Conte d’hiver (A Winter’s Tale (France 1992)

Félicie (Charlotte Véry) leaves Charles (Frédéric van den Driessche) at the station with a Paris address

A treat from MUBI, this entry into Eric Rohmer’s last collection of ‘tales’ was a wonderful way to end Christmas Day. Rohmer’s films often have the same ingredients, usually involving sets of relationships within which a central character tries to find the right partner. In this case it is Félicie, a young woman whom we see trying to decide between two potential partners. But we know that she really wants a third who somehow she’s lost.

Maxence (Michel Voletti) and Félicie in Nevers

The opening credit sequence introduces Félicie on holiday by the sea. A summer holiday romance is in full flow and a montage shows us Félicie with a rather beautiful young man, swimming, sunbathing, cycling and making love. The couple are naked much of the time but it is light-hearted and innocent rather than raunchy. Félicie gives him an address in Paris and heads home. Five years later we find her waking up in the house of Loic, a serious young man. Félicie dashes off to work to discover that her boss Maxence, a slightly older man, has decided to move to another salon in the franchise. He invites Félice to accompany him to Nevers, a small town 150 miles south of Paris. Here is a classic dilemma for Félice. Two men are vying for her favours. The other vital ingredient is her little daughter Elise.

Félicie with Loic (Hervé Furic)

I won’t spoil any more of the plot. I realised after a while that the narrative had some ingredients shared with an earlier Rohmer classic, Ma nuit chez Maud (France 1969). Like that film, Conte d’hiver is set over the Christmas holiday period. The earlier film has a male central character who faces a choice between two women. He’s a Catholic and his reasoning about how he approaches his choice includes consideration of ‘Pascal’s wager’ about the existence of God. Félicie is not a devout Catholic but she’s pragmatic enough to pray for a solution to her dilemma. The ‘night with Maud’ is spent in the provincial city of Clermont-Ferrand. Félicie spends a little time in the cathedral at Nevers and she also has discussions with Loic that involve Pascal’s wager.

Félicie with Elise on one of their journeys across Paris

The other notable aspect of the narrative is a production of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale at the Théâtre Gérard Philipe. Félicie is taken by Loic and she is emotional watching the play. If you know the play, you will recognise why. Literature was Rohmer’s first love and he saw a BBC TV production of the play before he wrote the screenplay. If this had been a Truffaut or Godard film in the 1960s or 1970s, the couple would have been at the cinema.

Rohmer’s films have been criticised for being too slow and too talky. This film is filled with long sequences of talking as Félicie tries to sort out what’s best for her. It’s a relatively long film and apart from the opening montage and the visit to the play (and to the zoo and various children’s entertainments) there is not much in the way of ‘action’. Nevertheless, I was engaged completely throughout the film. A lot depends on the central performance by Charlotte Véry. She plays Félicie as an attractive, intelligent and charming young woman who is both indecisive but also assertive once she has made a decision. This particular ‘tale’ is very much from a female perspective as Félicie has her daughter and her mother and her two sisters as her family. I read one comment on MUBI which I found astonishing. “This man should not be allowed to write female characters.” I can’t speak on behalf of women, but I think that Rohmer spent plenty of time observing the world and his characters all seem recognisable to me. I can understand why some audiences don’t like his films. They feel so simple but are crafted so carefully with the ‘transparency’ of camerawork and mise en scène – there is nothing to distract from the interaction of characters. Some times I have to be in the mood to get into the groove but when I do I really appreciate his art. This is a perfect Christmas film for me.

Emperor (US-Japan 2012)

The poster presents General MacArthur as an ‘Emperor’ figure

An unusual film, Emperor is an independent US-Japanese co-production with an ambiguous title. The narrative focuses on the dilemma presented to the Allied Occupation forces in late August 1945 concerning the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Should he be tried as a war criminal (and possibly executed) or be allowed to remain as Head of State with restricted powers? The ambiguity is that the decision ultimately rested with General Douglas MacArthur who as SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) was the effective ‘Emperor’ of Japan from the moment of Japanese surrender in August 1945 up to the establishment of the new democratic Japan in 1947. In fact he remained the most powerful figure up until 1951 when he was replaced as SCAP by General Matthew Ridgway before the formal end of the Occupation in 1952. The film shows MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones, as a quasi-imperial figure, very alive to his media presence. I realised, watching the film, that my knowledge of MacArthur’s ideas and actions at this time were limited even though I had studied the Japanese social situation under Occupation. The situation in Japan in 1945 was different to that in Germany because the American had virtually complete control with only a minor role for British and Commonwealth forces. In Germany there were four Allied powers each controlling a different sector of the occupied country.

General Bonner Fellers and his interpreter Takahashi (Haneda Masayoshi)  approach the Imperial palace, still intact in the centre of a devastated Tokyo

The script for Emperor, written by Vera Blasi and David Klass and based on the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Okamoto Shiro, was directed by the British filmmaker Peter Webber. It builds the action around another historical character, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a ‘psychological warfare/intelligence’ officer who is charged by MacArthur with finding the evidence to either indict or exonerate Hirohito. For the purposes of the narrative, MacArthur gives Fellers a strict 10 day deadline. In reality it took rather several months. This is a film which constructs its narrative around real historical events and real historical characters. It also attempts to present its story against an authentic background of a devastated Tokyo. As such it provided a field day for historians, both amateur and professionals. If you check out the reviews on the usual sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, you will probably get the impression that the film was both a box office and critical flop with little to recommend it. But dig a little deeper and quite a few critics and audiences liked the film. I think it is certainly worth exploring and pointing out some of the misunderstandings by prominent critics and some audiences.

The most impressive aspects of the film for me are the sets and location ‘dressings’. All but two days shooting were carried out in New Zealand and you can find the whole story of the shoot on the New Zealand Film Commission website. The key to this aspect of the production is perhaps the producer role of Narahashi Yôko who was an associate producer on The Last Samurai (US-New Zealand-Japan 2003), which also used New Zealand locations extensively. The most problematic aspect of the script for critics appears to be the ‘tacked on’ romance narrative which sees Fellers attempting to discover what has happened to the young woman he met as an exchange student in the US and who he eventually tracked down in Japan before the Pacific War began. As I understand it, the ‘real’ Fellers did once meet a Japanese exchange student in the US but he married an American and although he did visit Japan in the 1930s, the ‘romance’ element of his time in Autumn 1945 is fictitious. Why then add the romance – is it simply a cliché in a Hollywood film? I think not. Its purpose is to engage Fellers in a ‘human story’, which is arguably also the case for another narrative strand that involves Takahashi, the interpreter assigned to Fellers. Fellers speaks some Japanese fairly fluently but the importance of his mission means that an interpreter is essential. The romance narrative also allows flashbacks to Fellers’ earlier visits to Japan, including a meeting with the young woman’s uncle who is a Japanese General.

Fellers and the Japanese teacher Shimada Aya in Japan before the Pacific War

The young woman is Shimada Aya (Hatsune Eriko) and her function is really to ‘humanise’ Fellers in the context of his mission and to facilitate his contacts with various Japanese civil servants and politicians. This is achieved partly through the meeting with General Kajima who is still in his rural villa in 1945. Kajima also serves to explain to the audience (Fellers should know this already) why and how Japanese culture means that the conduct of the war and the attitudes towards Hirohito are so different to how most Americans understand them.

It occurs to me that Emperor has something in common with Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House (UK-India-Sweden-US 2017) in which the historical figure is Lord Mountbatten as the Viceroy who must deliver the Partition of India and which features a romance between two young lovers from different religions in the Punjab, one of the territories subject to most anguish in the Partition. I think there is no easy answer to the question of how to make a commercial, popular, film about such momentous events without in some way fictionalising the narrative. If it helps wider audiences to engage with the general narrative and to understand something about the history, I think it can serve a useful purpose. Such films don’t necessarily ‘distort’ history since the important factual elements are included.

What disappointed me in this film was that it presents two American characters who each deserve more screen time. General Douglas MacArthur is an important and controversial figure in modern American history who took his role in Japan very seriously and believed it would lead him to a potential nomination for  the US Presidency. Both President Harry S. Truman and his Republican successor in 1952 feared MacArthur’s growing power base and he was sacked as SCAP during the Korean War. There are American films about MacArthur that tell his story in more detail. The best known of these is the biopic MacArthur starring Gregory Peck in 1977. Tommy Lee Jones is matched against this portrayal and marked down by several critics and audience members. I haven’t seen the 1977 film so I can’t comment, but MacArthur isn’t the real subject of the Emperor narrative. It is aspects of Fellers’ character that are more relevant.

General MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito ( Kataoka Takatarô) pose for a photograph

It is hinted at, but not really developed in the film, that one of the factors influencing both Fellers and MacArthur is fear that any unrest in Japan could provoke a Soviet invasion. In fact Soviet troops did invade the Kiril Islands off the North East tip of Hokkaido, following re-possession of the whole of Sakhalin Island. MacArthur seems to have taken a fairly pragmatic view of how to handle the Japanese Communist Party but Fellers was very much part of the anti-communist right that was growing in power in the US and who saw support for Hirohito as part of the defence against Soviet expansionism. This would later inform American military activity in Korea and then Vietnam. I don’t think this side of Fellers is given sufficient weight in the film. When he returned to the US and retired from the military in 1946 Fellers became active in politics supporting the conservative wing of the Republican Party and later joined the right-wing John Birch Society.

For some background on this period I used John Dower’s magisterial 1999 study Embracing Death: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin Books). This gives the full text of some of Fellers’ reports to MacArthur and it generally concurs with the view that Fellers’ ‘beliefs’ about Hirohito were accepted even though no actual evidence of Hirohito’s behaviour during the prosecution the war could be discovered. On the plus side this meant that for the rest of his life (he died in 1989), Hirohito’s presence helped to keep Japan as a stable ally within the American sphere. On the other hand, it has meant that today Japan still struggles to come to terms with what happened after the military takeover of the country in the early 1930s and the subsequent conduct of the Chinese and then the Pacific War. All of this is beyond the scope of Emperor but the Fellers narrative is certainly an important element in the wider story. The film made only $3.34 million at the US Box Office and most of its cinema audience was in Japan where it made $11 million. Its UK release was on only a handful of screens, making little or no impact.

Emperor is available on various streaming services and I think it is worth watching for its presentation of events in late 1945.

And Now Tomorrow (US 1944)

My main interest in this film was its status as the second scriptwriting project for Raymond Chandler at Paramount shortly after his work on Double Indemnity. It certainly seems like a strange choice made by the studio. The only justification seems to be that it was a chance to develop Chandler’s knowledge of scriptwriting by giving him a different partner to write with. Trying to discern what Chandler might have contributed to the script is not easy.

And Now Tomorrow is a familiar studio genre picture, a romantic melodrama using the device of a disease/accident as the narrative disruption in the early scenes. It might also be what in the 1930s and 1940s was known as a ‘woman’s picture’. Partly this is because it was adapted from a hit novel by Rachel Field and partly because it starred Loretta Young and Susan Hayward as central characters. It is essentially a story about the Loretta Young character although Alan Ladd gets top billing. The woman’s picture is usually a film with a central female character who drives a narrative that requires her to overcome a problem arising because she is a woman – conventionally in this case a problem with her intended wedding. The audience is intended to comprise women in the main. Maria LaPlace (1987) points out that in many Hollywood films of the 1930s/40s, women’s stories are inevitably ‘re-positioned’ to in a patriarchal film industry to serve more masculine discourses. This means that it became important for feminist scholars to find those ‘marginal’ areas of cultural discourse which, though still largely controlled by men, are actually sites of production by women and for women. Thus publishing, both of novels and within women’s magazines becomes an important locus for stories.

Early in the narrative, Emily is introduced to Dr Vance by her family doctor (Cecil Kellaway)

Wikipedia suggests that originally Jane Murfin, an experienced scriptwriter with many credits, was assigned to the film, but eventually she was replaced by Frank Partos. There is no mention of a separate writer for the adaptation so Partos and Chandler presumably had to produce a screenplay directly from the novel. This is where the studios use of contracted writers comes in. The idea might have been to provide more experience for Chandler but pairing him with Partos, a Hungarian Jew of roughly the same age as Billy Wilder, did not mean a change. Working with a woman might have made sense. As it is, it is interesting because Partos had worked several times with Wilder’s writing partner Charles Brackett who Chandler had replaced as Wilder’s partner on Double Indemnity (Brackett didn’t think much of James M. Cain’s writing in the original novel). Partos had just finished working on the script for The Uninvited (1944), a fantasy horror which proved a significant hit for Paramount. Chandler would find his next job at Paramount would be the follow up known as The Unseen (1945), a mystery thriller.

Emily (Loretta Young) with Janice (Susan Hayward)

The plot of the film is straightforward. Emily Blair (Loretta Young) is a wealthy young woman living in Blairtown in New England where her family owns the local mill. Just as her marriage to an ‘appropriate’ young man Jeff Stoddard (Barry Sullivan) is announced, she falls ill with meningitis and though she recovers she finds she has lost her sense of hearing. She postpones the wedding and seeks a cure from international specialists to no avail. The fact that she feels that her deafness is a barrier to a ‘proper marriage’ is the problem she must overcome. Alan Ladd plays Dr Merek Vance, formerly from the poorer part of Blairtown, who now practices in Pittsburgh. He meets Emily by accident, noticing that she is deaf and being impressed by her lip reading. It turns out he is conducting research into hearing loss and eventually he agrees to make her part of his trials of a new serum. You can probably guess what happens. The potentially interesting sub-plot involves Emily’s younger sister Janice (Susan Hayward) who sees Emily’s reluctance to marry until she gets her hearing back as an opportunity to pursue Jeff. As in the best romances there is a stumbling block to Emily switching her attention to Merek and that is the class difference and his sense of grievance against the Blair family.

Does this scene include Chandler dialogue? (Screen grab from DVD Beaver)

I was engaged by the film and enjoyed it up to a point (more Susan Hayward would have been good). I certainly didn’t have the very negative responses of some leading US critics at the time who were especially cruel about Loretta Young’s performance. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it a “stupid picture”. Bad reviews don’t seem to have affected Box Office which was generally very good – as predicted by the trade papers. The director Irving Pechel was not generally liked by the cast and Loretta Young and Alan Ladd didn’t have a strong connection – though they seemed to work together effectively. What might Chandler have contributed to the script? Not much to the narrative structure, I’m guessing, but probably something to the dialogue. I was most interested in the Alan Ladd character in a part quite different to that of his lead in The Blue Dahlia (1946), which Chandler scripted on his own, using one of his own story ideas. I don’t really know Ladd that well as an actor but with Chandler’s dialogue in The Blue Dahlia he speaks in measured tones with pauses and there is a sequence in And Now Tomorrow which is similar, after Emily assists the doctor on an emergency operation they talk in the car (see above). He tells her he is “worn down to the ankles” which sounds like a Chandlerian line. At other times Ladd as Vance is quite sharp, mainly when his anger about poverty in the mill town comes to the fore. The other interesting aspect of the Ladd role in this ‘woman’s picture’ is that it is as another doctor who studies the woman who ‘lacks’ something and is then allowed to interpret what it might be. The doctor’s medical gaze replaces the erotic male gaze which is prevalent in other narratives. Sometimes by ‘solving’ the woman’s problem (often psychological rather than physical) the doctor enables her to find romance (as in Now Voyager). In this case Dr Vance becomes the beneficiary himself. See Mary Anne Doane (1987)

The tragedy of the film production is that Rachel Field died suddenly after an operation in 1942 before the script was ready and the camera rolled. I do wonder what she would have made of the adaptation. I think I should point out that the medical discourse in the film isn’t convincing and that the film doesn’t do much to help audiences’ understand hearing loss. I couldn’t find the film on any streamers but I watched a Region 2 DVD.

References

Doane, Mary Ann (1987) ‘The ‘Woman’s Film’: Possession and Address’ in Christine Gledhill (ed) Home is Where the Heart Is, London: BFI Books

LaPlace, Maria (1987) ‘Producing and Consuming the Woman’s Film: Discursive Struggle in Now Voyager‘ in Gledhill (ed) op cit

Corporate (France 2017)

Streaming on various platforms in the UK, Corporate is an intriguing début film that didn’t get a UK cinema release and which has received contrasting responses from those who have seen it. I watched it thoroughly engaged throughout, late at night and and determined to finish it. It was only on reflection that some doubts began to appear. But I am still thinking about it and I’m certainly glad I’ve seen it. Perhaps when I’ve written about it I’ll be able to make my mind up.

The film begins with what appears to be a corporate video of some kind, a team-building exercise on the slopes of Chamonix in which the HR team and some departmental staff are being introduced to a new policy. The footage picks out a bright young-ish star Emilie Tesson-Hansen (Céline Sallete) who is being praised by the HR (personnel) boss of a large French company, Stéphane Froncart (Lambert Wilson). She is learning how to drive a team of dogs pulling a sleigh. We guess that this is a metaphor for the work she will be doing for the company. This is the credits sequence. The narrative proper starts a year or so later in the Paris offices of Esen, a large French agri-business conglomerate. Emilie is interviewing one of the staff, persuading her to ‘go mobile’ – in effect to offer herself for re-location. Emilie has her own secretary who is shielding her from another member of staff who is desperately trying to see her. What Emilie has been asked to do by Stéphane will slowly begin to emerge but first there is a dramatic incident that shocks all the staff. It affects Emilie most of all since it involves her HR work and the policy she has been carrying out. What will transpire will be a form of ‘office thriller’ in which Emilie could be the villain, the victim or the scapegoat.

Emilie (right) faces Stéphane (left) in front of the company’s communications chief (centre behind the chair). The other two people in this meeting are Emilie’s young secretary and another senior staff member, Vincent who is more of an ally for Emilie. Photo © Claire Nichol

Some of the reviews and ‘user comments’ suggest that this narrative is very familiar and hackneyed. Others suggest it is quite fresh. I realised that I have seen several French films which might be described as ‘office thrillers’, but most of these have involved sexual jealousy, financial crimes or simply the jostling for power between executives. Corporate hints at some of these elements, but they aren’t central. The focus here is on HR and Health and Safety and the narrative introduces a French public official new to me, a Work Inspector with powers to investigate all kinds of health and safety issues in her district and to levy fines or refer possible criminal cases to the police and local Prosecuting Magistrate (I’m tempted to draw on my experience of watching Engrenages). I think both the civil and judicial procedures are different in the UK and North America, but similar narratives are possible here. The nearest French film I’ve seen that has some of the moral/philosophical questions associated with a narrative like this is Ressources Humaine (France 1999) by Laurent Cantet. The two films are different in both aesthetics and story line but they do share a sense of moral responsibility by a character in a junior managerial position, whose actions cause hurt for other staff members, but who is also being manipulated by senior management. This kind of situation, familiar to many of us in different ways in the managerial cultures of both the public and private sector, throws the focus on the individual caught at the centre of a clash between late capitalist ‘leadership’ strategies and personal ambition/self respect and a sense of workplace ethics.

Emilie begins to realise that the Inspector, Marie Borrel (Violaine Fumeau) may offer her a means of escape from her predicament . . . Photo © Claire Nichol

I was not surprised to find that Emilie has worked for ten years in the UK before presumably being head-hunted by Stéphane (who had taught her at business school perhaps?). There seems to be a discourse about French business talent moving to London in several films. In my recent post on La villa (France 2017) I referred to a character who is thinking of moving to London where taxes are lower and business is perhaps less formal than in Paris? Emilie is now back in France with her English husband Colin (Charlie Anson) and her young son Leo. Colin has decided to be a house-husband and father since Emilie is earning a good salary. She certainly isn’t home much, works late and sometimes gets home drunk.

The first time director is Nicolas Silhol who also co-wrote the film with Nicholas Fleureau. In the Press Notes, Silhol reveals that his father teaches management at a business school and works as an HR consultant. The film is very much research-based and Sihol interviewed a female HR manager who had herself experienced something similar to Emilie. Silhol also points towards a news story about a spate of suicides at France Télécom after which it seemed to be implied that the workers concerned were responsible for their own suffering. Silhol also interviewed Work Inspectors. The developing relationship between Emilie and Marie is central to the narrative and I think gives the film a distinctive narrative trajectory. Overall, the film is ‘hopeful’ that management practices could improve but it isn’t a ‘feelgood film’. Emilie is a character who initially behaves in a manner designed to save her own skin but she gradually begins to see another way to look at events.

An impressive central performance by Céline Sallette. Photo © Claire Nichol

The Press Notes offer an insight into some of the ways that the director and his DoP thought about the camerawork and how to use it to first focus attention within the Esen offices and then to allow the ‘outside world in’, partly through the focus on the Inspector. I think I’m more convinced by the film after reading the Press Notes. The central performance by Céline Sallette is very good and Lambert Wilson is always a reliable presence. Violaine Fumeau is a less well-known actor who impressed me and the two women worked well together on screen. This is an impressive début by Nicholas Silhol. I think the idea of an English husband for Emilie is a good one but I’m not sure it is fully exploited in the scenes that involve Emilie’s interaction with her husband and son. That might be the film’s weakness for me, but overall I would recommend this to anyone wanting a gripping office drama.

The trailer below offers a sense of the dramatic narrative but it does give away plot details.

Azor (Switzerland-France-Argentina 2021)

Yvan and Inès (centre of the image)visit the homes and the leisure pursuits of their wealthy clients

Azor is a terrifying film which shows very little in the way of violence. This makes it even more frightening. Director and co-writer Andreas Fortuna is Swiss but the film is set entirely in Argentina. Yvan De Wiel is a private banker who arrives in Buenos Aires from Geneva with his wife Inès in late 1980 during the period of the ‘Dirty War’ and the ‘National Re-organisation Process’, overseen by the fascist military junta. De Wiel (played by the Belgian actor Fabrizio Rongione) is on a mission to discover what happened to his banking partner René Keys, who has ‘disappeared’, and to try to sustain his bank’s relationship with its wealthy clients in this difficult period.

Inès by the pool, seemingly doing her own thing, but always watching and listening. This image composition reminds me of a Hockney painting or even Hopper transposed to sunlight

The De Wiels are experienced and cunning operators. Yvan acts in a way that suggests he is humble and amenable – he isn’t, but he does depend to some extent on his wife, who chooses his suits and monitors his performances in negotiations. At one point she implies that he risks falling into the ‘mediocrity’ that her father warned her about. Inès moves elegantly through a series of social gatherings, observing and gathering intelligence especially by talking to the wives of the wealthy and influential characters they meet.

Even the lightweight tropical suit isn’t quite suitable for some of the places De Wiel finds himself visiting

There is something familiar about the narrative device of having the protagonist follow in the footsteps of a colleague/partner. Many of the reviewers make references to Harry Lime in The Third Man. I thought instead of another Graham Greene character, The Quiet American. In a crucial passage (the narrative is divided into named sections) De Wiel is taken down river in a small boat. It is one of those South American rivers, smaller than the famous ones, which is overgrown on either bank and which again several reviewers refer to as a Heart of Darkness moment. Keys was clearly a dynamic character who took risks. It got him noticed and made him successful, but by extension perhaps too dangerous. Although Argentina has long been an independent country there are hints here and there of its neo-colonial past and the North American and European involvements in the culture and economy of the country.

The De Wiels go riding with Augusto Padel-Camón

The most frightening character is perhaps Mons. Tatoski, a senior cleric who tries to inveigle De Wiel into getting involved in speculation in the Forex (foreign exchange) market. De Wiel makes clear that his private bank doesn’t do anything so risky. What makes this exchange so tense is the setting, in the inner sanctum of a club that presumably has always limited its membership to the rich and powerful. That now means those sanctioned by the junta and the Monsignor is some form of Papal representative with a past, perhaps as a rugby player. He’s tall, beefy and ‘persuades’ De Wiel to drink Gordon’s gin just like Keys before him. This is one of several exchanges in which De Wiel is challenged by existing or potential ‘clients’. Rongione plays De Wiel as a seemingly mild-mannered man, always watchful and appropriately dressed for a club or a trip to the race track but not giving even a hint of what he may be feeling underneath. However, his appropriate wardrobe is not quite right for his trips to meet landowners in the broad hinterland of Buenos Aries. He travels by private plane at one point and goes riding with a client. There is one staggeringly beautiful long shot of De Wiel and Inès riding on the estate of a traditional landowner, Augusto Padel-Camón (see above). Most of the time, however, Swiss cinematographer Gabriel Sandru is confined to shooting interiors or more confined outdoor scenes. These include meetings arranged around swimming pools in private mansions. It’s noticeable that Inès is often the only one who swims. Director Fortuna clearly knows Argentina well but he was helped by the distinguished Argentinian writer Mariano Llinás as co-writer of the script. Paulina (Argentina 2015) is a Llinás films that I enjoyed.

The very unpleasant lawyer acting as a go-between here whispering in the ear of De Wiel

There are no good guys in this film. The narrative pushes us to identify with De Wiel and some of his clients like Padel-Camón, but this is misleading. They are positioned to show aspects of their humanity and Padel-Camon has already suffered the disappearance of his favourite daughter. But underneath they are still primarily concerned with their own wealth and status. The junta is ruthless in arresting and ‘disappearing’ leftists and critics of any kind. But it is also squeezing the wealthy and extracting their riches. The Swiss private banker offers a more personal touch than his corporate rivals but ultimately the deals he makes are about protecting capital and we suspect that though he may not be as flamboyant or dynamic as his erstwhile partner Keys, his quiet methods might get the job done. But what kind of job is it? None of the characters in the film cares about the working people of Argentina. It pains me to think that it was Margaret Thatcher who inadvertently helped to trigger the downfall of the junta by vigorously defending British interests in the Malvinas. The junta fell with its leading figure General Galtieri after the defeat of the Argentinian forces. It was good to see Galtieri go but the whipped up jingoism in the UK helped Thatcher win an election and proceed with her destruction of many British communities. The Swiss private bankers no doubt smuggled wealth out of the country before the fall in 1982 and we get one hint of how they might have done it.

I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Overall I found this a compelling narrative about the ‘fear and loathing’ during this dark period of Argentinian history. For a début film it is remarkable. Sandru’s cinematography is also excellent, given he has relatively little experience of features. But perhaps the key to the film’s success is the casting of Fabrizio Rongione. I realised later that I have actually seen him in a host of rather different roles for the Dardenne Brothers. He must speak several languages and Azor is a narrative that requires a multi-lingual approach. International business usually requires English but here most of the exchanges are in Spanish or French. If you are wondering about the title, the word ‘azor’ in Spanish means ‘goshawk’ but in the code language of the De Wiels it means “be careful”, “don’t give anything away”. Don’t be put off by the relatively low ratings for this film. It’s not a Hollywood thriller but a chilling and very intelligent glimpse of the way in which international capital, traditional landowning classes and fascism mix in Latin America. I recommend it. It has reached some UK, cinemas distributed by MUBI ,and is now streaming on MUBI in the UK.

La villa (The House by the Sea, France 2017)

The general view of the waterfront in the creek

This lovely film took a year and a half to reach the UK and then only 3,000 people saw it in a cinema (see the Lumiere Audio-Visual Observatory database). It came out in January 2019 when UK cinemas were stuffed with American ‘Awards Movies’. I suspect The Favourite took up quite a few screens. I wish I had been able to see this instead. Robert Guédiguian is a filmmaker who has directed twenty-five films over the last forty years. The ones I’ve seen have been very good but too often his films are not acquired for UK distribution. I eventually watched this on a DVD from New Wave and I’m very grateful.

The three siblings, Armand is on the right

Many of Guédiguian’s films are set in Marseilles and they often feature the same trio of actors, Ariane Ascaride (Guédiguian’s partner), Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Gérard Meylan. La villa is set on the ‘Blue Coast’ between Marseilles and Martigues at Calanque de Méjean – a calanque is a creek, which I realise has a different meaning in French/English compared to US usage. Here it means a narrow inlet on a rocky coast with a small harbour and room for a few houses around the harbour and nestled in the in the steep slopes. It’s the only location in the film, extending a little way into the hilly hinterland of scrub and pines. The elderly owner of the restaurant on the harbour has a stroke at the beginning of the film and is then cared for by his son Armand (Gérard Meylan) who is the restaurant manager/chef. It’s winter so the restaurant has no customers. Coming home to support their brother are Joseph (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Angèle (Ariane Ascaride). Joseph brings with him the much younger Bérangère (Anaïs Demoustier). Angèle is a well-known stage actor and she has not been home for twenty years. We will learn later what caused her absence. There are only three other residents of the little community who we meet and one other important visitor.

The restaurant becomes the site of family meals. The extra character here is the fisherman Benjamin

The three siblings are all in their early sixties, the same age as writer-director Robert Guédiguian. It’s a time to reflect on their lives and to think about how they will face the future. Their father is in an almost vegetative state and one of their ultimate decisions will be how to deal with the family estate. It looks very beautiful in the winter sunlight with a view out across the Mediterranean from the balcony of the house, the small boats bobbing in the harbour and the dramatic backdrop of a high viaduct which carries the rail line from Marseille to Toulon and Nice. The first half of the film is actually quite slow as Guédiguian gives us time to get to know the characters and to consider their situation. I was a little surprised since what I remember from his earlier films is a political discourse and a sense of collective struggles for working-class communities. Possible wrangling over an estate is a theme I associate with more bourgeois French films. The only younger character who appears in the early part of the film is Yvan, the son of the elderly couple who live next door. Yvan appears to be trained as a doctor who is now running medical laboratories somewhere in the region. He and Bérangère are the only ones active in the modern France. She has her laptop and headphones and he is trying to persuade his parents to accept money for their living expenses when he brings their medications.

Guédiguian does introduce a form of political discourse through Angèle’s visit to Yvan’s parents. She wonders why the community is so quiet, why is nothing happening? The other houses are closed-up in the winter and the old man replies “Money”. Framed black and white photographs show the creek full of people in summer enjoying life in the streets and by the harbour with the fishing boats supplying a busy restaurant. There was a real community but just as in many parts of the UK where the rich now like to have second homes, young people can’t afford to live and must leave as the communities become isolated in the winter. We realise too that Joseph represents the angst of the ageing leftists in France. Has he really given up as some of his worrying statements suggest? The editing by Bernard Sasia and the cinematography by Pierre Milon (whose previous job was on The Workshop a little further west on the coast) is very good in these early scenes, linking together the characters and the political, social and personal themes. A further ingredient glimpsed by Angèle as she gazes out over the harbour is the arrival of a couple of Land Rovers, dropping soldiers who begin to patrol along the path by the water’s edge.

©PHOTOPQR/LA PROVENCE ; Tournage du film ” La Villa ” réalisé par Robert GUEDIGUIAN dans la calanque de Méjean PHOTO : FREDERIC SPEICH (MaxPPP TagID: maxpeopleworld998737.jpg) [Photo via MaxPPP]

The action gradually begins to build up and I found the film engrossing. I’ve gone back and looked at scenes again because I don’t think on a small screen I became sufficiently immersed in the narrative to allow the ideas to come together. At one point, Joseph, sitting with his father on the balcony remembers an earlier community festivity led by the old man. There is also a flashback in which we see the three siblings as younger characters coming to the harbour and larking about to the sound of Bob Dylan on the car radio. It was only later that I realised this was indeed the three actors themselves appearing in an earlier film by Guédiguian, Ki lo sa? (France 1986). Guédiguian knows the coastal region and has remained committed to it. I don’t want to spoil any more of the narrative which isn’t complex and you can probably guess the plot developments from the details I’ve given so far.

I was surprised to discover that this film wasn’t reviewed in Sight and Sound, which was once (via Monthly Film Bulletin which it absorbed) the official ‘journal of record’ for all releases in the UK. However, the former editor, Nick James mentioned its appearance at Venice (in the November 2017 issue). He calls it “distinctly old-fashioned” but says he wished to “eulogise” the film with its “intricate nuanced sets of relationships” but “its sentimental ending is ruinous”. I agree the first part of his statement but I thought the ending was an excellent use of ‘magic realism’ which I’m not going to explain. Suffice to say my tears started before the end, but that I found it perfect. I’ve always thought that ‘sentimental’ is a slippery term. There is nothing wrong with emotion in the right place and here it is definitely appropriate. I heartily recommend this to anyone prepared for an emotional response. Like the UK, France is in a difficult place and i think there is no harm in having a little hope.

This trailer gives away some of the plot details: