Here’s a good example of an ‘international film’. Siobhan Ward, an Irish writer of children’s books, has an idea for a story while she is dangerously ill. She agrees to write it as a novel but doesn’t live long enough and her British publisher commissions Patrick Ness, an American living in the UK, to write the novel. Ness then adapts the story for a film by a Spanish production company. The Spanish director and mainly Spanish crew make the film in Spain, the UK and the US/Canada with a cast that is mainly British and with all the exteriors shot in Lancashire. This English language film then becomes the biggest box office success in Spain in 2016 (possibly dubbed?). This is the background to A Monster Calls.
This is a fantasy film, not the kind of film I see very often – unless it is a foreign language film. I wanted to see A Monster Calls because it is directed by J. A. Bayona, whose first film was the wonderful El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). There are some obvious connections between the two films, including an appearance by Geraldine Chaplin who links Bayona’s films to the history of child protagonists in films made under Franco’s censorship (Chaplin appears in Cria cuervos, made by her then partner Carlos Saura in 1976). Franco’s censorship allowed only certain kinds of films to be made and those with child stars were assumed (falsely) to be the least subversive. Ana Torrent was the child star in Cria cuervos as she was in The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Along with the two Guillermo del Toro films The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), these are all films in which children engage with different forms of horror/fantasy – and always for an understanding of the adult world in which their stories explore metaphorical meanings. (Guillermo del Toro ‘presented’ El orfanato, but he is not involved in A Monster Calls.) A Monster Calls draws on a similar British/Irish tradition of children’s fantasy going back to Louis Carroll’s Alice and now found in numerous recent novels and stories (I haven’t seen any of them, but I’m sure you can make your own list). Conor (the brilliant Lewis MacDougall) is a 13 year-old boy whose mother (Felicity Jones) is seriously ill. Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has remarried and gone to live in Los Angeles, so Conor is effectively his mother’s carer. Sigourney Weaver plays his rather stern grandmother who takes over whenever things get too difficult, but Conor struggles to respond to her. For fairly obvious reasons, Conor is lonely and isolated at school and is bullied. Every night he has a nightmare which wakes him at a specific time. It is in one of these sleeping/waking moments that he first meets the ‘monster’, a fearsome ‘tree-man’ who steps forth from the yew tree across the valley. In the deep rumbling voice of Liam Neeson, the monster follows fairy tale traditions by announcing that he will tell Conor three tales on different nights and that Conor will then be required to respond with his own tale. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative if you don’t already know the story.
The director’s second film, The Impossible (Spain-US 2012) was an English language ‘action melodrama’ set during the 2004 tsunami in Thailand and he is clearly happy directing in English. The elements that he adds to the original story are an increased emphasis on Conor’s interest and skill in drawing/painting and also various references to the ‘monsters’ of classic movies. When his mother drags out a 16mm film projector, she laces up King Kong (1933) and Conor watches the trials of the monster with real concern. Later there is a brief glimpse of a model of the Frankenstein monster from 1930 (which might be a reference to The Spirit of the Beehive). I haven’t yet discovered why the shoot was based around the South Pennines, mainly on the Lancashire side but with some scenes shot in Marsden and Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This moorland landscape has a distinctive feel and it can be evocative of religious fervour and ‘dark’ goings on. On the Northern side of the region lies the glowering mass of Pendle, famed for the arrest and trial of the ‘Lancashire witches’ in the 17th century. I’ve seen some critics refer to the children’s novel (and film) The Iron Man (1985) by the poet Ted Hughes as having something in common with A Monster Calls. Hughes was from Mytholmroyd in the Calder Valley a little further south-east of Pendle. At one point, I thought Calderdale was the location used in A Monster Calls and I was reminded of another slightly ‘magical film’, My Summer of Love (2014) shot on the moors above Hebden Bridge. In truth, there isn’t that much use of landscape in A Monster Calls and the church and the yew tree on the hillside opposite Conor’s window are actually CGI models (presumably in a studio in Barcelona). Even so, the locations are carefully chosen so both the school and the hospital (and the level crossing on the preserved East Lancs Railway) have that feeling of being slightly behind the times, adding to the fantasy. The scenes shot in Blackpool at the Pleasure Beach and on North Pier seem to be deliberately ‘unconventional’ (i.e. the Tower and other landmark buildings don’t appear), either because the cinematographer isn’t aware of Blackpool images or because the intention is to downplay the ‘realism’ of the sequence.
Bayona also decided to make use of the graphic material in the original book (illustrations by Jim Kay) and I think these are very cleverly used in relation to the stories the monster tells. The discourse of drawing/painting and use of production design again links the film to El orfanato – something I felt immediately from the opening scenes. J. A. Bayona seems to have shifted his allegiance from Guillermo del Toro to Stephen Spielberg (his next film will be an instalment of the Jurassic World franchise) but A Monster Calls still retains a Spanish feel via the creative team, including DoP Oscar Faura and composer Fernando Velázquez. I’m reminded of the earlier major success by a Spanish-language director working in English when Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (Spain-US 2001) made over $200 million worldwide. Yet Amenábar’s subsequent English language films haven’t succeeded internationally and del Toro’s English language films haven’t always perhaps been as successful as they might have been (e.g. Crimson Peak in 2015). I fear that this may also be true of A Monster Calls. In Spain the film made €27 million when it was released in October. In the UK it opened wide on over 500 screens on 6 January with very good preview numbers and a strong but not spectacular opening weekend. In North America it opened on a handful of screens on December 23rd and went wide to 1500 screens on 6 January, but barely reached the UK opening total which had a third of the screens. This opening pattern matches that (on a smaller scale) of El orfanato. North America is weakest, Spain strongest and the UK in the middle. Since the film reportedly has a $43 million production budget, these figures are quite worrying. I’m not sure why the UK and US openings were left until January 6 when the school holidays were coming to an end.
There were a minority of negative reviews and I guess the film is darker than the usual fare for younger audiences. Sigourney Weaver has been singled out in some quarters. I thought she was fine (though it is difficult to see her as Felicity Jones’ mother). Numerous UK actors would have been a better ‘fit’. Felicity Jones is now a big draw and this might have been a perfect alternative attraction to her Star Wars lead – though it isn’t a role she would have chosen in order to boost her star power. If the film has a weakness, it is perhaps in the school sequences which I think could have been explored a little more without skewing the narrative too much. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian mentions Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008). There is a link certainly, but horror fans expecting something similar would be disappointed. I think A Monster Calls stands on its own merits and I would urge you to see it for the tone and the thematic of its story, the cinematography and production design (and the sensitive use of CGI) and the terrific performance by its young lead. The trailer is quite good and illustrates many of the film’s best qualities without giving everything away:
The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.
Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.
At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.
On my last few visits to the London Film Festival I have often enjoyed an Italian film, invariably selected by Adrian Wootton. None of these films has to my knowledge been released in the UK. This year the Vue in Leicester Square showed Questi Giorni and although I could see it was a flawed film in some ways, I still enjoyed watching it. When I looked for some reviews following its appearance ‘In Competition’ at Venice last month I was taken aback by the ferocity with which it was condemned by most reviewers.
Not being familiar with the work of director Guiseppe Piccioni, I looked over his filmography and he appears to have had a career making roughly similar films mixing elements of comedy, melodrama and romance. The one feature of his films that I did recognise was his frequent casting of Margherita Buy who was excellent in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015). In this film she is cast as the harassed hairdersser and single mother of Liliana, a student with a crush on her Literature professor. It’s the summer vacation in a provincial town and Liliana is invited by her friend, the rather stern Caterina, to join her on a journey to Belgrade where Caterina is hoping to get a job in an upmarket hotel, found for her by a Serbian friend. Somehow, two other friends, Anna and Angela, also join the party and it’s four young women on a road trip with a ferry from Bari crossing over to Montenegro and on to Serbia. They meet some Serbian lads making the same trip in the opposite direction but the main (melo)drama is played out in Belgrade. The narrative sees all the characters faced with questions about what they are doing in their lives and what they should do next. Guiseppe Piccioni was present for a Q&A and he told us that he wanted to make a film about those moments in life, especially when we are young, when we don’t realise that we are taking decisions that will affect the rest of our lives. He seemed to be distancing himself from the perception that this was simply a generic road movie.
Piccioni has won awards in the past but I didn’t think of Questi Giorni as a potential ‘awards winner’. But also I didn’t think it was open to all the criticism it received at Venice. Possibly film journalists at festivals have too many expectations of what they want/hope to see and are quick to reject what doesn’t fit. There is also a common feeling that films about young women have to make feminist statements or at least represent ‘girl power’ and it is morally objectionable for a young woman to have a crush on her teacher. In this case it seems that Piccioni adapted an unpublished novel by a younger filmmaker he had been mentoring. I disagree that all the characters were simply stereotypes or that the film is poorly photographed and edited – as argued by some reviewers. I found the beginning of the film a little confusing (I wasn’t sure how old the young women were supposed to be – the actors seem to be in their twenties) but by the last section I’d bought the melodrama in Belgrade.
Piccioni proved an entertaining guest speaker. He discussed his decisions about his approach in terms of Tolstoy and the audience asked questions about Milton and Guy de Maupassant (Liliana is studying Paradise Lost, Caterina is reading de Maupassant). Unusually, I asked him a question. I was intrigued by the film clips played in an old cinema being renovated in Belgrade. I recognised a couple of sequences from Dusan Makavejev’s The Tragedy of a Switchboard Operator (1968), including the iconic shot of a naked woman and a black cat. It seemed to me that this film by Yugoslavia’s best known film director internationally represents a narrative that possibly contradicts that of Piccioni’s film. I was surprised that he didn’t know the Yugoslavian film and wasn’t aware of the effect he was creating.
I suspect Questi giorni won’t get a release in the UK. I enjoyed the film and I hope that Adrian Wootton continues to select Italian films for LFF. I feel our film culture is lessened by the lack of films like this one on release. (No subs on the official trailer, but an idea of the look of the film.)
A new film by Pedro Almodóvar is an occasion for joy in my book and I found Julieta to be utterly absorbing and thrilling. ‘Un film de Almodóvar’ is like a gourmet meal – every ingredient is rich in meaning and exquisitely presented. Gourmet meals are sometimes more about style than nourishment, but not with Almodóvar. I find his films as sustaining as the best peasant food. Unfortunately not everyone agrees. Julieta has received some lukewarm reviews alongside the majority of favourable ones, mainly I think from writers who don’t know the range of his work – or possibly from younger reviewers who don’t fully appreciate what it means to look back? I was going to write a full-blown defence of the film, but I discovered that Mark Kermode, in one of his most perceptive and informed reviews, has already done it. So I’m not going to repeat all his points – you can find Kermode’s review here. Instead I’ll expand on some of the aspects that interest me most.
Julieta is Almodóvar’s third ‘literary adaptation’, following Live Flesh (1997, based on a Ruth Rendell novel of the same title) and The Skin I Live In (2011, based on Tarantula, a novel by Thierry Jonquet). This time Almodóvar has turned to Runaway (2004), a collection of short stories by the celebrated Canadian short story specialist Alice Munro. Three stories, ‘Chance’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Silence’, are about the same character at different stages of her life. I read these after seeing Julieta and then found Almodóvar’s explanation of what he did. There are useful pieces in both the Guardian/Observer (interview by Jonathan Romney) and Sight and Sound (September 2016 – article by Maria Delgado, review by Jonathan Romney). In the UK Julieta is distributed by Pathé which offers little documentation in support of the film but in Canada the distributor Mongrel Media offers a Press Pack in which Almodóvar provides a delightful set of notes which are almost as entertaining as the film and I recommend them to you.
Julieta is a story about a young woman from Madrid who falls passionately in love with Xoan, a married man in Galicia, and who later marries him in difficult circumstances that to some extent mirror what has happened to her own parents back in Andalucía. She is then dismayed to find her relationship with her daughter from the marriage breaking down and bringing the past back to her as she tries to live a new life in Madrid.
Pedro tells us that he’d acquired the rights and started adapting the stories before making his earlier film The Skin I Live In and that Munro’s book actually appears as a prop in that film. He’d already switched the location from British Columbia and Ontario to New York before deciding that he wasn’t confident enough in English and transposed the action again to Madrid, Galicia and Andalucía. He suggests that in North America, the physical separation of parents and grown-up children is common but in Spain it is exceptional – “the umbilical cord joining us to our parents and grandparents survives the passing of time”. He says that the original stories are still Munro’s but that he’s had to change them for cinema and he hopes that Julieta will be seen by Munro’s admirers as “a tribute to the Canadian writer”. In fact, he hasn’t changed that much. The main thing he has done is to find a way to ‘stitch’ the three separate episodes together so that one coherent narrative can be manipulated on the cinema screen with flashbacks and the use of two actors to play Julieta at different times of her life. The transformation shot when the younger Adriana Ugarte becomes the older Emma Suárez is quite remarkable. (Both actors are very good, Agarte is well known from Spanish TV and it’s a welcome return for UK audiences to see Suárez who starred in the early films of Julio Medem in the 1990s.) Almodóvar is not the first director to adapt Munro and one of my favourite films is Away From Her (Canada 2006) directed by Sarah Polley. As a young and inexperienced director she didn’t have the weight of Almodóvar’s experience in 2006 but she does have a woman’s perspective – and an affinity with Canadian life. When I first remembered the connection I thought that the two films were very different but on reflection they are both recognisably Munro’s narratives, so Almodóvar has been ‘faithful’ to the author in one sense.
In the Press Notes Pedro makes several claims and assertions that I take with a pinch of salt:
“I’ve contained myself very much in the visual composition, in the austerity of the supporting characters. No one sings songs. Nor do I introduce scenes from other films to explain the characters. There isn’t the slightest trace of humour, or any mixing of genres, or so I believe. From the outset I had in mind that Julieta is a drama, not a melodrama, a genre to which I’m partial. A tough drama with a hint of mystery: someone who’s looking for someone without knowing why she left. Someone with whom you’ve lived for a lifetime disappears from your life without a word. You can’t understand it. It happens, it’s in our nature, but it’s incomprehensible and unacceptable. Not to mention the pain it causes.”
I would argue that it is a melodrama, that the visual compositions are, as usual, extraordinary and that the film refers back to various periods of Almodóvar’s filmmaking, as well as clear references. It is this which makes the film ‘un film de Almodóvar’ as well as a wonderful adaptation of a great writer’s work. Elsewhere, Pedro remarks that Ava, the woman Julieta meets in Galicia and who may be her husband’s on/off mistress is perhaps named after Ava Gardner. At the house in Galicia which will become Julieta’s home she must grapple with the housekeeper Marian, played by Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar’s ‘go to’ character actors, here playing Mrs Danvers to Julieta’s Rebecca from Hitchcock’s 1940 film. Later on a character will tell us that he feels like a character from a Patricia Highsmith story. The earliest part of the story is set in 1985 and Pedro tells us that he had to explain to Adrianna Ugarte how a young woman from Madrid on a train (Hitchcock/Highsmith again – but also in the Munro story) might behave in the sexually liberated ‘Movida‘ period when the first outrageous Almodóvar films appeared. The Press Notes finish with these lines:
“Almost all my films gain the second time they’re seen. Julieta will certainly be enjoyed more when you’ve already seen it and know the story. I’d like to persuade my brother (the producer) to offer a free second viewing to people who have already seen the film.”
Julieta is a work of genius in which the adaptation becomes a personal exploration of grief, loss, passion and memory. I know some audiences drifted away from Almodóvar, disappointed by I’m So Excited (Spain 2013) (but not me). Julieta should bring them back – after 10 days, it had made over £820,00 in UK cinemas – on the way to perhaps making £1 million and emphasising Almodóvar’s status as the most consistent foreign language director distributed in the UK.