Category: Films by women

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.

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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 it 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 sub-titles.

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:

Wild (Germany 2016)

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Wild doesn’t just promise to be transgressive. It delivers. But it’s transgressive in a carefully structured and composed way with a strong central performance and a coherent aesthetic approach. Technical credits all round are excellent. I’ve seen references to a host of other films and I understand why most of the references are made – but this film stands on its own. Citing the references is needed for us as readers, so we can negotiate the text.

Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) is an office worker in an IT company. She’s alienated by the petty jobs she is given by her boss Boris who summons her by throwing a tennis ball at his glass office wall, behind which Ania works. She lives in a flat with her sister, who then moves out with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, her grandfather is in hospital and has gone into a coma. Ania is now seemingly ‘alone’ when she sees a wolf lurking in her local park on her journey home. She becomes obsessed with the animal and seems determined to not only capture it, but to become ‘one’ with this wild creature. It occurs to me at this point that there is a large genre repertoire of narratives that deal with alienated workers and what happens to them. Kafka’s Gregor in Metamorphosis might be one example.

Try to imagine what this obsession with the wolf might mean in reality. Believe me, writer-director Nicolette Krebitz goes further than you imagined and Lilith Stangenberg seems prepared to do virtually anything that her director requires. The wolf is played by a pair of animals named Nelson and Cossa and as far as I know no CGI was used (or at least non visibly) so the wranglers deserve enormous credit. Stangenberg is just extraordinary.

Woman – wolf – Red Riding Hood is one possible line of investigation. Rabbits as food offer a link to Polanski’s Repulsion. Is Ania losing her sanity? One of the strengths of the film is that it switches direction – so at one point Ania stalks the streets like a vampire looking for bloody meat. At other times it feels as if a kind of feminist revenge is uppermost in her mind – this fits with the growing number of female-centred horror film narratives over the past twenty years. One reviewer mentions Ginger Snaps (Canada 2000) and that sounds a good call. Ania’s only recreation prior to her fascination with the wolf appears to be on a deserted shooting range. The film certainly plays with political sub-texts, including in its use of migrant workers. Ania’s sexuality seems equally malleable and we are also asked to try to work out what is fantasy and what is ‘real’. I was certainly never bored. On the whole the film has received positive responses from film festival critics, but as many point out its transgressive nature is likely to offend the more staid end of the arthouse market. Perhaps it is destined for the smaller niche of cult cinema. That would be a shame. This isn’t in any way a ‘trashy film’ (and that term in itself doesn’t imply a film that is not worth seeing). Instead, this film intelligently explores aspects of our personalities that we usually keep under wraps. I suspect that Wild may be more disturbing to dog-lovers than to those of us who look after (domestic) felines. A wolf is both more dangerous and potentially more loyal.

Here’s a German trailer that gives less away than the English subtitled version. The film was released in Germany on 40 screens in April.