This is an unusual political/paranoia thriller with a star name and a downbeat, almost abstract setting. It seems to have wrong-footed some reviewers but is certainly worth catching. Thomas Kruithof makes his directorial début with plenty of ideas but struggles a little with a script he has co-written with Yann Gozlan and two other collaborators. There seems to be a flaw in the last third of the narrative, leading to a rushed ending. The star of the film is French actor François Cluzet. He must command a very high fee because the €5 million budget doesn’t necessarily appear on the screen in what is an imaginative but minimalist presentation. The film is set in France but filmed entirely in Belgium, mostly in Brussels, and this gives a strange sense of anonymity to the images. There is funding from Wallonia as well as France. As well as Cluzet, most of the cast are French – apart from the Italian-German Alba Rohrwacher, sister of director Alice.
One issue is the genre categorisation of the film. It begins almost as a Wellesian mystery like The Trial (1962). Cluzet is Duval, an accountant/accounts clerk in his late 50s who has a breakdown at work and two years later is unemployed and divorced, a former alcoholic who has successfully managed a year of abstention. He meets Sara (Alba Rohrwacher) at AA and around the same time receives a job offer which he accepts, needing something to occupy himself. It takes him to an unfurnished and drab apartment in a tower block where he has to transcribe telephone conversations recorded on a series of cassette tapes. His employer, ‘Clément’, distrusts digital technology and Duval is required to use a typewriter and to follow a set of strict rules in his work practice. Clément makes clear that he is conducting surveillance and that he is engaged in ‘protecting France’. Duval says he is non-political – but affirms that he is a patriot. The audience isn’t clear how much Duval understands but we know that he needs, and wants, this job. Some reviewers have likened his situation to that of the Gene Hackman character in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).
As Duval works conscientiously from 9 to 6 each day in his solitary workspace, it becomes obvious that the material he is transcribing is a phone-tap involving people connected to hostage-taking in Mauritania, the former French colonial possession in West Africa. The plot appears to draw on the real kidnappings in Lebanon in 1986 and the questions surrounding the actions of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac about their release, but places it in the context of a contemporary election campaign by a right-wing French politician that brings it back up to date. Director Kruithof has said that he understands that contemporary spy networks are returning to analogue methods to keep their work secure from cyber attacks and it seems a logical step.
Duval is either slow to realise the import of what he is doing or genuinely engaged in a form of ‘automatic writing’ – which is the intimation of the French title of the film. He simply transcribes the conversations without thinking about what they mean. Inevitably, something goes wrong and Duval finds himself trapped between his boss, French ‘domestic intelligence’ and a third party. By chance, Sara is also involved. It is this predicament which triggers the concluding segment of the narrative – and which some reviewers have claimed is ‘sub-Bourne/Bond’. I think this is an exaggeration. What does happen is that at key moments the seemingly placid Duval acts, decisively but effectively without turning into a superhero.
Cluzet is always worth watching. Here he seems to have put on weight and he inhabits his character effectively. The whole cast is very good and Denis Podalydès as Clément is particularly interesting as the rather unusual employer with the very strict rules. In an interview with Variety, the director describes how he shot scenes in such a way as to involve the audience as much as possible in Duval’s sense of becoming trapped by his task. The cinematography by Alex Lamarque and the score by Grégoire Auger definitely work in this respect. The film in its early stages was known in English as ‘The Eavesdropper’ – which I think would suggest something rather different from the final French title. It’s disappointing that Alba Rohrwacher’s role is simply to allow a variation on Duval’s paranoia by first ‘normalising’ his emotional isolation and then making him vulnerable. She seems to disappear towards the end of the narrative but I may have missed something in the closing scenes.
If you enjoy suspense and mystery, Scribe will entertain you. In the Variety piece above and in other reviews there is a sense that this kind of genre cinema is returning in France. As I was watching it I did wonder whether this could be categorised as a polar the broad generic classification which has in the past included this kind of political thriller. The UK distributor is Arrow who tend to release titles for short cinema runs and then focus on DVD and online. It should be available online now if you’ve missed it in cinemas.
This is the first full-length feature from Chantal Akerman, made in 1974, a year before her best-known work Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It showed in Picturehouse Cinema’s ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot last night. Much of the time I think the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ programming idea is an insult to audiences and a general excuse to show foreign language films just once. However, on this occasion it offered a genuine opportunity to see a film which would otherwise not appear in UK cinemas. The selection of Chantal Akerman films is possible because of ‘A Nos Amours’ – the partnership of Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts – who have negotiated a deal with Picturehouse. Their programme of Akerman’s films continues at the ICA.
Chantal Akerman was born in 1950 and she was only 23-24 when she made this 90 mins feature – which in itself is an outstanding feat. After just a year at a Belgian film school she left and took off for New York where she became an experimental filmmaker in the thriving New York avant-garde community. Something of American structural film of the 1970s is evident in Je, tu, il, elle, but so is something of European cinema.
Je, tu, il, elle comprises three parts of roughly equal length – that is my assumption, I didn’t time them but I suspect the first part seems longer. It features ‘Julie’ (Akerman herself) as a young woman seemingly trapped in a room where she performs four sets of routine operations – she re-arranges the furniture, writes pages of a letter which she then revises and shuffles the pages several times, she eats sugar straight from a bag in spoonfuls and dresses and undresses – often lying naked on her mattress with her clothes draped over her. Eventually someone passes by the full-length windows and she seems to want to expose herself. A little later she opens the windows and walks out. The structuralist element of this for me comes from the repetition of actions and the weird way in which eventually a kind of narrative rhythm emerges, complete with a kind of hermeneutics – what will happen in the end? What will she do next? Is there a pattern etc.? In themselves the actions are not very meaningful, but as a structure they fascinate. This section also reminds us of Godard’s play with sound an image. Akerman offers us ‘direct sound’ from the street and then she deliberately ‘mismatches’ a voiceover describing the actions with the actions themselves which happen well before or after they are described. I assumed that the voice was the director’s. It sounds like a young girl’s voice and doesn’t match the physical presentation of the mature woman.
The second episode, by contrast, sees ‘Julie’ hitching a ride with a truck driver (a young Niels Arestrup). I found this quite a conventional narrative sequence (at least, conventional for European art cinema). It reminded me of some of Wim Wenders’ films from the late 1960s, early 1970s – but without the pop music on the soundtrack! There is a sequence in which the driver (or Julie?) flicks through the channels on a radio which mainly seem to be American, another example of the sound/image split? The scenes in the cab and various bars do evoke an intensity and an intimacy in which it is the male character who is the subject of the gaze and who talks about himself. Julie feels like kissing him and seems quite happy with herself as she watches him shave and wash – and earlier when we barely see her at the edge of the frame as she fulfils his request for sexual relief as he drives.
In the third episode Julie visits a young woman – her friend or former lover? Her host says she can’t stay but then gives in to Julie’s demand for food and drink. Julie is aggressive in what is I think an eroticised encounter – she feeds with a lascivious voraciousness. Before long the couple are naked and making love in the sequence for which the film is best known. Like much of the rest of the film, this encounter is filmed in three or four long takes over the ten minutes or so of the whole session. The two young women are shown in long shot (so the whole body fills the frame) on the bed but not beneath the sheets. The standard viewpoint on this sequence is that Akerman has ‘de-eroticised’ the lovemaking. We hear the sounds, the grunts and exclamations, the sounds of flesh on flesh and flesh on sheets. It is too ‘real’, too ‘raw’ to be eroticised or for us to enjoy a voyeuristic gaze. I’m not sure about this. These are two attractive young women. Chantal Akerman is not conventionally beautiful perhaps but she has personality and a voluptuous figure. Her partner is more willowy. How challenged do we feel presented with their urgent sexual needs? I’m sure some audiences would be aroused by this couple’s lovemaking no matter how it was shown. Annette Foerster (see below) states that “we see only the lust and the violence of this love, and it is an uncomfortable experience”. But this is not accurate: we see moments of tenderness as well and I was moved by these.
I think that if I’d seen this in 1974 I would have felt ‘challenged’. Now the context has changed. It occurs to me that when I saw avant-garde and counter-cinema films in the 1970s/1980s it was usually in an academic context and so it was odd to watch Je, tu, il, elle in a commercial cinema. Taboos have also changed. The most shocking aspect of the film for me was Julie eating sugar by the spoonful – I couldn’t bear to watch it.
Researching the film after the screening I was surprised to discover that several of Chantal Akerman’s later films were released in the UK and I would be interested to see how her work developed. She clearly has been an important director for feminist audiences and scholars. Judith Mayne brackets her with Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, Agnès Varda and Trinh T. Minh-ha in ‘Women in the Avant-garde’ (in Experimental Film, The Film Reader, Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (eds), Routledge 2002). She quotes Akerman as saying that she wouldn’t have had such a clear idea [in making Jeanne Dielman] if it wasn’t for the women’s movement. Yet in her entry on Akerman in The Women’s Companion to International Film (Annette Kuhn with Susannah Radstone (eds), Virago 1990), Annette Foerster tells us that “Akerman does not want to call herself a feminist”.
The film ends with a song that plays on on after the brief credits have rolled. This was not subtitled but from the few words I caught it sounds like some kind of commentary. Is it a children’s song, a folk tale? – I picked up ‘dancing’ and ‘the woods’ and I’m sure I know the song. Does anyone know what it says?
Cornerhouse in Manchester starts a season of Francophone films from Europe, Africa, the Antilles and Quebec today. It’s an interesting programme compiled by Rachel Hayward and supported by Alliance française de Manchester and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. I’m helping to teach an associated evening class and I’ll be blogging on some of the films being screened. The Cornerhouse season includes the following titles:
It’s Not Me I Swear! (C’est pas moi, je le jure!, Canada 2008)
Thu 18 Oct at 18:30
A rare opportunity in the UK to see an earlier film by Philippe Falardeau, director of the wonderful Monsieur Lazhar.
Laurence Anyways (Canada 2012)
Sun 21 Oct at 15:30
The new film by enfant terrible Xavier Dolan which will be on release in the UK and Ireland in December.
Black Shack Alley (Rue cases nègres, Martinique-France 1983)
Wed 24 Oct at 18:30
Another rare opportunity, this time to see a classic film no longer available in the UK. Directed by Euzhan Palcy and based on the book by Joseph Zobel this was a milestone film. I’ll be introducing this screening and posting material on the blog.
War Witch (Rebelle, Canada 2012)
Wed 7 Nov at 18:30
Canada’s entry for the Best Foreign Language film entry for the next Academy Awards. A prizewinner at festivals across the world, Kim Nguyen’s film about a girl forced to become a child soldier in an unnamed African country is one to seek out.
La pirogue (Senegal-France-Germany 2012)
Mon 12 Nov at 18:20
Another of this year’s festival favourites – Moussa Touré’s film about migrants from Africa hoping to reach Europe in open boats.
Our Children (À perdre la raison, Belgium-Switzerland-France-Luxembourg)
Thu 15 Nov at 20:40
A starry cast: Niels Astrup, Tahar Rahim and Emilie Dequenne in Joachim Lafosse’s film based on a real story about a mother and her children faced with a difficult family situation. The UK release will be in 2013.
Sister (France-Switzerland 2012)
On release during November, please check the Cornerhouse listings.
Ursula Meier’s film about a young boy and his sister starring Gillian Anderson and Martin Compston alongside Lea Seydoux and Kacey Mottet Klein has both English and French dialogue. Meier’s realist style in this film has been compared to that of the Dardennes Brothers.
I think I need to watch this film again. The latest production by the Dardenne brothers rather took me by surprise. Much has been made about the decision to shoot in the summer and to offer a story that seems much more optimistic than their earlier work. Even though I knew this was the case, I still found myself slightly bemused. The other ‘difference’ in this production is the presence of a major star in Cécile de France. She is terrific in the role of a hairdresser living above her shop. Since she grew up in Namur, not much further along the Meuse Valley from the Dardennes’ usual location of Seraing, she must have felt quite at home. Jérémie Renier, who has a small part as the mostly absent father in this film and has appeared in other Dardenne Brothers’ films, is also arguably a star name, but not perhaps with the glamour of Ms de France. I guess the UK equivalent of this would be Samantha Morton turning up in a Ken Loach film.
Like all the Dardennes’ films, The Kid With a Bike has a simple idea drawn from contemporary culture in Wallonia. Cyril, a pre-teen boy has been taken into care because his father has abandoned him. The boy has lost his bicycle which he believes has been stolen. In one of his many attempts to find the bike (and evade his carers) he literally runs into Samantha the hairdresser. She takes to him and finds his bike which she buys back from someone on the local estate. Eventually, she offers to look after Cyril and he agrees – but he still seeks his father. Although the woman and boy are good together, he has been messed up by his experiences and he almost inevitably becomes involved with a local drugs dealer/gang leader.
As in the other Dardenne brothers’ films I’ve seen, the narrative simply ends without a clear ‘resolution’. However, the overall tone is brighter than in the previous films – though it has its dark moments as well. The Dardennes have spoken about the genesis of the film as coming from a desire to use ideas from fairy stories in an everyday setting. Cécile de France would of course make an ideal fantasy godmother, but here she is ‘ordinary’ (but still breathtaking). The final element in the mix in terms of changes is the use of music. Instead of a conventional score, music – a few bars of Beethoven, I think – punctuates the narrative at key moments. The austerity of the Dardennes’ usual style eschews music and for me this new addition didn’t work. Reading about it afterwards, I can see what they were trying to do and perhaps it will work when I watch the film again. (I’ve seen its usage quoted as a nod to Robert Bresson.)
I want to say at this point that I was totally gripped by the film and swept along by it. I was shocked by the abrupt end of the film and I left the screening feeling that I’d seen another example of superlative filmmaking – but not sure what to say about it. I’ve read a wide range of reviews and some interviews with the brothers, but in a sense the brilliance of these films is never really analysed. Perhaps this slight change of direction will provide an opening?
Is this naturalism or social realism? Is it ciné verité? These are all referenced in reviews. Many reviews also seize on the bicycle and make the obvious link to Bicycle Thieves. A bicycle is actually a very good ‘narrative device’ in this kind of film. It gives a character mobility and it keeps them close to the realities of life in a particular community. It also places characters in situations which make them vulnerable – they can easily be pushed off a bike and it can easily be damaged or indeed stolen. Throughout this film we do get a sense of Cyril’s energy and restlessness and we are constantly fearful about his safety – and that of the bike. In one sense this is social realism. By making films set in their own backyard of the post-industrial belt in the Meuse valley, the Dardennes do ground themselves and their characters in a specific social situation. However, they don’t (at least in the films I’ve seen) attempt to represent the culture of their region in terms of its politics and economics. The comparison with Ken Loach earlier was deliberate. The Dardennes are, I presume, admirers of Loach – their company Les Films du Fleuve is a co-producer of both The Angel’s Share and Looking For Eric, films which are similarly rooted in specific communities. But whereas Loach and writer Paul Laverty create forms of social melodrama which always appeal to issues of class politics and forms of social justice, the Dardenne brothers films seem more concerned with distilled stories of individual moral dilemmas/struggles and personal relationships. (The Dardennes seem not to offer any social context or ‘back story’ for their characters.) Both Loach and the Dardennes use non-actors alongside professionals cast because they ‘fit’ the social realism of the specific region. The other difference comes in camerawork – Loach’s ‘observational documentary’ style against the Dardennes’ more invisibly choreographed style ((which I certainly need to look at more closely) – and use of humour and popular culture. Loach often tends towards the earthy. I clearly need to find the earlier Dardennes’ films that I haven’t seen before I can complete this comparison.
One last point. The summer shooting does create something magical for me, especially in the nighttime scenes. The limited locations include streets with summertime bushes by the roadside and hidden areas in the woods. There is a strong sense of ‘adventures of a summer night’ and the slightly disturbing feel of summer sun in an urban/suburban setting. One reviewer refers to the ‘poetic realism’ of the Dardennes in this film – and he may be right. It certainly feels different from the austerity of The Silence of Lorna or L’enfant.
I’ve just come back from the Meuse valley in Belgium, so I’ll try and write some more about cinema in Wallonia. In the meantime, here’s the trailer for Le gamin au vélo from Cannes 2011 (where it won the Grand Prix):