Being the Ricardos is an ‘Amazon Original Movie’. It did get into some UK cinemas on December 21st, I think, but mainly it has been available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Since I was more or less ‘forced’ into a free month of Prime membership, that’s how I got to watch it. I’m glad I got the opportunity because I thoroughly enjoyed the film. However, that has not been a universal reaction and it’s worth exploring why. First, I think the title is not very informative or inviting for audiences who don’t already know what the story is about. As someone who started watching TV in the 1950s, even I had forgotten that ‘The Ricardos’ were the family in the I Love Lucy TV series. Second, I suspect that some audiences, including some high-profile reviewers, have been taken in by assumptions that this is a ‘biopic’ and a ‘comedy’ and have found the film disappointing. I’d argue that it is only a ‘partial biopic’ (so many important aspects of the two central characters’ lives are not presented) and that the film is ‘about comedy on TV’ and not necessarily meant to induce laughs – though it made me smile on many occasions.
I think I’d argue that the film is primarily a hybrid of a ‘TV production procedural’, a romance melodrama and a show business drama. In other words, it’s a complex and ambitious production. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, I assumed that it would be something like The West Wing and in a way it is. It is also a long film at 133 minutes and when I first heard about the production I assumed that it would be a TV mini-series. (It is, however, presented in a CinemaScope ratio that is more suitable for a big screen.)
In the late 1940s Lucille Ball, a Hollywood contract player whose career had never really established her A List status at RKO or MGM, was finding some success with a radio show My Favourite Husband for CBS. This prompted CBS to suggest a TV sitcom roughly based on the show. Lucy agreed but insisted that her real-life husband Desi Arnaz be cast as her TV husband and the family name became Ricardo. The couple formed Desilu productions and the show first aired in 1951. Lucy and Desi had been married since 1940 when they met on a Hollywood musical. Lucy was the lead in Too Many Girls with Desi as a supporting player. He also had a career as a musician and bandleader and the marriage was difficult as the two partners were often working in separate locations. Desi was often on tour and part of Lucy’s plan for the TV series was to keep Desi closer in a bid to stop his philandering.
The 1940s back story does appear in a series of flashbacks in Being the Ricardos, but the film’s narrative is set around the production schedule for one week in the second season during 1952. On the Monday the team are faced with possible disaster as a story about Lucy’s links to the US Communist Party in the 1930s threatens to break. (This is during the height of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings). A second issue also arises as Lucy is pregnant with the couple’s second child – something which for several reasons could be a problem for the show. These two issues sit alongside the long-running issues on any TV show such as squabbles between the stars and the writers and amongst the principal cast members as well as issues with the show’s sponsor Philip Morris cigarettes. Everything must be resolved by the time the show is recorded before a live audience on Friday for broadcast the following Monday.
Lucy is played by Nicole Kidman and Desi by Javier Bardem. Both actors are older (more than 10 years older) than the ‘real’ Lucy and Desi and there are physical differences too. But both are very fine actors and they both worked for me. Kidman in particular seems able to suggest Lucy’s energy as a dancer and comedian. On reflection, though I always like Bardem, it might have given the part more ‘umph’ if a younger actor had been cast. Desi Arnaz was only 35 in 1952. He seems to have had a great deal of authority and a quick brain and in that respect, Bardem does represent him well.
Though the film clearly hinges on the relationship between Lucy and Desi, the other five important characters do give the film the feel of an ensemble piece. J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda play the actors William Frawley and Vivian Vance, who are the landlords and friends of Lucy and Desi on the show. Alia Shawkat and Jake Lacy play the two writers and Tony Hale plays the producer. These three roles are also played by three older actors in ‘flashforwards’ when they appear as ‘talking heads’ witnesses in a documentary biopic about the show. In effect, we have many interactions across three different time periods which could get a little confusing for audiences. Almost the entire narrative takes place in the TV studio apart from the 1940s flashbacks and the later interviews.
For UK audiences two aspects of US TV history are also important. First is the production process: there were three different ways of shooting, editing and distributing TV shows. Shows could be shot live for instantaneous transmission, shows could be recorded on film, edited and distributed on film or they could be shot on video which was then recorded from the TV monitor using a Kinescope device (introduced by Kodak in 1947). This last option was necessary in the US because of the significant time differences across the country. A live broadcast in New York would often be too early for broadcast in Los Angeles. The downside was that Kinescope recordings were much lower quality even than the relatively poor broadcast TV image. Shooting on film gave the best quality but was the most expensive. Desilu opted to shoot on film using 35mm (rather than 16mm which was the UK standard) but to use three cameras in the same way live TV worked rather than single camera set-ups. Finally they brought a live studio audience into the shoot and by building two or more sets could record ‘live’ but then edit. This was the most expensive option but it preserved the live ‘feel’ that had worked so well on Lucy’s radio shows and in theatres on tour with Desi. The added bonus was that the high quality recordings could be re-broadcast. Some years later this led to ‘syndication’ – re-runs on smaller TV channels and export overseas. But the most immediate benefit was that the programmes were recorded in the studio Desilu acquired in LA and Desi and Lucy didn’t have to travel to New York. Seeing this process in operation was one of the high points of Being the Ricardos for me. The missing historical figure in the film is Karl Freund, the legendary director/cinematographer, one of the Central European emigrés who revolutionised Hollywood production from the early 1930s. Freund supervised the use of three film cameras, lighting them carefully to match scenes for consistent tones.
The second major issue for UK audiences is the role of the sponsor of the show. This was a feature of early US TV that carried over from radio. ‘Sponsorship’ allowed a major advertiser to control the show, inserting brands and product placement into the show and crucially proscribing some forms of representation. The word ‘pregnancy’ was a potential problem. In the UK sponsorship arrived much later in the 1990s and only allowed the sponsor to advertise in the breaks in commercial broadcasts, even when it had paid for the sponsorship association. In the US advertisers in the 1950s got their brands into the show’s title, e.g. ‘Kraft Theatre’ or ‘The Philco Television Playhouse’. Desilu became a powerful TV production company before finally selling up to Paramount in 1968 by which time Lucy had divorced Desi and bought out his stake in the company.
The whole film worked for me and I was interested in the internal disputes about this particular episode and the insight into the history of Lucille Ball’s work in Hollywood (and in particular her developing expertise in comedy playing for TV). I’m still not quite sure about the ways in which Desi Arnaz ‘solved’ the problems for the show’s production caused by the anti-communist investigations and the announcement of Lucy’s pregnancy, but they do suggest he was a brilliant producer. A full biopic of Lucille Ball would be an interesting prospect for me and Being the Ricardos has whetted my appetite. I’d also like to know more about Desi Arnaz. The one bizarre moment in the script is when Desi, explaining why he left Cuba, makes a reference to the ‘Bolsheviks’ who attacked his father and the family business. This was in 1933 when Desi was 16. It was the beginning of the military dictatorship following the ‘Sergeants Revolt’ led by Fulgencio Batista, certainly not a communist, who became the leader later ousted by the socialist revolution of 1959. This must be confusing/misleading for audiences who don’t know the history. But rest assured, most of what we see on the screen is based on the actual events in the development of I Love Lucy and the careers of Lucy and Desi. Here’s the Amazon trailer.
My main interest in this film was its status as the second scriptwriting project for Raymond Chandler at Paramount shortly after his work on Double Indemnity. It certainly seems like a strange choice made by the studio. The only justification seems to be that it was a chance to develop Chandler’s knowledge of scriptwriting by giving him a different partner to write with. Trying to discern what Chandler might have contributed to the script is not easy.
And Now Tomorrow is a familiar studio genre picture, a romantic melodrama using the device of a disease/accident as the narrative disruption in the early scenes. It might also be what in the 1930s and 1940s was known as a ‘woman’s picture’. Partly this is because it was adapted from a hit novel by Rachel Field and partly because it starred Loretta Young and Susan Hayward as central characters. It is essentially a story about the Loretta Young character although Alan Ladd gets top billing. The woman’s picture is usually a film with a central female character who drives a narrative that requires her to overcome a problem arising because she is a woman – conventionally in this case a problem with her intended wedding. The audience is intended to comprise women in the main. Maria LaPlace (1987) points out that in many Hollywood films of the 1930s/40s, women’s stories are inevitably ‘re-positioned’ to in a patriarchal film industry to serve more masculine discourses. This means that it became important for feminist scholars to find those ‘marginal’ areas of cultural discourse which, though still largely controlled by men, are actually sites of production by women and for women. Thus publishing, both of novels and within women’s magazines becomes an important locus for stories.
Wikipedia suggests that originally Jane Murfin, an experienced scriptwriter with many credits, was assigned to the film, but eventually she was replaced by Frank Partos. There is no mention of a separate writer for the adaptation so Partos and Chandler presumably had to produce a screenplay directly from the novel. This is where the studios use of contracted writers comes in. The idea might have been to provide more experience for Chandler but pairing him with Partos, a Hungarian Jew of roughly the same age as Billy Wilder, did not mean a change. Working with a woman might have made sense. As it is, it is interesting because Partos had worked several times with Wilder’s writing partner Charles Brackett who Chandler had replaced as Wilder’s partner on Double Indemnity (Brackett didn’t think much of James M. Cain’s writing in the original novel). Partos had just finished working on the script for The Uninvited (1944), a fantasy horror which proved a significant hit for Paramount. Chandler would find his next job at Paramount would be the follow up known as The Unseen (1945), a mystery thriller.
The plot of the film is straightforward. Emily Blair (Loretta Young) is a wealthy young woman living in Blairtown in New England where her family owns the local mill. Just as her marriage to an ‘appropriate’ young man Jeff Stoddard (Barry Sullivan) is announced, she falls ill with meningitis and though she recovers she finds she has lost her sense of hearing. She postpones the wedding and seeks a cure from international specialists to no avail. The fact that she feels that her deafness is a barrier to a ‘proper marriage’ is the problem she must overcome. Alan Ladd plays Dr Merek Vance, formerly from the poorer part of Blairtown, who now practices in Pittsburgh. He meets Emily by accident, noticing that she is deaf and being impressed by her lip reading. It turns out he is conducting research into hearing loss and eventually he agrees to make her part of his trials of a new serum. You can probably guess what happens. The potentially interesting sub-plot involves Emily’s younger sister Janice (Susan Hayward) who sees Emily’s reluctance to marry until she gets her hearing back as an opportunity to pursue Jeff. As in the best romances there is a stumbling block to Emily switching her attention to Merek and that is the class difference and his sense of grievance against the Blair family.
I was engaged by the film and enjoyed it up to a point (more Susan Hayward would have been good). I certainly didn’t have the very negative responses of some leading US critics at the time who were especially cruel about Loretta Young’s performance. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it a “stupid picture”. Bad reviews don’t seem to have affected Box Office which was generally very good – as predicted by the trade papers. The director Irving Pechel was not generally liked by the cast and Loretta Young and Alan Ladd didn’t have a strong connection – though they seemed to work together effectively. What might Chandler have contributed to the script? Not much to the narrative structure, I’m guessing, but probably something to the dialogue. I was most interested in the Alan Ladd character in a part quite different to that of his lead in The Blue Dahlia (1946), which Chandler scripted on his own, using one of his own story ideas. I don’t really know Ladd that well as an actor but with Chandler’s dialogue in The Blue Dahlia he speaks in measured tones with pauses and there is a sequence in And Now Tomorrow which is similar, after Emily assists the doctor on an emergency operation they talk in the car (see above). He tells her he is “worn down to the ankles” which sounds like a Chandlerian line. At other times Ladd as Vance is quite sharp, mainly when his anger about poverty in the mill town comes to the fore. The other interesting aspect of the Ladd role in this ‘woman’s picture’ is that it is as another doctor who studies the woman who ‘lacks’ something and is then allowed to interpret what it might be. The doctor’s medical gaze replaces the erotic male gaze which is prevalent in other narratives. Sometimes by ‘solving’ the woman’s problem (often psychological rather than physical) the doctor enables her to find romance (as in Now Voyager). In this case Dr Vance becomes the beneficiary himself. See Mary Anne Doane (1987)
The tragedy of the film production is that Rachel Field died suddenly after an operation in 1942 before the script was ready and the camera rolled. I do wonder what she would have made of the adaptation. I think I should point out that the medical discourse in the film isn’t convincing and that the film doesn’t do much to help audiences’ understand hearing loss. I couldn’t find the film on any streamers but I watched a Region 2 DVD.
Doane, Mary Ann (1987) ‘The ‘Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address’ in Christine Gledhill (ed) Home is Where the Heart Is, London: BFI Books
LaPlace, Maria (1987) ‘Producing and Consuming the Woman’s Film: Discursive Struggle in Now Voyager‘ in Gledhill (ed) op cit
This lovely film took a year and a half to reach the UK and then only 3,000 people saw it in a cinema (see the Lumiere Audio-Visual Observatory database). It came out in January 2019 when UK cinemas were stuffed with American ‘Awards Movies’. I suspect The Favourite took up quite a few screens. I wish I had been able to see this instead. Robert Guédiguian is a filmmaker who has directed twenty-five films over the last forty years. The ones I’ve seen have been very good but too often his films are not acquired for UK distribution. I eventually watched this on a DVD from New Wave and I’m very grateful.
Many of Guédiguian’s films are set in Marseilles and they often feature the same trio of actors, Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s partner), Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan. La villa is set on the ‘Blue Coast’ between Marseilles and Martigues at Calanque de Méjean – a calanque is a creek, which I realise has a different meaning in French/English compared to US usage. Here it means a narrow inlet on a rocky coast with a small harbour and room for a few houses around the harbour and nestled in the in the steep slopes. It’s the only location in the film, extending a little way into the hilly hinterland of scrub and pines. The elderly owner of the restaurant on the harbour has a stroke at the beginning of the film and is then cared for by his son Armand (Gérard Meylan) who is the restaurant manager/chef. It’s winter so the restaurant has no customers. Coming home to support their brother are Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Angèle (Ariane Ascaride). Joseph brings with him the much younger Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier). Angèle is a well-known stage actor and she has not been home for twenty years. We will learn later what caused her absence. There are only three other residents of the little community who we meet and one other important visitor.
The three siblings are all in their early sixties, the same age as writer-director Robert Guédiguian. It’s a time to reflect on their lives and to think about how they will face the future. Their father is in an almost vegetative state and one of their ultimate decisions will be how to deal with the family estate. It looks very beautiful in the winter sunlight with a view out across the Mediterranean from the balcony of the house, the small boats bobbing in the harbour and the dramatic backdrop of a high viaduct which carries the rail line from Marseille to Toulon and Nice. The first half of the film is actually quite slow as Guédiguian gives us time to get to know the characters and to consider their situation. I was a little surprised since what I remember from his earlier films is a political discourse and a sense of collective struggles for working-class communities. Possible wrangling over an estate is a theme I associate with more bourgeois French films. The only younger character who appears in the early part of the film is Yvan, the son of the elderly couple who live next door. Yvan appears to be trained as a doctor who is now running medical laboratories somewhere in the region. He and Bérangère are the only ones active in the modern France. She has her laptop and headphones and he is trying to persuade his parents to accept money for their living expenses when he brings their medications.
Guédiguian does introduce a form of political discourse through Angèle’s visit to Yvan’s parents. She wonders why the community is so quiet, why is nothing happening? The other houses are closed-up in the winter and the old man replies “Money”. Framed black and white photographs show the creek full of people in summer enjoying life in the streets and by the harbour with the fishing boats supplying a busy restaurant. There was a real community but just as in many parts of the UK where the rich now like to have second homes, young people can’t afford to live and must leave as the communities become isolated in the winter. We realise too that Joseph represents the angst of the ageing leftists in France. Has he really given up as some of his worrying statements suggest? The editing by Bernard Sasia and the cinematography by Pierre Milon (whose previous job was on The Workshop a little further west on the coast) is very good in these early scenes, linking together the characters and the political, social and personal themes. A further ingredient glimpsed by Angèle as she gazes out over the harbour is the arrival of a couple of Land Rovers, dropping soldiers who begin to patrol along the path by the water’s edge.The action gradually begins to build up and I found the film engrossing. I’ve gone back and looked at scenes again because I don’t think on a small screen I became sufficiently immersed in the narrative to allow the ideas to come together. At one point, Joseph, sitting with his father on the balcony remembers an earlier community festivity led by the old man. There is also a flashback in which we see the three siblings as younger characters coming to the harbour and larking about to the sound of Bob Dylan on the car radio. It was only later that I realised this was indeed the three actors themselves appearing in an earlier film by Guédiguian, Ki lo sa? (France 1986). Guédiguian knows the coastal region and has remained committed to it. I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative which isn’t complex and you can probably guess the plot developments from the details I’ve given so far.
I was surprised to discover that this film wasn’t reviewed in Sight and Sound, which was once (via Monthly Film Bulletin which it absorbed) the official ‘journal of record’ for all releases in the UK. However, the former editor, Nick James mentioned its appearance at Venice (in the November 2017 issue). He calls it “distinctly old-fashioned” but says he wished to “eulogise” the film with its “intricate nuanced sets of relationships” but “its sentimental ending is ruinous”. I agree the first part of his statement but I thought the ending was an excellent use of ‘magic realism’ which I’m not going to explain. Suffice to say my tears started before the end, but that I found it perfect. I’ve always thought that ‘sentimental’ is a slippery term. There is nothing wrong with emotion in the right place and here it is definitely appropriate. I heartily recommend this to anyone prepared for an emotional response. Like the UK, France is in a difficult place and i think there is no harm in having a little hope.
This trailer gives away some of the plot details:
What a strange mix of ingredients The Net presents. At first glance this should be a prestigious ‘A’ feature with the distinguished director Anthony Asquith and a fine cast headed by Phyllis Calvert and James Donald and a strong supporting cast of character actors. It’s a Two Cities film and it’s made at Pinewood for Rank – but it’s only 86 minutes long. Why is it not included by Wikipedia in its ‘select list’ of Two Cities films? The answer probably lies in its mix of genres and the recognition that science fiction is the main genre with a spy thriller and romance also worked into the narrative.
Science fiction was generally a despised genre in the UK of the 1950s, though in retrospect certain films such as the Quatermass series (i.e. including TV serials) have since gained much respect. One of several useful American reviews of The Net (it was renamed Project M7 in the US and released in 1954 as the ‘B’ picture alongside The Creature from the Black Lagoon) suggests that it was the first UK science fiction film since The Shape of Things to Come (1936). I can’t think of another science fiction title during the 1940s. The Net was based on a novel by John Pudney, an intriguing figure who was known as a poet and writer and who, during the Second World War, joined the RAF and worked as a ‘creative writer’ at the Air Ministry. Several of the films that made use of his writing had themes relating to flying. Ironically he was also the father-in-law of the UK film studies pioneer Victor Perkins. Pudney stood as a Labour candidate in the 1945 General Election in a safe Tory seat and his political connections may have informed his writings in the early 1950s. His 1952 novel was adapted by William Fairchild who was a prolific screenwriter in the 1950s.
In the ten years from the end of the Second World War, the UK economy was under great strain as the country struggled to rebuild after wartime damage, repay American loans and deal with the end of Empire. The one hope for an industrial revival based on new technologies was the lead in aviation design, a more positive legacy of war. Unfortunately, both the Labour and Conservative parties were wedded to a Cold War policy that required the UK to have its own nuclear deterrent. The British film industry produced several films in the decade that focused on aviation and especially on aviation developments and nuclear research. In David Lean’s 1952 film The Sound Barrier an aircraft manufacturer attempts to develop a new jet fighter that will be operational at speeds over Mach 1, breaking the ‘sound barrier’. Lean’s film uses aircraft which are recognisable from the period and it was a box office hit. The Net imagines a much more advanced experimental programme which pushes it into science fiction. (The sound barrier had been ‘broken’ in 1947, but not by operational aircraft which were only just beginning to go into service in 1953.)
The experimental project is located on a coastal site somewhere in Southern England where Professor Heathley (James Donald) leads a team developing the M7 aircraft intending to fly beyond Mach 1 at high altitude. If successful the project is intended to lead to developments of a spacecraft. The ‘Net’ of the title is metaphorical possibly referring to the claustrophobia of the project personnel and to the restrictions placed on Heathley by the civil servant who is his effective manager on site (played by Maurice Denham). It may also refer to the idea of a ‘network’ of spies expected to be attempting to infiltrate the project. Robert Beatty plays the Project Security officer. Heathley plays a form of ‘mad professor’, who is completely immersed in his work. He plans to test the aircraft himself instead of using a professional test pilot. He also neglects his wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert), who is pursued by the charming and eloquent Dr. Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). This and a second relationship between two younger members of the project team (played by Muriel Pavlow and Patric Doonan) make up the romance element.
I’m not very familiar with Anthony Asquith’s work and not a big fan of the films I have seen. He was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and a celebrated director from the 1920s to the 1960s, but this film seems restricted by a low budget. Much of the film is set in the project offices, Heathley’s home or the control room for the flight tests. The interior scenes are quite ‘stagey’, but sometimes the night time scenes have more atmosphere. The M7 aircraft is a model that seems to have drawn on aspects of different new jet types in development at the time. Its fuselage and especially the nose section resembles the Handley Page Victor (which didn’t fly until December 1952) and the delta wing was a feature of various designs including the Avro Vulcan (which first flew in August 1952). These two bomber designs were both intended to deliver nuclear weapons in the future but they were much bigger aircraft than the M7 is intended to represent. The M7 design also incorporates engine intakes which look familiar from the design of the de Havilland Comet which was introduced as the world’s first commercial jet airliner in 1952. Bizarrely, the M7 is seen to be a seaplane for take-off and landing. I’m no aeronautical engineer but this sounds implausible. It does, however, fit in with the other aspects of the film, including the control room (which can take over the controls of the aircraft in flight) and the futuristic helmet and flying suit (see the above film still). I’m reminded of the boys’ comic paper of the 1950s, the Eagle and the adventures of ‘Dan Dare’.
The Net is a strange representation of issues that were certainly important in the early 1950s. I did find it entertaining and it wasn’t a struggle to watch but the budget restrictions and the implausibility of the plot in the context of 1952 were hard to take. I think Phyllis Calvert was wasted and I was egging her on to enjoy a fling with Herbert Lom. James Donald is fine in a role he seems quite suited to. The real weakness of the narrative is that the villain, the spy, is obvious from fairly early on. Whether this is the fault of the script, the direction or the performance of the actor concerned I couldn’t decide. I decided to watch The Net because in my research into 1953 film releases in the UK I noticed that Phyllis Calvert was on stage in Blackpool at roughly the same time this film was in cinemas. I think too that a tie-in cigarette advertisement in 1953 featured her role in the film. She was also appearing in Ealing’s Mandy (UK 1952) in second run cinemas. Perhaps because of this, I came to The Net with the wrong expectations? The Net was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV some time ago and I recently watched a recording. Talking Pictures TV has announced a new online service to be launched on December 1st. This is an exciting prospect and I’ll report on it in due course.
I am a little surprised that this Korean film didn’t get a UK release in 2017 after several major festival appearances. It has re-emerged now with a screening at the London Korean Film Festival and its subsequent appearance on MUBI UK. It seems likely that the reason for renewed interest is the starring role it offers to the acclaimed Korean actor Yoon Yeo-jeong whose big success with the Korean-American film Minari (2020) won her the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. She also plays a supporting role in Lucky Chan-sil (South Korea 2019) also in the current MUBI season. But in The Bacchus Lady she has the lead role and she is in virtually every scene. She is excellent in the film but she isn’t the only attraction. It is well directed with interesting and at times quite beautiful cinematography, a plaintive and effective music score as well as strong performances from supporting players.
It is quite difficult to comment on the film without spoiling the narrative development of the last third of the film in particular. I’ll try to avoid too much plot description. The ‘Bacchus’ of the title refers to an energy drink available in South Korea and So-young (Yoon Yeo-jeong) plays a sex worker in her late 60s whose opening gambit when she accosts older men in one of the large parks in Seoul is to offer to sell them a bottle of Bacchus. Her other seemingly innocuous chat-up line is “Would you like a date?” I understand that the Bacchus ladies and the whole phenomenon of older sex workers (i.e. of pensionable age) is a social issue in South Korea. It appears that South Korea has not developed proper social welfare policies for older people, if women like So-young don’t have family or an occupational pension, they must keep working. She suggests it is better than cleaning the streets and collecting refuse.
The ‘inciting incident’ of the narrative occurs right at the beginning of the film. So-young has contracted gonorrhoea and when at the doctor’s surgery she witnesses an attack by an English-speaking young woman on a Korean doctor. She had noticed a small boy waiting outside the surgery and when the screaming woman cries out to the boy to ‘run!’, So-young to her own amazement runs after him. She knows the city well and eventually she finds him hiding in an alley and takes him to her home. Why does she do this? A possible answer will emerge later. For now all we need to know is that So-young’s room is in a building with two other residents, a glamorous transgender landlady/landlord and a young amputee who seems to make a living painting small model figures of celebrities/film characters. In some ways this going to become a familiar ‘family’ of misfits. The boy doesn’t speak much Korean, only a few words of English and his own language, but somehow they will get by. It’s a feature of the film that looking after the boy is only one part of So-young’s busy life. She appears to owe money that she is paying off in instalments depending on the trade she can drum up in the parks.
If the surrogate ‘family’ seems a quite conventional device, there is also another familiar character in the form of a documentary filmmaker who wants to record an interview with So-young – prostitution is illegal in South Korea, though seemingly not very strictly enforced despite occasional ‘sweeps’ by the local police. Director Lee Je-yong has been criticised by some commentators for cramming too many stories and too many themes into his film. I don’t really agree with this. Lee seems very much in control of the narrative, though in the last third it does change a little, becoming focused on a set of key decisions that So-young takes that will ultimately determine her fate. One of the interesting aspects of the narrative for me is the impact of the American occupation of the country, which lasted much longer than the occupation of Japan, and how it eventually led in turn to both Korean migration to the US but also the creation of a Korean-American (including a Korean-African-American) minority following the local relationships involving American servicemen. This matches similar Vietnamese experiences, but more recently Koreans themselves have created their own mixed families during time spent on overseas visits for education or business in other parts of Asia. We learn eventually that the boy So-young has been looking after speaks Tagalog. Later she meets an American soldier in a fast food restaurant who is the son of an African-American father and Korean mother. Towards the end of the film So-young and her surrogate family visit a theme park in the north of the country, from where they can view the border, and we learn that she originally came from the North as a baby during the war in 1950.
The Bacchus Lady could be seen as a form of social melodrama, driven by its concern about social issues with the most emphasis on the fate of the elderly in a society which has not yet worked out how to implement welfare policies (whereas the UK had them but is in danger of losing them). Or it could be simply So-young’s story. Either way it is certainly helped by Yoon Yeo-jeong’s irresistible performance. I’m intrigued by Lee Je-yong who seems to have changed his name to ‘E J-yong’. I realise now that he was the director of Untold Scandal (South Korea 2003), which was one of the ‘wave’ of Korean films that arrived in UK cinemas in the early 2000s and announced a new power in global cinema. I remember being impressed by a period drama with a contemporary feel, but the director has only made a total of eight features since his first in 1998. I hope he makes more. The Bacchus Lady is not a Friday night crowd pleaser and some audiences might find it disturbing, but I would very much recommend it. Although we do see So-young with her clients, there is no exploitation feel to these scenes which are sensitively handled. Here is a short trailer that doesn’t give away too much:
Susanne Bier has had a 30 year directorial career so far, reaching a prominent position in Scandinavian cinema with Open Hearts (Denmark 2002) and going on to move into ‘international’ cinema (i.e. English language productions) with Serena (US 2014). Currently she is making a US TV series about the decisions made by ‘First Ladies’ in the White House. She’s had her share of flops but before Serena she made A Second Chance a film drawing on the repertoires of the police procedural, family melodrama and psychological thriller. Melodrama is definitely one of her strengths for me and this film, co-written by Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen, is certainly powerful and at times I found it difficult to watch because I feared what might happen next.
Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a police detective who with his partner Simon (Ulrich Thomsen) is called to a social housing block where they find Tristan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a drug user they had previously arrested for violent assault. He is living with a young woman, Sanne (Lykke May Andersen) and her baby. Andreas is angered to find the baby in a filthy state, lying in its own excrement. He calls social services but they seem reluctant to act. We know Andreas has a young son at home and he is perhaps over-emotional. His chief warns him off. Simon meanwhile has his own problems, separated from his wife and son and drinking too much. Narratives about law officers with family problems are familiar enough in crime fictions and especially in Danish-Swedish TV serials such as The Bridge, but this feels like a slightly different take. At this point there is the likelihood of a domestic abuse case but no hint of the kinds of major crimes that have characterised ‘Nordic Noir’ film and TV crime narratives over the past twenty years. (This doesn’t mean I think that domestic abuse is not a serious crime.)
I’m not sure how I can set up the rest of the narrative without spoiling the whole story but I want to make clear that Andreas and his partner Anna (Maria Bonnevie) are having problems with their new baby who, as they are both in their early forties, might be a son they have struggled to conceive for one reason or another. Later there are hints that Anna might had a difficult childhood herself. When things go wrong Andreas makes a stupid decision but one that could conceivably happen. I have no experience of babies and child-rearing and others may disagree me. Now we have the ingredients of a heavyweight crime melodrama which some might see as a psychological thriller.
Modern day reviewers and critics really hate melodramas. I sometimes feel it is an almost pathological hatred for a form that predates cinema and has continued to be important throughout film history. I find it bizarre. Some of the criticisms of A Second Chance are that the film is heavy-handed, contrived and manipulative and worst of all it is using plotlines taken from TV soap operas. I had to go back through sections of the film to try to find some of these terrible crimes against scriptwriting and direction. I do have to note that some of this criticism comes from critics I generally admire, so perhaps I’m gullible and naïve? That might be true , but what baffles me is the idea that melodrama stopped being ‘acceptable’ at some point, despite the fact that some of the most revered directors of the 1940s-70s made mainly melodramas. It’s an expressionist dramatic form so criticising the use of music, mise en scène and close-up photography to communicate feelings and emotional responses seems pointless. I thought that the music by Johan Söderqvist and cinematography by Michael Snyman were appropriate for the melodrama narrative. There is also the problem that some critics see the use of a comparison between a middle-class couple with a baby and a working-class couple with a baby as banal or as overly didactic (the same kind of comments are aimed at Ken Loach and Paul Laverty for their melodramas). But Susanne Bier does not make the kinds of expressive statements that her critics rail against. She ‘shows’ but she doesn’t ‘tell’ and doesn’t necessarily come to conclusions.
Could the writing be improved? Yes, I think so. I do agree that Simon as a character wastes the talents of Ulrich Thomsen and that making him an alcoholic police officer is perhaps just too familiar. But this film has a very starry cast that offers the great performances in compensation and as a co-production it includes Swedish characters. Anna’s family are Swedish with her father played by Peter Haber (best known in the UK as Martin Beck in the long-running police procedural series) and her mother by Ewa Fröling, an actor in Swedish films since the 1970s. The most remarkable performance is by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, a well-known face from Danish TV series as well as films, who is almost unrecognisable as Tristan. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a star on Game of Thrones I understand. I’ve never seen that series but he has a remarkable presence. I remember him from the Jo Nesbø adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). In that film he looked a little too ‘smooth’, but in A Second Chance I think his angular good looks are utilised well. There is also a small part for Thomas Bo Larsen, another of the familiar Dogme graduates in Danish film and TV. Bier certainly surrounded herself with actors she knew.
If you are sure that you don’t like melodramas perhaps you shouldn’t watch this film: if you are open-minded and want a film that will keep you watching, albeit feeling that you should turn away, you should give it a go. I was pleased to fill in another gap in my viewings of Susanne Bier’s work. The trailer below gives away the key plot point in the film, so beware – but you’ve probably guessed what happens already.