This is the first offering in Éric Rohmer’s ‘Comedies and Proverbs’ series of six films in the 1980s. There is a second title for the film, ‘On ne saurait penser à rien’. I find French quite difficult to translate and presumably this refers to the proverb. Wikipedia suggests, ‘It is impossible to think about nothing’ and this is certainly expressed in one of the film’s long dialogue exchanges. Rohmer’s films often revolve around triangles of relationships in which one character chooses between two possible lovers. Here ‘the aviator’ Christian is part of a triangle seemingly pivoting on Anne, a young office worker in her her mid-twenties living in a tiny apartment in Central Paris. Her current boyfriend is François, a 20 year-old student who works occasional night shifts in a mail sorting office to finance his studies. Early one morning, attempting to deliver a note to Anne before she wakes, he is surprised to see her leaving her apartment block with Christian. Later that day, having met Anne at lunchtime, François sees Christian with another woman and decides to follow the couple. His amateur sleuthing leads him into an encounter with Lucie, a bubbly 15 year-old student attempting to do her German language revision outdoors. After a while we realise that there is a second triangle which pivots on François who spends most of the film in dialogue with Anne, Lucie and then Anne again. Christian is in effect a MacGuffin – a character whose importance is in what he prompts as action in other characters. This is the case with François but less so with Anne.
In these later films Rohmer often uses less well-known or non-professional actors. That’s certainly true for the lead here. Philippe Marlaud as François had only appeared in one film before, but that was for Maurice Pialat, one of the major directors of the 1980s, in a leading role. Tragically Marlaud died from burns received in a campsite fire shortly after the film was released. Some of the reviewers describe him as ‘plain’ but I think he looks fine and is very good in the part. Marie Rivière (Anne) and Mathieu Carrière (Christian) are still working as actors with long careers. Rivière worked again with Rohmer and Carrière, born in Germany has worked extensively in both German and French industries. Anne-Laure Meury (Lucie) is the real mystery. She was active in TV and cinema from 1975 to 1989 after which time IMDb has no more entries. She too worked again for Rohmer. The two inexperienced actors stole the show for me. Anne-Laure Meury is so lively and mischievous. I’ve rarely seen an actor make such an impression. Marie Rivière has the most difficult role as Anne. She is terribly thin and Rohmer emphasises this by having her dressed in only a camisole and bikini style knickers (she has been resting in bed) when François arrives at her apartment the second time (see image below). She then has a long conversation with him, constantly covering and exposing herself in a very animated way. If it seems unfair to comment on costume and body movements, bear in mind that Rohmer’s camera style (Bernard Lutic is the cinematographer) tends to frame long dialogues as two shots or if shooting shot/reverse shot, still avoids close-ups to show a character almost in long-shot (i.e. with the whole body in shot). Rivière became one of Rohmer’s ‘stock company’ actors, so she was presumably happy with the scenes (though given all the #MeToo comments recently we can’t be sure).
Rohmer’s style is unique, though some critics have tried to link it to the later style of Richard Linklater’s trilogy of films about the meeting of characters played by Julie Delpy ad Ethan Hawke. I can see that, but I think Linklater imbues his narratives with more dramatic tension and also plays with his stars’ screen presence. From the several reviews of The Aviator’s Wife that I’ve seen I would agree with one who makes a reference to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Baisers volés (1968) and Domicile conjugal (1970). I find myself identifying with François who is treated very badly by Anne and teased in a friendly way by Lucie. As with Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel the women are dominant characters and François is unsure and sometimes bungling in his attempt to engage with them. Anne seems like a rather cruel creation by Rohmer, though if we consider her situation and her view on life, it isn’t all that unreasonable. In many ways she is the most modern character. By contrast, Lucie is a young man’s dream – bright, bubbly and fun. She’s very attractive and seemingly full of energy and initiative. On the other hand, her general demeanour and maturity seem unusual for a 15 year-old, so she is plausibly a ‘romantic’ creation.
Rohmer, in retrospect, seems ‘out of time’ in the French cinema of the 1980s. I wonder what contemporary young audiences would make of his stories of love and romance set in the context of ‘Comedies and Proverbs’. Would they find them unbearably slow? Would they be baffled by a world which revolves around postcards and public telephones and notes pushed under a door? I suspect that rather than ‘out of time’, Rohmer’s tales are timeless. This one is currently on MUBI. I have a couple more on disc/tape somewhere, perhaps I’ll go back to them. If nothing else, his films offer an almost documentary take on Parisian streets, buses and the Metro. The trailer below (no subs) gives an idea of how the two stills above were worked into scenes.
Every Claire Denis film offers something new – whether in terms of narrative structure, narration, representations of characters, places or social issues. Let the Sunshine In, which screened at Cannes last year, was ‘slipped in’ between other projects. I’m drawing here on an interview in the English language Press Pack for the film. Denis and her usual collaborator, the cinematographer Agnès Godard, worked on a short text by screenwriter Christine Angot, that Denis had seen ‘read’ by actors she knew, to produce a 45 minute film during a year-long workshop at the Fresnoy National Studio of the Arts. When Denis was then asked by producer Olivier Delbosc if she would become one of a group of directors making a compendium film based on Roland Barthes’ 1977 book A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, she remembered the short film and contacted Angot. They decided to make their own feature, ditching all of Barthes except for the word and the concept of ‘Agony’. They must have made an impressive pitch because Delbosc agreed to produce their film.
Denis and Angot decided to draw on their own experiences in creating the film (so some of the men are played by fellow directors), but they knew that they needed a unique actor to perform the central role of the woman who searches for but never quite finds love.
. . . we realised it had to be Juliette. Juliette Binoche stood out to us as the ideal vessel for the role of Isabelle. The screenplay called for a creamy, voluptuous and desirable feminine body: a woman whose face and body are beautiful, and whose demeanour in no way conveys defeat. Someone for whom in love battles, victory is still possible, without, however, ever assuming that the outcome is certain.
There is a tease here, naming this character ‘Isabelle’ and it’s fun to ponder how different the film would be with Huppert (riveting lead performer in White Material for Denis) rather than Binoche. But this character is definitely Binoche presented exactly as Denis described. Denis also chose very specific costumes for her such as the mini-skirt and thigh-high boots, the leather jacket and deep V-neck tops. Juliette Binoche looks stunning and as Ginette Vincendeau comments in Sight and Sound, May 2018, “she is, as ever, a major reason to see the film”. So too is the brief appearance of Gérard Depardieu at the end of the film. But, apart from La Binoche and Le Depardieu, does the rest of it make any sense? A quick glance at IMDb will reveal quite a few 1/10s and “Worst film ever” comments.
Isabelle is an attractive artist in her 50s, estranged from her husband François (but not averse to the occasional tumble with him) and seemingly not too concerned that her 10 year-old daughter stays mainly with her father. When we first meet Isabelle, she’s in bed with a banker and later she beds a younger actor and then, on a trip to an arts festival, a man she meets in a bar. She flirts with others and may yet end up with the gargantuan Depardieu whose ridiculous patter as a mystic is clearly designed to entice her (though she may well yet end up with the one of the few charming men in the film, played by Denis regular Alex Descas). I’ve just outlined the entire plot.
The point of the film, presumably, is to be found in these various encounters and what they tell us about how Isabelle seeks her idea of love. This search certainly does seem to create ‘agony’ for Isabelle and possibly for us. Like many Denis films Let the Sunshine In refuses easy identification as a specific genre film or even a mix of genres. A renowned French critic like Ginette Vincendeau is reduced to wondering if it is a kind of romantic comedy or ‘woman’s picture’. Vincendeau takes a wrong turn, I think, by querying the lack of elements of social realism (Isabelle’s lack of concern about her daughter, only the briefest glimpse of her working life as an artist) and concludes that the film ‘s location work, which she takes to be a nod towards the original New Wave auteur productions on the streets of Paris, seems to unconsciously juxtapose the obsessions of the wealthy with the everyday lives of the mass of Parisians. I do agree with Ginette Vincendeau that there doesn’t seem to be a feminist agenda in this work by a quartet of experienced and accomplished women in French cinema (director, writer, cinematographer and star). Isabelle has only two meaningful discussions with other women and in both cases it’s about men so there is no chance the film will pas the Bechdel test. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. The whole #MeToo campaign has tended to fare less well in France where many powerful women in film and TV tend to react against easy assumptions of what it means to be a feminist. On the other hand, I would argue that there are more women in leading creative roles, especially as directors in France. I can’t see Claire Denis ever taking any shit from anyone.
Vincendeau argues the film isn’t a romcom (but could the rare sub-genre of the ‘intellectual romcom). She also comments that if it is any way a ‘woman’s film’, it’s a very French version of such a film. At times I did shake my head and wonder what was going on, but I also laughed out loud a few times and behind me in the cinema were female laughs that were much louder. The lack of realism or of conventional motivation for action didn’t bother me too much once I’d realised it wasn’t necessarily meant to feature. I think you could argue that the film is a satire on an echelon of men in the Parisian arts community (and the business community) – and its also a critical look at Isabelle herself. In a key sequence Isabelle is berated by a gallerist for taking up with a man who is not from her mileu – he’s too working-class (I must have missed the clues to his class position). What Isabelle does next is unforgivable – but perhaps it is honest? Two scenes involve similar exchanges between characters in which they skirt round the central thing they want to say. It becomes so annoying that you want to march onto the set and give them a slap. Just get on with it! But again, this is what conversations are often like. The script is mainly dialogue and it’s very clever.
When Alex Descas appeared, late in the film, my heart lifted. Two scenes that followed linked via Descas to the Denis film in which he was a lead actor, 35 rhums (France 2008). At one point a long shot show Isabelle close to a major Paris station with its many railtracks and in another she dances in a bar to the fabulous Etta James singing ‘At Last’. Again, I’m not sure what to make of this but I’m sure other Denis-watchers will have noted them.
I f you are wondering about the title and the way it is translated literally on prints for English-language audiences as in the poster above, it comes from the Depardieu speech at the end of the film. He urges Isabelle to ‘open’ (and uses the English world). I think he then uses the (French) title with the meaning that she will open herself to a sunlit interior. I may have got that wrong because Denis decided on a strange strategy in which the credits rolled down the right side of the screen as Depardieu gave his long mesmeric speech in close-up. Reading the credits and the subtitles and trying to focus on that enormous head and shoulders was virtually impossible. Nice font though and by the way the film is presented in 1.66:1, giving more emphasis to the talking heads. I should watch this film again. I rarely ‘get’ a Claire Denis film first time round. Here’s a clip from the film:
This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.
Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.
Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.
The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.
But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.
Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):
MUBI also includes in its streaming schedule some Hollywood films from the recent past (see below for definitions of ‘recent’). This last week saw two Sydney Pollack titles added to the roster (the other is Tootsie with Dustin Hoffman). Pollack had a forty-year career as a director, producer and actor working with the leading stars from 1965 to 2005. As a director he made conventional mainstream films with strong narratives, often dealing with outsider figures from a ‘liberal’ perspective. Absence of Malice pairs Paul Newman and Sally Field. I was a fan of both actors in 1981 but I don’t remember watching this at the time. I always loved Newman as a star, wishing only that he would make more films as a director – Rachel, Rachel (1968) and Sometimes a Great Notion (1971) are films I’d happily watch again. Sally Field is still active but her peak film career was probably from the mid 1970s to the mid ’90s when Hollywood’s sexism cast her as the older woman destined for character parts. Earlier she had often been paired with male stars ten or more years older (Burt Reynolds, James Garner et al.) and therefore a romance with Newman was par for the course.
‘Absence of malice’ is a legal term relevant to libel law in the US. A newspaper may print a story that may not be true about a person as long as they do so in good faith, not knowing that it is false. Whether the film’s plot actually works in terms of the US legal system appears to be open to question. The basic premise is that Megan (Sally Field), a news reporter for a local Miami paper, runs a story about an FBI investigation of a local rum importer, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) who is assumed to be a suspect in the disappearance of a local union leader. Michael’s father was a ‘rum runner’ during prohibition with contacts in organised crime. Michael was sent to good schools and is ‘clean’. The news report creates major difficulties for Michael with the withdrawal of labour by his unionised workforce and loss of business with local restaurants. He begins his fightback by confronting Megan about where she got the story.
As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that the local FBI boss is ‘fishing’ for leads and that the District Attorney has his own election issues. Throw in that Michael and Megan have an attraction for each other plus there is a third person with an emotional attachment involved in Michael’s situation and an intriguing narrative develops. The Miami setting is well handled and the film begins with a documentary montage detailing the hot metal process for newspaper printing that should be an eye-opener for younger viewers. Megan is an interesting character. She’s without a significant back story and it could be argued that she finds herself trapped between her boss (the editor played Josef Sommer) the FBI team (at least one of whom is an admirer) and Michael – all older men. But she remains her own woman. It’s good to see Sally Field playing her real age (34) and coming across as a professional woman rather than simply as the plot’s romance interest. In her best line she reminds Michael that she is a woman of 34 who doesn’t need courting. Some reviewers at the time saw her character as an example of a ‘bad journalist’ (in the context of All the President’s Men in 1976). That seems a mis-reading to me. Megan certainly uses the tricks she knows to get a story but I don’t think that makes her ‘bad’, especially given the pressure on her to sensationalise – which she tries not to do.. I won’t spoil the narrative by explaining Melinda Dillon’s character as Teresa, but she won an Oscar nomination for her part. There were also nominations for Newman and for the main writer Kurt Luedtke who had been a newspaper reporter and editor – he wrote two further scripts for Pollack, Out of Africa in 1985 and Random Hearts in 1999.
A couple of days before I saw the film, someone suggested to me that some younger film programmers saw 1980s films as ‘classic cinema’ now. I was initially shocked but now I can see that there is evidence to support this. Absence of Malice seems more like the tail-end of 1970s Hollywood. Aspects of the plot are similar to several of those 70s movies that find darker, ‘murkier’? elements in cities like Miami. I did find some of the costumes odd. Newman is beautiful in his mid fifties, still slim and still with those piercing blue eyes, but in one scene he wears high-waisted jeans with a tight check shirt which didn’t work for me in terms of the character. Sally Field has a smaller version of that 80s ‘big hair’ trend and a succession of suit outfits with heels which make her look uncomfortable in the heat of Miami (especially when clambering into Michael’s boat. But these are minor worries. What does seem ‘classic’ is that this is engaging entertainment over 116 minutes for an adult audience without a contrived tacked-on ending. It’s good to be reminded that Hollywood could once do this on a regular basis.
Arnaud Desplechin is the kind of auteur director who is seemingly always going to get a showing at Cannes. Several reviewers suggested after this film’s 2015 appearance at Cannes that Desplechin was a Proust for our times. This is a reference to his exploration of the life and loves of his alter ego Paul Dédalus as played by Mathieu Amalric. This character first appeared in 1996 in Ma vie sexuelle. The 2015 film is effectively a prequel to the earlier film with Dédalus presented as a young boy (Antoine Bui) and as an adolescent (Quentin Dolmaire), although it is bookended by contemporary scenes with Amalric. The main narrative concerns the 19 year-old Paul and is told as a long flashback.
The mystery about the release is why it has taken so long to appear in the UK. Desplechin had another film screened at Cannes in 2017 (Ismael’s Ghosts) but My Golden Days has taken nearly three years to roll out slowly across various territories. Its arrival in the UK now is thanks to the estimable New Wave Films. I suspect that some cinephiles find Desplechin to be self-indulgent in his use of Amalric to play semi-autobiographical roles. I’ve only watched A Christmas Tale (France 2008) – though I have a copy of Kings and Queen (2004) which I found difficult to get into. I might return to it now. One of the things that interests me about Desplechin is that he comes from Roubaix and that the city appears in both A Christmas Tale and My Golden Days. Roubaix is part of the wider Lille metropolitan region and as a textile city is twinned with Bradford in the UK. I was fascinated when I visited it.
The adult Paul Dédalus is an anthropologist who has specialised in the communities in what was once Soviet Central Asia. At the beginning of the film Paul is about to pack up and leave Tajikistan to return to Paris. During his last few hours with his local lover he remembers his childhood and particularly his mentally-disturbed mother (this the first ‘souvenir’). On his arrival back in France, an incident prompts him to remember his teenage years and the long flashback begins, first with his schooldays and an eventful trip to the USSR (the second ‘souvenir’) and then his difficult access to his anthropology degree in Paris – third souvenir and the bulk of the narrative. We meet his younger siblings Delphine and Ivan, his cousin Bob and his friends Kovalki and Mehdi. Paul’s father is not really active in the household which is held together by Delphine. On one of his trips home from Paris, Paul meets Esther, still at school but an unusual young woman and for Paul a compelling presence. Over the next three years the two will have a sometimes tempestuous romance.
This central youthful romance is well presented. It’s intelligently written and beautifully acted by Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther (the young actor who is also featured in I Got Life! (France 2017) which opens next week). Desplechin was born in 1960 so his own ‘coming of age’ would be the 1970s. But here he uses the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a kind of social and political marker and this does tie in to Paul’s family history which links to Russia and specifically to Belarus (where part of the film was shot). Before I saw he film I wondered if it would be like the 1968 student-based films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Olivier Assayas, neither of which I’ve seen, but I remembering being put off by trailers I saw. I suspect Desplechin’s film is different, but I’m happy to be corrected.
I noted in the credits that the music soundtrack in the film includes something from the Georges Delerue score for Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960). Delerue was also born in Roubaix but I think what intrigued me was that I thought about Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films while watching My Golden Days. To some extent, Desplechin follows Truffaut in using a single actor as an alter ego and follows the character created for that actor across different films dealing with different times in his life. I felt that though Paul and Antoine are very different characters, something about the characters is shared – a seriousness about aspects of culture, a willingness to do whatever it takes in the face of hardship and a vulnerability in regards to women. Paul is both mature for his age and capable of childish rages. But when he has been interviewed, Desplechin has talked about very different inspirations – on the one hand he has mentioned Catcher in the Rye and Coppola’s The Outsiders and on the other he has acknowledged Bergman and Fanny and Alexander – but also Summer With Monika (1953), one of the few Bergman films I like and one of the films featured in Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959). The important point is that Desplechin seems to be adept about capturing something about being 19 and how certain relationships might stay with us. Esther is a remarkable character and is wonderfully played here. In the earlier film (the ‘sequel’) the grown up Esther is played by the equally wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.
My Golden Days has been very well received by the majority of critics who seem to appreciate Desplechin’s skill with the story which is not strong on narrative drive and might seem to meander but is always kept together by Dolmaire’s Paul and his love for Esther. For me, the Roubaix scenes work very well, offering a contrast to Paul’s attempts to survive and prosper in Paris. Roubaix is only around 140 miles from Paris but it seems several years behind with the decline of its textile industries, its cobbles and nineteenth century streets of warehouses and workers dwellings. Virtually on the Belgium border, Roubaix perhaps has more in common with the Dardenne Brothers’ world of similar industrial decline in Seraing in the Meuse valley.
I’m not sure how My Golden Days will work with UK audiences, but I enjoyed the film and I’ve thought a lot about it since the screening. This week it is only playing at the Showroom in Sheffield and the Ciné Lumière in London (where it carries on for a second week). Get along to see it if you can – it’s worth the visit.
There is a useful review of the film by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, April 2018.
When a film wins Oscars everyone writes about it. I’m not that bothered by Oscars but I’m glad that del Toro won something and I’m pleased the production design team got a gong. I loved the mix of songs in the film but I didn’t really notice the score – perhaps I will next time. Above all, however, I’m saddened that Sally Hawkins wasn’t rewarded. She is an extraordinary actor, capable of anything. I think that The Shape of Water is a love letter to cinema from a film lover who remembers the movies he watched with his grandmother. I’m not sure why The Story of Ruth (US 1960) is the film showing in the cinema when the creature stands in the stalls. It was a Fox film so the rights weren’t a problem. I’m assuming Guillermo saw it as a child. I watched Mr Ed on TV as a teenager so I was taken back too.
I guess most of you will know that the film is about a mute cleaner, Elisa Esposito (‘Esposito’ was originally a name given in Italy to abandoned children). She is looking for love and finds it with an amphibious man captured by US intelligence and threatened with vivisection in a search for ideas to prepare human physiology for the space race. 1962 is an interesting year to choose for the film’s time period. I’ve heard del Toro discussing why he chose it. At the height of the Cold War (the year of the Cuban missile crisis) and before the major breakthroughs on Civil Rights, those historical references are well used to underpin the narrative. The Cadillac showroom and the suburban family home reek of the immediate legacy of Eisenhower’s affluent, aspirational and conformist 1950s. The Cadillac also introduces teal as a key colour which emphasises the blue-green spectrum in the ‘facility’ where Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners and where the creature (Doug Jones) is incarcerated. But I think that the selection of songs is the most intriguing. 1962 in the US is often considered to be in that dead period between the brief re-appearance of Elvis on his return from the army and the arrival of the Beatles in 1964. It wasn’t dead, but pop music wasn’t as dynamic and exciting as it had been and would soon become again. Pop music was for kids and The Shape of Water is for adults and especially for adults who feel they have lost out and for whom passion and romance seem better represented by the sound of Alice Faye in 1940s movies or Andy Williams as a ‘grown-up’ singer in 1959. Everything in the film seems to me to fit together perfectly. It’s a fantasy but it is perfectly coherent and ‘real’ in terms of its cultural references.
The classification for The Shape of Water is interesting. The US ‘R’ rating seems excessive to me but Guillermo del Toro has said that he wanted to make a film for adults. I was surprised by the film’s lack of prurience in showing a naked Sally Hawkins, but I’m sure she agreed to it because it is beautifully presented and completely in line with the character’s other actions. The film does have its moments of violence and I felt that the most violent actions were those with direct cultural references – such as the use of the electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon) and arguably the most ‘difficult’ scene, the same character’s violence in making love to his wife. Perhaps an ‘R’ rating isn’t as excessive as I thought? On the other hand, the film has a ’15’ in the UK with 15/16 common across Europe (lower still in France) and the highest rating of 18 can be found in Russia and South Korea. I’m not sure what all of this means, except possibly that Guillermo del Toro has more of a European sensibility than a Hollywood one. I wish he’d make Spanish-language films again.
My constant referencing of del Toro doesn’t mean that I under-estimate the other creative contributions to the film. Vanessa Taylor was the co-writer and Dan Laustsen the cinematographer. All the design team deserve congratulations and Doug Jones and the VFX team create a wonderful creature based around the concept introduced in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (US 1954). All these contributions are important but it is del Toro’s overall vision which holds the film together. I’ve no idea how the film is performing with younger audiences. Perhaps they prefer the fast action of superhero movies, but the slower pace of del Toro’s narratives is more to my taste.
I’m amazed to see that IMDb lists the estimated budget at $20 million. I would have guessed twice that amount (is it lower because there are no so-called ‘A list’ stars?). Even if it was $40 million, the film is heading for profit – and seemingly for an International Hit. North American box office has been less than stellar but overseas the film is starting to rack up good figures and it should reach at least $170 million in total worldwide. Another triumph for Canadian facilities I see, since the whole film was made in Ontario in 2016. Sally Hawkins must know quite a bit about filmmaking in Canada by now as she was in the Maritimes the year before shooting Maudie.
I realise that I haven’t acknowledged that The Shape of Water is a fantasy drama. I don’t like most pure fantasy films, but I love del Toro’s films because they speak about the ‘real world’ so elegantly.
The success of The Shape of Water has raised the possibility that Guillermo del Toro may be able to find a studio prepared to support him with the $35 – $40 million he needs to make his ‘darker’ version of Pinocchio set during the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1920s. It’s intended to be an animation for adults. It still seems unlikely that an American studio will come though with the money but it would be good if they did.
Phantom Thread is a film made by American money entirely in the UK (apart from some post-production). There are so many distinctive local features that it feels a little like those 1960s ‘British Hollywood’ features. It’s a Paul Thomas Anderson production (which he has written, directed and appears to have photographed himself – there is no photography credit) so we expect something distinctive and different. I purposely tried to forget anything I’d read beforehand (though I confess to looking out for the scene shot in Blackpool Tower Ballroom). I couldn’t work out why the characters might go to Blackpool and of course they don’t, but in an early scene there is a card or a painting of some kind in the background that might be a view of the Promenade and the Tower and later the ballroom stands in for The Albert Hall staging the New Year’s Eve Chelsea Arts Ball.
So, not knowing too much about what to expect, I missed most of the critical references I was supposed to see. I don’t think this is because I’m too stupid to spot them or that the film doesn’t necessarily conform to the critical consensus. Instead, I think I just got interested in different things and I possibly missed some key markers. I think also that Anderson perhaps didn’t realise how this British spectator would view the film. Let me say first that I enjoyed the film. How could I not enjoy three central performances of great skill and a sumptuously presented insight into the craft processes of haute couture?
The narrative offers us Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who lives in a Mayfair town house servicing the demands of aristocratic patrons for wedding dresses and other haute couture costumes some time in the early 1950s. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and a succession of live-in ‘girlfriends’ – young women who believe for a moment that they can disrupt the ordered bachelor world Reynolds has built around himself. After a particularly difficult work period, the latest of these young women is sent on her way (by Cyril) and Reynolds drives to his country retreat – a large house with its own upstairs atelier. The country retreat appears to be in Yorkshire (but filmed in the Cotswolds) and Reynolds first stops at a hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay where he meets a young woman serving breakfast and is immediately smitten. This is Alma (Vicky Krieps) and a few days later he will take her back to London.
I can understand why Reynolds would find Alma bewitching. I was fascinated by her from the start. Her smile made me think of someone else I’d seen who I couldn’t place (later I discovered that she’d been in a French film I’d seen, but couldn’t remember). At first I thought Alma might be Irish, but a little later an incident suggests that she might be a European refugee and later still her surname sounds Northern European, possibly Nordic. The critical fraternity has latched onto the fact that Hitchcock was married to Alma Reville and this is cited as strong evidence that the film is meant to be a ‘gothic romance’ with Rebecca as just one of several filmic inspirations. Certainly Cyril at times seems very much in the Mrs Danvers mould, but others have referred to the young women who enter the ‘House of Woodcock’ as more akin to ‘Bluebeard’s wives’. James Bell writing in Sight and Sound (February 2018) discusses a range of filmic references. He mentions The Red Shoes (1948) and Anderson certainly appears to be a Powell & Pressburger fan. The link here is the Svengali-like figure of the ballet impresario Lermontov but the relationships are quite different in the two films. Anderson’s passion for David Lean is seemingly well-known and Lean’s The Passionate Friends (1949) is also quoted as an inspiration for Phantom Thread. I can’t remember the Lean film at all, but it does seem that two sequences in Anderson’s film are directly inspired by it (the Swiss hotel and the New Year’s Eve Arts Ball). Alongside Bell’s piece the website ‘Film School Rejects’ suggests the same links and adds some more – all of which Anderson seems to have alluded too. So, Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) and P & P’s I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) are mentioned as well as several other Hitchcocks. For me, discussing Hitchcock and Powell together makes some sense but Lean is almost Powell’s opposite as a filmmaker (and was certainly seen as such during 1945-50). It turns out that Anderson’s interest in I Know Where I’m Going! is because there is a contrast between the wild landscapes and the characters trapped in ‘tiny rooms’. Well, yes there is – I wonder if Anderson knows that it is because the lead actors never went on location?
My point in mentioning all these references is that while fascinating, they don’t really help the average cinemagoer to make sense of the narrative – and several comments on IMDb (and others people have made to me) describe the film as ‘boring’. That’s a shame, but if you make a film with a narrative that is impenetrable for large swathes of the audience, you have a problem. I don’t think that Phantom Thread has the passion that Powell & Pressburger might have brought to the table or the disturbance that Hitchcock might have generated. Instead, Anderson offers us an intimate drama with wit and an element of fantasy and mystery that could have been developed further. The music by Jonny Greenwood and the sound design are both very effective and I always enjoy the ‘procedural’ elements of, in this case, haute couture. However, this kind of haute couture involves the British (and European) aristocracy in the 1950s as customers – a quite repellent bunch in many instances (which, to be fair, the story does deal with). Against this, at the beginning of the film, one of my favourite actors, Gina McKee, a miner’s daughter from Peterlee, appears as ‘Countess Henrietta Harding’. Gina seems to be having so much fun showing off a posh frock, it helped me to get through some of the excruciating scenes. I was reminded, however, of a film about fashion that I did enjoy very much, Coco avant Chanel (France 2009) with Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel – an insight into innovation in dress design. Despite the exquisite work of the seamstresses, I didn’t really like any of the clothes on show (which is not to blame the designer Mark Bridges who was trying to represent the designs of the times).
I did enjoy watching the film, but I think Anderson missed a trick by not making more of the landscapes in Yorkshire and Switzerland. I felt that the presentation was too restrained. More melodrama for me, more gothic and more passion. It has been reported that this could be the last feature for both Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, at least for the moment. That would be a loss to contemporary cinema. I daresay Vicky Krieps will get interesting roles in the future and Lesley Manville will go from strength to strength. Here’s the trailer. It looks like all those things I want are here – but they are selected moments from a 130 mins narrative:
I was getting worried about Anurag Kashyap as I thought he needed to reach another level. Now that I have been knocked out (cheesy pun intended) by Mukkabaaz, I can see that my fears were unfounded. For those of you who haven’t yet explored the work of one of the most significant figures to emerge in Indian cinema over the last ten years or so, my introduction might need some explanation. If you don’t know Kashyap yet, that is understandable as his films struggle for a release in the UK/US.
Anurag Kashyap first came to industry attention as one of the main writers on Satya (1998), a Mumbai gangster pic from Ram Gopal Varma. His contribution was to ‘dirty up’ the standard conventions of a Hindi genre pic alongside one of the more innovatory directors of the period. Satya was very successful and won several awards. By the start of 2018 Kashyap had over 40 writing credits. He directed his first film in 2003, but Paanch struggled to get past the Indian censors (CBFC) and never achieved a proper release. Black Friday about the 1993 ‘Bombay Bombings’ was completed in 2004 but refused a certificate by the CBFC until 2007. Despite these distribution/exhibition problems both these two films screened successfully at festivals. Kashyap has gone on to build a career as a writer/director and producer with a sideline in acting. His relationship with mainstream Hindi cinema is still unclear – he moves towards and then away from it from picture to picture. But he has become for many commentators an important leader of Indian Independent Cinema. Much of this is down to his producer role and his enthusiasm for presenting films at international festivals – something Bollywood generally fails to do.
Kashyap has founded two production companies, each of which have made partnerships with major production outfits. The second of Kashyap’s companies is Phantom Films, actually a partnership with other producers and a director. The Indian ‘major’ Reliance took a 50% stake in this company in 2015. Phantom was a production partner on Mukabaaz with Colour Yellow, a similar company founded by producer-director Anand L. Rai. At Cannes in 2013, Kashyap was involved in all three of the Indian films being screened during the celebrations of ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ as director or producer as well as general cheerleader. Kashyap’s companies have helped other young directors at various times. The arthouse hit in the UK, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) was another film on which Kashyap was a co-producer. Kashyap’s own mainstream breakthrough as a director came with the mammoth 2-part 320 minute gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012. Since then I think we have been waiting for another film to match Gangs and Mukkabaaz feels like that film.
The story behind Mukkabaaz is as intriguing as the film itself. Vineet Kumar Singh from Varanasi (Benares) travelled to Mumbai at 18 like so many before him to follow a dream of becoming a success in the film industry. Eighteen years later after completing a medical degree on the side and writing his own sports-based screenplay, he hawked his script around while working in a range of film crew posts until he met Anurag Kashyap (also from Uttar Pradesh). Singh is now the star of his own story. To tell the story of an aspiring boxer he drew on his own experience as a teenage basketball player in the state competition in U.P. and to play the role he had to train as a boxer.
Outline (no spoilers)
The title ‘Mukkabaaz’ appears to refer to the distinction between ‘brawling’ and ‘boxing’. If so, it’s a good title since these are both activities Shravan Kumar needs at various times and he has to recognise the distinction and know how to handle complex situations. When the narrative begins, Shravan has been an aspiring boxer for several years and is part of a group under the coach Bhagwan Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) in Bareilly. One day he enters Bhagwan’s family courtyard and sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Bhagwan’s niece. It’s an immediate attraction but one fraught with problems. Bhagwan is the villain of the story whose prejudices about caste are married to an obsessive control syndrome in which he dominates the state boxing system, exerting influence even on the national system. The vivacious and talented Sunaina is mute and kept in the background (alongside her parents) by Bhagwan who hopes to marry her to a local businessman. Shravan breaks away from Bhagwan and eventually seeks out a new coach in Varanasi. He wants to marry Sunaina but Bhagwan stands in the way – just as he does if Shravan is to progress to regional and national status as a boxer.
This bare outline might make Mukkabaaz sound like any other sports hero story – even if it acknowledges the family melodrama. But this is India and sports narratives have a unique flavour in a country of 1.3 billion which outside of cricket has so far failed to produce the champions its vast pool of talent and collective wealth might be expected to deliver. In boxing, for instance, there are no Indian successes to match the legendary Cubans or the professional fighters of Mexico or Philippines. Part of the problem lies in the labyrinthine system of state level competition structures and the opportunities for corruption and political interference. Shravan is part of a system in which sporting success is also a means of fast-tracking into a government job, so at one point in the narrative he finds himself burdened with work at a railway maintenance depot (railway employment in India is still a secure form of employment in the public sector). Coupled with the need to support his extended family and a punishing training regime as he heads for the state finals in Lucknow, this stretches his resources almost to breaking point. Bhagwan’s influence in the state boxing world means that he has several ways to block Shravan’s progress.
The film’s narrative is concerned with both the corruption within sport but also the persistence of caste prejudice and the violence of extreme Hindu fundamentalist groups. Shravan is seen as ‘inferior’ by Bhagwan who loudly proclaims his own Brahmin status – marriage within the same grouping is still practised and Bhagwan believes Shravan is lower caste. However, Bhagwan’s ferocious attitude towards Shravan is arguably more concerned with the younger man’s resistance to Bhagwan’s authority. Caste also surfaces in more complex ways at the railway depot. On two occasions in the film we are witness to an attack by ‘Cow Protection Vigilantes’ – armed groups attacking anyone in their homes allegedly eating beef. These two issues in Anurag Kashyap’s film mark it out from the Hindi cinema mainstream, although in other ways Mukkabaaz looks back to earlier forms of the masala film. The family melodrama includes the fate of parents and the romance and sports stories rely on Shravan having the kind of best friend who will always be there to help him escape threats and pursue the villains (Bhagwan and his goons). At 154 minutes it is actually longer than many contemporary Hindi popular films – but it breaks the convention of Indian mainstream cinema by not having an intermission. It has 42 minutes of music, most of which is woven into the narrative. It does, however, have a cameo appearance as a wedding performer by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the current star of the ‘crossover’ world of independent and mainstream Hindi cinema whose career has been helped by his roles for Kashyap. Most of the music is written by Rachita Arora and I was pleased to see that all the lyrics of the songs are translated for the English subtitles.
For me, Mukkabaaz works in every way. I was completely engaged in the narrative and I loved the music (always a strength with Kashyap). I was expecting an intermission and suddenly realised we were nearing the end of the narrative – a sure sign that my engagement was total. Jimmy Shergill is a genuine melodrama villain and the central pairing of Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain, perhaps because they were both approaching a major cinema role for the first time, works terrifically well. Singh is completely convincing as a boxer – and the camerawork by Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi and his collaborators makes all the fights feel genuine as well as exciting. Many commentators have noted the symbolism in making Sunaina mute but the intelligence and wit in her performance is in some ways even more important. The film’s ending works very well – it is both unexpected in genre terms but seems ‘right’ for the narrative.
This will be one of my films of the year – I haven’t enjoyed a new release as much for a long time. In the UK this Kashyap film was released by Eros International, one of the biggest distributors of Bollywood films. Even so, in Bradford the film lasted only a week and in my screening there was just one other patron. Meanwhile the Bollywood blockbusters in the other screens carry on week after week. Why doesn’t Mukkabaaz draw the crowds? Is it just too ‘Indian’ for the diaspora audience?