It was a nice surprise to discover that my first online film in this year’s LFF was introduced by Sarah Perks my erstwhile teaching partner from Cornerhouse/HOME in Manchester. Sarah moved into artist’s film a few years ago and is now a Professor at Teesside University. She clearly knows the couple who made Memory Box, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who are artists as well as filmmakers. I think I’ve only seen Je veux voir (I Want to See, Lebanon 2008) of their previous films. It starred Catherine Deneuve as herself, a celebrity seeing the damage from the 2006 war in Lebanon. There is an immediate link between that film and Memory Box.
It’s Christmas in Montreal and teenager Alex (she might be 18?) is making stuffed vine leaves with her grandmother Téta. Her mother Maia is not home yet. A box like a tea chest is delivered by the postie and at first Téta says they won’t accept it even though it is addressed to Maia, but Alex insists that they do want it. When Maia gets home she is shocked and forbids Alex to look at the box’s contents. But Alex is desperate to know more about her mother and circumstances make it easy to discover a treasure trove of notebooks, photographs and cassette tapes. Through Alex we will get to discover the young Maia between the ages of 13 and 18 back in Beirut. Alex has never been told the story and she becomes engrossed. What happened during the Civil War in Lebanon and why won’t her mother talk about it? To find out we must pursue flashbacks to teenage Maia in Beirut played with great vitality by Manal Issa. As well as offering us a youth picture narrative set against the bombing and general disruption of Beirut, this is also the opportunity for the filmmakers to explore a whole range of techniques in presenting what are now ‘memories’.
The notebooks and photos are inspired by the archives of the filmmakers themselves, Joana as the writer and Khalil as the photographer, when they were similarly young people in Beirut in the 1980s. There is also a third writer, Gaëlle Macé. Joana and Khalil didn’t want to make a film about their own memories as such and they felt “freer with more distance” by focusing on the ideas rather than their own histories. But on the other hand, using their own archives keeps them attached to the ‘feel’ of the 1980s. This is a complex set of relationships with the past. They cast the actors for the flashbacks and then found ways to animate photographs and to ‘distress’ film/video footage and add explosions etc. so that we experience how Alex sees her mother in Beirut. All this is accompanied by an enjoyable 1980s soundtrack. Dancing to Blondie is a standout. Is there romance for young Maia? What do you think? Beirut was a war zone and there is tragedy as well as joy and hope, but eventually Maia and her mother had to leave, first for France and then to Canada. A key term in this presentation of Beirut and this particular Christian family in the city is ‘texture’ and ideas about mediation. How different are the visual and aural images Alex encounters from the actual experiences of Maia? Memories are produced in different ways and then worked on over time, remembered and re-worked, stories are told and re-told – or in this case, deliberately not told.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasures of the film but I’m not giving too much away to reveal that the three women, representing three generations, do return to contemporary Beirut, a city that has been almost completely reconstructed after the wars that finally ended in 2006 – though the massive explosion in 2020 has since caused more devastation. The film was virtually complete in 2019 before worked stopped on it during lockdown. Joana spoke in the Q+A about the idea of ‘rupture’ in the emotional attachment of characters to Beirut’s people and its history and she emphasised the importance of the ‘re-construction’ of the city and of the history? The film is also about the ‘transmission’ of the personal history of the family.
This is a fascinating family drama about three central female characters played by Rim Turki as the older Maia, Clémence Sabbagh as Téta and Paloma Vauthier as Alex. I thought all the performances were very strong. The only oddity is the absence of of Alex’s father, who is mentioned as having amicably parted from Maia. But since he would have been either French or French-Canadian with no background in Beirut, this is understandable.
I’m not sure if it matters if an audience isn’t that familiar with the long war in 1980s Lebanon which had many levels and involved not only a civil war between different Christian and Muslim factions, but also the actions of the Syrian and Israeli armed forces and the presence of large numbers of Palestinian refugees. The focus is on the family story and I was reminded of a film like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France-US 2007) in which another teenager attempts to balance family, education and discover boys in the midst of a war and a local society with different codes of morality and behaviour. Maia has left Beirut and her family story to make a new life in Montreal and this, in different ways, might make a link to Stories We Tell (Canada 2012), the hybrid documentary by Sarah Polley. Studying these three films together would be an interesting project.
It appears that Memory Box has been acquired by Modern Films for distribution in the UK and Ireland. I enjoyed the film immensely and I think it is very successful in what it sets out to do. In fact, I could write a great deal more on the film but I’ve got to press on, the next festival film is coming up! Do try to see Memory Box in a cinema if it comes to your area. The film should look very good with Josée Deshaies’ cinematography presented in ‘Scope on a big screen. I feel it is bound to get you thinking about families and memories. Memory Box is in Arabic and French with English subtitles. Here is a clip from the film showing Alex listening to a cassette and looking at photos of Maia in Beirut. You can also see some of the animation.
Giant Little Ones is a small anglophone Canadian independent film promoted as a ‘coming of age’ film and currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 10 months. I missed its original TV broadcast (and I was unaware that Lionsgate released it for streaming in the UK in 2019) but it was recommended by a friend. It is certainly a youth picture but its main distinguishing feature is its presentation of a queer narrative – labelling it ‘coming of age’ seems evasive to me. Franky and Ballas are two high school ‘jocks’ – popular young men on the swimming team with steady girlfriends. They have been friends since early childhood in comfortable suburbia (the film was shot in Saulte Ste. Marie, Northern Ontario) but on the night of Franky’s 17th birthday an incident pushes them apart and forces Franky to deal with a major change in the way his classmates treat him.
The central relationship is complicated by a large group of secondary characters, each with a contribution to make to Franky’s story. Franky’s parents Carly and Ray (played by the two ‘stars’ in the film, Maria Bello and Kyle MacLachlan) separated a few years earlier when Ray fell hard for a male work colleague and decided he must live with his new lover. Besides his original girlfriend, Franky has arguably more meaningful interactions with Ballas’ sister Natasha (who has her own back story) and Melissa, a classmate who is seemingly exploring the idea of changing her gender identity. I’m a little unsure about Melissa as a character partly because of my major technical problem in viewing the film – I couldn’t find any subtitles. As with many modern films the sound mix of Giant Little Ones proved indecipherable for my ancient ears at times. The actors swallow their lines and there is a great deal of music (not in itself an issue). Franky has his earbuds in most of the time and one reviewer suggests that the dialogue is partly ‘earbud’ sound so I don’t think I’m alone with the problem. I often use subtitles for US teen films, partly because of the slang but I generally find the Canadian accent more pleasing.
My problem with the dialogue didn’t stop me following the narrative but forgive me if it seems that I have misread any scenes or any character behaviour. What should we make of a film that has been warmly received by many audiences and especially by LBGTQ+ audiences? In one sense, it is a recognisable conventional film as this interviewer suggests on an Australian website:
DR: The film seems like a perfect entry in a genre that would be very familiar to queer film festival-goers: gay teen has crush on hunky best friend, something happens on a sleepover and high-school consequences ensue. It probably took me a couple of days after watching the film to recognise how thoroughly it subverts all those narrative conventions. (Daniel Reeders on starobserver.com.au)
Those narrative conventions include homophobia, toxic masculinity and sexual assault etc. as well as the concept of gender fluidity. But somehow these actions, whether visualised or alluded to in dialogue, don’t determine the overall impact of the narrative. In the same interview quoted above, Daniel Reeders suggests that the film is “a love letter to gentle masculinity”. That seems like a good call and it derives to a large extent from the performance of Josh Wiggins as Franky. The writer-director of the film Keith Behrman has said that he thinks that making the right casting decision was the crucial factor in the success of the film. He spent a long time developing and honing the script with producer Alison Black and he suggests that Wiggins is a sensitive actor who understood the script so well that he need only minimal direction. I certainly feel that it is an extraordinary performance and that the actor, who would have been 19 at the time, is convincing as a 17 year-old.
All the performances are good and the film flows almost effortlessly. That must be a result of script and performance but also camerawork (Guy Godfree) and editing (Sandy Pereira), music scoring by Michael Brook and overall control by Behrman. As several reviews state, anyone watching the first part of the film will probably feel that they know where it is going but it probably won’t turn out as they expect. I won’t say any more about the narrative. Please watch it and make up your own mind. I simply note that Keith Behrman spent a long time thinking about the story and waited to make the film. He did fear that it might not resonate with contemporary young audiences but he says that they seem to get it. Aspects of it have also become more topical in the last few years.
I would just like to add a few comments about the film’s status as a Canadian independent. It is noticeable that the leads are primarily US actors (Wiggins is from Texas). Taylor Hickson as Natasha and Darren Mann as Ballas are the main Canadian actors (I think he is much older than his character, though he looks the part). There is an easy two-way movement of actors between US and anglo-Canadian film and TV but Canadian films are distinct from US films made in Canada. It’s interesting that the swimming team features in the film. Swimming is a strong Canadian sport and the only other alternative might have been hockey, but swimming allows photography of these young male bodies. This reminded me of Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (France 2007) about teenage girls in a synchronised swimming team. More recently, I was reminded of Nadia, Butterfly (Canada 2020) about Canadian women’s competitive swimming. Another youth picture which shares some elements is Victoria Day (Canada 2009) with its hockey background for a young man. Canadian films often struggle in international distribution, especially the anglophone ones, but I hope this exposure on iPlayer finds audiences in the UK. I forgot to mention that the film is in nicely shot ‘Scope. Here’s the TIFF trailer:
Nadia, Butterfly is an important and an intriguing film. I hope it manages to find audiences who will appreciate what it is trying to do. The comma in the title carries a lot of weight. ‘Nadia’ is identified by her style of swimming and that’s the central interest of the narrative. Are there metaphorical readings as well? Nadia (Katerine Savard) is an Olympic swimmer and a member of the Canadian 4 x 100 metres women’s medley team for which she swims the butterfly leg. To reach the level of an Olympic athlete requires huge commitment, both physically and emotionally. To identify yourself with a sporting event from a young age means sacrificing many of the pleasures (and the heartaches) of adolescence. In many cases, young sports stars peak early and face retirement in their twenties. It must be difficult for them to think through what that means. The sports film tends to focus on the rise to fame of a star performer or, occasionally, the drama of the final days of a veteran. Nadia is about to swim her last race at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, at which point she will retire at barely 24 and head back to ‘school’ in order to eventually become a doctor.
Canada is a rich country with the resources to become a major sporting power yet apart from ice hockey it rarely produces global sporting stars and even then winter sports are not truly global. The pressure on those athletes who do show potential is enormous and swimming is one of the few sports in which Canadians can compete directly with the US and Australia in particular. Because Tokyo 2020 was postponed, Nadia, Butterfly has the feel of a science fiction film. Shot in 2019 in Montreal and Tokyo, director Pascal Plante set out to make a film which attempts to put a ‘real’ swimmer’s experience of a major sporting event on screen. Most sports films fail in this regard even if some present exciting narratives. Actors don’t have the physical attributes and skills which must therefore be depicted on screen through the machinery of cinema by production personnel who themselves don’t necessarily know the sport intimately. Nadia, Butterfly is different because director Plante was a swimmer who reached the Canadian Olympic trials for Beijing 2008 and Katerine Savard won an Olympic swimming medal at Rio 2016.
The first section of the film focuses on the race itself and Pascal Plante uses the race and the training before it to present what is now termed an ‘immersive’ experience of a top level swimming event with underwater cameras complementing the main cinematography of Stéphanie Anne Weber Biron, editing by Amélie Labrèche and a specialised sound design. Pascal Plante himself has long experience working in the sound department on productions. The film is presented in the unusual 1.50:1 ratio. It seems to work and I think I assumed it was 1.66:1. Once the race is over, however the narrative shifts away from the spectacle to focus on Nadia and how she attempts to deal with her retirement which will mean the end of her rigorous training regime but also the end of her comradeship with the swimming team, including her coaches and support staff and especially her close friendship with Marie-Pierre (Ariane Mainville) with whom she has been swimming since childhood. An early indication of the problems her retirement brings on comes soon after the race when the swimmers are winding down and Nadia reacts badly to the revelation that she has been chosen as one of the ‘hottest’ athletes in the Olympic Village in an online survey. She lashes out and says some things that her team members find quite shocking. Later we discover that she has been mainly celibate during her career and has not used the birth control pill because it may have had physical side effects that would undermine her training. She says athletes are selfish – they must be to succeed. In these exchanges it is also clear that the medley team is not as tightly-knit as we might expect. There is a language split with Nadia and Marie-Pierre on one side and Karen and Jessica on the other. Karen at least speaks French but not Jessica. I should point out that this is a Québécois film, with most dialogue in French. Jessica is also only 17 and significantly younger than the other three.
Marie-Pierre is able to cajole Nadia into drinking and clubbing and this then becomes a different kind of ‘release’, but it doesn’t necessarily make Nadia feel better and she will pay with a severe hangover next morning when a TV interview is required from the medley team. Much of the third section of the film is concerned with Nadia’s sense of trying to understand what else the world has to offer outside high level competitive swimming. This seems to me an honest film about genuine issues in high level sports. Swimming, to me as a distant observer, feels like both a team sport and an individual sport, much like ‘track and field’ athletics. There is a sense of a team competing in the games and the relays represent team events, but they are still events that see four separate swims aggregated. Nadia has a point when she argues that swimmers have to be selfish. Their individual times are what count towards selection. After Tokyo Nadia aims to retire. For her team-mates there is a desire for her to stay, partly one suspects so that they feel more comfortable and don’t have to face the moment of leaving themselves just yet.
The other feature of the élite sports ‘bubble’ is the sense of being cocooned by the team organisation. Nadia explains she has never booked a hotel room or bought a plane ticket herself yet she has swum in many parts of the world. When she breaks away on her own she moves around Tokyo, though she never interacts with any Japanese. This sequence is presented with an electro-synth soundtrack and features the shopping and entertainment centre of Tokyo in an almost futuristic way. I’ve seen references by some reviewers to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (US 2003) and there’s something in that but I also thought of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil (France 1983), especially with the focus on the Tokyo 2012 Games mascot. Plante had to commission separate designs of the Canadian team swimsuits and other costumes and I assume that included the mascot. The new designs all look good and in the case of the mascot, better than the original? There is no conventional resolution of the film which may irritate some viewers but the inference is clear. Nadia will take time to process her experiences of swimming competitively and going to the Olympics and it will inform in some way how she tackles training as a doctor.
Nadia, Butterfly was scheduled to screen at Cannes in 2020, but as with Tokyo 2020 that event didn’t happen. The film was still reviewed and received praise from several international reviewers. It was released in Canada in September 2020 and has been available online in the US and Spain. I think it has also had a release in France? It is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK. Not all the responses to the film have been positive but most negative comments seem to come from those who were expecting a conventional sports film. I think that the film works very well indeed and that Katerine Savard as a non-professional actor but a very professional swimmer offers a real insight into professional swimming and the Olympics, as does her friend Ariane Mainville, another swimmer. It was only after the screening that I realised that I had seen Pascal Plante’s first feature Fake Tattoos (Canada 2017) which I also enjoyed a great deal. I won’t forget the name next time.
Rock music documentaries must be one of the most narrativised forms of documentary, featuring familiar genre elements such as the early lives of key figures, the founding moments of a career, live concert footage, witness testimonies and so on. Their appeal is primarily to fans of the artists concerned who are looking for both the familiar, the lure of nostalgia, and surprises, a filling of gaps in the history. For the general audience there is perhaps not so much difference between the ‘bio-doc’ and the fictionalised biopic. We might want to share the elation of success, to pass judgement on the excess of lifestyles and respond to the despair of decline or the triumph of survival beyond the short lifespan of most rock groups. The more outrageous the characters, the more the story is going to appeal to that wider audience. But, of course, the music has to be good too.
What should we make then of this conventional rock documentary about The Band and its central creative force? Once Were Brothers opened the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and toured other festivals before the pandemic curtailed cinema releases beyond Canada and the US, the Netherlands and New Zealand. It made nearly $500,000 worldwide at the box office. In the UK, the film has been broadcast on BBC4 and is currently available on iPlayer. There is also a rather expensive DVD. When the Guardian ran an interview with Robbie Robertson in October 2019 it generated comments from fans commenting on a film many hadn’t yet seen. If you aren’t a fan you need to be aware that the story of The Band covers not much more than the 15 years between 1961 and 1976. The five band members were all very talented musicians and performers but Robertson stood out as the lead writer and the most organised (and least distracted). The result was that after the band’s final concert, the ‘Last Waltz’ filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1976 and released as a triple LP and a cinema film in 1978, Robertson retained rights to most of the songs written over the years of the band’s concerts and recordings. Robertson did indeed write the songs but all the members contributed to the arrangements and especially over the first two albums produced in the collective workshop atmosphere of the pink house in Woodstock. Three of the five members are now dead and Garth Hudson is a recluse. The ‘J’accuse‘ came from Levon Helm who in his memoir pointed the finger at Robertson. This documentary by the young Canadian documentarist Daniel Roher is based largely on Robertson’s 2016 memoir (Testimony: A Memoir) and he is the narrator of the film.
If you aren’t a fan, what can you expect from the film? The first section deals with Robertson’s childhood and his very early entry into the music business at barely 16 when he joined the Hawks, the backing band for the American rockabilly performer Ronnie Hawkins. This meant meeting an equally young Levon Helm, the drummer with the Hawks. But Robertson had to travel down to Arkansas from Toronto. This must have been a real challenge for a teenager with a Mohawk family on his mother’s side and a surprise on his father’s side (it was a surprise for Robertson when he found out and I didn’t know about it, despite having read a fair amount about the Band). Helm was three years older but since Hawkins also worked Canada, he would find himself travelling North. By 1961 the other members of the Hawks had all been replaced by young Canadians, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. Manuel was 18 when he joined the Hawks. Danko was still 17. He came from Ukranian farming stock. Hudson was an ‘old man’ at 24 but he brought classical and jazz experience into the group. This quintet then spent four years playing in clubs and smaller venues from Arkansas through the North East US and into Ontario. Nothing of this appears in the film unfortunately, we have to rely on short statements from band members, some recorded many years ago. The band wasn’t famous but they were honing their skills and broadening their knowledge of American-Canadian music styles. By 1965 they had parted with Ronnie Hawkins and toured as Levon and the Hawks (because Helm had seniority in the band) and were about to be ‘discovered’ by Bob Dylan.
Dylan asked the Hawks to back him on tours during 1965-1966. In that transition period Dylan was playing an acoustic set and then an electric set and the Hawks played the second half of the shows. They had never played to large audiences and they were taken aback by the booing from traditional folk fans but for next three years they would become famous because of their link to Dylan. This could have become a burden for the Hawks and it’s interesting that Dylan doesn’t contribute a great deal in the film, despite the hours of recording and touring he managed with the Hawks and then The Band. The Band eventually re-united with Dylan in Woodstock where they bought a house in which they converted the basement to a ‘writer’s recording studio’. This is perhaps the heart of the film where the magic was born and which produced ‘The Basement Tapes’ (bootlegged before later official releases starting in 1975) under Dylan’s name and the first two albums by the newly named ‘The Band’, ‘Music From the Big Pink’ and the self-titled ‘The Band’. I think I enjoyed this part the most because of the photographs taken over a couple of years. Director Roher uses a technique in which he cuts rapidly between the beautiful B+W photos so that it is almost like watching an animator’s flick-book. As Robertson explains, this was the first time the five men had time together to relax and play new and old material. Here was the ‘arranging’ and the real discovery of a new form of music which combined blues and soul, country, R&B and more. Roher offers us confirmation of the standing of The Band within the fraternity of musicians. Bruce Springsteen argues that the quintet included three great lead vocalists in Manuel, Helm and Danko. Eric Clapton claims that he travelled to Woodstock hoping he could join the group and a brief clip of the great Taj Mahal sees him suggesting that if any North American band could be compared to the Beatles it would be The Band. Certainly that long history of touring or residency that both groups experienced followed by time to write, arrange and record without pressure was similar. (And can somebody produce a documentary about Taj Mahal please?) The other witnesses who appear in the film include Albert Grossman, manager of both Dylan and The Band, John Simon, The Band’s record producer and David Geffen who would later lure Robbie Robertson out to Malibu. Ronnie Hawkins still going strong provides some of the liveliest commentary and George Harrison in a more subdued testimony, gives weight to The Band’s place in any rock canon.
The tragedy in The Band’s story was unfortunately already beginning to unfold during their time in Woodstock. Robertson had married Dominique Bourgeois, a Montrealer he met in Paris, and started a family. He was writing all the time and was more grounded and more ‘professional’ in thinking about the future and his career in music. Some of the others were drinking too much and getting stoned too often. The alcohol was dangerous and there are footages of the car crashes that threatened the group’s future. Dominique, with whom Robertson would have three children, gives an honest appraisal of what happened in Woodstock and echoes other witnesses in arguing that these five men loved each other as brothers but were affected by the drink and drugs. Later she divorced Robertson and became a counsellor specialising in addiction therapies. Fan-critics see this part of the film as allowing Robertson and his ‘supporters’ to construct a narrative that in a sense absolves him of the charges made by Levon Helm later. The narrative moves swiftly through the triumph of the first two albums and then charts the beginning of the decline when Richard Manuel was taken ill on tour. The film ends with The Last Waltz and, significantly, Levon Helm’s lead vocal on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. The last section is perhaps the most controversial part of the film because Robbie Robertson completes the narration which for some fans seems like an attempt to exonerate himself from the charges against him.
The film is visually very strong, Roher melds the photographs, archive footage and talking heads very well. He emphasises the range of still images by presenting original slides in their card frames or highlighting images on a contact sheet. Most of the excellent photos are by Elliot Landy who was presumably hired by the group to document the recording process in Woodstock. Roher similarly ‘marks’ some of the home movie footage. I’m not sure what this signifies beyond the ‘authenticity’ of the footage. The Last Waltz film was directed by Martin Scorsese and he acts as executive producer on Roher’s film and makes his witness statement contribution. Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are also executive producers.
The film ends with The Last Waltz and Robertson claiming that although he was the one who decided to stop touring, mainly because of Richard Manuel’s health, all the members expected that after 1976 they would get back together. In reality Robertson started a new career creating music scores for Scorsese. Helm appeared in several films including Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and The Right Stuff (1983) and each of the five produced solo recordings. The quartet without Robertson played live together and in various combinations. ‘Once Were Brothers’ is a recent song by Robertson which makes an appearance in the final section.
I’ve written much more than I expected I would. I am a fan of The Band and I have music from across their whole history including a couple of the solo albums. I’ve been playing a lot of it since I watched the film. They were for me the best band. I don’t want to take sides and I admire Robertson for the long career he has had in music but I want to know more, especially about Manuel, Danko and Hudson. I treasure my tracks by Levon Helm and my memories of some of his film roles. I thought I knew something about the history of The Band. I know quite a lot more now. It’s well worth watching this film. The only real downer is that apart from Dominique there are no other women who feature prominently in the film.
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.