Katell Quillévéré (who directed and co-wrote the script based on Maylis de Kerangal’s novel) is a talent new to me and I can’t wait to see more. Heal the Living focuses on a heart transplant: the first half of the film deals with the donor’s death and his family’s reaction; part two is about the recipient. The film manages to represent sublime moments in life: for the donor it is surfing (superbly photographed); for the recipient it is a piano concert played by a former lover. It also has a documentary eye on the actual heart surgery and, more importantly, the way doctors and nurses deal with the extreme emotions involved in the death of a child and the professional necessity of getting on with the job.
Of course such extremes rely on the actors to deliver the director’s vision and the assemble cast deliver with utmost skill. The putative star, Tahir Rahim (above right), has less screen time than some but manages to convey deep humanity from an apparently passive face; Quillévéré gives him time to explain why he loves goldfinches, to the be/amusement of a couple of nurses. The other ‘big name’, Emmanuelle Seigner, is similarly superb as the bereaved mother. However, all the cast hold there own with deeply committed performances.
It may appear a film about organ donation will be a ‘bit grim’, and there is much sadness represented in the film, but ultimately it is life affirming. Quillévéré takes time to dip into the lives of peripheral characters: a nurse has a sexual fantasy in a lift; a son hides his ‘dropping out’ from his mother. Her presentation of the bewilderment and joy of youth, when a boy meets a girl, is affectingly done and I’ve already mentioned the joie de vivre of the surfing sequence.
I read that the heart surgery scene is all special effects: they are as impressive as the film itself. Often cinema is an idea medium to spend some time in the ‘lives of others’. Heal the Living gives us time to understand the pain of the bereaved and at the same time understand the vitality of life.
Girls of the Sun was screened at Cannes this year as part of the Official Competition. It was one of only three films directed by women in the main competition in this year of #MeToo. Unfortunately, while the other two women (Alice Rohrwacher and Nadine Labaki) were both genuine contenders for the big prize with Happy as Lazzaro and Capernaum, Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun was given something of a ‘thumbs down’ by the Cannes critics. I would like to have refuted their putdown, but I have to admit that the film has flaws (not helped by Screen 5 at the Vue suffering sound problems again).
The ‘girls’ of the title are actually women who have joined the Kurdish military in order to fight to liberate their home town which was taken by Daesh. With their husbands and fathers executed, the women and their children were kidnapped and then the young boys were taken to be trained as Daesh fighters. The women, who subsequently escaped, were then recruited for the fight. It’s a harrowing and important story which deserves to be more widely known – see this report on Kurdish women in the Peshmerga. The film was shot in Georgia and the central role is taken by Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actor who was so good in About Elly (Iran 2009) but who later left for France and who has subsequently appeared in international films. Farahani plays the role of Bahar, the commander of what the promo material calls a ‘batallion’ of female soldiers. In fact by the time the fighting proper begins this appears to be reduced to more like a small squad of less than ten.
Eva Husson, making only her second cinema feature as writer-director makes a number of important strategic decisions which perhaps seemed a good idea at the time but which I think perhaps didn’t quite work out as she planned. First she decided to present her story as a non-linear narrative with a series of flashbacks woven into the main narrative showing how the women were first kidnapped and how some escaped. At the end of the film we saw possibly the same explosion as at the beginning – which Keith suggested meant that everything was actually a flashback to two different time periods. He may well be correct. I confess at the beginning I was trying to cope with the loud and unfortunately distorting soundtrack comprising rather bombastic music scored by Husson’s regular collaborator, the American musician Morgan Kibby. The second choice was to include the character of a French war correspondent Mathilde played by Emmanuelle Bercot (who I last saw in Mon Roi, 2015). Bercot is a powerful figure (with six directorial credits) and in the film’s opening sequence her character seems to be the protagonist. But in time we realise that Mathilde’s role is mainly to observe/witness the story of the female fighters. Since there is a sub-genre of ‘journalist under fire’ pictures with examples from Hollywood, European and ‘international’ cinemas, I found this a little confusing – as if Eva Husson was not quite sure what to do with her character while the audience is expecting the journalist to become an active agent in the narrative. The journalist’s role seems to be partly as listener when Bahar tells the women’s story. She also enables us to see how dangerous war reporting is during this kind of close fighting.
I don’t want to give the impression that this is a ‘bad film’. Golshifteh Farahani and the other women are convincing fighters and the action scenes are exciting enough. There is a strong sense of this being the story of women literally observed by a woman and that’s fine. I just had the nagging feeling that it wasn’t working as well as it should. It’s perhaps significant that at one point (or was it soon after the film ended?) I was reminded of the Bollywood action epic earlier this year with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif which imagined a similar scenario with women needing to be rescued from a terrorist stronghold in Iraq. Katrina Kaif’s ‘super spy’ is very impressive in taking out so many black-clad warriors with her choreographed martial arts techniques. This is a very silly film but actually quite entertaining. Girls of the Sun is very serious (rightly so) but a bit clunky by comparison. I remembered later that Agnès Poirier had written an angry piece in the Guardian during the Cannes Festival in which she calls the film exploitative and argues that is not a feminist film since the two lead characters are defined mostly by motherhood rather than by their political activity. She was defending film critics who had called out against the film from the #MeToo activists who blamed poor reviews on male film critics. She has a point but perhaps both sides of the argument need to cool down a bit. Eva Husson’s background suggests an intelligent and talented woman from a family steeped in anti-fascist action. She won’t have attempted to exploit Peshmerga women – but perhaps the script needed a bit more development?
Sébastien Marnier’s second film as a director (he also co-wrote) is pleasing in that it deals with the key political, indeed existential, issue of our time: ecological destruction. It’s couched as a thriller where Laurent Laffitte’s Pierre takes over, as a substitute teacher in a private school, a class of gifted children. Their previous teacher jumped out of the class’ second floor window during a test. The slow burn development of what’s going on in the six of the kids’ creepy minds is satisfying but the denouement can’t hold the burden of what precedes it.
The kids could be out of The Damned or Village of the Damned such is their apparent disassociation from the social world; unsurprisingly the other children in the school see them as elitist (which is a bit rich considering they all are privileged). Pierre endeavours to understand them (suitably he’s completing a thesis on Kafka reflecting the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in) and rails against the Principal who (a malaise in France as well as the UK apparently) is only concerned with results. However, it is always difficult to convince a teacher (ex in my case) of the veracity of school life and I cannot believe that violent attack on Pierre would have been shrugged off in such a perfunctory fashion (unless that’s France for you).
There are plenty of beautiful, portentous, shots of the sky and I kept expecting aliens to arrive but, as the horrifying ‘found footage’ of animal cruelty and desecration of the Earth shows, the real threat are humans who are depriving our children of a future. Zombie Zombie’s music heavy-handedly emphasises the point, however the film needed a bigger climax though the final scene is quite haunting.
The BFI has released a restored version of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée as part of their November ‘Fantastique: The Dream Worlds of French Cinema‘ season at BFI Southbank. The new print has been restored by CNC in France and looks good with crisp black & white cinematography from Nicholas Hayer. John Cocteau was a unique figure in French art culture and his limited number of films over a 35 year career from the 1920s are unlike anything else in French cinema. The Sight & Sound article by Virginie Sélavy in the November 2018 issue places Cocteau in context in its exploration of the fantastique in French cinema. He wasn’t part of any movement as such but the tradition of the fantastique – the uncanny in realistic situations – is very strong in French cinema.
The story of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is narrated by Cocteau over the credits and then re-enacted in the contemporary world somewhere in France. Orpheus (Jean Marais) is a famous poet who seemingly accidentally meets ‘the Princess’ (María Casares) who is also his ‘Death’ during an incident outside a café-bar (the Poet’s Café) in a small French community just outside Paris. She will ensnare him and seek to take him to the underworld. She will use Eurydice (Marie Déa) as a tool to break him. Death will be challenged by another character from the community of the dead, Heurtebise (François Périer). Along the way, Cocteau will have a lot of fun in presenting his material to the audience. What should we make of it all?
I deliberately watched the film without any prior research and my first observation was that the film was very difficult to place in the context of French cinema of the 1950s. The Academy ratio (1.37:1) for a film like this is not necessarily a guide (and what a shame the National Media Museum’s usually diligent projectionists didn’t mask the image, leaving the tabs open wide). Many films, especially outside North America carried on using Academy after 1953-4. I thought Orphée might be a 1959 film (Cocteau did make a second film reflecting on the first in 1960, so that might have triggered this thought – there is also Black Orpheus from 1959, an unconnected French film made in Brazil). The film opens with very quickly-paced scenes so that it is difficult to gaze around the image. Caught up in the action, it took me a little while to realise that the characters are mostly young and beautiful. The leads are played by actors in their thirties but there is a large group of younger people led by Juliette Gréco as ‘Aglaonice’ who was in her early twenties and in only her third film. She is the leader of what seems to be a ‘young women’s drinks club’ and she claims to be concerned about the danger faced by Eurydice. (The club represents the ‘Bacchantes’ of mythology, the female followers of Dionysus.) The representatives of authority such as the police inspector, hotel manager (IMDb suggests this is Jean-Pierre Melville) and the tribunal/judges in the underworld are all older but, apart from the postman, there are few older people or children around. I mention all of this only because it adds to the sense of this story presenting a group of young people who might feature in later 1950s films. The ‘mob’ that forms is a youth mob.
Cocteau films in deserted Paris streets and the underworld is represented by ruined buildings which serve to remind us of wartime. The most intriguing characters for me are Death’s two henchmen, dressed as quasi-fascist motorcycle riders wearing helmets, boots and sporting very tight wide leather belts or ‘waspies’. In fact, the use of costume throughout is striking and I thought about many influences on later films. I was taken by all the performances, except that of the central character of Orpheus as played by Jean Marais. I realise that I’ve seen Marais in a range of films across his long career, but not quite so ‘in the spotlight’ as he is here. Orpheus is presented as a vain and rather surly character and Marais appears stolid though potentially beautiful with a leonine head and powerful torso. At one point he poses with a sculpture in his garden. But when he speaks I thought his voice was comparatively weedy. He is supposed to be a famous poet, so perhaps Cocteau was deliberately challenging the stereotypes of poets as ‘fey’ or drunken (like the young poet who challenges Orpheus) or simply not strong and athletic.
If there is a specific artistic discourse in the film it’s possibly something about the need for poets to go through life-changing experiences to make better art but that sounds very heavy. I think Nick Lacey hit the spot on the way out of the screening when he said “I think Cocteau is just being playful”. And the film is playful and quite witty at times. When Orpheus and Heurtebise are on their way to the underworld they pass several lost souls, including a glazier still carrying his glass samples. “Doesn’t he know he’s dead?” asks Orpheus. “Ah, job-conditioning is so strong sometimes!” replies Heurtebise. Well, I laughed anyway. Other than that there is a great deal of play with mirrors and I’d be careful about cleaning mirrors when wearing rubber gloves! Enjoy!
There is a line in A Paris Education uttered by one film student to another referring to “a long whiney French film”. That’s quite a brave line in a film that lasts 136 minutes and presents characters in B+W CinemaScope talking endlessly about film and ‘love’ and occasionally staring hard out of the window or just looking blank and consumed by their own thoughts. However, for an audience supposedly steeped in French cinema this should be an interesting experience. But apparently not for all as several people walked out of the LFF screening before the end.
The director Jean-Paul Civeyrac is very experienced, having shot his first feature in 1997 and developed a career in which he taught at the leading French film school La fémis, becoming head of direction and then at the film school at Paris VIII University. He’s been around film students for a long time and knows how they tick. Drawing on his own experiences he constructed a script as a form of ‘autofiction’ and shot part of it in his own university. The story offers us Etienne (Andranic Manet) as an aspiring film student who arrives in Paris from Lyon and discovers he is sharing a flat with Valentina courtesy of a family contact. She is the first of several attractive women who might slide into his bed – something of an issue for Lucie, his girlfriend of six years left behind in Lyon. Etienne joins the film class and soon becomes known as an old-style cinephile who acquires two close friends, the sociable gay man Jean-Noël (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) and the intellectual bully Mathias (Corentin Fila). The narrative then meanders over the next couple of years during which Etienne attempts to make his course film and sort out his love life. A coda reveals what has happened to Etienne a few years after he has left Paris VIII.
I didn’t walk out of the film but I did struggle at times to be fully engaged by the narrative and the characters. This version of film school life seems quite laid-back. I’d gone into the screening wondering if the film would directly reference La nouvelle vague and the nearest it came to doing this was the ‘Rohmeresque’ nature of some of the encounters between young men and young women. One scene in particular seems to echo Rohmer’s My Night with Maud (1969) during which a debate about religion and morality in Pascal’s writing fails to lead to sexual congress. It was only later, reading some reviews, that I realised that the model for this kind of film is not the films of the Cahiers du cinéma group of New Wave directors, but the later directors Jean Eustache and Philippe Garrel. Eustache (1938-1981) was a ‘provincial’ like Etienne and his friends and his most celebrated work was The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain, 1973). This long film (219 mins) starred Jean-Pierre Léaud and Bernadette Lafont in a narrative which has some similarities to A Paris Education and has been celebrated as one of the best French films ever made – though it divided critical opinion when it won the Cannes Grand Prix. I haven’t seen any of the films of Eustache or Garrel. Several titles by the latter have recently screened on MUBI in the UK. If I had known these films I might have got more from A Paris Education.
I think perhaps that I found this new film too lacking in vitality, though I was impressed by all the young actors. The literary references are fine but I found the classical music score overpowering at times. The Press Notes carry a revealing interview with the director in which he reveals that the script was written quickly and shot just four months later – which ought to have given it the vitality that I didn’t find. He also explains that he saw Marlen Khutsiev’s Ilyich’s Gate (also known as I Am Twenty) a Russian film from 1965 in 2016 and that this was the inspiration behind the script. The Russian film was censored (cut in half) in the 1960s and not released in its full three-hour version until 1989. It deals with a young man of twenty returning to his Moscow neighbourhood after two years of service and arguing about life with his old friends. Wikipedia suggests the Russian authorities didn’t like the idea of young people thinking for themselves. It also suggests that the future directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrei Konchalovsky both play small roles in the film and that references were made to François Truffaut’s work by critics at the time. In A Paris Education, the three friends watch the film on Etienne’s laptop in his darkened bedroom. The reference to this film and the work of the earlier Russian filmmaker Boris Barnet suggest the careful inclusion of names from film history. This actually begins when we sit in on the first lecture Etienne attends – an Introduction to post-war Italian cinema during which the lecturer reels off a list of directors, two of which were unknown to me. She then challenges the class to name any directors of similar stature since the 1960s. This is the beginning of the antagonism between the would-be Tarantinos in the film class and the ‘true cinephiles’ represented by Etienne and his two friends. In the Notes, Jean-Paul Civeyrac tells us in a response to a question about the fervour of students for cinema:
. . . only a minority truly possess it. At that age, many of them are trying to find themselves or flirting with the film business and, if they carve out a place in it, they don’t direct. The fervour for cinema that features in A Paris Education is the one that drives anybody for whom making a film is an existential quest.
If you want to know if Etienne eventually makes it you’ll have to watch the film. I’m not sure if this film will get any kind of UK release, but if you get the chance to see it, I recommend reading the Press Notes first.
[This review does discuss the film’s events in some detail, including its conclusion.]
Agnès Varda’s latest film, Visages, villages (2017), is a collaboration with the artist-photographer, JR. It brings to life again the cinema she has described herself as a ‘cinéma d’auteur-témoin’, an ambiguous phrase which can be loosely translated as the ‘cinema of the author-as-witness.’ Varda discussed how she felt uncomfortable with the word, ‘auteur’, presumably recognising its cultural resonances in relation to the figure of the filmmaker filtered through the French New Wave critics’ imagination; a person who authors the text and controls a vision, through images and sound.
One of Varda’s auteurist traits has been a control of bringing other voices into her films and a deep empathy for her subjects. Her films have been consistently celebrated as they represent a different, more apparently inclusive form of cinema. She came to a much wider audience with Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) an odyssey through the French countryside and cities sharing and witnessing as to the activity of gleaning from the waste that others throw away. The heart-shaped potato became a powerful symbol from that film, representing the mountains of allegedly misshapen potatoes that the supermarket buyers leave behind as too unappealing to go on their shelves. Varda, through her technique of juxtaposition effects, in Mireille Rosello’s words, a ‘surrealist encounter between the word heart and the dull potato’, creating a new set of associations. The abandoned potatoes are a metaphor for the people that she meets that somehow sit outside of society or are ‘misshapen’ in terms of normal ways of living. As with her potato art installation (Figure 2), she gives them space within her film to tell their stories, to show their accomplishments and creativity and to interact with Varda who happily stages these encounters so that they are entertaining and often very moving. Varda understands that what she is doing should appear effortless, almost ‘throw-away’ in its own technique; however, her work is tightly constructed as a piece of performance art. The little old lady she has played in her later documentaries has created a receptive context for drawing performances out of her contributors.
Later in the film, Varda films her own ageing skin (then at seventy-eight years old) and comments on the ‘horror’ of this process. Her wish to acknowledge her ageing is present in her trademark two-tone hair colour. Varda’s deep empathy and understanding shown by her interviews and revelations generated many personal letters by return, where audiences sent her stories and images based on the heart-shaped potatoes. It was acknowledgement of how many of us feel we may really fit that allegedly marginal, misshapen category.
Figure 2: Les glaneur et la glaneuse (2000). Ciné-Tamaris.
Similar in its structure, Visages, villages (Faces, Places (2017)) moves into slightly different territory through a collaboration with fellow artist, JR. At ninety years old, one might presume that Varda was bringing in a companion to take away some of the burden of artistic control. In fact, this is another development of her ‘cinema d’auteur-témoin’ and a vibrant intellectual interaction between them through the film. The project arose out of the sympathetic strands of their individual projects between the young photographer-artist and the nonagenarian. JR undertakes his own kinds of odyssey in his work, making poster portraits of ordinary people in his travelling photo studio. These images are then placed on structures that relate to the subjects and their experiences. The French title, Visages, Villages indicates their plan to visit only villages on the trip (and also recalls Varda’s consistent love of rhythm and rhyme in her writing for the cinema, especially her voiceovers). The film foregrounds another series of moving testimonies, such as the image of the last inhabitant still in place in the mining village (Figure 1 above), the image of the women who work closely with their husbands at the dockyard or the face of Varda’s early model and friend, Guy Bourdin, who himself went on to be a photographer.
Varda and JR’s relationship is staged onscreen, but there is an affecting conviviality and mutual respect, often indicated by the insults directed towards each other. They joust pleasantly over a running joke about JR removing his glasses. This, as is pointed out, triggers a memory for Varda of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s propensity never to remove his glasses. Godard was a close associate of hers as part of the French New Wave, introduced to her by Jacques Demy, Varda’s future husband at the time. She has described Godard as the ‘chercheur‘, the seeker, a word she repeats on camera here and as containing a genius situated in his deep silence, a stillness that keeps him separate from others. Varda managed to persuade Godard to reveal his ‘sad eyes’, for a short film she made, Les Fiancés de Pont Macdonald (1961). It is the film that Cléo/Florence (Corinne Marchand)) and her friend, Dorothée (Dorothée Blanck) watch together through the projectionist’s window at the cinema during their Parisian car jaunt in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962).
Travelling marks many of Varda’s films. Her early films reflected her travels, after leaving home as a young women, to the south coast of France. Varda mended nets with fishermen and lived amongst them; her first feature, La Pointe-Courte (1955) records the rhythm of the lives of fishermen and their families in Sète (alongside a more surreal narrative). Varda, living in Paris, pursued topics in and among her neighbours, including L’opéra-Mouffe (1958), Daguerréotypes (1976), Ulysse (1982) and Jane B. par Agnès V. (1988). Varda went with Demy to Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s, as part of joint explorations with Hollywood studios, where she made the essay film, Oncle Yanco (1967) and the surrealist, erotic fantasy Lions Love ( . . . and Lies) (1969). She returned to L.A. in the early 1980s, and made the short fiction Documenteur (1981) and the essay film Mur Murs (1981). In both instances, there were failed negotiations regarding projects with the American studios.
Varda’s travels, therefore, have become an integral part of her biographical and artistic narrative, continued in her third age with her television series, Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011), where she travels to other countries and encounters other people, including other artists. (Other artists have long before featured in her work, including Ydessa Hendeles’ Teddy Bear Project in Ydessa, les ours et etc (2004). Each episode of this television series began with a short verse outlining the impetus for travel, being the pruning of the trees in her courtyard at Rue Daguerre, the home she has lived in for over sixty years. The title sequence joke runs that by the time they have returned, the tree need pruning again.
In the same way, Visages villages is concerned with movement in space and questions of time and memory (a preoccupation across Varda’s work). Going on the road with another artist enables her to extend the possibilities, creating a dynamic between two ‘auteur-témoin(s)’, both sharing a fascination with the lives of others. JR is a good match for Varda, both enjoying playing with ephemera and playing with whimsical commentary. Delving into people’s histories and working in temporary materials means that time as a subjective medium is very prevalent in the film. JR’s art installations are temporary posters which will only survive until the elements wash or wear them away. His creations are always destined to be destroyed by the weather. This is particularly brutal in the case of a recovered Varda photograph of Guy Bourdin, memorialised on a beach by JR. Its complete disappearance by the next day reminds us how much these two artists are working with time and what passes – through travelling, gleaning and recycling. It becomes less about image being constructed and more about the new practice made by JR and Varda and their interplay in the moment of recreating the photo. All that remains is the photographic and filmed record of their work together and their group photograph at its completion.
Varda comments in Visages villages on the workings of the ‘mise-en-abyme’, which is appropriate to this and other moments in the film, when we are looking at the subjects inside or in front of the images of themselves (as in Figure 1). In some ways, it appears as if they are standing inside their own past selves. It is a trope very familiar in Varda because of her fascination with the passing of time and how we relate to our former selves. At the end of Les plages d’Agnès, she sits in her house on Rue Daguerre with her eighty brooms, delivered for her birthday by friends and neighbours. She comments at this point, the moment is already gone, as the filmed image recedes in upon itself (Figure 3).
The loose structure of Visages villages does disguise one underlying narrative, based on an echo of the past into the present, which is the movement towards visiting Godard created by his resemblance to JR. In the last scene, at Godard’s house in Switzerland, a planned visit is thwarted by the French New Wave legend’s unavailability. Godard appears to be playing against the role Varda has made up for him; he does not want to appear as part of someone else’s odyssey. He has written a message on his porch window, referring to his condolence note to Varda on the death of her husband, Jacques Demy. The note recalled happier times, dining together with Demy, placing a very personal note in the public space (window and film).
This moment could be part of the narrative construct; perhaps Varda anticipated he would not be willing to appear on camera. However, she is clearly deeply upset and takes several moments to verbally accept what Godard has done. Varda onscreen in her later films has been, in her playful words, the ‘little old lady’; however, one who has performed her unassuaged grief at Demy’s loss (in 1992), a grief she has turned into art to bear witness to an experience we all have had or will suffer. Les veuves de Noirmoitier (2006),
Other echoes in respect of Demy enter the current film. Varda filmed Demy, shortly before his death, during Les plages d’Agnès (2008), following the contours of his face and focussing on his eye. Varda is gleaning parts of him, capturing them on film, before she loses him forever (Figure 4). Exhibiting these fragmented images in the film accentuates the loss, being all she has of Demy now.
Artistically, a new echo is created in Visages villages when JR photographs Varda in close-up, taking her eyes and her feet. He places these images on a train, so that she can continue her odyssey to places she cannot go to now she is the age she is. However, this strikes a new emotional note. It is not a capturing or preserving of someone who is disappearing; instead, it affirms and celebrates his witnessing of her intellectual vigour. It sends Varda off, in virtual form, to continue to look and to travel and to create ‘surrealist encounters’, just like the one they have enjoyed together as artists. [SPOILER] JR’s removal of his glasses, brilliantly executed by the camerawork (having spoilt that part, I will avoid a further technical spoiler), is the perfect narrative conclusion as if devised from the start, having guessed at Godard’s unavailability. However, the warmth of their relationship, his obvious distress at her distress, makes the moment completely emotionally engaging as well as providing a satisfying conclusion. If Godard is to be known as a chercheur, then Varda deserves the sobriquet equally, still producing her intellectually demanding meditations on time, memory and our relationships to each other. JR knew he had to run – intellectually – just to keep up.
Conway, K. (2010). ‘Agnès Varda at Work’, Studies in French Cinema, 10(2), pp.125-139.
Murray, R. (2015). ‘The Significance of Agnès Varda’s Old Lady Onscreen.’ in Jermyn, D. and Homes, S, (eds). Freeze-frame. Women, Celebrity & Cultures of Ageing. (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan).
Rosello, M. (2006). ‘Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady’, Studies in French Cinema, 1(1), pp.29-36.
Ryder, K. (2016) ‘A Piercing View of the Twentieth Century, Through the Eyes of the Teddy Bear’, The New Yorker.
I watched this film with Nick and afterwards we disagreed in our readings of it. Screened in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot, the film is available on VOD and DVD as well as occasional cinema screenings. I was drawn to an Anne Fontaine film as I’d enjoyed four films directed by her and especially the last two, Les innocentes and Gemma Bovery. Isabelle Huppert appears in the film but promoting her image as a major draw is somewhat misleading since she appears (as herself) in only a few, admittedly important, scenes towards the end of the film. The narrative is carried throughout by the two young actors playing the title character ‘Marvin Bijou’ – Jules Porier as Marvin the young teenager and Finnegan Oldfield as the grown-up Marvin, now a theatre student in his early twenties.
Marvin grows up in a rural working-class family in the Vosges region of North-East France with his parents, younger brother and older step-brother Gerald. Bullied and abused for his seemingly soft and girlish looks at school, Marvin struggles to understand his sexuality and identity. His family seems at first brutal and uncaring, displaying racism and homophobia. But one of the strengths of the film is that our understanding of his father Dany and mother Odile develops and they become more rounded characters as the narrative progresses. They don’t understand their son or what they might be doing to him but they love him and eventually they will support him. Marvin is spotted by his new middle-school principal Mme Clement (the impressive Catherine Mouchet) and encouraged to think about drama as a potential way out to the high school in Epinal and then eventually to theatre school in Paris.
Anne Fontaine’s narrative structure offers a constant to and fro between Marvin’s time in middle school and his later time in Paris. The film begins with an almost abstract presentation of the performance that concludes Marvin’s transition to ‘Martin’, the hero of his own autobiographical play and now confident in his identity as a gay man. Fontaine, her co-writer Pierre Trividic and editor Annette Dutertre manage this with great fluidity. The film’s Press Notes reveal that Anne Fontaine had very clear ideas about how she wanted the film to look and she suggested that her cinematographer Yves Angelo look at the work of Bill Douglas on his celebrated trilogy of films about his formative years in a Scottish mining community (My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home (1972-8)). That’s a trilogy I don’t know well enough and I’m pleased to be reminded of it. Like the Bill Douglas films, Reinventing Martin is a kind of ‘social film’, but Anne Fontaine wanted to choose a different region in which to set her film from Northern France where the social realist tradition is strongest.
The film is shot in a 1.66:1 format.The other major feature of the visuals is the use of footage from Marvin’s childhood projected onto the walls and windows of Martin’s student room as he writes his story. I thought this worked well and it felt like a theatre device inserted into the aesthetics of the film that fitted this specific narrative. This was one aspect I disagreed about with Nick and another was the inclusion of Isabelle Huppert. I’ll let him explain his objection but, as far as I’m aware, Ms Huppert is keen to support young actors and independent productions and her presence fitted into the narrative for me. The other controversy raised by the film is not apparent from a screening. I learned from the Press Notes that Anne Fontaine was inspired by The End of Eddy, a book written by Édouard Louis, published in 2014.
I felt a very strong connection to the hero of the book by Edouard Louis, and I almost immediately felt like I wanted to make his story my own. I wanted to invent a new destiny for him. Explore the way he had to reconstruct himself after such a difficult separation from that family, and that subculture of France, socially and culturally disinherited. Dream up the crucial influences of his teenage years. In short, adapt it so liberally that ‘Marvin’ could no longer be considered an adaptation, though the book was powerful.
Édouard Louis is not credited (unless I missed it on screen) and I’m not sure if this is because he didn’t want his name associated with the film or because the conventions mean that there isn’t enough of his novel in the film for it to count as an adaptation. It seems odd, but at least Anne Fontaine is open about what she has done. (The book was a best-seller in France.)
I think this is a complex and absorbing film, even if the progression of events and some of the narrative devices might seem conventional – some comments suggest that it works like a fairytale. I was particularly taken by the two central performances. Jules Porier is a young actor with real presence and I thought it was a strong casting decision to match him with Finnegan Oldfield. Oldfield has the same striking presence and a distinctive way of moving and holding himself. Anne Fontaine notes: “I liked his indecisive relationship to femininity and virility, and the way he walks, almost like he’s levitating”. The cast overall is very strong.
Reinventing Marvin is a Peccadillo Pictures release in the UK. ‘Peccapics’ is arguably the distributor best known for LGBQT films in the UK and I hope the film finds the audience that might get the most from it. Having said that, the film should have an appeal to a much wider audience based on what is in many ways a universal story. I note that Anne Fontaine won the ‘Queer Lion’ at the Venice Film Festival.
Claude Chabrol’s fourth feature, Les bonnes femmes, was released in Paris when he was approaching his 30th birthday. Not a success at the time, it now has a high reputation as one of his finest works and one of the very best of the early New Wave films. Outside France the critics were unkind and hampered by the conventions of the time. In some ways the film suffered like Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste in the same year. Both directors risked comedy mixed with tragedy and a combination of the street location photography with more stylised interiors. Chabrol was blessed with great performances by the four women playing the shopgirls at the centre of the narrative.
An indication of the problems the film faced came with the translations of the title. In some cases the English language title was ‘The Good Time Girls’ which gives the wrong impression. Sometimes it has been simply ‘The Girls’ which is OK, but perhaps a bit too open. I’m not sure the title translates, but if so, ‘The Good Girls’ is at least provocative without misleading.
The four young women work in an old-fashioned electrical goods shop in Central Paris, each standing at their own counter, watched over by an older Italian woman as the cashier and, in the back room, the proprietor, one of several peculiar men in the film who in this case seems to have strayed out of a German Expressionism film complete with pince-nez. His admonishment of Jacqueline (Clotilde Joano) when she is 5 minutes late for work in her first week is very disturbing. There never seem to be any customers in the shop and the four shopgirls have to find ways of wasting time before they are allowed out for lunch. The narrative starts one night when the four women leave work and two of them are picked up by two older men who take them out on the town. This episode mainly features Jane (the wonderful Bernadette Lafont) and this sets the pattern in the film whereby each of the four has an episode in which they take the lead/become the focus of the action. Chabrol and his co-scriptwriter Paul Gégauff have produced a highly structured film with alternating sequences inside and outside the shop. In the transitions from shop to cafe/zoo/music hall etc. inserts of almost documentary footage remind us of urban Paris. Jane is the comic character and Rita (Lucile Saint-Simon) the sensible one already engaged to the most boring shopkeeper imaginable, Pierre. Ginette is the enigmatic one who shares a flat with Jane but disappears each evening and Jacqueline is the young woman with the most romantic notions of what a relationship might be. She’s the one who will suffer for her lack of awareness that she is a character in a Chabrol film – and one of his most Hitchcockian to boot.
The main criticism of the film at the time was that Chabrol was a cynical artist would lead the audience on and then produce the awful tragedy. Following the pattern of ‘oppositions’, the tragic scene follows on swiftly from a highly romantic sequence. I’ve seen criticisms that the film doesn’t have much plot but this is mainly a comment on the unconventional structure. We learn something about each of the young women and in one case what we learn becomes a completed narrative. The action is limited to around 30 hours from, one night to the next, followed by a daytime sequence which is presumably the next day. Finally, there is a coda which features a fifth young woman who we’ve never seen before, but who possibly appears to be repeating one of the stories of the other four. As several commentators have noted, the four young women do perhaps represent a composite of what faces young working-class women in France in 1960 – although it must be said that these are four uncommonly attractive women in different ways. The men they meet are all silly, repulsive or dangerous apart from the two ‘realist’ characters, the ‘delivery boy’ on a bicycle who regularly visits the shop and Jane’s boyfriend on leave from his army service. The film is a satire of sorts on the ambitions of young women and the dark urban world that is Paris. For me the delight in the film is in the performances. Bernadette Lafont is funny, sexy and so alive, but in a way the real star is Clotilde Joano whose career did not flourish like Lafont’s and Audran’s and who sadly died aged 42 in 1974. Lucille Saint-Simon stopped appearing in films a few years later after a number of low-budget horror films that took her to the UK, Spain and Italy. I’ve a feeling there is a research topic for a French film student in her career.
Stéphane Audran is relatively low-key in this film, but she would become Chabrol’s ‘muse’ and then his wife, appearing in significant films in Chabrol’s productive period in the late 1960s and 1970s. Like Saint-Simon and Joano, Audran was 28 in 1960, whereas Lafont was only 22 – but she had already appeared in Truffaut’s short Les mistons at 15 and in two of Chabrol’s earlier films as well as for Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, another Cahiers critic turned director.
The look of the film is terrific with marvellous compositions and framings by the great Henri Decaë who worked several times for Jean-Pierre Melville and Truffaut as well as Chabrol. I also enjoyed the music score by Pierre Jansen and Paul Misraki which seems to match the shifting moods of the narrative very well. I was too young to catch Les bonnes femmes in cinemas and it now seems very difficult to find on DVD in the UK. I watched it again on an old videotape of A Channel 4 screening in the 1980s. I think it may now be available on Netflix and/or Amazon Prime. I did see several of Chabrol’s later 1960s and 1970s films in the cinema and perhaps the most evocative image in Les bonnes femmes is a long shot of a woodland scene with a priest leading a crocodile of small children through the trees. I knew immediately that something terrible would happen and I remembered a similar moment in Chabrol’s Le boucher (1970). Chabrol is an acquired taste perhaps, but I think I like his films best out of the Cahiers crowd. It also occurs to me now that, along with Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7 (1961), Les bonnes femmes is a rare French New Wave film with four female leads – and shopgirls as central characters.
In the clip below, Rita is waiting to meet her future in-laws: