This is the first offering in Éric Rohmer’s ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series of six films in the 1980s. There is a second title for the film, ‘On ne saurait penser à rien’. I find French quite difficult to translate and presumably this refers to the proverb. Wikipedia suggests, ‘It is impossible to think about nothing’ and this is certainly expressed in one of the film’s long dialogue exchanges. Rohmer’s films often revolve around triangles of relationships in which one character chooses between two possible lovers. Here ‘the aviator’ Christian is part of a triangle seemingly pivoting on Anne, a young office worker in her her mid-twenties living in a tiny apartment in Central Paris. Her current boyfriend is François, a 20 year-old student who works occasional night shifts in a mail sorting office to finance his studies. Early one morning, attempting to deliver a note to Anne before she wakes, he is surprised to see her leaving her apartment block with Christian. Later that day, having met Anne at lunchtime, François sees Christian with another woman and decides to follow the couple. His amateur sleuthing leads him into an encounter with Lucie, a bubbly 15 year-old student attempting to do her German language revision outdoors. After a while we realise that there is a second triangle which pivots on François who spends most of the film in dialogue with Anne, Lucie and then Anne again. Christian is in effect a MacGuffin – a character whose importance is in what he prompts as action in other characters. This is the case with François but less so with Anne.
In these later films Rohmer often uses less well-known or non-professional actors. That’s certainly true for the lead here. Philippe Marlaud as François had only appeared in one film before, but that was for Maurice Pialat, one of the major directors of the 1980s, in a leading role. Tragically Marlaud died from burns received in a campsite fire shortly after the film was released. Some of the reviewers describe him as ‘plain’ but I think he looks fine and is very good in the part. Marie Rivière (Anne) and Mathieu Carrière (Christian) are still working as actors with long careers. Rivière worked again with Rohmer and Carrière, born in Germany has worked extensively in both German and French industries. Anne-Laure Meury (Lucie) is the real mystery. She was active in TV and cinema from 1975 to 1989 after which time IMDb has no more entries. She too worked again for Rohmer. The two inexperienced actors stole the show for me. Anne-Laure Meury is so lively and mischievous. I’ve rarely seen an actor make such an impression. Marie Rivière has the most difficult role as Anne. She is terribly thin and Rohmer emphasises this by having her dressed in only a camisole and bikini style knickers (she has been resting in bed) when François arrives at her apartment the second time (see image below). She then has a long conversation with him, constantly covering and exposing herself in a very animated way. If it seems unfair to comment on costume and body movements, bear in mind that Rohmer’s camera style (Bernard Lutic is the cinematographer) tends to frame long dialogues as two shots or if shooting shot/reverse shot, still avoids close-ups to show a character almost in long-shot (i.e. with the whole body in shot). Rivière became one of Rohmer’s ‘stock company’ actors, so she was presumably happy with the scenes (though given all the #MeToo comments recently we can’t be sure).
Rohmer’s style is unique, though some critics have tried to link it to the later style of Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films about the meeting of characters played by Julie Delpy ad Ethan Hawke. I can see that, but I think Linklater imbues his narratives with more dramatic tension and also plays with his stars’ screen presence. From the several reviews of The Aviator’s Wife that I’ve seen I would agree with one who makes a reference to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Baisers volés (1968) and Domicile conjugal (1970). I find myself identifying with François who is treated very badly by Anne and teased in a friendly way by Lucie. As with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel the women are dominant characters and François is unsure and sometimes bungling in his attempt to engage with them. Anne seems like a rather cruel creation by Rohmer, though if we consider her situation and her view on life, it isn’t all that unreasonable. In many ways she is the most modern character. By contrast, Lucie is a young man’s dream – bright, bubbly and fun. She’s very attractive and seemingly full of energy and initiative. On the other hand, her general demeanour and maturity seem unusual for a 15 year-old, so she is plausibly a ‘romantic’ creation.
Rohmer, in retrospect, seems ‘out of time’ in the French cinema of the 1980s. I wonder what contemporary young audiences would make of his stories of love and romance set in the context of ‘Comedies and Proverbs’. Would they find them unbearably slow? Would they be baffled by a world which revolves around postcards and public telephones and notes pushed under a door? I suspect that rather than ‘out of time’, Rohmer’s tales are timeless. This one is currently on MUBI. I have a couple more on disc/tape somewhere, perhaps I’ll go back to them. If nothing else, his films offer an almost documentary take on Parisian streets, buses and the Metro. The trailer below (no subs) gives an idea of how the two stills above were worked into scenes.
Saloon Bar is available on another of Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ DVDs, this time Vol 10. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. Michael Balcon had returned to ATP and had changed the studio’s brand to ‘Ealing Studios’ from November 1938. Saloon Bar was released in October 1940 as the 14th ‘Ealing’ film. The film is generally dismissed by both George Perry and Charles Barr, though its IMDb entry suggests that it works quite well for modern viewers and David Quinlan scores it highly. Barr situates Saloon Bar as “the last Ealing film to belong completely, in both form and content, to the old order, an unambitious stage adaptation . . .” Perry argues it suffers from a “verbose script and a pedestrian pace”. One score I can agree with Barr – the film doesn’t seem in any way connected to the Ealing films that respond to wartime Britain even though the war was over a year old and the previous two films, George Formby’s Let George Do It and Pen Tennyson’s Convoy are both set in wartime. In that sense it seems out of place, set as it is in December 1938 according to the Execution Order. On the other hand, the stage play by Frank Harvey Jr. was adapted by Angus McPhail and John Dighton, who would go on to write many of the better-known Ealing films of later years. Saloon Bar is photographed by Ronald Neame who had worked at ATP before Balcon’s return and would become a successful director, writer and producer during the 1950s. It is directed by Walter Forde who had a long history with Balcon and made four Ealing pictures before leaving for America. One of these was Cheer Boys, Cheer (1939) which Charles Barr identifies as a ‘proto Ealing comedy’ – prefiguring the set up of the late 1940s comedies.
The Perry criticism doesn’t stand up in my view. Yes, there is a lot of dialogue but is generally snappily delivered and I didn’t find the pace pedestrian at all. The film is only 76 mins long with a hectic finale. The main plot idea is that a young man is falsely accused of murdering his landlady and is then convicted. Despite a petition to the Home Secretary, the minister refuses a stay of execution and the young man is due to hang early next morning. The pub (in Soho?) where the young man’s fiancée is a barmaid, bemoans his fate, but one regular, a bookmaker (a ‘turf accountant’) returning from a tour of racetracks, decides to do some sleuthing of his own. Can he find out the truth in time to stop the execution? This character, Joe, is played by Gordon Harker, a well-known figure in 1930s British Cinema who often played in comedy thrillers, exploiting his cockney charm. He had previously played the role on stage. Other well-known names in the cast include Mervyn Johns, Felix Aylmer and Cyril Raymond. This is a traditional crime thriller/whodunit with comedy elements. It also features flashbacks for the events leading up to the crime.
The story is set just before Christmas and the landlord of the pub is an expectant father. His wife, never seen, is upstairs, close to delivering number seven. This is the comedy sub-plot which also provides the ‘humanity’ of the Christmas story – a young man might hang at the same time that a child is born. The other Christmas touches include a gaggle of children carol singing and a couple in the bar sat by the window, oblivious to anything else but each other. The stage origins are obvious since most of the action takes place in the bar itself. But the streets outside do figure at various points and Ronald Neame provides some interesting expressionist shots of alleyways in a style which later would be called film noir. For American viewers I should point out that the ‘Saloon’ was the more salubrious of the various rooms of large pubs in England at the time, where middle-class patrons gathered – and where a waiter might bring drinks to your table. The ‘Public’ tended to be rowdier and the ‘Snug’ was usually the haunt of those who didn’t want to ‘mingle’ (particularly women) and were willing to pay higher prices. The pub in question is a traditional ‘local’ which is emphasised when an ‘outsider’ comes up to the bar and is ‘frozen out’ because everyone else is busy discussing the murder. At one point, Joe goes to the pub’s rival establishment, a place that has been tarted up with chrome and art deco interiors. This modernity means in Ealing terms we should be suspicious about it. One of the pub regulars is Sally, a woman who is ‘mother’ to the chorus girls in the theatre across the road – which may be a reference to the Windmill Theatre where static nudes were a big hit in the late 1930s.
Barr and others tend to suggest that 1930s British films featured older men and occasional younger women, a mainly middle-class milieu and a general sense of tradition triumphing over any sense of modernity. Saloon Bar certainly features many of these elements, but it also has, for me, a vitality that prepares us for the Ealing films to come over the next few years during the war. Keith Johnson from UEA offers an interesting analysis of the film as part of his trawl through Ealing’s entire output. The pub is remarkable as a studio set. For those of a certain age, the ‘Watneys’ brand of beer will cause a sharp intake of breath. In the late 1960s this was the brewery which seemed hell-bent on destroying ‘real ale’ with its keg beer ‘Red Barrel’. I was intrigued that the bar boasted a pinball machine. I only remember pinball machines in cafés, coffee bars and arcades – though they were quite common in Student Union bars! (Intriguingly there are two pinball machines in the rival, ‘modern’ pub.)The other intriguing cultural reference is to cycle-racing at Herne Hill velodrome. Joe claims that cycling there gave him powerful legs and he shows them off in the bar. The ensemble cast is very good with a nice turn by Mervyn Johns as Wickers, the owner of a ‘wireless shop’ (he sells radios). Wickers perches on his special seat by the bar, never moving and downing glasses of ‘Special Ale’. He talks using exaggerated language delivered deadpan and confusing for barmaid Ivy. These touches reveal an attempt to represent a recognisable ‘local’, albeit in the centre of London and the film ends with everyone coming together to celebrate the freed man, the new baby and Christmas round the corner – with a ‘lock-in’ which includes the local bobby.
MUBI celebrated the achievements of Milos Forman, who died in April this year, by streaming two of his earliest films. The first, completed in 1963, comprises two short films put together ‘after the event’ since separately they would have less chance of being programmed. Kdyby ty muziky nebyly or If there were no music concerns an annual celebration (that started in 1961) in the town of Kolin honouring the memory of a famous 19th century composer František Kmoch who was born close to the town in Bohemia where he opened a music school. (Forman was himself from Bohemia.) Two local brass bands are scheduled to perform at the ceremony. The bands are mainly made up of older amateur musicians but also include some young men. The film’s main plot device is a motorcycle race that takes place on the local streets at the same time as the concert. One young man in each band daydreams about riding a motor bike and absents himself from the performance in order to watch the race. Both are dismissed by their bands but then sign up for the other band. IMDb categorises this film as a documentary but it isn’t. Although the majority of the band members are non-professionals, there are professionals from what would later be recognised as Forman’s ‘stock company’ in leading roles. Just 33 minutes long, the film was shot on 35mm equipment borrowed from the Barrandov Studio.
Konkurs (Audition) (47 minutes) was the first of the two films to be completed and was a more ‘personal’ project for Forman which was expanded from an initial idea for a 15 minute film shot on 16mm using Forman’s own camera (operated by the great Miroslav Ondricek). The link with the brass band film is the attempt to prepare musicians but this time it’s a talent show for girl singers (and their accompanists) auditioning at the Semafor Theatre in Prague. Again, as in the first film, the near-documentary coverage of the audition is provided with a fictional second narrative in which two young women are picked out from the group and given their own (separate) back stories. One of these two, Vera Kresadlova (just 18 at the time), later became Forman’s second wife. She’s shown singing successfully in a group with a rock ‘n roll band, but then finds it impossible to perform on her own for the audition. The other young woman lies to her boss at a beauty salon to get time off to sing with her guitar with accompaniment from a young man also on an acoustic guitar.
There are several online sources for detailed reviews/analyses of Auditions. One is by Darragh O’Donoghue on ‘Senses of Cinema’. Another is on Second Run’s site for its DVD release. There is no point in me repeating what is laid out on these sites. Instead I’ll make my own personal response. I like these two short films very much. Watching them makes me very nostalgic for a variety of reasons. I was a young teenager around this time and I recognised all these young people – and the older ones too. Some of the reviews are quite snotty about the music and the question of the ‘generation gap’. It is all very familiar from the UK in the 1960s, especially the pop music. When the Beatles first appeared in the UK at the end of 1962/early in 1963 we had much the same mix of musical styles – rock ‘n roll, the R & B bands, folk music, trad jazz and even the hangover of skiffle. The local bands were a long way from the polished, orchestrated soft pop we saw on TV. I recognised many of the tunes – though the Czech language songs had very different lyrics. Brass bands were a major part of the lives of workers and their families across much of industrial Northern England and the culture clash of the brass band v. TV features in A Kind of Loving (UK 1962). I can see why Forman wants to poke fun at the bandleader in If there were no music played by Jan Vostrcil but I think he still has some feeling for the traditions of the band. The audition montage in Konkurs is repeated in Forman’s first American film, Taking Off (US 1971), a film I really enjoyed on its circuit release in 1971.
It’s good to see films from the Czech New Wave – so influential on later British cinema – and it’s worth remembering the 50th anniversary of the ‘Prague Spring’ that ended with Russian tanks taking control of the city and leading to Forman’s decision to move permanently to America. I haven’t seen all his American films, partly I think because I was slightly disappointed by his embrace of American culture. He tended to see Taking Off as a failure, blaming himself for making a European art film in America. I saw it the other way round with him showing American filmmakers how to make more interesting films. A Blonde in Love (1965) was the other MUBI screening and a review will be posted soon.
This is quite a difficult film for an aged male writer. Paula, the protagonist of Jeune femme (also known as Montparnasse Bienvenüe) is not introduced to us with any background. She’s more or less literally thrown at us, headbutting the door of a Paris apartment, whose resident doesn’t want to let her in. Taken to A&E to have her forehead stitched, she angrily dismisses the doctor on duty, steals a coat and discharges herself. Taking a cat, ‘Muchacha’, which we later discover belongs to the owner of the apartment, she begins a tour of Paris looking for a place to kip and a means of earning money. At this point I was seriously worrying whether I could cope with another 90 minutes of this. I was reminded of a British film from last year, Daphne, also about a 30-something woman, but this time in London. After writing about that film, I decided not to post a review since I didn’t really like the film. In the case of Jeune femme, however, I stuck with Paula and eventually began to warm to her character and by the last third I began to really enjoy the film.
Jeune femme is a first feature for Léonor Serraille who co-wrote the film with Clémence Carré and Bastien Daret, both similarly inexperienced writers for features. Paula is played by Laetitia Dosch who has significantly more experience as a leading actor. I think some of the positives (and perhaps some of the negatives) come from the script and direction. The performance by Dosch is very good but sometimes the plotting becomes quite weak. The basis for the narrative is the idea that Paula, now having broken up with a former partner, is partly looking for the basics – some money, a job, somewhere to live – but also looking to ‘find herself’. The narrative therefore becomes that of the ‘picaresque’ or almost like a road movie set in Paris as she moves from one situation to another. sometimes it feels like a series of sitcom sketches. Eventually we realise that Paula has got to 31 without having gone through many of the experiences of her contemporaries. She’s spent ten years with an older man who was her teacher at first but then used her as his ‘muse’, photographing her and exhibiting his work. This comes home to Paula when she realises that unlike the other young women she meets working at a ‘knicker bar’ in a shopping centre, she has no postgraduate degree to complete and no ambitions for the future.
Female film critics and fans of the film have made connections with the UK TV series Fleabag and the US series Girls as well as films such as the Greta Gerwig starrer Frances Ha. Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound (June 2018) focuses on the central issue when she asks if the emphasis in these types of female narratives on the ‘messiness’ of the central characters’ lives is “feminist or quite the reverse”. Paula is needy but is this to be read as something for others to respond to and to understand as a product of a patriarchal society – or does she instead need a lesson in developing some ‘adult life skills’ and a plan about what to do next? In McGill’s terms, “this is the line along which Jeune femme wobbles in terms of Paula’s neediness”. Part of the problem is that the women Paula meets are either very critical or very forgiving. Only the women workers at the knicker bar talk to her sensibly about practical things. She meets few men and most are abominable. The exception is the security guard at the knicker bar, Ousmane (played by Souleymane Seye Ndiaye – the lead in La pirogue (France-Senegal 2012)). When I reflected on the film it struck me that Paula (and therefore the whole narrative) changes when she meets Ousmane. Ousmane reminded me of similar characters in A Season in France (2017) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (still sadly unreleased in the UK). I hope that African migrants will eventually be treated as just another character with good or bad points. I don’t want to see them typed as ‘noble’ or ‘savage’. I don’t think that Jeune femme falls into that trap but we need more diversity in casting generally. The cat seems to think Ousmane is OK as well and I was relieved to see it being looked after by him. Paula’s initial treatment of the cat certainly didn’t make me warm to her.
Ousmane’s humanity seems to infect everyone, but particularly Paula and as the film moves towards its climactic sequence with the ex-boyfriend it does seem like the narrative will have a conventional resolution. But in the end it doesn’t, seeing the now ‘sorted’ Paula ready to face whatever is coming next. The film has plenty of music, mostly by Julie Roué, but the Gil Evans jazz number ‘Las Vegas Tango’ is particularly significant according to writer-director Léonor Serraille. In the Press Notes she offers some interesting background to the production and the decisions she made along the way. She tells us that initially the script was 140 pages and was then cut down to make the 97 minute film (which might explain the gaps in the plotting). She comments on her use of a clip from Sirk’s Imitation of Life (US 1959) – her relationship with her own mother is important as it is in Sirk’s melodrama – and also comments on the various films and actors’ performances which have inspired her. She makes this interesting statement:
Jeune Femme, which is Montparnasse Bienvenüe’s French title, could have been called ‘Young Women‘ as the entire crew is made up of women: cinematographer, sound engineer, editor, sound editor, production designer, music composer, producer . . .
I’m glad that I did eventually get on board with Paula and her struggle. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it and I hope it is a big success in the UK.
Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
Funny Cow is a difficult film to write about. Maxine Peake is the star of the film and its executive producer and my admiration for her commitment to her craft and to working-class socialist politics is boundless. Add to that the filming in Saltaire and elsewhere in Bradford and Leeds and I’m certainly compromised. In some ways, I think that the most interesting aspect of the film, apart from Maxine Peake’s wonderful performance, is the range of positions adopted by various critics and commentators about the film and its depictions of Northern working-class life from the 1950s through to the 1980s.
Funny Cow is a fictional biopic of a female stand-up comedian, presented almost as a kind of arthouse ‘essay film’ about working-class life. The narrative jumps backwards and forwards during the life of the unnamed central character who is shown as a child (‘Funny Calf’) in the 1950s (played by Macy Shackleton), (very) briefly as a young wife in the 1960s (Hebe Beardsall) and finally as ‘Funny Cow’ in the 1970s and 1980s. At times, the fourth wall is broken and Maxine as Funny Cow talks to the camera. At other times she visits her old haunts and meets her younger self. Individual sequences are introduced with inter-titles. Throughout the narrative, Funny Calf/Cow wears bright shades of red, culminating in a red Triumph Stag car as her chariot – thus subverting the chauvinistic symbolic identity of the car (second only to the E-type in signifying macho posturing?). ‘Funny Cow’ is never given a first name. I assume that the nickname is meant to signify that process by which in the North of England (and other communities, I guess) derogatory names are given to best friends, almost as endearments – “stop it, you daft bugger!” etc.
The genesis of the project appears to have come from the meeting of the writer Tony Pitts and the actors Maxine Peake and Paddy Considine on the production of Red Riding: 1980, the second in the trilogy of TV films from 2009 based on the books by David Peace. All three were actors then and Pitts wrote Funny Cow, presumably with Peake in mind. I heard Peake discussing the production on radio and I think she said that convincing Considine to act in Funny Cow made it viable for financiers because he has a ‘known’ profile in the cinema. Much as I really like Paddy Considine, he is decidedly miscast in Funny Cow. Or perhaps it’s just a badly-written part? Either way it is a shame, because I thought his scenes were the only ones that just didn’t work. I couldn’t believe that under a wig and behind a pair of glasses was a great actor. I couldn’t believe in his character at all. He’s supposed to be an effete ‘intellectual’ running an enormous bookshop (without any discernible customers or staff) and living in a mansion decorated with artworks. Funny Cow starts a relationship with him, seemingly to get away from her abusive husband – or possibly hoping for an Educating Rita scenario? I did also wonder if this was a conscious role-reversal of the relationship between Joe Lampton and the industrialist’s daughter in Room at the Top (1958). It’s interesting that each scene in Funny Cow conjures up these memories. I think it’s a function of the episodic narrative.
Among the other familiar faces for UK audiences Alun Armstrong excels as a stand-up comedian in the pubs and clubs coming to the end of his career. It’s painful to watch but utterly convincing. He finds himself acting as Funny Cow’s mentor, not necessarily by choice. Other well-known names and faces appear in bit parts throughout the film.
Apart from a miscast Considine, the other weaknesses in the film hinge on the difficulty of representing the North of England of the 1950s-80s in 2018. It’s ironic that the streets of back-to-back houses depicted in the film are actually located in the World Heritage site of Saltaire – artisan’s dwellings in the model town built by Titus Salt. In at least one shot you can see Baildon Moor on the other side of the Aire Valley. They certainly confused Mary Beard on the BBC2’s ‘Front Row Late’ who thought that the National Trust had ‘sanitised’ them in Manchester. But she’s got a point. It’s impossible to recreate the Ripper Years of the late 1970s in Bradford and Leeds (although Red Riding made a valiant attempt). Everywhere is now a lot cleaner, partly because there are few dirty industries left and partly because many of the terraces have been replaced by modern housing. The other problem, for historical dramas is that representations of the working-class North of England in the 1970s (or 1960s) have become reified (i.e. made concrete, permanent) by a relatively limited number of successful films. Films like East is East (1999) for 1970s Salford/Bradford or Billy Elliot (2000) for 1980s Co. Durham, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) for Nottingham in the late 1950s or A Taste of Honey (1961) for Salford in the late 1950s and Charlie Bubbles (1969) for the devastation of old housing torn down in Manchester. TV has never really had the same problem since TV drama has very often been made in the North – in fact I’d argue that it is as familiar as London as a location.
But if we step away from the location issues, the real question is, “What is the film about?” or “What is it for?”. It isn’t simply a comedy. And it isn’t a faux biopic about a real female comedy performer (though Marti Caine has been widely touted as an inspiration for Peake’s character). If anything, the film is a satire on male chauvinism which has a terrible ending in which Funny Cow finally succeeds by adopting the homophobic racist gags of the Bernard Manning type of performer in order to put down an oafish, sexist man in the audience. I hated myself for laughing at what was an undoubtedly funny but ultimately degrading scene. This is where I fail. I never went to a ‘working man’s club’. As a lower middle-class grammar school boy in a town without heavy industry those clubs were very exotic for me in the 1960s and 1970s. I did watch the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club on Granada as well as The Comedians in the 1970s. These shows were certainly sexist and racist but on TV comedians couldn’t be ‘blue’. I watched some of the shows again on YouTube and there is enough humanity in them to mean that they are still funny to me despite my winces at the social attitudes. Is the kind of performance in Funny Cow with its prolific use of the ‘c’ word more ‘authentic’? Is it somehow empowering for a female performer? I don’t know.
A few weeks before I saw Funny Cow I watched a biopic of the Irish comedian Dave Allen on BBC2. The final section of Funny Cow, which depicts a successful comedian being interviewed on TV, reminded me very much of the Dave Allen bio. Partly it was the incessant smoking but also the melancholy. Part of that melancholy is the situation in which Funny Cow finds herself abandoned in different ways by her brother (Stephen Graham, who also plays her father in the 1950s) and her mother (Lindsey Coulson). I wish I could remember what Funny Cow actually says in those later scenes, but I don’t think she comes over as a woman who has succeeded. Perhaps in the end Funny Cow is a kind of salutary lesson about what women had to endure in Northern working-class communities? I haven’t read any commentaries on the film that fully make sense of it and I’m still struggling. In the ‘Front Row Late’ discussion referenced above, the three critics generally disagreed about what they’d seen in the film. Paul Morley argued strongly for the film as illustrating the thesis that it was difficult to extricate yourself from your roots in Northern working-class communities without then being corrupted and compromised when you join the middle-classes. The only response is to turn back. But this too is impossible. This was the basis for the Albert Finney film Charlie Bubbles back in 1969 – that feeling that you are caught between two different social classes and that you don’t really belong in either.
Maxine Peake is magnifique in Funny Cow, but I think I’d rather have seen a film based on her play about Beryl Burton.
The exuberant director of this film introduced it by telling us that it dealt with two of his most treasured things, friendship and music. Gabriel Nesci told us of his excitement at being in Manchester (he’d been present for the first showing in the UK of his film earlier during ¡Viva!). His previous film had opened the festival in 2014 and in addition his love of music was based on his appreciation of the Manchester music scene in the 1980s. Gabriel seems a nice guy but I always take what directors say with a pinch of salt. His new film is stuffed with music, much of it written by Gabriel himself, but the only ‘Madchester’ references I noted were a Stone Roses poster and a Joy Division ‘Unknown Pleasures’ tee-shirt. But then I’m no expert on Manchester music and I enjoyed the film very much.
I saw recently somewhere a definitive statement that “feelgood films are not a genre”. Maybe not, but they comprise a category of films used by audiences round the world. “A great Friday night movie” is a similar concept and in the unlikely event that a movie offering as much fun as this were to get distribution in the UK, I’d recommend it highly. In a more mundane way, IMDb calls this a comedy-drama-music film. It involves three middle-aged guys who were once a youthful rock trio in Buenos Aires with the band name of ‘Auto-Reverse’. Just at the moment they were to release their first album and take the local scene by storm in 1992, their creative musical talent suddenly upped and went back to Spain with no explanation. The other two gave up music and the tapes of their songs were seemingly lost. Twenty-five years later, Axel (Santiago Segura), now an IT systems maintenance man in Madrid, spots that a Buenos Aires radio station is planning a ’25 years ago’ concert and he decides to fly back to Argentina. The other two band members are Javier (Diego Peretti) who is now a biology teacher and Lucas (Diego Torres), a lawyer. When Axel arrives he discovers both his ex-colleagues are having major problems but he worms his way back into Javier’s life and urges them to get back together as a band. When they discover that their one superfan from 1992, Sol (Florencia Bertotti) still has the original cassettes of their songs, everything seems possible – until it goes wrong.
The plot rolls out down some well-travelled lines but it’s all well done. The narrative drive is shared between Axel and Javier. Axel is presented as somewhere on the autistic spectrum and his behaviour is mined for many of the laughs. I suspect that Santiago Segura’s star persona is also being used in some ways. He’s an actor known outside Hispanic culture for his work with Guillermo del Toro in cameo parts in most of del Toro’s English language films. But in Spain he is known for his work with Álex de la Iglesia and also as the eponymous central character in the Torrente franchise of five comedy crime films in which he writes, directs and stars. These are some of the most commercially successful films in Spanish cinema. Segura’s Axel has a stuttering walk and a complete lack of social intelligence, going for unwanted hugs and saying all the wrong things to everybody but also having the autistic ‘savant’ capacity to write music and deal with all kinds of music technologies. He’s the ‘computer nerd’ with real talent and the opposite of Lucas the smooth lawyer. Axel’s behaviour is highlighted by his attempts to communicate with the woman he fell for but couldn’t speak to in 1992. Abril (Claudia Fontán) is now in a wheelchair after an accident and the exchanges between these two might raise a few eyebrows given the current concerns about typing characters. However, I don’t think the film is offensive in any way, in fact it’s quite sensitive. Javier’s problems are with his teenage son and his bored students, cue the amazement of digital natives when their teacher is revealed to have been a bass player (who writes and sings the lyrics for Axel’s songs) and appears performing on YouTube. Javier is the main focus for drama – he hasn’t recovered from his wife’s death and he fears he’s losing his son. Axel also carries the potential for drama and the mystery of his disappearance all those years ago waits to be explained. Lucas has just been found out as a suspected fraudster. He plays the drums – ’nuff said.
I won’t spoil all the other elements of the narrative. Overall, I think this is an engaging comedy and the kind of Hispanic film that ¡Viva! has often screened, allowing us to enjoy comedies from another language culture. Gabriel Nesci’s songs are pretty good too.
Here’s the Spanish language trailer (no English subs):
This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.
Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.
Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.
The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.
But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.
Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):