Three points struck me after watching Elle. The first is that though Paul Verhoeven is in his late 70s, he can still make films with more energy and flair than many younger filmmakers. Second, Isabelle Huppert demonstrates once again that she is in a class of her own when it comes to female actors. Finally, if Elle proves anything it is that the distinction between mainstream ‘entertainment’ and arthouse cinema is not particularly helpful if this film is classed as the latter just because it is not in the English language. Verhoeven doesn’t make ‘art’ movies as such. That doesn’t mean his films aren’t examples of the art of film, rather that he seeks to entertain with sex and violence to the fore. He will also ask questions, sometimes serious questions but there is also the suggestion that he is poking fun at those who think art cinema is ‘better’. I’ve only seen a limited number of the director’s films but I recently enjoyed Black Book (Netherlands-Germany-UK-Belgium 2006) and I’m an admirer of Starship Troopers (US 1997) as a satire on fascism.
I tried to avoid reviews before seeing Elle but afterwards I picked up suggestions of a Buñuelian satire, especially in the use of a formal Christmas party. I guess these reviewers are referring to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). I didn’t really think of that connection. Chabrol is mentioned by some because of Huppert’s presence. For me the film was more reminiscent of 1980s films like Dressed to Kill (1980), Fatal Attraction (1987) or indeed of Verhoeven’s own Basic Instinct (1992). I’m not thinking of the plots of these films but their sex, violence and ‘glamour’. I did get a strong whiff of Hitchcock from Elle, especially in the dialogue exchange at the end of the film with the Catholic neighbour. The difference is that Huppert as Michèle Blanc becomes the ‘(anti-)hero’ of the narrative rather than the usual ‘woman in distress’ or ‘romantic partner’. For anyone who doesn’t know the outline of the story in Elle, I’ll just note that at the beginning of the film, Michèle is attacked by a masked assailant, but she doesn’t report the violent rape that ensues and only tells her ex-husband and friends some time later. Verhoeven replays the initial rape– I’m not completely sure why we have to see it again, but Verhoeven says the narrative is about the ‘aftermath’ of the rape, so maybe she is thinking it through in the flashback. Michèle’s investigations then initiate a complex sequence of events, including more rapes.
Elle is an ’18’ certificate film in the UK and there is a great deal of sexual violence in the film. The initial rape is brutal (we see it and other similar attacks later) and the use of shocking violence in this way distinguishes the action from what sometimes appears in mainstream cinema as more aestheticised ‘rape’. Isabelle Huppert’s performance then suggests a woman who is able to put aside the pain and the shock of the assault and plan what she is going to do next. In one sense this is a typical Huppert performance. She is able to portray incredible strength of character by doing as little as possible – apart from commanding the screen (and everyone/everything shown in its space). Perhaps it is this that has caused such a controversy around the film. Sight and Sound (April 2017) offered five contributions on the film – an interview by editor Nick James, two ‘comment pieces’ organised as a ‘For’ and ‘Against’ the film’s take on misogyny, a review of Verhoeven’s early work in the Netherlands (arguably more controversial than his Hollywood work) and finally a conventional review. I say ‘conventional’ but Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz write this review together – without any explanation as to why it needs both of them. The review of Verhoeven’s Dutch work by Craig Williams is very interesting and makes me think I should look for more of his films that now appear to be available on DVD with English subs. Verhoeven’s interview is revealing about the production background of the film – its origins as a French novel, the decision to re-work it for an American production and then the shift back to a French production. Verhoeven makes a number of comments about the differences between US and French cinema which I don’t necessarily agree with and overall I’m wary of such interviews since so many directors contradict themselves. I sometimes think they make up answers to relieve the boredom of so many interviews. Still, it’s an interesting read. But the controversy lies in the ‘For’ and ‘Against’ pieces, headlined as ‘Crossing the Line’.
Arguing ‘for’ Verhoeven in this battle over its sexual politics is Erika Balsom and opposing her is Ginette Vincendeau, both members of the same Film Studies department at Kings College, London (one of the most prestigious film departments in UK academia). Ginette Vincendeau is one of the leading authorities on French cinema, whose work I’ve read and used for many years. She argues that Elle:
. . . validates a culture that condones male violence against women, arguing that, deep down, ‘they want it’. The film and its reception are a demonstration of how deeply internalised misogyny is, including by women.
She goes on to argue that Elle is not a rape revenge fantasy nor is it a horror narrative in which the ‘final girl’ kills the monster, but it is a film that plays with the codes of the French thriller and which “deliberately mines French extreme cinema, a genre in which Huppert excels”. I agree with all of that, but I think that when Vincendeau starts to offer readings of different aspects of the narrative, things start to unravel a little. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I would have to contest the argument that Michèle is ‘punished’ as a woman with power, through her portrayal as a ‘castrating woman’. Vincendeau is possibly correct in suggesting that all of Michèle’s relationships with other women are about hostility and rivalry. However, I often find that single scenes/sequences from films stay with me and form the basis for my later readings. The last sequence of Elle seems to refute both the idea that Michèle has been punished or that she can’t develop relationships with women that are positive and comradely.
I don’t know Erika Balsom’s work but the department’s profile of her suggests that she is concerned with cultural studies and visual art/experimental cinema more broadly. She argues that Elle is not a misogynist film. Elle is a film about misogyny. Balsom’s point is that Verhoeven and Huppert recognise the seriousness of rape but also that its gravity comes partly from its banality. Rape is integral to the patriarchal system. The film is a fable or allegory exploring what happens if a woman ‘refuses’ to conform. I don’t want to summarise the piece any further but is an interesting argument that will enrage some readers. I was taken by the closing paragraph in which she writes:
. . . The spurious humanism of Hollywood – with its likeable characters and its ideological attachments to morality, innocence and redemption – is bankrupt. Too often, it serves the very system that Verhoeven recognises as pathological. Instead, Elle, like the cat-witness of its opening shot, stares down the ugly scene with eyes wide open.
Reading over what I’ve written, I discover that I seem to be ‘for’, when I thought that I was somehow caught between the two pieces. But it’s not quite as simple as that. There are two aspects of Elle I haven’t mentioned. One is that Michèle is the co-owner with Anna (Anne Consigny) of a company making videogames – violent, ‘erotic’ games. Most of the game designers and coders are young men who at one point Michèle encourages to produce work that is more arousing in its use of sex and violence. Any of these men could be the rapist from the opening scene. The second sub-plot involves Michèle’s family. Her father is serving a life sentence as a mass murderer who killed many people in the neighbourhood and the then 10 year-old Michèle experienced the aftermath of the murders. This history perhaps explain some of Michèle’s behaviour towards her mother, her ex-husband and her son (now in his twenties). The combination of these two sub-plots perhaps explains why Ginette Vincendeau condemns Elle as a ‘trashy movie’. That’s a difficult term. The film certainly isn’t ‘trashy’ in terms of production values, performances etc. It is sensational and exaggerated and provocative. It seems very much a Verhoeven movie. Adrian Martin and Cristina Alvarez Lopéz don’t really address this central controversy around feminism, misogyny and sexual violence directly. They argue that in the final third Michèle, “against all likely odds, turns her story turns into something positively therapeutic in its affirmation”.
The other way to think about the film is in terms of its narration. Nick Lacey was astute about this as we left the cinema, pointing out that Isabelle Huppert is in (nearly?) every scene. She is the sole protagonist – everything happens to her and she responds and initiates the next action. I’d have to watch the film several times to see whether this actually is the case, but it seems so in my memory. If so, what does it mean? It’s unusual for a single female protagonist to control the narrative in this way, especially in mainstream cinema, but possibly not for Ms Huppert. This control does suggest evidence for the argument that Michèle is a woman with power. She effectively narrates the story. In it she is physically and possibly mentally damaged by her experiences but appears to ‘recover’. She has financial power and ultimately the power in the relationships she develops (again possibly at the expense of her mental well-being). Whether her behaviour and her story ‘help’ women in society or challenge patriarchy, is a moot point. I suspect that neither Verhoeven or Huppert see that as their prime objective. They want to do the best professional job they can and in doing so provide entertainment and provoke discussion, which seems reasonable to me. Though I appreciate Ginette Vincendeau’s critique, I do think she makes a mistake in calling Elle ‘trashy’.
Looking at Amazon’s US DVD reviews, I can see a dramatic split in audience responses between the ‘no stars’ and ‘5 stars’. On IMDb the User Rating is 7.3. In the UK, Elle had taken over £650,000 after its third weekend, meaning it is battling it out for the biggest foreign language (non-South Asian) title of the year in the UK with Toni Erdmann. I’d really like to hear other views on the film.
The Country Doctor is another of those solid dramas about social issues that are rarely discussed in mainstream anglophone cinema. In French cinema such a drama can attract a major star and, thanks to regional funding, can be shot in a specific rural setting.
Writer-Director Thomas Lilti is also an experienced medical doctor and this is his second recent script featuring doctors. In Hippocrates (2014) the focus was a hospital, but in this new film it’s a rural practice in Île de France, next to the border with Normandy. Jean-Pierre Werner (François Cluzet) has been the local doctor of the title for at least 20 years. Dedicated to his work and able to handle the enormous range of problems his patients present, Dr Werner is well-respected but not universally loved because he is a little tetchy. Perhaps the break-up of his marriage is the reason.
When Dr Werner is discovered to have a medical problem himself, his consultant not only suggests he could use some help, but actually sends Nathalie Delizia (Marianne Denicourt) to him. Nathalie is a former nurse and a hospital doctor with no experience of general practice. She doesn’t enjoy the hospital work and is keen to learn about rural practice. He resents the intrusion and deliberately sets her difficult tasks. It sounds like a typical genre narrative, perhaps for a romantic comedy. But this is closer to, if not social realism, an observational drama with elements of comedy. Lilti knows about a doctor’s work and he takes us through procedures in detail. I found this fascinating and similar to the Dardennes’ recent The Unknown Girl. Once again, the differences between French (and Belgian) and UK medical practices are revealing – but the similarities of the social problems are also clear. The local mayor might be an over-bearing figure, but he works hard and he recognises that attracting doctors to a rural practice is difficult. Another current issue is the relationship between medicine and social care – a problem across Europe. Lilti has cast a mix of experienced actors and what appear to be non-professionals. Overall, they look and sound like the inhabitants of a French village. Cluzet is his usual professional self and always watchable. Marianne Denicourt is new to me and I thought she was well cast.
Lilti does well to steer clear of using romantic comedy tropes to drive his narrative. That isn’t to say that there isn’t an emotional drama or the possibility of romance, but the focus is more on the range of characters and the social issues. The narrative also had one really surprising sequence. I was puzzled when ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ started up on the soundtrack and pleasantly surprised by the next scene. This film offers solid entertainment and something to think about – and a genuine alternative to the endless stream of American awards films.
Jackie is a surprising film. I found it to be a riveting watch and it left me strangely uplifted but also puzzled. I’m not sure what immediate conclusions, if any, I came to except that I’m glad I saw it on a big screen. It’s a film about a moment of American history that resonated around the world for those of us alive in 1963 and that has been ‘re-presented’ in different ways ever since. But though this is an American event, it doesn’t feel like an American film, or at least it doesn’t seem to belong to either Hollywood or American Independent Cinema, despite the involvement of several US producers. Instead, this is essentially a French film directed by the Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain. The script and the impressive cast are mainly American but the creative personnel supporting Larrain are European. The best known of the production companies involved, the French company Why Not Productions, has been involved in the recent films of Jacques Audiard and Ken Loach. In what follows I try to analyse my response.
The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting. The irony is that Jackie was shot on Super 16 film, giving the image a slightly grainier and less sharp/bright feel than a digital original image. To add to the disturbance of the framing and image texture, the score by the British composer Mica Levy (best known for her score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) and some of the compositions by DoP Stéphane Fontaine are equally unsettling. Together they set up very well the performances by the actors and especially that of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie is routinely described as a ‘biopic’ by reviewers. But I don’t buy this. A biopic needs to cover a substantial part of a subject’s life with at least some reference to childhood and other key stages in the development of the adult persona. Jackie focuses on not much more than one intensely dramatic week of the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy plus some occasional references to earlier events. The narrative structure is such that these events are discussed in retrospect in an interview given to a journalist (such an interview was conducted by Theodore H White for Life magazine in 1964) in the rather austere surroundings of a house in the Kennedy ‘homeland’ of Hiyannis Port in Massachusetts.
The original choice for the director of the film was Darren Aranovsky who later became one of several producers. He is reported to have told Natalie Portman that the key to the film was Jackie’s voice. The character is in virtually every scene and must go through some terrible experiences. Portman appears to have responded fully to his comment in her study of Jackie Kennedy and her delivery has become one of the talking points of the film. Portman does not ‘resemble’ Mrs Kennedy, either facially or in her body shape. The hairstyle and the iconic Chanel suits certainly help to create the character but a lot depends on the voice and on Portman’s performance skills. I have no memory of hearing Jackie Kennedy speak so the only signifier for me was when Portman shifts her voice between the soft, breathy and almost girlish ‘public voice’ of the character and the more clipped and authoritative voice she uses for the ‘behind the scenes’ moments. Overall, I found the performance convincing. I didn’t know much about Jackie before I saw the film and what I learned from the film and subsequently through research I found interesting.
It seems to me that the film illustrates two main points. The first is that there is humanity even in the processes inside the White House and the Presidency. Everyone treats Jackie and her children with respect even as a new administration has to begin. I’m not sure how ‘true’ or ‘realistic’ this is. In one scene Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) orders everyone, including President Johnson, to sit down when Jackie is under stress. Johnson is represented as an amenable figure – which belies the stories of his anger and violent language, though the camera does hint at what he and Ladybird might be saying off screen/off microphone. Personally, I found the scenes of Jackie coping with her grief and the procedures she had to follow quite moving. The other main theme of the film is Jackie’s attempt to create the image of JFK’s legacy. She did this as a continuation of her earlier attempts to redecorate the White House and to learn from the history of other presidential figures. We can see this theme played out both in her determination to organise an appropriate state funeral and burial at Arlington and in the way she conducts the interview with the journalist (played by Billy Crudup with a distinct swagger). Again, I rather admired Jackie as a character and Natalie Portman’s performance.
I’m grateful to Nick Lacey, my viewing partner, who found this useful interview with Stéphane Fontaine on ‘No Film School’. It was Nick who spotted the use of 16mm and in the interview Fontaine explains how he and Pablo Larrain approached the shoot which was mainly in a Paris studio with only a few exteriors in Washington. Larrain went so far as to bring an old three-tube video camera (as used in No) from Chile to Paris in an attempt to ‘insert’ Portman into the 1962 video recording of Mrs Kennedy offering TV viewers a tour around the White House – one of the pre-assassination sequences included to help build Jackie’s persona as a character. The film’s whole budget is listed as $9 million on IMDB which seems extraordinary (it’s quite a lot less than most mainstream French features). All I can say is well done to cast and crew. If you are interested in cinematography this interview is a must.
In conclusion, Jackie is a terrific emotional narrative with a stunning central performance and very good support from a talented supporting cast (including Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and John Hurt). I suspect it will surprise many audiences. I just hope they are open to the approach adopted by Pablo Larrain and his crew and prepared to learn a bit more about an era and a group of historical figures who they think they might already know well.
Here’s a promotional clip from the film in which Jackie fights for the funeral parade she wants:
This clip from a 1961 TV interview reveals not just the real Mrs Kennedy’s’s speaking voice, but also her historical knowledge about the White House. Some of her statements are used verbatim in the new film.
Last night I watched Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (Copie conforme, France 2010). Kiarostami died earlier this year so engaging with one of his later works seemed appropriate in this terrible year when so many great artists have been taken from us. But the immediate reason I watched this specific film was because a scene from it figures in one of 2016’s best films, L’avenir (Things to Come, France 2016). I hope to post on that film later so here I’ll just note that Nathalie, the central character of L’avenir played by Isabelle Huppert, visits a Parisian cinema on her own and watches Juliette Binoche as the lead character in Copie conforme. (L’avenir is carefully set in 2010 when Copie conforme was released.) This cinema visit is a bit like those once common in Godard films such as Vivre sa vie (1962) – in which the Anna Karina character watches Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and tears run down her face. Nathalie has a different experience in her cinema, but it is equally a part of a complex study of her character. I’ve been working on Isabelle Huppert as actor and star, so I was intrigued that she is shown watching her only real rival as the star actor of contemporary international art cinema. This linking of films, ‘stars’ and directors sets up the whole debate about art cinema and its particular forms of intertextuality. In some cases what we get are direct quotes (so the clip of one film seen on a cinema screen in another – a ‘real’ film that becomes a social reference in a fiction film and perhaps a mise en abîme in which the filmic reference acts as a commentary on the fictional cinema visit). The Anna Karina reference is slightly different because it depends on the cultural background/memory of the viewer to identify a film from 34 years earlier. I’m sure there are other examples that other audience members might find more compelling (but this one seems very apt). References like these are fairly common forms of allusion in art cinema.
So how does this relate to Copie conforme? The Kiarostami film is the subject of a post on this blog by Nick Lacey (and an aside by Keith Withall who argues that it is a film “in which style appears to dominate substance”). I don’t intend to necessarily engage with either of the earlier posts. I’m most interested in the level of allusion in the film and how this relates to the film’s central idea and its significance (or otherwise) in contemporary art cinema. Copie conforme was Kiarostami’s first official feature shot in Europe (although he had previously contributed ‘segments’ to films such as Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). It is at once ‘Italian’ (all the action takes place in Tuscany) and ‘international’ (most of the dialogue is in English, some in French and some in Italian). The crew is Italian and Iranian but the whole production feels under the control of Kiarostami. The narrative covers a few hours when ‘Elle’ an art dealer played by Juliette Binoche takes a visiting British writer ‘James Miller’ (William Shimell) who has just given a reading/lecture to the Tuscan village of Lucignano which as well as being pretty and charming is also a favoured location for weddings and has a gallery well-known for a painting known as the ‘original copy’. Miller has written a book about artworks and the concept of the copy, arguing provocatively that the copy can have the same value as the original. While exploring this proposition, Kiarostami’s narrative has a twist in which the audience is asked to decide if the couple (i.e. Binoche and Shimell) met for the first time today and are falling in love while displaying the behaviour of an old married couple or whether they have been married for many years and were initially simply pretending not to know each other – perhaps to bring back memories of their own wedding in this village? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter what their relationship is. This is an art film and the artist is ‘playing’ with the form and with his audience. That is the nature of art cinema, but given the presence of a star like Binoche (a first for Kiarostami) there is also the possibility that a broader audience may be left dissatisfied by the ‘open’ ending. Critics were divided, so in Sight and Sound (September 2010) an enthusiastic Geoff Andrew interviews both Kiarostami and Binoche but in the reviews section of the magazine, Philip Kemp dismisses the dialogue as ‘banal’ and accuses Kiarostami of offering us a “faded facsimile, a paint-by-numbers reduction of a long tradition of European (mostly Italian) art films”.
Kemp does admit that Kiarostami’s “poetic eye rarely deserts him, and visually the film is sometimes captivating”. I think this is damning with faint praise. The camerawork and ‘staging’ (in this case, the use of locations) is excellent throughout. (In the documentary that accompanies the film on the Artificial Eye DVD, the Italian cinematographer Luca Bigazzi says that at first he could not understand Kiarostami’s approach and was not sure how to meet his requirements – but he seems to have caught on very quickly.) Philip Kemp’s critique suggests that Kiarostami is offering a copy and the ‘originals’ are films like Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954) by Roberto Rossellini, La notte (Antonioni, Italy 1961) and The Sheltering Sky (Bertolucci, UK-Italy, 1990) with elements of Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais, France 1961). I’ll focus here on the first of these titles since my memories of the others are not very clear. The parallels between Rossellini’s film about an English couple on holiday in the hinterland of Naples and Kiarostami’s film about a couple in Tuscany are immediately apparent. Despite Elle’s local experience, she is still not Italian and with James she forms a ‘non-Italian’ couple subject to similar comments and assumptions by the villagers as experienced by Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) in Rossellini’s film. Although George Sanders was an experienced actor and a star player in Hollywood, he wasn’t familiar with Rossellini’s approach and Rossellini deliberately kept him in the dark so that his grumpiness became part of his performance. Kiarostami doesn’t seem to have treated Shimell as badly but even so his lack of acting experience means he is pushed into aspects of performance that might be uncomfortable. Some scenes in Copie conforme, such as the restaurant conflict between James and Elle, could easily be part of Viaggio in Italia.
The central relationship of the couple is actually different between the two films but we know that Kiarostami was aware of Rossellini – he was one of the leading Iranian directors who drew on the work of the Italian neorealists. I don’t want to explore this further – only to establish that the elements of ‘copying’ and ‘allusion’ are evident. They give me a lot of pleasure. As does the use of other allusions. For instance, the scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière plays a minor role as an older man (with his wife) who Elle and James meet. There is an entertaining discussion about a statue as a work of art (another Viaggio in Italia reference?) and then the old man gives James a piece of advice about his relationship. I found this amusing since Carrière is perhaps best known internationally for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel in the 1970s – in films that mock the codes of bourgeois behaviour. It’s important though in such comparisons of films, to remember that a film – a ‘time-based’ art form is not the same as a novel or a painting. I’m just as interested in the four films mentioned here because of their leading players – four beautiful, sexy and intelligent women around whose performances the narratives of these films are constructed. (Vivre sa vie isn’t one of the ‘copied’ films but the pattern of allusions made me think of her.) We don’t think enough about the star images of these actors in art rather than genre films. These four actors have different star images and it would be interesting to play the ‘commutation test’ game with them. This involves imagining switching the actors between films and trying to work out whether the narrative would change. I think Copie conforme would be a different film if ‘Elle’ was played by any of the other three. Each would bring with them different qualities from the kinds of films we associate with them. Bergman might offer a higher pitched and more melodrama type of performance. Huppert might be more matter of fact and Karina more vulnerable or perhaps more playful.
I think what I’m trying to say here is that art cinema (or whatever else we want to call these kinds of films) does not necessarily have to present us with an exciting narrative and the central theme doesn’t have to be ‘new’. I don’t mind the repetitions and in fact that is sometimes where the pleasure lies in comparing how auteur directors and their cast and crew handle similar set-ups. It occurs to me that this seems to be a justification for ‘postmodern’ films and I can hear Keith sharpening his pencil to correct me. However, I think the intertextual pleasures I discuss here were around before the 1980s and this is more about an institutional condition of a form of cinema in which a ciné-literate audience can create their own narratives and join in with the ‘play’. I note from the Criterion website that Kiarostami had already made a film with similar subject matter in 1977 and that The Report is now available on the Criterion Blu-ray of Copie conforme – it has rarely been seen outside Iran. After the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian authorities banned the film and Kiarostami felt unable to explore a failing marriage (possibly autobiographical in the same way as Rossellini?) in his next Iranian films. As Godfrey Cheshire comments in his interesting essay on the website, this suggests that Kiarostami was not just picking up on an ‘outmoded’ form of European art cinema, but also making a political gesture as part of his exile from Tehran.
In the clip below we see Jean-Claude Carrière giving fatherly advice to James. This was improvised so William Shimell looks suitably nonplussed.
“OFFBEAT is an events-based producer connecting jazz, improv & experimental music to the world of film and the moving image.” So runs the introduction to the website of Offbeat Fest. Offbeat has produced several events in London this year which explore the world of jazz on film. The latest event was held at the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington on Sunday 11 December. The session began with 15 minutes of wonderful live jazz performed by saxophonist Tony Kofi who offered his own mélange of tunes from the soundtrack of Bertrand Tavernier’s classic jazz film ‘Round Midnight. Following a 30th Anniversary screening of the film, Kofi returned with Selwyn Harris of Jazzwise Magazine and the distributor of jazz film soundtrack records. These two took part in a Q&A about the film chaired by the jazz journalist and broadcaster Kevin Le Gendre.
This was an interesting and highly enjoyable event hosted in one of my favourite cinemas. I’m not qualified to comment on the jazz itself (except to say that Tony Kofi’s playing and his advice to the young musicians in the audience seemed very fine.) The Q&A was inevitably taken up with the jazz performed in the film and the authenticity of the representation of the quite specific period of music and the lives of the players and the musical milieu. I’ll focus my comments on the film itself.
The only disappointing aspect of the day was that this Anniversary screening of the film was projected from DVD (I’m assuming so based on the image quality). It’s a shame that there isn’t even a Blu-ray available for such a high quality film. For the opening scenes of the film, director Bertrand Tavernier opted for dark and noirish scenes which the DVD struggled to deliver. The remainder of the film worked much better, especially as both the ‘look’ and the mood of the film brightened. A decision was taken to use what I assume are the English subtitles for audiences with hearing impairments. Although the majority of dialogue is actually in English, the delivery style of the central character is quite idiosyncratic. But it is difficult to ignore subs and I did find it a little irritating – though the sheer pleasure the film invokes did overcome such irritations.
‘Round Midnight is a fictionalised story about a legendary American jazz performer who spends time in Paris in 1959. ‘Dale Turner’ is played by the real legendary player Dexter Gordon and the character’s story is based on events associated with the equally ‘real’ Bud Powell and Lester Young. Dale is a saxophonist whose profile developed through building on the work of bebop pioneers like Charlie Parker, but who is now suffering from alcohol and drug abuse and shabby treatment as an artist in New York. He decides to take up an offer to play at the ‘Blue Note’ club in Paris where he is watched by a fierce landlady and the club’s owner who both try to keep Dale ‘dry’ and ‘clean’. He escapes their close attention only when he meets a devoted fan – a young French comic-book artist Francis (François Cluzet) who lives with his young teenage daughter Berangere. When Dale moves in with Francis and Berangere he finds a new contentment and re-discovers his full creativity. This in turn will help him to reflect on his life and try to come to terms with the decisions he’s made (he’s around 60 and not in the best of health).
Tavernier is a French director who has drawn on his love of the classical cinemas of Hollywood and France, as well as aspects of British cinema (an unusual trait in French directors of his era). His two bold decisions were to cast Dexter Gordon rather than a film actor in the lead and to insist that as far as possible the jazz performances in the film (which are many more than usual) should be recorded live. This proved to be one of the topics picked up in the Q&A and to be seen as one of the main reasons why this is perhaps the best example of a fiction film with jazz as a central theme. In other films about the same era and personalities, the music is played by jazz professionals and mimed by actors. The Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) was quoted as a film that doesn’t work for jazz fans because the miming removes the sense of live playing. In ‘Round Midnight, all the musicians playing at the Blue Note or in the recording studio are ‘real’ jazz players of note, albeit mainly younger ‘modern’ players interpreting the music of 1959 as arranged by Herbie Hancock – who plays the pianist in the club. Others such as Wayne Shorter, Billy Higgins, John McLaughlin and Freddie Hubbard play in Paris, Lyon and New York. The performance of Dexter Gordon, both as actor and as jazz performer has been very well received. It helps that he was 6′ 6″ tall and that he towers over François Cluzet (often seen rescuing him from bars/hospitals). Gordon in the film speaks like he plays – in a languorous, breathy way (hence the possible need for subtitles). His performance is part of an overall ‘effect’ – so that the film seems to be structured, the camera seems to move and frame the action (in a ‘Scope frame) in ways which suggest a jazz composition. I’m not sure I understand jazz well enough to appreciate this observation, but Tavernier himself quotes Michael Powell:
When Michael saw ‘Round Midnight he said that he understood jazz not by what the characters were saying but by the structure of the film and the way the camera moved. He got the emotion of jazz. (Interview in the Guardian, 2002)
I’m on safer ground with Powell and there is a direct Powell connection in the film. At one point in the recording studio, one of the players tells an anecdote from the Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) – which is a film (and a folk tale) about an artist eventually driven to their death through their obsession with their art. The anecdote is actually about two of the supporting characters, but all three are enmeshed in the tensions and conflicts that develop between artists, their art and the commercial demands of the art form. Coincidentally, The Red Shoes is also the favourite film of Powell’s other ardent supporter Martin Scorsese who appears in ‘Round Midnight as Dale’s sleazy and ruthless US manager/promoter in New York. What all this points to, for me, is Tavernier’s wish to place his love of jazz in the context of his own cinephilia and more general interest in the French-American cultural exchange. There is a sense in which the film consciously begins in a noir world of dingy hotels, dark alleyways and clubs. This is a noir world shot in a Paris studio with set designs by Alexandre Trauner, the veteran Hungarian migrant who entered the French film industry in the early 1930s and designed many of the classic ‘poetic realist’ films which were the precursors of film noir in Hollywood. After Dale Turner moves in with Francis, ‘Round Midnight makes much more use of location shooting around the streets of Paris (and one trip to the seaside). These sequences are closer to the freedom of la nouvelle vague – which was in full swing around the time of the setting of ‘Round Midnight. I was reminded of the scenes featuring a Paris hospital in Cléo de 5 à 7 as Francis dashes from one hospital to another searching for Dale. Tavernier’s regular DoP Bruno De Keyser handles both camera styles with aplomb. It’s not too difficult to see why Michael Powell related the look and feel of the film to the emotion of jazz. I should note that New York streets also feature and that some of the Paris scenes may actually have been shot in Lyon (Tavernier’s home city.)
In the trailer from Warner Bros. several of the above points are evident – as is the struggle Tavernier has had with his Anglophone films. The voiceover in the trailer is there to speak to the American audience and Tavernier becomes an ‘international director’. But despite this, ‘Round Midnight is a French film about the great art music of America.
Les innocentes (previously titled ‘Agnus Dei’) proved to be a rather different film than I expected. I didn’t really have any expectations other than having enjoyed director Anne Fontaine’s earlier films such as Gemma Bovery (France 2014) and Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) and I wasn’t expecting such a powerful and deeply moving film. I found it harrowing but also deeply humanist as well as sensitive in dealing with issues of faith. It’s based on the experiences of a historical character – a French doctor who had worked with the Resistance in Paris in 1944 and risen to the rank of ‘Lieutenant Doctor’. In 1945 she became the chief doctor in the French Hospital in Warsaw, in charge of repatriation of French citizens who had been prisoners of war or wounded in Poland and the Soviet Union. Madeleine Pauliac led a team of female ambulance drivers, the ‘Blue Squadron’, searching for the soldiers who would her patients and this is how she came across the incidents developed in the film. In 1946 she died accidentally during her work. Her nephew, Philippe Maynial, was the source of this historical account which was then developed by a team of writers including Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial as well as the director Anne Fontaine and Pascal Bonitzer.
The film narrative focuses on Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), who is younger than Madeleine and an assistant rather than the doctor in charge (and therefore more vulnerable). One day in December 1945 she is working in the hospital when a Benedictine nun is brought to her by one of the street children. The novice wants a doctor to visit the convent but Mathilde tries to shoo her away because she is only supposed to treat French citizens. When she reflects on her decision she decides to go to the convent anyway and is shocked to discover a nun in the last stages of labour and a difficult birth. Eventually she will realise that several of the nuns are pregnant following repeated rapes by Red Army soldiers. She has entered the convent secretly because the Mother Superior (Agata Kulesza) would not approve of her presence but once inside she meets Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) who speaks French fluently and acts as her interpreter and guide. Mathilde now finds herself doubly ‘disobedient’ – absenting herself from the hospital and entering the convent. She will later also find herself confronted with a group of Red Army soldiers on the dark road out to the convent in the by the forest outside the town. But there is no way back once Mathilde is committed. She can’t allow women and children to die in the circumstances she discovers.
What follows is a drama that develops the conflict between faith, humanity and practicality that underpins Mathilde’s battle with the Mother Superior and individual pregnant nuns in the face of further contact with the Russians and Mathilde’s issues with her superiors. A parallel narrative follows Mathilde’s growing relationship with another doctor, Samuel (Vincent Macaigne) – a Jewish man who lost his parents in the camps while he was overseas with the Free French. At first, I thought this might be a step too far in adding another layer to the complexity of the central story but it won me over.
There is an excellent Press Kit for the film available from Films Distribution and some of the following comments are drawn from it.
The look of the film and the overall tone of the story is measured and astutely handled. Veteran cinematographer Caroline Champetier does an excellent job. She also shot the similarly themed but very differently located Of Gods and Men (France 2010). The setting is very distinctive with the isolated convent (a ‘real’ abandoned convent) set close to woods and snow-covered fields, the nuns in their blue and white habits and the shadows inside the convent. Anne Fontaine describes the look in these terms:
We wanted to give the impression of being in a painting – we were thinking, naturally, of the Quattrocentro period Madonna with Child paintings – while breathing life and movement into the scenes. The air had to be palpable.
This is a setting little changed from the Middle Ages suddenly disrupted by the arrival of khaki-clad men and women in jeeps and trucks. Anne Fontaine has constructed a narrative that moves effortlessly through dramatic confrontations, intimate scenes births and deaths and scenes of contemplation and prayer. I found the film’s 115 minutes sped by and I was reluctant to let it go when the credits rolled.
Praise must go to Anne Fontaine and her collaborators in a genuinely successful co-production. In must have been difficult to work for much of the time in a foreign language (and I note that quite a few discussions on set were conducted in English as a shared language for many actors and crew). She chose very well in casting two of Polish cinema’s most accomplished performers in Agata Buzek and Agata Kulesza. I always find convent-set stories slightly problematic since so many distinguishing features (hair, neck and shoulders) are covered. Both the lead actresses were familiar to me but couldn’t place them. Later I realised that Agata Kulesza gave a stellar performance as the judge and aunt of the novice nun in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) and that Agata Buzek was the lead in Rewers (Poland 2009), both great films. Lou de Laâge as Mathilde is one of the rising stars of French (and European) Cinema. In one or two scenes I wondered if she looked impossibly beautiful for a doctor under stress but Anne Fontaine comments about her:
She is graced with a strong, distinctive beauty. I sensed that this grace, combined with her slightly stubborn side, along with her freshness and a fragility that lie just beneath the surface, would well serve the film.
That seems a good call. I’d finally add that the music in the film which included Handel and Rossini alongside chants by Hildegard von Bingen is beautifully integrated with a score by Grégoire Hetzel which as, Anne Fontaine suggests, is minimal and never overwhelms a film that feels intimate and natural.
Watching this film more than 40 years after it was made was a strange experience. I sought it out because it features an early appearance by Isabelle Huppert – but she has only a small part and it occurs in the last section of the film. After the first 20 minutes or so I was wondering whether I could stand watching it all the way through, but gradually it became easier to watch.
Les valseuses was written and directed by Bertrand Blier (born 1939) who had also written the novel from which the script was adapted. It tells the story of two ‘ne’er do wells’ who turn to stealing cars and whatever cash they can find in their travels around France. They are young men in their 20s played by Gérard Depardieu (‘Jean-Claude’) and Patrick Dewaere (‘Pierrot’) and worse than their crime spree is their treatment of women – sexual assault, violence and a complete lack of respect. The film is explicit in depictions of their behaviour with a succession of women but it is Miou-Miou as Marie-Ange who bears the brunt of it, playing a seemingly submissive woman prepared to put up with virtually any treatment in the first half of the film when she is revealed as unable to orgasm despite the best efforts of the two would be studs. She seems to accept her treatment as in some way ‘normal’ and that’s almost more shocking than the violence of their assaults on her. The film’s title has been variously translated as ‘Making It‘ (UK) or ‘Going Places‘ (US) – neither of which make much sense. The slang meaning of the title is ‘testicles’ or in plain Anglo-Saxon, ‘balls’. This might refer to the first action in the film when Pierrot is shot with the bullet grazing his groin and requiring stitches – or it could simply refer to the two men.
It’s worth remembering that in the mid-1970s French cinema was heading towards the domination of the local industry by sex films and there is plenty of nudity (female and male) and explicit sexual activity. In fact, the film was not granted a certificate by the BBFC in the UK in 1975 and was only seen in London where it had a GLC (Greater London Council) viewing licence. (It was re-released in the 1990s as an ’18’). In the US this might have been one of the films which gave French films the dubious reputation of excessive nudity and explicit sex. Roger Ebert suggested it was:
” . . . the most misogynistic movie I can remember; its hatred of women is palpable and embarrassing. There are laughs in it, yes, but how could anyone take this as a comedy?
Its story involves two loutish, brutal and unclean young men . . . I guess they’re supposed to come off as pathetic anti-heroes, driven to their cretinism out of terminal ennui.”
Several critics followed this line and sought to align the film (not necessarily favourably) with earlier films like The Wild One (US 1953) as devised to shock the bourgeoisie. I’m not sure that this is the case. I suspect that Blier was trying to make something ‘counter-cultural’ but that he was too heavily ‘marked’ at the time by sexist ideologies. I certainly didn’t mind the nudity or the sex in the film, though I flinched at the sexual violence. And I have to admit that despite their actions the two young men do have a certain kind of charm – which is perhaps even more disturbing. Depardieu in particular is young (25) and slim and has ‘dangerous charisma’. In fact this is the film that made him a star. It registered 5.5 million admissions in France and was a big hit. It’s worth reflecting that films in which men mistreat women have historically sometimes been popular with female audiences (James Mason’s films in the UK in the late 1940s offer examples).
What is to me extraordinary is the way in which the film begins to change halfway through when the two men wait outside a women’s prison and offer a ride to a woman being released (on the grounds that she will be looking for some kind of sexual release). She’s played by Jeanne Moreau, a major star of French cinema. An earlier sequence on a train sees an unusual form of sexual assault on a woman played by Brigitte Fossey, another leading actor of the time. It does seem strange that alongside Miou-Miou and Huppert, Blier could attract actresses to roles like these. However, as I’ve suggested, Moreau’s appearance seems to change the men’s behaviour, if only in the sense that they begin to allow the women to take more of the initiative. Jean-Claude is particularly gentle with her. Later when the men return to Marie-Ange she appears to have a change in self-awareness. Towards the end of the film the trio meet Isabelle Huppert’s Jacqueline who is a 16 year-old on holiday with her parents (Huppert was actually 20 – Miou-Miou was 22). Jacqueline is desperate to get away from her bourgeois family and to lose her virginity. The trio treat her almost tenderly. So, sexist thugs are human too.
To go back to Ebert, is this film a comedy? There are certainly comedic moments and as per the change of tone in the second half, when Jean-Claude and Pierrot throw Marie-Ange in the canal it is more in celebration than an act of violence towards her. But two people die in the film – and not in a way to imply ‘black comedy’. Miou-Miou and Patrick Dawaere had begun their careers as founding members of a Paris acting troupe at Café de la Gare in 1968 and became lovers. (Depardieu also worked there at some point.) All three leads received a boost from the success of Les valseuses, but I find Miou-Miou’s ‘bravery’ (‘recklessness’) the most striking feature of the film. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I think I learned a lot about a period of French cinema that I know less well than I should.
This biopic about the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and the novelist Émile Zola is part of the ’24th French Film Festival’ with screenings across a range of venues in Scotland and England between November 3rd and December 7th. Primarily a Scottish affair, this festival makes us in England very envious, but also grateful for the opportunity to catch one or two titles. Cézanne et moi played at Hebden Bridge Picture House which also screened The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge).
French cinema deals with ‘heritage’ topics much like British cinema with adaptations of literary texts and historical dramas and this biopic fits the pattern of 19th century dramas – strong on surface realism and ‘authenticity’. It is beautifully photographed by the experienced Jean-Marie Dreujou and writer-director Danièle Thompson has assembled a mainly female creative team who do an excellent job on set design, costumes, make-up etc. Thompson herself has a long track record as a scriptwriter and this is her sixth directing role after some fifty years in the industry. Her earlier scripts for historical dramas include La reine Margot (1994) and a well-received TV adaptation of Stendahl’s Le rouge et le noir (1997). My overall impression is that this latest film is a conventional biopic in terms of its structure.
I went into the screening with relatively little knowledge of the details of the lives of either Cézanne or Zola and though I recognised the names of many of the other characters, I could not claim any real knowledge of the ‘community’ of artists or writers in 19th century France. As a result, I was engaged by the film mainly because I was learning about these interesting artists (and as far as I can see the film is historically accurate, though some manipulation of dates here and there may have been necessary to create a satisfactory narrative structure). On the other hand, I did struggle to recognise characters and with more prior knowledge I might have got more out of the ways in which the differences between the two men are presented. In the simplest terms, Zola suffered from the early death of his engineer father and struggled for money as a young man but eventually became a best-selling writer and a wealthy man. By contrast, Cézanne’s family was wealthy and he received an allowance as a young man before inheriting the family fortune in later life, yet he struggled to sell his paintings during his lifetime and it was not until after his death that his genius was fully recognised by the artists of the early 20th century.
The casting decision about the two leads intrigued me. Cézanne is played by Guillaume Gallienne who is billed as a member of the Comédie-Française. Although I have seen him before in some of his many film roles, this still makes me think of him as first a theatre player. Guillaume Canet who plays Zola is, I would argue, a French film star (and director). In this film, though both players were very good, I did feel that Gallienne ‘inhabited’ Cézanne as a character, whereas Canet did seem to ‘acting’ in his performance. These were just my impressions and they may have more to do with the nature of Cézanne and Zola as characters. The film’s title implies that the narrative offers Zola’s view of Cézanne. I’m not sure the narration has that emphasis, though it is certainly Cézanne who is the principal focus in the latter stages. But then, it often seems that the process of painting is more amenable to representation on screen than that of writing. But it does mean that we learn more about Cézanne’s attempts to capture the landscapes of Provence, portraits and still life compositions – whereas we see little of Zola’s inspiration for his realist/naturalist novels.
Zola and Cézanne first met as boys in Provence in the early 1850s when Zola’s father was an engineer on a large dam. They were re-united in Paris as young men and remained friends until the late 1880s and the publication of Zola’s novel L’œuvre in 1886 which tells the story of an artist who struggles to paint the great picture which will be seen as worthy of his genius. The suggestion is that Cézanne found the character to be too close to his own experience and that it implied he had failed as an artist. Thompson moves between the various periods of the relationship between the two men and I do wonder if a tighter focus would have made for a more effective narrative (with possibly more about Zola’s work).
Despite its focus on the two men, Danièle Thompson also develops the roles for the women in their lives and I enjoyed the performances of Déborah François as Hortense, Sabine Azéma as Cézanne’s mother and Alice Pol as Zola’s wife Alexandrine. Here’s a trailer with English subs: