Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.
Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.
She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)
What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.
The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.
Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.
This unusual film has created a fair amount of controversy and has seemingly divided audiences sharply between those who see it as representing an important issue for women and those who were flat-out bored watching it. Before the screening I had seen a Twitter conversation in which a female critic complained a) about the “white male” audience of critics she watched the film with at a press showing and b) that these men generally seemed to disregard or simply not mention the sexual abuse in the marriage depicted on screen. I also read an interview with the film’s star (and executive producer), Gemma Arterton. Here are a couple of extracts:
Already released in France, it seemed to make one journalist very angry. “You make a film about a boring wife who’s fed up,” he challenged Arterton in an interview. “She’s always sad, she whinges all the time, she doesn’t stop crying. Why are we compelled?” “I was so pleased by his reaction!” Arterton exclaims. “I think he hated the film, he was so angry and pissed off that he had to tell me, and I thought, well, that’s good. That’s great. I didn’t set out to make a film that was universally loved. It’s meant to create polarising opinions.”
The sex scenes in The Escape are strikingly unlike what we’re used to seeing in movies. The camera remains trained on Arterton’s face, so we can’t fail to see the gritted teeth and deadening disappointment her husband doesn’t even notice. Even when tears are streaming down her face, he still doesn’t get the message, and says: “I can’t tell whether you’re laughing or crying.” “But it’s not abusive,” Arterton stresses. “Because she could say no.” (from ‘Gemma Arterton: ‘Everyone in the industry knows I’m a pain’’, interview by Decca Aikenhead, the Guardian 14 July 2018
The interview above also discusses the production background to this film. Its £1 million budget was raised independently from City investors and the outline screenplay by writer-director Dominic Savage was then developed through improvisation by the central characters.
I should perhaps state at this point that I am a fan and admirer of Gemma Arterton’s work and I see her, alongside Maxine Peake, as one of the UK’s foremost actors from a working-class background. For me her career began unfortunately in blockbuster mainstream films (which I haven’t seen) which she herself now tends to disown. I have seen several of her lower budget films but The Escape is different because of her own personal involvement in its production.
Dominic Savage is best known as a writer-director in TV but I have strong memories of his previous film Love + Hate (UK 2005) which was set very carefully and precisely in Blackburn and imagined a kind of Romeo and Juliet story involving a young Asian woman and a similarly young white working-class lad. I used the film in a schools film education event and explored the representation issues in what is a form of realist narrative with sensitive casting. Savage is very interested in ‘love stories’ and The Escape shares some elements with Love + Hate, especially in its location and casting. Savage himself was born in Margate, one of the seaside towns beloved of traditional London working-class communities. Gemma Arterton was born in Gravesend, a little closer to London but still in Kent. Her co-star in The Escape, Dominic Cooper, was born in Blackheath, South-East London (on the way to Gravesend). Cooper and Arterton have been paired before in Tamara Drewe (UK 2010) but here both are playing close to their roots. Because of the peculiarities of the English education system, working-class Gemma went to a grammar school in Kent while the more middle-class Dominic went to the local comprehensive, Thomas Tallis in Kidbroke. Both ended up at drama school. I mention all of this because The Escape seems to me as much about class as about gender.
Mark (Dominic Cooper) and Tara (Gemma Arterton) live on a new estate of ‘junior executive homes’ in a London ‘satellite town’ in Kent. We don’t know what Mark does but it obviously pays well as this is a two car family and Tara doesn’t work, although she is expected to be a ‘good housewife and mother’ with a youngest child in nursery school and another in the primary school next door. But Tara is unhappy and she’s not sure why. Mark is played by Dominic Cooper as a somewhat thuggish/boorish character. The ‘sexual abuse’ referred to above describes his behaviour whereby he expects sex when he wants it and is less than considerate towards Tara, not seeing or feeling her unhappiness. Is this abuse? I suspect many men have treated wives and girlfriends like this on occasions, out of ignorance and insensitivity, but probably not as frequently or unpleasantly as Mark. In the interview above, Arterton explains:
“In Gravesend, we all know that kind of guy, and he’s not a bad guy. What he is, he’s just . . . I think he’s just out of his depth. He’s not creative. He’s not open-minded. He’s just quite traditional, and not on the same wavelength.”
I think we are meant to recognise that Tara should call him out and challenge his behaviour and that the two of them should talk it through. But it has already gone too far. Tara is depressed and has become de-sensitised. This is as much about her situation more broadly than it is about solely Mark’s behaviour in the bedroom. The film feels to me like a critique of a whole way of life. At one point the camera rises and show a vista of rooftops with, in the distance, electricity pylons and the outlines of other settlements leading towards the metropolis. The rooftops reminded me of an undeservedly long-forgotten film, Ken Loach’s Family Life (UK 1971), his film version of David Mercer’s play about a young woman with schizophrenia, aggravated by her ‘caring’ family in suburbia. Many, many people in the UK live on modern estates like this in identical houses. I don’t know how they do it. One of the major controversies about The Escape concerns Tara’s inability/refusal to ‘look after’ her children. She finds she is just not interested in them and that her relationship with them has broken down. Mark is actually better with them. As many viewers have pointed out, men can feel this way towards their children as well, but they aren’t immediately pilloried as a result. But a woman can’t admit that she doesn’t feel for her children.
Tara’s ‘escape’ begins with a trip to the South Bank in London where she buys a pair of art books from the stalls outside the NFT/BFI. Could art be her way out? When she finally cracks, she takes advantage of Kent’s transport links and hops on a Eurostar train at Ebbsfleet, heading for Paris. I won’t spoil any more of the narrative. You can probably guess some of what happens in Paris. The ending of the film is ‘open’. In fact, at the end we realise that we have returned to the sequence at the start of the film which doesn’t see Tara in the house in Kent, but somewhere quite different. Why is she there? What will happen to her marriage, her husband and her children?
This is not a ‘fun film’ but it is one which will resonate with many viewers. Gemma Arteton is excellent throughout and Dominic Cooper plays ‘ugly’ very effectively. Dominic Savage uses several strategies to suggest Tara’s internal world. Laurie Rose’s camera frequently uses shallow focus to catch Tara’s face as she twists and turns in what feel like enclosed spaces, emphasised by the blurred backgrounds. I usually find this an irritating technique, but it has a real purpose here. Compositions emphasise Tara in halls, opening doors, looking through windows and in a different scenario looking out over landscapes. Many of these techniques are evident in the trailer below and in the image above. On the soundtrack the music by Anthony John and Alexandra Harwood includes throbbing bass notes as Tara’s anxiety increases.
I need to repeat that this isn’t ‘feelgood’ cinema. Tara is not noble, she isn’t oppressed by money worries. She is beautiful and she is healthy. She has everything capitalist society is supposed to offer a young mother. She has a husband who may love her but who can’t understand her and hasn’t got the emotional intelligence to know what is going on. He lashes out at her and assumes he knows what is best. She doesn’t know what to do. I can see some audiences will dislike the main characters and will find the film slow and perhaps ‘boring’, but for me it is a devastating look at a failed consumer society that has become soulless. It’s no coincidence that in England today, support for the arts and ‘cultural opportunities for all’ is being cut and educational programmes are narrowing in scope. Tara’s ‘escape’ is a search for some kind of meaning. What divides her and Mark is that she can just about remember what education gave her but he hasn’t retained anything. The problem with those new estates is partly a lack of ‘community culture’ – and meaningful local relationships – Tara doesn’t have a female friend to talk to, only her not very sympathetic mother. Mark probably thinks he is ‘middle-class’ now because of his well-paid job, but it’s a myth. Perhaps we need to know more about what he feels? But then again, this is Tara’s story, isn’t it?
There are relatively few global filmmakers who regularly release films of consistent high quality – and which make it into UK cinemas. One of the few is Kore-eda Hirokazu. His latest film, arriving here only six months after its Venice appearance, maintains this record. It will be seen, however, as a departure in some ways from the mainly family melodramas that have brought him the widest audiences.
It’s not immediately apparent what kind of film this is and some of the promotional material I’ve seen is quite misleading. It’s not primarily a crime film or a legal thriller. Perhaps it’s a kind of ‘philosophical protest film’. The protest is against the Japanese justice system and it is philosophical because it is very personal and not at all practical – only a handful of people have an inkling of what the protest is about. I don’t know that much about how the Japanese justice system works but one anomaly, given the other aspects of Japan’s modern democracy, is that the death penalty is still in operation. Wikipedia has a useful page detailing the very precise instructions for sentencing which could result in execution by hanging. It’s worth reading through these to understand the legal case that faces the film’s protagonist, the lawyer Shigemori. He’s played by Fukuyama Masaharu, who also played a lead role in Kore-eda’s earlier Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013), his biggest hit in Japan. There is another link between the two films. Like Father, Like Son is about an attempt to resolve problems for both families when it becomes known after six years that two mothers in a maternity hospital were given each other’s babies. The discovery raises a host of legal questions as well as issues for the families. Kore-eda was told by his legal consultant that: “Court is not the place to determine the truth”. This observation (quoted in the film’s Press Pack interview) then drives the approach to The Third Murder.
The narrative of The Third Murder really begins with Shigemori’s legal firm being appointed to defend Misumi (Yakusho Kôji), accused of a murder to which he has confessed. Because he has already served time for a murder thirty years ago and because he is charged this time with murder plus burglary, the death sentence appears inevitable. Shigemori begins by following procedures designed to persuade the judge to reduce the sentence, but his meetings with his client and some of the facts he discovers about the case disturb him. It turns out that Shigemori’s father, now retired, was the judge who passed the sentence on Misumi for his crime on Hokkaido in the 1980s. Shigemori would have been a boy then and when he meets his father, the old man says he made a mistake – if he had sentenced Misumi to death, the second murder wouldn’t have happened. His intervention drives the narrative into another family drama. It transpires all three men (Shigemori, Misumi and the murdered man) have daughters and this leads Shigemori into new avenues of investigation which will eventually push him into a change of heart and a change of strategy, especially when he meets the victim’s daughter Sakie (Hirose Suzu, the titular character in Our Little Sister, 2015). However, Misumi seems to be playing his own games and begins to change his testimony. When the case finally comes to court, it isn’t at all clear what will happen. And this is the point of the narrative. The court will make a decision based on judicial procedures and it will not necessarily take note of anything Shigemori or Misumi might say.
Audiences may well resent the fact that we never find out who actually committed the murder, even though we think we’ve seen the act at the beginning of the film. We don’t know whether Misumi ever tells the truth. Is the ‘third murder’ really the death of Shigemori’s belief in the judicial system? At the start of the narrative he seems very efficient and conventional in approach. By the end he has changed considerably. How do we feel about the case now? (Or perhaps more importantly, how does the Japanese audience feel at the film’s conclusion.) Kore-eda succeeds in presenting Shigemori and Misumi as two men who are in many ways quite similar – but one began with certain advantages and was ‘judged’ and the other wasn’t. This ‘doubling’ of the two men is achieved visually in some astonishing scenes in the interview room culminating in a shot which manages to superimpose one head over the other. This was the first time that Kore-eda had used the ‘Scope frame of 2.35:1 and he and his cinematographer Takimoto Mikiya set out to shoot the film very differently compared to their earlier collaborations. They opted for the colder look of crime films and studied Kurosawa’s High and the Low (1963) for ideas about using the ‘Scope frame. There are many big close-ups in the interview room and the courtroom scenes are shot more to emphasise the procedures than to create drama. Kore-eda began his career as a documentary filmmaker and he carried out a great deal of research to represent the procedures faithfully.
There are several things about the plot and the use of imagery that I still don’t understand and which will have to wait for a second viewing. But this didn’t ‘spoil’ the narrative for me. I do recognise one of the complaints though and that is the way the central pairing of the lawyer and client comes to dominate and we lose track of some of the secondary characters. For example, Shigemori has two colleagues working with him. One is an older and perhaps more experienced former prosecutor and the other is a keen younger man (like Kurosawa’s young apprentice figures?). Both these characters seem to fade into the background after earlier providing important sounding-boards for Shigemori’s changing ideas about the case. I’m tempted to conclude that Kore-eda perhaps might have developed his narrative further. Some have complained that the film is too slow and already feels too long at 124 minutes. I could have taken another 30 minutes – or even a two or three part long-form TV production?
I should say something about the two leads in the film. Yakusho Kôji is one of Japan’s best-known and most celebrated actors with roles for major directors such as Imamura Shôhei and Kurosawa Kyoshi. His biggest film in the UK was possibly the romantic comedy Shall We Dance (1996). Fukuyama Masaharu has much less experience in films but he has the distinction of being one of the most successful pop singers ever in Japan with 25 No1 singles. For Kore-eda he seems to have played two roles that both see an uptight, ‘controlled’ man forced to change by the experience of meeting other kinds of men and learning their stories. As well as Takimoto’s cinematography, the score by Ludovico Einaudi also works well to convey the tone of Kore-eda’s film.
My short visit to LFF2017 ended with a journey across town to the Hackney Picturehouse. I first visited this cinema a couple of years ago and again we were in the mammoth Screen 1. I was disappointed by the size of the audience since this was the new film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, one of just two major international auteurs whose films from francophone Central and West Africa have kept alive the strong reputation of the region over the last ten years. (The other one is Abderrahmane Sissako whose film Timbuktu made a big splash in the UK in 2015.)
Haroun has previously set his films in his native Chad. I missed his 2013 film Gris-Gris which showed at LFF but I don’t think was released in the UK. Gris-Gris and his earlier features Abouna (2002), Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2010) were all set in the Central African country. Prior to A Season in France, he directed a documentary, Hissein Habré, a Chadian Tragedy (2016) about the dictatorship and its fall-out in his own country that led to his exile. His new film, as the title suggests, is set in France – though I’m not sure yet what the reference to a ‘season’ means, unless it’s a satirical reference to a hunting season? Haroun himself is based in France so he knows the issues likely to be faced by asylum seekers such as Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney).
Abbas is an asylum seeker in France after fleeing his home Bangui (capital of the Central African Republic). He has with him his two children, Asma and Yacine, but his wife was killed during the family’s flight from CAR. Abbas was a French teacher in CAR and so was Etienne (a philosophy teacher), who I think might be Abbas’ brother-in-law, another who is seeking asylum. The children call Etienne ‘uncle’ but I did wonder if this was just the common usage of ‘uncle’ for any older male known to the family. Abbas and his children move constantly from one rented or borrowed room to another. Etienne has even less to call home and survives as a doorman/security guard outside a pharmacy. Abbas works on a stall in the market and develops a relationship with Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire) who has a floristry business linked to the market stall and whose family is Polish from a different wave of migration. The strain of the asylum application process is very heavy. Haroun presents the waiting room and the security guards at the office dealing with asylum seekers – but we never see the bureaucrats. Instead the asylum seekers receive official letters. If the strain is too great, the asylum seekers can all too easily ‘fail’ in their attempt to achieve permanent status.
In several ways, A Season in France resembles I, Daniel Blake and other Loachian dramas in which individuals without money or status have to deal with a state bureaucracy. (But it also includes dream sequences, which I can’t recall in a Loach film.) I don’t want to give out spoilers, so I’ll just suggest that the film presents a stark moment of tragedy and a gradual loss of hope but has an ‘open’ ending that in a couple of ways is heart-breaking. This is a tough film and an angry film told in a straightforward way. It needs to be seen and I hope it moves audiences to think again about how Europe treats asylum seekers. In some ways, especially to do with the involvement of the French citizen Carole, the film is similar to Welcome (France 2009). French citizens face severe punishment for helping ‘illegal’ migrants. Like Welcome with Vincent Lindon, A Season in France has the presence of Sandrine Bonnaire, one of the best actors in France. I hope this will attract audiences in Europe. Eriq Ebouaney is very good as Abbas and I was interested to see his very long list of acting roles in French and international cinema. I had thought of Claire Denis’ 35 rhums (2009) because of the presentation of an African family in the grey suburbs of Paris, and especially the railway bridges and rail journeys. Ebouaney has a small part in that film and several others I’ve seen. It’s good to see him now in a lead role. A Season in France opens in France in February 2018. Somebody please pick it up for the UK.
You can download a Press Pack with excellent interviews and background from: http://mk2films.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/4/2016/08/pressbook-a-season-in-france.pdf
For my state of mind and my tired brain, I was relieved that my first day of three at the London Film Festival ended with a Danish comedy drama starring one of my favourite actors, Søren Malling. This was a ‘Scope picture presented on the big screen at Curzon 1 Mayfair with an appreciative Thursday night crowd who enjoyed what is a major Danish production. This UK screening came just a week after the official release in Denmark. The Q&A with director Henrik Ruben Genz was equally entertaining and I’m sorry I had to leave before it was over.
The Word of God is an adaptation of a Danish bestseller from 2004 written by Jens Blendstrup, the youngest ‘son of God’ in what is an autobiographical novel. ‘God’ is Uffe (Søren Malling) a familiar character in a number of narratives. In 1986, around the time of the Chernobyl disaster, Uffe’s traditional parenting methods are being called into question. His eldest son has left home and reversed all his father’s teachings, becoming a God-fearing Christian in what in the UK might be called a ‘happy-clappy’ evangelical community by non-believers. Second son Thomas has convinced himself that he has agoraphobia and can’t leave the house and Jens, the youngest is a 14 year-old ‘genius’ poet/writer. Swedish mother and wife Gerd Lillian (Lisa Nilsson) tries to keep this lot together. Uffe has a simple strategy to deal with both joy and despair – he makes ‘Army soup’ from his younger days, a ferocious concoction of unpeeled onions stewed in concentrated soup stock and schnapps. In his professional life he runs a psychotherapy group that convinces its members to abandon medical drugs and instead to progress with groupwork interaction (and copious amounts of beer and cigarettes). Beer is referred to as ‘vegetables’ (i.e. to accompany the soup). The ‘narrative disruption’ is double-headed when Uffe’s eldest returns to announce his marriage and Uffe himself discovers that he has developed potentially terminal cancer – and that he doesn’t want to accept new chemical treatments. In times of stress, as well as making his soup, Uffe retires to his ‘Arabic corner’ and smokes a shisha or hookah. When he discovers that Jens is a writer he unearths his typewriter from the ‘Swedish chest’ that Gerd Lillian brought as a her dowry and attempts to write his autobiography, inspired by Jens’ success writing morbid poetry. The narrative question becomes ‘can the family stay together and resolve their issues’?
I enjoyed The Word of God very much. It is funny and it is also quite moving, because of the performances I think. Lisa Nilsson is very good in a difficult role as the mother and the family rings true. Watching it I was reminded of two films for different reasons. The plot is very similar to that of East is East (1999), a British film which was very successful but which disturbed me greatly because of its representation of a Pakistani father and mixed-race children. It was also an autobiographical story – about a mixed race family in Salford in the 1970s. I found The Word of God to be less offensive and generally quite ‘humanist’ in its acceptance of characters (though some might argue about the wedding scene involving Uffe and his son’s Christian community). A more recent Nordic story which has less in common, apart from a seemingly anti-social lead male character, would be A Man Called Ove (Sweden 2015). Uffe is completely ‘unreconstructed’ but he does the right thing by his ‘patients’. He’s less successful with his children – though I think he always means to be helpful. Søren Malling is a terrific actor, but I hope the paunch he developed to play the role was prosthetic. The Word of God might confirm all the typical traits of Danish life in the 1980s for some audiences (including a questionable sex scene) but I was onside throughout. I hope this film gets a release over here and many more audiences in the UK get to enjoy it.
A trailer with English subs is here: https://www.levelk.dk/films/word-of-god/4003
Jacques-Yves Cousteau (1910-1997) was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. Even at just over two hours, L’odyssée struggles to cover only the middle stretch of a career that lasted over fifty years. The film focuses on the highlights of the most productive period of the life of Cousteau when he gained international fame through his undersea exploits, television programmes and eventual turn to environmental concerns. I think it will be difficult for younger audiences in the UK to comprehend what kind of international following Cousteau was able to attract – he won major civil honours in several countries and only David Attenborough has ever reached the same profile as a celebrity associated with the natural world. The surprising omission for me was any mention of Louis Malle who as a young man co-directed the Academy award-winning The Silent World (1956) with Cousteau. Fans of Wes Anderson and Bill Murray will however recognise that The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) is based on the exploits of Cousteau and his crew.
L’odyssée is a major production with an estimated budget of €20 million – large by European standards, even if France is the major European film production centre. Director Jérôme Salle seems to specialise in large-scale productions with major stars but as far as I can see his films have not previously appeared in UK cinemas (though two have been released on DVD). According to IMDb, L’odyssée is being screened in a 2.66 : 1 ratio and it was shot digitally on a 6K Red camera. I’m not sure about the ratio at the screening I attended, but you’d expect an epic presentation for Cousteau’s story of exploration and overall the film doesn’t disappoint. There are three major stars (perhaps two of them are ‘star actors’). Lambert Wilson has the trickiest job as ‘JYC’ (Cousteau) and since the action begins around 1949 when Cousteau was approaching 40 and finishes when he is approaching 70. Wilson himself is in his late 50s. Audrey Tautou faces a similar long haul but she has the advantage of being nearer in age to Cousteau’s wife Simone in 1949 and with make-up and wigs she approaches 60 more easily. She also doesn’t appear on screen as frequently (one of the major minuses of the film for me). The third major character is Cousteau’s younger son Philippe played as an adult by Pierre Niney, highly praised on this blog for his role in Frantz (France-Germany 2016). Sporting very fetching 70s facial hair, Niney is a strong presence in the second half of the film.
As I’ve indicated, this is a partial biopic, but that is only one of the genre repertoires that Salle draws on. Perhaps just as important is the mix of epic adventure/exploration and natural history film/environmental polemic. I was struck with the similarity in parts to the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) with Cousteau seeking funding for his expeditions and then risking everything in physical encounters with seas, storms and sharks. The underwater scenes in the film are definitely one of its attractions and the budget was partly spent on location shooting in the Bahamas, Croatia, South Africa and Antarctica. The weakness of the narrative is the final genre repertoire, the family or personal drama. Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘JYC’ was unable to be the father and husband that his wife and sons expected. The narrative also suggests that his desire to succeed in his ambitious ventures led him to become too interested in the money that could be earned and that he exploited his family and loyal crew members. (At the same time, he is unaware just how expensive his ambitious plans have become.) There isn’t time to explore this and there is quite a telling moment when Cousteau is in the US for his television commitments and his elder son phones to tell him that his father has died. JYC refuses to return to France immediately. This feels like an insertion of a little shorthand scene to stand in for a whole sub-narrative. The film’s script was written by Salle and Laurent Turner and is based on two books, one by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the surviving older son who has carried on the family business and the other by the captain of the Cousteau ship, the Calypso. On this basis, there must be a strong factual starting point to what appears on screen. I think I would argue that despite its flaws, there is a great deal to commend about L’odyssée. It boasts wonderful cinematography by Matias Boucard and a music score by the celebrated Alexandre Desplat. You should seek out the biggest screen you can find.
We watched the film at the new arts centre in Halifax, the Square Chapel, in the smaller ‘Copper’ auditorium which is also used for theatrical productions. It’s good to be in a new cinema space and we were impressed to see how busy it was for a Friday morning screening. The downside is that films are presented without masking – the CinemaScope film was shown on a standard widescreen ratio screen so there were visible white bars above and below the image. Someone once tried to tell me that nobody notices this, but sitting two rows from the front they were clearly visible to us. Please, cinemas – bring back masking!
One of the highlights of ¡Viva! this year, El Mundo sigue is a film made in the early 1960s and then suppressed, only re-emerging in a restoration in 2015. As such, it serves as a form of commentary on the censorship under Franco and therefore as a useful indicator of what La transición had to achieve in the liberation of Spanish cinema. The screening was introduced by Stuart Green from the University of Leeds who also led a post-screening discussion.
Stuart explained that the film suffered from attention by the censors and was re-edited after completion in 1963 in the hope of getting a higher classification (i.e. a licence for wider distribution) but even so its release in 1965 was restricted to a handful of screenings outside Madrid. This was particularly damaging since the narrative focuses on the working class district in Madrid that became the centre for ‘La Movida’ fifteen years later. We watched the restoration screened from a DVD which unfortunately degraded the image in the long shots but medium shots and close-ups were fine. The restoration in 2015 was marked by a short documentary, El mundo sigue: La resurreción de una obra maestra del cine español which I think must be included on the Spanish DVD/Blu-ray.
El Mundo sigue is an adaptation of a 1960 novel by Juan Antonio de Zunzunegui, a distinguished Spanish writer known for ‘social criticism’. It offers a melodrama about a working-class family in which the two grown up daughters are at each other’s throats. Eloísa, the older sister, is a former beauty queen of the neighbourhood who has made an unfortunate marriage to a wastrel, a waiter at a local bar-café. Over the course of the narrative she has to find enough money to feed three young children since her husband wastes his tips and meagre wages on the weekly football ‘pools’. By contrast, her younger sister Luisita ‘progresses’ from a job in an up-market fashion shop into a glamorous life with a string of ‘sugar daddies’ – rich businessmen who buy her expensive gifts. Whenever Elo and Luisita meet at their parents apartment there are fireworks. Their father is a local police officer, their brother a pious young man who left a seminary and their mother struggles each day to feed the family.
The film was directed by Fernando Fernán Gómez (1921-2007), one of the towering figures of Spanish theatre and film as both actor and director. Here he also takes on the key role of Faustino the waiter and husband of Elo. His role is both similar and very different to his lead in That Happy Couple (Spain 1951), another attempt to get round the censors and critique Franco’s Spanish society that was made by Juan Antonio Bardem and Luis García Berlanga. Gómez approaches his film using neo-realism and developing its melodrama possibilities. The opening of the film involves a close-up of the driver’s seat and dashboard of an expensive car – this will also be the last shot of a film which is all one long flashback. The opening shot of that flashback is an observational, documentary long shot of a fruit and vegetable market. When the shot cuts to a location seemingly round the corner, we know immediately that although we are still ‘on the street’, we are now following the worn-down mother of a family, struggling back to her apartment with something for lunch. The apartment on the second floor of a tenement building is relatively spacious and at the rear there is an open terrace. There is space, but not much money to enjoy and exploit the space available. A similar terrace re-appears later in Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987).
Neo-realism was popular as an aesthetic for several Spanish directors during the Franco era. The censors monitored the import of films, sometimes cutting scenes from those they allowed in. Italy as a Catholic country offered narratives about recognisable communities though they must have been cut because of the sexual content. Neo-realism also offered the ‘look’ of the prestige art films that Spanish authorities would have liked to have seen emulated by Spanish filmmakers at festivals like Cannes and Venice (though such films, like Bunuel’s Viridiana (1961), were sometimes not then released in Spain). Italian neo-realism was often open to melodrama and there are several scenes in which the performances are ‘excessive’ – Luisita and Elo fight and have to be kept apart. In other parts of the film, Gómez uses various expressionistic devices such as noir lighting and a montage of nighttime images. Running at just over two hours, the film is always engaging and watchable. The real question is what offended the fascist censors? What kind of social critique is being made?
During the screening, I thought of two other films from roughly the same time period, which although quite different in some ways did share some of the same themes and plot points. The first is Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers (Italy-France 1960) which sees a similar family group in Milan and the contrasting fortunes of five sons, one of whom prompts moral concerns about his behaviour which causes pain for his mother. The second is John Schlesinger’s Darling (1965) in which Julie Christie had her breakout role as the middle-class girl who is destroyed by celebrity. I wondered what was ‘absent’ in the Spanish film compared to the other two. In Rocco, the working-class family is in a community (of migrants from the South) in which community and church are important and in which skilled factory employment and eventually unions and politics will become two further structures. In Franco’s Madrid of 1963/5 the Church seems surprisingly absent and, worse still, the pious and ineffectual son in the family is a weak character whose religiosity is mocked. There are no real jobs for women, only as servants or cleaners or shopgirls. Faustino’s job has little structure and father is a state employee in a lowly position. Eloísa is a sad figure, fulfilling a role in the Francoist state of having babies. Luisita is the only one with aspirations but these have been diverted into a form of prostitution and an engagement with the new world of consumerism which is only available to the rich and which is evident in clothes and American cars. I suspect if cuts were made they removed something that explains Luisita’s sudden move into this world. She leaves home after one of her fights with Elo and is suddenly in a modern apartment with a Dansette and a pile of pop records. Stuart Green suggested that scenes were also cut depicting Faustino and Elo in bed together. This despite the fact that they are husband and wife. The ‘freedom’ and consumerism of the young and especially young women in 1965, just prior to Swingin’ London is at the heart of Darling. But Diana Scott (Julie Christie), although she is ‘punished’ for her immoral behaviour has, in modern parlance, ‘agency’. She becomes a celebrity as herself. The clothes she wears and the image she projects are for her pleasure, not as markers of her kept status.
In El Mundo sigue, the absence of those supportive, collective structures for the working-class family is to some extent countered by the presence of the playwright turned theatre critic. Here is a family friend, a writer whose play has only been seen a few times in the neighbourhood and was then barred from opening in ‘town’. Now he writes theatre reviews and at one point is warned not to be too critical of the plays he reviews. He comes to visit the apartment a few times and tries to give advice to the daughters. He is trusted by the mother because he is from the community – whereas the men Luisita takes up with have made their money through conforming to the Francoist regime’s policies.
The film’s narrative changes in its second half. Initially it would appear that the drivers of the narrative are Luisita and Elo. Gradually, however, it is Faustino who takes over Elo’s story as his gambling and womanising eventually leads to his downfall and Elo’s degradation. My memory is of Spain as a country besotted by lottery tickets but Faustino cons himself by thinking he is an expert on predicting football scores. The ‘pools’ is a relatively harmless pastime but Faustino is obsessed (we even get a glimpse of Real Madrid playing in the early 1960s when they were even more dominant than they are now). Low level gambling keeps the working-class happy and uninvolved in political struggle (see the rise of the lottery competitions in the UK since the 1990s) and seems a good way of satirising Francoism.
In the discussion that followed, it was clear that people had enjoyed the film. I think it would be very interesting to compare El Mundo sigue with other similar films from across Europe during the same period. I’m sure the differences would be interesting and show up what living under Franco was like for the urban population in the 1960s. Unfortunately the Spanish DVD is listed as only having French subs. The trailer here doesn’t hve subs but gives an idea of the film.
In the clip below from the early part of the film, we see Lusita working in an up-market shop, then Elo arriving at the family apartment seeking money to buy her children food. The pious brother and father are also there and eventually Luisita arrives and the sisters are immediately at odds.
This was perhaps the most enjoyable film I saw at ¡Viva!. A comedy drama with a terrific central character, strong supporting cast and a solid story with plenty of laughs – what’s not to like? Having the opportunity to hear the director Nely Reguera talk about the film in the Q&A after the screening was an added bonus.
María is a thirty-something living in Galicia. When we first meet her she has been caring for her widowed father who has been receiving treatment for cancer. Her day job is with a small local publisher and bookseller. She has encounters with men she knows, but doesn’t have a committed partner. When Dad is fully recovered it is time for his birthday and his two sons and their partners return home for the party. Dad invites his nurse from the health centre to the party where he makes a sudden announcement that surprises everybody and has all kinds of repercussions, including questions about the future of the family restaurant which has been closed for a couple of years. María has done all the cooking for the party, but the eldest son Jorge is a chef currently working in London. I don’t want to give away any more but the plot sets up a range of issues affecting different members of the family. (The rough English translation of the title is ‘Maria (and the others)’.)
The main focus is the challenge to María’s sense of who she is and what’s she should be doing now her ‘carer’/’supporter’ role has changed. One possibility is that she might finish the novel she has been writing, another is a search for a more permanent relationship. These are both familiar ‘drivers’ for a comedy and here they are melded into the general family drama. Director Nely Reguera (who co-wrote the script with four others) had spoken about her film in the panel discussion about ‘Contemporary Female Filmmakers in Spanish Cinema’. This was her first feature after two short films and plenty of production experience as an Assistant Director. She said that María took her several years to get into production. Her comments raised expectation that this would not be a straight genre picture despite familiar tropes such as María’s relationships with her girlfriends and the different ways in which plot developments thwart her attempts to achieve her goals. I was particularly interested in the two other young women in her family – her sister-in-law and Anne, the English partner of her eldest brother, the chef. I asked Nely about this in the Q&A and she said the English connection was partly simply realism – many Galicians travel to work abroad and that there are many Spanish workers in the UK. But she also said that Anne was one of her favourite characters in the film. It struck me that though Anne and María don’t have a great deal of interaction, Anne does have both a positive and a negative impact on how the rest of the family view María. María’s cooking is local and home-cooked, whereas Anne speaks about how she and Jorge often get take-aways, especially Thai food. In defending traditional Galician attitudes towards food, Maria is parochial in the face of Anne’s ‘globalised modernity’. Equally, however, Anne is much more supportive of María’s need for independence when her sister-in-law and others assume that she will follow tradition. Then again, Anne is possibly a figure of fun in her jogging gear.
María (y los demás) was released in Spain in December 2016 and doesn’t seem to have been released in other markets yet. It has been very well received in Spain with several nominations and a couple of wins at festivals and awards events. Nely Reguera has received attention as a promising new director and Bárbara Lennie in the lead role has received similar attention. Nely told us that she was lucky to get Lennie for the lead role before the big success of her recent films such as Magical Girl (2014) for which she won a Goya. She is perfect as María and the supporting cast is equally good. This is a film that is well-written, skilfully directed and wonderfully performed. In any sane world it would sell widely across different territories. Fingers crossed, it will. I hope you can find it and enjoy it.