Category: Biopic

Cézanne et moi (France 2016)

cezanne-et-moi

Guillaume Gallienne (left) as Paul Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola

This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).

French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.

I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates her and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.

The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.

Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).

Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. As yet there isn’t a trailer with English subs, but you can get some sense of the visual style of the film and the central performances in this bande annonce:

Race (Canada-Germany-France 2016)

jesse-owens-race-movie-poster

This film is being distributed in the UK by Altitude Films and I saw it as a Vue Cinema. You have to estimate the adverts and trailers if you do not want to sit through them. But when they are over there is a warning about the use of mobile phones, tablets and all the other electronic clutter. Then the feature  begins. However, on this occasion, after the BBFC certification, (PG – infrequent racist language, mild bad language, sex references, violence), I found we were watching contemporary sports people! This was not recognition of the enduring legacy of Jesse Owens, the film’s subject, but some sort of promotion. This is another of those really bad ideas made easier by digital technology, the cinematic equivalent of those annoying trailers that television often runs over the end credits.

So, after a couple of minutes, we did actually get the movie, a biopic. The film starts in 1933 when Jesse Owens won a scholarship to Ohio State University. Apart from his physical prowess the early stages of the film present his personal life, including marriage to his partner Ruth Solomon (Shanice Banton) who has already born him a child. At the University there is a clear presentation of the racism that separates black students from white. Here we meet coach Larry Snyder full of aphorisms and nearly always hugging a bottle.

The film becomes more interesting when the spectre of the 1936 Berlin Olympics rises. In the USA, as elsewhere, there is a debate about a possible boycott because of the Nazi oppression, especially against Jews. The debate is dramatised through Jeremiah Mahoney (William Hurt), for a boycott, and Avery Brundage, for participation. Avery Brundage journeys to Berlin where he meets Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. The Nazi leader agrees to ‘tone down’ their actions for the duration of the Olympics. So Jesse goes to Berlin and wins his four gold medals.

The US characters are generally well played though fairly conventional, Stephan Jones as James Cleveland Owens (his actual names) is credible as the  athlete and Jason Sudeikis’ coach is engaging and suitably liberal. The athlete/coach relationship is full of recognisable scenes and tropes: there is even a variation on the classic ‘I was made to run’ line. Jeremy Irons as Avery Brundage brings a Machiavellian quality to his character and steals most of the scenes in which he plays. Barnaby Metshurat’s Goebbels is equally Machiavellian but also monosyllabic and malevolent. Carise Van Houten’s Riefenstahl is well done but bears little resemblance to the actual character.

Carise Van Houten as Riefenstahl

Carise Van Houten as Rifienstahl

Riefenstahl provides an angle to the script which makes much of the filming of the Olympics, though it is only infrequently reflexive. Riefenstahl also acts as an interpreter tween Brundage and Goebbels. These scenes are the closest that the film comes to addressing the political substance of this story. Predominately this is a sporting film, so the various obstacles  in Jesse’s path merely delay his triumph. There is a token appearance of a representative of the NAACP, which organisation supported a boycott. And when two US athlete who are Jewish are blocked by the Nazis, they still turn up and tell Jesse to win for ‘America’.

Leni Riefenstahl

Leni Riefenstahl

The film does address the vicious racism in the USA. However, probably unintentionally, the racism of the Nazis tends to be balanced by this. There is a telling scene where Jesse and Ruth, even after his medal triumph, have to use the staff entrance when attending a celebratory banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria. In neither case does the film address the actual nature of the racisms. The racist attitude of the crowd at a US college sporting occasion turns easily to cheers when Jesse wins. I doubt it was that simple.

The film is overall entertaining. There is a lot of CGI, but mostly well done if noticeable. The camera work and editing are generally fine, though at time parallel editing is somewhat clumsy. The Sight & Sound review notes that Owens was a life-ling Republican  who argued against the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is a logic of sorts in that view. The film was completed long enough ago to have a release in Canada in February this year. So there is no attempt to address the ironies of Olympic boycotts including the current one.

Sirk #5: Battle Hymn (US 1957)

battlehymnposter

Battle Hymn is the film that probably puzzles Sirk fans more than any other. It’s a biopic of an unusual American military hero who was also a minister for an Ohio church. Though the film’s script doesn’t follow the story of Colonel Dean Hess with absolute fidelity, Hess was constantly on set and was able to veto the casting of Robert Mitchum (thought unsuitable because of his reputation – for smoking dope?) in this part-biopic. This presence reportedly drove Sirk to distraction because it prevented him going further in departing from the script.

Hess joined the USAAF after Pearl Harbour and, in a ground attack role in Germany, accidentally bombed an orphanage killing 37 children. The film suggests that the terrible memory of this incident caused Hess to return to active service in 1950 in order to train pilots for the Republic of Korea (i.e. the South Korean) airforce. The training took place close to the front line and Hess then became involved in rescuing several hundred Korean orphans/refugees caught up in the fighting. Later Hess used the proceeds from his successful autobiographical book and its film adaptation (both were released in 1957) to build a new orphanage in South Korea.

Battle Hymn is a Technicolor/CinemaScope epic starring Rock Hudson in the lead role as Hess. Drenched in a soupy score to enhance the religiosity of many scenes, Battle Hymn is as resolutely conventional as its plotline implies. It even begins with a propagandist throwback – an introduction to the film by the Air Force General commanding during the Korean War. Sirk had nothing to do with this and claimed that he had never seen it. But why did he agree to direct the film?

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Sirk’s testimony in Jon Halliday’s interviews with him is quite revealing about his complex relationship with Hollywood. First he says that he liked working with children and that he was attracted to the idea of working with the Korean children (which he concedes might be because of their ‘foreigness’. Linked to this is his interest in Korean and Japanese culture. It is this which initially gets him interested in the story when he meets a Korean military attaché and then the notorious Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose wife turned out to be Austrian (and who enjoyed speaking German with the director). Although the film appears to have been shot in Arizona, Sirk did get out to Korea and Japan and Hess himself flew Sirk over North Korea at one point. This combination of children/Korean culture/German culture and flying was very attractive to Sirk. Unfortunately, the film also came with ‘front office’ interest, a sizeable budget and Rock Hudson (by now a major star). Sirk could see in the script the possibility of exploring yet again a complex character – a man with religious beliefs who could invest his energy in the seemingly opposite pursuits of killing the enemy and saving the children. Sirk wanted to emphasise this by finding a visual/dramatic expression of this split personality. He toyed with the idea of making Hess a drinker but the real Hess fought against this and his presence on set was enough to force Sirk to abandon the idea. Sirk also suggests that Rock Hudson should not have played the role. Instead it should have gone to an actor like Robert Stack who could represent this ‘duality’ more convincingly. It seems a little pat to suggest that only a few months after completing Written on the Wind and not long before The Tarnished Angels, Sirk would contemplate repeating the Hudson-Stack pairing in some way, but that might be the case. There are also two moments/two aspects of the script which intriguingly look forward to future Sirk projects – and two of his best films.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

‘Hess’ is a German name and the character explains to his church deacon that his bombing of the orphanage in Germany was even more painful because of his grandmother’s memories of the area. This is yet another twist to the back story of this complex character (who is known to his old buddies from 1944-5 as ‘Killer Hess’). A year after making Battle Hymn, Sirk would go to Germany to make a film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die (the title being slightly changed). In 1959, Sirk’s last Hollywood film was Imitation of Life and Sirk had long had a fascination with what he called the ‘race question’. In Battle Hymn he cast (I’m assuming he had some say in the matter) James Edwards, one of the pioneering Black actors in Hollywood in the 1950s, as Lt. Maples, one of the American pilots selected to help train the Koreans. This was a major coup for Hollywood (though it didn’t signal a breakthrough in better roles for Black actors). As recent films like Red Tails (2012) have depicted, the American Air Forces were segregated in the Second World War. Segregation in US Armed Forces didn’t end until an order from Harry Truman was issued in 1948, so the action in Korea in 1950 was barely into the new era. Battle Hymn emphasises Edwards’ role as Lt. Maples with two incidents. First, he is ordered to attack a target that later turns out to be a truck full of children – finding himself responsible for children’s deaths just as Hess had done in Germany. Later, when he has volunteered to help to look after the children on the base, he sings what was then known as a ‘negro spiritual’ song to them, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. To Sirk’s credit, the film at least includes the Maples character in the central narrative.

The other notable aspect of Battle Hymn is its focus on the rescue of the children. This chimes with a cycle of similar post-war films in several countries, including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (UK 1958) in which Ingrid Bergman played a British woman missionary escorting 100 children to safety in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The rescue mixes with the biopic narrative to create a Hollywood storyline but the popularity of the film (to the relief of Universal no doubt) also depended on the aerial sequences which are well handled by Sirk and his crew.

Steve Jobs (US-UK 2015)

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, artfully framed by Danny Boyle and Alwin H Küchler

Screen 1 at Curzon Soho was not full for the first evening screening of Steve Jobs (on the night of the Paris attacks). This doesn’t augur well for a film that has been designated a ‘flop’ in North America. It’s a shame that this production isn’t succeeding commercially, though given its relatively modest – by Hollywood standards – budget of $30 million it won’t be the disaster some commentators seem to be gleefully anticipating. All involved in the film will be comforted by the high levels of critical acclaim that the film has generated so far and in the group that I was part of, all of us were impressed by the script, performances, direction and technical contributions.

Inevitably Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs has been compared to David Fincher’s The Social Network, especially since Fincher reportedly turned down the chance to direct Steve Jobs because the fee offered was too low. I was not a fan of The Social Network but it was well made. However, it cost $50 million and I think Danny Boyle did a better job on a smaller budget. Aaron Sorkin wrote both films – with Steve Jobs heavily dependent on the biography of Jobs written by Walter Isaacson. Neither film is a biopic in the conventional sense of the term, both focusing on the founding myths and early years of the two companies (Facebook and Apple).  Steve Jobs covers three moments of Jobs ‘presenting’ aspects of his ‘work’ (or perhaps his ‘vision’). The Social Network sometimes feels like a thriller/legal investigation into who did what, whereas Steve Jobs is more like a relationship drama with Jobs ranged against five different individuals, most of whom have positive reasons to love/admire him as well as genuine anger about what he has done.

Danny Boyle is a theatre director as well as a renowned film director and he seems like the perfect choice for a film which is heavily biased towards long dialogue scenes in enclosed spaces. Boyle rehearsed his cast for two weeks before shooting each of the film’s three sections and the result is a series of dialogue exchanges which really zing and hum with intensity (and quite a few laughs). But despite the restrictions, Boyle finds ways to make the film narrative genuinely cinematic in feel. I’m at a loss as to why some critics (and film scholars) disparage Danny Boyle. He makes films that are always interesting to watch – and he seems like a genuinely nice bloke (and a genuine supporter of working-class popular culture as part of film and theatre). He is often innovative in his approach to the visual style of his films and here he turns again to Alwin H. Küchler (who previously photographed Boyle’s Sunshine in 2007). Küchler has been one of the best UK-based cinematographers since the 1990s (he trained at the UK National Film School) and first worked for Lynne Ramsay and then Michael Winterbottom. The three sections of Steve Jobs are set in 1984 with the launch of the first Macintosh, 1988 with Jobs’ presentation of his NeXT cube and 1998 with the iMac launch. These are photographed in 16mm, 35 mm and HD with interesting ‘bridging’ moments. It would require a second viewing to see if the sections are also framed differently or if there are other distinctive features.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet at the show to launch the Apple 2 in 1985.

Kate Winslet is a revelation in her role as Jobs’ Marketing Manager and Michael Fassbender is as terrific as Jobs as we all expected. Jeff Daniels is the CEO who battles Jobs and Michael Stuhlbarg is the engineer in a similar position. Seth Rogen and Katherine Waterston draw the short straws as Steve Wozniak (the co-founder of Apple with Jobs) and the mother of Jobs’ daughter – two roles that are restricted to being angry about Jobs’ behaviour. The real question, as another friend suggested to me is: “Why would anyone buy a ticket to see this film?”. Despite the great script, terrific performances etc.  the truth is that the film almost deliberately thwarts the expectations of at least two communities. Apple devotees interested in the history of the computers get only a partial story that stops in 1998. Anyone who sees Steve Jobs as some kind of visionary figure (the film begins with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke ‘predicting’ the coming of the personal computer) may well find his treatment of his closest colleagues and collaborators repellent. And those who actually enjoy the ‘warts and all’ story are likely to be dismayed by the last (unnecessary) 10 minutes which become very sentimental. The truth is that in the early days of Apple, the computers were venerated by relatively small groups of people who struggled to convince others in a world dominated by Microsoft. And it’s true that the machines were expensive and actually not very useful outside certain DTP and Design applications until the appearance of the G3 range in 1997. This is more or less when Steve Jobs ends with the announcement of the iMac. Unlike Facebook which the majority of the audience know something about, Jobs and Apple’s story is obscure for most of the audience who know Apple through its ‘phones and tablets.

In some ways the script refers back to those Warner Bros. biopics of the 1930s – about the great men and women who did something unique. But Jobs’ achievements are not as easily defined as those of Madame Curie or Louis Pasteur. To really understand some of his ‘vision’ requires a great deal of context about computer design and the history of the industry which can’t be contained in a feature like this. Sorkin’s script relies on the marketing/promotional spiel at the launches of new products (were these his unique contributions?). Little is heard about Microsoft (or the Amiga and Atari – both as important as Apple in the 1980s). When the breakthrough comes with the iMac in 1998, there is no mention of Jony Ive who designed it. Ive has spoken about Jobs as having “bold” and “magnificent” ideas, but he is the one who puts them into practice like Steve Wozniak did earlier, only to be ditched by Jobs.

Steve Jobs will endure as a film to be studied, I think, and it represents another chapter in Danny Boyle’s interesting directing career, even if it doesn’t do the expected business at the box office.

Here’s the ‘featurette’ that tries to explain what the film is about:

The First Film (UK 2015)

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince

This is a new study of Louis Le Prince, who in 1888 shot three short sequences of film in Leeds in West Yorkshire. Two were filmed in a garden in the Roundhay suburb and one on the Leeds Bridge in the City Centre. Le Prince designed and constructed his own camera. He used a paper strip combined with cellulose. At the time he was also working to use the new celluloid material and it seems he had also solved the problem of projecting his film. These films precede the far more famous Thomas Edison in New York and the Lumière Brothers in Paris. Yet Le Prince is far less well known than the other pioneers of cinema.

The director, David Nicolas Wilkinson, wants to change this and give Le Prince [and Leeds} their proper place in the early history of film and cinema. His film provides a biography of Le Prince and a study of the technology and techniques he developed and the short films that he made. The film also addresses the fact that he only made these three films – a mystery surrounds the failure to follow on his pioneering work. The mystery is also investigated in the new study.

The area does offer memorabilia to Le Prince: there are blue plaques on Leeds Bridge and alongside the old BBC building where Le Prince had a workshop. Both the Armley Industrial Museum and the National Media Museum have displays about Le Prince and the Museum has a series on on-line pages.

The film itself has a Charity première at the Hyde Park Picture House, another historical film site, on Wednesday July 1st at 8 p.m. The event will include a presentation on Le Prince, examples of early film technology on display: and the added bonus of a DVD and the seminal book on Made In Yorkshire [by Tony Earnshaw and Jim Moran]. I suspect the event will sell out quickly, recognition that seems to have eluded Le Prince in his own lifetime. There is another screening at the National Media Museum on July 2nd at 6.30 p.m.

Get On Up (US 2014)

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown early in his career

Chadwick Boseman as James Brown early in his career

I don’t really understand why biopics – and especially music biopics – get such a rough ride from reviewers. Get On Up was the latest offering from my local Film Club and I went along because I actually like biopics and because I like to support African-American cinema. The only thing I could remember about the film’s November 2014 release in the UK was that it was a wide release which didn’t get much support at the box office. I suspect that the poor response was associated with a general lack of interest in African-American culture in the UK. Although major stars such as Denzel Washington or Will Smith are well supported this tends to be only when they feature in mainstream white films.

Get On Up, as the title suggests, is a biopic focusing on James Brown, an artist of supreme importance in the history of Black music but possibly not well known to an audience under 40. Brown had a complicated life and his music developed in complex ways over his life. This long film (139 mins) gives a fair overview using a slightly unconventional approach but is forced to make compromises, thus missing out or only briefly touching on aspects of the star’s life.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the astonishing performance of Chadwick Boseman as the adult James Brown. It’s one of those ‘impersonation’ performances and the film should have won awards for the hair stylists. Boseman does sing in the film but mainly mimes to live recordings by Brown. He certainly manages to perform convincing moves on stage (convincing to me with only limited memories of James Brown) despite being much taller. Boseman earlier played baseball star Jackie Robinson in 42 (US 2013).

The slightly unconventional approach involves a non-linear narrative in which the action moves between past and ‘present’ in what sometimes seem random ways. Added to this Boseman/Brown occasionally approaches the camera and addresses the viewer. I think that sometimes these switches of time are connected to Brown’s motivations in connecting his disturbed childhood with issues that arise in his career. Overall, the narrative structure appears to be built out of short groups of scenes (sometimes signalled by titles associated with songs or names given to Brown such as ‘Godfather of Soul’ – with an accompanying date and location). The overall effect is a bit more like a music documentary structure than a conventional drama. I suspect that there are more ‘performances’ than usual even in a music biopic.

At this point I should say that I do like James Brown’s music and the film did remind me of what an important figure he was (I recognised most of the songs). I enjoyed the moments when there was discussion of the music itself – how it was changing – but these were too few and too short. My other concern was about the history of James Brown’s relationship with African-American culture. Again there were some interesting sequences, including a surreal appearance on a Frankie Avalon Christmas Show when a relatively young James Brown and the Famous Flames, dressed in Andy Williams style cardigans, are cavorting for a completely white TV studio audience. There are a handful of similar sequences in which Brown’s ‘blackness’ and his social role come to the fore but not as much as I had hoped for and expected. It was only later that I learned that the screenplay was written by the British Butterworth brothers, Jez and John-Henry and that the Rolling Stones (who are featured in a 1964 show) were Executive Producers (Mick Jagger has a producer credit). The film was directed by Tate Taylor, best known for The Help (2011) and two of the stars of that film, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, appear as Brown’s mother and aunt respectively. At some point I think Spike Lee was attached to the project and it would be interesting to find out how he might have approached the film differently.

I think that this film is most likely to be compared to Ray (US 2004), a much more commercially successful film that also won more critical plaudits. I suspect that Ray’s music – which had more crossover appeal – might have been a factor and the inclusion of more obviously dramatic sequences. I think though that two films directed by African-American women (rather than white men) are also worth considering. One is Cadillac Records (US 2008) about the Chess record company and its roster of blues and soul stars and directed by Darnell Martin. The other is Talk to Me (US 2007), a biopic of a radio DJ (Don Cheadle) wonderfully directed by Kasi Lemmons. There is a parallel scene in Talk to Me and Get on Up, focusing on the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination.  The smart move would have been to recruit Lemmons, a vastly underrated director, to helm the male music biopics.

Despite my quibbles I enjoyed Get on Up and I should mention a good supporting turn by Dan Aykroyd as Brown’s manager Ben Bart. Here’s a short trailer:

The Runaways (US 2010)

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett (left) with Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett (left) with Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

This was Kristen Stewart’s other ‘indie’ in 2010 and something different to Welcome to the Rileys. ‘The Runaways’ were an ‘all girl’ teen rock band in Los Angeles in the 1970s founded in 1975 by Joan Jett (the Stewart role in the film) and drummer Sandy West but packaged by manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and fronted by 15 year-old singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). The film is not a music biopic of the band but rather a ‘coming of age’ story focusing primarily on the Cherie Currie character (whose 1989 book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway was published in a revised form in 2010 and provided the basis for the film’s narrative). This perhaps explains why, despite sharing top billing and playing the more substantial music performer, Kristen Stewart is in effect a supporting player in Dakota Fanning’s film. (Since my main focus here is Kristen Stewart’s performance, I won’t be spending time on Dakota Fanning’s input to the film – but this shouldn’t be read as any kind of criticism of Fanning’s contribution.)

I remember Joan Jett from the later 1970s but most of the story was new to me so I would have liked to know more about the history of the band. Writer-director Floria Sigismondi, best known for music videos, had an estimated $10 million from independent producers and she sketches in the background to Joan Jett’s initial introduction and Cherie Currie’s home life but we learn little about the other three band members or about how most of the songs (mostly written by Jett, Fowley and Currie) were developed. So the band goes from performing in clubs in the American South-West to an international tour in Japan seemingly in a single step. (The Runaways didn’t have much chart success in the US but they did make an impact in Europe and East Asia, especially Japan.)

The focus is on the relationship between Joan Jett and Cherie Currie with the latter’s life producing the more dramatic episodes. Viewed on this level, the film does offer an interesting story about teenage girls and how they both challenged the male music industry and attempted to avoid being consumed by it (Joan Jett being more successful on both accounts from what I’ve read/seen). Sigismondi shot on Super 16 and certainly managed to capture the vitality of the band and to represent the milieu of the Los Angeles punk scene.

My main interest here is the casting of Kristen Stewart and how she performed in the role. Although the films are very different, Stewart’s role does have some similarities with the ‘runaway’ character in Welcome to the Rileys. Here is another potentially angry teen with a dark, gothic or emo look, but this time she is very focused and she knows what she wants. Also, Joan Jett is a real person and she was an executive producer on the film. Stewart must have felt the pressure to ‘become’ Joan Jett. This is one of the options for an actor, especially in music biopics where ‘performance’ is highlighted. Stewart in effect disappears behind the hair, make-up and costumes in becoming Joan Jett. She uses her own voice in some of the music performances (the original songs also appear on the soundtrack) and plays the guitar (although it is Joan Jett’s playing that is heard on the soundtrack.

Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart on set

Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart on set

We also learn from the DVD’s ‘making of’ feature that one of the reasons why Kristen Stewart was cast was because she had worked with producer John Linson on Into the Wild in 2007. Linson tells us that he knew Stewart was a good actor and that she could be Joan Jett. This statement is important since Kristin Stewart was already by 2010 earning considerable amounts of money because of her fame achieved with the success of the first two Twilight films. There doesn’t seem to have been any push to ‘cash in’ on her celebrity in either this film or Welcome to the Rileys. Neither film appealed to Twilight‘s main audience. Even though The Runaways is about teen girl ‘rebellion’ most of those who saw the film on its (curtailed) cinema release were over 25. It is, after all, a historical film depicting events more than 30 years earlier. The younger audience probably found the film on DVD. But where Welcome to the Rileys put Stewart alongside James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo in an ‘adult drama’, The Runaways was perhaps more of a project she simply wanted to try because it sounded interesting and she was able to do something different in playing a living person (who was frequently on set – which must have been unnerving).

The film requires Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning to be on screen together for much of the time with Stewart often (but not always) playing the more composed and stable character and Fanning pushing her character to breaking point. In some ways, Dakota Fanning has had a similar career to Kristen Stewart and in two of the Twilight films she has been a secondary player in Stewart’s franchise. How important was this familiarity between the two young women an important factor in the casting of the film and their eventual performances? The trailer below clearly indicates that it is Fanning who is being promoted as the main attraction in The Runaways – yet the film requires Stewart as Joan Jett to both set up the possibility of the narrative (i.e. to create the band) and to hold it together and I think she succeeds in that task.

Violette (France 2013)

Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) in the foreground with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kilberlain) in the background.

Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) in the foreground with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) in the background.

Violette was the opening title in a short season of films showing at Dean Clough, the arts facility housed in the famous woollen carpet mills in Halifax. The screenings by Reel Solutions under the banner ‘Cinegalleria‘ are held in the Crossley Gallery. Bill Lawrence of Reel Solutions chose Violette because he sees it as the kind of French film which is no longer getting the kind of release in UK cinemas that it deserves. Ironically in the same week it featured in the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot featured in Picturehouse Cinemas. This gives the film a single showing in the chain’s weekly programme in a range of its cinemas. A few years ago Violette would have played for a week with two shows a day.

The screening was introduced by Alison Fell from Leeds University who outlined the unique profile of the writer Violette Leduc, the subject of this biopic. She told us that Leduc was a literary figure of importance in the 1950s who wrote about her own experiences in new and daring ways – unexpected ways for a woman at the time and as a consequence she fell foul of both the censors and the literary establishment.

I must confess that though I was looking forward to seeing Emmanuelle Devos as Violette, I was slightly concerned that one of the earlier films by director Martin Provost had been a biopic of the painter Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine, France 2008). It looked like there were some similarities between the two women’s lives and though I had enjoyed most of Séraphine, I remember that I thought the director somehow lost the story towards the end of the film. I needn’t have worried that this would be the case with Violette.

The film narrative deals mainly with a twenty year period in Violette Leduc’s life from the time when she was in her mid-thirties, earning money as a black marketeer and aiding the resistance in 1944, up to her moment of triumph as a successful writer in 1964 with her novel La bâtarde. It is her struggle to become recognised as a writer in the intervening years that forms the main part of the narrative. The film suggests that Violette came across a copy of a book by Simone de Beauvoir during the war when she was living in a ‘cover’ arrangement with the gay writer Maurice Sachs. When she began writing in earnest she attempted to make a friendship with de Beauvoir, a seemingly cold and difficult woman who nevertheless felt compelled to help Violette, encouraging her writing and recognising its remarkable qualities.

In the interview below the director (and co-writer) Martin Provost describes Violette Leduc’s writing as autofiction – even though the term seems to have been coined in 1977, five years after Leduc’s death. In French literature studies it has been used to describe the marriage of autobiography and fiction. Violette Leduc wrote about her own sexual experiences and relationships as well as her struggles having been born ‘out of wedlock’. She did this in vibrant and explicit but nevertheless engaging language – so much so that her work was censored at the same time as being recognised by the French intelligentsia (or at least the coterie of de Beauvoir, Genet and Camus – Sartre doesn’t appear, which seems odd) as revolutionary in its representation of women’s lives. The narrative structure involves a triangular struggle between Violette and her potential supporters and the French literary establishment. But where de Beauvoir is steely in her resolve, Violette Leduc is both passionate about her work but also lacking in confidence and prone to undervaluing her own qualities. This is neatly presented in a scene in a bookshop when Leduc is trying to find her first published work on the shelves after de Beauvoir has got it into print via Camus – in a cheaper format that the bookshop doesn’t stock. I think that audiences who don’t know de Beauvoir (I had to look up her biography) might struggle at this point to understand her behaviour. Has she in some way ‘conned’ Leduc? No, I don’t think so. Her convent education and her Sorbonne degree at a time when academic Frenchwomen were rare, taught her to be disciplined and resolute. Violette is a very different person. There is a strong element of social class conflict in Violette’s dealings with Jean Genet and the parfumier Jacques Guerin (a wonderful comic turn by Olivier Gourmet) and there is a worry that Violette’s decline before her eventual rise might turn into a kind of ‘misery memoir’ narrative. It doesn’t happen because Provost is determined to treat Violette as a writer who should be given respect. But I do wonder if the film would work as well as it does without the two riveting central performances by Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kiberlain as Simone de Beauvoir.

The two leads together

The two leads together

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir

I like both these actors very much. Kiberlain disappears into the role – I was amazed to see how much she resembles photographs of de Beauvoir – and is utterly convincing. Emmanuelle Devos is a remarkable star actor. As this American blog entry asks, why isn’t she better known in the anglophone world? The writer answers his own question by suggesting that it is the conservative, and shrinking, distribution system for foreign language films. I remember first noticing Ms Devos in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and then going back to the same director’s 2001 film Read My Lips in which she starred opposite Vincent Cassell. She has also starred  in films for Arnaud Desplechin and IMDb credits her with 76 acting credits in a career of less than 30 years. In terms of acting technique and performance skills I’m sure there are British and American actors who are similarly equipped but Ms Devos has several advantages in what is after all a visual medium. She has a body and a face (augmented in this film by a prosthesis) that are distinctive and they are deployed with terrific effect in Violette. The character bemoans her own unattractiveness and Devos can do despair as well as she can do disdain – and every emotion between them. I think she is compelling and always watchable. She’s also fearless in presenting her own physicality. This a performance not to be missed and Violette is a film that deserves much more exposure.

The performances help the film to overcome the usual problems associated with biopics and period films (here a certain kind of ‘heritage film’ that French cinema shares with the UK). This biopic works because the time period is reduced to 20 years or so and the narrative has a clear structure associated with the writer and the people with whom she had the closest relationships. Provost actually presents the narrative in chapters based mainly on the relationships with specific characters. Period films can suffer from a sense of nostalgia, a stuffiness doused in a veneer of ‘authenticity’. That’s avoided here partly because of the vitality of performance and costume design and the tenacity in finding appropriate locations and lighting them carefully. The DoP Yves Cape does an excellent job and he clearly knows how to photograph women (I note that he was the DoP on the Claire Denis film White Material with Isabelle Huppert).

Much of the discussion around the film is about how ‘difficult’ a person the real Violette Leduc was. Even Emmanuelle Devos has described her as a pain. I can say that I didn’t feel that. She had every right to be angry in most of the scenes. I haven’t analysed this film re the Bechdel Test but there are two interesting and complex women at the centre of this and if you add Violette’s mother that’s three.

This interview with the director includes references to some of the aspects discussed here and features several scenes from the film: