Category: French Cinema

Now on Release: Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès, France 2019)

Agnès Varda revisiting locations for Vagabond (1985)

Keith reviewed this film at Berlin earlier this year. Here are my thoughts on the film now in UK cinemas.

Agnès Varda’s last film opened locally with a ‘seniors’ morning screening. I wonder if many of those in the audience were watching their first Varda screening. All seemed to enjoy the show so Agnès judged her delivery well. She died earlier this year just a couple of months short of her 91st birthday, but as this film demonstrates she had lost none of her creative powers starting her tenth decade. In this personal statement about her own work she addresses us directly as part of the audience seated in several different auditoria. The film is an illustrated lecture taking us through nearly 70 years of work as a photographer, filmmaker and finally ‘visual artist’ (an English term she endorses). It isn’t a straightforward chronology. She jumps around a little but as far as I can see she covers all of her feature films and most of the shorts. The only disappointment for me was the short sequence on her photography (which preceded her first film in 1954) which comes towards the end of the film. I’d of liked to know a little more about this and how it informed her filmmaking. Her talk began with a statement about her three key ideas about filmmaking – here is how she describes them in the Press Notes:

INSPIRATION is why you make a film. The motivations, ideas, circumstances and happenstance that spark a desire and you set to work to make a film.

CREATION is how you make the film. What means do you use? What structure? Alone or not alone? In colour or not in colour? Creation is a job.

The third word is SHARING. You don’t make films to watch them alone, you make films to show them. An empty cinema: a filmmaker’s nightmare!

People are at the heart of my work. Real people. That’s how I’ve always referred to the people I film in cities or the countryside.

This gives you a good idea of how she set about ‘creating’ her story. In fact she made a statement at the Berlin press show when the film was screened saying that this film would now do her talking for her as personal appearances were becoming tiring. Varda’s presentation lasts nearly two hours and I could have taken double the time listening to her commentary and watching the clips. I’ve seen around half of her 23 features and now I feel more encouraged to seek out the shorter films, especially the earlier ones in California. The key to appreciating Varda is to tune in to her own fascination with the world and what she can do with her camera. Varda was true to the idea of the artisanal artist-filmmaker. She remains the definition of an auteur, developing her own company Ciné-Tamaris which has retained control of her films (and those of Jacques Demy and others) and re-released them on restored digital versions. She’s kept much of her filmmaking literally ‘in house’ with various production roles for her daughter Rosalie Varda and son Mathieu Demy and partnerships with a series of actors and crews. One of those who appears in this film is Sandrine Bonnaire, who reveals just how hard she was pushed as a 17 year-old in the lead role for Vagabond.

Varda on a beach of île de Nourmoutier, a location for several of her films

I would have liked to have seen a bit more about Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy and how these two, in some ways very different, creative people bounced ideas off each other. She does discuss her documentary biopic Jacquot de Nantes (1991) made when Demy was very ill, but not the two documentaries she made after his death. The two were in California together during the 1960s but made very different films there.

Venice Biennale 2003:
“This triptych is in celebration of the world’s most modest vegetable: the potato. On the central screen: heart shaped potatoes breathe. They are old wizened crumpled potatoes but that have sprout. On the side screens, variations of sprouts. Roots, blossoms. On the floor, 700 kg potatoes.“

Varda adapted to the possibilities of new technologies and embraced the use of digital cameras. Varda by Agnès is presented in two parts so that the early career is ‘analogue’ and the later career is ‘digital’. The split is also one of 20th and 21st century practice. The revelation for me was the ‘installation’ work in the second period when Varda became a visual artist. I wish now that I’d made more effort in 2018 to get to the Liverpool Biennial where there was a photographic exhibition, a new installation and a season of her films. As far as I can see this is the only time that Varda was received in the UK as a ‘visual artist’ and we might never get to see some of the intriguing installations glimpsed in Varda by Agnès such as Patatutopia from 2003 or the Cinema Shacks she built from old cans of her celluloid films in 2013.

“My nostalgia for 35mm cinema turned into a recycling whim…
I build shacks with the waste reels of my movies. Tossed aside because no longer screened, the silver stock of the composite print itself becomes a shack. I build them on a metal structure and we carefully chose the images at eyesight level.
The last one made from a print of my film HAPPINESS is a greenhouse full of sunflowers.”

Agnès Varda was one of the great filmmakers, photographers and visual artists of the last 70 years. We will be lucky to see her like again. All I can do is to urge you to see this hugely enjoyable current release and to dig out any DVDs or VODs from her catalogue that you can find. There are some posts you might find interesting on this blog.

Bastards (Les salauds France-Germany 2013)

Marco (Vincent Lindon) surveys the abandoned stock in the family shoe factory

I watched Bastards twice when it came to the UK in early 2014. I even introduced the film for an audience but I knew that I needed to see it again at a later date and when it appeared on MUBI this month I watched it again. Some films by Claire Denis make, for me, an instant impact (Beau Travail, 35 rhums). But Bastards is more like L’intrus in demanding long retrospection. My notes from 2014 reveal that I wasn’t sure whether Bastards was a film or an installation – a work of art, a dissection of genre, mood, style, ideology and much more. But I’d done my homework, I knew where the ideas came from and now I think I see how they come together.

In the film’s Press Pack, Denis tells us that she needed to find a story idea quickly to exploit a production opportunity that suddenly arose. Whereas in 35 rhums she turned to Ozu to help her tell a personal family story, in this case she turned to Kurosawa and his noirish take on Hamlet, The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Kurosawa’s tale of a man (Mifune Toshiro), who marries an industrialist’s daughter as part of a strategy to avenge his father’s suicide, provided her with a protagonist, an outline story and a title (the Kurosawa film was titled Les salauds se portent bien in France). But Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau needed another character as well:

In the film, all seems normal, everyone has a family, children are collected from school, they are given afternoon snacks – even the divorced couple manages to handle their relationship pretty well. But there’s the young woman. She’s from another state of the world.

She comes from another character who has always been with me: Temple, the female character in William Faulkner’s [1931 novel] Sanctuary. When I was myself an adolescent, that book transformed me. I wasn’t frightened at all, on the contrary, the last chapter between father and daughter in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris gave me a rush, and a certainty that girls must deal with their sexual misfortunes by themselves. Temple takes out her compact and looks at herself. (Claire Denis interviewed in the Press Notes)

I confess that I tried to read Sanctuary but struggled to finish it. But I can see how Denis used the ‘Temple’ character in her script. Let me try to outline Bastards without spoiling the narrative. The brilliant Vincent Lindon (up there with the very best in global cinema) is Marco Silvestri, a ship’s captain on an oil tanker who is forced to abandon his ship in an unnamed port and head home for Paris where he finds disaster has struck the family of his sister Sandra (Julie Bataille) and brother-in-law, his buddy from training school. His next action is to investigate what or who is behind the tragedy that he finds on arrival. The camerawork and editing by Denis regular Agnès Godard and new recruit to the Denis team, Annette Dutertre presents the ellipses in the script so the timing is not clear, but we see Marco moving into an apartment where one of his neighbours is Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni) with her young son. Only later do we realise that Raphaëlle is the mistress of Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor) and that Marco has identified Laporte as the cause of the collapse of the Silvestri family shoe factory business. A telling line of dialogue in these opening scenes comes from the nephew of the concièrge of the apartments who when challenged by Raphaëlle explains that he is filling in for his aunt – “It’s normal, it’s family business”. Marco is about to threaten one family, unaware of some of the secrets within his own family. But later we we will understand that he had withdrawn from the family business to go to sea and that his own marriage has ended with his two daughters living with their mother. This is certainly a film noir and a very dark and very disturbing noir, something emphasised by shot compositions and Stuart Staples’ music. The ‘Temple’ character is Marco’s niece Justine (Lola Créton) who he finds in a psychiatric hospital. What has put her there?

Michel Subor as Laporte in a classic noir/melodrama mirror image

For a production put together quickly, Bastards is a complex work, finely detailed with numerous clues and narrative links that don’t immediately register. It helps that most of the cast and creative collaborators like Godard and Staples are Denis regulars. Alongside Michel Subor we get to see Alex Descas and Grégoire Colin as familiar Denis performers. Vincent Lindon was the protagonist of Vendredi Soir (France 2002) and Nicole Dogué from 35 rhums has a minor role as a Police Inspector. The three central women in the story are all Denis first timers and she said that she wanted them to be dark-haired ‘Mediterranean types’. They are all very good and very much part of the noir narrative. Bastards is a brutal film – ‘dangerous’ or even ‘deranged’ as one blogger has put it – and misogyny is suggested by the presence of a ‘Temple’ character. However, as is usual with Denis, the women are not passive victims, even when violence of different sorts is directed towards them. Nor are they simply ‘good’. The men are wretched and all tainted in some way but the women are also implicated or even directly involved. Which one is the femme fatale? Perhaps they all are?

Sandra (Julie Bataille)

Justine (Lola Créton in a challenging role) in one of the ‘dream-like’ sequences

I’ve read a number of reviews of the film and interviews with Claire Denis. One of the best is on the cinema scope online website by Jose Teodoro. He suggests something that I also experienced. On a first viewing the film sees dreamlike and floating. The one or two short sequences that might be dreams or flashbacks are disorientating. The ellipses confuse the sense of a narrative drive. But on later viewings we realise that the story-line has a strong narrative drive. As Denis explain, we only gain an insight into the narrative data as Marco himself discovers things. Marco is the key character and he defines the noir narrative as much as the formal elements of cinematography, mise en scène and music. Teodoro suggests he is like a Robert Ryan figure who might be in a film noir or a Western. That’s a good call I think. Bastards made me think of a 1950s film noir, something as cold and brutal as The Big Combo (1955) or neo-noirs based on the novels of Jim Thompson. Vincent Lindon’s star persona is ideal. He looks like the hard man who could sort out any mess, but there is both an ‘ordinariness’ and ‘working stiff’ quality that makes him vulnerable. In Bastards, he has all the accoutrements, including a vintage Alfa-Romeo and a taste in expensive shorts but he is also flawed. There is a strong erotic spark between him and Chiara Mastroianni’s Raphaëlle but Marco is also the most naïve character and we know that he is the doomed man of the noir.

Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni)

I’m so pleased that I watched Bastards again. I realise I saw things much more clearly this time. Significantly, perhaps, I remembered most scenes but I’d repressed the detail of the harrowing closing scenes. How did I feel at the end? The film is so dark that I might have despaired but it is so beautifully crafted and intelligent that somehow I felt uplifted by a beautiful work of art. That’s Claire Denis for you. I know many people don’t get her films, but for me they define what cinema can be. One final point, the film was shot digitally which both created problems with lighting but also allowed more flexibility. In interviews Denis explains this in some detail.

The Toronto festival trailer:

High Life (France-Germany-Poland-UK-US 2018)

Robert Pattinson and the baby Willow

At last I have managed to catch the latest Claire Denis film High Life. Many of the films by Denis get only a limited release but, perhaps because this is her first English language film with a ‘Hollywood star’ and because it is ostensibly a science fiction film, High Life has stayed around for a little longer (with a different approach to distribution from Thunderbird Releasing). As several commentators have pointed out, cinephile fans might have worried that this change of approach meant Denis was ‘selling out’. It does seem that some audiences and some mainstream film journalists took that line to mean that High Life is conventional and ‘accessible’ and attended screenings at Toronto and London film festivals – only to subsequently discover that it is still a European art movie and that keen observation and a working brain are required to make any sense of what is happening on screen.

High Life was screened in Toronto partly perhaps because the independent US distributor A24 was involved in the international production process. But the film was made in Germany with some work carried out in Poland and France. The narrative takes us on board a space ship heading out of the solar system, a journey that will last decades and will probably end in oblivion. The purpose of the trip is scientific investigation and the passengers are all criminals, most (all?) on Death Row. They have chosen to ‘volunteer’ for this mission. The crucial aspect of the scenario is perhaps that there are no hierarchies on the ship and all are equal except that Dr. Dibbs, the medical scientist played by Juliette Binoche, has the knowledge about how to use the medical technologies available. The film is in English because Claire Denis (who wrote the script with her long-time writing collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau) wanted the ship to be sent into space by a society where Death Row was still operational and that meant the US. The cast is drawn widely and mainly from English-speaking Europeans. Robert Pattinson is the Hollywood star but he too is European (at least until Brexit is sorted out).

Mia Goth is Boyse

The film’s aesthetic is European, especially in terms of the design and ‘dressing’ of the spaceship. Fittingly, because of the Polish connection, Claire Denis seems to have drawn on ideas from Tarkovsky’s film of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (USSR 1972) and possibly Tarkovsky’s other science fiction film Stalker. I don’t know if she is familiar with British sf films (and TV series) but I was reminded of Duncan Jones’ Moon (UK 2008) and Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s Sunshine (2007). The spaceship is a rather endearing utilitarian ‘box’ looking like a large transport container tumbling through space. With its dark, cluttered and gloomy interior it reminded me of the TV comedy series Red Dwarf. It does contain a small area of cultivation, perhaps derived from Silent Running (US 1972) but less spectacular. There are genre conventions in the film but very few CGI effects and no gloss. The computers seem to date from the 1980s and the moving images on screens feel more like videotape. If there is a Hollywood connection it might be to a film like Gattaca (1997) – which was written and directed by a New Zealander (Andrew Niccol), photographed by the Polish cinematographer Sladomir Idziak and designed by the Dutch Jan Roelfs.

André Benjamin is Tcherny enjoying the solace of the garden

The biggest difference from conventional science fiction or other Hollywood style genre films is that Claire Denis tells us as little as possible and prefers to show us actions and let us work out for ourselves what is going on. Although there is a narrative resolution, it is neither happy nor sad, we have to decide what we would expect to happen next. The many IMDb users who scored the film as a ‘1’ or ‘2’ (the lowest scores) find the film boring, pointless, lacking a story etc. Claire Denis ‘takes no prisoners’ with her films. She makes films about questions and ideas that interest her and her films are always interesting to watch (and listen to) and even if the ideas are difficult to discern, the performances are usually terrific and there is an intelligence at work in every scene. The narrative structure of the film is non-linear and includes ellipses. The narrative begins with Robert Pattinson as ‘Monte’ as seemingly the last survivor of the original crew looking after a baby girl and tending his garden. Various flashbacks suggest something about his possible back story (or his memories of certain moments in his life as a child) and about the mission. But these are obliquely presented, distinguished by use of different filming formats – 16mm film for sequences on Earth, different digital formats for sequences aboard the ship. The projected film also utilises different aspect ratios – 1.66:1 for most of the running time, but also 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 in the closing sequences. I didn’t notice most of these changes, but I was conscious of the overall 1.66:1. The main narrative proceeds as a series of extensive flashbacks to show how we got to the opening sequence and then leaps forward to the closing sequence.

Juliette Binoche is Dr Dibbs – complete with long black hair-piece

High Life has also been criticised because of its presentation of violence, including what is now often singled out as ‘sexual violence’. It is indeed disturbing to watch but it’s crucial to the narrative. Because nothing is explained directly we don’t know the extent to which the investigations into ‘human reproduction’ under the stress of space travel is a primary objective of the ‘mission’. Another objective that I didn’t really understand concerns the energy sources in black holes. (There was a science consultant, astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, on the film.) Perhaps the drive to reproduce is generated by Dr Dibbs’ own obsession? She tries to collect sperm and to initiate pregnancies, partly through routinely medicating the rest of the crew. I won’t spoil that bit of the plot but two important narrative developments arise from her obsession and perhaps provide the major talking points about the film. The first is to recognise that this drive to reproduce is enacted in the context of a journey which everyone knows is doomed. Why do humans (and all sentient life forms) have a compulsion to reproduce in this context? Secondly, the child that is ‘born’ as a result of Dibbs’ efforts seems to be Monte’s daughter and that might raise problems about social taboos as she grows up as ‘Willow’. (The willow is a fascinating tree, spread across the temperate Northern hemisphere with properties which make it symbolic/metaphorical. Wikipedia’s entry is fascinating.)

One of many colour-filtered scenes. Everyone wears the ‘7’, the number of the ship.

If you want to know more about what Claire Denis set out to achieve I recommend the Press Pack with its Denis Interview. She says the film isn’t ‘science fiction’ as such and she explains how the production came about. She’s effusive in praise of Robert Pattinson, who I think is excellent in the film. Juliette Binoche came late to the production after her stint on the previous Claire Denis film, Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017). She is as brilliant as she always is, whatever the film. Here she battles with Claire Denis’ version of an orgasm machine which made me think of Dusan Makeveyev’s WR – Mysteries of the Organism (Yugoslavia 1971) as well as Barbarella (1968) and Woody Allen’s Sleeper (1973). Denis has a more brutal Anglo-Saxon term for this device. She stresses, however, that she is concerned here with:

Sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. In prison, normal sexuality isn’t really on the agenda.But if the prison is also a laboratory destined to perpetuate the human species, sexuality becomes evenmore abstract, if it is just to reproduce.

The rest of the cast in the film have smaller parts but all our well cast and do a fine job. I was a little concerned in the first section of the narrative that this film might not work, but soon I was fully engaged and now I would happily go back and watch it again. Music is by Tindersticks/Stuart Staples, great as usual in his Denis films and do stay for the end titles during which Robert Pattinson sings. Cinematography is by Yorick Le Saux, new to work with Denis but an experienced DoP on some of my favourite European films. Some of Claire Denis’ earlier work is on MUBI in the UK and is highly recommended.

Here’s the French trailer for High Life (English with French subs):

The Sisters Brothers (Les frères Sisters, France-Belgium-Spain-Romania-US 2018)

The Sisters Brothers has been declared to have ‘bombed’ in the US because box office takings have been only a fraction of what might have been spent by American independent distributor Annapurna on screening rights. The box office results have been better in Europe. But I suspect in a few years time the film will start to receive a lot more interest from cinephiles. I like and admire Jacques Audiard’s work and that admiration is carried over to this his first English language film. But Audiard is not the only auteur involved. John C. Reilly bought the rights to the novel by Patrick DeWitt close to its publication date in 2011 and he is credited as one of the producers. The adaptation was by Audiard and Thomas Bidegain who collaborated with Audiard on his previous three films and who directed John C. Reilly in Les cowboys (France 2015).

The ‘Sisters Brothers’ are Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix), a pair of hired guns who work as assassins for ‘The Commodore’ (Rutger Hauer) in Oregon Territory in 1851. This is the time of the Gold Rush in California and finds were made near Jacksonville in Oregon Territory. The Brothers are given the task of finding and assassinating Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) who is being followed by a detective also employed by The Commodore, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two brothers are quite different. Charlie is the younger, but he acts as the leader and is much more aggressive. Eli is more philosophical and reflective – although he still kills efficiently when he needs to. The journey they take south towards California and what happens when they find Morris and Warm gives the narrative plenty of time to fill out the characters.

The brothers cut each others’ hair.

My feeling about the film, which I very much enjoyed, is that it resembles several other ‘literary’ Westerns such as The Missouri Breaks (US 1976) from the novel by Thomas McGuane or, more recently, The Homesman (France-US 2014) from the novel by Glendon Swarthout. Both these films were also relatively big-budget films that flopped and both had ‘name’ directors and stars, Arthur Penn with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando for the first and Tommy Lee Jones as both director and star (with Hilary Swank) in the second. The Homesman is also an ‘international production set in the same time period as The Sisters Brothers.

The Sisters Brothers

Morris treads carefully in the new towns thrown up quickly

There is a featured review of The Sisters Brothers by Nick Pinkerton in Sight and Sound (May 2019) in which he refers to the film as having an unusual setting in the pre-Civil War era. The review makes some interesting points but I think that Pinkerton hasn’t seen enough Westerns – there are enough pre-1861 Westerns to form a separate classification and the pre-war period includes both the Gold Rush and the migrations via wagon trains to Oregon before the coming of the transcontinental railroads. The opening up of Oregon was remarkably fast-paced over the first few decades of the 19th century, moving from a territory of fur trappers and the Hudson’s Bay company through British and American claims to sovereignty and the subsequent formation of the ‘Oregon Territory’ in 1848 south of the 49th Parallel and admission as a new state of the Union in 1859. There were periods of lawlessness as jurisdictions changed and the pace of development is neatly represented by the surprise for both the educated Morris and Eli when they find themselves both brushing their teeth with toothbrushes and tooth powder. But this is a very male early Oregon community. Women are usually bar girls. Wives and mothers are not very visible.

The Sisters Brothers

Eli looks after his horse – one of several interesting details of travel in the narrative

One of the criticisms of the film is the dialogue which includes some modern speech which seems anachronistic. But it also includes some literary language, especially when Morris is writing his diary. Eli too uses some formal language which Charlie derides, but the most articulate character is Warm, who has big plans, first for gold extraction and then for a new utopian society he wants to set up in Texas. There was a real attempt by democratic socialists from France, Belgium and Switzerland to set up a community known as ‘La Réunion’ in Dallas County in 1855 based on the ideas of Charles Fourier. (Fourier called the building in which a small community might live a phalanstère.) The American writer Henry David Thoreau is also mentioned in the script, although as Pinkerton points out Thoreau’s best known work, Walden, was not published until 1854. However, he had published earlier papers and the script suggests that Warm is not just formally educated like Morris, but also much more aware of new ideas. I did notice the language ‘mix’ and I’m still not quite sure how to read it – but I don’t see it as a ‘mistake’.

Against this minutiae of American life, the film offers us the landscapes of Spain and Romania, because this is very much a European production from Why Not Productions in France as the lead company. It includes scenes shot in Almería in Andalusia (like all the classic European Westerns) as well as mountain scenes in Navarre and Aragon and other landscapes and studio sets in Romania. There is a tradition of pitting history against myth in European Westerns and this film continues that process. This doesn’t make The Sisters Brothers a ‘realist film’, but it does suggest an intelligence ‘playing’ with Western conventions and historical discourses. The problem is that audience expectations are perhaps for clearer narrative drives and for a rousing climax and resolution (see this typical US review). I’m not in the spoilers game, but there is a relatively downbeat ending. There are at least three big shootouts but the emphasis is on the characters. I’m not sure that the balance between ‘action’ and ‘talk’ is actually that different from the majority of Western films. It’s more a case of what the ‘talk’ is about. I found the talk very interesting and enjoyable and I’d be happy to watch the film again.

Herrmann Warm (Riz Ahmed) and John Morris (Jake Gyllenaal)

The casting of Riz Ahmed, a fine actor, worked for me. I was reminded of another very good and unusual Western, The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Set in roughly the same mid-19th century period and again in a mining camp, the central character, a woman trying to ‘pass’ as a man, meets an Englishman played by Ian McKellan sporting his own ‘real’ Lancashire accent. The film also features the Chinese migrant community. Another British connection is to Michael Winterbottom’s wonderful Thomas Hardy adaptation (of The Mayor of Casterbridge) The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Again associated with the ‘mining Western’ this is set slightly later in the 1860s when the railroad is coming, but the ‘back story’ is the 1849 Gold Rush. This film too has its migrant characters. I think I need to watch both these other films again! Riz Ahmed’s character is, I think, meant to be a European migrant and his character’s name suggests German/Belgian/Dutch? (But his middle name ‘Kermit’ seems to be American- and possibly anachronistic).

We watched the film on the big screen in Pictureville at the Museum in Bradford. I thought Alexandre Desplat’s score worked well and Benoît Debie’s cinematography is equally impressive. All the performances are good but it’s clear that John C. Reilly is the most invested in the project he started. Nick didn’t like the film and perhaps he’ll add a comment as to why not. I’ve really enjoyed researching the film and if you like Westerns I’d say this is a ‘must see’ – unless the issues I’ve described above are ones you know will be a problem for you. The trailer below doesn’t give out as many spoilers as the usual Hollywood trailer, but I don’t remember anything like the song in it appearing in the film.