Category: Films by women

Queen & Slim (US 2019)

This photo, taken ‘diegetically’ in the narrative, has been used in promotions for the film

Queen & Slim is a début feature film for Melina Matsoukas working with the prolific writer Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win a ‘comedy writer’ Emmy for her work on the series Master of None (2015). Waithe was also a producer on Dear White People (US 2014). Matsoukas has had a long career as a music video director topped by her contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s not surprising then that two such talented women should enable Jodie Turner-Smith to create the character ‘Queen’. It’s a terrific performance and with Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Slim’ they make a memorable couple.

The film came to the UK with some glowing reviews after its US release in November 2019, but there was little UK promotion – at least from my perspective – and I didn’t really know what to expect. But there were two reasons I wanted to see it. First, I knew that it begins with an altercation between a white police officer and the black couple after he stops their car with the result that they are forced to go ‘on the run’ with every police force looking for them. This links directly to the earlier The Hate U Give (US 2018) which I have worked on as a possible study text. There is also a later incident the film that directly links the two films as well. Second, I read somewhere that the narrative in some way references the idea of the ‘Underground Railroad’ by which slaves were able to escape from plantations and eventually to get to Canada in the pre-Civil War period. This was recently the central part of the story of Harriet Tubman in Harriet (US 2019).

The first meeting in a fast-food restaurant

Queen & Slim begins in Cleveland, Ohio when two people meet on a Tinder date. It isn’t going terribly well (neither character has a name as yet) and they have only known each other for a short time when their car is pulled over. What follows is perhaps best presented as a mash-up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with It Happened One Night (1934). If that sounds unlikely note that both these classic films are road movies. In one a bunch of ‘outlaws’ rob banks during the Great Depression, become media celebrities and are often admired by people whose savings and land have been ‘grabbed’ by those same banks. In the other, a man and a woman meet on a bus travelling to New York and somehow fall in love despite their differences.

In Queen & Slim, the couple make their way South and have a series of adventures on their way to Florida from where they hope to get to Cuba. They become ‘Queen’ and ‘Slim’ when they attempt to change their appearance at Queen’s Uncle Earl’s house. It’s at this moment perhaps that the film’s approach becomes clear (or rather, is confirmed). This isn’t strictly a ‘Hollywood realism’ film. There are moments when the characters do unexpected or plain stupid things which place them in more danger. Just one example – when they change clothes, Queen chooses a micro-dress which is so short it reveals the bandage on her thigh. Slim selects an outfit I don’t know how to describe but which appears to deliberately ‘type’ him. A little later they agree to be photographed and the resultant image is used on the film’s poster. Nick Lacey commented to me that the image is both striking but also possibly plays on the typing of both African-American men and women.

Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) and his ‘Goddess’ (Indya Moore)

The Bonnie and Clyde tag is applied to the couple by one of the characters and it soon becomes clear that wherever they go in the South, African-Americans (and some white people) know who they are but still help them avoid the police. The Underground Railway reference is also clear when the couple are hidden in a clever way during a police search. These attitudes towards the ‘fugitives’ are also linked to various discourses about how working-class Americans (again mostly but not solely African-Americans) have been treated by government policies and institutional racism.

This is a long film (132 mins) and many commentators have argued that it is too long for the material. I don’t agree, I was engaged throughout and I felt I grew to know the characters. The film was shot, on film, by the British DoP Tat Radcliffe who shares a background with the director in music videos, but who has also worked on action features such as ’71 (UK 2014). Almost the whole film was shot on location in and around Cleveland and New Orleans. The film looks good in a ‘Scope frame and Radcliffe tells us (in this Kodak piece) that in the first part of the film, the camera is often static or ‘locked’ but towards the end there is much more Steadicam work. Radcliffe praises the director’s eye for detail and I was impressed by the use of landscapes and the detail of neighbourhood scenes. Too often Hollywood films seem to show the same nondescript city environments but this felt different (because of the New Orleans location, I couldn’t help thinking about Easy Rider (1969), a film with several similar elements).

A production shot with director Melina Matsoukas

One of the most enjoyable scenes in the film for me is a quick visit to a roadside bar with a live blues band. The band are fantastic and at this stage we are still surprised that everyone knows who this couple are – and Queen and Slim are still learning about each other. The music throughout the film is interesting, but I’m not really competent to comment on much of it. IMDB seems to have failed to find the music credits but lists of the songs and the artistes are available. I still can’t find who plays the live music in the bar. Does anybody know?

I’ve seen a negative comment about the fact that once again the leads in an African-American film are Brits. Jodie Turner-Smith was born in Peterborough but has lived in the US for some time and appeared in US film and TV productions. Daniel Kaluuya must be getting fed-up with this. Cynthia Erivo was also caught up with this kind of comment about her role in Harriet. I’m not sure whether her Oscar nomination  improved matters. I don’t really understand this. Brits have always been part of Hollywood casting. Perhaps it is part of a commentary about roles for black actors in both the UK and US. There are far more opportunities in the US so it isn’t surprising Brits are often keen to go over.

Queen and Slim is an excellent début and definitely a film worth looking up.

The trailer below reveals quite a few aspects of the plot and a couple of the best gags.

The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul, France-Luxembourg 2019)

Atiq amongst the women. photo © Les Armateurs

This is a candidate for the standout film of My French Film Festival. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen and also one of the saddest and most desperate despite a more optimistic tone towards the end of the narrative. As an animation it affected me as much as classics like Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988). There are many kinds of animated films but as far as drawn/painted animation is concerned, I would place French productions (linked to a graphic novel industry) alongside Japanese anime and manga.

The source here is a novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’, the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose to disguise his identity to avoid censure. The novel first appeared in 2002. The film adaptation is by two women, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. Both women are credited as directors. Breitman is one of three writers who adapted the novel and Gobbé-Mévellec is the animator responsible for the overall graphic design and the ‘look’ of the film. I haven’t read the original novel but given the nature of the story, the gender shift in the control of the ‘voices’ of the characters would be worth exploring. (I’m referring here to the broader sense of how a character in a narrative can articulate how they feel rather than simply what they say.)

Mohsen and Zunaira. She comforts him when he comes home bewildered by what he has seen on the streets. photo © Les Armateurs

As the title suggests, the story is set in Kabul, but at a specific time between 1998 and 2001 when the Taliban occupied the Afghan capital that was reduced to ruins. They have imposed Sharia Law and are taking drastic action against anyone who attempts to flout the new restrictions on behaviour. The narrative focuses on two couples. Atiq is an older war veteran who has been made the gaoler of women condemned to die for lewd behaviour and other crimes. His wife Mussarat, the woman who nursed him after he was wounded, is now seriously ill. Zunaira is a young and very attractive teacher and artist who now rarely leaves the house because she cannot bear to wear a burqua. Her equally young husband Mohsen is also a teacher now despairing at what has happened to Kabul. Each of these four characters is attempting to come to terms with their situation and each finds that either they feel compelled to act in particular ways or that they attempt to do what they think is right only to discover that it leads to an unexpected and usually bad outcome.

Zunaira and Mohsen stand before the ruins of the bookshop they once used. photo © Les Armateurs

I’ve seen some criticism that by focusing on an ‘academic’ couple, the story takes the kind of route that might be easiest for Western audiences, but this is balanced by the story of Atiq and Mussarat. In each case the couples meet others who offer different trajectories. Mohsen meets his old university teacher and Atiq meets a childhood friend and an elderly man – possibly the character who acts like a kind of wise man. The women meanwhile are caught between neighbours who look out for them and other women who seem to have become Taliban collaborators, acting as prison guards with their Kalashnikovs. The Taliban seem to revel in their own hypocrisy, lounging about with dancing girls behind closed doors and enforcing the social laws with violence. Everyone else is to some extent lost and bewildered.

Some women have been recruited by the Taliban . . . photo © Les Armateurs

There have been many narratives released in the West about what has happened in Afghanistan over the last 30-40 years. I don’t know which, if any, offer the most accurate representation – probably it isn’t possible. Many are stories created by exiles or Western observers. The ones I know best are those by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and especially by his daughter Samira. Both Mohsen and Samira have used elements of absurdity and surrealism as part of their approach. The most relevant comparison for The Swallows of Kabul is possibly Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003), set immediately after the Taliban have been ousted by international forces. In that film a young woman, Noqreh, rebels against her conservative father and attends a school where she takes part in an election for ‘President’. I was struck by how in both her film and The Swallows of Kabul the two young women flout the strict dress code by wearing a pair of white court shoes with a low heel. Noqreh changes shoes as she moves from a Koranic school to the new school where women speak out. Zunaira wears her shoes defiantly, knowing she is asking for trouble. The shoes are the only ‘personal’ aspect of a woman’s appearance on the street – every woman wears the same burqua (though the children seem to recognise their mothers’ birqua when it is borrowed). The uniformity of the burqua-clad women is the other strong image I remember from the Iranian film and it is repeated in the still from The Swallows of Kabul in the image at the head of this post.

Zunaira has drawn a self-portrait and sketches of herself and Mohsen on her wall photo © Les Armateurs

The strength of The Swallows of Kabul for me is in the approach to the animation style which I think works to create that sense of realism counterposed by surrealism. Much of the production process is explained in the Press Pack which is extremely useful. Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec explain in some detail how the animation style developed. The animation house Les Armateurs, best-known internationally for The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest & Celestine were involved from the start but Zabou Breitman was convinced that she wanted a process that involved actors performing scenes first which would then be drawn, rather than voice actors adding dialogue to a conventional animation. Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec then provided the background ‘plates’ for the representation of the city and created the overall look of the film as a traditional 2D ‘drawn’ animation using brushwork and washes of colour. The filmed performances then led to a process similar too but distinct from rotoscoping which Breitman felt would be too ‘fluid’. The final result with the actors placed against the background offers a unique representation of Kabul under the Taliban. The dialogue is voiced by mainly French actors and I noted that Swann Arlaud appears as Mohsen, one of his three appearances in the My French Film Festival. Mussarat is voiced by the great Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass.

I really don’t understand why this film hasn’t got a UK release. It has appeared in festivals in the UK and is currently available (with English subs) for streaming on Curzon and also (at a lower price) on YouTube. Here’s a trailer with English subs.

Le vent tourne (The Wind Turns, Switzerland-France 2018)

Farming in the Jura mountains

The second film in my ‘My French Film Festival’ programme continues a trend for rural dramas that have flourished in the last few year in the UK. God’s Own Country (2017) The Levelling (2016) and Dark River (2017) might all be included in the category. The Wind Turns (also listed as With the Wind) shares some elements with Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Italy-Switzerland-Germany 2014). Here is Swiss-German director Bettina Oberli tackling a story by Antoine Jaccoud about a couple on a farm in the Jura Region of Switzerland. As in The Wonders, they are attempting a traditional approach to farming without the use of modern agribusiness methods and, also as in The Wonders, they accept a young person to stay with them over the summer. But other than that, the films are quite different. I do also remember another Swiss film which shares some elements with this rural drama: Animal Heart (2009)

The script doesn’t divulge too much information at first so I’ll try to maintain some of the surprises.The couple running the farm are Alex (Pierre Deladonchamps) and Pauline (Mélanie Thierry) and we first meet them dealing with a distressing situation – a calf is still-born in an open field. Next day, however, they meet their summer guest Galina (Anastasia Shevtsova) who is from a village near Chernobyl and is coming to stay with her medication for the fresh air and natural way of life as she recovers from radiation poisoning. A little later a second ‘guest’ appears – Samuel (Nuno Lopes), an engineer who has come to oversee the installation of a contradictory high-tech solution to the need for power on the farm in the form of a single wind turbine which will generate electricity for lighting etc.

Handprints in the concrete base for the wind turbine. Samuel is on the right in the foreground.

Alex and Paul have very different outlooks on life. Alex has strong beliefs and wants to stick to them come what may. Samuel is both more cynical and more easygoing. He travels the world installing this kit but you get the feeling he could install any kind of equipment and he soon finds himself at odds with Alex despite his own nonchalant manner. Pauline is clearly attracted to Samuel and also warmly welcomes Galina. Both the guests seem much livelier than Alex and occasionally Pauline needs a good time. The other disruptive influence is Mara (Audrey Cavelius), Pauline’s sister who is a vet. Alex is reluctant to let Mara near the animals, fearing she may treat them with unnecessary medication.

This rural melodrama involves human conflicts, some sexual encounters and the power of nature, in particular wind, rain and fog. The raising of the wind tower is both a focus for collective action and celebration and a potent symbol of ‘disruption’.

The director with her two female leads- Mélanie Thierry is on the right

Bettina Oberli is German-speaking Swiss so undertaking a francophone film was a challenge. She does have at least one starry collaborator in the form of Céline Sciamma and also Mélanie Thierry who seemed very familiar to me but I can only think of Bertrand Tavernier’s La princesse de Montpensier (France 2010) as a film of hers that I have seen. She has a strong presence and she becomes the centre of the film around which the other performances can be built. The Swiss landscape is well-captured by Stéphane Kuthy who has documentary shoots on his CV, evident in his coverage of the installation and the various farm routines. I also enjoyed the music of Arnaud Rebotini.

I’ve been an organic gardener and a strong supporter of sustainable agriculture for many years and I found some scenes in the film quite distressing but I also recognised the very strongly-held views about farming, especially as held by Alex, and how they can lead to a very blinkered approach to problems. The narrative is certainly believable and the open ending gives pause for thought. It’s another short film, well under 90 minutes but packs quite a punch as a worthwhile festival film. The film opens with a long quote by the British author Rebecca West which encapsulates the ideas behind the narrative, but I can’t find the source text.

Here’s the trailer with English subs:

Little Women (US 2019)

The sisters by the sea (from left, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse  Ronan as Jo and Eliza Scanlen as Beth)

Little Women, adapted from the novel and directed by Greta Gerwig, is a clever mainstream family entertainment (classified ‘U’ in the UK). It’s a mainstream studio movie for Gerwig who has been mainly associated with American Independent Cinema up to this point. It is very enjoyable to watch but also makes statements in line with current ideas about feminism and in particular the difficulties women have faced in becoming media producers and artists. The film has been a deserved success. The local single screen cinema I attended in a small market town was busy for a Thursday afternoon matinee in its third week of release and I understand that in Hebden Bridge, the cinema advised audiences that they may have to queue for admission and they should arrive early. Releasing at Christmas was a good move – some scenes in the snow and the colourful outfits of the March girls reminded me of another film with Christmas connections, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The success is richly deserved and there are many reviews out there so I’ll just make a few observations that might be less widely circulated.

One of several beautifully composed long shots

First up is casting. Everyone is very good in their role but I’m intrigued that none of the March ‘girls’/women (the narrative deals with several years and previous films sometimes used two actors for some of the parts) are actually American. Saoirse Ronan as Jo was, I think born in New York, but grew up in Ireland from the age of 3. Emma Watson as Meg, was born in Paris, but grew up in England. Florence Pugh as Amy is English and Eiza Scanlen as Beth is Australian. In addition James Norton whose character marries Meg is also English (and currently playing Stephen Ward in the BBC serial on Christine Keeler). I don’t have a problem with this but I’m surprised as previous film versions have usually cast American actors. I’m wondering if there was a conscious decision to think of non-American English speakers because they might be more suited to a 19th century East Coast narrative? Of course, many American actors have played British characters, including Emma Stone who was at one point going to play Meg. Ms Stone played an 18th century English woman in The Favourite. But I want to link the casting to two other selections of ‘creative personnel’ for the film, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and composer Alexandre Desplat, both French, though with experience on American films.

Another beautiful long shot of landscape. I’m showing these because the film’s promo shots focus only on the characters and part of the pleasure of heritage films is settings on a big screen

The ‘literary adaptation’, especially of 19th century novels, is a British ‘thing’ for good or ill. For a period they were known in the UK as ‘heritage films’, a generic category that is equally popular in France. My feeling is that the British and French ‘heritage films’ look and feel different, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what the differences might be. I am inclined to say that Little Women ‘sounds’ British and looks French – but the actions are American? Partly this is because I was riveted by some of the camerawork which at different times made me think of various European painting styles. I was particularly taken by long shots of the Laurence house in Concord and the beach scenes which presumably are meant to be the New England coast but could for me have been Europe. Allied to this, I was easily accepting of the Paris scenes as being shot in Paris when they were actually in the US. Gerwig (or Columbia) also cast French actor-director Louis Garrel as ‘the Professor’.

Laura Dern and Meryl Streep with Florence Pugh

Finally re the casting, I didn’t recognise Chris Cooper at all as Mr Laurence, but I thought him very good. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are also effective as Marmee and Aunt March. Saoirse Ronan plays the lead and she has great screen presence and charisma, but in some ways Florence Pugh steals the film and I did feel sorry for Emma Watson as Meg, though it is the part rather than the performance that means she makes less impact than Pugh’s Amy.

The major innovation in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is the restructuring of the narrative, so that flashbacks reveal to us how the March daughters were, back in 1861, and how they are ‘now’ in 1867. Cuts are often made ‘seamlessly’ on similar movements by the same character. This has been much heralded by critics but I found it disconcerting at first. I like to think I am a reasonably skilled reader, but I had to ‘work’ to follow the narrative and reassemble the plot as we went along. Eventually I found myself in tune with the flashbacks but I wonder how many audiences were either confused or just allowed the overall narrative flow to take them along? Perhaps most audiences, especially in North America, know the story so well that they could follow events with no problem at all? The major innovation in the film appears to be to ‘play’ with the scenes detailing how the sisters are influenced or not in terms of the need to marry ‘well’ – i.e. to rich men. I haven’t read the novel but Gerwig’s script seems to shift the discourse around the marriage ‘deal’ to make it a more complex issue about the possibility for women to control their own creativity – and to get properly recompensed for their output. Jo achieves this by writing about herself and her family and getting the full royalties. Amy marries into money but only once she has worked out the economics of life as a female fine artist.

I’m not part of the target audience for this film and I note that there are female commentators who don’t like the film. Hadley Freeman posted a negative personal take in her Guardian column. I found her argument confusing but along with the many comments on her piece she does articulate some of the concerns about Hollywood’s practice of re-making literary adaptations of the same canonical novels. The video essay below by ‘Be Kind Rewind’ is quite long (25 mins) but highly recommended. It takes you through the 1933, 1949 and 1994 film versions and suggests the ways in which the current version is different. It’s both scholarly and engaging – a neat trick. What comes over most of all is that each version is appropriate for its time. I don’t know who is behind this video but she is very good (and she has other similar essays on her YouTube Channel that are well worth viewing).