This is the second of a loose trilogy of Bulgarian films about social issues in one of the newer member countries of the EU by the team of Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov. I reviewed the couple’s earlier film The Lesson (2014) here. The second film follows the first in looking for ideas in local newspaper stories which are then used as a stimulus for developing more complex dramas. The first film seemed to me a social realist drama which used some familiar genre tropes at certain moments. I thought this second film was slightly different in bringing together two central characters whose stories mesh in interesting ways and which was mostly coherent in engaging with genre ideas. I’d need to go back to the first film to check, but it might be that the camerawork by Krum Rodriguez is this time ‘looser’ with hand-held shallow focus in the modern style rather than the ‘documentary observation’ of The Lesson. Some of the same crew and the two principal actors reappear from the first film.
The punning title needs translating to reveal its significance. It refers to both the recognition of a ‘hero’ in the tradition of the worker-heroes of the era under communism and to the object which is used to represent that recognition – a traditional Russian wristwatch with the brand-name ‘Slava’ or ‘Glory’. The worker in this case is Tzanko Petrov, a ‘linesman’ on the railway who checks the track and in particular the rails and their attachment to the sleepers. One day he discovers a pile of banknotes lying on the track. He quickly decides to alert the police. This action is brought to the attention of the ministry of transport and in particular the energetic and relentless Julia Staykova, the head of public relations. She immediately begins a media campaign which will see Tzanko summoned to Sofia where the minister will present him with a new watch. But Tzanko is not ideal PR material. He is a loner with a speech impediment. Julia herself is also distracted by her own personal issues and in particular her current infertility treatment. Added to this is the context of corruption in the operation of the railways – the reason why celebrating Tzanko’s public-spirited action is so important for good PR.
Out of this promising mixture of narrative threads Grozeva and Valchanov have created a black comedy which works on many levels, shifting from moments of near farce (more trousers being dropped for non-sexual reasons than I’ve seen for a long time) to sometimes quite sad and sometimes quite brutal episodes. There is an open ending, but one with little hope that all will end well.
Julia Staykova is played by Margita Gosheva, the teacher from The Lesson and again she gives an excellent performance as the driven Julia. Stefan Denolyubov, the moneylender in The Lesson unrecognisable behind long hair and a wild beard, plays Tzanko. His is an equally good performance in a role which, like Gosheva’s, requires a wide range of skills. In the Press Book on the New Wave Film website, the directors suggest that they first thought of the PR boss as a man. I was surprised because in the UK I tend to assume PR people are very often women. I think they made the right decision in the end.
The EU does play a role in the narrative, if only because the corruption on the railways might cause problems for future EU support which is being discussed in the background as the events unfold. Otherwise the main social issue in the film is perhaps the extent to which traditional (or perhaps ‘pre-1990’) Bulgarian society is coping with global modernity, whether it is mobile phones being answered in the fertility clinic in the midst of consultations with a doctor or the frantic attempts of a TV crew to present the best image of the railways in an online news report. Tzanko is a little behind these changes as a rural worker, though possibly only because he still has a human touch. Crucially it is the loss of his Russian watch with the engraving on the back representing his father’s love that he really cares about.
There were just a couple of puzzling moments in the film. At one point a prostitute appears and I wasn’t sure why. And the infertility treatment baffled me as I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. Otherwise I was engaged throughout. I watched the film in a new cinema, part of a multi-purpose arts centre. The disadvantage I discovered was that the removable seating (to convert the venue for theatre and music events) creaked and groaned as people came in late and I lost concentration during the opening scenes. I’m increasingly concerned by the new kinds of auditoria that are being opened – I haven’t yet ventured into an Everyman or an Odeon de Luxe with squidgy sofas and tables. Oh, how I pine for the artplex in Nimes with a comfortable seat, complete darkness and no distractions! Still I was grateful to see Glory in one of the handful of venues to risk a subtitled film in the ‘Awards’ season. Don’t miss it if it comes your way – this director couple have real talent.
Why did Sally Potter make The Party? Here’s a film that reached cinemas as a 71 minute black & white drama shot in just two weeks on, I assume, a low budget – though there are quite a few well-known pieces of music and a starry cast to pay for. Apart from the fact that images are composed in ‘Scope, the most ‘cinematic’ ratio, there is little to distinguish The Party from a TV play or a West End play. I’ve not been tempted so far to watch one of the ‘live’ filmed plays beamed into cinemas, but I wonder whether they are very different? To be fair, The Party is shot by Aleksei Rodionov a Russian cinematographer with a very varied list of credits from the sublime (including Potter’s Orlando (1992)) to the much less so. In this case he glides the camera between four parts of a London townhouse and its carefully shielded backyard and provides some startling close-ups, neither of which would work on stage.
I suppose the answer to my question is provided by Sophie Mayer in her Sight and Sound piece. She describes the work as a “brisk, coruscatingly witty farce”. Mayer goes on to see the film as: “. . . a comedy that bites because it is utterly and urgently of our moment”. The subhead to suggests that “Sally Potter probes liberty and the state of Europe’s left”. I’m dubious about these claims.
Let’s start with an outline of the plot. ‘The party’ concerns Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has today been appointed to Shadow Minister of Health and she’s giving a drinks party. The only reason to mention the ‘European left’ is that one of her guests is German – Gottfried, an elderly man (played by a sprightly Bruno Ganz) who has become ‘New Age’ in his old age. A practical (and positive) point to make about Potter’s script is that she has provided four female parts and only three for males. Janet’s husband, retired academic Bill (Tim Spall) is seemingly ‘far away’, listening to his music collection with a large glass of red and a puzzled and rather forlorn expression. The other man is Tom (Cillian Murphy) – a young ‘wanker-banker’ as someone refers to him. The women include a lesbian married couple, Martha (Cherry Jones), former colleague of Bill, and pregnant Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and April (Patricia Clarkson) the partner of Gottfried (and long-time friend of Janet). There is also someone still to arrive – Tom’s wife Marianne (who is also Janet’s assistant/advisor). We find out what ails Bill and what drives the manic Tom – and these revelations lead to the whole set of relationships being challenged and recriminations being carried out. Formally, the play is a farce.
The major problem for Mayer’s argument (and everyone else who sees this as some kind of political satire) is that it is already out of date. Sally Potter is supposed to have written the script in 2015, presumably before or during the General Election campaign. The Labour Party that has emerged since Jeremy Corbyn became leader would be unlikely to include a character like Janet as Shadow Health Minister. Indeed a quick scan through the Shadow Cabinet today shows a significant shift to Northern, often working-class, women rather than the southern middle-class typified by Janet. Sally Potter couldn’t know how these changes would work out and the Labour Party is never named – but the dialogue about health issues makes it difficult to see Janet as anything other than a Labour MP. It felt to me that this was actually quite an old-fashioned play, but that may be as much to do with the form as with the characters. I can see the links to Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Beckett (waiting for the arrival of Marianne) and Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party?).
Unsurprisingly, the film/play is well acted. A friend queried whether I had laughed (on the basis that it was a middle-class play and perhaps you had to know this world to laugh?). Well, I did laugh on several occasions but I also got bored and in the end it didn’t add up to much for me. Bill’s music, an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, reggae, Cuban and tango was very welcome as a distraction – and I don’t think I really considered it as a commentary on the absence of issues of colonial history and exploitation in the script as suggested by Sophie Mayer.
It was a rainy Saturday night with nothing on TV so we rented Words and Pictures. I selected this on the basis that it was a Fred Schepisi film starring Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen and it was described on iTunes as a comedy. This film wasn’t, as far as I’m aware, released in UK cinemas. That says more about assumptions about UK cinema audiences than the quality of the film. And I think that older audiences might enjoy the film. Yes, it’s highly conventional and predictable but Binoche grappling with Clive Owen is always going to be watchable.
The setting is Vancouver standing in for somewhere in New England where Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) is an English honours teacher in a prep school, having once been a promising writer. Things are not going well for Jack. His students are not engaged and his son barely speaks to him (I don’t remember any references to the young man’s mother). As a result, Jack is hitting the vodka and his tenure at the school is starting to look precarious. The ‘inciting incident’ for the narrative is the arrival of a new ‘fine art honours’ teacher Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). She’s beautiful, intelligent, and talented – and she has rheumatoid arthritis which is developing quickly. Jack is woken from his slumber by her arrival and he playfully challenges her with word games. He’s surprised when she promotes her art work over his literature with the students she shares with him. He retaliates with a challenge to show that the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. (He also recognises that the challenge may produce student work to fill his ailing school magazine – that the principal intends to close down.)
The setting and plot do perhaps suggest Schepisi’s fellow Australian Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society and in a different way, The Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. But those films combined the question of what happens to ‘maverick’ teachers with the story of the impact of their teachings on their students’ lives. Words and Pictures is really only interested in the students as devices to develop the storyline about the potential romance between Owen and Binoche. I don’t think that it is a conventional romcom, however. It is certainly witty and there are moments when it seems about to get serious about the afflictions suffered by the two teachers, both of whom struggle to get back to their best artistic endeavours. But in the end, Jack’s alcoholism seems rather too easy to overcome and Dina’s arthritis is similarly suddenly controllable by medication. A conventional ending beckons and this is indeed mainstream entertainment. The pleasure is in the central pairing. I think Clive Owen is a very under-rated actor and here he is presented as dishevelled, bleary-eyed and far from a romantic lead, but he makes the character work. Juliette Binoche produced her own artworks for the film and the scenes of her composing her large paintings despite her disability are very well done. The two leads work well together.
The film seems to have suffered from an unusual limited distribution pattern over the whole summer of 2014 in North America, but only in a maximum of 216 cinemas for a few weeks and the rest of the time much smaller numbers – I’m assuming that for several weeks it only screened in Canada. It doesn’t seem to have been released in the UK or France. I hope it has found its audience on DVD and download – this is the kind of small film that has been most squeezed in the market over the last few years and it’s the kind of film we miss.
For my state of mind and my tired brain, I was relieved that my first day of three at the London Film Festival ended with a Danish comedy drama starring one of my favourite actors, Søren Malling. This was a ‘Scope picture presented on the big screen at Curzon 1 Mayfair with an appreciative Thursday night crowd who enjoyed what is a major Danish production. This UK screening came just a week after the official release in Denmark. The Q&A with director Henrik Ruben Genz was equally entertaining and I’m sorry I had to leave before it was over.
The Word of God is an adaptation of a Danish bestseller from 2004 written by Jens Blendstrup, the youngest ‘son of God’ in what is an autobiographical novel. ‘God’ is Uffe (Søren Malling) a familiar character in a number of narratives. In 1986, around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, Uffe’s traditional parenting methods are being called into question. His eldest son has left home and reversed all his father’s teachings, becoming a God-fearing Christian in what in the UK might be called a ‘happy-clappy’ evangelical community by non-believers. Second son Thomas has convinced himself that he has agoraphobia and can’t leave the house and Jens, the youngest is a 14 year-old ‘genius’ poet/writer. Swedish mother and wife Gerd Lillian (Lisa Nilsson) tries to keep this lot together. Uffe has a simple strategy to deal with both joy and despair – he makes ‘Army soup’ from his younger days, a ferocious concoction of unpeeled onions stewed in concentrated soup stock and schnapps. In his professional life he runs a psychotherapy group that convinces its members to abandon medical drugs and instead to progress with groupwork interaction (and copious amounts of beer and cigarettes). Beer is referred to as ‘vegetables’ (i.e. to accompany the soup). The ‘narrative disruption’ is double-headed when Uffe’s eldest returns to announce his marriage and Uffe himself discovers that he has developed potentially terminal cancer – and that he doesn’t want to accept new chemical treatments. In times of stress, as well as making his soup, Uffe retires to his ‘Arabic corner’ and smokes a shisha or hookah. When he discovers that Jens is a writer he unearths his typewriter from the ‘Swedish chest’ that Gerd Lillian brought as a her dowry and attempts to write his autobiography, inspired by Jens’ success writing morbid poetry. The narrative question becomes ‘can the family stay together and resolve their issues’?
I enjoyed The Word of God very much. It is funny and it is also quite moving, because of the performances I think. Lisa Nilsson is very good in a difficult role as the mother and the family rings true. Watching it I was reminded of two films for different reasons. The plot is very similar to that of East is East (1999), a British film which was very successful but which disturbed me greatly because of its representation of a Pakistani father and mixed-race children. It was also an autobiographical story – about a mixed race family in Salford in the 1970s. I found The Word of God to be less offensive and generally quite ‘humanist’ in its acceptance of characters (though some might argue about the wedding scene involving Uffe and his son’s Christian community). A more recent Nordic story which has less in common, apart from a seemingly anti-social lead male character, would be A Man Called Ove (Sweden 2015). Uffe is completely ‘unreconstructed’ but he does the right thing by his ‘patients’. He’s less successful with his children – though I think he always means to be helpful. Søren Malling is a terrific actor, but I hope the paunch he developed to play the role was prosthetic. The Word of God might confirm all the typical traits of Danish life in the 1980s for some audiences (including a questionable sex scene) but I was onside throughout. I hope this film gets a release over here and many more audiences in the UK get to enjoy it.
A trailer with English subs is here: https://www.levelk.dk/films/word-of-god/4003
Rajat Kapoor is known in the UK as an actor (having appeared in more than 40 films) across mainstream Hindi and independent features. But in India he is also recognised as a director of low budget independent films. This busy actor-filmmaker made the trip to the North of England to make appearances at both Sheffield Showroom and HOME in Manchester as part of ‘Not Just Bollywood’. He accompanied his most recent feature as director (and supporting actor), introducing his film and staying on for a Q&A after the screening. Ankhon Dekhi is a remarkable film. I left the screening intrigued, slightly bemused and realising I needed to think more about it.
The film’s title translates roughly as ‘Seeing with your own eyes’. It only dawned on me later that ‘dekko’ is another Hindi loan word that no doubt crept into English usage during the colonial era– as in “Have a dekko at this”. The central character Bauji, a fifty-something man living with his extended family in old Delhi, decides to follow the philosophical position of believing only what he can see with his own eyes as closely as possible and in doing so turns upside down his own family and his group of friends in the local community. Everything kicks off with an event both shocking and mundane at the same time. The whole of Bauji’s extended family overreacts when it is revealed that Bauji’s daughter is seeing a young man who is assumed to be a ‘bad lot’ and certainly not appropriate as husband and son-in-law. But is he that bad? Or indeed not bad at all? Bauji is not convinced that the young man is a villain, but at first his daughter’s life takes a back seat as Bauji himself becomes known as a philosopher, giving up his job and acquiring a circle of followers, mainly from the local barber’s shop where men gather (a link to African-American culture I hadn’t thought of before).
Some time after the screening, I had a revelation about what Ankhon Dekhi might be reminding me of when I read a viewer’s comment on IMDb: “Rajat Kapoor’s refreshingly eccentric yet gimmick-less (even hype-less) Ankhon Dekhi is kind of a déja vu of Malgudi Days. The film revolves around Bauji who lives in his own ideological world and believes in the inherent goodness of people” (‘rangdetumpy’ from India). I came across the charming and beautifully written novels (in English) of R. K. Narayan around forty years ago. Narayan, a southern writer born in Madras, invented his own fictional town of Malgudi. His stories deal with everyday and mainly inconsequential events which reveal everything about a small community of characters. There is definitely a link between Bauji and Narayan’s world. Ankhon Dekhi is set in Old Delhi and Rajat Kapoor told us that finding the particular dwelling with its interconnected rooms and communal spaces to serve as the film’s central location was one of the most important aspects of the film’s production. The extended family includes Bauji’s brother (Rajat Kapoor) and his family and the closeness – which has benefits and disbenefits – becomes another factor. Ankhon Dekhi works because it is both specific in its Old Dehli milieu and ‘universal’ as a family comedy melodrama. It also suggests another Indian genre – that concerned with the ‘guru’ or ‘pandit’. Bauji attracts followers and it isn’t too difficult to see that both guru and followers are ripe for some form of gentle satire. Alternatively, perhaps his philosophy works and we are the ones to be gently mocked? Again, Narayan had a similar story, The Guide (1958) which follows a character, a tour guide, who will eventually become seen as some kind of spiritual guide by his followers. Like Narayan, Rajat Kapoor ends his narrative with an open question about Bauji’s status and whether he can survive the journey he seems to be making.
Ankhon Dekhi is a lovely film with a great ensemble cast who present scenes about life in their neighbourhood that allow us to reflect on love and friendship and the fascination of daily life. Rajat Kapoor explained that he grew up in this kind of family in a similar part of Old Delhi. It is clearly a film that ‘Not Just Bollywood’ curator Omar Ahmed holds very dear, as was apparent in the Q&A that followed the screening. Omar asked questions which referred back to his own earlier presentation on the ‘Hindies’ phenomenon and Rajat Kapoor explained how, seemingly ‘out of the blue’, someone appeared who was prepared to find the half a million dollars required to make the film. This was Manish Mundra. Ankhon Dekhi was the first production for Drishyam Films, the company Mundra set up. Four years and several other productions later (including Newton (2017)). Mundra was able to announce a $20 million fund to finance 8-10 new Indian independent films. This development promises new films but how these films will be distributed and how they will find audiences remains an issue. Rajat Kapoor told us that Ankhon Dekhi has still not covered its production costs. But he also suggested that the new possibilities offered by Netflix and other streaming services might help indie films to be seen outside the big metros (a question from the audience queried whether this would mean that films like Ankhon Dekhi would never get into cinemas). At the moment, a film like Ankhon Dekhi is still likely to be seen mainly at film festivals (in India and abroad) – and not in local cinemas on release. Rajat suggested that it doesn’t really matter if Netflix don’t allow films they produce to get into cinemas if it means that audiences can still see small independent films on their TV sets or online. He admitted that the biggest success of Ankhon Dekhi, for him, was that every day somebody new would see his film on the various outlets and that he could feel the love for the film when people stopped him on the street to congratulate him.
Ankhon Dekhi won awards in India but Rajat Kapoor is still struggling to fund one of the four new scripts he has completed. His next film will try for crowd-funding and we were all invited to contribute. In a final response to a question by Omar Ahmed about the potential for this new ‘wave’ of Indian independents, Rajat Kapoor was not optimistic. “There are perhaps 5 films each year that are interesting independents – and we make 1500 films a year.” I’m not sure I agree that only 5 are examples of new ideas, but Rajat did finally relent by agreeing that, slowly Indians are getting more access to ‘world cinema’ and tastes are changing. Let’s hope so if we are going to get more films like Ankhon Dekhi. Rajat himself is a link to the ‘New Cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s since he was inspired by two of the directors of the period, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, while he was at the Film Institute in Pune and they are both acknowledged at the end of Ankhon Dekhi.
A short interview with Rajat Kapoor has been posted on HOME’s website:
Newton opened in India a week ago and I was fortunate to watch the film the previous Saturday at HOME Manchester as part of the ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season. I’ve been trying to let my thoughts about the film marinate as I bathe them in the various positions being explored by friends in Manchester as well as across the Indian media. Newton is certainly a critical success and has already been selected as India’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee – but critics and audiences both seem divided as to how to take the central character and the narrative that he provokes. The film is an intelligent and wickedly funny political satire. It hasn’t yet reached a wide audience since it opened on only 300 screens in India, but even so some very different readings have appeared. The one negative reaction to the film has come from critics who have claimed that it takes ideas from the Iranian film Secret Ballot (2001). Newton‘s director Amit Masurkar has refuted these claims and the Iranian director Babak Payami has stated that there is no plagiarism involved. I have watched Secret Ballot but at this point, before going back to it as I hope to do, I think that although the central narrative action is certainly similar, the different context and the underpinning issues make a clear distinction. There is nothing wrong with borrowing ideas – but if Masurkar has done this, it should be acknowledged.
Outline (no spoilers)
‘Newton’ (Nutan) Kumar (Rajkummar Rao) is a young man with a postgraduate degree who has only been able to become a government clerk (he failed the Civil Service exam). Sent out to be a polling clerk in an election in the Eastern Central state of Chhattisgarh, he finds himself volunteering for potentially the most dangerous and difficult job for an election officer – collecting votes in an isolated area that has recently seen activity by Naxalite/Maoist groups. He is helicoptered in with his team of two assistants and meets the local military commander Aatma Singh (Pankaj Tripathi) and then a local teacher Malko (Anjali Patil) who acts as an interpreter and liaison with the potential voters. Is Newton going to be able to register any votes in the jungle?
Without spoiling the narrative, I can say that Newton tries very hard to follow the rulebook and it is up to the audience to decide the extent to which he succeeds. This is a political satire that takes aim at many different targets, including Indian bureaucracy, media constructions (a foreign media crew visits the area to see the election process), the conduct of the military, Indian ideas about democracy, inequalities, attitudes towards ‘scheduled tribes’, policies about ‘insurgents’ etc. At the centre of all this, in Rajkumar Rao’s wonderful performance, is Newton. Is he a brave hero, a staunch advocate of democracy – or is he completely insensitive to everyone’s different problems? Or is he somewhere on the autistic spectrum, perhaps with a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome? Perhaps the real pressure of attempting to conduct an election under threat of disruption pushes him into a difficult place where he struggles to function. There are scenes at the beginning and the end of the film which take place outside the jungle context and perhaps provide clues about Newton’s behaviour. I’d like to see the final scenes again but one scene sees an attempt to ‘humanise’ the presentation of Newton’s potential nemesis Aatma Singh. Singh actually faces similar problems to Newton in that he is trying to fulfil his orders to keep the region free of Naxalites, protect the villagers and keep his men safe.
The setting of the drama is important. Chhattisgarh was formed out of the south-eastern districts of Maya Pradesh in 2000 and it is still a relatively poor state even though it has fast developing areas and rich mineral deposits. The jungle setting is the forest area of Dandakaranya. This is an area associated with the spiritual and the stories of the Ramayana (which is referenced by a joke in the film). It’s also the home of ‘tribal peoples’, one of the most disadvantaged communities in India. These people speak Gondi, a South-Central Dravidian language not understood by an educated Hindi speaker like Newton. The insurgents who are seen briefly at the start of the film (and whose presence is often invoked later on) are variously described as Naxals, Maoists or ‘communists’. Naxalites (from Naxalbari in Northern West Bengal) emerged in the late 1960s and new Naxalite groups have since emerged in many Indian states, forming a ‘corridor’ through the centre of India from North East to South West. Chhattisgarh has been a centre of much activity since 2005. Naxalites often seek out tribal peoples (the ‘Adivasis’) as their most likely supporters. The events in Newton are genuinely ‘realist’ in the sense that politicians have been victims in Chhattisgarh and the Naxalite threat is ‘real’. This in turn marks out Newton as an ‘Indian Independent’ in its presentation rather than belonging to the kind of fantasy world found in mainstream Hindi cinema.
For my money, Newton the character, with his principles and his lack of any sensitivity is not the answer – in fact he could well make matters worse. Indian governments need to consider the needs of the poorest people and curb the exploitation of resources with better regulation if they are to meet the challenge of the insurgency. Education is vital. An election is not democratic if voters don’t know who they are voting for or what elected people would do in power. But will Newton, the film, help audiences to engage with these kinds of debates about how to make democracy work? Some of the reviews I’ve read seem very naīve in taking Newton to be a ‘hero’. Perhaps if he listened carefully to Malko, he might be persuaded to modify his behaviour or at least learn how to disguise what he thinks?
Newton was first shown at the Berlin Film Festival where it won a prize and subsequently at other festivals. I hope it gets an eventual UK release and that it gets to the final Oscar shortlist. The film is produced by Manish Mundra and Drishyam Films which is fast becoming a celebrated ‘brand name’ for Indian Independent films. It has an excellent script by the director and Mayank Tewari. The only issue I have with the quality of the production is that the camerawork sometimes appears to lose focus in parts of the frame for no apparent reason. But this doesn’t detract from the overall success of the presentation.
I fear that only seeing the film once may turn out to be a problem. Since posting this I’ve discovered that there may be a line of dialogue in the film that suggests that Newton may be from a Dalit background. That might change my reading. I fear there may be other such revelations to come. If I’ve got things wrong, I hope I’ll be corrected. Please leave a comment.
I enjoyed Girls Trip. I didn’t get all the jokes and I didn’t recognise all the cameos of music performers, but then I’m not part of the demographic targeted by the film. I watched the film because I thought that perhaps this would be a breakthrough of some kind for ‘popular’ African-American cinema. So far, it looks like it will be, since its opening weekend in the UK saw it at No 5 in the chart with £1.56 million (including previews) from 345 cinemas. After three weeks it has a box office of $95 million worldwide. For a film with an estimated $19 million, that’s good business. There are several possible explanations for this success, but first here’s an outline of what the film offers.
I’m guessing that the relevant genre mix derives from films (none of which I’ve seen) like The Hangover (US 2009) and its sequels. Those films dealt with a group of male friends let loose on a weekend in a ‘party city’ with the sequels including some darker elements along with comedy. The more recent Bad Moms (2016) shares some elements but is essentially a female-centred ‘domestic comedy’. More importantly, perhaps, is that The Hangover and Bad Moms were both successful as ‘R’ rated comedies (’15’ in the UK), allowing a level of sexual innuendo and ‘bad’ language beyond the norm for comedy films. Girls Trip is similarly ‘R-rated’, but its four central characters are forty-something African-American women (the actors’ ages range from 37 to 47) who became close college friends as ‘The Flossy Possy’ in the 1990s. Now they are scheduled to meet up after several years at the New Orleans ‘Essence Fest’, the annual music festival for African-American women hosted by Essence magazine. (As the poster above illustrates, Girls Trip isn’t exactly subtle – and this poster was banned in the US, I think – but at least the women get to ogle the men.)
The plot revolves around Ryan (Regina Hall) who has become successful with her husband, ex-NFL star Stewart. The couple have a best-selling book and TV appearances and Ryan has an all expenses paid trip to Essence Fest where she hopes to land a big TV deal that will make her the next Oprah. Sasha (Queen Latifah) is a journalist whose career has stalled. Her future may depend on scooping celebrity scandal at Essence. Dina (Tiffany Haddish) is a party girl who has just lost her job and Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) is a seemingly uptight single mother. (Pinkett Smith is also in Bad Moms.) These roles easily set up a range of narrative possibilities and the ‘inciting moment’ comes a little way into the narrative when it is revealed that Ryan and Stewart’s marriage is less than solid and the exposure of the rifts during Essence could scupper the TV deal. Ryan needs her Flossy Possy for support but everything the other three women do, consciously or unconsciously, threatens to undermine her.
As well as the mechanics of the plot and the performances of the leads, Girls Trip has two other important attractions in New Orleans itself as location and the music festival with its galaxy of stars of hip hop, rap and other forms of Black music. This even includes the music of acts like Chaka Khan and Kool and the Gang who old people like me remember. All of this is marshalled into a hectic narrative of action set pieces and girl talk by Malcolm D. Lee. Lee is representative of one of two major strands in popular African-American cinema. His run of hits began with The Best Man in 1999 which he has turned into a mini-franchise and he has also participated in other series with Scary Movie 5 (2013) and Barbershop: The Next Cut (2016) – the latter series is the only one I’m familiar with (see Barbershop (2002) but it seems clear that Lee’s interests lie in comedy with both melodrama and action elements. Lee’s main rival is Tyler Perry who has been releasing his own, almost ‘one man’ (he writes, produces, directs and stars in) productions through Lionsgate at the rate of two a year since 2009. Perry has confounded critics and become very successful. Both these filmmakers have been successful in addressing a mainstream African-American audience with only marginal interest by white audiences as distinct from the work of Denzel Washington, Spike Lee, John Singleton and more recently Barry Jenkins who have been recognised by critics and whose work traverses both African-American culture and generic Hollywood concerns.
The main difficulty in discussing this work from a UK perspective is that most African-American films (i.e. with a direct focus on Black culture) struggle to get a (wide) UK release. UK distributors, when they do take these films, often restrict them to urban areas where they think there is a significant Black audience, but even then, they don’t really seem to know what they are doing. I think Tyler Perry’s work is only available on DVD in the UK. It is this history which makes the success of Girls Trip so important. I watched it in a Cardiff multiplex in an afternoon showing with a mainly white audience of younger women who certainly got more jokes and more references than I did, partly, I imagine because they knew the music stars and contemporary African-American celebrities better than I do. It should still be around in UK cinemas so I’d recommend Girls Trip as an alternative to superheroes (though it does include some fantasy sequences). One other interesting observation is that apart from the UK the only significant overseas market for Girls Trip so far is South Africa (as it has been for earlier films from Perry and Lee). It seems odd that France in particular has not received these titles.
I never thought that I’d see a Francophone film at the Hebden Bridge Picture House with only 13 of us in the auditorium, especially one starring Isabelle Huppert (perhaps everyone came to the only other screening last week). The issue here is that Souvenir is one of those French films more or less ‘dumped’ in cinemas with little promotion by StudioCanal on its way to a swift DVD release (August 14 in the UK). But what a strange film it is! It may be that the distributor hopes to cash in on Huppert’s high-profile success in Elle. On the other hand, this film was shown at the London Film Festival last October, presumably because the directors previous short films have been released on a BFI collection. If I’d seen it as part of the ‘Love’ section of LFF I would have thought it was out of place – but I would have enjoyed it.
La Huppert plays Liliane, a lonely woman working on a specialised production line in a paté factory. One day a young temporary worker, Jean (Kévin Azaïs – the male lead in Les combattants) recognises her as a singer who, under the stage name of ‘Laura’, once appeared in a Eurovision-type song contest forty years ago. Jean is only 22 and it is his father who has always been a fan, but now the younger man is attracted to Liliane. He wants to resurrect her career. Everything that follows is predictable, but also engaging.
I wondered if this was meant to be a 1930s musical romance presented in the style of . . . a 1930s musical romance. At times it seems very old-fashioned. Its use of colour and its nostalgic feel is in some ways reminiscent of Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) According to IMDb, Belgian writer-director Bavo Defurne has a background in short films and a single feature, North Sea Texas (2011), about young gay romances. Perhaps Souvenir is one of those examples of a small film that Isabelle Huppert supports for reasons of her own. I doubt any other star actor of her magnitude would take it on – or could take it on. It is almost the kind of role that Barbara Stanwyck might have taken (and I can’t think of higher praise than that).
This is a co-production in which different scenes are shot in different European regions so that local funding is triggered. I thought I recognised a riverside scene as shot in Liège and sure enough both Liège itself and the Wallonie Film Fund appeared in the credits alongside Ostende and Bruxelles. I think this is really a Belgian film and I don’t know if this explains the humour. I laughed out loud several times. The music in the film comes mainly from Pink Martini, a US ‘mini-orchestra’ whose players are well-known in Europe. Pink Martini released a 2016 album including the two main songs from the film and the album’s title is the key phrase from the song that Laura/Liliane sings in her comeback, ‘Je dis oui !’ – the woman who says ‘Yes’ to all the charms of her young man. Jean has trained as a boxer and has the muscles to prove it. My guess is that Bavo Defurne (one of the co-writers of the song) is making a reference to that scene in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (US 1953) when Jane Russell explores a gymful of muscled Olympic athletes on her transatlantic sea crossing.
I can’t claim to know enough about the history of chanson but for me the music in Souvenir seemed more like the 1960s than 1974 (when ABBA won Eurovision, as quoted in the film). Liliane’s song ‘Joli Garçon’ (Pretty Boy) is actually very catchy and it might indeed do well in Eurovision. Defurne uses it skilfully in ‘Souvenir’ – which in turn is the title of the song that ‘Laura’ is supposed to have sung in 1974.
Anything starring Isabelle Huppert is worth watching and, taken in the right spirit, Souvenir is entertaining. The director has said that he hoped to produce a ‘Sunday TV matinee movie’ and that seems a reasonable description – except that in the UK the subtitles will probably prevent it happening.