Category: Romance

Hello World (Japan 2019)

Hello World poster

This film presented a critical challenge for me. I’m increasingly bored by the idea of ‘superhero movies’ and I haven’t watched any for several years. But I’m always interested in anime of all kinds. So how would I cope with a ‘superhero anime‘? In the event, Hello World turned out to be a science fiction-romance in which the superpower is gifted to a shy teenager lacking self-confidence. The anime also attempts a range of social comments. Not having a detailed knowledge of comic books and their filmic adaptations, I probably missed some of the familiar generic elements borrowed from other films.

This appears to be the second anime feature by director Itô Tomohiko, but I note that he was an assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006) which also has a time travel narrative focus. Writer Nozaki Mado appears to have only a TV series credit, so both are relatively new to top creative roles on anime features. The plot of the film is complex and quite difficult to outline clearly. I also don’t want to give away the ending of the narrative. So here is a very brief outline. The central character is Katagaki Naomi, a boy happiest with his books who is so indecisive in every aspect of his life that he even tries to read and absorb a ‘self-help’ book. He has no real friends, although he is invited to join various groups. One day, having joined the school’s library group, he finds himself paired on a library project with a girl, Ichigyou Ruri, who is also a bookworm and very introverted, but more decisive and confident. The setting is 2027 in Kyoto, the city in Japan most often associated with history (it was Japan’s second capital city, after Nara and before Edo (Tokyo)) and traditionally where most jidai-geki (historical drama films have been made). It seems that in 2027 Kyoto is almost like a model city of the future with a huge Museum Project at its heart, presenting the city’s history. A large Google-like company has mapped the city in fine 3D detail and drones monitor every aspect of life in the city. One day, Naomi is watching a strange, seemingly natural, event when a crow flies down and steals the book he is carrying. He has just enough time to see that the crow has three legs before it flies off and he attempts to follow it. Eventually it leads him to meet a figure who will turn out to be an older (and therefore taller) version of Naomi. His future self has come back in time as an avatar in an attempt to manipulate time. (The three-legged crow is known in East Asian mythology and in Japan is known as Yatagarasu.)

The school library is where Naomi and Ruri meet most often

Manipulating time in a science fiction narrative usually suggests massive conflict and disaster, as well as posing a philosophical question far too complex for most of us to grapple with. In this case it seems to involve Ichigyou. The avatar first offers Naomi a superpower which he must learn how to use in order to save Ruri. He receives a form of energy glove which enables him to manipulate and grow any material. Eventually he will be able to produce huge boulders, miles of tarmac roads or metal structures etc. As well as creating all kinds of narrative possibilities this also gives the animators scope to create some amazing sequences to overlay the finely detailed drawn images of the city.

I won’t go any further with the plot and instead just make some observations. ‘Saving’ Ruri takes us back to ancient romance tales about the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, Ruri is rather underwritten and in contemporary terms it is quite difficult to assign this female character any ‘agency’. Also, the two young people are not presented in a family context. Naomi does have a mother, briefly represented (just as a voice, I think) in one scene. Families are important in the genre – Superman’s parents, Peter Parker’s older relatives in Spiderman etc. Or else there is an older, wiser, wizard-like advisor. but here we have just the boy and girl and the older version of the boy – at least in the beginning.

Naomi’s future self as an avatar appears in his room

I suggested that there are some social commentaries in the narrative. The title ‘Hello World’ has been taken by many reviewers to be a reference to the first line of code in a new computer program. It’s a very long time since I tried to learn any coding, but I seem to remember that ‘Hello World’ was what blogging software used to insert in a new blog as an example of writing a new post. This science fiction narrative picks upon several of our fears about the new digital ‘always on’ world. The Kyoto of 2027 is mapped by robot drones and patrolled by bots who are there to make sure nothing is ‘changed’ – manipulating time will send these bots into a frenzy. For the schoolkids, ‘joining’ groups is almost compulsory with the fear of being ‘left out’. The ultimate fear of needing to reboot your computer system when everything might not reappear is also a real worry. But the inclusion of these kinds of issues is not really enough to compensate for the thin central romance narrative. This film looks great but it doesn’t have the ‘pull’ that this kind of romance needs to generate. But I did like the three-legged crow. I’m not the target audience for this anime and it does seem to have been well received by some fans. But I can’t see it having the ability to ‘cross over’ into wider audience segments like Studio Ghibli films.

Few Japanese stories stay in one format. This anime has so far been ‘novelised’ and a TV 3 episode spin-off titled ‘Another World’ has also been produced. Here is the Japanese trailer for Hello World (no subs) which gives some idea of the anime style, but doesn’t spoil the later sections of the plotting:

Miyamoto (Miyamoto kara Kimi e, Japan 2019)

Miyamoto the salaryman invited to eat with Yasuko

Miyamoto is the first film I managed to book for this year’s Japan Foundation Film tour. The festival is online with free screenings, most of which sold out within an hour or two of becoming available, but I think there are still some films available as repeat screenings. Miyamoto is listed on IMDb as ‘From Miyamoto to You’ and I can see why they have simplified the title. Miyamoto Hiroshi (Ikematsu Sôsuke) is the central character of the film, which has been adapted from a section of a 1990s manga that became a TV series in 2018. Seinen manga like this are aimed at older teenage boys and adult men. I think various cast members in the film are carried over from the TV series. Miyamoto is a stationery salesman, a slender young man and a familiar ‘salaryman’ figure. The film narrative is nonlinear and begins with a meeting between an injured Miyamoto facing his angry boss and explaining how he got into a fight. The narrative will soon move into a long flashback and eventually resolve itself in the present. The beginning of the story is a meeting between Miyamoto and a slightly older woman, Yasuko (Aoi Yu), whom he presumably knows from a sales visit to her office. Yasuko invites him to eat with her in her apartment but the meal is interrupted by Yasuko’s drunken ex-boyfriend. At this point we are wondering if the interruption will lead to the fight which caused Miyamoto’s injuries. I won’t describe all the ins and outs of the plotting, which I did find intriguing. Instead I want to explore different aspects of the film.

The injured Miyamoto takes Yasuko home to meet his parents

Plied with beer by Yasuko’s mother, Miyamoto passes out

I’m not sure how much updating of the original story has taken place since the 1990s. Japan has a history of patriarchal attitudes to work culture and after work drinking. Men would work late and then drink  to excess and abuse women unlucky enough to meet them. Have things changed much in the last twenty to thirty years? Miyamoto is constantly feeling he has to assert his masculinity and the result is usually that he collapses into a stupor after drinking too much or he says and does rash things in a spirit of bravado. The irony is that he is physically not well equipped to do either. This film includes several violent fights and some violent and abusive moves against women. When Miyamoto and Yasuko eventually get together they visit both sets of parents. The film didn’t seem to me to identify the location of the two sets of parents, but I read a review which suggests that in the manga, her parents are in Hokkaido and his in Yokohama. During both visits Miyamoto and Yasuko make an odd couple who manage to be both polite and disruptive in the calm lives of the parents. The trips outside Tokyo also provide an opportunity for indications that there is a form of romance developing and that they might survive as a couple.

The rugby team ‘Sweet Chocolets’

Director Mariko Tetsuya has developed an international reputation as a creator of violent films, often developing out of domestic situations. His 2016 film Desperate Babies is still being debated and a Harvard Film Archive event a year ago was titled ‘Self-Destruction Cinema: The Films of Mariko Tetsuya‘. Anyone who has seen his earlier films would know what to expect from Miyamoto but I was taken aback by some of the violence, including that against Yasuko. Miyamoto himself becomes involved with an amateur rugby team made up of some of his customers. There are some very big guys in the team and Miyamoto is no match for them, but he doesn’t give up. So is this just drunkenness and thuggery? I don’t think so. There is some humour and humanity and though I don’t condone any male violence towards women, Yasuko is not defenceless or passive. I should also note that there are two sexual encounters, one of which is violent but the other is carefully shot to be explicit but also within those boundaries in Japan about not showing genitalia. The music in the film is also important, seemingly ‘punkish’ at some points.

A love scene both ‘tasteful’ and explicit

Ikematsu Sôsuke as Miyamoto won a major Japanese prize, the Kinema Junpo Best Actor Award in 2020. It is certainly a startling performance which I think may be seen ‘extreme’ by audiences in the West in several scenes. I did find some scenes made me uncomfortable but I recognise that they fitted with the character. This film is likely to remain as a niche or cult film in the West but I think it is recognisable as a familiar Japanese melodrama with the traditional characters of a salaryman and his prospective wife, the visits to the parents and the excessive drinking in small bars and as part of family gatherings. Yasuko’s mother seems to regard Miyamoto’s attempts to drink beer fast as ‘heroic’. Take out the violence and the narrative could work in an Ozu melodrama (with bigger parts for the parents). Mariko is an intriguing director and I would watch another of his films. The trailer below (no subtitles) gives away SPOILER plot points but it illustrates the film’s uncompromising style.

You Deserve a Lover (Tu mérites un amour, France 2019)

Lila (right) and her girlfriends

This film surprised me as I didn’t at first recognise the writer-director Hafsia Herzi who also plays the lead role in this her first fiction feature. The film played at the Cannes Film Festival where it was nominated for the ‘First Film’ prize. I watched it via My French Film Festival but it also appears to be available on various streamers and rental/DVD sites in the UK.

I realised quite quickly that I’d seen Ms Herzi in her first role as the young daughter of the lead character in Abdellatif Kechiche’s film Couscous (La graine et le mulet, France 2007). Since then she has built up a strong profile as an actor and now in her early thirties she has become a features director (she made a short film in 2014). Her film is quite difficult to categorise. It’s a film about emotional and sexual relationships in the 21st century. It’s not a romance, though it features several of the elements of a romance. Its ending is non-committal and that seems right. Herzi plays Lila, a Parisian woman whose relationship with Rémi (Jérémie Laheurte) has just ended, or at least has come to a point of separation. But when the film opens Lila is outside Rémi’s apartment block aiming to confront him for sleeping with another woman. Lila is finding it difficult to let go. A little later Rémi will announce that he is going on holiday in Bolivia for three weeks to ‘sort himself out’. Lila has friends who will support her and she is soon back in the swing of things, enjoying a number of one night stands, some of which are enjoyable, others not so much.

The young photographer (Anthony Bajon)

At one point Lila meets a younger man who wants to photograph her rather than make love to her and this appears to be a relationship she can really enjoy. But soon Rémi will be back from Bolivia. What will he do? Will Lila be completely over him? It doesn’t sound much of a narrative outline and I was quite surprised that I found the film easy to watch and I remained engaged throughout. I think there are several reasons why the film works. One is Hafsia Herzi herself as an actor and how she is presented on screen. The cinematographer Jérémie Attard is relatively inexperienced and this was his first feature. He has worked on a film for Abdellatif Kechiche and that shared experience with Hafsia Herzi seems to have influenced the overall approach to his handheld camerawork which features long shots and big close-ups of Lila. There are several sexual encounters but in most cases we see only the before and after. We do see quite a few meals which I like and it made me warm to Lila.

Advice about her love life is given to Lila by Ali as he eats his chocolate cereal

There are few references to Lila’s ethnicity but her decision to consult a ‘celebrity marabout‘ provides a surprising comic interlude. Lila’s friends are mostly other young women and Ali, a young gay man played by Djanis Bouzyani who provides the energy for several scenes. I’ve read some interesting commentaries on the film including one that suggests the film’s ‘naturalness’ is liberating and I certainly felt that I had been offered an entertaining glimpse into the world of 30 something young women in France. I’d go with the young Polish photographer Lila, he seems more grown up than most of the other guys.

Small AxeLovers Rock (UK 2020)

The morning after . . . Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklin (Micheal Ward)

This magical 68 minutes of delirious cinema is the second of Steve McQueen’s five film series Small Axe. Each film tells a story about ‘West Indian’ characters and communities in London during the period 1968-1982. Lovers Rock has the simplest narrative of the series and is written by McQueen with the novelist Courttia Newland. A group of friends are preparing a large house and garden to host a birthday ‘blues party’ for a young woman. Meanwhile, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman from a church-going family, is planning to sneak out of the family house to attend the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). I write ‘meanwhile’ but actually these two sequences are not happening at the same time. Martha leaves her house under darkness but the preparations for the dance are in daylight. This is the first indication that this isn’t going to be a conventional narrative. Though there are some of the familiar conventions of a ‘party narrative’ such as unwanted guests (who have to negotiate the doorman) and the boy meets girl scenario, the central sequence of the film features an extended playing of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, the iconic song of the music style known as ‘Lovers Rock’.

Martha and Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) meet up to go to the party together

We first get introduced to ‘Silly Games’ as a song sung a capella by the women in the kitchen making the party food – goat curry and ackee and saltfish. Cynthia, the birthday girl is getting ready upstairs and hair is being straightened as the sound system is wired up. As the party gets into full swing and the main room fills with dancers, ‘Silly Games’ plays through with many dancers singing along. When the track ends the dancers keep singing and in one corner of the room is an older man. He’s played by Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced the original single, a hit in 1979 (although Discogs suggests it was first released in 1977). Bovell has claimed that he included the very high note in the song because he knew girls on the dancefloor would compete to hit it. That’s what happens and indeed from the reviews I’ve seen the idea is taking off with a suggestion that people might meet (virtually?) to sing ‘Silly Games’ together.

A note about terminology

I’ve used the term ‘West Indians’ to describe the characters in this film. I think this was correct in the late 1970s but it was gradually replaced by the term Afro-Caribbean and then African-Caribbean. I’m not sure when these changes took place. There was initially a distinct gap in the 1960s and 1970s between ‘Africans’ and ‘West Indians’ in the UK which took some time to close over the next twenty or thirty years as the number of migrants from different parts of Africa increased. (Some of the distance seems to have been created by West Indian parents with views about Africans perhaps derived from the colonial education system pre-the 1960s). One of the aims of political activism and indeed of the designation ‘Black’ was to develop a solidarity with all people of colour who faced the institutional and personal racism prevalent in the UK. But there were also distinctions between the different parts of the Caribbean, not so damaging perhaps but important in terms of cultural differences. Steve McQueen has Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage. He was born in 1969 in London and the five films that comprise Small Axe are ‘personal’ stories based on events and experiences recounted by relatives and family friends, supported by extensive research to present this period in a realist way. At the end of the 1970s the West Indian community in London and other major cities in the UK included the first generation of migrants (the ‘Windrush generation’) who arrived as adults and became part of the new employment programmes sponsored by the UK government to meet labour shortages, especially in public services. Some of the children of this generation followed their parents at a later date and then a second generation was born in the 1960s and 1970s. In the wider Black community there were both African migrants (often refugees or exiles) and the much earlier communities of Black people established in the UK since the 18th century and earlier (such as the Liverpool Black community). In the first Small Axe film, Mangrove, the popular music of Trinidad and Grenada was featured but by the time of Lovers Rock, Jamaican music in the form of reggae is beginning to dominate for young people, even though the setting here is still in West London. The house where the party is staged is on Ladbroke Road, not far from the Mangrove Restaurant but nearer to Holland Park and the wealthier end of the area. I don’t know if this is a deliberate location choice.

On the dance floor . . .

The central section of the film focuses on the dance floor and although there is some narrative progression. Martha meets Franklin (Micheal Ward) and they dance together. But the section is dominated by music and images of dancing in a more abstract way – an attempt by McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner to marry the camerawork to the rhythms of the dancing perhaps. Kirchner is from Antigua and has recently been working on independent projects in the US and developing ideas for his own films. It is in this long dance sequence that he really makes his mark in Lovers Rock. The whole sequence featuring ‘Silly Games’ lasts for ten minutes with the extensive a capella section seemingly spontaneous. Kirchner and McQueen offer us a hot sweaty room full of men and women in colourful outfits dancing, in some cases, groin to groin with hands roaming freely. It is both a joyous and erotic scene with a strong sense of solidarity but also a tremor of something dangerous beneath, like most such dancing. After this Martha finds herself involved in two separate altercations. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’m not going to discuss these. All I’ll say is that one incident has been the focus for several critics. Back on the ‘dancefloor’, ‘Silly Games’ has been followed by darker, heavier sounds in the form of dub and ‘roots reggae’ and the feel shifts from female-centred to male-centred solo dancing. The men dance wildly and with a sense of abandon. Again Kirchner’s camera roams freely and picks up the energy of the room. The sequence lasts seven or eight minutes, so two dance sequences in the film take up more than a quarter of the film’s total running time of around 68 minutes.

Kadeem Ramsay as the DJ Samson with Alexander James-Blake

It’s worth pointing out that the late 1970s into the early 1980s saw young Black people in London become interested in a wide range of different popular and roots music forms. McQueen appears to have commissioned Mica Levi, whose work graced such film as Under the Skin (UK 2013) and Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). I haven’t yet worked out/discovered what her contribution was since I don’t remember a score as such in the film and all the music appeared to be diegetic – sung by cast members or from discs, cassettes etc. Having said that the music is skilfully woven through the action and that must be down to editor Chris Dickens and Levi as well as McQueen.

I enjoyed Lover’s Rock very much. I have never attended a blues party but in this period many of my students probably did and I did collect some of the tracks used in the film. I am very impressed by the research done by McQueen and his team, including the young actors to recreate an evening like this. The performances of the film’s leads are very good indeed and the whole cast is impressive. The film works on many levels but for me it feels like a simple genre idea that has been developed almost into a piece of art cinema in relation to the dancing. I was also reminded of some 1980s Black British films, especially Burning an Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz, a film which deals with a relationship between a lower middle-class young woman and a working-class young man. (Burning an Illusion is available on DVD and streaming on BFI Player.) It is a much more developed narrative than Lovers Rock but the two films share several elements. Menelik Shabazz later made a documentary about the musical genre with The Story of Lovers Rock in 2011. The ‘preparations for a party’ are featured in at least one of the avant-garde films produced by Sankofa, Passion of Remembrance (1986). Sankofa was a group of five filmmakers, three of whom were women – Maureen Blackwood, Martina Attille and Nadine Marsh-Edwards – and their films presented  a range of perspectives on the lives of young Black women in London. I’d really like to hear what they thought of Small Axe.

Another Time, Another Place (UK 1983)

Italian POWs celebrating their freedom. The yellow circles were seen on all POW uniforms

I’m currently doing some work on ‘Home Front’ narratives, stories about wartime communities and especially the disruptions they experience. Another Time, Another Place is a film that made a big impression on me when I saw it on release in 1983. One of the reasons for this is because I had been on holiday in the area where it was filmed only a few years earlier. It’s a story based on a book written by Jessie Kesson which was published at roughly the time when the film was released. Kesson was inspired by her own experiences as a farmer’s wife in North East Scotland from 1939 to 1951. Later she became a BBC radio producer.

Janie (centre of the three farmers’ wives) watches the POWs at work in the first few days and ignores the remarks of the tractor driver (Gregor Fisher)

The central character in Jessie Kesson’s story is ‘Janie’, the young wife of an older farmer on the Black Isle in the Summer of 1943. Janie is portrayed in a stunning performance by Phyllis Logan, making her début. The film is directed by Michael Radford and this was his cinema film début after several years in TV which included directing Phyllis Logan in The White Bird Passes as a younger Janie in an earlier story by Jessie Kesson, made for the BBC in 1980. Janie in the 1983 film is unhappy in a marriage which offers little joy and plenty of hard work. As the film narrative opens three Italian prisoners of war are arriving at Janie’s farm to be housed in the ‘pig-man’s bothy’, rudimentary accommodation at best. Janie has tried to clean it out and she welcomes three disparate characters, Paulo, Umberto and Luigi. Paulo is tall, dark and handsome, Umberto is quietly miserable with thick round glasses and Luigi looks lugubrious but is actually the liveliest of the three. Janie at last has something new to excite her. We might expect that Paulo would be the one she is attracted to and we will be surprised when it turns out to be Luigi.

Janie has the difficult and dangerous job of feeding the corn into the threshing machine

One of many beautiful landscape compositions . . .

Radford doesn’t spell everything out for us. It looks as if there are several farms which may each be tenancies and that there is a factor or agent in the form of ‘Findlay’. The farmers’ wives are expected to work collectively on harvesting and planting. Whether Janie’s husband works on his own patch isn’t clear but the couple certainly have their own livestock. The work looks very hard and the cinematography (by a young Roger Deakins) at first presents the area as remote, windswept and bleak. The Black Isle is not an ‘isle’ at all but a broad spit of land pushing out into the Moray Firth. In summer it can be very beautiful with the grain fields running down to the sea. There is no record of what makes it ‘black’ but since it is fertile farmland it may be the rich soil. The narrative follows the seasons and the celebrations – a ceilidh one night when Luigi watches Janie dancing and a Christmas party held by the Italians with singing and dancing. Janie is the only local present.

Janie and Luigi (Giovanni Mauriello)

As a Home Front narrative, my main interest here is in the ‘disturbance’ caused by the arrival of the Italians. Most of the locals are at first reluctant to accept the Italians. One woman in particular has a husband fighting in Italy at Monte Cassino (she ignores a POW protest that it is the Germans not the Italians who are the enemy in that famous conflict). Farming was a ‘reserved occupation’ in the UK in the Second World War. However, younger men under 25 in the farming community were initially allowed to volunteer and many did. Farmers on their own land were generally required to increase production and for this they needed all the women in the community and both Land Army recruits and POWs. One of the few younger men in Janie’s community is the tractor driver played by Gregor Fisher, a well-known figure in both film and TV in the UK, especially as ‘Rab C. Nesbitt’ in the popular sitcom named after the character which ran between 1988 and 2014. This character would be around 30 in 1943. Janie’s husband is in his late 30s/early 40s. Janie herself is in her mid-twenties.

Janie can’t help herself. She dreams about the Italians. Compared to the local men, Luigi might not be a big improvement in terms of his physical appearance, but he can sing very well and he knows how to seduce Janie. For Janie there is sexual desire and excitement but she knows that Luigi is only interested in a physical relationship. Nevertheless she does care about what happens to him and we worry that it will not end well. I won’t spoil the ending but I do disagree with many of the critics who seem to dismiss the ending as predictable. (It may be predictable, but that isn’t necessarily a weakness.) Home Front narratives are usually female-centred for the simple reason that women in wartime are likely to making more decisions for themselves and also working in key roles in society. In Janie’s case we could argue that she has discovered her own sexuality and her capacity to do something about it rather than relying on her husband. Many thousands of women did the same across Europe. It had consequences of course, including ‘mixed marriages’ and a rise in children without fathers – a major societal change in many countries. At the same time some women became more confident and assertive. Post-war, the (male) authorities would try to recuperate the patriarchy, but the changes would have a long-lasting impact.

Dancing is one pleasure that Janie enjoys for herself as well as for how it entertains the Italians

I enjoyed Another Time, Another Place as much, if not more, than when I watched it the first time. Michael Radford went on to have three further successful films, 1984, White Mischief (1987) and Il Postino (1994). His career continued with some other high profile films but nothing that attracted my attention. Phyllis Logan made more films but rarely in leading roles. Instead her career took her into TV drama where she had two big successes in Lovejoy (UK 1986-94), as ‘Lady Jane’ playing opposite Ian McShane as the titular character. I enjoyed episodes of that series very much. Logan appeared in many others and possibly her largest audience internationally came via Downton Abbey (2010-19). I can’t really comment on that. It seems a long way from Another Time, Another Place, which will remain for me a far better representation of her talent. Janie is the central figure of a romance melodrama. The ‘exaggeration’ of emotion in the film comes through in Janie’s dreams both when awake and asleep. It’s also there in the cinematography and the music – several songs in Italian by Luigi, the ceilidh and a plaintive score by John McLeod melded with the winds.

One of the four funders behind Another Time, Another Place was Channel 4 Productions which had started making its own films in 1982 for its new UK TV channel. Channel 4’s entry into the film market could be seen as one of the factors keeping British film culture alive in cinemas in the 1980s. Many films made for TV were released in cinemas. Another Time, Another Place was, as far as I know, always intended for cinema release (even though one of the other partners was Associated-Rediffusion, the UK TV company which lost its ITV franchise in 1968. What was it doing funding a film in 1983? Answers on a postcard please.

Another Time, Another Place can be streamed on BFI Player in the UK and free on Tubi TV in the US.

The Midwife (Sage femme, France-Belgium 2017)

Claire at work, trapped in this composition? (photos © Michaâl Crotto)

The Midwife is currently streaming on BBC iPlayer in the UK and it might be seen as an interesting ‘entertainment’ during lockdown. It is a good example of a well-made conventional comedy-drama enlivened by the performances of three of the best Francophone actor-stars around. Given the title and the two female leads I was slightly surprised to find it was written and directed by a man, Martin Provost. It was only later that I remembered that Provost had already made two celebrated female-centred films, Séraphine (2008) and Violette (2013), both historical dramas based on the struggles of real characters against the sexism of their times. Violette starred the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos. Provost’s 2020 film, La bonne épouse (How to be a Good Wife) stars Juliette Binoche and in Sage femme we get Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot. This demonstrates Provost’s standing as a writer-director with actors.

Catherine Deneuve and Catherine Frot together

The midwife of the title is Claire (Catherine Frot), a woman approaching 50 who is proud of her work and of her son who she brought up as a single parent and who is now studying medicine. Claire works in a local maternity clinic with a team of women she knows and trusts. Her main leisure pursuit is her allotment on the banks of the Seine outside Paris city centre. Her life is settled and possibly a little dull. Three narrative ‘disruptions’ will soon sort that out. First she has learned that the clinic is to be ‘taken over’ by a modern hospital group. Second, a phone call out of the blue announces the ‘return’ of her father’s mistress from many years ago. This is Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve) with a story to tell. Finally, looking for peace on her allotment, Claire discovers that the old man on the neighbouring plot is ill and his son, Paul (Olivier Gourmet) has taken it over. Paul is an international long-haul lorry driver (and unattached). There is at least one other surprise for her coming up but I won’t spoil that. Even with just this brief description of the characters, most of us could write a script of sorts, though not with the skill of Provost who is also a novelist. Fortunately with Deneuve, Frot and Gourmet we can instead simply sit back and enjoy the fun.

Claire putting on lipstick in a classic melodrama mirror shot

The principal ‘driver’ of the narrative is Béatrice. Why has she turned up now? The answer comes quickly. She has a probably terminal cancer in the form of a brain tumour. She has never been ill before and she is determined to see out her days having fun if possible. She also has other issues to resolve with Claire. This isn’t a medical drama so Béatrice’s decline and her response is mainly used as a basis to ‘throw’ Claire. The two women are seemingly polar opposites. Claire has given up meat and claims not to use alcohol or cigarettes. She wears her long hair tied back (essential for her job) and doesn’t use make-up. She rides her bike to work. As one reviewer put it she seems to be almost an affront to French culture – she even eats brown rice! Of course Béatrice is the opposite in every way.

Claire with Paul (Olivier Gourmet) by the allotment

In the Press Notes, Provost tells us about his own birth and how he was saved by a skilled midwife. That was his inspiration but what he has produced is also like a fable, specifically Jean de la Fontaine’s re-telling of the Aesop fable, ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’. Béatrice, partly through the demands that she makes of Claire, breaks through the latter’s reserve and ‘opens up her up’ to the possibilities of life, ‘saving’ her in a different way. It occurs to me that this could be an interesting case study in how to structure a narrative, but don’t let that suggestion put you off. This is solid entertainment. Provost chose his three leads carefully and all were keen to take part. Deneuve and Frot are very different kinds of actors but they work extremely well together. There are six ‘live’ deliveries of babies in the film and Catherine Frot had to learn the job sufficiently well to perform convincingly in the delivery room. This reminds me of La tourneuse de pages (2006) in which she had to be a convincing pianist for chamber music recitals. Filming new born babies is not allowed under French law so all these scenes had to be shot in Liège (closer to home for Olivier Gourmet).

The careful casting also extends to Claire’s son Simon played by Quentin Dolmaire, the young lead in Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days (2015) and Béatrice’s ‘adventures’ also feature a very brief cameo from an actor with an even longer career, Mylène Demongeot, an international star of the 1950s and 1960s. Sage femme was a hit in France with 700,000 admissions. I’m surprised it didn’t attract larger audiences. In the UK it reached less than 17,000 in cinemas. I wonder how many people have now seen it on TV? It’s on iPlayer for another three weeks. Do give it a go.