This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).
The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.
Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.
At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.
The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.
Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.
The Workshop directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet is currently screening on BBC iPlayer until early January. Cantet is a celebrated auteur who won the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2008 for Entre les murs (The Class). He has a distinctive approach to narratives that often create tensions inside groups of people in provocative ways.
The Workshop is inspired by a real event in 1999 when an English novelist was invited to run a writing workshop for young people in the small coastal town of La Ciotat on the French Mediterranean coast between Marseille and Toulon. The workshop featured in a French Cultural TV programme. Cantet thought about making a film at that time but switched to another project, only to return in 2016 and write a script with Robin Campillo, a long time collaborator who in 1999 had worked as an editor on the TV original programme. The new context, during the period when France suffered a series of high profile terror attacks, proved to be stimulating in various ways.
There are several important issues that feed into the social, cultural, economic and political context of the film. La Ciotat is a small town of only around 34,000. It has an important place in film history as the location of the summer residence of the Lumière Brothers. One of the earliest films by the Lumières, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat was first shown in February 1896 in Paris. La Ciotat was also a major shipbuilding centre and the first French shipyard to produce steamships in the mid 19th Century using imported British technologies. In the 1970s it became known for the construction of oil tankers and bulk carriers, very large ships, eventually of up to 300,000 tons. In the late 1980s French shipbuilding was ‘rationalised’ and the yard was shut, although the workers campaigned to keep it open. Gradually the town began to focus on tourism and developed a yacht marina. The shipbuilding legacy saw yacht repairs and specialist boatbuilding return with far fewer jobs. Shipbuilding is the ‘heritage’ of the town, supported by local cultural projects, hence the writing workshop – a community-based event. But do the current generation of young people feel connected to the history of the town?
The coastline of the old province of Provence runs from Marseille to the Italian border and offers a mix of the industrial and the touristic with a focus on art and entertainment on the Cote d’Azur as well as the main naval port of Toulon. It figures prominently in French cinema, joyfully in a film like Jules et Jim (1962) and more intriguingly in Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965). What is important is that as the major French region with ports for direct contact with North Africa, this is also a region with Maghrebi families now into second and third generations as well as the returned settlers after the independence of the French colonies in the Maghreb. So the region has widespread support for Front Nationale/National Rally, whereas de-industrialisation has weakened support for the Socialists and Communists.
Cantet is careful not to provide too much background to the workshop and how the seven young people (four male, three female) were selected. Some have genuine ambitions to be writers, but others may just be bored or pressurised to come by the local job centre or by parents. It is important though that this group is representative of the town in terms of ethnicity, social class and religion. Although it is very much a group, the events push forward Antoine (an outstanding performance by Matthieu Lucci who has since gone on to appear in other film and TV productions). Ironically, Antoine claims that he doesn’t want to speak and feigns disinterest but when he does speak he is provocative and therefore potentially disruptive, but also intelligent and clearly engaged with a range of ideas. At one point he watches a French Armed Forces recruitment video and suggests that he might join the army. France has the largest armed forces in Europe and is active in many parts of the world. There is no conscription in France and instead promotional events and ‘taster’ drives prove effective in recruiting. The prospect of army life as an alternative to the lack of employment openings for young people links L’atelier to films like Les combattants (France 2014) with its central character of a highly educated young woman determined to join up.
Antoine proves to be someone who the novelist Olivia (Marina Foïs), the workshop leader, feels compelled to confront. She finds him mysterious and, perhaps unwisely, decides to engage with him outside the workshop. This gives Cantet the opportunity to develop a possible thriller. I don’t wish to spoil the narrative in any way so I’ll stop there. This is an intelligent film, but one that is complex in terms of what it is exploring – which isn’t the kind of action narrative that mainstream audiences expect. The ending of the film will not satisfy everyone but seemed to me to work very well. I think it’s time to go back and look at some of Laurent Cantet’s other films sitting in my DVD pile.
This French TV serial comprising 6 x 52 minute episode is currently available on ‘Walter Presents’, the All4 strand offering foreign language drama in the UK. Set in 1962, this has predictably attracted some Mad Men references in the UK because it is set in the 1960s with close attention to period detail. It does have some Anglo-American TV references but I think it might be a little difficult for some UK audiences to read since it is set in the context of French politics in the early 1960s, a period of great turbulence and no little danger.
The ‘speakerine’ of the title is Christine Beauval (Marie Gillain), the principal ‘announcer’ on RTF (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française) the French public broadcasting organisation which in 1962 operated only one TV channel and four radio stations. TV broadcasting took much longer to develop in most of Europe compared to the UK and North America and Christine is more like the female presenters on UK TV in the early 1950s who added some glamour and personality to programming while imparting information about the days limited programming. RTF was a ‘PSB’ but unlike the BBC it was much more directly controlled by the French government and therefore a target for political activists. 1962 was a particularly difficult period for the new 5th Republic after President de Gaulle recognised the independence of Algeria, signing the Évian Accords in March 1962 with full independence being declared on July 3rd 1962. There was fierce resistance to de Gaulle’s action from the OAS – the paramilitary organisation set up by ex-soldiers who had fought against the FLN (the Algerian independence movement) as well as pieds noirs (Algerian-born French) and assorted fascists. Several attempts were made to assassinate de Gaulle, one of which formed the basis for Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 thriller ‘The Day of the Jackal’, adapted as a successful film in 1973.
The third political force in France at the time was the French communist party (PCF). In this serial, the management of RTF is associated with control by the Gaullist government. The only communist I’ve come across so far is a journalist at RTF who is clearly sympathetic to the unions in the building. Christine Beauval is married to Pierre (Guillaume de Tonquédec) who is Head of Information at RTF and therefore technically his wife’s line boss. However, the head of the TV channel overall, Darnet, is an enemy of Beauval and is competing with him to head a new venture, ‘Mondovision’. This refers to a broadcast link with the United States via the new Telstar satellites, the first of which was launched in 1962. The satellites enabled live TV links between the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Canada. The series shows US personnel arriving in Paris and this was high level stuff having implications for NATO and in particular the rather different ideas of the French and British governments towards the alliance. The BBC were in charge of co-ordinating the transmissions.
This is the background but the initial focus is on a disturbing series of events featuring the Beauval family. Christine, as the most familiar face of RTF programming with a large fan base, has received threatening letters and has been subject to quite frightening ‘stunts’/’accidents’. Her 18 year-old daughter Colette has got involved with an older man, a politician (the Minister for Information played by Grégory Fitoussi), and finds herself in a difficult situation when she joins a schoolfriend to go to a party which turns out to be not what she expected at all and puts her in a very dangerous situation. Meanwhile her older brother, whose parents managed to prevent from serving in the army in Algeria, has become interested in supporting the OAS because he has friends who have ‘disappeared’ while on military service.
This series of events (and more I haven’t spoiled) has happened by midway through the second episode and I’m hooked. We seem to be in a crime thriller and political intrigue all worked through a family melodrama and one of the darkest moments of French post-war history. Some 2,000 or more people were killed in attacks on Maghrebi people, representatives of the state/public sector and indeed anyone caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, by the OAS. This mix is reminiscent of the three series of Forbrydelsen/The Killing (Denmark-Sweden 2007-12). It is also reminiscent, in a different way, of the recent UK drama serial The Trial of Christine Keeler (UK 2019). The early 1960s saw a series of sex scandals in British politics. The final ingredient in this already potent mixture is the issue of women working in the TV industry and the sexism they face. Just as Christine is looking to move into a form of broadcast journalism at RTF, a new threat to her position appears in the form of a young ‘pretender’ to her role as an announcer. Isabelle (Barbara Probst) claims to be 23 and she is what the older men in charge at RTF think of as a ‘looker’. She is also very bright and highly skilled at deception. What is she up to?
From what I’ve seen so far, this is a polished production by France Télévisions (RTF’s PSB successor) with a standout performance by Marie Gillain and good use of locations and period detail. The French New Wave films in the early 1960s were later accused of avoiding many of the political issues of the period (much as RTF in this series avoids ‘unpleasant’ news stories) but I was pleased to get a sense of various French film genres in this serial. There are certainly strong indicators of the crime and political thriller films in this production. When I looked up Marie Gillain I realised I had seen her as one of the SOE resistance fighters in Les femmes de l’ombre (Female Agents, France 2008).
Since I started this posting, I’ve watched two more episodes and therefore four out of the six episodes and the serial is holding up well. I now see that because Christine is the central figure, the position of women in France in the early 1960s is becoming increasingly central. The series is written by a large team of four men and three women and directed by Laurent Tuel. I recommend the serial but I’m struggling with All4’s use of adverts, seemingly thrown across each episode almost randomly, presumably to persuade us to have them removed for a monthly fee. This isn’t the way to go about building your audience Channel 4!
I couldn’t find a subtitled clip, but here is a French trailer without subs, giving a good idea of the serial in visual terms:
This last week has given us two unusual titles broadcast by the ever-intriguing Talking Pictures TV – a rare Ida Lupino film from the Filmakers (more on that later) and this co-production monster. Is Paris Burning? is exactly the kind of production that interests us on this blog. It’s a mammoth production which attempts to represent the successful attempt by the Allies and the French résistance forces to take back control of Paris in 1944 before the city could be literally rased to the ground as Hitler demanded. The title refers to the desperate demand by Hitler at the moment of German capitulation. Many reviews and commentaries compare the film to the similarly large-scale production of The Longest Day in 1960. This is understandable but there also some important differences between the two. I would also bracket Is Paris Burning? with The Victors (UK-US 1963), Carl Foreman’s excellent film about American GIs in the European campaign.
It might be helpful to begin with the details of the broadcast print. Since Talking Pictures TV has ad breaks I can’t be sure of the length of the film but I think it conforms to the usual stated length of 175 minutes. It appears to be the American print as distributed by Paramount. The film is dubbed into English and was broadcast in a ratio close to the intended 2.35:1. IMDb tells me there was also a 70mm print blown-up from the 35mm original and projected in 2.20:1 and that might be the TV ratio as well? The film was shot in Black and White but the final shot of the city and the closing credit sequence appears in colour and was framed in a slightly narrower ratio within the widescreen Black and White frame.
The film is directed by René Clément and written by a host of writers adapting and presumably adding to material adapted from a book by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The lead writers, credited with the screenplay, appear to be Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Coppola. As far as I can make out, this is essentially a French production with American funding, which offers a host of American stars in return for control over the script. The 1960s was a major period of ‘international productions’, often by American independent producers persuading Hollywood studios to finance films made in Italy or France or Spain. These were the so-called ‘runaway productions’. Hollywood studios also poured funding into the British film in the 1960s. At the same time, various producers in Europe attempted to mount big budget genre pictures in various European locations. These would often have international casts and many would be made in English or dubbed into English and other languages. It’s worth remembering that the Italian, French and West German film markets were still maintaining admissions in the 1960s in contrast to the big declines in the UK and US. Many of these films were criticised, partly because the language and cultural differences between crews, actors and producers caused problems and sometimes muddled and incoherent film narratives. Is Paris Burning? seems to have suffered from this incoherence problem.
The situation in France in August 1944 was complicated following the D-Day landings in June. The British and Canadians were moving through Northern France with the intention of liberating Belgium and the Netherlands. The Americans were further south but were focused on reaching the Rhine rather than attacking German defences around Paris. A joint American and French campaign launched earlier in August from landings in the South of France made rapid progress northwards and this prompted the resistance groups in Paris to consider mobilisation. (The campaign in the south involved the French ‘Army of Africa’ as detailed in the film Indigènes (Algeria-France 2006)). The German occupation of Paris was always seen as important in ideological terms. Hitler seemingly enjoyed the humiliation heaped on France and the French in turn reacted to that. I don’t think Paris was bombed by the Allies (unlike many strategic French targets). I know that the RAF flew several low-level morale-boosting sorties over Paris for propaganda purposes without attacking targets. De Gaulle was insistent that Paris was to be ‘liberated’ by Free French forces.
IMDb carries an interesting range of ‘User comments’ on the film which range from the ecstatic to the woeful in terms of their appreciation, arguably with more towards the lower end of the scale. Most of the comments appear to be by Americans (as most comments are on the site) but the most perceptive are from Americans who have lived in France and know Paris and the history. The underlying issue here is the delicacy of the historical record of the Liberation of Paris and in particular the control over shooting on the streets of the city as demanded by Charles de Gaulle. Various sources suggest that this meant the film couldn’t be in colour because the Nazi flags on Parisian buildings were not allowed to be shown. The monochrome representation was deemed acceptable. The attraction of co-productions is often seen to be the guarantee that the film will be widely screened in both countries but in this case that also became a major problem. American audiences perhaps felt that the American contribution was being diminished in what finally appeared in the film. In France the film was much more successful.
René Clément had a big success in 1946 with La battaile du rail. That film had used a neo-realist approach to present the sabotage organised by large numbers of railway workers and the big plus for me in Is Paris Burning? is the coverage of the large number of resistance fighters in the initial struggle to take over the Prefecture of Police. As far as I could follow the plot (and the accepted history) of the struggle to liberate Paris, there were many different resistance groups. I think there is a communist group as well as the FFI (‘French Forces of the Interior’), the main organised force primed to ‘rise up’ in Paris occupying key buildings (and conveniently wearing FFI armbands in the film). Eventually these groups would be merged with the Free French units equipped by the British and Americans and part of the Allied invasion forces. The Free French units were de Gaulle’s forces and in the film the Gaullist politicians represented by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Paris are trying to follow orders from London and control events on the ground. My problem in identifying who is who is partly because of Clément’s use of Long Shot compositions, which often means large groups of characters together, and partly the dubbing. The dubbing is heavily criticised by many viewers but I found it was generally pretty good – ironically the Long Shot compositions meant we don’t see so many close-ups and problems of lip-synching but all the same I did fail to recognise some of the well-known French actors I certainly should have recognised.
This is a film of too many cameo performances, especially the American stars who may only appear for a couple of lines. There is a feeling that some of these cameos have required a separate bit of ‘business’ for their moments on screen. Yves Montand has a couple of moments in a tank that work in script terms but don’t need his star presence – as is the case for Simone Signoret’s moment behind the bar in a café. Only Orson Welles and Gert Fröbe have the kind of roles which might be developed in a conventional drama. Pierre Vanek as Major Gallois also features across a lengthy sequence as the envoy sent out from the city to the front line of the American advance in order to contact the American and Free French High Command in the hope of diverting some forces towards Paris.
Overall, I would say the first half of the film works best, leading up to the occupation of the Prefecture of Police and its defence against German forces. I love the fact that the prefecture has a large wine cellar and that the FFI have planned to empty the wine and make Molotov cocktails. I didn’t enjoy the the arrival of Allied troops as much but there is still the emotional rush of a population liberated. There is greater use of archive footage at various points, including images of de Gaulle arriving. Unfortunately much of the archive footage is squashed and I’m surprised more care was not taken. All in all, though, this film is certainly worth watching even at over three hours with the ads. That’s an afternoon out of lockdown!
The film has its second showing on Talking Pictures TV tomorrow (Friday 6 November) at 14.40 in the UK.
The Midwife is currently streaming on BBC iPlayer in the UK and it might be seen as an interesting ‘entertainment’ during lockdown. It is a good example of a well-made conventional comedy-drama enlivened by the performances of three of the best Francophone actor-stars around. Given the title and the two female leads I was slightly surprised to find it was written and directed by a man, Martin Provost. It was only later that I remembered that Provost had already made two celebrated female-centred films, Séraphine (2008) and Violette (2013), both historical dramas based on the struggles of real characters against the sexism of their times. Violette starred the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos. Provost’s 2020 film, La bonne épouse (How to be a Good Wife) stars Juliette Binoche and in Sage femme we get Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot. This demonstrates Provost’s standing as a writer-director with actors.
The midwife of the title is Claire (Catherine Frot), a woman approaching 50 who is proud of her work and of her son who she brought up as a single parent and who is now studying medicine. Claire works in a local maternity clinic with a team of women she knows and trusts. Her main leisure pursuit is her allotment on the banks of the Seine outside Paris city centre. Her life is settled and possibly a little dull. Three narrative ‘disruptions’ will soon sort that out. First she has learned that the clinic is to be ‘taken over’ by a modern hospital group. Second, a phone call out of the blue announces the ‘return’ of her father’s mistress from many years ago. This is Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) with a story to tell. Finally, looking for peace on her allotment, Claire discovers that the old man on the neighbouring plot is ill and his son, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) has taken it over. Paul is an international long-haul lorry driver (and unattached). There is at least one other surprise for her coming up but I won’t spoil that. Even with just this brief description of the characters, most of us could write a script of sorts, though not with the skill of Provost who is also a novelist. Fortunately with Deneuve, Frot and Gourmet we can instead simply sit back and enjoy the fun.
The principal ‘driver’ of the narrative is Béatrice. Why has she turned up now? The answer comes quickly. She has a probably terminal cancer in the form of a brain tumour. She has never been ill before and she is determined to see out her days having fun if possible. She also has other issues to resolve with Claire. This isn’t a medical drama so Béatrice’s decline and her response is mainly used as a basis to ‘throw’ Claire. The two women are seemingly polar opposites. Claire has given up meat and claims not to use alcohol or cigarettes. She wears her long hair tied back (essential for her job) and doesn’t use make-up. She rides her bike to work. As one reviewer put it she seems to be almost an affront to French culture – she even eats brown rice! Of course Béatrice is the opposite in every way.
In the Press Notes, Provost tells us about his own birth and how he was saved by a skilled midwife. That was his inspiration but what he has produced is also like a fable, specifically Jean de la Fontaine’s re-telling of the Aesop fable, ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’. Béatrice, partly through the demands that she makes of Claire, breaks through the latter’s reserve and ‘opens up her up’ to the possibilities of life, ‘saving’ her in a different way. It occurs to me that this could be an interesting case study in how to structure a narrative, but don’t let that suggestion put you off. This is solid entertainment. Provost chose his three leads carefully and all were keen to take part. Deneuve and Frot are very different kinds of actors but they work extremely well together. There are six ‘live’ deliveries of babies in the film and Catherine Frot had to learn the job sufficiently well to perform convincingly in the delivery room. This reminds me of La tourneuse de pages (2006) in which she had to be a convincing pianist for chamber music recitals. Filming new born babies is not allowed under French law so all these scenes had to be shot in Liège (closer to home for Olivier Gourmet).
The careful casting also extends to Claire’s son Simon played by Quentin Dolmaire, the young lead in Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (2015) and Béatrice’s ‘adventures’ also feature a very brief cameo from an actor with an even longer career, Mylène Demongeot, an international star of the 1950s and 1960s. Sage femme was a hit in France with 700,000 admissions. I’m surprised it didn’t attract larger audiences. In the UK it reached less than 17,000 in cinemas. I wonder how many people have now seen it on TV? It’s on iPlayer for another three weeks. Do give it a go.
Although the English title of this film does make sense as a reference to the film’s narrative, I prefer the French title which is more subtle and has more referents in its translation as ‘Double Lives’. This is another Olivier Assayas film which delves into formal questions about film, narrative, narration etc. and does so by exploring the behaviour of those involved in writing and producing ‘texts’. In this case the whole discussion is then worked into a familiar genre narrative of extra-marital affairs. Assayas has plenty of form in this area. The most recent film of his that I spent time thinking about was Clouds of Sils Maria (France 2014) in which Kristen Stewart plays the personal assistant to a moody star film actor played by Juliette Binoche. Much earlier in his career Assayas made Irma Vepp (France 1996) in which Maggie Cheung, playing herself, has a tough time making a film with a director played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Assayas later married Ms Cheung. Léaud himself played in several films directed by François Truffaut including one in which Truffaut appeared as a director making a film – La nuite américaine (France 1973). It should be clear from all of this that we are in the rarefied world of the mise en abîme – the story within a story and a blurring of identities. Given that Doubles vies has a starry cast there is also likely to be a mismatch of expectations in which audiences looking forward to an entertaining marital comedy instead get a great deal of blather about the onslaught of digitalisation. One IMDb user calls it a “mediocre Ted Talk”. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s not a totally inaccurate analysis.
Guillaume Canet, who has often played action roles, is here cast as Alain, the head of a small but prestigious publishing house. He is married to Selena (Juliette Binoche), a celebrated stage actor who has become successful as the star of a TV series (a cop show of some kind). At the start of the narrative, Alain is in the process of deciding whether to publish the next novel of his friend Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). It isn’t clear at this point whether Alain knows that Léonard is having an affair with Selena. Alain himself is busy with his hot (in the industry sense) new colleague Laure (Christa Théret), his ‘Head of Digitalisation’. This extends into a physical relationship. Despite both having plenty to do, Alain and Selena also have a child who is seen occasionally with his nanny. There are two central themes in the film. One is how and when the analogue publishing industry will be forced to become yet another predominantly digital media industry. This is an industrial question about how publishers will organise their output, what staff they will need and how they will develop relationships with writers. It is also about something less tangible about prestige and high art credibility. Can an e-book ever have the cultural cachet of a well-bound and printed book? The other theme is around the ethics and credibility attached to ‘autofiction’, the form of literature defined as autobiographical fiction. The rise of this form in recent years has been more pronounced in French literature than in most other national literary cultures.
Léonard’s novels are seen as autofiction which means that he is writing about his affair with Selena. Can he really expect that Alain and his other friends won’t work out that his lover in the novel is Selena? Léonard also has a partner, Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) and she is busy being the media ‘minder’ for a politician who predictably drives her crazy. I watched the whole film but I admit that at times I did find it wearisome. The discourse about digitalisation is not particularly new or clever (admittedly the film is two years old). I think Juliette Binoche is wasted and I have a real problem with Vincent Macaigne. I’m sure he is a nice guy but I can’t see women falling for him as they do in several recent French films. I obviously don’t understand romance in France but it is odd that Macaigne seems to play similar buffoonish characters in several films. The only one of the characters in Doubles vies I could bear to spend time with would be Valérie. That said the dialogue in the film is witty and if you like this kind of French marital comedy this is a well-made example.
Doubles vies is currently streaming on MUBI.