It’s probably a good thing that such blatantly sexist films – see above – like this are not made anymore. Except, of course, the Carry On . . . films (1958-92) were not quite as straightforwardly reactionary as the poster suggests. For a start, the men are all pathetic, self-absorbed idiots; the competent gender is female. This is expressed in Cabby through Hattie Jacque’s character who, in umbrage at her husband’s (Sid James) attitude toward her, starts her own cab (taxi) business, in secret, and easily beats him at his own game. In comedies it’s relatively easy to dramatise such subversive representations as we’re obviously not meant to be taking it seriously however in order for the humour to work it has to draw upon generally recognised tropes; in other words, maybe men deep down knew their hubris was ridiculous. Talbot Rothwell’s script gives James lines that demonstrate his own stupidity in one sentence: he bemoans not knowing what his wife’s up to but refuses to ask her if she isn’t going to tell him without him having to ask.
The film’s poster isn’t a million miles away from the style of Bamforth’s smutty/bawdy postcards that drew on the Musical Tradition of double entendres and terrible puns. I’m not sure the Carry On . . . series’ style of humour has any purchase for today’s youngsters, or even those slightly older; how much is my enjoyment for them nostalgia or a funny bone trained by the films during my formative years? In writing about them John Hill suggested:
the earlier films . . . focus on . . . institutions which bear most heavily on working-class experiences . . . the ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude characteristic of certain forms of working-class consciousness refers primarily to the experience of authority relations, especially petty officialdom. (Sex, Class and Realism: British Cinema 1956-1963, 142-3)
The series ran for over 30 films showing how popular it was with the mass audience, even whilst the latter was declining for cinema during the 1960s. It was a healthy antidote to the middle-class niceties of Anna Neagle (directed by Herbert Wilcox) but without the gritty realism of the new wave, which invariably featured working-class characters. In Cabby the conflict is not with officialdom and the gender wars, of course, are resolved in favour of men who get to act the heroes in a typical Carry On . . . ending which dramatises collective action. However, it is noticeable that the collectivism of trade unions is shown not to be desirable.
The key to the series’ success was the actors; in addition to the aforementioned, other regulars grace the film: Kenneth Connor, Jim Dale, Liz Fraser and Charles Hawtrey. The men’s attitude toward sex is puerile and apparently typically British, who seem to feel they could never compete with French eroticism, and I wonder to what extent the passionless, middle class, stiff upper lip attitude (evident in Neagle’s films for example) informed these representations. The censorship of anything sexually daring only started to loosen during the ’60s and it wasn’t until the mid-’80s that the industry (self-)regulator changed its name from British Board of Film Censors to British Board of Film Classification. In 1969 Carry on Camping brought female, topless nudity into the mainstream by starting the film with characters watching Nudist Paradise (UK, 1960); one of a number of ‘nudies’ that circumvented censorship by documenting, as opposed to dramatising, life on a nudist camp. If memory serves, Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) is the best of the films.
A big hit in France and now distributed around the world, La famille Bélier is notable for two reasons. First it deals with music and singing. This is topical in two ways. As in many other countries, French TV has picked up on popularity of talent shows with viewer participation. This is how Louane Emera, the lead actor in La famille Bélier, first came to the attention of French audiences. She reached the semi-final of the French version of The Voice in 2013, after being ‘saved’ by the audience, possibly because of her own tragic story of being orphaned a few months earlier. The television appearances helped her to get the role of Paula in the film and since then she has won an award at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and in 2015 has had a No 1 single.
In the film, Paula is a teenager who discovers she has a voice almost by accident and is forcibly encouraged to learn how to use it by her school’s music teacher who wants her to audition for a prestigious music school. The irony of the popularity of the film is that the songs that Paula learns are by Michel Sardou who was a giant of chanson in the 1990s but who is now thought old-fashioned. The film reminded audiences of the songs at a time when the French government is asking for more quotas on French radio to make sure the invasion of English language pop music is kept at bay. The chanson tradition puts great emphasis on the lyrics of songs and the main song in the film ‘Je vole’ (‘I fly’) was originally written about a teenage suicide but the words were altered to refer to leaving home. The role of the music teacher is taken by Eric Elmosnino whose biggest success recently was as Serge Gainsbourg in Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in 2010. Gainsbourg was perhaps the most notorious and most celebrated composer and performer of popular music in France in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
La famille Bélier is also a film about discrimination affecting hearing impaired people. It is quite a challenge to attempt to do this through the medium of comedy and perhaps predictably there has been a controversy about the casting of the film. Paula’s parents and her brother on the family farm in Normandy are all deaf mutes. Consequently she has to translate through sign language during all their encounters with officialdom, businesses and the general public. The film’s producers cast two well-known French actors without hearing impairments as the parents and a deaf actor as Paula’s brother. Campaigners for actors with hearing impairments have protested about this decision and such campaigns are not unusual across a range of films with characters in wheelchairs, characters of ‘small stature’ or other physical differences or with learning difficulties. The parents carry much of the comedy potential in the film (and this is even more noticeable through their signing actions compared to their son) and this perhaps aggravates the casting questions. Is the script the problem? Would the film be better without the comedy? If hearing impaired actors were cast would the film work in the same way? These are questions audiences might like to consider alongside an overall judgement as to what the film as it stands says about hearing impaired farmers in France.
Director Eric Lartigau does make one obvious attempt to draw the audience in to these questions when he cuts the sound of Paula’s singing voice at one point and effectively underlines the experience her parents have of her success as a singer. The other major element of the narrative is the political campaign – to become mayor of the local community – undertaken by Paula’s father. This does seem to lose in importance as a story towards the end of the film when Paula’s audition takes over.
Lartigau’s two previous films, I Do (2006, a comedy with Charlotte Gainsbourg) and The Big Picture (2010, a thriller with Romain Duris) both got a UK release. At an estimated €11 million, La famille Bélier is a big budget film. A similar UK production might expect to work on less than half that amount. The budget difference is largely down to the higher fees paid to French film actors.
Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.
The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.
The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.
The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.
The Leeds Film Festival Programme tells us that writer-director Ishii Yuya is a ‘Leeds favourite’. I assume that this is a reference to the young man’s (he’s still only 27/28) previous film Sawako Decides that seems to have been very successful on the international festival circuit. In fact he has produced some eight features in six years since graduating from film school in Osaka. Mitsuko Delivers has so far been seen at Vancouver, Busan, London and Tokyo – picking up high praise from Tony Rayns and slightly bemused and fairly negative reactions from Variety and Hollywood Reporter.
I enjoyed the film very much and the fairly healthy audience at the Hyde Park seemed to be laughing along with it. I’m struggling to pin down a classification but it’s possibly a ‘comedy melodrama’? Mitsuko is coming to the end of her pregnancy. She seems unconcerned about the birth, even though her gynaecologist tells her that her pregnancy has never ‘stabilised’. In fact she isn’t phased by anything, including the fact that the father of her baby, an American GI, took her to California and then dumped her. (All she can remember about him is that he’s ” kinda big and black”. Now she is back in Tokyo, penniless and accepting eviction from her flat. Her philosophy is to find her cloud in the sky and follow it as the wind moves it. In this case it takes her back to a poor street in a forgotten area of Tokyo where she lived as a child for a period 15 years ago. A sepia-toned flashback then reveals how things were and who the significant people in her life were. The melodrama plot now brings them all back into play in the same street in the present so that Mitsuko can ‘solve’ their problems in the few days before the baby is due.
Tony Rayns suggests that the film could be “a lacerating satire of the pickled nostalgia and homey working-class stereotypes of Shochiku’s old Tora-san series, but Ishii gives it a brio and originality which transcend satire”. I haven’t seen any of the mammoth series of Tor-san films, but I did recognise all the types from comedies and social dramas over many years of Japanese Cinema, coming right up to date with the unemployed salary-man who can’t tell his wife that he’s lost his job (e.g. in Tokyo Sonata). The film works for me because of the confident handling of both the younger and older actors whose different performance styles are blended her and then further stylised. The exaggerating playing then gets a couple of boosts in the film’s climax with some absurdist touches. I’m not sure what Rayns means by his “transcends satire” comment. I think that the narrative does make you think about a nostalgia for the kind of humanist dramas we used to see and how much better the world would be with a bit more sense of looking after each other. As the agent for all of this, Mitsuko is an interesting character – both annoying and endearing at the same time. As her childhood sweetheart Yoichi says following her re-appearance in his life and her attempts to revive his moribund local restaurant, “We have lots more customers now – but the profits haven’t gone up”. Mitsuko cajoles customers in and then offers them food “on the house”.
He makes you think and he makes you laugh – as long as you approach his film in the right frame of mind. Ishii Yuya looks like a real talent to watch.