Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
Rosario Castellanos was a major figure in twentieth century Mexican literature. Born in 1925, she became one of the leading members of the so-called ‘1950 Generation’ who became highly influential. Rosario was a socialist feminist and produced volumes of poetry, essays and three semi-autobiographical novels. In 1971 she was appointed as Mexico’s ambassador to Israel on the basis of her importance as a writer and activist. She died tragically as the result of a domestic accident in Tel Aviv in 1974. Some claimed her death was suicide and there have been attempts to place her alongside Sylvia Plath as a feminist writer.
‘Los adioses’ translates literally as ‘The Goodbyes’ but has been given the English title ‘Eternal Feminine’. I’m not sure exactly why, except that it fits film marketing ideas. The film is a partial biopic focusing on two distinct periods in Rosario’s life – her ’emergence’ in the early 1950s and the period around the birth of her son in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The film narrative distorts the time periods slightly and offers two sets of actors playing the younger Rosario (Tessa Ia) in 1950 and an older version (Karina Gidi) roughly ten years later. At a student meeting, the young Rosario is challenged in a student meeting by Ricardo Guerra (Pedro De Tavira). Although he is attracted to her and makes a play for her, he marries someone else and it is not until 1958 that an older Ricardo (the Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho – soon to appear on UK screens in Zama), having divorced his wife, now marries an older Rosario. The director Natalia Beristáin had only directed one complete feature and an episode in a portmanteau film before she took on Los adioses and she takes some brave decisions. The film opens with some ‘out of focus’ footage behind the titles that eventually becomes clear as a close-up of two bodies intertwined. We don’t yet know if this is the younger or older pair of actors but the aesthetic of close-ups and shallow focus has been established. Most of the film is set indoors in various apartments and rooms of the federal university in Mexico. I think the only trip away is back to the southern state of Chiapas where Rosario grew up as a small child. This time she goes back to receive an award – and Ricardo behaves badly.
I was a little surprised that more isn’t made of Rosario’s childhood. Her family originally owned land in Chiapas, the most southerly state with the greatest variety of indigenous peoples. Rosario was sympathetic to the plight of the Mayan people who worked on the land and, perhaps because the state bordered Guatemala she was also interested in Pan-Latin American ideas. Probably this history would have complicated the narrative too much so it is referenced obliquely in only a couple of scenes apart from the return visit. Instead the focus is on Rosario as a woman who is a writer, a teacher and an advocate of women’s rights who struggles in a patriarchal society. Ricardo is a Professor of Philosophy. My understanding from the film is that he was excited and challenged by Rosario’s talents but then became jealous of her success. Eventually he became the kind of husband who in the 1950s forced Rosario to choose her work or her child. The film narrative sees him develop from a lover to the worst kind of man for a woman like Rosario. The final sequence juxtaposes Rosario’s lectures to her students about patriarchy and the real battle that she faces in her home and in the university staffroom.
This trailer with English subs suggests that Los adioses is going to get a release over the border in the US, as it definitely should. There are large Hispanic speaking potential audiences there and there are certainly audiences for both female directors and stories like this about feminists who tried to make a difference. The trailer also usefully presents both the visual aesthetic of close-ups and shallow/deliberately blurred focus and the back and forth editing style. (The film is also going to get a release in France, so when will it come to the UK?)
This Thai film is exceptionally beautiful and invites the viewer to experience something at once universal but also highly specific. I had two different personal responses to it which I’ll quickly get out of the way, but which are both germane. The film’s English title makes me think of a song written and performed by Sandy Denny which was recorded in 1976 but not released until several years after her death in 1978.
Yesterday’s gone and will be forgotten
And today is where every new day starts
Got to be free as the leaves in autumn
You may be sad but it never lasts.
And maybe, by the evening we’ll be laughing
Just wait and see
All the changes there’ll be
By the time it gets dark.
It’s a beautiful song and has since been covered by Mary Black and others. It doesn’t appear in this film but the year 1976 is key. That was the year in which the film’s director Anocha Suwichakornpong was born. It was also the year that an infamous massacre of students by the Thai military took place at a university in Bangkok. This incident is central to the ideas behind the film. I’ve only visited Thailand once, for a few days in Bangkok en route to Japan in 1977. I’m ashamed to think that I don’t remember anything about that massacre (or even whether I was aware of it at the time). And in a sense that is what the film is about too – the impossibility of representing history through film as an art form. (The Thai title refers to a district of Bangkok but the filmmaker has said that it isn’t a ‘destination’ as such.) Anocha Suwichakornpong trained as a filmmaker in the US. She might have heard the song title there.
The film has no conventional plotting but it does have a narrative. It opens with compositions of individual women looking out of windows. One of them has a camera and we are looking at them from behind. Such framings through windows and doorways, sometimes emphasised by mirrors, occur throughout the film. We soon realise that this will be a film about filmmaking and that it will include a form of mise en abîme – a film within a film, or rather, different versions of the same film? A conventional film narrative appears to begin when two women arrive at a spacious and elegant country house. The younger woman, ‘Ann’ is a film director and she has invited the older Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), who was a student in 1976, to accompany her to the house and to be interviewed about her life. Before this moment we have seen what appears to be a re-staging of a military assault on young people. Ann is played by Visra Vichit-Vadakan who directed Karaoke Girl in 2013. The conversations between the two women skirt around Ann’s motives in making the film and Taew’s reluctance to see herself as an important historical figure. But the significant comment is made by a much younger woman who serves the couple breakfast at a forest café. This character, Nong, is played by Atchara Suwan, and she will appear in many scenes in the film. She’s a kind of ‘every working woman’ in Thailand – a waiter on a river cruiser with a restaurant, a cleaner in a hotel and head-shaved Buddhist novice. When she meets the two women in the café and learns why they are there, she tells the director that Taew should write her own story.
The events of the past with the political activity of the students and the repressive actions of the military are played out at various points. Later in the film an almost documentary study of workers on a tobacco plantation slides into a study of a young actor and pop musician, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri). This shifts the focus away from the countryside to the city and the modern world of the celebrity. Ann and Taew re-appear but played by different and more ‘starry’ actors. Finally, we are in an edit suite. Is this the film about Taew about to be completed? There is a possible narrative twist in this sequence, but equally important is the focus on the artificiality of the filmic image. The final shots of the film reminded me of the extraordinary colours of The Tears of the Black Tiger (Thailand 2000), Wisit Sasanatieng‘s fabulous tribute to the Western and the romance film. During the sequence in the edit suite, which features some English dialogue, one of the characters appears to be named ‘Pang’. The Pang Brothers, Danny and Oxide Chun, grew up in Hong Kong before becoming well-known filmmakers sharing the main creative work on actions films and horror films in Thailand since 2000. I don’t know if this is a deliberate reference. I also noted the use of a simple but very emotional piano and string arrangement of a musical piece to accompany footage of Peter and his girlfriend and this reminded me of various East Asian romance films.
If all these seemingly disparate elements make this film sound as if it is difficult to watch or that it might feel incoherent, nothing could be further from my experience of watching it. What is surprising, perhaps, is that the film seems so calm and thoughtful, despite dealing with what is an almost despairing argument about a society which seems to be unable to confront its own history and narrativise and narrate it so that succeeding generations can learn how not to repeat the mistakes. But perhaps the calm approach is ultimately more fruitful? It isn’t really a problem solely for Thai cinema. We all have problems with our history and how it is represented. I should watch this film again and look out for more work by Anocha Suwichakornpong. I probably also need to learn more about Thailand’s history – as an Asian country that wasn’t colonised by the West, but has had close ties with Japan and conflicts with its neighbours (before and after colonialist periods). There are a couple of scenes in the films of almost deserted roads, some at night, which some reviewers have referred to as nods towards ‘Lynchian surrealism’. I didn’t get that, but I did think about Thailand as a ‘left-hand drive’ country, like Japan and India (and Hong Kong), despite the influence of the US and the switch to right-hand drive by the country’s neighbours. I guess what I’m saying is that By The Time it Gets Dark feels like more than an art film and that it appears to be saying something about Thai culture. But the film is a product of the festival circuit. Electric Eel Films is the Thai producer looking to make quality films but support also comes from Rotterdam and Doha Festivals, the Hubert Bals Fund and producers in several countries.
Perhaps predictably there has been plenty of adverse comment about the Cannes list of titles ‘in competition’ for the Palme d’Or this year with only three titles directed by women. I’m a very strong supporter of more access to Cannes and other festivals for films by women, but the recent upsurge of support and the impact of #MeToo will take time to produce results in terms of completed films of high quality directed by women who have finally got the opportunity to develop their careers. I’m not really a fan of festival competitions anyway, so I usually look at the other strands of a festival like Cannes as well as the main competition. In ‘Un Certain Regard’, the second strand, there are six films directed by women out of a total of fifteen titles selected. This compares favourably with the three out of eighteen in the official selection.
Un Certain Regard looks like a very encouraging selection. The strand presents “original and different” works which seek international recognition. There is a significant monetary prize and titles are also eligible for a range of jury prizes. It’s wonderful to see Nandita Das returning to Cannes with Manto, her biopic of the controversial writer Saadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955), played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Ms Das is no stranger to Cannes, having appeared on festival juries. She has an international profile as an actor and social/political activist and Manto is her second feature as director after Firaaq in 2008. Joining Nandita Das in the selection are Wanuri Kahiu from Kenya and Gaya Jiji from Syria plus Valeria Golino from Italy, multi-disciplinary artist Vanessa Filho with her first feature (a French production) and the French-Moroccan director Meryem Benm’Barek. Most of these women are represented by their first or second features as director. They join the three directors selected in the ‘Official Competition’. Nadine Labaki from Lebanon, whose two earlier films, Caramel (Lebanon-France 2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (Leb-Italy-Fra-Egypt 20111) both feature on this blog, joins Alice Rohrwacher whose The Wonders (Italy-Switz-Germany 2014) was much appreciated here. The third director to achieve ‘official selection’ is Eva Husson with Girls of the Sun (France-Belgium-Georgia-Switzerland 2018) starring the France-based Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani as a female Kurdish fighter, commander of a batallion, the ‘Girls of the Sun’.
So, eight films by women to look out for. Amongst the men are some familiar names such as Spike Lee, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Pawel Pawlikowski, Jia Zhang-ke, Jafar Panahi, Matteo Garrone, Stéphane Brizé, Asghar Farhadi, Lee Chang-dong and the return of Jean-Luc Godard. I don’t know much about the other male directors, Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, Christophe Honoré, David Robert Mitchell, Kirill Serebrennikov and A.B Shawky. It will be interesting to read about their films and particularly about A. B. Shawky with his first film Yomeddine (Egypt-US-Austria 2018). This looks a strong line-up. I just hope we get to see many of the films in UK distribution.
Writer-director Angela Schanelec trained at the ‘Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlin’ (DFFB – German Academy of Film and Television Berlin) in the early 1990s which means that she has been seen as part of the so-called ‘Berlin School’ of filmmakers. In the UK the best known names of this group are Christian Petzold and Thomas Arslan. Valeska Grisebach trained at Vienna’s Film Academy but returned later to Berlin and has self-identified with some of the directors in the Berlin School. MUBI has started a streaming programme of Schanelec’s films, none of which I’d seen before. From my viewing of this first title, I can see some resemblance to Arslan’s early films, but Schanelec seems much more austere and eschews a conventional plot altogether. She doesn’t appear to be aiming at the kind of international festival attention that Petzold and Grisebach have achieved, though research suggests that she has found it on some occasions. Wikipedia’s entry suggests that she belongs alongside more avant-garde directors such as Chantal Akerman. Schanelec herself has mentioned the influence of Robert Bresson. A very useful account of the development of the Berlin School can be found on this Senses of Cinema page.
Passing Summer is an odd title. What on earth does it mean? Did Schanelec decide on the English title? Is there a careful play on words – a summer that literally ‘passes’, a summer of no consequence or a period of time ‘passing’ as summer? The German title is much more direct in translating as ‘my slow life’. The narrative comprises a series of ‘encounters’ of a group of people over six months, largely in Berlin. There is one character who seems to be at the centre of the group and seemingly it is Valerie who has the slow life. The other characters are friends, one of whom seems to be her current partner and at one point Valerie travels south to meet her brother and to go with him to see her father who is ill in hospital. There are children in the group and their care is one strand (as far as I can see, the two children are both moving between divorced/separated parents. There is also the marriage of one character. We know that six months ‘pass’ because the narrative begins with a meeting in a café between Valerie and her friend Sophie who then leaves for Rome. At the end of the film she returns to Berlin after her six month contract has been completed.
The focus is on the seemingly inconsequential details of daily life for the group and it is here that the aesthetic of the Berlin School suggests we will find some kind of insight into ‘reality’ rather than in the artifice and contrived narrative set-ups of conventional mainstream genre cinema. Having excised any conventional narrative devices from her film, Schanelec distances us from her ‘characters’ further by careful camerawork. The camera is nearly always static, though the shot sizes vary considerably. Within the compositions, figures are often placed closer to the edge rather than the centre of the frame and our view of them might be obscured by windows, doorframes or other characters/objects in the foreground. The static camera also means that characters will move out of frame but still be talking. In the image below Valerie arrives back in Berlin by train to be met by Thomas. We hear her voice over the static shot, presumably talking to Thomas, but we don’t see them meet. This is perhaps the most extreme example. Earlier the little girl swimming in the image above asks Marie to dance for her. We hear the music and assume Marie is dancing but the camera stays on the image of the girl listening – we never see Marie dancing.
What to make of this aesthetic and how much we learn about Berlin life – and about cinema – seems to be the question. The first point to make is that I didn’t feel totally alienated. The static compositions are often strangely beautiful. Perhaps that’s not quite the right word, but looking at them for what seems like a minute or two is not annoying and I felt engaged throughout the film without the need for narrative drive. The camerawork is by Reinhold Vorschneider whose work I admired in Thomas Arslan’s Helle Nächte. He has worked with both Schanelec and Arslan on several projects and has presumably developed this ‘Berlin School’ technique with the directors. I should also note that the lack of artifice on the shoots extends to the use of diegetic sound only. The sequences in which characters dance have music from a disc, a DJ or a live performance. The actors in the film are a mixture of the experienced and inexperienced. Angela Schanelec was herself an actor first and she appears in the film in a minor role. Ursina Lardi as Valerie was in her first film but she has since gone on to significant roles in films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Lore (2012). The performances, the cinematography and the editing (by Schanelec herself and Bettina Böhler, a Petzold collaborator) work seamlessly. I’m happy to watch more Berlin School work and certainly more films by Angela Schalenec. But I’m not sure what I’ve learned about German culture or about cinema. Mostly. I think, I’ve got a sense of a calmness about watching ordinary lives. I’m puzzled though at the difference between the drama of Christian Petzold’s films and the approach of Angela Schanalec. It’s difficult in Schanelec’s film to follow the individual characters and how they relate to each other and there are frustrations in the way in which we find out something interesting about characters that is not followed up in any direct way – much like in ‘real life’ I suppose. I need to find out more about Berlin film culture. For a more detailed analysis of Angela Schanelec’s “notoriously evasive films” look at this paper by Blake Williams in CinemaScope.
MUBI also carries an essay on Angela Schanelec to accompany the season which extends to June 3rd with several films to come.
This was my fourth selection from my MUBI free trial and I realised that I’ve been waiting to see it since my first encounter with Mészáros Márta’s films in Kolkata in 2009. Mészáros, born in 1931, is one of global film’s major directors of documentaries and fiction features but it is difficult to see her films in UK cinemas. (Second Run, the East European specialist DVD label in the UK, do have this Mészáros film on offer, but none of the director’s other films.) Diary For My Children is an important film for several reasons. According to John Cunningham in his Hungarian Cinema book (Wallflower 2004) it was the director’s most popular film in her home market. It was also very controversial with its release delayed by two years because of problems with the Hungarian censors (because it portrays the ‘Stalinisation’ of Hungary in the late 1940s?). Mészáros had always been more popular in the international market up to this point and the film did win the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1984. It was also an important personal statement for the director as a semi-autobiographical film and the first of a four-part series of films over the next 15 years.
The central character is Juli, a teenage young woman flying back to Budapest in 1947 from the Soviet Union. Like Mészáros herself, Juli was born in Hungary and then taken to the Soviet Union as a child. Her mother is dead and she doesn’t know what has happened to her father. She is accompanied by an older couple who were friends of her parents and in Budapest she will be fostered by Magda, someone else who knew her parents and who is now in a senior position in the Hungarian Communist Party.
I enjoyed the film very much. Juli is played by Zsuzsa Czinkóczi. She had been a child star and had appeared in three films for Mészáros and two for Márta’s former husband Jancsó Miklós. Czinkóczi was 15 when Diary was completed. In the narrative she ages from 15 to 21. It is an extraordinary performance and it is because of her performance that I sometimes felt that I was watching a 1960s New Wave film. Juli has that mixture of vitality and confidence mixed with moments of immaturity and vulnerability that I associate with the young women of 1960s films. She finds herself living in the midst of Party privilege in a large house taken from the bourgeoisie. She is enrolled in the top school in Budapest. But she doesn’t want either of these privileges. Instead she wants to find out what has happened to her father and her other relatives. Magda keeps her on a very tight rein and she has to ‘borrow’ Magda’s pass to indulge her only vice – bunking off school to go to the cinema. Meanwhile, around her, the Stalinists increase their control over Budapest. I felt at a disadvantage because of my limited knowledge of Hungarian politics in 1947-49. At one point, Magda is firm in condemning Tito, the communist leader of Yugoslavia who broke away from the USSR, leading to banishment from the Cominform – the association of socialist states. Magda preaches the Stalinist line promoted by Rákosi Mátyás, the Hungarian leader whose image is central to government events in Budapest alongside those of Lenin and Stalin.
As the film’s title suggests, it is like a personal diary. Juli’s ideas, her fears and her desires are central and we see the political environment in the background. It isn’t until she begins digging that she uncovers clues to what happened to her parents. She has her own intimate memories which Mészáros inserts into the narrative without any warnings or clues. These are scenes that Juli is remembering or daydreaming about when she sees her father in a quarry selecting stone and working on a sculpture or when she accompanies her pregnant mother to the hospital. These are personal memories for Mészáros and she emphasises this by casting the Polish actor Jan Nowicki as both Juli’s father during the dream/memory sequences and János, her father’s friend who escaped to France in the 1930s but returned to Hungary after 1945. Mészáros later married Nowicki. Diary was photographed by Jancsó Miklós Jr., her son from her second marriage to the director Jancsó Miklós, perhaps the best-known Hungarian filmmaker of the period.
Little sense of Hungary as a defeated Axis supporter came across to me, but perhaps that is the point – everyone has to survive in the new system and the past is quickly forgotten if bringing it up would mean criticising the Russians. János does talk about the war and the (British?) air raids which killed his wife and disabled his son. He will become the character through whom Juli learns about the past. Juli’s ‘adopted’ grandparents are an odd couple. The man does provide Juli with some clues about the past, but the woman is a very sketchily-presented figure.
Juli’s story is in one sense a ‘coming of age’ story, though some of the most common elements of that genre are not followed up and the story is complicated by the political struggle. Juli changes when the evidence of how the system really works is brought home to her. At other times she does the kinds of things teenagers do. She has a boyfriend who she met at school, but she tells him from the start that she doesn’t love him. What she wants at this time is a friend of her own age. Mészáros Márta is an immensely important female filmmaker but there have been debates about the extent to which Diary for My Children is a feminist film. In one sense, simply making the film in the patriarchal Hungarian system, which still seems to have prevailed in the 1980s, is a feminist statement. In the next film in the series, Diary For My Lovers (1987) Juli travels to Russia to go to the Moscow Film School because the film schools in Hungary don’t admit women. This is again an autobiographical statement. Here is an extract from an essay by Catherine Portuges on the Second Run website (the full essay comes with the DVD):
. . . the film is neither purely fictional nor entirely autobiographical, nor, for that matter, strictly speaking a product of what has been called ‘women’s cinema’. Rather, by maintaining an intricate balance between personal exploration on the one hand and historical investigation on the other, Mészáros’ cinematic method transforms and expands its autobiographical dimension by alternating sequences in which the historical context, marked by the use of archival footage, is dominant. This structure positions the viewer in a way that avoids both the more complete distancing of documentary and the more individually-motivated conventions of autobiographical cinema. . . . Diary for My Children transcends traditional categories of genre, yet it functions as a kind of history . . . in which different angles of vision operate to analyse micro-history in order to generate ideas about a larger, macro-historical vision – a private message, in other words, which, in the public mind, becomes a collective one. (Catherine Portuges is the author of Screen Memories: The Hungarian Cinema of Marta Meszaros (Women Artists in Film), John Wiley and Sons, 1993
This is quite a persuasive argument, though for me the archival footage wasn’t so noticeable until towards the end of the film, by which time Juli is ‘aware’. In fact, I identified with Juli so strongly that the division didn’t really bother me. Juli stretches Magda’s patience and won’t listen to the older woman’s justifications – or at least her behaviour means Magda thinks that she just won’t listen. (It is this refusal to engage with Magda’s perspective which is perhaps the disadvantage of the ‘diary’ narrative. I was strongly reminded of a similar narrative in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013). Ida is set in the 1960s and an 18 year-old young woman leaves a convent to meet her aunt who has been a judge in communist Poland. Juli could easily be in that 1960s-set film. I’d like to see what happens to her in the other three films, but availability looks a real problem. Perhaps MUBI can find them as well?
For just her fourth feature in eighteen years, Lynne Ramsay has again opted for a literary adaptation after Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). She has worked on several other projects in between her finished features but has walked out or been pushed out of many of her starts – she is a woman who knows what she wants and won’t be coerced into anything she doesn’t want to do. You Were Never Really Here won the screenplay prize at Cannes and the best actor prize for Joaquin Phoenix, despite Ramsay’s contention that the film was not ‘completed’. The film now on release is 90 minutes long and the Cannes cut was 85 minutes.
It’s ironic that a ‘visual director’ like Ramsay (who trained first as a photographer) should be interested in stories first published as novels or novellas/short stories such as You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. But then perhaps Lynne Ramsay is interested in finding a visual world to convey what I imagine to be the inner world of the protagonist Joe as presented in the original. If so she has certainly achieved her aim along with her collaborators – principally Thomas Townend as her cinematographer, Joe Bini as editor and Jonny Greenwood as music composer. All three were also with Ramsay on We Need to Talk About Kevin (Townend was the DoP for the Spanish shoot on that film).
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe as a shambling hulk whose heavy beard and unkempt appearance belies his abilities as an enforcer/protector. His body carries the scars which perhaps represent his internal sufferings. He has just finished a job in Cincinatti and when he returns to New York the first clues to a possible unravelling of his business appear. Joe suffers flashbacks which reveal traumas from his time in the Army in the Gulf and in the FBI as well as earlier memories of abuse by his father. All the traumas involve memories of children or teenagers who have been killed or damaged. We are in no doubt that Joe’s next job, to find and rescue the teenage daughter of a politician believed to have been taken to act as a young prostitute in a brothel, is something he will be committed to completing successfully. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative except to observe that Joe has to deal with a spiralling chaos of events. This is a very violent film – many people are killed. But Lynne Ramsay is not interested in the acts of violence as such, more their effect on Joe himself. His weapon of choice is usually a ball-pein hammer. Townend’s camera is often close to Joe, framing parts of his body. Shallow focus blurs the lights of the night-time city. We cannot be distant observers because we are often dragged into the fray. If you are squeamish like me, you may find the explorations of Joe’s punished body too painful to watch. The young Russian-American actor Ekaterina Samsonov is excellent as the young woman Joe rescues.
Several critics have made references to the film as a modern take on Scorsese/Schrader’s classic Taxi Driver (US 1976). It’s not hard to see why. Martin Scorsese, his cinematographer Michael Chapman and composer Bernard Herrmann produced a film that was as aesthetically powerful as that of Ramsay/Townend/Greenwood trio. In addition both films feature an army veteran, a young prostitute and a politician in New York City. But the films are actually quite different in terms of both aesthetics and plot even if they have a similar impact on audiences. Ramsay’s use of flashbacks and fantasy/dream sequences creates a different tone to that of Taxi Driver.
You Were Never Really Here is such a ‘rich text’ in terms of camerawork, sound, mise en scène and performance that I need to see it again before making other comments. I’d like to congratulate Film 4, BFI and the French company Why Not Productions for having faith in Lynne Ramsay, one of the UK’s most talented and committed filmmakers. I hope she gets another worthwhile project underway whenever she’s ready to commit herself again.
Here’s Lynne Ramsay talking about the film on Film 4:
Deutschland, bleiche Mutter is a film by New German Cinema director, Helma Sanders-Brahms, released in 1980. It has recently had a release, in the UK, on BFI-sponsored Blu-ray DVD, giving a much wider audience the chance to see a film that has been considered a neglected classic.
Deutschland, bleiche Mutter intertwines the events of the war with the filmmaker’s own personal history. As such, its feminism and its political reassessment of the past is shaped by its German context. The story is based on Sanders-Brahms own parents’ war experiences. Lene (Eva Mattes) directly represents the director’s mother, Helene Sanders and the director’s own daughter, Anne is cast as Lene and Hans’ (Ernst Jacobi) daughter, Anna. The film focusses on three separate movements: courtship, marriage, war and motherhood, post-war family reunion. It is an ambitious blend of allegory and naturalism, creating a complex meditation on the war generation’s experience and culpability, especially in relation to Nazism. The layering of story and symbol is part of its action of vergangenheitsbewältigung, of ‘mastering the knowledge of the past’ which became intensely associated with New German Cinema. Formally, the film effects a very complex intertwining of documentary footage of the ravaged country with drama, which itself moves from realism to Brechtian detachment. Its family-centred narrative deals directly and self-reflexively with the complexity, in late 1970s Germany, of one generation looking back at another. Sanders-Brahms succeeds in sustaining the emotional naturalism, even with the film’s strong visual symbolism. She creates a moving and intimate family history; and even whilst the film focusses on the relations of mother to daughter, her portrait of Hans is sympathetic and rounded. The DVD release contains a film of Sanders-Brahms journey with her father back to France, where he was stationed during the war. She adopted the matrilineal surname of Brahms and, whilst the story is centred on the journey of mother and daughter across a war-torn Germany, her father’s emotional experience is not ignored.
The importance of intergenerational exchange is clear from the film’s title sequence, where we hear the voice of Brecht’s daughter reading his poem, ‘Deutschland, bleiche Mutter’ (written in exile, in 1933). Sanders-Brahms’ film is itself a daughter’s; it is her voice which addresses Lene in voice-over, merging the identity of director with a fictional adult daughter looking back. Fellow NGC director, Margarethe Von Trotta characterised the circumstances in which they were trying to write their own stories: ‘We felt that there was a past of which we were guilty as a nation but we weren’t told about in school. If you asked questions, you didn’t get answers’ (Knight, 2004, p.62). Von Trotta’s film, Die Bleierne Zeit (1981), creates a counterpoint to Sanders-Brahms’s film, because of her more direct engagement with her contemporary political history as part of a story of family, through the relationship of sisters Marianne (Barbara Sudowka) and Julianne (Jutta Lampe).
On its release Deutschland, bleiche Mutter received criticism for being too personal for a political film and too political for a personal one. Peter Hasenberg of film-dienst : “If it were a purely personal film one could not refuse it one’s sympathy. What makes it problematic is that the director does not limit herself to personal memories.” (quoted in Bammer, 1985). This was an uncomfortable blend in post-war Germany. The sympathy evident in Sanders-Brahms’ representation matches the filmmaker’s view that ‘I don’t live any differently from my parents; I just live in other times’ (Kaes, 1989, p.142). She describes another kind of inheritance regarding the ‘strength’ that their mothers had learnt they had during the war: ‘After the war, that strength in many cases was suddenly worthless. But we, children of that generation, who were born during the war, inherited it’ (quoted in Kaes, 1989, p.160).
Sanders-Brahms’ ability to deliver an affecting melodrama at the same time as critical dialectic – Lene’s face in the mirror will become symbolic of the greater ravages of war – shows that her work deserved greater acknowledgement. Her debut feature, Heinrich (1977) (the literary subject of Heinrich von Kleist), received the highest national film award, the ‘goldene Schale (‘the Golden Bowl). She had trained on set rather than at film school, her mentors consisting of Sergio Corbucci and Pier Paulo Pasolini. She then worked in television successfully before moving into film production. She talks with great passion about her career and life at a filmed seminar event here. Her work is intriguing because of its range, and its defiance of categorisation. She is, arguably, a European auteur very much in the mode of Chantal Akerman; a filmmaker who might be called feminist or written as a female filmmaker, but whose work ranges across forms and themes with a much wider perspective in her exploration of women and history. Chantal Akerman has adopted her own kind of ‘daughter’s gaze’ in certain of her films, such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and, more recently, No Home Movie (2015). Sanders-Brahms left Paris, where she found the critical acclaim she lacked in Germany and offers of funding in the early 1980s, to return to Berlin because her young daughter was so unhappy living there. At the film event she commented: ‘movie is wonderful, but compared to a child, it’s nothing…your answer to the world will always will be your child and not your film.’
Leading German scholar Erica Carter’s brilliant and detailed notes on the film to accompany its DVD release can be found here.
These notes are adapted from the presentation for Reel Solutions Saturday School: War Babies: Women in Berlin in 1945 Information for future events can be found on the website.
Bammer, Angelika (1985) ‘Through a Daughter’s Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother’, New German Critique, No. 36 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 91-109.
Kaes, Anton (1989) From Hitler to Heimat. The Return of History as Film, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.
Knight, Julia (2004) New German Cinema. Images of a Generation, London and New York: Wallflower Press.