Category: Womens Film

Devotion (US 1946)

The ball scene with (from left) Anne Brontë (Nancy Coleman), Emily (Ida Lupino), Charlotte (Olivia de Havilland) and Rev. Nicholls (Paul Henreid)

Devotion is a film seemingly disowned by Warner Bros and derided by critics – but enjoyed by many audiences (though perhaps not devoted fans of the Brontë Sisters). Warner Bros. was a studio known for biopics and this one features the best known members of the Brontë family, starring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland as Emily and Charlotte. It was potentially a prestige production with Paul Henreid as the curate Rev. Collins, Sidney Greenstreet as William Thackeray and Arthur Kennedy as the dissolute brother, Branwell. Olivia de Havilland was at this point in dispute with Warners over her contract and Jack Warner, in a typical move, ‘punished’ her by giving her third billing. For the second time (after High Sierra), Ida Lupino found herself with top billing by default – which is equally demeaning. She does however, come out as the best performer in the cast (and that’s not just my opinion). Whether Jack Warner’s action was also the reason for holding back the film’s release until 1946 (it was made over the winter months of 1942-3) is not clear, but in his biography of Ida Lupino, William Donati states that Warner Bros. did not even tell Olivia de Havilland about the film’s première. She only learned about it when Ida Lupino phoned her to compliment her on her work on the picture. There is a new biography of de Havilland by Victoria Amador, entitled Lady Triumphant, University Press of Kentucky, 2019. Perhaps this will reveal more of exactly what happened when de Havilland took Warner Bros to court in August 1943? She won her case and the so-called ‘De Havilland Law’ of 1944 restricted the studio’s contractual hold over players to seven calendar years. Since de Havilland signed in 1936 she was thus free of Warners’ control. Lupino benefited from this when she left the studio in 1947.

Rather than a Warners biopic, it is more likely that the studio saw Devotion as a response to Goldwyn’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights (1939) with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier and also as competition for Fox’s Jane Eyre with Orson Welles’ and de Havilland’s sister Joan Fontaine (which opened in the UK and Ireland on Christmas Eve 1943).

Donati, like many others felt that it was a mediocre picture that doesn’t work. But is it that bad? To add to the prestige cast, the film was photographed by the great Ernie Haller and it had an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score. Director Curtis Bernhardt had an impressive back catalogue in Germany, the UK and France but he had only been at Warner Bros since 1940 so perhaps he wasn’t able to stand up to Jack Warner or to demand changes to the preposterous script. Presumably, to fit the Brontë story into a mainstream generic narrative, the script contrives a scenario whereby Emily falls for her father’s new curate but cannot express her love and in effect becomes involved in a contest with Charlotte (who did actually marry the historical figure of Arthur Nicholls). The other historical events are moved around to suit the construction of a conventional narrative. This is not necessarily a problem for most audiences but the way the conflict between Emily and Charlotte is represented surely is. I feel that there is a strange contradiction in the casting. In one sense Lupino and de Havilland are cast as characters who do match each star’s own screen persona. Ida Lupino is the passionate and intense Emily and Olivia de Havilland is the colder, more rational Charlotte. That’s fine and so is the age difference. Olivia de Havilland was a couple of years older than Lupino and that fits with Charlotte as the older sister. But the performances contradict this.

For me Lupino feels older, or more precisely, more ‘mature’. Olivia de Havilland comes across as a head girl type, a little prissy and certainly bossy but not really aware of what she is doing. Lupino is more ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’. She also has a deeper voice and, as several commentators have pointed out, although the script is not very good, Ida Lupino manages to handle it much more effectively – it seems to make some sense when she speaks the lines. Other aspects of the production seem to confirm the distinction. Olivia de Havilland was at this point much more experienced in historical roles (all those prestige adventure pics with Errol Flynn) and her hairstyle and dresses in Devotion are not unlike those of a cavalry officer’s wife in They Died With Their Boots On (1941). Lupino’s hair and dress are more simple and more appropriate for a young woman on Haworth Moor – though the dress that laces up the front looks like a costume from The Adventures of Robin Hood.

An unlikely pose for the Brontë siblings on the studio set for Haworth Moor

The script is indeed terrible, but the cinematography, of mainly studio sets, is excellent and all the performances are better than the script deserves. It’s interesting to see Arthur Kennedy as Branwell. He seems to have spent a long time as a ‘junior’ figure in Hollywood films even though he was 29 when he took on this role. In one of his later roles, in The Lusty Men (1952), he plays the novice to Robert Mitchum’s ‘veteran’ rodeo rider (Mitchum was three years younger). It makes me wonder if the delayed release of Devotion held Kennedy’s career back. Nancy Coleman as Anne Brontë is marginalised by the script. Anne was herself a novelist, possibly the first of the three sisters to complete a book (Anne Grey, published in a ‘triple volume’ with Emily’s Wuthering Heights). Later she wrote the Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). Presumably the intention was to streamline the biopic narrative so that Anne’s position in the family is diminished. Again the casting seems odd. Anne, the youngest sister, was played by the eldest of the three actresses, although the one with least experience.

Everything comes back to the script. It appears to derive from a story written by the Romanian-born Theodore Reeves which was then worked into a screenplay by Keith Winter and Edward Chodorov. There is no reason to question the good intentions of these two writers. Winter was Welsh and had already worked on Forever and a Day which included a Lupino cameo in 1943 (though, because it was a ‘compendium film’, they might not have met). Chodorov would later become the writer for one of Ida Lupino’s most successful films, Road House in 1948. I can only assume that it was ‘front office pressure’ that produced such a strange script. Looking at the cast in 1943, it may have been that Warner Bros thought an ‘English story’ using several of Hollywood’s pool of British acting talent would work well in the context of America’s entry into the war.

One of the intriguing compositions featuring Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland

I shouldn’t end without some praise for Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. I enjoyed the film despite the silly script and read it as a ‘romance melodrama’ edging towards the ‘woman’s picture’ of the period. There is a Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers – see the second trailer above. If you are in the UK, the Parsonage Museum in Haworth puts on screenings of the US DVD fairly regularly. I saw it in Haworth a few months ago.

¡Viva! 25 #6: Las niñas bien (The Good Girls, Mexico 2018)

This film has a similar title to the classic Claude Chabrol film from 1960 (Les bonnes femmes, France-Italy) which has by chance drawn a few visitors to this blog recently. Both films have question marks about how to translate their titles into English. It’s the ‘good’ part that’s the problem. What exactly does it mean? Chabrol’s film about four working-class shopgirls received criticism at the time but has since become recognised as one of his best films. Las niñas bien is about a group of upper middle-class women in Mexico City in 1982. The film was written and directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella and most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were also women. This was noted on the film’s first big festival appearance at Toronto in 2018 where reviewers praised the film and Márquez Abella was selected by Variety as one of its ’10 Directors to Watch’ in 2019. The film has since gone on to win prizes at festivals and was released in March in Mexico. However, I wonder how it might now be viewed by those audiences who so enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) which deals with same world at an earlier time of crisis in 1972?

The Good Girls with their drivers

Las niñas bien is adapted from a book of essays written in the early 1980s by Maria Guadalupe Loaeza, one of a group of ‘Good Girls’, who exposed how these women spent their time and their money and how they treated each other and the others (servants, receptionists, shop staff etc. as well as the nouveau riche) who they met. In the interview below, Alejandra Márquez Abella explains how she decided to use this source material which she thinks is still relevant thirty years later as the same social class divisions remain and Mexico has suffered recurring cycles of economic ‘boom and bust’. She recognises that the original was a satire but argues that she hasn’t created a satirical film but rather a form of detailed character study looking at how these women behave and how surface appearances relate to what might be happening ‘underneath’. She feels that satire doesn’t really work in exploring this kind of world any more – there have been so many such satirical films about social class in Latin America.

Writer-director Alejandra Márquez Abella (centre with the microphone)

I have to say that as I watched the film I was very uncomfortable. Part of me was admiring the direction, the acting, the cinematography and the production design – this is a very well-made film. But the other half was raging against these wealthy dilettantes who contribute nothing to society and look down their carefully made-up noses at the rest of Mexico and indeed the country itself. After the screening I spent a long time thinking about the film and I haven’t quite resolved the conflict in my feelings about it.

 Ilse Salas as SofÍa

SofÍa in situ as the queen of her domain

The plot of the film follows roughly a year, I think, in the life of the central character SofÍa played by Ilse Salas. This is a stunning performance and I didn’t recognise the same actor who was also very good in Güeros (Mexico 2014) in a very different role. SofÍa is a woman from, presumably, a ‘good family’ who has been advised to marry Fernando because he too is from the right kind of family. When the narrative begins SofÍ is hosting a lavish party for her birthday. Everything is ‘just right’ except that she hasn’t achieved her fantasy result in which Julio Iglesias appears as a guest (this and the references to the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés is a sign of deference to the ex-colonial power in Mexico). The next day however Fernando learns that his uncle is pulling out of the business he had started as a ‘migrant’ (from Spain?) with Fernando’s father. There is a crisis coming with the falling value of the peso and anyone who doesn’t hold dollars is in trouble. From this point Fernando is in deep trouble – and so is SofÍ. Having packed her children off to summer camp with instructions not to mix with ‘Mexicans’ (!), SofÍ seems only marginally affected by the financial crisis when her credit cards are refused and her cheques bounce.

An important parallel plotline is the appearance of Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan) as a young woman from the country with ‘uncouth’ manners who marries a successful financier (?) and aspires to join the ‘Good Girls’. She takes SofÍ as a role model and aspires to be like her, wanting to know how to speak, what clothes to wear, how to behave. SofÍ behaves very badly towards her but gradually the tables are turned as Ana Paula becomes the dominant figure in the social life of the group.

Daniela Ludlow cinematographer

A great deal of time is spent on clothes, make-up and interior decoration. Some commentators argue that this is unusual and shows the care and attention of a female crew. DoP Dariela Ludlow must take some of the credit for her presentation of the women alongside costume designer Annai Ramos. The film is set in the early 1980s which, from my perspective was one of the worst periods for fashion and I was reminded of Margaret Thatcher – not a pleasant memory. At the end of the film, SofÍ tears out her shoulder pads and I thought this might mark a change for the good, but the actual resolution of the narrative suggests ‘business as usual’. Earlier I mentioned a comparison with Roma. There is one shared moment between the two films when a drunken husband crashes his car into a post, but otherwise the two films are very different. Roma offers us several perspectives on Mexican society and in particular promotes the maid and the children to central roles and effectively narrators of the film. The ‘Good Girls’ marginalise both their servants and their children.

It doesn’t look at the moment as if this film will make it into UK distribution. I wish it would because I think it could generate discussion about what a film by women and arguably ‘for women’ might be in the current climate. I’m not sure whether I’m in tune with what Alejandra Márquez Abella attempts to do here, but I’m definitely interested in what she might do next. The film has been taken by Netflix so you may be able to find it there. The interview below is well worth exploring.

Adoption (Örökbefogadás, Hungary 1975)

This title was screened in the Berlinale Classics programme and marked the return of a film that was the Golden Bear winner in 1975. It was also the film that established its director, Márta Mészáros, as a internationally recognised film-maker.

A widowed working woman in her early forties would like to escape the emptiness that surrounds her by having a child with her married lover, to whom she is attached only as a matter of habit. . . . One day, a girl who has run away from a home seeks shelter with her.”

The home is a state orphanage. The girl, Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), is in her late teens and already involved in a sexual relationship. The older woman, Kata (Katalin Berek), works in a factory but also has an interest in wood work, which she does in a small workshop at home. Her home is near a small town but separated from other houses and Kata is also separate from the other residents. The orphanage is very free in its control of the young people. This seems to be, in part, because it is under-resourced. But the manager does seem fairly sympathetic. This culture enables the young inmates to indulge in activities outside the home, so Anna regularly meets her boyfriend, Sanyi (Péter Fried) who lives and works in a nearby city and travels down to meet Anna.

The films gives a sense of these characters and the operation of the home when we see Kata, returning from work. Anna, in a group of teenage girls, teasingly confronting Kata begging cigarettes. And we also get a sense of Kara’s relationship with Jóska (László Szabó) at a tryst, he is clearly less involved than Kata. In a later scene in a park he is definitely troubled when Kata raises the issue of children. Even later he takes Kata home on the pretext of her being a colleague from work. His wife seems unsuspecting whilst there is also a young child in the family. Jóska is obviously a male chauvinist and that is his role in the narrative. But the much younger Sanyi displays a strong affection and responsibility for Anna. Whilst the manager at the home is seen later showing both sympathy and practical assistance to Kata and Anna.

We only get a representation of the Hungarian state at this time at a remove, but the sense is of a rather underfunded and inadequate bureaucracy rather than the stereotypical representation found in western films at the period.

The film has fine black and white cinematography by Lajos Koltai. Mészáros uses frequent long takes, not just for action but also for contemplation. Several times we see Kata at her work table and the sense of her ruminations on her situation. The film editing by Éva Kármentõ carefully juxtaposes the several repeated settings; Kara’s house, the orphanage and the places where Kata and Jósha have their trysts. There is much location work but production design by Tamás Banovich marries studio set-ups with the natural settings. And by the end of the film we see a traditional celebration with a convincing sense of ordinary people enjoying an occasion. The film sound and music by György Kovács fits in with a general naturalistic feel.

Mészáros scripted the film with two colleagues, Ferenc Grunwalsky and Gyula Hernádi. The writing both presents characterisations that seem taken from life; that are unconventional in terms of the European cinema of the time; and which develop with a real sympathy for ordinary people and everyday life.

In 1975 the ‘Berliner Morgen post’ commented;

The Hungarian director, a woman, has come up, not with a drama but a low-key reticent everyday story that is full of tenderness and hope. In a succession of filmed-to-the-life occasions, Kati Berek makes her mark as a sort of Budapest Annie Giradot. Quiet, strong and true.” (Giradot is a fine French actress who at this stage of her career had graced Rocco and his Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960) with an outstanding performance).

The paper’s note of the director being a ‘woman’, picked up on the Mészáros being the first woman director to win a Golden Bear Award. And she and the film won a number of other awards as well. Márta Mészáros was there to introduce the film. She spoke with emotion of her memories of the visit to the Berlinale, she was then an unknown in western Europe and this her first experience of a major festival and major awards.

There was also a staff member of the Hungarian Film Fund Film Archive who have produced the digital restoration of the film onto a 4K DCP, with English subtitles. The restoration was based on the original camera negative and a magnetic tape of sound. This was supervised by the original cinematographer, Lajos Koltai. The restoration differs in an important manner from the original 35mm. Mészáros had wanted to shoot the film in a scope format but was unable to do so and the film used the academy ratio. This restored version has been produced in 1.85:1; closer to the desired scope format. In other ways it reproduces the original. The change of ratio is unusual. The Berlinale staff were unsure but thought the version at the Festival might have been in 1.85:1 as well. This presumably would have involved plates or masks in the projector. I think when I saw the film, long ago, it was in academy. I have to say that in 1.85:1 there was no obvious cropping of the image. We did not hear the technical description of how the reframing was achieved.

The archive have actually restored ten other titles directed by Mészáros between 1969 and 1999, including the famous ‘Diary’ series. They have all been restored digitally at 4K and will be available this year and in 2020. Given Mészáros’ status,

together with her contemporaries Agnès Varda, Larissa Shepitko and Vera Chytilova, she ranks as one of the most significant female authors in the world.” (Restored Films of Márta Mészáros, Hungarian Film Fund).

We should expect this title and the other titles that follow to get a British release. This film was a deserved winner of the Golden Bear in 1975 and has maintained its quality and relevance; Mészáros’ other films equally offer both quality and satisfaction.

Peppermint Peace (Peppermint Frieden, Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1983)

Peppermint Frieden, Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1982; Regie: Marianne S. W. Rosenbaum

This is an unconventional story film that incudes autobiographical experiences. The writer-director was a refugee at the end of World War II. Her family were ethnic Germans who had to leave Sudetenland which became part of Czechoslovakia. In the film Marianne, five years of age in 1945 (as was the writer) arrives in the village of Straubing in Lower Bavaria; about 80 miles north-east of Munich.

In the film the father, an ex-soldier, gets a job as a teacher. One of the key characters is the village priest whose sermons and sermonising have a strong effect on Marianne and her young friends. The effect is counter-productive because it fuels an interest by the young girls in sex as well as religion. The counterpoint to this is a US G.I. who is part of the local occupation forces. ‘Nicknamed ‘Mr Freedom’, (an ironic comment on US values) the G.I. has a relationship with a local girl and the children become aware of their sexual activity.

The priest’s moralising includes holding forth on the evils of the Soviet Union and what he calls the ‘Ivans’. This feeds into Marianne’s traumas of war memories. The solace provided by the actions and friendly behaviour of ‘Mr Freedom’ ends when he receives a posting to Korea; involving both US ‘freedom’ and Soviet ‘Ivans’.

The film effectively catches the attitudes and behaviour of girls at a particular point when aspects of adult behaviour impinge on their consciousness. The film, in often bizarre combinations of imagery, counterpoints the various values encountered by the children. There is kitsch air about some of these sequences.

The film uses unconventional imagery and sound, with the scenes that are mainly realist in black and white whilst what seem dream-like sequences are in colour. The camerawork is often idiosyncratic, emphasising the constructed nature even of the realism. And the editing sometimes produces clashes of disparate images.

The Retrospective e Brochure comments:

Made in 1983, during the era of rearmament debates, Marianne Rosenbaum’s alternative take on history in this Heimatfilm, with its Bavarian and star cast, can be considered a political statement.

The last phrase seems a little odd. I found the film’s political treatment somewhat contradictory. The critique of war is clear. And the ironic treatment of tropes from more conventional Heimatfilms (‘homeland’) is plain. The Heimatfilms tended to be set in areas like Bavaria, to use extensive exterior rural settings, and had relatively simplistic moral values, typically those associated in the countryside as the antitheses of the city. Whilst the realist sequences seem similar to other Heimatfilme, the dream sequences subvert this through parody and even surreal happenings.

Peppermint Frieden – Bundesrepublik Deutschland 1982; Regie: Marianne S.W. Rosenbaum

I was less sure about the treatment of the US/Soviet conflict. There is no equivalent to ‘Mr Freedom’ from the East and casting a minor star like Peter Fonda is obviously meant to give him a certain charisma.

There are telling actions as when the portrait of Hitler has to be removed by the parents. A trope that is repeated in the recent British The Aftermath (2019). The ambiguity of all these conflicting values and characters is there at the end as the film offers a mid-shop of the young Marianne. ‘Mr Freedom’ is gone as indeed is her childish innocence.

The film was screened from a good 35mm print and ran for 108 minutes. Marianne Rosenbaum has only made one other feature and a television drama and series. She clearly has talent and an interesting take on drama, I wonder if her unconventional approach has limited her opportunities.