This magical 68 minutes of delirious cinema is the second of Steve McQueen’s five film series Small Axe. Each film tells a story about ‘West Indian’ characters and communities in London during the period 1968-1982. Lovers Rock has the simplest narrative of the series and is written by McQueen with the novelist Courttia Newland. A group of friends are preparing a large house and garden to host a birthday ‘blues party’ for a young woman. Meanwhile, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn), a young woman from a church-going family, is planning to sneak out of the family house to attend the party with her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok). I write ‘meanwhile’ but actually these two sequences are not happening at the same time. Martha leaves her house under darkness but the preparations for the dance are in daylight. This is the first indication that this isn’t going to be a conventional narrative. Though there are some of the familiar conventions of a ‘party narrative’ such as unwanted guests (who have to negotiate the doorman) and the boy meets girl scenario, the central sequence of the film features an extended playing of Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’, the iconic song of the music style known as ‘Lovers Rock’.
We first get introduced to ‘Silly Games’ as a song sung a capella by the women in the kitchen making the party food – goat curry and ackee and saltfish. Cynthia, the birthday girl is getting ready upstairs and hair is being straightened as the sound system is wired up. As the party gets into full swing and the main room fills with dancers, ‘Silly Games’ plays through with many dancers singing along. When the track ends the dancers keep singing and in one corner of the room is an older man. He’s played by Dennis Bovell who wrote and produced the original single, a hit in 1979 (although Discogs suggests it was first released in 1977). Bovell has claimed that he included the very high note in the song because he knew girls on the dancefloor would compete to hit it. That’s what happens and indeed from the reviews I’ve seen the idea is taking off with a suggestion that people might meet (virtually?) to sing ‘Silly Games’ together.
A note about terminology
I’ve used the term ‘West Indians’ to describe the characters in this film. I think this was correct in the late 1970s but it was gradually replaced by the term Afro-Caribbean and then African-Caribbean. I’m not sure when these changes took place. There was initially a distinct gap in the 1960s and 1970s between ‘Africans’ and ‘West Indians’ in the UK which took some time to close over the next twenty or thirty years as the number of migrants from different parts of Africa increased. (Some of the distance seems to have been created by West Indian parents with views about Africans perhaps derived from the colonial education system pre-the 1960s). One of the aims of political activism and indeed of the designation ‘Black’ was to develop a solidarity with all people of colour who faced the institutional and personal racism prevalent in the UK. But there were also distinctions between the different parts of the Caribbean, not so damaging perhaps but important in terms of cultural differences. Steve McQueen has Grenadian and Trinidadian heritage. He was born in 1969 in London and the five films that comprise Small Axe are ‘personal’ stories based on events and experiences recounted by relatives and family friends, supported by extensive research to present this period in a realist way. At the end of the 1970s the West Indian community in London and other major cities in the UK included the first generation of migrants (the ‘Windrush generation’) who arrived as adults and became part of the new employment programmes sponsored by the UK government to meet labour shortages, especially in public services. Some of the children of this generation followed their parents at a later date and then a second generation was born in the 1960s and 1970s. In the wider Black community there were both African migrants (often refugees or exiles) and the much earlier communities of Black people established in the UK since the 18th century and earlier (such as the Liverpool Black community). In the first Small Axe film, Mangrove, the popular music of Trinidad and Grenada was featured but by the time of Lovers Rock, Jamaican music in the form of reggae is beginning to dominate for young people, even though the setting here is still in West London. The house where the party is staged is on Ladbroke Road, not far from the Mangrove Restaurant but nearer to Holland Park and the wealthier end of the area. I don’t know if this is a deliberate location choice.
The central section of the film focuses on the dance floor and although there is some narrative progression. Martha meets Franklin (Micheal Ward) and they dance together. But the section is dominated by music and images of dancing in a more abstract way – an attempt by McQueen and his cinematographer Shabier Kirchner to marry the camerawork to the rhythms of the dancing perhaps. Kirchner is from Antigua and has recently been working on independent projects in the US and developing ideas for his own films. It is in this long dance sequence that he really makes his mark in Lovers Rock. The whole sequence featuring ‘Silly Games’ lasts for ten minutes with the extensive a capella section seemingly spontaneous. Kirchner and McQueen offer us a hot sweaty room full of men and women in colourful outfits dancing, in some cases, groin to groin with hands roaming freely. It is both a joyous and erotic scene with a strong sense of solidarity but also a tremor of something dangerous beneath, like most such dancing. After this Martha finds herself involved in two separate altercations. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’m not going to discuss these. All I’ll say is that one incident has been the focus for several critics. Back on the ‘dancefloor’, ‘Silly Games’ has been followed by darker, heavier sounds in the form of dub and ‘roots reggae’ and the feel shifts from female-centred to male-centred solo dancing. The men dance wildly and with a sense of abandon. Again Kirchner’s camera roams freely and picks up the energy of the room. The sequence lasts seven or eight minutes, so two dance sequences in the film take up more than a quarter of the film’s total running time of around 68 minutes.
It’s worth pointing out that the late 1970s into the early 1980s saw young Black people in London become interested in a wide range of different popular and roots music forms. McQueen appears to have commissioned Mica Levi, whose work graced such film as Under the Skin (UK 2013) and Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). I haven’t yet worked out/discovered what her contribution was since I don’t remember a score as such in the film and all the music appeared to be diegetic – sung by cast members or from discs, cassettes etc. Having said that the music is skilfully woven through the action and that must be down to editor Chris Dickens and Levi as well as McQueen.
I enjoyed Lover’s Rock very much. I have never attended a blues party but in this period many of my students probably did and I did collect some of the tracks used in the film. I am very impressed by the research done by McQueen and his team, including the young actors to recreate an evening like this. The performances of the film’s leads are very good indeed and the whole cast is impressive. The film works on many levels but for me it feels like a simple genre idea that has been developed almost into a piece of art cinema in relation to the dancing. I was also reminded of some 1980s Black British films, especially Burning an Illusion (1981) by Menelik Shabazz, a film which deals with a relationship between a lower middle-class young woman and a working-class young man. (Burning an Illusion is available on DVD and streaming on BFI Player.) It is a much more developed narrative than Lovers Rock but the two films share several elements. Menelik Shabazz later made a documentary about the musical genre with The Story of Lovers Rock in 2011. The ‘preparations for a party’ are featured in at least one of the avant-garde films produced by Sankofa, Passion of Remembrance (1986). Sankofa was a group of five filmmakers, three of whom were women – Maureen Blackwood, Martina Attille and Nadine Marsh-Edwards – and their films presented a range of perspectives on the lives of young Black women in London. I’d really like to hear what they thought of Small Axe.
A Portuguesa is an extraordinary film in many ways. It is very beautiful and it’s beautifully made with great intelligence. There is so much fascinating cinema out there but so often we find ourselves missing opportunities to see it and instead we allow ourselves to be led towards the mainstream. I have to confess that Portuguese cinema has long been overlooked in my cinema viewing and particularly the work of the great art film directors from that country. It’s not a surprise then that I have not seen anything by Rita Azevedo Gomes before, despite the fact that this is is her ninth film and that her first was made thirty years ago. Although successful at various festivals, Ms Gomes has not so far broken through into wider international recognition. Now, as a result of MUBI’s streaming service, more cinephiles will have a chance to ‘discover’ her.
A Portuguesa is a literary adaptation of a novella by the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880-1942) adapted by the director. It’s the second story from the collection Three Women (1924). The story is set in the 16th century in Northern Italy where a German nobleman, von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe), is engaged in military action against the Bishopric of Trent in the Dolomites. Von Ketten has brought his young Portuguese wife (Clara Riedenstein – very good) to a remote area where he has commandeered a small ‘castle’ on a hill at the end of a year-long honeymoon journey. Having established her in the castle von Ketten goes off to war, managing to make his wife pregnant twice in the little time he spends in the castle over the next 11 years. The first part of the narrative is mainly concerned with the ‘Portuguese woman’ herself (I don’t think she is actually named at any point) and how she finds a way to live in this isolated place and the second part deals with von Ketten’s return and what it means for the couple. But to write the outline in this way probably suggests a conventional narrative which this certainly isn’t. This is an art film in terms of both the sounds and images presented and in its narrative structure and (lack of) explicit narration.
The beauty of the film lies in its staging and cinematography. Gomes searched carefully to find suitable locations in Portugal to stand in for Northern Italy. At one point when the mist appears in the hills, the protagonist mentions Sintra, but I think many of the scenes were shot in Northern Portugal. The approach seems to have been to present moments/scenes from the protagonist’s life in the form of tableaux. The camera often remains static but with significant movement within the frame, especially in the many scenes played out in long shot. In an interview Gomes tells us that she and the veteran cinematographer Acácio de Almeida (born 1938) spent a long time with a digital camera attempting to find ways to produce the exact colour tones that the director required. On my computer screen and TV set, what they discovered took my breath away, especially in the early scene when the noble couple first approach the castle with their retinue. This was accompanied by choral singing which I assumed was meant to be diegetic, though I couldn’t see anyone singing. The music in the rest of the film is more clearly diegetic though. These early scenes are presented in a realist style with attention to details in costume, hairstyles etc. but when characters speak in tableaux, they declaim almost as if on stage. This sense of ‘realist artificiality’ is enhanced by a deliberate use of lighting in compositions, especially inside the castle, which refer directly to the Flemish school of painting. The other element, which also opens the film pre the title, is a form of one-person Greek chorus performed by Ingrid Caven (another veteran at 80, an actor associated with the work of her ex-husband Rainer Werner Fassbinder). She recites/sings the medieval poem ‘Unter der Linden’ while posing in the empty castle grounds in a simple, long black gown which in its style suggests ‘modernity’. Ms Caven will appear at various points in the narrative, sometimes alone, sometimes weaving through the tableau.
This use of classical references occurs throughout the film and the combination of these references and the limited narrative information about the long war makes the film difficult to follow as a linear narrative even if you know the artistic references and/or the history of the Bishopric of Trent (modern Trentino) – which I don’t. The narrative is intended, I presume to refer in some way to the Council of Trent, the many years of wrangling in the Roman Catholic Church over how to respond to the Protestant Reformation. The Portuguese woman appears to be an atheist. The original novella seems to be (by reviewers’ comments) part of a collection of love stories. The film doesn’t come across to me as a romance or a particularly erotic story, though the elements are all there to make it so. I think, instead, I found it an interesting narrative about gender roles, feudal society and other historical/cultural analyses. The most interesting of these for me was the presentation of a vital, talented young woman coming to terms, or not, with her situation. As part of this she has strong relationships with the women she has brought with her from Portugal, especially her closest servant-companion played by Rita Durão (who has been a leading player in earlier films by Gomes and also for other women directors). At one point there is mention of “Moorish slave girls” by the the Portuguese Woman but I couldn’t see any signifiers of ‘Moorish’ or indeed of ‘slaves’ – the younger women especially seem well treated by a ‘mistress’ who clearly appreciates them. It’s worth remembering at this point that Portugal was the first European country to establish a global empire from the late 15th century onwards.
The noblewoman is frustrated by her confinement but not in an anachronistic way. We recognise what her problems and her wishes are. The issues for her husband are also rooted in their time but are more difficult to fully comprehend. I assume that we are meant to see his commitment to war as something that stands in the way of a deeper and more sustained relationship with his partner and that his attachment to hunting is necessary to confirm his virility.
A Portuguesa is a long film (135 minutes) and this is for me its major flaw. It is slow-paced and after a time I found that the beauty of scenes began to be overtaken by my wish for more narrative information (perhaps this was because I missed the references I might be expected to follow up?). Even so, I found the film intriguing and aesthetically pleasing. I will watch any of the director’s other films that night appear. The film is on MUBI’s regular rolling programme for the next three weeks. I don’t know if it will then be accessible from the library. Here’s the original Portuguese trailer, French and German as well as Portuguese is spoken in the film.