Samba is the follow-up to the second biggest global hit in French film history, Intouchables (2011) – a film I’ve been meaning to write about for some time. Perhaps watching Samba will prompt me to do so. The same writing-directing duo (Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano) and the same star (Omar Sy) feature in this $20 million budget film. Omar Sy is the French TV star who became a surprise film star in Intouchables – as an African-French character given a lead role in an industry not noted for its representations of Africans in mainstream films. In Samba he plays a Senegalese migrant who has been in France for 10 years but who has still not achieved legal residency.
I missed this film during its (very brief) run in UK cinemas but I still wanted to see it even though I could see the flaws in Intouchables. I was worried by some of the negative reviews but in the event I did enjoy Samba – but I can understand some of the critical responses. Part of the problem is that the film mixes several distinct genres in a way that might certainly confound some audiences and which provides good ammunition for critics.
Samba is both a comedy and a drama. It also mixes a quite complex visual style – a pre-credits sequence aping Scorsese (in his Goodfellas period) – with both absurdist and slapstick comedy and some social realism. In genre terms it includes elements of the buddy movie mixed with the rom-com and social commentary. All in all it is a strange mixture but its good points shouldn’t get lost. It isn’t really very helpful to dismiss films because they try to do something different.
Headlining alongside Omar Sy are Charlotte Gainsbourg and Tahar Rahim. Gainsbourg provides the ‘romance-comedy-drama’ potential and Rahim enables the buddy movie. Gainsbourg’s character is a marketing executive who has ‘burned out’ and has decided to take a sabbatical as a support worker for a refugee/migrant charity. This is how she meets Samba (Sy) who has been imprisoned and given an order to leave France despite 10 years illegal residency and steady employment in kitchen work, albeit with a struggle to get from dish-washing to food preparation. Rahim’s character, another migrant with a similar history, eventually teams up with Samba in a series of casual jobs leading to various comic escapades. Although the narrative resolution suggests a ‘feelgood’ film, the ending is to some extent still ‘open’ and it is triggered by one of the important debates around identity and legal status. The resolution is only possible after a tragic event. The style of the film’s ending also echoes the ‘excess’ of the opening, using popular songs under a slow motion image sequence much as the whole narrative has used songs and ‘mood’ music throughout.
So what is wrong with the film? Ashley Clark, currently one of the UK’s most respected critics of African-American and Black British films, states what he sees as a fundamental flaw directly in his indieWire review:
Without apparent irony, Nakache and Toledano seem to think that the work-related burnout of a white middle-class woman, while of course unpleasant in its own way, is equivalent to the byzantine existential crisis of living job-to-job, hand-to-mouth as an undocumented immigrant (in a country with well-documented right-leaning tendencies on domestic policy.)
It’s hard to argue with that view and Clark does recognise that the film is genuinely trying to widen its potential audience, but, he argues, the narrative needs more grit and more background about Samba and his family – mother is back in Senegal and Samba lives with a (legally resident) uncle. Clark argues that Sy ‘soars above’ the material. I agree but perhaps this is also part of the problem? Sy is such a charismatic performer that audiences may simply be entertained by his playing rather than led to think through the social problems that Samba faces. Something similar was also true in Intouchables.
The strength of the film is that it does reveal the dreadful state of immigration policy in France and the absurd bureaucracy that attempts to control it. I’m not sure it is better in the UK – represented in the superior Stephen Frears film Dirty Pretty Things (UK 2002) with Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead. The other issue at stake here is the star turn by Omar Sy in a mainstream film. His scenes with Charlotte Gainsbourg do fleetingly remind us of her notorious scenes with two (anonymous) African men in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Part II (Denmark/Bel/Fra/Ger 2014). I mention this only to ask how much of a breakthrough it is for French mainstream cinema as distinct from art cinema to see a white woman with a black man on screen? Tahar Rahim’s presence in the film (which I very much enjoyed in spite of some reviewers’ misgivings) reminds us that Maghrebi French actors have not faced the same problems in French cinema (and international cinema) as West African French actors.
In Sight and Sound (May 2015), leading French cinema scholar Ginette Vincendeau offers a critique similar to Ashley Clark’s. She makes a good point in pointing out that like Intouchables, Samba involves “the pairing of an under-privileged-but-vigorous black with privileged-but-etiolated white (Gainsbourg at her most annoyingly wan)”. I disagree about Gainsbourg but it’s an important observation. Too often film narratives that should be about the black character end up diverting our attention to the trials of the white characters. But Vincendeau also picks out two specific scenes as ‘unworthy’ of the actors or supporting her argument above. The first sees Sy and Rahim in a take-off of a well-known soft drinks ad and the second sees “white people attempt, not very well, to dance to black music (in this case Bob Marley)”. I think this is going too far. The first may be a ‘clunky ‘ visual joke (but still funny), but the second is something that has happened throughout the last 50 years in the UK. Is it really a clumsy and at times dubious representation of racial difference? Perhaps it’s different in France? We have to grant Samba some slack as a mainstream movie. Yes, it could be a lot ‘better’, but it isn’t that bad and overall it does something useful.
In retrospect it was probably a bad idea to watch the new version of Thomas Hardy’s famous story just a few days after seeing the restoration of the 1967 film. I spent too much time spotting all the events ditched from the script in the new version that runs 119 instead of 169 minutes. That’s quite a chunk of screen time gone. I’ll try to be objective in comparing the two.
The new version is puzzling as a production (from BBC Films and the long-standing UK production company DNA films). I’m guessing that the funding wasn’t there to make something on the epic scale of the original. It was a brave move to hire Thomas Vinterberg whose English language films have so far not matched his Danish successes. I expected something punchy from the director of The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2013) with the same cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Although the latter conjures up some remarkable visual sequences, this doesn’t feel like a project on which Vinterberg was totally free or properly engaged. I think that Carey Mulligan, cast as Bathsheba Everdene, had a fair amount of clout in choosing Matthias Schoenaerts as her co-star (playing the shepherd Gabriel Oak) and she and Schoenaerts offer the best performances in my view. The other strength is the costume design which is truly wonderful. I wasn’t that keen on Ms Mulligan’s hats but her riding gear and several of her dresses are breathtaking, especially a blue one with white decorative motifs that glow in the evening light. As I predicted, Mulligan matches Julie Christie in terms of performance. They present quite different characters so a direct comparison is not useful. Mulligan is a couple of years older than Christie was in 1967. She presents Bathsheba as more virginal, but also more stylish – still ‘girlish’ but with the strength of an ‘independent woman’. The film is worth seeing for Carey Mulligan alone.
Unfortunately much of the rest of the film is less sure about itself. It begins badly with a strange title suggesting that we are “200 miles from London”. Hardy’s ‘Wessex’ in Dorset is more like 130 miles. It’s not important, but who thought it was a good idea? As I’ve noted there are some stunning visual sequences, mainly of landscapes in mists, or in ‘magic hour’ lighting etc. – but there are some quite ‘flat’ scenes and at least one dreadful edit. The harrowing sequence depicting Fanny Robbins on the way to the workhouse (which includes this edit) is almost thrown away. I think the main problem is a poor script by David Nicholls who was probably asked to aim for the impossible in trying to condense an eventful novel to produce a two-hour film. Michael Sheen as Boldwood and Tom Sturridge as Sergeant Troy both seem like miscastings to me. They are both fine actors but they don’t have the starpower of their counterparts in the 1967 film, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp and the characters seem a little diminshed as a result. Sturridge in particular is severely hampered by the script which doesn’t give him enough time to explore the character’s complexities. In 1967, for many female audiences in the UK, Stamp was the sexiest man alive, apart, perhaps, for those who fancied Alan Bates (who played Gabriel Oak). What was particularly missing for Sturridge’s Sergeant Troy were key scenes with Fanny and the circus sequence for his return. Instead of being a cad, charming but a little dark, Sturridge’s Troy is reduced to being pretty but brutal.
I looked at a few reviews. Keith has already had a go at Thirza Wakefield in Sight and Sound for a different film and I was intrigued to read her review which on the whole is perceptive and interesting especially about Mulligan’s portrayal of Bathsheba as the ‘modern’ woman the script constructs, though she falls into the autuerist trap of referring to ‘Vinterberg’s camera’ (and its references to Victorian paintings), when surely it’s important that it’s the female perspective of Charlotte Brus Christensen. The ‘best’ review (i.e. the one that agrees with me!) is from Fionnuala Halligan in Screendaily – she’s very good on the production team.
In sum, this new adaptation is very good in parts and Carey Mulligan is excellent throughout. She makes a great romantic heroine, but the project lacks the scope of the novel and the scale of the 1967 adaptation. Nevertheless I hope we see more from Vinterberg and Christensen in a UK context. In the meantime, audiences not making thecomparison with the 1967 version will enjoy this adaptation.
Official US trailer (good for showing off the camerawork and Carey Mulligan’s Bathsheba):
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.