This film surprised me as I didn’t at first recognise the writer-director Hafsia Herzi who also plays the lead role in this her first fiction feature. The film played at the Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the ‘First Film’ prize. I watched it via My French Film Festival but it also appears to be available on various streamers and rental/DVD sites in the UK.
I realised quite quickly that I’d seen Ms Herzi in her first role as the young daughter of the lead character in Abdellatif Kechiche’s film Couscous (La graine et le mulet, France 2007). Since then she has built up a strong profile as an actor and now in her early thirties she has become a features director (she made a short film in 2014). Her film is quite difficult to categorise. It’s a film about emotional and sexual relationships in the 21st century. It’s not a romance, though it features several of the elements of a romance. Its ending is non-committal and that seems right. Herzi plays Lila, a Parisian woman whose relationship with Rémi (Jérémie Laheurte) has just ended, or at least has come to a point of separation. But when the film opens Lila is outside Rémi’s apartment block aiming to confront him for sleeping with another woman. Lila is finding it difficult to let go. A little later Rémi will announce that he is going on holiday in Bolivia for three weeks to ‘sort himself out’. Lila has friends who will support her and she is soon back in the swing of things, enjoying a number of one night stands, some of which are enjoyable, others not so much.
At one point Lila meets a younger man who wants to photograph her rather than make love to her and this appears to be a relationship she can really enjoy. But soon Rémi will be back from Bolivia. What will he do? Will Lila be completely over him? It doesn’t sound much of a narrative outline and I was quite surprised that I found the film easy to watch and I remained engaged throughout. I think there are several reasons why the film works. One is Hafsia Herzi herself as an actor and how she is presented on screen. The cinematographer Jérémie Attard is relatively inexperienced and this was his first feature. He has worked on a film for Abdellatif Kechiche and that shared experience with Hafsia Herzi seems to have influenced the overall approach to his handheld camerawork which features long shots and big close-ups of Lila. There are several sexual encounters but in most cases we see only the before and after. We do see quite a few meals which I like and it made me warm to Lila.
There are few references to Lila’s ethnicity but her decision to consult a ‘celebrity marabout‘ provides a surprising comic interlude. Lila’s friends are mostly other young women and Ali, a young gay man played by Djanis Bouzyani who provides the energy for several scenes. I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film including one that suggests the film’s ‘naturalness’ is liberating and I certainly felt that I had been offered an entertaining glimpse into the world of 30 something young women in France. I’d go with the young Polish photographer Lila, he seems more grown up than most of the other guys.
‘My French Film Festival’ is now running online until February 15. There are several features films that stand out plus a selection of short films. I picked out Working Girls for two reasons. It’s a Belgian film featuring three women living in France, in Roubaix, who work in a brothel in Belgium to make ends meet. I also recognised three of the leads in the film and especially Sara Forestier who impressed me greatly in Suzanne (France 2013), a film by Katell Quillévéré. I was also surprised to learn that the film had been selected as the Belgian entry for the 2020 ‘Best International Feature’ Oscar awards. It didn’t sound like the kind of film the Academy voters were likely to go for.
I’m interested in Roubaix as a location because it’s twinned with Bradford in the UK, sharing the traditional importance of the woollen industry and the more recent development of a significant Muslim population. Roubaix has been used as a location in several French films, most notably in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Unfortunately, in this film, all we see of the town is a block of high-rise flats and suburban streets (which may well have been shot in a different location). The three women of the title meet in a housing estate car park and drive into Belgium to work. The only significant image of their journey is the road sign (with the EU flag) announcing they are entering Belgium. It is a poignant moment for a viewer in ‘beleaguered Brexit Britain’. I’m wondering what will happen on Eurostar trains heading for Brussels when we can travel again after the pandemic?
I’ve read several reviews and comments about the film, many of which stress that this is “not a film about prostitution”. That’s an odd statement I think. I think the source of this is the director’s statement that the film doesn’t cover some of the conventional themes associated with brothels in films.The film represents what goes on in a brothel, it deals to some extent with the procedures of the brothel and it focuses on the lives of these three ‘ordinary’ women whose circumstances have pushed them into this kind of work. In one sense the film is unusual in that the three women are French rather than migrants from Eastern Europe or further afield. (Wikipedia suggests that many prostitutes in Belgium are Bulgarian.) The last similar film I can remember is The Receptionist (Taiwan-UK 2016) in which the ‘girls’ are from China or Taiwan. The women in Roubaix don’t have to worry about immigration authorities but they do have lives not connected to sex work (they work under pseudonyms to protect their identities) and these can also be problematic. Axelle (Sara Forestier) is a mother of three small children who are looked after by their grandmother. The man she claims is not her husband is Yann (Nicolas Cazalé) who is around and seems to think he has rights re the children. Dominque or ‘Do’ is played by Noémie Lvovsky who was so good as the mother in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015). ‘Do’ works as a nurse on the night shift. She has a husband and two teenage children to support. The third woman is Conso (Annabelle Lengronne) who is the youngest of the three, living on her own. In some ways she is the most vulnerable of the three. The three are aggressive towards each other but also supportive, realising that they must protect each other.
The film opens with the three seemingly burying a body in the rain and mud. The rest of the narrative is therefore a long flashback, at the end of which we will discover the identity of the body. There is also a three-part structure to the flashback so we focus on each of the three women in turn. It’s significant that the writer on the film is Anne Paulicevich who spent a long time researching the background to her story which was inspired by a newspaper article. She visited a brothel regularly for several months talking informally to the ‘working girls’. The Internet Movie Database credits her as co-director of the film with Frédéric Fonteyne. Cineuropa and the film’s Press Pack list her as ‘artistic director’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I suspect that she worked closely with the three female leads and with the cinematographer Juliette Van Dormael. The brothel is, in this film, a female space, at least in the back room where the women chat. I don’t see a Hollywood remake in the current climate, even with the relatively small amount of nudity. The actual sexual encounters are brief and never really gratuitous, but there is also violence. The violence comes from men both as clients and outside the brothel, but we learn little about them.
I’m not sure what to make of the film. This kind of subject matter is always difficult to handle and to pitch to distributors and audiences. Paulicevich says in the Press Pack that she sees the women as ‘heroes’ and indeed the most successful aspect of the film is the interaction between the women and how they overcome problems. Paulicevich herself wrote the film because she had only just become a mother with a baby daughter and had left an abusive relationship. Frédéric Fonteyne reveals that the film had a working title of La frontière, suggesting both the border between the two EU countries, the border between genres, social norms, emotions etc. I think that might have been a better title but he said that he realised it would be misleading for audiences if they thought it implied trafficking. Fonteyne suggests it is a ‘political film’ in its treatment of violence towards women and female solidarity. I’m not sure about that and I’d like to see some reviews by women. I understand that prostitution is not ‘standardised’ across the EU. Belgian policy is to regulate an industry that is not illegal but in France brothels are illegal so that presumably explains the original newspaper story.
The film was low budget and shot in just 30 days partly in the brothel used for the research. It is clearly an achievement to produce such a film and the performances from the three leads are outstanding. I’m not sure if in the end Paulicevich Fonteyne have achieved their aims but I found the film engaging and worthwhile, mainly for the melodrama of the three women’s interactions, and I think it is definitely worth watching.
My second film from the online ArteKino Festival turned out to be a technically accomplished low budget feature made as part of La Biennale di Venezia of 2019. The film production was awarded a budget of €150,000 as part of the Biennale College Cinema project. This is the first feature of Chiara Campara. It’s a short feature, listed by the Biennale at 79 minutes but running at 82 minutes in the online festival.
I’m slightly non-plussed in my attempts to categorise the feature. Its central character is Yuri (Leonardo Lidi) an unmarried 30 year-old, the eldest of three siblings of a farmer in what I assume to be Northern Italy, perhaps in Trentino-South Tyrol. The district is not named but the farm practises a form of transhumance – cattle being taken up to higher ground for summer grazing but kept in pens under cover for winter. Also, Yuri has a small stone hut in a forest which he says was used in the Great War when Italy fought against Austria. Yuri has reached a ‘dangerous age’. He doesn’t know whether to stay on the farm or leave for the nearest large town. His main relaxation is to visit a night club which features pole dancers and private rooms and he has begun a relationship of sorts with one of the dancers, Agata (Alice Torriani). Yuri is clearly a marginalised young man. He’s tall but overweight, though he has an attractive face. He moves slowly and thinks deeply. He works methodically and is clearly skilled in what he does on the farm. He is serious about ‘courting’ Agata but is she too ‘worldly’ for him? Meanwhile his sister has what he considers an unsuitable boyfriend and is about to move out. His younger brother, still in his teens is also likely to leave. Yuri does have the option of moving to the large town and working for his uncle’s construction site team.
I can think of several similar films in terms of characters and settings. In the UK a few years ago we had as many as three features which all developed narratives about farms in regions with what might be seen as ‘marginal’ agricultural operations. The one that sprang to mind immediately was arguably the most successful of these, God’s Own Country (UK 2017). But that film was much more dramatic featuring a conflict between the young man and his parents and the appearance of a migrant worker who turned out to be gay. Lessons of Love is much more restrained. It has a realist style and I wasn’t surprised to read that Chiara Campara had trained as a documentarist and had previously directed a medium-length documentary feature and photographed another. There is attention to detail in all the scenes looking at agricultural practice. I’ve seen references to the film as a form of romance, but I don’t think there is enough to justify such a label and audiences may be frustrated if there was that expectation.
I assume the film is intended primarily to be a character study of Yuri and in that respect it works pretty well but I’m not sure it is sufficient in itself to support a feature. Yuri seems mild mannered but on three occasions at least he loses his temper suggesting that there is more going on beneath the surface. The director’s statement on the Biennale website suggests that it is a “delayed coming of age” narrative – one that requires Yuri to ask a lot of questions of himself and where he wants to go with his life, both in is relationships and his working and leisure life choices. That’s fair enough. I don’t necessarily want those questions to be answered and it is probably enough that they are raised, in particular the cost, expressed in several different ways associated with leaving his life of working close to nature and both his cows and wildlife compared to moving into the exciting but stressed world of urban living. But in the end I think even a short feature of 80 minutes needs a little more drama. I think I found this a film to be admired for its performances and the cinematography of Giuseppe Maio. There is also an interesting discourse about the music Yuri plays in his car. But I think the script (by the director and Lorenzo Faggi) is a weakness. I enjoyed some of the sociological detail – I wasn’t aware of a country music culture in rural Italy – but I needed to be more engaged by the narrative. However, I was impressed by the director’s skills evident in a first feature and I will be interested in what she does next.
Ostende is currently part of MUBI’s Library offer, having been part of a New Argentinian cinema strand back in 2017. The development of several film schools in Argentina has meant the production of a large number of films that have been apparent on the festival circuit during the last ten years. I’ve usually found one or more such films popping up at London, Leeds or Glasgow, festivals I visit regularly, as well as at ¡Viva! in Manchester with its coverage of Latin American cinema. There have been a couple of duds over ten years, but most have been well worth my time.
A MUBI article discussing the New Argentine cinema explains that many of these films from younger directors have struggled to get into Argentinian cinemas but have instead found distribution deals in other territories following prizes at international festivals. Ostende appears to be a low budget film that has reached a few international festivals and has been streamed in Argentina, Italy and Germany and, via MUBI, international subscribers. It features a very simple idea that feels familiar but I can’t think where I might have seen something similar. The central character is a woman in her twenties who arrives alone at a seaside resort hotel at the end of the season. She has won (with her boyfriend) a prize in a quiz show of a four day break at the resort, but the boyfriend is still at work and he will join her for the weekend. The hotel is a modern building comprising several two storey blocks, a pool, restaurant-bar and access to a beach.
There is very little conventional narrative development in this 82 minute film but the film itself is ‘about’ narrative as a concept. The young woman isn’t named as far as I can see, so I’ll refer to her as ‘Laura’ after the writer-director of the film Laura Citerella and the actor who plays her, Laura Parades. Laura has little to do when she arrives except read, sit by the window or on the windy beach, grab a coffee or a drink in the bar etc. Laura is not especially ‘pretty’ or ‘beautiful’ but she has an interesting face and even if she appears quite serious, she easily opens up to the young waiter who chats her up and tells her a story. She also seems to have decided that she wants to find a story in the mainly empty hotel. She finds it in the shape of the relationship she observes that involves an older man, always wearing a pair of red shorts, and two younger women. Various small details about this relationship add up to scenarios which seem to Laura to place the young women in danger. Added to this, the film’s soundtrack is an odd mixture of the songs and dialogues which Laura receives through her earphones and the melancholy sounds of the wind on the beach and the crashing waves.
The arrival of boyfriend Francisco (who works at INCAA – National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts) doesn’t change things much as Laura continues to worry about the two young women. When she and Francisco leave at the end of their stay, the camera sneaks back to find Mr Red Shorts and the two women. A surprise ending is presented without much ceremony. The story concocted through Laura’s observations and assumptions has led to suggestions of a Hitchcockian narrative. Certainly it bears resemblance to one famous Hitchcock film but the big difference is that Laura does not attempt to intervene in any way. Her spying on these characters doesn’t seem to prompt any obvious self-reflection either.
This is a slight film in some ways but it does have some power. I think this comes from careful pacing, some excellent camerawork and editing (by Agustín Mendilaharzu and Alejo Moguillansky respectively) and a terrific performance by Laura Paredes. She’s in nearly every scene, often in close-up. We seem to become intimate with her and one reviewer refers to the film being ‘gently sensual’ which seems a good call. In some scenes we switch between close shots of Laura watching and long shots of one or more of the trio of characters under her observation. The other technique that stands out is switch focus with a very shallow depth of field used on occasions. This and the editing of dead ground, doorways, windows etc. adds to the disturbing feel of the mostly empty resort. Much of the final sequence which concludes the narrative of the trio is in long shot. Overall I found this an interesting little film – much achieved, seemingly with few resources.
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 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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.