Category: Films by women

Returning to: The Ground Beneath My Feet (Der Boden unter den Füßen, Austria 2019)

Lola attempts to keep her non-work life secret, making calls out of sight

My colleague Keith wrote about this film when it screened at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019. Keith suggested that it might appear in the UK and here it is. I’ve had the advantage of re-watching parts of the film and I just want to add a few words to Keith’s posting.

Released in the UK in June 2020, The Ground Beneath My Feet is available on MUBI, Amazon, Apple TV and other services. It’s an impressive ‘psychodrama’ as some reviewers put it. It isn’t a ‘feelgood’ film to cheer you up during a national lockdown, but it is a devastating critique of aspects of 21st century capitalism which spares nobody. Ironically, the recent film which is closest in terms of the scenario explored here is the comedy, Toni Erdmann (Germany-Austria-Romania 2016). In tone, however, my reference point might be Christian Petzold’s Yella (Germany 2007). All three films have a female central character engaged in capitalist enterprise culture.

Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a business consultant working for an anonymous company which undertakes ‘re-structuring’ of businesses in decline. In her early thirties Lola is a project leader working long days and living in a hotel throughout the week before heading home to her lonely flat in Vienna. The projects last many months and this one is based in Rostock, one of the old Hanseatic ports on the Baltic coast. Lola’s only respite during her work time is the occasional evening with colleagues in the bar or restaurant and with her boss Elise (Mavie Hörbiger) in bed. Lola hasn’t told her workmates about Conny (Pia Hierzegger), her half-sister who is older but now in need of care for her mental health. In fact, Lola is her legal carer, a reversal since Lola’s childhood when the sisters were orphaned and Conny was in charge. Conny spends much of her time in hospital after an overdose and Lola is under pressure to help find a solution to her care issues.

The film’s mise en scène often traps Lola

The film is written and directed by Marie Kreutzer as her fourth feature. The cinematography by Leena Koppe and editing by Ulrike Kofler are important for the look of the film with its focus on the central female characters, often framed in long shot in a CinemaScope presentation. Kyrre Kvam provides a complementary, if minimalist, score. Much of the time ambient sound and effects comprise the soundtrack. The film ends with a Leonard Cohen track, ‘If I Didn’t Have Your Love’ from the ominously titled album You Want It Darker. I think there is a trend for choosing Leonard Cohen songs in auteur films – the last one I remember was in A White White Day (Iceland-Denmark 2019).

Taking care of Conny is another form of entrapment

I’ve just indicated that this is an auteur film, but I’ve also noted that at least one reviewer has referred to the director as an ‘auteuse’ and this usage seems to be growing. I’m a little ambivalent about this. Several female players in films like this would prefer to refer to themselves as ‘actors’ rather than ‘actresses’. Obviously I try to describe them as they would like to be described, but how to tell? Any guidance is gratefully accepted. Auteuse may be used to indicate the director is concerned with feminist issues perhaps? This is certainly a film about three women directly and two or three others more indirectly. Lola’s team is ‘gender balanced’ in one sense and Elise is her boss, but Sebastian is her male colleague clearly angling to get ahead of her in the promotion stakes and Birgit is the woman at the bottom of the pecking order. Lola also faces overt sexism from two of the leading figures in the company she is trying to ‘save’ as a successful business. We are very clearly in #MeToo territory. The stress of the job is terrible and from my perspective Lola’s lifestyle is extremely unhealthy. Taking endless flights of 80-90 minutes between Vienna and Rostock, I don’t think Lola eats well, or gets enough sleep and her punishing exercise schedule early each morning doesn’t look relaxing. She may dress to please herself or Elise but her tight-fitting business suits and high heels look uncomfortable for long days in offices. At one point she says that she is used to living in hotels and she prefers it. The narrative clearly places Lola in danger and I don’t want to spoil how it plays out.

I’ve found it interesting to think about this film. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ it as I identified with Lola and felt her pain. I’m convinced though that Marie Kreutzer and her colleagues are a team to follow. If I wasn’t already repelled by this kind of business world, this film would certainly put me off.

Queen of Hearts (Dronningen, Denmark-Sweden 2019)

Peter, Anne and Gustav

Queen of Hearts is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK, but is also available on Sky and Apple TV/iTunes. It appears to have been released by Thunderbird in the UK in February of this year so presumably it got lost somehow during the first UK lockdown? The BFI’s digital Sight & Sound archive has a very iffy search engine and I couldn’t find an entry for Queen of Hearts. This is very odd since the film won many festival prizes around the world and has received very good reviews. If you get the chance to see it, do take the plunge. It’s a compelling watch.

This film is hard to analyse in detail while avoiding major spoilers, although I can see an argument that spoilers don’t really matter since the power of the film is in the performance of the central player and the presentation of the fictional world. Danish cinema is one of my favourite institutions, mainly because it offers some terrific melodramas. MUBI promotes this film through an invocation of Douglas Sirk and the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller. That’s a strong call but the film is up to it. I did wonder if it’s one of those films that provides plenty of talking points but then might begin to disintegrate under too much analysis. But however it might fare under deep analysis, it is certainly gripping the first time round.

Anne and Gustav with the girls by the river

I won’t spoil the narrative apart from mentioning the one central act I can’t avoid. The central character is Anne played by Trine Dyrholm. Most recently on UK screens in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), she had an early role in Vinterberg’s Festen (Denmark 1998), in my view the best of the ‘Dogme’ films and a film that has some tenuous links to Queen of Hearts. Anne is a partner in a law firm she started with an older man (perhaps her teacher or mentor?) and she specialises in cases concerning young people and abuse. She’s married to Peter (Magnus Krepper) a doctor of some kind. We learn little about Peter’s job – Anne is our prime focus. The couple have twin seven-year old girls and they live in a spacious modern house with access to a river and woods and no visible neighbours. We assume that the house is somewhere in the Greater Copenhagen area. They are clearly wealthy but there is a coolness between them. Their girls seem bright and are enjoying their lifestyle. The narrative begins after an unusual credits sequence which eventually reveals Anne walking with her dog in the woods. Quickly the narrative will produce two parallel ‘disruptive’ events. Peter is unhappy that Anne brings a client home – something she has promised not to do. He is about to go and collect Gustav, his 17 year-old son from his previous marriage. Gustav has been expelled from his school in Sweden where his mother lives.

Gustav doesn’t settle well in his new home at first, but gradually Anne brings him round and he becomes a friend to the two girls. But something about Gustav attracts Anne in a different way, especially when he brings a girlfriend back one night. Gradually Anne is drawn towards him in a dangerous way and as she becomes more distanced from Peter, desire for Gustav becomes too much – with all the tragic outcomes that you may imagine.

Tryst in the woods

Queen of Hearts is written by May el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehne. May el-Toukhy directs, supported by striking CinemaScope photography by Jasper Spanning and music by the Swedish film composer Jon Ekstrand. They all deserve congratulations. One review I’ve seen suggests that the presentation of the house and its grounds is reminiscent of the similar use of the house at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (South Korea 2019). The two films are very different but the point about the house and grounds makes sense. This one is approached by descending a narrow walled driveway. Queen of Hearts is a family melodrama and much of the narrative is set in the house and its grounds, by the river and the woods. Both Anne and Peter are very busy but there are some family celebrations at the house. Anne’s closest friend is her sister Lina. The photography and score convey an atmosphere of encroaching danger, much of it focused on images of the woods and one specific tree as seen from the house. As well as the score there are several instances of diegetic music in the film. Melodrama needs music, but I know some contemporary audiences struggle with heavy, symbolic choices. Queen of Hearts announces its intentions when in the middle of a drinks party on the terrace with Peter’s friends, Anne gets up and plays ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell rather loudly and dances around the table.

Intimacy in the house . . .

The BBFC gave Queen of Hearts an ’18’ Certificate for the UK. In Denmark it is only a 15 but Danish cinema has a long history of tolerance for sexual display. In the US the film is ‘Not Rated’. The sex scenes are carefully shot to deflect suggestions of pornography but they are much ‘stronger’ than is common in mainstream Anglo-American cinema. Trine Dyrholm is a fearless performer. I note that my review of The Commune I wrote “She gives her all” and that is similarly the case here. There are some strange comments in the reviews I’ve read (in one Anne is described as a woman at “a drab stage in her life – the transition from middle age to elderhood”). Anne is in her late 40s! From what I’ve read about the Danish ‘age of consent’ legal framework, a relationship between and adult and a 17 year-old would not be an offence were it not that Anne is Gustav’s step-mother. What makes it worse is Anne’s other position as a counsellor of young people in precisely this situation. The narrative does offer us a moment when Anne wonders whether she is a monster. The power of the film for me is that Anne can come across as a woman to be admired and also as a despicable human being. Discovering the second doesn’t invalidate the first, though it is shocking (and not because of her desire). At one point she admits that the best things that happen are also the the things that should never happen. The only thing that annoyed me in the film were the throwaway lines of dialogue that imply that Anne came from a poorer background and that something bad happened in her childhood. We do know that her father died when she was only 11, but I’m not sure about the inference that she was abused. My other thought is that the film, like other Danish melodramas, does seem to critique the coldness and sterility of upper middle-class life. This increases my feeling that Anne has herself been ‘fractured’ so that her humanity can be so easily and tragically taken away from her. Can I bear to watch the film again?

Here’s a trailer. It does reveal a little more about the events.

The Wedding Ring (Zin’naariyâ!, Niger 2016)

Tiyaa having her hair dressed and keeping an eye on events

I don’t think that I’ve seen a film from Niger before and this is a very beautiful film to introduce me to the country. I hadn’t realised that this is the largest country by area in West Africa south of the Sahara. Most of the population lives in the South of the country and the North is mainly the Sahara. The film reminded me of earlier films from Senegal, Mali and Chad and that isn’t too surprising for two reasons. First Niger has borders with many other countries and it has different language groups associated with similar groups in other countries. Second, just like many well-known filmmakers of those other countries, the writer-director of this film, Rahmatou Keïta, studied in Paris and then got work in French television before moving into film features. Her daughter Magaajyia Silberfeld who plays the lead character Tiyaa in this film, is similarly French-educated and a filmmaker.

An afternoon nap with friends

Tiyaa has just returned from France for the ‘winter holiday’ which she will spend in her aristocratic family home in the Sultanate of Damagaram which includes the city of Zinder. Her home seems to be in a more rural area and her family and others close by follow a traditional way of life, despite the sophistication Tiyaa has learned in Paris. The simple storyline follows an age-old premise, made specific only by Tiyaa’s return from France. While a student there she has met an attractive young man, also from Niger and from a similar background, from a family not far away from her home. Will he propose? Tiyaa believes he will but she doesn’t want to get ahead of herself so she tries to repress the joy and the mounting frustration she feels. But it shows and everyone is aware something is wrong. Eventually her closest friend (or is it her sister?) decides to visit the ‘zimma’, the local shaman who can cast a spell to bring forward the young man with his proposal.

The cowman by the lake provides milk at full moon to help a spell that will bring the marriage proposal

What follows is a sequence of encounters and family events that structure the narrative as a stop-go sequence leading up to what we hope will be a happy ending. Many of these events take place within the family compound and they involve a large extended family household of wives and aunts, servants and friends as well as visitors and even someone seeking sanctuary from Tiyaa’s father as the head of the household community. I was reminded of Sembène Ousmane‘s comments about stories in West Africa and the involved process of meeting people and observing the correct modes of address and procedures for offering and receiving salutations. The other Sembène-related thought is that the film still deals with the idea of West Africans travelling to France just as in those Senegalese films of the 1960s/70s. Now, Tiyaa has the wealth and sophistication to be studying unlike Sembène’s maid or roadsweeper. But she does meet (and greet) a woman who now lives on the street in a square where she is mocked by passers-by. She believes her man has gone to France and is waiting his return.

Tiyaa is on an errand in the desert

The beautiful Tiyaa is a sophisticated character who is also rebellious and friendly towards children and those not as fortunate as herself but she is also aware of all the traditional beliefs. The film is delightful but also an ironic representation of Niger which is one of the poorest countries in the world. I wonder if the film has been screened there? I doubt there are any cinemas as such. Perhaps it would just be seen by those with access to satellite TV? I’m glad I’ve seen the film and I’m grateful for the two screenings in this festival which I’ve managed to squeeze in between London Film Festival screenings.

LFF 2020 #6: Identifying Features (Sin señas particulares, Mexico-Spain 2020)

Jésus (Juan Jesús Varela)

This film shares several elements with an earlier festival screening, A Common Crime.  Like that Argentinian film, it has the issue of ‘disappeared’ at its centre and a discourse of violence – though in this case the police don’t seem to be involved in causing the deaths. Like the Argentinian film it also has a woman in the lead role, played by a respected theatre actress, but in this case the character Magdalena is a working-class woman from Central Mexico and significantly older at 48. Finally, both films seem to be ‘personal’ and the work of an auteur director rather than aiming for generic status, despite including some familiar generic elements.

Magdalena searching for clues

The film’s title refers to the language of the official paperwork, used when bodies are found and might be identified by relatives, usually the parents of young men. The film begins with a painful goodbye as a teenager, despairingly young Jésus, says goodbye to his mother and heads out across the plain with his slightly older friend, hoping to make it across the US border and meet up with the friend’s uncle in Arizona where he could find a job. After a couple of months Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has heard nothing from her son and she decides to travel to the border to try to find out what might have happened. At the border, the filmmakers surprise us by introducing two characters who initially don’t seem to be connected to Magdalena. One is another woman also seeking her son who disappeared much earlier but who the authorities believe they have identified through DNA and blood samples. There appear to be two reasons why, for the narrative, Magdalena must meet this woman. Firstly, the woman is middle-class, an ophthalmologist, and her son went missing during a holiday driving with friends. This demonstrates the breadth of the problem of lawlessness in Northern Mexico. There are all kinds of criminal activity that can lead to ‘disappearances’ and they don’t just affect young men in poverty. Secondly, the woman convinces Magdalena not to give up in her search for her son. We don’t meet this character again, but Magdalena does indeed resolve to carry on her search. Her son is everything to her. She doesn’t have a partner.

Miguel (David Illescas) returning to Mexico voluntarily after being stopped by US Border Patrol. Photo by Claudia Bercerril.

The narrative at one point switches to a parallel strand to follow a young man who is being deported back to Mexico by American border control forces. He is advised to make a voluntary return to Mexico. Miguel is a few years older than Jésus but his story might be similar. At this point his story gives us a sense of how the border controls work and also illustrates the difference between the hi-tech drone surveillance of the Americans and the more basic conditions south of the border. We will meet Miguel later in the narrative when he and Magdalena meet near his home region. I don’t want to spoil what happens in the second half of the narrative. But I need to say that what Magdalena discovers is that in the ‘badlands’ of Chihuahua and Sonora (which are actually quite beautiful as depicted here) there are people who help her and people who are very bad indeed. The narrative ends violently and surprisingly.

A truck is stopped by masked men in the wilds of Northern Mexico

Identifying Features is a film made by a creative team and crew comprising mostly women. The writers are Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero. Valadez directed the film and Rondero was the principal producer. In the Q&A the two women suggested that they felt more freedom to experiment when on location outside the city. This is evident in the work of cinematographer Claudia Becerril Bulos, especially in the second half of the film where she captures long shots of landscapes very well making good use of the ‘Scope frame and also uses shallow depth of field to explore what I understand is now termed ‘bokeh‘. This Japanese term refers to the different qualities of the blurred image produced by combinations of camera types and different lenses. These different forms of blurring can create subtle effects and here Bulos uses them in scenes featuring human figures against a background of fire at night. The effect is startling, being visually confusing but in tune with the narrative development at that point.

The tone of the film is also set by the remarkable score by the American composer Clarice Jensen, the artistic director of ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) who has worked with many international talents including Jóhann Jóhannsson, Max Richter and Björk. The trailer below gives some education of the music and cinematography in the film. Identifying Features is a very impressive film, especially for a début feature after several years working on shorts. Fernanda Valadez and Astrid Rondero worked together on shorts swapping roles on each other’s films and their next project will be directed by Rondero, I think. I enjoyed Identifying Features but it is a difficult watch at times and the closing scenes are extremely violent (but the violence is not shown directly in most cases). I hope the film gets wider distribution and I look forward to further work from the pair.

As I Open My Eyes (À peine p’ouvre les yeux, Tunisia-France-Bel-UAE-Switz 2015)

The band in rehearsal

This Tunisian film is very good and I am surprised that it has not received UK distribution, only a festival screening. It’s interesting to see this film as part of an African film festival. Tunisia is part of the Maghreb and ‘North African Cinema’ but the links between North African and Sub-Saharan African cinemas is not as strong as they were in the 1970s-1990s as far as I can see. There is a strong link here, however, as the writer-director of the film Leyla Bouzid is the daughter of the writer and director Nouri Bouzid, one of the group of Tunisian filmmakers in the 1980s-90s making films which regularly featured in the Carthage Film Festival when the festival operated in tandem with Ouagadougou’s Pan-African festival.

Leyla Bouzid made this, her début feature, aged 29 just a few years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which ended 23 years of increasingly repressive government by President Ben Ali. In the Press Notes for the film, Leyla Bouzid says that she wanted to make a film to remind everyone of how the repression under Ben Ali worked. She suggests that though many documentaries were made during the revolutionary period, there weren’t any fictions. She wanted to make a film about how people lived during the time leading up to January 2011 so she set her film in the summer of 2010.

Borhène and Baya

Farah (Baya Medhaffar) is an 18 year-old from a middle-class Tunisian family. She has just matriculated from high school with outstanding results and her parents are expecting her to study medicine. But Farah is young, lively and a talented singer. She is more interested in music than medicine and she is the singer in a band led by Borhène (Montassar Ayari), her boyfriend. The band plays ‘political’ material in popular music styles and Farah visits bars where she is soon tempted to sing impromptu. This is a dangerous activity which she keeps from her parents, helped by the family maid Ahlem. But eventually her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) works out what is happening, fires the maid and terrifies Farah into promising to stop singing. But she can’t. She refuses to obey her mother and continues her work with the band. Meanwhile, her father is working as a manager at a phosphate mine in Gafsa in the South West of the country.

Baya and her mother, Hayet

I don’t want to spoil the narrative but singing is a dangerous business and the inevitable is likely to happen. There are elements of romance and ‘coming-of-age’ issues in the story and some generic ideas from music films, but at the centre is the struggle between mother and daughter. Why does Hayet fight so hard to stop her daughter singing? As a young female director, Leyla Bouzid, took the brave decision to shoot on the streets of Tunis in some of the roughest areas and in bars populated almost entirely by men. In one scene Hayet has to enter one such bar looking for Farah and Bouzid tells us how tense the atmosphere became and how the ‘extras’, who were genuine clients of the bar, stared in almost obscene ways at the actress as she had to repeat the scene. The film was shot by Sébastien Goepfert who had worked on a film for Leyla’s father and this was a film co-produced with four different national partners. Many of the Heads of Department in the crew were Europeans and for the crucial role of the music composer for the film Leyla Bouzid chose Khyam Allami, an Iraqi musician who is part of a band featuring members from across the Arab world. The music throughout the film is very good with Borhène playing what I took to be an oud with an electric pick-up alongside drums, guitar and synthesiser. Overall the approach to the music reminded me of the Egyptian film Microphone (2010).  Perhaps the most daring casting decision Bouzid took was to pair Baya Medhaffar with Ghalia Benali. Baya was chosen after a long search but Ghalia is a well-known singer of contemporary Arab music. Fortunately the two women hit it off quickly and worked very well together.

Baya visits parts of the city where it can be dangerous for young women

The fear of police surveillance is very real in the film and I should warn you that there is one very distressing (but necessary) sequence. The film is successful in demonstrating just how the police worked in Tunisia under Ben Ali. I hope that things have improved since 2011. I thought this was an excellent film in every way and I would certainly recommend it. Although it has not been released in the UK, it is available on a Region Free DVD from Trigon Films in Switzerland. It has been released in the US and is available on DVD and online. Thanks to Africa in Motion Film Festival for making this available.

Here is a US trailer:

LFF 2020 #2: Wildfire (Ireland-UK 2020)

Kelly (Nika McGuigan, left) and Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone) Photo by Aidan Monaghan/WILDFIRE

‘Wildfire’ is a good title for this intense 84 minute drama/melodrama that tells a personal story carefully set in a political-cultural context, allowing a metaphor to remain visible in the flames. This is an ‘Irish’ film though it is officially an Ireland-UK co-production under an EU framework agreement. You won’t read too much about that anymore and instead the headlines will be about ‘borders’. Fortunately there is still some sanity about and the film has funding from the BFI, BBC and Channel 4 as well as other Irish and UK partners. It’s already listed as ‘coming soon’ on Film 4 so I hope it will get a wide audience.

Kelly is a young woman of around 30 who we meet on a ferry in the Irish Sea, about to return to Ireland after a year away. I’m not sure if she lands in the South or the North but either way she heads for the border and her home town. Her older sister Lauren has not seen her since she left without warning and this narrative ‘disturbance’ has profound effects on everyone, including Lauren’s partner Sean and the sisters’ aunt, Veronica. Kelly and Lauren have lost both parents in tragic circumstances and their mother’s death still seems mysterious to Kelly. The film opens with a montage of news clips that range from the ‘Troubles’ to ‘Brexit’ and the town is built around a river which straddles the border so that as children the girls would swim “in both countries” at once.

It’s not easy dealing with your shared past . . .

I’ve seen one review that pitches the film’s aesthetic as a tussle between “gritty social realism and magic realist melodrama” and that’s not a bad suggestion, though I would argue that social realism often uses melodrama and that Kelly’s hallucinatory moments could be read as the product of her psychological state. The same (Irish) reviewer writes: “We’re not great when it comes to dealing with grief, trauma and other mental health issues.” Given what succeeding generations in Ireland have suffered as a result of British colonial intervention over hundreds of years that’s not surprising. The promise of no borders, now seemingly to be broken by Johnson and his cronies, simply exacerbates the confusion over identity and the pain of broken lives.

It’s staggering that this is a début film by writer-director Cathy Brady who has previously received recognition for her short films. The strength of the film derives from the performances and direction and it is no surprise to discover that Brady and her two principals, played by Nika McGuigan and Nora-Jane Noonan, were able to create something so powerful through extensive workshops over a year of preparation. The film was a genuine co-production. It seems to have been made across the island of Ireland and I think that’s important. I didn’t recognise the area in which the town was located and perhaps that’s a good thing. Cathy Brady is listed as coming from Newry in Co. Down and so is Nika McGuigan, though her father, the boxer Barry McGuigan was born in Co. Monaghan. Tragically Nika died before the film completed post-production from a return of the cancer she first had as a young teenager. What a talent was lost on the basis of this performance. I realise looking through Nora-Jane Noonan’s credits that I must have seen her in several films. I might go back and look at the horror film The Descent (2005) which I remember using with students. Wildfire is very much a film about the sisters and often it’s the other female characters who they run up against. It’s always good to see Kate Dickie, here playing Aunt Veronica and in some ways the villain of the piece. The other female ‘presence’ is the mother (Olga Wehrly). Cathy Brady is supported in the production by some of the leading figures in the recent upsurge of independent films by European women. The film was shot by Crystel Fournier, cinematographer on the first three features by Céline Sciamma and Carlo Cresto-Dina, one of three producers on the film also acted as a producer on the first three features directed by Alice Rohrwacher. No wonder Cathy Brady is attracting a lot of interest.

Dancing to Them

I enjoyed this film very much. At moments I wanted to look away and shout ‘No!’ but that’s my problem because I was so engaged. I’ve read quite a few reviews of the film and I’m a bit fed up with reviewers who can’t cope with melodrama i.e. they think it is a bad thing and one refers to it as ‘silliness’. There are several reviews which argue that the film ‘loses its way’ in the final third. On the contrary it builds up to the finale we have been waiting for. In a key scene with no ‘scene-setting’, the sisters are in a bar dancing together wildly to Them with Van Morrison shouting his way through ‘G-L-O-R-I-A’. We already know that one of Kelly’s memories as a child was listening to her mother singing and dancing along to Van. From this point on there is no stopping.

I hope my other picks for the festival are as good as this and I hope to catch the film again on Film 4 or, better still, in a cinema if I ever get into one again.