Category: Films by women

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (US 1951)

Florence (Sally Forrest), Mrs Farley (Claire Trevor) and Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young)
Photo courtesy Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 794943a )

This was the fourth feature directed by Ida Lupino and produced by her husband Collier Young for their company The Filmakers. It has received far less attention than the first three and suffered more from a critical dismissal. I think there are two reasons for this. First, its subject matter is less sensational/socially conscious than the first three (which deal with unwanted pregnancy, polio and its effect on young lives and rape) and secondly it is adapted by Martha Wilkerson from a novel (or possibly a short story) by John R. Tunis. On the previous three pictures, Lupino and/or Young had been involved in the writing. My own feeling is that although the film has weaknesses it is overall a well-made film on a modest budget that has several good points and provides both an enjoyable entertainment and food for thought – partially provided by the original material by John R. Tunis.

The best way to describe this 77 minute picture is as a sports film and family melodrama hybrid. It tells the cautionary tale of a young female tennis star and her pushy mother played by Sally Forrest and Claire Trevor, the two stars in the cast. Forrest had played the lead in two of the earlier Lupino films, Not Wanted and Never Fear. Claire Trevor was just a few years older than Ida Lupino and had experienced something of a similar career. I remember her from Stagecoach (1939), Farewell My Lovely (1944) and Born to Kill (1946). She would have known Lupino at least through shared experiences of working with Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and other leading stars (e.g. on Key Largo (1948)).

Gordon (Robert Clarke) is torn between his love for Florence and his anger about the way she is being led astray by her mother and Locke

Sally Forrest is Florence Farley, an 18 year-old high school graduate practising tennis shots against the wall when she is spotted by Gordon (Robert Clarke, also in Outrage). He has a temporary job at the local country/sports club and invites her to play tennis there. Florence is seriously talented and before long is a local junior champion and over the next couple of years becomes a contender for National Women’s Champion at Forest Hills and then at Wimbledon. Her rise to tennis stardom is orchestrated by her mother (Claire Trevor) in cahoots with the oily Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young), an Eastern tennis agent. Both Gordon and Florence’s father Will (Kenneth Patterson, again, also in Outrage) are left struggling in Florence’s wake.

It is when Florence and her mother opt to travel to Europe with backing by Locke through his contacts with hotel chains and other ‘sponsors’ that Gordon, who has proposed to Florence, refuses to follow her. Instead he rails against the sponsorship which threatens her ‘amateur’ status. I was a little surprised by this (and an earlier similar scene on a smaller scale). I remember how tennis, like athletics and rugby always had the important professional v. amateur divide, but I do wonder how American amateurs could afford to travel to London, Paris and Melbourne without some form of sponsorship – presumably through their official federation? The reason why this is a strong element in the film’s plot goes back to John R. Tunis who was a fierce critic of professional sports and the way they were covered by the media. He usually wrote what would now be termed ‘Young Adult’ fiction (his publishers actually pushed him into writing for younger readers) with a strong moral undertow. Many of his books were about baseball and American football but his novel American Girl (1930) and short story Champion’s Choice (1940) were about tennis. By all accounts Tunis was a highly regarded and very well-known writer as well as tennis commentator. It’s unfortunate that the film’s short running time doesn’t allow Tunis’ ideas to be developed in a more organic way. At the end of the film when Florence has ‘repented’ to some extent, she gives an interview about fair play and being a role model to a journalist who is rolling her eyes in disbelief at the fiercely moral line that is being taken.

The sensational poster dreamed up by RKO’s marketing department

The short running time is a feature of The Filmmakers’ films. This was mainly because of limited funding, though in the best films it means a lean and supple narrative. Hard, Fast and Beautiful is one of the films funded and distributed by RKO. According to various sources, Howard Hughes offered The Filmakers around $200,000 per picture but did not interfere in the productions. However, this film certainly shows all the signs of a rushed ending and the narrative almost seems to collapse in the final scenes as Florence performs a volte-face and her mother is left to try to understand what has happened. The quandary for Lupino and Young as The Filmmakers is neatly summed up by the marketing campaign devised by RKO exemplified by the poster above. The imagery and the tagline both oversell and distort what the film has to offer – but on the other hand, RKO muscled the film into cinemas and attracted audiences. However, the film ultimately failed because it actually bears little resemblance to the poster’s suggestions. Hughes organised grand openings for the film in various cities – but The Filmakers picked up the expenses bill and this wiped out their share of any profits.  The Filmmakers’ films have also suffered from the label of ‘B picture’ attached to them by critics and general commentators. I suspect the tag comes mainly because of the short length and the relatively low-budget. But Hard, Fast and Beautiful is not a ‘B’ in conception or execution. Ida Lupino herself associated The Filmakers with the director-producers she named as ‘Independents’ including Stanley Kramer, Robert Rossen and Louis de Rochemont (see below). Using this term suggests a link between Ida Lupino and later ‘American Independents’ like John Sayles.

Florence speaks to her father (Kenneth Patterson)

The film is photographed by Archie Stout who shot Lupino’s first three pictures but is best known for his work with John Ford and edited by William Ziegler (known for work with Hitchcock). The music is by RKO’s film noir master composer Roy Webb and the two art directors, Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey were responsible for the sets on Out of the Past (1947) – in my view the best noir from the 1940s. This is a list of veteran talent that any ‘A’ film production would be lucky to attract. These were hard-bitten Hollywood pros, some of whom were happy to work with The Filmakers more than once because they admired Ida Lupino’s talent and desire to learn as a director.I think a lot of that industry knowledge is up there on the screen. The tennis matches, mostly filmed in California or at Forest Hills are very well put together. I’m no tennis expert, but Sally Forrest was convincing for me. There are many long shots of the courts with cuts to Forrest serving and returning and she certainly hits the ball ‘hard and fast’. Lupino was well-known for her use of location shooting and for her interest in both neo-realism (she met and admired Roberto Rossellini) and in the American form of ‘semi-documentary’ championed by Louis de Rochemont in which crime and ‘social problem’ pictures were shot on location. Lupino probably also followed the career of Mark Hellinger, the producer for whom she worked on They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) and Moontide (1942). In the late 1940s he produced two New York-based films noirs with extensive location shooting, the Jules Dassin directed Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948).

But it is the melodrama which intrigues in Hard, Fast and Beautiful and Lupino must have known instinctively how to direct Forrest and Trevor, having played similar roles herself. In the scene above the mise en scène conveys so clearly the family conflict. Hollywood showed us so many twin beds in married couples’ bedrooms, but I’ve never seen them back to back like this. The divide is very clear and almost doesn’t need dialogue. The film’s script draws on the mother-daughter relationship seen in films like Mildred Pierce (1945) though the roles are reversed to some extent. Mildred has a much stronger story but on the other hand, Ida Lupino and Collier Young present a more realist feel for the situations faced by their characters. Claire Trevor is also a match for Crawford as the mother. I can’t help feeling that if The Filmmakers had had a little more time and a little more money they would have made a fine melodrama.

LIFF#14: Too Late to Die Young (Tarde Para Morir Joven Chile-Arg-Brazil-Netherlands-Qatar 2018)

Sofía (Demian Hernández)

There are all kinds of ‘festival films’. Some are destined for special genre strands, some are début films, some are from star directors and come with promotional material. And then there are films that only seem to make sense in a festival setting. I generally like to watch films ‘cold’ in a festival. Partly, I want to get a sense of how audiences might respond. Too Late to Die Young seems to refer to the rush of growing up and indeed this is a ‘coming of age’ film of sorts with three central characters. The credits told me that it is a festival ‘workshop’ film – a film supported by major festivals and funds such as Sundance, Doha and Hubert Bals Fund on the basis that its 33 year-old director Dominga Sotomayor is ‘one to watch’ and this third feature is being supported for wide festival circulation. My worry is that audiences might struggle to place its story despite some excellent performances.

As the film began I found it difficult to locate the story, partly because of the list of co-production countries. At one point somebody mentions Mendoza which I recognised as a city/region in Argentina, but then more references appeared which pointed towards Chile. But where in Chile? I didn’t know that Ñuñoa is a middle class district on the eastern outskirts of Santiago. The actual setting is a commune up in the hills above the city which can finally be seen in the distance later in the film. But when is the story set? I’ve seen enough Chilean films to know that the Pinochet dictatorship is still a central factor in Chilean narratives but I don’t think there was any direct reference here. The clothes and battered old cars could come from any time in the past thirty years since the community in which they appear is perhaps best described as an ex-hippy arts/crafts/music commune. I should have noticed there weren’t any mobile phones or tablets and that the music seemed to be from the 1980s but it wasn’t until after the screening that I learned that it was meant to be the December (i.e. Summer in Chile) of 1989 or possibly 1990, the year that Pinochet stepped down as dictator of Chile. The film isn’t directly interested in politics as such but it seems odd not to display the contextual references – I must have missed something. I was made sleepy by the langourous feel of parts of the film. I suspect that the reviewers who gave it positive reviews at Locarno and Toronto had detailed press notes. Audiences for a standard release won’t have access in the same way. Now that I’ve read those Press Notes and several other sources it all makes sense. Dominga Sotomayor was judged ‘Best Director’ at Locarno, a festival that is trying to develop its profile as a major festival with a different overall stance to Cannes, Venice etc. Sotomayor is the first female winner at Locarno.

A typical ‘busy’ scene in the commune with characters in foreground, middle ground and background

Dominga Sotomayor was herself brought up in an ‘ecological commune’. Her script is inspired by the real-life events of January 1990 witnessed by the writer-director as a young girl. She was only four or five at the time and as part of her research she watched some VHS tapes of the period shot around the commune. From these came some inspiration for the ‘look’ of the film and also something of the ‘timelessness’ of the narrative. Her principal character is Sofía (Demian Hernández), a young woman of around 16-17. In her first role, Ms Hernández is certainly an arresting presence. Tall and slim with fine cheekbones, long legs and boyish hair she is very striking and seemingly out of reach for her childhood friend Lucas (Antar Machado). She’s already looking out for the older young men who visit the community. Lucas is a budding guitarist and Sofía plays the accordion. Her father is a luthier. Her mother is absent but expected at the New Year’s Eve party which is the endpoint of the narrative. 10 year-old Clara (Magdalena Tótoro) is the third central character, a kind of bridge between the older and younger children in the community. Clara’s pregnant mother is a well-known actor who has to sign autographs when she is out and about.

The younger children play together

I’m certainly in agreement with the reviewers who praise the performances and the cinematography by Inti Briones as well as Dominga Sotomayor’s direction. Although the film is not directly concerned with politics, it is definitely concerned with social class (though the director does not talk about this, so it is my reading rather than a stated intention). This manifests itself in the several ways in which this distinctly middle-class artistic community rubs up against local people in the foothills of the Andes. In one specific example there is a tricky interaction with a family of indigenous people. In other instances the commune suffers break-ins and someone tampers with the water supply. The hinterland of Santiago is not 1960s California and middle-class communes are not universally welcomed. This scenario has echoes in some other Latin American films I’ve seen over the last few years. These artists are not as arrogant and aggressive as the wealthy middle-class ‘Europeans’ in other Latin American narratives but they still represent the colonial/post-colonial ‘masters’.

Sofía with Ignacio on a trip

Too Late to Die Young has been acquired by the UK independent distributor ‘day for night’ (which also acquired Sotomayor’s earlier film Thursday Till Sunday (Chile-Netherlands 2012) so it’s possible it will get a limited release before appearing on DVD. I stick by my comments above re the difficulties the film poses for audiences but as a rather beautiful art film I would recommend Too Late to Die Young, not least for the performance by Demian Hernández who sings her version of ‘Eternal Flame’ by the Bangles (a worldwide hit in 1989). If you can engage with the film’s sense of community, you will have a good time watching it. The Press Notes offer an interesting read after you’ve seen the film. Also useful is this interview recorded at Locarno which reveals something else about the production which I was too dumb to spot immediately, but which will probably become a talking point when the film is released.

 

LIFF#11: Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil, France-Belgium-Georgia 2018)

The Kurdish women fighters led by Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) at the front

Girls of the Sun was screened at Cannes this year as part of the Official Competition. It was one of only three films directed by women in the main competition in this year of #MeToo. Unfortunately, while the other two women (Alice Rohrwacher and Nadine Labaki) were both genuine contenders for the big prize with Happy as Lazzaro and Capernaum, Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun was given something of a ‘thumbs down’ by the Cannes critics. I would like to have refuted their putdown, but I have to admit that the film has flaws (not helped by Screen 5 at the Vue suffering sound problems again).

The ‘girls’ of the title are actually women who have joined the Kurdish military in order to fight to liberate their home town which was taken by Daesh. With their husbands and fathers executed, the women and their children were kidnapped and then the young boys were taken to be trained as Daesh fighters. The women, who subsequently escaped, were then recruited for the fight. It’s a harrowing and important story which deserves to be more widely known – see this report on Kurdish women in the Peshmerga. The film was shot in Georgia and the central role is taken by Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actor who was so good in About Elly (Iran 2009) but who later left for France and who has subsequently appeared in international films. Farahani plays the role of Bahar, the commander of what the promo material calls a ‘batallion’ of female soldiers. In fact by the time the fighting proper begins this appears to be reduced to more like a small squad of less than ten.

Emmanuelle Bercot (with the eyepatch) as Mathilde

Eva Husson, making only her second cinema feature as writer-director makes a number of important strategic decisions which perhaps seemed a good idea at the time but which I think perhaps didn’t quite work out as she planned. First she decided to present her story as a non-linear narrative with a series of flashbacks woven into the main narrative showing how the women were first kidnapped and how some escaped. At the end of the film we saw possibly the same explosion as at the beginning – which Keith suggested meant that everything was actually a flashback to two different time periods. He may well be correct. I confess at the beginning I was trying to cope with the loud and unfortunately distorting soundtrack comprising rather bombastic music scored by Husson’s regular collaborator, the American musician Morgan Kibby. The second choice was to include the character of a French war correspondent Mathilde played by Emmanuelle Bercot (who I last saw in Mon Roi, 2015). Bercot is a powerful figure (with six directorial credits) and in the film’s opening sequence her character seems to be the protagonist. But in time we realise that Mathilde’s role is mainly to observe/witness the story of the female fighters. Since there is a sub-genre of ‘journalist under fire’ pictures with examples from Hollywood, European and ‘international’ cinemas, I found this a little confusing – as if Eva Husson was not quite sure what to do with her character while the audience is expecting the journalist to become an active agent in the narrative. The journalist’s role seems to be partly as listener when Bahar tells the women’s story. She also enables us to see how dangerous war reporting is during this kind of close fighting.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a ‘bad film’. Golshifteh Farahani and the other women are convincing fighters and the action scenes are exciting enough. There is a strong sense of this being the story of women literally observed by a woman and that’s fine. I just had the nagging feeling that it wasn’t working as well as it should. It’s perhaps significant that at one point (or was it soon after the film ended?) I was reminded of the Bollywood action epic earlier this year with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif which imagined a similar scenario with women needing to be rescued from a terrorist stronghold in Iraq. Katrina Kaif’s ‘super spy’ is very impressive in taking out so many black-clad warriors with her choreographed martial arts techniques. This is a very silly film but actually quite entertaining. Girls of the Sun is very serious (rightly so) but a bit clunky by comparison. I remembered later that Agnès Poirier had written an angry piece in the Guardian during the Cannes Festival in which she calls the film exploitative and argues that is not a feminist film since the two lead characters are defined mostly by motherhood rather than by their political activity. She was defending film critics who had called out against the film from the #MeToo activists who blamed poor reviews on male film critics. She has a point but perhaps both sides of the argument need to cool down a bit. Eva Husson’s background suggests an intelligent and talented woman from a family steeped in anti-fascist action. She won’t have attempted to exploit Peshmerga women – but perhaps the script needed a bit more development?

Wajib (Palestine-France-Columbia-UAE-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)

A trip round Nazareth can take you to strange places . . .

Is there any country in the world with a higher batting average in films produced than Palestine? It’s not even technically a country but an occupied land which, as the funding sources listed above indicate, needs all the help it can get. Yet every Palestinian film I’ve seen has been well worth watching and many of them have been excellent. Annemarie Jacir has made three of the best Palestinian features as director, she also writes and produces (see Speed Sisters) and she acted as curator of the ‘Dreams of A Nation’ Palestinian Film Festival in 2002. She’s a phenomenon.

She wrote and directed Wajib and it is a brilliantly conceived narrative with fabulous performance by the two leads, the real-life father and son actors Mohammad and Saleh Bakri. Palestine is a small country with many people and many more living in exile, as refugees or migrants. The West Bank and Gaza are strips of land a few miles across and on the West Bank penetrated by Israeli settlements. So the obvious solution is  . . . a road movie! Not only that, but a road movie set entirely in the Christian Arab community of the small city of Nazareth, the largest Arab city within the state of Israel after its capture by Israeli forces in 1948. This is truly a narrative of a fecund imagination. It’s also unusual as a narrative with a plot that only covers a few hours – though the story depends on events over many years.

Abu Shadi (Mohammad Bakri) with his son Shadi (Saleh Bakri)

The starting point is the ‘wajib’ or ‘duty’ of Abu Shadi in delivering by hand all the invites to his daughter’s wedding on the Saturday before Christmas. Abu Shadi is not a well man and there are a lot of stairs to climb. Fortunately, his son Shadi has arrived from Italy and the two drive slowly around the city in the family’s old Volvo. Everybody needs imagination living as a kind of prisoner in an occupied city. Abu Shadi is a teacher who has seemingly taught most of the young men he meets has had to ‘keep face’ by inventing stories about his son’s life in Italy but now with a son baffled to learn that he’s meant to be something he isn’t, it’s got a lot trickier. Any single man like Shadi is bound to be asked questions about why he hasn’t married and to be offered every eligible daughter.

I wonder if the slightly smaller audience that the film attracted for its single showing in Hebden Bridge was a result of its relatively low-key presentation of the politics of occupation? We are used in the UK to Palestinian films that involve direct conflict with the Israeli state in some way – often through the military or settlers or movement restrictions. Setting the action in Nazareth doesn’t mean that such issues are not important, but that they are expressed in different ways. There is actually a political discourse but in one sense it is developed in quite subtle ways and in another it is played out in the generational difference between father and son and between ‘staying’ and exile/migration.

The bride Amal (Maria Zreik) tries on dresses for the wedding

I can imagine a similar film being described as a ‘bitter-sweet comedy’ and Wajib does have many small moments of humour, mostly arising from the interactions with friends and relatives who receive the invites. The father-son relationship also functions as a universal story so you don’t need to know that much about life in Nazareth to appreciate the film, but it is so much richer if you delve through the small incidents for their deeper meanings. The father-son relationship does reach a climactic moment which is confidently handled and the film ends at what for me was the perfect moment. To avoid spoilers I haven’t discussed the other characters – present or absent – but be assured there is plenty to enjoy across 95 minutes. Annemarie Jacir’s previous film, When I Saw You (2012) is a must see and is fortunately available in the UK on DVD. Saleh Bakri appears in a lead role in that film and also in Salt of this Sea (2008) which is only on a Region 1 DVD.

SPOILER! The trailer below starts of well, giving a good sense of the ‘feel’ of the film – but then gives away an important plot point. You’ve been warned!

LIFF#3: A Squandered Sunday (Zabitá nedele, Czechoslovakia 1969)

vlcsnap-2015-07-27-22h00m54s113

To be or not

This film took 20 years to be seen because the post-’68 Soviet-backed Czechslovakia government unsurprisingly didn’t like it. The film was Drahomíra Vihanová’s feature debut and the political fallout meant she only directed two more fiction films and they were after the end of the Cold War; she died two years ago. The film is based on Jiří Křenek’s autobiographical story, about a bored officer who wakes with a hangover regretting he’d spent all his money boozing, who spends the day wallowing in self pity.

Although he doesn’t do anything all day the film is incident packed with banality: swatting flies, killing rats, affectionately chatting to a young girl (a neighbour). Although the film is not expressionist, it is a representation of Arnost’s (Ivan Palúch) mental state which, in the days when going to church was the prime Sunday activity, was unlikely to be full of joie de vivre particularly with a regretted hangover. It’s part of the Time Frame strand of LIFF2018 where the films’ plots cover no more than 24 hours; though A Squandered Sunday chronology is sometimes confusing. The film starts with a memory of his mother’s funeral and a statement – by a girlfriend? – that he is ‘too far way’. This ‘far awayness’, it becomes clear, is ennui, not one precipitated solely by middle age but also by the Soviet invasion of 1968. Flashbacks to military lectures about nuclear annihilation give Arnost’s ennui a political dimension. When he wakes up Arnost puts on his radio and hears of natural disasters in Italy and Morocco. Clearly, it isn’t just his life that is shit.

Vihanová doesn’t present this in a straightforward way; after all everything is filtered through the disturbed consciousness of Arnost. He looks out of his window several times and there’s always a dog digging a hole next to a blind man. Or is it the same moment many times? She also favours Eisensteinean montage of repeating the same event in rapid succession. Confusion is fed by the repeating shot of the young woman we saw at the start who is mirrored by the young pre-pubescent neighbour and the middle-aged barmaid who wants to marry him. Are they the same person or three ages of women or three characters? Answer: probably all three.

This uncertainty, along with the formal devices, situate Squandered Sunday firmly in the Czech ‘new wave’ and, in a scene where Arnost finds himself interrogating two female sunbathers who’d wandered onto military property, it’s as if the protagonists of Daisies have shown up to wreak more havoc. Their sexy irreverence plant Arnost into even more misery. The absurdism of the film is typically Czech and is perfect for puncturing the self-importance of officialdom. In the UK this was likely to be couched in humour, such as the Carry On series, but in Czechoslovakia it was much more painful as it has an existential edge that although you can laugh you know it won’t cure anything.

There a number of translations of the title. The subtitles at the screening suggested A Wasted Sunday, others include Deadly Sunday and Killing a Sunday. It doesn’t matter what it’s called, it is a classic of the Czech new wave.

LFF 2018 #5: Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice, Italy-Switz-France-Germany 2018)

Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) and Tancredi (Luca Chikovani)

Happy as Lazzaro was the joint winner of the script prize at Cannes this year. It’s due to arrive in the UK in the Spring of 2019, I think. I don’t usually book to see films like this which are sure to be released widely, but this screening was in the right place at the right time and the writer-director Alice Rohrwacher was present to introduce and discuss her film. Ms Rohrwacher is as entertaining a speaker as her films are life-affirming and very wonderful. There are no spoilers below but I hope I can whet your appetite for this glorious piece of film magic.

I’ve seen and enjoyed both of the director’s first two films and she appears to be most interested in characters who are in one sense ‘marginal’ but also ‘magical’ in that they attract attention, usually in a positive sense, at least for the underprivileged. Corpo Celeste (2011) focuses on a young girl who arrives back in Southern Italy after 10 years away and confronts her church and family at the time of her first communion. The Wonders (2014) also focuses on a young girl who is the most dynamic member of a group of migrant smallholders in the countryside around Viterbo in Central Italy. Happy as Lazzaro is set in the same region.

The marquesa (Nicoletta Braschi) and her entourage cross the river to get to the village

Lazzaro is a young man of 19 or 20 who lives in an isolated community – a village in the hills cut off from the world when a road bridge collapses. Around fifty people live in this isolated spot, working the land and producing cash crops for the landowner, a Marquesa known as the ‘Tobacco Queen’. Tobacco leaves and the other crops are transported to market with great difficulty every few months and life in the village goes on undisturbed. Lazzaro is almost angelic in appearance with wide open eyes and a ready smile. He will do anything for anybody and is consequently exploited by all the villagers, but he doesn’t seem to mind and since there is no wealth held by the villagers, it is only his time and energy that is used. But when the Marquesa comes to the village to stay in the crumbling villa for a few days, bringing her son Tancredi, roughly the same age as Lazzaro, the two develop an odd friendship with the naïve Lazzaro agreeing to Tancredi’s suggestions. When the ‘inciting incident’ takes place it is a long way into the narrative and, in the unusual structuring of events, this incident changes the feel and tone of the film completely.

I’m not going to spoil the narrative and I hope you can manage to see the film without any knowledge of what might happen, so that you can enjoy the full experience of what is a marvellous film. All I’ll say is that there are elements of what some might call ‘magic realism’ with the intervention of a wolf. Wolves have been ‘re-wilded’ in several parts of Europe but in Italy the original wolf population survived attempts at extermination and they now number around 500 along the ‘spine’ of the Apennines. This means that the wolf that appears could be ‘real’ or metaphorical and that’s perhaps the key to the fantastical elements in this film. In the Press Notes, Alice Rohrwacher tells us:

Lazzaro Felice is the story of a lesser sanctity, with no miracles, no powers or superpowers, without­­ special­­ effects.­ It ­is­ the­ sanctity­ of­ living­ in­ this­­ world­­ without­ thinking­ ill­ of­ anyone­ and­ simply­­ believing­ in­­ human­ beings.­­ Because­ another­ way­ was­­ possible,­ the­ way­ of­­ goodness,­ which­ men­ have­­ always­­ ignored­ but­ which­­ always­ ­reappears­ to­ question­ them.­ Like­­ something­ that ­might­ have­ been­ but­ that­ we’ve­ never­ ever­ wanted.

Lazzaro is the figure of sanctity and what he eventually does is to expose exploitation and the new inequality in Italy between the urban rich and the rural poor, between those with material wealth and those without (including the migrant communities). The film doesn’t lecture us but instead initially entrances us and then reveals a harsh reality.

Lazzaro in the city

The film depends heavily on the central performance by the remarkable Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro. There seems to be a slight difference between the Press Notes and what Alice Rohrwacher told us in the Q&A, but I think it’s clear that Tardiolo is a young man discovered in a college in Orvieto with no acting experience and initially no real desire to appear in a film. It might be supposed that it was relatively straightforward to ask him to smile all the time and say very little, but I think there must be much more to it than that and the performance under Rohrwacher’s direction is absolutely convincing. During the Q&A a confident questioner told the director that she was drawing on the work of three famous Italian directors (which he named) and asked her to comment on why she chose them. She replied with a smile that she had been told by many people that she had drawn on a whole long list of famous Italian directors and proceeded to name several. Happy as Lazzaro is completely an Alice Rohwacher film but several scenes do remind us of the history of Italian cinema and in particular the impact of neo-realism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The technical credits for the film also suggest a conscious attempt to remind us of an earlier period of cinema. The mostly female crew (including Hélène Louvart as cinematographer) were working with Super 16mm film. Alice Rohrwacher says this, “wasn’t made for reasons of style or nostalgia but out of enchantment with a fantastic technology­ that influences­ one’s­ method­ of­ working”. But she did decide to use a slightly cropped version of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio common as a widescreen compromise in European cinema. The film is listed as ‘1.63:1’ with the corners masked as rounded, suggesting a technique from silent cinema. The other intriguing aspect of the production is that tempesta, the main production company (of producer Carlo Cresto-Dina), used new production techniques:

. . . ‘EcoMuvi’, ­the­ protocol ­of­ environmental­ ­sustainability for­ the­ film­­ industry­ ­created­ by­ tempesta.­ EcoMuvi,­ first ­in­ Europe,­ is­ a­ real­“ ­production­ process”­ that­ can­ ­indicate­ the­ best solutions to achieve energy savings and environmental sustainability­ in­ film­ production.­ Not­ just­ compensation­ but­ an­active­ step-by-step­ procedure­ to­make­ films­ with­ lighter­ impact­ on­ our­ planet.­ Thanks­ to­ Ecomuvi­ 10­ tons­ of ­CO2 were saved in pre-production and production.

Happy as Lazzaro gave me one of the most enjoyable and encouraging afternoons in a cinema that I experienced in a very long time. The trailer is careful not to spoil the narrative surprises.

LFF 2018 #1: Crystal Swan (Khrustal, Belarus-Russia-Germany-US 2018)

Velya (Alina Nasibullina) in a flea market in Minsk

The first of this year’s London Film Festival offerings that I was able to catch was introduced by a festival advisor as something exotic – a film from Belarus. And indeed, Belarus does produce very few films. It’s very much an ‘in between’ part of the world – in between Poland and Russia, the Baltic states and Ukraine. Throughout history it seems to have been occupied by its neighbours and the present state dates only from the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. It is known for its autocratic president in power since 1994 and has some of the lowest international standings for press freedom and general democracy indicators. A place to get away from perhaps? That is certainly true for the film’s protagonist Velya (Alina Nasibullina). The year is 1996 and Velya, a young woman in her early 20s is determined to acquire a US visa, allowing her to travel to Chicago, the home of ‘house music’. Velya is a law graduate but would prefer to be a DJ rather than practise law.

During a spirited intro and a Q&A after the screening the seemingly appreciative audience learned that the writer-director Darya Zhuk was actually drawing on her own experiences in the 1990s. She did get to the US to study film and has now been able to find funding outside the state system to make her début feature. Crystal Swan was programmed by LFF in its ‘Laugh’ strand. I find these strands annoying and often misleading. I certainly smirked a few times and might even have laughed out loud on occasion, but this isn’t what I would see as a simple comedy. Instead it is more akin to the kind of social satire that is often found in Eastern European cinema and I was reminded of several films, but most of all a Romanian film from 2011, Adalbert’s Dream. That film was set in 1986 before the end of Soviet-style communism but the social satire is similar.

The basic premise of the plot is that Velya attempts to forge a letter presented to the US Embassy purporting to confirm that she is a manager at a small crystalware glass factory (she buys a letterhead for the factory’s stationery). But she makes a mistake with the phone number of the factory and when the Embassy official tells her that they will phone the factory to confirm details, she realises the hole she has fallen into. She must travel to the town known as ‘Crystal’ and find the house with the telephone fitting the number on her application and attempt to intercept the Embassy’s call. Cue general mayhem in small-town Belarus, where the household in question is preparing for the wedding of the son of the house. Just like weddings in the North of England, a wedding in Belarus brings out the best and the worst of guests, especially when fuelled by vodka.

I was engaged by the film and I enjoyed it up to a point. There aren’t many dull moments and most of the time there is genuine vitality in the storytelling. For a début film it works well and there is a great performance in the lead role. Alina Nasibullina is intelligent, attractive and vivacious with her colourful outfits, but the narrative includes very dark moments as well as moments of slapstick and good humour. In this sense it is a film for the #MeToo generation. Darya Zhuk told us that when she accompanied film screenings in the East of Belarus (i.e. closer to Russia) she did get a significant number of negative comments (about insulting the Motherland), but when she screened the film in the capital Minsk and in the West of the country it was generally well-received. This makes sense. The script doesn’t pull punches. The men in Crystal behave badly after too much vodka and there is an odd sub-plot involving Velya’s mother (the curator of a Minsk museum celebrating the success of Minsk’s population in the fight against the Nazis) and Velya’s dopehead boyfriend. During the Q&A the film’s supporters were vocal in their praise and I suspect Crystal Swan might do well in the US. I doubt it will get a UK release but you never can tell. The title, by the way, refers to one of the products of the factory which since independence has laid off workers and paid compensation in the form of glassware. The only real hope in the film is that the youngest boy in the Crystal family may turn out OK. Otherwise the film has an open ending.

As the trailer below indicates, the film is presented in Academy ratio. I think the director said she thought this was appropriate to re-produce the way she saw things in the 1990s before TVs in Belarus went widescreen. The trailer also features the bright and optimistic colours that Velya wears.

Some Reflections on Agnès Varda and Visages, villages (Faces, places, France 2017)

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Figure 1: Visages villages (2017)

[This review does discuss the film’s events in some detail, including its conclusion.]

Agnès Varda’s latest film, Visages, villages (2017), is a collaboration with the artist-photographer, JR. It brings to life again the cinema she has described herself as a ‘cinéma d’auteur-témoin’, an ambiguous phrase which can be loosely translated as the ‘cinema of the author-as-witness.’ Varda discussed how she felt uncomfortable with the word, ‘auteur’, presumably recognising its cultural resonances in relation to the figure of the filmmaker filtered through the French New Wave critics’ imagination; a person who authors the text and controls a vision, through images and sound.

One of Varda’s auteurist traits has been a control of bringing other voices into her films and a deep empathy for her subjects. Her films have been consistently celebrated as they represent a different, more apparently inclusive form of cinema.  She came to a much wider audience with Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) an odyssey through the French countryside and cities sharing and witnessing as to the activity of gleaning from the waste that others throw away. The heart-shaped potato became a powerful symbol from that film, representing the mountains of allegedly misshapen potatoes that the supermarket buyers leave behind as too unappealing to go on their shelves. Varda, through her technique of juxtaposition effects, in Mireille Rosello’s words, a ‘surrealist encounter between the word heart and the dull potato’, creating a new set of associations. The abandoned potatoes are a metaphor for the people that she meets that somehow sit outside of society or are ‘misshapen’ in terms of normal ways of living.  As with her potato art installation (Figure 2), she gives them space within her film to tell their stories, to show their accomplishments and creativity and to interact with Varda who happily stages these encounters so that they are entertaining and often very moving. Varda understands that what she is doing should appear effortless, almost ‘throw-away’ in its own technique; however, her work is tightly constructed as a piece of performance art. The little old lady she has played in her later documentaries has created a receptive context for drawing performances out of her contributors.

Later in the film, Varda films her own ageing skin (then at seventy-eight years old) and comments on the ‘horror’ of this process. Her wish to acknowledge her ageing is present in her trademark two-tone hair colour.  Varda’s deep empathy and understanding shown by her interviews and revelations generated many personal letters by return, where audiences sent her stories and images based on the heart-shaped potatoes. It was acknowledgement of how many of us feel we may really fit that allegedly marginal, misshapen category.

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Figure 2: Les glaneur et la glaneuse (2000). Ciné-Tamaris.

Similar in its structure, Visages, villages (Faces, Places (2017)) moves into slightly different territory through a collaboration with fellow artist, JR.  At ninety years old, one might presume that Varda was bringing in a companion to take away some of the burden of artistic control. In fact, this is another development of her ‘cinema d’auteur-témoin’ and a vibrant intellectual interaction between them through the film. The project arose out of the sympathetic strands of their individual projects between the young photographer-artist and the nonagenarian. JR undertakes his own kinds of odyssey in his work, making poster portraits of ordinary people in his travelling photo studio. These images are then placed on structures that relate to the subjects and their experiences. The French title, Visages, Villages indicates their plan to visit only villages on the trip (and also recalls Varda’s consistent love of rhythm and rhyme in her writing for the cinema, especially her voiceovers). The film foregrounds another series of moving testimonies, such as the image of the last inhabitant still in place in the mining village (Figure 1 above), the image of the women who work closely with their husbands at the dockyard or the face of Varda’s early model and friend, Guy Bourdin, who himself went on to be a photographer.

Varda and JR’s relationship is staged onscreen, but there is an affecting conviviality and mutual respect, often indicated by the insults directed towards each other. They joust pleasantly over a running joke about JR removing his glasses. This, as is pointed out, triggers a memory for Varda of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s propensity never to remove his glasses. Godard was a close associate of hers as part of the French New Wave, introduced to her by Jacques Demy, Varda’s future husband at the time. She has described Godard as the ‘chercheur‘, the seeker, a word she repeats on camera here and as containing a genius situated in his deep silence, a stillness that keeps him separate from others. Varda managed to persuade Godard to reveal his ‘sad eyes’, for a short film she made, Les Fiancés de Pont Macdonald (1961). It is the film that Cléo/Florence (Corinne Marchand)) and her friend, Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) watch together through the projectionist’s window at the cinema during their Parisian car jaunt in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962).

Travelling marks many of Varda’s films. Her early films reflected her travels, after leaving home as a young women, to the south coast of France. Varda mended nets with fishermen and lived amongst them; her first feature, La Pointe-Courte (1955) records the rhythm of the lives of fishermen and their families in Sète (alongside a more surreal narrative). Varda, living in Paris, pursued topics in and among her neighbours, including L’opéra-Mouffe (1958), Daguerréotypes (1976), Ulysse (1982) and Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988)Varda went with Demy to Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s, as part of joint explorations with Hollywood studios, where she made the essay film, Oncle Yanco (1967) and the surrealist, erotic fantasy Lions Love ( . . . and Lies) (1969).  She returned to L.A. in the early  1980s, and made the short fiction Documenteur (1981) and the essay film Mur Murs (1981). In both instances, there were failed negotiations regarding projects with the American studios.

Varda’s travels, therefore, have become an integral part of her biographical and artistic narrative, continued in her third age with her television series, Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011), where she travels to other countries and encounters other people, including other artists. (Other artists have long before featured in her work, including Ydessa Hendeles’ Teddy Bear Project in Ydessa, les ours et etc (2004). Each episode of this television series began with a short verse outlining the impetus for travel, being the pruning of the trees in her courtyard at Rue Daguerre, the home she has lived in for over sixty years. The title sequence joke runs that by the time they have returned, the tree need pruning again.

In the same way, Visages villages is concerned with movement in space and questions of time and memory (a preoccupation across Varda’s work). Going on the road with another artist enables her to extend the possibilities, creating a dynamic between two ‘auteur-témoin(s)’, both sharing a fascination with the lives of others. JR is a good match for Varda, both enjoying playing with ephemera and playing with whimsical commentary. Delving into people’s histories and working in temporary materials means that time as a subjective medium is very prevalent in the film. JR’s art installations are temporary posters which will only survive until the elements wash or wear them away. His creations are always destined to be destroyed by the weather. This is particularly brutal in the case of a recovered Varda photograph of Guy Bourdin, memorialised on a beach by JR.  Its complete disappearance by the next day reminds us how much these two artists are working with time and what passes – through travelling, gleaning and recycling. It becomes less about image being constructed and more about the new practice made by JR and Varda and their interplay in the moment of recreating the photo. All that remains is the photographic and filmed record of their work together and their group photograph at its completion.

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Figure 3: Les plages d’Agnès (2008). Ciné-Tamaris.

Varda comments in Visages villages on the workings of the ‘mise-en-abyme’, which is appropriate to this and other moments in the film, when we are looking at the subjects inside or in front of the images of themselves (as in Figure 1). In some ways, it appears as if they are standing inside their own past selves. It is a trope very familiar in Varda because of her fascination with the passing of time and how we relate to our former selves. At the end of Les plages d’Agnès, she sits in her house on Rue Daguerre with her eighty brooms, delivered for her birthday by friends and neighbours. She comments at this point, the moment is already gone, as the filmed image recedes in upon itself (Figure 3).

The loose structure of Visages villages does disguise one underlying narrative, based on an echo of the past into the present, which is the movement towards visiting Godard created by his resemblance to JR. In the last scene, at Godard’s house in Switzerland, a planned visit is thwarted by the French New Wave legend’s unavailability. Godard appears to be playing against the role Varda has made up for him; he does not want to appear as part of someone else’s odyssey. He has written a message on his porch window, referring to his condolence note to Varda on the death of her husband, Jacques Demy. The note recalled happier times, dining together with Demy, placing a very personal note in the public space (window and film).

This moment could be part of the narrative construct; perhaps Varda anticipated he would not be willing to appear on camera. However, she is clearly deeply upset and takes several moments to verbally accept what Godard has done. Varda onscreen in her later films has been, in her playful words, the ‘little old lady’; however, one who has performed her unassuaged grief at Demy’s loss (in 1992), a grief she has turned into art to bear witness to an experience we all have had or will suffer. Les veuves de Noirmoitier (2006),

Other echoes in respect of Demy enter the current film. Varda filmed Demy, shortly before his death, during Les plages d’Agnès (2008), following the contours of his face and focussing on his eye.  Varda is gleaning parts of him, capturing them on film, before she loses him forever (Figure 4). Exhibiting these fragmented images in the film accentuates the loss, being all she has of Demy now.

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Figure 4: Les plages d’Agnès (2008)

Artistically, a new echo is created in Visages villages when JR photographs Varda in close-up, taking her eyes and her feet. He places these images on a train, so that she can continue her odyssey to places she cannot go to now she is the age she is.  However, this strikes a new emotional note. It is not a capturing or preserving of someone who is disappearing; instead, it affirms and celebrates his witnessing of her intellectual vigour. It sends Varda off, in virtual form, to continue to look and to travel and to create ‘surrealist encounters’, just like the one they have enjoyed together as artists. [SPOILER] JR’s removal of his glasses, brilliantly executed by the camerawork (having spoilt that part, I will avoid a further technical spoiler), is the perfect narrative conclusion as if devised from the start, having guessed at Godard’s unavailability. However, the warmth of their relationship, his obvious distress at her distress, makes the moment completely emotionally engaging as well as providing a satisfying conclusion. If Godard is to be known as a chercheur, then Varda deserves the sobriquet equally, still producing her intellectually demanding meditations on time, memory and our relationships to each other. JR knew he had to run – intellectually just to keep up.

References

Conway, K. (2010). ‘Agnès Varda at Work’, Studies in French Cinema,  10(2), pp.125-139.

Murray, R. (2015). ‘The Significance of Agnès Varda’s Old Lady Onscreen.’ in Jermyn, D. and Homes, S, (eds). Freeze-frame. Women, Celebrity & Cultures of Ageing. (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan).

Rosello, M. (2006). ‘Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady’, Studies in French Cinema, 1(1), pp.29-36.

Ryder, K. (2016) ‘A Piercing View of the Twentieth Century, Through the Eyes of the Teddy Bear’, The New Yorker.