Category: Melodrama

LFF2017 #4: Equilibrium (L’equilibrio, Italy 2017)

Fr. Antonio (Roberto del Gaudio) left, tries to communicate with his successor Fr. Giuseppe (Mimmo Borrelli) who doesn’t really want to listen

Equilibrium is a low-key social melodrama filmed in a style that suggests a Loachian realism, but also a more expressive use of tracking cameras alongside long shots and the midshots of social melodrama. It’s a modest film about an important issue, but for me its modesty gives it great power. Written and directed by Vincenzo Marra, Equilibrium is a questionable concept or ideal when it refers to the role of a parish priest in a difficult area. At the start of the film we meet Fr. Giuseppe who has returned from a mission in Africa and is now working in a hostel for migrants (asylum seekers?) in Rome. He’s a rather solemn man, still with youth and vigour, who is clearly capable but he is also disturbed by his feelings towards a young female teacher/social worker helping in the hostel. Fr. Giuseppe approaches his bishop and requests a transfer. He is sent to the suburbs of Naples to replace Fr. Antonio, a parish priest who is moving on after 15 years. Fr. Antonio shows the new man the smouldering heaps of refuse that are poisoning the atmosphere locally and causing many cancers and other life-threatening diseases. This is the battle to be fought – to persuade the authorities to do something about the pollution. But Fr. Giuseppe soon learns that other battles are not being fought, especially with the local drugs business since it is controlled by a Camorra clan based close to the parish church.

Fr. Giuseppe reveals himself to be emotionally open and also impetuous in attempting to find solutions to the misery experienced by certain parishioners. He seems somewhat naïve in the way he ignores warning signs and barges straight into situations. He wants to save people but is in danger of making life much more difficult for them. This isn’t to say that the status quo should be maintained or that Fr. Giuseppe shouldn’t do anything. Rather, he should think first and look at the various possible ways of acting. I should stress that this is how I read the narrative – I’m not necessarily making a moral judgement. The film’s presentation is key here. Marra, during an interesting Q&A, told us that he decided to use non-professional actors and theatre actors, mainly I think because they would do what they were asked to do and not what they thought was conventional for a film, based on their experience of previous films. Fr Giusseppe is played by Mimmo Borrelli who, if I’ve interpreted Google Translate properly, is a major figure in Neapolitan theatre. His role in this film (his only credit on IMDb) seems far removed from the flamboyance of his theatrical persona. Here he is mournful and moves slowly for the most part (except when he is determined to act). His casting, indeed the whole casting process seems to echo the Loach/Laverty approach and in the Q&A Marra told us that he thought the situation in Naples was similar to other conurbations in Europe, picking out Glasgow and saying that he had visited the locations for Loach’s Sixteen Films productions around Clydeside. During the film I had thought about Sweet Sixteen (UK 2002), made in Greenock on the Clyde and starring the then unknown Martin Compston. I’m not sure why this film came to mind because the situation and characters are quite different. I guess that both films use local non-film actors who play characters who are up against some kind of organised crime in a district with little hope for significant groups in the population. Overall, Liam in the Loach film achieves more and the narrative is slightly more optimistic. The new ‘Equilibrium’ in the Italian film doesn’t seem to offer the locals much more than the old – but there is a glimpse of hope from one character in the closing shot and perhaps that is enough?

I’ve enjoyed all the Italian films I’ve seen at LFF in the last few years. Some have been flawed but all have been worthwhile, so thanks Adrian Wootton, the former Festival Director who now acts as the ‘Regional Adviser’ to the festival on Italian Cinema. Unfortunately, the one thing the films have in common is that none to my knowledge have received UK distribution. All foreign language films struggle in the current climate, but Italy is the major producer that seems to suffer most.

This trailer doesn’t have English subs, but gives a good idea of the style:

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Not Just Bollywood #4: Ankhon Dekhi (India 2013)

Rajat Kapoor as the brother, Chacha, Maya Sarao as Bauji’s daughter Rita, Sanjay Mishra as Bauji and Taranjit Kaur as Chacha’s wife Chachi

Rajat Kapoor is known in the UK as an actor (having appeared in more than 40 films) across mainstream Hindi and independent features. But in India he is also recognised as a director of low budget independent films. This busy actor-filmmaker made the trip to the North of England to make appearances at both Sheffield Showroom and HOME in Manchester as part of ‘Not Just Bollywood’. He accompanied his most recent feature as director (and supporting actor), introducing his film and staying on for a Q&A after the screening. Ankhon Dekhi is a remarkable film. I left the screening intrigued, slightly bemused and realising I needed to think more about it.

The film’s title translates roughly as ‘Seeing with your own eyes’. It only dawned on me later that ‘dekko’ is another Hindi loan word that no doubt crept into English usage during the colonial era– as in “Have a dekko at this”. The central character Bauji, a fifty-something man living with his extended family in old Delhi, decides to follow the philosophical position of believing only what he can see with his own eyes as closely as possible and in doing so turns upside down his own family and his group of friends in the local community. Everything kicks off with an event both shocking and mundane at the same time. The whole of Bauji’s extended family overreacts when it is revealed that Bauji’s daughter is seeing a young man who is assumed to be a ‘bad lot’ and certainly not appropriate as husband and son-in-law. But is he that bad? Or indeed not bad at all? Bauji is not convinced that the young man is a villain, but at first his daughter’s life takes a back seat as Bauji himself becomes known as a philosopher, giving up his job and acquiring a circle of followers, mainly from the local barber’s shop where men gather (a link to African-American culture I hadn’t thought of before).

Sanjay Mishra as Bauji, dancing on his roof – and dreaming of flying like a bird

Some time after the screening, I had a revelation about what Ankhon Dekhi might be reminding me of when I read a viewer’s comment on IMDb: “Rajat Kapoor’s refreshingly eccentric yet gimmick-less (even hype-less) Ankhon Dekhi is kind of a déja vu of Malgudi Days. The film revolves around Bauji who lives in his own ideological world and believes in the inherent goodness of people” (‘rangdetumpy’ from India). I came across the charming and beautifully written novels (in English) of R. K. Narayan around forty years ago. Narayan, a southern writer born in Madras, invented his own fictional town of Malgudi. His stories deal with everyday and mainly inconsequential events which reveal everything about a small community of characters. There is definitely a link between Bauji and Narayan’s world. Ankhon Dekhi is set in Old Delhi and Rajat Kapoor told us that finding the particular dwelling with its interconnected rooms and communal spaces to serve as the film’s central location was one of the most important aspects of the film’s production. The extended family includes Bauji’s brother (Rajat Kapoor) and his family and the closeness – which has benefits and disbenefits – becomes another factor. Ankhon Dekhi works because it is both specific in its Old Dehli milieu and ‘universal’ as a family comedy melodrama. It also suggests another Indian genre – that concerned with the ‘guru’ or ‘pandit’. Bauji attracts followers and it isn’t too difficult to see that both guru and followers are ripe for some form of gentle satire. Alternatively, perhaps his philosophy works and we are the ones to be gently mocked? Again, Narayan had a similar story, The Guide (1958) which follows a character, a tour guide, who will eventually become seen as some kind of spiritual guide by his followers. Like Narayan, Rajat Kapoor ends his narrative with an open question about Bauji’s status and whether he can survive the journey he seems to be making.

Omar Ahmed interviews Rajat Kapoor in Cinema 2 at HOME

Ankhon Dekhi is a lovely film with a great ensemble cast who present scenes about life in their neighbourhood that allow us to reflect on love and friendship and the fascination of daily life. Rajat Kapoor explained that he grew up in this kind of family in a similar part of Old Delhi. It is clearly a film that ‘Not Just Bollywood’ curator Omar Ahmed holds very dear, as was apparent in the Q&A that followed the screening. Omar asked questions which referred back to his own earlier presentation on the ‘Hindies’ phenomenon and Rajat Kapoor explained how, seemingly ‘out of the blue’, someone appeared who was prepared to find the half a million dollars required to make the film. This was Manish Mundra. Ankhon Dekhi was the first production for Drishyam Films, the company Mundra set up. Four years and several other productions later (including Newton (2017)). Mundra was able to announce a $20 million fund to finance 8-10 new Indian independent films. This development promises new films but how these films will be distributed and how they will find audiences remains an issue. Rajat Kapoor told us that Ankhon Dekhi has still not covered its production costs. But he also suggested that the new possibilities offered by Netflix and other streaming services might help indie films to be seen outside the big metros (a question from the audience queried whether this would mean that films like Ankhon Dekhi would never get into cinemas). At the moment, a film like Ankhon Dekhi is still likely to be seen mainly at film festivals (in India and abroad) – and not in local cinemas on release. Rajat suggested that it doesn’t really matter if Netflix don’t allow films they produce to get into cinemas if it means that audiences can still see small independent films on their TV sets or online. He admitted that the biggest success of Ankhon Dekhi, for him, was that every day somebody new would see his film on the various outlets and that he could feel the love for the film when people stopped him on the street to congratulate him.

Ankhon Dekhi won awards in India but Rajat Kapoor is still struggling to fund one of the four new scripts he has completed. His next film will try for crowd-funding and we were all invited to contribute. In a final response to a question by Omar Ahmed about the potential for this new ‘wave’ of Indian independents, Rajat Kapoor was not optimistic. “There are perhaps 5 films each year that are interesting independents – and we make 1500 films a year.” I’m not sure I agree that only 5 are examples of new ideas, but Rajat did finally relent by agreeing that, slowly Indians are getting more access to ‘world cinema’ and tastes are changing. Let’s hope so if we are going to get more films like Ankhon Dekhi. Rajat himself is a link to the ‘New Cinema’ of the 1970s and 1980s since he was inspired by two of the directors of the period, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, while he was at the Film Institute in Pune and they are both acknowledged at the end of Ankhon Dekhi.

A short interview with Rajat Kapoor has been posted on HOME’s website:

In Between (Bar Bahar, Israel-France 2016)

(from left) Leila (Mouna Hawa), Salma (Sana Jammelieh) and Noor (Shaden Kanboura)

Identity is everything in Israel and Palestine – nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, tradition and modernity all demand that individuals must make decisions and then expect their choices to be defining. I’ve got in trouble before for describing films and characters from the region in ways that people find objectionable, so I’m treading carefully. In Between is officially an Israeli film (receiving public funds, eligible for awards etc.). The writer-director Maysaloun Hamoud was born to Palestinian parents living in Budapest where she grew up before going to university in Jerusalem and then film school in Tel Aviv. The three young women at the centre of her film are variously described as ‘Palestinians’ and ‘Israeli Palestinians’ in interviews, reviews and promotion materials for the film. Asked about her influences, Hamoud plays the game citing Guy Ritchie and Hollywood B movies in one interview and Ken Loach and Egyptian cinema in another. She sees herself as challenging ideas about Arab cinema. But most tellingly she identifies with Ajami (Israel-Germany 20o9) the film made by an Arab-Jew pairing about crime on the streets of Jaffa (the ancient Arab port city, now engulfed by Tel Aviv) where Hamoud now lives. “I was criticised for taking Israeli government funding to make [In Between]. But that money is ours, we should take more. We don’t take what we deserve.” This is what she told the Guardian last week in London where she has been creating a stir promoting the film. It has all paid off, she says, because young people are contacting her about the film.

As the title implies (I think its Arabic title means something like ‘Land and Sea’), this film is about identities ‘caught between’. The three central characters are young women. Leila (Mouna Hawa) is a secular Muslim with a job as a lawyer dealing with rights claims. Salma (Sana Jammelieh) is a Christian Arab whose dream is to be a DJ and who survives by working in kitchens and bars and Noor (Shaden Kanboura) is a religious Muslim from a conservative village who is studying computer science at university. It is the arrival of Noor as a flatmate, arranged through a family friend, that kicks off the narrative. How will she get on with these two ‘modern’ women who smoke, drink, take drugs and have affairs? More to the point, perhaps, how will Noor’s fiancé Wissam deal with the new situation? It’s not difficult to guess, but this isn’t really a plot-driven narrative. More important is to enjoy the interrelationships between the women and to see how they develop a response to their different situations. The three actors (two with little or no experience) are totally convincing in their roles. For a first feature this is a staggering achievement for Maysaloun Hamoud and her crew.

Maysaloun Hamoud (centre) during the shoot for In Between

The film succeeds so well because Hamoud has managed to judge just how much she has to show to represent the challenge to each of the women. Leila thinks she has found a soulmate and Salma starts a lesbian affair with a trainee doctor. Both flatmates have yet to see how their new relationships will be judged by family members. Restraint in this case works better than excess and the open ending of the film means we leave the screening thinking about what these women have achieved, but also aware of what else they might face. Add to this the subtle way in which each of the central characters (who are each in some way representative of different identities) is ‘humanised’ and allowed to become rounded and we can recognise Hamoud’s skill. She also gives us one shocking scene, handled with sensitivity, that highlights the whole struggle.

The film is low budget but still gets across the vitality of Tel Aviv and this is partly through the use of music, another of Hamoud’s passions. She tells us that she has tried to convey the type of underground music scene that is enjoyed by many of the different groups in Israel and Palestine.

In Between has won several awards at international film festivals and it is an important as well as enjoyable film. There is an excellent UK website for the film presented by distributor Peccadillo Pictures, including videos, music and information about where it is playing. In the North of England you can catch it in Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle this week. I hope you can find it.

 

Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit, West Germany 1975)

The central characters sitting in a three-seat chair in the apartment bought with Franz’s winnings. Fassbinder plays Franz (seated in the centre).

This screening was part of an ongoing tour of new Fassbinder prints (DCPs) from the Fassbinder Foundation. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was certainly the most prolific and arguably the most inspiring filmmaker of the last fifty years. He made over 40 features for film and TV. Only a minority got a formal release in UK cinemas but more have become available on DVD over the last few years. Restorations by the Foundation have been produced at regular intervals. The film here has a 2015 restoration credit. I went to see it in a cinema despite having a DVD at home (one of very many as yet unwatched). I’m glad I did.

The English title doesn’t tell us much about the film’s narrative. Though not directly translatable, the German title does indicate more. It conveys the awkward combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘the law of the jungle’. ‘Fox’ is the central character played by Fassbinder himself as a working-class gay young man whose real name is Franz Biberkopf. Fassbinder appeared in many of his own films and often took the name ‘Franz’. Here the whole name is taken from the central character of the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin which Fassbinder adapted for a major German TV series in 1980.

During a very entertaining title sequence we learn that Franz/Fox has been working in a fairground show as ‘Fox the talking head’ (separated from his body, emphasising, as one commentator put it, the disconnect between his brain and his penis), but with the showman arrested by police Franz is now back on the street. Hustling for money and ‘cottaging’ (is there a specific German word for this?) he hooks up with Max, a suave antiques dealer played by Karl-Heinz Böhm (famously seen as the eponymous character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960). Convinced he will win the lottery, Franz persuades Max to help him buy a ticket and with his winnings of half a million DMs, he joins the group of wealthy gay men who are Max’s friends. The remainder of the film sees Franz alienated from his own circle of working-class (or at least petty bourgeois) gay men while he is being carefully parted from all his money by his new sophisticated associates. This latter is largely achieved by involving Franz in a bailout of his new lover Eugen’s family printing firm. Franz isn’t just fleeced, he is humiliated on a daily basis. It can only end badly.

Franz (Fassbinder) whose dress sense always marks him out as ‘not one of us’ when he is with his wealthy new friends. Eugen uses the ever present mirror.

I was struck by many aspects of this film but I was most surprised to read about the contemporary critical reaction to it in the 1970s, much of it coming from gay critics such as Andrew Britton who apparently suggested that the film should be ‘denounced’ because of its representation of gay men. Fassbinder argued that the film (his first to present a gay male community in such detail) wasn’t really ‘about’ gay culture – it was simply the backdrop and the narrative would have been the same if these were groups of heterosexuals. I think Britton might have had a point in the context of the 1970s, but now Fassbinder’s argument seems more acceptable. I suspect the main issue for mainstream critics and audiences is that, though still a low-budget film, Fox and His Friends looks more like a glossier mainstream drama than Fassbinder’s earlier 1960s films – but it doesn’t deliver the same kind of narrative pleasures. A common complaint is that it starts in quite a humorous vein and then darkens and becomes ‘pessimistic’ before the tragic ending. Mainstream Hollywood this ain’t. But anyone who knows Fassbinder wouldn’t be expecting anything other than a coruscating satire on the German bourgeoisie and that’s what we get throughout. The society is poisoned by the attitudes of the wealthy and the poor have to eventually tread on each other just to keep their heads above water. The naïve and guileless Fox/Franz is the perfect guide to this corruption of human values.

Franz with his own associates in the downmarket bar

It should be pointed out that by 1975 Fassbinder was a well-established director in West Germany with half his output already produced, but that in the UK and US his films didn’t receive a release until 1974’s Fear Eats the Soul – the review of which by Laura Mulvey in Spare Rib was a significant moment in the study of Douglas Sirk and the feminist interest in melodrama. New and old films then began to appear out of chronological order. I don’t remember the release of Fox and His Friends but Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Monthly Film Bulletin review suggests that its UK release was in early 1976. It was classified as an ‘X’ Certificate (over 16s only) film with a running time of 123 minutes, suggesting no cuts compared to the current version. The film has a series of full frontal male leads in a bath house which must have been unusual at the time.

Max (Karl-Heinz Böhm), Eugen (Peter Chatel) and Max’s wife (Barbara Valentin) in a ‘disturbing’ pose in front of a mirror which distorts the sense of space in the room

Philip (Harry Baer) and Eugen, former lovers, meet in a boutique where Franz is being ‘transformed’ . . .

. . . and kiss in this extraordinary low-angle mirror shot

The Mulvey interest in Fassbinder is significant since Fassbinder himself had become very interested in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas since viewing several at the start of the 1970s. Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) was generally accepted as Fassbinder’s re-working of elements of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). I was consciously seeking throughout Fox and His Friends to find any ‘Sirkian’ elements. It did seem to me that though the context and the characters are very different, there are some elements that seem familiar from Written On The Wind, Sirk’s 1956 feature. At the centre of Sirk’s delirious melodrama about a Texas oil family are alcoholic family members, illicit relationships and problems for outsiders in the family group. I think it is significant that Fassbinder chose a small printing company for Eugen’s family – a German industry as nationally symbolic in some ways as the oil industry in Texas. Much more important though is the general aesthetic approach in Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas – the use of colour, camerawork and mise en scène as well as music. I was struck most of all by the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the production design of Kurt Raab – both Fassbinder regulars. I’ve included here a selection of screengrabs from a film that is presented in such a carefully constructed way.

Franz with his only family, his sister Hedwig (Christiane Maybach). Note the mirror yet again and the nickname spelt out in studs

Eugen humiliates Franz in an upmarket restaurant. Here it isn’t the mirror but the use of two posts that dominates the composition and divides the two men

Perhaps I’m so obsessed with how satisfying I find the overall aesthetic qualities of the film that I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about what it all means. In the images above I’m impressed by the two familiar melodrama/noir tropes of mirror reflections and compositions dominated by doorways/windows and diagonals. The camera observes this world and offers us these signifiers of the ways in which it oppresses characters. Others have suggested that Fassbinder has taken Sirk’s ideas about directly presented emotions presented through a stylised ‘soap opera’ aesthetic. It does feel to me that this is ‘art’ that perfectly serves Fassbinder’s critique of West Germany’s bourgeois society. But I’m also conscious that Fassbinder is also arguably indulging or ‘working through’ his own personal concerns in this film. It is dedicated to his then current lover Armin Meier – and to ‘all the others’. In addition, he found a role for his former lover El Hedi ben Salem (the male lead in Fear Eats the Soul) as a gay man in Marrakesh when Franz and Eugen go on holiday. Fassbinder had a difficult childhood which if not working-class was not ‘comfortable’ middle-class and some commentators have argued that his insecurity with his working-class gay partners manifested itself in this film through the masochistic way in which as a filmmaker he organised Franz’s downfall.

Here are two helpful clips in gaining an understanding of how Fox and His Friends works. The first is gay filmmaker Ira Sachs giving his personal response and analysis of the film and the second is the film’s trailer (no English subtitles). This shows the range of compositions similar to the stills above which define the aesthetic:

The Spiral Staircase (US 1946)

Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Sloane descends the stairs to the basement with George Brent as Professor Warren behind.

Elsa Lanchester as Mrs Sloane descends the stairs to the basement with George Brent as Professor Warren behind.

I watched this recently in preparation for an event on film noir and enjoyed it very much. It’s a significant film in many ways, though its short running time (82 minutes) seems to indicate a ‘B’ picture. The cast and crew and the sheer artistry of the film do, however, point to an ‘A’ picture from RKO. Researching the film, I came across a fascinating website, The Film Noir File: A Dossier of Challenges to the Film Noir Hardboiled Paradigm written and compiled by Dan Hodges. I should have been aware of this site because it explores the arguments against the conventional academic film histories of film noir and also the supposed American uniqueness of the genre/style. I would tend to support both of the main aims of the website.

The Spiral Staircase challenges the ‘paradigm’ of film noir in one sense and ‘fits’ it in another. It is not based on the kind of ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the 1930s/40s, but it is directed by an émigré German director, Robert Siodmak and photographed by another, the Italian Nicholas Musaraca (who had worked in Hollywood since the 1920s). In fact, Siodmak and Musuraca were two of the principal ‘creators’ of film noir as later described by Hollywood film scholars. Musaraca worked under Val Lewton in RKO’s ‘B’ unit in the early 1940s on films such as Cat People (1942) and would later shoot the film noir classic Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947). Siodmak came to RKO after early noirs such as The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Suspect (1944). He would go on to make another recognised noir classic, The Killers, also in 1946.

So, how does The Spiral Staircase challenge the paradigm? The first films noirs to be studied extensively in retrospect were based on hard-boiled crime stories, often featured a ‘doomed man’ and a femme fatale and were contemporary in setting (though they might update 1930s stories to the 1940s). The Spiral Staircase is based on a novel by Ethel Lina White, a British writer who turned to crime fiction in the 1930s. Three of her novels were adapted for cinema, beginning with The Lady Vanishes in 1938 (UK, Alfred Hitchcock). She died in 1944 and didn’t see either The Spiral Staircase or Unseen (1945). The Spiral Staircase was adapted by a radio drama writer Mel Dinelli.

In the first murder a young woman is dressing when she is strangled, creating this strong composition . . .

Ethel Lina White was born in 1876 in Abergavenny so it isn’t surprising that she set her 1933 novel Some Must Watch in the Welsh borders. It was adapted as The Spiral Staircase and transposed to early 20th century New England, but still featuring an isolated country house. Though the adaptation sees a few characters altered, the important point here is that the central character is Helen (Dorothy McGuire), a young woman who has lost her voice after a childhood trauma and is now the ‘ladies companion’ of the bed-ridden Mrs Warren (the formidable figure of Ethel Barrymore). The local town is experiencing the terror of a serial killer and the film opens with the murder of a young woman in a hotel while below an audience (including Helen) watches an early film screening. When Helen returns to the isolated country house (in a rainstorm), Siodmak reveals the shoes and single voyeuristic eye of the murderer hiding in the shadows on the stairs of the great old Victorian gothic mansion. The film’s title refers to the staircase down to the extensive basement/cellar. If you want more background on the book and film (with possible SPOILERS) there is an interesting post on ‘Le curieux Monsieur Cocosse | Journal’.)

. . . the murderer was hiding in the walk-in clothes closet

. . . the murderer was hiding in the walk-in clothes closet

We can guess what will happen, but the film is highly engaging with its narrative twists and turns and the superlative camerawork, lighting and set design make it always watchable. Helen is both ‘damsel in distress’ and investigator (and arguably the ‘final girl’ as identified in the horror films of the 1990s). As well as Helen and Mrs Warren, the film also features two other significant female roles played by Rhonda Fleming (who went on to lead roles in the 1950s) and Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton and dogged by her early Hollywood success in The Bride of Frankenstein). The narrative draws primarily on the suspense thriller repertoire. The visual style suggests the horror film as much as the film noir and it is supported by a strong soundtrack mix of effects referring to the terrible storm outside, the banging of windows and shutters and the sound of the wind and rain. Horror and film noir arguably have roots in common in German expressionism of the 1920s and the same roots also apply to the particular cycle of female-centred melodramas that became popular in the 1940s. Many of these reveal a certain kind of paranoia about being in the ‘old dark house’. In Gaslight (UK 1940 and US 1944), both films adapted from Patrick Hamilton’s play, a woman in London becomes fearful that her house is subject to strange events. Her relative was murdered in the house some time ago but is her present husband trying to frighten her? Ingrid Bergman is the frightened woman in the Hollywood version with clear film noir links. The Spiral Staircase also links to the Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in distress’ film Sorry Wrong Number (1948) in which she plays a woman who is bed-ridden, like the Ethel Barrymore character in the Siodmak film and similarly fearful of an attack. These melodramas are also films noirs.

Ethel Barrymoore as the bed-ridden Mrs Warren with Dorothy McGuire as Helen

The view in the mirror which shows downstairs.

The view in the mirror which shows downstairs.

Melodrama implies other familiar conventions. Helen is affected by her trauma so that she can’t speak – and therefore can’t ask for help or convey what she knows quickly. In the scene above she looks at herself in the mirror, a common image from melodrama that might suggest that there are two Helens or that she has something to hide that might not be revealed to the other characters. The mirror also allows the composition of images which are ‘disrupted’ in their presentation of narrative space. Here the deep focus which operates throughout the film shows the dining room below. In this case, the mirror image helps conjure up Helen’s fears that being unable to speak will be dangerous in the febrile atmosphere of her gothic surroundings. This image also gives an indication of the detailed set design and ‘set dressing’ which adds greatly to the power of the images. The art direction duties are credited to Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey. D’Agostino worked on 27 films released in 1946. The Spiral Staircase certainly benefits from the experience and expertise of personnel working within the studio system. Helen’s ‘lack’ of a voice is also a feature of certain melodramas where such ‘lacks’ are often seen as symbolic.  In this film, the lack is also imagined by Helen in a sequence representing her internal thoughts and in another where a visual effect obscures her mouth.

I think that Dan Hodges is right to challenge the ‘paradigm’ of American film noir. So many different kinds of films have benefited from the application of themes and style features associated with noir. I think I’d describe The Spiral Staircase as a noir melodrama melded with the suspense thriller/horror film.

After the Storm (Japan 2016)

The family briefly back together – on a train (this is Japan!). Ryota (Abe Hiroshi), Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyô) and Kyoko (Maki Yoko).

Kore-eda Hirokazu is a Japanese auteur in the original sense of that term. In his films you can rely on recurring faces in the cast list, recurring themes and styles – all with a sense of a director’s ‘personal vision’ honed over twenty years of auteur production. Very occasionally, Kore-eda throws a curve ball, such as in his film Air Doll in which one character is a blow-up sex toy which comes to life, but even so the film has recognisable elements. After the Storm does have a slightly different feel in the character written by Kore-eda for one of his regulars Abe Hiroshimi, but overall the narrative is familiar and has a direct relationship to Kore-eda’s 2008 masterpiece Still Walking, sharing both Abe and Kirin Kiki as his mother in both films.

Whenever a Kore-eda film appears, there are reviews that reference the Japanese master Ozu Yasijuro and in After the Storm there are several scenes featuring Japanese sporting/cultural pursuits such as cycle racing, baseball, pachinko and lottery tickets – the kind of activities that Ozu’s characters sometimes engage with. However, the way in which these activities form part of the narrative reminded me more of Kitano Takeshi or some of the Japanese New Wave films of the early 1960s. The ‘master’ Kore-eda usually refers to is Naruse Mikio and in an interview with Mark Schilling for the Japan Times, he does so again in discussing After the Storm. Naruse’s characters tend to come from the next social class below those of Ozu – they are in Kore-eda’s words ” . . . living with their backs bent. They aren’t standing straight and tall”. This is the shomin-geki in Japanese cinema, the film about ‘ordinary people’ (the lower middle-class/upper working-class).

Ryota brings a cake for his mother (Kirin Kiki)

The film’s narrative is based on Kore-eda’s own background. He wrote the script himself and its central location is the public housing complex or danchi where Kore-eda himself grew up. The film opens in the flat of Shinoda Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), where she and her adult daughter Chinatsu (Kobayashi Satomi) are writing ‘thank you’ cards after the funeral of Yoshiko’s husband. A little later her adult son Ryota (Abe Hiroshi) visits his mother’s flat, bringing her a cake but hoping to rummage around and find anything valuable his father may have hidden. Ryota is a familiar figure in many films – the ‘man-child’ who has never quite grown up and who now in his early 50s is always broke and scrounging for whatever he can find. He once wrote a novel and won a prize but now his only source of income is as a seedy private detective following adulterous wives and husbands or looking for lost cats. Even in this job Ryota has to ‘play’ the system and in effect syphon off some of the client fees which he won’t declare to his employer. He needs the money partly to support a gambling addiction inherited from his father. All of this makes Ryota a slightly different character from Kore-eda’s recent family drama personnel. He allows the introduction of jokes and comic scenes as well as the wiff of something possibly dangerous.

Ryota and his younger partner are private detectives spying on couples (including Ryota’s ex-wife and new partner)

Ryota’s other problem is that his ‘failure’ to earn money has led to divorce by his wife Kyoko (Maki Yoko) and only monthly access to his son Shingo (Yoshizawa Taiyô). The scenes away from mum’s flat see Ryota working with a junior partner and then spying on Kyoko when she is with with Shingo and her new partner. Ryota then meets his son for their monthly outing before father and son visit his mother’s flat and Kyoko (still waiting for her child support payment from Ryota) is persuaded to join them. The final section of the film then presents the three generations together for the night as Typhoon #24 of the summer is unleashed.

One perceptive reviewer remarked that in Kore-eda’s films it often feels as if nothing has happened until you realise that everything has happened. I agree. What is also surprising is that the more ‘Japanese’ the film gets, the more universal it feels. At one point grandma points out that the best meals improve if the food is left overnight to allow the flavour to develop. As all good cooks know this is absolutely correct. The focus on (home-cooked) food is another link to Still Walking. The other point I’d like to make is how well I think Abe Hiroshimi plays his role. It’s not easy for the very handsome 6″ 4′ Abe to play the seedy failure but somehow he manages to be a klutz but also very likeable. His pairing with 5″ 1′ Maki Yoko is also quite something. She is very beautiful and the family together is a winning contribution. Kirin Kiki is wonderful – as she always is.

Kore-eda Hirozaku is now, for me, the most reliable auteur filmmaker in contemporary cinema. Every one of his films has been a winner. There have been several reports of Spielberg attempting to remake Kore-eda films. I fervently hope this never happens. Let’s just enjoy Kore-eda’s films as they are – perfection.

The Wait (L’Attesa, Italy-France 2015)

Juliette Binoche and Lou de Laâge in the house of mourning

The Wait turned up in my film rental list. I’d put it on the list because it features Lou de Laâge who was so impressive in Anne Fontaine’s Les innocentes. I’m glad I made that call because I enjoyed The Wait, which I missed completely when it snuck into UK cinemas in July 2016, seemingly without any promotion at all. This is surprising since it also offers Juliette Binoche in the début feature of Piero Messina, assistant director on Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. Messina co-wrote and directed The Wait and composed some of the music.

The setting is a villa in the mountains of central Sicily with Etna as a brooding presence in the distance. Here Anna (Juliette Binoche) is in mourning. The film opens with a highly stylised presentation of what we assume to be a funeral – taking place a few days before Easter. As far as I can make out the time period is around 2002 (a TV programme shows Pope John Paul II and there are no smart phones or social media representations). Anna gets a phone call and her ‘retainer’ Pietro collects a visitor from Catania airport. This is Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the girlfriend of Anna’s son Giuseppe, flying in from Paris. He has invited her to the villa, but hasn’t himself arrived yet for Easter. The rest of the narrative is taken up by ‘the wait’ for Giuseppe’s return. There are several clues to what has happened but Jeanne is kept in the dark – literally at times in the villa. Eventually Anna begins to ’emerge’ and to engage with Jeanne, taking her to a lake to bathe and to a Turkish bath and a museum of antiquity.

. . . out into the light

The Wait is very beautiful (Sicily is very beautiful) – but it is also very slow. Fortunately Ms Binoche can say nothing more eloquently than most actors and Ms de Laâge has plenty of presence herself. Nothing is resolved, but when Jeanne invites a couple of young men back for dinner there is a climactic moment which will in one sense end the wait. The last section of the film moves into what appears to be a fantasy sequence, aided by the Easter celebrations in the local town. The first time I saw a Good Friday procession (in Madrid many years ago) I was deeply disturbed by the hooded men dressed like the Klu Klux clan. Here, Anna is part of a huge celebration of the stations of the cross with a covered Virgin Mary, a large figure carried through the streets, searching for her son. Anna becomes distressed and is lost in the crowd and then in a narrow alley she is approached by a group of men, many still hooded and she searches through them trying to look beyond the eye holes.

Jeanne finds two young men she invites back to the villa. (photo Indigo Film)

I was struck by some of the similarities between scenes in this film and scenes in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953). In that film, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders rent a villa outside Naples with Vesuvius in the distance. They visit the ruins of Pompeii and try to rekindle their love and their marriage. All of the scenes exude tension and emotional frailty. The film ends in a religious celebration in Naples in which the couple become separated. It may be of course that these are the kinds of things tourists do in Italy and no allusion is intended. Reviewers have mentioned other Italian films and directors – Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for instance and the filmic style of Visconti. One reviewer makes the case for Piero Messina as a clearly very talented young filmmaker (b. 1981) who in this case creates a narrative in which the visual style is too strong for the story (which is inspired a ‘real’ story told to the director and then ‘informed’ by a play and a short story by Pirandello). But no doubt as he gains experience the director will make more use of his stylistic touches? I’m not sure I agree with this, but I can see it is an argument.

Anna in the crowds on Good Friday

I would recommend the film on the basis of the performances of the two leads and the meticulous photography (Francesco Di Giacomo) and production design (Marco Dentici). Piero Messina takes credit for co-ordinating these elements and I think he conveys both a strong sense of place and atmosphere as well as the emotional dialogue between the two women. I should add that the film is presented in CinemaScope ratio and has an intriguing soundtrack with another excellent choice of a Leonard Cohen song for the key party sequence. And that dialogue is in French between the two leads but otherwise in Italian.

Frantz (France-Germany 2016)

Adrien (Pierre Niney) at the Hoffmeisters’ house with Anna (Paula Beer), Frau Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber) and Doktor Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner)

Frantz is a very beautiful and deeply moving film that is likely to be one of my films of the year. It’s another film that doesn’t seem to be destined for a long run in cinemas in the UK. That’s a shame because the film demands a big screen in a cinema rather than a TV set at home. Director François Ozon is remarkably prolific in the context of contemporary cinema. Frantz was screened at Venice in September 2016 and his new film is in competition at Cannes later this week. I didn’t follow his early work in the 1980s and 1990s but since 2000 he has managed just less than one film a year on average. He has ranged across genres and film aesthetics and featured an array of interesting European stars, so in one sense it isn’t surprising to discover that Frantz is something different.

Frantz is an ‘extension’ of a story (a play?) written in 1925 by Maurice Rostand. The title of this work gives away a crucial plot point of Frantz which could spoil the film narrative for some viewers so I won’t reveal it. Rostand’s work was then adapted for a film by Ernst Lubitsch in 1932, titled Broken Lullaby and featuring Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll. Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have extended the story and, I think, significantly altered its perspective by making the woman and not the man the central character. The film begins in the small town of Quedlinburg in the centre of Germany in 1919. (The ‘old town’ I now learn is a World Heritage site.) Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman tending the grave of Frantz, her fiancé killed in 1918 during the fighting on the Western Front. She is surprised to discover fresh flowers on the grave. Meanwhile her would be father-in-law Doktor Hoffmeister turns away a young man from his surgery when he learns that he is French – the old man can’t deal with a meeting so soon after his son’s death. Anna now lives with the Hoffmeisters and eventually she and the couple she refers to as her ‘parents’ will finally meet the young man who is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). He tells them that he and Frantz were friends in Paris before the war and after their initial caution the Hoffmeisters are pleased to hear his stories. Adrien and Anna begin a delicate relationship based on their mutual affection for Frantz. All this takes place amidst the mutterings of many of the townsfolk, including the group of men with whom Doktor Hoffmeister used to meet in the local inn (where Adrien is staying). Eventually, the truth must out. Frantz tells Anna the truth but there are also lies in this difficult dialogue. Ozon and Piazzo then extend the story by sending Adrien back to Paris and exploring what happens when Anna follows him several months later.

It sounds a very simple story that in the 1920s would have had great resonance. It still raises questions about war and reconciliation in 2017 but also now has the added sense of a message about European unity. The new French President Emmanuel Macron met Angela Merkel just a few days ago expressing the co-operation of the two countries as leaders of the EU while the UK undergoes a ‘Brexit election’. Unfortunately, I don’t suppose many Brexiteers will be in the audience for the film. However, it’s also possible to remove the discourse about war and focus just on the central set of relationships and the age-old problem of telling lies (even for the best of intentions) when those involved are in fragile emotional states. Frantz is a very particular kind of melodrama that is expressed through music, camerawork and mise en scène as well as sensational performances. Ozon decided that the camerawork of Pascal Marti should be presented mainly in black and white with brief passages in colour. I’m not sure if there is a consistent logic to when the changes to colour happen but some of the transitions are truly magical. I suppose the most likely reason is to enhance the moments of great emotion. Philippe Rombi looks after the music (both he and Marti have worked with Ozon before) providing an extensive score and there are also moments of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.

Anna and Adrien outside town

The combination of music and the well-chosen locations creates the perfect backdrop for the difficult conversations between Anna and Adrien. It’s difficult to describe how everything fits together, except to say that it’s perfect. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is presented in 2.39:1 with the clarity of modern lenses, it would closely resemble the melodramas of early 1930s Germany. For Lubitsch the original film was something of an anomaly (most of his films were comedies) so I think my point of reference is Max Ophuls. Because of Pierre Niney’s pencil moustache, however, I did also think of Truffaut’s black and white ‘Scope presentation of the same period in Jules et Jim (in which Henri Serre wears the ‘tache). The narrative of Jules et Jim does have some similarities as well. The small German town with its old centre and the hills and lakes just outside  occupies the first part of a narrative that is contrasted with the modernity and sophistication of Paris. I was impressed by the preserved railways on show.

This ‘portrait’ of Paula Beer as Anna takes my breath away – it seems to convey the period, the sadness of the situation and the constrained vision of youth all in a single facial expression.

But, finally I have to confess that what really engaged me was Paula Beer’s performance. For such a young actor (21 when she made Frantz) with relatively little experience, this must have been a very difficult role, requiring fluent French.  Yet she remains calm and still without being wooden or passive, exuding intelligence and also hinting at the passion beneath the exterior. I had seen the excellent trailer for Frantz and was determined to see the film. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. As the final credits rolled I saw that in the acknowledgements, François Ozon thanked the German director Christian Petzold. Petzold is my favourite current German director and I immediately wondered whether he would want to use Paula Beer in a future project. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Ms Beer has two ‘forthcoming projects’, the first for Florian Henckel von Donnersmark and then in 2018 for Christian Petzold. I’m looking forward to them already. I should also say that I enjoyed Pierre Niney’s performance very much too – Frantz is blessed by excellent casting all round.

Here’s the UK trailer from Curzon (quite mischievous in not showing any colour scenes and the way it plays with the possibilities of the narrative):