I’m glad I saw this World War II romance drama – one of the best of recent co-productions. I fear that many audiences will have been put off by reviewers like Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian who seem to be completely oblivious to its better points. It isn’t without flaws but mostly it is very good.
It’s worth mentioning the production background in some detail since it’s unusual in some ways. ‘International films’ made in Europe in English have been a feature of mainstream cinema since the 1950s, but usually these are in some way ‘Americanised’ even though they have European settings. Despite a credit for The Weinstein Company (the US distributor) and an American in the lead role, Suite Française is a French property made by Europeans (mostly British) in Belgium, but with a major French partner in the form of TF1 Films and Canadian input from Alliance/eOne. I mention this because some commentators have referred to a ‘Hollywood film’. Suite Française will get a major French release, presumably dubbed into French? It seems to have had a substantial budget and I wonder how many of the actors (mostly Brits and Germans) could have worked on a French language version at the same time? Just to clarify, the French characters in the film speak (British) English with accents and dialects that represent their position in society. The Germans speak German (with subtitles), except when they talk to the French, when, of course, they speak English. It all works fine. As the convention goes (in for example Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander TV series), all the printed material on screen is in the local language, i.e. in French.
Suite Française was published as a novel with two parts in 2004. It was written in 1940-1 by Irène Némirovsky, the emigré Ukranian Jewish writer, successful in France since the 1920s, who was sent to Auschwitz where she died in 1942. Her notebooks were re-discovered by her daughter in 1998. The first part of the novel tells the story of the flight from Paris at the time of the German invasion in June 1940. This is briefly alluded to in the opening scenes in the film which then goes on to adapt the second part of the novel. This deals with the early period of German Occupation of Northern France up to late Summer 1941 when Germany invaded Russia and the troops billeted in the small town/village of Bussy are sent to the Eastern front. Némirovsky had envisaged five parts for the overall story.
The film reworks this second story, ‘Dolce’, and focuses on Lucile (Michelle Williams) a young woman who had barely met her husband before he joined the French Army (and became a prisoner of war) and who must now endure being bossed about by her fierce mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas). Because they live in the best house in the village the two women are forced to accept a German officer as a lodger. Bruno (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a musical composer from a military family, an Oberleutnant, both cultured and ‘gentlemanly’ yet prepared to endorse the ‘spirit of community’ in the German Armed Forces. His fellow Leutnant is more aggressive and creates disturbance in another billet. The ‘other ranks’ are generally boisterous as in most successful invading armies. These are not necessarily the conventional Nazis of Hollywood war films – but they do carry out draconian policies in dealing with the local people.
Various French films of the 1940s have similar themes. For instance the classic Henri Clouzot film Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943) includes poison pen letters written by villagers about each other during the Occupation and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea, 1949) shares several key elements. This latter film was based on a novel published in 1942 by Jean Bruller but it seems unlikely that there was any connection between Bruller and Némirovsky. However, one link between the narratives does point to a major weakness in the new film – the voice-over narration by Lucile. In the Melville film the narration is essential since the French couple who have a German officer billeted on them refuse to speak (a strategy initially employed by many ‘occupied’ people – including Lucile’s mother-in-law). We learn about their thoughts from the old man’s narration which continues throughout much of the film. In Suite Française the narration comes at various points from Lucile but it is unnecessary in my view – we can see what she is thinking from her facial expressions, posture, actions etc. Not only that but it is mixed in an odd way and sounds ‘wrong’.
However, apart from the narration, everything else works OK. Bradshaw is very critical of Michelle Williams, arguing that she gives “a worryingly awful lead performance . . . [she] looks like she’s got access to serious amounts of black-market Mogadon cut with Temazepam”. I went back to the novel and the first description of Lucile suggests that she is “beautiful, blonde with dark eyes, but a quiet, modest demeanour and ‘a faraway expression'”. I’m not sure what Peter Bradshaw expects here. The narrative is about a woman from a region where middle-class society shows (in Némirovsky’s words) “a complete absence of any forms of emotion”. This is a woman who slowly blossoms and falls for the younger man who has invaded her home – where she is miserable under her mother-in-law’s gaze. I find that an interesting story. My impression is that overall, the adaptation follows the book’s narrative – some scenes are presented almost as written.
I could go on and pick Bradshaw’s review to pieces and I’m tempted because his approach with its ‘witty’ put-downs angers me so much. Instead, I’ll just focus on the issues of realism and social class. There are several interesting video clips on YouTube in which the various HoDs in the crew discuss how they researched French fashions and make-up in the period and how they studied various films including Le corbeau and Renoir’s La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939). They found a village close to the Belgian border which had been by-passed by progress and they were able to dress it effectively. Saul Dibb was appointed director of the film partly because of his success with The Duchess in which he managed to make a film which appealed to modern audiences without losing the sense of period setting.
Social class is crucial to the story. Némirovsky herself was the daughter of a wealthy banker in Russia and she carefully delineates the social strata of village society. At the top are the Vicomte (and Mayor) and his wife. Lucile’s mother-in-law is the richest non-aristocratic landowner. Lucile’s female friends are tenants she tries to protect from her mother-in-law’s avarice. There is also a Parisian woman and her daughter – Jewish refugees able to pay a higher rent (and in some ways representing Némirovsky herself?). The two Leutnants are both clearly ‘gentlemen’ and this is important in their dealings with the women. The women after all are living in a community where most of the fit young men have disappeared. It may be a cliché but we know that the one young man, a farmer disabled by a war injury, will be important in the drama that follows. Bradshaw refers to “a golden-tinted saga of everyday French collaborating folk”. This is an insult to Némirovsky who has actually provided us with certainly a ‘golden moment’ in the Spring and Summer but also a complex set of relationships and behaviours in which both collaboration and resistance are explored, much – one imagines – like they must have been across France in 1940-1.
I’m going back to the novel (which has re-entered the paperback chart) to see in more detail what Saul Dibb and Matt Charman have done with the characters and storylines in their adaptation. As my defence of Michelle Williams makes clear I have a lot of time for her acting skills and I found her scenes with Matthias Schoenaerts worked well. The film has clearly missed attracting the big audience its makers envisaged (it’s unlikely to make £2 million in the UK). I think it may find that audience on the small screen. I’m intrigued to find out what will happen to the film in France – it feels very British to me.
Official UK trailer:
Other French ‘Occupation’ films on this blog include:
Un sécret (2007)
Un héros très discret (1995)
Le silence de la mer (1949)
Kelly Reichardt’s new film Night Moves opens tomorrow and it seemed an appropriate moment to go back to one of her earlier (critical) successes. Ms Reichardt is in some ways an ‘old school’ independent filmmaker in the US. I’d only seen Meek’s Cutoff, which I liked very much, before watching Wendy and Lucy, so researching what she did earlier and how she has presented herself as a filmmaker since the 1990s has been an interesting experience.
Go to IMDB and there is no ‘biography’ for Kelly Reichardt. You have to read the interviews and articles on the more indy-orientated websites to learn that she left what she describes as the “cultural desert” of her Florida childhood to go to university in Boston. Now she teaches film as well as making her own films – primarily with writing partner Jon Raymond in Oregon. Her formative experiences in the art cinemas of the Boston area and her own classroom explorations seem to have been with the films of Fassbinder, Ozu, Bresson etc. and is intriguing to think that she has mostly worked on very American stories.
Wendy and Lucy is set in small town Oregon with a very simple outline narrative. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) arrives in the small town in her beat-up Honda Accord with just her dog Lucy and a couple of bags of clothes. She appears to be on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find a job. But her journey is halted when first she discovers her car won’t start and then she manages to lose her dog. Much of the central part of the (quite short) film is taken up by the search for the dog – and a place to sleep when her car is impounded. It doesn’t sound much but the film is so skilfully constructed (Reichardt edits as well as directs) that it is always worth watching. Wendy is played by the astonishing Michelle Williams. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same actress who can convince me that she is Marilyn Monroe. Here she is completely believable as the woman who suffers from one setback after another after making a single mistake.
Kelly Reichardt has discussed Wendy and Lucy in terms of Italian neo-realism. I can see the logic of this, though I didn’t think about neo-realism as I watched the film. I suppose I reflected on the use of long shots and the detailed observation of the minutiae of Wendy’s routines. I did think about European social realist filmmaking – but also about the American small town setting. On reflection, the images of the potential hostility of these small towns – even in the beautiful setting of the Pacific North West – is something that seems familiar from American literature as well as certain more mainstream films. Bizarrely the first film I thought of was Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and the initial reception given to the Sylvester Stallone character. I hope it’s not too fanciful but Rambo is a returning Vietnam vet entering a small town in Washington state. He is treated with mistrust and shown the door immediately. Wendy faces similar prejudices and also unwisely becomes entangled with the police. Reichardt grew up with a police officer father so it was odd that one aspect of Wendy’s arrest proved the only point when I doubted the ‘truth’ of the story.
At one point Wendy visits a fast-food restaurant and we see a man reading Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. This is an interesting element in the film’s mise en scène. Seen as one of the most important literary works coming out of the American North West, the book was adapted as a film directed by and starring Paul Newman and released at the end of 1970. Set in Oregon it features a family logging business – an ‘independent’ outfit that keeps producing lumber when the local unionised workforce goes on strike. This appears to be an admirable tactic in the context of US politics but from a UK perspective I found watching the film quite difficult despite the excellent cast. Perhaps I didn’t really understand it back then? What does it mean to Kelly Reichardt, I wonder? I mention the reference because Wendy and Lucy has been taken by many critics to be a commentary of some kind on American society in the latter part of George Bush’s presidency and on the cusp of the economic crash.
The film shows Wendy literally on the margins and finding it difficult to move forward. Several commentators have pointed to a crucial scene in which Wendy is given a small gift of a few dollars by the one character who has actually tried to help her. This is indeed an emotional moment. At other times we see Wendy counting the money she carries in a belt around her midriff. She isn’t actually destitute, she has enough to get ‘home’ to Indiana (?) where here notebook records that she started her journey. But apart from a phone conversation with her (rather unfriendly) sister we learn little about the life that Wendy has left behind. The small town at the centre of the story once had a mill, but now jobs are hard to find. There are still flashes of humanity in the responses to Wendy’s predicament but overall people seem to have ‘pulled up the drawbridge’. I should note however that some audiences have seen the film more from the perspective of Wendy’s loneliness than the evidence of insularity and lack of community shown by the townspeople (like all of us perhaps?).
Wendy and Lucy is of course a road movie and that raises expectations. Road movies are both supposed to ‘test’ their protagonists via new adventures and new relationships and to provide the means to escape and self-discovery. While the town itself is nondescript, the romance of Oregon is represented by the railway yards, the single track running through the trees and gorges, the sound of the train whistle and the camaraderie of the temporary camp for travellers. For an 80 minute film that at first glance offers a slight narrative, Wendy and Lucy actually delivers quite a rich viewing experience. I suspect that I will get more from it the next time I watch it.
Press Notes available here.
The official US trailer:
So, my third ‘Best Movie of the Year’ and the score is Canada 2 Hong Kong 1 – I wouldn’t have predicted that in January. (See Monsieur Lazhar and A Simple Life.) Perhaps it isn’t so surprising. I was bowled over by writer-director Sarah Polley’s Away From Her in 2006 (and she acts as well – it isn’t fair is it?) and Michelle Williams is arguably the finest actor of her generation. In the space of a year she made Meek’s Cutoff, My Life With Marilyn and Take This Waltz. Three very different roles, all nailed with precision. I thought I also caught a trace of a Canadian accent in this one.
On the other hand, there appears to be a host of gainsayers for Take This Waltz. Reading reviews, user comments and bulletin board posts on IMDb reveals a tirade of, I’m guessing, mainly men, (possibly young American men?) and audiences generally who apply a moral stance on romance which seems to blind them to what is actually on the screen. Fortunately there are plenty of others who see the film more clearly for what it is. What it isn’t is a romantic comedy – not even an indie, ‘alternative’ rom-com. Instead it’s a romantic drama with some comic moments. It might be a melodrama but I need to think about that. I shed a tear in the last ten minutes but not a flood. Having never seen a Hollywood ‘bromance’ or indeed a Seth Rogen film before, I didn’t have the preconceptions that some audiences may have held. (Rogen, by the way, is Canadian and this was his first Canadian film.)
Michelle Williams is Margot, 28 years old in August 2010 and married for five years to Lou (Seth Rogen). They are happy in their domesticity. She writes (after a fashion) and he, more specifically, writes cookbooks – entirely about cooking chicken. It’s an interesting premise. On the one hand the film is quite gritty and real about relationships – on the other it’s a romance fantasy taking place in a sweltering Toronto summer of primary colours. It’s quite tricky keeping these two ideas in play at the same time and that may be the reason that some audiences misread the film completely.
On a trip to Louisbourg in Nova Scotia to write notes for a tourist guide, Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) who turns out to live across the street from her in Toronto. She’s never noticed him before, but she falls for him immediately. She and Lou love each other and they have an intimacy, but the passion has gone and they don’t talk to each other. There are other potential problems as well. Margot and Daniel clearly have an erotic charge between them. Will they allow it to become real rather than imagined? How will Margot deal with her relationship with Lou?
The narrative focuses completely on Margot and Michelle Williams is hardly ever off the screen. She acts with every inch of her body and wears an array of shorts and sundresses that have been described as ‘vintage’ and ‘cutesy’. I’m no judge of fashion but they certainly look traditional. I’m not sure that they are flattering but they are oddly sexy in the way that she wears them. Her face is wonderfully malleable – and it’s shown as hot and sticky, embarrassed and happy and often stunningly beautiful. The care and attention given to the presentation of suburban ‘Little Portugal’ in Toronto and the mise en scène of Margot’s house is just as striking as the costume design. It’s matched too by the camerawork from Luc Montpellier (who also shot Away From Her) and the soundtrack of folk/indie/Americana. It’s a very affecting soundtrack – and strikingly Canadian, both in the origin of several tracks and the overall feel/tone. The film’s title is taken from a Leonard Cohen song based on the poem ‘Little Viennese Waltz’ by Federico Garcia Lorca and Polley has said that she played the song incessantly while developing her script for the film.
There are many interesting aspects to the film, both in terms of how it creates meanings and the kinds of controversies it has created for different audiences. One such controversy is the nudity in a scene in which Margot and her sister-in-law Geraldine (Sarah Silverman) are showering after an ‘aquatic aerobics’ class. Sarah Polley shoots the scene mostly in long shot and both women are naked – as are the other women in the class, of different shapes and sizes and ethnicities, but mostly older. The bodies on display are those of ‘ordinary’, ‘real’, not Hollywood women, none self-conscious and all in different ways, beautiful. At one point Geraldine asks herself, out loud, “Why do I shave my legs, who is it for?” Another, older, woman comments that “What is new will become old.” All this seems to be part of the lesson that Margot isn’t learning (yet). It’s a crucial scene and not gratuitous. No one would bat an eye if it appeared in a European film but in puritan North America it may be a problem. There is a montage of sex scenes later in the film, again in long shot, but in the UK the film has been given a ’15’ Certificate which seems about right. IMDb shows that in Quebec and British Columbia the film is certificated 13 and 14 respectively, yet in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario (Polley’s home province) it’s an 18 and in the US it’s an ‘R’ .
The second ‘controversy’ appears to concern morality. Outraged commentators see Margot or Daniel decried as ‘marriage wreckers’ and characters with whom an audience can have no sympathy. Alternatively, Margot is ‘stupid’. I genuinely find these comments bizarre. The film is presumably not mainstream because, in fact, there are no good guys and no bad guys – and the ending of the film is ambiguous as to how Margot feels about what has happened. This is the strength of the film. Michelle Williams is so good at presenting Margot to us that we feel she is just like someone we know. OK, she still has plenty to learn about being in a relationship, but we all do at such a tender age. This is a great humanist movie – and probably a melodrama (music, coincidences, ‘excessive’ colours, use of symbols are all there – you’ll notice just how important the Buggles song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ is.) When Margot and Lou go out to the movies on their fifth wedding anniversary, they go to see arguably the most celebrated film in Canadian cinema – Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971). Ms Polley knows her cinema.
There is a ton of stuff on YouTube about the film including clips and interviews. This is the best trailer, I think:
Beauty is suddenly back in the cinema. Following Norwegian Wood this is another film to invite the audience to experience the beauty of landscape. This is a harsh beauty in terms of its inhospitable face presented to travellers, but the magical light of early morning and evening sun is breathtaking – reminding us of films with similar settings (although in different landscapes) such as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
Kelly Reichardt’s film (she co-wrote, directed and edited Meek’s Cutoff) recounts a journey by hopeful settlers across the wild country of the Cascades in Oregon territory during the 1840s. Three couples have hired a guide with local knowledge called Stephen Meek to take them on a route that will shortcut the main Oregon trail – thus Meek’s ‘cutoff’. Other than a boy, who is the son of one couple, and their oxen and horses, this is the totality of the party – until they come across a lone Cayuse ‘Indian’. At this point they fear that they are lost and they are suspicious of Meek’s ability to get them through this country. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) is particularly assertive within the group and her contempt for Meek and his reaction to the Cayuse becomes an important narrative element.
The print I saw was digital and the detail of the image was at times breathtaking. In one early scene a character leans forward towards the camera to fill a water container and the effect is almost 3D-like. I felt that I could reach out and put my hand in the water. It was only later that I realised how important that water was going to be in the narrative. This high level of visual realism is framed in Academy ratio (1:1.33). An unusual choice in modern cinema and Reichardt has explained that it represents the restricted view of the female characters – i.e. from beneath their bonnets. This is an interesting idea and it certainly serves to mark a difference from the films which have presented the Western landscape in CinemaScope since the mid-1950s (as well as the earlier Fox Grandeur widescreen The Big Trail from 1930 – one of the first representations of the wagon trains on the Oregon trail). Academy means vertical compositions and a feeling of containment rather than the ‘open-ness’ of ‘Scope. Two technical issues raised questions for me. The first was simply to wonder how multiplexes have got on projecting the film since I remember seeing Academy prints of classic films which had been ‘topped and tailed’ to fit onto the 1:1.85 screen in many cinemas. (Most good independent cinemas are properly prepared to show Academy ratios.) The second was to query the sound design. I had some problems with the dialogue and the directionality of some of the sound effects – as if the Academy ratio was a problem with stereo sound design. Has anyone else experienced this?
As to the film’s narrative, I’ve read that Reichardt and her collaborators were not particularly familiar with previous films on the same topic. (See the Sight and Sound coverage (May 2011). The film was motivated more by Reichardt’s discovery of the landscape when she was researching an earlier film – and by her co-writer Jon Raymond’s research into the local history of the region which turned up the Meek character. But Reichardt certainly was aware of the ways in which Westerns have traditionally marginalised women and her focus on the three women working together is clear. In some ways however I think that film pushes more towards allegory than social history. It made me re-think my own experience of watching Westerns and why I didn’t more forcefully resist the casual sexism and more blatant racism of so many Western narratives. In a typically solid summary of women’s roles in Westerns by Ed Buscombe (in the same issue of Sight and Sound), he mentions both Ford’s Wagonmaster and the TV series Wagon Train which I watched regularly in the 1950s. As Buscombe points out, the series format and the need for new narrative material meant that the TV representations of the wagon train were more likely to feature domestic scenes and it is interesting to see how Reichardt’s vision makes the collecting of kindling, cooking, sewing etc. much more realistic and much more part of the trail experience. The framings also emphasise this with the women often in central positions when the group is viewed in relation to the landscape (i.e. when they are discussing which way to go). Her women are clearly part of the survival discourse of the film and the interaction between Emily and the Cayuse demonstrates this. She is repelled by his stench, but she mends his moccasin. She explains this as a pragmatic decision but it is also suggestive of her humanity, her compassion and perhaps her sense of justice because of the way he is being treated by Meek. Jon Raymond refers to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as an inspiration and I can see that in some of the interactions between characters and with the landscape.
I suspect that some audiences will struggle with the film, partly because of the otherness of its look but mainly because of its narrative. In the goal-orientated fictional worlds of Hollywood, the ‘end is always in sight’ but Reichardt is much more interested in the journey itself. But I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I hope she either makes another Western or that she has inspired others to explore similar territory. More please!
Here is the film’s trailer illustrating some of the points presented above: