced by the same flashback sequences each time Hannah visits her father. I do find this irritating but gradually more is being revealed so I’ll live with it. But the biggest surprise is the variety of cases the squad is required to investigate and the ways in which Hannah not only organises the work efficiently but also how she deals sympathetically and patiently with a wide range of victims and perpetrators. The code by which Hannah operates is spelled out in the first episode – if a sexual act between two people is consensual by both parties that’s OK. But if someone is forced it becomes a crime to be investigated. Presumably this will eventually be tested in an episode that involves BDSM? It is tested out in a different way in Episode 2 in which the team discover that a young woman is an exhibitionist who likes to strip and dance provocatively for a man in an apartment some distance from her high rise block. She sends him texts when she is about to start and he uses a telescope to watch her. This is clearly consensual but voyeuristic behaviour like this is, in general terms a crime, as Hannah reveals to the man whose wife and children are unaware of what he is doing. Because the young woman is involved in another incident which involves violence and is connected to her exhibitionism, the voyeur must be investigated. This risks his exposure and the possible break-up of his marriage and/or the loss of his job as a schoolteacher. This strikes me as an interesting moral dilemma for Hannah and her team – and one repeated in different ways throughout the series.
I’m assuming Belgian law is not dissimilar to that in France and other parts of Europe (i.e. it differs in some respect from English Common Law) but still the actions of the vice squad in arresting suspects and interrogating them seems to be free of some of the restrictions which have become common in UK crime fiction narratives. Again the short time available may mean that everything is streamlined for the narrative. The series has a team of writers and directors, the most used being the writer Hola Guapa (13 episodes) and the director Jakob Verbruggen (19 episodes). Verbruggen went on to direct both US and UK series including The Fall in the UK in 2013. Jan Vancaillie photographed the whole of series 1. I thought at first that the format would limit the range of locations but we do eventually get to see a bit more of the Ghent city region which has roughly the same population as Bradford (around half a million) but not the same range of landscapes I suspect. Ghent also seems much less of a multiracial city compared to both UK cities and to Brussels and Liège (with which I’m more familiar). The camerawork does attempt hand-held sequences and also both long shots and big close-ups. The latter often signal the flashbacks for Hannah’s trauma.
I will definitely complete at least Series 1 and if you are a crime fiction fan I would certainly recommend the series. If you stick with it past the first two or three episodes I think you will enjoy it as much as me. Don’t be put off by the sleazy connotations of ‘sex crimes’, the range of stories and the ‘human interest’ angles are all there.
This was the fourth Francophone film I saw in Glasgow that was directed by a woman and explored the possibilities of the family melodrama. Although in many ways a conventional narrative, there were several interesting facets of its setting and the screening was followed by a lively Q&A. The film is credited to Salima Glamine and Dimitri Linder as co-writers and directors of their first feature and in the Q&A Salima spoke first while Dimitri had one baby in his arms and another toddler having fun running around. The Q&A chair and the interpreter managed very well. Salima described herself as Algerian-French and the central character of the film is 17 year-old Amel played by Sofia Lesaffre as the daughter of a single-parent Algerian taxi driver (Pascal Elbe). I don’t remember any reference to Amel’s mother. Amel’s high school friends include a tearaway white girl Chloë (Salomé Dewaels)and Sima (Arsha Iqbal), a Pakistani girl from a traditional family. At the family wedding feast for Sima’s oldest brother we get the first inkling that Amel knows Mashir (Christopher Zeerak), Sima’s other brother who is 22.
Amel and Mashir have a secret relationship and they plan to find a way to escape family scrutiny by each separately moving to London. Amel tries to get a post as an au pair and Mashir is a computer engineer with prospects. All appears to be going well until the arrival of Mashir’s cousin, Noor (Atiya Rashid) who has been living in Berlin. She too joins the same high school class as Amel who tries to make her welcome. Noor believes that she will be able to marry a young man in Berlin, but now her parents are in Brussels and in contact with Mashir’s family there are all kinds of dangers as the inevitable meeting of parents prompts thoughts about a marriage between cousins.
‘For a Happy Life’ is a title that describes the dilemma for all concerned – how to act in such a way that everyone is happy. That’s probably not always possible, but some actions might be more damaging than others. Amel is clearly the character out on a limb. Fortunately Sofia Lesaffre gives a spirited performance in this lead role and her energy drives the film through its 85 minutes, ensuring a full-blown family melodrama. It’s no surprise that she strides around in her bright red jacket. I found the film intriguing and enjoyable, but I had lots of questions about the Pakistani community in Brussels, wondering how life for second generation teenagers might compare to that of young South Asians in Bradford.
Salima Glamine suggested that they simply chose the Pakistani community as a traditional community that might be threatened by interaction with a young woman like Amel. She explained that when she discovered there weren’t that many actors within the Belgian (or Parisian) Pakistani communities she used social media to find non-professionals who were prepared to join the cast. Only Javed Khan who plays Noor’s father was a professional actor (he has appeared in a number of Indian and British films. Since I don’t speak or understand French or Urdu well enough to detect accents I have no idea how the various family members in the film sound. The film seems to have gone down well with Belgian audiences and critics and it won both the audience and critics’ prizes at the Namur Francophone Film Festival. Nobody at the Glasgow screening mentioned the accents so I’m none the wiser on that score.
The film was presented in CinemaScope and I was impressed with its handling of a young romance and of the importance of social media in the lives of the young women in particular. There are shocks in the film and one is when a mobile phone is thrown out of a speeding car window. Needless to say the phone’s owner is soon seen ‘unboxing’ a new iPhone. In some ways, social media and traditional families don’t mix –things can happen too quickly and secrets can become known everywhere in a matter of seconds. It’s a far cry from the novels of the 19th century with hand-written letters and the reading of wills which seemed so important in generating melodrama presentations in theatre and early cinema adaptations. This is a first feature but Salima is an experienced actor and Dimitri has been a production manager on several high-profile Belgian films and I don’t think the film feels like a début directing effort.
Salima and Dimitri had worked before with youth groups in Paris and Brussels and we learned that so far it has been shown to around 5,000 teen agers in Belgium. It was important that the film’s ending has the suggestion of a future for the characters so many young audiences were asking for a sequel. One questioner, from Brussels, said he knew the Anderlecht area of the city very well but he wasn’t aware of the problems about arranged marriages which he ‘d noted were much more likely to be discussed in the British media. Salima’s response, that the community in Brussels is ‘first generation’ and more concerned about children ‘marrying out’ of the community, seems to make sense. Someone else asked if the actors raised any questions about being represented as the Pakistanis we saw in the film. Salima suggested that they did discuss the characters with the actors who suggested minor changes in the details but they were quite happy with the ‘core’ events of the story.
This is the kind of film we should see from Belgium in cinemas or on TV. My impression is that there are many interesting films about migration and the experiences of mixed communities coming from a range of European countries and we should be engaged with these issues in the UK. This is another reason why Brexit seems such a bad idea.
Here is a trailer in French (with French subs for the Urdu)
This was one of my real ‘finds’ at Glasgow. It is the first fiction feature of the documentary filmmaker Marta Bergman and was selected as one of the candidates for the ‘Audience Award’ competition. It’s not hard to see why. Marta Bergman was in attendance and she proved a fascinating guest. Alone at My Wedding was screened in the ‘ACID’ (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema) programme at Cannes in 2018. This programme features films that might have difficulty finding a distributor and currently this film is looking for distribution via the sales company Cercamon.
Marta Bergman, originally from Bucharest, studied at film school in Belgium and then returned to Romania to make documentaries. This first fiction feature has taken several years to make and clearly draws on the documentary experience. It mixes professional and non-professional actors. The narrative is relatively straightforward. Pamela (Alina Serban) is a single mother in her twenties living with her toddler Rebeca and her grandmother in a Roma community in a village on the outskirts of Bucharest. She has to find ways of earning money to buy food and decides eventually that the only way to survive is to find a rich husband via the internet. This isn’t easy (and requires her to raise money for the fees) but eventually, through an agency, she makes contact with Bruno (Tom Vermeir) in Brussels and agrees to fly to Belgium. She leaves Rebeca behind with her grandmother and tries to make a new life for herself in Brussels, sending the money Bruno gives her home to Romania. I won’t spoil what happens to her (and Rebeca) but I will say that Marta Bergman tells a human story in which some good things happen and Pamela is frustrated in her attempts to ‘get ahead’. Bruno is not a typical man who orders a ‘mail-order bride’, but even when it is clear that he wants the best for Pamela it doesn’t necessarily mean their relationship will work. There are Roma in Brussels and Pamela finds them easily enough. Meanwhile, things are happening in Bucharest where Marian (who might be the baby’s father) is concerned about Rebeca.
The film succeeds partly because Alina Serban is a terrific actor and a bubbling vivacious personality. She appears younger than her 30 years as listed on IMDb and she lives up to the database description of an ‘award-winning actor, playwright and director’. Marta Bergman told us that Alina was primarily a theatre actor but she does have previous film and TV experience. Tom Vermeir is also a theatre actor and he had to develop his Brussels French after working in Flemish theatre. Bergman’s documentary background is evident in the way she makes use of small gestures, some of which have come from observation of families in Bucharest. For instance, early in the film we see Pamela trudging through the snow with a bucket of water because her home has no running water. Later in Bruno’s flat she often leaves the water running, holding her fingers under the flow, revelling in its availability.
I enjoyed this film very much and I hope it gets a UK release. I’d like to show it to students and in the current Brexit climate it provides a powerful story about ‘living abroad’. If I have one slight criticism, it might be that at around 2 hours the film might be too long. By this I don’t mean that the material doesn’t warrant the length – there is more I would want to know – but that perhaps a slightly shorter, tighter narrative might appeal more to distributors? Having said that, I heartily recommend the film as it stands.