Category: Films by women

Leave No Trace (US 2018)

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie as Tom and Ben Foster as her father, Will consider taking the train

The team of Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini have created another marvellous film that stands alongside Zama and Sweet Country as a highlight of 2018 viewing. Rosellini is co-writer and producer and Granik is co-writer and director. The pair have made four films together. They all feature characters struggling to survive on the edges of American society in ‘marginal’ communities but also displaying strength of purpose and real humanity. Most reviewers have singled out the success of the pair’s Winter’s Bone (US 2010) as a good starting point for discussing the new film and there are certainly some important links, but it is unfortunate that UK distributors were seemingly unwilling to release Stray Dog (US 2014). That documentary film features a Vietnam veteran who forty years later has found peace and purpose as a biker who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri and cares for his extended family and his community of similarly-minded people. Several elements from this film are worked into Leave No Trace.

Tom and Will under their tarpaulin canopy in the Portland urban park and enjoying a father-daughter whittling exercise

The new film is inspired by the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock and the film credits list three other books used by the writers and actors in their search for some kind of authenticity in the representation of narrative events. Leave No Trace is one of those films in which the central characters are not given a back story, or at least it is not spelt out for us and we must work with only scraps of information. On the other hand, the story does have connections to both mainstream and independent film genres. It opens in a temperate rain forest where a father and his teenage daughter appear to have been living for some time as they are well-equipped and organised with set routines and even a small vegetable plot. Our first surprise is that the forest is not in a remote area, but actually close to a major road bridge and the urban mass of Portland. We follow the couple into town where they visit a military veteran’s event and a supermarket. We are in Oregon and I was reminded of the first Rambo film (First Blood US 1982) in which the hero is eventually chased through the forests of the North West and the very different Wendy and Lucy (US 2008) set, like some of her other films, by Kelly Reichardt in small town Oregon. Some reviewers have also mentioned Captain Fantastic (US 2016) which I haven’t seen. I think there might also be elements shared with Into the Wild (US 2007) and some European films such as Vie Sauvage (France-Belgium 2014)

Will (Ben Foster) is indeed a veteran, though we never find out where or when he fought. Only when he sells some prescription medication to men in a camp by the park do we realise that he might have some form of PTSD. Ben Foster is very good as Will and it was only after the screening that I realised that he was one of the stars in the excellent Hell or High Water (US 2016). He was also the lead in The Messenger (US 2009) in which he is a soldier close to the end of his tour of duty who is sent to deliver the terrible news of the death of loved ones to soldiers’ families. I see that I praised him for both roles so the fact that I didn’t recognise him says a lot about his ability to inhabit his roles. Will’s daughter is ‘Tom’ (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, a young New Zealander with a big future). Her mother (and presumably Will’s wife/partner) is never mentioned. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but the shape of the story requires the couple to be first ‘discovered’ by the authorities and then placed in a ‘re-socialisation’ programme from which Will forces another escape. But this isn’t an action film. Its central focus is the father-daughter relationship and their love for each other. The problem is that while Will needs an escape/an alternative/a diversion from the world in his head, Tom is still open to anything that might happen. I found the film’s ending satisfying in how it tried to deal with this, especially when Dale Dickey appeared (she features in both Winter’s Bone and Hell or High Water). My hope and expectation is that audiences will be deeply moved by the central relationship.

Tom with Dale Dickey

Leave No Trace is a complex and many-layered narrative. The title also refers to the exhortation heard by anyone who ventures into a national park or area of outstanding beauty. I remember as a teenager in the 1960s been told not to leave orange peel on Lake District fells. Will is very disciplined in how he works with the environment and he has taught Tom well. The irony is that the forest in which we first see Will and Tom is so close to urban America so they exist in a kind of no man’s land – I did wonder where the eggs came from until I saw father and daughter stroll into town. As one review I read suggested, it is also surprising that the local welfare agencies assume the worst when they pick up Will and Tom – and Will is forced to answer questions asked by a computer in scenes reminiscent of I, Daniel Blake. The welfare agencies do seem polite and professional but I would find their controlling attitudes unbearable and there is a scene on a bus which quite shocked me. The other side of the authorities is represented visually when bulldozers arrive to knock down the shanty town/tent city occupied by rough sleepers close to the city. I remember similar scenes from films set in apartheid era South Africa and from recent films like Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013).

Tom makes a friend of Isaiah and his rabbit

The US is a very big country with plenty of land but it now all seems to be owned by the government and major landowners alongside the those who own their own homes. It’s seemingly difficult to find a place to pitch your tent and live away from people if you are poor. If you are rich you can build your own estate. Politically, ‘living in the woods’ now seems like a right-wing survivalist activity that stirs up all those American ideas about freedom and the right to bear arms. That doesn’t fit with Will and Tom but it seems like a discourse which Granik and Rosellini attempt to counteract in Stray Dog and again in Leave No Trace. There is another older idea about living in the woods which goes back to Henry David Thoreau and Walden or Life in the Woods (1854) and stresses the simplicity and direct contact with nature. Leave No Trace comments obliquely on this by showing the ‘home-schooled’ Tom reading her encyclopedia in her home-made shelter and crushing egg-shells (anti-slug protection?) to place around her tiny plot of brassicas (?). The sense of the natural world is carried by both the cinematography of Scottish DoP Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone and Sunset Song (UK 2015)) and the sound design (a single ‘sound designer’ is not credited). In the first few minutes I recognised that sound of the rain filtering down through the tree branches in the forest. The music is under the control of composer Dickon Hinchliffe, another Brit and founder member of Tindersticks, who was responsible for the music in Winter’s Bone and as in that film, some of it here is diegetic and performed on ‘set’.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie spent time in a New Zealand forest preparing for her role and it did occur to me that Leave No Trace has many of the same elements found in Hunt For the Wilderpeople (NZ 2016). The New Zealand film was more light-hearted and occasionally hilarious, but like Leave No Trace it also suggested that living wild could be educational/restorative and that not everyone you meet ‘off grid’ is out to harm you. There have been predictable claims that Thomasina Harcourt Brace could emulate Jennifer Lawrence’s success after Winter’s Bone. Her performance in Leave No Trace is as assured as Lawrence’s in Winter’s Bone. I don’t know if she has the same drive and charisma in other situations but I’m certainly looking forward to finding out. Leave No Trace should win prizes. The only other recent American film I’ve seen with the same quality is The Rider (still not on release in the UK).

Leave No Trace is a film to hunt down and watch on a big screen. You won’t be disappointed.

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The Bookshop (Spain-UK-Germany 2017)

Florence (Emily Mortimer) and her first delivery of books

I watched this film in a cinema preview screening a couple of months ago. The reaction of the audience was mixed ranging from the enthusiastic to the vitriolic. I feared for the film on release and it has indeed been damned by most UK reviewers after its opening last week. I actually enjoyed it but I can see that for many audiences it might not work. However, if you forgive a couple of problems there is plenty to admire.

Isabel Coixet in the studio in Barcelona with Emily Mortimer

The first consideration is that this is a literary adaptation of a much-loved and celebrated novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. I haven’t read the novel but I could feel the sense of a literary narrative in the very distinctive characters and the ways in which they are represented. The second consideration is that this is an adaptation by the Catalan Isabel Coixet who both wrote and directed the film. Coixet has made several English language ‘international’ films, none of which I’d seen before this one. In Spain the film was a big success and it won many awards and nominations at Spanish festivals. Unfortunately, this particular narrative needs some careful handling of the nuances of the English class system and details of English culture in the 1950s. Coixet’s production decisions are not always helpful.

As the title suggests, the story concerns a bookshop newly established in a small coastal town in the late 1950s by Florence Green, a youngish widow with a love of books and just enough money to get a business going. Florence discovers that she has an implacable enemy in the town in the shape of the woman in the ‘big house’, Mrs Gamart. She wants the bookshop building for an arts centre and she doesn’t think much of Florence’s ideas or her values. Fortunately, Florence will discover a possible ally in the reclusive Mr Brundish. These three characters and their conflicts provide most of the plot incidents. The trio are played by Emily Mortimer as Florence, Patricia Clarkson as Mrs Gamart and Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish. These fine actors are arguably the main attractions for a UK audience – and possibly also one of the sources of confusion for the audience.

Bill Nighy and Emily Mortimer

The Bookshop is a Spanish film made in Barcelona studios and interiors and on location in Northern Ireland on Strangford Lough. The creative HoDs and the crew were all Spanish apart from some Irish personnel. I spent most of the film wondering where on earth the narrative was set and by the end had decided on Ireland (but I haven’t been to the Lough, so I wasn’t precise). None of this matters except that I knew the fictional town was meant to be in Suffolk according to the publicity material (and the novel). The film certainly doesn’t look or feel like it is set in coastal Suffolk – typically flat landscapes and shingle beaches. Instead we get hills, cliffs, rocks and sand and forests. Several user comments suggest that the accents are all over the place. They didn’t bother me but I can see the criticism. The other complaints are about the minutiae of book covers and anachronistic books etc. All of these small points get in the way of engagement with the story but overall I think the problems are as much to do with audience expectations as with the film itself.

Seeing the poster, recognising the three stars and then noticing the blurb, I think many UK and possibly US audiences will have expected a kind of BBC or ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ kind of literary adaptation. These are sometimes rather cosy with a veneer of authentic detail (a ‘surface’ realism) and a strong narrative drive. The Bookshop is perhaps more ‘quirky’ with a more elusive narrative. It lacks the veneer of correct period detail but for me it sets up intriguing questions that kept me guessing. The narrative resolution is a surprise but for me worked very well. Emily Mortimer is an actor I admire and I think she is very good in the role. Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson are more of a problem – both are asked to play strong distinctive characters who are actually not seen that often – they each have a handful of set piece scenes. Nighy in particular has a well-known persona as a comedic actor which doesn’t fit this particular role so some audiences might be disappointed.

Holly Kneafsey as Christine with Emily Mortimer as Florence

The story is about Florence and I think that the film works when we focus on her and her struggles. The book covers in the shop may be ‘inauthentic’ but I liked the costume design and those 1950s outfits , so stifling and conservative are made slightly more daring for Florence, matching her decisions to shake up the locals by stocking Nabokov’s Lolita (and making a visual reference to the novel’s first publication from the Olympia Press in Paris – very shocking in the 1950s). Florence’s only real relationship is with her very young schoolgirl assistant played by Honor Kneafsey and very good she is too. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will point out that this is not a conventional narrative about good triumphing over evil or adversity. Instead it is an intense character study of Florence Green. The film is photographed by the veteran French cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, a long-term collaborator with Isabel Coixet. I enjoyed his work very much and a trip to County Down is very much on my horizon.

Here are the American and Spanish trailers, slightly different I think. My advice is to dispense with any assumptions about what it will be like and simply go with it.

Another Country (Australia 2015)

This film is a ‘companion piece’ to Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013). The earlier film offers a fictional story about Charlie, an Aboriginal man in his 60s who loses control over his life because of a range of factors affecting the lives of most Aboriginal peoples living in an isolated small town in the Northern Territory. Charlie is played by the actor David Gulpilil and in Another Country Gulpilil is the narrator of a documentary about the real small town of Ramingining which provided the setting for the fiction film. Another Country is directed by Molly Reynolds who is the partner of Rolf de Heer. The film is produced by Reynolds, de Heer and David Gulpilil’s friend Peter Djigirr. This quartet has also been responsible for the earlier films The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) and other associated films with each member of the quartet involved in different ways. Further films are in the works.

I’m very pleased to have been able to see Another Country via MUBI in the UK. It had been recommended to me but didn’t appear to be accessible outside Australia. It’s a devastating short(ish) documentary (75 mins) with a simple structure and a deceptive narration by David Gulpilil. I think I understand all the points made in the narration and I think I’m in sympathy with the political analysis, but there are also some aspects of the whole project (i.e. the group of recent films by the quartet mentioned above) which don’t immediately make sense and require the viewer to avoid immediate assumptions.

Dancing is one of the activities in the town

Ramingining is mainly photographed in Long Shot compositions with long takes with carefully selected medium shots of groups and close-ups of faces and hands working on artworks. These sometimes act as a form of punctuation in the stream of Long Shots. Molly Reynolds seems very careful not to get too close to her subjects and her style here is perhaps best described as ‘sensitive observation’. The portraits generally represent the towns inhabitants in a dignified way. Gulpilil’s narration is soft-spoken and sometimes humorous. It is also a severe condemnation of colonialist policies by successive Australian governments (at national and state level) that have ridden roughshod over cultural differences and have effectively ‘deculturated’ some Aboriginal peoples and caused major problems for others. Gulpilil goes through the several government policies of recent years that carry those mealy-mouthed management speak descriptors like ‘self-determination’ and ‘intervention’ It’s a beautifully written script and as Gulpilil speaks the words, Reynolds’ camera (operated by Matt Nettheim) coolly observes the town and its inhabitants. Gulpilil describes each new policy and explains precisely how they work in contradiction of local culture. As he says, “You (White Australians, but by extension all western/northern societies) say you want to help us, but you think you know more about us than we know ourselves. You don’t. You need to spend more time getting to know us – or leave us alone to do our own things on our own land”. I’m paraphrasing but this is a powerful argument. But, perhaps to give a kind of balance, the narration does admit that the missionaries who came did bring some useful ideas and created some employment. Now there is almost nothing to do in the town (the nearest big centre is 400km away).

At one point, Gulpilil is discussing the concept of ‘rubbish’, now piled up in various parts of Ramingining. We then see a woman by a rubbish dump pick up a broken tree branch and bend it. She moves into the bush, approaches a particular species of palm and uses the branch to pull down some long fronds. She then visits another palm and repeats the process. Gulpilil has been telling us that in his people’s culture there is no concept of ‘rubbish’ – to make something you look for resources in the bush. When your manually ‘manufactured’ object is worn out you return it to the bush and it is re-cycled in a natural process. He explains that the woman is his twin sister and she is collecting the palm leaves to weave a mat. It will take a long time but the Yolngu have plenty of time.

The man who found God

At various points, the narration stops and we observe a ‘set piece’ of some kind. One of these is an Easter ritual. One of Gulpilil’s friends, who ‘found God’ in hospital after suffering a heart attack, is playing the Christ figure in a version of the stations of the cross, stumbling on his way to church carrying his crucifix. I was reminded of the great Sembene Ousmane’s film Ceddo (Senegal 1977) in which American-style soul/gospel music is played in a scene set a century earlier when missionaries arrived in Africa. Looking through the credits I think what I thought was American might be Australian music played during the church scene in Another Country. At first I found these scenes disturbing but later wondered if they had somehow developed into a local ritual. Reynolds films other local rituals/cultural presentations, both ancient and modern as well. The scenes continued to remind me of depictions of Indigenous (or at least pre-colonial) communities in India, Africa and the Americas in various films.

David Gulpilil as he appears in the documentary

When Gulpilil’s narration refers to the ‘old ways’, I got the impression that Reynold’s camera either found a bush scene with natural light effects or that the film had been processed to produce effects. I was reminded of Ten Canoes and this in turn set up my confusion with the overall presentation of the community. (I should point out that Gulpilil tells us that one of the problems in Ramingining is that the government moved different Indigenous groups, with different customs and languages, into the town and thus created tensions – ‘community’ here means multiple groups.) In Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer with narration by David Gulpilil and stories from his Yolngu people, we are offered a highly sophisticated film narrative covering three distinct time periods and recreating a traditional annual hunt, by canoe for goose eggs. This required the recreation of rituals last carried out in the 1930s and now almost forgotten but which were captured on archive photographs by an anthropologist. In the promotional material for that film, Gulpilil emphasises how his people are both rooted in their own culture but also plugged in to modern communications such as internet banking. David Gulpilil himself is a complex individual. Australia’s best-known and most honoured Indigenous actor, writer, artist, dancer and more. He first appeared as a teenager in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK-Australia 1971) and has appeared in many Australian films since with all the celebrity implications that implies. Yet he also shares some of the experiences of his character Charlie in Charlie’s Country. He’s had problems in the past with alcohol and he’s been to prison twice he tells us in the narration. He appears in the documentary but he tells us “that’s enough about me” and he doesn’t become a focus for the film overall apart from his narration.

I found Charlie’s Country to be a disturbing and provocative film which I’m still not sure I understood totally. I watched it again recently and wondered if some of the incidents were meant to be ‘dreamt’ rather than actually experienced. After watching Another Country, I’m wondering if this is a ‘personal view’ of Ramingining and that there are other different stories? The experiences of the Yolngu people who have worked with Gulipil, Djigirr, de Heer and Reynolds aren’t directly represented in the film. Perhaps to do so would have made the film too complex and taken something away from or confused the central argument. I don’t know and its difficult to comment without a better knowledge of contemporary Australian culture. I look forward to the future films from the group and I hope that eventually someone will release a DVD or download version in the UK.

Der traumhafte Weg (The Dreamed Path, Germany 2016)

Theres (Miriam Jakob) and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson), the young couple in Greece

The Dreamed Path was the fourth feature by Angela Schanelec that I managed to catch in MUBI’s special section on her films before they disappeared. It is her latest release on the festival circuit and in some ways the most austere and ‘formally rigorous’, as one critic has put it, of the films I’ve seen. It’s relatively straightforward to outline the sparse plot details but much more difficult to read the possible meanings. The film opens in Greece with a young couple busking and singing Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) in the summer of 1984 in Greece. Close by young people are celebrating the ‘New Europe’ (even though Greece gained accession to the Economic Community in 1981). The young man receives news of his mother’s severe illness and heads home to the UK. The woman (who is German) doesn’t accompany him. Some thirty years later in Berlin another woman, an actor, is in the process of separating from her husband. They have a young daughter. When filming takes place with the actor in the large square in front of Berlin’s main railway station, we see that the Englishman is present with his dog and is apparently homeless. The German woman he knew years ago in Greece is also in Berlin. That’s more or less the plot minus a couple of dramatic and emotional moments.

The family in Berlin, David (Phil Hayes), Ariane (Maren Eggert) and Ariane’s daughter Fanny (Anaïa Zapp)

‘Formally rigorous’ refers here to Schanelec and her cinematographer Rheinhold Vorschneider’s use of long shots and close-ups. In this film there is the pronounced use of close-ups of feet and other parts of the body which many critics/reviewers recognise as a reference to the later films of Robert Bresson. I haven’t seen enough of Bresson’s work (and certainly not enough recently) to comment on this. What is clear, however, is that Schanelec is, as usual, more interested in exploring how the filmic image in its composition and framing and in the context of editing and the presentation of characters in narrative space evokes responses in audiences rather than how the narrative events themselves are understood in a causal sequence. So, the camera’s focus on the young man’s feet when he makes a phone call home and hears about his mother is a very precise way of attempting to present an emotional moment. This, for me, is in contrast with a relatively long sequence set in an indoor swimming pool. In extreme long shot we can just see a young boy in a wheelchair with his legs strapped but who is stripped and wearing swimming trunks implying he intends to get into the water. As we watch him struggling to free his legs and move the wheelchair to the edge of the pool we hear but don’t immediately see a group of children in the water. Gradually they appear from the bottom of the screen and swim towards the end where the boy is attempting to get into the water. They will reach the end and turn and the boy will slip into the water. The scene ends with a cut to a closer shot of a small group in which one of the girls is checking the boy’s knee which he seems to have grazed in getting into the pool. One reviewer suggests that the girl licks the graze to help it heal but I don’t remember this clearly. Why did this sequence, especially of the image of the group of children swimming so catch my imagination? I don’t know but this ability of Schanelec and Vorschneider (and her two editor collaborators) to construct sequences like this is remarkable and consistent across their films.

Angela Schanelec’s films are coming to London courtesy of the Goethe-Institut later this year, see this MUBI Notebook essay by Patrick Holzapfel (who is curating the London showings). MUBI’s title for its Schanelec ‘Special Discovery’ season was ‘Showing not Telling’ – and so it proved to be. I still haven’t adjusted to MUBI’s ‘watch it before it’s gone’ policy. The Dreamed Path has been received as one of the films of the year on the festival circuit but I found it difficult to watch. I’d like the chance to watch it again without the time pressure. I’ve discovered some of Schanelec’s films are available but expensive on Amazon UK.

The two trailers below, one in German, the other subtitled in English, give an impression of the shooting style (in Academy ratio, 1.37:1) with the ‘feet’ shots in the first trailer:

Orly (Germany-France 2010)

Orly is the fourth Angela Schanelec film to be streamed on MUBI. A brief synopsis might suggest it has generic possibilities as a narrative but really it is almost anti-narrative in conventional terms. I wonder if watching Schanelec’s films is like developing addictive behaviour. I find the films frustrating because I’m so used to conventional narratives – but I can’t stop watching them, partly because I’m in awe of the camerawork and the editing and the overall choreography of movement and control of the fictional space.

The genre here ought to be that of the ‘waiting room’ film with several groups of characters, each with different stories and each with different relationships. But, conventionally, these would come together in some way and there would be an underlying theme. Schanelec offers us four pairs of characters and a handful of others who are more peripheral. The pairs don’t interact directly except for a fleeting moment and the film ends with a largely unexpected event which denies us a ‘resolution’ of any of the four central narratives.

There seem to be possible clues to Schanelec’s intentions that are introduced in subtle ways. The opening images of the film include half of a vinyl record sleeve which I took to be a 12″ of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which includes the lines:

And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again

Each of the characters in the film are experiencing emotions as they wait in the departure hall.

The setting is mainly Orly Airport in Paris in Spring. Why did Schanelec choose Orly rather than Charles De Gaulle, Roissy? Probably because permissions were easier, but Orly does have significance for cinéastes. It was the setting for Chris Marker’s avant-garde science fiction short film La jetée (The Pier, 1962) – a film anyone with a film education is likely to be aware of. One of Schanelec’s couples has a digital camera and the woman looks at a succession of still images taken in Paris earlier that day – La jetée is entirely constructed from still photos.

Sabine (Maren Eggert) briefly makes eye contact with Jirka Zett as the young tourist

The four couples are a mother and teenage son going to the funeral of the ex-husband and father, a pair of German tourists, a couple splitting up (one of whom we see at Orly as she reads the a letter from her husband) and two expats who meet by chance and discover that they are both returning to North America. The peripheral characters include a young woman on an airline counter, a young barman, taxi drivers etc. and a woman with a baby she is trying to comfort. Although there are brief moments of contact with these individuals by some of the couples, the main way in which Schanelec links her characters is through her camera (or rather the camera of her regular cinematographer Rheinold Vorschneider). For example, in one sequence we are offered a long shot across the departure waiting area with many people sat waiting and others moving in the background, but careful use of the field of focus is able to pick out one face in the crowd. This character will be identified later in the film as the man in the fourth couple. I recognised him as Jirka Zett from Schanelec’s earlier Nachmittag (Germany 2007). See also the shot above in which the same character briefly makes eye contact with the woman separating from her husband. I’m still not sure how this camera shot was achieved. At other times I wondered if Schanelec was using radio mikes for her characters. It is clear that in the Orly shots, the fictional characters are simply placed amongst the crowds of ordinary passengers at the airport. Vorschneider shoots from some distance away so that there are figures in the background and moving across the foreground. You can see this in the trailer below when the two expats (Natacha Régnier and Bruno Todeschini) are talking. The only way to capture ‘direct’ sound for dialogue would be to use concealed radio mikes. Does anyone know if Schanelec uses this method? I was first aware of it in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), one of my favourite films for representing a city through a form of realism. Most of the time the soundtrack uses only dialogue plus the direct ambient sound of the airport. It is a shock therefore when after an hour of this we hear a voiceover reading a letter and Cat Power’s performance of the song ‘Remember Me’

In the interview here Angela Schanelec discusses how she works with ‘real’ spaces like the terminal in Orly:

The trailer below is mainly in French, subtitled in German but it is useful in showing the main characters and the ‘real’ space which Schanelec uses in her own distinctive ways:

Jeune femme (France-Belgium 2017)

Paula (Laetitia Dosch) with Muchacha in a cheap hotel room

This is quite a difficult film for an aged male writer. Paula, the protagonist of Jeune femme (also known as Montparnasse Bienvenüe) is not introduced to us with any background. She’s more or less literally thrown at us, headbutting the door of a Paris apartment, whose resident doesn’t want to let her in. Taken to A&E to have her forehead stitched, she angrily dismisses the doctor on duty, steals a coat and discharges herself. Taking a cat, ‘Muchacha’, which we later discover belongs to the owner of the apartment, she begins a tour of Paris looking for a place to kip and a means of earning money. At this point I was seriously worrying whether I could cope with another 90 minutes of this. I was reminded of a British film from last year, Daphne, also about a 30-something woman, but this time in London. After writing about that film, I decided not to post a review since I didn’t really like the film. In the case of Jeune femme, however, I stuck with Paula and eventually began to warm to her character and by the last third I began to really enjoy the film.

Paula with Yuki (Léonie Simaga) who she meets on the Metro

Jeune femme is a first feature for Léonor Serraille who co-wrote the film with Clémence Carré and Bastien Daret, both similarly inexperienced writers for features. Paula is played by Laetitia Dosch who has significantly more experience as a leading actor. I think some of the positives (and perhaps some of the negatives) come from the script and direction. The performance by Dosch is very good but sometimes the plotting becomes quite weak. The basis for the narrative is the idea that Paula, now having broken up with a former partner, is partly looking for the basics – some money, a job, somewhere to live – but also looking to ‘find herself’. The narrative therefore becomes that of the ‘picaresque’ or almost like a road movie set in Paris as she moves from one situation to another. sometimes it feels like a series of sitcom sketches. Eventually we realise that Paula has got to 31 without having gone through many of the experiences of her contemporaries. She’s spent ten years with an older man who was her teacher at first but then used her as his ‘muse’, photographing her and exhibiting his work. This comes home to Paula when she realises that unlike the other young women she meets working at a ‘knicker bar’ in a shopping centre, she has no postgraduate degree to complete and no ambitions for the future.

Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) and Paula (Laetitia Dosch) on a meal break

Female film critics and fans of the film have made connections with the UK TV series Fleabag and the US series Girls as well as films such as the Greta Gerwig starrer Frances Ha. Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound (June 2018) focuses on the central issue when she asks if the emphasis in these types of female narratives on the ‘messiness’ of the central characters’ lives is “feminist or quite the reverse”. Paula is needy but is this to be read as something for others to respond to and to understand as a product of a patriarchal society – or does she instead need a lesson in developing some ‘adult life skills’ and a plan about what to do next? In McGill’s terms, “this is the line along which Jeune femme wobbles in terms of Paula’s neediness”. Part of the problem is that the women Paula meets are either very critical or very forgiving. Only the women workers at the knicker bar talk to her sensibly about practical things. She meets few men and most are abominable. The exception is the security guard at the knicker bar, Ousmane (played by Souleymane Seye Ndiaye – the lead in La pirogue (France-Senegal 2012)). When I reflected on the film it struck me that Paula (and therefore the whole narrative) changes when she meets Ousmane. Ousmane reminded me of similar characters in A Season in France (2017) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (still sadly unreleased in the UK). I hope that African migrants will eventually be treated as just another character with good or bad points. I don’t want to see them typed as ‘noble’ or ‘savage’. I don’t think that Jeune femme falls into that trap but we need more diversity in casting generally. The cat seems to think Ousmane is OK as well and I was relieved to see it being looked after by him. Paula’s initial treatment of the cat certainly didn’t make me warm to her.

Lila (Lila-Rose Gilberti), Paula’s young charge as a nanny, comes to see Paula as a friend

Ousmane’s humanity seems to infect everyone, but particularly Paula and as the film moves towards its climactic sequence with the ex-boyfriend it does seem like the narrative will have a conventional resolution. But in the end it doesn’t, seeing the now ‘sorted’ Paula ready to face whatever is coming next. The film has plenty of music, mostly by Julie Roué, but the Gil Evans jazz number ‘Las Vegas Tango’ is particularly significant according to writer-director Léonor Serraille. In the Press Notes she offers some interesting background to the production and the decisions she made along the way. She tells us that initially the script was 140 pages and was then cut down to make the 97 minute film (which might explain the gaps in the plotting). She comments on her use of a clip from Sirk’s Imitation of Life (US 1959) – her relationship with her own mother is important as it is in Sirk’s melodrama – and also comments on the various films and actors’ performances which have inspired her. She makes this interesting statement:

Jeune Femme, which is Montparnasse Bienvenüe’s French title, could have been called ‘Young Women‘ as the entire crew is made up of women: cinematographer, sound engineer, editor, sound editor, production designer, music composer, producer . . .

I’m glad that I did eventually get on board with Paula and her struggle. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it and I hope it is a big success in the UK.

Nachmittag (Afternoon, Germany 2007)

Agnes (Miriam Horwitz) in a long shot showing the lake view from the house

Nachmittag is the third of six films by Angela Schanelec offered on my MUBI stream. I’ve posted on the first, Passing Summer (Germany 2001), but I was only able to watch the first part of the second film,  Marseille (2010), before it disappeared from the stream during one of my busy periods. That’s the problem with MUBI, I fear. Still, perhaps I will be able to find it elsewhere later. Marseille did look a little different with its single central character – a photographer exploring the French city. In Nachmittag, Schanelec returns to a summer in Berlin, though the characters are rather different.

Angela Schanelec as Irene

Angela Schanelec’s strategy seems to be ‘never explain’ – or give any background. MUBI have used the title ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for the season of her films. I have assumed that the main location is a house by a lake in the Berlin region, possibly Potsdam. In a prologue, Schanelec’s familiar static camera offers us a view from the back of a stage in theatre during a rehearsal. On the stage is a woman who sorts out a prop with a stagehand and then walks towards a dog and pets the animal. We next see her in long shot arriving at the house by the lake where an older and younger man have been having a conversation. Later we will learn that this the woman is Irene, played by Schanelec herself (she began her career as an actor). Gradually we meet five other main characters but we must try to work out who they are and what the relationships are between them. It took me the whole 95 minutes and I still wasn’t certain by the end, but I’m fairly confident that MUBI’s synopsis of the film is inaccurate.

Jirka Zett as Konstantin holding Agnes Schanelec as Mimmi

When I started watching the film I was unaware that its premise is taken from Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not a theatregoer and I don’t really know Chekhov. My thoughts instead turned to similar films in this setting. I thought of Thomas Arslan’s Vacation (Ferien, Germany 2007), on the reasonable basis that Arslan is another member of the ‘Berlin School’. I was also reminded of The Farewell (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer, Germany 2000). The point here is that the situation – a group of people meeting at a ‘summer place’ where their different relationships are explored – is potentially a familiar dramatic and even generic narrative proposition. Yet Angela Schanelec challenges our assumptions about how any drama might develop. She does this in several ways.The use of long shots and of close-ups by DoP Reinhold Vorschneider can sometimes mean that we are not quite sure who we are watching or where we are. But what is even more disruptive is her use of dialogue. We are used to mainstream cinema’s use of dialogue to provide ‘narrative data’ and to move forward the events of the narrative. Schalenec’s dialogue comes as a shock – it is so close to the ‘real’ conversations that we have with people we know (well at least I do!). There are seemingly inconsequential remarks that actually convey emotional relationships such as when Irene tells her son who is ironing shirts to dampen the collar. Often too, dialogue is with a character who is offscreen for long periods – sometimes wth responses coming from offscreen.

Angela Schanelec with Reinhold Vorschneider shooting by the lake

Critics have increasingly praised Schanelec’s aesthetic approach. Mattias Frey in a ‘Senses of Cinema’ festival report suggests that “Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft”. Ekkehard Knörer in a ‘Sign and Sight’ report offers the most detailed critique. Knörer suggests that the opening shot of the stage introduces the sense of a theatrical space in the house looking out over the lake. He makes the point that the characters are so engrossed in their own concerns that dialogue is rarely about communicating but instead about each character’s ‘struggle with words’. Ironically, two of the characters are writers. If you know the Chekhov play you may wonder just how ‘free’ is this adaptation. The answer is very, but one action in the original play is obliquely presented in the closing moments of Schanelec’s script. I realise that the film is now gone from MUBI and I should have rewatched that ending. I’m certainly intrigued by this filmmaker and I will try to watch more.

Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur, France-Belgium 2017)

Juliette Binoche as Isabelle on the film’s Cannes poster

Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.

Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.

. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.

There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.

Isabelle with her actor lover (Nicolas Duvauchelle)

Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.

The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.

Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.

Isabelle dances to Etta James.

When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.

I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film: