Category: French Cinema

Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale (France 1992)

Félicie (Charlotte Véry) leaves Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche) at the station with a Paris address

A treat from MUBI, this entry into Eric Rohmer’s last collection of ‘tales’ was a wonderful way to end Christmas Day. Rohmer’s films often have the same ingredients, usually involving sets of relationships within which a central character tries to find the right partner. In this case it is Félicie, a young woman whom we see trying to decide between two potential partners. But we know that she really wants a third who somehow she’s lost.

Maxence (Michel Voletti) and Félicie in Nevers

The opening credit sequence introduces Félicie on holiday by the sea. A summer holiday romance is in full flow and a montage shows us Félicie with a rather beautiful young man, swimming, sunbathing, cycling and making love. The couple are naked much of the time but it is light-hearted and innocent rather than raunchy. Félicie gives him an address in Paris and heads home. Five years later we find her waking up in the house of Loic, a serious young man. Félicie dashes off to work to discover that her boss Maxence, a slightly older man, has decided to move to another salon in the franchise. He invites Félice to accompany him to Nevers, a small town 150 miles south of Paris. Here is a classic dilemma for Félice. Two men are vying for her favours. The other vital ingredient is her little daughter Elise.

Félicie with Loic (Hervé Furic)

I won’t spoil any more of the plot. I realised after a while that the narrative had some ingredients shared with an earlier Rohmer classic, Ma nuit chez Maud (France 1969). Like that film, Conte d’hiver is set over the Christmas holiday period. The earlier film has a male central character who faces a choice between two women. He’s a Catholic and his reasoning about how he approaches his choice includes consideration of ‘Pascal’s wager’ about the existence of God. Félicie is not a devout Catholic but she’s pragmatic enough to pray for a solution to her dilemma. The ‘night with Maud’ is spent in the provincial city of Clermont-Ferrand. Félicie spends a little time in the cathedral at Nevers and she also has discussions with Loic that involve Pascal’s wager.

Félicie with Elise on one of their journeys across Paris

The other notable aspect of the narrative is a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale at the Théâtre Gérard Philipe. Félicie is taken by Loic and she is emotional watching the play. If you know the play, you will recognise why. Literature was Rohmer’s first love and he saw a BBC TV production of the play before he wrote the screenplay. If this had been a Truffaut or Godard film in the 1960s or 1970s, the couple would have been at the cinema.

Rohmer’s films have been criticised for being too slow and too talky. This film is filled with long sequences of talking as Félicie tries to sort out what’s best for her. It’s a relatively long film and apart from the opening montage and the visit to the play (and to the zoo and various children’s entertainments) there is not much in the way of ‘action’. Nevertheless, I was engaged completely throughout the film. A lot depends on the central performance by Charlotte Véry. She plays Félicie as an attractive, intelligent and charming young woman who is both indecisive but also assertive once she has made a decision. This particular ‘tale’ is very much from a female perspective as Félicie has her daughter and her mother and her two sisters as her family. I read one comment on MUBI which I found astonishing. “This man should not be allowed to write female characters.” I can’t speak on behalf of women, but I think that Rohmer spent plenty of time observing the world and his characters all seem recognisable to me. I can understand why some audiences don’t like his films. They feel so simple but are crafted so carefully with the ‘transparency’ of camerawork and mise en scène – there is nothing to distract from the interaction of characters. Some times I have to be in the mood to get into the groove but when I do I really appreciate his art. This is a perfect Christmas film for me.

Corporate (France 2017)

Streaming on various platforms in the UK, Corporate is an intriguing début film that didn’t get a UK cinema release and which has received contrasting responses from those who have seen it. I watched it thoroughly engaged throughout, late at night and and determined to finish it. It was only on reflection that some doubts began to appear. But I am still thinking about it and I’m certainly glad I’ve seen it. Perhaps when I’ve written about it I’ll be able to make my mind up.

The film begins with what appears to be a corporate video of some kind, a team-building exercise on the slopes of Chamonix in which the HR team and some departmental staff are being introduced to a new policy. The footage picks out a bright young-ish star Emilie Tesson-Hansen (Céline Sallete) who is being praised by the HR (personnel) boss of a large French company, Stéphane Froncart (Lambert Wilson). She is learning how to drive a team of dogs pulling a sleigh. We guess that this is a metaphor for the work she will be doing for the company. This is the credits sequence. The narrative proper starts a year or so later in the Paris offices of Esen, a large French agri-business conglomerate. Emilie is interviewing one of the staff, persuading her to ‘go mobile’ – in effect to offer herself for re-location. Emilie has her own secretary who is shielding her from another member of staff who is desperately trying to see her. What Emilie has been asked to do by Stéphane will slowly begin to emerge but first there is a dramatic incident that shocks all the staff. It affects Emilie most of all since it involves her HR work and the policy she has been carrying out. What will transpire will be a form of ‘office thriller’ in which Emilie could be the villain, the victim or the scapegoat.

Emilie (right) faces Stéphane (left) in front of the company’s communications chief (centre behind the chair). The other two people in this meeting are Emilie’s young secretary and another senior staff member, Vincent who is more of an ally for Emilie. Photo © Claire Nichol

Some of the reviews and ‘user comments’ suggest that this narrative is very familiar and hackneyed. Others suggest it is quite fresh. I realised that I have seen several French films which might be described as ‘office thrillers’, but most of these have involved sexual jealousy, financial crimes or simply the jostling for power between executives. Corporate hints at some of these elements, but they aren’t central. The focus here is on HR and Health and Safety and the narrative introduces a French public official new to me, a Work Inspector with powers to investigate all kinds of health and safety issues in her district and to levy fines or refer possible criminal cases to the police and local Prosecuting Magistrate (I’m tempted to draw on my experience of watching Engrenages). I think both the civil and judicial procedures are different in the UK and North America, but similar narratives are possible here. The nearest French film I’ve seen that has some of the moral/philosophical questions associated with a narrative like this is Ressources Humaine (France 1999) by Laurent Cantet. The two films are different in both aesthetics and story line but they do share a sense of moral responsibility by a character in a junior managerial position, whose actions cause hurt for other staff members, but who is also being manipulated by senior management. This kind of situation, familiar to many of us in different ways in the managerial cultures of both the public and private sector, throws the focus on the individual caught at the centre of a clash between late capitalist ‘leadership’ strategies and personal ambition/self respect and a sense of workplace ethics.

Emilie begins to realise that the Inspector, Marie Borrel (Violaine Fumeau) may offer her a means of escape from her predicament . . . Photo © Claire Nichol

I was not surprised to find that Emilie has worked for ten years in the UK before presumably being head-hunted by Stéphane (who had taught her at business school perhaps?). There seems to be a discourse about French business talent moving to London in several films. In my recent post on La villa (France 2017) I referred to a character who is thinking of moving to London where taxes are lower and business is perhaps less formal than in Paris? Emilie is now back in France with her English husband Colin (Charlie Anson) and her young son Leo. Colin has decided to be a house-husband and father since Emilie is earning a good salary. She certainly isn’t home much, works late and sometimes gets home drunk.

The first time director is Nicolas Silhol who also co-wrote the film with Nicholas Fleureau. In the Press Notes, Silhol reveals that his father teaches management at a business school and works as an HR consultant. The film is very much research-based and Sihol interviewed a female HR manager who had herself experienced something similar to Emilie. Silhol also points towards a news story about a spate of suicides at France Télécom after which it seemed to be implied that the workers concerned were responsible for their own suffering. Silhol also interviewed Work Inspectors. The developing relationship between Emilie and Marie is central to the narrative and I think gives the film a distinctive narrative trajectory. Overall, the film is ‘hopeful’ that management practices could improve but it isn’t a ‘feelgood film’. Emilie is a character who initially behaves in a manner designed to save her own skin but she gradually begins to see another way to look at events.

An impressive central performance by Céline Sallette. Photo © Claire Nichol

The Press Notes offer an insight into some of the ways that the director and his DoP thought about the camerawork and how to use it to first focus attention within the Esen offices and then to allow the ‘outside world in’, partly through the focus on the Inspector. I think I’m more convinced by the film after reading the Press Notes. The central performance by Céline Sallette is very good and Lambert Wilson is always a reliable presence. Violaine Fumeau is a less well-known actor who impressed me and the two women worked well together on screen. This is an impressive début by Nicholas Silhol. I think the idea of an English husband for Emilie is a good one but I’m not sure it is fully exploited in the scenes that involve Emilie’s interaction with her husband and son. That might be the film’s weakness for me, but overall I would recommend this to anyone wanting a gripping office drama.

The trailer below offers a sense of the dramatic narrative but it does give away plot details.

La villa (The House by the Sea, France 2017)

The general view of the waterfront in the creek

This lovely film took a year and a half to reach the UK and then only 3,000 people saw it in a cinema (see the Lumiere Audio-Visual Observatory database). It came out in January 2019 when UK cinemas were stuffed with American ‘Awards Movies’. I suspect The Favourite took up quite a few screens. I wish I had been able to see this instead. Robert Guédiguian is a filmmaker who has directed twenty-five films over the last forty years. The ones I’ve seen have been very good but too often his films are not acquired for UK distribution. I eventually watched this on a DVD from New Wave and I’m very grateful.

The three siblings, Armand is on the right

Many of Guédiguian’s films are set in Marseilles and they often feature the same trio of actors, Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s partner), Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan. La villa is set on the ‘Blue Coast’ between Marseilles and Martigues at Calanque de Méjean – a calanque is a creek, which I realise has a different meaning in French/English compared to US usage. Here it means a narrow inlet on a rocky coast with a small harbour and room for a few houses around the harbour and nestled in the in the steep slopes. It’s the only location in the film, extending a little way into the hilly hinterland of scrub and pines. The elderly owner of the restaurant on the harbour has a stroke at the beginning of the film and is then cared for by his son Armand (Gérard Meylan) who is the restaurant manager/chef. It’s winter so the restaurant has no customers. Coming home to support their brother are Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Angèle (Ariane Ascaride). Joseph brings with him the much younger Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier). Angèle is a well-known stage actor and she has not been home for twenty years. We will learn later what caused her absence. There are only three other residents of the little community who we meet and one other important visitor.

The restaurant becomes the site of family meals. The extra character here is the fisherman Benjamin

The three siblings are all in their early sixties, the same age as writer-director Robert Guédiguian. It’s a time to reflect on their lives and to think about how they will face the future. Their father is in an almost vegetative state and one of their ultimate decisions will be how to deal with the family estate. It looks very beautiful in the winter sunlight with a view out across the Mediterranean from the balcony of the house, the small boats bobbing in the harbour and the dramatic backdrop of a high viaduct which carries the rail line from Marseille to Toulon and Nice. The first half of the film is actually quite slow as Guédiguian gives us time to get to know the characters and to consider their situation. I was a little surprised since what I remember from his earlier films is a political discourse and a sense of collective struggles for working-class communities. Possible wrangling over an estate is a theme I associate with more bourgeois French films. The only younger character who appears in the early part of the film is Yvan, the son of the elderly couple who live next door. Yvan appears to be trained as a doctor who is now running medical laboratories somewhere in the region. He and Bérangère are the only ones active in the modern France. She has her laptop and headphones and he is trying to persuade his parents to accept money for their living expenses when he brings their medications.

Guédiguian does introduce a form of political discourse through Angèle’s visit to Yvan’s parents. She wonders why the community is so quiet, why is nothing happening? The other houses are closed-up in the winter and the old man replies “Money”. Framed black and white photographs show the creek full of people in summer enjoying life in the streets and by the harbour with the fishing boats supplying a busy restaurant. There was a real community but just as in many parts of the UK where the rich now like to have second homes, young people can’t afford to live and must leave as the communities become isolated in the winter. We realise too that Joseph represents the angst of the ageing leftists in France. Has he really given up as some of his worrying statements suggest? The editing by Bernard Sasia and the cinematography by Pierre Milon (whose previous job was on The Workshop a little further west on the coast) is very good in these early scenes, linking together the characters and the political, social and personal themes. A further ingredient glimpsed by Angèle as she gazes out over the harbour is the arrival of a couple of Land Rovers, dropping soldiers who begin to patrol along the path by the water’s edge.

©PHOTOPQR/LA PROVENCE ; Tournage du film ” La Villa ” réalisé par Robert GUEDIGUIAN dans la calanque de Méjean PHOTO : FREDERIC SPEICH (MaxPPP TagID: maxpeopleworld998737.jpg) [Photo via MaxPPP]

The action gradually begins to build up and I found the film engrossing. I’ve gone back and looked at scenes again because I don’t think on a small screen I became sufficiently immersed in the narrative to allow the ideas to come together. At one point, Joseph, sitting with his father on the balcony remembers an earlier community festivity led by the old man. There is also a flashback in which we see the three siblings as younger characters coming to the harbour and larking about to the sound of Bob Dylan on the car radio. It was only later that I realised this was indeed the three actors themselves appearing in an earlier film by Guédiguian, Ki lo sa? (France 1986). Guédiguian knows the coastal region and has remained committed to it. I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative which isn’t complex and you can probably guess the plot developments from the details I’ve given so far.

I was surprised to discover that this film wasn’t reviewed in Sight and Sound, which was once (via Monthly Film Bulletin which it absorbed) the official ‘journal of record’ for all releases in the UK. However, the former editor, Nick James mentioned its appearance at Venice (in the November 2017 issue). He calls it “distinctly old-fashioned” but says he wished to “eulogise” the film with its “intricate nuanced sets of relationships” but “its sentimental ending is ruinous”. I agree the first part of his statement but I thought the ending was an excellent use of ‘magic realism’ which I’m not going to explain. Suffice to say my tears started before the end, but that I found it perfect. I’ve always thought that ‘sentimental’ is a slippery term. There is nothing wrong with emotion in the right place and here it is definitely appropriate. I heartily recommend this to anyone prepared for an emotional response. Like the UK, France is in a difficult place and i think there is no harm in having a little hope.

This trailer gives away some of the plot details:

Obsession (Domanda di Grazia, France-Italy 1954)

The concept of a ‘Cinéma du Papa’ was suggested by François Truffaut in the 1950s as part of his general critique of French cinema, leading up to his polemical campaign for a new kind of cinema of auteurs, which would eventually include himself. This so-called ‘cinema of quality’ encompassed several established directors and screenwriters and their stars plus the technicians who produced detailed studio sets. Obsession seems to be a good example of a film of the period, filmed in Eastmancolor, largely in ‘Les studios de Boulogne’ and directed by Jean Delannoy. It’s an adaptation of a short story ‘Silent as the Grave’ by Cornel Woolrich using his other name ‘William Irish’. Woolrich was one of the best-known American pulp writers with many film adaptations of his work – Truffaut used Woolrich/Irish stories for The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). The film was photographed by Pierre Montazel, who lensed many of the key films of the 1940s and 1950s. I watched the film wondering if a comparison with Truffaut’s two films based on similar source stories might be fruitful.

Hélène (Michèle Morgan) and Aldo (Raf Vallone)

Obsession is a French-Italian co-production, perhaps the most common form of production partnership during the 1950s and 1960s. Here it puts the Italian star Raf Vallone alongside the great French star Michèle Morgan as ‘The Giovannis’ – a trapeze act playing circus arenas and touring theatrical venues in Paris and other cities and resorts in France. After working together for a while, the couple marry and all is fine until Aldo (Vallone) is injured and their manager pairs Hélène (Morgan) with another trapeze artist. Aldo is not very happy about this, especially when the new partner turns out to be someone he used to work with. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just say that Hélène eventually finds herself doubting her husband in very difficult circumstances for both the couple and their colleagues. Setting the story in the world of trapeze artists gives a further twist to the ‘insecurity’ of the central characters, especially if you are as nervous as I am watching high-wire acts. According to reports Michèle Morgan did some of her own stunts in these scenes. If so, my admiration for her rises ever further. The film’s Italian title translates as something like ‘Asking for grace’. Since it clearly represents a courtroom situation this title is probably more helpful than the French ‘Obsession’. I wasn’t sure who was the obsessed character.

Sometimes the colours of the costumes seem vivid and almost ‘primal’ next to the subdued colours of the sets

But is this film a good example of those that Truffaut criticised? His 1954 article ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ was published in Cahiers in January of that year and its main argument was that the films of Delannoy, Autant-Lara, Clément, Yves Allégret etc. were part of a tendency he described as ‘psychological realism’ and as such were ‘scriptwriters’ films’ (i.e. as distinct from the concept of the director as auteur that he was developing with Cahiers colleagues). The issue for him was that this meant a ‘bourgeois view of the world’ from within the sealed community of cinema professionals. If the directors went out into the world to find real issues and ‘real people’ the films would be quite different. Truffaut was writing before Obsession was released and there are two further problems in applying Truffaut’s critique. First, the film is based on an American ‘pulp’ story and second that Delannoy adapted the work himself in partnership with three others, each of whom was relatively young and inexperienced. Truffaut’s ire was directed towards the established screenwriters who had been working since the 1930s.

Hélène searches for Aldo. The bar is a studio set.

None of these points negate the validity of the exercise involving comparing Delannoy’s conception of a William Irish story with the two examples from Truffaut. His film shares Truffaut’s use of established stars. Jeanne Moreau in The Bride Wore Black and Catherine Deneuve in Mississippi Mermaid function as star attractions in the same way as Michèle Morgan in Obsession (and Raf Vallone is an equivalent for Jean-Paul Belmondo in Mississippi Mermaid). There is nothing wrong with the performances in the film, nor the script. The main difference between the films is the ‘look’. Obsession is a studio film with only a few location-based shots. For much of the time this isn’t a problem as such and the sets are well-constructed. However everything collapses in the last scene when I thought that the street scene was so poorly put together it could have been a spoof. This 1954 film sometimes looks like a colourised version of a 1930s or 1940s picture. It’s one of the earliest French colour features that I’ve seen, shot in Eastmancolor and printed by Technicolor. There are moments when the colours of costumes and set dressings seemed to clash (see above). The images appear ‘painterly’ with an artificial palette. Truffaut’s two films, and especially Mississippi Mermaid with its trip to Réunion in the Indian Ocean, still seem ‘modern’ by comparison.

This final image from the film is taken from a website featuring a title card sequence.

Hitchcock always maintained that shooting in the studio gave the director complete control. In 1954 he adapted another Cornel Woolrich story, Rear Window, which never left the studio. Hitchcock would go on to use the same studio techniques very effectively long after most American films had shifted to location shooting, most controversially in Marnie (US 1954). The point is that Hitchcock used the qualities and the opportunities of studio shooting with care and skill and imagination. Having made that point I’m not going to criticise Delannoy and his team ten years earlier. I think that one of the problems created by the Cahiers critics is that their success in denouncing those that went before makes it more difficult to see the earlier films (especially in the UK) and to attempt to study them. I started to write this piece several years ago but then lost access to the print and discovered that the a restored Blu-ray was only available in French without English subtitling. I did, however find a useful review on Letterboxd. Presumably there is not sufficient interest in the UK/US for an all region disc with English subs? If not, that’s a shame I think.

My newspaper research reveals that Obsession was screened during a French Film Festival held in London, Glasgow and Birmingham in March 1957. It’s interesting that similar festivals still take place. Delannoy films were seen in the UK in the 1950s and we should have more interest in them now. Much as I love Truffaut, I do wonder how much his polemic has damaged the chances of later generations to see these films? Gala Film Distribution (Kenneth Rive) did receive a BBFC certificate for public screenings of Obsession in the UK at the time of the festival, but I haven’t yet found evidence of any wider release.

LFF 2021 #1: Memory Box (Lebanon-France-Canada 2021)

Three generations of women, Téta, Maia and Alex (all photos © Haut-et Court, Abbout and Microscope)

It was a nice surprise to discover that my first online film in this year’s LFF was introduced by Sarah Perks my erstwhile teaching partner from Cornerhouse/HOME in Manchester. Sarah moved into artist’s film a few years ago and is now a Professor at Teesside University. She clearly knows the couple who made Memory Box, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige who are artists as well as filmmakers. I think I’ve only seen Je veux voir (I Want to See, Lebanon 2008) of their previous films. It starred Catherine Deneuve as herself, a celebrity seeing the damage from the 2006 war in Lebanon. There is an immediate link between that film and Memory Box.

In Beirut the young Maia (Manal Issa) with her cassette player . . .

It’s Christmas in Montreal and teenager Alex (she might be 18?) is making stuffed vine leaves with her grandmother Téta. Her mother Maia is not home yet. A box like a tea chest is delivered by the postie and at first Téta says they won’t accept it even though it is addressed to Maia, but Alex insists that they do want it. When Maia gets home she is shocked and forbids Alex to look at the box’s contents. But Alex is desperate to know more about her mother and circumstances make it easy to discover a treasure trove of notebooks, photographs and cassette tapes. Through Alex we will get to discover the young Maia between the ages of 13 and 18 back in Beirut. Alex has never been told the story and she becomes engrossed. What happened during the Civil War in Lebanon and why won’t her mother talk about it? To find out we must pursue flashbacks to teenage Maia in Beirut played with great vitality by Manal Issa. As well as offering us a youth picture narrative set against the bombing and general disruption of Beirut, this is also the opportunity for the filmmakers to explore a whole range of techniques in presenting what are now ‘memories’.

. . . in Montreal, thirty years later, Alex copies images to her mobile

The notebooks and photos are inspired by the archives of the filmmakers themselves, Joana as the writer and Khalil as the photographer, when they were similarly young people in Beirut in the 1980s. There is also a third writer, Gaëlle Macé. Joana and Khalil didn’t want to make a film about their own memories as such and they felt “freer with more distance” by focusing on the ideas rather than their own histories. But on the other hand, using their own archives keeps them attached to the ‘feel’ of the 1980s. This is a complex set of relationships with the past. They cast the actors for the flashbacks and then found ways to animate photographs and to ‘distress’ film/video footage and add explosions etc. so that we experience how Alex sees her mother in Beirut. All this is accompanied by an enjoyable 1980s soundtrack. Dancing to Blondie is a standout. Is there romance for young Maia? What do you think? Beirut was a war zone and there is tragedy as well as joy and hope, but eventually Maia and her mother had to leave, first for France and then to Canada. A key term in this presentation of Beirut and this particular Christian family in the city is ‘texture’ and ideas about mediation. How different are the visual and aural images Alex encounters from the actual experiences of Maia? Memories are produced in different ways and then worked on over time, remembered and re-worked, stories are told and re-told – or in this case, deliberately not told.

Fake old photos have added explosions.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative pleasures of the film but I’m not giving too much away to reveal that the three women, representing three generations, do return to contemporary Beirut, a city that has been almost completely reconstructed after the wars that finally ended in 2006 – though the massive explosion in 2020 has since caused more devastation. The film was virtually complete in 2019 before worked stopped on it during lockdown. Joana spoke in the Q+A about the idea of ‘rupture’ in the emotional attachment of characters to Beirut’s people and its history and she emphasised the importance of the ‘re-construction’ of the city and of the history? The film is also about the ‘transmission’ of the personal history of the family.

This is a fascinating family drama about three central female characters played by Rim Turki as the older Maia, Clémence Sabbagh as Téta and Paloma Vauthier as Alex. I thought all the performances were very strong. The only oddity is the absence of of Alex’s father, who is mentioned as having amicably parted from Maia. But since he would have been either French or French-Canadian with no background in Beirut, this is understandable.

Images of the Beirut days are animated

I’m not sure if it matters if an audience isn’t that familiar with the long war in 1980s Lebanon which had many levels and involved not only a civil war between different Christian and Muslim factions, but also the actions of the Syrian and Israeli armed forces and the presence of large numbers of Palestinian refugees. The focus is on the family story and I was reminded of a film like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (France-US 2007) in which another teenager attempts to balance family, education and discover boys in the midst of a war and a local society with different codes of morality and behaviour. Maia has left Beirut and her family story to make a new life in Montreal and this, in different ways, might make a link to Stories We Tell (Canada 2012), the hybrid documentary by Sarah Polley. Studying these three films together would be an interesting project.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige

It appears that Memory Box has been acquired by Modern Films for distribution in the UK and Ireland. I enjoyed the film immensely and I think it is very successful in what it sets out to do. In fact, I could write a great deal more on the film but I’ve got to press on, the next festival film is coming up! Do try to see Memory Box in a cinema if it comes to your area. The film should look very good with Josée Deshaies’ cinematography presented in ‘Scope on a big screen. I feel it is bound to get you thinking about families and memories. Memory Box is in Arabic and French with English subtitles. Here is a clip from the film showing Alex listening to a cassette and looking at photos of Maia in Beirut. You can also see some of the animation.

Lullaby (Chanson douce, France 2019)

Louise (Karin Viard, left) with Myriam (Leïla Bekhti)

This title popped up on my DVD rental list and at first I couldn’t remember why I had put it there originally. I clearly missed the UK and US releases back in early 2020 but I quickly realised that it was a film by Lucie Borleteau (whose film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (2014) I really liked) and that it was adapted from a novel by Leïla Slimani, whose first book I had read in 2019. Chanson douce as a novel won the Prix Goncourt and was a bestseller in France. In the UK it was translated as Lullaby and tellingly in the US it became The Perfect Nanny. These titles carried over to the films. I think the American title is misleading, but having said that, there are many films with the title Lullaby and I think that the ironic French title is arguably the best. But it seems that many UK and US reviewers had problems with the film, possibly because of their expectations.

Louise with Mila and baby Adam

Part of the problem may be that Slimani’s novel was inspired by a murder in New York carried out by a nanny and that in turn may have led some reviewers to think that the French film would be a form of horror genre picture. I haven’t seen any of the American films that have been identified with the genre, but I’m familiar with the titles and some of the plot outlines. For many reviewers it seems to be the case that a genre film fails if it doesn’t deliver the expected narrative closure or the various conventional narrative elements along the way. Lucie Borleteau presents a film narrative that is in parts almost ‘procedural’ about the daily duties of a nanny presented with a familiar social realist aesthetic, but then she shifts focus to the psychological breakdown of a character and interweaves this with ideas about fairytales, myths and folklore – and although she doesn’t deliver the expected shocks of a genre horror film, there are still shocking and surprising moments as well as challenges to some of the complacency we may feel faced with a familiar genre. Much of the discussion about the film centres on the ending. Borleteau doesn’t leave the ending ‘open’. She ‘delivers’ but not in the way we might expect.

Louise becomes the mother in many different ways

Myriam (Leïla Bhekti) is a mother of two small children, not yet at school (French children start school at 6, I think) and after being a full time mother for five years she decides that she needs to return to work as a lawyer. Her husband Paul (Antoine Reinartz) works as a music producer and argues that it will cost all of Myriam’s salary to pay for childcare, but she is adamant and they advertise for a nanny. The interview process that we see is perhaps a too familiar montage and it’s obvious that the best candidate is Louise (Karin Viard), although the staging of her interview does drop hints that things might not be what they seem. Perhaps the real purpose of the montage is not to simply create a gentle comedy but to emphasise the significance of the choice of an older white woman who is ‘French’. Louise is eager to please and to work longer hours and become more involved in the family’s affairs. If Miriam wasn’t so busy and focused on her return to work, she would probably have become suspicious of Louise much earlier. There are some subtle pointers to the nuances of bourgeois French life in the narrative. We learn more about Paul’s background, partly through the appearance of his mother Sylvie. Paul’s family seems more middle-class and he adopts a more professional pose in dealing with Louise. Even so he demurs to Myriam, about whom we learn little and who has a more friendly relationship with Louise.

Leïla and Paul take Louise with them on holiday. Is this wise?

The Press Notes for the film are available from UniFrance and I found them to be an interesting read. I think I’d already guessed something about Lucie Borleteau’s approach. She mentions Hitchcock and Polanski and their films Vertigo (for Kim Novak’s performance) and Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. I was reminded of an earlier film by a young director, À la folie . . . pas du tout (France 2002) directed by Laetitia Colombani who also mentioned Hitchcock and Polanski. That film too was criticised because it cast Audrey Tautou in a role that hinted at her rom-com persona being important but then switched to a much more disturbing narrative. I have a vague idea how French film schools work and I think they produce directors who are much more interesting than US/UK reviewers expect. Leïla Slimani is also interviewed in the Notes and she adds another range of references that Borleteau must have navigated. Slimani mentions Chabrol and also Jo Losey’s The Servant with Dirk Bogarde. Chabrol does seem quite important with his bourgeois satires such as La cérémonie (France 1995) with Isabelle Huppert as the disruptive interloper who ‘turns’ Sandrine Bonnaire’s maid against her employers.

The ‘family’ in the park

Lullaby as a film ‘belongs’ to Karin Viard, a vastly experienced actor, who seems able to tackle any kind of role. I last saw her in La famille Bélier (2014) in mainly a comic role. Louise is a very difficult role, I think, but Viard takes it in her stride. She might well have been initially cast by one of her previous directors, Maïwenn whose name still appears on Lullaby’s credits as a writer. For some reason Maïwenn left the production and Lucie Borleteau stepped in. She and Leïla Slimani seem to in agreement on the approach to the story. I wonder if the film would have been very different directed by Maïwenn? Either way this is a film primarily about women. There are five female roles of importance with Louise, Myriam and Sylvie plus 5 year-old Mila and Wafa, the mother who Louise meets each day in the square. There are moments in the film when racism directed against Maghrebi migrants seems about to become important though I don’t remember anything directed at Myriam (Leïla Bhekti was born in Paris to Algerian parents and she is a high profile star in France and married to Tahar Rahim). It’s more important that Myriam is a bourgeois parent who doesn’t mix with the other parents in the park and isn’t aware of Louise’s home district, an area of social housing an RER train ride away.

I found Lullaby an intriguing film and much of the time I could almost not bear to watch, fearful of what was going to happen next. Melodrama and horror are close together as expressionist modes of cinema and Lullaby is a form of family melodrama mixed with a psychological thriller that gets out of control. I recommend the film. Here’s the US trailer.