This is an odd film redeemed by strong performances and some stunning scenery. The title refers to a Swiss location featuring a mountain phenomenon, the Maloja Snake. This is low cloud that ‘snakes’ through the valley when the conditions are just so. It is also the title of a play by the fictitious author Wilhelm Melchior. Juliette Binoche plays an actor who won acclaim as the younger of two female characters who clash in the play’s narrative. The film’s narrative involves a mise en abime so that a plan to re-stage the play twenty years on sees Maria (Binoche) now playing the older character against a rising Hollywood starlet. This obvious reference to All About Eve is then doubled as Maria rehearses the role in the valley of the original setting with her press officer/companion played by Kristen Stewart and then on stage with Chloe Grace Moretz.
The writer/director of this clever, multi-layered film is Olivier Assayas. He’s been here before to some extent with Irma Vep in which Maggie Cheung appears as herself taking on the role of Irma Vep in a re-working of the Louis Feuillade films of 1915. Assayas was playing then with ideas about Truffaut’s La nuite américaine with Jean-Pierre Léaud as the director in both films (Assayas was briefly married to Cheung a few years later.) I’m impressed by Assayas as an intelligent director with strong ideas and a detailed knowledge of cinema. But I also find him rather ‘tricksy’ and his films a little cold. There are plenty of things going on in this film and again it has echoes of Truffaut and in its setting also hints at links to the German genre of the ‘mountain film’ – which could suggest a thriller or a melodrama from the 1920s. What is ‘new’ here is the play around the snobbery and hypocrisy that exists in this new age of social media, paparazzi and celebrity and the movement between Hollywood, European ‘serious cinema’ and the stage. It’s significant that Binoche is a French actress and the fictitious author is (I presume) German but when the play is to be re-staged it will be in London (with a German director). All this means that most of the dialogue is in English. Did I also mention that the film begins on a train the day that Maria is heading to Zurich to receive a prize/tribute on behalf of the author only to receive the news that he has died? As I said, complicated.
The film seems to have split audiences. It is over two hours and the plot layers don’t produce an easily-digested coherent narrative. The best part of the film for me was the sequence in the mountains as Maria and Val (Kristen Stewart) rehearse the play. I thought Stewart was excellent. Binoche too is very good as they ‘read’ the play, each very differently and there is a real tension between them. I don’t know much about Moretz but she seems well cast. I’m not surprised that Stewart won a César for her role. I was less engaged by other parts of the film but I watched all of it with interest. This will be released in the UK through Curzon and it will be interesting to see how it fares at the box office.
Phew! I’m a new convert to Engrenages and I’m not sure how those veterans of the previous four seasons have stood the pace. I did watch the first couple of episodes of Season 1 back in 2006 but somehow it didn’t stick then. I’m not sure why – perhaps I’ve slowly acquired the serial habit after The Killing and The Bridge? Or perhaps I first had to get used to European TV crime drama via Wallander on BBC4 in 2009? Since I’ve been reading the literature for a long time this seems unlikely. I think the real answer is that the BBC i-Player and the PVR have allowed me to develop the serial habit. This is important since the BBC4 screenings on a Saturday night have generally been two hours. Engrenages matches The Killing with double episodes (2×52 mins over 6 weeks). I usually watch one hour and save the other until later in the week. I find that there is far too much going on to take the whole two hours at once – and this is arguably the big plus compared to similar UK shows which often seem padded out.
The first thing that struck me about the serial was that unlike the Scandinavian shows, Engrenages exists in a film and TV culture with a long history of popular crime films – the polar. I wondered how much familiarity I would have with the TV serial given my earlier viewings of polars. The obvious point is that I would have had much more difficulty understanding both the French judicial system and the organisation of French police forces. The film 36 (France 2004) is particularly useful in explaining this background. The interesting institutional point is that because the French industry is so much bigger (i.e. than the Scandinavian), like the UK it can produce quality TV actors who don’t necessarily appear in films and vice versa. Engrenages doesn’t offer the same pleasures of ‘spot the actor’ as the Swedish/Danish serials do but it does mean that we don’t ‘read’ the characters through a lens of familiarity. The themes and representations of Parisian streetlife are familiar from the films. The only direct reference to the polar, that I spotted, however, was the appearance of a poster for Un flic, the 1972 film with Alain Delon, the last film by the most celebrated director of polars Jean-Pierre Melville. This is in one of the squad offices and I think that the central character Laure has the image on her phone. This reference alone marks out Engrenages as ‘knowing’.
The central structure of Engrenages features the interconnections between a Parisian crime squad led by Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her lieutenants ‘Gilou’ and ‘Tintin’ and a trio of independently-minded lawyers – an ‘investigating judge’ Roban and two high-flying (and glamorous) avocats Joséphine Karlsson and Pierre Clément. Berthaud and Roban trust each other – and sometimes bend the rules for the sake of justice. In Serial 5 Berthaud is investigating the murder of a young mother and her small daughter. This in turn will lead to a second investigation into a gang plotting robberies. As the programme’s title suggests (it means something like ‘Gears’), different stories become enmeshed, affecting each other in complicated ways. So Joséphine finds herself defending a wealthy Libyan diplomat accused of assaulting one of his ‘domestic’ workers and Gilou is arrested for using unauthorised equipment – while at the same time becoming personally involved in the private life of an informer. Both of these stories will tie in back to the central investigations. Throughout everything, Berthaud – still recovering from a personal tragedy in Serial 4 – is pregnant and still undecided about keeping the baby.
Thinking about structure, Engrenages covers almost the same ground as The Killing 1: a central crime story involving a form of family melodrama, a ‘personal story’ about the problems of the lead female investigator and a third ‘political’ story which ties into the central crime story in some way. The political angles of Engrenages are more complex and nuanced, involving machinations in the judiciary as well as the French establishment. I’m not claiming that one has copied the other (and I don’t know how Serials 1-4 of Engrenages worked out – perhaps this structure began in France?). It could be argued that most, all, TV crime series have these three elements in different mixes and different proportions – but I don’t think that they are so clearly spelt out or that they are so carefully written into a tripartite structure in those other shows. It is the richness and complexity of the narrative that I enjoyed in Engrenages – and the characters and performances. Copenhagen and Paris do share a metropolitan location which means that police investigations are closer to political centres and international stories. But having said that, Laure Berthaud’s team are simply ‘local cops’ and one of their problems is that they run up against specialist units with questions of who has the authority for investigations. This is also the case with The Killing but the difference is that Laure Berthaud does not have the status of the Sara Lund character (i.e. as the single focus for the narrative) or the freedom to investigate with just one partner. Instead Laure leads a team (and they cock up together!)
Engrenages offers a range of pleasures of story-telling and characterisation as well as heart-pumping emotions and some very brutal scenes. The chase scenes are excellent and it is noticeable that the female roles are crucially important in every aspect of the narrative. I think also that there is some evidence here as well as in one or two recent French films that the range of characters is becoming more diverse and representative of contemporary Parisian society. My only frustration is that the BBC (which is credited with an ‘association‘ with the production) is not very helpful with details of the show’s background. See the limited material here. What we do know is that there were major cliff-hangers/and ‘loose ends’ when Serial 5 closed. The next should appear in France later in 2015. It will be keenly anticipated when it comes to the BBC.
This classic screened at the Hyde Park Picture House in a good quality 35mm print was viewed by about a 100 people. Given the box office figures for art films reported in Charles Gant very informative ‘Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound the attendance was reassuring. Roy has also raised concerns about this issue on this blog. It is true to say that French films, and especially by François Truffaut, have usually performed well at the UK box office.
I first saw the film a few years after its initial release at a Film Society in a 16mm print. I and my friends were impressed by the striking visual and aural style of the film; shot in black and white Franscope. The three protagonists, Jules (Oscar Werner), Jim (Henry Serre) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) were fascinating characters beautifully played by the leading actors. And the supporting cast was excellent, including several attractive and skilled actresses: frequently the case in French films.
The film is adapted from a relatively short novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. The story commences in la belle époque, the period before World War I. This period is beautifully reproduced with fine inputs from the Costume Designer Fred Capel. The part, set in Paris, is brought to an end by World I. Here Truffaut provides a series of archive sequences of the conflict, but it is emphasised by changes to the aspect ratio – twice the footage is stretched in to anamorphic frame. After the war there are sequences in Austria and then again in France. Footage at one point of Nazi book burning shows us to have reached 1933. The film closes in a crematorium.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white widescreen by Raul Cotard. The camera is constantly on the move – with pans, tracks, circulating camera, even zooms (which on this occasion work) and a wipe. And there are frequent lap dissolves and jump cuts. In that sense it fits into the unconventionality (for the period) of the nouvelle vague. The editor Claudine Bouché has mastered an exceedingly demanding plot and set of shots. The soundtrack by Témoin contributes important aspects to the film’s impact. The music score by George Delerue is varied and inventive. Apparently the Production Design was also by Fred Capel, but he is uncredited. It is likely that some responsibility, given the use of locations, fell on the ‘continuity girl’, Suzanne Schiffman,
Props, plot references and film inserts are also noticeable. There are statues, photographs and paintings which seem significant. Apart from cinema there are references to theatre and literature. This provides a complex web of signifiers surrounding the characters. And there are visual and aural motifs – notably an hourglass which set limits on the time.
The focus of the story is the two friends of the title. Catherine is much less developed and she remains enigmatic. In a conversation between Jules and Jim she is referred t as ‘flighty’. A critic (Dudley Andrews) describes her as ‘pure woman (spontaneous, tender, cruel).’ The film, in the voice of the narrator (Michel Subor), supports this viewpoint. So the lead woman is really a male construct. This is probably the most serious flaw in the film.
This is a film that can seen and re-seen, offering discoveries at every viewing. And the quality of the style remains fresh after any number of viewings.
Seeing a film in its original format nowadays is a special pleasure. So it is worth noting for readers for whom Leeds is accessible that the Hyde Park is screening Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966 – on Feb. 22nd) in a 35mm prints, [but not Alphaville which is a DCP, my mistake].
Violette was the opening title in a short season of films showing at Dean Clough, the arts facility housed in the famous woollen carpet mills in Halifax. The screenings by Reel Solutions under the banner ‘Cinegalleria‘ are held in the Crossley Gallery. Bill Lawrence of Reel Solutions chose Violette because he sees it as the kind of French film which is no longer getting the kind of release in UK cinemas that it deserves. Ironically in the same week it featured in the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot featured in Picturehouse Cinemas. This gives the film a single showing in the chain’s weekly programme in a range of its cinemas. A few years ago Violette would have played for a week with two shows a day.
The screening was introduced by Alison Fell from Leeds University who outlined the unique profile of the writer Violette Leduc, the subject of this biopic. She told us that Leduc was a literary figure of importance in the 1950s who wrote about her own experiences in new and daring ways – unexpected ways for a woman at the time and as a consequence she fell foul of both the censors and the literary establishment.
I must confess that though I was looking forward to seeing Emmanuelle Devos as Violette, I was slightly concerned that one of the earlier films by director Martin Provost had been a biopic of the painter Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine, France 2008). It looked like there were some similarities between the two women’s lives and though I had enjoyed most of Séraphine, I remember that I thought the director somehow lost the story towards the end of the film. I needn’t have worried that this would be the case with Violette.
The film narrative deals mainly with a twenty year period in Violette Leduc’s life from the time when she was in her mid-thirties, earning money as a black marketeer and aiding the resistance in 1944, up to her moment of triumph as a successful writer in 1964 with her novel La bâtarde. It is her struggle to become recognised as a writer in the intervening years that forms the main part of the narrative. The film suggests that Violette came across a copy of a book by Simone de Beauvoir during the war when she was living in a ‘cover’ arrangement with the gay writer Maurice Sachs. When she began writing in earnest she attempted to make a friendship with de Beauvoir, a seemingly cold and difficult woman who nevertheless felt compelled to help Violette, encouraging her writing and recognising its remarkable qualities.
In the interview below the director (and co-writer) Martin Provost describes Violette Leduc’s writing as autofiction – even though the term seems to have been coined in 1977, five years after Leduc’s death. In French literature studies it has been used to describe the marriage of autobiography and fiction. Violette Leduc wrote about her own sexual experiences and relationships as well as her struggles having been born ‘out of wedlock’. She did this in vibrant and explicit but nevertheless engaging language – so much so that her work was censored at the same time as being recognised by the French intelligentsia (or at least the coterie of de Beauvoir, Genet and Camus – Sartre doesn’t appear, which seems odd) as revolutionary in its representation of women’s lives. The narrative structure involves a triangular struggle between Violette and her potential supporters and the French literary establishment. But where de Beauvoir is steely in her resolve, Violette Leduc is both passionate about her work but also lacking in confidence and prone to undervaluing her own qualities. This is neatly presented in a scene in a bookshop when Leduc is trying to find her first published work on the shelves after de Beauvoir has got it into print via Camus – in a cheaper format that the bookshop doesn’t stock. I think that audiences who don’t know de Beauvoir (I had to look up her biography) might struggle at this point to understand her behaviour. Has she in some way ‘conned’ Leduc? No, I don’t think so. Her convent education and her Sorbonne degree at a time when academic Frenchwomen were rare, taught her to be disciplined and resolute. Violette is a very different person. There is a strong element of social class conflict in Violette’s dealings with Jean Genet and the parfumier Jacques Guerin (a wonderful comic turn by Olivier Gourmet) and there is a worry that Violette’s decline before her eventual rise might turn into a kind of ‘misery memoir’ narrative. It doesn’t happen because Provost is determined to treat Violette as a writer who should be given respect. But I do wonder if the film would work as well as it does without the two riveting central performances by Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kiberlain as Simone de Beauvoir.
I like both these actors very much. Kiberlain disappears into the role – I was amazed to see how much she resembles photographs of de Beauvoir – and is utterly convincing. Emmanuelle Devos is a remarkable star actor. As this American blog entry asks, why isn’t she better known in the anglophone world? The writer answers his own question by suggesting that it is the conservative, and shrinking, distribution system for foreign language films. I remember first noticing Ms Devos in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and then going back to the same director’s 2001 film Read My Lips in which she starred opposite Vincent Cassell. She has also starred in films for Arnaud Desplechin and IMDb credits her with 76 acting credits in a career of less than 30 years. In terms of acting technique and performance skills I’m sure there are British and American actors who are similarly equipped but Ms Devos has several advantages in what is after all a visual medium. She has a body and a face (augmented in this film by a prosthesis) that are distinctive and they are deployed with terrific effect in Violette. The character bemoans her own unattractiveness and Devos can do despair as well as she can do disdain – and every emotion between them. I think she is compelling and always watchable. She’s also fearless in presenting her own physicality. This a performance not to be missed and Violette is a film that deserves much more exposure.
The performances help the film to overcome the usual problems associated with biopics and period films (here a certain kind of ‘heritage film’ that French cinema shares with the UK). This biopic works because the time period is reduced to 20 years or so and the narrative has a clear structure associated with the writer and the people with whom she had the closest relationships. Provost actually presents the narrative in chapters based mainly on the relationships with specific characters. Period films can suffer from a sense of nostalgia, a stuffiness doused in a veneer of ‘authenticity’. That’s avoided here partly because of the vitality of performance and costume design and the tenacity in finding appropriate locations and lighting them carefully. The DoP Yves Cape does an excellent job and he clearly knows how to photograph women (I note that he was the DoP on the Claire Denis film White Material with Isabelle Huppert).
Much of the discussion around the film is about how ‘difficult’ a person the real Violette Leduc was. Even Emmanuelle Devos has described her as a pain. I can say that I didn’t feel that. She had every right to be angry in most of the scenes. I haven’t analysed this film re the Bechdel Test but there are two interesting and complex women at the centre of this and if you add Violette’s mother that’s three.
This interview with the director includes references to some of the aspects discussed here and features several scenes from the film: