I was recently visiting a friend in New York and by happy chance the Film Forum multi-screen in ‘the Village’ was running a retrospective of this ‘cool auteur’, as one plug commented. Melville was born on 20.10.1917 and the programme celebrated his centenary. His films nearly always centre on crime or gangster stories, known as ‘polar’.
The Film Forum started up in the 1970 and moved to its present location in Houston Street in 1989. It has three screens and its programme offers
“two distinct, complementary film programs – NYC theatrical premieres of American independents and foreign art films, programmed by Cooper and Mike Maggiore; and, since 1987, repertory selections including foreign and American classics, genre works, festivals and directors’ retrospectives, programmed by Bruce Goldstein. Our third screen is dedicated to extended runs of popular selections from both programs, as well as new films for longer engagements.”
It is a compact but well designed cinema. I only saw one auditorium, seating about a hundred, with a reasonably large screen and proper masking. The rake was shallow so one had to judge one’s seat when films involved sub-titles. The cinema has a policy of offering 35mm prints whenever possible and I enjoyed three films there on reasonably good prints. The adverts are only promos for the cinema followed by trailers, impressed.
The earliest was a rare film, [which I had not encountered before] Quand tu liras cette letter (When You Read This Letter, 1953). The print had been loaned for the retrospective by
‘the people of France’
via Rialto, the distribution company related to Criterion. This was in black and white and Academy ratio. This was an atypical Melville offering, being essentially a melodrama. The film centred on a Parisian Lothario, Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire) working for the summer in Cannes. His targets included a rich divorcee Irène Faugeret (Yvonne Sanson); several dancers at the local hotel cum night-spot; a young naive teenager, Denise Voise (Irène Galter); and her older sister Thérèse Voise (Juliette Gréco). Thérèse was the key character in the film. She had left the convent where she was a novice when her parents were killed in an accident. She acted as guardian to Denise and managed the Voise shop, a stationers. As the film progressed the narrative became darker and the sunlight of Cannes changed to the chiaroscuro of night. As one would expect the film’s resolution involved a violent death. In fact the film involved another trope we saw in all the Melville films, the violent death of a woman in a motorcar – by design. The film closed at the Convent followed by slow pan across Marseilles harbour: so that water and the seaside were central motifs in the film.
The print had no subtitles so Film Forum had commissioned a set of English sub-titles which were projected digitally onto the frame [rather than below] in white with a blue tint: this was very effective.
The second film was Le Doulos (1962) in black and white and 1.66:1 ratio and with English sub-titles. This film enjoyed a UK release in 2008. It was a proper ‘polar’ and fairly typical of Melville’s crime thrillers. The main credit was for Jean-Paul Belmondo who played Silien but what impressed me most was Serge Reggiani as Maurice Faugel. He opened the film in a run-down and ‘noir’ location which set the tone for the whole film. The cinematography was by Nicolas Hayer and the chiaroscuro of many settings reflected the troubled and ambiguous lives of the protagonists.
The French title refers to a ‘hat’ but is also slang for a police informant. Whilst the atmosphere was great I felt the plotting was over-complicated and that the motivations were opaque. This was partly because the film wished to offer a violent, unexpected and almost tragic resolution. Like much of Melville the women characters were subordinate and pawns in the masculine chess-like manoeuvres. So Monique Hennessy as Thérèse came off badly. She did though, fit the comment made by Melville on the film:
“all characters are two-faced, all characters are false”
The third film was Le deuxiéme souffle (1966), also in black and white, a ratio of 1.66:1 and with English subtitles. it was also the longest film running for 144 minutes, It did not seem that long because this was the best and most absorbing of the three titles. This was partly because of a splendid cast led by Lino Ventura (Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda) and Paul Meurisse ( Commissaire Blot); both in Melville’s masterwork Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres, 1969). Ventura brought his air of fatalism to the film whilst Meurisse imbued his cop with an impassive but relentless pursuit of his quarry.
The film opened as ‘Gu’ escaped from prison, a familiar trope. The film quickly established his violent character but also his circle of supportive friends in the underworld and the competing gangs. There were some great scenes in a Parisian night-club, journeys and crime on the road, and a slow and final violent denouement in Marseilles. The film offered a relatively strong woman character, Christine Faberega played Simone – also called ‘Manouche’, ‘Gu’s sister. The gangsters in the film constantly plotted and double-crossed. ‘Gu’ was a relatively straightforward criminal and there existed a professional respect between him and Blot. The film ended with violence and failure.
Melville, adapting the film from ‘Le deuxiéme souffle’ by Jose Giovanni, not only examined the ruthless nature of criminality but that of the Marseilles police as well. The settings and locations reflected the urban milieu favoured by the gangsters and their actions outside this territory in empty roads and deserted places suggested their alienation from society.
The retrospective also included The Army of Shadows (L’armée des ombres) and Le cercle rouge (1970, released in the UK in 2003 and then alongside Le Doulos in 2008). Léon Morin, prêtre (1970) was scheduled for a week long run. A dozen film in all plus À bout de souffle (1960) in which Melville has a role as a writer, Parvulesco. The three 35mm prints that I saw definitely added to my stay in New York. I expect that there will be a UK retrospective for Melville later this year: let us hope they get a national distribution as well as screenings in the metropolis: and 35mm prints.
Emily Watson’s performance as the geneticist who becomes involved in an adulterous affair and ultimately a murder trial is one of the best I have seen in TV drama. This TV serial has been the subject of discussion by audiences and critics with some arguing it is a narrative that ‘punishes’ a woman who has desire and others defending a woman of 50 who expresses desire.
I don’t want to get into that argument but it is worth pointing out that this is a serial produced, written and directed by women. What interests me more is that I read the original novel by Louise Doughty but, although I could see the skill and intelligence in the writing, I didn’t really enjoy the book. What’s more, I couldn’t remember what it was that put me off. I wasn’t going to bother with the TV adaptation but I decided to give it a try, partly because of Emily Watson’s casting.
I was surprised at how gripping I found the first episode to be and I stayed with the serial to the end. Why did Emily Watson’s performance carry so much weight? I’m not aware of stardom or performance studies that look at the difference between film and TV. I’m sure that they must exist but also that many scholars and critics now see the boundary between small and large screen as increasingly porous. In UK TV drama there has been a tendency to cast lead roles using TV stars such as Sarah Lancashire or Amanda Redman. An actor like Emily Watson feels like a different kind of presence. Her persona comes from theatre and film. She became known in cinema for appearances in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) and Hilary and Jackie (1997), both of which gained her Oscar nominations. Her subsequent career has involved theatre work and a number of more recent roles in which she has been cast as mother figures. This is partly why Yvonne comes as such a welcome role.
Emily Watson exudes a certain kind of decency and determination with the possibility of vulnerability. Her casting as Yvonne is perfect. By chance I also recently caught her performance in Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (2010) in which she plays a social worker seeking the truth about children in care who were sent to Australia in the 1950s. ‘De-glammed’ in that role she again embodied decency and determination. It is these qualities which are called into question in her role as Yvonne.
As an actor, Watson does a great deal with her eyes and she is well-served by costume and hair style as Yvonne. But she also has that indefinable sense of ‘presence’. It helps too that Ben Chaplin as her lover is also more of a film than TV star. The two together make an odd but compelling couple with Chaplin thoroughly loathsome, but presumably a turn-on for Yvonne. Many women in the TV audience must have identified with Watson’s convincing presentation of Yvonne.
The final film screening of the ‘Adapting Miss Highsmith’ season in cinemas for me was this Claude Chabrol film from 1987 – and very entertaining it was too. The tone of the film is set by the performance of the lead actor Christophe Malavoy. He plays Robert, a man who is separated from his wife in Paris, exiled to Central France and a job in Vichy while she has found a new partner. Robert has a history of depression which his wife has likened to a curse affecting everyone he meets. It’s unfortunate therefore that one day he sees a young woman, Juliette, in an isolated cottage and decides to spend his time watching her. Though he has no malevolent intent (excuse the pun on the actor’s name) Robert actually makes things worse by eventually revealing himself as a voyeur to Juliette (played by the young actor Mathilda May – who would go on to have a successful career in film and TV). She was already suspicious and is about to marry the rather dim but macho Patrick. I won’t spoil the plot any further.
Although Robert, Juliette and Patrick constitute a familiar Highsmith triangle, this film, from the novel with the same title, contradicts my earlier statement about the usual number of female characters involved in Highsmith’s stories since Robert’s wife Véronique does play a significant role later in the film. As in The Glass Cell, there is also a distinctive police detective whose intervention also pushes things along. To my mind this is very much a Chabrol film, though I admit I am not so familiar with Chabrol in the 1980s as compared to the 1970s or 1990s. The tone seems Chabrolian – amused, ironic and gently satirising the bourgeoisie. The charming Robert wears a succession of crumpled and loose-fitting suits and takes Juliette to dinner at a posh restaurant. On one occasion he arrives bloodied from a fight and the service carries on, impervious to his dishevellment. The overall tone of the film darkens in the final sequences. It isn’t consistent (and in this case that isn’t a fault) in that we have an almost surreal death and then a clumsy and wonderfully melodramatic finale. I’m really going to have to revisit Chabrol and discover all the films of his I’ve missed. Before then, though, I need to find my copy of the later adaptation (2009) of this film, directed by Jamie Thraves and starring Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles. Then I need to think back about Highsmith.
From the 1960 Highsmith novel with the same English language title, This Sweet Sickness is a 1977 film by Claude Miller starring Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Moui. It’s perhaps the most delirious narrative of all the screenings in this Highsmith season, ending in a full-blown fantasy sequence.
David (Gérard Depardieu) is an accountant at a company in Central France. A typical Highsmith anti-hero, he ‘lives a lie’ – each weekend heading for Chamonix in the French Alps where he claims he is visiting his parents in a nursing home. In fact they are dead and he is secretly building/furnishing a chalet for his childhood sweetheart Lise (Dominique Laffin). Unfortunately she married someone else when David was away for two years (military service?) and is now pregnant with her first child. The film’s French title translates as ‘Tell Him/Her, I love Him/Her” which is intriguing and seems more informative that Highsmith’s original English title. This is because David himself is being pursued by Juliette (Miou-Miou) – and she in turn is being chased by David’s colleague François (Christian Clavier) who is attempting to cheat on his wife.
Claude Miller directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Luc Béraud. While keeping the central characters and the opening narrative close to Highsmith’s story (i.e. the book’s plot as reported on Wikipedia), Miller changed the second half in several ways. Not surprisingly perhaps, Highsmith did not like the adaptation. Miller, who died in 2012 just before his last film Thérèse Desqueyroux was shown at Cannes, was influenced by François Truffaut. Under Truffaut’s guidance he directed his first feature in 1976, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that aspects of Dites-lui que je l’aime seem to refer to Truffaut’s own interest in Hitchcock. At the beginning of the film David visits a cinema, sitting in front of Juliette who has recently moved into the same lodging-house. The screening is Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and a cut takes us straight from the auditorium to Joan Fontaine on the screen as the new Mrs de Winter exploring Manderley, the de Winter house. Juliette will eventually explore David’s chalet in Chamonix and if you know Rebecca you won’t be surprised at the chalet’s destruction in Dites-lui que je l’aime.
Claude Miller’s film is indeed ‘filmic’ and there are several interesting images/sequences. A photo in the chalet from the 1950s shows David and Lise as children. It sits below the kite (named ‘Fergus’) that they used to fly together. Outside the chalet a boy and girl, roughly the age of the children in the photo, are playing a game of ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’. Where have they come from? The chalet is quite isolated in the hills. David comes out and shoos them away. Later in the film he sees another pair of children playing the same game. Are these children real or a figment of David’s obsessive imagination? In David’s bedroom at the chalet, a print on the wall shows a young woman looking out at the viewer. I think this might be Vermeer’s ‘A Lady Standing at a Virginal’ – or something similar (I think she was the other way round)? I thought that the scenes outside the chalet in the snow were reminiscent of the final scenes of Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste (1960).
In 1977 Gérard Depardieu was well on the way to becoming the pre-eminent French film star – a status he had obtained by the early 1980s. I watched him only a few weeks ago in 1900 (Novecento) (1976) which was shot only a couple of years earlier and he seems to have put on a lot of weight in just two years. In the image at the top of this post, he still displays a youthful sensitivity and charm (the glasses remind me of James Dean), but at the same time he hints at the brutality and wildness he is capable of. This was all part of Depardieu’s star persona and would come to the fore when he toured the US in 1990 to promote Green Card. In Dites-lui que je l’aime he slaps, punches and throws both men and women and throws wine or water in their faces. This film is unusual for Highsmith because, apart from Carol (UK-US-France 2015), it is the only one to my knowledge to involve two leading female characters, one of whom (Juliette) is nearly as active an agent as David himself. There is a sense in which Highsmith might be seen as misogynistic in terms of her female characters, but here she is perhaps better seen as misanthropic. I did find the violence dished out by David quite shocking – possibly because he flared up so quickly and was out of control before his victims were aware of what was happening. One of the main victims is Juliette – who dishes out her own form of emotional violence. Depardieu and Miou-Miou had ‘form’ in this kind of emotional drama, in Les valseuses (1974), a film that also includes Isabelle Huppert and Brigitte Fossey, both of whom have appeared in the ‘Adapting Highsmith’ films.
In trying to classify this film, I can’t help thinking that it is a bit like ‘Truffaut-Hitcock on speed’ – it’s a psychological thriller, crime melodrama and emotional romance rolled into one. The performances of Depardieu, Miou-Miou and Claude Piéplu (who plays David’s eccentric neighbour) carry the energy that this mixture of repertoires suggests and I think this was perhaps the most enjoyable of the adaptations I’ve seen.
I must note (for Keith’s benefit) that the film was projected as 1.66:1, the standard European format for the period and that the digital copy we saw seemed to have been copied from a video source which hadn’t been properly ‘de-interlaced’ so that the image ‘feathered’ every now and again. But I confess that I found the film narrative to be riveting and I soon forgot about the image quality. I watched this in one of the smallest screens at HOME which was nearly full. The last HOME screening in the season is this coming Thursday and since it’s directed by Claude Chabrol I’ll be there early to get a good seat. Can’t wait, this has been an excellent season.
The touring season of film adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s novels and short stories is a brilliant idea. Organised by Edinburgh Filmhouse and supported by Lottery Funding via the BFI, ‘Adapting Highsmith‘ is offering a range of films which have been showing since July in selected arthouses across Scotland and England. In some cinemas, screenings are still scheduled for September and at the Rio in London in October. Check dates on the tour’s website (which also gives background on each of the films and more about the season).
Eaux profondes is based on a 1957 Highsmith novel with the action transposed from North America to the island of Jersey – a location that can be both Anglophone and Francophone, though this film is confined to French dialogue. Vic Allen (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is an artisan perfumier with his own commercial laboratory. His younger wife Mélanie (Isabelle Huppert) appears to be a ‘lady of leisure’ and Vic does most of the parenting of their 8 year-old daughter Marion. The marriage does not appear to be going well. Mélanie provokes her husband at every possible opportunity, flirting with a succession of young men at parties and inviting them to dinner, late night drinking and dancing, literally under her husband’s nose. Vic appears to tolerate this behaviour and calmly tells the men that if he doesn’t like them he may well ‘bump them off’. They don’t know whether to believe him – one of Mélanie’s former conquests has been murdered, but Vic hasn’t been charged. Is this strange marriage for real? Is it a form of sadomasochistic behaviour by the couple? If so who is the dominant/controlling partner? Can the relationship survive in this way or is it heading for a crisis? Perhaps most importantly, what is the impact on Mélanie’s ‘victims’ and the community more generally?
‘La Huppert’ was in her late twenties when she made this film and with her elfin look she might be a very beautiful boy if she wasn’t dressed immaculately in a succession of outfits which, while remaining elegant throughout, she manages to slip out of – sometimes in public. Trintignant was the great lover of the 1960s with a sometimes dark and brooding presence. Here he plays a cuckold who appears at different times to be controlled and composed but at other times to be on the edge of exploding. He is also not averse to flirtation if the opportunity arises.
The films in the season appear to be new DCPs. I found Eaux profondes to be very watchable with strong colours (Huppert wears scarlet or blindingly white outfits in several scenes). The weakest element of the presentation was the sound which seemed very loud and overly ‘bright’, lacking the subtlety of a stereo soundtrack. The film reminded me of the many medium-budget French films that made it over to the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, characterised by strong casts, attractive locations and a middle-class milieu. Highsmith has always appealed more strongly to European sensibilities and there are aspects of these adaptations that probably wouldn’t work for mainstream American releases – one American IMDB user describes Eaux profondes as ‘disgusting’. I think that the only film from the prolific director Michel Deville to make it over here was La lectrice (1989), but we have seen other bourgeois thrillers/melodramas from two of the directors of these Highsmith adaptations, Claude Chabrol (The Cry of the Owl, 1987) and Claude Miller (This Sweet Sickness, 1977). Both these directors have also made Ruth Rendell adaptations.
Eaux profondes does seem familiar, perhaps because of Chabrol – though there is also that sense that Jim Bergerac, the Jersey-based UK TV detective might turn up at any moment (Bergerac began broadcasts in the UK in 1981). If it was Chabrol, I would expect more about the perfume business. As it is, I think now that more might be made of the couple’s relationship with their daughter Marion – a remarkably well-adjusted and cheerful child given her parents’ strange marriage. The closing scenes of the film deserve more study. I haven’t read the novel but it seems that Deville changed the ending. The film succeeds I think because of the performances. As well as the child it is difficult to think of a stronger couple of actors for this kind of film. Huppert in particular has made so many films that have never made it to UK cinemas or have only appeared briefly. I’m looking forward to her two releases this Autumn in Elle and Things to Come.
I suspect that Eaux profondes might look particularly odd to modern audiences, especially those steeped in the increasingly ‘realist’ police procedurals that dominate TV across the world. A Highsmith narrative is all about the psychology of the characters. What actually happens in this film would fall down immediately in terms of a forensic examination. Sometimes it’s fun to get back to a world of guilt, fear and chance. Eaux profondes is available on Blu-ray in France according to this useful review – but unfortunately not with English subs. Perhaps Masters of Cinema would consider a UK release?
There were just the two of us in Screen 15 of Bradford Cineworld for a lunchtime screening of Raman Raghav 2.0, the latest from Anurag Kashyap, the doyen of the ‘new’ Indian Cinema. But then, a release during Ramadan in Bradford is always going to be tricky. When the trailers for upcoming Bollywood and Punjabi blockbusters had finished my companion remarked: “I see that Indian cinema makes crap movies too.” I assured him that an Anurag Kashyap film was a different proposition – but then remembered that Kashyap’s earlier film, the 1960s noir with a starry cast Bombay Velvet (2015), which I didn’t see, had been an expensive flop at the Indian box office. But I needn’t have worried. Kashyap’s new film, for the ‘directors’ company’ Phantom Films (Kashyap is one of four partners along with director Vikramaditya Motwane) approaches some similar material with a much more realistic budget (around US$600,000). This time the film is being distributed by the major Indian company Reliance which has taken a 50% stake in Phantom Films. Again this raises questions about Kashyap’s ‘independent’ status, but the film looks and feels like an ‘Indian Independent’ film.
Raman Raghav was a serial killer who murdered 41 people, mainly ‘street-dwellers’, in Bombay in the 1960s. We are told this in the opening titles for Raman Raghav 2.0 – but then told that: “This film is not about that case.” Instead, Kashyap has constructed a modern-day story about a Mumbai killer which uses some of the ‘real life’ 1960s story elements. Bombay Velvet was so expensive partly because it sought to recreate Bombay settings from the 1960s. In the new film Kashyap restricts himself to a limited number of locations, several using specific run-down or abandoned areas in the conurbation. The camerawork by Jay Oza (who IMDB lists as coming from a TV background) uses shallow focus on several shots allowing Kashyap to stylise scenes and make more of his limited range of locations. Kashyap also reduces costs by sticking to a relatively small number of characters and, apart from Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead, actors with limited exposure.
Siddiqui has become a major figure in independent cinema following his roles in earlier films directed or produced by Kashyap and he is mesmerising in this new film, ‘holding’ the screen with his portrayal of the killer Raman. This character displays what might be typical traits of working-class Indian characters – an obsequiousness towards police interrogators masking a terrifying hardness beneath which we eventually recognise the cold calculating mind. The narrative includes several sequences where Raman has either given himself up or been arrested but for various reasons the police interrogation fails to uncover/comprehend/accept what has happened. With little more than a few props (a facial scar, requests for cigarettes) Siddiqui takes control. The police officer in charge of the investigation is Ragav, played by Vicky Kaushal, a handsome young actor who also appeared in Bombay Velvet. Here he spends much of the time with a beard and dark glasses, shielding himself and his drugs habit from his colleagues. As his character’s name suggests, Kashyap and co-scriptwriter Vasan Bala have turned the hunt for a serial killer into a psychological thriller in which ‘Raman Raghav’ has become ‘Raman and Raghav’. This takes us into a discussion of references, sources, influences.
The narrative is divided into chapters with titles that refer to either a character or a distinct narrative action. The Sister, the Hunter, the Hunted etc. are offered as chapter titles in presentation which resembles street signage – like white chalk on a black background or whitewash used for grocer’s display boards. For some critics this has recalled Tarantino, but it is also a nod towards classical storytelling of different kinds. The presentation of the titles reminded me of Se7en and Siddiqui does have the same kind of presence as Kevin Spacey. The Se7en parallels can be traced further but for me the Hollywood influence seemed to be Hitchcockian, especially around that idea that the investigator is locked into a relationship with the criminal. The detective may be becoming like the killer and that the killer is able to control the detective because of his weaknesses. The classic Highsmith/Hitchcock Strangers On a Train comes to mind as well as the ambiguous hero/investigators of Rear Window and Marnie. However, I stopped thinking about Hollywood during one interrogation scene in which Raman seemed to refer to the Ramayana. I’m grateful to the New Indian Express review by Aditya Shrikrishna which provides the way in to the analysis I was struggling to make. Shrikrishna actually begins by linking Raman Raghav 2.0 to Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan/Raavan (2010). Ratnam’s Tamil and Hindi versions of the same script met with a similar rush of uncomprehending social media comments which failed to grapple with what was a much clearer take on the Ramayana myth with contemporary characters in a contemporary setting. Now Kashyap might be suffering in the same way – with a genre film that offers much more than the thrills and chills, sex and violence offered by the mainstream.
If, like me, you have only a sketchy notion of what the Ramayana is about, it involves Rama and his wife Sita in an epic story that at one point involves Rama in a battle with Ravana in which Sita is threatened. Kashyap’s script is an inverse of this so that Sita, in the form of Simmy (former Miss India 2013, Sobhita Dhulipala), is the girlfriend of Raghav and a potential target for Raman. Shrikrishna in the New India Express review reads one scene in the film between Raghav and Simmy in an illuminating way and it occurs to me that two of the best sequences in the film are those in which Raman visits his sister Lakshmi who he hasn’t seen for years and the bedroom scene described by Shrikrishna. Dhulipala and Amruta Subhash, who plays Lakshmi, both do very well in difficult parts.
I’ve seen one review which describes the film as ‘vile’ and others that describe the women as ‘submissive/passive’ and criticise the lack of background given to the characters. I’m not sure the latter criticism is important in this kind of story which has no claim to realism or sociological treatise. It uses banal genre conventions but it is delving into dark questions about corruption. The scene in the sister’s apartment is genuinely terrifying but most of the time the actual killings are not shown. Instead we hear the sound of a heavy wheel wrench being dragged along the pavement and then the horrible sound of metal hitting flesh and bone. Hitchcock again? The film does have a soundtrack of techno music with some very strange lyrics at times. I would need at least one more viewing to say more about the music and overall sound design. I would tend to agree with Shrikrishna again in thinking that Kashyap’s quickly shot low-budget film has all the benefits of vitality – but perhaps it is sometimes just too clever? There was one moment in a chase sequence when I groaned out loud at one over familiar trick. Perhaps it was a joke. Even so, I would very much recommend Raman Raghav 2.0. Along with Suburra which I saw the next day, it helped me to find genre films with enough intelligence to restore my faith in popular cinema.
This is quite a useful trailer demonstrating some of the points made above. It refers to the film’s appearance at Cannes 2016 – Kashyap has found this useful in developing an international profile:
The crisis in UK distribution is such that a hugely enjoyable and accomplished genre film like Suburra played for just one week at HOME in Manchester and was hard to find on other screens in the North of England. It is showing, if only for two or three screenings, at various venues in July (see this website for details) and it is currently available on VOD, but it won’t generate the same buzz that might have come from a 70 screen release. Presumably small distributor Kaleidoscope has been more focused on DVD/online. It’s a long film (132 mins) but I never felt the pace flagging. It’s epic in scale, has wonderful settings, terrific performances and superb cinematography plus great editing and a stunning electronic score by French duo M83. It’s far better than most Hollywood crime films and I’m sure that subtitles wouldn’t get in the way for most audiences. See it on the biggest screen you can find – we watched it on Screen 1 at HOME, an unexpected treat.
‘Suburra’ or ‘Subura’ was the name given to a district of Rome in antiquity – a ‘red light district’, home to a criminal underworld. Stefano Sollima (director of the Romanzo Criminale and Gomorra TV series) uses the title to set up his contemporary mixture of crime and political thriller. The narrative is presented in a series of chapters based on the days leading up to the ‘apocalypse’ in 2011. Later we realise that this ‘catastrophe’ will be the end point of a complex network of conflicts and inter-relationships involving Italian politics, leading criminal families and the Vatican. The ‘inciting incident’ is the action of a senior politician with unforeseen consequences which gradually unravel the ‘stability’ created by the criminal fixer known as ‘the Samurai’ – who has previously kept warring families apart. As an early symbol of what is to follow, Sollima shows the naked politician literally pissing on the city of Rome from a balcony in the city centre during a torrential downpour. This extraordinary image is the first of several scenes which delight the eye while leading us deeper into the corruption at the heart of the city.
The narrative offers us five major characters. As well as the politician we meet the heads of two criminal families plus the pimp Sebastiano and the Samurai. This latter is a man who at first appears like a retired middle manager before we see the steel in his gaze and realise the intelligence in his strategies. By contrast, Sebastiano first appears as a weak man who might easily break and his little moustache made me think of the fascisti. The two heads of the criminal families are very different and though both are stereotypical in appearance, they are also distinctive. The interior décor of the houses occupied by the Anacleti family will stay with me I’m sure. The Anacletis appear to be Roma – the subtitles refer to gypsies but at least on one occasion they are abused as ‘Jewish’. Any help with this identification is appreciated. The second ‘family’ is represented by ‘Number 8’, who has taken over from his father, and his partner Viola, a drug addict – who turns out like many of the other characters to be not what we might have expected at first sight. The casting of the film is terrific. I often find it difficult to distinguish individual characters in crime genre films, but not in this film.
The narrative is adapted from a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo and Carlo Bonini, who were also involved in writing the script with Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli. The story appears to use elements from a major criminal investigation which was reported in 2014 in Rome involving leading politicians and organised crime and seen as part of ‘Mafia Capital’ – a longer investigation into organised crime in Rome (see this news article). The most obvious element used in the film is the ‘zoning’ application for a ‘change of use’ in the run-down seaside town of Ostia where Romans have traditionally taken holidays. Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Italy’s Prime Minister in October 2011 and Pope Benedict abdicated in February 2013 – two other events which may have been influences in constructing the fictional narrative.
Stefano Sollima is best known for his television work and it is perhaps not surprising that Netflix, looking to expand in Italy, have already commissioned a series based on the same material. (Netflix is also distributing this film in the US.) It is interesting to reflect on whether Suburra is in any way ‘televisual’ as a film. There have always been two perceived major differences between ‘cinema films’ and TV films/series – at least in the US and UK. (In smaller language film cultures such as Sweden the distinction is less clear with some projects switching easily between the two.) One difference focuses on aesthetics – cinema films have been argued to be more ‘cinematic’ because of better colour definition (and therefore more scope to create lighting and tonal effects) as well as a greater range of compositions with more long shots and shooting with depth of field etc. The second difference concerns narrative complexity, the ‘richness’ of the themes and the artistic integrity of the direction. Up until relatively recently, television drama was often criticised because of its association with ‘soap opera’ or its propensity for sensationalised ‘real-life’ social dramas – the ‘TV movie of the week’ syndrome. Both these criticisms also included the prosaic camerawork, editing, set design etc. But now the argument seems to have reversed and cable television productions in the US have now attained a new level of ‘quality’. The questions of aesthetics have gone thanks to similar digital production methods in cinema and TV (and new standards for ‘home viewing’) and the acceptance of ‘long-form narratives’ on TV has meant that narrative complexity, richness of theme and artistry now resides with TV productions. Suburra is an Italian-French co-production with independent Italian production company Cattleya and Italian PSB TV company RAI joined by French independent La Chauve Souris.
After a single viewing, I’m not sure I’m able to comment on the aesthetics of Suburra. I can only say that I did notice the use of close-ups (of fascinating faces) more here than I usually do in modern films (and this was in 2.35:1). Mostly, however, I noted the camerawork and direction and editing which presented not only marvellously choreographed crowd scenes but the highly stylised scenes noted above. This is a complex narrative but I think it would feel very different seen in weekly episodes. I’ve never ‘binge-watched’ more than two or three episodes of any serial and perhaps if that’s what you do with boxed sets, the narrative will be similar. The film is only 130 minutes – presumably the Netflix version will be 360 minutes or more? Personally, I prefer films in cinemas. My viewing partner was equally taken with Suburra. We both breathed out a ‘Wow!’ at the end of the film and we agreed that this is a very dark film but with a satisfying twist at the end which perhaps offers some kind of moral commentary. ‘Nuff said, I think.
UK Official trailer (it reveals some of the major incidents):
Most of the reviews of Dheepan (and some ‘comment pieces’) have been concerned with one or other – or both – of two issues. The first concerns the fact that the film won the Palme d’Or and the second that the narrative suddenly escalates into extreme violence and an unconvincing or even ‘ludicrous’ rending. Since I don’t want to ‘spoil’ the narrative with the film still on release in the UK, it’s difficult to tackle these issues in detail. I’ll tread carefully.
I’m not that bothered by who wins the big prize at Cannes but it is interesting to discuss what possible criteria the jury might use and to think about what impact winning the prize has on subsequent distribution and reception of the winning film. Jacques Audiard has experienced a gradually rising profile as a director since his first feature Regarde les hommes tomber (See How They Fall) in 1994. He’s produced just seven features in 21 years – an indication of the care he takes with each one. Before 1994 he was known primarily as a screenwriter. The films are not all the same in terms of their genre elements, although he has been seen as following his father, the screenwriter/director Michel Audiard, in helping to keep alive the French action/crime genre, the polar. I’ve enjoyed all of Audiard’s films but the two most interesting and powerful, for me, have been A Self-Made Hero (1996) and The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005). The first is a postmodern comedy-fantasy which investigates the myth of ‘Resistance’ in France during and immediately after the Second World War. The second is a re-working of James Toback’s US film Fingers from 1978 in which a young thug running a property racket tries to return to being a classical pianist like his dead mother. There are some elements of both these films in Dheepan. But there are also elements of Un prophète (2009), the film that really gave Audiard ‘lift-off’ and I suspect that for some audiences it is that film and the next, Rust and Bone (2012), that first come to mind in thinking about Audiard – and therefore in thinking about his Cannes prize film.
The Palme d’Or seems to me to go every now and again to an American film, including fairly mainstream genre films if the director is seen as ‘special’ in some way (Tarantino, Michael Moore, The Coen Brothers). Mostly it goes to one of a group of international auteurs. French winners are often controversial (e.g. Blue Is the Warmest Colour in 2013). I suspect that Dheepan for some is not the art film they might be expecting. And part of that expectation might be that it will in some way be a social-realist account of migration from Sri Lanka and how refugees attempt to build new lives in a new country. There are French films that do this in some ways and there is a Cannes precedent with prizes for the Dardenne Brothers and The Silence of Lorna (Belgium-France 2008). But Dheepan is not that kind of film.
Plot Outline (no spoilers)
‘Dheepan’ played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan is a former ‘Tamil Tiger’ soldier who in a refugee camp in Sri Lanka has to construct a new identity. He finds a woman Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn finds a 9 year-old girl Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby). The three strangers become a family for the NGO officials and eventually arrive in France where Dheepan is found a job as a caretaker on a run-down estate in the outer suburbs of Paris. The new arrivals struggle to adapt but Dheepan is resourceful and good at his job and Yalini eventually gets a job outside the home. Tensions within the family group are inevitable. Yalini wants to join her cousin in the UK, but she must wait for a passport. Dheepan has nightmares and dreams of an elephant with mottled skin moving through the forest in Sri Lanka. The estate has strict rules and one block is controlled by a drugs gang. But when a local man returns from custody his presence is disruptive. This signals the build-up to conflict. Will the three Tamils survive the violence which seems inevitable?
Not social realism?
In suggesting that this narrative is not about social realism, I’m suggesting the following ‘absences’ from what might be expected of a social realist drama. There are few, if any, signs of the agents of the French state. The ‘family’ arrives in France and travels to Paris in a swift montage of short scenes after they present themselves in the refugee camp. On the estate they deal only with Youssef who appears to be a community leader of some sort (who may well be employed by the state, but isn’t a designated ‘official’). They speak to someone who assigns Illayaal to a special class for non-French speaking children, but gradually Illayaal’s schooling becomes a less important part of the narrative. I thought at first this was a weakness, but on reflection Dheepan decides very early on that the child is Yalini’s responsibility. This is basically Dheepan’s narrative – like four of the other six of Audiard’s films it is a male narrative, although here it is the single older male rather than the ‘father/son’ structure of the other four. When the violence kicks off there are no police to be seen – they never seem to come out to the estate at all. Add to this Dheepan’s nightmares/dreams about the elephant and the film’s resolution – which may be a fantasy, but which anyway is ‘open-ended’ in its meaning. The only scenes ‘off’ the estate and its environs are set during celebrations for the local Tamil/Hindu diaspora and this features a further part of Dheepan’s story when he meets an exiled leader of the Tamil Tigers.
There are some ‘procedural’ aspects of the drama. We see Dheepan working very effectively as a caretaker. We also see Yalini succeeding at her job. Both of these sequences are important functional plot elements – they help to explain how/why the final events occur. However, I think the most important elements refer to Dheepan and his state of mind. Some reviews criticise the film because it seems ‘unrealistic’ and doesn’t explore the migrant/refugee ‘issue’. Even the highly-respected French film scholar Ginette Vincendeau refers to these two points in her Sight and Sound review. More problematic for me is the Guardian film blog ‘commentary’ by Caspar Salmon entitled ‘Why Dheepan’s take on immigration isn’t helpful‘. Salmon argues that the film doesn’t represent the reality of life on le cité, the Parisian housing estate. But what we see is essentially what Dheepan sees from his perspective as a former Tamil Tiger. He isn’t representative of most refugees in France, he’s a trained fighter and battle-hardened. He acts from within that mindset. Whether the estate itself is depicted in a ‘realistic’ manner I can’t say but there are certain parallels with La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014), both of which stylise the buildings and the community to some extent. I’m willing to accept that there aren’t likely to be as many firearms around on a real estate but that isn’t really relevant here. Audiard has created an exciting drama which pitches an ex-guerilla fighter against local youths. As one of the comments on Salmon’s piece points out, if this was a criterion for artistic success we never accept most gangster or police procedural stories on film and television.
I’d like to watch the film again before trying to evaluate the film’s success but I’m already convinced that it was a brave decision to go with this story. The three leads have relatively little experience. Srinivasan is from a theatre background in Chennai and Jesuthasan was a boy soldier with the Tamil Tigers before moving to France via Thailand and gaining political asylum aged 25. He has worked in a variety of jobs in France, became a political activist and has developed into an accomplished published author (see Press Kit). The leads all speak Tamil – but all slightly differently (Claudine was born in France). Audiard says that he allowed them to improvise on set – something he might not have done with French-speaking actors. He says he came across the small Tamil community in Paris and wanted to make a ‘Tamil action film’. He argues that it was particularly interesting to explore the world of refugees not associated with French colonialism – although France did have a colony actually situated in Tamil Nadu in the shape of Pondicherry/Puducherry. More convincing is Audiard’s decision to look for new characters and new stories outside the traditional polar. (See interviews with Audiard by Jonathan Romney and Danny Leigh.) Audiard’s next challenge appears to be an English language feature. I’m ambivalent about that decision but I’ll continue to watch his films based on the experience so far.