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.
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.
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.
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.
Akasha or aKasha (the ’round-up’) is a gentle comedy about young men and women in the midst of the long-running civil war in Sudan. Writer-director Hajooj Kuka won prizes for his documentary feature Beats of the Antonov (2014) and this feature returns him to the same conflict with the same backing from South African production company Big World Cinema (which also backed Rafiki from Kenya). Big World Cinema has been effective in getting films from across Africa into major international festivals and this one appeared at Venice, Toronto and London in 2018. We watched the film as part of Black History Month at the same venue where we saw Beats of the Antonov back in July. Again there were members of the local Sudanese community in Bradford in the audience. This time they were nearly all women which makes me wonder if the men knew something about the film. One of the features of the earlier film was the director’s interest in the culture of the young women in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan, fighting against the regime in Khartoum.
The film begins with a pre-credit scene in which we learn that the civil war has a forced ‘time out’ during the rainy season when the churned-up mud tracks make movement difficult. The soldiers in the rebel army are given time off to help their families. The ’round-up’ then begins to bring the soldiers back for the next round of action and the film’s narrative follows two young men who attempt to avoid being called back. We first discover Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) in bed with his girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus) but when she sees another woman’s name carved onto the stock of Adnan’s AK-47 she throws him out, believing he has been sleeping around. Adnan finds himself outside the compound without his gun and without a belt to hold up his uniform trousers. But he does come across Absi (Ganja Chakado), a city boy who has so far avoided a call-up. The two bond quickly and hatch a plan to retrieve the gun and to avoid the local commander Kuku Blues (Abdallah Alnur) who is already hauling young men back into uniform. The plan involves dressing as local women. Meanwhile the young women in the village are preparing for a wedding. Those are the ingredients of the plot with ample opportunities for jokes and sight gags.
Most of the gags are basic and universally accessible but Hajooj Kuka sets out to satirise the military pretensions of the men and to boost both the intelligence and the wit of the young women. A couple of carefully placed objects (a copy of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and a poster of Angela Davis and other Black leaders) suggest that Lina is far more aware than Adnan who will later have to eat humble pie when his ‘warrior’ status is revealed as a sham.
Hajooj Kuka was initially known for his camerawork and with his cinematographer Giovanni P. Autran he creates some attractive landscapes around the village and into the hills. With characters often seen in long shot moving through the landscape (including chase sequences) the film seems to refer back to quite a few of the internationally-distributed West African films of the 1970s and 1980s. At one point Absi borrows a motorbike and I wondered if the resulting images were a nod to Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973). Closer examination shows the bike to be a Chinese model from Senke. A little later, Adnan sets off for the hills and has an ‘experience’ with hallucinogenic flowerheads. Jokes about ‘stoners’ and dope smoking are told by Kuku Blues, possibly in order to demonstrate his ‘hipness’ – but readings like this are dependent on subtitling. I wondered if this too was a nod towards the ‘Return to Source’ African films of the 1980s. Mostly though the film is a gentle comedy that makes some interesting social comments on gender identity and modern culture for young black Sudanese men and women. The Civil War is currently on hold after the dictator was deposed in April 2019 and peace talks with the new regime are underway. It would be good to think that films like this in future can focus on the comedy (and the music) without worrying about the recall to arms.
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?).
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 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.
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.
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.