Category: Romance

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, France 2019)

Syme-PortraitofaLadyonFire

Utopian space

I was relieved to get to see this the day before the cinemas closed. The buzz has been about for months and the film exceeded my expectation. It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little WomenWeathering With You, So Long, My Son, ParasiteBacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic experiences; Portrait of a Lady on Fire tops them all.

Unusually, the Anglophone distributors’ title is better than the original because ‘lady’, rather than ‘girl/woman’, suggests the film is about social class as well as gender. It also references Henry James’ novel, adapted by Jane Campion (UK-US, 1996) as her follow up to her feminist classic The Piano (New Zealand-Australia-France, 1993). We’re straight into Piano territory at the start of writer-director Céline Sciamma’s new film; she won ‘best screenplay at Cannes’. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrives at an island on the Breton coast and is dropped off on her own on the beach. Unlike Ada in The Piano, Marianne’s art is her painting, which she has to jump into the sea to save. She’s been hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to paint her daughter in order to guarantee a marriage to a wealthy Milanese ‘gentleman’. The daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, also in Water Lilies) – surely named for the 12th century proto-feminist nun – refuses to be painted; she’s been hauled out of a nunnery after her sister’s suicide. Presumably her sister killed herself to avoid the fate awaiting Héloïse. Marianne has to pretend to be Héloïse’s companion and paint her at night.

What follows is a patient development of their relationship and, to an extent, with the maid Sophie (Luàna Bajrami – seen in School’s Out). There’s too much going on in the film to delve deeply into it after just one viewing. Sciamma (whose Water Lilies (Naissance des pieuvres, France, 2007) and Girlhood I quite liked; the latter received ‘rave’ reviews) allows her camera to be still, allowing the superb actors to take the weight of the narrative; the production design, by Thomas Grézaud, and Clare Mathon’s (of Atlantics) cinematography are fabulous. This stillness evokes portraiture which, of course, is one of the themes of the film: the representation of a person and, more specifically, a woman. The ‘female gaze’, men are virtually absent, is paramount in the film and Sciamma’s ‘queer eye’ offers a different way of eroticising the female body (though in a Guardian interview she says they didn’t get it in France). The key to understanding representation is knowing ‘who is speaking’ and here the voice, Sciamma’s obviously but also the characters’, is indisputably female. In contrast Blue is the Warmest Colour reveals itself as male fantasy. The film also manages to deal with the erasure of women artists from art history: it is a very rich text indeed!

Some of the specifically female things we don’t usually get to see in cinema are shown: period pains and abortion. Sophie has the latter and Héloïse demands Marianne look; in effect chiding the spectator at the same time because ‘not looking’ is an attractive option. Unusually for melodrama Sciamma ‘dials down’ the emotion in much of the film, the characters are virtually taciturn, but in this scene a baby plays with Sophie’s face during the operation to emotionally devastating affect. The repressed emotions serve to heighten the moments when the ‘dam breaks’, including one of the most emotionally draining final shots I’ve ever seen.

Sciamma’s use of music is fascinating as I didn’t notice any non-diegetic (on the soundtrack) music, though two composers are credited. Early in the film Marianne tries to play the storm sequence from Summer (Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons) on a clavichord (I think); the payoff for this is in the aforementioned last shot. The other music is an apparent folk song (actually created by Sciamma) of the local female peasantry at a bonfire. The modernity of the chants suddenly breaks the diegesis (narrative world) of the 18th century as timeless sexual attraction between the protagonists is at last acknowledged by them.

I’ve already praised Mathon’s cinematography: she makes some of the scenes look like paintings and one where the lady, Héloïse, is doing the food prep whilst the maid embroiders is a startling utopian image. The utopian possibility is explained by the isolated setting on an island and many scenes on the beach, which is a liminal space where change is possible.

Portrait of a Lady is a truly great film and is available online at Curzon Home Cinema.

GFF20 #7: James vs His Future Self (Canada 2019)

Anglophone Canadian films are quite difficult to find in the UK (as distinct from Québécois films) so finding them in a festival is always a bonus. This title promised to offer some light relief from the heavier diet of arthouse fare in the rest of the programme. It was described in the brochure as an SF-romcom and that’s indeed what it turned out to be. It isn’t heavy on the science but the scenario does provide a slightly different take on the romcom, though there are one or two elements shared with the Tamil blockbuster Endhiran (2010) and various US time travel narratives.

James (Jonas Chernick) has long been obsessed with his own ideas for time travel, so much so that he has never properly developed a relationship with his fellow researcher Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) and he still needs his wild younger sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie) to keep his daily life on track. He and Courtney work as researchers at a facility headed by Dr. Rowley (Frances Conroy). James believes he is close to a breakthrough in creating time travel technology but several other deadlines/crisis points are looming and both Meredith and Courtney are likely to abandon him if he doesn’t take action. At this point he is abducted by an older man masquerading as a taxi driver. He is shocked to discover this is his future self ‘Jimmy’ (as played by Daniel Stern who has a lot of fun with this role).

James meets Jimmy

When James meets ‘Jimmy’, the science behind the idea of time travel gradually gets lost. Though there is some resemblance between the characters, Jimmy is taller and his facial features slightly ‘pulled out’ – apparently as a result of time travel. More significantly, Jimmy is a livelier, more mischievous and more cynical character than James. What does he want? He certainly wants to stay around for a while and he meets and charms Courtney. He also has the answers to the questions James has been struggling over, but he isn’t going to provide them just yet. In fact he may be trying to stop James making the discovery at all. His message for James seems to be ‘learn to live a little’. Everything finally depends on a new deadline. Dr. Rowley announces a funded scholarship which will send Courtney to Switzerland (cue race to the airport in best romcom style?) Meanwhile, James discovers that Dr. Rowley has a vital piece of kit she has been keeping secret. But will Jimmy try to stop him accessing it?

James with Courtney

The problem for Anglo Canadian filmmakers is that they inhabit a world dominated by Hollywood film and TV programmes. Hollywood makes many films and TV series in Canada and Canadians watch a lot of US TV programming – it’s a coloniser-colonised situation. It’s a world I don’t really know and therefore it is interesting to read some of the North American reviews of this film. Cleopatra Coleman is Australian and Daniel Stern is American but still there is something about the film that makes it feel ‘Canadian’. It appears to have been shot in Sudbury, Ontario and there is that calm openness with just the hint of possible weirdness that means it isn’t likely to be American. I enjoyed the film. At times it is quite funny and I liked the characters. The narrative has some warmth and the script by Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre. Daniel Stern gives the film its energy and Cleopatra Coleman is a joy. I doubt it will ever appear in the UK but perhaps on Amazon or Netflix?

GFF20 #1: Merrily We Go to Hell (US 1932)

oxPWLrEc6mzEMpSG6UPjnBkgj20
My Glasgow Film Festival stint this year started with a sparkling DCP of a pre-code classic directed by Dorothy Arzner. This screening launched the festival’s mini-strand of ‘Women Make Film’, designed to complement the 5 part Mark Cousins documentary with that title which is screened this weekend.

Fredric March plays Jerry, a gifted newspaper columnist in Chicago with a drinking problem who meets the heiress Joan Prentice played by a young and beautiful Sylvia Sidney. She doesn’t drink and has an over-protective father who isn’t keen on the relationship. But Joan and Jerry are determined and with the help of Jerry’s drinking buddies they manage to get married and Jerry settles down to write plays. When one is accepted by a producer everything seems to be going too well and, sure enough, problems arise when the leading lady of his play turns out to be an old flame or rather the old flame Claire, played by Adrianne Allen. This character intrigued me as Ms Allen was born in Manchester and may have travelled to the US for this role. She spent most of her later career on the English stage and was at one time married to Raymond Massey and mother to both Daniel and Anna.

Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney with Cary Grant

Adrianne Allen is not the only British interloper since Cary Grant has an early Hollywood role as the leading man in the play. Claire’s return to Jerry’s life causes him to start drinking again and to alienate Joan. But Joan decides that the only way to respond to Jerry’s drinking and his renewed interest in Claire is to start drinking and partying herself in a ‘modern, open’ marriage. It can’t end well and in fact the ending of the narrative is quite down and realistic even if it still manages some Hollywood conventions.

In his introduction, Alan Hunter filled in some of Dorothy Arzner’s career details. Arzner’s work is not as easily available to view as it should be and GFF has done a good job in making this film available on the big screen. As well as Arzner’s handling of the actors and the choreography of the action, I was impressed by David Abel’s camerawork with its lively feel and use of bold images that reminded me of both German and Soviet cinema of the 1920s. These pre-code films are often much more dynamic than might be expected for still relatively early sound cinema — the technology was developing quickly.

The over-protective father (George Irving)

The shock of the film in terms of the coming Production Code is in the realistic representation of drinking culture and the view of a marriage in which the partners openly display their infidelity during social gatherings. Films like this still feel ‘modern’. The code had a damaging effect on adult stories in Hollywood, though it did bring out the ingenuity of filmmakers.

Queen & Slim (US 2019)

This photo, taken ‘diegetically’ in the narrative, has been used in promotions for the film

Queen & Slim is a début feature film for Melina Matsoukas working with the prolific writer Lena Waithe, the first African-American woman to win a ‘comedy writer’ Emmy for her work on the series Master of None (2015). Waithe was also a producer on Dear White People (US 2014). Matsoukas has had a long career as a music video director topped by her contribution to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. It’s not surprising then that two such talented women should enable Jodie Turner-Smith to create the character ‘Queen’. It’s a terrific performance and with Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Slim’ they make a memorable couple.

The film came to the UK with some glowing reviews after its US release in November 2019, but there was little UK promotion – at least from my perspective – and I didn’t really know what to expect. But there were two reasons I wanted to see it. First, I knew that it begins with an altercation between a white police officer and the black couple after he stops their car with the result that they are forced to go ‘on the run’ with every police force looking for them. This links directly to the earlier The Hate U Give (US 2018) which I have worked on as a possible study text. There is also a later incident the film that directly links the two films as well. Second, I read somewhere that the narrative in some way references the idea of the ‘Underground Railroad’ by which slaves were able to escape from plantations and eventually to get to Canada in the pre-Civil War period. This was recently the central part of the story of Harriet Tubman in Harriet (US 2019).

The first meeting in a fast-food restaurant

Queen & Slim begins in Cleveland, Ohio when two people meet on a Tinder date. It isn’t going terribly well (neither character has a name as yet) and they have only known each other for a short time when their car is pulled over. What follows is perhaps best presented as a mash-up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) with It Happened One Night (1934). If that sounds unlikely note that both these classic films are road movies. In one a bunch of ‘outlaws’ rob banks during the Great Depression, become media celebrities and are often admired by people whose savings and land have been ‘grabbed’ by those same banks. In the other, a man and a woman meet on a bus travelling to New York and somehow fall in love despite their differences.

In Queen & Slim, the couple make their way South and have a series of adventures on their way to Florida from where they hope to get to Cuba. They become ‘Queen’ and ‘Slim’ when they attempt to change their appearance at Queen’s Uncle Earl’s house. It’s at this moment perhaps that the film’s approach becomes clear (or rather, is confirmed). This isn’t strictly a ‘Hollywood realism’ film. There are moments when the characters do unexpected or plain stupid things which place them in more danger. Just one example – when they change clothes, Queen chooses a micro-dress which is so short it reveals the bandage on her thigh. Slim selects an outfit I don’t know how to describe but which appears to deliberately ‘type’ him. A little later they agree to be photographed and the resultant image is used on the film’s poster. Nick Lacey commented to me that the image is both striking but also possibly plays on the typing of both African-American men and women.

Queen’s Uncle Earl (Bokeem Woodbine) and his ‘Goddess’ (Indya Moore)

The Bonnie and Clyde tag is applied to the couple by one of the characters and it soon becomes clear that wherever they go in the South, African-Americans (and some white people) know who they are but still help them avoid the police. The Underground Railway reference is also clear when the couple are hidden in a clever way during a police search. These attitudes towards the ‘fugitives’ are also linked to various discourses about how working-class Americans (again mostly but not solely African-Americans) have been treated by government policies and institutional racism.

This is a long film (132 mins) and many commentators have argued that it is too long for the material. I don’t agree, I was engaged throughout and I felt I grew to know the characters. The film was shot, on film, by the British DoP Tat Radcliffe who shares a background with the director in music videos, but who has also worked on action features such as ’71 (UK 2014). Almost the whole film was shot on location in and around Cleveland and New Orleans. The film looks good in a ‘Scope frame and Radcliffe tells us (in this Kodak piece) that in the first part of the film, the camera is often static or ‘locked’ but towards the end there is much more Steadicam work. Radcliffe praises the director’s eye for detail and I was impressed by the use of landscapes and the detail of neighbourhood scenes. Too often Hollywood films seem to show the same nondescript city environments but this felt different (because of the New Orleans location, I couldn’t help thinking about Easy Rider (1969), a film with several similar elements).

A production shot with director Melina Matsoukas

One of the most enjoyable scenes in the film for me is a quick visit to a roadside bar with a live blues band. The band are fantastic and at this stage we are still surprised that everyone knows who this couple are – and Queen and Slim are still learning about each other. The music throughout the film is interesting, but I’m not really competent to comment on much of it. IMDB seems to have failed to find the music credits but lists of the songs and the artistes are available. I still can’t find who plays the live music in the bar. Does anybody know?

I’ve seen a negative comment about the fact that once again the leads in an African-American film are Brits. Jodie Turner-Smith was born in Peterborough but has lived in the US for some time and appeared in US film and TV productions. Daniel Kaluuya must be getting fed-up with this. Cynthia Erivo was also caught up with this kind of comment about her role in Harriet. I’m not sure whether her Oscar nomination  improved matters. I don’t really understand this. Brits have always been part of Hollywood casting. Perhaps it is part of a commentary about roles for black actors in both the UK and US. There are far more opportunities in the US so it isn’t surprising Brits are often keen to go over.

Queen and Slim is an excellent début and definitely a film worth looking up.

The trailer below reveals quite a few aspects of the plot and a couple of the best gags.

A Lesson in Love (En lektion i kärlek, Sweden 1954)

Gunnar Björnstrand as David and Eva Dahlbeck as Marianne on the train together

MUBI promoted this film as a Bergman comedy. I might have managed the occasional wry smile, but no laughs I’m afraid. But that isn’t to say that the film is of no interest. It has many of the elements that became familiar for me in watching Bergman’s early work. The narrative features another train journey during which there are several flashbacks to earlier in the marriage of David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and Marianne (Eva Dahlbeck). Interior scenes are generally studio-bound but there are several location-shot sequences, mostly in Scania and Copenhagen. During the train journey, Bergman himself, wearing a beret, is seen reading a newspaper. So far, so good, but not so good from my point of view is a shift to the lives of the moneyed middle-classes. However, the two leads are strong and this film sees a third role for Harriet Andersson in a Bergman film. Bizarrely, this film comes after Summer With Monika (1953) in which Andersson plays slightly younger than her real age (she was born in 1932). In A Lesson in Love the 21 year-old Andersson played the 14 year-old daughter of the central couple. Somehow she is believable in the role.

Marianne shows her bruises in the flashback scenes covering her marriage to David

The set-up is simple. David and Marianne have been married for 15 years and have two children, Nix (the Andersson character) and her younger brother Pelle. They have long since passed the point of the ‘Seven Year Itch’ and David, a gynaecologist, has been having affairs with his patients. Marianne seems aware of this and is arranging to meet an old male friend in Copenhagen. David gets wind of what she is up to and secretly plans to get on the same train and play the game of meeting Marianne for the first time. The flashbacks then show us how the couple first got together and also how they recently compared their marriage to the 50 year marriage of David’s parents during a visit to his parental home on his father’s 73rd birthday. The final section of the narrative is played out in Copenhagen.

Presumably the ‘lesson’ is for both David and Marianne, requiring them to think about how their marriage has developed and whether its problems are universal or caused by the failings of both partners. Certainly the treatment of Pelle (ignored most of the time) and Nix (a tomboy who challenges the couple’s conformity – something they wouldn’t accept) is an issue they need to discuss. The general feeling among Bergman fans, most looking back to an early work by a proven auteur, is that this is a minor but entertaining work. It also bolsters the autobiographical aspects of Bergman as auteur. By this stage he was on his third marriage (out of five) and was having an affair with Harriet Andersson which today makes him seem a little creepy. But I guess it should make him aware of what certain kinds of marriage can be like.

Father and daughter in their own sequence. Gunnar Björnstrand is wearing a Bergman beret

As part of my attempt to understand Bergman, his body of work and his critical status, I’ve acquired a copy of Robin Wood’s Movie/Studio Vista book simply titled Ingmar Bergman and published in 1969. I wanted to get a feel of how a respected film scholar viewed Bergman in the 1960s. Wood places the film in the context of two later films, Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and Wild Strawberries (1957)which feature some of the same lead actors. He pointed out in 1969 that A Lesson in Love was under-rated and deemed lightweight by many critics. Wood makes several interesting points. First, following what was then a standard approach, he suggests that the narrative lacks coherence and ‘stylistic unity’ and that the various flashbacks are hung on what he perceives as a ‘trivial’ central narrative line, the rail journey. Later he also points out that the film begins and ends with figures moving on a music box – a perhaps clumsy reference to the main characters and their ‘dances of love’? He argues that the chronology of the marriage is very hard to follow, even after several viewings. A further weakness he suggests is that the Ernemann family is never seen together in their own home and that apart from the parents’ relationship, the only other relationship shown in the family is that of father and daughter. Poor Pelle barely features and Marianne doesn’t come across (to Wood) as the mother of her daughter. Yet despite all this, Wood suggests:

Its air of relaxation, of not taking itself seriously, though it helps to account for the weaknesses, brings with it compensating strengths. It is notable among Bergman’s works for its freedom and spontaneity of invention, its emotional richness, warmth and generosity, its effortless flexibility of tone. (Wood 1969: 62-3)

These strengths, Wood suggests are a good corrective to the view that Bergman is best represented by films like Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) or The Seventh Seal 1956. This certainly seems valid to me. My problem with Bergman’s films from the 1960s onwards is that they seem cold and emotionless. I would add to Wood’s analysis that there is a sense here that Bergman is following or borrowing from the romantic comedies of both the UK and Hollywood. I suspect that Bergman’s auteurist followers have never given much credence to the importance of genre (unless it is via references to Woody Allen’s takes on Bergman) and especially the ‘rom-com’ which, in its various guises, including the screwball comedies of the late 1930s and 1940s, includes many of the devices that Bergman includes here. I think you can argue that this film is a narrative of ‘re-marriage’ in which the two leads have to discover why they married in the first place. Most of my enjoyment in the film comes from the two performances by Eva Dahlbeck and Gunnar Björnstrand. It occurs to me that they have something of the chemistry of a couple like Irene Dunn and Cary Grant in My Favourite Wife (1940). What A Lesson in Love doesn’t have is the ‘coherence’ of a Garson Kanin film with a script idea from Leo McCarey. The suggestion by Wood is that the workaholic Bergman produced a script during a rare period of relaxation with Andersson – a script in which various ideas were linked together without too much concern for narrative structure. That seems about right and confirms for me the idea that studio control and being asked to direct someone else’s script isn’t always a bad idea.

Torst (Thirst or Three Strange Loves, Sweden 1949)

Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and Ruth (Eva Henning) on the train

In contrast to Prison, here is an early Bergman film in which he had no input to the script which brings together two separate narratives and three relationships. The script is by Herbert Grevenius, a theatre writer and mentor to Bergman, based on a collection of short stories by Birgit Tengroth who also appears in the film – she was both a ballet dancer and an actor. The narrative begins with a young woman, Ruth (Eva Henning) unable to sleep in what turns out to be a hotel room. Flashbacks to a few years earlier (at various points in the film) reveal that she is a ballet dancer and that she once had a holiday affair with a military man who she later discovers is married. Ruth eventually wakens her sleeping partner Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and the hotel is evidently in Switzerland where the couple have a stopover before they catch a train back to Sweden. They have been on holiday on the Mediterranean coast.

Viola (Birgit Tengroth) is suffering from the loss of her husband

In a double link, Ruth then sees her former military lover through the open train window. He is in another train on his way South with his wife. But as we settle in to follow the the difficult relationship between Ruth and Bertil in the hot and crowded sleeper train, we are introduced to Viola (Birgit Tengroth) via an argument about Midsummer, Strindberg and lilacs – or violets? I confess that I couldn’t interpret this exchange. The narrative now shifts to Viola, a woman in her thirties who has been widowed and is now visiting a psychiatrist (played by Hasse Ekman). Bertil became her lover after her husband died and before he took up with Ruth. This past love is one of the grounds for the goading of Bertil by Ruth. We now cut between Viola in Stockholm and the couple on the train travelling through a still devastated Germany. Viola will meet Valborg (Mimi Nelson) a dancer she knew earlier who once befriended Ruth in the ballet school. The two women get drunk together on the Midsummer Night with a street party in full swing below Valborg’s room. This proved the most controversial segment of the film and Valborg, the lesbian character, arguably prevented the film being released in the UK during the 1950s (it only received a video release in 2004). It also initially caused censor problems in Sweden. I won’t spoil the ending of the two parts of the narrative.

Ruth in ballet school with Valborg (Mimi Nelson)

Classic melodrama use of mirrors to show Ruth and Valborg and their strict ballet teacher (Naima Wifstrand)

Once again, this is a film which Bergman fans see as introducing his later themes and ideas. Compared to Prison this seems a more fully realised film and I can see what some critics mean with their identification of ideas that we now tend to associate with Godard films from A bout de souffle onwards. The bickering in the hotel room is not dissimilar to the scenes with Belmondo in girls’ rooms in Paris. There are various cultural references including a pair of ancient coins Bertil has bought in Sicily, one bearing the head of Arethusa – the nymph from under the sea who emerged as a freshwater fountain in Syracuse.

Ruth recovers from her abortion in one of several ‘big close-ups’

I found this a more satisfying film than Prison. It seems more coherent even as a dual narrative. Eva Henning and Birger Malmsten are an attractive couple and their taunts towards each other seem both realistic and erotic. I think seeing this film in the 1950s or 1960s would have been an eye-opener for my younger self. The representation of the central relationship is helped by a decision that Bergman made to build an ‘outsize’ railway carriage in the studio to allow more movement for the camera and therefore longer takes. Gunnar Fischer is behind the camera as he was on Port of Call and he offers a range of interesting exteriors as well as working the two major sets of the hotel room and the train. I think there are also more big close-ups of the central couple, intensifying their interaction. On the downside we are now with the middle-class, though with Bertil as a college assitant lecturer and Ruth as a ballet dancer, the couple don’t have much money. They are however better off than the starving crowds who clamour for food at the train windows in Germany. Ruth and Viola are strong intelligent women laid low by patriarchy. Ruth has had an abortion which has left mental and physical scars (the fate of three young women in three Bergman films in 1948/9). Viola needs psychiatric help but Dr. Rosengren is an extremely unpleasant character and I found his scenes bewildering. The ‘three strange loves’ involve four different women and the perspectives of two of them are explored in detail. I’m presuming this is as a result of not just Birgit Tengroth’s source stories, but also the help that she seems to have given Bergman, especially with the lesbian sequence. This film and Port of Call are two of the Bergman films I’ve enjoyed most and they were both sourced from existing literary works rather than Bergman’s own writing.

There are two more early Bergmans on MUBI which I will try to catch before they disappear. I have been surprised by the three I’ve seen. They do show remarkable skill and creativity from a filmmaker also working in the theatre as well as making so many films in a short time. He also seems to have been through two marriages by the age of 32. I wonder how much that affected his view of relationships? I don’t think I’ll ever ‘warm’ to Bergman but these early films are fascinating as film narratives.