Following Miyamoto, I was surprised to discover that my second Japan Foundation film was also concerned with violent abuse. The two films have some other elements in common as well but in other ways they are quite different. This is a CinemaScope family melodrama from one of Japan’s oldest studios Nikkatsu. The Inamura family at its centre runs a taxi business on the outskirts of the Tokyo region. The narrative opens in 2014 and three teenage children are all terrified of their abusive father. When their mother appears she feeds them rice balls and then tells them she has just driven into their father and killed him, hoping to save her children from more abuse. Almost before they have fully grasped the situation she announces that she is going to turn herself in to the police and that she will go to prison. She promises to return in 15 years, adding that their uncle will take over the business. Fifteen years later she does indeed return and her old employees are pleased to see her back. The three children have mixed responses.
In some ways this film felt familiar. I remembered the melodramas of Nomura Yoshitaro from the 1960s and 1970s which showed at the Bradford International Film Festival in 2014 and I think there are some links in terms of ‘tone’ and feel. Reading the helpful review of the film by Hayley Scanlon, I understand that this type of melodrama might be termed hahamono or ‘mother film’/ ‘film about maternal love’ and that there is an interesting broader discussion of how this categorisation developed in Japanese cinema, seemingly from the 1950s onwards. In this film, mother ‘left’ after telling her children that they were now ‘free’ to live their lives as they wished but not surprisingly perhaps they have each so far ‘failed’ in one way or another. Consequently mother’s return prompts a range of responses. I don’t want to spoil the narrative surprises so I’ll just make more general observations. The melodrama extends beyond the nuclear family group in a number of ways. In particular the office manager imagines herself into a similar situation as the mother and a second subplot involves a new driver the company takes on, a man who eventually reveals that he has a son from his failed marriage and who becomes disturbed after meeting the young man. I’m not sure whether these extra two story strands strengthen the central story or whether they are superfluous. One of the strands adds to the dramatic finale, but I wonder if a tighter script could cut them out and actually produce a stronger and shorter film? On reflection, I think that they are recognisable as melodrama elements that point towards social issues – women as carers and the possible consequences of divorce and separation.
I’ve called the film a melodrama because of the high emotional content and because of the family inter-relationships. In terms of style, however, I don’t remember the music particularly and the camerawork has been described by other commentators as ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’. Again it didn’t seem noticeably so to me apart from occasional shots such as that of the mother above. But it often seems to be raining heavily and two of the characters have familiar afflictions, Daiki the older son has a stammer and his sister Sonoko has fallen back on excessive drinking. The younger brother Yuji has problems that are more internalised. There are flashbacks to the father’s abuse and these are not conventionally signalled but often occur in what are otherwise routine sequences. This is a way of disrupting the narrative which seemingly represents what is going through a character’s mind. The family house is a jumble of rooms that more or less merge into the taxi company’s offices and another aspect of the film is an almost procedural study of the running of the taxi business. I wasn’t surprised to discover that director Shiraishi Kazuya has made films in various genres, including one labelled a ‘docudrama’. One Night appears to be adapted by Takahashi Izumi from a 2011 play by Kuwabara Yuko and it is noticeable that many of the scenes focus on the taxi company offices and living quarters. That isn’t to say that the narrative does not move outside and I was pleased to see some different kinds of location, including the ferry port at Oarai which offers passage to Hokkaido.
I enjoyed the film on several levels. The performances are very good and I like the ensemble feel of the taxi company. I think UK audiences might recognise Matsuoka Mayu who starred in Shoplifters (2018) as well as Satō Takeru from the Rurôni Kenshin films. The mother is played by Tanaka Yûko. She’s very good and a calm centre in the midst of chaos. There are many plot details that I haven’t covered here and overall I found this to be quite a ‘meaty’ narrative: there is plenty to get your teeth into and a lot of eating. Look out for more Japan Foundation films next week.
Miyamoto is the first film I managed to book for this year’s Japan Foundation Film tour. The festival is online with free screenings, most of which sold out within an hour or two of becoming available, but I think there are still some films available as repeat screenings. Miyamoto is listed on IMDb as ‘From Miyamoto to You’ and I can see why they have simplified the title. Miyamoto Hiroshi (Ikematsu Sôsuke) is the central character of the film, which has been adapted from a section of a 1990s manga that became a TV series in 2018. Seinen manga like this are aimed at older teenage boys and adult men. I think various cast members in the film are carried over from the TV series. Miyamoto is a stationery salesman, a slender young man and a familiar ‘salaryman’ figure. The film narrative is nonlinear and begins with a meeting between an injured Miyamoto facing his angry boss and explaining how he got into a fight. The narrative will soon move into a long flashback and eventually resolve itself in the present. The beginning of the story is a meeting between Miyamoto and a slightly older woman, Yasuko (Aoi Yu), whom he presumably knows from a sales visit to her office. Yasuko invites him to eat with her in her apartment but the meal is interrupted by Yasuko’s drunken ex-boyfriend. At this point we are wondering if the interruption will lead to the fight which caused Miyamoto’s injuries. I won’t describe all the ins and outs of the plotting, which I did find intriguing. Instead I want to explore different aspects of the film.
I’m not sure how much updating of the original story has taken place since the 1990s. Japan has a history of patriarchal attitudes to work culture and after work drinking. Men would work late and then drink to excess and abuse women unlucky enough to meet them. Have things changed much in the last twenty to thirty years? Miyamoto is constantly feeling he has to assert his masculinity and the result is usually that he collapses into a stupor after drinking too much or he says and does rash things in a spirit of bravado. The irony is that he is physically not well equipped to do either. This film includes several violent fights and some violent and abusive moves against women. When Miyamoto and Yasuko eventually get together they visit both sets of parents. The film didn’t seem to me to identify the location of the two sets of parents, but I read a review which suggests that in the manga, her parents are in Hokkaido and his in Yokohama. During both visits Miyamoto and Yasuko make an odd couple who manage to be both polite and disruptive in the calm lives of the parents. The trips outside Tokyo also provide an opportunity for indications that there is a form of romance developing and that they might survive as a couple.
Director Mariko Tetsuya has developed an international reputation as a creator of violent films, often developing out of domestic situations. His 2016 film Desperate Babies is still being debated and a Harvard Film Archive event a year ago was titled ‘Self-Destruction Cinema: The Films of Mariko Tetsuya‘. Anyone who has seen his earlier films would know what to expect from Miyamoto but I was taken aback by some of the violence, including that against Yasuko. Miyamoto himself becomes involved with an amateur rugby team made up of some of his customers. There are some very big guys in the team and Miyamoto is no match for them, but he doesn’t give up. So is this just drunkenness and thuggery? I don’t think so. There is some humour and humanity and though I don’t condone any male violence towards women, Yasuko is not defenceless or passive. I should also note that there are two sexual encounters, one of which is violent but the other is carefully shot to be explicit but also within those boundaries in Japan about not showing genitalia. The music in the film is also important, seemingly ‘punkish’ at some points.
Ikematsu Sôsuke as Miyamoto won a major Japanese prize, the Kinema Junpo Best Actor Award in 2020. It is certainly a startling performance which I think may be seen ‘extreme’ by audiences in the West in several scenes. I did find some scenes made me uncomfortable but I recognise that they fitted with the character. This film is likely to remain as a niche or cult film in the West but I think it is recognisable as a familiar Japanese melodrama with the traditional characters of a salaryman and his prospective wife, the visits to the parents and the excessive drinking in small bars and as part of family gatherings. Yasuko’s mother seems to regard Miyamoto’s attempts to drink beer fast as ‘heroic’. Take out the violence and the narrative could work in an Ozu melodrama (with bigger parts for the parents). Mariko is an intriguing director and I would watch another of his films. The trailer below (no subtitles) gives away SPOILER plot points but it illustrates the film’s uncompromising style.
This is the fifth and final film in Steve McQueen’s anthology and the most personal. He has spoken about his own experience in his secondary school in Ealing and how he felt he was wrongly placed in a class for underachieving students. This has been a problem for many Black students. The school he attended, a former grammar school which became a comprehensive and is now one of those schools celebrated for its results, had a headteacher who admitted in the 2000s that it had been ‘institutionally racist’. Still dealing with the historical period when McQueen might have been a very young boy (he was born in in 1969), the script (co-written by McQueen and Alastair Siddons) for Education focuses on 12 year-old Kingsley Smith. The film opens with Kingsley enjoying a trip to a planetarium. (Is this meant to be the planetarium next to Madame Tussauds on Baker Street?) Whether he is actually on a visit from school or whether he is dreaming is not clear but Kingsley is a bright lad who is interested in space exploration.
When we get to see Kingsley in the classroom we can see that he isn’t engaged. In what follows, there are two important narrative developments. The first is that there is a growing trend in which Black children are increasingly being taken out of mainstream schooling and sent to ESN schools. ‘ESN’ means ‘Educationally Sub-normal’, a term disguised at the time by the euphemism ‘Special School’. The term isn’t used today but Black children are still disproportionately ‘excluded’ from schools and sent to ‘referral units’. McQueen uses the controversy generated by the publication in 1971 of a booklet written by the Grenadian Bernard Coard entitled ‘How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System: The Scandal of the Black Child in Schools in Britain’ and based on his experience teaching in the UK. McQueen presents the campaign by the West Indian community in London to expose the procedure and to provide ‘supplementary education’ classes in the form of Saturday schools for West Indian children. Education had been highly prized in the West Indies and there were many experienced educationalists in the community in London. Again McQueen draws on his own family memories and presents us with a Saturday school set up by a Grenadian mother that Kingsley attends along with his older sister. Fully engaged, his passion for rocketry re-emerges.
Several reviewers comment on how Education resembles a television play. It runs for just 63 minutes and McQueen and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner opted for a format that recreates the look of the TV plays of the 1970s. Education was shot on Super 16mm film, which was then processed to produce a 1:1.66 aspect ratio – not quite the 4:3 of standard television in the 1970s but squarer than the modern TV ratio of 16:9. The casting means that there are some familiar faces in smaller roles including Josette Simon (a well-known actor on UK TV) as Lydia the woman who leads the campaign against the ESN schools and, as an older man who never learned to read, Trevor Laird, whose roles go right back to the films Quadrophenia (1979) and Babylon (1980) – one of the seminal Black British films, even if directed by the Italian Franco Rosso. The Scottish actor Kate Dickie plays one of the teachers at the ESN school. At least one critic refers to the BBC’s Play for Today and the work of the director Alan Clarke as models for McQueen’s film. I’m more inclined to think of an ITV drama ‘series’, the four film/plays written by David Leland and collectively titled Tales Out of School (UK 1982-3). The last of these was R.H.I.N.O (Really Her in Name Only) which dealt with a Black teenage girl who regularly truanted by turning up for registration and then disappearing from school – a form of self-imposed ‘exclusion’.
What struck me most forcibly about Education was the depiction of Kingsley’s mother played by Sharlene Whyte. She is the epitome of the West Indian mother of the period, working as a nurse but always concerned about the welfare of her children and in particular their educational achievement. She knows her son is bright but she is led to believe that the ‘special’ school to which Kingsley is sent is a school that will improve his education possibilities rather than simply keeping him quiet and out of the way. Of the five films in the anthology, this is the one in which the women come to the fore with the campaigners and the mothers striving to overcome the threat of exclusion for Black children. In some ways I enjoyed this film the most out of the five. Partly this is because ‘education’ interests me as a subject, but also because of the simplicity of the approach here which enables the single issue to be explored in a satisfying way.
Re-watching the film/play I noticed several aspects of the script that I hadn’t thought too much about the first time round. The first is the time period which is marked by a number of references, not all of which add up. Kingsley at one point suggests that he wants to grow up to be an astronaut like Neil Armstrong. Although he had been an astronaut for several years, Armstrong became famous because of the Moon landing in July 1969. Later on, the importance of the Bernard Coard pamphlet, first published in 1971, puts the date as around 1972 and this seems to be confirmed by the reference to Margaret Thatcher as the Secretary of State for Education (1970-March ’74 when the Tories lost the General Election). This is possibly contradicted by the TV animation that Kingsley watches, Roobarb, which was first broadcast later in 1974. This precise timing doesn’t really matter but it does mean that McQueen is not going back to his own direct experience, which would have seen Kingsley at secondary school in the early 1980s, and instead the director returns us to a period ten years earlier, not long after the Mangrove trial. (Note that Kingsley’s older sister Stephanie’s objective is to get herself into Chelsea School of Art, which McQueen himself managed in the late 1980s.) The Small Axe anthology is mainly presented chronologically and perhaps this should have been No. 2?
Compared to the other films in the anthology, we are now in a different part of London. It could be Ealing or another Outer London Borough. Kingsley’s parents have done well to presumably buy this semi-detached suburban house. They are both working full-time and represent an emerging Black lower middle-class, at least in housing terms. But there is tension between the parents. Kingsley’s father believes Kingsley needs a to learn a trade. It’s interesting to compare the breakfast scene at the start of Education with a similar scene at the start of Horace Ové’s Pressure (1974/6). Ove’s family are still in inner city West London and the feel of the scene is quite different. Does it really matter where the Smith household is located? I think it does in terms of the narrative in the sense that Kingsley’s family is a stable family with a strong educational push from Mrs Smith. They are in no way ‘disadvantaged’ and assumptions are being made about Kingsley by the school staff that seem very suspicious. The teachers should recognise that he has a specific learning difficulty but is otherwise a bright, intelligent child. This is supported by Hazel, the psychologist and proved in practice by Kingsley’s progress in the Saturday supplementary school. Coard’s pamphlet demonstrates how this failure to diagnose becomes institutionalised and is impacting West Indian children disproportionately. These are difficult issues to discuss. All teachers are faced with children who appear to be behaving in a way that makes them ‘difficult’, but most teachers will try to understand why this behaviour arises. If the the majority of the class seem to be suffering from poor living conditions and difficult family circumstances, teachers clearly face problems, but that isn’t the situation in Kingsley’s school.
Most of the adults Kingsley meets at school look down on him but I noted a nice little human touch when the bus driver who takes Kingsley to the ‘special’ school recognises the hurt the boy feels and helps him avoid facing his old schoolmates. I’ve seen several comments that Education is a ‘slight’ narrative and presents a ‘tailing off’ of the energy generated in the first four films. I hope I’ve shown why I think that is not really the case. This is an important story that still resonates strongly today. There are many Kingsleys still struggling in English schools and we still need to change the system.
‘My French Film Festival’ is now running online until February 15. There are several features films that stand out plus a selection of short films. I picked out Working Girls for two reasons. It’s a Belgian film featuring three women living in France, in Roubaix, who work in a brothel in Belgium to make ends meet. I also recognised three of the leads in the film and especially Sara Forestier who impressed me greatly in Suzanne (France 2013), a film by Katell Quillévéré. I was also surprised to learn that the film had been selected as the Belgian entry for the 2020 ‘Best International Feature’ Oscar awards. It didn’t sound like the kind of film the Academy voters were likely to go for.
I’m interested in Roubaix as a location because it’s twinned with Bradford in the UK, sharing the traditional importance of the woollen industry and the more recent development of a significant Muslim population. Roubaix has been used as a location in several French films, most notably in the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Unfortunately, in this film, all we see of the town is a block of high-rise flats and suburban streets (which may well have been shot in a different location). The three women of the title meet in a housing estate car park and drive into Belgium to work. The only significant image of their journey is the road sign (with the EU flag) announcing they are entering Belgium. It is a poignant moment for a viewer in ‘beleaguered Brexit Britain’. I’m wondering what will happen on Eurostar trains heading for Brussels when we can travel again after the pandemic?
I’ve read several reviews and comments about the film, many of which stress that this is “not a film about prostitution”. That’s an odd statement I think. I think the source of this is the director’s statement that the film doesn’t cover some of the conventional themes associated with brothels in films.The film represents what goes on in a brothel, it deals to some extent with the procedures of the brothel and it focuses on the lives of these three ‘ordinary’ women whose circumstances have pushed them into this kind of work. In one sense the film is unusual in that the three women are French rather than migrants from Eastern Europe or further afield. (Wikipedia suggests that many prostitutes in Belgium are Bulgarian.) The last similar film I can remember is The Receptionist (Taiwan-UK 2016) in which the ‘girls’ are from China or Taiwan. The women in Roubaix don’t have to worry about immigration authorities but they do have lives not connected to sex work (they work under pseudonyms to protect their identities) and these can also be problematic. Axelle (Sara Forestier) is a mother of three small children who are looked after by their grandmother. The man she claims is not her husband is Yann (Nicolas Cazalé) who is around and seems to think he has rights re the children. Dominque or ‘Do’ is played by Noémie Lvovsky who was so good as the mother in Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015). ‘Do’ works as a nurse on the night shift. She has a husband and two teenage children to support. The third woman is Conso (Annabelle Lengronne) who is the youngest of the three, living on her own. In some ways she is the most vulnerable of the three. The three are aggressive towards each other but also supportive, realising that they must protect each other.
The film opens with the three seemingly burying a body in the rain and mud. The rest of the narrative is therefore a long flashback, at the end of which we will discover the identity of the body. There is also a three-part structure to the flashback so we focus on each of the three women in turn. It’s significant that the writer on the film is Anne Paulicevich who spent a long time researching the background to her story which was inspired by a newspaper article. She visited a brothel regularly for several months talking informally to the ‘working girls’. The Internet Movie Database credits her as co-director of the film with Frédéric Fonteyne. Cineuropa and the film’s Press Pack list her as ‘artistic director’. I’m not quite sure what that means but I suspect that she worked closely with the three female leads and with the cinematographer Juliette Van Dormael. The brothel is, in this film, a female space, at least in the back room where the women chat. I don’t see a Hollywood remake in the current climate, even with the relatively small amount of nudity. The actual sexual encounters are brief and never really gratuitous, but there is also violence. The violence comes from men both as clients and outside the brothel, but we learn little about them.
I’m not sure what to make of the film. This kind of subject matter is always difficult to handle and to pitch to distributors and audiences. Paulicevich says in the Press Pack that she sees the women as ‘heroes’ and indeed the most successful aspect of the film is the interaction between the women and how they overcome problems. Paulicevich herself wrote the film because she had only just become a mother with a baby daughter and had left an abusive relationship. Frédéric Fonteyne reveals that the film had a working title of La frontière, suggesting both the border between the two EU countries, the border between genres, social norms, emotions etc. I think that might have been a better title but he said that he realised it would be misleading for audiences if they thought it implied trafficking. Fonteyne suggests it is a ‘political film’ in its treatment of violence towards women and female solidarity. I’m not sure about that and I’d like to see some reviews by women. I understand that prostitution is not ‘standardised’ across the EU. Belgian policy is to regulate an industry that is not illegal but in France brothels are illegal so that presumably explains the original newspaper story.
The film was low budget and shot in just 30 days partly in the brothel used for the research. It is clearly an achievement to produce such a film and the performances from the three leads are outstanding. I’m not sure if in the end Paulicevich Fonteyne have achieved their aims but I found the film engaging and worthwhile, mainly for the melodrama of the three women’s interactions, and I think it is definitely worth watching.
‘Mangrove’ refers to the restaurant opened by the Trinidadian Frank Crichlow in North Kensington in 1968. Crichlow had previously run El Rio, a café around the corner. The café had attracted attention by the police because of allegations of drugs being used there. Crichlow was determined that The Mangrove would become a respectable restaurant serving West Indian food. It soon became popular, not only with the local West Indian community, but also celebrities (musicians including Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix), artists/writers and activists. Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) the police raided the restaurant more than once between 1969 and 1970. Fed up and frustrated by these raids (which generally found nothing) Frank Crichlow and others from the community were joined by Darcus Howe, his partner Barbara Beese and Altheia Jones, an activist from the British Black Panther group, in organising a protest march which aimed to pass the three police stations in the area. The march gathered support but was in effect ambushed by the police who arrested nine marchers including the four leaders. The ‘Mangrove Nine’ were charged with ‘riot and affray’. As this was a serious charge the case was heard at the Central Criminal Court (i.e. ‘The Old Bailey’ in 1971). The case lasted a punishing 11 weeks with prison sentences hanging over the accused. These are the facts of the case. I haven’t given the outcome of the case but you can look it up.
Steve McQueen has created a film narrative which runs from 1968 to 1971 and includes most of the important elements of the historical record. His script was co-written with Alastair Siddons. I want to make a couple of points about McQueen’s formal approach first. Mangrove is longer than the other films comprising Small Axe and it is presented in a ‘Scope ratio. It presumably has a bigger budget too and includes CGI to portray the area in the 1969 with Westway, the elevated inner city motorway extension, which was being built at the time. There is also a sense of expansiveness and expressionism in the cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, especially in the Old Bailey trial scenes. Also, it’s one of only two out of the five films to feature an international Hollywood star with Letitia Wright, the Guyanese-British actor seen in films like Black Panther (US 2018) cast in Mangrove as the political activist Altheia Jones. It’s no surprise that Mangrove has been presented as ‘Episode 1’ of Small Axe.
Formally, the film’s narrative structure seems to fall into three sections. The first sets up the opening of the restaurant and the excitement of a community finding it has somewhere to meet and to enjoy its own culture. The second part focuses on the clashes with the police during the raids and on the march. The final section is the long trial sequence. The trial draws on some familiar courtroom drama generic conventions whereas the first section has elements of melodrama in the relationships focused on the restaurant – which also carries through into the ‘home life’ of Darcus Howe and Barbara Beese (but oddly not so much into the relationship between Frank Crichlow and his partner Selma James).
Overall, Mangrove is a conventional presentation of a series of events with at times a documentary feel in terms of details. I did find some of the CGI slightly unreal and the half-built Westway looks almost as if it is a part of a science fiction narrative in the opening sequence as Frank walks home through North Kensington. The trial section is very well handled and works much like classical Hollywood. In a way though, I was more interested in the first part of the film that explores relationships within the local community. The details here are revealing. The Mangrove became an informal hub for the organisers of the Notting Hill Carnival and the music culture of Trinidad and the South Eastern Caribbean are included on the soundtrack. Mighty Sparrow appears along with the smooth 1960s country star Jim Reeves, a favourite in the region. I think the inclusion of so much Jamaican music in the form of ska/rock steady and reggae from the late 1960s/early 1970s, especially Toots and the Maytals is there to represent the more familiar music for the wider audience.
Shaun Parkes as Frank Crichlow is very good and it does seem that in the 1960s and into the 70s Trinidadians rather than Jamaicans comprised the the main group of writers and activists in the West Indian community. Frank doesn’t want to be political but he is clearly an important local figure. It’s also good to see the older members of the community using the restaurant as a social space. It must be difficult for some viewers to accept the attitudes of the police as depicted in the film but this was definitely how it was. Police culture and behaviour is a strong element in three of the Small Axe films and in the 1970s and 1980s, the Metropolitan Police had a dreadful reputation for corruption and a canteen culture of racism and sexism. Inevitably McQueen is forced into generic modes of characterisation. There has to be a younger constable who is not inherently racist but is pushed towards action by the group and threatened with being ostracised if he doesn’t conform. I did find the police in action to be sometimes quite comical in a Keystone Cops kind of way. This is before the helmets and truncheons were replaced by hard hats and riot shields and batons. There is nothing comical about their violence, however. I was stunned to learn that the police officer who led the raids was ‘PC Pulley’, a real person. I’m still baffled as to how he was in a position of enough authority to indulge his own racist mission. A surprise for modern audiences is just how many uniformed officers a local police station could turn out for a small protest march. I don’t know the actual numbers in 1970 but in the later 1970s, all demonstrations and also the Notting Hill Carnival were all heavily policed.
The melodrama elements are important in the middle section of the film and I was impressed by the representation of the Darcus Howe-Barbara Beese relationship. Both actors are again very good and Malachi Kirby as Howe for me caught both the voice and authority of the young activist from Trinidad. The scene represented above is when Howe suggests that the C L R James book Black Jacobins should be taught in schools in the UK. Breese replies that perhaps not in the primary schools where she works. The point here is that these are activists with real relationships rooted in the ‘lived experience’ of their communities. Here Barbara reminds Darcus that they have to be practical and think about their small son as well as their political work. I think I would be interested to see this whole melodrama of relationships and family background explored in more detail in something like a a long-form narrative of its own, but I guess that McQueen does this by offering four other stories each with a different focus.
I should add Letitia Wright’s excellent performance as Altheia Jones to round out my appreciation of the leading players. In fact, the whole cast is impressive and the production overall is a great achievement. Mangrove provides a platform for the other four films and I’ll attempt to relate each of them to the overall project as we go along. One last thought, the years 1968-1971 were tumultuous in London, especially for any kind of political activism. While these events in Notting Hill were important struggles they sat alongside protests over the war in Vietnam, the resistance to apartheid and the boycott of South African rugby and cricket tours. The civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland was about to become an issue in London (there is a moment when anti-Irish prejudice is exposed in the local Notting Hill police during the surveillance of the Mangrove). Eventually, the struggles of the West Indian community would become a larger story and activism would spread across the capital, something which McQueen picks up in the other four films.
This is the third cinema fiction feature by the French auteur Laurent Cantet. I recently wrote about his film L’atelier (The Workshop, France 2017) and this blog also carries entries on Ressources humaines (France 1999) and Entre les murs (The Class, France 2008). Heading South is both a slightly different kind of production and one that proved controversial. Cantet and his co-writer (and editor) Robin Capillo worked on a script together as usual but they used as inspiration three short stories by the celebrated Haitian writer Dany Laferrière who fled the country in 1976 during the notorious Presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier (‘Baby Doc’). He settled first in Montreal and later Miami. The film narrative is set in the late 1970s and it includes some location shooting in Haiti before the shoot became too dangerous and was moved to the Dominican Republic (the other 2/3rds of the island of Hispaniola).
The title refers to a group of single women from the North who travel South to Haiti in search of sun and sand, but mainly sex and companionship. The thematic background here is ‘sex tourism’, something usually featuring men travelling to Asia or Africa to find young women or young men. Almost as if to signal the controversy, Cantet cast Charlotte Rampling in the lead role. By 2005, Ms Rampling had moved into the second phase of her long career, taking roles in both British and French productions. Earlier in her career she played in several high profile films challenging audiences including Visconti’s The Damned in 1969 and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974. Challenging the idea that women over 50 couldn’t be involved in narratives about desire and sexuality, here she plays Ellen, a university professor of French Literature living in Boston. Ellen is British and the character is slightly younger than Rampling, at 55. But the first traveller we meet is Brenda (Karen Young) a woman in her late 40s from Savannah, Georgia whose marriage has failed and who is picked up at the airport by the manager of the beach resort hotel. On arrival Brenda makes straight for the beach where she finds Legba, the beautiful young Haitian man who she met three years earlier as a younger teenager. Brenda hasn’t been back to Haiti until now and she is unaware that Ellen is the Queen Bee on the beach and that the beautiful young men are meant to be shared around rather than monopolised. Brenda soon realises the power play here. There are several white women on the beach but the only other one who is picked out in the narrative is Sue (Louise Portal), a warehouse manager from Montreal aged somewhere between Brenda and Ellen. The three central characters are all well-known actors but most of the rest of the cast comprises non-professionals as in Cantet’s productions generally.
Cantet’s regular theme concerns a character who is in some ways distant from or antagonistic towards a group. Brenda is that character here since Ellen and Sue have adjusted to their position re the young men they take into their beds. Brenda’s actions are more disruptive. Legba (Ménothy Cesar) is the only Haitian character with whom we spend any length of time and through him we get a clearer picture of what is really happening in the country. I won’t spoil the narrative but what happens to Legba creates the film’s climax and final ‘resolution’. Cantet’s usual methodology works well here so he doesn’t engineer the plot to make obvious statements but instead allows relatively minor incidents along the way to build a sense of the neo-colonial society in which North American tourists have replaced the 18th century French colonialists (Haiti having been the first Black European colony to stage a successful revolution – a ‘slave rebellion’ in 1791). In an early dinner conversation about the male white tourists in the resort involving all three women, Sue and Ellen contrast the white men with the young black men. Sue admits that there are many black men in Montreal she could date, but she says that she never thinks about doing it. In Haiti all three women lust after the young black men. Brenda isn’t sure why this might be but she suggests that they seem “closer to nature” and “more gracious”. This seems like an expression of the traditional racial trope of the ‘noble savage’. Ellen cuts across this by declaring that the young men are attractive because they are shirtless most of the time and she urges Brenda to “go for it” as they are “a dime a dozen”. This is very provocative stuff. As well as the seemingly racist remarks, however, it is also ‘shocking’ to hear middle-aged women discussing the young men much as teenage boys might discuss girls.
At one point it seemed fairly clear to me that Ellen was a rather unpleasant character as indicated by some of the comments above, but later it seems that the most dangerous character is possibly Brenda because she is unaware of how her actions look. At one point she demands that Legba be served in the resort’s dining room. The young men on the beach are not allowed into the restaurant but Brenda insists and embarrasses everyone, but most of all the Haitian hotel manager Albert (Lys Ambroise). We learn a couple of things about Albert which suggest he is very aware of his position as a form of intermediary between the white tourists and Haitian culture generally. In some ways he is the classic ‘subaltern’ character in a colonial text – situated here between the local community and the white tourists.
The formal aspect of Cantet’s approach in this film includes direct-to-camera pieces by the three women and a voiceover by Albert, each announced by the character’s name in a title card. I’m not quite sure why Cantet includes this device, except that what they reveal about the characters feelings and their relationships in the context of the beach resort would be difficult to insert into dialogue or to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Sue comes across as a warm human being, Ellen as self-centred and Brenda as naÏve. What she tells us about would also be an illegal act in the UK. It is Albert’s thoughts that pin down the neo-colonialism as he contextualises it by telling us that his grandfather fought American occupiers in 1915 and he was taught to never trust white people.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed the film but I do think that it stands as an important film in opening up debates about the legacy and return of colonial attitudes. I note that the reviews of the film are divided into those that dismiss it completely (some are shockingly ignorant about the details of the plot) and those few that properly ‘get’ the discourse about colonialism. Some criticise Cantet’s indifference towards period detail, but he isn’t concerned with authenticity in the conventional sense. He’s more concerned with the naturalism of performance and the energy of scenes. I have to say also that I did enjoy the location photography very much and I was reminded of the breathtaking beauty of Caribbean beaches. I would recommend the film.
Laurent Cantet makes clear in the Press Notes (which are in English despite what the link suggests) that he doesn’t judge the characters in his films. He sees Brenda as the most optimistic of his characters in his three films by 2005. As I’ve indicated, I’m not sure I agree.