Category: Comedies

John Ford #4: Three Godfathers (US 1948)

This film is both like and unlike other John Ford Westerns. Many of the Ford stock company are present in the cast and crew and the film is dedicated to ‘The Memory of Harry Carey, Bright Star of the early western Sky’. Carey had starred in the first two adaptations of the story by Peter B. Kyne in 1916 and 1919. Ford directed the 1919 film. Carey became one of Ford’s closest friends and an important actor and mentor on Westerns. He died in 1947. Ford then invited his son, Harry Carey Jr. to appear in Three Godfathers and he would go on to become a regular member of the company. The same story was used also in 1921 (Ford Again), 1929 (William Wyler) and 1936. Ford’s status in 1948 meant that Argosy Pictures was able to arrange distribution via MGM with a substantial budget including Technicolor. The photography was by Winston C Hoch, who would go on to win an Academy Award for his Technicolor cinematography on She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the next year. I have to say that I think Three Godfathers is even more beautiful in its use of colour than the later film – though it might simply be a down to the better quality DVD from Warner Video. The title by the way was originally 3 Godfathers in North America but I’ve always known it by its UK title. In Quebec it was known as Les fils du désert – I wonder what the Laurel and Hardy film was known as in France?

The dedication to Harry Carey Sr.

If you don’t know the story, it must be quite something to be adapted six times you might think. It is actually very simple as a kind of Christian fable, a take on the Christmas story. John Wayne, Pedro Armendiráz and Harry Carey Jr. are a trio of, presumably not very proficient, bank-robbers. After a raid on the bank in Welcome, Arizona they are chased by a posse led by the local sheriff Perley Sweet (Ward Bond) and end up stranded in the desert without water. Here they find a woman in a covered wagon about to give birth. Her husband has disappeared and I won’t spoil any more of the story. You can work out the plot by simply referring to the film’s title. I first saw the film in the early 1970s and I couldn’t remember anything except the sand dunes, John Wayne and the baby.

‘The Kid’ (Harry Carey Jr.) accepts the hospitality of Mae Marsh as the wife of Ward Bond’s Perley Sweet

Escaping to the desert . . .

An iconic image of the trio in the desert, framed by Hoch but under Ford’s instructions

This was one of Ford’s favourite films and there are a number of stories associated with it, several emanating from Harry Carey Jr. who was interviewed by Lindsay Anderson in 1978 and later wrote his own memoir. Carey’s father and Ford eventually fell out or perhaps simply couldn’t cope with each other on set, although Carey Sr. appeared for Ford again in The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Each thought the other didn’t want to work with them. Ford arranged for a stunt rider to pose on Carey’s own horse for the dedication shot. He told Olive Carey that he would use Harry Carey Jr. on 3 Godfathers on the day that Harry Snr. died. Harry Jr. had already worked in small roles in a couple of films but Ford gave him an ‘Introducing Harry Carey Jr.’ credit. He also persuaded him to sing in the film. Harry Carey Jr. reveals that Ford actually treated him quite harshly on set, but taught him very well in terms of what was required. Harry Carey Jr.’s other story concerns Pedro Armendiráz. It appears that Ford always chose costume items for characters in Westerns. Armendiráz, who was a very popular and celebrated actor in Mexico, had already appeared for Ford in The Fugitive and Fort Apache and he turned up for the shoot in a tailored outfit fit for Mexico’s leading actor. Ford told him the outfit was completely unsuitable and chose one himself. Armendiráz had made a fatal error and after this film he never worked for Ford again. Ford was in charge and took all the decisions. You didn’t try to make your own. The stock company understood this and were rewarded with future parts. As well as Carey, Wayne and Bond, Ben Johnson was on this shoot in a minor role, Mildred Natwick was the woman having the baby and Mae Marsh was Ward Bond’s wife. Jane Darwell, Hank Worden and Jack Pennick also had small roles. This was definitely a stock company picture. Winton C. Hoch was new to the company and he quickly learned not to make too many suggestions to Ford.

Mildred Natwick as the mother who chooses her ‘3 godfathers’

John Wayne with the baby

Jane Darwell and Ward Bond at the railway halt

The use of the stock company almost exclusively in this film, coupled with the absence of Ford’s usual interest in exploring myth and the history of the West in his films of this period, means that audiences only have two choices. One is to dive into the sentimentalism and religious celebration of the Christmas story and the other is to look for meanings in the relationships of the familiar Ford actors and characters. I can usually cope with Ford’s sentimentalism but on this film I did find it too much in the last section. I’m happy to simply enjoy the playing and the cinematography. The players are generally very good. Some like Mae Marsh and Mildred Natwick seemed to me to be eccentric or deliberately provocative casting decisions and Jane Darwell is definitely ‘excessive’ as a man-hungry woman looking after a remote railway halt. To add to the melodrama (a comedy melodrama of redemption?), Ford uses songs both diegetically and as part of the score. Richard Hageman’s score uses ‘The Streets of Laredo’ as a motif in the opening titles and Harry Carey Jr.’s rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ (one of Ford’s favourite hymns) is matched in the closing sequence with a choral version of ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’ by the women of the town (a more joyous crowd than the women of the town driving out Claire Trevor in Stagecoach). The whole town then gives a second rendition of ‘Gather at the River’ to close the film. 3 Godfathers was a hit with audiences even if some critics didn’t like it.

The Land Girls (UK-France 1998)

The Land Girls, from left: Prue (Anna Friel), Ag (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Catherine McCormack),

This is the second of my ‘Home Front’ study texts, following Another Time, Another Place. The Land Girls was quite a high-profile release in 1998 (a reported £6 million budget – double the UK median budget at the time) with a number of special screenings set up for former members of the ‘Women’s Land Army’ in the Second World War. It is one of several TV and film representations of ‘Land Girls’ and was based on a 1995 novel by Angela Huth, who was one of the writers of the adaptation alongside director David Leland. I enjoyed the film on release and used it on an evening class. I was disappointed by the general lack of interest from critics which I put down to its use of comedy within a melodrama structure. Critics generally don’t rate comedy (unless the films are extremely popular) and many British critics don’t really understand melodrama at all.

Potato picking

Coming home in the early morning from a dance

The plot is fairly straightforward. In 1941 a Dorset farmer, John Lawrence (Tom Georgeson), is being pressurised by Ministry officials to increase his output during wartime. He eventually agrees to pay a fee to receive three Land Girls and the film begins with their arrival. We quickly realise that two of the ‘girls’ (they are all in their twenties), Ag (Rachel Weisz) and Stella (Catherine McCormack) are experienced and have known each other for some time. They have worked to get this posting so that Stella can be near Southampton where her Navy boyfriend is stationed. The third and younger woman, Prue (Anna Friel) is new to farm work and reveals herself to be a hairdresser from Manchester (a third of Land Girls in the 1940s were from cities). The mixed farm has plenty of work and Joe (Stephen Mackintosh), the farmer’s son, plans to join the RAF to train as a pilot. He hasn’t been conscripted because farming is a ‘reserved occupation’. Though he has a fiancée in the WAAF, Joe is a young man (he’s actually older than the three ‘girls’) who proves attractive to all three Land Girls for different reasons.

Joe and Prue making hay . . .

Ag with her Canadian (Michael Mantas)

David Leland has had a long career as actor, writer and director. He’s probably best known as the director of Wish You Were Here (UK 1987), a joyful and provocative film about a young girl’s ‘awakening’ in a 1950s seaside town starring Emily Lloyd and earlier as the writer of a trio of TV films about youth and education. In 1986 he wrote the hit film Mona Lisa. I think some of the sheer vitality and of those earlier works is evident in The Land Girls. The film was was very well cast and all the players are very good indeed. Catherine McCormack has the lead role in the sense that her voiceover introduces the three young women’s arrival at the farm and also introduces the coda at the end of the film. I think it’s a shame that her two co-stars here have gone on to have more high-profile careers in film and television, though her Wikipedia page suggests that she prefers the stage to the film camera. Our loss, I think. In a sense all three Land Girls are socially ‘typed’ and the roles correspond with the actors’ personae. Ag is a ‘blue-stocking’ Oxbridge scholar and Stella is the daughter of a bank manager.

Lighting the Xmas pudding with Mrs Lawrence (Maureen O’Brien)

I categorise this film as a ‘rural romance melodrama’ with a Home Front narrative structure. Most Home Front narratives are female-centred and the romance possibilities come about because a group of strangers ‘disturb’ a settled and socially conservative rural community. Often, the strangers are men, either from an Allied army (usually, Canadians or Americans in a British context, but also Poles, French etc.) or POWs (German or Italian). The Land Girls (and the munitions workers in other films) provide a female disturbance. ‘Romance’ becomes a sexual liaison because it is wartime and every relationship could be short-lived. These relationships drive the melodrama which runs up against the taboos of rural society. The disruption is presented through uses of music and photography marked by use of landscape, compositions and spectacular events including the appearance of enemy aircraft. In a film like The Land Girls, all these are present and more. Although the tone is light and comedic sequences are including, there are also dark scenes. The script is also careful to show that the Land Girls, especially Ag and Stella had already learned many farm-working skills and are able to improve the farm’s output.

Stella prepares to meet her naval boyfriend

The ‘test’ of melodramas like this is to be found in the narrative resolution in which we expect to learn something about how the women at its centre emerge from their adventures. The assumption is in a wartime film that the women will be changed and possibly that the changes for these women will be representative of potential changes for all women across society. Historically we know that many of the changes were nullified to an extent in the post-war period for various reasons (slightly different in the UK and the US) as men were demobbed. The 1950s are often seen as a return to more socially conservative norms, at least until the mid 1950s. It will depend to some extent on when the films were made. Millions Like Us (UK 1943) as a wartime film is optimistic about ‘winning the peace’ and closing some of the inequality gaps in British society. Films made after the war, in the context of austerity are more circumspect. The Land Girls, made 45 years later is likely to have absorbed some of the later social changes, expressed particularly through the character of Prue. Like some other Home Front dramas, The Land Girls does involve a coda in which we meet the five women from the narrative (the three girls, Mrs Lawrence and Janet who was Joe’s fiancée) a few years after the war. It’s an interesting addition which resolves some questions and leaves at least one open. As a melodrama ending it makes very good use of colour and costumes. I wish I knew more about the New Look and what followed in the early 1950s but this is a real visual treat. The idea of this coda reminds me that The Weaker Sex (UK 1948) has a slightly different strategy by offering a narrative that runs from 1944 through to 1948 in what I remember as a continuous narrative rather than a wartime narrative with a separate peacetime coda. I’m also reminded that Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 film A Canterbury Tale makes its female lead a Land Girl played by Sheila Sim.

LFF 2020 #7: Striding into the Wind (Ye Ma Fen Zong, China 2020)

Tong (left) and Kun messin’ about – as they do for most of the film

This is a difficult film to categorise. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean that the film has attracted some very positive reviews but also some dismissals. It’s a film which requires a viewer to have some idea about the context of filmmaking in China over the last twenty or thirty years. Writer-director Wei Shejun saw his début short film selected for Cannes competition in 2018, winning a ‘Special Distinction’ Award and both that film and this his début feature have featured at festivals around the world. Striding into the Wind is inspired by his own experiences as a film student. He has also clearly learned how to use festival interviews. A Variety interview and his LFF interview see him name-checking various influences and at one point arguing that currently China has no ‘global directors’. He knows how to play the game and there are sections in this film that demonstrates he can make interesting cinema as well. What it all adds up to is something that needs working through.

At the start of the film I thought that I was in for a ‘slacker comedy’ which isn’t really my kind of thing. Zhou Kun with a kind of mullet-cum-ponytail is a student at a film school repeating a year, which means he has plenty of time to spare to help his classmate Tong Shao-jie learn how to become an audio technician. Kun has a job as sound man on a student (or alumni?) film and Tong tags along trying to learn. Kun has enough industry knowledge to be able to correct his tutor who doesn’t seem to have worked since he left the Film Academy. The digs about the Fifth Generation directors being out of touch now and the Sixth Generation making the same kinds of films all the time (comments by Wei in the Q&A) are seemingly drawn from the director’s own experience in film school. Kun and Tong go on to try to develop various other scams to make money and as well as the possible Hollywood genre connections, I thought that at this point that I might have seen similar films from the new Indian Independent Cinema or perhaps from South Korea. After a while though, the buddy movie at the centre of the narrative begins to be displaced by a genuine romance with the appearance of A Zhi as Kun’s girlfriend. She is much more sussed than the two students and is making money as a model/cheerleader/’eye candy’ for promotional events. It’s a waste of her degree in Chinese Literature but she has a plan. She also seems to have a genuine personality and possibly to care for Kun – but will he have the sense to see this? To be fair to Kun, Zhi is prepared to conform and he isn’t. I have to agree with the BFI interviewer (whose name I didn’t catch, there were access problems in trying to view the Q&A a second time) when she suggested that A Zhi (Zheng Yin Chen) has a real presence which makes the romance narrative possible. But will Kun have the nouse to make it work?

The two young men and one woman trio and one or two other elements in the plot made me think of the early Jia Zhangke film Unknown Pleasures (2002). Jia is, I would argue, the leading Chinese auteur in the global art film market. His wasn’t a name that Wei Shejun checked (Hou Hsiao-hsien was mentioned twice). The Jia references increased for me in the closing section of Striding Into the Wind when Kun and Tong Shao-jie travel to Inner Mongolia to complete the shoot of the film they have been working on since the director wants some ‘authentic ‘ atmosphere for his film. This means a shift to the road movie and a series of reflections on the romance of the region (the wind in the grass, the horses etc.) and also the artificiality of ‘tourist’ versions of Mongolian culture. This trip is tied in to Kun’s relationship with the venerable Jeep Cherokee that he buys cheap at the beginning of the film. Kun has always dreamed about visiting Inner Mongolia so the car is central to how he will understand (or not) his own fantasies and sort out what he wants to do with his life.

China has grown so fast as an economy in the last twenty years and it has been difficult for societal changes to keep pace. It’s hardly surprising that young men born in the late 1990s have issues if they try to do anything else other than knuckle down and conform. Kun has problems with his mother a teacher, his father a police officer and A Zhi’s dad, an accountant as well as his tutor. Tong Shao-jie seems almost completely detached from family in the performance by Tong Lin Kai who was discovered as a non-professional by the director and certainly has a presence in the film. I’d like to show this film in tandem with a film like Beijing Bicycle (dir. Wang Xiaoshuai, China-Taiwan-France 2001) which less than twenty years ago shows a similar trio of young(er) people in Beijing trying to cope with a very different city.

Striding Into the Wind is a hybrid comedy/romance/road trip with an element of family melodrama. The narrative is probably too loose and could be tightened, but the players are engaging and there does seem to be a kind of commentary both on contemporary China and on filmmaking. I look forward to seeing what Wei Shejun does next. The film is produced by the Chinese internet giant Alibaba and is showing in North America on festival screens. Unfortunately the promotion doesn’t seem to be using many images or videos so apologies for the lack of illustrative material here.

Marriage Italian Style (Matrimonio all’italiana, Italy-France 1964)

There are five portraits of Sophia Loren on this poster, including the one top right when she plays a nervous teenager at the beginning of the film.

It’s purely coincidence that over the last couple of weeks I’ve been entertained by Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman and now Sophia Loren. It’s also been a great pleasure. Marriage Italian Style is partly a follow-up to Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Italy 1963) in that it stars Sophia Loren opposite Marcello Mastroianni. Like its predecessor it sold well overseas and received Oscar nominations. I note that though this was a Carlo Ponti production featuring his partner Sophia Loren, the Executive Producer was Joseph E. Levine, the American showman who did a great deal to introduce Italian popular cinema (and particularly Sophia Loren) to the UK and North America in the 1960s.

Filumena begins to become established as amistress

De Sica’s film is an adaptation of a Neapolitan play by the prolific actor/writer/director Eduardo De Filippo who made his own film adaptation in 1951 and it has also featured in other versions. The De Sica adaptation is the best known outside Italy. The plot is straightforward. During the the bombing of Naples prior to the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944, a wealthy local businessman, Domenico (Mastroianni) meets a terrified young woman Filumena (Loren). She will survive by becoming a prostitute for the next few years and Domenico will meet her again and decide to keep the contact going, eventually installing her in an apartment and finding her a job. Their secret relationship escalates further up to the point where he installs her in his own house, ostensibly as a maid/carer for his aged mother. He refuses to commit to marriage or to make the relationship public. The relationship lasts for 25 years in secret before Filumena hatches a plot to force a marriage. De Sica structures the narrative so that it starts at the point where Filumena launches her plan and then flashes back to 1944 and outlines the history. We then see what Filumena’s action provokes and this leads into the final act.

The couple meet in the street – this appears to be a photo showing the crowds who stop to watch the film being made.

In one sense this is a similar narrative to the Naples episode (‘Yesterday’) from the previous film from De Sica with Loren and Mastroianni, but it is much more challenging for the pair since they must age over 25 years. Loren was around 30 when she made the film and Mastroianni was 10 years older. Loren’s are the more obvious changes. At first, although I enjoyed the performances I wasn’t particularly entertained by the story and I struggled with the sexism – Domenico’s shocking treatment of his lover and the misogyny expressed towards Filumena. This is an integral part of of the narrative even though it is apparent to everyone that she is strong and capable and he is a weak but devious man. But as the narrative developed, I did warm to the characters including the housekeeper Rosalia (Tecla Scarano) and the chauffeur Alfredo (Aldo Puglisi) who become Filumena’s principal supporters. There are also certain scenes where De Sica seems to draw on his neorealist experiences in his presentation of Neapolitan street scenes and the changing landscapes of the city. I was particularly taken by a later scene in which Filumena has moved to a new block of flats built on a hill. When Domenico sees her from the road as she begins to descend a path, he rushes, panting, up the path to meet her. I suddenly felt that De Sica was saying something optimistic about their relationship and expressing it through his use of location. I was strangely reminded of some of Antonioni’s films and his use of cityscapes.

One of the later scenes when Loren is playing much older

The two leads were at their peak around this time. Marcello Mastrioanni looks perpetually worried or helpless when he is not attempting to look decisive. Sophia Loren is simply magnificent. The film is currently part of MUBI UK’s ‘Library’ offer. I think the print is sourced from Cult Films and a notice before the film start discusses dubbing, However the MUBI presentation is a film in Italian with English subtitles.

Shirley Valentine (UK 1989)

Pauline Collins and Bernard Hill in flashback as a young couple

Shirley Valentine is an essential title for our list of Liverpool films. It’s also an interesting film in terms of its audience and the group of creatives who made it a big hit in the reviving British cinema of the late 1980s. The film might be described as a ‘feelgood’, nostalgic feminist comedy-drama – a strange and perhaps contradictory description. Looking at reviews, I was interested to see a number of US reviews which are in some ways quite distanced and critically acute, but also quite welcoming and celebratory. Pauline Collins who plays the titular lead was Oscar-nominated and the original play had been a hit on Broadway so the the US reviews do make sense. But the fact that the film is an ‘opening out’ of a successful stage play that doesn’t solve all the problems inherent in that practice and has tended to downplay the artistic achievement in the UK.

If you aren’t familiar with the play or the film, here’s a brief outline. Shirley Valentine was a bright grammar school girl with a rebellious streak who somehow became Mrs Shirley Bradshaw and the traditional stay at home mother of two living in a suburban street in Liverpool. One day, after the kids have left home, her long moans to her kitchen walls finally lead to action and she accepts the chance to go on holiday to Greece with a friend Jane (Alison Steadman). She hopes to rediscover her younger self and surprise herself with what might happen. Her sudden change in behaviour is prompted by her nosy neighbour across the street (Julia McKenzie) who puts on ‘airs and graces’ and her children Milandra (Tracie Bennett) and Brian (Gareth Jefferson) and her husband Joe (Bernard Hill) who have all long ago taken her for granted. The cast also includes Tom Conti with a moustache as a Greek hotel/bar owner and both Joanna Lumley and Sylvia Syms in cameo roles.

Shirley meets her friend Jane (Alison Steadman)

I remember enjoying the film in the cinema with my partner, who identified with Shirley just as many other women in the UK would have done at the time. We were also conscious of the Liverpool setting and the fact that nearly everything worth watching in the 1980s in the UK seemed to be set in Liverpool. Willy Russell was the playwright behind Shirley Valentine as well as the earlier Educating Rita which also became a major film, in 1983 (it was filmed in Dublin but at heart it remains a Liverpool narrative). Russell had many other theatrical hits as well as TV drama scripts throughout the 1970s and 1980s and one other film Dancin’ thru the Dark (1990) based on his earlier script Stags and Hens (1978). He was one of the most successful of the Liverpool writers in this period. His work tended towards comedy, music and working-class life whereas Alan Bleasdale had similar success with more politically edged material such as his TV serial Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Bernard Hill as ‘Yosser’ Hughes in that production became something of an iconic figure of resistance to Thatcherism in the 1980s with his catchphrase “Gizza a job” (“Give us a job!”). Watching Hill as Shirley’s husband in 1989 was undoubtedly different for many audiences in the UK than it might have been for those overseas. Bleasdale and Russell were both trained as teachers in the mid-1960s (they were born in 1946 and 1947) and therefore they were around as teenagers and young men with the rise of popular music and football ascendency for the city’s teams. Pauline Collins was born in 1940, slightly earlier than the writers and her character Shirley might already have been married by the time the Beatles and the other Liverpool bands became so influential. Several of the successful Northern comedies in the 1970s and 1980s have that slightly odd feeling of being written a few years before they emerged as popular films – and therefore have a slight nostalgic feel.

Shirley finds herself on a Greek island

Shirley is very much the central character of her own narrative as emphasised by her conversations with the kitchen walls and with the camera. This latter was also famously an element of an earlier successful film (by a Northern-based writer, Bill Naughton) Alfie (1966), another film adapted from an earlier play. The link between the two films is also through the director Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert (1920-2018) was a remarkably successful British director who succeeded in several different genres. He followed a series of wartime-based dramas in the 1950s with three James Bond films and then both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine looking back to Alfie. Always seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, his success directing Julie Walters and Pauline Collins led to the suggestion that he was good with these roles which saw women changing their lives and creating a different identity. The result was that in 1991 he was was hired by Paramount to direct an American version of another similar British play, Steppin’ Out featuring Liza Minnelli. This seems to have turned out slightly less well (like the remake of Alfie?). Although these adaptations each derive from stage plays my feeling is that their referents are mainly a certain kind of British television production.

Although Pauline Collins made a big impression internationally as Shirley Valentine, her UK profile has always been maintained by her theatre work and her TV stardom rather than by cinema and this is true for most of the actors in the film of Shirley Valentine. In 1989 the UK cinema audience had increased significantly but was still not much more than half of its 2019, pre-Covid figure. I think this TV focus explains partly why the film today feels nostalgic for a period before the late 1980s. To give another example, Shirley’s trip to Greece sees her meeting various British holidaymakers still reacting xenophobically to local food and culture. This was one of the points of criticism of the film and it reminded me of British TV sitcoms, particularly Duty Free (three seasons 1984-6) featuring Gwen Taylor and Keith Barron. One of my favourite Monthly Film Bulletin critics, Philip Strick, offers in MFB October 1989 what is I think a typical response to the film which he suggests works because of Willy Russell’s skill with one-liners. What doesn’t work, he argues, are Shirley’s pieces to camera and the whole opening out of the play and peopling it with the characters who in the stage version were mentioned by Shirley but who didn’t actually appear in the flesh. I understand this criticism, but I don’t have any problems with the ‘to camera’ monologues. I also feel that films work with audiences in many different ways and in this case I think I know Shirley and all the characters, because they are ‘typical’ for British social comedy rather than because they are rounded characters in a drama. But perhaps this does date the film and thirty years on it stands primarily for enjoyable nostalgia and for a fine central performance.

Doubles vies (Non-Fiction, France 2018)

Selena (Juliette Binoche) and Léonard (Vincent Macaigne)

Although the English title of this film does make sense as a reference to the film’s narrative, I prefer the French title which is more subtle and has more referents in its translation as ‘Double Lives’. This is another Olivier Assayas film which delves into formal questions about film, narrative, narration etc. and does so by exploring the behaviour of those involved in writing and producing ‘texts’. In this case the whole discussion is then worked into a familiar genre narrative of extra-marital affairs. Assayas has plenty of form in this area. The most recent film of his that I spent time thinking about was Clouds of Sils Maria (France 2014) in which Kristen Stewart plays the personal assistant to a moody star film actor played by Juliette Binoche. Much earlier in his career Assayas made Irma Vepp (France 1996) in which Maggie Cheung, playing herself, has a tough time making a film with a director played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Assayas later married Ms Cheung. Léaud himself played in several films directed by François Truffaut including one in which Truffaut appeared as a director making a film – La nuite américaine (France 1973). It should be clear from all of this that we are in the rarefied world of the mise en abîme – the story within a story and a blurring of identities. Given that Doubles vies has a starry cast there is also likely to be a mismatch of expectations in which audiences looking forward to an entertaining marital comedy instead get a great deal of blather about the onslaught of digitalisation. One IMDb user calls it a “mediocre Ted Talk”. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s not a totally inaccurate analysis.

Guillaume Canet as Alain

Guillaume Canet, who has often played action roles, is here cast as Alain, the head of a small but prestigious publishing house. He is married to Selena (Juliette Binoche), a celebrated stage actor who has become successful as the star of a TV series (a cop show of some kind). At the start of the narrative, Alain is in the process of deciding whether to publish the next novel of his friend Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). It isn’t clear at this point whether Alain knows that Léonard is having an affair with Selena. Alain himself is busy with his hot (in the industry sense) new colleague Laure (Christa Théret), his ‘Head of Digitalisation’. This extends into a physical relationship. Despite both having plenty to do, Alain and Selena also have a child who is seen occasionally with his nanny. There are two central themes in the film. One is how and when the analogue publishing industry will be forced to become yet another predominantly digital media industry. This is an industrial question about how publishers will organise their output, what staff they will need and how they will develop relationships with writers. It is also about something less tangible about prestige and high art credibility. Can an e-book ever have the cultural cachet of a well-bound and printed book? The other theme is around the ethics and credibility attached to ‘autofiction’, the form of literature defined as autobiographical fiction. The rise of this form in recent years has been more pronounced in French literature than in most other national literary cultures.

Christa Théret as Laure the ‘Head of Digitalisation’

Léonard’s novels are seen as autofiction which means that he is writing about his affair with Selena. Can he really expect that Alain and his other friends won’t work out that his lover in the novel is Selena? Léonard also has a partner, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) and she is busy being the media ‘minder’ for a politician who predictably drives her crazy. I watched the whole film but I admit that at times I did find it wearisome. The discourse about digitalisation is not particularly new or clever (admittedly the film is two years old). I think Juliette Binoche is wasted and I have a real problem with Vincent Macaigne. I’m sure he is a nice guy but I can’t see women falling for him as they do in several recent French films. I obviously don’t understand romance in France but it is odd that Macaigne seems to play similar buffoonish characters in several films. The only one of the characters in Doubles vies I could bear to spend time with would be Valérie. That said the dialogue in the film is witty and if you like this kind of French marital comedy this is a well-made example.

Nora Hamzawi as Valérie

Doubles vies is currently streaming on MUBI.