Category: Melodrama

Sunset (Napszállta, Hungary-France 2018)

Juli Jakab as Írisz Leiter, bravely taking on Budapest

Sunset won the Critics’ Prize at Venice in 2018. László Nemes, the writer-director, won both the Cannes Grand Prix and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his previous film Son of Saul (2015). (He has two co-writers on Sunset.) However, the two films have been received differently by some reviewers and some audiences. I haven’t seen Son of Saul but I know it offers a narrative about the experience of a Jewish-Hungarian man in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. I suspect that whereas most audiences would at least recognise that story, the world of Sunset must be unknown to many modern audiences. I doubt many mainstream audiences in the UK or US would be able to tell you much about the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1913. The elderly couple sat next to us in the cinema, were, I think Hungarian and they would know, but not perhaps one of the reviewers in Britain’s leading film journal Sight and Sound who is completely dismissive of the film. But the culture of pre-1914 Central Europe is very difficult to grasp and Nemes refuses to use  conventional approaches to presenting it. This Milan Kundera quote from 1984 is used in the introduction to one book on Central European Cinema:

Central Europe is not a state: it is a culture or a fate. Its borders are imaginary . . . (quoted in The Cinema of Central Europe, Peter Hames (ed) 2004)

For those of us in the UK and North America, the history and culture of the former ‘Holy Roman Empire’ seems so alien because we haven’t experienced such a shifting sense of identity within territories that experienced occupations and changing borders over decades and over centuries. In 1913 when Sunset is set, the three connected kingdoms/territories of Austria, Hungary and Croatia-Bosnia, the remnants of the former empire after 1867, still constituted a powerful economic and military force and a highly-developed and sophisticated culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague, but its citizens did not share an identity, a language or a religious identity. This multinational, multi-ethnic conglomeration would be torn apart after 1918 and the repercussions of the ‘end of empire’ are still being felt in the ‘New Europe’ of today. The original Hungarian title of the film is translated by Google as ‘eventide’ which seems more poetic and perhaps hints at foreboding. The film narrative offers a metaphor for the collapse of empire. This is hinted at in the opening titles but not made explicit. In the Press Pack, Nemes reveals the influence of F. W. Murnau:

This film is my personal testimony to the love of cinema, almost a century after the hopefulness of Sunrise by Murnau – a movie to which we pay homage. I hope that Sunset carries in itself something of the interrogations embodied by Murnau’s film.

What plot there is in Sunset focuses on a woman in her twenties who turns up at the most fashionable milliner’s emporium in Budapest (extravagant hats for women are the ultimate status symbol in the society). She is quickly revealed to be Írisz Leiter, the daughter of the founders of the Leiter brand who set up the shop. We learn that the parents died and that the infant Írisz was sent to Trieste where she eventually became an apprentice milliner. Now she is back, to the consternation of the current owner of the business Oszkár Brill. What does she want? What should he do with her? In the next few days the Leiter brand is celebrating 30 years in business with parties and dancing and visits by royalty and local aristocracy. Brill attempts to send her back to Trieste but Írisz is stubborn and will not be deflected from her mysterious purpose, especially when she discovers that she has a brother who is notorious and lives outside ‘society’ in Budapest. The more Írisz is refused answers or told to keep out of something the more she ploughs on. Is she some kind of angel figure? Or is she a ‘monstrous’ woman – the original meaning of monster being derived from ‘warning’. This extraordinary character, at once beautiful and resolute but also confused, requires a strong performance and Juli Jakab certainly provides it. Her ‘journey’ through the world of Budapest is presented by Nemes and his cinematographer Mátyás Erdély in long, carefully choreographed tracking shots with the camera often focused on the back of Írisz’s neck and with the city environment blurring through pulled focus (the lack of focus increases towards the narrative climax). This technique, which I understand worked well in Son of Saul, seems to have irritated quite a few commentators this time round.

Oszkár Brill (Vlad Ivanov) tries hard to return Írisz to Trieste – but then bows to the inevitable

Budapest is a bustling city and the aesthetic choices that Nemes makes help to give a us a sense of the contradictions. Vlad Ivanov gives an impressive performance as Brill and in one sense he seems to represent a multi-lingual élite who are in confident control of the city. But the empire is vulnerable, it may have modern technologies, arts and music but it also has ‘darkness’ and various dissident groups of socialists, anarchists and nationalists. The blurred backgrounds and different voices and sounds emphasise how disturbing it must be for Írisz. The empire has religious differences, persecuted minorities and traditional ideas. There are hints about the development of psycho-analysis. Írisz steps down from an electric tram but it looks like Nemes was unable to represent the Budapest underground railway, the second oldest in the world after London, opened in 1896.

Irisz steps down into the darkness at the end of the tramline and into a disturbing Budapest ‘underworld’

Another criticism of the film is that it is too long at 142 minutes. I found it a riveting watch and it didn’t seem a minute too long, though because of the unusual approach to narrative, I sometimes did wonder whether a resolution would be signalled and when finally it came I was relieved to find it that it made sense and confirmed what I though the film had been ‘about’. That doesn’t mean that I understood everything. Far from it, but at least I felt I had a purchase on it, however tenuous. Reading the detailed director’s statement in the Press Pack has been very helpful. I should re-watch Murnau’s Sunrise and think about the other films that popped into my head during the screening. The film’s aesthetics require more study too. My viewing companion pointed out the fantastic sound design which I’d noticed but not thought about as there was so much going on with the camerawork, set design (physical sets built in Budapest), music and performances. We watched the film in one of HOME Manchester’s smaller auditoria (but with a big screen and excellent sound) and you should seek out the biggest cinema screen you can find. This won’t be easy in the UK since this is a Curzon release and it looks like it isn’t playing at Picturehouse venues which sometimes have larger screens because of the dispute over closing distribution ‘windows’. This does mean it is also available on Curzon’s VOD service, but you’ll need a quality home cinema system to do it justice. The film did tour various independent venues in May with both 35mm screenings and a Q&A with the director. It is showing at The Hyde Park in Leeds today and again on July 14. It is also showing at the Showroom in Sheffield and still on at HOME. Don’t miss it. The trailer doesn’t give away spoilers but it shows some of the sumptuous camerawork.

It’s Only the End of the World (Juste la fin du monde, Canada-France 2016)

cw-15528

A family at odds

I’ve only seen one of Xavier Dolan’s films, Heartbeats, and didn’t like his direction. This Grand Prize of the Jury prize winner at Cannes is much more surefooted as he places the camera close-up to individuals who are under-going a meltdown during a family reunion. Dolan’s screenplay is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and the tight framing is an elegant way of avoiding staginess; he also favours an expressive shallow depth of field by using rack focus to change the subject of the shot. There’s no doubt, however, that the key to the success of the film is its stellar cast: Nathalie Baye, Vincent Cassel, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux. Gaspard Ulliel, too, is excellent as the protagonist who returns to his estranged family to announce his imminent death.

He hasn’t seen them for 12 years and has not been good at keeping in contact. It’s soon clear, Cassel’s character always seems to have his back to the action, that the pent up frustration of Louis’ absence is going to explode. The film is stagy in the sense that each of the characters get to have a private conversation with Louis that expose the history, of lack of, between them. However, as noted, such is the brilliance of the performances the scenes remain gripping. If Cassel’s rivets up his incendiary tendencies, Cotillard dials hers down to play Catherine as mousy but with a hint of steel. Baye breezes through as the mother who is determined to make the best of the occasion while not blind to Louis’ faults. Seydoux smoulders with resentment toward her brother (who’s a successful writer) that she barely knows.

If the ending, involving some fantastic symbolism with a suddenly animated cuckoo clock bird, is a little laboured, it otherwise doesn’t let down the preceding narrative. As the ironic title suggests, dying isn’t at all unusual so we shouldn’t forget living. Bradshaw suggests the film’s about the dysfunctionality of family life but I wonder if it’s more about how important family life is and what may happen if you neglect it.

Love Education (Xiang ai xiang qin, China-Taiwan 2017)

Xiaoping, Weiwei and Huiying visit the village and the burial ground

Love Education is a Chinese family melodrama presented as a ‘quality film’ which has made appearances at major film festivals in Asia such as Busan and Hong Kong, winning several prizes. Strangely, it doesn’t seem to have made much impact outside East Asia, despite being a film by the celebrated Taiwanese singer, actor, writer and director Sylvia Chang. I was just able to catch it on its UK MUBI run via VOD. Sylvia Chang acted in Ang Lee’s Eat Man Drink Woman (Taiwan-US 1994), a similar kind of family melodrama which got a wider circulation in the West, presumably because of Lee’s American contacts. I was reminded of Lee’s film but oddly I thought Love Education was in some ways more ‘universal’ as a narrative.

Nanna with one of the younger men from the village

‘Love Education’ seems a strange English title. Google suggests that the Mandarin title was originally ‘Love and Love’, which isn’t much clearer but makes more sense at a simple level. The story pivots around Sylvia Chang’s own character Qiu Huiying, a woman in her fifties approaching the expected retirement age for a female school teacher in an unnamed ‘second tier city’ in the PRC. The narrative begins at the bedside of Huiying’s dying mother who is having visions of joining her husband in paradise. (Short fantasy/dream sequences feature a couple of times in the film.) Huiying is desperate to hear her mother’s dying words and convinces herself that she has asked to be buried with her husband. This is problematic since the grandfather’s remains have been returned to the village he left way back in 1946. Huiying determines to go the village, exhume the remains and rebury them in the city. She sets out with her patient and probably long-suffering husband Yin Xiaoping (played by the Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang) and her more wilful daughter Weiwei (Lang Yueting). But when the trio arrive they discover that ‘Nanna’ (Wu Yanshu), grandfather’s first wife, has vigorously defended his remains since they were returned to the village in 1996. Despite not having seen him for 50 years, Nanna still believes he is her husband and she is determined to join him in his grave when her time comes.

Da and Weiwei on the train

Weiwei has a job with a TV company. She films the melée when Huiying tries to have the grave opened and Nanna physically defends it (with the support of the villagers). This footage will lead inevitably to media coverage – in the week which has seen ITV taking The Jeremy Kyle Show off air in the UK this seems even more tragic. As well as this central narrative, there are two or three sub-plots, the most developed of which involves Weiwei and her boyfriend, Da, a musician. Huiying and Xiaoping also have their own minor sub-plots not directly linked to the central narrative. The title could refer to the three family members and Nanna, each of which has to learn about/reflect on what ‘love’ means in their various relationships.

I think that most of the reviews have focused on the family relationships, comparing the film with an earlier Sylvia Chang film, 20:30:40 (HK-Taiwan-Japan 2004). I’ve not seen this film which deals with three women at those age points in their lives. Clearly there is a parallel in Love Education with Weiwei in her 20s, Huiying in her 50s and Nanna nearly 90. However, I’m surprised that relatively few comments have been made about the satirical possibilities of the central issue of the burial rights. The three women represent both the personal, familial issues the three women face but also the three different periods of Chinese social history. This is where I think the narrative is universal. It is about tradition v. modernity, rural v. urban and social class divisions about cultural norms. I was reminded strongly of the Cuban satire on bureaucracy by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Death of a Bureaucrat (1966), in which a widow cannot claim her pension because her husband’s ‘worker’s card’ has been buried with him and she needs the card to get an exhumation – cue bureaucratic meltdown. There are many other similar stories I’m sure. One that comes to mind is Guelwaar (Senegal 1992), Sembène Ousmane’s satire on religion and politics. A different issue (a Christian political activist has been buried in a Muslim cemetery) but the same sensitivities about burial rights and exhumation. In Love Education, Nanna is the pre-revolutionary peasant woman who is married at 17 in 1945 when the Civil War is replacing the war against Japan. Her husband leaves to seek work a year later and she doesn’t see him again but she remains loyal and her ideas about ‘love’ are represented by the ‘chastity arch’ built on the outskirts of her village. Huiying is the single child of born in the late 1950s/early 1960s who would be a child/young teenager during the Cultural Revolution (and would also ‘lose’ her husband Xiaoping to the PLA while she presumably trained to be a teacher. Weiwei, born in the 1990s is the ‘beneficiary’ of the PRCs rapid economic growth during her lifetime. If we accept this then we have to try to understand how the current society responds to the two older women’s claims to ‘rights’ to a burial place/resting place for the ashes of the grandfather. The city records before 1978 have been lost and with them the proof of a 1953 wedding. In the village, Nanna has no evidence that she was formally married, even though the villagers accept that she was.

Love Education film

Xiaoping and Huiying. What kind of a marriage do they have?

I was partly pushed down the route of satire/social commentary by memories of a number of Zhang Yimou films. Perhaps I was prompted by the casting of Tian Zhuangzhuang? Just two examples: in The Story of Qui Ju (1992), Gong Li plays an unlikely peasant woman who pursues a complaint against a village chief through several tiers of Chinese bureaucracy. That film was received badly by officials but Not One Less (1999) was seen in the West as pandering to the same authorities. A 13 year-old schoolgirl Wei is left in charge of a remote village school. When a boy leaves the village she sets out to find him to fulfil her task of keeping all the children in school. In this she is eventually helped by a sympathetic TV crew who feature her story on the local news. I’m not suggesting that Sylvia Chang intended any references to the films I’ve mentioned or that she intended any kind of ideological analysis in her social commentary. Audiences will read films as they see fit. All I would say is that Love Education is worth analysis into what it might be saying. It’s interesting, for instance, that Weiwei is to some extent ‘redeemed’ by the narrative – she is whiney and brattish in the opening scenes – and she befriends Nanna in unexpected ways. She isn’t directly related to Nanna but the closeness of grandchildren and grandmothers is again a universal phenomenon. But how do we read it here.

Overall, I thought all the performances were very good – Xiaoping and Da as characters are more involved in the narrative than my outline might have suggested. The film is beautifully photographed by Mark Lee Ping-bin, well-known for his work with Hou Hsiao-hsien and other auteur directors. The photography is matched by the editing of Matthieu Laclau who has worked on the last three Jia Zhang-khe films. The music score, which I enjoyed very much, is by Huang Yun-Ling.

Devotion (US 1946)

The ball scene with (from left) Anne Brontë (Nancy Coleman), Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Rev. Nicholls (Paul Henreid)

Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.

Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).

Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.

For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

An unlikely pose for the Brontë siblings on the studio set for Haworth Moor

The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.

Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.

One of the intriguing compositions featuring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland

I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.