Category: Comedies

Rockets Galore (UK 1958)

This sequel to Whisky Galore! (1949) comes after the demise of Ealing as a Rank-associated studio but it was adapted from a second Compton Mackenzie novel about the same community written in 1957. It was adapted by Monja Danischewsky who had been Associate Producer on the 1949 film and directed by Michael Relph who had previously also been an Ealing producer and on this shoot had swapped roles with his senior partner, one of Ealing’s most prolific directors, Basil Dearden. It was actually now a Rank production but still shot on location on Barra representing ‘Todday’. The big difference is that this is a colour film and seemingly in 1:1.66 widescreen. Unfortunately the Talking Pictures TV print was cropped and/or panned and scanned to produce an Academy ratio.

There doesn’t appear to be a DVD available except at ridiculously high prices on Amazon so this rare screening was certainly welcome. (In the US it was renamed ‘Mad Little Island’.) The film doesn’t seem to have had the same box office success as the first film and its critical reputation is nowhere near as high. However, I found it interesting in both the changes and the similarities to the first film.

The ‘rockets’ of the title are new secret RAF guided missiles called ThunderBuzzards designed by a German scientist Dr Hamburger. Actually they are Bloodhound missiles introduced by the RAF in 1958 (see them on YouTube). The Air Ministry has chosen Todday as a suitable site to establish a testing station and Squadron Leader Hugh Mander (Donald Sinden) is sent to the island (incognito) to check it out, especially as it is likely that some islanders will need to be re-housed on the mainland and the strength of local feeling will need to be tested. When he arrives on the boat it is with Janet, the local schoolteacher and daughter of the island’s post office/general store. This is was the first surprise for me since Janet is played by Jeannie Carson, a Yorkshire lass who in 1958 had her own US TV sitcom (playing a Scots young woman) which ran for 32 episodes and in 1958 she also appeared in a US TV film of Little Women playing Jo March. I seem to remember that the TV series was a favourite programme in our house so perhaps we went to see the film on release. Jeannie could certainly sing and the film includes a song in Gaelic she is teaching to the children.

Donald Sinden and Jeannie Carson embraced by Noel Purcell as Father James. Behind (from left) Duncan Macrae, Gordon Jackson and James Copeland

The plot of the film is entirely predictable. We know that the islanders will find a way to scupper the ministry’s plans and that it will involve many acts of collective mischief. Janet and Hugh will fall in love despite being on opposite sides and officialdom will retreat. One of the interesting changes from the first film is that this time the two ministers (Roman Catholic and Presbyterian) will act in unison to stop the base being built. Critics dismissed 1950s films like this as backward-looking and nostalgic. There is a link between the film and some of the Ealing comedies of the earlier 1950s like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) which clearly was nostalgic. But the story of Rockets Galore does engage with the 1950s British attempt to maintain and develop an aerospace industry and generally ‘keep up’ with technological advances. The islanders’ resistance, though ‘conservative’ in economic terms, does actually look forward to contemporary concerns about environment and ecology. It’s also interesting that the film includes references to 1950s TV programmes when the islanders’ actions create a problem for the government of the day. We see a ‘Brains Trust’ type programme discussing the problem and various BBC announcers such as Richard Dimbleby giving due gravitas to the events on Todday. I recognised many of the other personalities but the names escape me apart from the politicians/columnists Michael Foot, Bob Boothby and the historian A. J. P. Taylor.

The two whisky-drinking reprobates on the island are played by Duncan Macrae (the great Scots actor also in the original film) and a young Ronnie Corbett. Macrae became a familiar figure in both films and TV in the 1950s. He was part of the group of actors and performers associated with The White Heather Club, the TV light entertainment programme that presented Scottish music and dancing. Macrae would recite poetry that as a child I thought was amusing. The show (which also appeared at Hogmanay) was criticised for promoting ‘tartanry’, the stereotypical image of Scottishness. But it did give access to a broad UK market for a range of Scots talent. Ronnie Corbett would go on to be very successful as a comedian on UK TV.

Rockets Galore does look forward as a ‘concept’ to both The Wicker Man (1973) with the closeness of the community and also to Local Hero (1983). It would be nice to think of a contemporary film project that could present a story about ousting Donald Trump from his golf course in Aberdeenshire but maybe that is too much of a fantasy. But do look up Rockets Galore when it appears again, Jeannie Carson and the children are well worth a visit.

A Lesson in Love (En lektion i kärlek, Sweden 1954)

Gunnar Björnstrand as David and Eva Dahlbeck as Marianne on the train together

MUBI promoted this film as a Bergman comedy. I might have managed the occasional wry smile, but no laughs I’m afraid. But that isn’t to say that the film is of no interest. It has many of the elements that became familiar for me in watching Bergman’s early work. The narrative features another train journey during which there are several flashbacks to earlier in the marriage of David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Marianne (Eva Dahlbeck). Interior scenes are generally studio-bound but there are several location-shot sequences, mostly in Scania and Copenhagen. During the train journey, Bergman himself, wearing a beret, is seen reading a newspaper. So far, so good, but not so good from my point of view is a shift to the lives of the moneyed middle-classes. However, the two leads are strong and this film sees a third role for Harriet Andersson in a Bergman film. Bizarrely, this film comes after Summer With Monika (1953) in which Andersson plays slightly younger than her real age (she was born in 1932). In A Lesson in Love the 21 year-old Andersson played the 14 year-old daughter of the central couple. Somehow she is believable in the role.

Marianne shows her bruises in the flashback scenes covering her marriage to David

The set-up is simple. David and Marianne have been married for 15 years and have two children, Nix (the Andersson character) and her younger brother Pelle. They have long since passed the point of the ‘Seven Year Itch’ and David, a gynaecologist, has been having affairs with his patients. Marianne seems aware of this and is arranging to meet an old male friend in Copenhagen. David gets wind of what she is up to and secretly plans to get on the same train and play the game of meeting Marianne for the first time. The flashbacks then show us how the couple first got together and also how they recently compared their marriage to the 50 year marriage of David’s parents during a visit to his parental home on his father’s 73rd birthday. The final section of the narrative is played out in Copenhagen.

Presumably the ‘lesson’ is for both David and Marianne, requiring them to think about how their marriage has developed and whether its problems are universal or caused by the failings of both partners. Certainly the treatment of Pelle (ignored most of the time) and Nix (a tomboy who challenges the couple’s conformity – something they wouldn’t accept) is an issue they need to discuss. The general feeling among Bergman fans, most looking back to an early work by a proven auteur, is that this is a minor but entertaining work. It also bolsters the autobiographical aspects of Bergman as auteur. By this stage he was on his third marriage (out of five) and was having an affair with Harriet Andersson which today makes him seem a little creepy. But I guess it should make him aware of what certain kinds of marriage can be like.

Father and daughter in their own sequence. Gunnar Björnstrand is wearing a Bergman beret

As part of my attempt to understand Bergman, his body of work and his critical status, I’ve acquired a copy of Robin Wood’s Movie/Studio Vista book simply titled Ingmar Bergman and published in 1969. I wanted to get a feel of how a respected film scholar viewed Bergman in the 1960s. Wood places the film in the context of two later films, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Wild Strawberries (1957)which feature some of the same lead actors. He pointed out in 1969 that A Lesson in Love was under-rated and deemed lightweight by many critics. Wood makes several interesting points. First, following what was then a standard approach, he suggests that the narrative lacks coherence and ‘stylistic unity’ and that the various flashbacks are hung on what he perceives as a ‘trivial’ central narrative line, the rail journey. Later he also points out that the film begins and ends with figures moving on a music box – a perhaps clumsy reference to the main characters and their ‘dances of love’? He argues that the chronology of the marriage is very hard to follow, even after several viewings. A further weakness he suggests is that the Ernemann family is never seen together in their own home and that apart from the parents’ relationship, the only other relationship shown in the family is that of father and daughter. Poor Pelle barely features and Marianne doesn’t come across (to Wood) as the mother of her daughter. Yet despite all this, Wood suggests:

Its air of relaxation, of not taking itself seriously, though it helps to account for the weaknesses, brings with it compensating strengths. It is notable among Bergman’s works for its freedom and spontaneity of invention, its emotional richness, warmth and generosity, its effortless flexibility of tone. (Wood 1969: 62-3)

These strengths, Wood suggests are a good corrective to the view that Bergman is best represented by films like Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) or The Seventh Seal 1956. This certainly seems valid to me. My problem with Bergman’s films from the 1960s onwards is that they seem cold and emotionless. I would add to Wood’s analysis that there is a sense here that Bergman is following or borrowing from the romantic comedies of both the UK and Hollywood. I suspect that Bergman’s auteurist followers have never given much credence to the importance of genre (unless it is via references to Woody Allen’s takes on Bergman) and especially the ‘rom-com’ which, in its various guises, including the screwball comedies of the late 1930s and 1940s, includes many of the devices that Bergman includes here. I think you can argue that this film is a narrative of ‘re-marriage’ in which the two leads have to discover why they married in the first place. Most of my enjoyment in the film comes from the two performances by Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand. It occurs to me that they have something of the chemistry of a couple like Irene Dunn and Cary Grant in My Favourite Wife (1940). What A Lesson in Love doesn’t have is the ‘coherence’ of a Garson Kanin film with a script idea from Leo McCarey. The suggestion by Wood is that the workaholic Bergman produced a script during a rare period of relaxation with Andersson – a script in which various ideas were linked together without too much concern for narrative structure. That seems about right and confirms for me the idea that studio control and being asked to direct someone else’s script isn’t always a bad idea.

The Bare Necessity (Perdrix, France 2019)

The Perdrix family

What does ‘French comedy’ mean to you? Back in the 1950s and 60s it wasn’t unusual in the UK to see films featuring comic actors such as Bourvil, Fernandel and Jacques Tati. In the 1990s the Astérix films and other spoofs like Les Visiteurs (1993) came over. We have also seen rom-coms, often with Audrey Tautou or Charlotte Gainsbourg. But many French comedies never make it across the Channel. Just as with German, Spanish and Italian comedies, distributors feel that the different cultural basis for comedy means such films wouldn’t sell in the UK. As a consequence, I’ve not seen as many French comedies as I should and I was intrigued as to what to expect from Perdrix. The title refers to the name of a family in a small village in the Vosges mountains close to the border with Germany – My French Film Festival is certainly a visual treat in terms of landscapes. ‘Perdrix’ translates as ‘partridge’ in English and thinking about Steve Coogan’s creation of Alan Partridge for British film and TV might not be wholly inappropriate since writer-director Erwan Le Duc spent four years as a teenager living in London in the early 1990s. He tells us in the Press Notes that he enjoyed the absurdist and surreal qualities of some British TV comedy but my feeling is that Perdrix is refreshingly individual in its mixture of elements – and the characters are nothing like Alan Partridge!

The film opens with a 30-something woman driving a car stuffed with her possessions. She stops at a picnic site at the edge of a forest and gets out to write in her diary, foolishly leaving the car door open and the keys in the ignition. In a short while she looks up to see a nude woman leap into the car and drive away. Juliette (Maud Wyler) has lost everything and she heads down to the nearest village to report the car hi-jack. In the police station she is informed that this is the work of a group of ‘revolutionary nudists’ who live in the forest. Juliette is not very impressed with the calm and methodical Capitaine Pierre Perdrix (Swann Arlaud), the head of the local gendarmerie. Later she turns up at his house he feels he must invite her in to ‘meet the family’.

Pierre (Swann Arlaud ) questions Julie (Maud Wyler) in the police station

I won’t spoil any more of the plot. The Perdrix family is certainly odd. The matriarch Thérèse, played by the always fabulous Fanny Ardant, still pines for her husband who died more than twenty years ago. His portrait dominates the dining room and she diverts herself by running a radio talk show. Pierre’s brother Julien (JuJu) is a worm-researcher rarely engaging with his young daughter Marion who dreams of escape and a sports scholarship and in the meantime practises her table tennis. Her mother appears to have escaped the family group. The police station to some extent mirrors the Perdrix home. There are seemingly far too many gendarmes for a small village, each with their own quirks. As well as the nudists there is a fourth group which I won’t reveal and the four groups interact in various ways (and each develops a narrative of their own) to provide the entertaining backdrop to the central narrative of the attraction between Juliette and Pierre. This starts hesitantly and in the best rom-com traditions has its ups and downs before a key scene in the village bar-disco and a beautifully choreographed and unusual dance sequence cements the possibility of a long-term relationship. Pierre is well-drawn as a man who has tried to keep the family together and has succeeded in his police work, but has become too settled in his ways and needs somebody like Juliette to shake him up.

The couple have an impromptu swim

I’m not sure I found the film ‘laugh out loud’ funny apart from one scene but I did find it engaging and charming. The two leads are very good. I like that they aren’t the usual characters for a rom-com. This is Erwan Le Duc’s first feature after several shorts. Most of these feature Maud Wyler so playing an unusual character like Juliette would not have been so much of a surprise for her. The one short she didn’t appear in was 2011’s Le commissaire Perdrix ne fait pas le voyage pour rien which features a police chief named Perdrix and a junior officer called Webb (the same name as Juliette, but this one is male). Le Duc’s shorts received prizes and this first feature was screened at Cannes and nominated for awards at various festivals. Given the state of French cinema releases in the UK, it is doubtful if this will appear on release in UK cinemas, but if it does sneak out on VOD or DVD I would recommend a look. It is intelligent, entertaining and generally uplifting.

Here’s a clip from the film showing the initial meeting between Pierre and Juliette:

La belle époque (France 2019)

Victor and Marianne – the mise en scène makes the contrast clear

There was a time when French films were released in the UK on a regular basis, sometimes as often as one a fortnight. Now they are much rarer and when they do get a release it is only for a few single screenings. I made sure I caught this one on one of its four Bradford appearances last week. La belle époque is a starry romantic comedy that ought to draw healthy audiences. It opened on in the UK on 22nd November on just 23 screens. We did try to see it in London on the second weekend but the cinema was so small (the 2nd screen at the Lumière in South Kensington) that it was sold out. No problems for an afternoon screening in Bradford.

Written and directed by Nicolas Bedos, this is a film which brings together elements of quite a few well-known films and genres. The central idea is that for a large sum of money an individual could be offered the opportunity to relive a particular event in his or her past (or an earlier historical event if they want to be present at an important moment in history). It isn’t an offer of time travel. Instead a company will build an authentic set and cast actors carefully to play the roles of significant characters. The whole event is then ‘directed’ live.

Victor shaves his beard and wears a 70s outfit to get into role

Margot (Doria Tillier) plays Marianne in the reconstruction

Daniel Auteuil plays Victor, a man in his late 60s seemingly ‘left behind’ by his wife Marianne, a leading psychiatrist (played by Fanny Ardant), and now generally at odds with the contemporary world of social media and high tech gadgetry. Victor is a graphic artist who seems to have almost given up the prospect of getting published again even though his son runs a publishing company. As a birthday present, Victor’s son wants to give his father a treat and he arranges an event to be re-created by his childhood friend Antoine (Guillaume Canet) the owner-director of the company. Victor decides to accept the offer (he once helped Antoine when he was a boy) and selects his first meeting with Marianne at a small café bar in Lyon in 1974. He even provides sketches of what happened on the day. The ‘re-enactment’ company then build a set in a Paris studio space and Victor takes the plunge. What happens next ‘on set’ and ‘behind the scenes’ then provides the entertainment for a narrative of nearly two hours. We (a couple who met at the roughly the same time in the 1970s) certainly found it an engaging and enjoyable ride. I should point out, however, that the opening scene of the film plunges the audience straight into a re-enactment and a violent incident that isn’t really in tune with the rest of the film. But it soon becomes clear what is happening.

Antoine directs the re-enactment

The film pivots around ideas drawn from both romantic comedy and science fiction/fantasy. The scenario is reminiscent of both The Truman Show (US 1998) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (US 2004). Both of these films have elements of comedy and romance. They also both star Jim Carrey but I’m not sure if that is relevant. Victor isn’t unaware like Truman that he is ‘playing’ in a re-creation and he doesn’t need his memories to be messed about by technology like Carrey’s character in Eternal Sunshine – though I need to think about that a bit more. The third film that sprang to mind was the rather different Ghost World (2001). The connection here is the idea of the graphic novel. In Ghost World the central character played by Thora Birch is a would be graphic artist whose sketches lead her to meet a man in a bar-restaurant played by Steve Buscemi. Ghost World is written by Daniel Clowes, a graphic novelist who has provided scripts for several films. Although these connections are all American, Sunshine was directed by Michel Gondry and graphic novels are as important in France (as bandes dessinées) as they are in the US. I thought I hadn’t come across writer-director Nicolas Bedos before but now I realise I have seen him as an actor (e.g. in Populaire, France-Belgium 2012). Populaire now seems an interesting touchstone for this new film. Bedos has also been a TV comedy/satire star and his first film as writer-director was Mrs Adelman (France 2017). It wasn’t released in the UK as far as I can see. He starred in it with his partner Doria Tillier and she is also in this new film as Margo, the actor playing Marianne in the reconstruction and the real ex-partner of Antoine the director. I don’t need to spoil the plot, I’m sure you can see that we have two relationships and that they will get entangled in some way.

Doria Tillier and Fanny Ardant promoting the film

Bedos is clearly interested in ‘intertextuality’ – i.e. referencing specific films as well as broader genres. But he also has sub-texts he wants to explore such as critiquing a nostalgia for the 1970s that has developed under Macron (from the Press Notes). On the other hand, he does want to explore the visual images of the 1970s which he clearly finds appealing in various ways. There is quite a lot of 1970s (American) pop music in the film as well. We certainly enjoyed the film but it may be that my knowledge of 1970s France gained via movies of the time is not very accurate – I wasn’t aware that the drug-taking, ‘free love’ and hippiedom was as pronounced in France as it was in the US. In the UK outside parts of Central London it seemed more subdued to me. The four principals are all very good and I was especially impressed by Doria Tillier who has real presence. But I also enjoyed another chance to see Fanny Ardant, an actor I’ve come to appreciate more over the last few years. Daniel Auteil still has his star power and La belle époque de-throned The Joker at the French box office earlier in November. I’m not sure what younger audiences will make of it, but it entertained us and did make us think of a time when nobody had phones to stare into and had to talk to their partners in restaurants. There are still a few UK dates for the film and it will be on VOD soon.