Category: Comedies

Les valseuses (France 1974)

Depardieu et Dewaere

Depardieu et Dewaere

Watching this film more than 40 years after it was made was a strange experience. I sought it out because it features an early appearance by Isabelle Huppert – but she has only a small part and it occurs in the last section of the film. After the first 20 minutes or so I was wondering whether I could stand watching it all the way through, but gradually it became easier to watch.

Les valseuses was written and directed by Bertrand Blier (born 1939) who had also written the novel from which the script was adapted. It tells the story of two ‘ne’er do wells’ who turn to stealing cars and whatever cash they can find in their travels around France. They are young men in their 20s played by Gérard Depardieu (‘Jean-Claude’) and Patrick Dewaere (‘Pierrot’) and worse than their crime spree is their treatment of women – sexual assault, violence and a complete lack of respect. The film is explicit in depictions of their behaviour with a succession of women but it is Miou-Miou as Marie-Ange who bears the brunt of it, playing a seemingly submissive woman prepared to put up with virtually any treatment in the first half of the film when she is revealed as unable to orgasm despite the best efforts of the two would be studs. She seems to accept her treatment as in some way ‘normal’ and that’s almost more shocking than the violence of their assaults on her. The film’s title has been variously translated as ‘Making It‘ (UK) or ‘Going Places‘ (US) – neither of which make much sense. The slang meaning of the title is ‘testicles’ or in plain Anglo-Saxon, ‘balls’. This might refer to the first action in the film when Pierrot is shot with the bullet grazing his groin and requiring stitches – or it could simply refer to the two men.

It’s worth remembering that in the mid-1970s French cinema was heading towards the domination of the local industry by sex films and there is plenty of nudity (female and male) and explicit sexual activity. In fact, the film was not granted a certificate by the BBFC in the UK in 1975 and was only seen in London where it had a GLC (Greater London Council) viewing licence. (It was re-released in the 1990s as an ’18’). In the US this might have been one of the films which gave French films the dubious reputation of excessive nudity and explicit sex. Roger Ebert suggested it was:

” . . . the most misogynistic movie I can remember; its hatred of women is palpable and embarrassing. There are laughs in it, yes, but how could anyone take this as a comedy?

Its story involves two loutish, brutal and unclean young men . . . I guess they’re supposed to come off as pathetic anti-heroes, driven to their cretinism out of terminal ennui.”

Several critics followed this line and sought to align the film (not necessarily favourably) with earlier films like The Wild One (US 1953) as devised to shock the bourgeoisie. I’m not sure that this is the case. I suspect that Blier was trying to make something ‘counter-cultural’ but that he was too heavily ‘marked’ at the time by sexist ideologies. I certainly didn’t mind the nudity or the sex in the film, though I flinched at the sexual violence. And I have to admit that despite their actions the two young men do have a certain kind of charm – which is perhaps even more disturbing. Depardieu in particular is young (25) and slim and has ‘dangerous charisma’. In fact this is the film that made him a star. It registered 5.5 million admissions in France and was a big hit. It’s worth reflecting that films in which men mistreat women have historically sometimes been popular with female audiences (James Mason’s films in the UK in the late 1940s offer examples).

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

Miou-Miou and Isabelle Huppert

What is to me extraordinary is the way in which the film begins to change halfway through when the two men wait outside a women’s prison and offer a ride to a woman being released (on the grounds that she will be looking for some kind of sexual release). She’s played by Jeanne Moreau, a major star of French cinema. An earlier sequence on a train sees an unusual form of sexual assault on a woman played by Brigitte Fossey, another leading actor of the time. It does seem strange that alongside Miou-Miou and Huppert, Blier could attract actresses to roles like these. However, as I’ve suggested, Moreau’s appearance seems to change the men’s behaviour, if only in the sense that they begin to allow the women to take more of the initiative. Jean-Claude is particularly gentle with her. Later when the men return to Marie-Ange she appears to have a change in self-awareness. Towards the end of the film the trio meet Isabelle Huppert’s Jacqueline who is a 16 year-old on holiday with her parents (Huppert was actually 20 – Miou-Miou was 22). Jacqueline is desperate to get away from her bourgeois family and to lose her virginity. The trio treat her almost tenderly. So, sexist thugs are human too.

To go back to Ebert, is this film a comedy? There are certainly comedic moments and as per the change of tone in the second half, when Jean-Claude and Pierrot throw Marie-Ange in the canal it is more in celebration than an act of violence towards her. But two people die in the film – and not in a way to imply ‘black comedy’. Miou-Miou and Patrick Dawaere had begun their careers as founding members of a Paris acting troupe at Café de la Gare in 1968 and became lovers. (Depardieu also worked there at some point.) All three leads received a boost from the success of Les valseuses, but I find Miou-Miou’s ‘bravery’ (‘recklessness’) the most striking feature of the film. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I think I learned a lot about a period of French cinema that I know less well than I should.

A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove, Sweden 2015)

Bahar Pars as Ove's neighbour Parvaneh and Rolf Lassgard as Ove

Bahar Pars as Ove’s neighbour Parvaneh and Rolf Lassgård as Ove

I laughed and cried all through this film. It’s a ‘feelgood film’ with an edge of dark humour based on a popular novel by Fredrik Backman that has in turn become one of the most popular Swedish films of recent times. Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, it has already taken some $1.5 million from a limited US release and with a Swedish take of over $20 million it is odd that no UK distributor appears to have bought the film yet. This is even stranger when the film’s leading actor Rolf Lassgård is already well-known in the UK as the first incarnation of Inspector Wallander in the TV films based on Henning Mankell’s novels and more recently in Sebastian Bergman (2010-2013). It would be a surprise if A Man Called Ove didn’t end up on BBC4.

Ove, at least in later life, is a universal figure (not that dissimilar from the UK sitcom character Victor Meldrew). We meet him at the point when his employers of 43 years decide to ‘let him go’ aged 59. His beloved wife Sonja died just six months ago and his officious reign as the ‘regulator’ of his small block of houses also seems to under threat. Ove has had enough and decides to end it all and join Sonja. But he hasn’t taken into account the arrival of new neighbours, a heavily pregnant Iranian woman with two small daughters and a ‘useless’ (Sewdish) husband – an ‘idiot’ as Ove terms him. So far, so predictable. Three aspects of the film take it beyond the predictable. First is the power of Lassgård and the chemistry between him and his new neighbour (and her daughters). Second is the presentation of Ove’s ‘back story’ about his childhood and hesitant romance with the ever-smiling Sonja and third is that dark edge of Swedish humour. There are moments when it is possible to recognise the world of a Roy Andersson, especially in the several suicide attempts – and sudden accidents – all presented in a matter-of-fact way.

The first meeting between the student teacher Sonja and Ove

The first meeting between Ove and student teacher Sonja

Grumpy old men should love this film (I speak from experience), as will their partners and their children. Ove is rude and officious. He is very competent with all kinds of technology but rather lacking in emotional intelligence, though it is there for those with the know-how to release it in him. In the flashbacks we see Ove played by Viktor Baagøe as a boy and Filip Berg as a young man. Ida Engvoll plays Sonja. The back story introduces some of the reasons why Ove has grown up to be the man we see. In particular he’s clearly justified in being suspicious of ‘the men in white shirts’ and the pain that is experienced because of the incompetence of other workers. There is also an indication that Ove’s experience as a worker has imbued him with a sense of working-class solidarity and collective responsibility. It’s interesting to note that Ove collects into his band the physically disabled, those with learning difficulties, a young gay man and various migrants. He’s a role model for grumps!

Greetings from Fukushima (Grüße aus Fukushima, Germany 2016)

Marie is the gawky young woman, out of place as an entertainer in GREETINGS FROM FUKUSHIMA

Marie is the gawky young woman, out of place as an entertainer in GREETINGS FROM FUKUSHIMA (photo © Mathias Bothor/Majestic)

Writer-director Doris Dörrie is well-known for a series of comedy-dramas among a total of thirty films. She also writes novels and directs operas. I very much enjoyed her 2008 film Kirschblüten (Cherry Blossom) and I was therefore looking forward to her new film, her fourth made in Japan. She says she has visited Japan 25 times but that she still doesn’t understand everything Japanese. That may be so but the Japan she depicts in her films looks recognisable as the Japan of films and novels that I am aware of. It may still puzzle audiences in Germany and North America on the basis of IMdB comments and that’s a shame, but it works for me.

Satomi by the tree near her home which is at once an important as a location in the narrative, but also symbolic of ideas about Japanese art and landscapes

Satomi by the tree near her home which is important as a location in the narrative, but also symbolic of ideas about Japanese art and landscapes. (photo © Hanno Lentz/Majestic)

Kirschblüten took an older German to Japan where he develops a friendship with a young Japanese woman to their mutual benefit. Something similar happens in Greetings from Fukushima, but this time it’s a young woman from Germany and an older Japanese woman who build a relationship. Marie (Rosalie Thomass) is heartbroken when she is jilted on her wedding day and she makes the decision to join an aid organisation offering entertainment to the almost forgotten victims of the Fukushima disaster of 2011. A small area of the Japanese coast suffered three disasters all at once – an earthquake, a tsunami and a radiation leak from a nuclear plant. The younger people from the area have already moved to the city. Only a few older people are left in temporary accommodation. Marie joins a pair of entertainers, supposedly as a clown. She isn’t a very good clown and her own misery doesn’t help. She wants to go home. One day an older woman among the survivors persuades (forcibly) Marie to drive her to her old home in the ‘zone’. Marie is a reluctant assistant but eventually begins to help Satomi to patch up and clean the house and then to stay with her. Slowly it emerges that Satomi (Kaori Momoi) was a geisha whose American customers had taught her enough English to enable her to converse with Marie. Slowly, she begins to teach the gawky (and very tall) young German to be more ‘elegant’ (she refers to Marie as an ‘elephant’ because of her clumsiness – and the fact she eats so much). Eventually we learn that at the time of the disaster, Satomi had a pupil Yuki who was swept away by the tsunami and that this memory haunts Satomi.

Marie meets the cat on both her entry and exit from Japan (photo © Hanno Lentz/Majestic)

Marie meets the cat on both her entry and exit from Japan (photo © Hanno Lentz/Majestic)

The film is also known as Fukushima Mon Amour – seemingly a reference to Alain Resnais’ 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour. The earlier film sees a French woman on a ‘peace and reconciliation’ mission to Hiroshima to remember the devastation caused by the atomic bomb explosion and the intense relationship she has with a Japanese man. The similarities in the narratives of the two films was also there in Kirschblüten which to some extent ‘riffed’ on Ozu Yasujiro’s 1953 film Tokyo Story. Dörrie makes these references sensitively and carefully. Greetings from Fukushima is shot in black & white CinemaScope recalling that favourite Japanese format of the early 1960s (I haven’t yet found Dörrie’s explanation as to why she chose it). She begins the film with almost surreal shots of Marie’s trauma after rejection on her wedding day. Later, she includes sequences with the ghosts that haunt both women. Yet her presentation of Fukushima is essentially ‘realist’ and at times like a documentary. She used the real location of the Exclusion Zone, explaining in an interview that she was shooting alongside the workers who were lifting the radiated soil (which is stored in bags along the roadside). I recognised the landscape from Sion Sono’s Himizu (2011) which also used locations associated with the impact of the tsunami. The documentary feel and the narrative of a European observer of Japanese customs also suggests the remarkable ‘essay film’ Sans Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker. I was reminded of this by the cat figure (a man with a large cat’s head) who Marie meets at a Tokyo station. Marker’s film includes a sequence exploring the various local rituals and ceremonies associated with animal statues around Tokyo. Dörrie’s film is rich in provocations such as these. Though her film might be seen as conventional and therefore predictable – young woman learns from older woman and becomes a better person – I enjoyed it very much because it most of all justifies the director’s interest in observing and recording her impressions of Japan, its cultures and the lives of ordinary Japanese people. It is a gentle and slightly absurdist comedy as well as a sensitive commentary on a combination of disasters and their impact on a local community. By default, it may also be a critique of how both Japanese and international authorities have responded to the plight of the victims.

Grüße aus Fukushima was released in Germany in March 2016 and has appeared at various international film festivals since then. I’m really pleased that the Leeds International Film Festival has managed to show it. It screens again at the Hyde Park Picture House today and again on Wednesday 9th November at 15.30. I can’t find anything about a UK distribution deal for the film but I hope that someone does take a chance. This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking film with excellent cinematography (by Hanno Lentz) and music (score by Ulrike Haage).

Here’s the German trailer:

Maggie’s Plan (US 2015)

John (Ethan Hawke) and Maggie (Greta Gerwig)

John (Ethan Hawke) and Maggie (Greta Gerwig)

I’d heard many good things about Greta Gerwig and specifically about Frances Ha (US 2012) but so far I hadn’t seen any of her films. On this basis I decided to watch Maggie’s Plan. The smaller Cinema 2 at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre was nearly full for an early evening show. Perhaps that isn’t surprising. Released through Sony Classics, Maggie’s Plan had what was once a standard specialised cinema release on 80 screens across the UK & Ireland and entered the Top 15 with a £100,000 on its first weekend. Is this an example of the new form of acceptable arthouse cinema for middle-class audiences in the UK?

Greta Gerwig is Maggie, a New York university teacher in her late twenties who has decided that she wants a baby, but doesn’t want a long-term lover/partner/husband because she doesn’t think she can sustain a long-term relationship. Her ‘plan’ involves self-insemination with sperm from a donor she knows but the plan is immediately jeopardised by a meeting with John, another teacher played by Ethan Hawke. He is in turn married to Julianne Moore as a Danish lecturer with a comedy European accent and hair drawn tightly back. Hawke’s teacher is an aspiring novelist teaching ‘ficto-critical anthropology’. His wife is rather more prestigious in the same field and she has tenure at Columbia plus a distinguished publications record. Maggie initially seeks to help him with his first novel. She has two close friends, Felicia and Tony, a couple with a small child who are ‘quirky’ in their behaviour but otherwise quite together and they are the foil for Maggie’s encounters with the Hawke/Moore characters.

Felicia (Maya Rudolph) with Maggie

Felicia (Maya Rudolph) with Maggie

The Hawke character immediately evokes his other author roles in Richard Linklater’s ‘Sunset’ trilogy (with Julie Delpy) and in Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth (France/UK/Poland 2011). In each case he is an American novelist, but unfortunately in Maggie’s Plan Rebecca Miller’s script and direction don’t manage to keep the usually excellent Hawke within bounds. His acting style doesn’t match that of Greta Gerwig and I found his character insufferable. Probably though it’s his playing against Julianne Moore who seems to be in another film entirely, over-playing manically, that is the real problem. Again Ms Moore is usually very good, so script and direction seem to be the issue.

Maggie goes to a book launch by Georgette (Julianne Moore)

Maggie goes to a book launch by Georgette (Julianne Moore)

There isn’t much plot in the film so the narrative relies on sharp dialogue and performances. Fortunately, Greta Gerwig fits her role well and she is always entertaining to watch. Her costumes – mostly sensible shoes and woollens are suitable for a New York winter. Sometimes they look a bit ‘clod-hoppy’ but mainly her engaging personality pulls her through. Not conventionally ‘beautiful’, Ms Gerwig is very attractive because she is at ease with her body and allows her personality to shine. She is at the centre of the comic moments for me, but reading other comments, I see that some find these scenes don’t work and that opinion is equally divided on the snappy dialogue. Maggie’s Plan is ‘clever’ but I don’t think it is ‘cool’ or ‘smart’ (i.e. in the way that films like Ghost World (US 2001) were once described because of their appeal to a specific demographic). It’s been variously described as an ‘indie rom-com’ and a ‘screwball comedy’. The latter seems some way off the mark to me. The film ends with the possibility of something slightly sentimental. I should add that there are children involved in the various relationships – all of whom are well-written and well-acted.

Maggie’s Plan appears to be a film more loved by critics than by the general audience (Rotten Tomatoes scores it 86% for critics as against 66% for audiences) – but perhaps more so by a specialised film audience. People around me certainly laughed, but often at gags that I didn’t find funny. Conversely, I smiled at moments which didn’t evoke laughter at all. I read that the film could be bracketed with Shakespearean comedies and Woody Allen – neither of which I can claim to know/enjoy. Maggie’s Plan is doing well at the box office and it certainly offers entertainment. I’ll definitely look for more Greta Gerwig performances, but perhaps I’ll avoid this kind of New York comedy.

The US trailer (which reveals the rest of the plot):