Tagged: family drama

¡Viva! 26 #3: Los Sonámbulos (The Sleepwalkers, Argentina-Uruguay 2019)

Luisa and Ana

This was the second of my ¡Viva! screenings to offer a film by a female writer-director, Paula Hernández, and to focus on a young woman. The other aspect of the film’s narrative shared with the earlier A Thief’s Daughter is the sense of ‘show not tell’ and therefore some work for the audience in understanding relationships. In other ways The Sleepwalkers is a different kind of narrative.

The narrative begins with the sudden realisation by Luisa (Erica Rivas) that something is wrong. She wakes in the night and finds her young teenage daughter Ana (Ornella D’Elía) standing naked in the family apartment with menstrual blood trickling down her leg but unaware of her actions. The next day Luisa and Ana with Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski) drive to a family New Year holiday in the countryside. Emilio’s mother Memé lives in the large family house with only her housekeeper-companion Hilda but today Emilio and his siblings Sergio and Inés and their children will gather for a few days. Luisa is concerned that Ana has not been confiding in her but in Emilio’s family there seems to be a ‘freer’, more ‘liberal’ attitude to parenting. The New Year holiday corresponds to the family summer holidays in European films, particularly those from Southern Europe with hot weather, days by the pool, al fresco meals and always the possibility of tempers flaring and old feuds emerging. When the first dispute/niggle surfaces – Ana and her parents are sleeping in the house rather than the annexe where they usually stay – it is clear that this holiday will have its frictions. The ‘provocateur’ is the appearance of Alejo, Sergio’s eldest son who may be an older teenager or a young man in his twenties – his age and his history as a teenager are not clear. Ana is an attractive young girl, much younger than she looks, who has some memories of Alejo from earlier family gatherings a few years ago. The young man sets out to flirt with both Ana and her mother.

The family are called to dinner . . .

There is also a sub-plot familiar from the family melodrama. Memé has decided she wants to sell the house and its extensive grounds (a stretch of river, woods and a swimming pool) and a couple of prospective buyers turn up to visit but are turned away because of the family holiday. Memé’s late husband Lacho established a publishing house and both Emilio and Sergio are involved in the company, but there appear to be disputes about how it should operate. Though these issues are referred to, they don’t appear to be a central narrative concern, but rather a way of explaining some of the tension.

Luisa shows consternation at something Emilio (in the foreground out of focus) is saying

This is a slow-paced drama with emphasis often on looks and small gestures. I don’t think there is any explanation of why Sergio and Inés are present without their spouses – or perhaps I missed it? Possibly Sergio’s sons don’t all have the same mother. Sergio has three sons. The younger two treat their cousin Ana as simply someone to spend time with in the pool or around the bonfire. Inés has a baby who cries much of the time and she doesn’t really feature as a character. In fact Inés seems to be there almost as an illustration of how women are treated in the family. Luisa shows concern about the stress of dealing with the baby but ironically Memé as the matriarch seems less interested. The tension rises throughout the narrative and leads to a dramatic climax that I did find shocking both for the actions themselves and because of how the escalation of emotion was constructed.

Memé and Luisa at odds

The Sleepwalkers is a skilfully made film. Paula Hernández has had a long career. This is her fourth feature as a director and she is aided by Iván Gierasinchuk’s cinematography and Rosario Suárez’s editing. The performances are generally very good and the mother-daughter pairing is excellent. I read the title to refer to both mother and daughter whose actions tend to vacillate between a clear-eyed sense of where things could be headed, but also include behaviour which seems almost instinctive in encouraging the opposite. Typically, the more Luisa reaches out to re-engage with Ana, the more Emilio seems to block the action as he has other concerns and the future of the marriage is being pitted against his wider family concerns. I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ the film but I found it impressive though perhaps a little too slow-paced and I would have liked to know a little more about the minor characters outside the central quintet of Luisa, Ana, Emilio, Sergio and Alejo. I don’t think in the end that the film qualifies as a family melodrama. There is some diegetic music but mostly it’s direct sound throughout. In this sense the trailer below is misleading.

Amanda (France 2018)

David (Vincent Lacoste) and Amanda (Isaure Multrier)

This enjoyable and gently moving film first appeared at Venice in 2018 and the UK is one of the last major territories to receive it. The title refers to the 7 year-old daughter of single mother Sandrine, a high school English teacher. The narrative, however, focuses on Amanda’s young uncle David, a young man in his early 20s with two jobs and and a small flat. He helps out his sister by occasionally picking up Amanda from school and joining in days out. Sandrine and David have long since ‘lost’ their own mother who left to live in London when David was a small child. This has perhaps helped to create stronger bonds between uncle and niece.

Spoiler warning: It’s impossible to discuss the film without revealing the major disruptive incident in the narrative, so don’t read on if you want to approach the film cold – but please come back after you’ve seen it!

David with Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb) – a happy scene in her kitchen. But is she a little precarious in front of that open window?

Having established the daily routines of this trio and introducing the possibility of a romance for David with the arrival in Paris of Léna, a musician and piano teacher from the Dordogne, co-writer and director Mikhaël Hers then introduces tragedy when Sandrine goes to an early evening picnic in the park after arranging a sitter for Amanda. David is late as usual because of his job meeting new tenants for his seemingly dubious landlord boss. As he cycles to meet Sandrine, Hers brilliantly introduces a sense of something uncanny, something not quite right – the streets suddenly become deserted and the traffic melts away. In the park, David comes across the aftermath of a terrorist attack. Sandrine is dead and Léna is injured.

Stacy Martin as Léna

As several reviewers have pointed out, Hers doesn’t attempt to recreate the horror of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice in 2015 and 2016. Instead he focuses on the impact on David and how he must struggle not only with loss but also with his role in the future for Amanda and possibly for Léna. It takes time for David to realise the predicament he faces. He does have an aunt, his mother’s sister lives not far away, and she is supportive but not perhaps the long-term guardian for Amanda. David is a ‘man-child’ and now he must grow up. Should he finally try to find his mother in London? He had vowed not to but he had agreed to go with Sandrine and Amanda to to watch the tennis at Wimbledon in the June. And what of Léna who he has just got to know?

The script, co-written with Maud Ameline, works well to convey the process of grieving and coming to terms with both loss and the need to keep going and look forward. The performances are very good, especially by Vincent Lacoste as David and Isaure Multrier as Amanda. He is already an experienced actor with a strong presence. I was convinced I’d seen him before, but I don’t recognise any titles in his filmography. He has a screen presence that somehow seems familiar. Isaure Multrier had not acted professionally in a feature before yet she gives a naturalistic performance which, to repeat an old cliché, demonstrates how much better most child performers in Europe are compared to those in Hollywood. Stacy Martin and Ophélia Kolb have less to do as Léna and Sandrine but they are very well cast and make the most of their opportunities. The real surprise for me was Great Scacchi as David’s mother in London. At first I didn’t recognise her, but her vitality and spirit soon identified her. Perhaps she will now be the ‘go to’ English actor who can speak fluent French, allowing her to take over from Charlotte Rampling or Kristin Scott-Thomas? Having said that, I found her French easier to follow so perhaps it was important that the script introduced her as teaching French in London?

Doesn’t need a caption?

I would agree with several other reviewers that one of the strengths of the film is the cinematography by Sébastien Buchmann and location scouting. In the Press Pack, Hers is asked about this:

In your film, Paris is very luminous but never touristy . . .

That was important to me. I wanted to avoid any neighborhood too closely associated with a particular social group. I wanted to film cross-cultural Paris, regular Paris, daily Paris—a city everyone can relate to. It’s fabulous to weave fictional characters into the fabric of reality, to immerse that tiny bubble of fiction in an environment that just gets on with daily life. I would have liked to go even further but, unfortunately, it’s increasingly difficult to film in Paris and blend in with the crowd. 

I think Hers is successful in doing this and Amanda becomes one of those films that capture a form of street life in Paris very well, much like some of the early New Wave directors such as Truffaut and Rohmer. The Press Pack also includes a discussion about melodrama and Hers says that he felt that he pushed it towards “the cusp of melodrama”:

There is this prism of a tragedy that is both personal and collective. I wanted to make a film that is restrained while also taking risks and trying to make it as shareable as possible.

Many commentators have clearly been very moved by the film. Emotional responses to films are personal and though I was certainly engaged and moved by the events and the portrayal of the characters, I didn’t feel as overwhelmed as some. A little distance is by no means a bad thing in thinking about how someone might deal with the tragedy that faces David, especially given his circumstances. Everything in this film worked for me except perhaps the closing scenes at the tennis match. But then I don’t judge a film on how it ends but rather on what it explores and uncovers over 90 minutes. I would recommend Amanda as a film to see – if you can find it (it’s a Curzon release so should be online). I should also mention the music by Anton Sanko – and do stay for the Jarvis Cocker song over the final credits.

LIFF 2019 #1: One Last Deal (Tuntematon mestari, Finland 2018)

Olavi has a visitor . . .

It’s time for the Leeds International Film Festival again and this Finnish film is a solid if low-key drama that doesn’t fall too far into simple feelgood territory. There was something about the production package which seemed vaguely familiar but as I hadn’t researched the film before the screening I didn’t realise that this comes from the same team that made the Finnish-Estonian film The Fencer in 2015 with director Klaus Härö, writer Anna Heinämaa and cinematographer Tuomo Hutri.

One Last Deal is based on a familar dramatic scenario with a central character study. Olavi (Heikki Nousiainen) is an art dealer hanging on, beyond retirement age, to his rented shop premises in central Helsinki. Like many people in their 70s reflecting on what they have achieved over a long life, he hankers after ‘one last deal’ that might justify his long struggle in the art world. He’s a widower and he hasn’t kept up with technological change, allowing himself to become a curmudgeonly old man with only one real friend, a younger dealer facing similar problems but doing slightly better in his shop in the face of online competition.

Olavi and Otto on the art trail

Around the same time that Olavi comes across an item in an auction sale that seems to be undervalued, he gets a call from his daughter Lea (Pirjo Lonka), now divorced and with a teenage son Otto (Amos Brotherus). She wants her father to take her son on work experience. Can the curmudgeon cope with the idea of a bright teenager careering about his gallery? It’s clear that there will be two narrative lines which will come together – the deal and the family tensions.

I enjoyed the film and especially the central performance. Helsinki, from the street of galleries and the auction house to the high rise modern luxury hotel and the outskirts where Otto and Lea live, is attractively presented and the search for provenance of the painting that Olavi identifies as a potential ‘last deal’ is intriguing, especially in emphasising the Finnish experience of the influence of Russian culture. It occurs to me now that the narrative is similar to Formentera Lady (Spain 2018) with the grandfather-daughter-grandson triangle and to others I can’t remember the titles of. There is also something similar in terms of family and a work/personal interest tension in The Puzzle (US 2018). All of these family narratives are potential melodramas that are either muted by or enhanced by the other narrative about work/personal interest according to taste. As the various festival reviews suggest this modest but nicely judged 95 minute film could well appeal to audiences. Personally, I think the film might have taken either the family melodrama or the chase for a ‘final deal’ a bit further but Klaus Härö clearly knows how to pitch a film for local and international markets and One Last Deal should satisfy many audiences.

LFF 2019 #2: Fête de famille (Happy Birthday, France 2019)

Lunch al fresco

I’m not sure why I booked this screening. Possibly it was the prospect of Catherine Deneuve as a matriarch and the reputation of writer-director Cédric Kahn. I also like the venue, the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington. However, I later realised that I’d got my Cédrics mixed up. I was thinking of Cédric Klapisch who made Un air de famille in 1996 and this new film has a very similar plot, except it shifts the location to a country house rather than a restaurant. Cédric Kahn is connected in my memory with films that are more dramatic than comic.

The birthday party in question is for Andréa (Deneuve) the matriarch of a family of two sons and a daughter plus three grand-children and a husband Jean (Alain Artur), who I don’t think is the father of any of the three grown-up children. Andréa is the owner of the large house in the country. The director himself plays the elder son Vincent with Laetitia Colombani as Marie, his wife and the mother of the two grandsons. Emmanuelle Bercot plays Claire the daughter and Vincent Macaigne plays the second son Romain. Claire’s estranged daughter Emma (Luàna Bajrami) is a student who lives with her grandparents and Romain has his latest possible fiancée in tow, Rosita (Isabel Aimé González-Sola). The party also includes Emma’s boyfriend Julien (Joshua Rosinet). He is a talented pianist who I don’t remember having much dialogue at all. He is disturbingly the only person of colour on screen. I did tend to see his presence as either a cliché or a form of tokenism (intended to strengthen the sense of Emma as a rebel within the family group?).

Watching the play by the younger family members

It’s worth noting that four of the actors are also directors themselves. I’m not sure if that makes any difference. The setting and the script suggest a very ‘theatrical’ production with most locations in the house or garden and just a few brief but eventful car trips outside. Cédric Kahn himself suggests that there is a conventional three-act structure and one episode includes a play devised and performed by Emma and Julien and the two young grandsons. As well as the starry cast, the film has an equally experienced and celebrated crew and the whole thing looks very good. Music is important and I very much enjoyed a song by Françoise Hardy, ‘Mon amie la rose’. Why then did I feel disappointed and a little let down by the film overall?

I think perhaps that I was surprised that such a conventional film would be included in a festival programme. This is indeed like a well-produced play with twists and turns in the plot and each of the core star actors given a story to present. But in the end these stories don’t add up to much that’s new or particularly interesting. Added to that, the comic elements didn’t really work for me. Sometimes the comedy seemed cruel  or perhaps seeking to be satirical but without clear targets. It’s a prestigious production however and if you like that kind of thing you might like this.