My first screening of this year’s festival, which is primarily online, was one of three ‘free’ archive screenings. This restoration of a film deliberately marginalised by critics and industry officials in 1976 and banned after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 came about only when the original reels of film were found by the director’s son in a street market in 2015. Up until then only heavily degraded VHS copies were available after the director Mohammad Reza Aslani was allowed back into the industry limelight in the late 1990s, mainly as a documentary maker.
The presentation was via BFI Player with a short introduction by Robin Baker and the director’s daughter Gita, a film scholar, and then a pre-recorded Q&A from the couple (in a split screen) after the screening. Everything worked smoothly. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. The pre-publicity suggested “the Persian lovechild of Tennessee Williams and Ingmar Bergman”. I thought this sounded unlikely and as the film rolled I thought I recognised a number of possible global links. In particular, I was reminded of Indian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese films with narratives featuring a feudal household experiencing a moment of decline and change in a grand house while outside a group of working-class women are constantly washing clothes in the large pond within a courtyard. They seem to play the role of a Greek chorus discussing all the goings-on and the sins of the rich. I was reminded of Almodóvar’s Volver and the women dressing graves among other films where groups of women are washing together. In the Q&A that followed, Gita told us that her father was influenced by two cinéastes, Visconti, especially re The Leopard (1963) and Bresson (mainly for the way he handled actors). The Leopard certainly makes sense as a narrative about aristocratic decline in the face of revolutionary forces. I don’t know Bresson well enough to comment on that reference.
The action in the narrative is all inside the house, apart from the women and the last surprising shot of the film. The woman who owned the house has just died and now her second husband has assumed control. But he has problems. Also in the house is his stepdaughter who is confined to a wheelchair and seems to be not in good health generally. The other two residents are two brothers, his nephews(?) who he has ‘taken in’. One of them wishes to marry the stepdaughter. There are several servants for the house as well – an elderly nanny, a young woman who is the stepdaughter’s maid and some kitchen staff. Finally there are two visitors, an elderly doctor and a ‘commissar’, (a police officer?). The audience is likely to wonder when the story is set. The only clue I could see was the commissar’s uniform which for me suggested the 1920s/30s. In the Q&A Gita told us that in the 1920s there were women who made quite dramatic feminist statements and that the stepdaughter repeats one of these statements in her description of a dream she has. The interior of the house in terms of layout and decoration suggests a period possibly a little earlier. Again, the final sequence in the film will provide some answers.
In genre terms this is a gothic melodrama that moves towards violence and horror. There is an element from Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (France 1955) and the house reminded me of The Handmaiden (South Korea 2016) which also shares other elements with this film. The fact that the film so shocked and confounded Iranian critics in 1976 probably says more about the state of cinema and culture at the end of the Shah’s regime than it does about the film itself. Those critics would at least have had more understanding of the details of the mise en scène of the scenes in the house, including the paintings on the walls and the domestic procedures such as the laying of the dinner on the richly carpeted floor and the bedroom with its raised sleeping platform. The stepdaughter has a very beautiful carved wooden wheelchair and how she gets about the house, even with her maid pushing the chair is something of a mystery since there is a grand staircase and a cellar to navigate. The dialogue too is carefully written to include cultural references that might be inaccessible to non-Iranians but none of this matters so much in a film that is so visually rich and which comments on Iranian history and society so directly via those elements borrowed from global cinema. The final sequence of the film is also perfectly handled so that we go back and re-think some of the earlier scenes. In the Q&A, Robin Baker asked the almost unavoidable question about Shakespeare and received the response that indeed the director was interested in Shakespeare and that perhaps this was a version of hamlet with gender reversals? You can probably guess from that remark that all does not end well.
Music, camerawork, mise en scène, performance all combine to make this a visual treat. The film is still available free, up until 15.00 BST on Tuesday 13 October, on BFI Player in the UK. It was restored in 4K in 2020 by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna from the original 35mm camera and sound negatives at L’Image Retrouvée laboratory (Paris) in collaboration with Mohammad Reza Aslani and Gita Aslani Shahrestani. Presumably this will later become available for wider distribution and cinema screenings. Do look out for it. On a big cinema screen this should look amazing.
Here is an interesting venture. Mouthpiece is an anglophone Canadian film directed by a high profile Canadian director that has so far not achieved many distribution deals. In the current context someone had the idea to make it available for a limited period (October 1-4) free online outside Canada. I learned about this via a Tweet I think, mentioning <seventh-row.com> in Toronto.
Mouthpiece is an intriguing idea for a film, adapted from their own successful play by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava and directed by Patricia Rozema, who also worked on the script. Rozema’s first film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing in 1987, drew attention and I remember her adaptation of Mansfield Park in 1999, the best Austen film for me. She has often tended to work with young women and her 2015 film Into the Forest featured Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood.
Nostbakken and Sadava play two ‘personalities/sides’ of the same character, Cassandra. I started watching the film without concentrating on the Introduction offered online and at first I took them to be a young lesbian couple. It was a few minutes before I realised my mistake. After a fun night out with one or two drinks, ‘Cassandra’ wakes up in her somewhat chaotic house to discover that she has missed ten calls from her mother and checking up she is dismayed to hear that her mother has died during the night. Cassandra’s mother Elaine (Maev Beaty) was a single parent for much of the time she was bringing up Cassie and her younger brother Danny and she was alone when she died of a stroke. Now the family (her sister Jane and Cassandra and Danny) must organise the funeral. We follow Cassandra over the next couple of days as she tries to come to terms with the situation and throughout she keeps remembering her time with her mother when she was a little girl. There are also more recent flashbacks to clashes with her mother as a ‘grown-up’. The biggest single issue for Cassie is that she wants to offer a eulogy at the funeral service but her aunt is not sure it’s a good idea and Cassie herself is in a turmoil about what she might say.
The film’s origin as a play is fairly evident. Nostbakken also wrote the music for the film and there are some ‘staged’ musical numbers in various unlikely locations. I’m not sure about the device of the two different personalities. Sometimes one of the women seems to be the ‘visible’ Cassandra and on other occasions they switch roles (they are easily distinguished as the ‘tall Cassie’ and the ‘short Cassie’). The two personalities are not presented as opposites, i.e. not good/bad, happy/sad etc. – they are just two versions of the same individual representing the inner workings of Cassie’s brain. There is no logic to showing both of them as present in the same location but it is still an interesting proposition. As a narrative device it is rather like time travel in a speculative fiction – it works to serve the narrative and make interesting points as long as you don’t think too carefully about it.
I was struck as, in several Toronto-set Canadian films I’ve seen over the years, as to how Toronto can look like various US cities in American films but in Canadian films it always looks distinctly Canadian. I’m not sure how this works except that several streetscapes look familiar from other Canadian movies. As a film essentially about a mother-daughter relationship, the film has links to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (Canada 2012) and, in terms of Toronto locations, with the same director’s Take This Waltz (Canada 2011) – and with many others. Cassie’s mother was a writer and a musician – we see books by Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Ann-Marie MacDonald lying around her house and we watch her singing and playing guitar for a song which is clearly influenced by Joni Mitchell (but which is actually sung by Amy Nostbakken). Eventually we will realise that Elaine gave up her work to look after her children after her divorce and that Cassie’s career as a writer is something that both pleases her but triggers her own sense of something missing – and this in turn undermines the mother-daughter relationship.
The film crew comprised mainly women as Heads of Department, including cinematography by Catherine Lutes (in ‘Scope) and film editing by Lara Johnston. After I watched the film I was able to catch some of the Zoom Q&A with Patricia Rozema organised by Seventh Row. The most interesting point she made for me concerned the idea of the two characters playing the same woman which she explained and discussed very well. She suggested that though the experience of two personae in a dialogue with each other is understandable and applicable to both women and men, it is arguably better understood and ‘felt’ by women simply because of the pressure on women to think more carefully about how they present themselves to the world. Such is patriarchy (but Rozema didn’t use that term as I remember). This seems a sound argument. Clearly women also talk to their women friends about such feelings and emotions as well. Men of my generation rarely venture into such discourse. That doesn’t mean that I was put off the film, though I did find some scenes difficult to watch, I enjoyed the experience overall and congratulate the writers, director and performers. The internal struggles experienced at a funeral certainly rang true.
Seventh Row seems like a very enterprising organisation with an interest in many of the filmmakers I admire including Debra Granik, Chloe Zhao and others. I’ll look out for more opportunities to see Canadian films and look up Seventh Row’s resources.
Rosario Castellanos was a major figure in twentieth century Mexican literature. Born in 1925, she became one of the leading members of the so-called ‘1950 Generation’ who became highly influential. Rosario was a socialist feminist and produced volumes of poetry, essays and three semi-autobiographical novels. In 1971 she was appointed as Mexico’s ambassador to Israel on the basis of her importance as a writer and activist. She died tragically as the result of a domestic accident in Tel Aviv in 1974. Some claimed her death was suicide and there have been attempts to place her alongside Sylvia Plath as a feminist writer.
‘Los adioses’ translates literally as ‘The Goodbyes’ but has been given the English title ‘Eternal Feminine’. I’m not sure exactly why, except that it fits film marketing ideas. The film is a partial biopic focusing on two distinct periods in Rosario’s life – her ’emergence’ in the early 1950s and the period around the birth of her son in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The film narrative distorts the time periods slightly and offers two sets of actors playing the younger Rosario (Tessa Ia) in 1950 and an older version (Karina Gidi) roughly ten years later. At a student meeting, the young Rosario is challenged in a student meeting by Ricardo Guerra (Pedro De Tavira). Although he is attracted to her and makes a play for her, he marries someone else and it is not until 1958 that an older Ricardo (the Spanish actor Daniel Giménez Cacho – soon to appear on UK screens in Zama), having divorced his wife, now marries an older Rosario. The director Natalia Beristáin had only directed one complete feature and an episode in a portmanteau film before she took on Los adioses and she takes some brave decisions. The film opens with some ‘out of focus’ footage behind the titles that eventually becomes clear as a close-up of two bodies intertwined. We don’t yet know if this is the younger or older pair of actors but the aesthetic of close-ups and shallow focus has been established. Most of the film is set indoors in various apartments and rooms of the federal university in Mexico. I think the only trip away is back to the southern state of Chiapas where Rosario grew up as a small child. This time she goes back to receive an award – and Ricardo behaves badly.
I was a little surprised that more isn’t made of Rosario’s childhood. Her family originally owned land in Chiapas, the most southerly state with the greatest variety of indigenous peoples. Rosario was sympathetic to the plight of the Mayan people who worked on the land and, perhaps because the state bordered Guatemala she was also interested in Pan-Latin American ideas. Probably this history would have complicated the narrative too much so it is referenced obliquely in only a couple of scenes apart from the return visit. Instead the focus is on Rosario as a woman who is a writer, a teacher and an advocate of women’s rights who struggles in a patriarchal society. Ricardo is a Professor of Philosophy. My understanding from the film is that he was excited and challenged by Rosario’s talents but then became jealous of her success. Eventually he became the kind of husband who in the 1950s forced Rosario to choose her work or her child. The film narrative sees him develop from a lover to the worst kind of man for a woman like Rosario. The final sequence juxtaposes Rosario’s lectures to her students about patriarchy and the real battle that she faces in her home and in the university staffroom.
This trailer with English subs suggests that Los adioses is going to get a release over the border in the US, as it definitely should. There are large Hispanic speaking potential audiences there and there are certainly audiences for both female directors and stories like this about feminists who tried to make a difference. The trailer also usefully presents both the visual aesthetic of close-ups and shallow/deliberately blurred focus and the back and forth editing style. (The film is also going to get a release in France, so when will it come to the UK?)
Deutschland, bleiche Mutter is a film by New German Cinema director, Helma Sanders-Brahms, released in 1980. It has recently had a release, in the UK, on BFI-sponsored Blu-ray DVD, giving a much wider audience the chance to see a film that has been considered a neglected classic.
Deutschland, bleiche Mutter intertwines the events of the war with the filmmaker’s own personal history. As such, its feminism and its political reassessment of the past is shaped by its German context. The story is based on Sanders-Brahms own parents’ war experiences. Lene (Eva Mattes) directly represents the director’s mother, Helene Sanders and the director’s own daughter, Anne is cast as Lene and Hans’ (Ernst Jacobi) daughter, Anna. The film focusses on three separate movements: courtship, marriage, war and motherhood, post-war family reunion. It is an ambitious blend of allegory and naturalism, creating a complex meditation on the war generation’s experience and culpability, especially in relation to Nazism. The layering of story and symbol is part of its action of vergangenheitsbewältigung, of ‘mastering the knowledge of the past’ which became intensely associated with New German Cinema. Formally, the film effects a very complex intertwining of documentary footage of the ravaged country with drama, which itself moves from realism to Brechtian detachment. Its family-centred narrative deals directly and self-reflexively with the complexity, in late 1970s Germany, of one generation looking back at another. Sanders-Brahms succeeds in sustaining the emotional naturalism, even with the film’s strong visual symbolism. She creates a moving and intimate family history; and even whilst the film focusses on the relations of mother to daughter, her portrait of Hans is sympathetic and rounded. The DVD release contains a film of Sanders-Brahms journey with her father back to France, where he was stationed during the war. She adopted the matrilineal surname of Brahms and, whilst the story is centred on the journey of mother and daughter across a war-torn Germany, her father’s emotional experience is not ignored.
The importance of intergenerational exchange is clear from the film’s title sequence, where we hear the voice of Brecht’s daughter reading his poem, ‘Deutschland, bleiche Mutter’ (written in exile, in 1933). Sanders-Brahms’ film is itself a daughter’s; it is her voice which addresses Lene in voice-over, merging the identity of director with a fictional adult daughter looking back. Fellow NGC director, Margarethe Von Trotta characterised the circumstances in which they were trying to write their own stories: ‘We felt that there was a past of which we were guilty as a nation but we weren’t told about in school. If you asked questions, you didn’t get answers’ (Knight, 2004, p.62). Von Trotta’s film, Die Bleierne Zeit (1981), creates a counterpoint to Sanders-Brahms’s film, because of her more direct engagement with her contemporary political history as part of a story of family, through the relationship of sisters Marianne (Barbara Sudowka) and Julianne (Jutta Lampe).
On its release Deutschland, bleiche Mutter received criticism for being too personal for a political film and too political for a personal one. Peter Hasenberg of film-dienst : “If it were a purely personal film one could not refuse it one’s sympathy. What makes it problematic is that the director does not limit herself to personal memories.” (quoted in Bammer, 1985). This was an uncomfortable blend in post-war Germany. The sympathy evident in Sanders-Brahms’ representation matches the filmmaker’s view that ‘I don’t live any differently from my parents; I just live in other times’ (Kaes, 1989, p.142). She describes another kind of inheritance regarding the ‘strength’ that their mothers had learnt they had during the war: ‘After the war, that strength in many cases was suddenly worthless. But we, children of that generation, who were born during the war, inherited it’ (quoted in Kaes, 1989, p.160).
Sanders-Brahms’ ability to deliver an affecting melodrama at the same time as critical dialectic – Lene’s face in the mirror will become symbolic of the greater ravages of war – shows that her work deserved greater acknowledgement. Her debut feature, Heinrich (1977) (the literary subject of Heinrich von Kleist), received the highest national film award, the ‘goldene Schale (‘the Golden Bowl). She had trained on set rather than at film school, her mentors consisting of Sergio Corbucci and Pier Paulo Pasolini. She then worked in television successfully before moving into film production. She talks with great passion about her career and life at a filmed seminar event here. Her work is intriguing because of its range, and its defiance of categorisation. She is, arguably, a European auteur very much in the mode of Chantal Akerman; a filmmaker who might be called feminist or written as a female filmmaker, but whose work ranges across forms and themes with a much wider perspective in her exploration of women and history. Chantal Akerman has adopted her own kind of ‘daughter’s gaze’ in certain of her films, such as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) and, more recently, No Home Movie (2015). Sanders-Brahms left Paris, where she found the critical acclaim she lacked in Germany and offers of funding in the early 1980s, to return to Berlin because her young daughter was so unhappy living there. At the film event she commented: ‘movie is wonderful, but compared to a child, it’s nothing…your answer to the world will always will be your child and not your film.’
Leading German scholar Erica Carter’s brilliant and detailed notes on the film to accompany its DVD release can be found here.
These notes are adapted from the presentation for Reel Solutions Saturday School: War Babies: Women in Berlin in 1945 Information for future events can be found on the website.
Bammer, Angelika (1985) ‘Through a Daughter’s Eyes: Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Germany, Pale Mother’, New German Critique, No. 36 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 91-109.
Kaes, Anton (1989) From Hitler to Heimat. The Return of History as Film, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press.
Knight, Julia (2004) New German Cinema. Images of a Generation, London and New York: Wallflower Press.
This is the first full-length feature from Chantal Akerman, made in 1974, a year before her best-known work Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It showed in Picturehouse Cinema’s ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot last night. Much of the time I think the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ programming idea is an insult to audiences and a general excuse to show foreign language films just once. However, on this occasion it offered a genuine opportunity to see a film which would otherwise not appear in UK cinemas. The selection of Chantal Akerman films is possible because of ‘A Nos Amours’ – the partnership of Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts – who have negotiated a deal with Picturehouse. Their programme of Akerman’s films continues at the ICA.
Chantal Akerman was born in 1950 and she was only 23-24 when she made this 90 mins feature – which in itself is an outstanding feat. After just a year at a Belgian film school she left and took off for New York where she became an experimental filmmaker in the thriving New York avant-garde community. Something of American structural film of the 1970s is evident in Je, tu, il, elle, but so is something of European cinema.
Je, tu, il, elle comprises three parts of roughly equal length – that is my assumption, I didn’t time them but I suspect the first part seems longer. It features ‘Julie’ (Akerman herself) as a young woman seemingly trapped in a room where she performs four sets of routine operations – she re-arranges the furniture, writes pages of a letter which she then revises and shuffles the pages several times, she eats sugar straight from a bag in spoonfuls and dresses and undresses – often lying naked on her mattress with her clothes draped over her. Eventually someone passes by the full-length windows and she seems to want to expose herself. A little later she opens the windows and walks out. The structuralist element of this for me comes from the repetition of actions and the weird way in which eventually a kind of narrative rhythm emerges, complete with a kind of hermeneutics – what will happen in the end? What will she do next? Is there a pattern etc.? In themselves the actions are not very meaningful, but as a structure they fascinate. This section also reminds us of Godard’s play with sound an image. Akerman offers us ‘direct sound’ from the street and then she deliberately ‘mismatches’ a voiceover describing the actions with the actions themselves which happen well before or after they are described. I assumed that the voice was the director’s. It sounds like a young girl’s voice and doesn’t match the physical presentation of the mature woman.
The second episode, by contrast, sees ‘Julie’ hitching a ride with a truck driver (a young Niels Arestrup). I found this quite a conventional narrative sequence (at least, conventional for European art cinema). It reminded me of some of Wim Wenders’ films from the late 1960s, early 1970s – but without the pop music on the soundtrack! There is a sequence in which the driver (or Julie?) flicks through the channels on a radio which mainly seem to be American, another example of the sound/image split? The scenes in the cab and various bars do evoke an intensity and an intimacy in which it is the male character who is the subject of the gaze and who talks about himself. Julie feels like kissing him and seems quite happy with herself as she watches him shave and wash – and earlier when we barely see her at the edge of the frame as she fulfils his request for sexual relief as he drives.
In the third episode Julie visits a young woman – her friend or former lover? Her host says she can’t stay but then gives in to Julie’s demand for food and drink. Julie is aggressive in what is I think an eroticised encounter – she feeds with a lascivious voraciousness. Before long the couple are naked and making love in the sequence for which the film is best known. Like much of the rest of the film, this encounter is filmed in three or four long takes over the ten minutes or so of the whole session. The two young women are shown in long shot (so the whole body fills the frame) on the bed but not beneath the sheets. The standard viewpoint on this sequence is that Akerman has ‘de-eroticised’ the lovemaking. We hear the sounds, the grunts and exclamations, the sounds of flesh on flesh and flesh on sheets. It is too ‘real’, too ‘raw’ to be eroticised or for us to enjoy a voyeuristic gaze. I’m not sure about this. These are two attractive young women. Chantal Akerman is not conventionally beautiful perhaps but she has personality and a voluptuous figure. Her partner is more willowy. How challenged do we feel presented with their urgent sexual needs? I’m sure some audiences would be aroused by this couple’s lovemaking no matter how it was shown. Annette Foerster (see below) states that “we see only the lust and the violence of this love, and it is an uncomfortable experience”. But this is not accurate: we see moments of tenderness as well and I was moved by these.
I think that if I’d seen this in 1974 I would have felt ‘challenged’. Now the context has changed. It occurs to me that when I saw avant-garde and counter-cinema films in the 1970s/1980s it was usually in an academic context and so it was odd to watch Je, tu, il, elle in a commercial cinema. Taboos have also changed. The most shocking aspect of the film for me was Julie eating sugar by the spoonful – I couldn’t bear to watch it.
Researching the film after the screening I was surprised to discover that several of Chantal Akerman’s later films were released in the UK and I would be interested to see how her work developed. She clearly has been an important director for feminist audiences and scholars. Judith Mayne brackets her with Germaine Dulac, Maya Deren, Agnès Varda and Trinh T. Minh-ha in ‘Women in the Avant-garde’ (in Experimental Film, The Film Reader, Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (eds), Routledge 2002). She quotes Akerman as saying that she wouldn’t have had such a clear idea [in making Jeanne Dielman] if it wasn’t for the women’s movement. Yet in her entry on Akerman in The Women’s Companion to International Film (Annette Kuhn with Susannah Radstone (eds), Virago 1990), Annette Foerster tells us that “Akerman does not want to call herself a feminist”.
The film ends with a song that plays on on after the brief credits have rolled. This was not subtitled but from the few words I caught it sounds like some kind of commentary. Is it a children’s song, a folk tale? – I picked up ‘dancing’ and ‘the woods’ and I’m sure I know the song. Does anyone know what it says?
Sally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.
Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.
The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.