Talking Pictures TV came up trumps again on Saturday night with a screening of an intriguing Claude Chabrol film. As it turned out, there were quite a few problems with the print, but if you can get past these there are several interesting aspects to the film. As a production this is an early example of a Canadian tax deferral scheme which was aimed to attract co-productions and France is perhaps the most likely co-production partner (after Hollywood – though I’m not sure Hollywood does co-productions as such). There have been several Montreal-shot films over the years. In this case the ‘property’ is an Ed McBain ’87th Precinct’ novel from 1975.
‘Ed McBain’ is perhaps the best-known pseudonym of Salvatore Albert Lombino who officially changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Hunter was not only a hugely prolific writer of genre fiction but also of standalone novels. His books were often adapted for film and TV and he also worked as a scriptwriter, most famously for Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. He was very popular in Japan with adaptations by Kurosawa (High and Low 1963) and many others. I’ve seen one comment that Chabrol was happy to re-locate the story of Blood Relatives in Montreal from New York and not have to worry about the trappings of the New York police procedural. One aspect of this is the creation of a police detective who I think is quite different to the familiar US type. The investigator Steve Carella is played by Donald Sutherland and overall the police in the film seem relatively laid-back but quite efficient in their operations. But although the narrative begins in the police station, this is not really a procedural. Instead it sends Carella into a deep investigation of a family and plays more like a crime melodrama. I can see why Chabrol would be interested.
A teenage girl smeared with blood and with cuts to her arms and face bursts through a door collapses into a police station. The police then find the girl’s 17 year-old cousin dead from multiple knife wounds in a derelict building. The two girls had been at a party and were sheltering from the rain on their way home when they were attacked. The survivor Patricia (Aude Landry) describes the killer and the usual police work ensues. But the girl’s testimony will unravel and Carella finds himself more concerned with the Landry family – this is familiar Chabrol territory. The film’s title more or less tells you where the narrative is heading, so I won’t spoil any other aspects of the plot. I’ll simply state that several flashbacks are necessary to discover what happened to the unfortunate cousin Muriel (Lisa Langlois).
In a career lasting over 50 years Chabrol made over 70 films. A small number of which were made for TV but even so this is a formidable total and inevitably his career has been divided into periods when he made critically accepted films and other periods when he made cheap escapist films. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two and since I’ve only seen a modest proportion of the 70+ titles (perhaps 18 or 19) I’m in no position to judge. However, I’ve run through the list looking to see if he had made any other films in North America before this one. It would appear not, but what I was surprised to discover is the number of his French films that include American actors – Bruce Dern, Mia Farrow, Rod Steiger, Anthony Perkins etc. It’s perhaps not a surprise then to find that Blood Relatives features Donald Pleasence and David Hemmings alongside Sutherland. There is a real flavour of a ‘European International film’ about the casting. Sutherland had previously been in films for Bertolucci and Fellini and Hemmings was in Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso as well as Antonioni’s Blow Up. The other roles are mainly played by Canadian actors apart from Stéphane Audran, whose role is the only real disappointment for me. She plays the drunken mother of Patricia and is almost unrecognisable. I did wonder if she was dubbed but I’m sure I’ve seen her with an acceptable English accent in other films. The other French actor is Laurent Malet who plays Patricia’s brother as a rather beautiful young man who exposes his muscles in tiny shorts. Chabrol had his regular cinematographer Jean Rabier with him but most of the other HoDs and crew appear to be Canadian.
With Chabrol working in English and these interesting casting decisions, the film feels different from either French cinema or Hollywood, though there is still a recognisable Chabrol sensibility I think. I did feel at times that this was an example of a different kind of crime film, possibly derived from a novel by Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith – and Chabrol would later adapt both authors. I also somewhere got a whiff of Hitchcock’s Marnie. Partly this is because Sutherland’s cop treats a psychologically-scarred female character quite gently but firmly, much like Sean Connery treats Tippi Hedren in Marnie. I also remembered that Evan Hunter was asked by Hitchcock to adapt Marnie but he didn’t want to write the rape scene that Hitchcock required. You might the sense that if I was thinking about all these connections, I couldn’t have been following the narrative very closely. You would be wrong but I do think this is an odd film in some ways although it does make me want to catch some more of the Chabrol films I’ve got somewhere in the archive.
There is also the question of the print. DVDBeaver.com gives an interesting account of all the problems. The film seems to exist at various lengths from 90 to 100 minutes. I certainly think the version on TPTV had some cuts. Supposedly the film was to be presented in standard widescreen 1.85:1 but the TV print was closer to a panned and scanned 4:3. Even that didn’t look right on my TV’s 4:3 setting. In the end I found myself using the Zoom settings to achieve a 16:9 image that was slightly cropped top and bottom but was otherwise watchable because nobody was squashed or stretched. the BBFC (British Classification Board) tells me the Rank Organisation submitted the film for UK showings but in Canada and France the distributors were small independents. The print is murky at times and may well have been copied from a VHS master. Still, I think it is an interesting addition to my Chabrol collection and kudos to TPTV for finding it.
I enjoyed Foxfire very much and I’m dismayed at its lack of profile. The film was distributed by Curzon in the UK but I think it must have been in cinemas very briefly as I only managed to catch it on DVD. In the US it was only on streamers I think. Foxfire is adapted from a novel by Joyce Carol Oates that was previously adapted for a 1996 film starring Angelina Jolie. This later film was directed by the French auteur filmmaker Laurent Cantet. Cantet made the film, in English, in Toronto and the smaller cities of Peterborough and Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. The novel was set in up-state New York in the early 1950s and, as David Cronenberg discovered with A History of Violence (Canada-US 2005), small Canadian towns can sometimes easily be made to look like American towns of the 1950s. It’s a film shot by Cantet’s regular cinematographer Pierre Milon and co-wriitena nd edited by the similarly regular collaborator Robin Campillo. Youth films should have music and Cantet went for original music by Timber Timbre plus a selection of other tracks from the 1950s including Johnny Carroll and His Hot Rocks and Rosco Gordon.
The narrative is set in a small town and for most of the time is ‘narrated’ by Maddy (Katie Coseni) a girl at high school. One night she is surprised by a knock on her bedroom window and the appearance of ‘Legs’, a girl from her school who was sent 100 miles away to live with her grandma because her single father an no longer control her. But Legs (Raven Adamson) has other ideas. She and Maddy form ‘Foxfire’, a secret girls’ society which aims to protect its members and give them succour when the world turns against them. Maddy is an aspiring writer and she decides to chronicle events as the group grows and develops. In the novel, the timeline is disrupted at points as the older Maddy remembers the events of her younger teenage years. Director Cantet and his co-writer Robin Campillo initially tried to adopt the novel’s strategy but eventually decided to present a linear narrative with just Maddy’s voiceover commentary as the most effective cinematic form. I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier film so I can’t make comparisons. I have, however, seen most of Cantet’s films and simplifying the narrative structure does not mean a conventional treatment of the material. Cantet has strong ideas about an aesthetic but this was the first time that he had tackled a ‘period’ picture.
The Foxfire gang adds new members as various girls in the local school are ‘avenged’ by the gang. The first to really benefit is Rita (Madeleine Bisson) who is the butt of pranks and worse by local youths and whose meek resignation when treated harshly by a teacher enrages the other girls. At first the ‘vengeance’ missions harm only the individual men/boys who have committed abuse of some kind, but gradually, as the group expands, the girls’ actions affect more people in the town and the main gang members are arrested. ‘Legs’ is not chastened by experience of reform school and when she gets out she re-activates the gang, aiming for ‘independence’ by setting up an early form of a commune or women’s refuge (a young married woman joins the group) in an old house on the edge of town. The second half of the narrative is then a study of how the group first comes together with new members and then, inevitably perhaps, begins to break up under the pressure of finding enough money to run and renovate a large old house. A major incident eventually ends everything. A short coda a few years later shows us Maddy sorting through her writings about the group and discussing memories with Rita.
Cantet decided early on not to focus too much on ‘authentic period details’. He had spent much of a Toronto winter searching for mainly non-professionals to play his teenagers and he followed his usual strategy of rehearsing aspects of the narrative quite intensively before filming scenes with at least two cameras running throughout each scene and with his actors trying to play their parts ‘naturally’. The result is not polished but instead is imbued with a sense of spontaneity. We believe in the young women’s resistance to patriarchy and the rigid social conventions of the period. Cantet includes moments when when at least one of the girls reveals her latent racism and encourages others to veto the membership of a young Black woman Legs met in reform school. On the other hand, the group does recognise at least the beginnings of a feminist understanding when they accept a young woman escaping an abusive marriage. There is also an important sub-plot which involves a wealthy upper-class supporter of Legs who displays cunning in using this relationship. Finally, there is an old man who shares his memories and his communist convictions with Legs – something very provocative in Eisenhower’s America.
The US is a country where radicalism exists, but you see it very little officially. The girls in the film are brought to a political consciousness that has a lot of resonance with what’s happening in the heads of young people today. As far as I am concerned, Foxfire is my most political film. (Laurent Cantet quoted in the Guardian, 8/8/2013)
Overall, Foxfire might be a challenge for some audiences in that it runs for 140 minutes without recognisable stars or a generic narrative. By this I mean that scenes don’t necessarily work out as we might expect. Personally, I didn’t find this was a problem and I appreciated the relative longueurs contrasted with some exciting and dramatic sequences. The more I see of Cantet’s work the more interesting I find it.
This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).
The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.
Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.
At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.
The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.
Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.
Here is an interesting venture. Mouthpiece is an anglophone Canadian film directed by a high profile Canadian director that has so far not achieved many distribution deals. In the current context someone had the idea to make it available for a limited period (October 1-4) free online outside Canada. I learned about this via a Tweet I think, mentioning <seventh-row.com> in Toronto.
Mouthpiece is an intriguing idea for a film, adapted from their own successful play by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava and directed by Patricia Rozema, who also worked on the script. Rozema’s first film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing in 1987, drew attention and I remember her adaptation of Mansfield Park in 1999, the best Austen film for me. She has often tended to work with young women and her 2015 film Into the Forest featured Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood.
Nostbakken and Sadava play two ‘personalities/sides’ of the same character, Cassandra. I started watching the film without concentrating on the Introduction offered online and at first I took them to be a young lesbian couple. It was a few minutes before I realised my mistake. After a fun night out with one or two drinks, ‘Cassandra’ wakes up in her somewhat chaotic house to discover that she has missed ten calls from her mother and checking up she is dismayed to hear that her mother has died during the night. Cassandra’s mother Elaine (Maev Beaty) was a single parent for much of the time she was bringing up Cassie and her younger brother Danny and she was alone when she died of a stroke. Now the family (her sister Jane and Cassandra and Danny) must organise the funeral. We follow Cassandra over the next couple of days as she tries to come to terms with the situation and throughout she keeps remembering her time with her mother when she was a little girl. There are also more recent flashbacks to clashes with her mother as a ‘grown-up’. The biggest single issue for Cassie is that she wants to offer a eulogy at the funeral service but her aunt is not sure it’s a good idea and Cassie herself is in a turmoil about what she might say.
The film’s origin as a play is fairly evident. Nostbakken also wrote the music for the film and there are some ‘staged’ musical numbers in various unlikely locations. I’m not sure about the device of the two different personalities. Sometimes one of the women seems to be the ‘visible’ Cassandra and on other occasions they switch roles (they are easily distinguished as the ‘tall Cassie’ and the ‘short Cassie’). The two personalities are not presented as opposites, i.e. not good/bad, happy/sad etc. – they are just two versions of the same individual representing the inner workings of Cassie’s brain. There is no logic to showing both of them as present in the same location but it is still an interesting proposition. As a narrative device it is rather like time travel in a speculative fiction – it works to serve the narrative and make interesting points as long as you don’t think too carefully about it.
I was struck as, in several Toronto-set Canadian films I’ve seen over the years, as to how Toronto can look like various US cities in American films but in Canadian films it always looks distinctly Canadian. I’m not sure how this works except that several streetscapes look familiar from other Canadian movies. As a film essentially about a mother-daughter relationship, the film has links to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (Canada 2012) and, in terms of Toronto locations, with the same director’s Take This Waltz (Canada 2011) – and with many others. Cassie’s mother was a writer and a musician – we see books by Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Ann-Marie MacDonald lying around her house and we watch her singing and playing guitar for a song which is clearly influenced by Joni Mitchell (but which is actually sung by Amy Nostbakken). Eventually we will realise that Elaine gave up her work to look after her children after her divorce and that Cassie’s career as a writer is something that both pleases her but triggers her own sense of something missing – and this in turn undermines the mother-daughter relationship.
The film crew comprised mainly women as Heads of Department, including cinematography by Catherine Lutes (in ‘Scope) and film editing by Lara Johnston. After I watched the film I was able to catch some of the Zoom Q&A with Patricia Rozema organised by Seventh Row. The most interesting point she made for me concerned the idea of the two characters playing the same woman which she explained and discussed very well. She suggested that though the experience of two personae in a dialogue with each other is understandable and applicable to both women and men, it is arguably better understood and ‘felt’ by women simply because of the pressure on women to think more carefully about how they present themselves to the world. Such is patriarchy (but Rozema didn’t use that term as I remember). This seems a sound argument. Clearly women also talk to their women friends about such feelings and emotions as well. Men of my generation rarely venture into such discourse. That doesn’t mean that I was put off the film, though I did find some scenes difficult to watch, I enjoyed the experience overall and congratulate the writers, director and performers. The internal struggles experienced at a funeral certainly rang true.
Seventh Row seems like a very enterprising organisation with an interest in many of the filmmakers I admire including Debra Granik, Chloe Zhao and others. I’ll look out for more opportunities to see Canadian films and look up Seventh Row’s resources.
It’s always a treat to find a genuine Canadian anglophone film – one that is not simply a Hollywood film shooting in Toronto or Vancouver. The Silent Partner achieved something like a cult status in the late 1970s. It won three Canadian film awards and then it was distributed by three separate companies in different regions of the US. It turns out that it was made by the American independent Carolco using Canadian tax allowance monies in Toronto. It was the first film Carolco had produced without backing by a distributor or major producer partner. Carolco became successful in the 1980s but later collapsed and its assets fell to Studio Canal which perhaps explains why this film appeared recently on Talking Pictures TV in the UK (which has licensed many Studio Canal films). The film was reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin in September 1978, suggesting a UK release before the Canadian release. The review is dismissive and I think inaccurate on a couple of points.
The Silent Partner has a strong cast headed by Christopher Plummer, Elliot Gould and Susannah York. Gould plays Miles, a bank teller in a ‘friendly bank’ located inside a shopping mall in Eaton Square in Toronto. Susannah York is Julie who has the responsibility for the secure deposit boxes in the bank. It’s the Christmas season and from his desk Miles can see the crowds by the escalator and a Santa Claus who seems to be behaving oddly. Already primed to be looking for a hold-up attempt, Miles is prepared when the robber, Reikle (Christopher Plummer) makes his move. I don’t want to spoil what is quite clever plot development so I’ll just say that Miles devises a way to cheat Meikle and store the bulk of the money reported as stolen in a deposit box in the bank itself. But how will he get it out of the bank again? What he is about to find out is that Reikle is a vicious killer who won’t give up his attempts to get the money. The rest of the plot is a game of nerve and wits between Miles and Reikle complicated by first Miles’ attempts to develop a relationship with Julie and then the appearance of the mysterious Elaine (French-Canadian actor Céline Lomez).
MFB describes the film as a ‘caper movie’ which operates like an exploitation picture. Its reviewer suggests that the director had lost his touch and that the violence is excessive. The director was Daryl Duke who had made the journey from a career start at the National Film Board through to work with Canadian PSB station CBC. After several TV Series, in 1972 Duke got the chance to direct a low-budget Hollywood independent Payday, with Rip Torn as a country singer on the road, spiralling out of control. This was very well received but even so it was another six years before he could make The Silent Partner. It seems that for MFB the new film (with a bigger budget) couldn’t match up to the freshness of his début feature, but for other critics it still proved to be something new as a mainstream genre picture. Duke had actually made several TV movies in the 1970s and I would argue that the film is slick but still has a vitality about it. What distinguishes it are the contrasting performances of Plummer and Gould. Plummer is still probably best known outside Canada for his roles in major UK/US films in the 1960s/70s but like his slightly younger compatriot Donald Sutherland he has kept working on a wide range of productions. His credits on IMDb are well over 200 film and TV productions (Sutherland is heading for 200). When actors appear so often there is sometimes the assumption that either their performances or the productions must be routine. That certainly isn’t the case for Plummer in this film. He is terrifying and makes particularly good use of his piercing eyes, especially in disguises. Gould at this point, after a very successful period as one of Altman’s leading men, was entering what for me was a fallow period, but in this film his slightly comic demeanour worked well against Plummer’s viciousness. I’m not sure if it is deliberate but Miles as a collector of exotic tropical fish and solitary chess games seemed like a nod towards his Philip Marlow in The Long Goodbye (his attempts to feed his cat in that film are one of my favourite Altman moments). I fear that Susannah York is miscast or badly directed as she always seems to be about to smile and be surprised but Céline Lomez is very good and I’m surprised that she didn’t get more anglophone cinema roles.
As an exploitation thriller, there are two specific aspects of this film to note. A couple of scenes featuring Reikle are very violent and the murder of one character disgusted Daryl Duke so much (according to Wikipedia’s page) that he refused to shoot it and it was completed by a second unit. The second aspect is the depiction of sexuality. Both Julie/York and Elaine/Lomez are required to partially strip and Reikle shows brutality towards more than one woman. There is also a palpable homoerotic charge between the two men. Overall there is a whiff of the kind of controversy that accompanied Brian de Palma films such as Dressed to Kill a few years later. Despite a couple of plot developments that didn’t completely work for me I thought that the film had pacy action and plenty of thrills.
The film was scripted by Curtis Hanson who later went on to have his own distinguished Hollywood career (and possibly directed the scene Duke refused to shoot). Daryl Duke did get a few more chances to direct cinema releases but didn’t achieve the same success. Hollywood comedy fans might also be aware that the bank staff include a character played by John Candy in an early role. The Silent Partner was an adaptation of the Danish novel Think of a Number (Tænk på et tal) by Anders Bodelsen. Look out for it if Talking Pictures schedule it again in a few months.
When the opening credits of this wonderful documentary rolled and I realised that this was going to be an outside observer’s take on the phenomenon that is India’s annual monsoon, I did experience a moment of concern about yet another westerner’s perspective on the sub-continent. Why was this appearing in an online version of the London Indian Film Festival? In the UK especially, we get a wide range of Indian-set documentary material on TV of varying quality, some excellent but some much less so and the lingering sense of Raj nostalgia and an orientalist eye is often evident. However, in this case I think the film escapes this kind of possible censure.
Sturla Gunnarsson is a distinguished filmmaker, born in Iceland but raised and educated in Canada where he began work with the National Film Board and developed a stellar career in documentary and fiction for cinema and TV. I feel ashamed not to know about his long and successful career – my only defence being the usual one that Canadian filmmaking still struggles to get distribution in the UK. Monsoon is not his first film set in India and this becomes evident very quickly.
Gunnarsson offers us several different ways of thinking about the annual monsoon. One is through the stories of individual characters – a family in a village on the backwaters in Kerala, a bookie in Kolkata, a retired meteorologist in Pune etc. Another is about the sheer physical presence of the monsoon and the spiritual questions it raises about how the need to cope with such powerful natural forces has an impact on a large and diverse country like India. In subtle ways the film also makes comments on social, economic and political questions about India. The film was shot on 4K digital and must be very impressive on cinema screens. The stunning imagery is accompanied by an excellent music score by Andrew T. Mackay and the Bombay Dub Orchestra.
The structure of the film follows roughly the course of the monsoon which hits Southern Kerala in the first few days of June and moves North and East over the next few weeks.One of the narrative drivers of the film is the attempt by government meteorologists and climate scientists to predict accurately when and how the monsoon will move across the country. In 2013 the rains are unusually heavy in Kerala and flooding hits the Prasad family who Gunnarsson has chosen to follow. But further north in the lee of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra no rain falls for the fourth year in a row. Government announcements have to be carefully timed to avoid too much stock market speculation – but the bookie in Kolkata seems able to maintain his business, betting on the rain simply on the basis of studying the clouds. Gunnarson himself provides narration. He is calm, speaking softly and asking questions but generally unobtrusive. He does, however, also hint at more probing questions.
The sequences in Mumbai inevitably mention Bollywood, with a chance for Moushumi Chatterjee to reminisce about shooting Manzil (1979) with a young Amitabh Bachchan. Also inevitable perhaps, Gunnarsson’s camera wanders through Dharavi but presents us with two very different stories in the densely-crowded slum now deluged by the monsoon. One features a man from the least advantaged of all social groups in India who has become a barrister and is making a plea in the High Court and another features people making animal sacrifices in the rain. Gunnarsson admits that he doesn’t really understand these rituals and his cinematographer Van Royko records these scenes as part of the general coverage of Mumbai during the monsoon. The final locations for the film’s narrative are the states of Assam and Meghalaya in the far North East of India. The National Park in Assam needs the monsoon rains to replenish the natural environment for its endangered species like the Indian rhino which becomes vulnerable at this time of year to poachers. Meghalaya has the great waterfalls that see the rains eventually rushing to replenish the Brahmaputra river system. At this point Gunnarsson himself is overtaken by the emotional and spiritual impact of the rains.
If I have one slight criticism, it is that the film doesn’t clarify aspects of the movement of the monsoon winds. At one point we see meteorologists recording a front moving north-westwards across the Bay of Bengal, but the impact finally comes from the South West which is why Southern Kerala is hit first. This is part of the complexity of the monsoon weather systems, with the Arabian Sea branch of the monsoon hitting first. Equally, the narrative structure of the film suggests that Meghalaya receives the rain last, but actually the town of Cherrapunji (‘the wettest place on Earth’) which appears in the film, begins to receive heavy rain in June which then peaks in July. This the ‘Bay of Bengal’ branch which picks up more moisture as it heads north-eastwards and then when it meets the Eastern Himalyas, turns back towards the rest, after unloading much of its water over Assam and Meghalaya. But it’s too much to ask the film to explain all this in detail, I think. What the film does do, quite neatly is to use small symbols to mark where each sequence is filmed.
This is certainly a documentary I would recommend. It offers visual storytelling about the impact of weather systems with a focus on personal stories. In the wider context, the monsoon can cause great damage through both flooding and drought, starvation and landslip and so on. People die from the impact and 70% of India’s rainfall occurs in the period from June to September. This film will give you a good idea why it is so important to the Indian economy and to Indian culture. The voiceover is in English with some subtitles for statements by people speaking local languages.