The first of Céline Sciamma’s trilogy about teenage girls is in some ways the most hard-hitting, primarily because it is the least contextualised in terms of family and setting. All three films deal with an isolated teenage girl who is in some ways attracted into a ‘community’ or a set of relationships. In the second of the trilogy, Tomboy (2011), questions of gender and identity are approached with more circumspection and the ‘issue’ is set partly in a family context. In the third film, Girlhood, the sociology of the lead character’s situation is laid out in more detail. (A review of Girlhood will arrive soon.)
The ‘water lilies’ of the title are the teams of young female synchronised swimmers based in a pool in Ile de France (the same outer suburbs, where the director grew up, that appear in Tomboy). The central character is Marie (Pauline Acquart) a skinny young girl who is attractive but appears younger than her close friend Anne (Louise Blachère). Anne, one of the swimmers, is chasing boys but Marie is fascinated by the girls in the pool and in particular the tall and glamorous captain of the senior team, Floriane (Adèle Haenel). Floriane seems to revel in her reputation as a ‘slag’ (or ‘slut’ – not sure about the accuracy of the subtitles, the terms have slightly different meanings in British English)) and the other girls assume that she is regularly sleeping with the local boys. But is she? Marie seems quite prepared to join the team in order to find out. Does she know that this may offend Anne? Both Anne and Floriane are chasing the same boy.
Water Lilies is a film about hormones and teenage angst. The (‘mature’) female audience members I watched it with were reminded of the agonies of teenage life but didn’t really take to the film. For my part, as a mystified middle-aged male, I found the film fascinating in terms of the single-mindedness and bravery of Marie in seeking what she wanted. I think Céline Sciamma is a major talent and I’m trying to think of an American or British film that comes anywhere near the directness and acute observation of this trilogy. I suppose Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen (US 2003) gets somewhere near but most of the leading British female directors (Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Clio Barnard) tend to focus as much on boys as girls and I can’t immediately think of films that focus on teenage girls en masse in quite the same way. Reading through IMDB comments on the film, Sofia Coppola’s name comes up but arguably the strongest films presenting younger teenage girls are Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love, Sweden 1998) and We Are the Best! (Sweden 2013) by Lukas Moodysson (helped on the latter by his partner’s script).
Unlike in Tomboy there are virtually no parents seen in Water Lilies and the three girls seem to come and go as they please (I assume it is the summer holiday season). The lack of parents/family (no awkward siblings) is perhaps simply part of the minimalism of the film. There are few of the other trappings of the youth picture (no pop songs, clashes with ‘authority’, cultural differences expressed through food/drink/teen slang etc.). In this interview Céline Sciamma explains that the focus on just the girls was deliberate – forcing the viewer to identify with 15 year-old girls and how they see the world. During the promotional period for the film at festivals Sciamma outed herself and this film could be categorised as part of lesbian cinema. However, it seemed to me that the questions of gender identity it raises are just as mixed as they are in Tomboy. The focus on long sequences in the pool and in the showers offer a mise en scène that is clammy, overheated and loaded with metaphors for sexual congress (something shared with a number of other ‘pool-based’ films, including Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End). It would be interesting to know how many teachers have thought about using this film with 15 year-old students to stimulate discussion around gender identity. I suspect that many might be worried by the direct approach. For me there is nothing prurient about this film (though I guess going by the dictionary definition of the word it would be possible to argue that there is). What would be useful to discuss is the difference between those films that use the girls’ changing room as the site of excitement for the male gaze (the Porky’s films from the 1980s and perhaps De Palma’s Carrie) and this film (and a film featuring boys in a similar situation like if . . . .) which see the changing room and the showers as a site for personal discoveries about sexual identity. The image of Marie above reminds me of Sister Ruth spying on Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (UK 1947).
Reading comments on the film, I’m taken by the number of young people who enjoy the film and take it for what it is. Some of them suggest that they like the music. I didn’t notice it so that probably proves that it is appropriate for a youth picture.
The trailer for the film is useful in conveying the setting but distorts the narrative by focusing solely on one relationship. The sequences featuring the third character Anne are important too:
Chambers Dictionary defines ‘circumstance’ as the ‘logical surroundings of an action’. For me, this film is itself a circumstance more than it is a film. My first thought was that it was an ‘event’ – there is so much surrounding it that is non-diegetic – outside the world of the film’s narrative. Let me explain. This is a film ostensibly about a social issue in Iran, namely the social and cultural restraints that govern the public behaviour of young women in the Islamic Republic. But, as is the case with several other significant Iranian films, Circumstance was made outside Iran (in Beirut) by an exilic/diasporic cast and writer-director using French and American funding. I’m using exilic here to refer to Iranians who have left Iran because of real or anticipated persecution and diasporic to refer to less contentious economic migrants, some from much earlier periods.
The story focuses on a wealthy Tehran family. I never found out what the father did, but he went to university in California and he loves classical music. The mother is a medical practitioner. The main focus is their 16 year-old daughter Atafeh who has developed a passionate relationship with a girl at school, Shireen. Shireen is much less wealthy and she lives with her aunt and uncle – her parents having been executed by the regime as academics with the wrong politics. She spends as much time with Atafeh as possible, visiting her and going on her family trips. The classic inciting agent in the narrative is Atafeh’s older brother Mehran who returns from rehab – required because of his drug problem. Mehran’s behaviour is ‘strange’ according to his father. He appears to have become religious in what has up to now been a secular family.
At points in the first part of the film I wondered if this was the same world explored in Asghar Farhadi’s films or those of Jafar Panahi (especially given Panahi’s own spacious apartment as revealed in This Is Not a Film). But it’s soon quite clear that this is a very different fictional world. I don’t speak Farsi so I couldn’t judge how the cast handled the dialogue, but a quick glance at the IMDb comments from Iranians suggests that most of the leads, apart from the actress who plays the mother, had major problems speaking the language. What I could spot, however, were the many holes in the plot. Farhadi’s films are very carefully scripted with intricate plot developments, but in Circumstance I literally ‘lost the plot’ at certain points as I simply couldn’t understand why things were happening. Some of the actions lacked credibility for me. (The same comments come from Iranians.)
At the heart of the film is the affair between the two young women. This is presented partly through fantasy sequences in which the pair imagine a ‘free’ world in Dubai where one will become a nightclub singer managed by the other. There are also ‘real’ sequences provocatively presented with manicured hands and painted lips caressing flesh – but little overt sexual display. At other times the girls visit daytime and nighttime underground clubs. The ultimate daring activity is to take part in dubbing foreign language import/black market DVDs, specifically Milk and Sex and the City. This underground alternative popular culture for the young in Iran is represented (in an earlier time period) in Persepolis. Although I haven’t seen it, I take it also to be present in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats. But Ghobadi and Marjane Satrapi were writing films about what they experienced living in Iran. Maryam Keshavarz, the young Iranian-American writer-director of Circumstance, says that she based her script on her experiences on holiday in Iran and talking to her relatives. I felt at times as if the film was an American perspective on Iranian culture. The major issue is the behaviour of the brother, Mehran. I couldn’t work why he did what he did, how he did it and why nobody stood up to him. I don’t want to spoil the narrative outcome, but at the end of the film I remained puzzled.
On the positive side, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh and the film certainly has a vitality about it. I thought that the story about the two young women was going somewhere before the narrative veered off course. I’m glad I watched it but I fear its status will be more of an ‘event’ at the centre of a controversy rather than as a film.
Circumstance is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. The screening I attended was part of the POUT Film Festival touring LGBT films around the country. It goes on general release on 24 August.
An American trailer which gives a taste of the film’s style:
I enjoyed this film very much – just the right antidote to miserable weather on a Sunday. As one of the blurbs reads, you wouldn’t expect a story that begins with a character suffering a form of depression to end up as light and entertaining – but this does. Julia is an English Literature Professor in Rio de Janeiro. The film begins with some chaotic video clips of her tour of the UK, only to then reveal that her partner Antonia has left her. Julia is finding it hard to function at work but is rescued by Hugo whose civil partner Pedro has died. Hugo is an irrepressible character who proposes to buy a new house by the sea and invites Julia and another friend, Lisa (also separated from a partner) to share it. As you might expect, several visitors to the house provide diversions from too much introspection and, in particular, Helena challenges Julia to re-engage with the world.
So Hard to Forget is witty, beautifully acted and nicely presented with a pleasing eye for visual details by director Malu de Martino from a book by Miriam Campello. Despite having several collaborators the script seems to work fine. As Julia, Ana Paula Arósio has the intensity and presence of an actor like Rachel Weisz, who I think she resembles in some ways. Known mostly for her television work in Brazil, she handles this lead role well, portraying a woman who is brilliant but harsh with other people.
The film is currently in the UK on a limited release by Peccadillo Pictures, the LGBT specialists who will give it a UK DVD release in 2012, but it should be on general release as I’m sure it appeals to gay and straight audiences alike. With its references to both Emily Bronte and Virginia Wolf (either of whom might have influenced Julia’s coiffure) and then Sarah Waters and k.d. lang, I’m not sure what this says about Brazilian society, except that one part of it embraces globalised Anglo culture.
In the Peccadillo Pictures Press Notes Malu de Martino has this to say about her choice of subject matter:
“In recent years, Brazilian movies have increasingly dealt with social issues as a vehicle to gain a better understanding of our reality. Films dealing with personal dramas, on the other hand, have been relegated to an inferior category due to the distressful social conditions which countries like Brazil experience.”
I think that this is a good point. It had occurred to me that the film didn’t look ‘Brazilian’ – in fact it looked and felt more like some of the independent films I’d seen from Argentina. That’s probably my ignorance, but de Martino has certainly made a useful challenge to any preconceptions about Brazilian films seen overseas.
Trailer (with English subs):
This is a thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy/drama with excellent performances and witty dialogue. What’s interesting, I guess, is that it is classified as an independent movie because a) it is about a lesbian couple and their family, b) it is actually co-written and directed by a lesbian director and c) it’s a low-budget film. Watching it in a sparsely-populated multiplex screen at an early evening show on a Tuesday I was struck by how the projectionist seemed to have turned down the volume so that I could hardly hear it when usually in the same multiplex I am deafened. I noticed this because the opening of the movie is relatively quiet in action terms. My feeling is that this is the kind of movie that could have been made in the era of classical Hollywood – if you took away the restraints of the Hays Code.
I did see Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature High Art (Canada/US 1998) but I confess that I don’t remember it well – though I do remember that I enjoyed it. Possibly, I would have enjoyed this latest film even more if there had been more drama. A bit more restraint on behalf of the central characters might have been interesting, but then the joke of the film seems to be, pace the title, that the adults are all over the place emotionally and the kids are quite cool.
The best jokes for me were the ones about organic gardening and I’d like to come out as a straight guy who loves Joni Mitchell and especially ‘Blue’.
So, kudos to everyone involved and thanks for a great night out. But I fear that this crowd pleasing will push out Winter’s Bone from the awards ceremony and that would certainly be a shame.
The blurb on this film’s website announces it as: [a] “time-bending, sexy, lesbian romp, with an irreverent nod to the popular art-house classic Run, Lola, Run“. A pretty good description really. Lola (Ashleigh Sumner) is a photographer who has virtually no time left to deliver a set of prints to save her current partner Casey (Jill Bennett) from losing a design contract. The film shows three of Lola’s attempts to get across San Francisco, find the prints and deliver them to Casey at a bar where she is entertaining her client Danielle. In the process we learn about Lola’s love life and her circle and explore a range of sexy scenarios.
Clearly I’m not the target audience for the film, but judging from the laughter at the back of the cinema it was being understood and enjoyed by those who are. I’ve reviewed a number of lesbian features over the last couple of years and most of them haven’t offered any particular problems to straight male viewers. But I confess to being a little more wary of this one. Certainly the film is well shot and edited. It’s pacy and fun with good animation inserts and a strong soundtrack, some of which I quite liked (again it’s not my style of music). I gather that most of the cast and crew are ‘out’ and I wonder how to react to that in terms of American film and TV (it seems to be a big deal still). My problem is that while the lead actor, Ashley Sumner, came across simply as a strong performer with real screen presence, most of the other actors seemed to be playing lesbian ‘types’ and since I’m not exactly au fait with the nuances of lesbian iconography I’m not sure what to make of their performances. I guess I was a little put off by the characters of Casey and Danielle who seemed too close to the buffed types found in the ‘erotic thrillers’ that end up cut on cable TV.
The festival programme notes suggested that this ‘lighter’ play with the Lola rennt idea was more successful and more enjoyable than the original. I’m not sure about that. I liked Lola rennt a lot at the time (in 1998), but it was very much a film of its time, hugely important in re-introducing German Cinema to an international audience and offering a kind of pomo romp when that meant something. Choosing to parody it in 2009 seems simply a tongue in cheek gesture – a playful nod to all those porn re-workings of famous Hollywood titles perhaps? (The filmmakers, Ellen Seidler and Megan Siler claim Lola rennt as one of their favourite films.) One of the bonuses of the film is that like the original and its scenes of Berlin, here we get to see bits of San Francisco – a city almost entirely populated by lesbians and gay men in the imagination of the filmmakers.
These lesbian films are destined for a life primarily on DVD and VOD and this one has been picked up for UK distribution by Peccadillo Pictures. It may have some more festival screenings in the UK, but the DVD is due out on May 24th. Well worth a look I think and the website is very good.
I imported this DVD from the US. The 2003 disc from Blue Underground is NTSC but coded Region 0. I was following up a suggestion from Stephen when I was discussing Let the Right One In and looking for different European takes on the vampire film.
Directed by the Belgian Harry Kümel, the film is a European co-production filmed in English with all the actors delivering their own dialogue. This gives an intriguing flavour to the exchanges. The date suggests an affinity with the more extreme end of European horror cinema, but I found this to be much more subtle and less sensational than, for instance, Dario Argento (which is not a criticism of Argento). The casting coup in acquiring Delphine Seyrig for the central role is the key to the film’s success. She is breathtaking in every way.
The film belongs, in one sense to the cycle of lesbian vampire films at the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. I confess that I avoided these at the time, though I remember some critical attention paid to this title and director. Seyrig plays the iconic character of these films – Countess Elizabeth Bathory who allegedly killed 800 virgins for their blood. This time, the ageless Countess is touring Belgium with her young companion, leaving in her wake a number of drained corpses of young women. When the couple arrive in Winter in the deserted seaside resort of Ostende, they are delighted that the isolated hotel on the promenade has only two other guests – a young couple in the honeymoon suite, supposedly waiting for a ferry to the UK (although the young man seems very reluctant to catch it). Now their fate is sealed.
The seaside setting is very well-used. The wind-swept dunes and the dark building looming out of the night is the perfect Gothic setting. The only other location of note is Bruges which the young couple visit, only to stumble across the police discovery of another body. This sequence was so reminiscent of Don’t Look Now that I couldn’t help thinking that Nic Roeg must have seen it. The old medieval town with canals and narrow streets just cries out for fleeting glimpses of figures rounding the corner or the slow passage of the dead carried on a stretcher. Seaside and canals – there is something about the water’s edge as a signifier of moving into another world.
Large empty hotels are also disturbing environments and Kümel and his team are inventive with decor and costume. The first two-thirds of the film moves quite slowly, but the last third is action-packed. There is an interesting essay on the film in Jump Cut, arguing that the film offers itself up to a feminist reading. This is well-argued and pretty convincing. The young man is quite a problematic character and the narrative certainly tends towards sympathy with the three women.
I’m getting increasingly interested in the way in which vampire films play with the ‘rules’ of the genre. Daughters of Darkness utilises the fear of the light and running water and exploits the role of the vampire’s servant/companion played nicely here by the German Andrea Rau, who is interviewed in the DVD Extras. It must have been a nice change from her usual roles in German sex films. It’s interesting that although there is a fair amount of nudity including ‘full frontal’ shots of Rau in Daughters, the most erotic moments are probably associated with Seyrig’s gentle caresses and beautifully delivered suggestive dialogue. The role of the companion seems more complex in this film as there is a sense of her own desire as well as of ‘service’ to her mistress. On the other hand, the role of the ‘vampire hunter’ in the narrative is more peripheral than usual – perhaps this is an attempt to implicate the audience with the hunter figure much more of a voyeur than an active agent.
This is certainly a horror film to watch again in terms of its take on the vampire genre.
Isabella Leong (left) as Takeko and Rainie Yang as Jade in Spider Lilies
Spider Lilies was shown in the UK as part of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival on tour (following an awards win at Berlin). The two central characters are Jade, a young woman who makes a living as a ‘web-cam girl’, performing for online punters in her room, and an older young woman Takeko, who runs her own tattoo parlour. Both the women have difficult family histories. Jade lives with her grandma (who occasionally wanders in front of the web-cam) and Takeko has a younger brother who is now in a care home after being traumatised by witnessing his father’s death during an earthquake. Mothers are absent. The plot sees Jade deciding that she needs a tattoo. When she visits Takeko’s parlour she sees the striking image of spider lilies (which have legendary status in local folklore). She also recognises Takeko as the older girl with whom she fell in love as a 9 year-old. Will the two women get together again after ten years? What do you think?
There are two subplots concerning weak young men (the brother is a third weak young man). One character is a narcissistic would-be hoodlum who attempts to extort money from other youths in order to get more tattoos from Takeko and the other is a shy young policeman who is supposed to be collecting evidence about Jade’s online activities.
I’d hoped to discover new young talents here and there are some pluses. Both the leads give engaging performances (one is a Taiwanese pop and TV star, the other an experienced Hong Kong film star/model), the music is good and I liked the presentation of the rather gaudy world of the internet and tattoos. But the only narrative sequence that really interested me was the online seduction of Jade performed in parallel by Takeko and the policeman, both using pseudonyms. It’s already a cliche of course, but I found it engaging and intriguing.
The film opens very slowly and as I was very tired I found it difficult to concentrate and to absorb narrative information – I may well have missed things (e.g. I think Takeko’s mother was Japanese and that she went to live in Japan, but I might have got that wrong). The second half moves more quickly, but I found the sub-plots ludicrous, the editing clumsy and the insertion of some special effects ham-fisted. My companion suggested that there was probably a good short film here that was unadvisedly allowed to expand far beyond what the story idea merited.
The major audience issue, I presume, for the lesbian audience is how well the relationship is portrayed. Lesbianism is still largely a taboo subject in some East Asian cultures (in Korea, for instance, where the film has an 18 certificate and presumably in Singapore where it is R21 according to IMDB). It seems to me that there is not enough of the relationship on screen and that the sex is handled very discreetly (seems coy to a Western viewer). Perhaps it is the social situation which attracts lesbian audiences? The IMDB comments seem very divided as to whether the film works. Some mention other East Asian films for comparison. Of these, I would recommend Memento Mori (South Korea 1999) as far more interesting. Having said that, I would certainly consider watching the next venture by the creative talents on Spider Lilies (director Zero Chou, writer Singing Chen and stars, Rainie Yang and Isabella Leong). By then, the writer and director might have tightened up their act. I may be being a little harsh in saying this and there is an interesting interview with Singing Chen, who directed Bundled (Wo jiao A-Ming la, Tawan 2000), on the World Socialist Website from 2000. It’s also the case that the director Zero Chou is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker and that Spider Lilies is her fourth fiction feature. See Wikipedia. So, perhaps Spider Lilies was just a slip-up?
‘Fremde haut‘ translated via Google tools produces ‘foreign skin’ in English (in the interview referenced below, the director suggests ‘a stranger’s skin’ which she sees as an eroticised concept). I think this refers to the sense of living inside someone else’s skin. If so, it’s possibly a better title for this film than Unveiled. The central character does certainly literally ‘unveil’ herself when her plane leaves Iranian airspace. We then follow her attempts to enter Germany and, more importantly, to stay there. Her first big mistake is to lie to the German authorities when she attempts to seek asylum. The truth is that she has had to flee Iran after an affair with a married woman. The only way she is able to avoid being sent back to Iran is to take on the identity of a young male Iranian student and then try to avoid contact with the authorities. Although physical veiling and unveiling occur in the film – in both the literal and metaphorical sense, there is also the sense of ‘living as somebody else’, again, both physically and metaphorically as asylume-seekers/migrants must seek to do.
The narrative ploy of a woman ‘passing’ as a boy/young man is of course a very traditional device. Many of the reviews of the film refer to Hilary Swank’s performance in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), but I was reminded of Suzy Amis in The Ballad of Little Jo (1993). I’m not sure why I made this connection, but it’s possibly because Fariba (played by German Iranian actor Jasmin Tabatabai) is an older and more confident /better educated (she is a translator) woman than the Hilary Swank character. Also, the sexual politics of the film do not come to the fore until later in the film.
The film received only a limited theatrical release in the UK and I rented the DVD, distributed by the lesbian and gay specialist distributor Millivres now owned by Peccadillo pictures. It says something about UK distribution that a film like this is distributed in this way. I don’t mean this as a slight on LBGT businesses, but there is an inference that the film doesn’t stand up for a wider audience, which I don’t think is the case at all. As a ‘lesbian drama’ the film offers a long build-up to a relationship and then has relatively little time to explore it. Reviewers tend to think that the resolution is unsatisfactory. I don’t agree, but I do think the film could have run longer. On the whole, I preferred the earlier scenes (which audiences seem to find less believable) than the later ones which seem much more like familiar genre scenes – Thelma and Louise again?
Director Angelina Maccarone appears to have a significant profile in Germany and the film is co-written by Maccarone and her cinematographer Judith Kaufmann. On this basis, it is a strong contender for screening on a course about women filmmakers.
The film is low budget and filmed in a recognisable social realist style that is very familiar to UK audiences. Overall it doesn’t have quite the same elements of humour and melodrama as a Ken Loach film. There are, however, some amusing moments such as the arrival of immigration officers at the food processing plant where Fariba is working. Fariba is forced to hide in a tank and be buried under piles of chopped cabbage by the woman who will later be her partner. I expected that the film would be more like the work of Pawel Pawlikowski, who despite living in the UK for many years, has for me an ‘East European eye’ which makes English landscapes look strange – as in his tale of a Russian asylum-seeker and her son in Last Resort (UK 2000). Fremde haut was filmed mainly in the farming areas around Stuttgart. I don’t know this region, but for UK audiences, it is suggestive of the flatlands of the Fens and other areas of arable farming where migrant labour is often employed for picking, sorting, processing food crops.
On a personal note, I enjoyed the central performance by Jasmin Tabatabai and I kept thinking that she looked like one of my favourite singers, Rosanne Cash. I then discovered that she is also a musician and that she once started a women’s country band named after the book/film Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (see her website for lots of other interesting connections to film and music projects). Director Maccarone also has musical talent and she writes and sings on the soundtrack. There is an interesting interview on AfterEllen. The more I find out about this film and its creative team and ‘talent’, the more interesting it becomes.