Category: Canadian Cinema

Nadia, Butterfly (Canada 2020)

Katrine Savard as Nadia (photos by Maxime Cormier)

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.

Katrine Savard and Pascal Plante on set

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.

Nadia, centre, isn’t enjoying the euphoria of being at the Games as much as other team members Jessica and Marie-Pierre (right)

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.

At a nightclub Nadia meets a Lebanese fencer . . .

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.

Nadia has one of her most important discussions about swimming and training with her masseuse (Amélie Marcil)

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.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band (Canada 2019)

Japanese film poster

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.

A Woodstock period photo. The Band appear as 19th century men. From left: Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson

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.

Robbie Robertson narrates the story

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.

Robertson and Dylan on stage together (in 1974 on the Before the Flood tour?)

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.

Levon Helm was the lead vocalist on many of the songs

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.

Albert Grossman with Dylan

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.

An image stressing the the versatility of the players in The Band. Levon Helm the drummer also played mandolin while Richard Manuel, the piano player, could switch to drums and Garth Hudson could play sax and accordion as well as his beloved organ.

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.

Blood Relatives (Les liens du sang, Canada-France 1978)

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.

Sutherland with Aude Landry as Patricia

‘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.

Patricia’s brother Andrew (Laurent Malet) is interrogated

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).

Chabrol on set with Sutherland in his tracksuit – not a standard detective type. (This is one of several images grabbed from IMDb.com)

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.

Sutherland with an almost unrecognisable Stéphane Audran as Patricia’s mother

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.

Muriel (Lisa Laglois) and her office boss (David Hemmings)

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.

Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang (France-Canada 2012)

The gang together

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.

Maddy (Katie Coseni) makes her notes and Legs (Raven Adamson) watches her

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.

Rita (Madeleine Bisson) confronts the gang after her classroom humiliation – and they wreak revenge on her behalf

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.

Legs manages to dress conservatively to visit the upper-class young woman who she first met as a ‘Christian friend’ to the girls in reform school

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.

 

Heading South (Vers le sud, France-Canada 2005)

Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) with Legba (Ménothy Cesar)

This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).

Brenda heads straight for the beach when she arrives, looking for Legba

The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.

Ellen and Brenda with another tourist and the boys on the beach. Note the problem for the photographer in finding the right aperture and lens setting for both black and white skin against a background of white sand

Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.

Ellen treats Legba as a lover

At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.

Sue during her ‘to camera’ monologue

The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.

I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.

Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.

Mouthpiece (Canada 2018)

Amy Nostbakken (left) and Norah Sadava, both as ‘Cassie’, in the store changing room trying to decide what to wear for the funeral

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.

One of the musical numbers imagined by Cassie

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.