Category: Stars

Selma (US/UK 2014)

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This film has already generated much interest and nominations for a number of prestigious awards. However, a major Oscar was not one of the Awards that it actually won. The Hollywood Academy is not noted for its critical acumen, but this year’s major awards really do ‘take the biscuit’. Do people really think that Birdman is a better film, has a better director and has better cinematography? Of the major award nominees Selma is the best film that I have seen, apart from Ida in the Best Foreign Language Category. It may sound banal but maybe the members of the Academy felt that honouring 12 Years a Slave last year sufficed. Perhaps more tellingly, the only Oscar awarded to Selma was for Best Song ‘Glory’. It would seem that the US discourse around “race”, ethnicity and colour still suffers stereotypes such as African-Americans only make good entertainers and sports people!

Revisiting on film the Civil Rights movement in the USA of the 1950s and 1960s is like revisiting the European holocaust or some of the brutal events of colonial and neo-colonial history – always something of a shock. The sheer violence and viciousness of the system of oppression and apartheid turns out to be even more extreme than one thought. Here the story is the organising of a march by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in order to pressurise President Johnson to pass a Voting Rights Act. One aspect of the film is a portrait of both the public and private figure of Dr. Martin Luther King. But it is also a portrait of an important group of black leaders in the Civil Rights Movement: of some key individuals involved in that struggle: and of other key political figures involved in these events which occurred in 1965. The film presents and dramatises the conflicts between King’s public and private life: the tensions and conflicts in the black civil rights movement: and the conflicts within the US political establishment between leaders seen as liberal or reactionary.

The film has a striking opening. Dr. King (David Oyelowo) stands in front of a mirror rehearsing a speech: his wife Coretta (Carmen Elogo) helps him adjust his tie/Ascot: Dr King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. As he delivers his speech the film cuts to a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. A group of children playfully descend a staircase and a violent explosion, killing four young black girls, shatters the calm. The last sequence is shot using noticeable cinematic techniques, which the film then tends to eschew later on. It provides a shocking moment, which of course, was the frequent experience of black people in the South at that time.

Martin and Coretta

Martin and Coretta

The film continues with scenes from private life of Martin and Coretta. We see the preparations by black leaders for the march, including some dissension and arguments. Cameos of ordinary black characters fill out the actual experience of the day to day for the black population. And there are high level meetings between President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. King and his colleagues. One effective technique is the use of onscreen Teletype titles, which record the spying by the FBI on Dr. King and his colleagues. We also get a brief glimpse of Edgar J. Hoover.

The early parts of the film tend to the low key, with limited musical accompaniment. Church meetings, where Dr. King’s charisma electrifies and galvanises the ordinary black population, punctuate the plot.

When the film reaches the actual march the drama and the onscreen violence increase dramatically. And the musical accompaniment moves up several notches. This is the mode of the melodrama of protest, and the film very effectively uses those conventions to draw the audience and their sympathies to the courageous black marchers. Somewhat unusually in this genre, though the film ends with the torch of the struggle for Civil Rights carried forward, it does also close with an identifiable victory, the passage of the historic Voting Rights Acts. On screen titles chart the course of the central characters: the continuation of white-on-black violence: but also the effect of the right to vote for black citizens.

Protesting the right to vote

Protesting the right to vote

Whilst in this sense the film is agitational it also addresses more complex matters. So the speeches and discussions by the black leaders gradually impart to the audience the actual mechanics of the racist denial of voting rights. The politics and political manoeuvring are also apparent: and the film delineates the actuality of Non-violent protest in an extremely effective manner. The meetings with Johnson demonstrate how this ‘liberal’ politician was actually driven [like F.D.R.] by popular and organised pressure to effect the historic legislation of his Presidency. And the range of attitudes and prejudices within the political establishment are well aired. What the film does not essay, perhaps understandably given its intent, is an attempt to understand the basis of white prejudice in the way that it explores black resistance.

If the Academy’s Best Picture Award is for a film that has the highest quality in every department, [and is invariably an English language film], then I cannot think of a better candidate than Selma. Indeed, it is worthy of an Oscar in several other categories. It is beautifully produced, has an intelligent but highly dramatic approach to its subject, and this itself is an important topic and not just in the USA. I have seen the film twice now, on both occasions there were good-sized audiences who were clearly impressed by the film – you can tell by how many and for how long the audience sit through the final credit sequence.

The film is obviously well scripted, by British Paul Webb. However, in an interview in Sight & Sound (March 2015), the director Ava DuVernay explained how she had rewritten and added to the script. This was cleanly a substantial addition though she does not seem to have an onscreen credit, [she does get ‘a film by ..’]. Judging by her comments she added considerably to both the intelligent and dramatic treatment of the subject. And whilst the film is serious it has its lighter moments. At one point Mahalia Jackson renders a spiritual down the telephone to hearten Dr. King. And when activists preparing for the final march hear that some Hollywood black stars are coming to join them they break into a chorus of De.e.o.o.o.o. The film is also conscious on the issue of gender – at mealtimes and in other ways. When Malcom X appears to the chagrin of the black male leaders, Coretta King is deputised to meet and talk with him.

In addition to this DuVernay has ably marshalled a sizeable production team, all of whom should be commended for their inputs. The acting in the film has been duly praised and honoured. David Oyelowo has been singled out deservedly. Ironically along with two other fine performers, Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth, we have a key ‘American film’ where major characters are performed by British actors. Carmen Elogo is excellent and so are the many performers working as colleagues of King. And the cameos are finely drawn with Ofrah Winfrey offering one as activist Annie Lee Cooper. White characters do tend to the stereotypical [excepting Johnson and Wallace], but that too is in line with the intent of the film.

The cinematography by Bradford Young is excellent. At times mid-shots and close-ups takes us into the personal drama. But longer shots and dramatic overhead shots accompany the action sequences. What struck me especially on the second viewing is the use of lighting. In an early speech Dr. King tells the congregation that they must stand up ‘in the daylight’. This becomes a theme in the film, as the lighting develops a pattern of light and shadow, reaching its culmination at the final rally in Montgomery. Just to highlight one scene. At a moment of doubt in the campaign King has a conversation with a young activist, John Lewis (Stephan James), in a car: whilst they are partly in darkness, as the conversation develops the light falls increasingly on King’s face.

The film was mainly shot on location. There is a very effective recreation of the period both in settings and costumes. And there are nice touches that set off the subject. There is King and Johnston arguing beneath a portrait of George Washington. Then we see a Southern style meal eagerly despatched by the black leadership, waited on by a female black activist. Right at the end we see Johnson, with the Stars and Stripes on either side, sitting regally in the Oval office.

And the film has a very effective and well-balanced soundtrack. Whilst the voices and accents seemed to be authentic the dialogue was mainly easy to follow. There is a judicious use of noise, which is amplified for the action sequences. And the music is minimal at times and then reaches effective crescendos at times of action.

Marching towards a victory

Marching towards a victory

The end of the film uses archive footage of the actual march intercut with the film’s recreation. Both are in the 2.39:1 anamorphic ratio – this is not a technique with which I am happy but it seems to work well here. I did have other concerns. It seems that the production could not use King’s actual speeches as they are already copyrighted: though those in the film seemed perfectly in keeping with the King I remember from television and film. The speeches have been copyrighted to Steven Spielberg, who also planned a film on Martin Luther King. I assume that this production requested their use – I would have thought Spielberg could have been satisfied with offering an effective portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Finally the film was shot on 35mm but has been digitally re-mastered for cinema exhibition [and for other formats]. The re-mastering has been done at 2K. I do not think the 2K standard does justice to good quality 35mm. The longer the shot, the greater likelihood of a lack of definition. And given the film’s play with light and shadow the dynamic contrast of 35mm or 4K digital would have served this better. When filmmakers are using 4K for digital film and exhibitors proudly advertise 4K projectors this seems an unacceptably stingy practice by producers and distributors.

Still if you see one Oscar-winning film this year, make it Selma – you will be absorbed, shocked, moved and entertained.

Violette (France 2013)

Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) in the foreground with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kilberlain) in the background.

Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) in the foreground with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) in the background.

Violette was the opening title in a short season of films showing at Dean Clough, the arts facility housed in the famous woollen carpet mills in Halifax. The screenings by Reel Solutions under the banner ‘Cinegalleria‘ are held in the Crossley Gallery. Bill Lawrence of Reel Solutions chose Violette because he sees it as the kind of French film which is no longer getting the kind of release in UK cinemas that it deserves. Ironically in the same week it featured in the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot featured in Picturehouse Cinemas. This gives the film a single showing in the chain’s weekly programme in a range of its cinemas. A few years ago Violette would have played for a week with two shows a day.

The screening was introduced by Alison Fell from Leeds University who outlined the unique profile of the writer Violette Leduc, the subject of this biopic. She told us that Leduc was a literary figure of importance in the 1950s who wrote about her own experiences in new and daring ways – unexpected ways for a woman at the time and as a consequence she fell foul of both the censors and the literary establishment.

I must confess that though I was looking forward to seeing Emmanuelle Devos as Violette, I was slightly concerned that one of the earlier films by director Martin Provost had been a biopic of the painter Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine, France 2008). It looked like there were some similarities between the two women’s lives and though I had enjoyed most of Séraphine, I remember that I thought the director somehow lost the story towards the end of the film. I needn’t have worried that this would be the case with Violette.

The film narrative deals mainly with a twenty year period in Violette Leduc’s life from the time when she was in her mid-thirties, earning money as a black marketeer and aiding the resistance in 1944, up to her moment of triumph as a successful writer in 1964 with her novel La bâtarde. It is her struggle to become recognised as a writer in the intervening years that forms the main part of the narrative. The film suggests that Violette came across a copy of a book by Simone de Beauvoir during the war when she was living in a ‘cover’ arrangement with the gay writer Maurice Sachs. When she began writing in earnest she attempted to make a friendship with de Beauvoir, a seemingly cold and difficult woman who nevertheless felt compelled to help Violette, encouraging her writing and recognising its remarkable qualities.

In the interview below the director (and co-writer) Martin Provost describes Violette Leduc’s writing as autofiction – even though the term seems to have been coined in 1977, five years after Leduc’s death. In French literature studies it has been used to describe the marriage of autobiography and fiction. Violette Leduc wrote about her own sexual experiences and relationships as well as her struggles having been born ‘out of wedlock’. She did this in vibrant and explicit but nevertheless engaging language – so much so that her work was censored at the same time as being recognised by the French intelligentsia (or at least the coterie of de Beauvoir, Genet and Camus – Sartre doesn’t appear, which seems odd) as revolutionary in its representation of women’s lives. The narrative structure involves a triangular struggle between Violette and her potential supporters and the French literary establishment. But where de Beauvoir is steely in her resolve, Violette Leduc is both passionate about her work but also lacking in confidence and prone to undervaluing her own qualities. This is neatly presented in a scene in a bookshop when Leduc is trying to find her first published work on the shelves after de Beauvoir has got it into print via Camus – in a cheaper format that the bookshop doesn’t stock. I think that audiences who don’t know de Beauvoir (I had to look up her biography) might struggle at this point to understand her behaviour. Has she in some way ‘conned’ Leduc? No, I don’t think so. Her convent education and her Sorbonne degree at a time when academic Frenchwomen were rare, taught her to be disciplined and resolute. Violette is a very different person. There is a strong element of social class conflict in Violette’s dealings with Jean Genet and the parfumier Jacques Guerin (a wonderful comic turn by Olivier Gourmet) and there is a worry that Violette’s decline before her eventual rise might turn into a kind of ‘misery memoir’ narrative. It doesn’t happen because Provost is determined to treat Violette as a writer who should be given respect. But I do wonder if the film would work as well as it does without the two riveting central performances by Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kiberlain as Simone de Beauvoir.

The two leads together

The two leads together

Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir

I like both these actors very much. Kiberlain disappears into the role – I was amazed to see how much she resembles photographs of de Beauvoir – and is utterly convincing. Emmanuelle Devos is a remarkable star actor. As this American blog entry asks, why isn’t she better known in the anglophone world? The writer answers his own question by suggesting that it is the conservative, and shrinking, distribution system for foreign language films. I remember first noticing Ms Devos in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and then going back to the same director’s 2001 film Read My Lips in which she starred opposite Vincent Cassell. She has also starred  in films for Arnaud Desplechin and IMDb credits her with 76 acting credits in a career of less than 30 years. In terms of acting technique and performance skills I’m sure there are British and American actors who are similarly equipped but Ms Devos has several advantages in what is after all a visual medium. She has a body and a face (augmented in this film by a prosthesis) that are distinctive and they are deployed with terrific effect in Violette. The character bemoans her own unattractiveness and Devos can do despair as well as she can do disdain – and every emotion between them. I think she is compelling and always watchable. She’s also fearless in presenting her own physicality. This a performance not to be missed and Violette is a film that deserves much more exposure.

The performances help the film to overcome the usual problems associated with biopics and period films (here a certain kind of ‘heritage film’ that French cinema shares with the UK). This biopic works because the time period is reduced to 20 years or so and the narrative has a clear structure associated with the writer and the people with whom she had the closest relationships. Provost actually presents the narrative in chapters based mainly on the relationships with specific characters. Period films can suffer from a sense of nostalgia, a stuffiness doused in a veneer of ‘authenticity’. That’s avoided here partly because of the vitality of performance and costume design and the tenacity in finding appropriate locations and lighting them carefully. The DoP Yves Cape does an excellent job and he clearly knows how to photograph women (I note that he was the DoP on the Claire Denis film White Material with Isabelle Huppert).

Much of the discussion around the film is about how ‘difficult’ a person the real Violette Leduc was. Even Emmanuelle Devos has described her as a pain. I can say that I didn’t feel that. She had every right to be angry in most of the scenes. I haven’t analysed this film re the Bechdel Test but there are two interesting and complex women at the centre of this and if you add Violette’s mother that’s three.

This interview with the director includes references to some of the aspects discussed here and features several scenes from the film:

The Theory of Everything (UK 2014)

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This newly released film looks set to do well in the Award Season, especially at the UK BAFTAS, having already won a Golden Globe for its star. It does posses a lot of the qualities that have pleased the BAFTA membership, including the fine acting that so frequently graces British films. However, despite a dramatic and ultimately feel-good real-life story as a basis, it rather fails to engage. I think the problems lies in the scripting and direction, as the production values are pretty good.

The film seems to be inhibited by that sense of ‘good taste’ that is so common in British films. To give one example [which as it is a recorded event is hardly a plot spoiler], late in the film Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones) attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace. We see the fore and after but not the actual event, which feels like an anti-climax. The same decorum also inhibits the sexual relations which are an important part of the story.

The film also suffers from a common problem with biopics – how to convey complex ideas without becoming complicated. One way used in this production occurs at the film’s end. The plot is reversed in a brief and rapid montage: a sort of mini-Benjamin Button. One can guess at the intended relationship to Stephen Hawkins’s famous work on Time: but it feels facile. The film is taken from the memoir by Jane: whilst the film shows her engaging with Stephen’s theorising the focus is personal rather than scientific.

But what the film really lacks is intensity. It crosses over in some ways with two earlier films – My Left Foot (UK 1989) and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (US/France 2007). But those films not only enjoy fine lead performances, they also generate a sense of emotion that seems to engage most audiences. I rather think this film fails on that account.

Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy 2014)

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

Fabrizio Rongione and Marion Cotillard as the husband and wife at the centre of Two Days One Night

The latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has got substantial coverage in the UK press and I even heard a cogent analysis of the film on Radio 4’s ‘Thought For the Day’ religious slot last week. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised at that. The film deals with a recognisable personal and social quandary and a real moral questions. At a time of austerity when seemingly everything is being ‘cut’, how would you feel if you were a worker offered the choice between receiving a bonus or instead helping a colleague keep her job? And from her point of view how would you feel about spending your weekend trying to persuade your workmates to forego their €1,000 bonus so that you can keep your job? Those are the questions that drive the film narrative. The Dardennes complicate matters further by making their central character Sandra someone trying to return to work after suffering depression. While she has been off work the boss has concluded that his workforce can cope with one less member so he has devised this diabolical choice for his non-unionised workforce. Some commentators (and audiences) have seen the additions of these details as making the narrative more contrived than it needs to be (Sandra also has an almost saintly husband who is super-supportive). The result might be that the film is less about the ‘social issue’ of a fair distribution of income and employment opportunities and more about Sandra’s ‘personal’ struggle to maintain her dignity and sense of self-belief.

A few weeks ago I introduced the film on its first weekend on release and therefore spent some time thinking about how the Dardenne brothers present themselves as filmmakers and how they are generally understood by critics, reviewers and audiences. My notes for that ‘Illustrated Talk’ are downloadable here:

2Days1Night

My conclusion was that most commentators are too keen to try and pigeon-hole the brothers as fitting a specific category in terms of approach, styles, themes etc. Certainly all of their films since the mid-1990s have been set in their home town of Seraing in the Meuse Valley of Wallonia, the francophone region of South-Eastern Belgium, and each film focuses on one or two characters facing some kind of problem connected to a current social issue. However, the approach and the style does change and in the DVD ‘extras’ of the previous film Le gamin au vélo (The Kid With a Bike, 2010), the two brothers (who share writing, production anddirection) demonstrate how they set up certain scenes. They discuss these in some detail and explain the differences between the films in terms of how the camera is used etc. So, for instance, Sandra in Two Days, One Night is on a quest which sends her around Seraing over a weekend and we follow her – much as we follow the central character in Rosetta (1999). But the teenage Rosetta is a very different type of character to Sandra and the Dardennes’ camera follows her as if she is a soldier in a war combat film. Rosetta is a strong young woman determined to do anything to get, and keep, a job. She needs to be strong because her single parent mother is an alcoholic who threatens to drink away Rosetta’s earnings. ‘Following’ the embattled Rosetta with the camera requires a different approach to that in The Kid With a Bike in which Cyrille, in a summery Seraing, is like a character in a fairy-tale searching for his ‘lost’ father and oscillating between the ‘bad’ fairy (the local gangleader) and the ‘good fairy’ Samantha who agrees to be his foster-mother. Sandra is different again in a very physical performance by Marion Cotilard as a woman weakened by depression and medication who must find the energy and self-belief to ask difficult questions of her work-mates.

The publicity for the release of Two Days, One Night focused on the presence of Marion Cotillard as the ‘first A List star’ that the Dardennes had cast in their films. Ms Cotillard is certainly a major star of French cinema as well as appearing in major international Hollywood productions. But Cécile de France was also a major star when she accepted the role as Samantha in Le gamin au vélo. The key point is that whereas de France, a Walloon from Namur, is ‘culturally appropriate’, Cotillard was born in Paris and grew up in Orléans. She can play the role of a woman in Seraing and give it authenticity because of her skill – but this is nevertheless a change in the Dardennes’ approach. The ‘star stature’ is also important. In the clips referenced above the Dardennes discuss how they choreographed scenes and used the camera taking into account Cécile de France’s experience when working with a young non-professional on Le gamin au vélo. De France is a leading figure in the film, but not actually the central character. Marion Cotillard is the main focus of Two Days, One Night. She gives a wonderful performance but the question remains as to what extent her star persona – which includes her willingness to represent the tired and ‘worn’ working woman – is read by audiences as an element in the presentation of the narrative. Does it change the sense of authenticity? After two screenings I’m still not sure. As an exercise, it might be worth comparing Cotillard’s performance with that of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (US 2000). The two films are very different but the issue about a star creating a character within a social realist aesthetic is worth pursuing.

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

Jean-Pierre (left) et Luc Dardenne

The other aspect that Two Days, One Night shares with Le gamin au vélo is the emotional use of music. In the previous film a couple of very short bursts of non-diegetic classical music seem to mark moments in the emotional narrative – whereas the filmmakers have generally avoided music in their earlier films. In Two Days, One Night there are two songs heard on the car radio (i.e. diegetic). The first is Petula Clark’s 1964 French version of the Jackie DeShannon song ‘Needles and Pins’ (1963). The French title is ‘La Nuit n’en Finit Plus’ or the ‘night is never-ending’ and it allows a dialogue exchange about Sandra’s state of mind. Later, in a moment of exultation, Sandra, her husband and a workmate sing along to Van Morrison’s (lead singer of Them) anthemic ‘Gloria’ (1966). In one sense this is a strange choice of songs. Though they certainly work in context you do wonder if the Dardennes are drawing on their own teenage years rather than what might be relevant for Sandra’s generation. The point is that like the casting of Marion Cotillard the use of songs like this ‘fits’ this particular production. The Dardennes make each film very carefully. It might take years for the ideas to develop and the films have come out at regular three-year intervals. They aren’t wedded to one way of making films and that’s what makes each one of their films something to look forward to.

If you haven’t seen the film – and you really should – here’s a trailer (with the Pet Clark song):