Here’s a film made by a creative team comprising mainly women with impressive credits from a range of critically acclaimed productions. For writer-director Ninja Thyberg this is her début feature after several years of research and short film productions. (Peter Modestij is credited as co-writer.) Thyberg’s fellow Swede, Sofia Kappel the young star of the film, makes her first film appearance. It’s a European co-production but made in English and focuses on a young woman attempting to become a star in the Los Angeles porn industry. The film has been screened to some acclaim at various festivals including Sundance and Cannes and is now being distributed in the UK and Ireland by MUBI. In the UK, the BBFC have given the film an 18 Certificate for cinema screenings and the film was shown in a cinema the night before it began streaming. The reviews of the film seem generally positive as do the ‘user ratings’ on MUBI, but I suspect that audiences who are less aware of what they have chosen to see may find it less to their taste.
Linnéa (using the name ‘Bella Cherry’) arrives in Los Angeles and sets out to make her way in the LA porn industry. The film’s title is of course ironic. “Pleasure” is Bella’s response to the Passport Control question about whether she is entering the country for ‘Business or Pleasure’. She soon seeks out an agent and prepares for her first shoot as an 18 year-old in a scene with a “semi-middle aged man”. She moves in with two other young women in the same business in what is termed as a ‘model house’. At first she is wary of her house companions but soon makes friends with them, especially with Joy and Ashley. At her next shoot, she also meets Ava who seems more stand-offish. Bella learns that Ava is a ‘Spiegler girl’ – a woman associated with the leading porn producer in LA. The narrative will then focus primarily on Bella, Joy and Eva. Bella’s determination to get to the top means she will have to seek out jobs in which she will be expected to perform in the hardest and most extreme forms of porn. She will take dangerous steps in order to do this and it will be painful in various ways, including testing her relationships with Joy and Ava. The narrative’s resolution is probably best described as ‘open’ in terms of the goal Bella has set herself.
I streamed the film and there were a couple of scenes I did find very difficult to watch. I then found the French Press Pack on UniFrance and, assisted by Google Translate, I found it a useful guide to the stated intentions of Ninja Thyberg and the experiences of Sofia Kappel. Thyberg tells us that she began as an anti-porn feminist activist at 16 (in 2000) but then studied film and gradually realised that instead of fighting against porn she could attempt to make different, alternative stories about it. She did make a short film about a porn film shoot titled Pleasure in 2013 that won a prize at Cannes, but the current feature was developed from 2014 onwards involving extensive research into the LA porn industry. The Press Pack material makes interesting reading and answers many questions about the film. The central statement, picked up by many reviewers is that the film is not about women as victims. The film does not focus on “Why does this young woman want to be a porn star?”, but instead on “What does she get from the experience?”. I confess that the ‘Why question’ was something that occurred to me. There is a sequence when Bella phones home to talk to her mother in Sweden. It appears that her mother thinks Linnea has an internship of some sort. Linnea is upset on the phone but her mother gives her sensible advice. Bella is not portrayed as a victim but Thyberg doesn’t want to explain exactly what drives Bella to take the steps she does. There seems to be a sense that Linnea is a young Swedish woman exploring what the American dream as a personal narrative might mean. Thyberg admits that Sofia Kappel is from a new generation that thinks and behaves differently than she did as a 20 year-old. It’s even more difficult for those much older, such as this reviewer, to understand!
When a film is about pornography, the inevitable questions are about whether the sexual acts depicted are ‘real’ or simulated. In this case, Thyberg used porn actors for many of the roles (arguing that they were actually better in the roles than mainstream actors). The scenes we see involve only simulated sex and they are shot in such a way that we don’t see any examples of what in porn is termed a ‘money shot’. Thyberg says she wanted to employ a ‘female gaze’, so while there are many nude shots of genitalia, both male and female in preparation for a shoot, the sexual acts themselves conform to mainstream conventions of what can be shown. But don’t mainstream representations objectify women in sex scenes? Here’s an extract from the Ninja Thyberg interview in the Press Pack:
In the film, Bella objectifies herself. She creates an image of a sexual object. To tell this story I myself had to objectify her. The challenge was to ensure that the film always took her side. It had to be faithful and honest to her.
I think I know what she means but this is surely something to be debated. ‘Real sex’ in any part of the film would mean an ‘R18’ certificate in the UK, allowing only screenings in licensed sex cinemas or sold through sex shops to adults only. Thyberg’s film includes an almost procedural study of the porn industry at work, including the consent forms and contracts etc. The film is straightforward in presenting the issues and debates around how it works. As an industry, porn in LA has shrunk somewhat with the explosion of access to free online porn. Thyberg argues that she did attempt make the shoots more colourful and bright than they might have been, she didn’t want to make pornography herself. At the same time her aesthetic decisions do not mask any of the harsh realities of the industry – which the porn actors and producers who appear in the film seem to have accepted. The only male character in the film who has a developed role is played by the Black performer Chris Cock. He, along with Joy and Ashley provide some humanity outside the circus of shoots and parties.
I can’t say I enjoyed the film. It only fleetingly felt erotic. Occasionally it is funny, mostly it is wince inducing. Even so, I’m glad I watched it and read the interviews which made me think about a wide range of issues. I am baffled by the attraction of the LA porn industry’s products as presented here. MUBI has streamed a range of ‘erotic films’ as part of its streaming offer, some recent, some from the archives. Many of these are quite boring I think, some are enjoyable if not profound and occasionally there are films that are important in making statements. The Argentinian feature The Daughters of Fire (2018) discussed on this blog is one such film and Pleasure may be another. It is intelligently thought through as a project and technically very good. I was intrigued to see that the film was shot by Sophie Winqvist whose work I admired on the very different Clara Sola (Costa Rica-Sweden 2021). Editor Olivia Neergaard-Holm has credits on other successful titles such as Victoria (Germany 2015) and Border (Sweden-Denmark 2018). The music by Karl Frid and Costume Design by Anna Wing Yee Lee are other major features of the film, but both a little beyond my understanding in this case. Finally, I must commend Sofia Kappel’s stunning performance as Linnéa/Bella – and Ninja Thyberg’s direction of her mix of actors from the mainstream and porn industries. Here’s a trailer designed to be suitable for a mainstream audience:
Australian Cinema has had periods of both innovation and exploration, as well as periods of stagnation, since the first films were produced in the early 1900s. Currently there is a distinct development with the increase of films made by Indigenous filmmakers about the lives of Indigenous characters, both contemporary and historical. The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell is the latest example of an Indigenous film reflecting on colonial history in Australia. In doing so it takes us back to some of the earliest Australian films that have been compared to American ‘Westerns’. These were, in Australian terms, ‘bushranger films’ and the earliest of these was the Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906. Like the American West, Australia in the second half of the 19th century and on into 1920s was a difficult territory to police, even after the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901.
Bushrangers were ‘outlaws’ and Australia also experienced ‘gold rushes’, cattle drives and conflicts between settlers and Indigenous peoples. In Australian films up to at least the 1970s (and arguably much later), Indigenous characters were usually portrayed either as ‘exotic’ figures in the landscape, poor communities in shanty towns, children in mission schools or trackers working for the police – familiar ‘social types’ in both American and Australian ‘Westerns’. In the last few years more radical films have appeared with Indigenous characters central to the narrative and a serious intent to explore colonial issues of racism and exclusion. Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country (Australia 2017) is set in the late 1920s while Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale (Australia 2018) is set in the 1820s in Tasmania. Both films got a limited UK release and Sweet Country has been shown on UK TV. The contemporary TV crime series Mystery Road initiated by Ivan Sen has some links to the historical narratives and has also been seen on UK TV. David Gulpilil, who died in 2021, was perhaps the major Indigenous star actor and he appeared in several films which explored aspects of of Australian history featuring significant Indigenous characters. The one most relevant to the discussion here would be The Tracker (Australia 2002), set, like Sweet Country in the 1920s and featuring Gulpilil as a tracker working for the police searching for an Indigenous man accused of murdering a white woman.
Leah Purcell is a proud Goa-Gungarri-Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland. She is an internationally acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, director, novelist and actor and a cultural icon and activist, whose work stands at the forefront of the Black and Indigenous cultural renaissance and protest movement sweeping Australia and the world. Australian Financial Review named Purcell as one of Australia’s Top 10 culturally influential people because ‘she allows white audiences to see from an Aboriginal perspective’. (from Press Pack for The Drover’s Wife)
The Drover’s Wife was initially a short story by Henry Lawson, first published in a magazine in 1892. Lawson is one of the best-known Australian poets and fiction writers, especially in relation to ‘bush stories’. The story has been re-worked many times since and in 1945 a painting by Russell Drysdale was given the same title and appears to present the woman of the story depicted against the wild country (although the artist denied this). The short story offers only the initial scene in the film in which the woman and her children are threatened by a wild animal (a snake in the original story). The woman’s struggle in the story and the painting were long seen as representing the white settler’s attempt to survive in the harsh conditions of the ‘bush’. Leah Purcell extended the story in her stage play and now in her film offers a rich and complex narrative about a woman and her historical role viewed through the lens of Indigenous story-telling. The film follows what happens over the next few months to Molly Johnson and her children.
Purcell manages to include the racism and exclusion directed towards Indigenous people, the social class hierarchy of Victorian England, the nascent suffrage movement and the ‘stealing’ of Indigenous children. All of this is offered in the genre context of a Western with Mark Wareham’s photography of the Snowy Mountains and Salliana Seven Campbell’s very effective score. I think all the performances are good and especially Malachi Dower-Roberts as the young Danny Johnson.
The film’s narrative has a complex structure and also includes several ‘reveals’ that I don’t wish to spoil. It is necessary, however, to explain that Purcell uses devices such as flashbacks/flashforwards, ‘dream figures’ and occasions when edits seem to confuse the meaning of certain scenes. Her commitment to Indigenous storytelling may also create questions about the final sequence which acts as an epilogue. On a second viewing I noticed a number of metaphors including for instance the animal which threatens the family in the opening of the story. The snake has become a bullock, which for me symbolises the alien intrusion of a non-indigenous beast brought by settlers in order to fully exploit the land they have stolen.
This film has been described as an ‘Indigenous feminist Western’ and Purcell has created a secondary but parallel narrative about the young wife of the district’s new police sergeant. Both the sergeant and Louisa, his wife, are newly arrived from England. Louisa is a proto-feminist character, concerned about the widespread domestic abuse handed out by male settlers towards their wives. She’s determined to publish a women’s newsletter and to build a campaign. I don’t know whether this is historically accurate for the 1890s but it enables Purcell to set up the question of white feminism and whether it is possible for Louisa to ‘give a voice’ to Indigenous women. Molly Johnson has her own ‘voice’ and she intends it to be heard. Just as important, the extended story that Purcell puts onscreen also includes the issue of ‘stolen children’, the attempt by the authorities to take the children of mixed race families and to select those with least ‘Indigenous blood’ to be brought up as white children in foster homes (while ‘darker’ children are trained as servants). This practice is the central focus of Rabbit-Proof Fence (Australia 2002), set in the 1930s but only properly being discussed some sixty years later in the 1990s. The Drover’s Wife is certainly a narrative rich in questions and challenges for audiences, not just in Australia but everywhere experiencing exclusion an inequalities, i.e. most definitely the UK and US. But it’s also an exciting and engaging popular narrative. Its use of familiar conventions from Hollywood Westerns is effective and helps audiences outside Australia to begin to explore the colonial legacy of British settler culture.
The Drover’s Wife is a début film. It’s asking a lot to script, direct and star in your first feature but I think that Leah Purcell pulls it off with real passion and commitment. Initially released by Modern Films on just 37 prints in May, the film has slowly moved around the UK and Ireland. It appears to have a traditional release pattern and will be available to stream in August in the UK. Modern Films are also committed to supporting local independent venues through ‘various events’ so it’s worth checking out their website. The Drover’s Wife is definitely worth looking out for but do try and catch it in a cinema on the big screen if you can. In the US, The Drover’s Wife will be released by Samuel Goldwyn Films in August 2022.
This is a shortish (77 minutes) suspense thriller made for RKO by The Filmakers, the independent production company founded by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. The film was shot in just 18 days in July/August 1951 but delayed by RKO for a year. This followed a pattern given the eccentric behaviour of Howard Hughes as the owner of RKO. On Dangerous Ground, which like this film starred Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, had similarly been delayed. One suggestion is that Hughes as part of his enthusiastic support for the communist witch hunt of the HUAC years was reluctant to release a film with Ryan whom he saw as a leftist. Lupino, a staunch Democrat managed to avoid trouble but she was friends with many of those hounded as communists. At this point she had directed four films for The Filmakers but she argued for Harry Horner to take the directorial role. Horner was a Czech émigré who had arrived in the US in the mid 1930s with Max Rheinhardt and eventually entered Hollywood as a set designer, winning two Oscars. He’d worked for Lupino as Production Designer on Outrage (1950). Beware, My Lovely was actually his first feature but because of the delayed release, his second feature came out first. It appears that Lupino did actually direct a couple of scenes when Horner’s wife was in hospital.
Beware, My Lovely is an adaptation, by the original writer Mel Dinelli, of his Broadway play ‘The Man’ (1950). The play had begun as a radio drama in 1945 and it saw further radio and stage productions, a short story version in 1949 and later TV drama adaptations. Dinelli was no stranger to suspense thrillers or what would later be termed films noirs. He had worked as a writer on The Spiral Staircase (1946) with Robert Siodmak, The Reckless Moment (1949) with Max Ophüls and House by the River (1950) with Fritz Lang. All three directors were associated with the German film industry of the early 1930s) and all three films are concerned with a house as the location for suspense. All are also associated with film noir. Inevitably perhaps, Beware, My Lovely has been seen as a noir, probably because of the Lupino-Ryan casting, but there are other ways to think about it in genre terms. The film was made mainly on the RKO lot and although the RKO designer Albert D’Agostino is credited, Horner probably had a lot to do with the set and its presentation. It uses part of the house set built for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). The presentation is also influenced by cinematographer George Diskant who had worked on On Dangerous Ground. (He would also go on to shoot The Bigamist (1953) for Ida Lupino).
The plot of the film is very straightforward. We first meet Howard (Robert Ryan) working as a handyman and clearing up after a job when he discovers the body of a woman – the householder? – stuffed into a closet. Alarmed, he flees the house and skips out of town on a freight train. We realise that the year is 1918 and it is approaching Christmastime in an anonymous town in the South-West. Helen (Ida Lupino), a young war widow, is preparing for the holidays. Her lodger is away for a few days but the house is busy with a group of local children and Helen’s rather snooty teenage niece, Ruth (Barbara Whiting). When the house quietens down, Helen welcomes her new handyman who will start some cleaning tasks. This is Howard arriving for his first day working in the house. There is clearly a nervous tension between the two and we are immediately concerned that Howard is some form of threat to Helen. That’s it really. The interior of the house becomes the sole location and the tension gradually mounts. The film depends on the performances of Ryan and Lupino and how they are presented in the complicated interior space of the house. The combination of the work of Horner, Diskant and the score by Leith Stevens (another of The Filmakers regulars) delivers a powerful narrative. Collier Young who produced the film despite being involved in a divorce from Lupino after only a brief marriage, felt that the film could not use the ending of the original play. He may also have been aware that Hughes probably wouldn’t have accepted it. Lupino’s original choices for a title were ‘At the End of the Day’ and as a second choice ‘The Terror’ but ‘Beware, My Lovely’ was imposed by Hughes with RKO handling all promotion of the film. The ending has been seen as a weakness by some critics but I think the film works well as it is. The action is confined to around ten hours or so with the two leads alone in the house.
I’ve suggested that the relevant genre is not film noir, although there is expressionist camerawork in the house. The narrative is associated with the ‘woman in peril’ or the ‘home invasion’ scenario. But I think that despite the setting thirty years or so earlier, the film is linked to the contemporary social issue dramas of the other films by The Filmakers and especially those directed by Lupino. The Robert Ryan character is clearly mentally ill, perhaps with a form of paranoid schizophrenia. In a way this is linked to his rejection for military service and his sense of a slight to his masculinity. When Ruth makes a brief appearance during the day she mocks him for doing housework like cleaning – not a job for a ‘real man’. Helen is the good-hearted woman sensitive enough to want to help but also terrified. I think we could see this portrayal of mental illness as conveying a plea for understanding matching those concerned with rape, abortion, disability and so on in Lupino’s other films.
The film had a mixed reception but seemingly with more positive than negative responses – although Monthly Film Bulletin in the UK (July 1953) thought it ‘boring and ‘silly’. I couldn’t disagree more, but then I could always watch Lupino and Ryan together. Unfortunately RKO failed to get behind the film properly, tempting Collier Young and Ida Lupino to release The Bigamist themselves – and suffering from a lack of distribution muscle. Beware, My Lovely has been shown in the US on Turner Classic Movies and in the UK on the BBC and, more recently, on Talking Pictures TV. I think it is well worthwhile trying to catch if it comes around.
Joanna Hogg is now established as an auteur director. These two films are her fourth and fifth features. She’s at that stage where her films tend to be nominated for various awards, but at the moment only a few translate into wins. However, The Souvenir was voted ‘Best Film of 2019’ by 100 international contributors to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Top 50 Best Films list. ‘Part II‘ screened at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2021 as a ‘Special Screening. Several of my female friends and colleagues have praised Joanna Hogg’s films highly but when I watched the first two, Unrelated (UK 2007) and Archipelago (UK 2010), I was rather ambivalent about them – impressed by the filmmaking skills, not so much by the characters and the stories. It is my problem no doubt but Joanna Hogg is an upper middle-class filmmaker who creates stories about similar people and they don’t appeal to me. To be fair, she has said in interviews that she understands that some audiences “can’t stomach them”. During Covid lockdowns I started to watch Exhibition (UK 2013) on a streamer but gave up after a short time. I would never do that in a cinema, so perhaps lockdown viewing was the problem? Because of this history I approached these two new films gingerly. I actually started watching Part II on MUBI and then discovered that the first film was scheduled to appear on the same streaming service a few days later, so I stopped and waited to watch the two films in order. I read that Hogg herself said that they should be watched together, so thanks to MUBI I was able to do that. I also now realise that Part II would make little sense if I hadn’t seen the first film.
These two films are inspired directly by Joanna Hogg’s own experiences and they follow Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman in her early twenties, as she starts at film school in the early 1980s and begins to develop her ideas about the feature she wishes to make for her graduation film. At the same time, she begins to find out more about herself through a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man she meets at a party. The two narrative strands are directly connected because Anthony questions and challenges her about her artistic intentions. The films’ title is a reference to a small painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, completed in 1778. Anthony shows the painting, which depicts a young woman beginning to carve a name or an initial on a tree, to Julie when he takes her to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone. The girl in the painting seems to be another Julie in the novel of that name by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – see this useful blog entry. The style of painting is Rococo but right at the end of that period and associated with the concept of sensibilité during the Enlightenment. The young woman’s joy at receiving a letter from her lover is presented in a carefully framed and delicately detailed image which communicates emotion. The same young woman might be shown very differently in a mid-19th century realist French painting. In Hogg’s film the painting possibly illustrates Anthony’s argument about realism which is articulated several times in response to Julie’s initial plan to make her film a form of emotional drama taking place in working-class Sunderland and based on black and white documentary photographs and 16mm footage shot earlier by Julie herself. This is one of several references to art and cinema in the film. Although I vaguely recognised the painting, I had to research it in detail to make this reading. Since the painting and the Wallace Collection are referenced more than once in the film this is setting the audience a challenge.
Anthony presents himself as ‘working at the Foreign Office’ and speaks with a public school/Oxbridge drawl. He’s perhaps fifteen or sixteen years older than Julie and has a daughter. He is mysterious about what he actually does at the Foreign Office (if he does indeed work there) and Julie will face some serious questions when she realises how he has treated her and what he hasn’t told her. He writes her love letters, inveigles his way into living in her flat, criticises her and calmly offers advice. I’ve read several reviews that suggest he is ‘charismatic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘disturbing’. He manipulates her in ways that might be considered abusive today but he is himself damaged rather than controlling. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I’ll simply point out that many reviewers find the romance ‘delicate’ and ‘melancholic’. Anthony is certainly a complex character and the relationship with Julie no doubt engages many audiences and is described by some as ‘immersive’. Joanna Hogg’s approach is not to write a script as such but to give her characters a summary of their roles and to create interactions on set. Hogg has worked consistently with editor Helle le Fevre since Unrelated. Le Fevre edits during the shoot and discusses scenes with Hogg at regular meetings but says “I work from the cutting room. I don’t go on set, and I don’t need anybody in the cutting room. I’m as far away as possible from the set, because then I see everything fresh.” (Interview on Seventh Row) The process works well and accommodates Hogg’s practice of casting professional and non-professional actors in scenes together. Burke is an experienced actor but Swinton Byrne had no prior professional experience as far as I can see. She appears with her mother Tilda Swinton in several scenes in which mother and daughter create alter egos as Julie and her mother. Honore Swinton Byrne is very good indeed and her attractive personality comes across seemingly effortlessly without any obvious technique. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a ‘county lady’ is extraordinary, but like Tom Burke’s, seems constructed specifically for a purpose.
Because the two Souvenir films have been discussed so much and Joanna Hogg has given interviews, we know a great deal about how the film was made (with support from BBC Films and the BFI). It appears that the production re-purposed a former RAF base in Norfolk which stood in for the fictitious film school and the film school scenes and those in Julie’s flat were created on sets within a former hangar. The outdoor scenes were then shot on various locations. But in a sense the location footage doesn’t add any kind of realist material. Hogg doesn’t use any of what is often referred to as dead time – travelling too and fro. But sometimes those inconsequential moments can tell us a great deal about characters. Julie is a young woman in London who never seems to be catching a bus, travel on the tube, shop in a street market. Instead we just see Harrods’ chimney from the window of her flat. This means that key aspects of 1980s London such as IRA bombings, political protests and uprisings of Black youths are only referred to on a radio broadcast, discussed at dinner in her parents’ home or as a muffled explosion outside the flat. The narrative takes place in a bubble.
At one point Anthony suggests that Julie should think about Powell and Pressburger, the Archers, as British filmmakers who use aspects of fantasy in their films. I realise now that Joanna Hogg is a fan and as I type this she is discussing, with Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation’s screening of a new 4K restored print of I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) in an online recording. In the mid 1980s several of Powell and Pressburger’s films were being restored by the National Film Archive and if you were lucky you might see Michael and/or Emeric in the cinema when they were first screened. In film studies this was the period when P&P and the whole idea of a British cinema that was not solely ‘realist’ was being debated and rescued from the dead hands of earlier critics. Was Joanna Hogg there in the Odeon Leicester Square or the cinema of the Museum of London for such screenings? She tells us now that seeing I Know Where I’m Going was important for her and she has joined Scorsese’s Film Foundation – he also acted as Executive Producer on The Souvenir.
Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking influences are most on display in The Souvenir Part II. The second film concerns Julie’s recovery from the experience of her relationship in the first film. She follows Anthony’s advice and, as a form of catharsis/therapy she changes her graduation film into an attempt to ‘process’ what happened in her relationship. She has to deal with a bunch of older male tutors at the film school who aren’t sure about what she is doing as well as her her generally very helpful peers who become her crew but don’t always understand what she is asking of them. The part of the second film that I enjoyed most was the dream sequence in which Julie herself is presented in a fantasy world. She is played in the rest of her graduation film by Garance (Ariane Labed, the Greek-French actor-director). The dream seems to me to be very P&P and includes elements from Hogg’s film school interest in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse’s red dress. Part II is only meaningful as a companion piece for the first film. This film demonstrates that Julie is finally learning something about film. In the first film, the screen image is 1.66:1, the widescreen shape of the French New wave. In the second film all the standard aspect ratios from Academy through to ‘Scope make an appearance at some point. The students themselves discuss French cinema of the 1980s (the Cinéma du look) and there is a part for an ‘up himself’ director and alumnus of the film school played by Richard Aoyade that runs across the two films. In the second film he is making a musical and this seems to refer a specific moment in 1980s British cinema – the flop of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). I should also mention the cinematography in the two Souvenir films by David Raedecker. Occasionally this breaks away from the short takes in interiors and offers us long shots which are more expressive in their presentation of the story events. Hogg also uses several British New Wave songs in The Souvenir and other pieces of music in Part II which I didn’t recognise. Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ in The Souvenir is quite startling given the oblique references to politics in the film.
I could happily spend more time investigating Julie’s film education but the real question is what to make of the two films together. The first film could be a standalone romance drama and the two together have been argued to be a narrative of a young woman’s gradual understanding of her own creativity. Everything is very ‘meta’ and arguably quite brave. It’s been suggested to me that Hogg’s playfulness here involves her own sense of how naive she was as a young filmmaker. It’s interesting to look up her career and to realise that her five auteur films have been made since the 2000s and that she spent around fifteen years working on music videos and television drama series, none of which I’ve seen. I think overall my view of her work hasn’t changed very much. My admiration for her skills and creativity has certainly grown but I’m still not emotionally moved by her characters. It did occur to me that a mini season of films about filmmaking drawing on memories of youth in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s might see the two Souvenir films shown alongside Shane Meadows’ This is England (UK 2006) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (UK 1999). Here’s the trailer for The Souvenir Part II – a couple of shots in the trailer remind me of Lynne Ramsay’s work? Oddly, the two Souvenir films have different distributors in the UK which might make them difficult to see together, so take the opportunity now if you can on MUBI.
Love After Love was screened at Venice in 2020 where its director Ann Hui was awarded a Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Two of her earlier films were also screened at previous Venice festivals, including A Simple Life (Hong Kong 2011), one of her most celebrated titles. Unfortunately Love After Love has not fared so well with critics. But it is a beautifully-made film and as a sumptuous romance melodrama is expected to eventually find its audience in East Asian territories. It was released in China in October 2021 and became available on MUBI in the UK a month or so ago. The key to the film is arguably that it is an adaptation of a short story by Eileen Chang. Ann Hui directed two earlier Chang adaptations, Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997). Eileen Chang (1920-1995) was a major Chinese literary figure who lived in the US from 1956. Her complicated personal history involved marriage to a collaborator with the Japanese in Shanghai under occupation that later affected her reputation in the People’s Republic. It thrived, however, in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Perhaps the best known Chang adaptation in the West is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (Taiwan-US-Hong Kong-China, 2007) set in Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese Occupation.
Ann Hui was born in Manchuria in 1947 and moved to Hong Kong as a child. She has made a number of films that reference aspects of Chinese history and her own personal story including The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006) and The Golden Era (2014). The Golden Era is a biopic of another major Chinese literary figure, Xaio Hong. Love After Love is adapted from a short story by Eileen Chang, ‘Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier’ which was first serialised in a Shanghai magazine in 1943 and made Chang’s name as a writer in the city. The story is influenced by Chang’s own biography and presents us with Ge Weilong, a girl of perhaps 16 or 17 in Hong Kong in the 1930s. Weilong (Ma Sichun) came to Hong Kong with her parents a year or two earlier when the Japanese threat of invasion of Shanghai became apparent. But when her parents decide to return to Shanghai, Weilong decides to to try to finish her education in Hong Kong and asks her aunt, Madame Liang (Yu Feihong) if she can stay with her. Her father’s sister ‘married’ an older wealthy man and when he died she inherited the house and a rich life-style. To maintain this she lures other wealthy men to her house, attracting them with the pretty young girls who act as her maids. Weilong risks being seduced by her aunt’s wealth and relaxed life-style in the louche world of high society Hong Kong in the years leading up to Occupation by Japan at the end of 1941.
We are in the territory of a Chinese melodrama presented with costumes by Emi Wada (who worked on Kurosawa’s Ran in 1985) on her last film and detailed interiors presented in compositions by Christopher Doyle reminding us of his earlier work with Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige among others. The score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is restrained for a melodrama but becomes more prominent in sections and is appropriate, I think, for the romance depicted. I note that that all the principal creatives are industry veterans and their work is a joy to behold.
Why then does the film get the thumbs down from so many critics? ‘Empty’ is a common summation. I don’t think the length helps at 142 minutes with some critics feeling that the narrative drags. I found it engaging throughout but it was only really when I watched it a second time that I began to fully appreciate its qualities. This is a complex narrative using several narrative devices in subtle ways. Several critics, especially in the West, tend to compare this film to similar Hollywood films such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The similarities are there but the cultural context is different. This film refers to a particular society at a particular time – a colonial Chinese society at a specific moment. Weilong finds herself both constrained by her own traditional background and unsure how to respond to her aunt’s world – “The British Way” in Hong Kong as her aunt puts it. I was also conscious of the class differences. The young girls brought to the house, almost as concubines, are at the lowest level and Weilong finds herself in the middle – between the girls and her aunt’s friends and acquaintances. The romance in the film involves Weilong with a mixed-race young man, the son of a wealthy Chinese man who married a European woman. It occurs to me that the Chinese view of ‘Eurasians’ is slightly different to that of the Indian view of Anglo-Indians in the same period. In Chang’s story, the wealth of Chiao’s family means the son George can’t be marginalised but there is still a stigma attached to his identity and his general behaviour contributes to this. George is played by the Taiwanese-Canadian Nick Peng, now a major star in Chinese cinema. George’s sister Kitty is played by Isabella Leung, originally from Macau.
I think I need to explore my partial understanding of the status of wealthy Chinese in the British Empire in the 1930s. Britain had exploited China in the 19th century and this continued through what was the unique arrangement in the global city of Shanghai for all Western powers. But the UK had also developed the colony of Hong Kong after taking the island from China during the Opium Wars of 1841 and 1860, finally acquiring the New Territories on mainland China on a 99-year lease in 1899. Hong Kong maintained strong links with Shanghai and also with Singapore and parts of Malaya. Crucial to the economic development of these colonial possessions were two groups of Chinese, the poorer migrants who could provide cheap labour and the wealthier merchants and trading families. Hong Kong and Singapore and to a lesser extent George Town in Penang developed as entrepôts –transhipment ports which facilitated British Imperial trade across South-East and East Asia. The wealthy Chinese families retained and grew their wealth, developing a distinctive culture and status under colonial rule. This is apparent in the opening scenes of Love After Love when Weilong first arrives at her aunt’s magnificent house and gardens. In the evening the maids are first outside lighting the lamps on the drive. This could almost be a scene from Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (China-Hong Kong 1991) which is set in the home of a Chinese war lord in the 1920s. Later in the evening, after the mahjong, the dancing begins and British officers are among the guests. Earlier Weilong is quizzed by Mir Situ as to whether she can play the piano and play tennis – she nervously replies that she has learned both a little in school. As she sits upstairs in her room listening to the music from the dancing below she might be a young girl in a British country house drama. I don’t think similar scenes took place under the Raj in the same way in India. As if to emphasise this, ‘Sir Cheng’ the head of the Chiao household has an Indian chauffeur. At a later garden party when Madame Liang invites the choir which Weilong has joined, there are Indians and ‘foreign nuns’ in attendance.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative. The story events are generally familiar, as are the characters. There have been some complaints that Ma Sichun is not strong enough in the central role of Weilong. I don’t agree. It is a difficult role in that she has to grow from shy schoolgirl into someone who can move through the upper echelons of colonial Hong Kong. She is us as she tries to negotiate the pitfalls and grow and learn in her social role. She is also the young woman being offered a ‘sentimental education’. It is true, however, that the real star of the show is Faye Yu (Yu Feihong) who plays Madame Liang with great relish. I do wonder what Eileen Chang wanted to say in her story and why Ann Hui chose to adapt it. The adaptation is by Wang Anyi, a distinguished writer and academic from Shanghai and seen as a successor to Eileen Chang. She also wrote the original story for Chen Kaige’s 1996 period film Temptress Moon. So, with three distinguished women involved in creating the characters, Love After Love can be seen as a female-centred melodrama with characters located in specific socio-economic strata of Hong Kong’s colonial society. Each is trying to find some form of fulfilment in her life but is constrained by the social situation. Weilong is the naïf, Ni’er is the country girl and the most constrained in her role as maid. Kitty is in one sense the most privileged but, like her brother, has to contend with her Eurasian identity: she is also the character who seems under-explored in the script. At the centre is Mme Liang whose position depends on her own wits and talent for social intercourse. Is she the feminist hero of the narrative?
I should mention three other aspects of the narrative. At various points Weilong offers a spoken commentary. At the beginning this is in the form of a reading of the letter she sends to her aunt asking to stay with her. At crucial points we are offered flashbacks to Mme Liang’s early life. These involve traditional rituals/ceremonies that are difficult for non-Chinese audiences to interpret perhaps. This is also true of the use of the wall of photographs in the Chiao household and the subsequent presentation of formal photo opportunities of tableaux of the family. Finally, as part of Weilong’s ‘education’, she has moments where she, in a sense, sees a ghost. This isn’t a straight realist melodrama or a conventional romance, though it has several conventional elements. Surprisingly perhaps, the narrative does not contain any further references to the Japanese occupation of Shanghai or Hong Kong after the opening statement. This seems to make the whole narrative a kind of fantasy.
To repeat, this is a very beautiful film. It must look (and sound) fabulous on the big screen, where it should be seen. The costumes are similarly fabulous. Ann Hui is a great filmmaker, under-appreciated in the West.
(In this review I present the names as they appear in the subtitles on MUBI. The romanisation arguably suits the period and the Hong Kong colonial setting?)
Girlfriends was re-released in the UK in July 2021. It is also available on a Criterion Blu-ray with an array of supplementary material. It’s an important film in the history of US cinema and its appearance now reminds us that ‘films made by women, about women and their stories’, is not something that has suddenly become an important issue in the US since the impact of the #MeToo movement. In August 1978 the studio picture An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh as a divorcée in New York, was a critical and popular ‘hit’. But it was directed by a man, Paul Mazursky. A couple of months later Girlfriends, directed by Claudia Weill, was released in the UK and in his Monthly Film Bulletin review in September 1978, Geoff Brown compared the two films, noting that the central character of Girlfriends, Susan Weinblatt, was not played by a star. Melanie Mayron was a ‘supporting actor’ in features and ironically she had a supporting role in Gable and Lombard (1976) in which Jill Clayburgh played Carole Lombard. (Paul Mazursky and Jill Clayburgh were also known by Claudia Weill, I think). Brown’s review of Girlfriends goes on to discuss how Susan is presented on screen, suggesting that Mayron makes an unconventional lead because of her weight, teeth, hair etc. This seems an unnecessary description and it’s probably sufficient to say that she is not the usual Hollywood lead. Brown goes on to recognise the ‘feminist commitment’ of the filmmakers, by which I assume he means the producer-writer Claudia Weill and her writing collaborator Vicki Polon. What was slightly problematic for film reviewers at this point is that Girlfriends was distributed in both the US and UK as a Warner Bros. film. We would tend to see it now as an American Independent (wholly produced for Cyclops Films, the company set up by Weill and Eli Noyes).
There have been many different attempts to categorise ‘American Independent Cinema’. There were several important ‘independent’ producers working during the studio period and there have always been independent films. One of the first independent filmmakers of the 1950s was Ida Lupino. She was one of the first to tackle distinct ‘social issues’ and to implicitly link the idea of ‘independence from the Hollywood studios’ with some form of social commentary – though she still needed a studio to distribute the films. Second wave feminism in the 1970s saw several attempts to make films that in some way told women’s stories differently from those produced by (or for) the studios. I would see Girlfriends as one of the films in the late 1970s that suggested that it was possible to make low budget films that offered an alternative to studio films but which could appeal to a broad audience (i.e. not only to an avant-garde audience). The first film from John Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi, Return of the Secaucus Seven appeared in 1979. The documentary Rosie the Riveter, about women workers during the Second World War by Connie Field appeared in 1980. Harlan County USA, the powerful documentary about a mining community by Barbara Kopple was a 1976 release. There are other titles as well. I’m just making the point that films like this appeared in the late 1970s and preceded what has now come to be seen as the new ‘American Independent Cinema’ of the 1980s, often seen as marked by the success of Sex, Lies and Videotape directed by Steven Soderbergh in 1989. Soderbergh’s film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and several other prizes. This was undoubtedly significant for independent filmmaking but it’s worth noting that Girlfriends was also screened at Cannes in the ‘Director’s Fortnight’ strand and after the screening it was acquired by Warner Bros.
What makes Girlfriends different? The narrative offers us vignettes of two or three years in the life of Susan Weinblatt. She’s a young woman in her early 20s trying to make her way in New York as a photographer. As the title suggests, the main concern in the film is Susan’s relationship with her girlfriends. The most important of these is Anne, arguably because she is almost Susan’s opposite in some ways but also someone looking to fulfil herself on her own terms. Anne is a slim WASP with conventional tastes who hopes to become a poet and a writer. Susan is a Jewish New Yorker with would-be Bohemian tastes. Their friendship is important to both young women. Susan has different kinds of relationships with three or four other women, mostly concerned with her photography which will eventually see her achieve a small exhibition. She also has relationships with a couple of men, one her own age and one much older. These relationships are important too, but the narrative will return to the central relationship with Anne. The focus on Susan obviously means that the film relies heavily on the performance by Melanie Mayron and she is very good throughout. The film began as a low-budget production financed by various public funds (something which clearly marks the film as having European-style backing for an independent). The $80,000 budget was soon spent and Claudia Weill had to look for private investors. The shoot actually began in 1975 but the few weeks of filming had to be spread over a couple of years to make the 88 minute feature. There was no money to spend on complicated outdoor set-ups and much of the film is therefore set in New York apartments, offices and on street corners. The success of the film depends on all the performers and crew but crucially on the remarkable Claudia Weill. I’ve been able to learn a great deal about her, partly from online archive material such as this New York Times piece and this from ‘Harvardwood‘. Claudia Weill studied at Harvard but became so interested in working with her camera that she entered the film industry as a ‘craft apprentice’ and gradually learned filmmaking from the ground up. This way she met Vicky Polon, a writer who also worked on shoots as an editor.
The extras on on the Blu-ray include a couple of Weill’s earlier short films, Joyce at 34 (1972) made with and about the filmmaker Joyce Chopra and Commuters (1970) made with Eli Noyes. There also several interviews and discussions about the film, featuring Weill and Polon and the leading players. The Criterion website for the film also includes essays by Molly Haskell and Carol Gilligan. Claudia Weill’s later career is also interesting. She did go to Hollywood and made a feature with Jill Clayburgh and Michael Douglas written by Eleanor Bergstein. This was It’s My Turn (1980) released by Columbia. The film was not a success and I don’t think Claudia Weill enjoyed the experience. She turned to theatre direction in New York for a few years and then returned to Los Angeles when she married. What happened next again takes me back to Ida Lupino’s career. Weill began to get work in television directing single episodes of several well-known series plus TV movies. She found TV work practical when her two boys were young. She also felt it gave her more freedom: “If it’s not ‘yours’, you can be more creative about how to solve problems,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be exactly the way you’ve always seen it in your mind.” (from the ‘Harvardwood’ interview by Dayna Wilkinson, 2015, see above.) In 2013 she directed an episode of Girls for Len Dunham who had seen Girlfriends a few years earlier and this connection helped to make a new connection with a contemporary generation of young women making film television. In recent years she has returned to theatre direction in the North East and has also spent time teaching film, television and theatre direction in California and in New York.
Let’s get back to Girlfriends. The film is successful on many levels. At its centre are the relationships between Susan and her girlfriends and for many audiences it is the novelty of a film in which these relationships are central that has proved so inspirational. Why has it taken so long to return to this kind of storytelling? On a more general level Weill and Polon succeeded in putting on screen the kinds of people who were their friends and colleagues, ‘real’ people not Hollywood creations. Finally, in terms of representations they put on screen New York as it was in the late 1970s, a scruffy but vibrant city with young creatives in cheap apartments. It is a low budget film but it is very well-made. Claudia Weill was an accomplished documentary filmmaker when she started making the film but she had to learn how to deal with actors. She was a quick learner. Many of the cast were not experienced actors at the time but later went on to have long careers. Two leading Hollywood actors, Eli Wallach as a Rabbi and Viveca Lindfors as a gallery owner fitted in very well for me. What I’ve noted with my male gaze is that it is the small actions and snatches of dialogue that really resonate with female audiences. This film was genuinely revolutionary and it’s great that it is widely available again. I saw it twice over 40 years ago and it stuck with me. I enjoyed watching it again. If you get the chance to see it, I recommend it highly.