Tagged: coming of age

LIFF#14: Too Late to Die Young (Tarde Para Morir Joven Chile-Arg-Brazil-Netherlands-Qatar 2018)

Sofía (Demian Hernández)

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.

A typical ‘busy’ scene in the commune with characters in foreground, middle ground and background

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.

The younger children play together

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’.

Sofía with Ignacio on a trip

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.

 

Reinventing Marvin (Marvin ou la belle éducation, France 2017)

I watched this film with Nick and afterwards we disagreed in our readings of it. Screened in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesday’ slot, the film is available on VOD and DVD as well as occasional cinema screenings. I was drawn to an Anne Fontaine film as I’d enjoyed four films directed by her and especially the last two, Les innocentes and Gemma Bovery. Isabelle Huppert appears in the film but promoting her image as a major draw is somewhat misleading since she appears (as herself) in only a few, admittedly important, scenes towards the end of the film. The narrative is carried throughout by the two young actors playing the title character ‘Marvin Bijou’ – Jules Porier as Marvin the young teenager and Finnegan Oldfield as the grown-up Marvin, now a theatre student in his early twenties.

Jules Porier as Marvin with his father Dany (Grégory Gadebois)

Marvin bullied and abused at school

Marvin grows up in a rural working-class family in the Vosges region of North-East France with his parents, younger brother and older step-brother Gerald. Bullied and abused for his seemingly soft and girlish looks at school, Marvin struggles to understand his sexuality and identity. His family seems at first brutal and uncaring, displaying racism and homophobia. But one of the strengths of the film is that our understanding of his father Dany and mother Odile develops and they become more rounded characters as the narrative progresses. They don’t understand their son or what they might be doing to him but they love him and eventually they will support him. Marvin is spotted by his new middle-school principal Mme Clement (the impressive Catherine Mouchet) and encouraged to think about drama as a potential way out to the high school in Epinal and then eventually to theatre school in Paris.

In Paris, the older Marvin (Finnegan Oldfield) meets a wealthy man (Charles Berling as ‘Roland’)

Anne Fontaine’s narrative structure offers a constant to and fro between Marvin’s time in middle school and his later time in Paris. The film begins with an almost abstract presentation of the performance that concludes Marvin’s transition to ‘Martin’, the hero of his own autobiographical play and now confident in his identity as a gay man. Fontaine, her co-writer Pierre Trividic and editor Annette Dutertre manage this with great fluidity. The film’s Press Notes reveal that Anne Fontaine had very clear ideas about how she wanted the film to look and she suggested that her cinematographer Yves Angelo look at the work of Bill Douglas on his celebrated trilogy of films about his formative years in a Scottish mining community (My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home (1972-8)). That’s a trilogy I don’t know well enough and I’m pleased to be reminded of it. Like the Bill Douglas films, Reinventing Martin is a kind of ‘social film’, but Anne Fontaine wanted to choose a different region in which to set her film from Northern France where the social realist tradition is strongest.

Marvin writes the story of his childhood as images of it play on the walls of his apartment

The film is shot in a 1.66:1 format.The other major feature of the visuals is the use of footage from Marvin’s childhood projected onto the walls and windows of Martin’s student room as he writes his story. I thought this worked well and it felt like a theatre device inserted into the aesthetics of the film that fitted this specific narrative. This was one aspect I disagreed about with Nick and another was the inclusion of Isabelle Huppert. I’ll let him explain his objection but, as far as I’m aware, Ms Huppert is keen to support young actors and independent productions and her presence fitted into the narrative for me. The other controversy raised by the film is not apparent from a screening. I learned from the Press Notes that Anne Fontaine was inspired by The End of Eddy, a book written by Édouard Louis, published in 2014.

I felt a very strong connection to the hero of the book by Edouard Louis, and I almost immediately felt like I wanted to make his story my own. I wanted to invent a new destiny for him. Explore the way he had to reconstruct himself after such a difficult separation from that family, and that subculture of France, socially and culturally disinherited. Dream up the crucial influences of his teenage years. In short, adapt it so liberally that ‘Marvin’ could no longer be considered an adaptation, though the book was powerful.

Édouard Louis is not credited (unless I missed it on screen) and I’m not sure if this is because he didn’t want his name associated with the film or because the conventions mean that there isn’t enough of his novel in the film for it to count as an adaptation. It seems odd, but at least Anne Fontaine is open about what she has done. (The book was a best-seller in France.)

I think this is a complex and absorbing film, even if the progression of events and some of the narrative devices might seem conventional – some comments suggest that it works like a fairytale. I was particularly taken by the two central performances. Jules Porier is a young actor with real presence and I thought it was a strong casting decision to match him with Finnegan Oldfield. Oldfield has the same striking presence and a distinctive way of moving and holding himself. Anne Fontaine notes: “I liked his indecisive relationship to femininity and virility, and the way he walks, almost like he’s levitating”. The cast overall is very strong.

Reinventing Marvin is a Peccadillo Pictures release in the UK. ‘Peccapics’ is arguably the distributor best known for LGBQT films in the UK and I hope the film finds the audience that might get the most from it. Having said that, the film should have an appeal to a much wider audience based on what is in many ways a universal story. I note that Anne Fontaine won the ‘Queer Lion’ at the Venice Film Festival.

Diabolo menthe (Peppermint Soda, France 1977)

One of the stunts pulled by the girls to undermine their teacher

Diabolo menthe was the first film directed by Diane Kurys who has become associated with films about women’s stories, some of which are autobiographical. As Carrie Tarr (2000: 240) has suggested, the film’s critical and commercial success on its release is due partly to the impact of early 1970s feminism which helped create an audience for women’s stories. Kurys would go on to direct thirteen films (so far) and this first success would see her name associated with women’s films – something she herself resisted. (See Carrie Tarr (2000) ‘Maternal Legacies: Diane Kury’s Coup de Foudre (1983) in Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (eds) French Film: text and contexts (2nd ed), London Routledge.)

The film begins at the end of the summer holidays with Cliff Richard’s ‘Living Doll’ playing on the soundtrack as one of the central characters, Anne Weber (Eléonore Klarwein), leaves the beach in Normandy after her sister Frédérique (Odile Michel) is enticed into the sea by a boy. It’s the last day of the holiday and the girls are waved off at the station by their father. Next day their mother (Anouk Ferjac) sends them off to the first day of the new school term in the academic year 1963-4. Anne is 13 and Frédérique 15 so they will generally go their own ways in the strict single-sex school. The Jewish Webers are always going to be on the outside. Although the main focus is on Anne, we will also follow something of the stories of the Frédérique and of the girls’ mother. They only see their father on rare occasions. The film’s title refers to a soft drink served in the café which is Frédérique’s hangout, but which Anne visits in an act of bravado.

Frédérique (right) and Martine (Valérie Stano), the class rebel. Anne looks over Martine’s shoulder

The film is like a diary of the school year with incidents at school matched by the embarrassments of domestic life – like going on a picnic with mum’s new boyfriend. Some of the teachers are mean and unpleasant and the film has fun with them. We also meet some of Anne’s friends in her class and elsewhere in the school – and also Frédérique’s classmates. Many of the incidents involve what I can only guess was/is very common in girls’ schools – finding ways to avoid gym and double maths, cheating in class, asking your mum for a first pair of stockings etc. I recognised some of the stunts that we pulled around the same time in school – and the cruel way we treated some of the less confident teachers (see the image above). Kurys is very clever in the way she weaves more serious issues into a narrative about teenagers in school. One of these is the attempt by middle-class parents to ‘expose’ teachers in the school with leftist backgrounds. Anne finds herself unwittingly part of this at a friend’s house and at the same time her mother is being condescended to as a mother who isn’t home for her children. Significantly, it is the one teacher who seems aware of questions of pedagogy who prompts her class to ask questions about politics. One girl movingly offers her personal testimony about being witness to an OAS terror attack in Paris and being horrified by the policing of the aftermath. Frédérique will get deeper into the political issues at school, challenging the fascists and anti-semites.

Anne and the boy who picks her up at a dance

The writing is very sharp about the petty squabbles between the two sisters and about tastes and pretensions. Frédérique aspires to be an intellectual who claims to have seen a Resnais film, but agrees to go with Anne to see The Great Escape – but draws the line at the idea of seeing the Cliff Richard musical Summer Holiday (UK 1963). (This is the third mention of Richard or his songs in the film and a Shadows instrumental follows – presumably the Beatles hadn’t broken in France at this time?) For some reason, I can’t find images of Anouk Ferjac as the mother, but she does have an important role in the narrative. Carrie Tarr comments on that mainstream film convention that sees the mother in this kind of narrative as ‘angel’ or ‘witch’ – sacrificing all for her daughters or strangling them in her apron strings. Mme Weber (I don’t think we hear her first name) is a more human figure who tries to be strict about school but has fun with her daughters and tries to do her best for them, but still have a life of her own. The film accurately represents the period (i.e. I recognised what would have happened in the UK in 1963) but by modern standards the girls have a lot of leeway and do things that might now be considered ‘shocking’ – such as when Frédérique hitch-hikes alone or Anne is alone in the house for a few days. Frédérique’s close friendship with an older man, one of the other girls’ fathers, also provokes.

The film ends as it began, back on the beach a year later. It’s a good-looking film, photographed by Philippe Rousselot (who went to Hollywood in the 1980s). I liked the montage of stills that show Frédérique on holiday and overall Kurys, on her directorial début, does a great job in representing school life and marshalling such a large cast. My only visual problem with the film is that with all the girls wearing the same white coats in the classroom it’s sometimes difficult to tell if we are in Anne’s or Frédérique’s class. The film was shot in the ‘real’ Lycée Jules Ferry and I was intrigued to discover that Ferry was the politician responsible for enshrining the concept of laïcité (secularisation) in the French state education system.

The Monthly Film Bulletin review of the film by John Gillett on its UK release in 1980 is short and not particularly helpful. He makes the obvious point that all French films of this kind will inevitably be compared to Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959) and there are certainly elements that Diabolo menthe shares with the earlier film. But there are important differences and, as Tarr detects, stories like this which involve three central female characters needed to be made in the 1970s and this one hit the spot. Gillett seems to read the film as being mainly ‘about’ Anne’s alienation – from school and her family. I didn’t read it that way. I think she is experiencing what many younger siblings must feel. It is interesting though that the narrative feels mostly about Anne in the early part, but later shifts focus to Frédérique. If the film is ‘semi-autobiographical’, Anne represents Diane Kurys as the younger sister and she seems to have turned out fine. I do wonder if MFB critics lavished the same amount of energy reviewing ‘first films’ as they did for established auteurs. I enjoyed the film very much and kudos to the BFI for re-releasing the DVD with some interesting ‘extras’. It’s well worth digging out.

Here’s the original ‘bande annonce‘ (no subtitles, but the feel of the film is easy to grasp).

My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse, France 2015)

The three ages of Paul – (from left) Antoine Bui, Quentin Dolmaire, Mathieu Amalric

Arnaud Desplechin is the kind of auteur director who is seemingly always going to get a showing at Cannes. Several reviewers suggested after this film’s 2015 appearance at Cannes that Desplechin was a Proust for our times. This is a reference to his exploration of the life and loves of his alter ego Paul Dédalus as played by Mathieu Amalric. This character first appeared in 1996 in Ma vie sexuelle. The 2015 film is effectively a prequel to the earlier film with Dédalus presented as a young boy (Antoine Bui) and as an adolescent (Quentin Dolmaire), although it is bookended by contemporary scenes with Amalric. The main narrative concerns the 19 year-old Paul and is told as a long flashback.

The mystery about the release is why it has taken so long to appear in the UK. Desplechin had another film screened at Cannes in 2017 (Ismael’s Ghosts) but My Golden Days has taken nearly three years to roll out slowly across various territories. Its arrival in the UK now is thanks to the estimable New Wave Films. I suspect that some cinephiles find Desplechin to be self-indulgent in his use of Amalric to play semi-autobiographical roles. I’ve only watched A Christmas Tale (France 2008) – though I have a copy of Kings and Queen (2004) which I found difficult to get into. I might return to it now. One of the things that interests me about Desplechin is that he comes from Roubaix and that the city appears in both A Christmas Tale and My Golden Days. Roubaix is part of the wider Lille metropolitan region and as a textile city is twinned with Bradford in the UK. I was fascinated when I visited it.

Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther

The adult Paul Dédalus is an anthropologist who has specialised in the communities in what was once Soviet Central Asia. At the beginning of the film Paul is about to pack up and leave Tajikistan to return to Paris. During his last few hours with his local lover he remembers his childhood and particularly his mentally-disturbed mother (this the first ‘souvenir’). On his arrival back in France, an incident prompts him to remember his teenage years and the long flashback begins, first with his schooldays and an eventful trip to the USSR (the second ‘souvenir’) and then his difficult access to his anthropology degree in Paris – third souvenir and the bulk of the narrative. We meet his younger siblings Delphine and Ivan, his cousin Bob and his friends Kovalki and Mehdi. Paul’s father is not really active in the household which is held together by Delphine. On one of his trips home from Paris, Paul meets Esther, still at school but an unusual young woman and for Paul a compelling presence. Over the next three years the two will have a sometimes tempestuous romance.

Paul’s father (Olivier Rabourdin) and is sister Delphine (Lily Taieb).

This central youthful romance is well presented. It’s intelligently written and beautifully acted by Quentin Dolmaire and Lou Roy-Lecollinet as Esther (the young actor who is also featured in I Got Life! (France 2017) which opens next week). Desplechin was born in 1960 so his own ‘coming of age’ would be the 1970s. But here he uses the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a kind of social and political marker and this does tie in to Paul’s family history which links to Russia and specifically to Belarus (where part of the film was shot). Before I saw he film I wondered if it would be like the 1968 student-based films of Bernardo Bertolucci and Olivier Assayas, neither of which I’ve seen, but I remembering being put off by trailers I saw. I suspect Desplechin’s film is different, but I’m happy to be corrected.

I noted in the credits that the music soundtrack in the film includes something from the Georges Delerue score for Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960). Delerue was also born in Roubaix but I think what intrigued me was that I thought about Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films while watching My Golden Days. To some extent, Desplechin follows Truffaut in using a single actor as an alter ego and follows the character created for that actor across different films dealing with different times in his life. I felt that though Paul and Antoine are very different characters, something about the characters is shared – a seriousness about aspects of culture, a willingness to do whatever it takes in the face of hardship and a vulnerability in regards to women. Paul is both mature for his age and capable of childish rages. But when he has been interviewed, Desplechin has talked about very different inspirations – on the one hand he has mentioned Catcher in the Rye and Coppola’s The Outsiders and on the other he has acknowledged Bergman and Fanny and Alexander – but also Summer With Monika (1953), one of the few Bergman films I like and one of the films featured in Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959). The important point is that Desplechin seems to be adept about capturing something about being 19 and how certain relationships might stay with us. Esther is a remarkable character and is wonderfully played here. In the earlier film (the ‘sequel’) the grown up Esther is played by the equally wonderful Emmanuelle Devos.

The Roubaix gang from left: Paul, Bob, Mehdi, Ivan and Kolvaki

My Golden Days has been very well received by the majority of critics who seem to appreciate Desplechin’s skill with the story which is not strong on narrative drive and might seem to meander but is always kept together by Dolmaire’s Paul and his love for Esther. For me, the Roubaix scenes work very well, offering a contrast to Paul’s attempts to survive and prosper in Paris. Roubaix is only around 140 miles from Paris but it seems several years behind with the decline of its textile industries, its cobbles and nineteenth century streets of warehouses and workers dwellings. Virtually on the Belgium border, Roubaix perhaps has more in common with the Dardenne Brothers’ world of similar industrial decline in Seraing in the Meuse valley.

I’m not sure how My Golden Days will work with UK audiences, but I enjoyed the film and I’ve thought a lot about it since the screening. This week it is only playing at the Showroom in Sheffield and the Ciné Lumière in London (where it carries on for a second week). Get along to see it if you can – it’s worth the visit.

Official trailer:

There is a useful review of the film by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, April 2018.

LFF 2015 #8: Arianna (Italy 2015)

Arianna (Ondina Quadri) and her father (Massimo Popolizio)

Arianna (Ondina Quadri) and her father (Massimo Popolizio)

LFFThis was the film that bowled me over at LFF – and I clearly wasn’t alone, I could feel how much the audience were behind the film. It’s not surprising that we should all feel sympathetic towards the central character Arianna, a young woman of 20 who doesn’t understand why she has difficulty feeling and behaving like her female friends and acquaintances. She does tell us why she is this way in a voiceover that accompanies the credits but I conveniently forgot about what she said and handed myself over to the narrative constructed by début director Carlo Lavagna. Lavagna and his star Ondina Quadri were present for a Q&A in which we learned that Lavagna had spent a long time in the US researching the science and sociology behind Arianna’s condition and that for some time he envisaged making a documentary. Eventually he realised that his ideas would work best as a feature and he and his producer struggled for several years to raise sufficient funds, losing their original lead actor (who became too old for the part). Ondina Quadri was cast as an inexperienced and reluctant actor and it is amazing that she and her director have produced such an affecting film.

The film narrative is set mainly during the summer vacation in which Arianna and her parents return to their villa by a lake in Tuscany. She was last there in her childhood and there are local people still there who were her friends and neighbours years ago. There is a sense that her parents have kept her away from the area up till now and that they are watching her and monitoring her interaction with others. Her father is a doctor and gradually we realise that Arianna is taking some form of hormone treatment delivered through the patches she places on her stomach. There are several scenes in which she studies her own body and frets about the slow growth of her breasts and how sore they are after the hormone treatment. Her younger neighbour is a painful source of comparison – a beautiful young woman with an attractive body.

Arianna bathing in the mineral spring pools near the villa

Arianna bathing in the mineral spring pools near the villa

At first the country house setting suggests a ‘coming of age’ type story familiar from numerous European art films but gradually an element of the thriller/puzzle investigation takes over as Arianna finds clues to what might have happened to her as an infant. When her parents need to return to the city Arianna persuades them to let her stay on, ostensibly to study. Free to explore and to think, Arianna invites a fellow student to stay and also her neighbour and her boyfriend. This proves to be a key moment in Arianna’s rediscovery of her sexual identity and coupled with her visit to a local therapy group discussing sexual identity and sexual health it pushes her to find out the truth that her parents have kept from her.

This film works because of the director’s sensitivity, the brave performance by Ondina Quadri and the cinematography by Hélène Louvart who I now realise has worked on several of the films I have admired and who appears to specialise in photographing young non-professionals (see The Wonders and When I Saw You amongst others). It’s a film with a non-purient interest in the sexuality of young people which is depicted openly. Perhaps some audiences might be offended by this openness but it feels to me like a genuine attempt to explore and understand important questions about identity.

I’ve seen several excellent Italian films at festivals over the years and it’s disappointing that so many of them either don’t get a UK release or when they do appear it is so fleeting that they make little impact. In a review from the Venice Film Festival for Variety, Guy Lodge gives a cool professional appraisal of the film (which I mostly wouldn’t argue with) in which he suggests that though films about ‘alternative genre identity’ are popular at the moment, Arianna is likely to “find a particularly welcoming niche in gender-themed and LGBTQ fest programmes”. It seems a shame to relegate a film to a niche when wider audiences might well enjoy it. Its relatively short running time (83 minutes) might make it a more difficult sell for some distributors but I hope it gets a chance and if it turns up on TV it might well find those appreciative audiences.

Into the Wild (US 2007)

Kristen Stewart as Tracy and Emile Hirsch as Alex/Chris

Kristen Stewart as Tracy and Emile Hirsch as Alex/Chris

This is the third in my case studies of Kristen Stewart roles in independent films. In this she was 16/17 and only makes a 12 minute appearance. I’ll come to that later. In the meantime I have this long and highly-praised film to deal with. It’s written and directed by Sean Penn – who in her comments on my ‘Thoughts on Acting‘, Rona picks out as an actor with whom Stewart has some things in common. That’s an interesting observation but it creates a problem for me since, though I know something about Penn’s ‘status’ as an actor/director, I was amazed to discover that I’d only previously seen one of his films as actor or director. I can only conclude that he chooses projects that don’t usually attract me since I’ve nothing against the guy. At least it means that I approach Into the Wild without preconceptions.

This is a very well-known story but if you don’t want to know what happens, be warned, there is a major SPOILER in what follows.

We know that the film is a form of ‘independent’ since it was financed by the now defunct ‘indy brand’ Paramount Vantage. But this means that it has studio backing and a budget large enough to allow shooting in several widely scattered locations (IMDb suggests $15 million). In genre terms this is a road movie, a form of ‘coming of age’ story and a ‘spiritual adventure’ that eventually becomes a ‘survival film’. It is based on a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer that documents the true story of a young graduate who decided to abandon his expected career path and to seek to ‘find himself’. Cutting himself off completely from his parents and sister Christopher McCandless travels West from his graduation party in Atlanta in 1990 and spends two years on the road and in various temporary jobs/communities before he heads ‘North to Alaska’ where he intends to spend several months alone ‘in the wild’. He never made it out of the wilderness and died in 1992. In 2006 Penn’s film was joined in production by Ron Lamothe’s documentary The Call of the Wild in which the filmmaker repeats many of the journeys made by McCandless and in doing so refutes some of the claims made in Krakauer’s book and Penn’s film. But it is the book and the Hollywood feature that have attracted readers/viewers and critical acclaim.

Chris/Alex in Alaska

Chris/Alex in Alaska

Even from this brief description of the story it’s clear that Into the Wild is an American story. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) follows in the steps of real and imaginary American characters driven towards the frontier/the wilderness/the ‘new world’. It’s a story of individualism and in cinematic terms it uses ‘American genres’. It isn’t surprising then that it has received both critical and popular support. I suspect some of that support is focused on the young man’s story and some on its philosophical and cultural underpinnings. Personally, while I responded to the film’s technical and artistic achievements in cinematography, music (at least most of it) and performances, I didn’t feel fully engaged because I had problems with McCandless as a ‘character’. I’m wary here since I don’t want to offend the real McCandless family and also because it appears that Sean Penn may in any case have changed aspects of the story. I’ve read suggestions that McCandless (who changed his name to ‘Alexander Supertramp’) is a representative of Generation X in the US – born in the late 1960s and ‘coming of age’ in the early 1990s. We are all allowed to be a bit daft in our early 20s but this is a disturbed young man who draws on the work of a variety of writers such as Byron, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London – and seems to have little common sense when it comes to survival in the wild.

Jena Malone as Carine with Emile Hirsch as Chris on his graduation day

Jena Malone as Carine with Emile Hirsch as Chris on his graduation day

Penn tells the story through a flashback structure, opening with the arrival in Alaska and then going back to Emory University and graduation day. The narrative then shifts between Alaska and a series of episodes broken into ‘Chapters’ detailing the central character’s adventures and relationships with characters he meets. Kristen Stewart’s appearance comes in the Chapter titled ‘Family’ in the later stage of his journeys through California. McCandless refused to contact his parents when he left Georgia and Penn reveals their anguish. Also ‘cut out’ was his sister (played by Jena Malone) and it is through her voiceover that we learn of the reasons why Chris wanted to part from his parents. His treatment of his sister, however, remains a mystery. When he arrives in Slab City, California (which Wikipedia tells me is the meeting place for ‘snowbirds’ in their camper vans looking for a desert retreat in Winter) Chris meets up with an older couple he has encountered before. It’s an emotional reunion with Rainy (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) as ageing hippies who now run a travelling book stall. Jan has a son she hasn’t seen for many years and she asks Chris about his parents. Rainey pushes Chris towards a meeting with Tracy Tatro a young woman who they have seen performing a song at the evening community concert. This is the Kristen Stewart character and she joins the trio for a meal. Since this is the Christmas holiday period the image of ‘family celebrations’ hangs over the proceedings. Chris/Alex is resolved not to ‘weaken’ and he leaves a few days later after turning down Tracy’s invitation to her trailer while her parents are away for the day. But before he leaves, he joins Tracy to sing a duet at the next concert.

Kirsten Stewart sings two songs but I don’t know if she plays the guitar on the soundtrack. It’s difficult to analyse the performance of the songs. The first, ‘Tracy’s Song’, is credited as written by Stewart and David Baerwald (a well-known singer and composer of songs for films). The second is one of my favourite songs, ‘Angel from Montgomery‘ written by John Prine. Whereas ‘Tracy’s Song’ sounded merely pleasant and Stewart’s singing lacked confidence, ‘Angel from Montgomery’ was truly affecting and Stewart and Hirsch together sound accomplished – Hirsch sings harmony and plays an electronic keyboard of some kind. The duet refers back to a live Bonnie Raitt track in which she sings with John Prine. My problem/query is: does Kristen Stewart deliberately sing the first song in a less accomplished way so that the duet becomes more of a revelation? Or is it that I’m reacting to a song that I’m very emotionally attuned to? Did Penn and his musical advisers choose ‘Angel from Montgomery’ deliberately for its impact in terms of music and lyrics – which could be seen as particularly relevant here. This is a potentially optimistic chapter in the film about family and a possible future that is rejected as Chris/Alex is determined to still go to Alaska. Stewart plays a performer in several of her roles, most obviously in The Runaways but also as an aspiring actress in Still Alice where she is seen in a ‘summer stock’ production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. These ‘performances’ within a film narrative attract the attention of both Stewart’s fans and her detractors. Kristen Stewart has referred to her approach as ‘mostly playing myself’. To perform ‘badly’ – i.e. as an amateur/novice – is presumably quite difficult for a young actor with plenty of experience but who still feels that she needs to prove herself.

Judge for yourself how well she sings ‘Angel from Montgomery’:

Kristen Stewart’s 12 minute cameo works very well in the film and this must have been a very useful role for her. A few years later she would find herself working again with the French cinematographer Eric Gautier whose work on The Motorcycle Diaries had impressed Sean Penn. That film was directed by Walter Salles who would direct Stewart in On the Road (2012). Kristen Stewart picks her films very well since she has worked with not just excellent acting talent but also top directors and crews.

I must confess that the more I studied Into the Wild, the more impressive it became – but I couldn’t get away from my irritation with the character. I’m very puzzled though by the box office figures for foreign markets published by Box Office Mojo. I’ve argued that this is a quintessentially American narrative. Yet the foreign total is in line with the norm – the international take is twice the size of North America. But the real interest in the breakdown into individual markets which shows fairly modest returns for traditionally strong markets such as the UK and Scandinavia but high figures for France and Italy (which together are bigger here than the US and Canada. Perhaps Rona is right and Sean Penn’s reputation in France is a contributing factor. Into the Wild took less than $2 million in the UK and over $13.5 million in France (roughly the same size of market).

The Runaways (US 2010)

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett (left) with Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett (left) with Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

This was Kristen Stewart’s other ‘indie’ in 2010 and something different to Welcome to the Rileys. ‘The Runaways’ were an ‘all girl’ teen rock band in Los Angeles in the 1970s founded in 1975 by Joan Jett (the Stewart role in the film) and drummer Sandy West but packaged by manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and fronted by 15 year-old singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). The film is not a music biopic of the band but rather a ‘coming of age’ story focusing primarily on the Cherie Currie character (whose 1989 book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway was published in a revised form in 2010 and provided the basis for the film’s narrative). This perhaps explains why, despite sharing top billing and playing the more substantial music performer, Kristen Stewart is in effect a supporting player in Dakota Fanning’s film. (Since my main focus here is Kristen Stewart’s performance, I won’t be spending time on Dakota Fanning’s input to the film – but this shouldn’t be read as any kind of criticism of Fanning’s contribution.)

I remember Joan Jett from the later 1970s but most of the story was new to me so I would have liked to know more about the history of the band. Writer-director Floria Sigismondi, best known for music videos, had an estimated $10 million from independent producers and she sketches in the background to Joan Jett’s initial introduction and Cherie Currie’s home life but we learn little about the other three band members or about how most of the songs (mostly written by Jett, Fowley and Currie) were developed. So the band goes from performing in clubs in the American South-West to an international tour in Japan seemingly in a single step. (The Runaways didn’t have much chart success in the US but they did make an impact in Europe and East Asia, especially Japan.)

The focus is on the relationship between Joan Jett and Cherie Currie with the latter’s life producing the more dramatic episodes. Viewed on this level, the film does offer an interesting story about teenage girls and how they both challenged the male music industry and attempted to avoid being consumed by it (Joan Jett being more successful on both accounts from what I’ve read/seen). Sigismondi shot on Super 16 and certainly managed to capture the vitality of the band and to represent the milieu of the Los Angeles punk scene.

My main interest here is the casting of Kristen Stewart and how she performed in the role. Although the films are very different, Stewart’s role does have some similarities with the ‘runaway’ character in Welcome to the Rileys. Here is another potentially angry teen with a dark, gothic or emo look, but this time she is very focused and she knows what she wants. Also, Joan Jett is a real person and she was an executive producer on the film. Stewart must have felt the pressure to ‘become’ Joan Jett. This is one of the options for an actor, especially in music biopics where ‘performance’ is highlighted. Stewart in effect disappears behind the hair, make-up and costumes in becoming Joan Jett. She uses her own voice in some of the music performances (the original songs also appear on the soundtrack) and plays the guitar (although it is Joan Jett’s playing that is heard on the soundtrack.

Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart on set

Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart on set

We also learn from the DVD’s ‘making of’ feature that one of the reasons why Kristen Stewart was cast was because she had worked with producer John Linson on Into the Wild in 2007. Linson tells us that he knew Stewart was a good actor and that she could be Joan Jett. This statement is important since Kristin Stewart was already by 2010 earning considerable amounts of money because of her fame achieved with the success of the first two Twilight films. There doesn’t seem to have been any push to ‘cash in’ on her celebrity in either this film or Welcome to the Rileys. Neither film appealed to Twilight‘s main audience. Even though The Runaways is about teen girl ‘rebellion’ most of those who saw the film on its (curtailed) cinema release were over 25. It is, after all, a historical film depicting events more than 30 years earlier. The younger audience probably found the film on DVD. But where Welcome to the Rileys put Stewart alongside James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo in an ‘adult drama’, The Runaways was perhaps more of a project she simply wanted to try because it sounded interesting and she was able to do something different in playing a living person (who was frequently on set – which must have been unnerving).

The film requires Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning to be on screen together for much of the time with Stewart often (but not always) playing the more composed and stable character and Fanning pushing her character to breaking point. In some ways, Dakota Fanning has had a similar career to Kristen Stewart and in two of the Twilight films she has been a secondary player in Stewart’s franchise. How important was this familiarity between the two young women an important factor in the casting of the film and their eventual performances? The trailer below clearly indicates that it is Fanning who is being promoted as the main attraction in The Runaways – yet the film requires Stewart as Joan Jett to both set up the possibility of the narrative (i.e. to create the band) and to hold it together and I think she succeeds in that task.

LIFF 28 #6: Corn Island (Georgia, France, Germany, Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Hungary 2014)

The landscape view of Corn Island

The landscape view of Corn Island

This film is a joy to watch. Perhaps it helps if you’ve ever tried to grow your own maize crop, but the festival wins (Karlovy Vary and many others) and glowing reviews suggest that it’s not just me who was entranced by Corn Island. I’ll be surprised (and upset) if this isn’t picked up for distribution in the UK and many other territories.

The film’s narrative covers a summer growing season. Every spring the river Enguri washes fertile alluvial soil down from the Caucasus Mountains and deposits it further downstream creating temporary ‘islands’ when the river flow slows. These islands are sometimes large enough to attract peasant farmers to grow a crop – in the knowledge that when the heavy rains return, the islands will probably disappear. Into this dangerous environment comes an old farmer and his young teenage granddaughter who together methodically build a hut and then plant a maize crop. Unfortunately, the Enguri also forms the boundary between Georgia and the breakaway ‘autonomous region/republic’ of Abkhazia (one of four disputed territories in the region). The island is therefore on the front line in a dispute that has rumbled on since Georgia itself became independent of the former Soviet Union. Consequently, the old man and the girl feel under surveillance from passing motor boats of soldiers from each side of the dispute (plus soldiers on the shore).

The old man watches Azbakh soldiers depart

The old man watches Abkhaz soldiers depart

The film works brilliantly because it has the strengths of simplicity. Some of the reviews refer to ‘minimalism’ but I think that isn’t appropriate as the film is overwhelming in the riches of pure cinema. The cinematography (Hungarian veteran Elemér Ragályi) is breathtaking, whether it is the broad sweep of landscape of the hills and the river valley, the close-ups of the two characters building, fishing and sowing or the changing play of natural light on water and vegetation. Just as impressive is the sound design. I confess that I didn’t notice the music (which I think comes mainly at the end of the film) but I was aware that there is virtually no dialogue apart from the exchanges between the old man and the passing soldiers. The man and the girl don’t need to speak, they just get on with their work.

Grandfather watches the girl with the soldier

Grandfather watches the girl with the soldier

There isn’t a great deal of plot and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that a wounded soldier turns up on the island at one point. I mention this because it refers to a particular sub-genre of the ‘home front’ war picture in which wounded soldiers appeal to the goodwill of the peasants – and in doing so put their hosts at risk from ‘the enemy’. This then links to a second genre which is the ‘coming of age’ film. The girl arrives on her grandfather’s boat at the beginning of the film with a doll. The same doll makes an appearance at the end of the film, but the girl has by then already shown the signs of puberty, both physically and emotionally. Grandfather has to protect the girl as well as the crop. And this, in turn, leads us back towards the theme of fertility and the battle with nature to get the crop in before the rains arrive. When the rains come it means scenes that rival the best of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky.

The girl and her grandfather

The girl and her grandfather when the building begins

The performances are excellent, especially by Mariam Buturishvili, the first-timer who plays the girl against the veteran Turkish actor İlyas Salman as the grandfather. The production overall must have been an amazing experience. Writer-director George Ovashvili chose to shoot on 35mm because that is what he was most comfortable with. Initially he hoped to find a ‘real’ island as a location. In the end he decided to build an island in an artificial lake (which would also, presumably, be away from the actual frontline of a smouldering boundary dispute). In an interview Ovashvili explained that the crew actually planted and re-planted different maize crops as needed by the script – the film was shot in April-May and December so it couldn’t be ‘natural’. The results are amazingly good. An initial report suggested that the shoot cost just €1.4 million, but that extra funding was being sought for post-production. The production also involved cast and crew from 13 countries speaking 13 languages (a whole bunch of translators is listed in the credits). Ovashvili in the interview says:

I think the diversity of the crew has strengthened the universal theme of the film.

I’d have to agree. This is the Georgian entry for the Foreign Language Oscar in 2015. I don’t suppose it will win and it’s a shame if most Academy voters will see in on a TV set. This is one film that you want to see on the biggest screen possible (in beautiful 35mm ‘Scope). Please, UK distributors, get this into cinemas!

The trailer from the Karlovy Vary Festival: