Talking Pictures TV came up trumps again on Saturday night with a screening of an intriguing Claude Chabrol film. As it turned out, there were quite a few problems with the print, but if you can get past these there are several interesting aspects to the film. As a production this is an early example of a Canadian tax deferral scheme which was aimed to attract co-productions and France is perhaps the most likely co-production partner (after Hollywood – though I’m not sure Hollywood does co-productions as such). There have been several Montreal-shot films over the years. In this case the ‘property’ is an Ed McBain ’87th Precinct’ novel from 1975.
‘Ed McBain’ is perhaps the best-known pseudonym of Salvatore Albert Lombino who officially changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952. Hunter was not only a hugely prolific writer of genre fiction but also of standalone novels. His books were often adapted for film and TV and he also worked as a scriptwriter, most famously for Alfred Hitchcock on The Birds. He was very popular in Japan with adaptations by Kurosawa (High and Low 1963) and many others. I’ve seen one comment that Chabrol was happy to re-locate the story of Blood Relatives in Montreal from New York and not have to worry about the trappings of the New York police procedural. One aspect of this is the creation of a police detective who I think is quite different to the familiar US type. The investigator Steve Carella is played by Donald Sutherland and overall the police in the film seem relatively laid-back but quite efficient in their operations. But although the narrative begins in the police station, this is not really a procedural. Instead it sends Carella into a deep investigation of a family and plays more like a crime melodrama. I can see why Chabrol would be interested.
A teenage girl smeared with blood and with cuts to her arms and face bursts through a door collapses into a police station. The police then find the girl’s 17 year-old cousin dead from multiple knife wounds in a derelict building. The two girls had been at a party and were sheltering from the rain on their way home when they were attacked. The survivor Patricia (Aude Landry) describes the killer and the usual police work ensues. But the girl’s testimony will unravel and Carella finds himself more concerned with the Landry family – this is familiar Chabrol territory. The film’s title more or less tells you where the narrative is heading, so I won’t spoil any other aspects of the plot. I’ll simply state that several flashbacks are necessary to discover what happened to the unfortunate cousin Muriel (Lisa Langlois).
In a career lasting over 50 years Chabrol made over 70 films. A small number of which were made for TV but even so this is a formidable total and inevitably his career has been divided into periods when he made critically accepted films and other periods when he made cheap escapist films. It isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two and since I’ve only seen a modest proportion of the 70+ titles (perhaps 18 or 19) I’m in no position to judge. However, I’ve run through the list looking to see if he had made any other films in North America before this one. It would appear not, but what I was surprised to discover is the number of his French films that include American actors – Bruce Dern, Mia Farrow, Rod Steiger, Anthony Perkins etc. It’s perhaps not a surprise then to find that Blood Relatives features Donald Pleasence and David Hemmings alongside Sutherland. There is a real flavour of a ‘European International film’ about the casting. Sutherland had previously been in films for Bertolucci and Fellini and Hemmings was in Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso as well as Antonioni’s Blow Up. The other roles are mainly played by Canadian actors apart from Stéphane Audran, whose role is the only real disappointment for me. She plays the drunken mother of Patricia and is almost unrecognisable. I did wonder if she was dubbed but I’m sure I’ve seen her with an acceptable English accent in other films. The other French actor is Laurent Malet who plays Patricia’s brother as a rather beautiful young man who exposes his muscles in tiny shorts. Chabrol had his regular cinematographer Jean Rabier with him but most of the other HoDs and crew appear to be Canadian.
With Chabrol working in English and these interesting casting decisions, the film feels different from either French cinema or Hollywood, though there is still a recognisable Chabrol sensibility I think. I did feel at times that this was an example of a different kind of crime film, possibly derived from a novel by Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith – and Chabrol would later adapt both authors. I also somewhere got a whiff of Hitchcock’s Marnie. Partly this is because Sutherland’s cop treats a psychologically-scarred female character quite gently but firmly, much like Sean Connery treats Tippi Hedren in Marnie. I also remembered that Evan Hunter was asked by Hitchcock to adapt Marnie but he didn’t want to write the rape scene that Hitchcock required. You might the sense that if I was thinking about all these connections, I couldn’t have been following the narrative very closely. You would be wrong but I do think this is an odd film in some ways although it does make me want to catch some more of the Chabrol films I’ve got somewhere in the archive.
There is also the question of the print. DVDBeaver.com gives an interesting account of all the problems. The film seems to exist at various lengths from 90 to 100 minutes. I certainly think the version on TPTV had some cuts. Supposedly the film was to be presented in standard widescreen 1.85:1 but the TV print was closer to a panned and scanned 4:3. Even that didn’t look right on my TV’s 4:3 setting. In the end I found myself using the Zoom settings to achieve a 16:9 image that was slightly cropped top and bottom but was otherwise watchable because nobody was squashed or stretched. the BBFC (British Classification Board) tells me the Rank Organisation submitted the film for UK showings but in Canada and France the distributors were small independents. The print is murky at times and may well have been copied from a VHS master. Still, I think it is an interesting addition to my Chabrol collection and kudos to TPTV for finding it.
Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.
The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.
I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.
I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?
The Ties is another of MUBI’s ‘Made in Italy’ films. I chose this one because it stars Alba Rohrwacher who I have admired in films by her sister Alice and in other films. As the title implies this is a film about a long term relationship. The Italian title actually refers to shoelaces and a scene that presents a metaphor about the relationships between parents and children. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Domenico Starnone, whose first screenplay La scoula (1995), based on two of his novels, was filmed by Daniele Luchetti, the director of Lacci. Starnone is a well-known Neapolitan writer who has been identified as one possible source of the identity of the best-selling but pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Starnone is married to translator and journalist Anita Raja and another possibility is that ‘Ferrante’ is actually husband and wife working together.
The Ferrante question may be one of the reasons why Lacci was chosen to open the 2020 Venice Festival which lost its usual Hollywood headliners as a result of the pandemic. Lacci was immediately seen by English-speaking critics as a response to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (US 2019). This gave an extra frisson to an opening film but I haven’t seen the American film so no comparisons here. In any event, Lacci seems to be rooted in the experiences or observations of Starnone and Raja. The narrative begins in the 1980s and ends some time nearer the present. We first meet Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher) and Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) at a celebration with their two small children, Anna and Sandro, in the early 1980s. They all dance joyfully in the opening credit sequence and make their way to their apartment nearby. Aldo seems like a loving father in a bathtime scene and in his storytelling but after the children are asleep he suddenly tells Vanda he has been unfaithful. She doesn’t know what to make of his statement and he doesn’t see very clear about why he made it. Vanda follows him to Rome where he makes regular radio appearances as a reader and later as a literary commentator. On the stairs in the RAI building Vanda meets Lidia (Linda Caridi), a striking younger woman. Nothing is said as the two stare at each other.
The irony of the situation is that Aldo, praised for the quality of his speaking voice, fails to communicate as he faces Vanda. She (a teacher, it later transpires, though we never see her in a classroom), rather than articulating her anger, makes increasingly dramatic gestures. I thought at this point I was going to witness a full-bloodied family melodrama but after the early highly-charged scenes the narrative shifts gear. Aldo decides to stay in Rome and concedes full custody of the children to Vanda. Forward a few years and Aldo seems to want to see the children again. At this point, the dance music from the opening re-appears and Luchetti engineers a transition to the near present that threw me until I went back and replayed it – what has streaming done to my viewing? A different pair of actors, Laura Morante and Silvio Orlando, play Vanda and Aldo some thirty years later and they appear to be living together and bickering as they prepare to go on holiday. Now the narrative will start to ‘loop’, much like the shoelaces of the title, returning to the early 1980s and the slightly later period to reveal something about how Aldo and Lidia were as a couple and what happened during his meetings with his children. The final section of the narrative then offers a rather different perspective on the marriage through an extended scene which again comes through the link of the dance music tune from the opening. There is a ‘reveal’ here that made me think about those films where middle-class assumptions about people’s behaviour often lead to unfortunate conclusions.
The reviews of the film are mixed. Several describe the narrative as dealing in ‘misery’. One references Philip Larkin. On the other hand, several scenes seemed quite ‘real’ to me and represented aspects of long term relationships – relationships we grow into that generate different kinds of love and affection as well as irritability and quite possibly mental cruelty. As a film narrative it certainly made me think. Someone described it as ‘handsome’ and that seems a good call for a presentation in ‘Scope in often warm colours and with rather fetching 1980s outfits. The central quartet of actors are very good. I recognised the other three alongside Alba Rorwacher and later realised that I had seen them in various earlier films. The two children are played by three different sets of actors, all well cast I thought. Having said that, in every case my initial reaction was that the characters at different ages didn’t look like they were the same person. But on reflection the casting does work, I think I was just thrown by the editing – which isn’t a criticism. Luigi Lo Cascio as the younger Aldo was one of the quartet in The Dinner (Italy 2014). I mention that film for two reasons. First, it questions the behaviour of a middle-class family and second it is a successful and award-winning Italian film which I don’t think made it into UK distribution. I fear that the same may be true for Lacci. In The Dinner, Luigi Lo Cascio’s wife is played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno who is cast as the grown-up version of his daughter Anna in Lacci. It must be a different experience watching Lacci in Italy when the actors are so well-known.
I think Lacci is definitely a film to seek out if you can find it (there is just one day left of its brief stint on MUBI in the UK). Cineuropa carries an interview with director Luchetti in which he makes some interesting comments about earlier generations of parents and particularly fathers in Italian society.
Adapted from the 2014 novel Red by Shimamoto Rio (one of the most celebrated and prolific younger writers in Japan), this is a traditional Japanese female-centred melodrama (directed by Mishima Yukiko, the only female director out of my first five films on the tour). I rather liked it. As with all the other offerings I’ve watched on the Japan Foundation Film Tour, it is presented in ‘Scope (1:2.35). The structure is non-linear, beginning with a phone call from a public phone by the central character Toko in the midst of swirling snow. But soon we flash back to see her in her domestic setting. The flashbacks are not signalled so it takes some time to fully understand the narrative chronology.
We soon realise that Toko is married to a wealthy young man and that they have a young daughter. Toko’s mother-in-law always seems to be around and her husband Shin is very conservative, seemingly doing only what his parents decree is appropriate and this includes Toko as a domesticated housewife/mother. By modern standards Toko has accepted a role that should have disappeared years ago.
I don’t want to reveal too much plot but, by chance, Toko meets an old flame from ten years earlier. This is Kurata, an architect who reminds her of what might have been. Despite opposition at home, Toko decides to return to work and joins the architecture and design company where Kurata has a senior position. The head of the firm, Kodaka is an interesting character who acts as a kind of agent provocateur, taking an interest in Toko and proving perceptive about her relationship with Kurata. Toko and Kurata work together on a project in Niigata Prefecture, North of Tokyo and on the other side of Honshu, towards the Western coast. This means trips over the mountains and frequent heavy snow in winter, preventing Toko from getting home on time.
The ‘red’ of the title is a melodrama symbol for passion, danger and even directly for blood. The film’s dialogue and mise en scène also have a number of important symbolic references. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Toko and Kurata become lovers. He reveals how important the book ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Tanazaki Junichiro is to him. This particular book is about Japanese and Western aesthetics and their possible influences on architecture. But Tanazaki, one of the biggest names in ‘modern’ 20th century Japanese literature, is also associated with novels about adultery, desire and eroticism. The couple also had a favourite album when they were together earlier, an LP by Jeff Buckley. Buckley’s interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is their favourite track. It’s a much misunderstood song about desire. The film’s title is underlined by a red cloth tied to a protruding cargo of wooden poles carried on a truck the couple are following in a snow storm – which eventually blows off and lands in the snow. Toko’s story – that of the repressed woman restricted to housework and childcare – is directly referenced when she is told, accusingly, “you are not in the Doll’s House”, citing the Ibsen play from 1879. This kind of European play was influential in ‘modernising’ Japanese ideas during the Meiji period. There is definitely an ‘excess’ of symbolism. I particularly like the architectural model house which Toko and Kurata create. Toko then feels that the main window should be larger so she can see out more.
I’ve read all the reviews I could find on this film. Many fall into the opposing camps of an old-fashioned story that is now out of date vs. this cruel woman who would leave her beautiful little daughter and comfortable life for a selfish romance. There is an interesting feature in the Japan Times in which the director and co-scriptwriter (with Ikeda Chihiro) Mishima Yukiko explains that she thinks that many women in Japan are trapped like Toko in marriages in which they feel pressurised to conform and not think about what they really want. Mishima is an experienced filmmaker who clearly knows the power of traditional melodrama and feels that she knows ‘what women really want’. The Japan Times review by veteran critic Mark Schilling, however, suggests that there is already a “thriving subgenre of Japanese films about women who leave their ruts and find their grooves” – and Red looks by comparison like a “frustratingly retro drama”. Schilling suggests that Toko is too weak a character – a charge also made by Toko’s mother. I can’t claim any real knowledge of contemporary Japanese society but I would expect that Toko’s ‘entrapment’ is an issue in upper-class conservative households but not so prevalent for young educated women outside that group. Overall though I’m with the director. I did notice that the taboo of divorce and single parenthood features in several ways in this film, including the scene in which Toko is late picking up her daughter Midori from school with shaming consequences. I liked that Toko later reminds her husband that Midori has a father as well as a mother.
Two other notable points about the film are the references to food, including Toko’s love of ‘simmered taro’, a form of yam-like root vegetable in broth and a typical food of Niigata, ‘noppe stew’. Early in the film there is a clash of dishes from Toko and her mother-in-law to be served to Shin. Like Miyamoto earlier in the tour, there are a couple of contrasting scenes of sexual activity in the film, carefully shot and edited but still deemed worth mentioning in the Japan Times review as relatively new in Japanese mainstream cinema. The performances from Kaho as Toko, Tsumabuki Satoshi as Kiruta and Emoto Tasuku as Kokada are excellent. Mamiya Shotaro as Shin is very well cast – I could see this actor playing a week young Emperor or Shogun, he exudes a certain kind of privilege. I’d like to see this film on a cinema screen but I fear that it would be difficult to put into UK distribution. Contemporary Japanese melodramas seem to appeal only to a minority of cinephiles here and that’s a shame.
I enjoyed Foxfire very much and I’m dismayed at its lack of profile. The film was distributed by Curzon in the UK but I think it must have been in cinemas very briefly as I only managed to catch it on DVD. In the US it was only on streamers I think. Foxfire is adapted from a novel by Joyce Carol Oates that was previously adapted for a 1996 film starring Angelina Jolie. This later film was directed by the French auteur filmmaker Laurent Cantet. Cantet made the film, in English, in Toronto and the smaller cities of Peterborough and Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. The novel was set in up-state New York in the early 1950s and, as David Cronenberg discovered with A History of Violence (Canada-US 2005), small Canadian towns can sometimes easily be made to look like American towns of the 1950s. It’s a film shot by Cantet’s regular cinematographer Pierre Milon and co-wriitena nd edited by the similarly regular collaborator Robin Campillo. Youth films should have music and Cantet went for original music by Timber Timbre plus a selection of other tracks from the 1950s including Johnny Carroll and His Hot Rocks and Rosco Gordon.
The narrative is set in a small town and for most of the time is ‘narrated’ by Maddy (Katie Coseni) a girl at high school. One night she is surprised by a knock on her bedroom window and the appearance of ‘Legs’, a girl from her school who was sent 100 miles away to live with her grandma because her single father an no longer control her. But Legs (Raven Adamson) has other ideas. She and Maddy form ‘Foxfire’, a secret girls’ society which aims to protect its members and give them succour when the world turns against them. Maddy is an aspiring writer and she decides to chronicle events as the group grows and develops. In the novel, the timeline is disrupted at points as the older Maddy remembers the events of her younger teenage years. Director Cantet and his co-writer Robin Campillo initially tried to adopt the novel’s strategy but eventually decided to present a linear narrative with just Maddy’s voiceover commentary as the most effective cinematic form. I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier film so I can’t make comparisons. I have, however, seen most of Cantet’s films and simplifying the narrative structure does not mean a conventional treatment of the material. Cantet has strong ideas about an aesthetic but this was the first time that he had tackled a ‘period’ picture.
The Foxfire gang adds new members as various girls in the local school are ‘avenged’ by the gang. The first to really benefit is Rita (Madeleine Bisson) who is the butt of pranks and worse by local youths and whose meek resignation when treated harshly by a teacher enrages the other girls. At first the ‘vengeance’ missions harm only the individual men/boys who have committed abuse of some kind, but gradually, as the group expands, the girls’ actions affect more people in the town and the main gang members are arrested. ‘Legs’ is not chastened by experience of reform school and when she gets out she re-activates the gang, aiming for ‘independence’ by setting up an early form of a commune or women’s refuge (a young married woman joins the group) in an old house on the edge of town. The second half of the narrative is then a study of how the group first comes together with new members and then, inevitably perhaps, begins to break up under the pressure of finding enough money to run and renovate a large old house. A major incident eventually ends everything. A short coda a few years later shows us Maddy sorting through her writings about the group and discussing memories with Rita.
Cantet decided early on not to focus too much on ‘authentic period details’. He had spent much of a Toronto winter searching for mainly non-professionals to play his teenagers and he followed his usual strategy of rehearsing aspects of the narrative quite intensively before filming scenes with at least two cameras running throughout each scene and with his actors trying to play their parts ‘naturally’. The result is not polished but instead is imbued with a sense of spontaneity. We believe in the young women’s resistance to patriarchy and the rigid social conventions of the period. Cantet includes moments when when at least one of the girls reveals her latent racism and encourages others to veto the membership of a young Black woman Legs met in reform school. On the other hand, the group does recognise at least the beginnings of a feminist understanding when they accept a young woman escaping an abusive marriage. There is also an important sub-plot which involves a wealthy upper-class supporter of Legs who displays cunning in using this relationship. Finally, there is an old man who shares his memories and his communist convictions with Legs – something very provocative in Eisenhower’s America.
The US is a country where radicalism exists, but you see it very little officially. The girls in the film are brought to a political consciousness that has a lot of resonance with what’s happening in the heads of young people today. As far as I am concerned, Foxfire is my most political film. (Laurent Cantet quoted in the Guardian, 8/8/2013)
Overall, Foxfire might be a challenge for some audiences in that it runs for 140 minutes without recognisable stars or a generic narrative. By this I mean that scenes don’t necessarily work out as we might expect. Personally, I didn’t find this was a problem and I appreciated the relative longueurs contrasted with some exciting and dramatic sequences. The more I see of Cantet’s work the more interesting I find it.
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.