Category: Comedies

LFF 2019 #2: Fête de famille (Happy Birthday, France 2019)

Lunch al fresco

I’m not sure why I booked this screening. Possibly it was the prospect of Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch and the reputation of writer-director Cédric Kahn. I also like the venue, the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington. However, I later realised that I’d got my Cédrics mixed up. I was thinking of Cédric Klapisch who made Un air de famille in 1996 and this new film has a very similar plot, except it shifts the location to a country house rather than a restaurant. Cédric Kahn is connected in my memory with films that are more dramatic than comic.

The birthday party in question is for Andréa (Deneuve) the matriarch of a family of two sons and a daughter plus three grand-children and a husband Jean (Alain Artur), who I don’t think is the father of any of the three grown-up children. Andréa is the owner of the large house in the country. The director himself plays the elder son Vincent with Laetitia Colombani as Marie, his wife and the mother of the two grandsons. Emmanuelle Bercot plays Claire the daughter and Vincent Macaigne plays the second son Romain. Claire’s estranged daughter Emma (Luàna Bajrami) is a student who lives with her grandparents and Romain has his latest possible fiancée in tow, Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola). The party also includes Emma’s boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet). He is a talented pianist who I don’t remember having much dialogue at all. He is disturbingly the only person of colour on screen. I did tend to see his presence as either a cliché or a form of tokenism (intended to strengthen the sense of Emma as a rebel within the family group?).

Watching the play by the younger family members

It’s worth noting that four of the actors are also directors themselves. I’m not sure if that makes any difference. The setting and the script suggest a very ‘theatrical’ production with most locations in the house or garden and just a few brief but eventful car trips outside. Cédric Kahn himself suggests that there is a conventional three-act structure and one episode includes a play devised and performed by Emma and Julien and the two young grandsons. As well as the starry cast, the film has an equally experienced and celebrated crew and the whole thing looks very good. Music is important and I very much enjoyed a song by Françoise Hardy, ‘Mon amie la rose’. Why then did I feel disappointed and a little let down by the film overall?

I think perhaps that I was surprised that such a conventional film would be included in a festival programme. This is indeed like a well-produced play with twists and turns in the plot and each of the core star actors given a story to present. But in the end these stories don’t add up to much that’s new or particularly interesting. Added to that, the comic elements didn’t really work for me. Sometimes the comedy seemed cruel  or perhaps seeking to be satirical but without clear targets. It’s a prestigious production however and if you like that kind of thing you might like this.

In Fabric (UK-Hungary 2018)

The sales staff at Dentley & Soper

In Fabric is easily recognisable as a Peter Strickland film. Few directors have such a ‘personal style’. This fourth feature is perhaps the most removed from the first film, Katalin Varga (UK-Romania-Hungary, 2009) and closer to the other two, Berberian Sound Studio (UK-Germany, 2012) and The Duke of Burgundy (UK-Hungary, 2014). It is the first of Strickland’s films to be set in the UK and this perhaps makes the film ‘feel’ different.

Strickland’s films are absurdist and include elements of horror and comedy and the kind of erotica associated with European exploitation films. They also feature avant-garde soundtracks, on this occasion from Cavern of Anti-Matter based in Berlin. Some audiences find the films impenetratable, some find them comic and others are morally outraged. In this one there are numerous vaginal symbols and an anatomically correct mannequin with synthetic pubic hair – which gets a credit for the designer of the hair, much like the ‘human toilet consultant’ on The Duke of Burgundy.

A brief plot outline (no spoilers)

Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is a bank teller in ‘Thames Valley-upon Thames’ (Strickland is associated with Reading). She is divorced from her husband and lives with her teenage son Vince and whose older girlfriend Gwen (Gwendoline Christie) often ‘stays over’. Sheila starts trying to date again and buys a striking red dress in a sale from the local department store, Dentley & Soper (some customers of the John Lewis store in Reading – originally Heelas – will wonder what went on there!). Sheila makes a bad decision! The dress has a life of its own. The narrative follows what happens to those who attempt to ‘own’ and wear the dress.

Sheila tries on the dress . . .

Commentary

The story is set in an indeterminate period of the recent past when life was still ‘analogue’. Sheila answers a ‘lonely hearts’ ad in a newspaper and nobody uses mobile phones. The mise en scène generally evokes the 1970s-90s. Although the European touches are still there, this time they take second place to a set of British signifiers which point to ‘horror anthology series’ such as the Amicus films of the 1970s or TV series such as Tales of the Unexpected from the 1980s. In Fabric offers two or possibly three stories associated with the red dress. The European elements include the strange sales assistants at the department store who are dressed in what one reviewer described as ‘Victorian mourning outfits’ and who speak in an almost unintelligible formal language. These women (and the male manager) indulge in various dubious activities in the store’s cellar, accessed by a dumb waiter. I did enjoy the store’s old-fashioned vacuum tube system for sending payments to its accounts office. I was reminded of how shops functioned in the 1950s. I note that the effects team on the production all appeared to be Hungarian. The other European horror element comes from Dario Argento’s gialli.

. . . Sheila helped by Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed)

It took me a while to work out which role Sidse Babett Knudsen plays in the film since she is credited first in the cast list on screen. I wondered if this was a joke (she starred in the previous film, The Duke of Burgundy). Eventually I realised that she was the model in the store catalogue wearing the ‘Ambassadorial Function Dress’ in ‘Artery Red’. It is this attention to detail that remains a joy in Strickland’s films. As well as the great design, Strickland has a strong cast. Marianne Jean-Baptiste best known for her role in Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies and Hayley Squires from Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake might seem like odd choices but their casting works well. Romanian actor Fatma Mohamed appeared in Strickland’s two previous films and she gives In Fabric its most distinctive character. Most of the rest of the cast is from British TV and the supporting casts of British films.

What to make of all this? Perhaps because of the specific genre elements, this may have been more accessible to audiences than the three earlier films. The people behind me in the cinema laughed and gasped and seemed to be having a good time. In the credits I noted that Ben Wheatley was an executive producer. I don’t know how much, if any, influence he had on the film. I heard someone in the cinema mention Wheatley’s Sightseers (UK 2012) when they read the credit. I’ve only seen Sightseers of Wheatley’s films and because, I didn’t really enjoy it, I haven’t looked for the others. Perhaps this is why I found In Fabric felt different from Strickland’s earlier films? (I realise now two of In Fabric‘s cast have appeared in Wheatley’s films.)

Peter Strickland is a talented filmmaker and I will seek out his next film. In Fabric should be out on DVD in the UK as well as on VOD from Curzon.

Blinded by the Light (UK-US 2019)

An iconic British image composed in relation to the Motorway sign. Eliza (Nell Williams), Javed and Roops (Aaron Phagura)

Blinded by the Light is Gurinder Chadha’s eighth feature film, placing her alongside Sally Potter as the most prolific female director in British cinema since Muriel Box in the 1950s/60s. But I don’t think Chadha gets the credit she deserves for popular films which tell important stories. The early signs are that her latest film might be subject to the same criticisms that were aimed at some of her other features (‘feelgood’ doesn’t have to mean a ‘bad’ film). So I’ll just state from the off that I thoroughly enjoyed Blinded by the Light. I hope it reaches the widest possible audience and that Gurinder Chadha’s skills as a filmmaker are properly appreciated.

The intriguing aspect of her new film is how much it follows the same kind of narrative as that of her most successful film Bend It Like Beckham (UK-Germany 2002), yet Blinded by the Light is a form of biopic, very much the autobiographical story of Sarfraz Manzoor even if Chadha and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges have shaped it for an international release. Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. Manzoor was born in Pakistan and brought up in Luton and Chadha was born in Kenya and brought up in Southall. They might be ten years apart in age but their experiences of being ‘British Asians’ in the Thatcher years with their more overt manifestations of racism will have been similar. Chadha has said that the reappearance of racism and fascism on the streets following the Brexit referendum was one of the factors driving this production. Just to make the point clearer that the stories are similar, Chadha includes a sequence in which the Manzoor character Javed takes his sister to a ‘day-time night club’, the only way young South Asian girls could get to a dance in the 1980s (because of parental restrictions) – and a cultural phenomenon Chadha included in her first groundbreaking documentary short, I’m British But . . . (UK 1990).

Javed in full Bruce mode and inspired to write

Blinded by the Light offers Bruce Springsteen in place of David Beckham and a 16 year-old boy instead of an 18 year-old girl and, because it is Sarfraz Manzoor’s own story, it’s a ‘period drama’ set in 1987/8 rather than West London in the Blair era. A brief prologue introduces us to Javed as a young teenager with his only close friend Matt and we get an early sense of how isolated and trapped he feels in Luton (for overseas readers, Luton is a large town 30 miles NW of London and in the 1980s best known for the Vauxhall (GM) car factory).

The main narrative finds Javed, now 16 and moving to Luton’s Sixth Form College. Here he meets another British Asian, Roops, a Sikh who gives him a Springsteen cassette, explaining “Bruce is the Boss – he knows how you feel”. Though it takes Javed time to appreciate that Bruce definitely does speak to him about the things that matter – getting out of Luton and following his dream – he soon becomes a follower and embraces Springsteen’s lyrics as inspiration for his own writing. Javed’s dreams mean defying his father (he is studying English not Economics and wants to become a writer, not an accountant). When his father is made redundant by Vauxhall, Javed’s obsession to be a writer is in danger of causing a family rift. They need him to make money and to support his father. This is based on a true story so we know Javed will become a journalist (Sarfraz Mansoor is a successful journalist and radio and TV personality) but to do so he needs the support of an inspiring English teacher (played convincingly by Hayley Atwell) with her contacts. Will Javed get to America and visit Bruce’s home town? Will he get a girlfriend and will he learn to respect his family? Well what do you think?

Javed’s family with Dad (Kulvinder Ghir), Mum (Meera Ganatra) and Shazia (Nikita Mehta)

The narrative itself is certainly not original (and some of the college scenes are over-familiar) but Chadha includes two elements which give it a difference. Firstly, she doesn’t shy away from the racism on the streets including the National Front marches. Javed may himself draw back from confrontation with the racists and fascists at first but he can’t ignore the threat towards his family and his embrace of Springsteen gives him confidence to stand up and be counted. The other ‘difference’ is the way in which Chadha uses the Springsteen songs.

Bruce Springsteen liked Sarfraz Manzoor’s book and he gave Chadha free rein to use his songs. Because Javed is a writer and responds to Springsteen’s lyrics, Chadha decided to emphasise them in various sequences where Javed sings along to the songs on his Walkman and the lyrics appear on screen bouncing around Javed a line at a time. I remember Danny Boyle using a similar technique in Slumdog Millionaire where the subtitles escaped their usual position across the bottom of the frame.

Examples of the creative visual use of Springsteen’s lyrics

I enjoyed the use of the songs. I’m not an obsessive Springsteen fan but these are mainly the well-known songs from the period between ‘Born to Run’ (1975) and ‘Born in the USA’ (1984) so they worked for me. However, I did wonder if the balance of songs to dramatic scenes would be right for those least familiar with Springsteen. The key question may be how the film plays to younger audiences. I suspect that the film skews more towards a 35+ audience but I would hope Javed’s story appeals to younger audiences and especially to young British Asians. On its first weekend in the UK, it made No 4 in the chart and it also made it into the North American Top 10 this weekend. But both weekends were relatively ‘soft’ in terms of screen averages for wide releases. If the film does skew older, the midweek figures may be healthier but the effect is arguably less so in the summer holiday period. The film had made £2 million in the UK after eleven days and $4.45 million in the first three days in North America.

All the performances in the film are strong and mostly from newcomers playing the youth roles. I want to pick out the redoubtable Kulvinder Ghir as Javed’s Dad and the cameos by Rob Dryden as Matt’s Dad, Sally Phillips as the Sixth Form College Principal and Marcus Brigstocke as a Tory parent bemused by Javed’s appearance as his daughter’s boyfriend. All four actors are veterans of UK TV comedy. I also want to commend the cinematography by Ben Smithard and all of the design team re-creating 1980s Luton. Springsteen’s music is to the fore, but having A. R. Rahman responsible for the overall score makes Blinded by the Light a winner.

The Lift Boy (India, English 2019)

Raju (Moin Khan) ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) and her mother (Shilpa Iyer)

This second film in the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ was screened at HOME in Manchester. It’s a first feature written and directed by Jonathan Augustin who I take to be from the Roman Catholic community long resident in Bombay/Mumbai. Augustin trained at Bournemouth University and after returning to Mumbai he began work in advertising and TV. The background to the production of The Lift Boy is described in the radio interview below. The film dialogue is 60% English, 35% in Hindi and the remainder in Marathi. The film has relatively few ‘sets’ – a traditional Victorian school, a bar/restaurant, a multiplex, a residential tower block in an affluent area and the poorer dwelling where the central character lives. Apart from these there are a few street scenes. Overall the film reminded me of a British TV series from a while back (Mumbai Calling, 2007-8). The cinematography is bright and ‘clean’ but lacking any kind of realist ‘feel’.

The cast includes several first-time performers and some local Marathi actors. That is remarkable as I would say that the narrative is held together by the performances of four or five main characters. The story, sparked by the director’s encounter with a lift boy, features a 24 year-old young man Raju (Moin Khan) who has just failed his engineering drawing exam for the fourth time. He’s already in the multiplex cheering himself up when he learns that his father Krishna has collapsed at work and is in hospital. With his father required to rest for several weeks, Raju is pushed into deputising for him as the lift boy in a residential block in an up-market neighbourhood. Raju has always looked down on menial jobs like operating a lift, thinking it beneath anyone who has attended English medium school. He expects to become an engineer but he really wants to be a writer. But knuckle down he must as the owner of the building Madame D’ Souza, who lives on the top floor of the block, appears to be a stern taskmaster. The only compensation appears to be the presence of ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) the 18 year-old model and actor whose mother is pushing her into a Bollywood career that she’s not sure she wants. The film includes several familiar themes about contemporary young Indians.

Raju at first feels uncomfortable meeting Madame D’Souza and giggles a lot

Raju is a very likeable character who oddly has only one close friend (who has successfully made it through the exams) and no girlfriend. He turns to reading The Great Gatsby sitting on his stool in the lift. He’s at first wary when Madame D’Souza starts to take an interest in him but eventually he realises that he has plenty to learn when he is invited into her apartment. (His mother warns him about getting too familiar with his boss, but don’t jump to conclusions!) The director reveals that his crew found Nyla Masood who plays Maureen D’Souza by following his advice and looking in the shopping malls for what he describes as ‘posh Catholic aunties’. She gives a very convincing performance. The cast developed their performances through extensive rehearsals after working on their own dialogue.

The London Indian Film Festival brochure describes The Lift Boy as “a heart-warming entertainer” and that’s not a bad description. I enjoyed the film and particularly the performances. I did worry that it might tip over into mawkishness. This was mainly because of the music. I don’t really want to criticise but I thought the music was just too much at times and undermined the playing. From the interview I learned it was composed in the US. I think the film is a little too long for the narrative and I’m not sure about the short coda that finishes the film. The story is fairly predictable once you’ve asked yourself the question “how does the son of a lift boy get to go to a fee-paying English medium school?”. On the other hand, the plot did remind me in an odd way of one of the first (and best) English language parallel films, 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981).

The writer-director Jonathan Augustin with his two leads at one of the 21 film screenings.

The radio interview reveals the film’s unique release pattern. In a tie-up with the PVR cinema chain, the film opened on just 7 screens (3 in Mumbai and 1 in each of Pune, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru) with just one evening screening per night over three nights. The film was then pulled. This is a ‘premium release’ strategy aimed at attracting the biggest per screen audience. The film has been sold to Channel 4 in the UK via the Film Bazaar in India and Augustin will be looking for similar deals in other territories. He mainly paid for the film himself and took an active role in marketing and selling tickets. He suggests that he recovered the marketing and distribution costs and that he hopes to recover the production costs from further sales to other territories and TV networks.

Overall, this was an enjoyable watch and an interesting and informative research exercise covering the background. Jonathan Augustin is a bright young man who works hard and deserves to go far.