Category: Belgian Cinema

GFF19 #16: For a Happy Life (Pour vivre heureux, Belgium-Luxembourg 2018)

Amel (Sofia Lesaffre) and Mashir (Christoper Zeerak)

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.

The cousins Sima (Arsha Iqbal) and Noor (Atiya Rashid) in school

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.

Amel’s father Karim (Pascal Elbe) is a more ‘modern’ single parent and he is looking for a new female companion

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)

GFF19 #11: Alone at My Wedding (Seule à mon mariage, Belgium-Romania 2018)

Pamela (Alina Serban) and Bruno (Tom Vermeir)

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.

Pamela has long periods on her own to think about her situation

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.

Marian (Marian Samu) with Rebeca (Rebeca Anghel)

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.

GFF19 #2: Ceux qui travaillent (Those Who Work, Switzerland-Belgium 2018)

Frank is forced to take a long hard look at himself

This European co-production helmed by Swiss writer-director Antoine Russbach is a gripping drama, part moral tale, part family melodrama starring one of the great actors of Francophone cinema, Olivier Gourmet. Gourmet, the Belgian actor who almost defines the Dardenne Brothers’ films, is in nearly every scene as Frank, the archetypal ‘hard-working man’. The narrative begins with Frank caught up in the middle of a regular occurrence. He is a project manager for a shipping company which organises container traffic on ships bringing a range of goods to Europe. As far as I can work out, Frank is based in Francophone Geneva and the ship in this case is heading to Marseille from West Africa. In his conversations with the ship’s captain, Frank speaks English.

Frank has to solve problems and this is very difficult when the chartered flights ships are old and unreliable, the multinational crews are not always well-trained or well-paid and there are plenty of possible ways of making mistakes. Frank has to make a decision just as he is picking up the youngest of his five children from school because she is sick. He makes a morally reprehensible decision and later he will pay for his ‘mistake’ – even though it will save the company a great deal of money.

In this early section, the film seems to question the Protestant work ethic and the capitalist desire for profit above morality. Frank is a farmer’s son brought up in the ‘school of hard knocks’ – something he tries to explain to his four older children. He will then realise that his obsession with work – which has brought the family a swimming pool and many other luxury items – has also led to a neglect of his role as husband and father.

I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure any more, but I will note that his relationship with his youngest daughter is, in a way, his salvation in what becomes a family melodrama. I’ve read at least one review that suggests that the film has a ‘feelgood’ ending. I can’t agree with that but it is an abrupt ending and I may have misunderstood it. It seems to find a ‘human ending’ – signified by Frank’s rapprochement with his family, but also implies that he will go back to the same kind of work with similar possible consequences for projects that might go ‘wrong’.

Those Who Work is a conventional film with many familiar scenes and typical characters. Yet it never fails to engage and Gourmet’s performance holds everything together with great skill. His character explains that as a child he was never allowed to speak his mind and here Frank pauses before he speaks in a deliberate manner.

I don’t agree with the ideology of the film’s conclusion, but overall I found this an impressive production which I would like to see in UK cinemas. This entry in GFF’s ‘Window on the World’ strand made for a strong beginning for my visit to the festival.

Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love, France-Belgium 2018)

Rachel (Virginie Efira), Chantal aged 3 (Ambre Hasaj) and Philippe (Neils Schneider), photo: Stéphanie Branchu, Chaz Productions

Since the start of 2019 just two French films have been on release in the UK but both have struggled to find cinemas in West Yorkshire. It’s good that the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds has managed to screen Un amour impossible three times this week. La villa (The House By the Sea) has failed to appear in West Yorkshire at all as far as I’m aware. Foreign language films have been almost completely absent from our screens while the endless array of Anglo-American ‘awards’ films take over.

In these sad circumstances I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed Un amour impossible very much. I have a couple of quibbles, but I was very taken with the performance of the Belgian actor Virginie Efira in the lead role as Rachel Steiner in Catherine Corsini’s engaging melodrama. (Catherine Corsini’s best-known films in the UK are Summertime (2015) and Partir (2009).) An Impossible Love is a long film (135 mins) but I was entertained throughout. In fact, my main quibble was that the last section of the film seemed compressed.

Rachel Steiner is a young woman in the late 1950s who we first meet at a dance in Châteauroux in the Loire. A young woman is singing Paul Anka’s ‘Diana’. There is a narrator who we will soon realise is Rachel’s yet unborn daughter. Rachel left school at 17 and became a typist, eventually moving into a government office where she is still unmarried at 25 – despite being very attractive and personable. But then she meets Philippe, a young man working as a translator. He’s from a wealthy family and highly cultured. She is smitten and a physical relationship begins. But when Philippe’s translator’s job ends he returns to Paris and Rachel discovers she is pregnant. He has told her he will never marry and she accepts this, bringing up her daughter herself with her mother and sister in support. Occasionally, Philippe returns and Rachel begins to believe that he should at least ‘recognise’ his daughter so that she doesn’t have ‘father unknown’ on her birth certificate. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative which then extends over nearly 50 years and which in the final section includes one major shocking revelation.

Rachel and Chantal at 8

The narrative is based on a 2015 novel by Christine Angot which in turn is based on a true family story. The Belgian actor Virginie Efira, who was 40 when the film was shot, is required to age from 25 to her 60s (or 70s – I wasn’t quite sure when the final scenes are meant to be set). Her performance is extraordinary. I believed she was 25 – and 65. It isn’t just a matter of the make-up which took six to seven hours to apply each day for many scenes but also Efira’s facial and bodily movements, her speaking voice and overall physicality. Catherine Corsini thought carefully about whether to use more than one actor for the role and I think she chose well.

The film’s title is ambiguous since there are several interpretations of both ‘impossible’ and ‘love’ in the narrative. In the Press Notes, Catherine Corsini suggests that there are three main sections of the film: the romance between Rachel and Philippe, the solitude of Rachel bringing up her child and then the section in which Philippe ‘recognises’ Chantal leading to the ‘reveal’. I think that really there are four sections with the last part being split into two. As Rachel gets older there are more significant jumps ahead in time and I found that this happened too quickly. Over these sections the narrative draws on generic ideas about romance, then melodrama and finally moves towards a form of thriller or mystery. (During the romance the couple go to see Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle’s A Lift to the Scaffold (1958) – an odd choice for a date night?) Throughout these changes we watch the impact of events on Rachel and how she has the strength to carry on.

Rachel and Chantal who has just returned from a school trip to Venice

Philippe is an obnoxious character but it is possible to see why Rachel falls for him. Much of the time he is charming and when he utters an anti-semitic comment or expresses his snobbery and class hatred it comes as a real shock – I found myself almost crying out in anger. In a way Philippe’s behaviour is also a commentary on social history in France. There is a mention of the war in Algeria in the 1950s, some remarks about German women after the war who have lost their men, Rachel’s father left France for Alexandria to escape persecution – all references to attitudes and personal histories that underpin everyday relationships from the 1950s to the present.

If An Impossible Love hasn’t come your way in the UK, you can also catch it on the streaming service of its UK distributor Curzon. I recommend it for the performances, Virginie Efira in particular, Catherine Corsini’s direction, Jeanne Lapoirie’s ‘Scope cinematography, Virginie Montel’s costumes – and the entire hair and make-up team.

 

LFF2017 #6: Razzia (Morocco-France-Belgium 2017)

I enjoyed Razzia and found it a thought-provoking as well as entertaining film. The director Nabil Ayouch thought that its Toronto screenings went well and the film has been selected as Morocco’s Oscar entry in 2018 (not without some controversy). It will be released in Morocco, France and presumably other francophone countries early in 2018. It’s a shame that the director wasn’t at this London screening as he sounds an interesting character.

It’s a long time since I’ve been to Morocco but I remember thinking that it was a country which could explode, simply because of the lack of employment possibilities for the growing population of young people. The film’s title refers to the disturbances on the streets of Casablanca mainly by youths in 2012-13. I think ‘razzia‘ has the connotation of ‘raid’ in the Maghreb. (Researching the title I discovered an interesting polar, Razzia sur la chnouf (France 1955) starring Gabin and Ventura.) The narrative actually begins in a village in the Atlas mountains where a charismatic school teacher becomes friendly with a young widow whose son attends the school. The villagers gossip about the couple’s relationship but the children adore the teacher. This is 1983 and the progressive teacher comes to the notice of the authorities introducing educational ‘reforms’. Soon he is ousted when he refuses to shift to rote learning in Arabic instead of his more Socratic teaching in the local Berber language. He sets off for Casablanca and is barely seen again in the narrative which then moves forward to life in Casablanca some 30 years later. We do see the woman from the mountains again, and her son Yto, now a man of around forty working in a restaurant. The restaurateur, Joe (Arieh Worthalter) is Jewish and he will become another of the main characters whose lives in the city we will explore.

Salima (Maryam Touzani)

There are three other central characters who are not directly connected to the four already mentioned. One is Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid), a young man who is attempting to become a pop singer following the example of his idol Freddie Mercury. The second is Salima (Maryam Touzani, the co-writer on the film), a woman who has become ‘westernised’ and has started to be criticised for the clothes she wears and the way she presents herself. She is in a rather dismal relationship with a businessman who doesn’t respect her freedom. Finally, and introduced only in the last part of the film, is Inès (Dounia Binebine) a young middle-class girl, a 15 year-old who is left to her own devices by her parents and who is determined to lose her virginity.

Hakim (Abdelilah Rachid)

These characters are connected only loosely in most cases, though in some ways the restaurant provides a kind of focal point. Don’t expect a single linear narrative. I think Joe and Salima have the most developed stories/scenarios but all the characters contribute something. Think of the film more as a kind of illustrated essay about what is happening in Casablanca.  Most audiences will also home in on the symbolic or metaphorical use of the film Casablanca (US 1942). The Yto is proud of the film, imagining it to have been shot in ‘his’ city and his boss doesn’t know whether to break it to him that the film was entirely shot on a Hollywood sound stage. On the same level of symbolism, we are also offered a similar shot at the beginning and end of the film – a traditional high-backed chair is placed at a full-length open window looking out onto an indistinct vista. Here is a society that seemingly doesn’t know where it is going. The young are angry, the unemployed attack the rich, the Islamists turn against the secularists, minorities like gay men and women or the Jewish community struggle to feel secure. Yet Casablanca is a vibrant city with a long history and rich culture and the film appears to be a cry of pain about the lack of direction and the indifference towards inequalities.

I fear that Razzia won’t get a UK release (I can’t remember the last Maghrebi film I saw on release), but perhaps because this is a French co-production handled by Unifrance we’ll have a slightly better than usual chance of seeing it. Nabil Ayouch is a controversial director and here he does seem to be offering a more complex view of his country than the two usual images we have in the UK of either tourism/music/food or young migrants crossing over to Europe. The music in the film, which looks very good, is very good but there is so much going on I would need more viewings to take it all in. I enjoyed all the performances. Here’s the 33 second teaser – enjoy.

L’odyssée (The Odyssey, France-Belgium 2016)

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (Lambert Wilson) and his two young sons in 1949. Simone (Audrey Tautou) is operating the tiller in the background.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Even at just over two hours, L’odyssée struggles to cover only the middle stretch of a career that lasted over fifty years. The film focuses on the highlights of the most productive period of the life of Cousteau when he gained international fame through his undersea exploits, television programmes and eventual turn to environmental concerns. I think it will be difficult for younger audiences in the UK to comprehend what kind of international following Cousteau was able to attract – he won major civil honours in several countries and only David Attenborough has ever reached the same profile as a celebrity associated with the natural world. The surprising omission for me was any mention of Louis Malle who as a young man co-directed the Academy award-winning The Silent World (1956) with Cousteau. Fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray will however recognise that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is based on the exploits of Cousteau and his crew.

The Cousteau family using the aqualungs that Cousteau developed.

L’odyssée is a major production with an estimated budget of €20 million – large by European standards, even if France is the major European film production centre. Director Jérôme Salle seems to specialise in large-scale productions with major stars but as far as I can see his films have not previously appeared in UK cinemas (though two have been released on DVD). According to IMDb, L’odyssée is being screened in a 2.66 : 1 ratio and it was shot digitally on a 6K Red camera. I’m not sure about the ratio at the screening I attended, but you’d expect an epic presentation for Cousteau’s story of exploration and overall the film doesn’t disappoint. There are three major stars (perhaps two of them are ‘star actors’). Lambert Wilson has the trickiest job as ‘JYC’ (Cousteau) and since the action begins around 1949 when Cousteau was approaching 40 and finishes when he is approaching 70. Wilson himself is in his late 50s. Audrey Tautou faces a similar long haul but she has the advantage of being nearer in age to Cousteau’s wife Simone in 1949 and with make-up and wigs she approaches 60 more easily. She also doesn’t appear on screen as frequently (one of the major minuses of the film for me). The third major character is Cousteau’s younger son Philippe played as an adult by Pierre Niney, highly praised on this blog for his role in Frantz (France-Germany 2016). Sporting very fetching 70s facial hair, Niney is a strong presence in the second half of the film.

Pierre Niney as Philippe Cousteau in the 1970s.

As I’ve indicated, this is a partial biopic, but that is only one of the genre repertoires that Salle draws on. Perhaps just as important is the mix of epic adventure/exploration and natural history film/environmental polemic. I was struck with the similarity in parts to the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) with Cousteau seeking funding for his expeditions and then risking everything in physical encounters with seas, storms and sharks. The underwater scenes in the film are definitely one of its attractions and the budget was partly spent on location shooting in the Bahamas, Croatia, South Africa and Antarctica. The weakness of the narrative is the final genre repertoire, the family or personal drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘JYC’ was unable to be the father and husband that his wife and sons expected. The narrative also suggests that his desire to succeed in his ambitious ventures led him to become too interested in the money that could be earned and that he exploited his family and loyal crew members. (At the same time, he is unaware just how expensive his ambitious plans have become.) There isn’t time to explore this and there is quite a telling moment when Cousteau is in the US for his television commitments and his elder son phones to tell him that his father has died. JYC refuses to return to France immediately. This feels like an insertion of a little shorthand scene to stand in for a whole sub-narrative. The film’s script was written by Salle and Laurent Turner and is based on two books, one by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the surviving older son who has carried on the family business and the other by the captain of the Cousteau ship, the Calypso. On this basis, there must be a strong factual starting point to what appears on screen. I think I would argue that despite its flaws, there is a great deal to commend about L’odyssée. It boasts wonderful cinematography by Matias Boucard and a music score by the celebrated Alexandre Desplat. You should seek out the biggest screen you can find.

We watched the film at the new arts centre in Halifax, the Square Chapel, in the smaller ‘Copper’ auditorium which is also used for theatrical productions. It’s good to be in a new cinema space and we were impressed to see how busy it was for a Friday morning screening. The downside is that films are presented without masking – the CinemaScope film was shown on a standard widescreen ratio screen so there were visible white bars above and below the image. Someone once tried to tell me that nobody notices this, but sitting two rows from the front they were clearly visible to us. Please, cinemas – bring back masking!

Souvenir (Belgium-Luxembourg-France 2016)

Isabelle Huppert as Liliane/Laura in one of her striking gowns as the chanteuse making a comeback

I never thought that I’d see a Francophone film at the Hebden Bridge Picture House with only 13 of us in the auditorium, especially one starring Isabelle Huppert (perhaps everyone came to the only other screening last week). The issue here is that Souvenir is one of those French films more or less ‘dumped’ in cinemas with little promotion by StudioCanal on its way to a swift DVD release (August 14 in the UK). But what a strange film it is! It may be that the distributor hopes to cash in on Huppert’s high-profile success in Elle. On the other hand, this film was shown at the London Film Festival last October, presumably because the directors previous short films have been released on a BFI collection. If I’d seen it as part of the ‘Love’ section of LFF I would have thought it was out of place – but I would have enjoyed it.

La Huppert plays Liliane, a lonely woman working on a specialised production line in a paté factory. One day a young temporary worker, Jean (Kévin Azaïs – the male lead in Les combattants) recognises her as a singer who, under the stage name of ‘Laura’, once appeared in a Eurovision-type song contest forty years ago. Jean is only 22 and it is his father who has always been a fan, but now the younger man is attracted to Liliane. He wants to resurrect her career. Everything that follows is predictable, but also engaging.

Liliane with Jean (Kévin Azaïs) and his father (Jan Hammenecker )

I wondered if this was meant to be a 1930s musical romance presented in the style of . . . a 1930s musical romance. At times it seems very old-fashioned. Its use of colour and its nostalgic feel is in some ways reminiscent of Populaire (France-Belgium 2012)  According to IMDb, Belgian writer-director Bavo Defurne has a background in short films and a single feature, North Sea Texas (2011), about young gay romances. Perhaps Souvenir is one of those examples of a small film that Isabelle Huppert supports for reasons of her own. I doubt any other star actor of her magnitude would take it on – or could take it on. It is almost the kind of role that Barbara Stanwyck might have taken (and I can’t think of higher praise than that).

This is a co-production in which different scenes are shot in different European regions so that local funding is triggered. I thought I recognised a riverside scene as shot in Liège and sure enough both Liège itself and the Wallonie Film Fund appeared in the credits alongside Ostende and Bruxelles. I think this is really a Belgian film and I don’t know if this explains the humour. I laughed out loud several times. The music in the film comes mainly from Pink Martini, a US ‘mini-orchestra’ whose players are well-known in Europe. Pink Martini released a 2016 album including the two main songs from the film and the album’s title is the key phrase from the song that Laura/Liliane sings in her comeback, ‘Je dis oui !’ – the woman who says ‘Yes’ to all the charms of her young man. Jean has trained as a boxer and has the muscles to prove it. My guess is that Bavo Defurne (one of the co-writers of the song) is making a reference to that scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (US 1953) when Jane Russell explores a gymful of muscled Olympic athletes on her transatlantic sea crossing.

Liliane with her former husband and manager Tony Jones (Johan Leysen)

I can’t claim to know enough about the history of chanson but for me the music in Souvenir seemed more like the 1960s than 1974 (when ABBA won Eurovision, as quoted in the film). Liliane’s song ‘Joli Garçon’ (Pretty Boy) is actually very catchy and it might indeed do well in Eurovision. Defurne uses it skilfully in ‘Souvenir’ – which in turn is the title of the song that ‘Laura’ is supposed to have sung in 1974.

Anything starring Isabelle Huppert is worth watching and, taken in the right spirit, Souvenir is entertaining. The director has said that he hoped to produce a ‘Sunday TV matinee movie’ and that seems a reasonable description – except that in the UK the subtitles will probably prevent it happening.

The Unknown Girl (La fille inconnue, Belgium-France 2016)

Dr Jenny (Adèle Haenel) by the River Meuse in Seraing

Dr Jenny (Adèle Haenel) by the River Meuse in Seraing

The Dardenne Brothers are among the most reliable and consistent filmmakers working today. It was something of a surprise that their appearance at Cannes this year was not met with universal acclaim. Indeed they decided that they needed to recut The Unknown Girl before its international release and seven minutes were excised to leave a 106 minute feature. With this in mind and fearing, if not the worst, then the possibility of disappointment, I was relieved to find that it was business as usual.

The narrative premise is simple. A young and highly-regarded doctor fails to answer the surgery door long after normal working hours. She reasons that if it is really urgent the caller will press the bell again. But nothing happens until later when the police inform the doctor that CCTV footage shows a young woman at the surgery door and that it is the same young woman who has been found dead on the bank of the River Meuse a short distance away. The doctor is shaken and struck by a profound sense of guilt as well as compassion for an unnamed woman whose identity is a mystery. Doctor Jenny Gavin, played by rising French star Adèle Haenel, becomes the first Dardenne brothers’ protagonist to be drawn from the professional classes. She’s also the third mainstream French actress in a row to feature in the Dardennes’ social realist films. As usual, the Dardennes had been mulling over the central idea for the story for a few years before they decided to make it after meeting Adèle Haenel. The circumstances of the story are also quite familiar. It could almost be a spin-off from the opening scenes of The Kid With a Bike when the boy in question runs into a doctor’s surgery. The ‘kid’ (Thomas Doret) turns up again in the new film, five years on in a small role and there are plenty of other familiar faces from the Dardennes’ films including Jérémie Renier, Olivier Gourmet, Christelle Cornil and Fabrizio Rongione. But the differences are noticeable.

Dr. Jenny on a home visit with a diabetes patient

Dr. Jenny on a home visit with a diabetes patient

The social class difference is important. In the other films, the protagonist is either a young person struggling with a social/personal problem or an older woman subject to some form of control. Here, Jenny is a successful doctor, able to make her own decisions and to access the money she needs to fund her ‘investigation’ – since that is what she undertakes, a mission to find out who the dead girl was and even to pay for a decent burial (while hoping that the deceased’s family will eventually appear to claim her). I realised later that the narrative has some similarities with the recent ‘Hollywoodised’ versions of popular novels like The Girl on the Train – in which a middle-class woman tries to find out what happened when she appears to be involved in a murder. I won’t spoil what happens to Jenny but she starts her investigation with no accusations against her – the police accept that not answering the door after closing time at the surgery is not a crime. She is therefore motivated by her own sense of responsibility and morality. Jenny’s behaviour is also linked to another ‘failing’ in that she refused to answer the door as part of an attempt to exert her authority over an intern, Julien (Olivier Bonnaud). She was trying to teach him that doctors need to be alert and that he must avoid ‘overworking’ so his head remains clear to deal with patients in surgery time. But perhaps she gets this wrong too?

Dr Jenny is also to some extent an ‘unknown girl/woman’. We know nothing about her background. She appears to be single and without any form of ‘outside’ commitments. (It’s still unusual to have a female protagonist who isn’t either involved with a man or constrained by family responsibilities.) She takes her work seriously and the death of the woman seems to galvanise her into making a decision to work alone as a GP in a working-class practice. She works long hours and spends the rest of her time on the investigation – which will involve people from the neighbourhood. This all makes her sound rather dull and indeed some reviewers have criticised the film because they think that she is a dull and humourless figure and that the story is not ‘exciting’ enough. I don’t really agree with this. She isn’t humourless and she has a good relationship with her patients. It’s true that at first there aren’t the entertaining sequences – confrontations between characters – that we find in earlier Dardennes films. But she finds things out and the confrontations come eventually. Some reviewers have seen the development of a film noir narrative in the second half. Other reviews suggest that she is a ‘do-gooder’ and somehow morally ‘superior’ – which are not attractive features. I think her moral dilemmas are ‘real’ and that the reactions she evokes are understandable and have to be handled. The social issues are still there – migrant workers, male attitudes to prostitution and working-class confrontations with a young female medical practitioner. I also found it interesting to see something about social medicine in Belgium, which has a different system to the UK. Home visits are rare in the UK now but thankfully nobody has to pay for treatment. I’ve seen criticism that the narrative becomes contrived, but this can also be seen (as in other Dardennes films) as portraying the inter-connectedness of communities and the film manages to embed the central story in a recognisable world.

Not a crowd-pleaser film perhaps, but a great central performance offering plenty to think about.