Meteorites was my fourth title in My French Film Festival and it follows the first three screenings in featuring another beautiful French landscape, this time in the département of Hérault in the South of France with both the coast and the mountains inland. It also has links to my first screening, Savage, in its focus on a young woman and the broad category of ‘coming of age’. It echoes that film with a discourse about the natural world, but in most other aspects it is very different and, to my mind, more successful.
Writer-director Romain Laguna graduated from the prestigious La fémis film school in Paris in 2013 and since then he has made short films before taking Meteorites as his first feature to the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2018. The film was released in France in May 2019. In the same year a compendium film featuring his contribution was also released. Meteorites is very much a low-budget début film from a talented filmmaker seemingly designed to please festival juries. That’s no bad thing in itself and given Laguna’s background (he comes from Béziers in Hérault) I did wonder if he was conscious of following Agnès Varda, who made her first feature, La pointe courte (1954) in Sète. Laguna’s casting agent found Zéa Duprez in Sète and Meteorites is built entirely around Duprez’s character Nina. It’s also the case that Meteorites, although ostensibly a fiction, often feels like a documentary – much like the Varda film.
Laguna had very little money to make his film, so working from home with family and friends he spent 10 months assembling a cast of non-professionals and then devised strategies to allow them to perform ‘naturally’ – hence the documentary feel. There were several collaborators on the script. Nina has decided to leave school at 16 and for the summer has got a job in a theme park featuring the story of dinosaurs and their extinction. Unfortunately this means an early start and a bus from her village. At the theme park she meets co-worker Djamila from an Algerian family and then Djamila’s brother, Morad, a 19 year-old ‘lad’ on a motor-bike. Nina already has a friend, Alex, whose father owns a small vineyard. Before she meets Morad she has been hanging out with Alex when she sees a meteorite crash into the hills. Later she watches a film at the theme park about the possible cause of the sudden decline of the dinosaurs – a massive meteorite shower hitting the Earth. The suggestion is that Nina changes and becomes more adventurous and perhaps more reckless after she sees the meteorite. Certainly she decides to go with Morad and ignore Djamila’s warnings that Morad will dump her.
That’s more or less the narrative except for the ending which I won’t spoil. This 85 minute film depends on some terrific camerawork by Aurélien Marra (the same 2013 class from La fémis?) of both people and places and in particular on the performance of Zéa Duprez. Director and cinematographer decided to use the Academy frame (1.37:1). I can’t find out why this was chosen, but it works very well. Perhaps it is intended to suggest that Nina has a limited perspective on the world and is tightly focused on what she sees around her? If that was the case though, it would be logical to switch to widescreen after the meteorite sighting – but the frame stays as Academy. I’m a fan of CinemaScope and most French cinéastes tend to use ‘Scope (2.35:1) but in this case, I think the scenes are framed beautifully.
Zéa Duprez is a beautiful young woman with a facial birth mark. Her performance is indeed ‘natural’ – she isn’t a starlet but a young woman who could be 16 or 25 at different moments. It did occur to me that Romain Laguna has her photographed in a number of intimate scenes. The brief scenes of nudity didn’t seem to me to be gratuitous. Some of the shots emphasise her shapely figure but then it is difficult to shoot a young woman in the summer heat of Southern France wearing minimal clothing without being accused of offering a ‘male gaze’. There is also more of a tradition of this kind of representation in French cinema than in American cinema, for instance. I’m interested in what other viewrs made of this in the current climate of #MeToo.
I was conscious of other films while watching Meteorites. Suzanne (2013) by Katell Quillévéré with Sara Forestier was one possibility with a direct reference to a young woman growing up without much parental control. If I understood the relationship correctly, Nina’s mother is a single parent working on a smallholding and selling produce at a city market, meaning she’s not around most of the time. She is also perhaps an ex-hippy. The local community includes both Algerians and Gitans (i.e. Romani in the UK). The other sociological point I took from the film is that Nina’s friend Alex decides to join the French military. I’ve noticed in other recent French films how this is a ‘positive’ decision to escape a sense of ennui in a rural community (see, for instance, Les combattants, 2014). I would tend to agree with Nina that being bored looking after vines is preferable to being killed in a pointless war. The decision to join the military, especially the army, is often seen in British films to be a more desperate move borne out of lack of employment opportunities.
I doubt that Meteorites will get a UK release, but I thought it was worth the 85 minutes of my time and I’ll look out for future films by Romain Laguna. Here’s the French trailer – no English subs but a good introduction to the visual style and Zéa Duprez’s performance:
This is an effective ‘coming of age’ film from an unlikely source: Kenya. Co-written and directed by Wanuri Kahiu the film was banned in its native country because it ‘promoted lesbianism’. If anything, the film shows how difficult gay love is in a homophobic society so ‘promotion’ doesn’t exactly cover it. The discriminatory formulation harks back to Thatcher’s disgusting ‘section 28’ that, in 1988, was designed to prevent local authorities in Britain from ‘promoting homosexuality’. So disgust with Kenya for banning such a tender, and not explicit, film must be tempered, in the UK, by the acknowledgement that 30 years ago our government was promoting similarly homophobic messages. No doubt our colonial laws, homosexuality was only ‘made legal’ in 1967 in the UK, contributed to the difficulties Kenya has in acknowledging different sexualities.
Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are superb as the unlikely couple: Kena quiet and withdrawn; Ziki loud and flamboyant. They are daughters of local electioneering politicians which adds a social dimension to the film’s melodrama. The importance of the Christian church in Kenyan society is acknowledged and so is its homophobia. The pastor’s sermon against difference is shown to encourage the attacks Kena and Ziki suffer; Kahiu shoots a mob scene in a genuinely scary manner. The film itself is as brave as its characters.
The film also portrays patriarchal society, particularly through Kena’s dad, as problematic. He seems to be a genuinely nice guy, he owns a shop and happily gives credit to shoppers that seems to be more than part of his campaign for reelection (presumably as a local councillor). However that hasn’t stopped him abandoning his wife for a ‘younger model’.
Ziki allows Kena to fulfil her potential by giving her confidence; initially her ambition was to be a nurse. However, she is obviously bright enough for even more challenging roles in health care. The ending of the film is nicely ambivalent for no matter how much the audience (I doubt homophobes will be still watching at this point) want the couple to be together, that is not a straightforward option in contemporary Kenya.
Writer-director Shola Amoo’s second feature is a semi-autobiographical ‘coming of age’ tale of a black lad who lands in an urban environment after the idyll of a Lincolnshire upbringing. The trope of bad-town versus good-country, inflected by race, are hard to avoid but Amoo deftly challenges some expectations. When we meet young Femi he is being fostered by Mary, superbly played by Denise Black who subtly conveys the conflicts that must be experienced by foster carers: the love and care as well as the pain of departure. It’s no surprise that Femi, when he is moved to Brixton, South London, in the care of an inadequate mum, suffers from the change.
Much of the film focuses on the 16-year-old Femi, approaching his GCSE exams, and his conflicts with local gangs, peer group and teachers. As Akala’s brilliant Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire shows, there are real tropes involved in growing up as a black lad in an inner city environment; they are not simply generic. The need to act ‘tough’ and portray a hard image, that Akala describes, is superbly showed in the film when we’re party to Femi listening to The Cure on his headphones but tells his mate it’s Tupac. Sensitivity in males is not much of an option, neither are Femi’s dalliances with crime, another accessory of the poverty-stricken environment. Sam Adewumni brilliantly portrays the conflicts that lurk beneath his tough demeanour. Amoo strikingly uses extreme close-ups, and the soundtrack, to create expressionist moments that emphasise it’s Femi’s experience we are sharing.
Nicholas Pinnock is suitably charismatic in the role of a sympathetic teacher and, generally, I found the classroom scenes authentic (I am an ex-teacher) which is not my usual experience. However, I’m not sure how many teachers go ‘above and beyond’ the way Pinnock’s does but this is melodrama so exaggeration is more than acceptable. I couldn’t work out the symbolism of ‘the last tree’; though trees are often present in the mise en scene; then again, trees are often present wherever you are (apparently there are more trees than people in London).
If there is a false note in the film then it is the concluding scenes in Lagos, Nigeria. Femi is introduced to his father and while it is clear that Amoo is not suggesting that going ‘back to Africa’ is a solution, I was slightly puzzled by the ending on the beach. Maybe it’s not about Africa but a reference to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (France, 1960), the classic nouvelle vague ‘coming of age’ film. Regardless, The Last Tree is well worth seeing and Amoo is a talent to watch.
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.