You have to hand it to the Coens. They are intelligent and highly-skilled filmmakers who know how to engage diverse audience groups. They also like to ‘play’ in a serious way, creating controversies and teasing their fans. The most interesting comment I’ve read about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the title could fit on an album cover and that the individual episodes might represent a collection of introspective songs about the artist’s unhappy lot. That seems a good call to me.
Llewyn is an angry man who isn’t making much money from applying his talent in as authentic a manner as possible. He has no home and moves from the floor or couch at friends to the occasional bed. His sister is about to sell his parents’ house. He is primed to insult anyone who offers the hand of friendship – but he is topped in the angry stakes by Jean, one of his former lovers. This is a Coens’ movie though and thankfully he isn’t ‘redeemed’. Many of those who don’t like the film suggest that it has no story or rather no ‘meaning’. I take the story to be about the folk singer who fails to find success because of a combination of bad luck (fate?), the unfortunate ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – just missing being in the right place at the right time – and the inability to compromise just enough to gain acceptance without squandering his talent. For me, the turning point of the narrative is Llewyn’s ‘audition’ for Albert Grossman (or his fictionalised counterpart). This is his big chance to impress the main promoter on the folk scene and he sings a song that many commentators have seen as ‘miserabilist’, a ‘real downer’ etc. In fact it is a beautiful rendition of an old English ballad (arranged in the version that Oscar Isaacs sings by the Irish guitarist Dáithí Sproule). It is contrasted with the smoother, more ‘poppy’ and conventional songs sung by the ‘Jim and Jean’ characters (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and some other performers.
The Grossman who turned down Llewyn Davis would go on to promote Bob Dylan (who appears as a character towards the end of the film) – and the much more polished Peter, Paul and Mary – but who in 1961 doesn’t see what might become a commercial possibility.
I think the film is well written, beautifully photographed and, as might be expected from the Coens, the soundtrack is wonderfully arranged/scored/constructed by T-Bone Burnett. Oscar Isaac’s performance of the songs is very good and worth the price of the admission ticket on its own. But here is where the Coen’s get playful and tease. The ‘community’ of singers associated with the Gaslight Café and Greenwich Village generally in 1961 is based on and ‘around’ the historical figures of Dave Van Ronk and several other well-known names such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Tom Paxton. I’m sure I read/heard that the Coens said that they didn’t know that Ewan MacColl only wrote ‘Shoals of Herring’ in 1960 – but the narrative implies that Llewyn had sung the song to his father many years before. Did they really not know? There are other anachronisms as well, including a poster for The Incredible Journey (1963) (part of the entertaining narrative of a Greenwich Village cat). The barely disguised impersonations and sly jokes (Llewyn comments on the sweaters worn by the Clancy Brothers performers) and the anachronisms provide ample material for fans either of the music itself or of the Coens’ films to discuss at length.
Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted me to explore Dave Van Ronk’s music. He’s someone I’ve always vaguely known about but never properly listened to and now perhaps I will. I guess it helps (to get funding) if the characters in a kind of faux biopic like this are relatively young and beautiful. I wonder how important Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (whose husband Marcus Mumford has a leading role in the music performed in the film) are to the success of the film for younger audiences? It occurs to me that a biopic of a similarly ‘difficult’ but older and less photogenic character like Ewan MacColl would offer personal dramas, songs at least as good and a similar clash of ideas about where the music should be going – but would add some radical politics as well.
The official website for Inside Llewyn Davis carries a useful background piece on the folk scene in New York in 1960-2.
Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a film with American cultural content and it is an ‘American’ film, but it’s worth noting that it has been made in association with StudioCanal – a link going back to the Coens’ early work with Working Title/Universal/Vivendi? – and the UK company Anton Capital Entertainment which currently supplies 30% of StudioCanal’s funding. So Inside Llewyn Davis is technically a US/France/UK film.
Some of the most popular stars and most popular films of past decades are virtually unknown by modern audiences, simply because the films aren’t shown much. Of course, it is also true that tastes change and many so called ‘classic films’ were not popular at the time of their release. But I would argue that at least part of the reason is that screening rights are lost or held by libraries that can’t (or won’t) exploit them.
After many years of watching British films at the cinema or on TV, I’ve only seen two or three of the films of Anna Neagle, yet she was arguably the biggest star of British cinema during its years of peak popularity in the late 1940s. Neagle was a major star of stage (especially musical theatre – she began her career as a dancer) and screen from the mid 1930s to the 1950s. In 1943 she married Herbert Wilcox her director since 1933 with his own production company. Wilcox had developed a relationship with the Hollywood major RKO which involved some Hollywood-based films for the pairing. I mention this because Odette (a ‘Wilcox-Neagle Production’ made at Elstree Studios) was shown in the morning graveyard slot on BBC2 usually filled with RKO films, including British-based productions.
Anna Neagle’s most popular films were the trio of titles in which she was paired with Michael Wilding – Piccadilly Incident (1947), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1948) and Spring in Park Lane (1948). These were frothy, lightweight romances and all feature in the BFI’s list of the 100 films with the biggest admission figures in UK film history (Spring in Park Lane is at No. 5!). If I’ve seen any of these titles, I don’t remember them and I’ve always assumed that they weren’t for me. I have seen the films of the more earthy female stars of the same period such as Margaret Lockwood (at No. 9 with The Wicked Lady), which have retained a stronger place in popular cultural memory.
So, Odette is a completely different film from what might be expected from a star with Anna Neagle’s persona. It’s a biopic about one of the most celebrated female agents of SOE (Special Operations Executive), a Frenchwoman living in the UK who volunteered to be sent to France in 1942 to aid the résistance. In a prologue Maurice Buckmaster, the British officer who sent Odette to France, introduces the film (in which he plays himself) and tells us that the events all took place and as far as is “humanly possible” the actors attempt to represent what actually happened. This I fear is rather a hostage to fortune as the film narrative is necessarily structured as a commercial feature and, although it is relatively early in the cycle of such espionage films, it is already evident that certain generic types are being developed. This is partly a function of casting. Peter Ustinov, that multi-talented personality who could speak several languages fluently but who always seems to play with a comic touch, is indeed a slightly comical figure, set against a stern but decent Trevor Howard. Marius Goring is the sophisticated and charming German military intelligence man. All three characters are immediately recognisable in the role that they play.
These generic touches are highlighted by the contrast in the scenes in which Odette is tortured by the Gestapo. It has been argued that the poor critical reception of some of Anna Neagle’s most popular films was that the fashion in critical circles was for the ‘harder’ and more intense drama found in neo-realist films from Italy in this period. The first and one of the most influential of these films was Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, Italy 1945) in which there is a particularly disturbing scene in which a Gestapo officer forces a priest suspected of aiding the partisans to watch a man being tortured. To find a similar scene of brutal torture in Odette is indeed disturbing. Little is shown but the brutality is suggested very well. This scene is matched by location footage of action shot in the south of France and in the Alps, often in long shot and again invoking the neo-realist style. But despite this, much of the rest of the film is conventional and doesn’t seem to exploit the possibilities that the extra budget for overseas shooting has offered. This is emphasised by a strange narrative device in the section dealing with Odette’s incarceration at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Several of the scenes set at the camp begin with an image composed in depth with a small orchestra of female prisoners playing in the foreground. Other prisoners are in the middle ground behind barbed wire and far in the background is a tall chimney belching black smoke. I assume that the chimney is meant to symbolise the industrial scale of the killings in the camp. Ravensbrück was not an ‘extermination camp’ as such but the women who worked as slave labour were killed when they were too ill or too weak to work – and some were gassed because this was less time-consuming than shooting them. In this analysis the image is powerful in the way that it represents the contradictory cultures of the camp – but its repetition seems to make its meanings banal. I sometimes felt that there were other scenes, especially between the two leads, which might have been triggers for later parodies of the stiff-lipped British officer and the brave female agent.
Anna Neagle judging on this performance was a fine actress and a charismatic screen presence, but she was rather older than the woman she played had been at the time (45 rather than 30). I don’t think that this is a problem and I was happy to accept her as a believable French agent, but it may be that she offered a slightly different presentation than might be expected from a younger woman. It would be interesting to compare Odette with Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) in which Virginia McKenna plays Violette Szabo, another of the SOE agents sent to France. McKenna was much closer in age to her character – and had a rather different screen persona as an ‘English rose’ type.
Odette was a successful film that did have an impact and certainly moved audiences. I can see why that was the case but I do feel that it is a film with some inconsistencies – perhaps that saves it from the blandness that afflicts some other British films of the period, especially some of the war films. One last oddity. The late 1940s was actually quite a strong period for European cinema in the UK with several notable releases, including some Italian neo-realist films. There were also several European stars working for British studios as well as some European directors. I was intrigued to note that in Odette, several scenes began or ended with characters speaking in French or German which was not subtitled. Unfortunately I don’t speak either language well enough to know how ‘authentic’ this speech was. The dialogue was not of great import but it was certainly part of the scene. The lead actors mostly spoke in English of course, but occasionally they spoke in French. Peter Ustinov and Anna Neagle sounded fine in French but Trevor Howard’s accent seemed very poor to me and threatened the credibility of the character. I don’t know how to read this language usage – does it suggest that the industry was less sensitive than it became only a few years later? The problem of language use in films like this has remained throughout the last sixty years and still often undermines the commercial prospects of such films in the international marketplace. What does anyone think is the best solution?
Bradford has often opened with a new British film and British cinema has been an important element of the festival. On the face of it The Look of Love looks like a good choice. Michael Winterbottom is a celebrated if controversial director, Steve Coogan has done some of his best work with Michael and the subject matter is promising. . . . On the other hand, biopics are notoriously difficult to get right. Writer Matt Greenhalgh scripted one of the best with Control and I’ve admired Michael Winterbottom’s work since I first saw Welcome to Sarajevo on a big screen in 1997. After Wonderland in 1999 I was convinced that he was the most exciting UK director around. Since then I’ve liked nearly everything he’s done and I’ve been dismayed by the failure of most of his best films to get the recognition they deserve in terms of big audiences. I think Winterbottom’s problem has been to find a new writing partner after his successful collaborations with Frank Cottrell-Boyce and his irregular link-ups with Laurence Coriat. Before the screening my main concern was how the notorious workaholic guerilla filmmaker with thirty-odd films to his name would get on with a scriptwriter who had previously worked with first-time feature directors. You can’t really get a better combination of Lancashire names than Greenhalgh-Winterbottom, so I’m sure that they got on at a personal level, but for me the film didn’t work.
Let’s take the positives first. The audience clapped at the end and several people said how much they liked it. The performances in the film were all good and the soundtrack must have cost a few bob with some nice tunes from the 1960s-1980s. After that I start to struggle. The Look of Love tells the story of Paul Raymond, the Liverpool-born ‘failed entertainer’ who became a very successful impresario in the demi-world of first nude shows in the 1950s then strip clubs and his Revuebar in Soho and eventually a softporn publishing empire. His stroke of genius (sorry, there is a pun there which was not intentional, but that’s how the ‘nudge, wink’ world works) was to put his profits into property in the West End. By the late 1990s he was one of the richest men in the UK. But money can’t buy you love – even if you do know the Beatles. Raymond’s family life was a mess, particularly in relation to his daughter who would do anything to please her father. He was seemingly a father who could not really understand the damage that he did.
In the Q & A that followed, Matt Greenhalgh answered a question about what was not in the film (e.g. Raymond’s possible dealings with criminals etc.) by saying that there were too many stories. He also said that he hadn’t done deep research in Soho. Instead, it seems that he latched onto the story of Debbie, the daughter (played by Imogen Poots). He also implied that he didn’t get to tell that story fully, because the film was really the idea of Steve Coogan who wanted to play Raymond. Here is possibly the major problem with the film. Steve Coogan, whose performances in The Trip and 24 Hour Party People I admire, is miscast as Raymond, or rather he can’t or won’t, play Raymond as a ‘character’ in this fiction. He remains Coogan, on a couple of occasions addressing the camera to say “My name is Paul Raymond”, winking at the camera on another occasion and then doing Coogan impressions of Sean Connery later Marlon Brando.
The film wants to tell the story from the 1950s to the 1990s. Raymond was born in 1925 so he was in his late 60s by the end of the film. Coogan does actually look a little like Raymond in his 60s, but he also always looks like Coogan. He’s not really helped by the film’s production design. The 1950s sequences use black and white but from then on, Soho looks more or less the same over the next forty years. You have to guess from the clothes which decade is which. For someone who was once the most audacious director around for devising a unique aesthetic approach, Winterbottom seems to have abandoned the task this time. It’s probably not helped by the absence of Marcel Zyskind whose camerawork has been the basis of that aesthetic since he acted as operator for Robbie Muller on 24 Hour Party People in 2002. (He shot two episodes of the third series of The Killing in his native Denmark in 2012 instead.)
At the end of the Q&A we got the inevitable (and justifiable) question about the film’s objectification of women. Of course, a film about a man who runs strip clubs and a soft porn publishing house has to show something, but the question (from a well-known film studies professor) was why was the film so complicit, so chummy in its representations of Raymond – and why were there no male genitalia to complement the numerous full frontals of dozens of actresses? It’s a fair point, but my feeling is that the film simply didn’t offer anything ‘strong’ to react against. Raymond wasn’t a hypocrite. He didn’t peddle Page 3 or attack women like the Daily Mail does now. He published ‘top shelf’ magazines and ran clubs that made money from the gullibility of men seeking excitement. The acres of flesh seemed to me just dull, but that was what much of that softporn world in the UK was like in the 1970s and 1980s. British representations of sex were at one time mostly comical. If they were sexy it was because of an element of realism – the ‘Readers’ Wives’ aesthetic if you like. It’s ironic that in one scene it’s just possible to glimpse a poster of Joe Losey’s The Servant (a poster for Billy Liar appears in another scene). There is much more eroticism in one look from Dirk Bogarde or a wriggle by Sarah Miles than in the whole of The Look of Love. Having said that, at least the women in Winterbottom’s film looked ‘real’ and not sculpted and plucked like Christmas turkeys. Anna Friel and Tamsin Egerton as Raymond’s wife Jean and his girlfriend Fiona Richmond make the most of what they are offered, but they deserved more. There is a story in here, probably more than one, but they need to be told in such a way to bring out not just the personal relationships but also something about the changes in British social life over the period. If it had more bite the film would be more entertaining and might also generate some debate.
I went to this screening by accident and it was only afterwards that I learned that this was the most anticipated Polish release of the year. It opened in Poland and in the UK and Ireland on 21 September and you still have the chance to see it at selected Cineworld multiplexes. The title refers (I think) to one of the songs by Hip Hop trio Paktofonika who were active between 1998 and 2000. The film is a music biopic of sorts covering the short career of the trio from Silesia in industrialised Southern Poland.
It’s always fun to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceptions. I don’t know a great deal about Hip Hop and I had no knowledge of the band. Because of this I relied on what I knew of youth pictures and social realist dramas. In some ways the film reminded me of Flying Pigs (Poland 2010) the football-based drama shown at this year’s Bradford Film Festival.
Since I didn’t know this was a true story, I did wonder at one point if this would become a social realist drama rather than a music film. I compared it to Ken Loach or Shane Meadows, the Dardennes Brothers and other realist filmmakers. It is presented in a CinemaScope frame and there is heavy use of shallow focus, especially against the grim housing estates of Katowice. Also, the palette seems to have been reduced to greens, blues and browns to emphasise the drabness. It seemed both stylised and observational in its aesthetic approach and I was interested to learn that the director Leszek Dawid trained at the famous Lódź film school, specialising in documentaries. He won a prize at the Gdynia Polish Film Festival for this film and prizes also went to Marcin Kowalczyk as ‘Magik’ and Dawid Ogrodnik and Tomasz Schuchardt, the two supporting actors playing ‘Focus’ and ‘Rahim’. My feeling certainly was that these three young actors – and the other performers playing friends or family – were some of the strongest elements in the film. There are some similarities to the UK film Control (about Joy Division) and I was quite impressed by the music, even if I don’t know much about it. The weakest part of the film seemed to be the script (remember I didn’t know it was based on a true story) and I didn’t really understand why it ended as it did. I was relieved to see that the festival reviewer felt the same way.
Find out more about the true story and the coverage of the film in the Polish media on Culture.pl and the Polish Cultural Institute. The surprising feature of the Culture.pl coverage is the reference to the importance of the film in critiquing ‘degenerate Polish capitalism of the post-transformation era’ and the attack on consumerism (i.e. the band’s ‘art’ against the consumerist society). The festival review also refers to the film’s script as being claimed as a “post-1989 Man of Marble” (the famous film by Andrzej Wajda), but then finding its statements about consumerism naïve. I guess we are so used to these kinds of narratives in Anglo-American films that the anti-consumerism didn’t really register with me – it just seemed like a conventional element in a music film about ‘rebel’ musicians. Another lesson about watching films more carefully and more objectively perhaps?
Here’s the trailer with English subs (beware that the comments below give away the ending if you don’t want to know it – but if you know about the band, you’ll know the ending anyway):