Category: Films by women

Shiva Baby (US 2020)

Danielle with a bagel and a faraway look – getting through the shiva

Weddings and funeral are universal settings for family events and they have been fertile ground for quarrels and revelations since storytelling developed in human communities. Shiva is the Jewish period of mourning and in this New York Jewish community Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a college student, has been asked by her parents to attend a shiva gathering for one of their friends. Danielle doesn’t know (or can’t remember) the person who died and she misses the funeral service because she is enjoying a session with her ‘sugar daddy’. This brief scene opens the film in long shot and we see Dani being paid for sex. The rest of the film is located in the middle-class home of the bereaved’s family.

Dani with her parents . . .

For Dani the shiva is an unsettling experience which is at times nightmarish. Her parents (played by Polly Draper and Fred Malamed) comment on everything about her and discuss her possible career options, her appearance and prospective marriage partners with all the other ageing parents, friends and relatives. But the real nightmare begins when Dani spots her ex girl-friend, the successful student Maya (Molly Gordon) and soon after her ‘sugar daddy’ turns up with his high-flying wife and their baby. It appears that Max (Danny Deferrari) knows Dani’s parents but he was unaware of who Dani was. It’s not difficult to see how much of a nightmare this is for Dani. The film is relatively short at just 77 minutes but writer-director Emma Seligman packs a lot in. At first I wondered if I would be able to follow this narrative at all but it got easier when I turned the English subtitles on – I found the two young women in particular hard to follow. There are also more Yiddish terms used in the film than I’ve come across for a while. I’m clearly not the target audience for the film but I did find I was engaged and I came to understand Dani more as the film went on. I confess I would have left the shiva gathering as soon as possible to get away from all the other people there but Dani is made of stronger stuff.

. . . and taken aback when sugar daddy Max appears . . .

Shiva Baby was released in the UK by MUBI following a successful run in North America in cinemas, at festivals and on streamers. MUBI gave the film a single day cinema release in early June and it is now streaming, presumably for some time. On the stream, the film is followed by an informative and engaging Q&A with Emma Seligman who turns out to be from a Reform Jewish Community in Toronto. She trained at NYU and originally made Shiva Baby as an 8 minute short film in 2018 with Rachel Sennott as Dani. Opening out the film required a hunt for funding from various independent sources. Shiva Baby is very impressive as a first feature. Seligman makes the most of her major location and the budget constraints. There is a strong cast supporting Sennott who is herself a comedian and writer as well as actor. The material comes from Seligman’s own observations and experience of her own Jewish community. She makes clear in the Q&A that the film is for ‘millennials’ who are faced with the lack of understanding shown by ‘boomer’ parents. I think this is a little unfair. As a boomer I’m well aware of the struggles of recent graduates in finding jobs and I’ve had a ‘portfolio’ career myself so I know something about what they might face later on. But these are not the real concerns of the narrative. Parents are much the same across many cultures – these New York Jewish parents just seem more hard-edged and extreme, although much of that is bluster, I think.

The real concern here is what Seligman refers to as ‘validation’ of identity for young women and particularly for queer young women like Dani and Maya. It’s about gaining control over your own sexuality and the power relationships that this involves. The concept of the new ‘sugar-daddy’ involves young women (and men) finding older partners online who are willing to pay for sexual relationships. Many young people need money for higher education fees on top of living accommodation and subsistence. Dani, however, has relatively wealthy parents who at the moment are providing monetary support. In a sense she is still a ‘baby’ for her parents and her use of a sugar daddy has wider and more complex meanings. The film’s title thus works both for Dani’s status and for Max’s baby which proves to be the real inciting incident of the narrative structure. “Who on earth brings a baby to a shiva?”, as someone asks rhetorically.

Helping out with Maya. How is meeting her again going to work out?

Several reviewers have suggested the narrative resembles a horror narrative, others have referred to farce. One suggested it resembled the scene in The Graduate when Benjamin is urged to go into plastics, the industry of the future (in 1968). There is something in all of these suggestions. Leyna Rowan and Hanna Park, as respectively cinematographer and editor, do a good job of taking us through the several rooms of this suburban house, sometimes seeing characters through windows, down corridors and in doorways in the throes of a lively gathering. The film is presented in ‘Scope and at one point we get an expressionist montage of shots of elderly people rather obscenely eating the various forms of ‘finger food’. Dani we will learn has been ‘chubby’ in the past and now is ‘skinny’. Comments about her weight just add further pressure. The music soundtrack by Ariel Marx is more likely to evoke a horror film or at least severe disturbance.

Shiva baby is a highly-rated film. I did wonder if it could live up to the hype. I needn’t have worried. The whole MUBI programme (97 minutes with the Q&A) flashed by and stirred up a lot of thoughts. I’d recommend it for any audience, not just millennials, though they might get most from it.

Binding Sentiments (Holdudvar, Hungary 1969)

Kati (Kati Kovács, left) and Edit

Binding Sentiments is the second feature by Márta Mészáros, following The Girl  (1968) and like the earlier film it is currently streaming on MUBI UK. As in The Girl, Kati Kovács takes a leading role, but in this case not as the protagonist. The film is shot in the CinemaScope ratio, featuring both crowded interiors and some sweeping location footage, especially in a lakeside resort.

The central character is Edit (Mari Töröcsik), who in the film’s opening sequence is seen travelling to the airport to formally receive the ashes of her husband who has died while on official business in Paris. He was a prominent academic turned politician and after a formal trip to a mausoleum in a motor cavalcade, Edit finally returns exhausted to her large city centre apartment where she meets her younger son Gáspár (Gáspár Jancsó). The older son István (Lajos Balázsovits) eventually arrives with his girlfriend Kati (Kati Kovács). All three younger people are students and the couple are sleeping together. The formalities are not yet over and Edit hosts a reception for many of her husband’s friends, colleagues and acquaintances (all men). She is clearly under a lot of strain but she conducts herself properly as she tries to follow proper procedures and deal with men who all knew her husband for different reasons. She has less formal meetings with her women friends. After everything has settled down, she finds herself alone with István and Kati. This whole section covering the husband’s internment and formal mourning makes up the first half of the narrative. The second half will focus on how Edit deals with her situation.

Edit and Mancika (Mari Szemes) – one of her oldest friends? This is the day after the funeral.

Edit’s husband either had family wealth prior to his political career or being a politician in Hungary in the 1950s and 1960s was very well rewarded. The family villa is marvellously situated with a view over the lake and vineyards around the house. Edit has a room with large windows that open directly on the lake view. But all is not well. István believes that his mother is depressed or ‘overwrought’ and he charges Kati with ‘looking after’ Edit – in practice being her gaoler.  It may be that István feels that his mother does not properly recognise her husband’s legacy. In his room in the family apartment he had pinned up large blown-up photos of Kati alongside an image of Lenin. What we have now is a form of psychological drama. Edit is increasingly angry and determined to break out. Kati is unsure why she has been asked to act in this way and ambivalent about how she should behave. Mészáros offers us some examples of life outside the villa, including the antics of Gáspár and his friends. As in The Girl, there is an intriguing glimpse into popular culture for young people in Hungary in the late 1960s – and how it is viewed by the authorities.

István ((Lajos Balázsovits) and Kati

This unusual film narrative has not been widely discussed online and some of the reviews I’ve seen seem just plain wrong in some respects. Márta Mészáros seems always to have made films about women’s relationships and often about relationships between women. When the psychological drama begins to develop it raises questions about three women in particular. As well as Edit and Kati, there are also the women of the region where the villa is situated and Edit meets her aunt who encourages her to indulge in a nostalgia for a more folkloric past. This evokes a very different Hungary to the promise of modernity pursued by Kati. Edit is placed between the the two worlds unsure of how to act. She had fallen out of love with her husband and though she accepts the material rewards that her position has brought her, she is seemingly uncomfortable with them, especially when they seem to anger Kati.

I’m sure that somewhere I have read a commentary on the film which refers to possible political metaphors about the relationship between Hungary and the Soviet Union. After the funeral, Edit and Manci (see the image above) mention 1956 when Edit’s husband fled the country in the face of Soviet intervention. This political subtext would make sense in terms of director Mészáros’ own biography and her continued interest in both women’s lives and the politics of Eastern Europe. However, I can’t now find such a commentary and I don’t feel equipped to pursue it here. (This film is the only one in MUBI’s selection that is not discussed in detail in the notes on the website.) So, I’ll just enjoy the visual splendour of the film as constructed by Mészáros and cinematographer János Kende, working relatively early in his distinguished career. The film looks wonderful in B+W ‘Scope but the documentary experience of Mészáros shines through, especially in relation to the actions of the young people and is not lost in the visual sweep of the lake, the villa and the hills. There is often pop/rock music playing when the young people are around – music in a similar style to West Coast American music of the late 1960s. There is also close attention to fashion and Edit’s son’s bedroom has a familiar image of Che Guevara. The lead performances are all strong. I just wish I could find out more about the film and its production – it seems a big step forward in terms of budget from The Girl.

St Maud (UK 2019)

Maud and Amanda in the old wood-panelled house

Saint Maud is one of those films that got a brief run in UK cinemas in Autumn 2020 some six months after it was scheduled for release. That might partly explain its critical success but it had already been well received at Toronto in 2019. Given the limelight in this way, the film has been extensively reviewed and discussed. It’s difficult to gauge the audience response since cinema audiences were restricted and it will have been seen mostly on streamers. It was selected as an online film for a Friday night film club meeting on Zoom and I watched it on BFI Player. I mention this because Saint Maud isn’t necessarily a film I would have chosen to watch. I’m not if I enjoyed the screening, but it was certainly gripping and intriguing and I did enjoy reading about its production and discussing it with friends.

Maud has a former life as someone less obviously religious

Saint Maud has been described in several ways. ‘Religious horror’ and ‘psychological thriller’ are two of the most common. A young woman has a nightmarish experience working as a nurse at St Afra’s Hospital. Leaving her job, she is taken on by a nursing agency and after a year is assigned to be the live-in carer of the terminally ill dancer and choreographer, Amanda, who was celebrated for her career and whose house is full of memories of her performances. In one of those cruel twists, Amanda has a form of lymphoma which affects her spine so she can no longer dance. Instead she is drinking and smoking away her last few months in an old house with art deco wallpaper. It soon becomes apparent that Maud is a recent convert to Catholicism who believes that her prayers are answered by the voice of God and His presence. She determines to save Amanda’s soul before the dancer dies. What follows is a narrative with some familiar events and a climactic ending. These are presented with strong creative ideas and real flair. The film is only 84 minutes long and you get plenty of thrills for your money. But the narrative is primarily about Maud so we learn a little more about her. We are given some clues about her past life (as ‘Katie’) and her struggles. Writer-director Rose Glass offers us the possibility that Maud is mentally ill or that she is indeed possessed in some way by the Holy Spirit. Some of us might take these to be the same affliction.

(from left) Morfydd Clark, Rose Glass and Jennifer Ehle

Maud making her way to Amanda’s house along the promenade

Rose Glass was a convent girl and there are a number of references I found I had to look up. My research suggests that St. Afra is the relevant historical figure, not Maud, although I spent time trying to remember the two royal Mauds in medieval England (Maud is an alternative version of Matilda). The film is set in a seaside town that is inevitably described as ‘bleak’, ‘dismal’ and ‘small’ etc. The location is actually Scarborough, though it is not named and the camera carefully picks out the least salubrious parts of town. I think Scarborough would make a good setting for a different type of horror film, something more gothic – Whitby is also just up the coast. Perhaps the gothic house in Saint Maud is paired with the garish amusement arcade close to Maud’s own tiny flat as a way of linking two rather different representations of decay and lost faith?  My gripe is that seaside towns are quite specific locations capable of representing a range of meanings but they seem to be used for only a limited range of possibilities. Today, UK seaside towns are often depicted as decaying, with ‘welfare recipients’ living in what were once holiday lettings. It’s an easy shorthand though it is true that some of the most deprived districts in the UK are found in seaside towns. Although Saint Maud is clearly a narrative about some form of highly personal Christianity, it is also possible to read it as a social commentary about the alienation of many young people, featuring loneliness and self-harm, especially among young women. Maud includes self-harming as part of her devotional practice. I found these scenes among the most horrific in the film.

Maud places nails through the insoles of her shoes . . .

This kind of film depends a lot on the central performances and here Morfydd Clark as Maud and Jennifer Ehle as Amanda are both excellent. Rose Glass is a National Film School graduate here making her feature début after several well-received shorts, including the prize-winning Room 55 (UK 2015). The cinematography by Ben Fordesman has won prizes and the music score by Adam Janota Bzowski has also been praised. I confess I didn’t like the very heavy bass notes in the score. The film has a female creator and there are several other women in the production team. The narrative is very much about Katie/Maud and the women she interacts with. There are three male characters who are there primarily to help to reveal something about Maud. I expect it helps to have had a convent education in order to get the most from the film.

Maud in her tiny flat begins to prepare for her final act.

Much of the discussion around the film is focused on whether this is a religious film, a horror film or a psychological thriller – though of course it could have elements of all three. There are certainly  a small number of fantasy/dream/nightmare scenes. St. Afra was a 4th century penitent and martyr and that description perhaps fits Maud, though she could fit other descriptions too. Rose Glass was heavily featured in Sight and Sound‘s November 2020 ‘Horror’ special issue. Discussing her influences in writing the script she denied ever having thought about The Exorcist or The Omen and instead referenced filmmakers such as Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and John Waters and writers such as Iain Banks and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Morfydd Clark watched a lot of Bergman films for preparation and I think that must have been Glass’s influence. Clark also refers to both the ‘grossness’ of scenes and the humour. I’m not sure I really got either but I think I know what she means. I’m not attaching a trailer becauseI think the ones I’ve seen all include too many spoilers. I think there is partly a problem with how the film has been promoted, especially in the US by A24 and generally in some of the film posters. These are I think misleading, creating the idea of a certain kind of horror film. It’s interesting that I struggled to find images of the film which showed Maud on the streets of Scarborough and interacting with people other than Amanda. It’s best I think to see the film without too many expectations. If you haven’t yet seen it, do give it a go. You won’t be bored!

First Cow (US 2019)

The woods of Oregon . . .

This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music  – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.

The opening sequence sees Alia Shawkat unearthing the skeletons

With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.

King-Lu and Cookie, the central characters

After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)

The cow arrives by boat

The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.

First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.

Toby Jones as the Chief Factor

Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European  women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.

I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!

Moving On (Nam-mae-wui yeo-reum-bam, South Korea 2019)

Grandad’s house and the family together

A familiar East Asian family melodrama, the family in Moving On comprises three generations, including two pairs of siblings. Young teenager Ok-ju (Choi Jung-woon) and her little brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) have to move out of their home with their father at the start of the summer holidays. It looked to me as if most of the houses in the street have been condemned for some kind of urban renewal. But it’s also clear that Dad is short of money after his separation/divorce. He does at least have a small van/people carrier which he uses as his base for selling shoes by the roadside. He takes his children and the family’s worldly goods to his father’s house – a quite palatial old building by comparison. Grandad is retired and has been taken to hospital, possibly suffering from heatstroke but he is required to have a scan as a precaution. There is plenty of room in the old house – just as well because soon Dad’s sister turns up, pursued a few days later by the husband she is trying to escape. He is sent away and the new family unit begins to work out a way of living together.

Dong-ju entertains the family

Moving On is the début film of writer-director Yoon Dan-bi, one of several young women making a splash in South Korean cinema in recent years. I’ve called this film a melodrama, mainly because it is a drama of relationships within a family and because, although fresh in itself, it calls to mind similar family dramas from across the region in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. It isn’t a melodrama of ‘excess’ but it does include a few potent songs and even a couple of spirited dances by Dong-ju. The old house plays an important role in the film and there is a real feel for the possibilities of mise en scène. It is a two story house with a wood-panelled interior and internal doors on the staircase that demarcate the upstairs and downstairs worlds. Ok-ju is quick to claim the upstairs bedroom and to keep out her brother, though she does allow her aunt to join her later. The house also has a balcony that overlooks the lush walled garden. I think it is also important that there are many scenes of the family cooking and eating together. I read a Korean-based reviewer who suggests that the location is the port city of Inchon and I suspect that the house is representative of a more traditional Korean family home in an area of narrow streets and houses with high-walled gardens. The film certainly appears to have made an impression winning several awards at mainly East Asian festivals.

Byunggi and Mijung are siblings backin the family home thinking about care for their father

The time period of the summer holidays provides both space for each of the characters to reflect on their situation and an end point on which they must focus. Father Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) is attempting to study so that he can get a well-paid job, Ok-ju has a tentative relationship with a boy who lives some distance away. She is also just beginning to develop adolescent anxieties about her looks, especially her eyes which she thinks need to be ‘fixed’ by plastic surgery. Dong-ju is a lively small boy who simply enjoys each day as it comes, but he does want to see his mother – who is clearly out of favour with Ok-ju. The aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) has separated from her husband and is contemplating divorce. But the pressing situation which underpins many of the other discussions is Grandad’s deteriorating health. If Byunggi and Mijung get jobs, they will need to hire a carer for him and the children will also bear some of the burden. They look into the possibility of a care home but Ok-ju is shocked by this and by the prospect of the house being sold. Ok-ju gradually becomes the central character of the narrative with a couple of (mis)adventures of her own and in the closing section of the film there is a moving scene in which we appear to be experiencing Ok-ju dreaming. The whole closing sequence is emotional and I felt, very convincing. It is worth noting that the last three shots, as the closing music begins, are of the house interior, the clothesline on the balcony and the garden.

Ok-ju and Dong-ju in a taxi on a family mission

Since Moving On appeared in the same Borderlines Festival programme as Minari it is difficult not to compare them. Although the two films are very different in some ways, they do have characters and situations which correspond. Though Moving On is a début feature, I found it more satisfying. Minari seems to ask big questions but I didn’t feel so engaged with the family. Moving On has been seen as one of the best South Korean films of the year and its strength is in the attention to detail and the feel for the characters. All of the performances are good but I must pick out Choi Jung-woon as Ok-ju. She manages a wide array of emotional moments with aplomb. I’d also pick out and also the cinematography of Kim Ji-hyeon. I’ve read different reviews and in one the writer complained that Yoon Dan-bi was being compared to Kore-eda Hirokazu and that this takes away from her own distinctive approach. I can see the point being made but I think it is inevitable that if you have watched films over many years by Ozu Yasijuro and by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang as well as Kore-eda, you will marvel at how Yoon Dan-bi, not yet 30 when she made this feature, has been able to to present a family drama with such sensitivity and capture relationships with authenticity. In the YouTube clip below the trailer you’ll find a short film exploring the ‘Women Directors Leading South Korean Cinema Into its Next Century’. There are 10 of them and Yoon Dan-bi is the first featured. I’m also pleased that two more of the directors appear on this blog with their films House of Hummingbird (2019) and The House of Us (2019). South Korean cinema has much to offer international audiences and it’s great to see these women coming forward.

Charlatan (Czech Republic-Ireland-Slovakia-Poland 2020)

Jan Mikolásek analyses a sample, watched by Frantisek Panko

This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.

Frantisek goes out to the queue of people to make sure they are behaving in an orderly manner

The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the  communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.

The young Mikolásek meets a herbalist who can teach him the ropes

With the family background in horticulture, Mikolásek has a head start

I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.

Mikolásek comes across as a severe figure

I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.

Mikolásek passes a diagnostic test set by the occupying Nazis

Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.

The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.