Category: Swiss Cinema

My Little Sister (Schwesterlein, Switzerland 2020)

Lisa and Sven with their mother Marthe in her Berlin apartment

The writer-directors of My Little Sister, Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, were able to introduce their film for the Borderlines Film Festival. They told us it was written for Nina Hoss and was made possible through a chance meeting with the actor. This is one of two Nina Hoss films in the festival and I posted on the other film The Audition (Germany 2019) from Glasgow last year. The two films are similar in some ways with Ms Hoss as an independent woman who finds herself close to someone she considers her charge, her responsibility at a time of crisis – even though this might undermine her marriage. Both films are made by women. My Little Sister was the official Swiss entry for the 2021 Oscars as ‘Best International Feature Film’.

Lisa and Sven en route to Switzerland

This is a traditional European arthouse film, a drama designed primarily as a psychological study of twins from a Berlin family of actors and writers. It does however have a genre base in the form of a narrative about a potentially terminal illness. As the film opens it appears that it is the Nina Hoss character, Lisa who is facing a serious illness as she lies in a hospital bed attached to various bits of medical technology, but soon we realise that it is her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger) who is seriously ill and that Lisa has been donating blood and marrow. This is one of those films that place actors in the odd position of playing roles which replicate aspects of their ‘real lives’. Sven, like Eidinger himself, is a star actor of the Berliner Schaubühne ensemble and the connection is extended through Thomas Ostermeier, the ‘real theatre’ director, who in this film plays David, the theatre director. Sven leaves hospital and visits the theatre hoping that David will take him back as Hamlet, the role he has played many times before. David is clearly wary of Sven’s condition but Sven is determined to spend his convalescence looking forward to returning to a role he knows so well.

Lisa with David, pleading for Sven to be given the chance to get back on the stage

Life in their mother’s flat in Berlin is chaotic and Kathy (Marthe Keller, the veteran German star) is not really equipped to keep house for Sven or to organise his medical appointments. Lisa decides to take him to her home in Switzerland where her two small children will be pleased to see Sven. She also has a husband Martin (Jens Albinus, also a lead actor in The Audition) who is the headteacher of an élite private school in the lakeside resort of Leysin (once known for its TB sanatoria). It is quickly apparent that Lisa’s close attachment to her sick twin (he is a few minutes older) is going to cause problems in her marriage. This is the basic plot outline. The genre base of the narrative more or less directs where the story will go but the interest is in the development of the relationships rather than the ‘action’ events.

Sven ‘facetiming’ from Switzerland

Lisa has been a writer, including for the Schaubühne. She needs to write for Sven and she needs to write for herself and to stand up to her mother who represents the political theatre of the past. We wonder why she married Martin who is good in bed but whose ambitions for his career don’t really match what she wants for herself and her children. This is a cleverly scripted and beautifully presented film with terrific performances. I don’t really enjoy medical dramas which always make me think of my own mortality. On the other hand I could watch Nina Hoss being magnificent in virtually any kind of film. The connection between Lisa, Sven and the two children is at the centre of the film and it is this that kept me engaged throughout. I’ve said it is an arthouse film, but the narrative drive is strong, powered by the performances. The medical theme could be an ingredient in a melodrama, but in this case I feel that the melodrama possibilities are not developed and the narrative relies more on the performances. One interesting aspect of the film is that Leysin is in Vaud in the South West, part of francophone Switzerland and the school over which Martin presides is anglophone, reflecting its attraction to East Asian parents preferring the idea of an international school. Wikipedia tells me that there was indeed once an American international school in Leysin, but it is now closed. Some of the scenes in the school are interesting as Lisa is roped in by her husband to charm prospective students and their families. Lisa converses in French and then German on the phone as she walks towards the school and is then introduced in English. I should point out that all the films I have seen at the Borderlines Festival are subtitled by default.

Martin with the children

According to the festival programme, My Little Sister has been acquired for the UK by 606 Distribution, a small independent which is “Dedicated to releasing female focused films from around the world”. I hope this means we shall see the film in UK cinemas later this year. Nina Hoss is a huge talent who is not well enough known in the UK and the more of her films that open here, the better. Similarly we don’t get many Swiss films and it is always good to see different aspects of European cinema. The US trailer below gives a good idea of the film.

Bird Island (L’Île aux oiseaux, Switzerland 2019)

Emilie and Sandrine treat a swan

This unusual little film, barely an hour long, intrigues though little seems to happen in what passes as a narrative. It is only afterwards, while reflecting on the film, that you realise that it is a carefully considered construction, a hybrid of fiction and documentary that aims to make a number of interesting and important statements. After several festival screenings it is now available on MUBI in the UK. One of the two writer-directors, Sergio Da Costa developed an idea first and then discovered a Swiss documentary project that offered to fully fund a film. Da Costa applied with his partner Maya Kosa and they were awarded funding. Kosa then became as enthusiastic as Da Costa (the pair had worked together on a previous film, Rio Corgo (2015).

Antonin learns how to move the rats and mice when their pens need cleaning

The two filmmakers had discovered an injured bird by the roadside in 2013 and taken it to a bird rehabilitation centre near the airport in Geneva. It was Da Costa who was surprised that the centre didn’t correspond to the stereotype of a sanitised Swiss operation. It seemed more chaotic. Da Costa says he was more sensitised by the place: “I saw its cinematic potential as a disaster film”. (See the interview on MUBI.) What the filmmakers then produced was a fiction which used some of the real workers at the centre plus a non-professional actor playing the central character Antonin. All the actors used their own first names. The cast is actually much smaller than the workforce of the centre, allowing more focus on the characters. Antonin is a young man recovering from cancer treatment and he arrives at the centre as a form of apprentice, learning a job partly as therapy. He is still subject to moments of complete lack of energy and his habit of literally falling asleep at work is a surprise to Paul, the older man who is about to retire after teaching Antonin how to breed mice and rats that will be fed to the captive birds of prey in the centre. As well as Paul, the other featured workers are Sandrine, who generally cares for the birds, Emilie the vet and Iwan who appears to be a handyman of sorts.

The traumatised owl has recovered and is ready for release

There certainly is an air of melancholy about the centre and we see some scenes that the usual audience for TV wildlife programmes might find distressing. I haven’t watched the various TV reality shows featuring vets, but I suspect they may show some of Emilie’s activities. She works on the wounds suffered by a swan, an owl that has suffered severe shock and is required to euthanase a small bird. The mice have to be killed by Antonin and then dissected to provide fresh meat for the convalescing birds. Most of what I’ve described might be expected in a documentary about the centre, which is also a centre in which some of the staff are ‘rehabilitating’ as well as the birds they care for. Fortunately we don’t get any of the less welcome features of TV wildlife programmes such as the anthropomorphising of birds, cheery presenters or dramatic music. However we do get some music and several other artistic devices. The brief music uses comprise three classical/religious pieces which Da Costa says came from his own sensitivity to religious music and he agrees that they are part of the melancholic feel. (The three pieces are by Georg Philipp Telemann, Dieterich Buxtehude and Sergei Rachmaninoff). Elsewhere on the soundtrack we are aware of the planes flying over. There are also several snatches of voiceover taken from a diary the filmmakers asked Antonin to keep during the production. The reference here is to Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest. These references might lead you to think that the film is overly serious and pretentious but this isn’t so. The melancholy is relieved by moments of tenderness and humour as well as sadness. One idea that worked for me is the way in which a heat-sensitive camera is used (differently) a couple of times. The first time it is used is surprising but works well if you stick with it.

I began by suggesting that little happens in the narrative but that isn’t really the case. There is drama and Antonin definitely learns and changes as a result of his experiences. I note that the filmmakers have thought a lot about how the centre is a kind of retreat from the damage caused by humans both to each other, to other other living creatures and to the ecology as a whole. One of the references in what appears like an artist’s ‘mood board’ on MUBI’s presentation pages on the film is a cover from an edition of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. This is a gentle humanist film focusing on an institution that tries to repair some of the damage human society has caused.

The film was shot on 16mm and is presented without masking in Academy ratio. Dialogue is in French. I’m still thinking about it and I certainly recommend watching it.

Le vent tourne (The Wind Turns, Switzerland-France 2018)

Farming in the Jura mountains

The second film in my ‘My French Film Festival’ programme continues a trend for rural dramas that have flourished in the last few year in the UK. God’s Own Country (2017) The Levelling (2016) and Dark River (2017) might all be included in the category. The Wind Turns (also listed as With the Wind) shares some elements with Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Italy-Switzerland-Germany 2014). Here is Swiss-German director Bettina Oberli tackling a story by Antoine Jaccoud about a couple on a farm in the Jura Region of Switzerland. As in The Wonders, they are attempting a traditional approach to farming without the use of modern agribusiness methods and, also as in The Wonders, they accept a young person to stay with them over the summer. But other than that, the films are quite different. I do also remember another Swiss film which shares some elements with this rural drama: Animal Heart (2009)

The script doesn’t divulge too much information at first so I’ll try to maintain some of the surprises.The couple running the farm are Alex (Pierre Deladonchamps) and Pauline (Mélanie Thierry) and we first meet them dealing with a distressing situation – a calf is still-born in an open field. Next day, however, they meet their summer guest Galina (Anastasia Shevtsova) who is from a village near Chernobyl and is coming to stay with her medication for the fresh air and natural way of life as she recovers from radiation poisoning. A little later a second ‘guest’ appears – Samuel (Nuno Lopes), an engineer who has come to oversee the installation of a contradictory high-tech solution to the need for power on the farm in the form of a single wind turbine which will generate electricity for lighting etc.

Handprints in the concrete base for the wind turbine. Samuel is on the right in the foreground.

Alex and Paul have very different outlooks on life. Alex has strong beliefs and wants to stick to them come what may. Samuel is both more cynical and more easygoing. He travels the world installing this kit but you get the feeling he could install any kind of equipment and he soon finds himself at odds with Alex despite his own nonchalant manner. Pauline is clearly attracted to Samuel and also warmly welcomes Galina. Both the guests seem much livelier than Alex and occasionally Pauline needs a good time. The other disruptive influence is Mara (Audrey Cavelius), Pauline’s sister who is a vet. Alex is reluctant to let Mara near the animals, fearing she may treat them with unnecessary medication.

This rural melodrama involves human conflicts, some sexual encounters and the power of nature, in particular wind, rain and fog. The raising of the wind tower is both a focus for collective action and celebration and a potent symbol of ‘disruption’.

The director with her two female leads- Mélanie Thierry is on the right

Bettina Oberli is German-speaking Swiss so undertaking a francophone film was a challenge. She does have at least one starry collaborator in the form of Céline Sciamma and also Mélanie Thierry who seemed very familiar to me but I can only think of Bertrand Tavernier’s La princesse de Montpensier (France 2010) as a film of hers that I have seen. She has a strong presence and she becomes the centre of the film around which the other performances can be built. The Swiss landscape is well-captured by Stéphane Kuthy who has documentary shoots on his CV, evident in his coverage of the installation and the various farm routines. I also enjoyed the music of Arnaud Rebotini.

I’ve been an organic gardener and a strong supporter of sustainable agriculture for many years and I found some scenes in the film quite distressing but I also recognised the very strongly-held views about farming, especially as held by Alex, and how they can lead to a very blinkered approach to problems. The narrative is certainly believable and the open ending gives pause for thought. It’s another short film, well under 90 minutes but packs quite a punch as a worthwhile festival film. The film opens with a long quote by the British author Rebecca West which encapsulates the ideas behind the narrative, but I can’t find the source text.

Here’s the trailer with English subs:

GFF19 #2: Ceux qui travaillent (Those Who Work, Switzerland-Belgium 2018)

Frank is forced to take a long hard look at himself

This European co-production helmed by Swiss writer-director Antoine Russbach is a gripping drama, part moral tale, part family melodrama starring one of the great actors of Francophone cinema, Olivier Gourmet. Gourmet, the Belgian actor who almost defines the Dardenne Brothers’ films, is in nearly every scene as Frank, the archetypal ‘hard-working man’. The narrative begins with Frank caught up in the middle of a regular occurrence. He is a project manager for a shipping company which organises container traffic on ships bringing a range of goods to Europe. As far as I can work out, Frank is based in Francophone Geneva and the ship in this case is heading to Marseille from West Africa. In his conversations with the ship’s captain, Frank speaks English.

Frank has to solve problems and this is very difficult when the chartered flights ships are old and unreliable, the multinational crews are not always well-trained or well-paid and there are plenty of possible ways of making mistakes. Frank has to make a decision just as he is picking up the youngest of his five children from school because she is sick. He makes a morally reprehensible decision and later he will pay for his ‘mistake’ – even though it will save the company a great deal of money.

In this early section, the film seems to question the Protestant work ethic and the capitalist desire for profit above morality. Frank is a farmer’s son brought up in the ‘school of hard knocks’ – something he tries to explain to his four older children. He will then realise that his obsession with work – which has brought the family a swimming pool and many other luxury items – has also led to a neglect of his role as husband and father.

I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure any more, but I will note that his relationship with his youngest daughter is, in a way, his salvation in what becomes a family melodrama. I’ve read at least one review that suggests that the film has a ‘feelgood’ ending. I can’t agree with that but it is an abrupt ending and I may have misunderstood it. It seems to find a ‘human ending’ – signified by Frank’s rapprochement with his family, but also implies that he will go back to the same kind of work with similar possible consequences for projects that might go ‘wrong’.

Those Who Work is a conventional film with many familiar scenes and typical characters. Yet it never fails to engage and Gourmet’s performance holds everything together with great skill. His character explains that as a child he was never allowed to speak his mind and here Frank pauses before he speaks in a deliberate manner.

I don’t agree with the ideology of the film’s conclusion, but overall I found this an impressive production which I would like to see in UK cinemas. This entry in GFF’s ‘Window on the World’ strand made for a strong beginning for my visit to the festival.

LIFF#7: Chris the Swiss (Switzerland, 2018)

chris-the-swiss-2017-anja-kofmel-02

Bleak times

The horrors of the civil war in former Yugoslavia should not be forgotten and debut director (who also scripted) Anja Kofmel investigates the time and place through a personal journey. Her cousin, Christian Würtenberg, was a fearless journalist who was killed when Kofmel was eight years old. Twenty years later she, and the film crew, try to find out how he died.

Of course there’s no doubting the heartfelt nature of the documentary, it supplements actuality footage and interviews with animation, the visual style of which is apparently derived from a nightmare she had as a child about Chris’ death. However, although we do find out details about Chris’ demise, the detective work feels perfunctory and doesn’t reveal much about the war (except Opus Dei seem to have been involved with the Pope’s blessing). Although Kofmel wrote the script in the first person, and she appears on camera, the English voiceover is spoken by New Zealander Megan Gay in a middle class English accent (at first I’d assumed Kofmel to be English because of this). The credits also list a ‘German narrator’. I’m not sure of the point of doing this but it distanced me from the narrative, which, given its personal nature, was a disadvantage.

It was difficult to gauge the reliability of the interviewees and, although the conclusion is convincing, the reasons behind Chris’ death necessarily remain speculative. The animation, an expressionist monochrome, looks good but features evil-like skittering black things that are too close to Hollywood and they undermine the realism of the documentary. The weak script renders commonplace the extraordinary events; maybe the film suffers overall because of Kofmel’s inexperience as a filmmaker. Certainly it is worth seeing, if only to remember the terrible time, but this personal journal does little to enlighten.

My Life as a Courgette (Ma vie de Courgette, France-Switzerland 2016)

A film about orphans (or more generally, ‘children in care’) immediately evokes memories of Oliver Twist (1948), Annie (1982), Holes (2003) etc. But I felt that this French-Swiss stop-motion animation brought me closer to the experience of such children than these or the many other live-action films in the same mould. Director Claude Barras called it “Ken Loach for kids” and that is not so far-fetched, with its mixture of realism, melodrama and indeed comedy.

There was a lot of interest in the film after it premiered at Cannes in 2016, and was nominated for both the Oscar and Golden Globe and won Best Animated Film and Best Adaptation at the 2017 Césars, but I was also interested in it because I had seen a short animation by Barras, The Genie in the Ravioli Can (2006), in a collection of French shorts put together by the BFI. His first full-length feature indicates the progress he has made in the decade that has followed.

The protagonist is a nine-year-old boy whose name is Icare but he insists on being called by the nickname his mother gave him – Courgette. His father abandoned the family when he was little and he lives with his mother, a violent alcoholic who spends her time drinking beer and watching TV soaps, and from time to time she administers a thrashing to her child. He mostly plays alone in his attic bedroom, his toys being self-made: a kite with a drawing of his imagined father as a superhero; and his mother’s empty beer cans. It was these which cause a dramatic change in his life as the pyramid which he was building with them fell down, causing his mother to angrily ascend to the attic with threats of a severe beating. When he slams closed the attic door to protect himself his mother falls down the stairs to her death.

A kindly policeman, Raymond, questions him gently, then takes him to an orphanage; the boy’s only possessions are the aforementioned kite and empty bear can – and his nickname which he is stubbornly determined to hold onto. Raymond comes to visit him in the orphanage, not because it’s his job as Courgette at first thinks but because Raymond likes him, and they exchange letters, Courgette’s being accompanied by colourful sketches – he is gifted in drawing – which chronicle his life in the orphanage.

Here Courgette meets his fellow residents, all with problems as serious or more serious than his. Simon, who has a tell-tale scar on his forehead and whose parents are drug addicts, is the self-appointed leader and bullies Courgette at first but when Courgette fights back they become best of friends. (The character of Simon is a good example of how the film avoids stereotypes and provides complex well-rounded characters). Simon catalogues the reasons the other children are in the home. Alice is victim of paternal sexual abuse and is subject to obsessive. Bea’s mother was deported back to Africa while her daughter was at school and every time she hears a car she rushes out shouting “maman”. Ahmed’s father is in jail for armed robbery of a service station and Ahmed wets the bed while Jujube’s mother is afflicted with OCD and endlessly opens and closes the fridge and cleans the toilet non-stop for weeks end. Simon wearily sums it up matter-of-factly: “We are all the same. We have no-one to love us.”

The outlook for Courgette lights up when 10-year-old, football loving, Kafka-reading Camille arrives by court order. When she arrives at the orphanage she immediately puts Simon in his place, showing that physical confrontation isn’t the only way to deal with a bully, and she helps the almost mute Alice to come out from behind her fringe and join the others. And Courgette immediately falls head over heels for her, which is reciprocated. But she has been sent to the orphanage after she has witnessed her father killing her mother for infidelity before turning the gun on himself.

A French film about an orphanage and children in care is bound to evoke Francois Truffaut’s 1959 film, The 400 Blows/Les 400 coups but My Life as a Courgette is in contrast with these films in that the pattern is reversed as abuse is suffered from the outside world while the orphanage is a place of safety and recovery. The small staff couldn’t be less Dickensian – the wise and calm and compassionate principal Mme Papineau, the children’s teacher Mr Paul, and his partner Rosie, the children’s carer, are dedicated and compassionate, a representation which is in contrast with the frequently negative portrayal of the “caring professions” (and the policeman Raymond would be included in this description).

If the mood is frequently dark, the saddest scenes are often alternate with comic ones: the children speculate on what adults get up to in bed, a trip to a ski resort, a snowball fight, a disco. This is a major contribution by Céline Sciamma who has adapted Gilles Paris’ s source novel, “Autobiography of a Courgette”. As a film director herself, her own films (Water Lilies/ Naissance des pieuvres, Tom Boy, Girlhood/Bande de filles), are coming of age stories which explore the difficult world of childhood and adolescence. There is little in the way of plot, just an accumulation of scenes from the daily life at the orphanage, until Camille’s aunt, who mistreated her when she had short-term custody, arrives wanting to make it permanent to get her hands on the state benefit which would accrue if she were Camille’s foster parent. This causes to children to band together to thwart her.

As for the film’s target audiences, in France and Switzerland Courgette is deemed to be suitable for 8-year-olds and it does have the cutesy angle which is a staple for children’s films. However (and notwithstanding the Bambi experience) not many 8-year-olds would cope with the characters’ backstories, and they would perhaps be mystified by the sex references and not be very familiar with Kafka. But Barras said in an interview that it’s more of a childhood film than a children’s film. This is true but it seems that the film is “double-encoded” for two separate audiences. This is reflected in the exhibition policy (at least in Aberdeen’s Belmont Cinema, and no doubt others,) of using a dubbed version for daytime screenings and subtitles for evening ones. Sub-titling could be problematic for a very young audience in relation to reading age.

The film’s emotional realism is all the more remarkable as the characters are 9-inch high plasticine puppets with enormous heads, extra-long arms, multi-coloured hair (blue for the protagonist, Courgette), red noses and ping-pong-ball-like eyes. It is hardly naturalistic and there is no danger of the characters travelling in the “uncanny valley” (a term used in animation to refer to the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person viewing it.)

We sometimes forget to attribute the cinematic aspects of animation films – and not just the incredibly labour-and-time-intensive work involved in stop-motion – which we take for granted in non-animated films, but I think I would need at least another viewing to fully explore this. What I would look at in particular would be the editing (the long takes allowing the film to ‘breathe’); the lighting which was very effective in bringing the puppets to life, particularly the use of “catch-lights” on the puppets’ eyes which helps to intensify emotional engagement. I should also mention the acting, the children’s parts being voiced by children of the appropriate age. And Sophie Hunger’s excellent musical score.

Finally, the film runs to only 66 minutes (of which 5 are end credits), a commercially-awkward running time but it would have been a mistake if it had been padded out and I was perfectly fine with that running time.

Here is the trailer with English sub-titles. If you want to see the dubbed version you’ll find it on YouTube under the title, My Life as a Zucchini.