Category: Canadian Cinema

Monsoon (Canada-France-India 2014)

Monsoon rains can be very dangerous but this street kid in Mumbai is having fun

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.

Akhila Prasad, the articulate 12 year-old whose family in Kerala is a central focus in the film

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.

The retired meteorologist comes to Meghalaya to see what the rains mean for himself

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.

CIFF20 #5: Kuessipan (Canada 2019)

Sharon-Fontaine-Ishpatao-Yamie-Grégoire-©-Max-Films-Media

Friends for life?

CIFFlogo My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.

I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fontaine and Verreault, states:

Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.

This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.

Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.

An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.

CIFF20 #2: Antigone (Canada 2019)

antigone-1

Learning the hard way

Based on Sophocles’ play, writer-director Sophie Deraspe has made a vital, ambitious film for today: the issue of protest, which is one of the film’s manifold threads, is especially vital at the moment and long may that continue. Nahéma Ricci, in a stand-out performance, plays the titular character who is a ‘good girl’ immigrant in Quebec whose brother gets into trouble with police because of his gang affiliations. As in the Greek play, Antigone puts herself in a position to sacrifice her future for her brother and, more widely, her family. If occasionally the film over-stretches credulity that matters little when the narrative has such ambition. Some of the subjects it tries to deal with are: social media campaigning; poorly trained youth offender staff; recalcitrant courts; politicians; citizenship rules and so on. Even if Deraspe bites off more than a film can chew readily it is an exhilarating watch.

By ‘good girl’ I mean Antigone is a model student who is determined to do well and she is an academic star. In a scene early in the film she makes a class presentation about how she arrived in Canada. At first the students are disinterested however when they wake up to the fact they are hearing about childhood trauma they, like the audience, are riveted by Antigone’s performance. The scene is typical of a superbly directed film that allows the audience’s understanding to grow as the action progresses and, right at its end, we see the teacher moving forward as she realises the trauma of what Antigone has said.

The film has the trajectory of a ‘youth picture’ except where, usually, the ‘growing up’ is done through sexual awakening, here it is Antigone’s growing realisation of the politics of being an immigrant. She starts as a ‘naive’ youth who believes that truth will lead to justice and learns a tough lesson and leaves us with an ambiguous ending.

On a negative note, the montage sequences illustrating how social media responded to Antigone’s campaign jar slightly with the aesthetics of the film. The habit most people have of using phones in ‘portrait’ position, thus severely restricting what can be seen, allows three phone screens to be shown across the film frame, with a hip hop soundtrack. Whilst this is meant to indicate the impact of her campaign it doesn’t work as it’s only Antigone’s boyfriend who we see involved in getting her message across. It’s a minor criticism for, as I’ve said, you can’t downgrade a film for ambition.

Ricci is superb at conveying the intensity of someone who has not yet been downtrodden by the system, unlike many of her fellow inmates whose rebellion consists of shouting and swearing. Deraspe even gets Tiresias into a particularly chilling scene. The film won best Canadian feature at the Toronto film festival and was Canada’s foreign language entry for the Oscars and it’s definitely one to catch at Cheltenham here.

Chloe (Canada-US-France 2009)

Amanda Sayfried as Chloe waiting in the coffee house

MUBI seems to have a real interest in films that explore aspects of sexuality and the ‘erotic’. In the last couple of years they have streamed quite a range of different sorts of films dealing with sex and sexuality. Recently there was the art film melded with explicit porn in The Daughters of Fire (Argentina 2018) which addressed the male/female gaze question and is discussed on this blog by Nick. Over several months we were offered restored versions of American avant-garde/’independent’/’alternative’ soft porn ‘curated’ by Nicholas Winding Refn. I tried to watch one or two of these but gave up bewildered. Mostly MUBI offers us challenging festival films which query attitudes towards sexuality or more mainstream arthouse fare which features more overt depictions of sexual relationships than those in contemporary Hollywood films. But one of the recent offerings, Chloe from Atom Egoyan, seems to hark back to the cycle of erotic thrillers that were very successful in mainstream 1980s and 1990s Hollywood – films such as Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), both featuring Michael Douglas and, not a thriller as such, but certainly a different kind of romance, Indecent Proposal (1993), like Fatal Attraction directed by Adrian Lyne. There were also a string of more explicit erotic thrillers, many of which went straight to video release. These had their own stars such as Shannon Tweed. The genre of the erotic thriller has received attention from film scholars, most notably Prof. Linda Ruth Williams with her 2005 book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema.

I was attracted to Chloe, first because it is a film directed by Atom Egoyan, a director I feel that I have neglected and possibly avoided. I’m not sure why. I’m generally interested in Canadian filmmakers and Egoyan had a number of well-received arthouse films released in the 1990s but I saw only Exotica (1994) – and that because I was obliged to watch it after a student had written an essay about it. Chloe, like several of Egoyan’s films has an interesting cast featuring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried. I didn’t realise until after I’d seen the film that Chloe is actually a remake of a French film, Nathalie . . .(2003), written and directed by Anne Fontaine, whose more recent work I’ve enjoyed very much. I wonder if I would have responded differently to the film if I’d known that when I started watching it?

A tryst in the botanical gardens for Chloe and David – real or a fantasy?

Liam Neeson plays David Stewart, a university professor in an arts faculty – which is certainly an interesting change for an actor usually associated with action roles. In 2009 he was probably best known for the first Taken movie the year before in which he has to rescue his daughter kidnapped by bad guys, though he’d had a number of major roles in a wide range of films before that including as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1993). Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, an upmarket gynaecologist with an office in a fashionable district of Toronto. David makes a trip to New York as part of his professorial role, not realising that Catherine has organised a lavish surprise birthday party for him in their designer house with a large number of guests. When he phones from New York to tell her he has missed his flight she is devastated. We wonder if he has taken up an offer of ‘a couple of drinks’ from a young woman. The marriage has not been going well and Catherine also deals badly with the realisation that her son Michael, a talented music student, has his girlfriend staying over on the night of the party without mentioning anything to her. Perhaps the actions of the two men in her life prompt her to take retaliatory action. She visits an up-market hotel bar and eventually singles out a young woman, the ‘Chloe’ of the title (Amanda Seyfried), as a high-class call girl. Catherine hires Chloe to make a play for David and then to report back what happens. We all know this is a crazy thing to do and that it will end badly. Why does she do it?

A mirror shot feels inevitable to frame the two women

This is the set-up and you can probably write your own script as to how it works out – complete with an explosive finale. I think the only reason I continued watching was because of the relationship between Catherine and Chloe. The two women are well-cast and Julianne Moore is a fine actor who has taken on a wide range of roles. I know less about Amanda Seyfried but she’s very good in this, presenting the kind of steely determination that sometimes transforms her into an almost automaton-like figure, a simulacrum, a sex toy with a sharp brain – but with a fierce determination to get what’s best for her out of every situation.

At times this feels like a Paul Verhoeven movie. There is an early dialogue exchange with a patient in which Catherine dismisses the female orgasm as just a muscle contraction. Yet something is propelling her forward into the arrangement she has started and perhaps it is the excitement of the subterfuge as well as a substitute for what is not happening in the marriage? But it’s also something Chloe can manipulate. Catherine asks her to give her details of everything that Chloe has done with David and she is clearly aroused by hearing the details. Chloe knows how to exploit that arousal. But what if she’s making it all up? Chloe is like a stalker Catherine has invited into her family and inevitably Chloe will make a play for Michael. In fact Chloe will go wherever she pleases and every new action will increase her hold over Catherine. Catherine will try to stop all of these actions, but what if she can’t?

Unlike The Daughters of Fire, Chloe offers the audience a good deal of female flesh but seemingly without the suggestion that it is about female desire rather than the male gaze. Amanda Seyfried is presented dressing in lingerie for her sex work under the titles at the start of the film. Later both she and Julianne Moore will strip for the camera gaze – but Liam Neeson will remain clothed for sex with Chloe (‘real’ or imagined). It doesn’t seem a fair swap. On the other hand, this is clearly a female-centred narrative in which David and Michael are only there to fuel the desire that links Catherine and Chloe. As I watched I felt concern for Catherine – how exposed and vulnerable she was prepared to make herself. I’m wondering about how the French original handled Catherine’s desire for sexual excitement and her need for self-esteem in her failing marriage (and mother-son relationship). I found myself admiring Chloe’s cunning, her bravery and her ‘professionalism’ while being repelled by her coldness.

As one IMDB user suggests, one of the film’s attractions is to see Toronto playing itself rather than as a stand-in for a US city. It’s an upmarket Toronto in the snow and at times I wanted to shout at Catherine who seems oblivious to the weather with bare legs and high heels in the snow and slush. Chloe is actually more sensibly dressed for the outdoors. I can’t come to a final decision about the film. Its plotting did keep me watching, though I do feel it could have done more with the basic idea. The script was adapted from Anne Fontaine’s original by Erin Cressida Wilson. I’m intrigued to see that she was a film and literature academic and that she was involved in two other high-profile adaptations, Secretary (US 2002) and The Girl on the Train (US 2016). The three films make an interesting trio, each focusing on a form of ‘transgressive’ behaviour of a central female character. I think now I’ll have to look for the Anne Fontaine original of Chloe. I do wonder how this film would have worked out directed by a woman.

GFF20 #7: James vs His Future Self (Canada 2019)

Anglophone Canadian films are quite difficult to find in the UK (as distinct from Québécois films) so finding them in a festival is always a bonus. This title promised to offer some light relief from the heavier diet of arthouse fare in the rest of the programme. It was described in the brochure as an SF-romcom and that’s indeed what it turned out to be. It isn’t heavy on the science but the scenario does provide a slightly different take on the romcom, though there are one or two elements shared with the Tamil blockbuster Endhiran (2010) and various US time travel narratives.

James (Jonas Chernick) has long been obsessed with his own ideas for time travel, so much so that he has never properly developed a relationship with his fellow researcher Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) and he still needs his wild younger sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie) to keep his daily life on track. He and Courtney work as researchers at a facility headed by Dr. Rowley (Frances Conroy). James believes he is close to a breakthrough in creating time travel technology but several other deadlines/crisis points are looming and both Meredith and Courtney are likely to abandon him if he doesn’t take action. At this point he is abducted by an older man masquerading as a taxi driver. He is shocked to discover this is his future self ‘Jimmy’ (as played by Daniel Stern who has a lot of fun with this role).

James meets Jimmy

When James meets ‘Jimmy’, the science behind the idea of time travel gradually gets lost. Though there is some resemblance between the characters, Jimmy is taller and his facial features slightly ‘pulled out’ – apparently as a result of time travel. More significantly, Jimmy is a livelier, more mischievous and more cynical character than James. What does he want? He certainly wants to stay around for a while and he meets and charms Courtney. He also has the answers to the questions James has been struggling over, but he isn’t going to provide them just yet. In fact he may be trying to stop James making the discovery at all. His message for James seems to be ‘learn to live a little’. Everything finally depends on a new deadline. Dr. Rowley announces a funded scholarship which will send Courtney to Switzerland (cue race to the airport in best romcom style?) Meanwhile, James discovers that Dr. Rowley has a vital piece of kit she has been keeping secret. But will Jimmy try to stop him accessing it?

James with Courtney

The problem for Anglo Canadian filmmakers is that they inhabit a world dominated by Hollywood film and TV programmes. Hollywood makes many films and TV series in Canada and Canadians watch a lot of US TV programming – it’s a coloniser-colonised situation. It’s a world I don’t really know and therefore it is interesting to read some of the North American reviews of this film. Cleopatra Coleman is Australian and Daniel Stern is American but still there is something about the film that makes it feel ‘Canadian’. It appears to have been shot in Sudbury, Ontario and there is that calm openness with just the hint of possible weirdness that means it isn’t likely to be American. I enjoyed the film. At times it is quite funny and I liked the characters. The narrative has some warmth and the script by Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre. Daniel Stern gives the film its energy and Cleopatra Coleman is a joy. I doubt it will ever appear in UK cinemas but perhaps on Amazon or Netflix? (See comments below)

The Lighthouse (Canada-US 2019)

Robert Pattison and Willem Dafoe when they first arrive on the island

The Lighthouse has received rave reviews and a smaller number of groans and dismissals. I can understand that, but I find myself somewhere in the middle. The film’s strength is its about technical virtuosity and I certainly applaud the cinematography, the set design, the sound design, the effects work and the central performances. It’s worth going to see the film for these achievements alone. Unfortunately, I don’t think the script works quite as well. It’s not so much the ‘content’ of the script but more the choice of structure and the pacing and the handling of genre elements. It’s a clever and learned script, but I did find it tedious at times.

The film is written and directed by Robert Eggers. His brother Max had the original idea for a film inspired by ‘The Light-House’, a two page ‘fragment’ and the last thing written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1849. The Eggers’ script moves away from Poe and in its use of language and the history of myths and legends told by sailors and coastal peoples it evokes Herman Melville. The narrative is set in the 1890s on the New England coast (though it was shot on the South-West tip of Nova Scotia near Yarmouth). Two lighthouse keepers arrive on an island to replace a pair who leave on the same tender. The new men are the experienced Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and the younger new ‘wickie’ Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). The younger man is given all the menial (and dirty, heavy) jobs. Wake concentrates on the lamp at the top of the tower.

The two men speak little and Winslow tries to avoid drinking alcohol as the rulebook decrees. Wake drinks every evening and eventually Winslow gives in and the two men relax a little. But the work and the weather and the isolation prey on Winslow who begins to have nightmares and strange experiences around the island. On the night before the pair are due to be relieved, a violent storm blows in and the men get very drunk. No boat arrives and the terrifying waves and winds lash the island. There are even darker times ahead.

The narrow frame emphasises the confines of the lighthouse and its staff quarters

All of this is delivered on screen in images composed for the 1.19:1 aspect ratio sometimes termed ‘Movietone’ but also used in German and British cinema at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s during the transition to sound on film. To complement the format, Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke chose to shoot on film using filmstock and lenses which recreated the look of the 1920s/30s. However, they also chose to manipulate the images using stronger artificial lights than would have been available  at that time. All of this seemingly made the actual shooting process quite difficult for the actors. According to Robert Pattinson in the Sight&Sound special on the film (February 2020), he and Willem Defoe were often very close together to fit in the narrow frame. Certainly at the beginning of the film the qualities of the image are very noticeable as the lighthouse and the ship bringing the new ‘wickies’ gradually appear in the fog. Some of the early compositions making striking use of the vertical axis, peering up at the lighthouse and then placing the characters at the top of the screen. Gradually, however, I found myself getting used to the shape and texture of the images. The only noticeable difference from watching an Academy Ratio print was that the masking curtains in the Cubby Broccoli cinema at the National Media Museum didn’t close to the edge of the frame – presumably there is only a selectable position for Academy from the projection box?

The visual qualities of the image and the sound design (the wind, rain, the foghorn, the steam engine) are terrific. The problems come, partly I think because there are too many allusions to other films, paintings and literary narratives. This in turn suggests a wide range of genres, defined by iconography and generic characters as well as visual/aural style. IMDB suggests ‘Drama’ and ‘Fantasy’. Graham Fuller in Sight&Sound suggests a “gothic maritime horror film depicting a psychosexual power struggle”. He also, tellingly, suggests the film is “less a text than a trove [of visual and literary influences].”

Dafoe lit as the gnarled Wake

If we take Fuller’s analysis as a starting point, we might argue that there is a core genre repertoire here which comprises a specific location (the North Atlantic or more specifically the North East seaboard of the US/Canada), a specific period (in this case the late 19th century) and specific characters (sailors, whalers, lighthouse keepers and others whose lives depend on the sea) and environmental factors (sea, wind, rain, fog). By extending one or more of these elemental categories we can soon find a whole range of films and other narratives. We can then merge this repertoire with the ‘psychosexual power struggle’ – the drama of two men locked into a destructive relationship. Eggers’ narrative does provide us with a kind of ‘key’ to the narrative when ‘Winslow’ reveals that he has changed his name because he fled another job in Canada, feeling ‘guilty’ for something he did. On this basis, the horror elements in the film could be manifestations of his breakdown exacerbated by the behaviour of Wake. The iconography of his nightmares could conceivably be drawn from his own experiences, if he had heard the tales or read the stories. But as the audience we have seen and read much more. For example, Winslow seems to be terrorised by a gull. It’s impossible not to think of Hitchcock and the birds of Bodega Bay as well as the birds of Greek mythology. The other images that may be nightmares offer similar kinds of references. I’m making this reading in retrospect. During the screening I reached a point where I began to lose interest and I’m not sure why. I can only think that I became overwhelmed by the ‘trove’ of references and lost my way through the narrative.

Fuller’s account of references includes Michael Powell’s 1935 ‘quota quickie’ The Phantom Light, a comedy thriller about murder and sabotage at a remote Welsh lighthouse which I watched a couple of years ago. It’s not a great film but it’s entertaining and I might go back and watch it again. Powell is a good example of a filmmaker who was ultimately a successful ‘artist’ because he made films for himself and for audiences – large audiences who respected wit and intelligence. Eggers is an artist who seems to make films for himself and a much smaller audience. If you are part of that audience you may enjoy the film’s narrative as much as the technical virtuosity and the performances.