Category: Films by women

Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and the ‘twilight Western’

The lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Dern)

Although I’d seen Kelly Reichardt’s previous three films, I still wasn’t quite prepared for Certain Women. I watched it intently but despite foreknowledge about her approach to narrative I was still surprised when it just stopped. I’ve thought a lot about the film over the last few days. Ms Reichardt is a favourite of many (most?) critics and I understand why. But her films still don’t get a wide release. She doesn’t make it easy for audiences but I would urge you to watch the films if you get the chance.

The ‘certain women’ of the title are four women in Montana. They are involved in three separate narratives which are subtly linked together in indirect ways. In the first we meet a small town lawyer played by Laura Dern who finds herself exhausted and exasperated by a difficult client. In the second, Michelle Williams is a business woman with a husband and teenage daughter who don’t seem totally enamoured of her attempts to build a weekend cottage using sustainable local materials. The third story features Kristen Stewart as a recent law graduate with little money forced to drive across the state to teach night school. There, by accident, she meets a young woman working in a solitary job as a ranch hand looking after a small herd over winter. This character (who some reviewers refer to as ‘Jamie’) is played by Lily Gladstone who is part Native American. I have to agree with all the critics and festival juries who pick out her performance over her more established fellow actors – each of whom are very good in their roles.

Chosen as the ‘Best Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2016, Certain Women has since been extensively reviewed so here I want to focus on just a limited range of responses. (Sophie Mayer has an excellent article on the film in Sight and Sound, March 2017 – it isn’t online as far as I can see but Mayer covers some of the same ground here.) Kelly Reichardt was born in Florida and her first film was made there, but her recent work is set in the North West, especially in Oregon. Landscape is crucially important in these films and Reichardt began her career with a fascination for photography. She has been well-served by her director of photography Christopher Blauvelt who has shot her last three films and she herself has taken on the film editing for her five major features. She has re-iterated that she hopes audiences will look to find meanings in her films rather than have them explained. The first shot of Certain Women (the whole film was shot on 16mm, blown up) is a static long shot as a mile-long freight train gradually comes into view. I’m not sure if I immediately thought of Brokeback Mountain at this point, but I certainly did later. The first shot of Brokeback is a long shot of a truck stopping early in the morning, in Wyoming not Montana but the landscape is similar. There are huge spaces, mountains, big skies and only a few people in small towns. I remember two other specific moments from early in the film. In one the camera lingers on a scene in a small shopping mall where children in Native American costume are performing a dance. It feels like a documentary. Sound is important as well. Laura Dern’s character, despondent in her car, turns on the radio/CD and we hear Guy Clark’s ‘Boats to Build’:

It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same o’l same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes

Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail

I didn’t register those lyrics at the time, but when I read them now, they seem like the perfect ironic accompaniment to the desolate lives of the characters. I’ve never been to Montana but I’ve read a few stories and watched a lot of movies. The stories that interest me most are those which are either set in the final days of the ‘frontier’, both ‘real’ and mythical, or which comment in some way on the world of the contemporary ‘Western’ with its lonely cowhands and characters seemingly bereft of purpose. Any time after the 1880s is perfect for the ‘twilight Western’ and Brokeback Mountain is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of story. Brokeback began as an E. Annie Proulx short story that was adapted by Diana Ossana and the ‘dean of the twilight Western’, Larry McMurtry (also responsible for the Montana-set Lonesome Dove and Texas-set The Last Picture Show). Another writer with a trilogy of Montana-set variations on the twilight Western is Thomas McGuane with Rancho Deluxe (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Tom Horn (1980). The (anti-)heroes of these stories are generally men who can’t come to terms with the decline of the West and its codes and are defeated/discouraged by the modernised West. (Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman from 1978 is one of the few female leads.)

Kelly Reichardt began to critique the Western with Meek’s Cutoff (2010) in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with more sense than the men on her pioneer wagon train – but, of course, the men don’t listen to her. The four women of Certain Women still live to some extent in a world of men who don’t listen or who make foolish decisions which the women will pay for in some way. For Certain Women Reichardt has adapted short stories by Montana novelist Maile Meloy from her collections Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009). It occurs to me that each of the three stories could be related to Western narratives and themes. The first story develops into a familiar tale about sheriffs and fugitives with Laura ‘used’ by the law because she is compassionate and can defuse a potentially tricky situation. What does she get out of it? It’s as if she’s restricted by those traditional roles for women in the Western – schoolteacher, pioneer mother or saloon girl. The third story about the lonely ranch hand and the exhausted teacher is a sad romance, beautifully played and paced and its standout is the short sequence in which the two young women are together on the horse that takes them between the school and the diner. This story has obvious echoes of Brokeback (in which, as I’ve just remembered, Montana-born Michelle Williams is the abandoned wife and mother). In the twilight Western there are often two characters – one who tries to adapt to modernity and one who is trapped inside the codes of the West (which in these stories are usually honourable codes). The exhausted Beth and ‘natural’ ranch hand again seem familiar.

Michelle Williams as Gina, the business woman, properly dressed and striking a confident pose?

In the second story from Certain Women Williams is Gina, the ‘strong woman’ still not sure if she is doing the right thing and struggling with herself as she does what those pioneer women had to do and build her own house (or at least, direct and organise the men she finds to do it). In this story the key scene is her encounter with the old man who has a pile of sandstone blocks that she would like to use for her house. He doesn’t need them but how much should she pay for them? Is she right to ask for them? If he offers them to her for free should she take them? The man with the stones is played by René Auberjonois, a name I recognised more than a face. Later I realised I had seen him in countless Westerns as well as the films of Robert Altman (Reichardt in an interview says she used to use his voice as the bartender in McCabe and Mrs Miller in exercises for film students). While her husband says nothing, Gina tries to engage the old man when he looks out on his land and points out the birds. Gina mimics the bird calls and we can’t be sure whether she is genuinely interested in the birds or just practised in negotiation. Again she seems to be struggling with a ‘modern’ role. Is she any happier than in her previous incarnation as pioneer woman?

Kristen Stewart as Beth, the law graduate trying to teach night school.

The first story, in which Laura at one point cries out, imagining what it might be like to be a man who is listened to and given credence, is the only one with conventional (i.e. generic) ‘action’ – but even then its conclusion is subverted. In all three stories, the meaning is conveyed through landscape, cinematography and sound. It’s also ironic that one of the markers of the mise en scène of the ‘woman’s picture’ is costume. Reichardt may well have made an ‘anti-woman’s picture’ (as well as an ‘anti-Western’ and an ‘anti-melodrama’?). Costume says a lot here. In the first scene Laura returns to her office from a lunch-time tryst, late and a little bedraggled. Her sweater is half tucked in her skirt and half pulled out. We watch her climb the stairs and then come down when she is called to the phone by her receptionist. We know it isn’t going to be an easy afternoon. By contrast, Michelle Williams as Gina is seen first in running gear (and headphones) and then securely wrapped up for the cold – ‘properly’ dressed and with her hair tied up. At the end of the episode when she smokes a cigarette and sips a glass of wine at the chilly barbecue she has organised it seems like a visualisation of the contradiction between her efficient businesswoman and her striving for authenticity. Like Laura, Gina seems to represent the two twilight Western characters in a single conflicted character.

Lily Gladstone – fresh and open-faced

In the third episode, Beth (Kristen Stewart) wears clothes that look as tired as she is. Meanwhile, Lily Gladstone as the ranch hand is dressed for manual work but looks lively and alert (for the moment anyway). Both Wendy Ide in the Observer and A. O. Scott in the New York Times comment on Kristen Stewart’s performance. Ide argues that we know her performance is exceptional but it’s hard to figure out what she does. Scott makes the point that she successfully conveys the character’s tiredness and despair, but still retains enough of the glamour that appeals to the ranch hand. In terms of the ‘anti’ twilight Western however, the ranch hand who is closest to the land and open to the romanticism of the myth of the West is the one who is going to suffer. The other three characters all seem aware that they are attempting to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Western scenario, but so far are still trapped in their mythical roles or are unsure how far they have escaped them. You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the male characters in the film. There are two significant male roles, both of which have a narrative importance, but one of which is so inconsequential as a character that I didn’t realise his significance until after the screening. There is also a dog (there often is in a Reichardt film). I didn’t know there were corgis in the US. They don’t look well-adapted for ranch work, but Wikipedia tells me they are bred as ‘herding dogs’ (see the trailer below). I chose the German trailer as the best on offer for this blog.

I had to travel for four hours to see Certain Women – not as far as Kristen Stewart’s character, but it would be good if distributors and exhibitors had a bit more faith in films like this. There’s a good reason why Kelly Reichardt excites cinephiles. She makes films that make you think – and feel.

Viceroy’s House (UK-US-India-Sweden 2017)

The four figures in the centre are Fatima Jinnah (Jinnah’s sister – actor unknown), Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), the Viceroy (Hugh Bonneville) and the Vicereine (Gillian Anderson)

Gurinder Chadha is a distinctive director. Ever since her first short, but important, first film I’m British, But . . . (1990), she has sought to make films that draw on her personal experience but which also reach out to audiences using music and strong emotions. From 2000’s What’s Cooking she has written scripts with her partner Paul Mayeda Berges and an American sense of the popular ‘feelgood’ formula has been melded with Chadha’s own sense of joyfulness. Perhaps as a result, her films have tended to fare better with broad public audiences than with critics. Nevertheless, her importance within British Cinema has been recognised. Viceroy’s House has been a long time in the making and it feels like the most personal of Chadha’s films. In the final credits, amongst all the archive photographs and newsreel footage of both the carnage and the celebrations that followed the partition of British India and the emergence of two new independent states, she tells the story of a woman who fled the Punjab. As the caption reads, that woman was the director’s grandmother.

There have been many films that have tried to deal with Partition and its aftermath. Gurinder Chadha is not alone in being a diaspora director ‘returning’ to the sub-continent to make a partition film using funding and infrastructure from Europe and North America. Other examples include Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) and Vic Sarin’s Partition (2007). There are many ‘popular’ Indian films that include stories about partition and its aftermath, but some of the best are examples of art cinema or parallel cinema, such as Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy of films about the aftermath of partition in Bengal, Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1998) or a film like Garam Hava (Scorching Winds, 1973) by M.S. Sathyu. In this context, Gurinder Chadha’s film needs to be seen as an attempt to introduce an outline history of the process of Partition and British withdrawal to a broad audience. She explains all of this in an interview in the Observer (and see below for a video presentation of her motivations). The angry denouncements of Viceroy’s House by writers such as Fatima Bhutto in the Guardian seem to rather miss the point.

Chadha has based her film on a range of published histories and has used a romance between two Punjabis, a Hindu young man and a Muslim young woman, to provide an emotional charge that takes us into the ‘personal stories’. This romance is part of what she herself has referred to as a ‘below the stairs’ narrative to compare with the story of diplomatic negotiation hurriedly conducted by the ‘last Viceroy’, Louis Mountbatten, and Indian political leaders. Chadha also includes the activities of Lady Mountbatten, although not the rumoured flirtation with Nehru. In the space of only 106 minutes, Viceroy’s House tries to be both epic and personal. Inevitably, the historical detail is limited, but it serves as an introduction and as far as I can see it is fairly accurate. I was surprised to hear on the BBC’s Film Programme that the host Charlie Brooker didn’t know the history and found the politics interesting but as he put it, “heavy lifting”. So, perhaps Gurinder Chadha was wise to try to sugar the pill of a history that should be taught in schools (i.e. the history of the British Empire).

Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) as the lovers

The ‘below the stairs’ reference is to the popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) that Chadha must have watched as a child (she was born in 1960). A re-boot of the series was attempted in 2010 which ran for two seasons. Inevitably, however, for many reviewers the reference point has been Downton Abbey (2010-15), especially with the portrayal of Louis Mountbatten by Hugh Bonneville, one of the stars of Downton as the Earl. My feeling is that Bonneville is miscast as the Viceroy. Although he is closer in age to the historical Viceroy than James Fox in Jinnah (1998), he feels rather ‘chummy’ and not like a successful military commander and second cousin of the King Emperor. From her various statements, it seems clear that Gurinder Chadha is much more familiar with the British ‘heritage’ films and TV programmes about the Raj than with the many Indian and diasporic films about the end of the Raj and its aftermath. However, the romance she conjures up does figure in some of those Indian films and I felt a sudden recognition in the closing scenes when the Hindu boy seeks and finds his Muslim girlfriend (e.g. in Train to Pakistan and in Earth, where the religious mix is reversed). I was suddenly reminded of scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) in which a young Muslim-Hindu couple are caught up in communal riots in Mumbai. Both films are scored by A. R. Rahman. I found the score for Viceroy’s House to be conventional and almost lost in the presentation for much of the film, but it worked in those closing scenes. I’m aware that for some UK audiences, the romance seems ‘tagged on’ and unnecessary – but it is central to Chadha’s strategy. She wants audiences to both understand the complexity of the political negotiations and to feel the emotional torment on a personal level. I think she gets close to doing that. I’m not convinced though by the romance. The two actors don’t seem well-matched. I know Huma Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur, but I didn’t recognise the actor playing Jeet Kumar. It was only later that I discovered that Manish Dyal is an American actor. Gurinder Chadha appears to be concerned to use British or American South Asians or Indians who are used to working in ‘international productions’ rather than actors working in Indian film industries. I wonder if this will be a barrier to acceptance by Indian audiences? (There is, however, a brief appearance from Om Puri, who died recently, far too young, and who will be sorely missed.)

Mountbatten with his valets. Is Hugh Bonneville too associated with ‘Downton Abbey’ to be credible?

Having discussed the film with friends, I think there is a consensus that although the mis-castings are a barrier and the romance could have been better handled, overall the film has attracted a popular audience and it does deliver that basic history lesson. The trailer perhaps inadvertently provides the key to the problems Gurinder Chadha faced. She has explained how difficult it is to sell a story like this to funders for mainstream films and I’m assuming that the UK trailer is the price you have to pay to satisfy a conservative distribution/exhibition environment. Several people have told me that the trailer put them off seeing the film or that it nearly stopped them (and they said that would have been a shame).

The film has received quite a lot of coverage in the UK media, with Gurinder Chadha responding. Yesterday, when I thought all had quietened down, another over-the-top piece was published in the Guardian by Ian Jack. I was particularly disappointed to read this as I usually enjoy Ian Jack’s writing. He is an ‘old India hand’ and therefore perhaps emotionally involved, but he claims the film as ‘fake history’ and detects that Chadha and her fellow writers, her husband and the British playwright and scriptwriter Moira Buffini, have been too reliant on a 2006 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila. The two central findings of this book that Jack finds objectionable/not proven/not credible are 1) that the British government’s long-term policy was to support a separate Pakistan as an ally against Soviet influence in South Asia and that 2) that this was Churchill’s policy formulated before he lost power in 1945 and introduced secretly into the 1947 negotiations by Lord Ismay, Churchill’s wartime military assistant after 1940. By 1947 he’d become Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff. The point about British policy seems to me to be not really an issue. After 1947 Pakistan became a Western ally, India became a non-aligned nation with ‘normal’ relations with the Soviet Union. Ismay and Churchill’s role in all this (in the film, it is a document supposedly drawn up for Churchill that provides the basis for the Partition boundaries in Punjab) is obviously more debatable. But then, as most historians would agree, Churchill’s racist comments about India and Indians as well as his extreme anti-communism were well-known and it certainly seems plausible that his influence may have been felt on men pressurised to make decisions in July/August 1947. Ian Jack attempts to discredit Sarila by quoting various British historian’s reviews of the book. I haven’t read either Sarila’s book or the full reviews Jack mentions (I have read other quite favourable reviews, but possibly by less distinguished reviewers) so I’m not going to comment further. I only wish to point out that where anyone stands in these debates about Partition depends to a certain extent on where their broader sympathies lie with Indian, Pakistani or British positions. Again I don’t favour one over another, but I do feel for Gurinder Chadha in her attempt to view her personal story in the context of all of these political machinations.

On one score, Ian Jack is certainly on shaky ground. He asserts: “The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office”. In fact it has had a ‘wide’ UK release and after two weekends (i.e. ten days in cinemas) it has made £2.34 million. Given that the film did quite well in the first week with older audiences, the full two week total might be closer to £2.8 to £3 million which is more than OK for a UK release. I will be intrigued to see how the film does in other territories and especially what happens when it reaches India. Indian media company Reliance is a production partner and should promote the film, but so far there seems to be confusion about when an Indian release might happen. I’ve seen March, June and August mentioned.

In the video clip below, Gurinder Chadha describes the long preparation process for her film which she started mainly because of her experience in travelling back to Kenya and then to her family’s home in Punjab as part of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? in 2006. The whole of that episode is online and it’s a fascinating watch. When she reaches Pakistan and finds the family house which was allocated to Muslim refugee families fleeing in the opposite direction to her grandparents in 1947, she knows she must tell the story of Partition.

Apple Tree Yard (UK 2017)

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Yvonne (Emily Watson) emerges from the holding cells at The Old Bailey

Emily Watson’s performance as the geneticist who becomes involved in an adulterous affair and ultimately a murder trial is one of the best I have seen in TV drama. This TV serial has been the subject of discussion by audiences and critics with some arguing it is a narrative that ‘punishes’ a woman who has desire and others defending a woman of 50 who expresses desire.

I don’t want to get into that argument but it is worth pointing out that this is a serial produced, written and directed by women. What interests me more is that I read the original novel by Louise Doughty but, although I could see the skill and intelligence in the writing, I didn’t really enjoy the book. What’s more, I couldn’t remember what it was that put me off. I wasn’t going to bother with the TV adaptation but I decided to give it a try, partly because of Emily Watson’s casting.

I  was surprised at how gripping I found the first episode to be and I stayed with the serial to the end. Why did Emily Watson’s performance carry so much weight? I’m not aware of stardom or performance studies that look at the difference between film and TV. I’m sure that they must exist but also that many scholars and critics now see the boundary between small and large screen as increasingly porous. In UK TV drama there has been a tendency to cast lead roles using TV stars such as Sarah Lancashire or Amanda Redman. An actor like Emily Watson feels like a different kind of presence. Her persona comes from theatre and film. She became known in cinema for appearances in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Hilary and Jackie (1997), both of which gained her Oscar nominations. Her subsequent career has involved theatre work and a number of more recent roles in which she has been cast as mother figures. This is partly why Yvonne comes as such a welcome role.

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Mark (Ben Chaplin) and Yvonne (Emily Watson)

Emily Watson exudes a certain kind of decency and determination with the possibility of vulnerability. Her casting as Yvonne is perfect. By chance I also recently caught her performance in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2010) in which she plays a social worker seeking the truth about children in care who were sent to Australia in the 1950s. ‘De-glammed’ in that role she again embodied decency and determination. It is these qualities which are called into question in her role as Yvonne.

As an actor, Watson does a great deal with her eyes and she is well-served by costume and hair style as Yvonne. But she also has that indefinable sense of ‘presence’. It helps too that Ben Chaplin as her lover is also more of a film than TV star. The two together make an odd but compelling couple with Chaplin thoroughly loathsome, but presumably a turn-on for Yvonne. Many women in the TV audience must have identified with Watson’s convincing presentation of Yvonne.

The UK release of Toni Erdmann (Germany-Austria 2016)

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Ines (Sandra Hüller) and Winfried (Peter Simonischeck). He’s not yet the full ‘Toni’, but he has got the teeth in.

Keith reported on Toni Erdmann as the closing film of the Leeds International Film Festival (LIFF) back in November 2016. The film had wowed Cannes in May 2016 and there was general dismay that it was not recognised by the Festival Jury despite almost universal acclaim. After the all too common long delay before a UK release (well done Soda for acquiring the title), Toni Erdmann has become one of the most hyped/heavily promoted arthouse releases I can remember for a long time. Most of the promotion has come on social media from people who have seen the film at festivals or on release in other territories. It is also significant that it is the first foreign language film to get a release on more than a handful of screens in the UK for two months (since the Dardennes’ Unknown Girl). I’m bored now with repeating the shaming fact that the UK exhibition sector offers no foreign language releases in December/January and that this has been the case for several years.

In these circumstances, I think it’s necessary to revisit the film and Keith’s festival report. Two quick points first. The film is 162 minutes but to me felt like 100 minutes. Second, it is at times very funny (raucous laugh-out-loud funny) and I have to agree with all those comments I read beforehand. I agree with a lot of what Keith said about the film as well, though I think we read some scenes differently.

I’ve seen reviews that describe Toni Erdmann as a ‘screwball comedy’ and others that compare it to Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game) and I can see that both descriptions have some merit. The film’s length gives writer-director Maren Ade the opportunity to move from one genre to another and to shift the tone of different sequences. The result is that most audiences will find something they really like in the film, but also that they might be frustrated by other parts. If you have managed to avoid reading about the film so far, let me briefly outline the narrative without spoiling it. The film’s title is the name of the alter ego adopted by Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a sixty-something living on his own in suburban Germany (although I guess it could be Austria). He seems to be a music teacher, probably retired, with an aged dog and an aged mother and ex-wife both living nearby. His daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller) is a management consultant in her mid 30s, working too hard and juggling projects in Bucharest and Shanghai. Events convince Winfried to make a surprise visit to Bucharest where he attempts to challenge Ines to reflect on her life. His strategy involves donning a wig and clip-on dentures and posing as ‘Toni Erdmann’, a ‘life coach’, who introduces himself to Ines’ colleagues and friends – with predictable, and sometimes unpredictable, results. There are several amazing set pieces that depend on script, direction and wonderful performances by the two leads.

'Toni' and Ines on their way to visit an oilfield.

‘Toni’ and Ines on their way to visit an oilfield.

Many reviewers have commented on the father-daughter relationship and this certainly runs throughout the narrative and carries an emotional heft. However, my own interest and enjoyment was mostly in the different perspectives and strategies the two characters adopt in their engagement with the work and social environment that Ines inhabits in Bucharest. I’ve had only a limited experience of working on international projects but my viewing companion worked as an executive for an oil industry services company and we both agreed that Maren Ade had captured the tone of business presentations and small talk at receptions/parties perfectly. Ines works for a consultancy company called ‘Morrison’. There are several real consultancy companies called Morrison/Morison some with a global reach but it was odd seeing the film in Bradford, home of the major UK supermarket chain ‘Morrisons’. Ines is a consultant who has to devise a strategy for a team with Romanian and German members to present to a multinational which is attempting to ‘modernise’ the Romanian oil industry (one of the oldest in the world) and this inevitably will mean reducing the workforce with all the subsequent social damage that will cause. This is an environment in which Germans and Romanians use their own language to talk to their compatriots but English to talk to each other in public. Nobody ever says what they really mean in public discourse and this provides the basis for comedy (and satire) – and tragedy. Ines is prepared to play the game, Winfried/Toni finds it more difficult. The contrast between the glamorous world of global capitalism and the reality for the mass of Romania’s population is well captured in the dialogue (the observation that the new shopping malls are far too expensive for Romanians) and by the camera when Winfried looks down from Ines’ cold and minimalist designer apartment to see in the streets below a working-class household living behind a high fence. The sexism inherent in the ex-pat world of consultants is another well-observed element in Maren Ade’s script. Overall the treatment of modern global capitalism reminded me of Christian Petzold’s Yella (Germany 2007). Sandra Hüller is herself from East Germany – like the character played by Nina Hoss in Yella.

A comedy classic in the making – Ines and her party dress.

A comedy classic in the making – Ines and her party dress. Good job there’s a fork handy.

The final third of the film shifts into what might be seen as surrealism. At one point I did think of Buñuel. But I still think the situation is believable given the circumstances. One of the funniest scenes involves Ines trying to get into and then out of a particularly tight-fitting dress. I’m trying to resist pointing out that such a scene is much more likely in a film written and directed by a woman – as is the unusual sex scene earlier in the film. I don’t want to give away what happens in the final scenes because the shifts in tone are surprising and revealing.

But is this like Renoir? I suppose it is in the sense that there is certainly a ‘game’ and that the film reveals the inequalities that exist in the globalised world of Romanian ‘modernity’. We get to know just about enough of the lives of a small group of characters to realise that none are totally ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Having said that, the multinational boss Ines has to please is very worrying. Some audiences appear to find it difficult to identify with either Ines or Winfried but I think we get to know both well enough to see them as ‘humanised’ characters. What at first might seem like a comedy of embarrassment eventually becomes a humanist drama. Winfried/Toni is, as Catherine Wheatley in Sight and Sound (March 2017) points out, a child of the 1960s. For those of us similarly inclined he’s ideologically and emotionally ‘correct’ – but not necessarily entitled to force/coerce/persuade Ines to feel the same. The film’s ending is worth thinking about. It’s a terrific film and I’d really like to see Maren Ade’s two previous films.

Queen of Katwe (US 2016)

Lupita-N'Yongo, Mira Nair and David Oyelowo on set for Queen of Katwe

Lupita Nyong’o, Mira Nair and David Oyelowo on set for ‘Queen of Katwe’

Queen of Katwe is a ‘Disney movie’ set in Uganda. But it’s also a Mira Nair film and part of David Oyelowo’s overall project to bring African stories into mainstream cinemas. These three factors ought to combine to create a significant box office hit. The film itself is very good and had the same emotional impact for me as A United Kingdom. Unfortunately, however, Disney as a corporation seems to tripped up in trying to promote the film. There are many websites, videos and stories online about the original project and the Disney film, so perhaps the problem is that the Disney brand is so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that audiences are unable to negotiate it in different ways. Either way, the result is that despite an initial ‘wide’ release in the UK and US, Queen of Katwe hasn’t found the audience it seeks. I finally managed to get to a local screening organised by Keighley Film club, which is able to screen films in our 1913 Picture House. I hope many more find it on DVD/Blu-ray and TV in the coming months.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) collects water in Katwe.

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) collects water in Katwe.

The story is set in Katwe, a district of Kampala (population 1.5 million) the capital of Uganda. It’s a true story and in the final credits we meet the ‘real’ characters in the drama. Katwe appears to have a reputation both as an innovative centre for artisan manufacture and as a sprawling ‘slum’ district. In the film it comes across much like the shanty towns of other African cities with low quality housing thrown up alongside the railway track. In other descriptions, Katwe is presented as the worst kind of slum with no sanitation, no secure accommodation and a trap into which the poor from rural areas and other parts of the city are destined to fall. As photographed by Nair’s cinematographer Sean Bobbit it looks bright and lively, but also plagued by sewage and subject to flooding. In this unlikely setting Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is the single parent of three children. The two younger children, close in age, are Brian and Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) and it is the latter who is the focus of the film. (The older daughter Night provides the illustration of what Phiona might become if she gives up the discipline of chess.) The film’s title logically refers to Phiona who, through her success in chess tournaments, will become a celebrated media star. But it is also possible to see her mother as a ‘Queen’, simply on the basis that Lupita Nyong’o is such a stunning star presence with the stature of a model and the experience of red carpet occasions as well as her own distinguished family background. There is no reason why mothers in Katwe shouldn’t be beautiful, but Nyong’o certainly stands out.

Robert Katende teaches a class at the Katwe Chess Academy, which he founded in 2003. Martina Bacigalupo for NPR (http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/10/05/496425623/photos-theyre-all-kings-and-queens-of-katwe)

Robert Katende teaches a class at the Katwe Chess Academy, which he founded in 2003.
Photo: Martina Bacigalupo for NPR (www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/10/05/496425623/photos-theyre-all-kings-and-queens-of-katwe)

Phiona discovers chess alongside Brian in a community ‘school’ run by an outreach worker for a Christian charity. Robert Katende himself had a difficult childhood. You can learn about his life through a documentary made by Mira Nair and available on Vimeo. The same documentary is also available on The Queen of Katwe website from Sport Outreach. Katende’s childhood involved the dangers of living in the bush with the violence of the DRC spreading over the border. In the film he becomes an ex-footballer who has had to retire because of injury and a qualified engineer with an excellent degree thwarted by the recruitment policies of local firms. This latter is explored through the class divisions in Ugandan society when Katende takes his brightest hopes, including Phiona and Brian to a competition in an upmarket school where the Katwe children are at first treated as aliens.

The Katwe children at the chessboard

The Katwe children at the chessboard

At first glance, it isn’t difficult to see why Disney agreed to fund the film. It combines two attractive ideas for the studio – a bright and intelligent young female lead character (for a studio that has brought us Brave and Moana in the last few years) and a solid genre narrative as a ‘sports movie’ with a charismatic ‘coach’ and enough dramatic conflict, but also a ‘happy ending’. As a bonus it is based on a true story. Working with a director like Mira Nair is perhaps an innovation for the main Disney brand (as distinct from Disney’s previous ‘adult brands’ such as Touchstone). Queen of Katwe actually originated from ESPN, Disney’s majority-owned sports company in the form of a magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, but it is branded with the Disney logo. Nair has a distinctive approach which includes work with non-professional actors (e.g. in Salaam Bombay) as well as a background in documentary filmmaking. Madina Nalwanga had not acted before but she has trained as a dancer and the skills she has learned helped her to maintain composure in the role. Mira Nair also has the local knowledge that is so important in making this kind of film in a country with limited film infrastructure like Uganda. She is married to a Ugandan and in 1991 she made Mississippi Mermaid which followed the story of an East Asian family from Uganda migrating to the American South. That story focused on the daughter of the family played by Sarita Choudhury. In the case of Queen of Katwe, it would appear that the Disney ‘front office’ kept its distance and Nair was able to make the film on her own terms in Kampala with support from the South African film infrastructure which has interests in East Africa.

The problems for this film have come in distribution and exhibition. In the UK, Disney is able to organise cinema ads and trailers that target the same audience as the Disney film that is showing. When I saw the film there were no children in the audience which was predominantly 55+ but we got trails for new Disney films. Disney needed two strategies to sell the film to two different audiences in multiplexes and in specialised cinemas. They failed to reach audiences in both. I think the situation in North America was similar. The critics (professional and amateur) rated the film highly but audiences didn’t find the film. Perhaps Queen of Katwe is a ‘safe’ film in terms of its story, but though it pursues a genre narrative, it avoids easy sentimentality and sticks largely to the facts. It doesn’t need any white characters to in any way ‘legitimise’ Phiona’s success as a chess player. I can imagine it would have been tempting for Disney to press for Phiona’s story to end up in the US. But the film sticks to two overseas trips – to Sudan and Russia. At the end of the film, a song from Alicia Keys appears. I thought this was out of place (I like Ms Keys and the song, but it didn’t fit here for me, even though she wrote it specifically for the film). There’s a clip here explaining why she wrote it – and some comments by the cast about the music scene in Uganda. I urge you to see this film and if you want to learn more I suggest looking at the various clips, interviews and documentaries on YouTube. Here’s the trailer (with the Alicia Keys song):

and here’s a documentary from NTV Uganda:

Les innocentes (France-Poland 2015)

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Les innocentes (previously titled ‘Agnus Dei’) proved to be a rather different film than I expected. I didn’t really have any expectations other than having enjoyed director Anne Fontaine’s earlier films such as Gemma Bovery (France 2014) and Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) and I wasn’t expecting such a powerful and deeply moving film. I found it harrowing but also deeply humanist as well as sensitive in dealing with issues of faith. It’s based on the experiences of a historical character – a French doctor who had worked with the Resistance in Paris in 1944 and risen to the rank of ‘Lieutenant Doctor’. In 1945 she became the chief doctor in the French Hospital in Warsaw, in charge of repatriation of French citizens who had been prisoners of war or wounded in Poland and the Soviet Union. Madeleine Pauliac led a team of female ambulance drivers, the ‘Blue Squadron’, searching for the soldiers who would her patients and this is how she came across the incidents developed in the film. In 1946 she died accidentally during her work. Her nephew, Philippe Maynial, was the source of this historical account which was then developed by a team of writers including Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial as well as the director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer.

A baby delivered by Mathilde (Lou de Laage)

A baby delivered by Mathilde (Lou de Laâge)

The film narrative focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is younger than Madeleine and an assistant rather than the doctor in charge (and therefore more vulnerable). One day in December 1945 she is working in the hospital when a Benedictine nun is brought to her by one of the street children. The novice wants a doctor to visit the convent but Mathilde tries to shoo her away because she is only supposed to treat French citizens. When she reflects on her decision she decides to go to the convent anyway and is shocked to discover a nun in the last stages of labour and a difficult birth. Eventually she will realise that several of the nuns are pregnant following repeated rapes by Red Army soldiers. She has entered the convent secretly because the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) would not approve of her presence but once inside she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French fluently and acts as her interpreter and guide. Mathilde now finds herself doubly ‘disobedient’ – absenting herself from the hospital and entering the convent. She will later also find herself confronted with a group of Red Army soldiers on the dark road out to the convent in the by the forest outside the town. But there is no way back once Mathilde is committed. She can’t allow women and children to die in the circumstances she discovers.

Mathilde with Maria (Agneta Buzek) and the Mother Superior (Agneta

Mathilde with Maria (Agata Buzek, left) and the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza, centre)

Mathilde with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne)

Mathilde with Samuel (Vincent Macaigne)

What follows is a drama that develops the conflict between faith, humanity and practicality that underpins Mathilde’s battle with the Mother Superior and individual pregnant nuns in the face of further contact with the Russians and Mathilde’s issues with her superiors. A parallel narrative follows Mathilde’s growing relationship with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – a Jewish man who lost his parents in the camps while he was overseas with the Free French. At first, I thought this might be a step too far in adding another layer to the complexity of the central story but it won me over.

One of the painterly compositions

One of the painterly compositions

There is an excellent Press Kit for the film available from Films Distribution and some of the following comments are drawn from it.

The look of the film and the overall tone of the story is measured and astutely handled. Veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier does an excellent job. She also shot the similarly themed but very differently located Of Gods and Men (France 2010). The setting is very distinctive with the isolated convent (a ‘real’ abandoned convent) set close to woods and snow-covered fields, the nuns in their blue and white habits and the shadows inside the convent. Anne Fontaine describes the look in these terms:

We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes. The air had to be palpable.

This is a setting little changed from the Middle Ages suddenly disrupted by the arrival of khaki-clad men and women in jeeps and trucks. Anne Fontaine has constructed a narrative that moves effortlessly through dramatic confrontations, intimate scenes births and deaths and scenes of contemplation and prayer. I found the film’s 115 minutes sped by and I was reluctant to let it go when the credits rolled.

Praise must go to Anne Fontaine and her collaborators in a genuinely successful co-production. In must have been difficult to work for much of the time in a foreign language (and I note that quite a few discussions on set were conducted in English as a shared language for many actors and crew). She chose very well in casting two of Polish cinema’s most accomplished performers in Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. I always find convent-set stories slightly problematic since so many distinguishing features (hair, neck and shoulders) are covered. Both the lead actresses were familiar to me but couldn’t place them. Later I realised that Agata Kulesza gave a stellar performance as the judge and aunt of the novice nun in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) and that Agata Buzek was the lead in Rewers (Poland 2009), both great films. Lou de Laâge as Mathilde is one of the rising stars of French (and European) Cinema. In one or two scenes I wondered if she looked impossibly beautiful for a doctor under stress but Anne Fontaine comments about her:

She is graced with a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed that this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, along with her freshness and a fragility that lie just beneath the surface, would well serve the film.

That seems a good call. I’d finally add that the music in the film which included Handel and Rossini alongside chants by Hildegard von Bingen is beautifully integrated with a score by Grégoire Hetzel which as, Anne Fontaine suggests, is minimal and never overwhelms a film that feels intimate and natural.

Toni Erdmann (Germany 2016)

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This was the closing film of the Leeds International Film Festival. It is one of three titles competing for the European Parliament’s LUX Prize. [It won the prize.] The other two contenders are My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de courgette, Switzerland-France and a late addition to the LIFF programme) and As I Open My Eyes (A piene j’ouvre de yeux, France, Tunisia, Belgium, UAR). All three films should receive distribution across the EU, which still includes the UK. The aim of this is to support and publicise ‘quality’ films that address important social and political issues and contribute to building a European identity. The Selection Committee of professionals appointed by the Parliament select a winning title. However, there is also an Audience Award and UK citizens are still able to vote in this. Toni Erdmann is a strong contender as it has received good reviews and is an impressive film that certainly addresses important issues. It is at times very funny, though increasingly I found the humour overpowered by the sadness of the situation and central relationship.

The film centres on a father and daughter, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) and Ines Conradi (Sandra Hüller). The title character is imported into this relationship by the father.

Ines works for a consultancy firm, presumably venture capitalists. She is the lead person in discussion with Romanian ministers about privatising the country’s oil industry: i.e. downsizing. She is part of the highly paid jet set, moving round for the company. Currently she is based in Bucharest and her father comes to visit her there.

Over a period of weeks we watch both their personal relationship and also aspects of Ines’ work. The latter involves company executives, working acquaintances with whom she socialises in expensive bars and restaurants; and people in the Romanian industry. Her father also meets them. He has a tendency, established in the opening sequences of the film, to play at practical jokes. So he is an ironic and slightly bizarre addition to this privileged circle.

We see a certain amount of the wheeling and dealing, both in the firm where Ines works and between that company and the Romanian government. Only once do we see the actual working people who are pawns in this financial play: this is on a visit to an oil platform. It is clear that for the workers the alternatives of state or private exploitation are equally injurious.

tonierdmannweb2

The director of the film, Maren Ade, is quoted in the Festival Catalogue on the characters as ‘comedians’,

“because comedians often have their alter egos, . . . “

Les Grignoux in an extensive review of the film, [which includes nearly all the plotline], picked up on this and discusses the two protagonists in these terms:

“The humour provides a key to interpreting the film, however, and digging slightly deeper beneath the surface quickly reveals the similarities between the contrasting couple of the father and the daughter and two traditional circus characters: Auguste and the whiteface clown.” [In a LUX information pack].

Whilst I’m not fully convinced, this does provide an interesting angle on the film. And in the later stages Ines surprises us by following her father’s penchant for jokes. Up until this point the film has tended to be realist, with sequences often running on in an extended fashion. From this point I found the film’s ending closer to the surreal as the filmmaker sought to offer a resolution.

The film is well produced with some fine cinematography, though this aspect along with the sound and music is subordinated to the working of the relationship and settings.

It is an absorbing though also quite long film. I was engaged and impressed throughout its length. But I was not completely convinced by the way that the changing relationship between father and daughter was handled. Also the back stories to the characters are not that clear and I was aware of this during the film. Much of the action take place in Bucharest but the film apparently opens in Germany, but where is not clear. And Winfried seems to work as a part-time music teacher but in Bucharest he seems to have access to an amount of spending money. And there are characters in Bucharest and other family members who are important important in the film but the focus on the main pair means these are often sketchy as people.

Definitely worth seeing but prepare for two and half hours of viewing. The film is in colour and offers a mixture of German, English and Romanian dialogue, with English subtitles.

Cézanne et moi (France 2016)

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Guillaume Gallienne (left) as Paul Cézanne and Guillaume Canet as Émile Zola

This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).

French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.

I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates her and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.

The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.

Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).

Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. As yet there isn’t a trailer with English subs, but you can get some sense of the visual style of the film and the central performances in this bande annonce: