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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.