I’m glad I saw this World War II romance drama – one of the best of recent co-productions. I fear that many audiences will have been put off by reviewers like Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who seem to be completely oblivious to its better points. It isn’t without flaws but mostly it is very good.
It’s worth mentioning the production background in some detail since it’s unusual in some ways. ‘International films’ made in Europe in English have been a feature of mainstream cinema since the 1950s, but usually these are in some way ‘Americanised’ even though they have European settings. Despite a credit for The Weinstein Company (the US distributor) and an American in the lead role, Suite Française is a French property made by Europeans (mostly British) in Belgium, but with a major French partner in the form of TF1 Films and Canadian input from Alliance/eOne. I mention this because some commentators have referred to a ‘Hollywood film’. Suite Française will get a major French release, presumably dubbed into French? It seems to have had a substantial budget and I wonder how many of the actors (mostly Brits and Germans) could have worked on a French language version at the same time? Just to clarify, the French characters in the film speak (British) English with accents and dialects that represent their position in society. The Germans speak German (with subtitles), except when they talk to the French, when, of course, they speak English. It all works fine. As the convention goes (in for example Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series), all the printed material on screen is in the local language, i.e. in French.
Suite Française was published as a novel with two parts in 2004. It was written in 1940-1 by Irène Némirovsky, the emigré Ukranian Jewish writer, successful in France since the 1920s, who was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her notebooks were re-discovered by her daughter in 1998. The first part of the novel tells the story of the flight from Paris at the time of the German invasion in June 1940. This is briefly alluded to in the opening scenes in the film which then goes on to adapt the second part of the novel. This deals with the early period of German Occupation of Northern France up to late Summer 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and the troops billeted in the small town/village of Bussy are sent to the Eastern front. Némirovsky had envisaged five parts for the overall story.
The film reworks this second story, ‘Dolce’, and focuses on Lucile (Michelle Williams) a young woman who had barely met her husband before he joined the French Army (and became a prisoner of war) and who must now endure being bossed about by her fierce mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). Because they live in the best house in the village the two women are forced to accept a German officer as a lodger. Bruno (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a musical composer from a military family, an Oberleutnant, both cultured and ‘gentlemanly’ yet prepared to endorse the ‘spirit of community’ in the German Armed Forces. His fellow Leutnant is more aggressive and creates disturbance in another billet. The ‘other ranks’ are generally boisterous as in most successful invading armies. These are not necessarily the conventional Nazis of Hollywood war films – but they do carry out draconian policies in dealing with the local people.
Various French films of the 1940s have similar themes. For instance the classic Henri Clouzot film Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) includes poison pen letters written by villagers about each other during the Occupation and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) shares several key elements. This latter film was based on a novel published in 1942 by Jean Bruller but it seems unlikely that there was any connection between Bruller and Némirovsky. However, one link between the narratives does point to a major weakness in the new film – the voice-over narration by Lucile. In the Melville film the narration is essential since the French couple who have a German officer billeted on them refuse to speak (a strategy initially employed by many ‘occupied’ people – including Lucile’s mother-in-law). We learn about their thoughts from the old man’s narration which continues throughout much of the film. In Suite Française the narration comes at various points from Lucile but it is unnecessary in my view – we can see what she is thinking from her facial expressions, posture, actions etc. Not only that but it is mixed in an odd way and sounds ‘wrong’.
However, apart from the narration, everything else works OK. Bradshaw is very critical of Michelle Williams, arguing that she gives “a worryingly awful lead performance . . . [she] looks like she’s got access to serious amounts of black-market Mogadon cut with Temazepam”. I went back to the novel and the first description of Lucile suggests that she is “beautiful, blonde with dark eyes, but a quiet, modest demeanour and ‘a faraway expression'”. I’m not sure what Peter Bradshaw expects here. The narrative is about a woman from a region where middle-class society shows (in Némirovsky’s words) “a complete absence of any forms of emotion”. This is a woman who slowly blossoms and falls for the younger man who has invaded her home – where she is miserable under her mother-in-law’s gaze. I find that an interesting story. My impression is that overall, the adaptation follows the book’s narrative – some scenes are presented almost as written.
I could go on and pick Bradshaw’s review to pieces and I’m tempted because his approach with its ‘witty’ put-downs angers me so much. Instead, I’ll just focus on the issues of realism and social class. There are several interesting video clips on YouTube in which the various HoDs in the crew discuss how they researched French fashions and make-up in the period and how they studied various films including Le corbeau and Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939). They found a village close to the Belgian border which had been by-passed by progress and they were able to dress it effectively. Saul Dibb was appointed director of the film partly because of his success with The Duchess in which he managed to make a film which appealed to modern audiences without losing the sense of period setting.
Social class is crucial to the story. Némirovsky herself was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Russia and she carefully delineates the social strata of village society. At the top are the Vicomte (and Mayor) and his wife. Lucile’s mother-in-law is the richest non-aristocratic landowner. Lucile’s female friends are tenants she tries to protect from her mother-in-law’s avarice. There is also a Parisian woman and her daughter – Jewish refugees able to pay a higher rent (and in some ways representing Némirovsky herself?). The two Leutnants are both clearly ‘gentlemen’ and this is important in their dealings with the women. The women after all are living in a community where most of the fit young men have disappeared. It may be a cliché but we know that the one young man, a farmer disabled by a war injury, will be important in the drama that follows. Bradshaw refers to “a golden-tinted saga of everyday French collaborating folk”. This is an insult to Némirovsky who has actually provided us with certainly a ‘golden moment’ in the Spring and Summer but also a complex set of relationships and behaviours in which both collaboration and resistance are explored, much – one imagines – like they must have been across France in 1940-1.
I’m going back to the novel (which has re-entered the paperback chart) to see in more detail what Saul Dibb and Matt Charman have done with the characters and storylines in their adaptation. As my defence of Michelle Williams makes clear I have a lot of time for her acting skills and I found her scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts worked well. The film has clearly missed attracting the big audience its makers envisaged (it’s unlikely to make £2 million in the UK). I think it may find that audience on the small screen. I’m intrigued to find out what will happen to the film in France – it feels very British to me.
Official UK trailer:
Other French ‘Occupation’ films on this blog include:
Un sécret (2007)
Un héros très discret (1995)
Le silence de la mer (1949)
Writer-director Roberto Flores Prieto gave a great performance (in English) in the Q&A following the screening of his film. He told us a great deal about the background to the film and what motivated him to make it. He was at ¡Viva! last year as well and he obviously feels at home in Manchester (I’m tempted to make a joke about rain, but more of that later).
Roberto told us that he liked the title simply as a phrase. If it has a link to the film’s narrative it is because it refers to a certain type of audio signal picked up on the radios and TVs repaired by Luis, a man in late middle age who lives on his own. Early in the film we meet him in a bar where he appears to succumb to the siren call of a bar girl and the couple then retire to a run-down hotel. A little later we meet Carmen (Mabel Pizarro), a woman in her early fifties who cleans the rooms in the hotel and occasionally sits at the reception desk. She lives on her own in the hotel and begins a tentative pursuit of Luis (who she has presumably known for some time since he lives locally and advertises his repair business).
Without the background about the city of Barranquilla before the Q&A I didn’t really get all the nuances of the film’s narrative. The set-up is very simple. There are just a handful of main locations, Luis’s room, the hotel, the bar and the streets between the three. Carmen visits a Chinese takeaway and a hairdresser and Luis delivers/picks up some items for repair. Not a great deal happens ‘plot-wise’ and the film is 110 minutes long. However, in its exploration of film language in terms of cinematography, costume, set design and use of sound and music, the film is rich in meanings. (The look of the film is inspired by the American painter Edward Hopper.) Prieto wants to spend time with his two central characters. He wants us to understand what they feel and to think about their responses. These two people are attracted to each other for a variety of reasons but they are sensitive and wary about allowing someone else into their lives. They might be easily hurt. I won’t spoil the story so I’ll simply point out that this isn’t a Hollywood narrative.
Back to the rain: Barranquilla is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and it rains a lot in season. Prieto told us that the city (the third largest in the country), is ‘looked down on’ from Bogota but the director lives there and he was determined to use it as a not just a location but almost as a character. The rain is so heavy that in the old parts of the city, the roads become fast-running streams. These are dangerous, so in the symbolism of the melodrama, rain doesn’t only signify ‘sexual release’, but also the danger of sexual congress/relationship. I realised a little after the screening that in several different ways, Ruido Rosa resembles Wong Kar-Wai’s classic In the Mood For Love. Certainly the dark streets, the rain and the music/costumes are important in both films. So too is the question of exile/migration. In this case it is Carmen who has long dreamed of travelling to New York. Will she decide to stay with Luis or to finally join the other 5 million Colombians living abroad? How will Luis deal with Carmen’s desire to leave? These are the important questions that give an edge to the relationship between the two.
Ruido Rosa is a classic ‘meller’, but it is also very funny at times – in certain carefully presented deadpan scenes e.g. when Carmen and a colleague at the hotel solemnly chomp on Chinese take-away meals and in a neighbourhood cinema when we watch Luis and Carmen but listen to hilarious versions of dialogue from typical Hollywood genre films (all provided by the director). Carmen goes to the cinema to practise English, repeating the lines she hears. Music is integral to the film and I enjoyed it very much. At one pint we join Luis and Carmen in a local bar with live music from a trio (?). Like much of the film, this sequence reminded me of old Havana and of Cuban cinema. Afterwards I noted that Roberto Flores Prieto had studied at the International Film School in Cuba. This little bar scene also reminded me of the wonderful sequence in the Claire Denis film 35 rhums which includes the characters dancing to a version of ‘Siboney’.
In the end the sense of a love story told almost in defiance of Hollywood convention is what defines Ruido Rosa. The shooting was completed in just three and a half weeks. The two principals are not ‘stars’ but they have experience, Roosevel Gonzalez as a dancer and Mabel Pizarro as a drama teacher. Director, writers and crew seem to be on the same wavelength – making something that requires patience to watch but which is ultimately rewarding. Prieto told us that in Colombia cinephiles no longer go to the multiplexes but prefer to watch films at home on DVD and download. But the success of Ruido Rosa at festivals does seem to have helped it get more screenings at home (see the film’s Facebook page) and that must be good. I look forward to seeing a Roberto Flores Prieto film in Manchester again.
This intriguing film would make an interesting double bill with María y el Araña. I actually saw it before the Argentinian film and at first I thought it was ‘modest’, ‘slight’ even. On reflection it is more interesting than that suggests and it may be that thinking about María in the barrio in Buenos Aires has prompted me to rethink life for a middle-class teen in Quito.
The ‘holiday’ of the title is taken by Juan Pablo, a quiet and seemingly withdrawn 16 year-old from the European middle class, who is deposited by his mother with his uncle’s family in their hacienda in the Andes. The timing is important. This is just before a financial crisis in Ecuador in 1999 and ‘Juampi’ (a family nickname) discovers that his uncle is in serious trouble as President of a bank that has shut its doors and refused to pay out to deposit-holders. Juampi is mocked by his boorish male cousins but finds some sympathy with his female cousin and her girlfriend. Circumstances lead him to help the escape of a Quechuan (Amerindian) youth being threatened by Juampi’s uncle’s men. Through his developing friendship with this young man (also called Juan Pablo) we discover that Juampi is gay, although he only reveals this directly to his sketchbook. The narrative sees Juampi learn more about the lives of people he hasn’t met before and to visit a ‘black metal’ music event before it is broken up by security forces. In his mother’s apartment block, Juampi takes his friend up onto the roof to see the cityscape from a new perspective.
Shot in 2.35:1 Feriado is mainly an intimate drama although one scene by a beautiful waterfall and the scenes of the city at night do make good use of the widescreen. Juan Arregui plays Juampi as very quiet in the opening scenes, but perhaps he just seems so because his cousins are so brash. As he comes out of his shell he gradually becomes more assertive. In taking on sexuality, race and class as dimensions of a traditional ‘coming of age’ youth picture, director Diego Araujo might seem to be overloading his feature, but the ‘modest’ style of the film works and it does enough in 82 minutes to be successful – and the first Ecuadorean film to be officially selected for Berlin in 2014. It’s also impressive as a first feature for the director (see the official website).
I couldn’t find any festival coverage of this film (which was screened at several important festivals) – which surprised me as this was perhaps the most affecting of the films over the ¡Viva! weekend. It’s a youth picture and coming of age story crossed with a family melodrama and presented almost as social realism but with fabulous music and an element of ‘performance’ built into the narrative.
The second screening of the film was preceded by a very useful presentation on ‘The Latin American City in Cinema’ by James Scorer of Manchester University. He explained that the barrio (shanty town) where the central character lives is close to Puerto Madero, one of the newly renovated and now upmarket districts of Buenos Aires. An intelligent young woman, María is soon to finish elementary school and will be offered a scholarship to a high school – a potential way out of the barrio. She lives with her grandmother in a small shack which is shared with Garrido, the grandmother’s younger ‘companion’. María gives out junk mail on the subway system, often meeting an older friend who sells biscuits. One day she meets ‘Araña’, an older teenage boy who wears a Spider-Man hoodie and performs juggling and other tricks on the subway trains.
María is played by a non-professional, Florencia Salas, who has a smile to break hearts. Araña (Diego Vejezzi) is a similarly attractive and engaging young character. All seems set for a sweet teen romance, but as the Buenos Aires Herald puts it: ” . . . as the film unfolds, another story comes to the foreground, a story of subjugation and hidden pain”. The narrative develops in ways that are perhaps predictable but the presentation of the story is successful in representing a range of emotions – including a surprising and in some ways quite optimistic ending which is nevertheless underpinned by the knowledge that the lives of the young people in the barrio are still constrained by the failures of adults, both in the barrios and in the wider civil society of the city, to protect and nurture young people.
I was impressed by the subtle ways in which some aspects of the narrative are developed. Maria’s teacher knows something is wrong and expresses it with the slightest of looks askance. There are also some very strong visuals as befits a melodrama. The skill is in bringing these different elements together smoothly. I enjoyed the music in the film very much. It is mostly diegetic performed by bands in the shanty town and buskers on the subway. The music and the cinematography heighten the emotional pull of the film by contrasting the vibrancy of the performances with the restrictions of life in the barrio.
Director María Victoria Menis has made other films that have got some recognition outside Argentina, mainly in France (this is a French co-production) and I think that María y el Araña deserves to be seen more widely as well. The long trailer here which includes some extended scenes gives a good idea of how the film works. Most of what I discovered about the film came from the film’s Facebook page and the Argentinian production company’s ‘official website’.
Long trailer (minimal dialogue, no subtitles):