There are all kinds of ‘festival films’. Some are destined for special genre strands, some are début films, some are from star directors and come with promotional material. And then there are films that only seem to make sense in a festival setting. I generally like to watch films ‘cold’ in a festival. Partly, I want to get a sense of how audiences might respond. Too Late to Die Young seems to refer to the rush of growing up and indeed this is a ‘coming of age’ film of sorts with three central characters. The credits told me that it is a festival ‘workshop’ film – a film supported by major festivals and funds such as Sundance, Doha and Hubert Bals Fund on the basis that its 33 year-old director Dominga Sotomayor is ‘one to watch’ and this third feature is being supported for wide festival circulation. My worry is that audiences might struggle to place its story despite some excellent performances.
As the film began I found it difficult to locate the story, partly because of the list of co-production countries. At one point somebody mentions Mendoza which I recognised as a city/region in Argentina, but then more references appeared which pointed towards Chile. But where in Chile? I didn’t know that Ñuñoa is a middle class district on the eastern outskirts of Santiago. The actual setting is a commune up in the hills above the city which can finally be seen in the distance later in the film. But when is the story set? I’ve seen enough Chilean films to know that the Pinochet dictatorship is still a central factor in Chilean narratives but I don’t think there was any direct reference here. The clothes and battered old cars could come from any time in the past thirty years since the community in which they appear is perhaps best described as an ex-hippy arts/crafts/music commune. I should have noticed there weren’t any mobile phones or tablets and that the music seemed to be from the 1980s but it wasn’t until after the screening that I learned that it was meant to be the December (i.e. Summer in Chile) of 1989 or possibly 1990, the year that Pinochet stepped down as dictator of Chile. The film isn’t directly interested in politics as such but it seems odd not to display the contextual references – I must have missed something. I was made sleepy by the langourous feel of parts of the film. I suspect that the reviewers who gave it positive reviews at Locarno and Toronto had detailed press notes. Audiences for a standard release won’t have access in the same way. Now that I’ve read those Press Notes and several other sources it all makes sense. Dominga Sotomayor was judged ‘Best Director’ at Locarno, a festival that is trying to develop its profile as a major festival with a different overall stance to Cannes, Venice etc. Sotomayor is the first female winner at Locarno.
Dominga Sotomayor was herself brought up in an ‘ecological commune’. Her script is inspired by the real-life events of January 1990 witnessed by the writer-director as a young girl. She was only four or five at the time and as part of her research she watched some VHS tapes of the period shot around the commune. From these came some inspiration for the ‘look’ of the film and also something of the ‘timelessness’ of the narrative. Her principal character is Sofía (Demian Hernández), a young woman of around 16-17. In her first role, Ms Hernández is certainly an arresting presence. Tall and slim with fine cheekbones, long legs and boyish hair she is very striking and seemingly out of reach for her childhood friend Lucas (Antar Machado). She’s already looking out for the older young men who visit the community. Lucas is a budding guitarist and Sofía plays the accordion. Her father is a luthier. Her mother is absent but expected at the New Year’s Eve party which is the endpoint of the narrative. 10 year-old Clara (Magdalena Tótoro) is the third central character, a kind of bridge between the older and younger children in the community. Clara’s pregnant mother is a well-known actor who has to sign autographs when she is out and about.
I’m certainly in agreement with the reviewers who praise the performances and the cinematography by Inti Briones as well as Dominga Sotomayor’s direction. Although the film is not directly concerned with politics, it is definitely concerned with social class (though the director does not talk about this, so it is my reading rather than a stated intention). This manifests itself in the several ways in which this distinctly middle-class artistic community rubs up against local people in the foothills of the Andes. In one specific example there is a tricky interaction with a family of indigenous people. In other instances the commune suffers break-ins and someone tampers with the water supply. The hinterland of Santiago is not 1960s California and middle-class communes are not universally welcomed. This scenario has echoes in some other Latin American films I’ve seen over the last few years. These artists are not as arrogant and aggressive as the wealthy middle-class ‘Europeans’ in other Latin American narratives but they still represent the colonial/post-colonial ‘masters’.
Too Late to Die Young has been acquired by the UK independent distributor ‘day for night’ (which also acquired Sotomayor’s earlier film Thursday Till Sunday (Chile-Netherlands 2012) so it’s possible it will get a limited release before appearing on DVD. I stick by my comments above re the difficulties the film poses for audiences but as a rather beautiful art film I would recommend Too Late to Die Young, not least for the performance by Demian Hernández who sings her version of ‘Eternal Flame’ by the Bangles (a worldwide hit in 1989). If you can engage with the film’s sense of community, you will have a good time watching it. The Press Notes offer an interesting read after you’ve seen the film. Also useful is this interview recorded at Locarno which reveals something else about the production which I was too dumb to spot immediately, but which will probably become a talking point when the film is released.
Chilean cinema has certainly developed in recent years. This month a Chilean film won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and here is a first-time writer-director Roberto Doveris creating an unusual coming-of-age story which succeeds on several levels. A weird and wonderful tale, Las Plantas combines genres and ideas that don’t always cohere, but the film is always watchable and it is innovative in interesting ways. I caught it on MUBI (on its last night of availability unfortunately).
The title refers to a comic book discovered by 17 year-old Flor in the garage of the apartment for which she is now responsible. The comic book appears to be Argentinean and offers an episode in a longer science fiction/fantasy/horror story which borrows from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other familiar tales about plants that in the dead of night take over human bodies. Throughout the film there is a sense that the comic book and several other factors must be in some way metaphorical about the situation in which Flor finds herself. ‘Flor’ is short for Florencia, but ‘flor’ also refers to ‘flora’ or ‘flowers’.
Flor has more to cope with than most teenagers. Her brother Sebastian is in a persistent vegetative state and needs constant care in feeding and washing. Flor’s father is absent and her mother is also seriously ill in hospital. When Clara leaves (she may be Flor’s aunt?), Flor is in sole charge of the apartment and Sebastian. A creepy uncle appears and disappears one night. Money is in short supply and it appears that Flor has had to move schools. We don’t see her engaged in school work and she doesn’t seem to have a ‘best’ girlfriend. Instead she hangs out with two boys with whom she creates dances that might at some point be performed. The trio also engage in forays into internet chatrooms, looking for sexual encounters. Eventually it becomes clear that this fascination and anxiety about sex (and the comic book story) is what helps Flor get through the daily grind. In the final part of the narrative Flor’s sexual desire takes centre stage.
I can see from some of the online comments that the slow pace and the loose narrative has put off some viewers. It’s true that some characters appear without much explanation and that it is easy to get confused by characters who are similar in appearance and often photographed in shadow. On the other hand the whole film has a dreamlike quality and a ‘tidier’ narrative might lose some of the atmosphere or ‘tone’. The film stands or falls on the central performance of Violeta Castillo as Flor. This is her first listed feature and Castillo (who is Argentinian) has also provided some of the music in the film.
I’m a little surprised that the film hasn’t had wider distribution. I can see that the nudity (especially erect penises) might be a problem for censors but personally I’d be happy to see this film get a ’15’ certificate in the UK. It’s worth pointing out that the sequences depicting Flor’s developing sexuality are by no means sexist – nakedness is not ‘gendered’ here. It’s refreshing to see a narrative focusing on a young woman’s discovery of her own sexual desire and her own attempts to explore it.
Las Plantas won prizes in the ‘Generation 14+’ section of the Berlinale in 2016. Here’s the trailer from the festival:
A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Foreign Language film earlier this month. The award is usually reserved for either a complex art film from an acknowledged auteur or a more conventional film that deals with a subject with which Academy voters can readily identify. A Fantastic Woman leans towards the latter in terms of its narrative. The voting seems to reflect a change in the constituency of Academy voters, so that a film focusing on a transgender woman receives support in the same way that a film about a gay African-American boy growing to be a man won Best Picture in 2017. Having said that, the director of A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, had already won recognition for his earlier film Gloria in 2013 which was nominated and won prizes at many international film festivals. He also invests his new film with melodrama symbolism that wouldn’t appear in a mainstream film. I make these observations because when a film makes a splash in the global market place like A Fantastic Woman it becomes subject to a different range of critics and reviewers as well as general audiences and I’ve noted a few odd reactions in this case.
I saw A Fantastic Woman in a preview screening a couple of weeks before its UK release. I deliberately avoided reading about the film before the screening. All I knew was that the woman of the title was transgender. I was then surprised that the film screening was preceded by the director introducing his film direct to camera. The screening was in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot so I wondered if this was a satellite transmission to Picturehouses cinemas around the country (the sound levels were very high). If so, I was bemused to discover that A Fantastic Woman was distributed in the UK by Picturehouses’ rival Curzon Artificial Eye. Anyway, I tried to ignore the director’s statement because I wanted to experience the film ‘cold’. My cool response soon warmed up. As the star of the film, Daniela Vega is indeed ‘fantastic’.
I enjoyed the film very much. I haven’t seen many of the growing number of recent films that feature transgender characters and I’m not particularly aware of transgender issues, so my response to the film is mainly based on my reaction to the prejudice displayed towards Marina and the character’s strength and determination to live her life. I’ve seen some criticism that the prejudice seems to be simply ‘too much’. Would people really act like that? But perhaps this view doesn’t take into account the situation in Chile?
The narrative structure of the film is straightforward. We watch a couple – a younger woman and an older man – out for a celebration of the woman’s birthday. They return home and make love but early in the morning the man becomes unwell and then dies in hospital. When the woman brings her lover to the hospital she is treated with suspicion – the hospital won’t accept her name, ‘Marina’, because it must be her nickname, not her ‘real’ name. What follows are a series of humiliations for a woman who has just experienced the death of her lover. From here on in, the narrative follows the logic of a neorealist film. Marina is barred by her lover’s family from attending his funeral and his cremation. She must try to assert her right to be there and to physically make her presence felt. That’s the story, with a coda when we discover how she acts once the cremation has taken place.
The level of distrust of Marina (is she a gold-digger?) added to the prejudice of ignorance about her sexual identity might seem excessive but Chile appears to be a country with a great contradiction at the centre of its modern society. The legacy of the Pinochet years of fascist repression lingers in a country which also seems visibly caught between the sparkling new modern architecture of parts of Santiago (where the film is set) and other parts of the same city which represent earlier times. Marina is a ‘new woman’ faced with her lover’s family who reveal the prejudices of a traditional society with young men who display machismo and Orlando’s ex-wife who displays her class hatred for Marina (which is arguably misplaced anyway). Not everyone in Orlando’s family is so aggressively anti but the vitriol and violence of the younger males is the most disturbing element. Outside the family, it is the response of hospital and police staff (‘following orders’) that most invokes the Pinochet years. I won’t spoil the narrative further, but there are conscious humiliations designed to unsettle and throw into doubt personal identity.
Sebastián Lelio presents Marina’s story as a melodrama, which is fine by me, but risks alienating some modern audiences. He himself declares that
” . . . It’s a romance film, a ghost film, a fantasy film, a film about humiliation and revenge, a document of reality, a character study (from the Sony Classics Press Notes).
It is all of these, but its presentation is via melodrama. The film uses music carefully and its score is by the British electronic music composer Matthew Herbert (see this webpage to listen to the main title). Marina herself is a singer, training to sing operatic arias such as Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from his 1738 opera Xerxes. It was written for a castrato but I’m not sure how to classify Daniela Vega’s voice in the film’s version of her performance – it is presumably some form of soprano voice? There are several fantasy sequences but the most obvious melodrama symbolism is in the repeated ‘mirror shots’, some of which are very inventive. The mirror image, especially when Marina looks into the mirror and sees her ‘split’ identity.
Daniela Vega, who ‘transitioned’ when she was an older teenager, was originally approached as a transgender ‘consultant’ for the film’s production before taking up the role of the central character. I’m so glad she got the chance to perform in this role which I suspect will go down as a highly significant role in global cinema. Go and see the film – you won’t be disappointed. And if you don’t have a tear in your eye when the scene below plays out, I’ll be very surprised:
If you need any more persuading, here’s the official trailer:
Neruda is the latest of several films by Chilean director Pablo Larrain to focus on moments during Chile’s turbulent political struggles between the 1940s and the death of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 2006. Larrain’s approach is through a focus on certain characters, either closely involved in the events of the period or perhaps engaged in something that might be read as a metaphor for everyday life in Chile at that time. One of these films, No (2011), is discussed elsewhere on this blog. Immediately after completing Neruda, Larrain directed Jackie (Chile-France-US 2016). Jackie portrayed Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination, mainly through the device of the former First Lady giving an interview to a journalist. If you are unaware of how Pablo Larrain has approached historical figures and historical events in his films, you may be thrown by a film like Neruda.
Pablo Neruda (1904-73), real name Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, was an extraordinary figure, a poet-diplomat who took his pen-name from Czech poet Jan Neruda (1834-91). Pablo was a poet from age 10 who could communicate directly with the Chilean working-class and was a Communist elected as a Senator. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and perished in mysterious circumstances during the suppression of Salvador Allende’s legitimate government in 1973. Neruda was being treated for cancer but suspicions remain that he was murdered by a doctor on the orders of General Pinochet.
Larrain’s film is not, as might be expected, a straight biopic. Instead it follows Neruda over a few months in 1948 when, as a Communist, he became vulnerable to the forces loyal to the new President, Gabriel González Videla a supposed leftist who then turned towards anti-communism in order to court American support. Neruda denounced this move and became a marked man. All this is represented accurately in the film, but Neruda’s actions then become fictionalised and Larrain creates a narrative in which Neruda plays cat and mouse games with a police detective charged by the President with arresting him. This character, Óscar Peluchonneau played by Gael García Bernal, is fictional. Neruda (played in a bravura performance by Luis Gnecco) leads the detective a merry dance, at first accompanied by his lover, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), and then on his own. Neruda was a larger than life character who enjoyed fine wines and fine clothes but was capable of writing poems which could rouse crowds from every section of Chilean society as the film demonstrates very well. The fictional story includes the ‘real’ escape of Neruda to Argentina across the mountains.
The film is always watchable and I enjoyed it very much. The camera seems to be constantly moving as Neruda moves from one hideout to another. In one extraordinary sequence we meet a young Pinochet, but our main attention is on the detective. He’s an extraordinary character who is constantly attempting to confirm his own identity as a man who is the bastard son of a famous detective. With his fedora and thin moustache he appears like a character out of a US film noir. Neruda ‘plays’ with this character, leading him on with a trail of detective novels which the detective can’t resist reading. The detective’s name in Spanish apparently means ‘stuffed toy’ and this makes sense when the narrative twist is revealed. In the meantime, Neruda emphasises this play by ‘dressing up’ and slipping away in disguise as the detective approaches. I’m not quite sure what this all means (apart from making a commentary on political figures) but it is certainly entertaining and if it introduces audiences to some of the real history of what happened in Chile, that can’t be a bad thing. If only our politicians today were half as interesting as Pablo Neruda.
Another first feature by a female filmmaker from South America, Rara followed Alba and offered ¡Viva! audiences a third young teenager’s struggles in a family group. In this case the family group is intact, but following a divorce, lawyer Paula (Mariana Loyola) is living with Lia (Agustina Muñoz), a vet. The central character is Sara (Julia Lübbert), who with her younger sister Catalina (Emilia Ossandon) is getting used to the new family arrangements – which involve visits to her father’s new household. Like Alba this is a first feature. Director Pepa San Martín had also previously made two short films and her first feature was co-written with the experienced Alicia Scherson. I think the best way to describe the film is as a family drama with comedic elements. Watching it I did feel that many scenes would have worked in situation comedies and television comedy drama series. This is not in any way a criticism. In the UK these types of narrative forms have often been where women writers have had most success and established themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed Rara and found many aspects of it impressive. My only concern was that the narrative as a whole didn’t seem to be completely coherent. I wondered if I was misreading some scenes.
Rara doesn’t announce where it is set until the first mention of ‘the capital’, Santiago and the implication that we are outside the capital (and actually in Viña del Mar, north of Valparaiso). When I checked after the screening I discovered that civil partnerships between same sex partners were made legal in Chile in 2015 and that moves to legalise same sex marriage are current under the presidency of Michelle Bachelet. Rara is clearly a topical film and this perhaps explains the background to what is ostensibly a youth picture about Sara and her approaching 13th birthday – her first since having braces removed with the promise of kissing to enjoy. Much of the narrative is taken up by Sara’s vacillation over how to celebrate her birthday. Should she have a small party in her mother’s house or a bigger party (planned by her close schoolfriend), possibly in her father’s new house? She has other relationships to worry about as well – her first possible boyfriend at school and her sometimes difficult times with her younger sister. Catalina is always likely to steal the narrative limelight – especially when a stray ginger kitten appears. But these questions about the party (and at one point the cat) also have implications for the two families. Whether Sara understands what her actions might provoke is unclear, but they give her father and his new wife some possible opportunities to develop a case for custody of the two girls. The new status of same sex partnerships has not been universally welcomed and some of the staff and students at school aren’t totally supportive. It’s all too easy to say the wrong thing or to react without thinking. According to the review on the Queer Guru website, the story is:
actually based on the true story in 2004 when a Chilean Judge lost custody of her own children purely on the basis of her sexuality. Rara (which means ‘sad’) stops before the trial begins . . .
The Hollywood Reporter review suggests that ‘Rara’ means strange. Either way, the script has to present Paula’s family as ‘just like other families’ – which it clearly is – but also to subtly indicate why problems might arise and the first indication is when Catalina’s drawing of her family shows her two mothers. She has actually left off her gran, Pancha – another mother whose conservatism makes her less supportive than she might be. A UK review by Isabelle Milton makes a good point in noting that in some sequences showing Sara in school, the use of long tracking shots seems to suggest an art cinema sensibility that is not supported by more familiar generic scenes such as dancing to pop music in a bedroom. The character of the father (played by Daniel Muñoz) seemed less well-drawn than the other main characters and I couldn’t ‘read’ his behaviour in some scenes. Is he playing ‘weak’ to disguise his intentions, is he simply ‘mild-mannered’? A colleague suggested he seemed ‘feminised’. This added to my sense of a slight incoherence.
Shot in CinemaScope and running at a concise 88 minutes, Rara is nevertheless an enjoyable film to watch with many excellent performances, especially by the two young sisters. It seems to have been released in Italy, Mexico and Spain with France to come and I hope it opens in more territories. Here is a trailer (with English subs) which perhaps pushes the conservative comments about sexuality harder than in the film itself:
and here is the Chilean trailer (no subs):
and here’s a long interview (with translation) from the Berlin Film Festival screening:
Jackie is a surprising film. I found it to be a riveting watch and it left me strangely uplifted but also puzzled. I’m not sure what immediate conclusions, if any, I came to except that I’m glad I saw it on a big screen. It’s a film about a moment of American history that resonated around the world for those of us alive in 1963 and that has been ‘re-presented’ in different ways ever since. But though this is an American event, it doesn’t feel like an American film, or at least it doesn’t seem to belong to either Hollywood or American Independent Cinema, despite the involvement of several US producers. Instead, this is essentially a French film directed by the Chilean auteur Pablo Larrain. The script and the impressive cast are mainly American but the creative personnel supporting Larrain are European. The best known of the production companies involved, the French company Why Not Productions, has been involved in the recent films of Jacques Audiard and Ken Loach. In what follows I try to analyse my response.
The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting. The irony is that Jackie was shot on Super 16 film, giving the image a slightly grainier and less sharp/bright feel than a digital original image. To add to the disturbance of the framing and image texture, the score by the British composer Mica Levy (best known for her score for Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) and some of the compositions by DoP Stéphane Fontaine are equally unsettling. Together they set up very well the performances by the actors and especially that of Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy.
Jackie is routinely described as a ‘biopic’ by reviewers. But I don’t buy this. A biopic needs to cover a substantial part of a subject’s life with at least some reference to childhood and other key stages in the development of the adult persona. Jackie focuses on not much more than one intensely dramatic week of the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy plus some occasional references to earlier events. The narrative structure is such that these events are discussed in retrospect in an interview given to a journalist (such an interview was conducted by Theodore H White for Life magazine in 1964) in the rather austere surroundings of a house in the Kennedy ‘homeland’ of Hiyannis Port in Massachusetts.
The original choice for the director of the film was Darren Aranovsky who later became one of several producers. He is reported to have told Natalie Portman that the key to the film was Jackie’s voice. The character is in virtually every scene and must go through some terrible experiences. Portman appears to have responded fully to his comment in her study of Jackie Kennedy and her delivery has become one of the talking points of the film. Portman does not ‘resemble’ Mrs Kennedy, either facially or in her body shape. The hairstyle and the iconic Chanel suits certainly help to create the character but a lot depends on the voice and on Portman’s performance skills. I have no memory of hearing Jackie Kennedy speak so the only signifier for me was when Portman shifts her voice between the soft, breathy and almost girlish ‘public voice’ of the character and the more clipped and authoritative voice she uses for the ‘behind the scenes’ moments. Overall, I found the performance convincing. I didn’t know much about Jackie before I saw the film and what I learned from the film and subsequently through research I found interesting.
It seems to me that the film illustrates two main points. The first is that there is humanity even in the processes inside the White House and the Presidency. Everyone treats Jackie and her children with respect even as a new administration has to begin. I’m not sure how ‘true’ or ‘realistic’ this is. In one scene Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) orders everyone, including President Johnson, to sit down when Jackie is under stress. Johnson is represented as an amenable figure – which belies the stories of his anger and violent language, though the camera does hint at what he and Ladybird might be saying off screen/off microphone. Personally, I found the scenes of Jackie coping with her grief and the procedures she had to follow quite moving. The other main theme of the film is Jackie’s attempt to create the image of JFK’s legacy. She did this as a continuation of her earlier attempts to redecorate the White House and to learn from the history of other presidential figures. We can see this theme played out both in her determination to organise an appropriate state funeral and burial at Arlington and in the way she conducts the interview with the journalist (played by Billy Crudup with a distinct swagger). Again, I rather admired Jackie as a character and Natalie Portman’s performance.
I’m grateful to Nick Lacey, my viewing partner, who found this useful interview with Stéphane Fontaine on ‘No Film School’. It was Nick who spotted the use of 16mm and in the interview Fontaine explains how he and Pablo Larrain approached the shoot which was mainly in a Paris studio with only a few exteriors in Washington. Larrain went so far as to bring an old three-tube video camera (as used in No) from Chile to Paris in an attempt to ‘insert’ Portman into the 1962 video recording of Mrs Kennedy offering TV viewers a tour around the White House – one of the pre-assassination sequences included to help build Jackie’s persona as a character. The film’s whole budget is listed as $9 million on IMDB which seems extraordinary (it’s quite a lot less than most mainstream French features). All I can say is well done to cast and crew. If you are interested in cinematography this interview is a must.
In conclusion, Jackie is a terrific emotional narrative with a stunning central performance and very good support from a talented supporting cast (including Greta Gerwig, Richard E. Grant and John Hurt). I suspect it will surprise many audiences. I just hope they are open to the approach adopted by Pablo Larrain and his crew and prepared to learn a bit more about an era and a group of historical figures who they think they might already know well.
Here’s a promotional clip from the film in which Jackie fights for the funeral parade she wants:
This clip from a 1961 TV interview reveals not just the real Mrs Kennedy’s’s speaking voice, but also her historical knowledge about the White House. Some of her statements are used verbatim in the new film.