(This is the second film from the Summer of French Cinema – see the earlier posting on Vie sauvage. I’m hoping to get to one more before the screenings end in the first week of August.)
Albertine Sarrazin was born in Algeria in 1937 and almost immediately taken into care and then adopted by a French family who took her to Aix-en-Provence. Her new family treated her badly and she ended up in ‘reform school’. Escaping, she pursued an interest in literature, supporting herself through prostitution and petty crime. Put in prison she escaped, breaking her ankle in the process. ‘L’astragale’ is the French term for the ‘ankle bone’ and Albertine was forced to have the bone ‘fused’ so that she developed a limp. She would spend the next few years in and out of prison where she developed her writing skills, including an autobiographical novel L’astragale, published in 1965. This new French film is the second adaptation of that novel, the first having appeared in 1969.
The new film, part scripted and wholly directed by Brigitte Sy, is an interesting ‘crime romance drama’, a polar of sorts that, because of its setting and the aesthetic choices made by the director, recalls the early crime-based films of la nouvelle vague, especially those of Jean-Luc Godard. The story begins with the escape and the broken ankle and deals primarily with Albertine’s developing relationship with Julien, the minor criminal who finds her outside the prison and helps her to recover. There are several scenes which feature Albertine’s writings in her notebooks, but the narrative ends before her first work is published – otherwise this would make an interesting comparison with Violette (France 2013) as another film exploring new kinds of writing by French women in the 1950s/60s.
The important aesthetic choice was to present the film in B+W CinemaScope and to set the story in the mid 1950s (roughly correct with the autobiography). The disadvantage of course is that with the action mainly in Paris, it is difficult to shoot on the streets without spending a great deal on extras and ‘set dressing’/CGI. I presume this was a relatively low-budget film and the most obvious way of dealing with the problems is to shoot on specific streets at times when there are no members of the public around – which gives the film a rather abstract look. I confess that when the film began and I didn’t know the story behind it I wondered if I was watching the first film of a new film school graduate – although I could see that the performances were all very good (and the cinematography/mise en scène). I learned later that Brigitte Sy is a well-known French actress who has previously directed a feature and two shorts. She has a son and daughter, Louis and Esther Garrel. Esther has an important role in L’astragale (see the image above) and Louis has been very successful since his lead role in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2002). Louis and his mother both have small roles in L’astragale. Sy’s ex-partner Philippe Garrel is a well-known French director who began making features in the mid 1960s.
The references to Godard include the sequences which explore Albertine’s life as a ‘streetwalker’ and which might be compared to the scenes featuring Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962). Albertine’s first customer bears some resemblance to Jean-Pierre Léaud and several scenes in which Albertine is reading or writing while waiting in bars for Julien recall similar scenes in early Godard. When Albertine allows herself to be photographed (and therefore risking exposure to the police) I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud. I enjoyed the film and especially the performances of the two leads. Leïla Bekhti as Albertine had an important role in Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète (France 2009). In 2010 she married that film’s young star Tahar Raheem. Reda Ketab, who plays Julien, also had a lead role in Un prophète. He and Leïla Bekhti are both from French-Algerian families and their casting gives the story authenticity. It also distinguishes the film from most of the early New Wave films in which the war in Algeria was rarely mentioned. Albertine’s disguise when trying to evade the police is based on a blonde short-haired wig, which for me seemed to emphasise her North African heritage because of its incongruity.
The various aesthetic choices are evident in this trailer (no subs, but there isn’t much dialogue):
In retrospect it was probably a bad idea to watch the new version of Thomas Hardy’s famous story just a few days after seeing the restoration of the 1967 film. I spent too much time spotting all the events ditched from the script in the new version that runs 119 instead of 169 minutes. That’s quite a chunk of screen time gone. I’ll try to be objective in comparing the two.
The new version is puzzling as a production (from BBC Films and the long-standing UK production company DNA films). I’m guessing that the funding wasn’t there to make something on the epic scale of the original. It was a brave move to hire Thomas Vinterberg whose English language films have so far not matched his Danish successes. I expected something punchy from the director of The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2013) with the same cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Although the latter conjures up some remarkable visual sequences, this doesn’t feel like a project on which Vinterberg was totally free or properly engaged. I think that Carey Mulligan, cast as Bathsheba Everdene, had a fair amount of clout in choosing Matthias Schoenaerts as her co-star (playing the shepherd Gabriel Oak) and she and Schoenaerts offer the best performances in my view. The other strength is the costume design which is truly wonderful. I wasn’t that keen on Ms Mulligan’s hats but her riding gear and several of her dresses are breathtaking, especially a blue one with white decorative motifs that glow in the evening light. As I predicted, Mulligan matches Julie Christie in terms of performance. They present quite different characters so a direct comparison is not useful. Mulligan is a couple of years older than Christie was in 1967. She presents Bathsheba as more virginal, but also more stylish – still ‘girlish’ but with the strength of an ‘independent woman’. The film is worth seeing for Carey Mulligan alone.
Unfortunately much of the rest of the film is less sure about itself. It begins badly with a strange title suggesting that we are “200 miles from London”. Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ in Dorset is more like 130 miles. It’s not important, but who thought it was a good idea? As I’ve noted there are some stunning visual sequences, mainly of landscapes in mists, or in ‘magic hour’ lighting etc. – but there are some quite ‘flat’ scenes and at least one dreadful edit. The harrowing sequence depicting Fanny Robbins on the way to the workhouse (which includes this edit) is almost thrown away. I think the main problem is a poor script by David Nicholls who was probably asked to aim for the impossible in trying to condense an eventful novel to produce a two-hour film. Michael Sheen as Boldwood and Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy both seem like miscastings to me. They are both fine actors but they don’t have the starpower of their counterparts in the 1967 film, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp and the characters seem a little diminshed as a result. Sturridge in particular is severely hampered by the script which doesn’t give him enough time to explore the character’s complexities. In 1967, for many female audiences in the UK, Stamp was the sexiest man alive, apart, perhaps, for those who fancied Alan Bates (who played Gabriel Oak). What was particularly missing for Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy were key scenes with Fanny and the circus sequence for his return. Instead of being a cad, charming but a little dark, Sturridge’s Troy is reduced to being pretty but brutal.
I looked at a few reviews. Keith has already had a go at Thirza Wakefield in Sight and Sound for a different film and I was intrigued to read her review which on the whole is perceptive and interesting especially about Mulligan’s portrayal of Bathsheba as the ‘modern’ woman the script constructs, though she falls into the autuerist trap of referring to ‘Vinterberg’s camera’ (and its references to Victorian paintings), when surely it’s important that it’s the female perspective of Charlotte Brus Christensen. The ‘best’ review (i.e. the one that agrees with me!) is from Fionnuala Halligan in Screendaily – she’s very good on the production team.
In sum, this new adaptation is very good in parts and Carey Mulligan is excellent throughout. She makes a great romantic heroine, but the project lacks the scope of the novel and the scale of the 1967 adaptation. Nevertheless I hope we see more from Vinterberg and Christensen in a UK context. In the meantime, audiences not making thecomparison with the 1967 version will enjoy this adaptation.
Official US trailer (good for showing off the camerawork and Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba):
The 4K digital restoration of John Schlesinger’s 1967 version of Thomas Hardy’s most popular novel has been in selected UK cinemas over the last few weeks leading up to the release of the new Thomas Vinterberg version on May 1st. I managed to catch the restoration at the wonderful Hebden Bridge Picture House. I remembered only a couple of scenes from a first viewing a long time ago and I enjoyed every minute of the restoration (there are 168 minutes in all but it felt like 90 – I know many think the opposite).
This film provides another of those examples of storytelling that divide some critics from some audiences. I can’t understand some of the negative comments made on the film’s initial release. For me there are five reasons why the film works so well. First is Hardy’s story. OK, it doesn’t have the depth of Tess or Jude the Obscure but there are enough eventful sequences threaded through the everyday depiction of life for rural communities in 1860s ‘Wessex’ to drive the narrative towards its expected conclusion. If you don’t know the story, Julie Christie is Bathsheba Everdene the young woman who inherits her uncle’s extensive farm and who is wooed in turn by shepherd Gabriel Oak, gentleman farmer Boldwood and dashing Sergeant Troy (the cad!). Second is the representation of the English landscapes of Dorset and Wiltshire and the set pieces of an outdoor communal meal, the wedding night drinking and the travelling circus among others. Allied to this is the cinematography by Nicolas Roeg and the equally fine production and costume design, the film and sound editing and Richard Rodney Bennett’s score. Third is the starpower of the four leads. In 1967 Julie Christie was at the height of her fame after Darling (1965) for which she had won an Oscar and Doctor Zhivago (1965) – although she had also asserted her interest in less mainstream work such as Fahrenheit 451 (1966) for François Truffaut (with Nic Roeg on camera). Peter Finch as Boldwood had been a stalwart of British Cinema as a leading man from the early 1950s, although his two biggest roles were arguably in the 1970s. Terence Stamp as Sergeant Troy and Alan Bates as Gabriel Oak represented two of the strongest acting talents and star performers to emerge in the 1960s. It’s salutary to remember the diversity and high quality of UK film actors in this period. I’m expecting Vinterberg’s new film to be very different and to use its performers differently. Faced with the quartet here, Carey Mulligan and co. would have difficulty radiating the same starpower.
The fourth strength of the film is its supporting cast, who inhabit their period dress, wigs and facial hair with real relish. I recognised several character actors but I would have believed anyone who told me these were non-professionals acting as themselves. It’s partly this supporting cast that helps steer the film away from the BBC ‘costume drama’ and the later designation of ‘heritage film’. In many ways the film looks like an American Western set down in Dorset, giving off the same sense of earthy vitality. Finally, what brings all these elements together is the trio of John Schlesinger, Joseph Janni and Frederic Raphael. This trio of director, producer and writer had worked together on Darling and for Janni and Schlesinger it was their fourth collaboration. I think that everything works in the film and it feels like a complete and polished production. The best compliment I can pay it is to say that it is almost as good as Polanski’s stunning Tess made 12 years later. Tess of the d’Urbervilles is the better novel and Polanski is a Champions League director compared to Schlesinger as a solid Premiership director, but the two films have things in common including a sense of landscape (even if Tess cheats by using Brittany).
I’m not sure what to make of the 4K restoration. Sitting close to the screen, what seemed like excessive grain was evident in the opening shot. Some scenes did seem very dark and I wasn’t sure if this was Roeg’s intention or whether it was a feature of the attempt to create true blacks in the digital print. I’m no expert on such things. On the cinematography generally I was surprised by the combination of what I would term a classical use of close-ups in the ‘Scope frame and several more innovatory devices. It would take two or three more viewings to fully appreciate Roeg’s work in terms of colours, framings and camera movements. The opening shots of the downs and the later sequence in which Sergeant Troy ‘ravishes’ Bathsheba with his sabre are stunning.
I’m looking forward to the new version of the story and especially Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba. Christie was the 1960s star of my teenage years and I realise that I was somewhat gushing about Mulligan’s role as the 1960s schoolgirl in An Education. I’ve found Ms Mulligan’s choice of roles since then to be a mix of the very interesting (Never Let Me Go and Shame) and those which I’ve no real wish to see (Wall Street and The Great Gatsby). She is clearly an intelligent actor and with Vinterberg she should be able to create something wonderful. Julie Christie seems at times too girlish and flighty to be Hardy’s Bathsheba – but she is still the star of the show. She dominates her scenes by the way she moves and uses her costumes. I never tire of watching her. I suspect that Carey Mulligan has the acting chops but that they will be deployed rather differently.
I’m glad I saw this World War II romance drama – one of the best of recent co-productions. I fear that many audiences will have been put off by reviewers like Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who seem to be completely oblivious to its better points. It isn’t without flaws but mostly it is very good.
It’s worth mentioning the production background in some detail since it’s unusual in some ways. ‘International films’ made in Europe in English have been a feature of mainstream cinema since the 1950s, but usually these are in some way ‘Americanised’ even though they have European settings. Despite a credit for The Weinstein Company (the US distributor) and an American in the lead role, Suite Française is a French property made by Europeans (mostly British) in Belgium, but with a major French partner in the form of TF1 Films and Canadian input from Alliance/eOne. I mention this because some commentators have referred to a ‘Hollywood film’. Suite Française will get a major French release, presumably dubbed into French? It seems to have had a substantial budget and I wonder how many of the actors (mostly Brits and Germans) could have worked on a French language version at the same time? Just to clarify, the French characters in the film speak (British) English with accents and dialects that represent their position in society. The Germans speak German (with subtitles), except when they talk to the French, when, of course, they speak English. It all works fine. As the convention goes (in for example Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series), all the printed material on screen is in the local language, i.e. in French.
Suite Française was published as a novel with two parts in 2004. It was written in 1940-1 by Irène Némirovsky, the emigré Ukranian Jewish writer, successful in France since the 1920s, who was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her notebooks were re-discovered by her daughter in 1998. The first part of the novel tells the story of the flight from Paris at the time of the German invasion in June 1940. This is briefly alluded to in the opening scenes in the film which then goes on to adapt the second part of the novel. This deals with the early period of German Occupation of Northern France up to late Summer 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and the troops billeted in the small town/village of Bussy are sent to the Eastern front. Némirovsky had envisaged five parts for the overall story.
The film reworks this second story, ‘Dolce’, and focuses on Lucile (Michelle Williams) a young woman who had barely met her husband before he joined the French Army (and became a prisoner of war) and who must now endure being bossed about by her fierce mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). Because they live in the best house in the village the two women are forced to accept a German officer as a lodger. Bruno (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a musical composer from a military family, an Oberleutnant, both cultured and ‘gentlemanly’ yet prepared to endorse the ‘spirit of community’ in the German Armed Forces. His fellow Leutnant is more aggressive and creates disturbance in another billet. The ‘other ranks’ are generally boisterous as in most successful invading armies. These are not necessarily the conventional Nazis of Hollywood war films – but they do carry out draconian policies in dealing with the local people.
Various French films of the 1940s have similar themes. For instance the classic Henri Clouzot film Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) includes poison pen letters written by villagers about each other during the Occupation and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) shares several key elements. This latter film was based on a novel published in 1942 by Jean Bruller but it seems unlikely that there was any connection between Bruller and Némirovsky. However, one link between the narratives does point to a major weakness in the new film – the voice-over narration by Lucile. In the Melville film the narration is essential since the French couple who have a German officer billeted on them refuse to speak (a strategy initially employed by many ‘occupied’ people – including Lucile’s mother-in-law). We learn about their thoughts from the old man’s narration which continues throughout much of the film. In Suite Française the narration comes at various points from Lucile but it is unnecessary in my view – we can see what she is thinking from her facial expressions, posture, actions etc. Not only that but it is mixed in an odd way and sounds ‘wrong’.
However, apart from the narration, everything else works OK. Bradshaw is very critical of Michelle Williams, arguing that she gives “a worryingly awful lead performance . . . [she] looks like she’s got access to serious amounts of black-market Mogadon cut with Temazepam”. I went back to the novel and the first description of Lucile suggests that she is “beautiful, blonde with dark eyes, but a quiet, modest demeanour and ‘a faraway expression'”. I’m not sure what Peter Bradshaw expects here. The narrative is about a woman from a region where middle-class society shows (in Némirovsky’s words) “a complete absence of any forms of emotion”. This is a woman who slowly blossoms and falls for the younger man who has invaded her home – where she is miserable under her mother-in-law’s gaze. I find that an interesting story. My impression is that overall, the adaptation follows the book’s narrative – some scenes are presented almost as written.
I could go on and pick Bradshaw’s review to pieces and I’m tempted because his approach with its ‘witty’ put-downs angers me so much. Instead, I’ll just focus on the issues of realism and social class. There are several interesting video clips on YouTube in which the various HoDs in the crew discuss how they researched French fashions and make-up in the period and how they studied various films including Le corbeau and Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939). They found a village close to the Belgian border which had been by-passed by progress and they were able to dress it effectively. Saul Dibb was appointed director of the film partly because of his success with The Duchess in which he managed to make a film which appealed to modern audiences without losing the sense of period setting.
Social class is crucial to the story. Némirovsky herself was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Russia and she carefully delineates the social strata of village society. At the top are the Vicomte (and Mayor) and his wife. Lucile’s mother-in-law is the richest non-aristocratic landowner. Lucile’s female friends are tenants she tries to protect from her mother-in-law’s avarice. There is also a Parisian woman and her daughter – Jewish refugees able to pay a higher rent (and in some ways representing Némirovsky herself?). The two Leutnants are both clearly ‘gentlemen’ and this is important in their dealings with the women. The women after all are living in a community where most of the fit young men have disappeared. It may be a cliché but we know that the one young man, a farmer disabled by a war injury, will be important in the drama that follows. Bradshaw refers to “a golden-tinted saga of everyday French collaborating folk”. This is an insult to Némirovsky who has actually provided us with certainly a ‘golden moment’ in the Spring and Summer but also a complex set of relationships and behaviours in which both collaboration and resistance are explored, much – one imagines – like they must have been across France in 1940-1.
I’m going back to the novel (which has re-entered the paperback chart) to see in more detail what Saul Dibb and Matt Charman have done with the characters and storylines in their adaptation. As my defence of Michelle Williams makes clear I have a lot of time for her acting skills and I found her scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts worked well. The film has clearly missed attracting the big audience its makers envisaged (it’s unlikely to make £2 million in the UK). I think it may find that audience on the small screen. I’m intrigued to find out what will happen to the film in France – it feels very British to me.
Official UK trailer:
Other French ‘Occupation’ films on this blog include:
Un sécret (2007)
Un héros très discret (1995)
Le silence de la mer (1949)