Category: Comedies

The Lady in the Van (UK 2015)


Roger Allam and Deborah Findley on their way out to the opera at Glyndebourne are horrified to find Miss Shepherd and her van outside their house.

Here’s a film that while certainly an attractive prospect for an older audience seems to have cashed in at the UK box office and perhaps exceeded expectations. Today it was reported that after its third weekend the film had made over £9 million with strong midweek takings and the prospect of further profitable weeks ahead. I’m not sure if the main attraction is Alan Bennett’s writing or the star turn of Maggie Smith in the lead role. It occurs to me that Smith’s celebrity status associated with ITV’s Downton Abbey may have attracted an audience for whom Bennett’s more theatrical writing is not so attractive.

The worrying aspect of the film’s success is the essentially conservative nature of the production. The original events on which the story is based took place outside Bennett’s Camden house over a long period between the early 1970s and 1989. Bennett first wrote a slim book that was published in 1989, then a stage play which ran from 1999 and a radio adaptation in 2009. Maggie Smith appeared in both the theatre and radio adaptations. Nicholas Hytner directed the 1999 play and directed the film – just as he had for the two earlier Bennett adaptations, The Madness of King George and The History Boys. Bennett, Smith and Hytner are thus re-treading very familiar territory. I suppose it could be argued via the Downton Abbey link that this time they are potentially reaching a much wider audience. It does make me wonder how well the original play might have worked for a cinema audience if the ‘live screenings’ of West End plays had been available in 1999? I haven’t seen any of the previous versions so I don’t know how much is new or altered in this film version.

There are some obvious features that would not have been easily achieved in the theatre (though Wikipedia assures me that they were). Alex Jennings who plays Bennett is asked to have dialogues with himself. One character is Bennett the Camden resident who interacts with Margaret/Mary Shepherd and the other is the writer who observes and makes comments. As Bennett the writer remarks, some things that happened have been left out of the script and some have been invented (but in the spirit of the story). At the end of the film there is a rather fantastical sequence which could I think be staged in the theatre and which has generally got a bad press, though it didn’t bother me. Overall I don’t think this is a particularly ‘cinematic film’. I generally hate it when critics disparage films by referring to them being more suited to television but in this case I have to concur.

I have generally avoided Downton Abbey (although I did see chunks of the first series) and I don’t really enjoy Maggie Smith’s performances that much. I’m sure that they are very skilled but they don’t work for me. But I’m mainly disappointed that Alan Bennett hasn’t written more new material and explored different subject matter. I know he has been ill and he is now in his 80s but I do admire and respect him as a writer and this particular script seems to be very much concerned with the kinds of characters and social issues which informed his television plays of the 1970s and the monologues of the 1990s.

The Lady in the Van is sometimes very funny and with a cast that includes Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent and Gwen Taylor and a host of others it can’t help being entertained – but it never really engaged me. Perhaps it’s all a bit too much ‘North London middle-class’. If this was a shlock horror film it might be dismissed as exploitation cinema – but actually that’s what it is, a new version of an old script for the audience that doesn’t usually go to the cinema. I have no problems with exploitation if it gives people want they want to see, but we should name it appropriately.

All About Them (À trois on y va, France-Belgium 2015)


This film was part of the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is also part of French Film Festival UK (La fête du CINEMA 23), which is touring the country. There are four titles at LIFF, the two still to come are The Big Blue (1988) and The Measure of a Man (2015), both on Thursday November 12th.

This is a very funny but also quite delicate comedy. The French title translates literally as ‘For three shall we go’, but more colloquially as ‘One, two, three – go!’. The three is that classic French relationship, the ménage à trois. This suggests parallels with a range of films including a couple of French classics. However this film has its own distinctive take on the relationship. It works really well, partly due to the excellent performances with Anaiïs Demoustier as Mélodie, Sophie Verbeeck as Charlotte and Félix Moati as Micha. Mélodie is an advocate or lawyer, Micha is a vet and Charlotte is a part-time painter and singer. They are supported by a pretty strong script, excellent cinematography and sound. The film has a number of nice allusions, one is regarding a quotation thought to be Alfred de Musset but which turns out to be Marilyn Monroe.

The film’s director Jérôme Bonnell, was there for a Q&A after the film. This was chaired by Richard Mowe, from the French Film Festival UK. Unfortunately he started off as the end credits of the film were still rolling with the sound  turned off: not a good idea. He also had to repeat the questions from the audience as the microphone did not stretch that far, and I thought he subtly altered a couple of these.

Bonnell first talked about the gestation and production of the film: similar to the quoted interview in the Festival Catalogue:

“The idea of this film lay dormant in my head for ten years. A couple who have an affair with the same person without knowing it. And it’s the enthusiasm of the tenacious producer Edouard Weil that spurred me on with the script, from a story I described to him in just a few words. It was then a surprise when the heart of the film struck me. This often happens: the depth of the story remains undercover emerging slowly during the process of writing, revealing something that’s been buried in us all along. In this case. as I constructed the scenario, what touched me most was the idea that two people . . . were both so in love with a third . . . they would eventually fall in love with each other, remote-controlled by their unconscious, because there would be such a strong shared emotion, mutual empathy would turn into pure and simple love. This story is like a fantasy given the freedom to go beyond all the problems associated with love: lying, betrayal, sadness, jealousy . . . bringing peace where there is usually conflict.”

In response to questions from the audience, who clearly really enjoyed the film, Bonnell praised the cast and their contributions. He emphasised that the film was fiction. And he explained the use of numerous large close-ups in the film which he felt sprang from the nature of the story and the relationships: and he stressed how important were the performances in enabling him to do this.

Plot Spoiler:

The really interesting question concerned the ending. Late in the film the trio realise that there are three affairs going on. Rather than being shocked or feeling betrayed they enjoy a night of love making. In the morning they have to rush to a wedding: this seemed a reference to the British Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). They later leave the wedding reception to spend the night on the beach. In the morning Charlotte departs, leaving Mélodie and Micha together. They wake and find her gone.

Bonnell felt this was the right ending, because it seemed to him that Mélodie and Micha were a couple. He added that he experimented with an earlier ending, but that did not seem right.

I was unconvinced by this explanation. In fact as the film ran I expected the ending earlier, either with shot of the three at traditional wedding in a coastal rural church or on the beach as they happily ran into the sea. I did not find the idea of a ‘couple’ convincing. I did not sense this during the film. As a friend remarked, Charlotte and Mélodie seemed more of a couple than Micha and Mélodie. This also seemed to run contrary to the quotation above.


Bonnell did twice stressed the idea of ‘lying’ in the relationships. This seemed a bit of a misnomer as well. Strictly speaking in the films, whilst the characters are ‘economical with the truth’, [beloved in the British Parliament], they do not lie. And there is no sense of betrayal when they discover each other’s affairs. To be honest, this struck me more typical of British inhibitions that my sense of French mores. I did wonder if this was a producer’s requirement [the production is not dominated by men], I also noticed that a sequence in Paris [the film is set in Lille] was signalled by a shot of Notre Dame.

Bonnell did also remark that he felt that the film could change the characters and their sexual orientation and the story would still work in a parallel fashion. This is so and is one angle that makes the film really interesting.

Ending apart, this is well worth watching and very funny. There is a party sequence where the film turns from the comedy to near farce. At the same time the relationships have an interesting dramatic quality. Mélodie ‘s advocate work involves a suggestive contrast with her personal sexual life.

The film is screening again at LIFF on Tuesday 10th and Wednesday 11th of November Note, it has an 18 Certificate in the UK: the BBFC over the top as usual.

LFF 2015 #9: Very Big Shot (Lebanon–Qatar 2015)


On the set of the movie production in ‘Very Big Shot’

LFFThis was an entertaining way to finish my visit to LFF 2015. That is if some perfunctory murders can be counted as entertainment. But in the context of the rest of the film perhaps they can. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya is a locally-trained Lebanese filmmaker who seems to have taken inspiration from a story about the Lebanese film industry in the 1950s. ‘Very Big Shot’ refers, I think, to the lead character Ziad (Alain Saadeh) a local Beirut criminal whose career up to now has involved a small scale drugs business run out of a pizzeria alongside acting as courier for a bigger operation. Ziad has plans to set up his own restaurant with his second brother Jad. Youngest brother Joe (the pizza chef) is against this idea if it means selling the family house. Here’s a family social issue that might be the background to a typical crime film – especially since we know that Zaid and Jad have already attempted to involve Joe in their criminal activities.

The film takes off in another direction when Ziad needs to ship a large consignment of drugs abroad. Visiting a customer who isn’t paying his drugs tab, a nerdy aspiring filmmaker, Ziad watches a documentary featuring an interview with veteran Lebanese film director Georges Nasr (the director’s film school mentor) in which he refers to an Italian film production in Lebanon that included drugs smuggled out in sealed cans of undeveloped film stock. To do this involves a customs certificate awarded to genuine film producers. Ziad decides to be come a real film producer and sets up a shoot for the hapless wannabe director. The filming process pushes the film into a comedy of ineptitude and then into a satire on media and celebrity. Ziad moves quickly to become director as well as producer and when his ideas create incidents on the street he is interviewed on local television, finally emerging as an astute political operator.


Alain Saadeh as Ziad

The central plot idea is, I now realise, similar to Argo (US 2012), bit this never occurred to me as I watched the film, perhaps because I found it funnier and more interesting than Argo. Or perhaps it was just more ‘exotic’ as a Lebanese film using popular genre elements? There are some gentle digs about the state of the Lebanese film industry as well as some sharp social commentary and the film ends in an open manner which hints at a satire about politics and the media in the context of organised criminal activities. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya was present for a Q & A and his film was warmly received at the Vue West End. This revealed that both the director and his co-writer and lead Alain Saadeh come from families with several brothers so they felt comfortable creating the relationships in the film. The director’s brothers were the producers of the film. The very impressive Saadeh trained as a method actor and the director encouraged this by suggesting that the actors’ interpretations would lead the filming process. The final question asked whether the film had a chance of being shown in other ‘Arab speaking’ (sic) countries and the answer got a round of laughter when the director suggested that it would depend on whether governments would accept the film’s open ending (i.e. the criminal who becomes a politician). Several reviewers have suggested that local audiences would actually get a lot more from the film but I think it could also work well in international distribution.

Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

Margherita and Giovanni at their mother's bedside.

Margherita and Giovanni at their mother’s bedside.

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.

Margherita has an angry exchange with the Hollywood actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro). In the background her daughter looks on.

Margherita has an angry exchange with the Hollywood actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro). In the background her daughter looks on.

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.

Giovanni and Margherita and the cinema queue.

Giovanni and Margherita and the cinema queue.

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):