Keith reported on Sunset Song after its inclusion in the Leeds Film Festival. Seeing it now on general release, I recognise several of the points he raises and it is certainly a ‘flawed’ film in several respects. However, as Keith suggests, as a Terence Davies fan I find much to admire. I haven’t read the novel(s) (A Scots Quair Trilogy) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, but I’ve done my research and some interesting issues arise that are worth discussing. Sunset Song is the first and most widely praised (and presumably most widely read) of the three novels written in the early 1930s when Gibbon (real name James Leslie Mitchell) was in exile in Welwyn Garden City where he died just short of 34 years old in 1935. Although the film is relatively long at 135 minutes, Davies, as his own adapter, has cut several characters and attendant narrative lines from the central story – which will/has alienated some fans of the novel (a novel seen as central in the canon of Scots literature).
One of Keith’s main reservations was that the film does not deal sufficiently with the two central themes of the modernisation of the rural economy/agriculture in the 1900s and the socialist politics of some of the characters. Unfortunately, the screening I attended had sound problems for the first ten minutes and I couldn’t follow some of the dialogue. I think I missed some of the arguments around education. Chris, the central character played Agyness Deyn is a bright young woman, encouraged by her otherwise brutal father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher. But I suspect Keith has a valid point about the politics in the novel that doesn’t get much of a mention in the film. Davies is not really interested in politics. However, I disagree about the importance of the land, especially to Chris. There is a distinct discourse about the land and what it means to her. I was also struck by some of the similarities between the narrative and Thomas Hardy’s novels such as Far From the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Unlike Hardy’s fictional ‘Wessex’ a few decades earlier however, the similarly fictional Kinraddie Estate in The Mearns inland from Stonehaven does have access to the railway but the claims to mechanised farming seem less secure. I did though find one scene particularly symbolic when Chris’s father has a stroke while he is in the process of preparing a cart to receive a horse. It is almost as if he is the horse being felled.
The issue about Davies’s adaptation is that this isn’t a ‘filmic version of the book’, but instead it is another auterist work by the creator of Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and succeeding melodramas, usually focusing on central female characters (often as witnessed by the young Davies himself). Distant Voices includes some of the most stunning and disturbing scenes I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen and the same approach is taken here for many of the domestic scenes. The static camera views various tableaux head on. During a wake the assembled male mourners are gathered around a table and then we look through a doorway to see the women in a separate room, further back from the camera with shafts of light creating dark shadows around them. These are images like old Dutch paintings and from interviews we know that Vermeer is a favourite for Davies. But he also tells us about a Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) whose work on interiors was introduced to Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough by production designer Andy Harris. At this point I should say that one of the great achievements of the production is the way in which Davies and his production crew have managed to bring together three completely different production set-ups and meld them into a single coherent visual narrative. Keith suggested that: “It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good”. I need to correct and amplify that statement.
I think I’m correct in saying that in contemporary filmmaking, the original footage, whether it on film or digital, is first processed to create a ‘Digital Intermediate’ which is used for post-production. When this is complete, the print for projection is created, usually now via a digital master copy which is used to create a DCP, Blu-ray, DVD etc. In a sense, all films, even those that started on celluloid will be ‘digital’ at some point. For Sunset Song, the production went first to New Zealand for the summer harvest scenes which were shot by McDonough on 65mm film using an Arriflex 765 camera. 65mm gave McDonough the chance to film in very deep focus. There were just four days in New Zealand, followed by twenty days in a studio in Luxembourg for the interiors that were shot digitally on the Alexa XT Studio. Finally the production moved to Scotland to Gibbon/Mitchell’s chosen location for the fictional Kinraddie and completed the shoot after thirteen more days, combining 65mm film and digital for both exteriors and interiors. McDonough (a Scot trained in the US whose best-known film work is perhaps on Winter’s Bone) explains how he ‘matched’ the film and digital sequences in an interview for the ARRI Rental website. He also spoke about what Davies wanted in terms of visual style:
Terence has a very precise style. His frames are classically composed and he loves the camera to flow – to move elegantly and always with a clear justification. I knew going in that there would be no Steadicam or handheld shots; this would be classically lensed with tripod, dolly and crane. Our production designer, Andy Harris, had introduced the idea of taking the paintings of Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi as our main inspiration for the look of Sunset Song. The paintings are illuminated by a soft, directional, northern light; there was a coolness to them that suited our Scottish setting perfectly. The only variation from this was the summer harvest scenes, which were much warmer and more romantic in tone.
Sunset Song used the latest anamorphic lenses for a ‘Scope presentation and the care taken in the visual style means you should try to see this on the biggest screen possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the audience looking for a literary adaptation or for a straightforward romance or drama will recognise the artistry of the presentation. The film has received a number of negative reviews and it may be that it will attempt to find its audience on TV and video which will struggle to show it in all its glory. I’ve already indicated that I think the adaptation is flawed. For me the final part of the film that refers to what happens to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) when he enlists in the Great War just doesn’t work. I’ve read what Davies says in interviews and his logic and arguments are sound but it didn’t make sense to me on a first viewing. It felt to me that the ending had been foreshortened and the events didn’t seem to go together – the timescale seemed wrong.
The other criticisms of the film seem unwarranted. Inevitably there are arguments about ‘authenticity’ of accents etc. There are some local actors, specifically Ian Pirie as Chae, but many of the Scots are from the West Coast (Mullan, Guthrie and Daniela Nardini as Mrs Guthrie). I’ve seen some comments from North East Scotland both pro and anti. But of course it’s the casting of Agyness Deyn which is most controversial. Ms Deyn is a Lancashire lass and she makes a brave stab at the local accent but to see how far off she sometimes gets (especially in her voiceover narration) just go to the 1971 BBC TV serial of the books on YouTube (mind you, I don’t know how authentic that is!). Does it matter? Not at all for me. I was very impressed with Agyness Deyn. I’d never seen her before and I thought she moved well, used her modelling training and conveyed her spirit through her sparkling eyes. Most of all she conveyed what I take Terence Davies to have wanted from his heroine – which is all that matters really. I enjoyed all the other performances as well – although I do understand why many audiences might be tired of yet another angry and violent man portrayed by Peter Mullan. I feel that I do have to mention the pairing of Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie. I like Kevin Guthrie but he is shorter than his co-star (as was the case in Sunshine on Leith as well). I can’t work out if Davies thought that having Chris taller than Ewan said something in terms of the narrative or whether the height difference is irrelevant – but it is there and I increasingly find casting decisions interesting.
I’m not going to attempt to deal with the music and the singing in the film, even though they are a crucial element in any Terence Davies film. The choice of songs – and versions of the songs has been quite controversial, but information on the soundtrack is difficult to find. I need to see the film a few more times. But to go back to Keith’s review, he mentions the Glasgow Orpheus Choir (I’m assuming it’s them singing ‘All in the April Evening’ during a sequence in which the villagers ‘flock’ to the church). This is a good example of Davies creating an image that doesn’t refer to realism. People would not trample through the barley field as depicted in the film and it is very strange to have the scene in the church with the choir singing. Is it diegetic or non-diegetic? I kept wondering if the choir would emerge from the shadows at the back of the church. My knowledge of Scottish religious practice is limited and didn’t allow me to recognise what kind of church it was. But I don’t go to a Terence Davies film for authenticity, I go for art.
Sunset Song is absolutely worth seeing on a big screen and some of the points discussed above are illustrated in the trailer:
This film is in the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. From the opening sequences the meticulous mise en scène and the overbearing father figure we are in the familiar territory of director Terence Davies. Farmer Guthrie presides over a family of wife, older daughter and son and younger children in the early C20th. They live and work in Aberdeenshire near the North East Coast of Scotland. If you like Davies’ work then you will, along with my friend Jake, be absorbed and impressed by the film. I found it rather long and not that involving. This is partly down to Davies’ style: the film appears to aim at naturalism, but the self-conscious style militates against this.
It is, as always with Davies, beautifully done. The cast are excellent and to my (untrained) ear the Scottish accents were correct. Note though, the film uses locations in New Zealand as well as Scotland: surprising when the film was partly funded by Creative Scotland. The farm is set on the edge of rolling hills and the landscapes, buildings and surrounds appear authentic. This is equally true of the costumes and props, and indeed the animals on the farm. But there is an absence of muck. There are muddy fields, but elsewhere it all seems rather pristine. The daughter Chris at one point states that
“I hate dirt.”
And this seems true of the film. Chris appears to be wearing make-up all through the film, in 1900s rural Scotland. There is mud aplenty in a wartime sequence; here we get a slow overhead tracking shot of mud and barbed wire, possibly a fly cam.
The film presents all this in a slow manner. There are frequent slow pans, tilts and dissolves. Whilst the pace of a early 20th rural community would be slow I rather felt that there would have been a quicker rhythm to life. The most dramatic sequences involve violence and sex with a raw realism.
The period is just before and during World War I. This was a period of transition in Scottish rural communities, a major theme apparently in the source novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons (1932) adapted by Davies.
“i.e. the coming of modernisation to traditional farming communities”.
However I felt that the film did not really dramatise these themes effectively. Obviously the film has made cuts to the novel, but not always to best effect. Just one example, the novel includes the following:
“The theme of the onset of modernisation and the end of old ways is explored using many symbols, for example, violent deaths of horses (supposed to represent old, traditional farming methods)”
I can ensure animals lovers that I did not spot any animal fatalities in the film.
Another theme in the novel, addressing the position of women, is there in the film. Indeed Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie is excellent, but the other women in the story are undeveloped, so it becomes a film about a heroine rather than a community. One of the major scenes of community in the film is a gathering to attend the Church Service and be harangued by the minister on the war effort. The critical tone of this is good but it also feels so conventional. Davies likes shots of golden cornfields. And the villagers gather through a cornfield whilst the Glasgow Orpheus Choir sing on the soundtrack: this was overly rich.
The novel has enjoyed a number of adaptations, both for the theatre and for television. I have not seen these but apparently they also made changes. It is not really fair to judge the film by its faithfulness to the novel. However, apart from the style, I found the film thematically unclear. In particular there is a strong strand of socialist thinking in Gibbons’ novels, but the film only had three lines of dialogue in which ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ appears, and no serious context for this: (rather like Suffragette 2015). The novel is part of a trilogy by Gibbons, so I suspect the absence of the later two from the treatment leads to the sense of irresolution at the close. I think if you like Davies’ films you will probably enjoy his treatment of this period story, it is a visual and aural feast. It is screening again on Thursday November 12th at the Hyde Park Picture house, but at 3.30 p.m. It is a long film 135 minutes. It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good.
Wikipedia has a page on the novelist and there is Paul Foot.
Gemma Bovery faces similar problems to Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but with the added twist that this is a French film – so a whole new range of assumptions and potential prejudices arise. Both films are adaptations of comic strips by Posy Simmonds which first appeared in the Guardian and then as ‘graphic novels’. Tamara Drewe is a modern take on Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd and the new film, as the eponymous title suggests, is a re-imagining of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The story takes place in Normandy and the film is directed by Anne Fontaine from a script by Pascal Bonitzer (whose previous script was for Looking For Hortense 2012 – which he also directed).
The story demands a French setting but the other factor, which possibly escaped some UK reviewers, is that Tamara Drewe attracted bigger audiences in France than in the UK. A significant French audience segment is Anglophile and this overlaps with the audience for sophisticated social comedy. The plays of Alan Ayckbourn and the novels of Julian Barnes go down well in France. Posy Simmonds studied at the Sorbonne and her graphic novel (la bande dessinée) of Gemma Bovery also sold in France. French comedies lampoon the bourgeoisie and a director like Claude Chabrol found ways to be amusing while skewering the same middle classes in thrillers. Fabrice Luchini is one of the top comic actors in films like Bicycling with Molière, 2013 as well as François Ozon comedies such as Potiche, 2010 and In the House, 2012. No surprise then that he is cast in Gemma Bovery as the meddling observer, the Parisian publisher who retires to a village in Normandy to run his family’s bakery business. When he sees his new neighbours arriving from England and that the ravishing young woman is potentially a bored wife named ‘Gemma Bovery’ he is almost beside himself with joy.
Posy Simmonds set out in all her Guardian comic strips to gently critique the typical liberal Guardian-reading classes and in the process to pit them against grasping Thatcherite characters with their greed and lack of humanity – and often their cultural ignorance. This political subtext and the class analysis is partly why the two films struggle with UK audiences, some of whom might see themselves as the butt of the jokes. The aim of Gemma Bovery is to explore the impact of the English middle classes on French provincial life and in turn to imagine how a modern-day Madame Bovary might behave – and most of all, how she might feel about her own behaviour. Emma Bovary was an arriviste – a young woman from a farming family who married an older man, a doctor, for security and the respectable life and then bored by her new life, set out on a trail of adultery and indulgence. In the 21st century women’s horizons have widened and ‘shame’ doesn’t operate in quite the same way. As Gemma, Ms Arterton is ravishing. She seems more fun and generally more attractive than my fading memories of the comic strip. I think that a focus on costume design might be interesting and I do feel that Anne Fontaine has created another intriguing female character following her version of Coco Chanel with Audrey Tautou. The local haute bourgeoisie and the other ‘local’ English characters are truly hideous but I did feel for Jason Flemyng as ‘M. Bovary’ – an unenviable role.
I enjoyed the film but I wish my memories of the novel were more reliable. I got a lot of the jokes but I daresay I missed a few because I’d forgotten elements of the story. Gemma Arterton learned to speak French for the role and now she is listed as the lead in a new French film, currently in pre-production, Orpheline. That would mean that she would become a slightly surprising addition to the growing list of female actors who have embraced French filmmaking. Why so few men making the same move, I wonder?
The UK trailer:
(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):