In the third week of this course we discussed Cherchez Hortense and then traced links through to other French comedies. We made various links, the most important of which was via the star of Cherchez Hortense, Jean-Pierre Bacri.
We looked in some detail at Jean-Pierre Bacri’s work with his wife Agnès Jaoui via an extract from Comme une image (Look At Me 2004). The extract featured a succession of shortish scenes, at the centre of which was a family lunch at the country house of the publisher played by Bacri. This character is very different from the Bacri character in Cherchez Hortense. He’s waspish and cruel, always putting people down. But he is also generous in providing contacts and support, even if he doesn’t know how to help in a gracious way (and he is himself vulnerable). In fact most of the characters in the film are ‘flawed’ with various weaknesses and each is capable of forms of betrayal, hypocrisy etc. Yet Bacri and Jaoui manage to construct their narrative so that it performs a coherent social satire on families and relationships that is both socially accurate and very entertaining. There are few laugh out loud moments but this is a true comedy in the sense that there is a resolution which is happy for at least one couple.
We then traced Bacri’s career back to the 1990s noting how prolific he has been. We looked at two trailers. The first was for the film adaptation, by Cédric Klapisch, of the successful stage comedy that Bacri and Jaoui wrote in the early 1990s. The film of Un air de famille from 1996 provides another example of a ‘family dinner’ that goes wrong. This is more clearly a comedy, though still with a dark satirical edge. We noted the similarity to certain British theatrical comedies (and the play has recently been performed in London). Bacri and Jaoui have also worked with the director Alain Resnais on a musical comedy tribute to Denis Potter, Same Old Song (On connaît la chanson, 1997) – Resnais has also adapted Alan Ayckbourn (as Smoking/No Smoking in 1993). Finally on Bacri we looked at a trailer for Didier (1997), a very broad comedy including slapstick that demonstrates the range of Bacri’s roles.
In the latter part of the session we looked at the recent work of François Ozon on Potiche (2010), also an adaptation, this time from a ‘boulevard comedy’. ‘Potiche’ in its slang usage means a ‘trophy wife’ – in the unlikely shape of Catherine Deneuve, wife of a factory owner who takes over its operation when her husband is ill. ‘Excessive’ in its use of colour and design (the story is set in the 1970s) the film draws on elements of farce as well as serious social issues about gender equality. We just had time to squeeze in the trailer for the more recent Ozon comedy Dans la maison (2012) – a much darker (but also very witty) comedy starring Fabrice Luchini from Potiche and Kristin Scott Thomas.
Week 3’s notes to download: FamilyWeek3
In the first week of this Evening Class course we started with the first 90 seconds of The Searchers, featuring the melodrama tableaux of the family as John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards rides towards his brother’s homestead. I was surprised that quite a few of the students were unaware of The Searchers – or of its influence on later films. This extract and discussion helped us to think about the family as a symbol in that most American genre, the Western. Thinking about a classic Western in this way offers a completely different ‘way in’ to a familiar genre. The French title of The Searchers – The Prisoner of the Desert seems very appropriate when we consider that Ethan is a man whose bitterness means that he can’t enter the family home/the ‘community’ which represents the ‘civilising’ force in the West, but must instead roam the desert. There are so many connotations of the struggle over values in 1950s America here!
We then looked at three examples of different kinds of family films as a preparation for the full screenings on the course over the next few weeks. Pour elle is a French thriller in which a woman is imprisoned after a conviction for murder. Her husband, believing she is innocent, attempts to organise her escape so that the couple and their small son can be a family again, somewhere overseas. Khosla Ga Khosla is an Indian family comedy, one of the ‘new Bollywood’ films. A civil servant plans his retirement which will involve building a dream home just outside Delhi but the land he has bought is occupied by a local gangster – will the family rally round and find a way to oust the gangster? Finally we looked at Still Walking, the highly personal film by Kore-eda Hirokazu about the 24 hours of a family reunion. In each case we looked at just the opening 6 or 7 minutes in which the main narrative of the film is introduced. I hope that students will want to watch the remainder of three enjoyable and interesting films.
Week 1 notes (pdf) are downloadable here: FamilyWeek1
I introduced the Week 2 screening with the suggestion that the UK poster for Cherchez Hortense was grossly misleading, suggesting a romcom starring Kristin Scott Thomas. The French poster gives a much more accurate representation of what is actually in the film. Here is the UK poster:
I also introduced Pascal Bonitzer with some background on his earlier scriptwriting career and talked a little about Jean-Pierre Bacri, the lead in the film, and his partnership with Agnès Jaoui in other French comedies, some using a similar milieu.
The full notes for the Week 2 screening of Cherchez Hortense are here: FamilyWeek2
All the material relating to this course is now tagged ‘All in the Family’
I’m looking again at some French ‘comedy’ films as part of work on Cherchez Hortense. In Comme une image, the partnership of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri offers the same milieu as Cherchez Hortense with Bacri himself as a very different leading character.
Comme une image refers to Lolita, a self-conscious young woman, who is attempting to become a (classical singer). She feels herself to be overweight and unattractive and suffers low esteem because her father Étienne (Bacri), a successful publisher and writer, doesn’t give her much encouragement. (The title could also refer, in a different way, to the father who has a very high opinion of himself – and somehow persuades several others to look ‘up’ to him.) Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) is more understanding and through her partner Pierre, also a writer, she meets the publisher. Lolita has a boyfriend who turns out to be interested in her only as a means of getting an introduction to her father. Meanwhile she accidentally meets Sébastien, a young North African-French trainee journalist who she in turn treats badly, though he seems to genuinely care for her. Finally, Karine is Etienne’s new, young and pretty wife, with whom he has a small daughter, step-sister to Lolita. Karine also struggles to maintain her esteem in the face of Etienne’s sarcasm and cruel wit.
‘Comme une image’ is also the title of the novel written by Pierre who becomes drawn into Etienne’s circle. The narrative actually follows the creative projects of Lolita (to sing in a group performance), Pierre (to promote his current title and to start the next) and Etienne (to get over his writer’s block). The strains between the characters culminate in the singing concert at a country church and an after-show party hosted by Eitienne in his nearby country house. The brilliance of the film, directed by Jaoui and co-written by her and Bacri, is in its humanist/realist approach to dialogue and settings. Its conventional staging directs our attention to the swift interchange of lines that seem believable rather than scripted for effect. Bacri is extremely effective as Eitienne who sometimes seems genuinely surprised that others find him cold, cruel, unfeeling etc. and indeed he often speaks and acts in ways that most of us would probably want to emulate at certain times, but are too polite to actually carry through. But if Etienne is at times insufferable, even the most sympathetic character, Sylvia, is capable of anger towards someone else – hurting their feelings (even though she is arguably justified in venting her anger). Most of the characters are simply too weak to risk Etienne’s displeasure – feeling that his patronage will benefit them.
I’ve seen Woody Allen mentioned as a reference point for the Jaoui/Bacri films and I can see some resemblances but overall I find the differences more striking. Comme une image is intelligent and serious, yet somehow also light and entertaining. It never strikes me (as Allen’s films sometimes do) as ‘smart’, ‘knowing’ etc. with the expectation of a possible gag or self-conscious aside. (But this may be because I’ve given up on Woody Allen films for many years now.) When I first saw this film on its cinema release I don’t think I was aware of Jaoui’s background which is in part Tunisian-Jewish (the North African Jewish connection is also evident in the backgrounds of Claude Lelouch and Joann Sfar). I don’t recognise any connection to the New York Jewish humour of Woody Allen (I’m sure somebody can correct me on that) but in Comme une image, there is a nicely judged pair of scenes in which Sebastién’s North African heritage is commented on and sensitively ‘dealt with’ as an issue.
Comme une image is a ‘comedy’ because it has a happy ending for two of the main characters. Some of the dialogue is witty but mainly the humour comes from the human frailties displayed by all the characters. I’ve seen the film described as social satire, but I think that usually satire is sharper and more exaggerated. This has an effective satire effect but it is more subtle. I think that the film is a triumph for Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri. He is a very good actor and writer but she manages to sing and to direct as well. Formidable!
Here’s an American trailer (note that the film was a Cannes Prizewinner for the Script):
This evening class at the National Media Museum in Bradford offers the chance to study three films currently on release and to explore how ideas about the family can be exploited to develop different kinds of film narrative and different genres. There are seven sessions on Wednesday evenings from 25 September, 18.15 – 20.15.
The first of these films is a comedy drama set amongst the ‘creative/academic’ bourgeoisie of Paris in which family relationships constrain and ‘trip up’ the central character with comic effects. The second becomes a genre thriller when it tests what characters will do to keep the family together. The final film is a form of family melodrama/relationship drama. Since the films come from different filmmaking cultures (France, Philippines/UK and Japan) there will also be the opportunity to explore the extent to which genres and representations of the family are ‘universal’ or heavily skewed by ‘local’ cultural considerations. We’ll also consider a range of other films that use the family as an important driver of the narrative. The image at the head of this posting refers to the famous John Ford Western in which Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches obsessively for his two nieces who have been taken by a Comanche raiding party.
A course outline can be downloaded here: (pdf) FamilyCourseProg
We’ll try to post some of the handouts here over the next few weeks and also to discuss some of the issues that arise.
Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.
The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.
The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.
I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.
The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.
I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.
I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.
Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.
Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well:
Here is a French film that has probably achieved a UK release because of the casting of Kristin Scott Thomas. She has a pulling power for specialised cinema audiences in the UK almost unmatched by any other star actor. She’s fine in the film – but she doesn’t appear that much. We’ve had plenty of discussion on this blog about how she is cast in French films and whether or not the script will attempt to explain her accent. In this case she is ‘Iva’, a theatre director in a long term relationship with Damien (Jean-Pierre Bacri) who teaches ‘Asian civilisations’ and specifically a class for French business people attempting to develop projects in China. The couple have a young teenage son and things are not going well. Iva has asked Damien to speak to his father, a senior legal figure, in an attempt to persuade him to intervene in the case of a young Serbian woman who is faced with possible expulsion from France after her residency permit has been withdrawn. (I didn’t quite follow the convoluted relationship between Iva and this woman and therefore I’m not sure about the Scott Thomas character’s background in this script.) Damien has a very poor relationship with his ego-centric father and finds this task very difficult and this will eventually create a further series of problems on top of everything else.
The film is intended as a comedy and, applying the test used by Mark Kermode to evaluate Hollywood comedies, I have to report that I laughed out loud several times. But this is a very Parisian sort of comedy, a comedy of manners and a comedy that requires quite a lot of cultural knowledge – I’m sure that I didn’t get all the references and someone looking for a frothy romcom should stay away. But if you like talky, intelligent films with terrific performances and witty dialogue, it’s very good.
The director is Pascal Bonitzer, who has made several features but is perhaps better known as a veteran scriptwriter – most frequently for Jacques Rivette, but also for André Techine, Raoul Ruiz and several others since the mid 1970s. He says that the character of Damien has some of his own traits (Bonitzer wrote the script with Agnès de Sacy) and Jean-Pierre Bacri does an excellent job. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for UK audiences, the hangdog face surely will. Bacri has appeared in the last three films by his partner Agnès Jaoui. This blog carries very positive responses to Let’s Talk About the Rain (2008) for instance. Like that film, Looking for Hortense combines moments of silliness with quite moving scenes and serious social issues. It takes great skill to mix these ingredients together and produce a coherent film that appeals to the intellect and the funny bone. I think that Pascal Bonitzer manages to do that but I was bemused by the title and only after reading reviews did I understand that ‘Hortense’ is actually the family name of the character who rules on the residency issues that Damien must discuss with his father. I don’t want to spoil the plot but I do want to pick out Isabelle Carré who plays the character who in effect joins all the stories together. She is excellent and like Bacri, an actor I have seen before and whose performances I’ve enjoyed (in Anna M. for example). I just wish it was easier to see French films of this quality on a more regular basis. This week I saw or heard another reference to the ‘difficulties’ subtitled films have in the UK – even when bland Hollywood fare is being dumped into UK multiplexes.
And here is the UK trailer (quite good in not giving too much away):
This film turned out rather differently than I expected from my brief glance at reviews. (The best are by Ginette Vincendeau in April’s Sight & Sound and Philip French in the Observer.) Many of them suggested that the film switched gear or ‘disappointed’ with its closing section, but for me it remained coherent all the way through and the ending fitted perfectly. I think I was expecting the kind of comedy offered in Potiche or 8 Women but this was more a witty satire than a broad comedy. I’ve read a number of reviews each of which seemed to make reasonable points but none of which matched by own response to the film. I think that this is partly explained by the fact that I haven’t attempted to map François Ozon’s filmography in auteurist terms and I’ve simply taken the films I have seen as superior entertainments. Further research reveals that indeed the handful of Ozon’s films that I’ve seen are the most popular and that in France he is situated somewhere between the mainstream and auteur cinema – 8 Women had over 7 million admissions in Europe.
In the House (a dreadful title in English with all kinds of unhelpful connotations – as the cashier on the ticket desk said, it sounds like Queen Latifah should be the star) is a kind of moral tale in the form of a satire on bourgeois conceptions of art and family relationships. (Philip French helpfully informs us that the title is a reference to Henry James’ preface to Portrait of a Lady in which he refers to a ‘house of fiction’.) M. Germain (at one point we do learn his name, but I won’t spoil the moment) and his wife Jeanne are a middle-aged couple in a small town in an unidentifiable part of France. She runs a small art gallery and he teaches French at a lycée. He despairs of his sixteeen year-old students and she struggles to find art to sell (the gallery is now owned via an inheritance by twin sisters with few ideas about art). M. Germain has two surprises. The school is to suffer the fate of too many English schools – a ‘back to the future’ change of direction with a return to uniforms and an emphasis on ‘standards’. But this is offset by a discovery that one of his students, Claude, is a promising writer. The problem is that what Claude writes is a provocative description of how he has explored a friend’s house and spied on the boy’s mother. Germain is caught in a dilemma – does he expose Claude or encourage him to develop his talent? The boy’s writing is compelling and Germain (and Jeanne) are soon hooked. Each writing assignment produces a new ‘instalment’ of Claude’s ‘infiltration’ of the household of Rapha and his parents and each ends with the classic come-on, ‘to be continued’.
It all made me think of Buñuel. Claude, beautifully played by newcomer Ernst Umhauer, is the beautiful boy, seemingly charming but also sly and far too bright for everyone’s good. We are seduced by him just as much as Claude, Jeanne and Rafa and his family. The lycée is named after Gustave Flaubert and the key text here is Madame Bovary. At this point, my knowledge of literary theory and especially of French literature is certainly a bit shaky, but as I remember it, Madame Bovary indulges in adultery to generate some excitement in her tedious marriage. She has some fun, but it all goes wrong in the end. It’s not too difficult to see In the House as a play around the Madame Bovary figure. It works in a number of ways but the key line seems to be when M. Germain reads out Claude’s description of being aroused by the ‘scent of a middle-class woman’. This is shocking in several ways. Claude seems old beyond his years and the intimacy suggested by the phrase seems more in keeping with the later French realists like Zola rather than the Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Kafka, whose novels are lent to Claude by M. Germain. There is more to it than that though and if you know the works you will enjoy thinking about writing styles and about approaches to realism and to ‘moral tales’ – the ending curiously resembles Das Cabinet Des Dr. Caligari!
I’m not going to spoil the narrative any more – don’t read Philip French until after you’ve seen the film, he gives far too much away as usual. But you should expect the pleasures of a satire on both modern education practices and the ridiculousness of certain forms of avant-garde art. I’ve seen comments that the film is too clever, but I’ll happily watch films like this and I think it’s the most enjoyable film I’ve seen so far in 2013. All the performances are very good. Please go and see it. (A note for Des – in this film Ms Scott Thomas’ accent is explained by reference to her ‘Yorkshire relative’.)
A potiche is a useless ornament, in sexist language a ‘trophy wife’. It’s a brave man who would ever describe Catherine Deneuve as a ‘trophy’. But that’s the premise of François Ozon’s entertaining and beautifully made film, an adaptation of a ‘boulevard comedy’ first staged ten years ago or more (Ozon says ten, but Ginette Vincendau in Sight and Sound says it dates from 1983 or earlier). Boulevard theatre is solid middle-class middlebrow entertainment, traditionally despised by film critics but often popular with the public and with certain film directors. Ozon himself has got form in this type of comedy with 8 Women (France 2002) – his previous outing with Catherine Deneuve.
The plot involves a bourgeois family who own an umbrella factory in a small town. The factory boss Pujol is a tyrant who has control because his wife is the daughter of the company’s founder. The factory is going down the pan and the workforce is striking. At this point Pujol is taken ill and to her surprise Madame Pujol (Deneuve) finds herself in the driving seat. She proves to have an unusual ally in the local communist mayor and MP (Gérard Dépardieu) and soon has the factory moving forward. But Pujol recovers and wants his role back – the next generation of Pujols prove to be important in deciding how the factory will fare in the future.
As the still above illustrates, Mme Pujol finds herself in new relationships with both her daughter Joëlle and her husband’s secretary Nadège. This is the core of the film with a commentary on changing opportunities for women and I agree with Ozon and Deneuve that the narrative has plenty to say in contemporary discussion of gender equality, especially in relation to figures like Ségolène Royale and, God help us, Marine Le Pen.
I think that the film works on every level and I enjoyed it immensely. I’d pick out three reasons why: the tight and assertive direction which keeps up the pace, assured performances from a starry cast and excellent production design in evoking 1977 but making it seem vibrant not bathed in nostalgia. I particularly loved the designer umbrellas. The whole film was shot in Belgium, so it’s a great ad for the Belgian film industry.
It’s distressing that there are some negative reviews, mostly from younger audiences who seem bored by the film. It makes you wonder what modern audiences would make of Ozon’s hero, Rainer Werner Fassbinder who made similar but much darker films.
Here’s the trailer with a taste of the film: