Joanna Hogg is now established as an auteur director. These two films are her fourth and fifth features. She’s at that stage where her films tend to be nominated for various awards, but at the moment only a few translate into wins. However, The Souvenir was voted ‘Best Film of 2019’ by 100 international contributors to the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Top 50 Best Films list. ‘Part II‘ screened at Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2021 as a ‘Special Screening. Several of my female friends and colleagues have praised Joanna Hogg’s films highly but when I watched the first two, Unrelated (UK 2007) and Archipelago (UK 2010), I was rather ambivalent about them – impressed by the filmmaking skills, not so much by the characters and the stories. It is my problem no doubt but Joanna Hogg is an upper middle-class filmmaker who creates stories about similar people and they don’t appeal to me. To be fair, she has said in interviews that she understands that some audiences “can’t stomach them”. During Covid lockdowns I started to watch Exhibition (UK 2013) on a streamer but gave up after a short time. I would never do that in a cinema, so perhaps lockdown viewing was the problem? Because of this history I approached these two new films gingerly. I actually started watching Part II on MUBI and then discovered that the first film was scheduled to appear on the same streaming service a few days later, so I stopped and waited to watch the two films in order. I read that Hogg herself said that they should be watched together, so thanks to MUBI I was able to do that. I also now realise that Part II would make little sense if I hadn’t seen the first film.
These two films are inspired directly by Joanna Hogg’s own experiences and they follow Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young woman in her early twenties, as she starts at film school in the early 1980s and begins to develop her ideas about the feature she wishes to make for her graduation film. At the same time, she begins to find out more about herself through a relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke), an older man she meets at a party. The two narrative strands are directly connected because Anthony questions and challenges her about her artistic intentions. The films’ title is a reference to a small painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard, completed in 1778. Anthony shows the painting, which depicts a young woman beginning to carve a name or an initial on a tree, to Julie when he takes her to the Wallace Collection in Marylebone. The girl in the painting seems to be another Julie in the novel of that name by Jean-Jacques Rousseau – see this useful blog entry. The style of painting is Rococo but right at the end of that period and associated with the concept of sensibilité during the Enlightenment. The young woman’s joy at receiving a letter from her lover is presented in a carefully framed and delicately detailed image which communicates emotion. The same young woman might be shown very differently in a mid-19th century realist French painting. In Hogg’s film the painting possibly illustrates Anthony’s argument about realism which is articulated several times in response to Julie’s initial plan to make her film a form of emotional drama taking place in working-class Sunderland and based on black and white documentary photographs and 16mm footage shot earlier by Julie herself. This is one of several references to art and cinema in the film. Although I vaguely recognised the painting, I had to research it in detail to make this reading. Since the painting and the Wallace Collection are referenced more than once in the film this is setting the audience a challenge.
Anthony presents himself as ‘working at the Foreign Office’ and speaks with a public school/Oxbridge drawl. He’s perhaps fifteen or sixteen years older than Julie and has a daughter. He is mysterious about what he actually does at the Foreign Office (if he does indeed work there) and Julie will face some serious questions when she realises how he has treated her and what he hasn’t told her. He writes her love letters, inveigles his way into living in her flat, criticises her and calmly offers advice. I’ve read several reviews that suggest he is ‘charismatic’, ‘mysterious’ and ‘disturbing’. He manipulates her in ways that might be considered abusive today but he is himself damaged rather than controlling. I don’t want to spoil the narrative and I’ll simply point out that many reviewers find the romance ‘delicate’ and ‘melancholic’. Anthony is certainly a complex character and the relationship with Julie no doubt engages many audiences and is described by some as ‘immersive’. Joanna Hogg’s approach is not to write a script as such but to give her characters a summary of their roles and to create interactions on set. Hogg has worked consistently with editor Helle le Fevre since Unrelated. Le Fevre edits during the shoot and discusses scenes with Hogg at regular meetings but says “I work from the cutting room. I don’t go on set, and I don’t need anybody in the cutting room. I’m as far away as possible from the set, because then I see everything fresh.” (Interview on Seventh Row) The process works well and accommodates Hogg’s practice of casting professional and non-professional actors in scenes together. Burke is an experienced actor but Swinton Byrne had no prior professional experience as far as I can see. She appears with her mother Tilda Swinton in several scenes in which mother and daughter create alter egos as Julie and her mother. Honore Swinton Byrne is very good indeed and her attractive personality comes across seemingly effortlessly without any obvious technique. Tilda Swinton’s performance as a ‘county lady’ is extraordinary, but like Tom Burke’s, seems constructed specifically for a purpose.
Because the two Souvenir films have been discussed so much and Joanna Hogg has given interviews, we know a great deal about how the film was made (with support from BBC Films and the BFI). It appears that the production re-purposed a former RAF base in Norfolk which stood in for the fictitious film school and the film school scenes and those in Julie’s flat were created on sets within a former hangar. The outdoor scenes were then shot on various locations. But in a sense the location footage doesn’t add any kind of realist material. Hogg doesn’t use any of what is often referred to as dead time – travelling too and fro. But sometimes those inconsequential moments can tell us a great deal about characters. Julie is a young woman in London who never seems to be catching a bus, travel on the tube, shop in a street market. Instead we just see Harrods’ chimney from the window of her flat. This means that key aspects of 1980s London such as IRA bombings, political protests and uprisings of Black youths are only referred to on a radio broadcast, discussed at dinner in her parents’ home or as a muffled explosion outside the flat. The narrative takes place in a bubble.
At one point Anthony suggests that Julie should think about Powell and Pressburger, the Archers, as British filmmakers who use aspects of fantasy in their films. I realise now that Joanna Hogg is a fan and as I type this she is discussing, with Martin Scorsese, The Film Foundation’s screening of a new 4K restored print of I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) in an online recording. In the mid 1980s several of Powell and Pressburger’s films were being restored by the National Film Archive and if you were lucky you might see Michael and/or Emeric in the cinema when they were first screened. In film studies this was the period when P&P and the whole idea of a British cinema that was not solely ‘realist’ was being debated and rescued from the dead hands of earlier critics. Was Joanna Hogg there in the Odeon Leicester Square or the cinema of the Museum of London for such screenings? She tells us now that seeing I Know Where I’m Going was important for her and she has joined Scorsese’s Film Foundation – he also acted as Executive Producer on The Souvenir.
Joanna Hogg’s filmmaking influences are most on display in The Souvenir Part II. The second film concerns Julie’s recovery from the experience of her relationship in the first film. She follows Anthony’s advice and, as a form of catharsis/therapy she changes her graduation film into an attempt to ‘process’ what happened in her relationship. She has to deal with a bunch of older male tutors at the film school who aren’t sure about what she is doing as well as her her generally very helpful peers who become her crew but don’t always understand what she is asking of them. The part of the second film that I enjoyed most was the dream sequence in which Julie herself is presented in a fantasy world. She is played in the rest of her graduation film by Garance (Ariane Labed, the Greek-French actor-director). The dream seems to me to be very P&P and includes elements from Hogg’s film school interest in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse’s red dress. Part II is only meaningful as a companion piece for the first film. This film demonstrates that Julie is finally learning something about film. In the first film, the screen image is 1.66:1, the widescreen shape of the French New wave. In the second film all the standard aspect ratios from Academy through to ‘Scope make an appearance at some point. The students themselves discuss French cinema of the 1980s (the Cinéma du look) and there is a part for an ‘up himself’ director and alumnus of the film school played by Richard Aoyade that runs across the two films. In the second film he is making a musical and this seems to refer a specific moment in 1980s British cinema – the flop of Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (UK 1986). I should also mention the cinematography in the two Souvenir films by David Raedecker. Occasionally this breaks away from the short takes in interiors and offers us long shots which are more expressive in their presentation of the story events. Hogg also uses several British New Wave songs in The Souvenir and other pieces of music in Part II which I didn’t recognise. Robert Wyatt’s version of Elvis Costello’s ‘Shipbuilding’ in The Souvenir is quite startling given the oblique references to politics in the film.
I could happily spend more time investigating Julie’s film education but the real question is what to make of the two films together. The first film could be a standalone romance drama and the two together have been argued to be a narrative of a young woman’s gradual understanding of her own creativity. Everything is very ‘meta’ and arguably quite brave. It’s been suggested to me that Hogg’s playfulness here involves her own sense of how naive she was as a young filmmaker. It’s interesting to look up her career and to realise that her five auteur films have been made since the 2000s and that she spent around fifteen years working on music videos and television drama series, none of which I’ve seen. I think overall my view of her work hasn’t changed very much. My admiration for her skills and creativity has certainly grown but I’m still not emotionally moved by her characters. It did occur to me that a mini season of films about filmmaking drawing on memories of youth in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s might see the two Souvenir films shown alongside Shane Meadows’ This is England (UK 2006) and Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (UK 1999). Here’s the trailer for The Souvenir Part II – a couple of shots in the trailer remind me of Lynne Ramsay’s work? Oddly, the two Souvenir films have different distributors in the UK which might make them difficult to see together, so take the opportunity now if you can on MUBI.
This short feature (70 minutes) is part of MUBI’s current season of New Korean Cinema. It is presented as a ‘comedy’ but I suggest that is misleading for some audiences. I might have smiled at some point and I was prompted to think about a few things as I watched the film but mostly it left me cold. I admit that I’m probably not the target audience – perhaps I’m far too old to understand it. It was part of the London Film Festival programme and I’m grateful for the short introduction offered there and for the one other review I could find, on Eastern Kicks.
Heart is the third film by writer-director Jeong Ga-young. Following on from Lucky Chan-sil on MUBI, this seems to be another film that gets linked to the work of Hong Sang-soo, though in this case not directly but arguably as a film influenced by the more experienced director. Jeong plays a version of herself in the film, as what Kate Taylor on the BFI website describes as an ‘asshole film director’. She’s a 30 year-old young woman and the narrative is in two main parts. The first two thirds of the film presents an awkward encounter between Jeong and an art teacher played by Lee Seok-Hyeong. Some years earlier she slept with him around the time his wife was giving birth. Now she is considering an affair with another married man and seems to want to discuss her love life and ask his advice – or is this simply a ruse to play with the art teacher? In the midst of this rambling interconnection we are offered flashbacks to the earlier encounter between the two characters, including a couple of fantasy moments. In the final third of the film Jeong offers a kind of meta commentary in which she is now presented as the filmmaker before she was responsible for the earlier sequence as she interviews a young man (Choi Tae-Hwan) who could play the male role in a possible film.
Jeong presents herself as a young woman who seems to want everything her way and is aware of the contradictions in her behaviour. The film director in the second part of the film wants to make a film that will be screened at Cannes, but she doesn’t like Cannes because she’ll be uncomfortable getting drunk there. Her character in the first part of the film suggests that she pretends to be a young student to get concessions at the cinema box office, except when its an ‘R’ certificate when she wants to be seen as an older woman. The two reviewers I mentioned see Jeong as “clear-eyed and unsentimental” and that “young women [in the audience] will see a lot of truth in Ga-young” (both quotes from Tania Hall writing for Eastern Kicks). Kate Taylor suggests that Fleabag is a touchstone for the film alongside Hong Sang-soo. I’m all in favour of young women exploring their sexuality and discussing their moral codes if that’s what they wish to do and I can see that gleefully playing with male insecurity is something that could be an attractive proposition. The best sequence in the film for me was when the art teacher explains what you need to do and why, if you want to mount an exhibition of your work. The young woman wants to have an exhibition, even though she doesn’t seem to want to do the work or to have the talent.
Clearly, I struggled with Heart, but it’s good to have the MUBI season available and I will try some of the other titles.
La vérité seems to have received a relatively cool reception by international critics and those few audience members who have managed to see it in the UK and the US where it has only been released online because of Covid-19. A general reaction is that it is witty with great performances but doesn’t have ‘depth’ and is perhaps a disappointment after the international success of Shoplifters (Japan 2018). I don’t agree with this. I did find the film a little difficult to get into but I think that was partly to do with watching it on my TV set on a Summer’s evening rather than in a darkened cinema. Once I was past the first 20 minutes or so I became engrossed and now I want to watch it again. Fortunately it is now on MUBI.
For those who aren’t Kore-eda Hirokazu fans, I should point out that this is an interesting hybrid – a film by the current international arthouse champ from Japan, made in France with two of the most important French actors, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. And, just to make it extra tricky, there are several scenes in English with the presence of Ethan Hawke (who probably speaks reasonable French given his films with Julie Delpy and Kristin Scott-Thomas). This is Kore-eda’s first production outside Japan and he follows two other Asian directors in making a film in Paris. One of Kore-eda’s inspirations, the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, made Le voyage de ballon rouge (France-Taiwan 2007) (also with Juliette Binoche) and Iranian Asghar Farhadi made The Past (France-Italy 2013) with Bérénice Bejo. In both cases, the directors introduced characters from their own national cinema contexts into a French setting. Kore-eda is much more subtle in his references to ‘Japaneseness’ I think.
This film is an interesting mix of family melodrama (Kore-eda’s own strength), comedy and a film about acting and filmmaking (i.e. dealing with ‘truth’). Catherine Deneuve plays Fabienne Dangeville, a veteran diva of French cinema who has just published an autobiography and when we first meet her she is giving an interview in her Paris home to a journalist. This is interrupted by the arrival of her daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche), a scriptwriter living in New York, with her husband Hank ( Ethan Hawke) and their daughter Charlotte (Clémentine Grenier). It soon becomes apparent that Fabienne’s book is titled, ironically, ‘The Truth’ but is clearly fabricated in many ways, including important omissions of friends, relatives and co-workers. Fabienne is also working on a new film, a science fiction story which forms a mise en abîme – a story within a story which reflects back on the overall narrative of the film. Fabienne plays a woman approaching 80 who bizarrely becomes the aged daughter of a young woman holding back the ageing process by spending most of her time in space. The casting pits Fabienne against a young actor Manon Lenoir (Manon Clavel). Will Fabienne bring her own prejudices about acting styles into her playing of the woman in the film? Of course she will.
My own first reaction to the film was that Kore-eda was again exploring different genres as he did in the The Third Murder (Japan 2017), a film that did cause consternation among some of his international fans expecting more of the same. It’s always a brave move to try something new, especially with a new crew and working in a second and third language. I’ve had to re-think that a little because in the Press Pack Kore-eda tells us that the origins of the film go way back to a play script he started to write in 2003 about an actor in her dressing room one night as she is coming to the end of her long career. The push to develop this idea then came from Juliette Binoche as far back as 2011. Kore-eda suggests that something about the film may also derive from his feelings about the death of the Kirin Kiki, the veteran actor for whom he felt affection and respect for her acting qualities. He links this last point to his desire to make a film that has a lightness and an ending which he hopes will mean that audiences leave a screening with a “little taste of happiness”. This is also because he wants to express his appreciation of the work by Binoche and Deneuve. Ultimately this is another great Kore-eda film about a family.
Tony Rayns in Sight and Sound reminds us that the idea of performed moments of reflection on past relationships was also a feature of After Life (Japan 1998) and that the filmmaking scenes in this new film, because it is shot in a studio with green screen have a ramshackle quality and an artificiality which is reminiscent of the earlier film. He points out there is also a specific ‘memory object’, a crucial element in the earlier film, which is also important here. In this case it is a child’s toy, a theatre which has been broken but which will be mended during a fleeting visit by Pierre, Fabienne’s estranged husband and young Charlotte’s grandfather – the theatre was made for Lumir, the daughter who struggles with dreams of being an actor like her mother.
The Japanese references come mainly from the setting in Autumn and the use of the location of Fabienne’s house. Kore-eda tells us:
I wanted the story to take place in autumn because I wanted to superimpose what the heroine goes through at the end of her life onto the landscapes of Paris at the end of summer. I hope people will see how the greens of the garden change subtly as winter approaches, accompanying the relationship between mother and daughter and colouring this moment of their lives. (Press Pack statement.)
Much of this is achieved by overhead shots of the garden but there is also a stunning image of a single tree seen, through the windows of the house, that is inserted almost like an Ozu pillow shot. This leads in turn to Fabienne’s solo walk with her little dog to a small East Asian restaurant (Chinese, I think?) in which she sits feeding her dog and watching a small family gathering celebrating something with an older woman as the centre of attention. This whole sequence seems very much part of Kore-eda’s world and its effects/affects are enhanced by the cinematography of Éric Gautier whose extraordinary list of credits includes recent work with Jia Zhang-ke on Ash is Purest White (2018) and Summer Hours (2008) by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche in a family melodrama which some have seen as another comparison candidate. I was equally impressed with the music in the film by the Russian composer Alexei Aigui. Kore-eda tells his story through subtle mise en scène and music nearly as much as through his direction of his wonderful cast. I must also pick out the young girl playing Charlotte. One of Kore-eda’s greatest strengths is his direction of children. Charlotte is a very important character and Kore-eda generously recognises Ethan Hawke’s contribution in helping Clémentine Grenier, who never been on a film set before, play the role so effectively.
There is a great deal more to say about the film but I don’t want to spoil your pleasure. This is a perfectly-formed work of art by one of the very best living filmmakers. I hope you can get to see it. Here’s a short clip from early in the film which includes a reference to Fabienne’s great rival as actor and star, Sarah Mondavon.
I’m not sure what non-cinephiles, or at least those who don’t love Casablanca (US, 1942), will make of this film but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a ‘making of a classic’ film but more than that as it’s also a portrayal of its director, Hungarian Michael Curtiz. In addition, in his feature film debut director Tamas Yvan Topolanszky, and his co-writer Zsuzsanna Bak, have added a contemporary layer where the trope of ‘make America great’ and the horrendous treatment of migrants is also addressed. If that layer isn’t sufficient then there’s the narrative about Curtiz’s estranged daughter seeking him out. It’s a heady mix which is mostly pulled off.
Ferenc Lengyel, in the titular role, is superb showing the bastard on the set to have a vulnerable side (though not when anyone is looking). Curtiz dramatises the conflict between the Office of War Information (OWI), on the one side, and Curtiz with his producer, Hal B Wallis, on the other. The OWI was created to inject propaganda into Hollywood’s films after Pearl Harbor. There was also the uncertainty about how to end the film; apparently it was a rare Hollywood film that was shot in the order of the script as Curtiz, and his scriptwriters the Epstein brothers (superbly played by Rafael and Yan Feldman, the other writer, Howard Koch, isn’t seen) scramble to resolve the narrative satisfactorily.
Declan Hannigan plays the oleaginous Johnson of the OWI, with the ‘if you’re not for us you’re against us’ attitude. It’s through him that the Trumpian politics are channeled and if it’s a little contrived, it’s forgivable as the stupidity of insularity has to be emphasised. There’s also contrivance (at least I assume there is) in the way Curtiz’s relationship with his daughter, Kitty (Evelyn Dobos), is paralleled with the way the ending of Casablanca evolves. Again, artistic licence is more than justified in a film that is such a pleasure to watch.
Like most of Frantz, scintillating monochrome cinematography is used but here its pinpoint clarity works for me. As noted in the post on the former, I don’t find modern black and white photography convincing. Of course, the filmmakers aren’t trying to make their film look as if it was made years ago but that’s the way I perceive it. However, in Curtiz, the estranging effect of old-and-modern worked because, by drawing attention to itself, it emphasised we are looking at a representation of the making of a classic film. (I’m aware that this perception is probably peculiar to me as I’ve not heard of anyone else ‘suffering’ from it).
Zoltán Dévényi’s cinematography is brilliant. Apparently the film was shot on a low budget, which does’t show, and scenes are mostly confined to the set. However this hasn’t stopped Topolanszky mimicking Curtiz’s penchant for Expressionist set-ups and chiaroscuro lighting. No doubt it would have looked stupendous in the cinema.
Although most of the action takes place on the set, Bergman and Bogart are only ever seen out of focus; an elegant way of avoiding failing to adequately represent these incandescent stars of the silver screen.
In fact the film’s so good I need to watch Casablanca again.
In most years ¡Viva! features comedies and some, like The Weasel’s Tale, are major productions in CinemaScope with a running time of over 2 hours. I’m often wary of comedies since as the convention in the film industry has it, subtitles don’t always do justice to witty dialogue and many gags and comic situations are based around local cultural conventions. For the first 20 or 30 minutes of this film I wasn’t completely sure about it even though I was starting to enjoy it. I turned to look at the brochure blurb and realised that it was co-written and directed by Juan José Campanella, whose big international success was El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes, Argentina-Spain 2009) and that encouraged me further. Eventually it kicked into full gear for me.
The film’s English title is a direct translation of the Spanish, so what does it mean? Four now elderly filmmakers live in a large rural mansion in its own extensive grounds. Mara Ordaz (Graciela Borges) was once a leading lady, a star of romantic pictures in the 1960s. She owns the house along with her husband Pedro (Luis Brandoni) a fellow actor, although in smaller parts. Now he is in a wheelchair and spends his time painting. There are two permanent house guests, Norberto (Oscar Martínez) who was once Mara’s director and Martín (Marcos Mundstock) who was the unit’s scriptwriter. Both men have lost their wives, one of whom was Mara’s sister. The film’s title is explained on one level by Norberto’s penchant for firing his shotgun at random moments, claiming to be hunting weasels in the grounds. (The weasel we see looks larger and very different to a British weasel and I can’t find them amongst Argentinian mammals, perhaps they are an imported species.) The quartet of filmmakers appears to live in some sort of phoney war. The three men are friends but Mara mistrusts them.
One day, a young couple appear claiming to be lost and unable to phone Buenos Aires where they have a meeting. They inveigle themselves into the house to use the landline and claim to recognise Mara as a great star of the past. The trio of old men are suspicious but soon the couple have wooed Mara and convinced her that she should sell the house and move back to the city. We immediately suspect that they are crooks (or lawyers! – weasels?) and we look forward to the battle of wits, especially between Norberto and Martín on one side and the young woman, Bárbara (Clara Lago) on the other. Mara and Pedro are involved in some deep retrospection about their marriage.
The last section is all out war. There are only two sets of locations in the film, the house and grounds and an upmarket restaurant and the office of the couple in the city. The ‘action’ then depends on the performances and the mise en scène. The film is theatrical and plays around with the house as a location. According to The Hollywood Reporter review, it’s actually a remake of a 1976 Argentinian comedy with the English title Yesterday’s Guys Used No Arsenic. The same review suggests it shares something with Ealing comedies and in a way it does draw on both Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. All six actors are well cast and and give terrific performances. For me the key scenes are the direct conflicts between Clara Lago and Oscar Martínez.
The house is full of the props from Mara’s films and she watches her old films just like the heroines of classic Hollywood. Norberto and Martín play games of pool and chess and plot. The triumph of the script is to construct scenes as if they are being written for a classic movie to be made. It works well and because these filmmakers made mainstream genre films, not art films, the script ideas they create are easily accessible. I suppose one of the issues is the appeal of a film like this to older audiences. The villains are the young, characterised her as being concerned only about ‘winning’ and not the ‘morality’ found in the classic movie scripts. This age divide is also reflected in the choice of popular songs on the soundtrack, all from the 1950s/early 1960s and featuring Brenda Lee, The Platters, Chuck Berry and Perry Como. These are played by Norberto and Martín as a backdrop to their activities. The songs also help to emphasise that presence of American popular music and Hollywood’s impact on Latin American cinema in the 1950s/60s. Otherwise the only political dimension is the revelation that Norberto lost studio support when he made a documentary about the ‘peasantry’ and Martín joined him in a form of exile during the political conflict in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. The film could lose a few minutes but otherwise it works well.
I’m not sure if this is likely to get a UK release but it should be attractive to streaming sites and it’s exactly the kind of diverting entertainment we need right now. Here is the Spanish trailer (no English subs):
My Hindu Friend is the last film of Hector Babenco (1946-2016). It was screened at the Montreal World Cinema Festival in 2016 where Willem Dafoe won the Best Actor award for a role based on Babenco’s life experiences. In the same year it was on release in Brazilian cinemas but nowhere else. Now it has been acquired by Rock Salt Releasing for a release in the US on 17th January. On that date it will start a theatrical presentation lasting one week in selected cities ((NY, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, ATL, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago) and will be available from a wide range of digital sites.
At first I was worried that I might find the film difficult to review since I don’t really like medical dramas and I thought that the narrative was primarily concerned with the director’s own experience of cancer treatment. Once the film started, however, it quickly became clear that the impact of cancer on Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) was not the whole narrative and also that it wasn’t going to be presented as a social realist or Hollywood realist drama. There are other challenges for the contemporary viewer, but first I need to explain some of the background to Hector Babenco’s career since the film carefully weaves the director’s experiences throughout the narrative.
Hector Babenco was born in Argentina to parents with Eastern European Jewish heritage in 1946. Aged 18 he moved to Europe and found work in the film industry ranging from appearing as an extra in features to roles as Assistant Director. In 1969 he settled in Brazil (in Sao Paulo) and became established as a director, first of documentaries and then features. In 1981 his film about the ‘marginal’ street children of Brazil, Pixote, won him international recognition. In 1985 his profile was raised once again with the international success of Kiss of the Spider Woman adapted from the novel by Manuel Puig and starring the Hollywood actor William Hurt. After this Babenco made more films with Hollywood stars in North America and also films set in Latin America. Many of his films are referenced in the different sequences of My Hindu Friend as well as aspects of his personal life. He was married four times. He was what some commentators called a ‘womaniser’ but he was also recognised as an artist interested in social issues and marginal groups.
My Hindu Friend begins with Diego and his partner Livia (Maria Fernanda Cândido) learning from Diego’s doctor (and friend) that his lymphoma has spread and that the only possible treatment is now a bone marrow transplant for which he must travel to Seattle. The donor will be his estranged brother Antonio (Guilherme Weber). From this point the narrative develops partly as family melodrama and partly as an imaginative autobiographical memoir. The medical treatment makes possible drug-induced dreams and gradually a fantasy narrative takes hold with scenes depicting how Babenco was seduced by the movies and how he got started as a filmmaker. Inevitably this includes sequences imagining the coming of death in filmic terms. His sense of himself as a story-teller is very important. The title ‘My Hindu Friend’ refers to the brief sequence in the narrative when Diego shares a recovery room in the hospital with a young boy who he helps distract by telling him stories. There is also a possible connection to Asian religious beliefs in the narrative but otherwise the title is misleading about the film’s content. The boy’s presence as a mostly silent figure is symbolic of the audience as a key part of creating cinema. But he does join Diego in re-creating a scene from a war movie.
The film makes direct references to Babenco’s love affair with cinema – to Laurel and Hardy with Ollie singing ‘Shine on Harvest Moon’ from The Flying Deuces (1939) and using Gene Kelly’s song from Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as the soundtrack for an erotic dance. Federico Fellini is name-checked as perhaps the best-known director who used his own biography in many films, but My Hindu Friend also reminded me of Yousef Chahine’s trilogy of films about his own life and the history of modern Egypt especially in An Egyptian Story (Egypt 1982) which also uses medical treatment as metaphor. Claude Lelouch is another director (also with Jewish heritage) who uses his own life experiences in a film like What War May Bring (Ces amours-là, France 2010).
Anyone who loves cinema should find enjoyment in watching My Hindu Friend. The challenge for audiences in 2020 may be that this is a film by a man approaching 70 depicting his slightly younger self and his love of women and struggles with his own sexuality. The narrative positions all of the female characters as helpers, carers or sexual beings realised through the male gaze. There are three sexual encounters in which the women are fully naked but Diego is positioned so that Willem Dafoe is never ‘full-frontal’. On the other hand, Dafoe’s performance is very strong and he must have prepared his body carefully for the shoot. Diego’s final sexual encounter is with ‘Sofia’, an actor and performance artist played by Bárbara Paz who was married to Hector Babenco from 2010 to 2014. Presumably they parted on good terms and she plays her role with gusto.
Babenco enlisted strong support to make his film. The music score is by the Polish maestro Zbigniew Preisner and the cinematography by the distinguished Brazilian, Mauro Pinheiro Jr. My Hindu Friend is an English language film made in Brazil. The largely Latin American cast speak accented English. I don’t think this is a problem. Here’s the new trailer: