Category: Comedies

The Assassination Bureau (UK 1969)

Diane Rigg as Sonya Winter

This is perhaps an unusual film to be discussed on this blog but, apart from providing some light relief as an ‘entertainment film’, it does exemplify several trends in British and international cinema in the 1960s. The production team of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph developed mainly at Ealing Studios in the 1940s and early 1950s. They then sometimes worked separately but later re-united for several successful ‘social melodramas’ interspersed with various forms of comedy films. Dearden was nearly always the director with Relph the writer, producer and sometimes art/production designer. He performed all three roles on Assassination Bureau. By the late 1960s the pair were generally able to command bigger budgets, in this case producing at Pinewood with support from Paramount. They were also able to attract top talent such as Geoffrey Unsworth as DoP and Ron Grainer as music composer. The involvement of Paramount marks this as one of the productions to benefit from the significant investment in the UK industry by Hollywood studios in the second half of the 1960s.

Rigg and Reed together

The budget and Dearden-Relph’s track record also helped to attract a distinguished cast led by Diana Rigg and Oliver Reed. Diana Rigg, who died in September 2020 was never really a ‘film star’ as such, though she was undoubtedly a star (Shakespearian) actor on the stage and a very popular TV performer, mainly because of her stint as ‘Mrs Peel’ in The Avengers (51 episodes, 1965-68). That series sold well abroad so she developed the international appeal of a film star through TV. I would argue that the late 1960s through to the mid 1970s was an important period in her film appearances. Besides this film, the two I remember were The Hospital (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973), both, like The Avengers and The Assassination Bureau, mixing comedy with other genres.

Oliver Reed was, by contrast, primarily an actor on film. IMDb lists 122 roles in a career lasting 45 years. He began as an uncredited youth in the 1950s and broke through in the 1960s in Hammer films, especially Joe Losey’s The Damned in 1962. By the late 1960s he was a leading man and appearing in some noteworthy films including Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Devils (1971) and Michael Apted’s The Triple Echo (1972). These titles cast him opposite Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Mr Reed was a lucky boy in the casting process and the roles continued through the 1970s before his heavy drinking and wild behaviour made him well-known as a ‘celebrity’ rather than the talented star actor he could be. The film roles declined in importance – some were simply smaller roles, others were in not very good films. Some reviewers of The Assassination Bureau are not impressed by Rigg and Reed but they both seemed fine to me and I think they carry the film’s comedic tone very well.

The Bureau’s London HQ with Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) in the chair (back to the camera)

The film’s plot is fairly simple. It is based on an incomplete book by Jack London that was finished in 1963 by another writer, Robert L. Fish (writer of the novel used for Bullitt in 1968), and adapted by Michael Relph. Sonya Winter (Diana Rigg) is a feminist in London a few years before the Great War in 1914. She discovers the existence of ‘The Assassination Bureau Ltd.’, a secret organisation that will accept commissions to assassinate public figures. Originally intended to target corrupt or morally reprehensible leaders, the Bureau now seems to kill anyone for a fee. Alarmed by the threat such a group poses for the general well-being, Sonya has the idea of commissioning an assassination, selecting the head of the Bureau himself, Ivan Dragomiloff (Oliver Reed) as the target. Amused, he accepts the commission and challenges the other members of The Bureau to attempt to kill him, thinking that it will enable him to re-organise the Bureau’s membership. He sets off across Europe to pre-empt his erstwhile colleagues, killing them before they can kill him. Ms Winter goes along to record the events for a newspaper she has convinced to take a punt on a female journalist but soon gets more involved than she expected. Some of the assassinations are quite clever but they all borrow genre elements from other films, some reminded me of scenes from Hammer films.

Philippe Noiret, one of the Bureau, is operating a Paris hotel with a difference . . .

The original novel belongs to a cycle of Gothic fictions/espionage/anarchist novel set in the 1890s or early twentieth century. The most obvious example is Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) but similar elements  are found in Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories. The Holmes links remind us also that recent Holmes films and have re-visited the era and the meta genre as well as being re-worked as ‘steampunk’ narratives.

Curd Jürgens and Telly Savalas in control of a Zeppelin

Finally, this kind of production is typical of the ‘international’ films of the period. Ostensibly a British film based at Pinewood, the funding is American and the third credit on the film is for Telly Savalas, who plays the newspaper owner prepared to hire Ms Winter – he later turns out to fulfil a rather different role. Although a familiar face in American film and TV, Savalas wasn’t a ‘star’ in the UK at this point. By the mid 1970s he would become much better known for the Kojak TV series. The international casting really refers to the various European stars who play the members of the Bureau. These include Philippe Noiret and Curd Jürgens. The less well-known Annabella Incontrera perhaps steals the picture as the wife of the Italian member of the Bureau. The locations used included Paris, Vienna and Venice – something that British productions had managed fairly consistently since the early 1950s.

The Assassination Bureau has appeared on Talking Pictures TV a few times and it reminds us of the period when the British cinema could still make and release films of this scale on a regular basis. But it was almost the end of the British studio system, especially with the withdrawal of Hollywood investment in the next few years. If you enjoy a good romp with a strong cast I think the film is quite entertaining.

Queen & Country (UK-Ireland-France-Romania 2014)

Bill’s family watches the Coronation on their first TV

‘Queen & Country’ as a title is a reference to British military ideologies about patriotism and ‘service’ to the monarchy and the establishment. Written and directed by John Boorman the film is the belated sequel to Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory that proved to be both a commercial and critical hit. Twenty-seven years is a long gap between the titles with a whole generation of new cinemagoers probably unaware of the earlier film. Both films are autobiographical to a certain extent. In Hope and Glory the central character, like Boorman himself in 1942, is nine years old. In the sequel he is eighteen and about to be called up for National Service in 1951. I’ve written about National Service in some detail in a recent post on The Bofors Gun (1968)Queen & Country was initially welcomed as probably the last film to be released by John Boorman and he duly gave interviews to festival reporters and critics. However the film didn’t fully live up to expectations at the box office and later commentators took against the film. I wonder if the setting of the story and in particular the unique cultural context of Britain in the early 1950s was just not understood by audiences, especially outside the UK? But actually the UK/Irish market was not even its strongest box office territory in Europe where the French market prevailed. Part of this failure might have been because the film screened at Cannes and was acquired by Artificial Eye in the UK, best known as an arthouse distributor. I enjoyed the film very much but I can see that it presented problems to distributors.

The new conscripts at the start of their National Service

John Boorman has had a long and eventful career. He made an initial breakthrough in UK television before directing his first feature film, the pop vehicle Catch Us If You Can featuring the then very successful singles band the Dave Clark Five. The film worked well enough to enable Boorman to move to Hollywood where he made three features that catapulted him into an international standing as a brave and innovative director: Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Deliverance (1972). Meanwhile, he had bought a house in Ireland where he has been based ever since. From his new Irish base in County Wicklow he made Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur in 1981. In between he returned to Hollywood to make Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a film which seems to have offended many and didn’t make money as far as I’m aware. Boorman remained a director capable of raising finance for several further features, including the successful Irish crime film The General in 1998 with Brendan Gleeson and Adrian Dunbar. He also wrote about film. Before he became a filmmaker he had been a reviewer and in 1992 he became the co-founder and editor of Faber & Faber’s long-running series Projections: Film-makers on Film-making. Hope and Glory had been by then a rare British-based production as Boorman preferred making films in what he saw as exotic and interesting locations. The London location of Hope and Glory was personal for Boorman, broadly nostalgic for some audiences and an accessible child’s perspective on the ‘war at home’ for others. Queen & Country had by June 2015 (when the film was released in the UK) become more of a historical drama, looking back at a time less remembered/well-known.

Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis) brings the Sergeant Instructors Percy Hapgood (Caleb Landry Jones, left) and Bill Rohan (Callum Turner) to face the CO

In late 1951 Boorman’s alter ego, Bill (Callum Turner) is called up for his National Service and immediately bonds with another new conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they will have an eventful time over the next two years, despite never leaving Southern England. Bill is a bright lad, more than capable of coping with the Army’s procedures without losing his sense of independent thought. Percy is more of a tearaway. Both young men represent a challenge to the Army’s procedures designed to train young men to take orders without question. The narrative weaves together separate strands involving Bill’s pursuit of the beautiful but mysterious young woman (played by Tamsin Egerton) he has seen across the river from his house each morning and Bill and Percy’s ongoing battle with Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). The social context for these stories is Bill’s family life in their house on an island in the Thames near Shepperton and the national events of the Korean War, the death of King George VI and the televised Coronation of Elizabeth II. The national context is crucial and Boorman himself has spoken about it in various interviews (especially in Sight & Sound July 2015) and in his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy (2003). In 1951 The post-war Labour government lost an election in which it still won the popular vote but the Conservatives won most seats. The new Government under the wartime leader Winston Churchill faced the prospect of fighting three separate wars in Korea as part of a United Nations force and in colonial conflicts in Malaya and Kenya. In each of these conflicts it would be necessary to use National Service conscripts like Bill.

Bill with the ‘mystery woman’ (Tamsin Egerton)

Boorman has spoken about the generational differences that became apparent in the UK at this time and how they were crystallised in the National Service experience. The generation who had fought the war were still prepared to try to hold on to the Empire which was already crumbling. In Aldershot the conflict is between Bill and Percy as National Service youths and Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewliss). After Basic Training, Bill and Percy are selected as Instructors and promoted to Sergeant (presumably instructors had to be at least sergeants). They are supposed to teach the new conscripts how to type but Bill in particular attempts to subvert the Army’s ideology with the remarks he makes to his ‘students’. This does not go down well with Bradley. Bill and Percy also become involved with Private Redmond, a ‘skiver’ who has avoided posting abroad by feigning various medical conditions. Redmond is a generic character in many military narratives involving conscription and is here played by the Irish comic actor Pat Shortt, a popular figure in Irish film and TV. In his Sight & Sound review (July 2015), Philip Kemp suggests that Queen & Country is something of an ‘episodic clutter’ reminiscent of ‘an army sitcom series’. In one sense I agree and the ongoing battle between Redmond and Bradley is a reminder of Granada’s The Army Game which ran on ITV between 1957 and 1961 and which is part of the National Service cycle of films. Meanwhile at home and with both the mystery woman and the two nurses that Bill and Percy meet, the generation gap is explored in different ways. Bill is not very enthusiastic when his father buys a TV set to watch the Coronation in June 1953.

Bill dances with one of the nurses, Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) at a regimental dance. The other nurse, Peggy (Miriam Rizea) is with Major Cross (Richard E. Grant).

Queen & Country is mostly comedic in terms of the ‘army sit-com’, more like a romantic comedy drama/sexual awakening involving the mystery woman and the two nurses and a family melodrama back on Bill’s island home. However, it becomes much darker towards the end of the narrative, suggesting perhaps that Bill learns a great deal from his National Service experiences. The film worked very well for me, but then it should. It’s difficult to to work out what audiences without the historical background might make of it. At times the comedy is almost farcical, but it is carried through with conviction. Note the name of the regiment in the image above, the RARF, the Royal Agincourt Regiment of Foot. (A name which made me think of Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968).) But perhaps the the biggest mistake is the casting of Caleb Landry Jones as Percy. The Texan is now a significant actor in Hollywood, but I don’t think he was in 2014. He looks like he could be English but his accent in the film is all over the place and in the image above where he and Callum Turner are meant to be standing ‘at ease’ in the CO’s office, everything about his stance is wrong. As a generic character in comedy about young men, he is fine but as a significant figure in Boorman’s complex presentation of time and place he is ‘out of place’.

But despite this problem, Boorman displays his skill in many scenes and he works his cinephilia into the narrative which starts and ends with a filming sequence by the Thames at Shepperton. Later Bill will take his date to see Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I thought Callum Turner was excellent as the Boorman alter ego and Tamsin Egerton and David Thewlis should also be singled out. Vanessa Kirby makes the most of the small part of Bill’s sister returning from Canada. Queen & Country is widely available. I watched it on BFI Player but it is on many other streamers to rent or buy as well. John Boorman is one of the best British directors of the last 50 years and I must now re-watch some of the earlier films. Here’s the US trailer:

Shiva Baby (US 2020)

Danielle with a bagel and a faraway look – getting through the shiva

Weddings and funeral are universal settings for family events and they have been fertile ground for quarrels and revelations since storytelling developed in human communities. Shiva is the Jewish period of mourning and in this New York Jewish community Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student, has been asked by her parents to attend a shiva gathering for one of their friends. Danielle doesn’t know (or can’t remember) the person who died and she misses the funeral service because she is enjoying a session with her ‘sugar daddy’. This brief scene opens the film in long shot and we see Dani being paid for sex. The rest of the film is located in the middle-class home of the bereaved’s family.

Dani with her parents . . .

For Dani the shiva is an unsettling experience which is at times nightmarish. Her parents (played by Polly Draper and Fred Malamed) comment on everything about her and discuss her possible career options, her appearance and prospective marriage partners with all the other ageing parents, friends and relatives. But the real nightmare begins when Dani spots her ex girl-friend, the successful student Maya (Molly Gordon) and soon after her ‘sugar daddy’ turns up with his high-flying wife and their baby. It appears that Max (Danny Deferrari) knows Dani’s parents but he was unaware of who Dani was. It’s not difficult to see how much of a nightmare this is for Dani. The film is relatively short at just 77 minutes but writer-director Emma Seligman packs a lot in. At first I wondered if I would be able to follow this narrative at all but it got easier when I turned the English subtitles on – I found the two young women in particular hard to follow. There are also more Yiddish terms used in the film than I’ve come across for a while. I’m clearly not the target audience for the film but I did find I was engaged and I came to understand Dani more as the film went on. I confess I would have left the shiva gathering as soon as possible to get away from all the other people there but Dani is made of stronger stuff.

. . . and taken aback when sugar daddy Max appears . . .

Shiva Baby was released in the UK by MUBI following a successful run in North America in cinemas, at festivals and on streamers. MUBI gave the film a single day cinema release in early June and it is now streaming, presumably for some time. On the stream, the film is followed by an informative and engaging Q&A with Emma Seligman who turns out to be from a Reform Jewish Community in Toronto. She trained at NYU and originally made Shiva Baby as an 8 minute short film in 2018 with Rachel Sennott as Dani. Opening out the film required a hunt for funding from various independent sources. Shiva Baby is very impressive as a first feature. Seligman makes the most of her major location and the budget constraints. There is a strong cast supporting Sennott who is herself a comedian and writer as well as actor. The material comes from Seligman’s own observations and experience of her own Jewish community. She makes clear in the Q&A that the film is for ‘millennials’ who are faced with the lack of understanding shown by ‘boomer’ parents. I think this is a little unfair. As a boomer I’m well aware of the struggles of recent graduates in finding jobs and I’ve had a ‘portfolio’ career myself so I know something about what they might face later on. But these are not the real concerns of the narrative. Parents are much the same across many cultures – these New York Jewish parents just seem more hard-edged and extreme, although much of that is bluster, I think.

The real concern here is what Seligman refers to as ‘validation’ of identity for young women and particularly for queer young women like Dani and Maya. It’s about gaining control over your own sexuality and the power relationships that this involves. The concept of the new ‘sugar-daddy’ involves young women (and men) finding older partners online who are willing to pay for sexual relationships. Many young people need money for higher education fees on top of living accommodation and subsistence. Dani, however, has relatively wealthy parents who at the moment are providing monetary support. In a sense she is still a ‘baby’ for her parents and her use of a sugar daddy has wider and more complex meanings. The film’s title thus works both for Dani’s status and for Max’s baby which proves to be the real inciting incident of the narrative structure. “Who on earth brings a baby to a shiva?”, as someone asks rhetorically.

Helping out with Maya. How is meeting her again going to work out?

Several reviewers have suggested the narrative resembles a horror narrative, others have referred to farce. One suggested it resembled the scene in The Graduate when Benjamin is urged to go into plastics, the industry of the future (in 1968). There is something in all of these suggestions. Leyna Rowan and Hanna Park, as respectively cinematographer and editor, do a good job of taking us through the several rooms of this suburban house, sometimes seeing characters through windows, down corridors and in doorways in the throes of a lively gathering. The film is presented in ‘Scope and at one point we get an expressionist montage of shots of elderly people rather obscenely eating the various forms of ‘finger food’. Dani we will learn has been ‘chubby’ in the past and now is ‘skinny’. Comments about her weight just add further pressure. The music soundtrack by Ariel Marx is more likely to evoke a horror film or at least severe disturbance.

Shiva baby is a highly-rated film. I did wonder if it could live up to the hype. I needn’t have worried. The whole MUBI programme (97 minutes with the Q&A) flashed by and stirred up a lot of thoughts. I’d recommend it for any audience, not just millennials, though they might get most from it.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (¡Átame!, Spain 1989)

The plotline of the film as illustrated by Ricky’s drawing.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! was the follow-up to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK/US and much of the international market was Pedro Almodóvar’s break-out film. What this meant for me was a period of catching up on the earlier films and looking out for the new ones as they arrived. I must have watched Tie MeUp! Tie Me Down! in the early 1990s, probably on a rented VHS tape. I don’t remember too much about that viewing but I doubt that I fully appreciated the beauty of the colours and art direction or indeed the many other striking features. Over time I began to realise that the more of Almodóvar’s films I saw, the more my appreciation grew and the more enjoyable the films became and possibly the more I understood about how they worked. MUBI UK currently offers a selection of Almodóvar titles and watching Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! in HD this time was a joy – but also raised quite a few questions.

Ricky and Marina go through this every time he leaves the apartment.

The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Marina (Victoria Abril) has been a porn actress and is now starring in a mainstream genre film for an ageing director who is a little obsessed with her. Ricky (Antonio Banderas) is a young man of 23 who has spent most of his life in care and for the last few years has been kept in a state home for observation of his mental health. But now he has been deemed fit to join the wider community and he is released having learned a number of trades to go alongside his drawing abilities. His first action is to seek out Marina and to kidnap her in the belief that as she gets to know him, she will fall in love with him and agree to marry him and together produce a family. Not until the latter part of the narrative will we learn more of Ricky’s early life and what has informed his quest.

One of my favourite images from the film. Ricky visits the hardware store just like a serial killer in a genre film but he’s actually buying the strongest but softest rope in red with which to tie up Marina.

In many ways this is a familiar Almodóvar scenario but the elements of the story perhaps refer back to the earlier films a little more than some of the other post-1988 films. Certainly the film initially caused some classification problems in territories outside of Spain. In the US it was first classified as an ‘X’ before eventually being re-classified as ‘NC 17′. In the UK it received an ’18’ certificate, now reduced to ’15’. Almodóvar began his filmmaking career as a provocateur in that strange period after the death of Franco in 1975, using stories about sexuality, drug use  and ‘excess’ to expose and undermine the conservative ideologies that had held Spain in thrall for decades. Gradually his style has matured but it still carries the promise of something disruptive. In 2021, however, in the age of #metoo, how should we approach these earlier films? When Ricky breaks in to Marina’s flat he assaults her and later ties her up and tapes over her mouth. In the ensuing interchanges in Marina’s bedroom and bathroom she is sometimes naked or partially dressed. In what Kim Newman in his Monthly Film Bulletin review from July 1990 refers to as Almodóvar’s “regulation sleaze”, we have already seen Marina in her bath indulging in a little erotic play with a motorised frogman (perhaps a porn actress doubled for Ms Abril?) and we’ve seen Marina ‘posing’ in a conventional vamp mode in the film she has just finished. But is there anything here to suggest that Almodóvar is exploiting his star? I think one of the challenges offered by the film is the detailed plot which if taken as the basis for a realist drama may be too disturbing and/or offensive for many audiences. But, remember that this is an Almodóvar film – and a sumptuous melodrama. Trying to see it as a realist exploration of a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ narrative is a mistake, I think.

Marina ‘posing’ in the film she is making – ‘Midnight Phantom’.

The threatening figure (from the giallo?) in Midnight Phantom.

As Newman also points out, Almodóvar doesn’t attempt to develop anything around the fetish possibilities of bondage – which apparently is what so disturbed the MPAA in the US. I wonder what Hitchcock in 1989 would have developed with the same script possibilities? Overall I thought this was almost a ‘sweet’ movie and [SPOILER!] they do eventually get it together. As well as the hugely appealing performances by the two leads, Ennio Morricone’s score is often gorgeous and almost unbearably tender at one point. There are some well-known critics who really seemed to dislike the film or felt unable to come to terms with it when it first appeared. A ‘dark romantic comedy’ is one description, but I’ve seen references to gialli and particularly Dario Argento, mainly related to the ‘film within a film’ in which Marina is appearing titled Midnight Phantom. Almodóvar teases us with a poster on the wall in the Midnight Phantom cutting room for the original version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – the film which satirises the idea of ‘pod people’. Is this a possible reference to audiences who are so brainwashed by conservative ideology that they can’t appreciate what’s really going on? For me the key genre is screwball comedy and this relates to the playing by Victoria Abril and Antonio Banderas. I think also that not enough attention is played to the closing section of the film when Ricky tries to find the village and the house in Extremadura where he lived as a child. Almodóvar often draws upon his own experiences as a boy from rural La Mancha who travelled to Madrid to ‘find himself’. He also often includes stories about women like his mother – this time Marina’s mother – and the women he met in Madrid. The same theme is crucial in Volver (2006) and also in his most recent feature Pain and Glory (2019) – which stars Banderas as an ageing film director thinking about his childhood, this time in a cave village community in Valencia. It’s worth remembering too that Marina is trying to go clean after years of drug use and that she has a little family melodrama of her own which includes her sister and her mother.

Marina’s sister also works on the film as production manager. Red, you might have guessed, is the dominant colour in almost every scene.

I genuinely enjoyed this film but I’m worried that the subject matter will already have put some readers off. I thought I’d check out the the film scholar take on the film to see if I was out on a limb. Rob Stone in his 2002 Spanish Cinema book from Longman offers a detailed study of the film, considering Banderas as star and exploring his presentation of ideas about sexuality in the context of Spanish society in the period and Almodóvar’s position as an important cultural figure. At one point he suggests: “For all its scandalous reputation ¡Átame! is the most romantic of features, wholly celebratory in its final union of our beauty and her beast . . .” I’m not going to attempt to present the whole of Stone’s complex analysis and how he reaches this conclusion, but it is certainly convincing for me. I do realise however that I’ve not mentioned the ‘excessive’ use of Christian imagery in the opening titles and in Marina’s apartment. ¡Átame! is a very rich text. But in their book Contemporary Spanish Cinema (Manchester University Press 1998) Barry Jordan & Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas add a warning to their similar analysis of the film. Referring back to her 1995 contribution to Me Jane. Masculinity, Movies and Women, eds Kirkham and Thumin, Morgan-Tamosunas makes a prescient observation. She argues that Almodóvar’s arguments might work:

within the fictional world that he constructs, free from the constraints of dominant ideological concepts, but that his audiences inhabit a world in which the repression of women is too deeply entrenched within social and psychological consciousness for such representations to be entirely free from mysogynistic interpretation. (1998: 116)

I can’t argue with that. Almodóvar has managed to continue to develop his body of work but it has been a long and complex development and watching the early films now in the current context of #metoo could certainly be seen as disturbing. I think that viewing ¡Átame! in 2021 should make us consider the history of artistic representations carefully and encourage us to read films with more attention to how and why they were constructed in ways which might disturb us. If you’ve never seen Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! I urge you to give it a try and to let it run all the way through before you think about the critics’ response.

Lights in the Dusk (Laitakaupungin valot, Finland-Germany-France-Italy-Sweden 2006)

Janne Hyytiäinen as Koistinen – the smoking in this film is seemingly de rigueur

This is the final film in the trilogy about ‘losers’ from Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki following Drifting Clouds (1996) and The Man Without a Past (2002). In some ways it might be the darkest of the three, especially if you find ‘miserable’ characters hard to follow. On the other hand, this is perhaps the ‘purest’ downbeat character you are likely to meet. Another way to think of the trilogy is as narratives successively about joblessness, homelessness and here loneliness. Seppo Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) barely raises a smile and takes every disaster that befalls him on the chin. He doesn’t betray anyone (when perhaps, for the good of the society, he should) and he retains an iron determination to ‘make it’ eventually. Buster Keaton’s screen persona comes to mind – which isn’t so surprising in the world of Kaurismäki narratives. But in the Press Notes Kaurismäki refers to a ‘Chaplinesque’ character.

Koistinen (as most people call him, if they can remember his name at all) lives in a bare apartment close to the liminal space that is the Helsinki docklands. He works nights as a security guard for a company covering a major shopping mall. On his way home he stops at a late night food stall close to the water where he passes a few words with the woman who runs it. He has no friends and his work ‘colleagues’ ignore him. Occasionally he buys a vodka or a coffee in a bar and drinks it alone. But he has been spotted by a gangster who sends his ‘moll’ Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) to seduce Koistinen and to use him to get the necessary information to enable a robbery. The gangster knows that it will be possible to frame Koistinen for the robbery and that he won’t tell the police about the girl and will accept his own guilt. All this comes to pass and the unrelenting awfulness is only relieved by a small attempted good deed which Koistinen carries out – and which of course backfires on him. This deed will not, however, be ignored and will save him in the end. In Kaurismäki’s films (or at least in the ones I’ve seen), there are still pockets of human feeling whatever the attempts of late capitalism to destroy them all. Kaurismäki refers to himself in this way:

Luckily for him, the film’s author has a reputation as a kindhearted old man, so hopefully a spark of hope will light up the final scene.

Koistinen with Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), the woman who inveigles him into taking her out

Kaurismäki’s films have found audiences around the world and generated critical acclaim, not because of the events they portray or even the ideas they explore (though both are important in his other films). Instead it is the style and the overall ‘feel’ of the presentation that is important and what this conveys is a dry wit and a deep humanism. Sometimes this can evoke humour from the absurdist situations which confront the protagonist – in this trilogy the ‘loser’ character. I must confess that in this particular film I experienced fewer comic moments but I still found the narrative oddly gripping. Kaurismäki usually has a working-class male as his lead and the female characters are supporting roles, even if sometimes the drivers of the narratives. In this film there are the two women, one leading Koistinen astray, the other trying to save him.

The film is as usual quite short for a feature at 78 minutes and I wanted to know more about both women. Partly, the mystery of the women is buried in the generic elements of the narrative. This is Kaurismäki’s film noir and I kept thinking of the central character in terms of an Elisha Cook figure – the poor sap who wouldn’t make it to the end of the story. But much more likely, this is Kaurismäki in a French study, part poetic realism from the 1930s and part Jean-Pierre Melville. These references emerge much more strongly in the director’s next film Le Havre. Here Koistinen might be a role for Jean Gabin, albeit stripped of his energy. I guess that in Janne Hyytiäinen there is also something of Melville’s Alain Delon, but again stripped of vitality.

Music is always essential in Kaurismäki’s films and this film has a particularly strong soundtrack including two songs by Carlos Gardel. Born in France but taken to Argentina as an infant he was one of the most important ‘tango singers’ whose career had a tragic and almost rock ‘n roll ending when he was killed in a plane crash at the height of his powers in 1935. Kaurismäki is obviously taken by tango and I’ve realised that it fits his frequent dockside location being developed in the dockside bars of Argentina and Uruguay. There are also three songs by the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling (1911-1960), all from Puccini’s operas. One is from The Girl of the Golden West and the others from Tosca and Manon Lescaut. The French singer Fred Gouin contributes a 1928 song ‘Les temps des cerises’, possibly also a Japanese reference to ‘cherry blossom time’? (Kaurismäki has a real passion for Japanese culture.) The remainder of the soundtrack offers a selection of later Finnish recordings. I wish I knew more about music – surely someone has studied Kaurismäki’s choices? He includes elements of Finnish culture in his films but often in quite subtle ways. In this film we get to see a prison and I’m always struck by how much more civilised (and effective) prisons seem to be in Nordic countries compared to the US, UK or France.

Koistinen with the Black boy and the dog

Out of the four most recent Kaurismäki films this is perhaps  the most ‘contained’ story. It does fit into a development of an overall narrative, however. Janne Hyytiäinen appeared at the end of The Man Without a Past and the young Black boy who appears in this film (with the dog – there is a dog in all four recent films) points towards what will happen in Le Havre. I think I’m ready now to work back through some of Kaurismäki’s films in the 1990s.

How to Be a Good Wife (La bonne épouse, France 2020)

The staff and students of the school. (all photos courtesy Memento Films ©) Carole Bethuel

Comedies are often the most difficult films to write about and foreign language comedies or even same language comedies from different cultures are more difficult still. This is certainly the case with How to Be a Good Wife. Cineuropa has labelled the film an ‘arthouse comedy’ which I find a little puzzling. This seems to me to be a mainstream film in terms of genre and narrative structure. The only things ‘arty’ about it are some of the cultural references for audiences outside France, including the concept of the farce. I can’t think of another film with quite the same mix of elements though the romcom/sports film Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) has some of the elements and is even photographed by Guillaume Schiffman who shot How to Be a Good Wife. I’ve also seen references to some of Francois Ozon’s work such as Potiche (France-Belgium 2010). But with Potiche we enter discussions about well-known auteurs and there are some reviews that suggest that How to Be a Good Wife is simply not in the same class and that Ozon or Pedro Almodóvar would do a better job.

Paulette fronts a TV report from the school

Here is the plot outline of How to Be a Good Wife which features Juliette Binoche, Yolande Moreau and Noémie Lvovsky – all excellent. It is the start of the school year in September 1967 and at a small private school for ‘young ladies’ in Alsace the three teachers are awaiting the somewhat reduced number of girls for the current session. This is one of the many such French institutions that taught girls to be fabulous homemakers and dutiful wives and mothers, but little else. The headteacher Paulette (Binoche) is married to the school’s owner who does little except spy on the girls, otherwise the couple’s relationship is not going well. His sister Gilberte (Moreau) is not married and pines for love. The hardest-working of the trio is Sister Marie-Thérèse. The film has two conventional themes. One is surviving as an institution and the other is the prospect of romance and liberation for Paulette and Gilberte – and for the 17 year-old students. For this, the timing is crucial because the school year will run through to May 1968 when an annual school trip to Paris is scheduled. Feminism is just beginning to creep into the mindset of the wider public in France and the film includes several direct references to the changes that are happening. It also includes a couple of historical references to the aftermath of war and one incident that some audiences may find shocking in the context of what seems a frothy comedy. This insertion of some ‘serious’ elements has been a factor for critics and reviewers to claim that the satire on political and social change is badly handled.

Gilberte and the girls cook a celebration meal

The film’s director is Martin Provost who co-wrote the script with Séverine Werba. Provost has built a reputation with four previous features each focusing on a woman as the central character. Seraphine (2008), Violette (2013) and The Midwife (2017) all made an impact but not in UK cinemas. Yolande Moreau played the painter at the centre of the biopic of Séraphine Louis, Emmanuelle Devois played the writer Violette Leduc and The Midwife featured Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. This use of well-known stars and star-actors attracted audiences in France. The current film was released in France in 2020 and the whole release, both domestic and international, has been somewhat curtailed by the pandemic.

Sister Marie-Thérèse is the comic figure who is in many ways the most capable – a familiar fenre figure

What to make of it? I enjoyed the film and in particular the three central performances. La Binoche has what seems like a lot of fun. There is a fourth character who offers Paulette romance. He is played, again with gusto, by Edouard Baer. The film is bookended by two set pieces. In the first, Paulette introduces the the new girls to the school’s curriculum which will teach them the important lessons of becoming a homemaker, wife and mother. She does this formally using a blackboard and teacher address. At the end of the film she repeats the procedure but in the form of a musical number which some have dubbed a ‘Jacques Demy’ take-off. I love Demy and I thought this was fun. I suppose the question is whether younger audiences who have no knowledge of the 1960s ‘liberation’ of women and young people generally, will respond to the ways in Provost stages many of the scenes. I don’t see why not. There are several important messages delivered quite cleverly. I’m sure it’s still a revelation that up to this period a woman couldn’t open a back account without a husband’s consent. The film did remind me in some ways of British boarding school comedies of the 1950s in the way that the context brings the students and teachers together. Schools like the ‘École Ménagère Van Der Beck’ (domestic science school) were still relatively numerous in France up to 1967, but none survived after 1968. 

Paulette and the bank manager enjoy a fling

This film is in a CinemaScope ratio and the bright colours show off 1960s ideas about fashion. The music score by Grégoire Hetzel seemed to work for me. I’m sure there were some contemporary songs played diegetically but I can’t find the titles. The girls in the school, with a handful picked out for brief narratives of their own, are well cast and believable as 60s young women. I would say that this is an enjoyable mainstream film but I recognise that for some it’s Marmite – something to love or to hate. I hope I’ve given you enough insight to make up your own mind. I don’t think the film has a UK distributor yet.

Here’s the Australian trailer (with more spoilers than given above):