(This is the second film from the Summer of French Cinema – see the earlier posting on Vie sauvage. I’m hoping to get to one more before the screenings end in the first week of August.)
Albertine Sarrazin was born in Algeria in 1937 and almost immediately taken into care and then adopted by a French family who took her to Aix-en-Provence. Her new family treated her badly and she ended up in ‘reform school’. Escaping, she pursued an interest in literature, supporting herself through prostitution and petty crime. Put in prison she escaped, breaking her ankle in the process. ‘L’astragale’ is the French term for the ‘ankle bone’ and Albertine was forced to have the bone ‘fused’ so that she developed a limp. She would spend the next few years in and out of prison where she developed her writing skills, including an autobiographical novel L’astragale, published in 1965. This new French film is the second adaptation of that novel, the first having appeared in 1969.
The new film, part scripted and wholly directed by Brigitte Sy, is an interesting ‘crime romance drama’, a polar of sorts that, because of its setting and the aesthetic choices made by the director, recalls the early crime-based films of la nouvelle vague, especially those of Jean-Luc Godard. The story begins with the escape and the broken ankle and deals primarily with Albertine’s developing relationship with Julien, the minor criminal who finds her outside the prison and helps her to recover. There are several scenes which feature Albertine’s writings in her notebooks, but the narrative ends before her first work is published – otherwise this would make an interesting comparison with Violette (France 2013) as another film exploring new kinds of writing by French women in the 1950s/60s.
The important aesthetic choice was to present the film in B+W CinemaScope and to set the story in the mid 1950s (roughly correct with the autobiography). The disadvantage of course is that with the action mainly in Paris, it is difficult to shoot on the streets without spending a great deal on extras and ‘set dressing’/CGI. I presume this was a relatively low-budget film and the most obvious way of dealing with the problems is to shoot on specific streets at times when there are no members of the public around – which gives the film a rather abstract look. I confess that when the film began and I didn’t know the story behind it I wondered if I was watching the first film of a new film school graduate – although I could see that the performances were all very good (and the cinematography/mise en scène). I learned later that Brigitte Sy is a well-known French actress who has previously directed a feature and two shorts. She has a son and daughter, Louis and Esther Garrel. Esther has an important role in L’astragale (see the image above) and Louis has been very successful since his lead role in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2002). Louis and his mother both have small roles in L’astragale. Sy’s ex-partner Philippe Garrel is a well-known French director who began making features in the mid 1960s.
The references to Godard include the sequences which explore Albertine’s life as a ‘streetwalker’ and which might be compared to the scenes featuring Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962). Albertine’s first customer bears some resemblance to Jean-Pierre Léaud and several scenes in which Albertine is reading or writing while waiting in bars for Julien recall similar scenes in early Godard. When Albertine allows herself to be photographed (and therefore risking exposure to the police) I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. I enjoyed the film and especially the performances of the two leads. Leïla Bekhti as Albertine had an important role in Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (France 2009). In 2010 she married that film’s young star Tahar Raheem. Reda Ketab, who plays Julien, also had a lead role in Un prophète. He and Leïla Bekhti are both from French-Algerian families and their casting gives the story authenticity. It also distinguishes the film from most of the early New Wave films in which the war in Algeria was rarely mentioned. Albertine’s disguise when trying to evade the police is based on a blonde short-haired wig, which for me seemed to emphasise her North African heritage because of its incongruity.
The various aesthetic choices are evident in this trailer (no subs, but there isn’t much dialogue):
This film is showing as part of ‘Summer of French Cinema 2015‘, six films screening across six different cinemas offered by a partnership between Picturehouse Cinemas and the French film export agency UniFrance. I’m guessing that this means that the three films won’t get a full UK release so we should be thankful that Picturehouse is providing this opportunity to see them. However, they are showing just once, each one seemingly randomly scattered across the standard film programmes at the participating cinemas (three different films at each cinema). You can download the full programme here – there are further screenings on July 20, 27 and August 3. A further selection of French films can be watched online at Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/unifrancefilmspro/vod_pages
I’m not sure quite how to take Vie sauvage. It is an adaptation of a non-fiction book, a ‘real life story’ written by the central character and directed by Cédric Khan. Khan is probably best known in the UK for 2002’s Roberto Succo. That too was an adaptation of a real life crime story and there are some similarities with Vie sauvage, including the focus on a man ‘on the run’ from the police. However, it would be misleading to think of this new film as a crime suspense narrative. The central character is ‘Paco’, a man of strong convictions played by the always excellent Mathieu Kassovitz complete with beard and a ponytail. Paco is a refusenik in terms of contemporary capitalist society and at the start of the narrative we find him living with ‘Nora’ (names in this story are often in quotes) and their three boys enjoying an alternative lifestyle outside urban French society. Nora (Céline Sallette) ‘incites’ the drama by deciding that she’s had enough of living outside society and takes her boys back to her parents’ home. Paco is furious and tries to take them back. The law eventually places the boys with Nora but after one of his ‘access visits’ Paco flees with the two youngest boys (the eldest, Thomas, elects to stay with his mother – he is Paco’s stepson but Tsali and Okyesa are Paco’s sons). The trio then successfully evade the police search for the next eleven years. The original story title is translated by Google as something like ‘Eleven years outside the system under the star of freedom’ – clumsy but not a bad description.
During this long period ‘on the run’, the trio have to change names and stories as they move from one commune to another, working on the land with the two boys being ‘home schooled’. Paco also attempts to instil his own ideas about living with nature and without modern technologies and consumer culture. The boys (who are six and seven when their adventure begins) at first take it all as a game but of course they will become ‘normal’ teenagers and rebel against parental authority when they are older. Nora does not reappear until the end of the narrative (apart from in a flashback) and it is interesting that the focus is on the father. In the ‘real’ story the French media told the story from the mother’s perspective, emphasising her loss as she and the police searched for the boys (with Paco facing two years in prison). I can’t really ‘spoil’ this narrative but I won’t describe the plot in detail. Since this is not a Boyhood type project, Kahn faces the problem of needing at least two pairs of actors to play the boys. Possibly he would have been better advised to have three sets but these multiple pairings are always difficult to make work and here I found the younger actors more credible. This isn’t a criticism of the older pair, more an issue about the big leap from small boys to young men.
Beautiful to look at with great use of natural light (camera by Yves Cape), always engaging and interesting as a narrative, I’m still not quite sure about the film – although I would certainly recommend it. The main issue is the mix of genres. I’ve already suggested that the suspense elements only carry parts of the narrative and at other times the film is perhaps best described as a family drama. It seems fairly obvious what attracted the Dardenne brothers to act as co-producers (it is an official French-Belgian production). The boys and their relationship with their father could easily appear in a Dardenne film, but I’m not sure about the long story time over so many years. The Dardenne films are also more intense as realist melodramas. As I watched the film I reflected on what might be termed the rural/pastoral realism of French cinema as featured in something like Renoir’s Toni (1934) or Will It Snow For Christmas? (1996). There are also moments when the film seems to draw on American cinema, especially Westerns, in those scenes in which the boys are happy rebels having fun holed up in a shack in the hills, plucking chickens and bombarding each other with feathers. The director himself was brought up in a rural commune in the 1970s and these scenes do indeed feel authentic. I was amused, however, to discover that the commune in which Paco first met Nora was based around tepees and Native American culture. I guess there is a sense in which Paco tries to take his sons through a kind of ‘natural’ rites of passage.
If you get the chance to see this film you might wish to compare it with The Wonders (Italy/Ger/Switz 2014) released in the UK today. The films have very similar elements but produce rather different narratives. Both are well worth seeing.
Trailer with English subs:
Two of the best films I saw last year at the London Film Festival had to wait six more than six months for a UK release. Phoenix was one of those films and Girlhood is the other. The title ‘Girlhood’ refers both to that period of a young woman’s life and to the concept of girls controlling their ‘hood – moving in on a genre previously seen as male. The English title, unusually, is better than the French – Bande de filles which suggests ‘Gang Girls’ or ‘Girl Gangs’. Girlhood is set in les banlieues – or les cités, those giant housing estates on the outskirts of Paris made famous in global cinema by Mathieu Kassovitz’s La haine (France 1995). Director Céline Sciamma (known for Water Lillies 2007 and Tomboy 2011) states quite clearly in the Press Pack that she is aiming for something different than La haine. She argues that CinemaScope is the best screen ratio to show gangs and although she shoots on the estates, all the interiors are shot on studio sets so that she can control the colours/décor etc.
“We used static shots with a very deliberate perspective as opposed to the Steadicam’s predictable energy. We relied on travelling shots and often used sequence shots. It’s an episodic narrative, with dramatic accelerations.” (Sciamma in the Press Pack)
The writer-director goes on to suggest that this is a new kind of narrative, a ‘fictional manifesto’ for a group of girls discovered through public casting sessions. It certainly does have a new kind of energy and it challenges representations of young women and in particular young African-Caribbean French women. Unlike many of the films set in les cités, this film is not dominated by North African French characters. The narrative seeks credibility rather than the ‘authenticity’ of social realism. Even so the resolution of the narrative is ‘open’ but not triumphant. This is a start – there is a long way to go before these girls achieve complete social freedom.
The central character is Marieme who we first meet as she comes back to le cité with a group of young women. The opening scene suggests that all the young women have been playing for a team in a game of ‘American Football’. I wondered if this might be a fantasy sequence (it seems an expensive sport to play because of all the equipment) but I would be grateful for any confirmation that such things happen in Paris. Perhaps it signifies an aspiration towards American culture among French African-Caribbeans that mirrors earlier French interest in American popular culture? Marieme has a difficult home life. Her father is absent and her mother is a cleaner in a hotel, working long hours. Marieme looks out for her two younger sisters – and tries to avoid her big brother Djibril, a dangerous character who abuses his sisters in taking control of the household and attempting to restrict their social behaviour.
The ‘inciting incident’ in the opening section of the narrative is when a dejected Marieme, learning that her only future after the summer is to go to vocational school (which she doesn’t want to do), meets a trio of seemingly tough ‘gang girls’. The leader of the trio sees something in Marieme and eventually invites her to join the group. Marieme changes her hair, her taste in clothes and her name. She gets out of the summer job her mother has organised in a hotel. Now she is ‘Vic’ (for victoire/victory), named by the gang leader, ‘Lady’. Collectively the girls have fun – even if it involves petty crime and fights and shows of bravado – before Marieme/Vic is forced to make decisions. These inevitably involve young men – the boy she has a relationship with, her controlling older brother and the local ‘boss’ for whom she works and who affords her ‘protection’ once she has become ‘known’ in the male world. The film has an open ending. We don’t know what will happen to Vic, but we have learned a great deal about the life that she and her sisters face in les cités.
I found the whole film captivating and in particular Marieme/Vic as played by Karidja Touré. Seemingly without prior experience, Touré is a strong presence, moving from being quiet and withdrawn to fierce and commanding as required. When she smiles, her personality fills the screen. The other three young women are equally striking in different ways. ‘Lady’ is a clear leader, Adiatou is street-smart and Fily is the quiet one, sometimes the butt of jokes but a strong physical presence.
There isn’t much ‘plot’ in the film. The narrative structure is in some ways unusual and I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the pleasure of an unfolding story. Watching it a second time I realised that I had been so taken with my first viewing that I hadn’t really noticed how the narrative divides into sections and that the final section – when Vic moves to another estate – is longer than I thought. In fact this is quite a long film for the genre. The power of the film resides in the relationships of Vic with the other three girls, with the boy she is attracted to and in perhaps the most moving scenes of all, with her younger sister who appears to be following, quite literally, in her footsteps.
Girlhood has been successful and I was pleased to see reports that in France it has been shown in multiplexes in les banlieues, reaching the audience who are represented in it. In the UK it has been generally very well received but their have been gainsayers, in particular on Radio 4’s Saturday Review. I found the discussion about the film on this show both annoying and disturbing. It was annoying because of the obvious contradiction. We were told that films like Girlhood were very unusual because there are very few other representations of young Black women in French cinema (certainly that is true of the French cinema that makes it to the UK). But at the same time the young women in Girlhood were ‘stereotypical’ and their behaviour/representation was ‘clichéd’. How can they be stereotypes if we haven’t seen them on screen before? This is sloppy thinking – it suggests that the audience is reading these young women as if they were in a British or American film. In fact, they are shown in quite distinctive ways that sometimes demonstrate connections to American culture and sometimes seem unique (an entertaining game of Crazy Golf or a dance contest in a city centre square). On the Saturday Review panel was Bim Adewunmi, a Guardian columnist and herself a young woman of West African heritage. She complained that for her this was a film utilising a ‘white gaze’ on young Black women. Obviously I can’t argue against this but also I can’t see it in the film. Céline Sciamma in interviews has said (see the Jonathan Romney interview below) that she herself grew up (as a middle-class white girl) in or close to one of the new estates outside Paris. Much has been made of the fact that only one of the four leads is actually from an estate like the ones in the film (the other three were non-professionals from other parts of Paris). But is this really important? As the young women themselves pointed out, seeing themselves as four young Black female faces on posters all over Paris was an exciting new experience. A girlhood that was invisible in mainstream media in France has been give exposure.
For more background on the film and the young actors see the very useful Jonathan Romney piece in the Observer. This one of many pieces in the Guardian/Observer and the film seems to have made a significant impact on the ‘liberal left’ in the UK. I’m hoping it will be possible to use Girlhood extensively in UK film education. I’ve watched it twice but I think it will need several more viewings before I discover all its riches. I need to explore both its cinematography and the music soundtrack by Para One – also responsible for Sciamma’s earlier two films.
The UK trailer:
I’d heard mixed reports about this film. I’ve seen some but not all of the François Ozon films released in the UK and the last two I saw, Potiche (2010) and Dans la maison (2012), were a hoot. This new film promised something rather different, being adapted from a Ruth Rendell short story. Perhaps it is a cliché but ‘continental’ adaptations of Ruth Rendell often seem much more serious/sophisticated than UK adaptations. I still remember with pleasure Almodovar’s Live Flesh (Spain 1997), Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (France 1995) and Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher and Other Stories (France 2001) – and there are more I haven’t seen.
The promotion of this film seems quite coy in the way it tries to avoid ‘spoilers‘ but to say anything sensible about the film I have to reveal the central issue. (So be warned, if you want complete surprise, DON’T READ ON.) The film begins with a stunning opening sequence, virtually without dialogue, in which we see the funeral of a young woman, Laure, and the eulogy from her best friend Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) who pledges to look out for the widowed David (Romain Duris) and the couple’s daughter Lucie who is only a few months old. The opening also gives us flashbacks to the intense relationship between Claire and Laure that began when they were small children. A few weeks after the funeral Claire visits David and is taken aback to find him dressed as a woman and feeding the baby from a bottle. He explains that by wearing a dress belonging to his wife, he is able to calm the baby. The narrative then begins to explore the relationship between Claire and David – and to deal with the complication of Claire’s husband Gilles. Things don’t quite work out as some audiences might suspect and I’ll leave it there.
Like Pedro Almodóvar, Ozon is a gay man adapting a female novelist who was herself prepared to explore all kinds of characters and relationships. Ruth Rendell is generally thought of as a crime writer but she also explored the psychology of unusual relationships. I wasn’t familiar with the short story ‘The New Girlfriend’ but I’m certainly interested in finding it now. The narrative that Ozon constructs sometimes plays like Hitchcock (especially when the score by Philippe Rombi kicks in). I’ve also seen reviews that reference Douglas Sirk. This is certainly a melodrama and it takes place in the milieu of the upper middle class. All That Heaven Allows (1955) feels like an appropriate reference. At other times the tone is comic and I also found the film to be intensely erotic in parts.
Visiting IMDB, I note both big supporters and major detractors. Two ‘users’ claim this is the worst film they’ve ever seen. I’ll put my cards on the table. I loved every minute of the film. Romain Duris is for me a major star of French cinema. I realise now that I have seen Anaïs Demoustier in several other films but up until now I hadn’t really ‘noticed’ her. Now I feel foolishly in love. What is interesting is that the film places her almost in the masculine role – she’s ‘on top’ in sexual encounters and she generally wears the trousers when David is in drag. Personally I preferred her this way – or at least with her freckles on display when ‘Virginia’ (David) is in full warpaint. You’ll gather from this that Ozon is ‘playing’ with gender identities big time. Sometimes his storytelling teeters on the edge of farce but he is in control and he’s well served by great performances from the three lead actors.
Nuff said. This is a melodrama par excellence.
A good trailer: