Category: Romance

Viceroy’s House (UK-US-India-Sweden 2017)

The four figures in the centre are Fatima Jinnah (Jinnah’s sister – actor unknown), Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Denzil Smith), the Viceroy (Hugh Bonneville) and the Vicereine (Gillian Anderson)

Gurinder Chadha is a distinctive director. Ever since her first short, but important, first film I’m British, But . . . (1990), she has sought to make films that draw on her personal experience but which also reach out to audiences using music and strong emotions. From 2000’s What’s Cooking she has written scripts with her partner Paul Mayeda Berges and an American sense of the popular ‘feelgood’ formula has been melded with Chadha’s own sense of joyfulness. Perhaps as a result, her films have tended to fare better with broad public audiences than with critics. Nevertheless, her importance within British Cinema has been recognised. Viceroy’s House has been a long time in the making and it feels like the most personal of Chadha’s films. In the final credits, amongst all the archive photographs and newsreel footage of both the carnage and the celebrations that followed the partition of British India and the emergence of two new independent states, she tells the story of a woman who fled the Punjab. As the caption reads, that woman was the director’s grandmother.

There have been many films that have tried to deal with Partition and its aftermath. Gurinder Chadha is not alone in being a diaspora director ‘returning’ to the sub-continent to make a partition film using funding and infrastructure from Europe and North America. Other examples include Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1998), Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998) and Vic Sarin’s Partition (2007). There are many ‘popular’ Indian films that include stories about partition and its aftermath, but some of the best are examples of art cinema or parallel cinema, such as Ritwik Ghatak’s trilogy of films about the aftermath of partition in Bengal, Pamela Rooks’ Train to Pakistan (1998) or a film like Garam Hava (Scorching Winds, 1973) by M.S. Sathyu. In this context, Gurinder Chadha’s film needs to be seen as an attempt to introduce an outline history of the process of Partition and British withdrawal to a broad audience. She explains all of this in an interview in the Observer (and see below for a video presentation of her motivations). The angry denouncements of Viceroy’s House by writers such as Fatima Bhutto in the Guardian seem to rather miss the point.

Chadha has based her film on a range of published histories and has used a romance between two Punjabis, a Hindu young man and a Muslim young woman, to provide an emotional charge that takes us into the ‘personal stories’. This romance is part of what she herself has referred to as a ‘below the stairs’ narrative to compare with the story of diplomatic negotiation hurriedly conducted by the ‘last Viceroy’, Louis Mountbatten, and Indian political leaders. Chadha also includes the activities of Lady Mountbatten, although not the rumoured flirtation with Nehru. In the space of only 106 minutes, Viceroy’s House tries to be both epic and personal. Inevitably, the historical detail is limited, but it serves as an introduction and as far as I can see it is fairly accurate. I was surprised to hear on the BBC’s Film Programme that the host Charlie Brooker didn’t know the history and found the politics interesting but as he put it, “heavy lifting”. So, perhaps Gurinder Chadha was wise to try to sugar the pill of a history that should be taught in schools (i.e. the history of the British Empire).

Jeet Kumar (Manish Dyal) and Aalia (Huma Qureshi) as the lovers

The ‘below the stairs’ reference is to the popular British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75) that Chadha must have watched as a child (she was born in 1960). A re-boot of the series was attempted in 2010 which ran for two seasons. Inevitably, however, for many reviewers the reference point has been Downton Abbey (2010-15), especially with the portrayal of Louis Mountbatten by Hugh Bonneville, one of the stars of Downton as the Earl. My feeling is that Bonneville is miscast as the Viceroy. Although he is closer in age to the historical Viceroy than James Fox in Jinnah (1998), he feels rather ‘chummy’ and not like a successful military commander and second cousin of the King Emperor. From her various statements, it seems clear that Gurinder Chadha is much more familiar with the British ‘heritage’ films and TV programmes about the Raj than with the many Indian and diasporic films about the end of the Raj and its aftermath. However, the romance she conjures up does figure in some of those Indian films and I felt a sudden recognition in the closing scenes when the Hindu boy seeks and finds his Muslim girlfriend (e.g. in Train to Pakistan and in Earth, where the religious mix is reversed). I was suddenly reminded of scenes from Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995) in which a young Muslim-Hindu couple are caught up in communal riots in Mumbai. Both films are scored by A. R. Rahman. I found the score for Viceroy’s House to be conventional and almost lost in the presentation for much of the film, but it worked in those closing scenes. I’m aware that for some UK audiences, the romance seems ‘tagged on’ and unnecessary – but it is central to Chadha’s strategy. She wants audiences to both understand the complexity of the political negotiations and to feel the emotional torment on a personal level. I think she gets close to doing that. I’m not convinced though by the romance. The two actors don’t seem well-matched. I know Huma Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur, but I didn’t recognise the actor playing Jeet Kumar. It was only later that I discovered that Manish Dyal is an American actor. Gurinder Chadha appears to be concerned to use British or American South Asians or Indians who are used to working in ‘international productions’ rather than actors working in Indian film industries. I wonder if this will be a barrier to acceptance by Indian audiences? (There is, however, a brief appearance from Om Puri, who died recently, far too young, and who will be sorely missed.)

Mountbatten with his valets. Is Hugh Bonneville too associated with ‘Downton Abbey’ to be credible?

Having discussed the film with friends, I think there is a consensus that although the mis-castings are a barrier and the romance could have been better handled, overall the film has attracted a popular audience and it does deliver that basic history lesson. The trailer perhaps inadvertently provides the key to the problems Gurinder Chadha faced. She has explained how difficult it is to sell a story like this to funders for mainstream films and I’m assuming that the UK trailer is the price you have to pay to satisfy a conservative distribution/exhibition environment. Several people have told me that the trailer put them off seeing the film or that it nearly stopped them (and they said that would have been a shame).

The film has received quite a lot of coverage in the UK media, with Gurinder Chadha responding. Yesterday, when I thought all had quietened down, another over-the-top piece was published in the Guardian by Ian Jack. I was particularly disappointed to read this as I usually enjoy Ian Jack’s writing. He is an ‘old India hand’ and therefore perhaps emotionally involved, but he claims the film as ‘fake history’ and detects that Chadha and her fellow writers, her husband and the British playwright and scriptwriter Moira Buffini, have been too reliant on a 2006 book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila. The two central findings of this book that Jack finds objectionable/not proven/not credible are 1) that the British government’s long-term policy was to support a separate Pakistan as an ally against Soviet influence in South Asia and that 2) that this was Churchill’s policy formulated before he lost power in 1945 and introduced secretly into the 1947 negotiations by Lord Ismay, Churchill’s wartime military assistant after 1940. By 1947 he’d become Mountbatten’s Chief of Staff. The point about British policy seems to me to be not really an issue. After 1947 Pakistan became a Western ally, India became a non-aligned nation with ‘normal’ relations with the Soviet Union. Ismay and Churchill’s role in all this (in the film, it is a document supposedly drawn up for Churchill that provides the basis for the Partition boundaries in Punjab) is obviously more debatable. But then, as most historians would agree, Churchill’s racist comments about India and Indians as well as his extreme anti-communism were well-known and it certainly seems plausible that his influence may have been felt on men pressurised to make decisions in July/August 1947. Ian Jack attempts to discredit Sarila by quoting various British historian’s reviews of the book. I haven’t read either Sarila’s book or the full reviews Jack mentions (I have read other quite favourable reviews, but possibly by less distinguished reviewers) so I’m not going to comment further. I only wish to point out that where anyone stands in these debates about Partition depends to a certain extent on where their broader sympathies lie with Indian, Pakistani or British positions. Again I don’t favour one over another, but I do feel for Gurinder Chadha in her attempt to view her personal story in the context of all of these political machinations.

On one score, Ian Jack is certainly on shaky ground. He asserts: “The film is unlikely to do very well at the box office”. In fact it has had a ‘wide’ UK release and after two weekends (i.e. ten days in cinemas) it has made £2.34 million. Given that the film did quite well in the first week with older audiences, the full two week total might be closer to £2.8 to £3 million which is more than OK for a UK release. I will be intrigued to see how the film does in other territories and especially what happens when it reaches India. Indian media company Reliance is a production partner and should promote the film, but so far there seems to be confusion about when an Indian release might happen. I’ve seen March, June and August mentioned.

In the video clip below, Gurinder Chadha describes the long preparation process for her film which she started mainly because of her experience in travelling back to Kenya and then to her family’s home in Punjab as part of the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? in 2006. The whole of that episode is online and it’s a fascinating watch. When she reaches Pakistan and finds the family house which was allocated to Muslim refugee families fleeing in the opposite direction to her grandparents in 1947, she knows she must tell the story of Partition.

I Know Where I’m Going! (UK 1945)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) and her father (George Carney)

If you are in the UK and you haven’t seen I Know Where I’m Going!, you can watch it free on BBC iPlayer for the next four days and I urge you to do so. It’s one of the best films by the UK’s top filmmaking duo, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, AKA ‘The Archers’. I watched it again on the day La La Land was released in the UK. I was intrigued to hear the American film being lauded for its ‘unconventional’ love story. Micky and Emeric knew all about those.

I Know Where I’m Going! begins with some interesting credits and a montage of scenes from the early life of Joan Webster, the girl who has always known where she is going. Now, in the form of Wendy Hiller, she is the 25 year-old daughter of a bank manager engaged to the wealthy businessman and owner of the company she works for. She has to make her way to the (fictional) island of ‘Kiloran’ which her husband-to-be has, in effect, ‘taken over’ for the duration of the war – and their wedding. The only problem is that the weather in the Western Isles is notoriously fickle and Joan finds herself stranded on the larger (real) island of Mull, wondering if the small boat coming to collect her will ever arrive. Of course, she isn’t alone and all kinds of people are aware of her predicament, including Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey). Let the drama, the romance and the fun begin!

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona's house.

Torquil (Roger Livesesy), Catriona (Pamela Brown), Joan (Wendy Hiller) and the Colonel (Capt. Knight) in Catriona’s house.

It’s worth reflecting on a few ideas about the narratives created by Powell and Pressburger. First, although the setting is unusual, it wasn’t a first for Michael Powell as in 1937 he’d made The Edge of the World, perhaps the best known of his films before he worked with Pressburger. This fictional story was set on an isolated island in the Shetlands and ‘inspired’ by the final days of the even more isolated island settlement of St Kilda out in the North Atlantic, whose last inhabitants left in 1930. Although barely seen at the time, The Edge of the World was re-edited with new material in 1978 and became part of the ‘re-discovery’ of Powell’s early work. Intriguingly though, the other Archers’ film which I Know Where I’m Going! in some ways most resembles is Black Narcissus (1947). In both cases the narrative offers us a proud and intelligent young woman who finds herself in a remote place which deeply unsettles her – especially when she is confronted with a man who understands the place. However, this 1945 narrative is less tragic and (slightly) less dramatic than the later film. The two films both feature a second romance as contrast and they focus on ‘cultural difference’ as the basis for a fantasy and possibly a metaphorical study of British society. In Black Narcissus, the woman is played by Deborah Kerr who had played the triple female lead in another Archers’ film, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943). She wasn’t available in 1945 so P&P turned to Wendy Hiller (who had lost the 1943 role to Kerr). One of the things I like about IKWIG (as Powell himself calls it in his autobiography) is that the story starts in Manchester and not London. I hadn’t noticed before that Wendy Hiller was born in Cheshire, so she’s nearly Mancunian. I wish I’d seen more of her films. She’s totally credible as a middle-class young woman from the ‘industrial North’, one with strong convictions who can be set up to lose them in the most delightful way.

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey) and Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller)

The fun begins with the credits which are matched by two expressionist sequences, one as Joan heads north on the Glasgow sleeper and another brief one when she is praying (for the third time) for the winds to drop so she can get to Kiloran. It occurs to me that P&P use these sequences (derived from 1920s German cinema?) more in their b+w films when they don’t have colour to express emotion. The Small Back Room (1949) is perhaps the film in which they are used most extensively (and dramatically). As well as these sequences (which include Joan remembering the dancing at the ceilidh as a contrasting emotion to willing the winds to drop) IKWIG is marked by a significant amount of long shots and images of extreme weather mixed with noirish interiors. Some of the landscapes have mist and fog and a ‘glow’ of sunlight through the clouds which all adds to the sense of Celtic fantasy. The long shots composed by Erwin Hiller also have the function of ‘disguising’ Roger Livesey’s double since Livesey was starring in a West End play and never travelled up to Scotland. As in Black Narcissus, many scenes were shot on studio lots, including the Corryvreckan whirlpool sequence. This latter concerns one of two ancient myths about the fate of lovers that P&P used to underpin the central romance. The other involves a curse on the MacNeil men if they enter a ruined castle. The blooming romance represents P&P’s response to the coming end of the war. In this respect it refers back to A Canterbury Tale (1944), a film which has baffled many audiences. In political terms, this is Powell’s ‘high Tory romanticism’, not necessarily reactionary but definitely preferring the spiritual qualities of the rural and preferably the wild landscape to the ordered, rule-managed materialism of the urban society.

The film’s title was suggested by Powell’s Irish wife Frankie and it comes from the traditional Scots/Irish ballad. In the film it is beautifully sung by the then 69 year-old Boyd Steven (with the Glasgow Orpheus Choir) and used in the closing credit sequence:

Here’s the song:

“I know where I’m going

And I know who’s going with me.

I know who I love

But the de’il (the devil) knows who I’ll marry

The film has a score by Allan Gray and an entire sequence with performances at a ceilidh. In this sense it is another movement towards Powell’s concept of the ‘composed film’. It’s also one of Pressburger’s best scripts with its sly digs about the ‘rich and soulless’ – the wonderful irony of the three pipers hired for the wedding by the industrialist but who also can’t get to the island and therefore play at the ceilidh and provide Kiloran with another opportunity to woo Joan. This time I also noticed that in the opening narration we hear that “When Joan was only 1 year old, she already knew where she was going. Going right, left? No, straight on!” I wonder if this is a joke about the political climate of 1944?

IKWIG has everything, even an early appearance by Pet Clark as a rich brat. It also has an ‘eagle hunter’ with ‘Torquil’, his eagle, on his arm (credited as ‘Mr Ramshaw’). If you miss the BBC screening in HD, there is a Criterion Region 1 DVD (with an essay by Ian Christie) and Region 2 DVDin the UK.

Copies, Art and Allusion

Juliet Binoche as 'Elle' the 'unnamed woman' and William Shimell as 'James Miller' in 'Certified Copy'

Juliette Binoche as ‘Elle’, the ‘unnamed woman’ and William Shimell as ‘James Miller’ in ‘Certified Copy’

Last night I watched Abbas Kiarostami’s  Certified Copy (Copie conforme, France 2010). Kiarostami died earlier this year so engaging with one of his later works seemed appropriate in this terrible year when so many great artists have been taken from us. But the immediate reason I watched this specific film was because a scene from it figures in one of 2016’s best films, L’avenir (Things to Come, France 2016). I hope to post on that film later so here I’ll just note that Nathalie, the central character of L’avenir played by Isabelle Huppert, visits a Parisian cinema on her own and watches Juliette Binoche as the lead character in Copie conforme. (L’avenir is carefully set in 2010 when Copie conforme was released.) This cinema visit is a bit like those once common in Godard films such as Vivre sa vie (1962) – in which the Anna Karina character watches Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) and tears run down her face. Nathalie has a different experience in her cinema, but it is equally a part of a complex study of her character. I’ve been working on Isabelle Huppert as actor and star, so I was intrigued that she is shown watching her only real rival as the star actor of contemporary international art cinema. This linking of films, ‘stars’ and directors sets up the whole debate about art cinema and its particular forms of intertextuality. In some cases what we get are direct quotes (so the clip of one film seen on a cinema screen in another – a ‘real’ film that becomes a social reference in a fiction film and perhaps a mise en abîme in which the filmic reference acts as a commentary on the fictional cinema visit). The Anna Karina reference is slightly different because it depends on the cultural background/memory of the viewer to identify a film from 34 years earlier. I’m sure there are other examples that other audience members might find more compelling (but this one seems very apt). References like these are fairly common forms of allusion in art cinema.

Julette Bioche as seen by Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) in a cinema

Julette Binoche as seen by Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) on a cinema screen

Nathalie in the cinema audience

Nathalie in the cinema audience

Anna Karina as 'Nana', visibly upset while watching Dreyer's Jeanne d'Arc on a cinema visit in 'Vivre sa vie'

Anna Karina as ‘Nana’, visibly upset while watching Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc on a cinema visit in ‘Vivre sa vie’

So how does this relate to Copie conforme? The Kiarostami film is the subject of a post on this blog by Nick Lacey (and an aside by Keith Withall who argues that it is a film “in which style appears to dominate substance”). I don’t intend to necessarily engage with either of the earlier posts. I’m most interested in the level of allusion in the film and how this relates to the film’s central idea and its significance (or otherwise) in contemporary art cinema. Copie conforme was Kiarostami’s first official feature shot in Europe (although he had previously contributed ‘segments’ to films such as Tickets (Italy-UK 2005). It is at once ‘Italian’ (all the action takes place in Tuscany) and ‘international’ (most of the dialogue is in English, some in French and some in Italian). The crew is Italian and Iranian but the whole production feels under the control of Kiarostami. The narrative covers a few hours when ‘Elle’ an art dealer played by Juliette Binoche takes a visiting British writer ‘James Miller’ (William Shimell) who has just given a reading/lecture to the Tuscan village of Lucignano which as well as being pretty and charming is also a favoured location for weddings and has a gallery well-known for a painting known as the ‘original copy’. Miller has written a book about artworks and the concept of the copy, arguing provocatively that the copy can have the same value as the original. While exploring this proposition, Kiarostami’s narrative has a twist in which the audience is asked to decide if the couple (i.e. Binoche and Shimell) met for the first time today and are falling in love while displaying the behaviour of an old married couple or whether they have been married for many years and were initially simply pretending not to know each other – perhaps to bring back memories of their own wedding in this village? In one sense, it doesn’t really matter what their relationship is. This is an art film and the artist is ‘playing’ with the form and with his audience. That is the nature of art cinema, but given the presence of a star like Binoche (a first for Kiarostami) there is also the possibility that a broader audience may be left dissatisfied by the ‘open’ ending. Critics were divided, so in Sight and Sound (September 2010) an enthusiastic Geoff Andrew interviews both Kiarostami and Binoche but in the reviews section of the magazine, Philip Kemp dismisses the dialogue as ‘banal’ and accuses Kiarostami of offering us a “faded facsimile, a paint-by-numbers reduction of a long tradition of European (mostly Italian) art films”.

Kemp does admit that Kiarostami’s “poetic eye rarely deserts him, and visually the film is sometimes captivating”. I think this is damning with faint praise. The camerawork and ‘staging’ (in this case, the use of locations) is excellent throughout. (In the documentary that accompanies the film on the Artificial Eye DVD, the Italian cinematographer Luca Bigazzi says that at first he could not understand Kiarostami’s approach and was not sure how to meet his requirements – but he seems to have caught on very quickly.) Philip Kemp’s critique suggests that Kiarostami is offering a copy and the ‘originals’ are films like Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954) by Roberto Rossellini, La notte (Antonioni, Italy 1961) and The Sheltering Sky (Bertolucci, UK-Italy, 1990) with elements of Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais, France 1961). I’ll focus here on the first of these titles since my memories of the others are not very clear. The parallels between Rossellini’s film about an English couple on holiday in the hinterland of Naples and Kiarostami’s film about a couple in Tuscany are immediately apparent. Despite Elle’s local experience, she is still not Italian and with James she forms a ‘non-Italian’ couple subject to similar comments and assumptions by the villagers as experienced by Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) in Rossellini’s film. Although George Sanders was an experienced actor and a star player in Hollywood, he wasn’t familiar with Rossellini’s approach and Rossellini deliberately kept him in the dark so that his grumpiness became part of his performance. Kiarostami doesn’t seem to have treated Shimell as badly but even so his lack of acting experience means he is pushed into aspects of performance that might be uncomfortable. Some scenes in Copie conforme, such as the restaurant conflict between James and Elle, could easily be part of Viaggio in Italia.

Alex (George Sandrs) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) are disturbed by the crowds at a religious festival in 'Viaggio in Italia'

Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) are disturbed by the crowds at a religious festival in ‘Viaggio in Italia’

The central relationship of the couple is actually different between the two films but we know that Kiarostami was aware of Rossellini – he was one of the leading Iranian directors who drew on the work of the Italian neorealists. I don’t want to explore this further – only to establish that the elements of ‘copying’ and ‘allusion’ are evident. They give me a lot of pleasure. As does the use of other allusions. For instance, the scriptwriter Jean-Claude Carrière plays a minor role as an older man (with his wife) who Elle and James meet. There is an entertaining discussion about a statue as a work of art (another Viaggio in Italia reference?) and then the old man gives James a piece of advice about his relationship. I found this amusing since Carrière is perhaps best known internationally for his collaborations with Luis Buñuel in the 1970s –  in films that mock the codes of bourgeois behaviour. It’s important though in such comparisons of films, to remember that a film – a ‘time-based’ art form is not the same as a novel or a painting. I’m just as interested in the four films mentioned here because of their leading players – four beautiful, sexy and intelligent women around whose performances the narratives of these films are constructed. (Vivre sa vie isn’t one of the ‘copied’ films but the pattern of allusions made me think of her.) We don’t think enough about the star images of these actors in art rather than genre films. These four actors have different star images and it would be interesting to play the ‘commutation test’ game with them. This involves imagining switching the actors between films and trying to work out whether the narrative would change. I think Copie conforme would be a different film if ‘Elle’ was played by any of the other three. Each would bring with them different qualities from the kinds of films we associate with them. Bergman might offer a higher pitched and more melodrama type of performance. Huppert might be more matter of fact and Karina more vulnerable or perhaps more playful.

I think what I’m trying to say here is that art cinema (or whatever else we want to call these kinds of films) does not necessarily have to present us with an exciting narrative and the central theme doesn’t have to be ‘new’. I don’t mind the repetitions and in fact that is sometimes where the pleasure lies in comparing how auteur directors and their cast and crew handle similar set-ups. It occurs to me that this seems to be a justification for ‘postmodern’ films and I can hear Keith sharpening his pencil to correct me. However, I think the intertextual pleasures I discuss here were around before the 1980s and this is more about an institutional condition of a form of cinema in which a ciné-literate audience can create their own narratives and join in with the ‘play’. I note from the Criterion website that Kiarostami had already made a film with similar subject matter in 1977 and that The Report is now available on the Criterion Blu-ray of Copie conforme – it has rarely been seen outside Iran. After the 1979 Revolution, the Iranian authorities banned the film and Kiarostami felt unable to explore a failing marriage (possibly autobiographical in the same way as Rossellini?) in his next Iranian films. As Godfrey Cheshire comments in his interesting essay on the website, this suggests that Kiarostami was not just picking up on an ‘outmoded’ form of European art cinema, but also making a political gesture as part of his exile from Tehran.

In the clip below we see Jean-Claude Carrière giving fatherly advice to James. This was improvised so William Shimell looks suitably nonplussed.

LFF2016 #4: The Reunion (La Reconquista, Spain 2016)

Olmo and Manuela 'window shopping'

Olmo and Manuela ‘window shopping’ (and eating a slice of pizza)

lff-2016.jpgThe Reunion was presented in the comfortable surroundings of the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington – an excellent cinema and one I wish I could attend more frequently. I enjoyed the film but it was only later that I began to wonder about the Spanish title which has all kinds of possible interpretations. The writer-director Jonás Trueba is known for three previous features, all seen as ‘festival films’ centring on relationships but geared towards character studies rather than plot. The characters are often roughly the same age as the director so here a couple in their early 30s meet for the first time in 15 years. Then, they were still at school and experiencing first love, now Manuela (Itsaso Arana) lives in Buenos Aires and has returned as a visitor to Madrid at Christmas. She has contacted Olmo (Francesco Carril) and when they meet she hands him a letter. We don’t find out until later exactly what the letter contains but we follow the couple to a restaurant and then to a gig in a bar where Manuela’s father (played by singer-songwriter Rafael Berrio) is performing. After switching to another bar, they are invited to a private dancing club. In the early hours of the morning Olmo heads for home – the flat he shares with his partner Clara, an academic psychiatrist. He wakes Clara by accident and she quizzes him before he falls asleep. The last section of the film features his dream about the time when he and Manuela first met and we learn how the letter he was given at the beginning of the evening was first written.

I don’t think I’ve spoilt any narrative pleasure in revealing the structure of the film. Most audiences will be more interested in the interactions between the characters than the sequence of events. The Hollywood Reporter‘s reviewer is not particularly sympathetic to the film, suggesting it is too slow, but he does reference Eric Rohmer as a possible model. Rohmer seems a good shout and the Spanish press reports on the film include comments about the director’s seeming interest in la nouvelle vague. We slowly learn about each character – the flirtatious Manuela and the more reserved Olmo. He is a translator and would-be writer, she is an actress who tells him that since she’s been in Madrid she’s had a different partner each night. There must be something that keeps Olmo interested (besides the fact that Manuela is so attractive).

To return to the title, ‘La Reconquista’ generally refers to Iberian history and the long struggle by Christians to recover the lands occupied by Moorish invaders between the 8th and 15th centuries. Why then choose this title? I haven’t worked that out yet but it suggests something different to ‘Reunion’ in English. Trueba himself emphasises that it is not just the meeting but the ‘recovery’ of the time they had together? I’m also slightly baffled by a reference to a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Suspension of Mercy (known in Spanish as Crímenes imaginarios) made by the 15 year-old Olmo. It’s only a couple of weeks since I saw the last of several European film adaptations of Highsmith novels and they are all ‘disturbing’ in one way or another and the reference here seems to contradict the tone of the narrative – or at least to suggest a whole new facet of the relationship. I need to see La Reconquista again to get my head round these references. I should also add that the music performances are presented in such a way that they are directed to Olmo and Manuela – one is a song Manuela’s father had written around the time the couple first met.

In the Q&A after the film, the director told us that the film has struggled to find an audience on its Spanish release despite good reviews – so I might find re-watching it difficult in the UK. I think there will always be an audience for this kind of intelligent cinema, but it may be too small to sustain a cinema release. But do try to catch it if it turns up. I’ll be looking for Jonás Trueba at future festivals.

Spanish trailer (no EST):

The Blue Room (La chambre bleue, France 2014)

Esther and Julien in court

Esther and Julien in court

After burying myself in Patricia Highsmith adaptations for a couple of weeks, it was quite refreshing to switch to this little gem of a Georges Simenon adaptation. The Blue Room stars Mathieu Almaric and he directs the film himself. The film is only 75 minutes long but none of the time is wasted.

Julien (Mathieu Almaric) is the owner of a business selling and renting out agricultural equipment in Central France. He has an attractive modern house, a beautiful wife and child but he has met again the girl he desired at school. She is now helping to run a pharmacy in a nearby town and she has an older husband who is ailing. She is very much up for an affair and the couple meet for afternoons together in a local hotel with a ‘Blue Room’ that becomes their regular site for passion.

The film is presented as a sequence of short scenes with ellipses. It reminded me somehow of Chris Marker’s La jetée (France 1962) – which is a narrative made up of still images. The story is narrated via flashbacks – Julien’s memories – and through the questioning by the local examining magistrate and a prison psychologist after a crime has been committed. Finally, there is a court scene in a traditional small town courtroom with locals crammed in to witness events. Much of the interest in the film is in its formal precision. The aspect ratio is Academy 1.37:1 and Almaric explains the reasons for this in the film’s Press Notes. This choice seems to be becoming more common. For me, it worked as this is a ‘chamber film’ with a clear sense of entrapment and the squarish ‘enclosed’ screen space seemed appropriate. Almaric says that the panoramic feel of widescreen would have created something different. The other two factors are the use of carefully chosen musical scoring from Grégoire Hetzel and photography that depends on many quite static shots composed by Christophe Beaucarne.

'Real' bodies

‘Real’ bodies

This kind of film defeats some conventional perspectives. I’ve seen it described as an ‘erotic thriller’. IMDb lists the various classifications in different territories. In the US, the MPAA has it as ‘R’, presumably because there is some full-frontal nudity (‘graphic nudity’!). In the UK, the BBFC has it as a ’15’ . In Germany it is ’12’ and in France it is for ‘Tous publics’.  The film isn’t directly ‘erotic’ and the nudity is post-coital – I’m not sure it is a ‘thriller’ either, although there is one scene that might make you jump. What is transgressive is that the nude bodies are presented in a realist way. It’s a hot day. Sex has made the lovers sweat, there may be semen and there is certainly the drama of a spot of blood dropped on a white towel – a lip has been bitten in the heat of passion. Any eroticism is really in the mind, in the thrill of the secrecy of an affair and in the woman’s open desire – and the man’s acquiescence. Esther is played by Stéphanie Cléau who is also credited as co-writer of the film. She is physically taller than Julien and also more confident and assured in herself. I don’t think she is a type as such, even though we learn little about her – and what we do know comes from Julien’s memories. (I say this because some US reviews refer to ‘similar’ Hollywood genre movies which I think work quite differently.) Stéphanie Cléau is not a film actor. Her experience is in theatre as a writer and indeed there is something compellingly different about her brave performance. Almaric says that since Julien’s wife Delphine is played by an actor (Léa Drucker), it was important that Esther wasn’t a ‘known face’ because then it would be a contest between two actors. Esther is the initiator of the way the affair moves – Julien is in some ways the ‘willing victim’. All three leads are excellent.

Julien with his wife Delphine and daughter Suzanne on holiday

Julien with his wife Delphine and daughter Suzanne on holiday

On one level this is the story of how an affair can destroy a marriage, mapped out in the clinical investigations by a magistrate and a psychologist in prison. On a second level it is a cinephile’s treat, a delirious mix of influences and connections. Simenon’s novel comes from the early 1960s and it is a familiar story he had honed over many years. He’s been adapted many times and Amalric tells of how he acquired the rights at a time when he had a gap in projects and the chance to make a chamber piece in a short time. The most obvious lineage for the ideas in the film is from Simenon to Chabrol via Hitchcock. There is that same sense of a bourgeois affair, especially in small-town France. Rather than a thriller though, it is like a mystery – a ‘whydunit’. We get strong clues to how one crime might have been committed but we aren’t sure how another might have happened. Even more of a mystery/intrigue is why Julien would stray from his wife and child. In the most memorable line from the film, Julien reflects, “Life is different when you live it and when you go back over it after”. The trailer below offers a good sense of the formal qualities of the film. I’m struck again by the power of the music to suggest or perhaps to question emotions. Amongst a string of influences (Preminger, Fritz Lang) Almaric and Hetzel have created a blend of Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann with Truffaut’s use of Georges Delerue in La femme d’à côté (1974).

This is a film to watch and re-watch. In the UK the film has been in a handful of cinemas (Picturehouses claims it provided one of their busiest ‘Discovery Tuesday’ audiences) and is also available on VOD.

The film’s trailer (in the correct ratio – the US trailers falsely represent the film)

Hoje (Today, Brazil 2011)

Vera (Denise Varga) in her new kitchen with her mysterious visitor (César Troncoso)

Vera (Denise Varga) in her new kitchen with her mysterious visitor (César Troncoso)

As the title implies, this is a story about an important day. Vera moves into an apartment in São Paulo in 1998. She’s in her mid-40s, not unattractive but perhaps a little uncertain/worried and both elated and stressed because of the move. Certainly, she’s not wealthy or elegant and this is a large unfurnished apartment, light and airy and spacious. But like our heroine it’s also a little run-down and in need of an uplift.

Vera seems to have quite a lot of furniture, books and household goods and two removal men soon appear to bring everything up to the apartment. But suddenly another man appears in one of the rooms. Where as he come from? Vera clearly knows him, but who is he? It’s difficult to discuss this film without revealing crucial spoiler information about the narrative, but I’ll try. The mysterious man refers to Vera’s past and this is a story about the ‘disappeared’ of Brazil. In this sense the film belongs to that category of narratives found in several Latin American countries, each with a history of political repression. In Brazil under the military dictatorship of 1964-85 arrest, imprisonment and torture of dissidents was responsible for the ‘disappearance’ of many individuals. In 1995 the Brazilian Government admitted the violations of human rights in the dictatorship period and 300 families were compensated for the ‘disappearance’ of relatives via legislative action. At one point the director, Tata Amaral, takes the text of the legislation and plays it over the two actors as if it was being projected onto them. You can probably guess what this means.

Text projected onto the characters.

Text projected onto the characters.

Hoje was the only one of the four films I saw on the Brazilian Weekender at HOME which was not introduced. There is very little about it on IMDB or Wikipedia. It was released in Brazil in 2013 and won prizes at Brazilian and Argentinian festivals but apart from one page in Brazilian from which I’ve taken the images here, it is difficult to find out much. It doesn’t seem to have travelled to other festivals. IMDB suggests that the aspect ratio is 1.78:1 implying it was shot for TV (i.e. in the 16:9 format). It looked to me more like 1.85:1 but IMDB also suggests that it was financed by HBO Latin America. If it was intended more for television that might make sense. There is really only one main set (Vera does go down to the street below for two short sequences). It had something of the feel of a TV play about it although the script is adapted from a novel.

I enjoyed the film and especially Denise Varga’s performance. I was also struck by the set design and the cinematography (which both won prizes for Vera Hamburger and Jacob Solitrenick respectively). It was interesting to see a film about the personal stories associated with resistance to authoritarian regimes – and it is noticeable that the film was produced and released when the Workers’ Party held power in Brazil.

Planeta Singli (Poland 2016)

Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) and Tomek (Maciej Stuhr) meet for the first time.

Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) and Tomek (Maciej Stuhr) meet for the first time.

Planeta Singli is the latest Polish blockbuster to hit the UK in an attempt to find the large Polish diaspora audience. Polish is officially the UK’s leading second language (i.e. the first language of a million or more Poles resident in the UK). We’ve had Polish films on release in the UK over the last ten years or so, but usually from UK-based distributors. Planeta Singli follows Pitbull as a release from the US distributor Phoenix via an exclusive deal with Odeon (although I understand ‘second-run’ deals with other cinemas are a possibility). See Charles Gant in the Guardian for the full story.

The title of this new release refers to an internet dating app – ‘Planet Single’ – but the film’s narrative is much more complex than that single reference might suggest. This a rom-com that runs 136 mins –very long by UK/US rom-com standards. In fact, the film manages to combine two parallel family melodramas with a romance and a satire on talk shows as well as internet dating. Slovenian director Mitja Okorn already has form with his local Polish hit Letters to Santa (2011). Various European countries have local traditions involving comedies for particular seasons (e.g. the Christmas comedies in Italy) but Planeta Singli looks like a bid to challenge Hollywood directly (keeping Deadpool from top spot at the Polish box office). Ania (Agnieszka Wiedlocha) is a music teacher in an elementary school still ‘tied’ to her mother at 27 after her father’s death. Her friend Ola is married to the school’s head teacher who has a teenage daughter from his first marriage. Ola is glamorous but unable to hold down a job. Ania is responsible but seemingly rather ‘buttoned up’. Attempting internet dating for the first time, Ania finds herself somehow landed with Tomek (Maciej Stuhr), the presenter of an edgy TV talkshow which uses his skills as a puppeteer. Tomek does a deal with Ania – she will tell him the details of her dates that he will use for stories on his show and in return he will buy her a Steinway piano for her school music project.

Ania in teaching mode with her music group.

Ania in teaching mode with her music group.

Ania in her new 'stylish' mode with one of her later dates

Ania in her new ‘stylish’ mode with one of her later dates

What follows is in many ways quite conventional and the finale is also very sentimental (and invokes the music competition performance that has become something of a staple). Yet the writing is sharp, the film is genuinely funny and the performances are very good, especially from the two leads. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the transformation in the presentation of Ania in terms of hair and make-up and especially costume. This ‘makeover’ reminded me of the Bette Davis character in Now Voyager. The film has the problem of presenting a beautiful woman as ‘dowdy’. The solution appears to be to dress her in loose tops and skirts, to pin her hair up and to give her oversize horn-rimmed glasses. As the transformation develops she lets her hair down, applies make-up and wears heels. Her costumes change to outfits that seemed to me to more like 60s and 70s fashion and several of them made me think of Audrey Hepburn. Fashion isn’t really my thing. Agnieszka Wiedlocha clearly is a beautiful woman who would still look great in jeans and a man’s shirt, preferably sans make-up – but that’s just my taste. I think someone interested in costume could have a field day with this film.

The music used in the film is another important element in the genre mix. A trailer for the next Polish release played before Planeta Singli, announcing ‘the first film to really use top Polish songs’. In Planeta Singli a couple of songs were in English including ‘The Man with an Unknown Soul’ by Polish singer Bovska and a striking version of Paul Simon’s ‘The Sound of Silence’ by Korean-American singer Nouela.

Ola and Bogdan offer the parallel romance as they try to maintain their marriage.

Ola and Bogdan offer the parallel romance as they try to maintain their marriage.

Overall this is an enjoyable rom-com and it’s easy to see why it has been such a big hit. I dread the thought of an American remake and in this respect the film made me think about the smash hit South Korean rom-com My Sassy Girl (2001) which was followed by less successful remakes in the US and India as well as a Chinese sequel. The Polish and Korean films are very different in some ways, though they share scenes associated with the drinking cultures of both countries. But what they both also do is offer genuine romance narratives with well thought-out characters and long complex narratives. If this film makes it to a DVD with subtitles, it would certainly be worth checking out. On subtitles, it’s worth noting that in a film with lots of texting between characters it’s quite difficult to subtitle all the exchanges flashing across the screen.

In the last six months I’ve now seen both Polish and Chinese blockbusters in Odeons outside London. Perhaps a Turkish film will be next?

Here’s the song by Bovska that has been edited to serve as a trailer for the film:

GFF16 #10: Woman of the Year (US 1942)

Kate and Spence

Kate and Spence

This year Glasgow Film Festival has instituted a set of free screenings of classical Hollywood films under the heading of ‘The Dream Team’ with pairings such as Bogart and Bacall, Doris Day and Rock Hudson, Butch and Sundance etc. Tickets are only obtainable 30 minutes before the screening at 10.30 am. I rolled up to find a queue outside GFT but there was plenty of room in GFT1, the largest auditorium, and everyone was easily accommodated. The pairing was Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in their first film together, Woman of the Year. The screening was introduced (as all GFF screenings I’ve attended have been) but, unlike on most other occasions, co-director Allan Hunter said quite a lot about the film, offering us information about the production and the long loving relationship between Hepburn and the still married Tracy hat started on this film shoot. The intro was well received by an audience that wasn’t totally made up of pensioners. For younger members, Hunter’s insights were no doubt very useful.

Woman of the Year was an MGM production on which Hepburn had a considerable input since she sold the script package to the studio and chose both Tracy as her leading man and George Stevens as director. Hunter told us that she thought Stevens could talk to Tracy about sports. I was partly attracted to the film because of Stevens – who later directed Shane in a manner rather different to his pre-war films. I wondered if the film would have been different if George Cukor had been agreed by Hepburn (she had previously worked with both directors). Stevens had a good pedigree in comedy and Woman of the Year fairly zips along with great dialogue exchanges. Hepburn is Tess Harding – a character based on the leading American female journalist of the period –who is elected ‘Woman of the Year’. Tracy is Sam Craig, the leading sports columnist on the same paper. When they meet they fall for each other immediately and marry quickly despite their obvious differences in background and tastes.

I found the film refreshingly sharp and witty with two great players and a tight script by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. The two actors seem to feed off each other. The main interest in the film today is in the ending which legend has it was the result of studio bosses wanting to see the strong assertive woman cut down to size and ‘behaving herself in a man’s world’. The final sequence was not in the script that Hepburn brought to the studio and though its force was slightly ameliorated by the writers, even so it is seen as dating the film because it wouldn’t be acceptable post 1960s feminism etc. I’m not sure if that analysis makes sense (whatever the studio’s intention). Tess has behaved badly (in her treatment of a refugee child). This is mainly because she has lived the life of a wealthy and privileged woman and doesn’t understand a few basics. The final scene sees her trying to appease Sam by making him breakfast in the kitchen of the new apartment he has taken after leaving her. Since she knows nothing about cooking or kitchens, everything goes wrong in a glorious sequence of blunders with untameable food technology. Stevens began his career photographing Laurel and Hardy films for Hal Roach and he organises this well. Tess’ failure to cook is demeaning not because she is doing ‘women’s work’ but because she is a rich young woman who has never done menial work in the home. She isn’t being ‘punished because she is a woman but because she has no contact with the world of the everyday for most people. It’s also true that the costume Kate is wearing is immensely impractical and gets in the way of cooking. Personally I can never see Ms Hepburn as a submissive woman on screen – she always seems to be in charge. Having said that, Allan Hunter told us that the normally assertive Katharine Hepburn was remarkably subservient to Spencer Tracy in their personal relationship. So, ‘that’s acting’ as more than one female star has said.