The Japanese title of this film by Fukada Koji translates roughly as ‘Standing on the Edge’, which does have a direct reference later in the narrative, but in some ways ‘Harmonium’ is equally relevant, referring to both the musical instrument and to the concept of (dis)harmony in the family at the centre of the narrative. When the film begins Toshio and Akie have what seems from the outside to be a stable marriage, though perhaps they do seem a little distant from each other. Their small daughter Hotaru is bright and very close to her mother. She is the one who is learning to play the harmonium. Toshio runs a small metal-press workshop from home and one day a man suddenly appears asking for work. Toshio clearly knows who this is but for the audience Yasaka appears mysterious and slightly unnerving. He’s tall and thin and dressed in a crisp white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and dark formal trousers. He walks stiffly and speaks formally. Yasaka is played by Asano Tadanobu, a very well-known Japanese actor who in his early 40s already has around 90 film roles to his credit. In his younger days he was something of a ‘heart-throb’ star of various genre films such as Ichi the Killer and his presence here in such an unusual role is very effective.
Toshio invites Yasaka to lodge with the family (without consulting his wife first) and to work in the metal-press and at first he seems to behave very well. Eventually, as we suspect, his presence has an effect on all three family members. This is a narrative which has been used many times for different purposes. In a play like J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls the outsider comes into a family gathering uninvited and through questioning unearths a range of dark secrets, exposing the corruption in bourgeois society. Sometimes the outsider is more of a religious figure (saint or demon), or possibly a ghost, but the effect is similar. We expect to learn something about this family and we suspect it won’t necessarily be good – or at least what happens will be disturbing.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but we do slowly find out what links Toshio and Yasaka and we are led towards a tragedy. The plot then changes and we rejoin a more fractured family at a later date before a finale based on some important coincidences. Overall this is a dark family melodrama presented in a very carefully controlled and composed manner. It is also a form of thriller (Polanski is a director I thought of at various points) – as one reviewer points out, it doesn’t deliver conventional thrills, but sometimes the tension of suspense is unbearable. There are some fantasy sequences suggesting the disturbed state of family members – with phantom appearances of other characters. Fukada’s technique involves removing the clutter and clatter of family life and focusing on relationships. There are moments of melodramatic excess that don’t so much ‘erupt’ but quietly come to our attention and then resonate in a disturbing way. I’ll pick out a couple. Yasaka’s formal attire includes a crisp and dazzlingly white boiler suit for his work on the metal-press. In the trailer below you can see him on the street, suddenly opening the top of the suit to reveal a scarlet T-shirt beneath (the girl’s schoolbag is similarly red). The trailer also includes the harmonium playing a tune which Yasaka teaches to Hotaru – a tune accompanied by the clicking of the metronome.
At Yasaka’s first breakfast time with the family he eats at a ferocious speed, washing up his dishes before the others have finished eating. Perhaps this is a clue to where he has been, but it is in its own way disturbing when Akie takes time to whisk raw egg in her bowl. In the trailer we also hear the start of Hotaru’s story about the spiders who immediately start to eat their mother after their birth. This is discussed in some detail. As I reflect on the film, I realise that there are many such instances which will become more apparent on a second viewing. This is a ‘rich text’ that I’m sure will reward re-viewings. I’m not surprised that it has won prizes, though I think its appeal may be limited as mainstream audiences may find it either too slow and ponderous or too contrived and ‘clumsy’. I think it is the opposite, but then perhaps this is the kind of film I like. UK audiences will get a chance to see it as Eureka/Masters of Cinema plan a release in May 2017. This means we should get a quality DVD/Blu-ray with selected cinema screenings. In the trailer below there is an indication of several plot developments that I have avoided exposing in this blog post, so be warned! It’s a good trailer though and effectively teases you with the qualities of the film.
This is the first title in Universal’s ‘Directed by Douglas Sirk’ box-set. After an unhappy time at Columbia, Sirk signed a seven-year contract at Universal and settled down to make a couple of pictures a year for the studio. He was generally happy at Universal but he understood that it was the smallest of the major studios (smaller than Columbia – Universal and Columbia were the ‘mini-majors’ during the studio period since they didn’t own any cinemas). Consequently, most of Sirk’s productions would be superior ‘B’ productions, going against trend in the early 1950s. This meant that the stars to attract an ‘A’ budget were not available to Sirk and the use of colour was dependent on genre.
Has Anybody Seen My Gal? was Sirk’s fifth Universal picture, a family comedy with several musical numbers making it eligible for Technicolor under Universal’s policy. The film is significant because it teamed Sirk with a young Rock Hudson for the first time (it also features a brief appearance by James Dean). Hudson gets top billing in retrospect and the film also appears in a Rock Hudson box-set – but he has only a supporting role. The central focus is on the veteran actor Charles Coburn (already in his 70s) with whom Sirk had already worked (on Lured in 1947). Coburn plays an eccentric millionaire in the early 1920s who decides to bequeath his wealth to the family of the girl he loved, but didn’t marry fifty years earlier. He inveigles his way into the Blaisdell family home under an assumed name and literally ‘checks out’ the family. Satisfied that they have the makings of acceptable beneficiaries he attempts to test them by arranging for them to come into a large sum of money. This will reveal that there is a weak link in the family group leading to a crisis. Universal’s rules meant that there had to be a happy ending, but Sirk did manage to expose some of the flaws in American bourgeois society even if the ‘feelgood’ aura round the film militated against the satire.
I enjoyed this film very much. Sirk whisks us through 89 minutes with hardly a pause for breath. Small-town New York state is presented in bright colours and the costumes of the women in the ‘flapper’ era add to the visual punch. Most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were Universal regulars whose usual commissions ranged across Westerns and Abbott and Costello movies, but they all put in good shifts for Sirk. Musical director Joseph Gershenson had a similar background but also more chances to work on bigger budget films. He would become part of Sirk’s team over several films. Henry Mancini is listed by IMDB as a ‘uncredited composer’.
The film’s title comes from the song and there are other well-known songs sung by the cast including ‘The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbing Along’. Piper Laurie at the start of her career is very good as Millicent, the Blaisdell’s older daughter and the grand-daughter of the woman the millionaire loved as a young man. Truly vivacious, Piper Laurie immediately recalls the impact of seeing Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain for the first time. (Laurie followed Reynolds into cinemas just a few weeks later). Her younger sister in the family, played by 9 year-old Gigi Perreau, is the other standout player. She was an established child star of the period and gives a lively performance – taking Coburn’s character at face value. Sirk told Jon Halliday that he couldn’t remember much about the film – apart from meeting Rock Hudson. I think he should have been pleased to make such a fresh version of a rather formulaic story. He was helped by a sharp script by Joseph Hoffman from a story by Eleanor H. Porter (best known for the 1913 children’s novel, Pollyanna). If you want some heartwarming entertainment, this fits the bill.
This film was given to me (on DVD) by a member of the audience for one of my introduced screenings of La famille Bélier (France 2014). The suggestion was that it was similar in many ways to the later French film. There are certainly some close similarities in the script – but also several important differences. The two films are also different in their use of genre repertoires and the way they are positioned for audiences. I don’t think that the French producers need worry about plagiarism charges.
The main similarity is that the central character is a girl, Lara, who grows up with deaf parents and from an early age she must ‘translate’ for them with officialdom. When she is 8 she is given a clarinet by her aunt Clara and she will eventually decide that she wants to train as a professional musician and therefore needs to audition for a conservatory. Beyond these two central features, the narratives of the two films are quite different and where La famille Bélier is primarily a comedy and a ‘feelgood film’, Beyond Silence is a family drama.
The family drama comes about mainly because of the antagonism between Lara’s father Martin and his sister Clara. Their family is middle-class with tensions about Martin’s deafness (with bad advice for the parents) and Clara’s pursuit of music (a frivolous career?). The adult Clara hasn’t had a child, her relationship with Gregor is not going well and she possibly sees Lara as a kind of surrogate musical daughter (a position which she knows will anger Martin). There are important flashbacks to Martin and Clara as children in the 1960s and family history weighs heavily. Lara’s mother Kai is on the outside of this and she doesn’t appear to have a family. When later she gives birth to a second girl, also with hearing, things seem to look up.
One of the ‘users’ on IMDB suggests that Beyond Silence is a kind of German ‘problem picture’. I can understand the suggestion but I think that it’s more that this is a family drama, pushed further towards the art cinema end of the spectrum. There is tragedy in the film, which Martin foolishly suggests is partly Lara’s fault, and the ending is positive but not conclusive. It really is that this is a story in which things happen much as they might do to anyone outside of studio genre movies.
Because the narrative spans ten years, the producers had the problem that Lara had to be played by two actors, one 8 years-old and the other 18. Tatjana Trieb and Sylvie Testud sound as if they are both too old (Testud being 24?) but they are both convincing and the transition works. All the other adult family roles have to age 10 years and again this works OK. Lara’s parents are played by deaf actors. Howie Seago is American and Emmanuelle Laborit is French. The search for authenticity meant that Emmanuelle Laborit was possibly too young for the role (she is roughly the same age as Sylvie Testud who plays her 18 year-old daughter). Again, I didn’t notice this and it wasn’t a problem but it does point to casting issues with deaf actors. (Testud was also born in France.)
The film was co-written by Caroline Link and Beth Serlin and directed by Link. One of the arguments for the casting of La famille Bélier was that major stars were needed to promote the film widely. Most of the cast for Beyond Silence were not well-known actors, never mind ‘stars’. It was Link’s first feature film as director. Through screenings at festivals the film began to pick up many awards and was eventually selected as Germany’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar. It didn’t win but five years later Link did win the Oscar with her third film Nowhere in Africa (Nirgendwo in Afrika, 2001). Beyond Silence finally got a limited release in the UK in 1999. The Arrow DVD eventually appeared in 2010 and should still be available. In Europe, Beyond Silence attracted nearly 2 million cinema admissions, mostly in Germany and Switzerland. Surprisingly it doesn’t seem to have been released in France.
I’ve seen some criticism of Beyond Silence on the grounds that it doesn’t explore enough what Lara’s success/musical talent means for her parents. There is some justification in the charge, even if the deaf/hearing relationship is explored a little more via Lara’s romance with a deaf teacher – a man who has hearing himself, but who is the son of a deaf father. Compared to La famille Bélier, Beyond Silence lacks the emotional immediacy of the French comedy, partly because the clarinet music is less easy to engage with and we, the audience, don’t see much of Lara learning it, whereas much of the comedy of La famille Bélier comes from the choir rehearsals. On the other hand, Beyond Silence offers a more nuanced view of what the situation means for the young woman at the centre of the narrative.
Des informs me that there is an Indian film with a similar theme, so I’ll pursue that one soon.
This film is showing as part of ‘Summer of French Cinema 2015‘, six films screening across six different cinemas offered by a partnership between Picturehouse Cinemas and the French film export agency UniFrance. I’m guessing that this means that the three films won’t get a full UK release so we should be thankful that Picturehouse is providing this opportunity to see them. However, they are showing just once, each one seemingly randomly scattered across the standard film programmes at the participating cinemas (three different films at each cinema). You can download the full programme here – there are further screenings on July 20, 27 and August 3. A further selection of French films can be watched online at Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/unifrancefilmspro/vod_pages
I’m not sure quite how to take Vie sauvage. It is an adaptation of a non-fiction book, a ‘real life story’ written by the central character and directed by Cédric Khan. Khan is probably best known in the UK for 2002’s Roberto Succo. That too was an adaptation of a real life crime story and there are some similarities with Vie sauvage, including the focus on a man ‘on the run’ from the police. However, it would be misleading to think of this new film as a crime suspense narrative. The central character is ‘Paco’, a man of strong convictions played by the always excellent Mathieu Kassovitz complete with beard and a ponytail. Paco is a refusenik in terms of contemporary capitalist society and at the start of the narrative we find him living with ‘Nora’ (names in this story are often in quotes) and their three boys enjoying an alternative lifestyle outside urban French society. Nora (Céline Sallette) ‘incites’ the drama by deciding that she’s had enough of living outside society and takes her boys back to her parents’ home. Paco is furious and tries to take them back. The law eventually places the boys with Nora but after one of his ‘access visits’ Paco flees with the two youngest boys (the eldest, Thomas, elects to stay with his mother – he is Paco’s stepson but Tsali and Okyesa are Paco’s sons). The trio then successfully evade the police search for the next eleven years. The original story title is translated by Google as something like ‘Eleven years outside the system under the star of freedom’ – clumsy but not a bad description.
During this long period ‘on the run’, the trio have to change names and stories as they move from one commune to another, working on the land with the two boys being ‘home schooled’. Paco also attempts to instil his own ideas about living with nature and without modern technologies and consumer culture. The boys (who are six and seven when their adventure begins) at first take it all as a game but of course they will become ‘normal’ teenagers and rebel against parental authority when they are older. Nora does not reappear until the end of the narrative (apart from in a flashback) and it is interesting that the focus is on the father. In the ‘real’ story the French media told the story from the mother’s perspective, emphasising her loss as she and the police searched for the boys (with Paco facing two years in prison). I can’t really ‘spoil’ this narrative but I won’t describe the plot in detail. Since this is not a Boyhood type project, Kahn faces the problem of needing at least two pairs of actors to play the boys. Possibly he would have been better advised to have three sets but these multiple pairings are always difficult to make work and here I found the younger actors more credible. This isn’t a criticism of the older pair, more an issue about the big leap from small boys to young men.
Beautiful to look at with great use of natural light (camera by Yves Cape), always engaging and interesting as a narrative, I’m still not quite sure about the film – although I would certainly recommend it. The main issue is the mix of genres. I’ve already suggested that the suspense elements only carry parts of the narrative and at other times the film is perhaps best described as a family drama. It seems fairly obvious what attracted the Dardenne brothers to act as co-producers (it is an official French-Belgian production). The boys and their relationship with their father could easily appear in a Dardenne film, but I’m not sure about the long story time over so many years. The Dardenne films are also more intense as realist melodramas. As I watched the film I reflected on what might be termed the rural/pastoral realism of French cinema as featured in something like Renoir’s Toni (1934) or Will It Snow For Christmas? (1996). There are also moments when the film seems to draw on American cinema, especially Westerns, in those scenes in which the boys are happy rebels having fun holed up in a shack in the hills, plucking chickens and bombarding each other with feathers. The director himself was brought up in a rural commune in the 1970s and these scenes do indeed feel authentic. I was amused, however, to discover that the commune in which Paco first met Nora was based around tepees and Native American culture. I guess there is a sense in which Paco tries to take his sons through a kind of ‘natural’ rites of passage.
If you get the chance to see this film you might wish to compare it with The Wonders (Italy/Ger/Switz 2014) released in the UK today. The films have very similar elements but produce rather different narratives. Both are well worth seeing.
Trailer with English subs:
Pablo Llorca, the writer-director of A Bouquet of Cactus clearly believes in ‘independence’ as a principle of filmmaking. Unlike the majority of filmmakers who hope to gradually increase their budgets as they raise their profile, he appears to want to avoid any compromises with funders and intrusive producers. He has been making shorts and features since 1989 and this recent release surfaced at the Seville European Film Festival in 2013. It’s in Bradford as part of the European features competition. I found it an enjoyable film to watch but I think it would probably find a bigger audience with just a little extra money to smooth off the rough edges. Pablo Llorca would probably not accept the need to do this or the interference it might bring.
A Bouquet of Cactus is part family melodrama, part comedy drama and part political satire. It may be very close to Latin American telenovelas – and its rough aesthetic at times resembles TV shooting. The film opens with what appears to be Super 8 footage of a live birth before switching to bright HDTV images (?). The new arrival is ‘Miguel’ and we gradually learn that the protagonist of the film will be Miguel’s grandfather Alfonso, now estranged from his son and family and most importantly from his wealthy brother Gerardo. Alfonso has a small patch of land which he operates as a ‘market garden’ for the local town. Later we realise that Alfonso and his neighbours are being pushed off their land by a property development company in which Gerardo is involved. Alfonso is one of the last to sell and he makes a deal with Gerardo to acquire a new plot near his old family home. In addition he demands that Gerardo does not interfere with Miguel’s education. Alfonso himself has plans to show the boy the ‘real’ education that can be learned from the land. The narrative then leaps forward several years to depict Alfonso’s new life and the struggle over Miguel’s education. Although Miguel enjoys visiting his grandfather he also likes his new iPod and wants to visit Disneyland Paris.
I won’t give away the ending but I do want to point to the way that the political is intertwined with the personal. One device is to show Alfonso in a local bar on two different occasions, several years apart. The first time he rails against all politicians. The second time he seems too cynical to react to the TV news and has almost withdrawn to the ‘better past’ of a communal rural life. He is a cultured man who has decided that he needs to retreat from the material world. There are other references to the ills of Spanish society (youth unemployment etc.). I think that Llorca tries to show Alfonso as an organic horticulturalist but I’m not sure that the term means the same in Spain as in the UK (there are mentions of bags of fertiliser at one point and he tells his grandson they should burn weeds – where’s the compost bin?). Nevertheless there is an attempt to sketch out alternative economics and lifestyles.
The rough edges I referred to include the sound mix with its various levels and the occasional rough visual edits. I’m guessing that this is simply a matter of not enough time/budget. The script seems to suffer from rushed transitions towards the end of the film. Perhaps there is more to debate about the ‘realism effect’. Llorca doesn’t bother about the fact that the story jumps forwards by around 8 or 9 years but Alfonso looks no older and he still drives the same shiny car. I guess it doesn’t matter but a little make-up and borrowing a few old cars wouldn’t have meant too much outlay.
This is an affecting film and if I had a grandchild I’d probably be very like Alfonso.
This evening class at the National Media Museum in Bradford offers the chance to study three films currently on release and to explore how ideas about the family can be exploited to develop different kinds of film narrative and different genres. There are seven sessions on Wednesday evenings from 25 September, 18.15 – 20.15.
The first of these films is a comedy drama set amongst the ‘creative/academic’ bourgeoisie of Paris in which family relationships constrain and ‘trip up’ the central character with comic effects. The second becomes a genre thriller when it tests what characters will do to keep the family together. The final film is a form of family melodrama/relationship drama. Since the films come from different filmmaking cultures (France, Philippines/UK and Japan) there will also be the opportunity to explore the extent to which genres and representations of the family are ‘universal’ or heavily skewed by ‘local’ cultural considerations. We’ll also consider a range of other films that use the family as an important driver of the narrative. The image at the head of this posting refers to the famous John Ford Western in which Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches obsessively for his two nieces who have been taken by a Comanche raiding party.
A course outline can be downloaded here: (pdf) FamilyCourseProg
We’ll try to post some of the handouts here over the next few weeks and also to discuss some of the issues that arise.
When a film wins the Golden Bear at Berlin, it is usually a good bet that it will be serious and challenging – but not necessarily popular. A Separation doesn’t disprove the Berlin prediction but it has been very popular in France as well as at home in Iran and it is currently in IMDb’s Top 250 titles. Written and directed with enormous care and skill by Asghar Farhadi and blessed with excellent performances all round (winning acting prizes) this is a film that on one level works as a domestic drama (rather than a family melodrama) and on another as a legal drama (which some critics have labelled a thriller). In a similar way, it offers universal story elements about family life but also elements that are distinctly Iranian – or rather ‘non-European/Anglo-American’.
I’m not going to describe the plot in detail. Suffice to say the film begins with Nader and Simin in front of a judge (who we don’t see but who’s ‘point of view’ we are forced to adopt). Simin wants to leave Iran and take their 11 year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader refuses to leave because he must stay and look after his father who has Alzheimer’s. The judge tells them that they must both agree to the divorce and that they should go away and sort it out. Simin then decides to leave the family apartment and go to her mother’s. Termeh decides to stay put. This is the ‘inciting’ incident in the narrative. Without his wife in the household, Nader begins to realise that getting carers for his father during the daytime (when he is at work and Termeh is at school) is going to be an issue. When he does hire a woman from the suburbs to come to his apartment the problems become real. It’s important that the audience is alert throughout all the early stages of the narrative because what happens later depends, as a legal dispute, on tiny pieces of information revealed in these early scenes – and I’m not going to claim to have remembered them all!
The intricate plotting across just over two hours never lets up in intensity. It is presented via a simple and clear aesthetic with hand-held camerawork that operates fairly close to the characters in the confined spaces of rooms, offices, stairways etc. and a couple of roadside locations. There is no musical score – only dialogue, sound effects and direct sound. The great strength of the screenplay and characterisation is that there are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ as such. In the true humanist sense, we are able to recognise that everyone has their good and less good sides – with the possible exception of Termeh who is forced by circumstances into impossible situations that she tries desperately to resolve. Termeh is played by the director’s own daughter.
The film has a terrible fascination, partly because of its universality. Tehran is in many ways no different to London, Paris or New York. Alzheimer’s is an issue with older relatives everywhere in the developed world (I’m assuming that it is a different kind of problem in poorer societies). The social class divide is just as important in Iran. Nader is a bank employee with some kind of responsibility. Simin’s profession wasn’t clear to me, but this is a middle-class household with working professionals. The would-be carers face a long commute across the city and they desperately need the money.
The religious issues in the film did not strike me as important in the ways that other commentators have suggested. All the women in the film cover their hair, but the woman carer wears a full chador. She is also concerned about what is ‘allowed’ in a strangers’ (i.e. non-family) household, but overall I thought that the moral questions – about truthfulness and fidelity – were presented in such a way that they were relevant whether or not the characters were devout Muslims. The film does in many ways invite us, the audience, to ask what we would do in the same circumstances.
The Iranian judicial process as presented in the film reminded me very much of the way a not totally dissimilar incident is handled in Tomás Gutierrez Aléa’s Memories of Underdevelopment (Cuba 1968). I felt for the investigating judge listening to the case and trying to be fair to all sides. The Iranian system is presented as thorough but somewhat inflexible in its process. It appears to treat plaintiffs and defendanys on an equal basis but there still seems to be a bias towards the middle-class who can more easily get ‘respectable’ people to vouch for them.
I have enjoyed many other Iranian films with more obvious ‘issues’ and political discourses but I enjoyed this film because it was so ‘ordinary’ in its story elements, but so extraordinary in its presentation. Not to be missed!
Press Notes available here.
Artificial Eye trailer (Spoiler Warning: the trailer gives much more plot detail than I have included above):