Denzel Washington is an A List Hollywood star and has been for 30 years and he seems to have remained a potent star for longer than most of his contemporaries. To retain an African-American star image in Hollywood is not easy. Most successful Black actors in the US have tended to have careers that have seen them either restricted to certain types of roles in genre films or experiencing periods of great popularity in big budget pictures followed by periods of almost invisibility. Some have become identified with independent films or popular African-American films. Few have been able to span all these positions with the authority of a Denzel Washington. A reliable lead in mainstream Hollywood action films, Denzel has also made major contributions to African-American cinema, particularly in the Spike Lee ‘joints’ Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Malcolm X (1992) and He Got Game (1998): Inside Man (2006) is perhaps an example of both Lee and Washington exploring Black identities more indirectly. But even Denzel Washington struggled to get international distribution for his first two directorial efforts, both of which focused on African-American young men and women and their relationships with an older central figure (played by Washington himself). Antwone Fisher (2002) has several elements in common with Fences, now the third of Washington’s director-star productions. The second film, The Great Debaters (2007), was not to my knowledge released in the UK and I haven’t seen it. Interestingly, all three films have high ratings on IMDb despite some stinging reviews for Antwone Fisher. This suggests to me that the films have been appreciated by the audiences they were designed for. In the UK, African-American films generally have struggled to get distribution beyond a handful of major cities. The relatively ‘wide’ distribution of Fences is therefore something of a breakthrough.
Fences is an adaptation of a 1983 Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning stage play by the leading African-American writer August Wilson (1945-2005), one of a cycle of ten plays interpreting African-American lives in Pittsburgh with each focusing on a specific decade in the twentieth century. The play was successful on Broadway with James Earl Jones in the lead and was revived for further success in 2010 with Denzel Washington himself in the lead and Viola Davis in support. The two repeat their roles in the film adaptation and Davis has now won an Oscar for her performance. Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a garbage worker in 1950s Pittsburgh who is campaigning for driver’s jobs in the garbage collection service to be available for African-American workers. Davis is his wife and there are only a few other roles, all as members of Troy’s immediate circle. The stage origins are clear as Washington has decided not to ‘open out’ the narrative, nearly every scene being set in the backyard of the Maxson house where Troy takes many years to actually erect the ‘fences’ of the title. These are largely metaphorical and, as Troy’s close friend Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson) points out, they are either designed to keep somebody in the household or keep others out.
Fences deals directly with questions about identity, rights and culture. It is similar in two ways to Antwone Fisher. (I have posted some notes on Antwone Fisher here, taken from an evening class in 2005 – they include a number of extracts from reviews and IMDb ‘users’.) First, at its centre is the story of the working class Black American, whose early family life remains as a scarring presence throughout later life. In the earlier film, Denzel is a navy psychiatrist trying to help the young and volatile sailor Antwone Fisher to overcome his problems and develop his real potential. In Fences, Denzel Washington as Troy is himself the victim of poverty in his southern childhood and the consequent problems he faces bringing up his own sons, and especially his second son Cory, are related to his childhood experiences and his later frustrations playing in the so-called ‘Negro leagues’ as a baseball star in the 1930s. (‘Major League’ baseball became ‘integrated’ in 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers fielded Jackie Robinson for the first time.) Secondly, in both films, Washington the director tends towards a seamless ‘Hollywood realism’ style, conventional for a family drama or in the case of Fences a stage adaptation. However, he also includes isolated scenes which work much more like fantasy. Antwone Fisher begins with a dream sequence in which a young Black boy is alone in a field of waving corn when suddenly he is invited into a barn where an enormous community feast is waiting and everyone is expecting him as guest of honour. The final scene of Fences is similarly fantastical and I’m not sure if its theatrical ‘effects’ were evident in the original Broadway production. Also in Fences, when the story moves forwards a few months or years, Washington the director sometimes allows the narrative to work through different visual modes as he sets up the transition to the next segment of the story.
There are two major question marks about Fences that might have prevented it succeeding. The first is Denzel Washington’s decision to retain the theatrical setting and to play the lead role himself. Certainly for the first third or so of the film it did bother me. So much of the narrative depends on Denzel’s delivery of long speeches in scenes which did feel like a filmed stage play. Secondly the play seems to work through the presentation of a limited number of African-American family types and to include all the expected narrative threads. The actors have to deliver performances that humanise the basic types. I think the burden on Viola Davis is very heavy. She is the only female figure on screen for much of the film. Though I’m never going to argue in any simplistic manner against a text which uses types in this way, I do worry that it might backfire in a play like this which has such a strong cultural purpose. Fortunately, I don’t think the film fails on either score. Because the players know each so well and because they are such talented performers, the ideas about the social, political and economic history of African-American life eventually shine through. By the end of the film I found myself very emotionally involved. Be warned also that Sanniya Sidney appears as the bright young child Raynell in the closing scene and the tears are bound to fall. I spent a little time trying to work out exactly when each scene was set and how this matched what was happening to the characters. I think that, apart from the emotions of the family melodrama, what struck me most forcefully was the ‘lived history’ of the African-American family. The narrative ends in the early 1960s with references to John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The ‘story’ begins in the early 20th century with Troy as a child in the South (i.e. in the story he tells us). I’m conscious of the hardship and struggle over 60 years and the changes that did eventually come about. The story needs to be told again and again. The serendipity of the release of Fences alongside Hidden Figures and Loving is something to be celebrated and exploited.
Emily Watson’s performance as the geneticist who becomes involved in an adulterous affair and ultimately a murder trial is one of the best I have seen in TV drama. This TV serial has been the subject of discussion by audiences and critics with some arguing it is a narrative that ‘punishes’ a woman who has desire and others defending a woman of 50 who expresses desire.
I don’t want to get into that argument but it is worth pointing out that this is a serial produced, written and directed by women. What interests me more is that I read the original novel by Louise Doughty but, although I could see the skill and intelligence in the writing, I didn’t really enjoy the book. What’s more, I couldn’t remember what it was that put me off. I wasn’t going to bother with the TV adaptation but I decided to give it a try, partly because of Emily Watson’s casting.
I was surprised at how gripping I found the first episode to be and I stayed with the serial to the end. Why did Emily Watson’s performance carry so much weight? I’m not aware of stardom or performance studies that look at the difference between film and TV. I’m sure that they must exist but also that many scholars and critics now see the boundary between small and large screen as increasingly porous. In UK TV drama there has been a tendency to cast lead roles using TV stars such as Sarah Lancashire or Amanda Redman. An actor like Emily Watson feels like a different kind of presence. Her persona comes from theatre and film. She became known in cinema for appearances in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Hilary and Jackie (1997), both of which gained her Oscar nominations. Her subsequent career has involved theatre work and a number of more recent roles in which she has been cast as mother figures. This is partly why Yvonne comes as such a welcome role.
Emily Watson exudes a certain kind of decency and determination with the possibility of vulnerability. Her casting as Yvonne is perfect. By chance I also recently caught her performance in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2010) in which she plays a social worker seeking the truth about children in care who were sent to Australia in the 1950s. ‘De-glammed’ in that role she again embodied decency and determination. It is these qualities which are called into question in her role as Yvonne.
As an actor, Watson does a great deal with her eyes and she is well-served by costume and hair style as Yvonne. But she also has that indefinable sense of ‘presence’. It helps too that Ben Chaplin as her lover is also more of a film than TV star. The two together make an odd but compelling couple with Chaplin thoroughly loathsome, but presumably a turn-on for Yvonne. Many women in the TV audience must have identified with Watson’s convincing presentation of Yvonne.
Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:
This film has been roundly praised in some quarters but I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about it. Director Tom Ford, who was responsible for the similarly acclaimed A Single Man (2009), is best known as a designer, starting in ‘interior architecture’ and moving on to fashion before making A Single Man. That film’s been sitting unwatched on my hard drive recorder for a while and I’ve noticed that some critics have argued it was more about style than substance. Nocturnal Animals has generated some similar comments and I’m afraid that’s my reaction too.
‘Nocturnal Animals’ is the title of a ‘story within a story’ – a form of mise en abîme which also occurs in cinema when fictional characters might stage a play/make a film which in turn reflects on the lives of the fictional filmmakers. In this case, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a first novel, written by Edward, a man in his late 40s, and posted as a manuscript to his ex-wife. She is Susan Morrow, a college lecturer, now a woman with a family and married to Arnold, a surgeon. The lead character in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is Tony, a maths professor who becomes the victim of an altercation with three men on a remote road at night in Maine which also threatens Tony’s wife and teenage daughter. Susan starts to read the novel and can’t stop. The author of the ‘framing novel’ entitled Tony and Susan was Austin Wright, a Cincinnatti Professor of English. It was his last novel, published in 1993 and he died in 2003. Although the novel received praise from critics on publication and was sold for a possible film adaptation, it didn’t sell books in the expected numbers and it wasn’t until it was seen as successful in the UK that it was re-published in the US in 2010. At this stage, Tom Ford was able to work on an adaptation, seemingly creating his own adapted screenplay with some significant differences to the original novel.
The film itself is now also called Nocturnal Animals and this title is presented as referring to Susan during her time with Edward. It also seems to refer to her now as she reads Edward’s manuscript over one weekend when she can’t sleep (and the novel is dedicated to her on the first page of the manuscript). The major difference between Wright’s novel and Ford’s film, however, is a change of setting, including the occupations of Susan and her husband. In the film, Susan (as played by Amy Adams) is a high-profile gallery operator focusing on modern art and her husband Armie Hammer is some kind of ‘money man’ who is clearly spending a weekend away with a mistress when supposedly on business. This is the weekend when Susan reads the manuscript. The manuscript has also changed a setting with the highway altercation now in the wastes of West Texas (where there is no mobile phone signal).
The gallery sequences are filmed with great attention to interior design, lighting etc. and if you like this kind of thing no doubt you will find it interesting – I don’t enjoy this clinical, hard design style. Worse, an actor as engaging as Amy Adams seems imprisoned in the set with all the life drained from her. I like Amy Adams and I like Jake Gyllenhaal, but both seem miscast here, although Gyllenhaal, who plays ‘Tony’ in the manuscript story does OK in that role. The film has three parts, the ‘now’ of Susan over the weekend, the ‘telling’ of the story she reads and her flashbacks to her time together with Edward (also Gyllenhaal). These flashbacks aren’t really credible. I haven’t read the novel, but various reviews suggest that Susan and Edward broke up 25 or 20 years ago, after grad school, which would put them in their late 40s. In the film, Susan appears to have been married to the Armie Hammer character for at least 19 years because she has a daughter at college. Hammer is not even 30 but playing Susan’s husband, whereas Adams is 41 and Gyllenhaal 35. It’s a stretch to ask Amy Adams to play 25 and Hammer is completely wrong (unless I’ve misunderstood the plot).
The most interesting part of the film is the West Texas story which features a standout performance by Michael Shannon as the local detective who investigates what happened and cajoles Tony into an unwise adventure. This narrative is realised as a genre piece recalling both the hard-boiled noir of Jim Thompson and various horror stories and crime stories. It’s beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey who handles all three narratives very well in visual terms.
From what I’ve read about the novel, I can imagine that it works well. I calculate that Wright must have imagined the ‘now’ of his story as the early 1990s, meaning that Edward and Susan were in graduate school in the late 1960s. I think that would make a difference to the story. Again, Tony in the novel’s story, as a maths professor who is intellectual rather than instinctive, reminds me of the Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs – though he doesn’t have Hoffman’s resilience as depicted by Peckinpah. I do wonder, though, whether Wright was influenced by Straw Dogs or Gordon Williams’ original novel. Tony’s purpose in sending the manuscript to Susan is as a kind of revenge – putting Susan through the torment that he felt when she left him all those years ago. As she reads the story Susan sees herself as the wife and mother in the car (and the mother is played by Isla Fisher, looking so similar to Amy Adams that some audiences have been confused). But also important is that Austin Wright, an academic literature scholar, writes a novel in which a maths professor with literary ambitions sends a genre novel to a college lecturer – a revenge scenario couched in the framework of literary theory/praxis. None of this works when Susan is represented as an art ‘gallerist’. I found her character emotionally stiff and therefore the interconnections just didn’t work for me. The other puzzles are firstly why Ford casts four British actors, three of them as art world denizens – is it something about Brit Art? There is a Damien Hirst piece in the film and also something by Jeff Koons and I suppose the ‘now’ sequences in the film might be seen as some kind of satire on the art world. But I’m not up to analysing that. I recommend an article from ‘Flavorwire‘ for an informed lowdown on this aspect of Nocturnal Animals. There is one other aspect of the film that I haven’t mentioned – Laura Linney’s role as Susan’s bourgeois mother who tells her daughter not to follow the course of her ambitions after graduate school. I’m not sure if she is a character from the novel or one of Ford’s inventions, but she works to repress poor Susan still further.
I realise I’ve spent over 1,000 words on a film I didn’t really like, but I guess that means it is of some interest. I think I’ll now have to read the original novel to see whether my hypothesis was correct – i.e. that it works more effectively. I can also then resolve some of the conflicting points about the characters that appear in reviews.
(Nocturnal Animals was screened in Screen 14 at the Vue, Leeds, The Light – not sure when this screen was added but as a small ’boutique’ screen it is quite different to the larger screens originally built for Ster Century and it has a screen shaped for ‘Scope)
The Girl on the Train proved to be much more interesting than the majority of reviews suggested. I was fully engaged by a film that may have flaws but also many pluses that reviewers seem to have overlooked. I arrived early for my multiplex seat, able to watch the rest of the audience file in. I was struck by the overwhelming majority of women (of all ages) over men. Since the novelist whose work has been adapted, the scriptwriter, the cinematographer and the film’s three leads are all women, my first thought was “Why is the film directed by a man?”. I also wondered if this was a modern version of the ‘woman’s picture’?
The two aspects of the film that are most commented on are the adaptation’s relocation of the narrative from the Home Counties in the UK to New York State and a direct comparison with the similarly themed and structured Gone Girl by David Fincher. These weren’t in fact the two aspects of the film that intrigued me but perhaps I need to confront them first. I haven’t read Paula Hawkins novel and I’m not interested in valuing novels over film adaptations or vice versa. I did read Gone Girl before seeing Fincher’s film adaptation and so I had a different reaction to that film and its ‘unreliable narration’. The Girl on the Train also employs some ‘unreliable narrators’ but unlike in Gone Girl, the ‘unreliability’ is not deliberate for much of the time on behalf of the lead character Rachel (Emily Blunt). If you haven’t read the novel or the many reviews of the film, Rachel is a (barely) functioning alcoholic who can’t help torturing herself by thinking about her ex-husband Tom’s new marriage and his new baby daughter Evie. Rachel is unable to have a child and each day she travels on a commuter train past her old house looking for her successor Anna and her baby. (The train conveniently stops at the same signal near her old house.) She also becomes interested in another young couple Megan and Scott living close by in a house equally observable from the train window. Rachel frequently passes out when she has drunk too much and one day she wakes to discover on the TV news that Megan has gone missing. Rachel is disturbed by a vague feeling that somehow she is connected to Megan’s disappearance. Eventually she finds herself under suspicion by Police Sergeant Riley (Allison Janney) and decides to do some investigating, especially since she thinks she saw Megan kissing another man.
I understand that in Hawkins’ novel, the commuting journey is from a fictional town in Buckinghamshire. Transferring the narrative to Metro North along the Hudson River makes sense I think. Commuting into Marylebone or Euston is rather different to the jam-packed commuter trains and stations of South and East London and is closer to the commuting experience in New York. The Metro North trains are slower, less crowded and have the big windows which link this film to classics like Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest. It also struck me that by shooting in the Autumn in Westchester County, the filmmakers also conjure up the feel of classic melodramas such as All That Heaven Allows (1955) and its re-working Far From Heaven (2002). On another level, it made me think of The Stepford Wives (1975). I realise that these are references to New England rather than upstate New York, but the central point is around the milieu of the middle-class commuter town and the aridity of a culture which develops tensions between work in the city and domesticity in the small town. Like the Sirkian melodramas, the central characters are the women, trapped in a community with little vision and subject to domestic abuse and conventional norms of child-bearing. (I remember Megan’s line about the town as a ‘baby-making’ factory.) Rachel’s response to pressure is to become an alcoholic.
The major flaw in the film seems to me to be in the narration. I understand from the novel that there are meant to be three narrators – Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is often drunk. Megan does have a ‘voice’ in the narration and she discusses her life with Dr Abdic, a local psychiatrist but Anna seems much less of a ‘narrator’. The film uses titles to inform us that it is ‘Six months ago’ etc. I confess that I found these titles somewhat confusing. I still followed the story but clearly I became mixed up about the plot. I suspect that because I treated the narrative as a melodrama with Rachel as the central subject, I didn’t bother too much about the plotting of the thriller elements and I certainly didn’t worry about contrivances or ‘excessive’ emotional responses. Emily Blunt is terrific in the film and the other two women are also very good. It’s interesting that two out of the three are Brits (or Swedish Brit in the case of Rebecca Ferguson). Danish cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen is particularly good at presenting Emily Blunt on screen.The best line of the film for me was when Rachel challenges the psychiatrist played by Edgar Ramírez (the Venezuelan actor who speaks several languages fluently – see Carlos (France-Germany 2010)). “You have an accent”, she says. “So do you” he responds – touché! I like Ramírez a lot. I’m not sure that it matters, but he has more charisma than the other two male leads. On the other hand Justin Theroux plays Tom Watson very well as the rather dull guy with something lurking underneath. Luke Evans (another Brit!) plays Megan’s partner Scott and his macho tendencies seem more obvious. I was intrigued to see that the scriptwriter on the film, Erin Cressida Wilson, began her career with Secretary (2002) starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a very effective film. I’d forgotten, before I wrote this review, that I’d seen the James Brown biopic Get On Up (2014) by director Tate Taylor. When I re-read my posting on that film I noticed that one of my issues with it was the narrative structure. Taylor handles the actors and the action well. It’s mainly the narration that I have problems with in Girl on the Train.
The Girl on the Train is still on release and it’s worth seeing in a cinema. At the very least it has three lead roles for women, no car chases or explosions and no super-heroes. It’s a movie for grown-ups. The next day I watched Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1950) with Gene Tierney as a woman who falls prey to a hypnotist. I enjoyed both films.
This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.
The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.
The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.
Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.
From the 1960 Highsmith novel with the same English language title, This Sweet Sickness is a 1977 film by Claude Miller starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Moui. It’s perhaps the most delirious narrative of all the screenings in this Highsmith season, ending in a full-blown fantasy sequence.
David (Gérard Depardieu) is an accountant at a company in Central France. A typical Highsmith anti-hero, he ‘lives a lie’ – each weekend heading for Chamonix in the French Alps where he claims he is visiting his parents in a nursing home. In fact they are dead and he is secretly building/furnishing a chalet for his childhood sweetheart Lise (Dominique Laffin). Unfortunately she married someone else when David was away for two years (military service?) and is now pregnant with her first child. The film’s French title translates as ‘Tell Him/Her, I love Him/Her” which is intriguing and seems more informative that Highsmith’s original English title. This is because David himself is being pursued by Juliette (Miou-Miou) – and she in turn is being chased by David’s colleague François (Christian Clavier) who is attempting to cheat on his wife.
Claude Miller directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Luc Béraud. While keeping the central characters and the opening narrative close to Highsmith’s story (i.e. the book’s plot as reported on Wikipedia), Miller changed the second half in several ways. Not surprisingly perhaps, Highsmith did not like the adaptation. Miller, who died in 2012 just before his last film Thérèse Desqueyroux was shown at Cannes, was influenced by François Truffaut. Under Truffaut’s guidance he directed his first feature in 1976, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that aspects of Dites-lui que je l’aime seem to refer to Truffaut’s own interest in Hitchcock. At the beginning of the film David visits a cinema, sitting in front of Juliette who has recently moved into the same lodging-house. The screening is Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and a cut takes us straight from the auditorium to Joan Fontaine on the screen as the new Mrs de Winter exploring Manderley, the de Winter house. Juliette will eventually explore David’s chalet in Chamonix and if you know Rebecca you won’t be surprised at the chalet’s destruction in Dites-lui que je l’aime.
Claude Miller’s film is indeed ‘filmic’ and there are several interesting images/sequences. A photo in the chalet from the 1950s shows David and Lise as children. It sits below the kite (named ‘Fergus’) that they used to fly together. Outside the chalet a boy and girl, roughly the age of the children in the photo, are playing a game of ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. Where have they come from? The chalet is quite isolated in the hills. David comes out and shoos them away. Later in the film he sees another pair of children playing the same game. Are these children real or a figment of David’s obsessive imagination? In David’s bedroom at the chalet, a print on the wall shows a young woman looking out at the viewer. I think this might be Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Standing at a Virginal’ – or something similar (I think she was the other way round)? I thought that the scenes outside the chalet in the snow were reminiscent of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960).
In 1977 Gérard Depardieu was well on the way to becoming the pre-eminent French film star – a status he had obtained by the early 1980s. I watched him only a few weeks ago in 1900 (Novecento) (1976) which was shot only a couple of years earlier and he seems to have put on a lot of weight in just two years. In the image at the top of this post, he still displays a youthful sensitivity and charm (the glasses remind me of James Dean), but at the same time he hints at the brutality and wildness he is capable of. This was all part of Depardieu’s star persona and would come to the fore when he toured the US in 1990 to promote Green Card. In Dites-lui que je l’aime he slaps, punches and throws both men and women and throws wine or water in their faces. This film is unusual for Highsmith because, apart from Carol (UK-US-France 2015), it is the only one to my knowledge to involve two leading female characters, one of whom (Juliette) is nearly as active an agent as David himself. There is a sense in which Highsmith might be seen as misogynistic in terms of her female characters, but here she is perhaps better seen as misanthropic. I did find the violence dished out by David quite shocking – possibly because he flared up so quickly and was out of control before his victims were aware of what was happening. One of the main victims is Juliette – who dishes out her own form of emotional violence. Depardieu and Miou-Miou had ‘form’ in this kind of emotional drama, in Les valseuses (1974), a film that also includes Isabelle Huppert and Brigitte Fossey, both of whom have appeared in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ films.
In trying to classify this film, I can’t help thinking that it is a bit like ‘Truffaut-Hitcock on speed’ – it’s a psychological thriller, crime melodrama and emotional romance rolled into one. The performances of Depardieu, Miou-Miou and Claude Piéplu (who plays David’s eccentric neighbour) carry the energy that this mixture of repertoires suggests and I think this was perhaps the most enjoyable of the adaptations I’ve seen.
I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again. But I confess that I found the film narrative to be riveting and I soon forgot about the image quality. I watched this in one of the smallest screens at HOME which was nearly full. The last HOME screening in the season is this coming Thursday and since it’s directed by Claude Chabrol I’ll be there early to get a good seat. Can’t wait, this has been an excellent season.
After burying myself in Patricia Highsmith adaptations for a couple of weeks, it was quite refreshing to switch to this little gem of a Georges Simenon adaptation. The Blue Room stars Mathieu Almaric and he directs the film himself. The film is only 75 minutes long but none of the time is wasted.
Julien (Mathieu Almaric) is the owner of a business selling and renting out agricultural equipment in Central France. He has an attractive modern house, a beautiful wife and child but he has met again the girl he desired at school. She is now helping to run a pharmacy in a nearby town and she has an older husband who is ailing. She is very much up for an affair and the couple meet for afternoons together in a local hotel with a ‘Blue Room’ that becomes their regular site for passion.
The film is presented as a sequence of short scenes with ellipses. It reminded me somehow of Chris Marker’s La jetée (France 1962) – which is a narrative made up of still images. The story is narrated via flashbacks – Julien’s memories – and through the questioning by the local examining magistrate and a prison psychologist after a crime has been committed. Finally, there is a court scene in a traditional small town courtroom with locals crammed in to witness events. Much of the interest in the film is in its formal precision. The aspect ratio is Academy 1.37:1 and Almaric explains the reasons for this in the film’s Press Notes. This choice seems to be becoming more common. For me, it worked as this is a ‘chamber film’ with a clear sense of entrapment and the squarish ‘enclosed’ screen space seemed appropriate. Almaric says that the panoramic feel of widescreen would have created something different. The other two factors are the use of carefully chosen musical scoring from Grégoire Hetzel and photography that depends on many quite static shots composed by Christophe Beaucarne.
This kind of film defeats some conventional perspectives. I’ve seen it described as an ‘erotic thriller’. IMDb lists the various classifications in different territories. In the US, the MPAA has it as ‘R’, presumably because there is some full-frontal nudity (‘graphic nudity’!). In the UK, the BBFC has it as a ’15’ . In Germany it is ’12’ and in France it is for ‘Tous publics’. The film isn’t directly ‘erotic’ and the nudity is post-coital – I’m not sure it is a ‘thriller’ either, although there is one scene that might make you jump. What is transgressive is that the nude bodies are presented in a realist way. It’s a hot day. Sex has made the lovers sweat, there may be semen and there is certainly the drama of a spot of blood dropped on a white towel – a lip has been bitten in the heat of passion. Any eroticism is really in the mind, in the thrill of the secrecy of an affair and in the woman’s open desire – and the man’s acquiescence. Esther is played by Stéphanie Cléau who is also credited as co-writer of the film. She is physically taller than Julien and also more confident and assured in herself. I don’t think she is a type as such, even though we learn little about her – and what we do know comes from Julien’s memories. (I say this because some US reviews refer to ‘similar’ Hollywood genre movies which I think work quite differently.) Stéphanie Cléau is not a film actor. Her experience is in theatre as a writer and indeed there is something compellingly different about her brave performance. Almaric says that since Julien’s wife Delphine is played by an actor (Léa Drucker), it was important that Esther wasn’t a ‘known face’ because then it would be a contest between two actors. Esther is the initiator of the way the affair moves – Julien is in some ways the ‘willing victim’. All three leads are excellent.
On one level this is the story of how an affair can destroy a marriage, mapped out in the clinical investigations by a magistrate and a psychologist in prison. On a second level it is a cinephile’s treat, a delirious mix of influences and connections. Simenon’s novel comes from the early 1960s and it is a familiar story he had honed over many years. He’s been adapted many times and Amalric tells of how he acquired the rights at a time when he had a gap in projects and the chance to make a chamber piece in a short time. The most obvious lineage for the ideas in the film is from Simenon to Chabrol via Hitchcock. There is that same sense of a bourgeois affair, especially in small-town France. Rather than a thriller though, it is like a mystery – a ‘whydunit’. We get strong clues to how one crime might have been committed but we aren’t sure how another might have happened. Even more of a mystery/intrigue is why Julien would stray from his wife and child. In the most memorable line from the film, Julien reflects, “Life is different when you live it and when you go back over it after”. The trailer below offers a good sense of the formal qualities of the film. I’m struck again by the power of the music to suggest or perhaps to question emotions. Amongst a string of influences (Preminger, Fritz Lang) Almaric and Hetzel have created a blend of Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann with Truffaut’s use of Georges Delerue in La femme d’à côté (1974).
This is a film to watch and re-watch. In the UK the film has been in a handful of cinemas (Picturehouses claims it provided one of their busiest ‘Discovery Tuesday’ audiences) and is also available on VOD.
The film’s trailer (in the correct ratio – the US trailers falsely represent the film)