Category: French Cinema

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

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

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

The brothers cut each others’ hair.

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

The Sisters Brothers

Morris treads carefully in the new towns thrown up quickly

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

The Sisters Brothers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agnès Varda, 1928 to 2019

So, finally, one of the most impressive and distinctive European film-makers has departed this terrestrial cinema. One imagines she has gone to another great auditorium where cancer is long gone, where abortions are unnecessary, everyone is a good Samaritan, no-one gleans either in the streets or in the fields and sun-drenched beaches stretch as far as the eye can see whilst cats purr in undisturbed contentment. She will leave an obvious void on all the screens in discriminating cinemas.

I have yet to see everything that she authored but I enjoyed regular treats at the cinema over the years. My first look at a Varda film was of a 16mm print of Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962) at the local film society. The programme was regularly enlivened by the films of the several European new waves, but this was still a distinctive voice. It was only intermittently that I encountered the documentary shorts that followed.

One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (L’une chante l’autre pas, 1977) clearly engaged with actual political struggles in France. And Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985) confronted a deeply downbeat world with real humanity. Jacquot de Nantes (1991) had a rich sense both of the 1930s and of Varda’s fellow film-maker, Jacques Demy.

With The Gleaners & I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) one found the combined sympathy and empathy for ordinary people that runs through her career. The Beaches of Agnès (Les plages d’Agnès, 2008) was rich in the playfulness that seemed an increasing mood in her recent films. Faces Places (Visages villages, 2017), a journey with photographer J.R., reminds one of her early art work as a photographer, then in theatre rather than as here in rural France.

Varda created a real impression in her early work. Her reputation then fluctuated up and down but in recent years she has acquired a magisterial status. This was fortunate in that, with foreign language films increasingly difficult to seek out, her titles did receive national [if limited] distribution in Britain.

Her final film, Varda by Agnès (Varda par Agnès – Causerie, 2019) was produced as a TV series but is available as a theatrical title. Revisiting her career and her films it provides a worthy testament to the fifty years and fifty odd films she has left us.

Farewell to the Night (L’adieu à la nuit, France / Germany, 2019)

This title was a world premiere at the Berlinale [Out of Competition]. So it enjoyed a prestige screening in a packed Berlinale Palast. And the audience also got to see the festival provide star treatment for film VIPs. The entrance is fronted by red carpets up which smart limousines drive and then deposit their guests. They presumably enjoy a pre-event cocktail or similar, and, when the audience is settled make a grand entrance into the auditorium. So I got to see Catherine Deneuve and André Téchiné close-up. I suspect for these stars the participation is a necessary ordeal but it was clearly a thrill for large part of the audience. The film itself did not quite match the razzmatazz.

Muriel (Deneuve) runs a horse farm with her Algerian partner Youssef (Mohamed Djouhri); they also grow almonds on this picturesque plantation in Southern France {I think the Carmague]. Their relationship goes back to Muriel’s upbringing in Algeria , presumably in part both before and after Independence. The main drama concerns her grandson Alex (Kacey Mottet Klein) who is in a relationship with Lia (Oulaya Amamra), a relative of Youssef. Alex seems estranged from his father and his mother died in an accident, part of the problem between Alex and his father.

Lia is a practising Muslim but unbeknown to all but Alex she has become a radicalised Islamist. She and Alex plan to join a leading Islamist Bilal (Stéphane Bak) and leave to join and fight for Daesh.

Whilst we learn about the relationships we also watch as the Muriel gradually realises that something untoward is afoot. The film’s climax follows her realisation of what her beloved grandson and his lover are planning. The film is set over four or five days and these are indicated by on screen titles. So there is a developing tension as the clock ticks down and the characters become more aware of events.

The film is well produced with picaresque cinematography by Julien Hirsch. The overall production values are good as is the design, editing and sound. The dialogue is in French and Arabic with English sub-titles. And the cast are generally convincing as characters (within the limits of the writing). Deneuve, of course, can play her part with consummate ease and little apparent effort.

But the script does not really work effectively. The attempt to generate tension with the timeline is not helpful; the drama is one that is about relationships rather than deadlines. Some of the action is implausible, as when Alex is locked up in a barn but lacks the know-how to escape. The jihadist group seem naïve and one expects that a leading Islamist would have a better grasp of security. Whilst Alex and Lia are supposed to be devout Muslims but their actions, including the sexual, do not really fit their religious fervour.

The original idea for the story came from Téchiné himself. This struck me as odd as the film seemed quite atypical of his film work,. I like quite a few of his earlier films but this production lacked the sense of an experienced guiding hand. The Berlinale Brochure commented:

What begins as a personal story about a family takes on surprisingly political dimensions and currency. This in turn raises questions to which there are no simple answers. (Berlinale Brochure)

The last is true but there are films that I thought address these issues better; the British television two-part drama Britz (C4 2007) is one example. The merit of this treatment is that it does offer a more rounded treatment of ‘terrorists’ than films like United 93.

GFF19 #7: Real Love (C’est ça l’amour, France 2017)

Mario Messina (Bouli Lanners) – the father at the centre of the melodrama

Programmed as part of the ‘Pioneer’ strand in the festival this is the first solo feature by Claire Burger who graduated from La fémis as an editor but then went on to make several short films and one part of a compendium film, Party Girl (2014). Ms Burger comes from Forbach in Lorraine and Forbach was the title of her 2008 short film. Real Love is also set in the town. I should say that this was my last film of a long day and I think I struggled a little with the opening sequences. I don’t think this was the fault of the film, but the characters in this family melodrama are not immediately easy to understand and come to terms with. But eventually I became fully engaged and later I found myself thinking a great deal about the film and reflecting on its impact.

This is a film about a father moving towards a potential point of crisis and then recovering – mainly through his interaction with several women. In one sense the narrative might be seen to end conventionally, with the man’s redemption of sorts as part of a public display, but I don’t think his route towards that point is at all conventional or formulaic. In the Press Notes Claire Burger reveals that the story is inspired by her own family history.

Mario with Freda on a trip to an art exhibition

Mario Messina (the Belgian actor Bouli Lanners) is separated from his wife Armelle who has left him in the family home with his two teenage daughters. The older daughter Niki is nearly 18 and looking for her independence. Her sibling Freda is 14 and more of a problem for her father. He loves his daughters and attempts to be a ‘good father’ but he struggles to keep house and to cope with his work as a civil servant in a local office. He also has problems with his personal life, especially with his working relationships and especially with the women he meets in in various forms of social interaction. He decides to sign up for a community-based theatre project called ‘Atlas’, the creation of Ana Borralho and João Galante.

‘Atlas’ is a real project that has operated in different parts of Europe. The idea is that individuals from a specific community each contribute something they feel about their town or about their personal lives. This could be a song, a poem or some other kind of performance. The project workers then bring all the individual contributions together into a theatrical presentation. The whole process of generating ideas, rehearsals and final presentation in the local theatre is a form of social interaction. Claire Burger first saw a presentation in Nanterre and was then invited to see another in Charleroi, a Belgian town suffering from industrial decline like Forbach. She then decided to use the project as part of her film. Mario struggles to be part of this and feels compromised because he’s a civil servant and he doesn’t want to criticise his employers by highlighting local social issues – so he turns to more personal issues. The project is based in the town’s theatre and Armelle works as a lighting technician, creating more tension for Mario who doesn’t feel confident knowing she might be watching him.

Mario watches his daughter saying goodbye to her boyfriend Nazim

The film is a familiar form of social realist melodrama and Burger makes some interesting observations when she says that narratives often deal with the rich who have opulent lifestyles to be explored or the poor who have real social issues to deal with. The ‘middle class’ (I think she means the lower middle-class in UK terms) is often considered to be less interesting. Forbach is a town that is losing its richer inhabitants and she felt that focusing on Mario was an important decision. She wanted to use local people in the project and:

I didn’t want lingering shots of industrial landscapes, but shots of the inhabitants’ bodies and faces. I wanted the camera to give them a voice. Those voices, on a personal and collective level, resonate with the story of Mario and his daughters.

She says that representing the strength of the community was also important as the Front National was starting to make big inroads into the town’s political life.

But Mario’s story is about personal interactions with his daughters, with his boss at work and the leading project worker on ‘Atlas’, Antonia amongst others. Claire Burger explains her own situation growing up:

I wanted to draw a portrait of a delicate, sensitive, affectionate man, far removed from clichés of virility. I was raised by a man like that. For Mario, I was inspired by my father’s personality and his relationship to fatherhood and, above all, to passing on knowledge and culture. It was the upbringing he gave us and, to some extent, his feminism that enabled my sister and I to feel strong as women and, in my own case, legitimate as a filmmaker.

In the movie, Mario is overrun by women packing big temperaments. All the women around him are solid and strong, and they force him to reassess . . . The film reflects a time in society when women are expanding their rights and freedom, but the idea was not to portray a man resisting change. Mario changes too; he repositions himself in that context.

Mario is indeed cultured and he is passionate about music. As befits a melo there is plenty of music in the film – all kinds of music. The music is an integral part of the culture of the community and the key to the film’s success is also in the casting, so apart from Bouli Lanners (who comes from not far away over the border and can speak the local dialect), most of the other roles are played by non-professionals who are local or by members of the crew, stepping out from behind the camera. Antonia, the project leader is played by Antonia Buresi from ‘Atlas’. The film is presented in CinemaScope, a format that distinguishes many French films from similar British pictures.

Father-daughter bonding in a lesson about how to put out a fire

I don’t think Real Love has a UK distributor as yet, but I hope someone decides to go for it. Claire Burger offers something unusual but not that different from the films of the Dardenne Brothers or Ken Loach and Paul Laverty and those films sell in the UK. The film opens in France and Belgium in March 2019.

A Belgian trailer, in French with Dutch/Flemish subs: