This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.
The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.
I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.
Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.
The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.
Here’s an unusual film. It’s short for a modern feature at under 75 mins. It doesn’t have much of a plot but it packs in a great many ideas. After the announcement of its state sponsorship we are told that this is an ‘Example of Intonation’ [from?] ‘A Non-Profit Film Foundation’ (Alexander Sokurov’s Foundation). These credits (white on a black background) are accompanied by what sounds like a shuffling of papers. The first image on screen is a pair of soldiers running/stumbling down a steep slope towards us accompanied by the opening of a dramatic orchestral score and suddenly we see the conductor of the orchestra in mid-shot. He is in contemporary dress, the soldiers are from a much earlier period. For the next couple of minutes the image cuts between the soldiers, who have now caught up with their comrades, a raggle-taggle bunch with a horse pulling a cartload of ammunition and a machine-gun, and the players of the orchestra – seemingly it is an orchestra of young players, perhaps from a conservatory? In both locations the camera alternates between closer and longer shots. The camera eventually picks out a boy soldier, perhaps aged 14 or 15? He is being teased by the men. The filmic image of the soldiers is distinctive. There is a high degree of ‘grain’ and the colours are de-saturated so that the greens of the countryside and the browns of the uniforms merge into a sometimes hazy and almost nostalgic glow like early colour photographs. It is also ‘painterly’ in its presentation (see the image above). The corners of the image are rounded. The aspect ratio is hard to determine but it seems to me to be something like 1:1.54, unlike anything I am familiar with. (I measured its dimensions on my computer screen.)
The crosscutting between the orchestra and the soldiers lessens as the narrative develops. Yet as soon as the title, A Russian Youth by Alexander Zolotukhin, has disappeared (we easily identify that the film is going to be about the boy played by Vladimir Korolev), we are shown a close-up of the music score itself. Then, although we see less of the orchestra, we do hear the conductor’s instructions which are italicised in the subtitles so that we can distinguish them from the dialogue between the soldiers. As soon as the narrative begins to develop we forget about the orchestra but we know it is there. It ‘re-appears’ at the climax of the film with attention given to ferocious piano playing. I didn’t really notice the ‘intrusion’ of shots of the orchestra later on in the narrative. Perhaps there were some but I don’t remember them. What does this parallel cutting mean? I thought at first that because the filmic image of the soldiers seemed to refer to ‘silent’ cinema (albeit in the ‘wrong’ aspect ratio) the orchestra was meant to signify the players who would have been in the cinema orchestra in the 1910s. It occurs to me now that we do have an orchestra of young players who seem sometimes to be looking at a projected image of the young soldiers fighting for their lives. The Russians on screen are being encircled by German forces who seem much better armed and better led. Is this therefore an anti-war film? It doesn’t seem to be celebrating the prowess of Russian troops.
We are not told where the fighting is taking place nor when these events are unfolding but there is a brief scene in which some of the soldiers are distributing leaflets, suggesting that there is considerable unrest about the poor leadership of the armies and the inadequate provisions. Our hero ‘Aleksey’ is blinded in his first action by a German gas attack. He has been badly taught the primitive technique for covering his eyes. The Germans have gas masks. Such scenes (i.e. a gas attack on a defended trench position) suggest 1915 or 1916. The gas was perhaps chlorine, used by the Germans on both fronts. The blinded Aleksey is helped by many of his comrades and taken under the wing of one or another. In a sense, he is no worse off than before. In fact he makes his one positive contribution to the Russian effort by acting as a ‘listening observer’ and giving warning of approaching enemy aircraft using a primitive listening device like a gigantic ear trumpet.
I found this film very watchable and intriguing. I’m not sure what it all means but it certainly explores ideas about sound an image in cinema. Several commentators and reviewers have attempted to link the film to the considerable achievements of the later Soviet Cinema in producing films about ‘The Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45. Tarkovsky’s film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) are the two films referenced, both featuring young characters. I haven’t seen Come and See, but Ivan’s Childhood has a young central character who is quite unlike the the village boy in A Russian Youth. The two wars are very different, one largely before the 1917 Revolution, the other a ‘Patriotic War’. Having said that, I was reminded of Aleksai German’s Trial on the Road (1971/85), simply on the basis that there is a futility expressed in these anti-war films. In A Russian Youth, the final scenes, accompanied by that ferocious piano playing seem to take us back to the beginning with a similar scene of soldiers trying to haul a heavy gun up a hill. The difference is that the men (and the boy) are now prisoners being forced up the hill by their captors.
The credits reveal that the music by Rachmaninoff is the 1909 Piano Concerto No.3 Op. 30 and the Symphonic Dances from 1940 Op. 45. The orchestra is the Tavrichesky Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mikhail Golikov and it is indeed a youth orchestra. Researching the orchestra I came across this excellent piece by Baradwaj Rangan who watched the film on MUBI India. Rangan makes some very interesting points. He’s explored the music and the conductor’s comments as they are juxtaposed with the visual images and dialogue of the soldiers and finds them often connected directly, as if the conductor is giving instructions to his players in a similar way to the orders given to the soldiers, e.g. “Let’s take a break there”. The punchline of Rangan’s piece is to argue that A Russian Youth has much more of an emotional charge through its formal operations than Sam Mendes’ acclaimed ‘one take’ film 1917. I decided not to watch the Mendes film (mainly because I feared something like what Rangan suggests about it). But I do go with the view that A Russian Youth is a very emotionally-involving film.
I was struck by how well writer-director Zolotukhin and his crew (cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov, production designer Elena Zhukova, costume designer Olga Bakhareva and sound designer Fonin Andrey) create the world of 1915. I thought afterwards how it seemed much more ‘real’ than those colourised images of 1914-18 newsreels presented by Peter Jackson that received so much attention a few years ago. A Russian Youth is very much worth 75 minutes of your time. Don’t miss it if you get the chance to see it.
This is a long film (135 minutes) and, for its first thirty minutes or so, slow-paced with seemingly little narrative development. But gradually the narrative drive intensifies and we realise just how much we have absorbed so far. It’s also very beautiful, without ever succumbing to the chocolate-box beauty of so many ‘realist’ historical films. I found it very satisfying as well as thought-provoking. The director is Xavier Beauvois, best-known in the UK as director of Of Gods and Men (France 2010). As an actor I saw him in Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In (France-Belgium 2017) and it’s hard to equate the character he played in that film with the sensitive intellect behind Les gardiennes.
Xavier Beauvois wrote the film’s script with two women, Marie-Julie Maille and Frédérique Moreau as an adaptation of a 1924 novel by Ernest Pérochon. This is very much a film about three women. As the French title suggests the women are ‘guardians’ and the narrative explores who or what they might be protecting, what they did and what the repercussions might be. Pérochon was an interesting man who in 1914 was a schoolteacher in rural Western France in what is now ‘New Acquitaine’. Posted to the front in 1914 he was invalided out after suffering a heart attack and in 1920 wrote a novel which won the Prix Goncourt. In 1924 he published Les gardiennes. Beginning with a pan across the dead on the Western Front in 1915, a cut reveals the peace of rural Western France where a mother and her grown-up daughter are running the family farm of the Paridiers with three of their men in the Army and Hortense’s brother Henri, too arthritic to do much more than make alcohol. This leaves Hortense, Madame Sandrail (Nathalie Baye), running the farm with her daughter Solange (Laura Smet, the real-life daughter of Nathalie Baye). The three men at the front are Constant and Georges, Hortense’s sons, and Clovis, Solange’s husband. There is also Marguerite, whose status isn’t clear to me, possibly she is the daughter of Clovis from a previous marriage? Certainly she is part of the extended family. With the men away, Hortense needs more help on the farm and she is offered Francine (Iris Bry) a strong healthy woman of 20 who has been ‘in care’ in the district, brought up in an orphanage and is now seeking a sense of ‘belonging’.
Francine is the external character whose arrival will have an impact on the family. Her impact is compounded by the war and, in 1917, by the arrival of some American troops. The narrative takes us from 1915 until after the war and the bulk of the film follows the seasons on the farm. Having proved her worth in the first few probationary months, Francine is kept on and begins to become part of the family. In this period the film becomes almost a procedural study of life on the farm. It develops into a film drawing on several genres or familiar narrative types. First it is a realist rural narrative with aspects of an observational documentary, next it is a rural ‘Home Front’ narrative (and thereby a female-centred narrative) and finally a romance melodrama since it is inevitable that Francine’s presence in this situation will offer the opportunity for romance and for conflict in the family. This mixture is unusual and I tried to think of similar films. One of the closest might be David Leland’s Land Girls (UK-France 1998), an under-rated romance drama which is a Second World War setting in which three land girls (the British auxiliary service providing extra labour for farms in wartime) are sent to a Dorset farm. Both films share an interest in social class differences but the British film aims for more humour to go with similar dramatic concerns.
Part of the interest in Les gardiennes is the way in which the management of the farm by the women leads to ‘modernisation’ in the form of farm machinery and power. This has the clear suggestion that the women are quite capable of running the farm and that there is potential for conflict when/if the men return from war. I also remembered that the key moment of modernisation is located in the immediate aftermath of the Great War in Bertolucci’s 1900 (Italy-France-West Germany 1976). 1900 is a political melodrama in which the machinery appears under the control of a fascist element which will gradually take control over the peasantry and replace the landowners. The harvest is a key symbol in this struggle since it was traditionally the most collective enterprise in any rural community involving many of the local population. The harvest is also a key narrative element in Far From the Madding Crowd, the Thomas Hardy novel twice adapted for major films in the UK. It’s from an earlier period but it is also a narrative about a woman running a farming operation.
Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet are very good as the two women running the farm but Iris Bry is a revelation in her first film (of any kind, it appears). I couldn’t believe she was a novice and that she was ‘discovered’ working for her library qualifications. She looks and sounds the part and also sings beautifully. No wonder director Beauvois was staggered by how lucky he was. He says in the Press Notes (only available in French unfortunately) that he didn’t want a ‘modern young woman’ with modern manners and tattoos. He wanted a young woman who could have been a peasant in the 1910s and who could grow into a twentieth century woman. Iris Bry has the healthy body of someone who could milk cows, bale corn and do all the jobs around the farm and do so with an open and attractive face – and in the last section of the film could cut her hair into a style that announces a young woman of 1920s cinema. I think in 1915 she would have been thought of as a ‘bonny lass’. The film’s cinematographer Caroline Champetier has said that no matter how she lit a scene, the light would always find Iris, because she is naturally photogenic. I like Ms Champetier’s work very much and here she catches the moments in the day on the farm when there is a special light, whether it is in the mists of an autumn morning or the ‘magic hour’ of a summer’s evening. She also utilises the ‘Scope frame . Unfortunately I could not find stills to illustrate either of these points but both are there in the trailer below. The other important aesthetic consideration is the sound and the music score. The latter is by Michel Legrand but used quite sparingly and I enjoyed the silence in many scenes. Make sure you stay through the credits to catch all of Iris Bry’s singing.
I enjoyed this film very much and I’ve thought about it a great deal since. It’s distributed by Curzon so it is available to stream now, but I urge you to see it on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it at HOME in Manchester where it is still showing this week alongside Sheffield Showroom and Tyneside, Newcastle in the North of England.
Frantz is a very beautiful and deeply moving film that is likely to be one of my films of the year. It’s another film that doesn’t seem to be destined for a long run in cinemas in the UK. That’s a shame because the film demands a big screen in a cinema rather than a TV set at home. Director François Ozon is remarkably prolific in the context of contemporary cinema. Frantz was screened at Venice in September 2016 and his new film is in competition at Cannes later this week. I didn’t follow his early work in the 1980s and 1990s but since 2000 he has managed just less than one film a year on average. He has ranged across genres and film aesthetics and featured an array of interesting European stars, so in one sense it isn’t surprising to discover that Frantz is something different.
Frantz is an ‘extension’ of a story (a play?) written in 1925 by Maurice Rostand. The title of this work gives away a crucial plot point of Frantz which could spoil the film narrative for some viewers so I won’t reveal it. Rostand’s work was then adapted for a film by Ernst Lubitsch in 1932, titled Broken Lullaby and featuring Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll. Ozon and his writing collaborator, Philippe Piazzo, have extended the story and, I think, significantly altered its perspective by making the woman and not the man the central character. The film begins in the small town of Quedlinburg in the centre of Germany in 1919. (The ‘old town’ I now learn is a World Heritage site.) Anna (Paula Beer) is a young woman tending the grave of Frantz, her fiancé killed in 1918 during the fighting on the Western Front. She is surprised to discover fresh flowers on the grave. Meanwhile her would be father-in-law Doktor Hoffmeister turns away a young man from his surgery when he learns that he is French – the old man can’t deal with a meeting so soon after his son’s death. Anna now lives with the Hoffmeisters and eventually she and the couple she refers to as her ‘parents’ will finally meet the young man who is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney). He tells them that he and Frantz were friends in Paris before the war and after their initial caution the Hoffmeisters are pleased to hear his stories. Adrien and Anna begin a delicate relationship based on their mutual affection for Frantz. All this takes place amidst the mutterings of many of the townsfolk, including the group of men with whom Doktor Hoffmeister used to meet in the local inn (where Adrien is staying). Eventually, the truth must out. Frantz tells Anna the truth but there are also lies in this difficult dialogue. Ozon and Piazzo then extend the story by sending Adrien back to Paris and exploring what happens when Anna follows him several months later.
It sounds a very simple story that in the 1920s would have had great resonance. It still raises questions about war and reconciliation in 2017 but also now has the added sense of a message about European unity. The new French President Emmanuel Macron met Angela Merkel just a few days ago expressing the co-operation of the two countries as leaders of the EU while the UK undergoes a ‘Brexit election’. Unfortunately, I don’t suppose many Brexiteers will be in the audience for the film. However, it’s also possible to remove the discourse about war and focus just on the central set of relationships and the age-old problem of telling lies (even for the best of intentions) when those involved are in fragile emotional states. Frantz is a very particular kind of melodrama that is expressed through music, camerawork and mise en scène as well as sensational performances. Ozon decided that the camerawork of Pascal Marti should be presented mainly in black and white with brief passages in colour. I’m not sure if there is a consistent logic to when the changes to colour happen but some of the transitions are truly magical. I suppose the most likely reason is to enhance the moments of great emotion. Philippe Rombi looks after the music (both he and Marti have worked with Ozon before) providing an extensive score and there are also moments of Chopin and Tchaikovsky.
The combination of music and the well-chosen locations creates the perfect backdrop for the difficult conversations between Anna and Adrien. It’s difficult to describe how everything fits together, except to say that it’s perfect. If it wasn’t for the fact that it is presented in 2.39:1 with the clarity of modern lenses, it would closely resemble the melodramas of early 1930s Germany. For Lubitsch the original film was something of an anomaly (most of his films were comedies) so I think my point of reference is Max Ophuls. Because of Pierre Niney’s pencil moustache, however, I did also think of Truffaut’s black and white ‘Scope presentation of the same period in Jules et Jim (in which Henri Serre wears the ‘tache). The narrative of Jules et Jim does have some similarities as well. The small German town with its old centre and the hills and lakes just outside occupies the first part of a narrative that is contrasted with the modernity and sophistication of Paris. I was impressed by the preserved railways on show.
I have to confess that what really engaged me was Paula Beer’s performance. For such a young actor (21 when she made Frantz) with relatively little experience, this must have been a very difficult role, requiring fluent French. Yet she remains calm and still without being wooden or passive, exuding intelligence and also hinting at the passion beneath the exterior. I had seen the excellent trailer for Frantz and was determined to see the film. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. As the final credits rolled I saw that in the acknowledgements, François Ozon thanked the German director Christian Petzold. Petzold is my favourite current German director and I immediately wondered whether he would want to use Paula Beer in a future project. Imagine my delight when I discovered that Ms Beer has two ‘forthcoming projects’, the first for Florian Henckel von Donnersmark and then in 2018 for Christian Petzold. I’m looking forward to them already. I should also say that I enjoyed Pierre Niney’s performance very much too – Frantz is blessed by excellent casting all round.
Here’s the UK trailer from Curzon (quite mischievous in not showing any colour scenes and the way it plays with the possibilities of the narrative):
I missed this film in cinemas and I was grateful for a TV screening that fitted into the ‘Christmas ghost story’ slot. The production was part-financed by BBC Films so it may be repeated in future Christmas schedules. The title refers to something repressed by the central character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a war widow and an educated and independent young woman (with plenty of money) in London in 1921. After the successful publication of her book about ‘ghost-hunting’ she is employed as a freelance investigator and the film opens with a set piece exposé of a fraudulent medium. But then Florence receives a visit from Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding prep school in Cumbria where a young boy has died in mysterious circumstances in what is believed to be a haunted building. Reluctantly, she agrees to travel north. What then transpires is an interesting drama involving mystery, romance and something which the rationalist Ms Cathcart is forced to come to terms with.
On the whole I enjoyed this first feature by director Nick Murphy who also co-wrote the film with the more experienced Stephen Volk. The weakest section for me was the opening up until the arrival at the school. The séance scene worked well but once outside the house I suddenly felt plunged into ‘BBC costume drama London’. Realist aesthetics in British film are so problematic. Recreations of 1920s/30s London always tend to use the same few ‘preserved’ streets which are so carefully ‘dressed’ and so clean that they look unreal. This was aggravated by the overall colour palette of the film with its almost bleached and subdued range. The squares (around Regent’s Park, I think) of white-painted houses positively gleamed in the sunlight – much as they have in countless TV series and several other films. This was then followed by the most picturesque train journey, actually through Scotland (Creative Scotland was another funder) – looking like an outtake from Harry Potter. Fortunately, once the narrative deposited the audience at the school (an amalgam of Scottish stately homes) the genre tropes kicked into gear and Eduard Grau’s cinematography and David Pemberton’s score became much more acceptable. All of this might be put in perspective by comparing the film with Hammer’s The Woman in Black (2012), which faced with a similar narrative set just a few years earlier, goes for broke with Gothic expressionism.
The Awakening is perhaps trying to distance itself from the heavily Gothic trappings and, unconsciously or not, links itself to the post World War I dramas about loss, trauma, grieving etc. (I was reminded Regeneration, the 1997 adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel.) Nevertheless, The Awakening mixes elements easily identifiable from three classic films: The Innocents (UK 1961), The Others (Spain/US 2001) and El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). Thus we have an emotionally stressed young woman, a child/children and mysterious servants in a remote house. Murphy and Volk juggle these elements quite well and deliver an enigmatic but satisfying ending. Rebecca Hall has to carry the narrative drive and she does so magnificently. Again I was a little unsure at first about her character who seemed just too ‘modern’ in speech and behaviour, but as the narrative moved more towards melodrama she grew into the part very well. Dominic West is very good as well (though disconcertingly he looks exactly as he does in the 2011-2 TV series The Hour, set in the 1950s – whereas Hall I saw in Parade’s End (2012) set in roughly the same period). The other leading players include Imelda Staunton as the school’s matron, Shawn Dooley as another (damaged) teacher and Isaac William Hempstead as one of the boys (he’s since appeared in Game of Thrones).
The Awakening isn’t a masterpiece like each of the three titles listed above, but it is an interesting attempt to re-work the same elements and to draw on a different notion of national trauma – something perhaps worth researching further and comparing to the importance of the ‘disappeared’ in Francoist Spain which informs El orfanato. The Lumière Database entry on the film reveals that although business was weak in the UK, it was much better in several other European markets – Spain matching the UK and Italy recording double the number of admissions. Russia and Poland also chipped in. Unfortunately, DVD figures are harder to find but there was a release in the US and in Japan (see the poster which emphasises the Gothic heroine).
I hope that the film doesn’t disappear and that it generates interest from scholars.