Sir begins in a village in what I assume is the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. A young woman is about to return to Mumbai where she is a live-in domestic servant in the apartment of a young man who should be on his honeymoon. But the marriage did not take place and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is now in a potentially difficult situation. Previously the young couple were living together in the apartment and the young architect Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) is now on his own. What follows over the next week is a form of ‘odd couple’ drama. The narrative is deceptively simple but carries both an emotional weight and a subtle social commentary. It is a very fine and delicate piece of filmmaking, deserving its appearance in Cannes Critics Week in 2018. Rohena Gera makes her début as a fiction feature writer-director though she has considerable experience in both American and Indian film industries.
Gera trained in the US and she clearly knows the Mumbai upper middle-class and the largely English-speaking families whose sons and daughters have been to university in the US. But she has done her research carefully and the narrative is largely driven by the village woman who has come to Mumbai, hoping to send money home and to train as a tailor in whatever spare time she can find. Ratna was widowed at 19 soon after her marriage, placing her in a difficult situation in her traditional village – which she hopes to escape in the city.
Tillotama Shome gives a wonderful performance in a role for which she had to learn Marathi to converse with her character’s family. At work Ratna needs enough Hindi and English to cope with her role as a ‘domestic’. Most reviewers refer to Shome’s role in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) but in the Press Notes Gera tells us that it was Shome’s performance in Qissa (2013) that convinced her that the Bengali star of independent and mainstream cinema was right for the role. She also reveals that although she was impressed by Vivek Gomber’s terrific performance in Court (2014) she didn’t think he was right for the role of Ashwin. Fortunately, friends convinced her she was wrong and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role as Gomber manages to find the perfect combination of frustration, decency and repressed emotion to suggest how Ashwin feels. Although she is only in a supporting role Geetanjali Kulkarni makes an important contribution as Ratna’s fellow domestic servant, Laxmi, from a neighbouring apartment where she is a nanny (ayah?) cum maid/housekeeper – a rather different role to her public prosecutor pitted against Vivek Gomber in Court. But Kulkarni’s characters often seem to be working-class or what in the UK would be lower middle-class. The nuances of class are just as important in India. Ratna’s difficult position in Sir is beautifully illustrated in the sequence in which Ashwin’s parents hold a reception where, as a servant, Ratna is virtually invisible. She serves guests and then returns to the kitchen where squatting on the floor she joins the other servants to eat their food. When Ashwin comes to speak to her, he embarrasses her in front of her friends – people should know their place. At this point Ashwin and Ratna know that they cannot be together. The social class divisions are too important and other people would suffer if they attempt to cross boundaries.
Rohena Gera finds an ingenious way to end her narrative. I’ve seen some Western reviews from Cannes that don’t really ‘get’ the story but this one from an Indian critic makes sense to me. Baradwaj Rangan points out that Gera covers several important social issues in Modi’s ‘Shining India’ but that she first makes a film rather than an argument. I think he’s right. There is something universal and humanist about the story which is also rooted in Indian society. Formally the narrative presents between a ‘closed’ romance melodrama within the flat where the mise en scène says a lot about the invisible barriers between the employer and servant with shots of Ratna’s room, the ‘dividing walls’ of the apartment and the wariness with which the characters approach each other. But when we move outside the building and follow Ratna around the city and back to the village, a different sort of story develops. The neutral location turns out to be on the roof of the building. In a Cannes interview Rohena Gera explains what she thought this overall split meant. Fundamentally though, the film works because of two terrific central performances. YouTube features a Cannes interview by the two actors together which reveals how much they worked with each other to build a convincing relationship.
I enjoyed the film very much and I look forward to seeing what Rohena Gera does next. Here’s a sequence in which Ratna and Laxmi borrow the doorman’s scooter and go shopping. If you go to YouTube you can find the second Cannes clip in which Ratna and Ashwin are together in the flat . . .
. . . and here is the international trailer:
State of the Union is what now appears to be called ‘short form narrative TV’ and as such it represents, alongside the resurgence of ‘long form TV drama’ (aka serial narratives), the new TV world of VOD. Ten episodes of approx. ten minutes each tell the story of Tom and Louise, a middle-class couple in London with two sons and a wobbly marriage. The episodes are broadcast one per week but all ten were made available on BBC iPlayer immediately and many viewers watched several or all episodes at once.
I think this is probably what some might call ‘Marmite TV’ – audiences might love or hate the programme because of the specific metropolitan middle-class setting. (For non-UK readers, ‘Marmite’ is a yeast-based salty spread, enjoyed by some and loathed by others.) This kind of response is understandable but State of the Union is certainly a high-class product. The script is by Nick Hornby, the successful novelist who has now become one of the most successful UK-based screenwriters in international cinema. The director is Stephen Frears who is arguably the most successful British director of his generation over a long career in TV and film, both in the UK and in Hollywood. The two stars are Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd, both again internationally successful TV and film stars. The 100 minute narrative could perhaps have become a cinema film except for the restrictions of the format and it is this observation that interests me.
Tom and Louise have decided to see a marriage guidance counsellor once a week to try to sort out their difficulties. They meet at lunchtime in a quiet pub where they nurse a pint of bitter for him and a glass of white wine for her. We experience 10 minutes of their chat before they visit the counsellor who lives opposite the pub. The camera rarely moves out of the pub. For most of the time it is just two people talking, joshing and scoring points off each other. How does Frears keep us interested in the talk, apart from relying on his two brilliant actors? The cinematography by Mike Eley is inventive, finding new angles and compositions. Mostly ‘over the shoulder shots’ or shot-reverse-shot, I was intrigued by some of the unbalanced compositions and I almost cheered when the couple found their usual table occupied and had to resort to a sofa, requiring a completely different camera set-up.
The other noticeable feature is the impact of costume design. Louise wears a different outfit for each meeting. She works in the NHS and generally she wears sensible tops and a long loose skirt. It’s summer so she doesn’t need a top coat. When on one occasion she wears a version of the classic ‘litle black dress’ we know something has happened. Tom is a freelance writer and we aren’t surprised to see him wearing more or less the same clothes each time (or perhaps we simply don’t notice what he wears?). When he too changes his appearance more dramatically it makes a real impact. Like Mike Eley, Irish costume designer Consolata Boyle is a long-term collaborator with a host of British (and Irish) film and TV directors. It’s interesting too that the pub setting is open and airy rather than expressionistic. No booths, dark corners and none of the classic features of a gothic West End boozer – nothing to distract us from the two characters and their conversation.
I’m not saying anything about the content of the chat apart from that there are a couple of surreal exchanges. Chris O’Dowd is a past master at this kind of thing as seen in the classic sit-com the IT Crowd. Rosamund Pike gives as good as she gets and sometimes is very funny. Working slightly against her screen persona she also delivers some earthy lines about their married sex life.
If this kind of production brings Stephen Frears back into TV (where he made several excellent TV movies in the 1970s/80s, notably the breakout international hit My Beautiful Laundrette in 1985), I’m all for the new format. I note that State of the Union has already been shown in the US and has won ‘Primetime Emmys’ for the two leads. However, I wonder if future productions will attract such a starry combination of cast and crew?
Christian Petzold (b. 1960) is arguably the most visible member, in the international film marke,t of what has been termed the ‘Berlin School’ of writer-directors. This is a loose term for a group of filmmakers, some of whom studied in Berlin and others in different German-speaking film schools. Most of the films from the school might be considered ‘non-commercial’, often made with TV money and broadcast by German PSB channels. As well as Petzold, the other members of the group discussed on this blog include Thomas Arslan, Angela Schanalec and Valeska Grisebach. Petzold with four and Grisebach with two are the only ones to get UK cinema releases. Otherwise the school is known via festival screenings.
The Berlin School films do not adhere to a manifesto or to specific styles but they are generally low-budget and focused on relationships. However, Petzold’s films have made distinctive movements into genre territory and the last two have featured period drama in Barbara (2012) and Phoenix (2014). He has also been associated with a star actor – Nina Hoss has appeared in five of his films. Like others from the actual Berlin School (dffb), Petzold had a strong relationship with the filmmaker and teacher Harun Farocki and they were both interested in the 1944 novel Transit by Anna Seghers. Petzold’s film adaptation of that novel is dedicated to the memory of Farocki who died in 2014.
Seghers was a Jewish writer who managed to leave Germany for Paris in 1934 and, after the invasion of Northern France in 1940, to get a passage to Mexico via Marseille. The novel uses that experience to explore the problems faced by refugees in Marseille in their desperate attempts to leave. After the war, Seghers returned to Berlin and eventually settled in the GDR. She became known as a writer exploring the moral experience of the Second World War.
Petzold decided to reverse his original decision to make an adaptation of Transit as a period film. Instead he shot ‘on the street’ in contemporary France but kept the novel’s narrative events and characters, playing down the specific historical references and allowing similar present-day concerns to seep in. The characters themselves seem to exist in a kind of timeless bubble. While events around them are contemporary, they don’t use mobile phones and their costumes are simple and classic rather than ‘modern and fashionable’. In a terrific opening sequence we meet Georg (Franz Rogowski), a German in Paris with a friend in a bar. Georg is given some papers and charged with delivering them to a local hotel where a prominent German Jewish writer (who may also be a Communist) is hiding before leaving for Marseille and then Mexico. But the writer is already dead and Georg will find himself travelling to Marseille with the writer’s papers after avoiding the French police who are already starting a round-up of ‘undesirables’. We realise that France is about to be occupied and that Georg and Germans like him have to leave. In Marseille we will eventually learn more about Georg and follow him as he tries to use the papers to get a visa and a passage to Mexico via the US. I don’t want to spoil the narrative but it is important to know that the dead writer’s wife Marie (Paula Beer) is also in Marseille, looking for her husband – and we know that she and Georg must meet eventually.
This is the kind of film which if approached ‘cold’ with no background information is likely to lead to bewilderment. It needs a second viewing or some research. Jonathan Romney interviews Petzold in Sight and Sound (September 2019) and there are Press Notes with more material (I found then on the website of Music Box, the US distributor). Perhaps the way in is to think of similar narratives and associated genres. Seghers is said to have been inspired by Kafka and at least one reviewer has summarised Transit as “Casablanca re-written by Kafka”. Romney suggests Albert Camus and cites La Peste (The Plague 1947) set in Oran, Algeria. I can see that the sunny dusty streets of Marseille do suggest the enervating heat of Spain, Portugal and the Maghreb, all locales where ‘disappearing’ suddenly seems a possibility. In Petzold’s narrative there are no airline services and the Spain and Portugal of the 1940s were both fascist-controlled even when neutral. Port cities are always settings for migration and exile issues. I was reminded of the films of Aki Kaurismäki and of Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes (1938) in which Jean Gabin is an army deserter trying to get a boat to Venezuela from Le Havre.
‘Transit’ is an interesting title since in English the term has two slightly different meanings. While it refers to the movement of goods or people between two places, it is also used to describe the ‘condition’ of being ‘in transit’ – between two places with no fixed status. In the Press Notes, Petzold discusses these kinds of meanings at some length. He refers to the German term Geschichtsstille, literally translated as “history standing still’. Petzold found the term in the writings of another 1940s refugee, Georg K. Glaser, also a German Jew. Glaser and Seghers experienced the same sense of loss and displacement but they seem to have ‘come out of it’ in slightly different ways. I find all of this quite fascinating but it’s difficult to follow Petzold’s ideas and to trace how he has worked them through in the film narrative. I’ll try and just give a few examples here and leave some other ideas until I can see the film again.
Watching the film before I was aware of the idea of Geschichtsstille, I thought about the idea of ‘limbo’ and of being in a world where a small group of characters exist in very tight emotional relationships but with few options about how to act or to move forward. Meanwhile, the world around them changes. One way to represent this is to provide the narrative with a separate ‘observing’ narrator. Such narration via voiceover is often not popular with contemporary cinema audiences, though it doesn’t bother me. Petzold’s idea is to include some narration but to eventually reveal that it comes from a character in the film narrative. Allied to this is the writer’s manuscript that Georg found in Paris and which seems to offer him the possibility of being someone else, to be like an actor in another narrative, which he must be in order to ‘become’ the writer who hopes to get a visa. The Kafkaesque state in which Georg and Marie and a third German refugee character find themselves is neatly summed up in a scene when Georg is looking for a hotel room in Marseiile and the owner says that he must have a transit visa to prove that he is leaving France in order to be granted permission to stay in the hotel.
Transit is a mesmeric narrative and much depends on the playing of the two leads, both of whom are excellent. Franz Rogowski as Georg may be best known in the UK as one of the young men in Victoria (Germany 2015) but more recently he was the lead in the intriguing In the Aisles (Germany 2018). I’ve already swooned over Paula Beer in discussing the François Ozon film Frantz (France-Germany 2016). What makes her performance so unnerving in Transit is that she so much resembles Nina Hoss, not facially perhaps but her hair, the way she wears the classic 1940s clothes and sometimes the way she moves reminded me of Hoss in Yella, Barbara and Phoenix. Not that she offers an imitation of Nina Hoss but these resemblances add to the sense of ‘other worldness’. There is also a narrative twist to Marie’s story that recalls Yella. The film is shot in CinemaScope ratio by Hans Fromm, Petzold’s regular DoP. Petzold explains:
It was important to me that the spaces we were working in allowed for a choreography where the characters not only communicate with each other through dialogue. Instead, their presence, their movements, and the distances they maintain from each other, tell so much more than them constantly talking ever could. CinemaScope gives you that space to move in, and it allowed us to do long takes and follow the actors’ choreography.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of everything that Transit offers. I haven’t mentioned the uncanny ways in which the contemporary refugee issues in Europe begin to creep into the film and how Petzold uses the Maghrebi presence in Marseille as a factor in the narrative. This will be one of my films of the year and I’m now enthused to review the previous Petzold films I’ve managed to accumulate.
This is a ‘Nick Broomfield film’ – an auteurist announcement by a documentarist who appears in his own films and adopts, using Stella Bruzzi’s term, a ‘performative mode’ of documentary presentation. This rang alarm bells when I contemplated watching Marianne & Leonard, but I have watched two of Broomfield’s fiction features, Ghosts (UK 2006) and Battle for Haditha (2007), both of which are worth watching. Since I tend to insert myself into my blog posts, I can’t really complain about Broomfield. In any case he limits himself to three or four appearances only in this film.
If you don’t already know the story, SPOILERS beware!, the Canadian poet and tyro novelist Leonard Cohen met Marianne Ihlen, a young Norwegian mother with a small son from her first marriage, on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s. The two lived together for a time in an expat community of writers, artists and musicians who all indulged in ‘free love’, retsina and various drugs of choice. Broomfield himself, aged 18, met Marianne and stayed with her while Leonard was away. Marianne was Cohen’s ‘muse’ and for several years they lived together for a few months at a time. In between times on Hydra, Leonard Cohen pursued his new career as a musician and rock star poet and slept with many women, having two children with one. Eventually Marianne lost hope that she could live with Leonard and they parted. Forty-odd years later, Marianne lay dying and Leonard sent her a letter of love, telling her he would join her soon. He died in 2016, three months after Marianne.
Broomfield has three main sources of material from which to fashion a documentary narrative. Leonard Cohen was a high profile, if poorly paid, poet in Canada from the late 1950s onwards and there is considerable TV and archive film material available. Once he became successful as a musician, coverage expanded considerably. Many of the friends on Hydra had super 8 cameras and, with still photographs, Broomfield could construct a visual narrative about both the Hydra community and aspects of Marianne’s life (some of this material he provided himself). ‘Witness’ interviews with various people close to both Leonard and Marianne comprise the third major source. The quality of archive footage varies considerably but some of the early stuff has survived well. It is skilfully edited by Marc Hoeferlin and presented in something close to 16:9. I didn’t really notice the cropping and nothing was ‘squashed’ or ‘squeezed’ that I could see (but the image below looks a bit dodgy). The narrative flows partly because of voiceovers taken from archive recordings of both Leonard and Marianne (who speaks in both English and Norwegian) and others remembering the period.
The problem for Broomfield is that the narrative promised by the title would make roughly a 45 minute film based on the material available. This documentary runs for over 100 minutes and the extra time is taken up largely with an exploration of Leonard Cohen’s career and a discussion of what he was doing, even when notionally still with Marianne. This has been one of the criticisms of the film with accusations that Marianne’s voice is overwhelmed by the material featuring Leonard. There is also a suggestion that Marianne’s memory has been exploited by Broomfield and that scenes at the end of the film featuring a very sick Marianne are intrusive. It is also likely that audiences wanting to know more about Cohen’s music and poetry may feel frustrated that the coverage of both is in a sense quite shallow.
I find it difficult to distance myself from my own emotional response to the archive footage. As a teenager I discovered the poetry and novels of Cohen and a few years later in the early 1970s I was a fan of the early albums – in the face of derision by many of my friends. I then lost touch with what Cohen was doing in the eighties and nineties before ‘re-discovering’ him in the last ten years of his life, partly through the use of his songs in films. There are several biographies of Cohen and I can recommend the one by Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man, The Life of Leonard Cohen (Vintage 2012). After the screening I looked for archive material on YouTube. I recommend the excellent National Film Board of Canada documentary Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Mr. Leonard Cohen (directed by Donald Brittain & Don Owen, 1965). If you check it out on the NFB’s YouTube channel, you can also find other fascinating Cohen material via YouTube’s algorithm. In fact you’ll soon realise that much of the footage in Marianne & Leonard is actually included in a range of other documentary films. The ‘extras’ in Broomfield’s film are some of the ‘home movie’ material, Broomfield’s own material and the interviews. Some of these are very entertaining, particularly Aviva Layton who was married to Irving Layton, the leading Canadian poet who was Leonard’s early mentor. Aviva deserves a film of her own.
Leonard Cohen was an extraordinary figure and the film certainly triggered all my responses to his genius and spirituality. But as Aviva says, he was both alluring to women and a terrible partner, but which great artist, writer or creative person isn’t both hugely attractive and seemingly hopeless about relationships? Marianne, as she comes across in the film, was a young woman who loved Leonard but felt out of place among the artistic community. She was damaged by her first abusive marriage and so was her son ‘little Axel’. The film also reveals other aspects of Marianne’s life which don’t show Leonard in a good light. Eventually Marianne returned to Norway and a job and a new and happy marriage. I was very emotionally engaged with the narrative, but whether that was because of the relationship between Marianne and Leonard or because of my own memories of Cohen’s songs I can’t say. I’ve seen several reviews of Broomfield’s film which seem most interested in criticising the 1960s culture on Hydra (which was certainly problematic for many of the expat artists) and denigrating Leonard Cohen because he slept with so many women and took so many drugs. For a more measured, but still negative, critical response, this Indiewire review is worth looking at. I can see all these criticisms but they don’t make me any less disposed to Leonard Cohen’s art.
If you are a Leonard Cohen fan, you will enjoy seeing the film on a big screen and it is still playing around the UK. You can find screenings through the official website. Since the BBC is a co-producer, it will no doubt appear on BBC4 at some point as well as on DVD.