(This is the second film from the Summer of French Cinema – see the earlier posting on Vie sauvage. I’m hoping to get to one more before the screenings end in the first week of August.)
Albertine Sarrazin was born in Algeria in 1937 and almost immediately taken into care and then adopted by a French family who took her to Aix-en-Provence. Her new family treated her badly and she ended up in ‘reform school’. Escaping, she pursued an interest in literature, supporting herself through prostitution and petty crime. Put in prison she escaped, breaking her ankle in the process. ‘L’astragale’ is the French term for the ‘ankle bone’ and Albertine was forced to have the bone ‘fused’ so that she developed a limp. She would spend the next few years in and out of prison where she developed her writing skills, including an autobiographical novel L’astragale, published in 1965. This new French film is the second adaptation of that novel, the first having appeared in 1969.
The new film, part scripted and wholly directed by Brigitte Sy, is an interesting ‘crime romance drama’, a polar of sorts that, because of its setting and the aesthetic choices made by the director, recalls the early crime-based films of la nouvelle vague, especially those of Jean-Luc Godard. The story begins with the escape and the broken ankle and deals primarily with Albertine’s developing relationship with Julien, the minor criminal who finds her outside the prison and helps her to recover. There are several scenes which feature Albertine’s writings in her notebooks, but the narrative ends before her first work is published – otherwise this would make an interesting comparison with Violette (France 2013) as another film exploring new kinds of writing by French women in the 1950s/60s.
The important aesthetic choice was to present the film in B+W CinemaScope and to set the story in the mid 1950s (roughly correct with the autobiography). The disadvantage of course is that with the action mainly in Paris, it is difficult to shoot on the streets without spending a great deal on extras and ‘set dressing’/CGI. I presume this was a relatively low-budget film and the most obvious way of dealing with the problems is to shoot on specific streets at times when there are no members of the public around – which gives the film a rather abstract look. I confess that when the film began and I didn’t know the story behind it I wondered if I was watching the first film of a new film school graduate – although I could see that the performances were all very good (and the cinematography/mise en scène). I learned later that Brigitte Sy is a well-known French actress who has previously directed a feature and two shorts. She has a son and daughter, Louis and Esther Garrel. Esther has an important role in L’astragale (see the image above) and Louis has been very successful since his lead role in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2002). Louis and his mother both have small roles in L’astragale. Sy’s ex-partner Philippe Garrel is a well-known French director who began making features in the mid 1960s.
The references to Godard include the sequences which explore Albertine’s life as a ‘streetwalker’ and which might be compared to the scenes featuring Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962). Albertine’s first customer bears some resemblance to Jean-Pierre Léaud and several scenes in which Albertine is reading or writing while waiting in bars for Julien recall similar scenes in early Godard. When Albertine allows herself to be photographed (and therefore risking exposure to the police) I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. I enjoyed the film and especially the performances of the two leads. Leïla Bekhti as Albertine had an important role in Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (France 2009). In 2010 she married that film’s young star Tahar Raheem. Reda Ketab, who plays Julien, also had a lead role in Un prophète. He and Leïla Bekhti are both from French-Algerian families and their casting gives the story authenticity. It also distinguishes the film from most of the early New Wave films in which the war in Algeria was rarely mentioned. Albertine’s disguise when trying to evade the police is based on a blonde short-haired wig, which for me seemed to emphasise her North African heritage because of its incongruity.
The various aesthetic choices are evident in this trailer (no subs, but there isn’t much dialogue):
This unusual film was introduced by its writer-director Alejandra Sánchez who joined ¡Viva! programmer Rachel Hayward for a Q&A after the screening. Ms Sanchez is a documentary filmmaker who has here moved into ‘documentary drama’. In 2006 she made a documentary about the violent attacks on women in the city of Juárez near the US border. She made contact with a woman whose daughter had been killed in Juárez in one of these attacks and who was now looking after her two small grandchildren. Ten years after her daughter’s death this woman was herself attacked and shot several times outside her house. Somehow she survived the shooting (which Alejandra Sanchez argued was prompted by her work as an activist in the campaign about violence directed towards women). The director then decided to dramatise the story of the two children, one of whom witnessed the shooting. She wrote a script and then decided to cast the real teenagers to play themselves. As well as this element, she also used photographs and ‘home movie footage’ of the children and their mother as part of her film.
In the film the two children, Jade and Kaleb, now teenagers, are visited in the hospital where their grandmother is in a coma by a journalist, Martha, who has been summoned by the family’s lawyer, David. Martha (Nora Huerto) is asked to take the teenagers on a trip, away from possible danger, with the hope that they will be able to meet up with their grandmother in Mexico City when she has recovered and go with her to a safe house in Canada.
Seguir viviendo thus turns into a road movie. The brother and sister are understandably traumatised by this second attack. Kaleb never speaks (a device suggested by the director) but his sister eventually comes round. Later it is revealed that Martha has lost her small son in a car accident and one stop on the road trip is at the bar owned by her former lover, the dead boy’s father. There isn’t a great deal of plot but the road trip includes some of the familiar generic moments, including a drive down the coast and various overnight stays in motels and at least one village house. The film has an ‘open’ ending with a song and an animated sequence – which I certainly wasn’t expecting. During the Q&A Alejandra told us that she chose the ending against advice because she preferred it to the more realistic end point of the airport where the teenagers would board a plane to take them to the safe house.
Why was the children’s mother murdered in the first place? Why are women being attacked in Cuidad Juárez? These are the questions that several people in the audience wanted answers for. Alejandra was not able to answer such questions directly (it may have been simply a translation problem). She said that the attacks and killings had been going on for more than 20 years and that you really had to live in Mexico to appreciate what this meant. I took her statements to imply that the children’s mother was killed almost as part of the overall violence of the city rather than for something that she did and that the grandmother was attacked because she was an activist campaigning for better police and judicial action against the killers. This discussion did, of course, raise the spectre of violence associated with Mexico’s drug gangs, especially in the areas near the US border. A Guatemalan filmmaker in the audience said that this violence should be discussed and audiences needed to be educated about it and why it has happened – otherwise the representation of Central American societies remains simply barbaric for outsiders. This is something people feel strongly about and indeed it does need discussion. Both Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis asked questions which tried to focus on how Alejandra felt in dealing with such highly emotional (and possibly personally dangerous) filmmaking. There are a couple of scenes where the characters think they might be being followed and Alejandra admitted that the paranoia was ‘real’ for herself and the teenagers and her crew.
This an emotional and at times very moving film and Alejandra Sanchez is a brave filmmaker who deserves support. The film is technically well-made but it is quite short (81 mins) for a feature and I did feel that the final section lacked something. I fear that the film will mainly be seen at specialist film festivals but I hope it does find a wider audience and that it encourages other filmmakers to be equally brave and authorities to initiate action against the violence and towards support for the victims.
When I first began to write about this film I thought it would be straightforward to describe it as a mainstream ‘feelgood film’ – a romantic drama with comedy and a universal narrative. However, when I started to read a few of the other commentaries on the film and to reflect on what we learned about Mexican cinema during the ¡Viva! Weekender, I realised that there was more to it than that. The Mexican audience is growing but in the main Mexicans still watch Hollywood films over their own domestic releases. I tend not to watch Hollywood mainstream comedies, so a film like Paraíso perhaps seems less unfamiliar to me than it might to the Mexican audience. I’m referring to the concept of a very large woman as the central character of the film. Her weight is an important element of the narrative but, apart from one short sequence, the film does not ask us to laugh at her because of her weight. Instead, the weight issue is just part of who she is and how she deals with the real issue of maintaining her relationship with the man she loves and feeling good about what she does with her life. (I have seen one Hollywood film recently, Spy, in which the talented Melissa McCarthy is a large woman who triumphantly rules the narrative but that is unusual in contemporary Hollywood, I think.)
In Paraíso, Carmen and Alfredo are a loving couple, happily together in their ‘dormitory town’ in the outer suburban area of Mexico City. When Alfredo gets a promotion in his banking career they must move into the city. From day one, Carmen doesn’t really like big city life. Part of her problem is that she now has time on her hands after being an integral part of her family’s tax and legal advice business. The crunch comes when at their first bank function when Carmen overhears two of the well-dressed and ‘toned’ bank employees describing her and Alfredo as overweight country bumpkins. Carmen stumbles into a weight-watchers operation and the couple start diets. The outcome is fairly predictable – one of them loses most of their excess weight and the other doesn’t. It’s a recipe for marital disaster.
Carmen is an intelligent and seemingly confident young woman. The comedy is gentle and mostly comes from the quirks of social interaction rather than staged pratfalls or comic dialogue. One of the few ‘mistakes’ is a brief montage of Carmen trying to adopt yoga stances with predictable results. The film feels like a romantic comedy partly because the narrative resolution is to some extent dependent on a rather formulaic cookery competition that is handled very sketchily, as if even the writer didn’t really think it made much sense. Most of the time, however, the writing benefits from careful social observation. It’s perhaps not surprising that the script is by two women, Julieta Arévalo having written the original story that is adapted by the director Mariana Chenillo. Carmen is played by Daniela Rincón and she doesn’t appear to have other credits on IMDB. If she is indeed a new screen talent this is an impressive first screen performance. Alfredo is played by the more experienced Andrés Almeida. His is quite a difficult role underplaying Alfredo who behaves sensitively towards Carmen and things go wrong that aren’t his fault. Overall this is a story about two people in love who have to go through a difficult period in order to appreciate how good they are together. I hope that it gets widely seen on DVD in Mexico and that seeing it will encourage more Mexican filmmakers to look for local stories. I realise now that it’s a film that relates to the session on ‘Latin American Cities‘ (and the alienation they can generate) delivered in the first ¡Viva! Weekender earlier this year. I’m also reminded of another film from a few years ago, Real Women Have Curves (US 2002) a Hispanic-American film which similarly struggled for a cinema release (but which eventually made $5 million). That film’s lead, America Ferrera, went on to achieve fame as ‘Ugly Betty’. I hope Daniela Rincón goes on to achieve something similar.
Two of the best films I saw last year at the London Film Festival had to wait six more than six months for a UK release. Phoenix was one of those films and Girlhood is the other. The title ‘Girlhood’ refers both to that period of a young woman’s life and to the concept of girls controlling their ‘hood – moving in on a genre previously seen as male. The English title, unusually, is better than the French – Bande de filles which suggests ‘Gang Girls’ or ‘Girl Gangs’. Girlhood is set in les banlieues – or les cités, those giant housing estates on the outskirts of Paris made famous in global cinema by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (France 1995). Director Céline Sciamma (known for Water Lillies 2007 and Tomboy 2011) states quite clearly in the Press Pack that she is aiming for something different than La haine. She argues that CinemaScope is the best screen ratio to show gangs and although she shoots on the estates, all the interiors are shot on studio sets so that she can control the colours/décor etc.
“We used static shots with a very deliberate perspective as opposed to the Steadicam’s predictable energy. We relied on travelling shots and often used sequence shots. It’s an episodic narrative, with dramatic accelerations.” (Sciamma in the Press Pack)
The writer-director goes on to suggest that this is a new kind of narrative, a ‘fictional manifesto’ for a group of girls discovered through public casting sessions. It certainly does have a new kind of energy and it challenges representations of young women and in particular young African-Caribbean French women. Unlike many of the films set in les cités, this film is not dominated by North African French characters. The narrative seeks credibility rather than the ‘authenticity’ of social realism. Even so the resolution of the narrative is ‘open’ but not triumphant. This is a start – there is a long way to go before these girls achieve complete social freedom.
The central character is Marieme who we first meet as she comes back to le cité with a group of young women. The opening scene suggests that all the young women have been playing for a team in a game of ‘American Football’. I wondered if this might be a fantasy sequence (it seems an expensive sport to play because of all the equipment) but I would be grateful for any confirmation that such things happen in Paris. Perhaps it signifies an aspiration towards American culture among French African-Caribbeans that mirrors earlier French interest in American popular culture? Marieme has a difficult home life. Her father is absent and her mother is a cleaner in a hotel, working long hours. Marieme looks out for her two younger sisters – and tries to avoid her big brother Djibril, a dangerous character who abuses his sisters in taking control of the household and attempting to restrict their social behaviour.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening section of the narrative is when a dejected Marieme, learning that her only future after the summer is to go to vocational school (which she doesn’t want to do), meets a trio of seemingly tough ‘gang girls’. The leader of the trio sees something in Marieme and eventually invites her to join the group. Marieme changes her hair, her taste in clothes and her name. She gets out of the summer job her mother has organised in a hotel. Now she is ‘Vic’ (for victoire/victory), named by the gang leader, ‘Lady’. Collectively the girls have fun – even if it involves petty crime and fights and shows of bravado – before Marieme/Vic is forced to make decisions. These inevitably involve young men – the boy she has a relationship with, her controlling older brother and the local ‘boss’ for whom she works and who affords her ‘protection’ once she has become ‘known’ in the male world. The film has an open ending. We don’t know what will happen to Vic, but we have learned a great deal about the life that she and her sisters face in les cités.
I found the whole film captivating and in particular Marieme/Vic as played by Karidja Touré. Seemingly without prior experience, Touré is a strong presence, moving from being quiet and withdrawn to fierce and commanding as required. When she smiles, her personality fills the screen. The other three young women are equally striking in different ways. ‘Lady’ is a clear leader, Adiatou is street-smart and Fily is the quiet one, sometimes the butt of jokes but a strong physical presence.
There isn’t much ‘plot’ in the film. The narrative structure is in some ways unusual and I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the pleasure of an unfolding story. Watching it a second time I realised that I had been so taken with my first viewing that I hadn’t really noticed how the narrative divides into sections and that the final section – when Vic moves to another estate – is longer than I thought. In fact this is quite a long film for the genre. The power of the film resides in the relationships of Vic with the other three girls, with the boy she is attracted to and in perhaps the most moving scenes of all, with her younger sister who appears to be following, quite literally, in her footsteps.
Girlhood has been successful and I was pleased to see reports that in France it has been shown in multiplexes in les banlieues, reaching the audience who are represented in it. In the UK it has been generally very well received but their have been gainsayers, in particular on Radio 4’s Saturday Review. I found the discussion about the film on this show both annoying and disturbing. It was annoying because of the obvious contradiction. We were told that films like Girlhood were very unusual because there are very few other representations of young Black women in French cinema (certainly that is true of the French cinema that makes it to the UK). But at the same time the young women in Girlhood were ‘stereotypical’ and their behaviour/representation was ‘clichéd’. How can they be stereotypes if we haven’t seen them on screen before? This is sloppy thinking – it suggests that the audience is reading these young women as if they were in a British or American film. In fact, they are shown in quite distinctive ways that sometimes demonstrate connections to American culture and sometimes seem unique (an entertaining game of Crazy Golf or a dance contest in a city centre square). On the Saturday Review panel was Bim Adewunmi, a Guardian columnist and herself a young woman of West African heritage. She complained that for her this was a film utilising a ‘white gaze’ on young Black women. Obviously I can’t argue against this but also I can’t see it in the film. Céline Sciamma in interviews has said (see the Jonathan Romney interview below) that she herself grew up (as a middle-class white girl) in or close to one of the new estates outside Paris. Much has been made of the fact that only one of the four leads is actually from an estate like the ones in the film (the other three were non-professionals from other parts of Paris). But is this really important? As the young women themselves pointed out, seeing themselves as four young Black female faces on posters all over Paris was an exciting new experience. A girlhood that was invisible in mainstream media in France has been give exposure.
For more background on the film and the young actors see the very useful Jonathan Romney piece in the Observer. This one of many pieces in the Guardian/Observer and the film seems to have made a significant impact on the ‘liberal left’ in the UK. I’m hoping it will be possible to use Girlhood extensively in UK film education. I’ve watched it twice but I think it will need several more viewings before I discover all its riches. I need to explore both its cinematography and the music soundtrack by Para One – also responsible for Sciamma’s earlier two films.
The UK trailer: