A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Foreign Language film earlier this month. The award is usually reserved for either a complex art film from an acknowledged auteur or a more conventional film that deals with a subject with which Academy voters can readily identify. A Fantastic Woman leans towards the latter in terms of its narrative. The voting seems to reflect a change in the constituency of Academy voters, so that a film focusing on a transgender woman receives support in the same way that a film about a gay African-American boy growing to be a man won Best Picture in 2017. Having said that, the director of A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, had already won recognition for his earlier film Gloria in 2013 which was nominated and won prizes at many international film festivals. He also invests his new film with melodrama symbolism that wouldn’t appear in a mainstream film. I make these observations because when a film makes a splash in the global market place like A Fantastic Woman it becomes subject to a different range of critics and reviewers as well as general audiences and I’ve noted a few odd reactions in this case.
I saw A Fantastic Woman in a preview screening a couple of weeks before its UK release. I deliberately avoided reading about the film before the screening. All I knew was that the woman of the title was transgender. I was then surprised that the film screening was preceded by the director introducing his film direct to camera. The screening was in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot so I wondered if this was a satellite transmission to Picturehouses cinemas around the country (the sound levels were very high). If so, I was bemused to discover that A Fantastic Woman was distributed in the UK by Picturehouses’ rival Curzon Artificial Eye. Anyway, I tried to ignore the director’s statement because I wanted to experience the film ‘cold’. My cool response soon warmed up. As the star of the film, Daniela Vega is indeed ‘fantastic’.
I enjoyed the film very much. I haven’t seen many of the growing number of recent films that feature transgender characters and I’m not particularly aware of transgender issues, so my response to the film is mainly based on my reaction to the prejudice displayed towards Marina and the character’s strength and determination to live her life. I’ve seen some criticism that the prejudice seems to be simply ‘too much’. Would people really act like that? But perhaps this view doesn’t take into account the situation in Chile?
The narrative structure of the film is straightforward. We watch a couple – a younger woman and an older man – out for a celebration of the woman’s birthday. They return home and make love but early in the morning the man becomes unwell and then dies in hospital. When the woman brings her lover to the hospital she is treated with suspicion – the hospital won’t accept her name, ‘Marina’, because it must be her nickname, not her ‘real’ name. What follows are a series of humiliations for a woman who has just experienced the death of her lover. From here on in, the narrative follows the logic of a neorealist film. Marina is barred by her lover’s family from attending his funeral and his cremation. She must try to assert her right to be there and to physically make her presence felt. That’s the story, with a coda when we discover how she acts once the cremation has taken place.
The level of distrust of Marina (is she a gold-digger?) added to the prejudice of ignorance about her sexual identity might seem excessive but Chile appears to be a country with a great contradiction at the centre of its modern society. The legacy of the Pinochet years of fascist repression lingers in a country which also seems visibly caught between the sparkling new modern architecture of parts of Santiago (where the film is set) and other parts of the same city which represent earlier times. Marina is a ‘new woman’ faced with her lover’s family who reveal the prejudices of a traditional society with young men who display machismo and Orlando’s ex-wife who displays her class hatred for Marina (which is arguably misplaced anyway). Not everyone in Orlando’s family is so aggressively anti but the vitriol and violence of the younger males is the most disturbing element. Outside the family, it is the response of hospital and police staff (‘following orders’) that most invokes the Pinochet years. I won’t spoil the narrative further, but there are conscious humiliations designed to unsettle and throw into doubt personal identity.
Sebastián Lelio presents Marina’s story as a melodrama, which is fine by me, but risks alienating some modern audiences. He himself declares that
” . . . It’s a romance film, a ghost film, a fantasy film, a film about humiliation and revenge, a document of reality, a character study (from the Sony Classics Press Notes).
It is all of these, but its presentation is via melodrama. The film uses music carefully and its score is by the British electronic music composer Matthew Herbert (see this webpage to listen to the main title). Marina herself is a singer, training to sing operatic arias such as Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from his 1738 opera Xerxes. It was written for a castrato but I’m not sure how to classify Daniela Vega’s voice in the film’s version of her performance – it is presumably some form of soprano voice? There are several fantasy sequences but the most obvious melodrama symbolism is in the repeated ‘mirror shots’, some of which are very inventive. The mirror image, especially when Marina looks into the mirror and sees her ‘split’ identity.
Daniela Vega, who ‘transitioned’ when she was an older teenager, was originally approached as a transgender ‘consultant’ for the film’s production before taking up the role of the central character. I’m so glad she got the chance to perform in this role which I suspect will go down as a highly significant role in global cinema. Go and see the film – you won’t be disappointed. And if you don’t have a tear in your eye when the scene below plays out, I’ll be very surprised:
If you need any more persuading, here’s the official trailer:
Ciambra is a small settlement in Calabria in Southern Italy (close to Gioia Tauro) with a large extended Roma family involved in various ‘marginal’ and ‘illegal’ activities. The youngest son in the family is 14 year-old Pio (Pio Amato). Not much older than his own nephews and nieces, Pio is conscious of needing to grow up quickly to be like his much older brother and to get away from the scrutiny of his mother, the matriarch of the family. This sounds like it will be a conventional coming-of-age story, but there is more to it than that. This isn’t a Mafia/Cammora/’Ndràngheta story. Ciambria is an isolated community – more like an isolated encampment than part of a city. Pio goes into the town or to other small communities but avoids mainstream criminals. The Roma boy is concerned about territories and identities. (The real Gioia Tauro is only a small town but it has been associated with ‘Ndràngheta and it has the largest container port in Italy.)
Writer-director Jonas Carpignano (born & schooled in New York, lives in Italy) made a big impression with his first feature Mediterranea (Italy 2015) about the problems of two African migrants coming to Italy. His reward was to be selected as one of the first to benefit from Martin Scorsese’s fund for younger filmmakers and a subsequent offer of support from Sundance. His starting point was to go for the ‘authenticity’ of non-professionals and the whole Roma family appear to be playing themselves if the credits are to be taken at face value. Fairly early on it becomes clear that Pio is not quite like the older members of the family – though he may be a throwback to his grandfather, the man who established the community in the area and who is still around at the start of the narrative. After the screening and after researching Mediterranea (which only got a DVD release in the UK and which I haven’t seen), I realised that Pio and his African friend Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) feature in both films, though whether as the same characters I’m not sure.
A Ciambra was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and was chosen as the Italian entrant for the Foreign Language Film Oscar so it has clearly made an impact. A good starting point might be to consider the extent to which the film refers back to neorealist studies of specific communities. Carpignano himself refers in this interview to his childhood memories of De Sica and Rossellini and the kids in their films. Jonathan Romney has referred to Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) because of that film’s similar focus on a tightly-knit community in Sicily. Many critics have tried to place the film in relation to that Italian tradition and more recent approaches. The Dardenne brothers post Rosetta (1999) is one touchstone but I’ve tended to see them as slightly removed from classic neorealism. Carpignano uses his non-professionals filmed on authentic locations and he inserts some traditional neorealist ‘lacks’ that need to be put right. This mainly means finding sources of money from increasingly ambitious petty crimes to solve various problems faced by the extended family. Unfortunately, Pio’s education is in stealing cards and copper wire and trying to grow up to be like his brother. He has to get another young person to read the messages on his phone because he hasn’t had time to learn to read. There isn’t a great deal of plot but Pio’s ‘coming of age’ comes in a final sequence which I found very distressing. But as my viewing partner pointed out what we were offered is a reality in Italy.
Jonas Carpignano has an Italian father and an African-American mother. This may be a reason why he began his feature film career with a story about African migrants and why in his second film he shows both the mixed race children in the Roma family and the African community in another small community that Pio is drawn towards by his friend Ayiva. The Africans are mainly from Nigeria and Ghana and they speak English as a common language, that is also used by Ayiva from Burkina Faso. The reality is that in the pecking order in Calabria, the Roma come below the Italians and the Africans are below the Roma. Neorealism can be developed as melodrama and this true to a certain extent in A Ciambra which has plenty of music on the soundtrack and a range of emotional relationships. But it also has its own element of ‘magic realism’ in the hallucinations that Pio experiences concerning his grandfather. I thought at first these came from heavy dope smoking – when Pio first sees the horse I thought of a similar moment in La haine (France 1995) when Vinz sees a cow in his housing estate. But then it occurred to me that the fantasies came because of the pressure suffered by Pio. There is a sense that Pio is his grandfather re-born and that he could rise above his misdeeds. I hope so. It’s very difficult not to warm to Pio as a character. He’s 14 years-old and frightened of travelling on a train – he’s not a gangster.
A Ciambria is photographed by Tim Curtin who also lensed Mediterranea and was in the camera unit on Beasts of the Southern Wild (US 2012), another film I haven’t seen. I mention it here because Jonas Carpignano was an assistant director on that film which also included in its crew the film editor and music composer of A Ciambra, Affonso Gonçalves and Dan Romer. I’m pleased to report that Peccadillo Pictures has picked up A Ciambra for a UK release in May. It’s well worth a watch. IFC/Sundance Selects released the film in the US in January:
Custody is quite a difficult film to write about without giving away too much. It’s scheduled for release by Picturehouses in the UK in the near future, so no spoilers! The screening at Glasgow Film Theatre was attended by the director Xavier Legrand and lead actor Denis Ménochet. The nearly full house was very enthusiastic during the Q&A and had clearly ‘enjoyed’ the film despite or because of its intensity, shocks and strong emotions.
I think I was thrown by the opening sequence which comprises a ‘mediation meeting’ between a husband and wife struggling through the dissolution of their marriage and custody of their children, both speaking through their legal representatives who deliver their cases in rapid (French) legalese. They are seated in close proximity around a table. The judge barely speaks and goes away promising a verdict some time later. The couple’s daughter is about to become 18, but her younger brother is only 12 and what happens to him is seemingly the focus of the drama. Watching the sequence, I thought of the opening to Asgar Farhadi’s film, A Separation (Iran 2011) and wondered if Custody was going to turn into that kind of family melodrama with dramatic intensity and legal/social/moral questions. I was wrong and I clearly misread or didn’t notice the clues to a different kind of drama. I can tell you that the director was inspired by three films (all American). One was Kramer v. Kramer. The other two were more suprising, but to name them would give the game away.
I can’t tell you what kind of narrative develops without saying too much about the plot and I think the power of the film depends on not knowing what will happen – in fact, creating uncertainty about the characters was a deliberate ploy by the director. The performances of Denis Ménochet as the father Antoine, Léa Drucker as the mother Miriam and, especially, Thomas Gioria as their son Julien are all excellent. Perhaps I can simply say that the audience is offered the same evidence/testimony in the opening as the judge. What do we think? And what will we find out over the next 90 minutes?
One of the perceptive comments in the Q&A was that the film has more female than male characters in important roles, so during the mediation, the judge and both advocates are female. The director pointed out that this was to be expected in urban areas because as mothers the three legal professionals were less likely to take jobs outside the strong childcare network in the city. But it’s also the case that Miriam has a sister and her daughter has friends but Thomas is more on his own. You might take from these observations that this is a film aware of gender issues and that it is in tune with its times. If the Glasgow audience is anything to go by, the film should receive press coverage and strong word of mouth. I think I would have liked to see the story take a different turn, but that doesn’t mean that I think the narrative presented here is not of supreme importance. Rather I have a preference for melodrama and for the sociology of the situation. I was amused that some of the action takes place on the ‘Rue Winston Churchill’ in what the subtitles called ‘the projects’, but these were more middle class than les cités familiar from banlieue films in France. I would have liked to ask questions about the setting (suburban Paris or a city in Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, listed as giving support) and the social class positions of the characters during the Q&A, but this clearly wasn’t what the majority of the audience was interested in. I think this might be classed as a social realist melodrama, though there is little music in the film. This is odd since Josephine, the daughter, is a music student who sings two versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Proud Mary’, which could be a commentary of some sort on the action. I hope the film finds its audience on release.
Sometimes you find that your selection criteria for festival screenings goes awry. Mobile Homes started late because though we were told the lead actors had arrived they didn’t actually appear in the cinema until 15 mins past the advertised screening start time. I’d chosen the film thinking it was a Canadian film with a French co-production partner. I was bemused that it should have two British leads, Imogen Poots and Callum Turner, but I assumed that the director was French-Canadian. Wrong.
Vladimir de Fontenay won a prize with his short film Mobile Homes in 2013. He is a French director who has lived and worked in the US and studied at New York University Film School which gave him considerable support to help make this extended/’opened out’ version of his short as his first feature. He originated the story based on his experience of areas in upstate New York. Why did he end up shooting over the border with a Canadian crew? The obvious answer is that a France-Canada co-production would be official and would be eligible for both Canadian and French support from public agencies, but there is no indication of this. Does any of this matter, you may well ask. I think so.
The film’s title is both metaphorical and actual. Ali (Imogen Poots) and her son Bone (Frank Oulton) have teamed up with Evan (Callum Turner), a hustler dealing drugs and roosters for illegal fights. The trio move from one motel to the next or squat somewhere overnight. They have no ‘home’, either in terms of a permanent residence or as ‘a place to call their own’. When they become separated, Ali and Bone find themselves in a wooden house which is being transported on a low loader by Robert (Callum Keith Rennie) who runs a small ‘park’ of these wooden buildings. This is confusing for Brits as we tend to think of a ‘mobile home’ as a trailer, a caravan or a van with sleeping accommodation. These are bigger buildings without wheels of their own. They are assembled in a factory and then moved to a ‘park’. Evan, having lost Ali and Bone will come looking for them in the last section of the narrative.
The film is fast-paced in the opening section with the camera whipping about as the trio try to make money from various deals. The cinematography is by Benoit Soler who also shot Ilo, Ilo (Singapore 2013), a very different kind of film that I liked a lot. When the ‘split’ takes place, the pace slows a little but I was dreading the return of Evan. Imogen Poots does very well with her role and Frank Boulton as Bone is excellent. This part might have been a social realist drama. I’ve seen Poots in several roles and she’s always been impressive. There is music in the film, but the most important song (the only one I recognised) was Etta James’ version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – an odd choice, especially as it’s a live version. You may have noticed that I’m being rather down on the Evan character who is described in some promotional material as ‘intoxicating’. I don’t think so. The actor Callum Turner has a list of credits in TV and mainly mainstream films, none of which I’ve seen, but he clearly has a fan following and star potential. He and Imogen Poots offered a rather ‘starry’ Q&A which went down very well with the festival audience. The fourth major character Robert is a potential balance for Evan and as played by the Alberta-raised actor Callum Keith Rennie he adds further weight to the central section of the narrative.
I suspect it is my (old) age (and interest in Canadian cinema) that made me less than sympathetic about the film overall. The lack of Canadian identity in the film (no recognisable Eastern Canada accents or distinctive locations) made it feel like it could be happening anywhere. The whole narrative didn’t seem to hold together – the third section includes a dramatic action sequence which in some ways matches the earlier scenes. What starts off as an odd crime melodrama transforms into a social drama/melodrama and then a road movie of sorts. You’ll be able to make up your own minds later this year in the UK with a release via Thunderbird (a Canadian company I think).
Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.
Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.
The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).
Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)
Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)
The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.
Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.
The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.
As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!
What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.
Here’s the official trailer:
The latest film by Jia Zhang-ke to reach the UK has taken two years since its appearance at Cannes in May 2015. I’m not sure why it has taken so long but it certainly seems to have confused a few critics. Jia has made several different kinds of films over his career and this one looks back to his earliest films, but also forwards to the future. I found it fascinating, not least in its use of popular music – the film begins and ends with the Pet Shop Boys version of ‘Go West’ which Jia has said was a favourite at the height of the disco boom in China in the late 1990s. In some ways, the film is quite straightforward as a story narrated over three distinct periods. But it’s easy to miss some of the important underlying ideas. I recommend reading the Press Notes which can be downloaded from the Cannes website.
Outline (trying not to give too much away)
The story begins in 1999 with a triangular relationship in Fenyang, Shanxi province in Northern China, with Tao (Zhao Tao) attempting to decide between two suitors. She will marry one and the other will leave the city. Several years later Tao has a son.
In 2014 Tao has separated from her husband and doesn’t see her son who lives far away. Tao helps her old friend and former suitor when he returns to Fenyang. A family event brings her small son back to the city for a visit.
In 2025, Tao’s son is living in Melbourne and as a 19 year-old is adrift and not sure what he wants out of life. Does he want to find his mother? What has happened to her?
The outline doesn’t sound very much but I’ve purposively kept it simple. Here’s the director’s explanation of what the film is ‘about’:
From the very start I conceived Mountains May Depart as a film about ‘love and relationships’. In China, we generally put those two words together in the word qingyi: the component qing means emotional affection, and the component yi means bonds of loyalty and obligation. In Shanxi, though, we’ve tended to distinguish between qing and yi; for us, yi has more to do with commitment and responsibility. Even when people grow apart over time, yi of some kind can still exist.
Reflecting on the film (which I saw before reading the Press Notes) this statement makes a lot of sense. What Jia appears to be doing is going back to Fenyang to rediscover qing and yi and then ‘testing’ the characters and their relationships to see whether economic growth and the lure of individualistic capitalism can break those bonds of yi. It isn’t just money, but also the prospect of migration that causes change. It seems significant that Jia originally thought of setting the third section of the film in the great migrant communities of Vancouver, Toronto or New York, but in the end opted for Australia. He explains that it isn’t so much the distance to Australia, but more the different seasons in the Southern hemisphere that make it seem more ‘on the edge of the world’. He does, however, include an important character in the last section who originated in Hong Kong, but has lived in Toronto before arriving in Melbourne. Australia and New Zealand are certainly important destinations for Chinese migration today.
The three sections of the film are presented in different aspect ratios. I’m not sure if it’s quite as strictly defined as that (I noticed that the ratio had changed, but not necessarily when it changed.) 1999 is presented in Academy, 2014 in 1:1.85 and 2025 in 1:2.39. The reason for this appears to be completely pragmatic (though it also ‘marks’ a change in technologies over time). Jia grew up in Fenyang and made his first three films there with cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai. These films (Xiao Wu, Platform and Unknown Pleasures) are very much concerned with the ‘feel’ of the city and its youth and Jia and Yu shot quite a lot of footage using early digital equipment with a 4:3 image format. Some of this is used in the 1999 sequences and again in the 2014 section (when the documentary material was shot on an Alexa in 1:1.85). It then seemed logical to present the third section in ‘Scope. The use of documentary footage certainly enhances the sense of place – but it also disrupts or ‘makes strange’ the narrative with the insertion of odd events – a plane crash, an old truck nearly losing its load.
I’ve seen several several reviewers refer to Mountains May Depart as a melodrama. I’m not sure that is the most helpful categorisation here. It’s true there is music and there is a symbolic use of colours (the film tending to move from reds to blues and greens) and objects such as sets of keys – and there is a family drama. But Jia tends towards films that refuse conventional descriptions. This is perhaps closer to an ‘essay film’ about the Chinese future. It is the last sequence that has exercised Western critics most. The section is mostly in English and has a focus on language and identity (and in which the Taiwanese and Hong Kong star, actor-director Sylvia Chang plays a significant role). There is only a minimal concern with ‘futuristic’ objects, including some very attractive translucent tablets (complementing the moment in the 2014 sequence when iPhones are ceremoniously given as wedding presents). The concept of a Chinese community struggling with identity in Australia seems quite plausible to me. I’ll be thinking about this film for a long time and it may well send me back to looking again at Jia’s earlier films. I’m beginning to think that it is the links between films that need to be foregrounded and I was struck by how this film links to Wrath of Silence (China 2017) in selecting the private ownership of coal mines as an indicator of potential problems for Chinese society. On the other hand, several critics have suggested that Jia deliberately courted the Chinese government by including various lines of dialogue in this film after they banned the release of his previous feature A Touch of Sin (China-Japan 2013). Zhao Tao is extraordinary in this film, offering a performance that spans 26 years and convincing the audience each time. I’m always impressed by the work of Yu Lik-Wai, who has also worked on three films by the Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui.
Here’s the US trailer (note that the trailer doesn’t use the three different aspect ratios):
(It has been pointed out to me that the Australian scenes in the last section were shot in Western Australia as well as Victoria. I took the location to be Melbourne because of what I thought was a reference in a subtitle for a line of dialogue. It doesn’t really matter as long as it signifies Australia since the last section is an imagined future.)
I’m not sure Gloria Grahame ever got top billing in a film (except in the long-forgotten Prisoners of the Casbah (1953)), but she was undoubtedly a real Hollywood star for roughly a decade from 1947-59. I remember the book, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool being published in the late 1980s. Peter Turner told the true story of how as a young actor he met Grahame in London, became her lover and friend and then two years later took the dying actor home to his family in Liverpool. I haven’t read the book, but according to readers and what Turner himself says, the new film keeps the main elements of the story and its nonlinear structure – moving backwards and forwards in time and place, sometimes seamlessly so that a dreamlike tone is achieved. The real events took place between 1979 and 1981 and it is has taken some thirty years to put the story on screen since David Puttnam took the first option on the rights. Apart from cinephiles and Golden Age film fans, most contemporary cinemagoers won’t necessarily know much about her films and Turner himself admits that he saw her films on DVD after her death. There were seven people in the audience for the screening we attended on a wet Sunday night. That’s a shame because it is a good film about an iconic figure.
Ms Grahame became trapped within a persona which was read by audiences as a sexy young woman who circumstances placed in unfortunate situations. There was an intelligence associated with the character, a skill with dialogue delivered in an unmistakeable voice and there was both a cheeky stance and an edge to her performances in several classic films noirs. In her best performance, in In a Lonely Place (1950), she matched Humphrey Bogart stride for stride. This was the role in which the reality of life in Hollywood seeped into the film’s narrative in several ways. Bogart’s company produced the film and Grahame was cast because Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall couldn’t be released from her studio contract. Grahame was then directed by Nick Ray, the husband she was in the process of divorcing. Ironically in today’s febrile climate, that film was about male abuse of women and Gloria Grahame certainly knew about what that could mean in Hollywood. Contracted to RKO, she feared Howard Hughes as the studio boss and felt that because of him she lost the opportunity to appear in Born Yesterday, the film that made Judy Holliday a star. It was another two years before she made her Oscar-winning performance in Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (as Best Supporting Actor). She appeared in several major films including the terrific Odds Against Tomorrow in 1959 with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan (the villain from Crossfire in 1947 in which her film noir persona was first developed). After that, the good roles dried up for an attractive woman and an accomplished actor who was only 36. But Gloria was a trained actor and she could move into TV and back to the stage. She had made two films in the UK in the 1950s and it was during a small-scale theatrical run that she met the jobbing actor Peter Turner in London in 1979.
The story goes that Annette Bening was asked by Stephen Frears, director of The Grifters (1990), to look at Gloria Grahame’s performances in her films noirs in preparation for her own role in a neo-noir. Now Bening is the same age as Grahame was in 1979-81 and she can play her for real. And she is very good indeed, not in the sense of mimicry, but in representing Gloria Grahame as she may well have been in later life. Jamie Bell is also excellent as Peter Turner. It’s a difficult role to play in order to make the romance and friendship work. It isn’t just a difference in age that marks the relationship but also the differences in social class and celebrity. Bell negotiates all of this believably. Some of the other casting decisions seemed a little more questionable to me. Peter Turner came from a large Liverpool family which in the film is represented mainly by brother Joe (Stephen Graham) and mum (Julie Walters) and dad (Kenneth Cranham). All three are well-known faces in the UK (less so in the US, perhaps). Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is not a realist film but I found the trio distracting. Graham, a genuine Scouser, sports what appears to be a comedy wig, recalling jokes about bubble perms for Liverpool footballers in 1981. Walters too appears to have a rather prominent wig. Both Graham and Walters are great performers but didn’t work for me here. By contrast, in a California sequence, we see Vanessa Redgrave as Gloria’s mother (a teacher of actors) and Frances Barber as her sister Joy (once married to Robert Mitchum’s younger brother, John). This made sense.
I’m a big Gloria Grahame fan and I liked the film very much and yes, the tears came at the end. But what intrigued me about it most of all was the look and tone of the film. At its most extreme this was apparent in the California sequence in which Gloria takes Peter to her home by the beach in a spacious trailer. The whole of this sequence, including a drive down an ocean road that might have come from In a Lonely Place, was shot on a Pinewood stage where director Paul McGuigan was able to use the largest film screen ever built for a back projection exercise. The images were created by multiple digital projectors and the results can be seen in the clip below:
The intention was to evoke the style of the films noirs in which Gloria made her name. It certainly worked for me and I found the same sense of slight surrealism in many of the location shot sequences back in the UK. Liverpool in 1981 was characterised by ‘uprisings’ in Toxteth and a certain amount of desolation as industry collapsed and housing was not ‘regenerated’. Many parts of the city have changed considerably over the last twenty years. I kept thinking about the autobiographical films of Terence Davies such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). These invoked the Liverpool streets of the 1950s. Paul McGuigan’s film is probably quite different and I’d see this if I put them side by side, but the tone took me back to these representations of an earlier period. The ‘head-on’ image of Peter and his Dad in the local pub, with all the Labour posters on the wall works very well.
Director Paul McGuigan has had a career of ups and downs in cinema features with some high profile TV work to keep him busy. I hope this film at least pushes him back towards the limelight. It’s also a useful credit for Matt Greenhalgh who stuttered with The Look of Love after a strong beginning with Control and Nowhere Boy. He’s got back some of his Lancashire credentials for me. I was also impressed by the cinematography of Urszula Pontikos and the production design of Eve Stewart (assuming she wasn’t directly responsible for those wigs!).
Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate and I’m not sure of what to make of their decisions about its release. The film opened on 150 sites with a screen average of £1,500 and No. 6 in the Top 10. However, after the second weekend and a drop of 54%, the longevity of the film in cinemas is in doubt. It hasn’t done badly and Lionsgate might be correct in thinking their strategy has maximised its potential. Still, it’s an odd approach in the current climate – neither a ‘wide’ mainstream release or a limited specialised release. The film has had plenty of coverage on Radio 4 and in the broadsheets and I think it is aiming for an older audience. It might do well on DVD. It’s the kind of film that perhaps doesn’t fit the current Picturehouse/Curzon audience (though they have probably sold the most tickets for it). Distribution in the UK is in such a state of flux that I guess ‘nobody really knows what to do with a film like this. My recommendation is to go and see it if it appears near you. The BFI have also re-released In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat, but only on a handful of screens. These are the two best films that Gloria Grahame appeared in (and two of her best performances). See them first, if you can, then this film. Ms Grahame was a great Hollywood star who deserves to be remembered. There is a Sight and Sound essay by Serena Bramble in the December 2017 issue and a video essay here: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/video/in-her-eyes-notes-gloria-grahame
Here are trailers for The Big Heat (1953) and In a Lonely Place (1950):
The BFI’s Gloria Grahame season continues on the South Bank until 30 December.
Sheikh Jackson is a mainstream popular Egyptian film that entertains and has something to say. For its LFF screening on a Saturday lunchtime, the Mayfair in Curzon was the perfect choice because of the area’s long-term status as important for London’s Arab population. I arrived just in time as the director and his crew were introduced. There were plenty of empty seats but they all got filled in the next few minutes. The audience obviously enjoyed the film and the Q&A revealed that there were indeed many Egyptian groups present.
As the film’s title implies, the narrative involves a fascination with Michael Jackson as experienced by someone who has the honorific title ‘sheikh’ which in this case has a religious connotation as a title for a young man leading prayers in his mosque and training to become an imam. The narrative begins with the family life of a devout young father discovering his daughter’s fascination with music videos on YouTube and then crashing his car when he hears about Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. This appears to trigger a crisis of identity and the narrative reveals itself as a fascinating mix of interior psychological fantasy and more conventional family melodrama. The first strand is developed through a series of hallucinations and disturbances, some of which directly reference Michael Jackson and lead the young man (played by Ahmad El-Fishawi) to eventually consult a psychiatrist, an attractive and confident woman who unnerves the sheikh. The second strand, the family melodrama takes us back to the boyhood and adolescence of Khaled, the sheikh, through a series of extended flashbacks. We see the teenage Khaled (Ahmed Malek) defy his macho father (Maged El Kedwany), a former bodybuilder and now the owner of a gym. Money for music lessons is used instead to secretly enable Khaled to be the coolest kid in school with his Jackson cassettes and original posters. How he gets from Michael Jackson dancing to leading the prayers in the mosque is via familiar tropes of the family melodrama narrative which I won’t spoil.
There are important female characters in the story – Khaled’s mother, his first girlfriend, his wife, his daughter and the psychiatrist – but this is a male-centred melodrama as directed by Amr Salama and co-written by the director and Omar Khaled. Salama (born 1982) has several features to his name already and has attracted major talents in Egyptian cinema to this production which is generating a lot of interest. (It has been chosen as the Egyptian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar competition.) The film is ‘personal’ since the director was a teenager when Jackson was still a global figure and he says it is “almost autobiographical”. During the Q&A there were questions about how the film had been received by Egyptian censors and Salama assured us all was well and no-one was offended when the censors actually saw the film. He suggested that in Egypt audience responses have been positive in the majority of cases.
Western reactions to the film after its Toronto screenings seem to me a little bemused by the central issue of identity and the film is judged to stand or fall on its Michael Jackson sequences. Salama answered a question about this, saying that initially they had tried to get permission for genuine Jackson material but they had only negative responses. In the end he thinks this was good for the film. It meant that they only used their own re-workings of materials. Although this means the sequences aren’t as slick as they might be, they don’t overwhelm the central issue about identity and the personal issues about how important a global icon might be in a relatively ‘closed’ society like Egypt. (It was also interesting to hear how strongly Egyptians in the audience at the Curzon Mayfair identified with Khaled, especially post recent events in the region.) I was very grateful to get this chance to see Sheikh Jackson. I think it is unlikely to get a UK release, but since Clash eventually made it from last year’s LFF, I live in hope.