Mia Madre is a rather wonderful but sometimes mysterious film about love and death, mothers, daughters and sons – and filmmaking – set in Rome. For Nanni Moretti it’s a ‘personal’ film in several senses. He lost his own mother when making We Have a Pope in 2011 and the character of the film director may well be informed by some of his own thoughts and experiences (he writes most of his own scripts). But although he appears in the film, Moretti takes one of the supporting roles rather than the lead. The central character, the film director, is Margherita played by Margherita Buy. (Moretti collaborated with three women on the script.)
Here is a woman with a sick mother (a former language teacher loved and respected by her students), a husband she is separated from, a lover she has just left and a teenage daughter who causes her the usual problems (none of which are really problems). With all of this to contend with, Margherita is also in the middle of making a film with a temperamental Hollywood actor played by John Turturro. The only stable supporter in all of this is Margherita’s brother Giovanni (Moretti) who has taken leave from work to look after his mother.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Mia Madre having only seen about half of one of Moretti’s films before. On the one hand I expected a female-centred melodrama (grandmother-mother-daughter) but on the other a commentary of some kind on filmmaking. Somehow Moretti manages to bring these two rather different kinds of narratives together. The ‘film within a film’ (the title of which I couldn’t quite distinguish on the clapperboard) is a social drama about industrial relations with Turturro as the new owner of a factory attempting to lay off a significant proportion of the workforce in the face of their determined resistance. In relation to this I was reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s films such as British Sounds (1970, a panning shot along a factory production line) and Tout Va Bien (1972, a factory sit-in by workers). I also thought about Le mépris (1963) and making an American-financed film at Cinecitta and also Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) in which an American ‘runaway production’ is filmed in Rome. None of these is directly referenced but Moretti perhaps refers to his own left politics and casts a satirical glance towards the director’s sense of political worth or cynicism about her own position. A recurring motif is the idea of the actor “standing next to the character”. Margherita admits that although she instructs her actors in this manner, she doesn’t really know what it means – yet Margherita Buy as the director to some extent manages to do this. The way in which the film within a film – the mise en abîme – actually works is interesting. Some characters in ‘real life’ such as Federico, Margherita’s husband, and Vittorio, her lover seem to be doubled by characters or crew in the film she is making – i.e. they look a little like them. She herself reveals her ‘true’ personality in the way she reacts towards what happens on the shoot – and in this sense she does present us with the ‘actor’ and ‘the character’. It’s a terrific performance by Margherita Buy.
But the main thrust of the narrative is how Margherita’s insecurity manifests itself in a series of dreams, memories and nightmares in which she re-visits her past and possibly ‘sees’ the future. These are carefully edited into the more mundane ‘real’ episodes in her story. Music is important throughout and helps create the melodrama with pieces by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Ólafur Arnalds. For me one of the most memorable scenes is a dream sequence in which Margherita is outside a cinema with her brother. There is a never-ending queue of people waiting to get into the cinema and she walks along the queue meeting her younger self and her mother – while Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ plays on the soundtrack. I’m a sucker for Cohen on a soundtrack and there is something about his poetry and its delivery that seems to work very well.
So, how does all this fit together? As a melodrama the narrative makes Margherita suffer in an unusual way. The other characters are generally very well disposed towards her. Their actions do cause her problems indirectly but it is often because of the way that she reacts that she aggravates the situation and begins to lose control. This seems to be the way in which Moretti is able to critique himself as a director and how he dealt with his feelings around his own mother’s death. Giovanni seems to be the brother who is almost saintly in his self-sacrifice but who criticises Margherita both explicitly and implicitly – although in a gentle and civilised way. This is a very complex film narrative and it is going to require re-viewings. I realise that I have said little about John Turturro’s performance as the Hollywood actor which many reviewers found to be very funny. Certainly there were scenes in which his performance style created a sudden change in tone and it was impressive, but much of the time I found it difficult to watch because I invested so much in Margherita and I felt her frustration.
Mia Madre goes into my small group of favourites from 2015’s releases. At some point I will watch Nanni Moretti’s earlier films. In the UK the film is in cinemas and on Curzon’s online download service.
Trailer (Jarvis Cocker on the soundtrack):
Samba is the follow-up to the second biggest global hit in French film history, Intouchables (2011) – a film I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. Perhaps watching Samba will prompt me to do so. The same writing-directing duo (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) and the same star (Omar Sy) feature in this $20 million budget film. Omar Sy is the French TV star who became a surprise film star in Intouchables – as an African-French character given a lead role in an industry not noted for its representations of Africans in mainstream films. In Samba he plays a Senegalese migrant who has been in France for 10 years but who has still not achieved legal residency.
I missed this film during its (very brief) run in UK cinemas but I still wanted to see it even though I could see the flaws in Intouchables. I was worried by some of the negative reviews but in the event I did enjoy Samba – but I can understand some of the critical responses. Part of the problem is that the film mixes several distinct genres in a way that might certainly confound some audiences and which provides good ammunition for critics.
Samba is both a comedy and a drama. It also mixes a quite complex visual style – a pre-credits sequence aping Scorsese (in his Goodfellas period) – with both absurdist and slapstick comedy and some social realism. In genre terms it includes elements of the buddy movie mixed with the rom-com and social commentary. All in all it is a strange mixture but its good points shouldn’t get lost. It isn’t really very helpful to dismiss films because they try to do something different.
Headlining alongside Omar Sy are Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim. Gainsbourg provides the ‘romance-comedy-drama’ potential and Rahim enables the buddy movie. Gainsbourg’s character is a marketing executive who has ‘burned out’ and has decided to take a sabbatical as a support worker for a refugee/migrant charity. This is how she meets Samba (Sy) who has been imprisoned and given an order to leave France despite 10 years illegal residency and steady employment in kitchen work, albeit with a struggle to get from dish-washing to food preparation. Rahim’s character, another migrant with a similar history, eventually teams up with Samba in a series of casual jobs leading to various comic escapades. Although the narrative resolution suggests a ‘feelgood’ film, the ending is to some extent still ‘open’ and it is triggered by one of the important debates around identity and legal status. The resolution is only possible after a tragic event. The style of the film’s ending also echoes the ‘excess’ of the opening, using popular songs under a slow motion image sequence much as the whole narrative has used songs and ‘mood’ music throughout.
So what is wrong with the film? Ashley Clark, currently one of the UK’s most respected critics of African-American and Black British films, states what he sees as a fundamental flaw directly in his indieWire review:
Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)
It’s hard to argue with that view and Clark does recognise that the film is genuinely trying to widen its potential audience, but, he argues, the narrative needs more grit and more background about Samba and his family – mother is back in Senegal and Samba lives with a (legally resident) uncle. Clark argues that Sy ‘soars above’ the material. I agree but perhaps this is also part of the problem? Sy is such a charismatic performer that audiences may simply be entertained by his playing rather than led to think through the social problems that Samba faces. Something similar was also true in Intouchables.
The strength of the film is that it does reveal the dreadful state of immigration policy in France and the absurd bureaucracy that attempts to control it. I’m not sure it is better in the UK – represented in the superior Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. The other issue at stake here is the star turn by Omar Sy in a mainstream film. His scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg do fleetingly remind us of her notorious scenes with two (anonymous) African men in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part II (Denmark/Bel/Fra/Ger 2014). I mention this only to ask how much of a breakthrough it is for French mainstream cinema as distinct from art cinema to see a white woman with a black man on screen? Tahar Rahim’s presence in the film (which I very much enjoyed in spite of some reviewers’ misgivings) reminds us that Maghrebi French actors have not faced the same problems in French cinema (and international cinema) as West African French actors.
In Sight and Sound (May 2015), leading French cinema scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a critique similar to Ashley Clark’s. She makes a good point in pointing out that like Intouchables, Samba involves “the pairing of an under-privileged-but-vigorous black with privileged-but-etiolated white (Gainsbourg at her most annoyingly wan)”. I disagree about Gainsbourg but it’s an important observation. Too often film narratives that should be about the black character end up diverting our attention to the trials of the white characters. But Vincendeau also picks out two specific scenes as ‘unworthy’ of the actors or supporting her argument above. The first sees Sy and Rahim in a take-off of a well-known soft drinks ad and the second sees “white people attempt, not very well, to dance to black music (in this case Bob Marley)”. I think this is going too far. The first may be a ‘clunky ‘ visual joke (but still funny), but the second is something that has happened throughout the last 50 years in the UK. Is it really a clumsy and at times dubious representation of racial difference? Perhaps it’s different in France? We have to grant Samba some slack as a mainstream movie. Yes, it could be a lot ‘better’, but it isn’t that bad and overall it does something useful.
Gemma Bovery faces similar problems to Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but with the added twist that this is a French film – so a whole new range of assumptions and potential prejudices arise. Both films are adaptations of comic strips by Posy Simmonds which first appeared in the Guardian and then as ‘graphic novels’. Tamara Drewe is a modern take on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and the new film, as the eponymous title suggests, is a re-imagining of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The story takes place in Normandy and the film is directed by Anne Fontaine from a script by Pascal Bonitzer (whose previous script was for Looking For Hortense 2012 – which he also directed).
The story demands a French setting but the other factor, which possibly escaped some UK reviewers, is that Tamara Drewe attracted bigger audiences in France than in the UK. A significant French audience segment is Anglophile and this overlaps with the audience for sophisticated social comedy. The plays of Alan Ayckbourn and the novels of Julian Barnes go down well in France. Posy Simmonds studied at the Sorbonne and her graphic novel (la bande dessinée) of Gemma Bovery also sold in France. French comedies lampoon the bourgeoisie and a director like Claude Chabrol found ways to be amusing while skewering the same middle classes in thrillers. Fabrice Luchini is one of the top comic actors in films like Bicycling with Molière, 2013 as well as François Ozon comedies such as Potiche, 2010 and In the House, 2012. No surprise then that he is cast in Gemma Bovery as the meddling observer, the Parisian publisher who retires to a village in Normandy to run his family’s bakery business. When he sees his new neighbours arriving from England and that the ravishing young woman is potentially a bored wife named ‘Gemma Bovery’ he is almost beside himself with joy.
Posy Simmonds set out in all her Guardian comic strips to gently critique the typical liberal Guardian-reading classes and in the process to pit them against grasping Thatcherite characters with their greed and lack of humanity – and often their cultural ignorance. This political subtext and the class analysis is partly why the two films struggle with UK audiences, some of whom might see themselves as the butt of the jokes. The aim of Gemma Bovery is to explore the impact of the English middle classes on French provincial life and in turn to imagine how a modern-day Madame Bovary might behave – and most of all, how she might feel about her own behaviour. Emma Bovary was an arriviste – a young woman from a farming family who married an older man, a doctor, for security and the respectable life and then bored by her new life, set out on a trail of adultery and indulgence. In the 21st century women’s horizons have widened and ‘shame’ doesn’t operate in quite the same way. As Gemma, Ms Arterton is ravishing. She seems more fun and generally more attractive than my fading memories of the comic strip. I think that a focus on costume design might be interesting and I do feel that Anne Fontaine has created another intriguing female character following her version of Coco Chanel with Audrey Tautou. The local haute bourgeoisie and the other ‘local’ English characters are truly hideous but I did feel for Jason Flemyng as ‘M. Bovary’ – an unenviable role.
I enjoyed the film but I wish my memories of the novel were more reliable. I got a lot of the jokes but I daresay I missed a few because I’d forgotten elements of the story. Gemma Arterton learned to speak French for the role and now she is listed as the lead in a new French film, currently in pre-production, Orpheline. That would mean that she would become a slightly surprising addition to the growing list of female actors who have embraced French filmmaking. Why so few men making the same move, I wonder?
The UK trailer:
Half-watching the trailer for this film I thought it looked interesting. That’s an understatement. This is an original idea very well executed by Thomas Cailley, a young director making a feature début. He also co-wrote the film with a female partner, Claude Le Pape.
Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) is a young man facing the future without a father who has recently died. At first he decides to join his brother in the family timber business but at the start of the summer he meets a rather scary young woman named Madeleine (Adèle Haenel). Arnaud’s first encounters with Madeleine are embarrassing and to some extent humiliating. But gradually a level of respect develops between the two. Madeleine has strong views – she thinks the whole world is facing extinction and she has begun to study survival techniques. Her goal is to join the ‘hardest’ regiment in the French Army but she must first go on a two-week training camp before she enlists. Arnaud eventually decides that he should join her.
This film is difficult to categorise and perhaps the most useful description is a ‘romance drama with comedic elements’. It all takes place in Aquitaine, the region in South-West France including the coastal resort where Madeleine and Arnaud live and the forests where the army ‘survival training’ is conducted – and where forest fires are common. Reading some of the reviews, it’s not surprising that Adèle Haenel as Madeleine gets the most coverage and she is indeed remarkable (I realised that I saw her first in Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (France 2007)). But I think that Arnaud is in some ways the more interesting character, even if he is to some extent the ‘straight man’ to Madeleine’s wilder activities. The only failing in the film for me was to not explain his background. She, we know, has quit a Master’s degree but what has he been doing before this summer? At first gauche with typical ‘loser’ friends, he shows himself to be sensitive, intelligent and mature in the way he faces events.
There is a particularly po-faced review of the film on the Slant Magazine website and in her Sight and Sound review Ginette Vincendeau describes the film as “engaging, quirky but slight”. But for me this is one of the best film debuts I’ve seen for a while. It deserves to be seen widely and as Vincendeau points out it has been both a critical and commercial hit in France (winning two prizes in the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes 2014 as well as three Césars in 2015) . One of its strengths is the ending which eschews the usual romcom conclusion. The film is also interesting in directly referencing the recession and the poor prospects for young people. As Arnaud notes at one point, the French Army is second only to McDonald’s as the biggest recruiter of young people in France.
In the second part of the film the conventions of the army training/boot camp narrative come into play but again the reactions of the two central characters are perhaps not what we expect. Finally the film draws on the repertoire of ‘survival’ narratives, including those of TV personalities such as Bear Grylls – a source quoted by Cailley in a Sight and Sound (July 2015) interview.
I think that Les Combattants is a youth picture that I’d very much like to use with students for several reasons – the unconventional characters, the recession setting and the location outside Paris (one of the by-products of the French funding system which encourages young auteurs like Cailley, a Fémis graduate, to shoot in different regions.) I hope teachers might find it on DVD – it’s released on August 10th. Confusingly the film is discussed under two different English titles – the terrible Love at First Fight and the direct translation, The Fighters.
The UK trailer: