Tagged: My French Film Festival

Une vie démente (Madly in Life, Belgium 2020)

Alex and Néomie face one of many agencies concerned about Suzanne’s behaviour – but she’s busy eating sweets

Une vie démente is a francophone film and the first feature of a filmmaking couple, Raphaël Balboni and Ann Sirot based in Brussels. It follows several short films and contributions to portmanteau films. The film has an English language title which I don’t think is helpful. The Belgian title is more to the point – this is a film about understanding and learning to live with a form of dementia. It is promoted as a comedy-drama but I think that probably depends on the individual and what they have experienced  about dealing with dementia sufferers. It is, I think, an intelligent, human and very worthwhile film which uses elements of humour very well. I’m aware that there is a particularly Belgian form of humour and that may be evident here.

I’m certainly not an expert on dementia but I am very aware of it. One of the most important points to take on board is that there are all kinds of degenerative diseases which might grouped under a general heading of dementia, but they do manifest themselves in different ways. In this film a couple in their early thirties, Alex and Noémie, gradually come to realise that Alex’s mother Suzanne is beginning to act strangely. It’s only a short film (under 90 minutes) so the narrative progresses quite quickly and soon Suzanne is no longer capable of looking after herself and is becoming a possible danger to others. It is particularly unfortunate for the couple because they are hoping to start a family and caring for Suzanne raises questions about whether they should go ahead at this time.

Suzanne in her garden trying to understand the robot mower’s movements

The condition from which Suzanne suffers is named as ‘semantic dementia’ which refers to the inability to connect words to specific meanings. I don’t know if what we see is a realistic depiction of ‘SD’ but it is significant that Suzanne has been in charge of a gallery or at least putting on art exhibitions. She has a beautiful and spacious house and garden and a collection of valuable art objects. Alex works in a the same business and Noémie is a secondary school art teacher. The directors have chosen to incorporate ideas about art and design into the film’s mise en scène, creating some effects which are initially subtle and eventually quite startling and amusing. Suzanne doesn’t lose her interest in art and is particularly interested in a little girl, the daughter of one of Alex and Néomie’s friends who is clearly creative.

The film’s mise en scène echoes Suzanne’s fascination with art and gradually becomes more emphatic

Suzanne’s behaviour creates bizarre social situations which are the basis of several possibly comic moments. Interactions with various officials and agencies are presented in an original way so we only see Suzanne sitting alongside Alex and Néomie as questions are asked (see top image). These scenes too are handled in relation to ideas about colour and design. It is Alex as Suzanne’s closest kin who is the source of most of the film’s emotional heft. He has to learn how to communicate and adapt to his mother’s condition and I did find this moving. There is no cure for SD so the ultimate aim must be to find a way of dealing with the condition and how it impacts on everyone. I think the film’s ending is sad but also uplifting. The critical response and the small group of IMDb ‘users’ appear to agree. The film has won recognition and prizes at various film festivals. The performances by the four principals are very good: Jo Deseure is Suzanne, Jean Le Peltier is Alex and Lucie Debay is Néomie. Gilles Remiche is the carer, Kevin, a potentially difficult role that I think is well-written and performed. The film looks very good with ‘Scope photography by Jorge Piquer Rodríguez. Music is also important in the film, as it is in the lives of many dementia sufferers since enjoyment and recall of music are often retained when other facilities are lost.

Suzanne is a woman who has family and a generous life style when we first meet her. We aren’t shown all the procedures necessary to put her financial affairs into order after she has lost control or interest in her affairs, but she owns art objects that are valuable. Of course many dementia suffers don’t have both support and resources and to that extent the film presents an idealised perspective on what such a diagnosis might mean. Even so I think writer-directors Balboni and Sirot are to be congratulated on a début film that entertains while presenting an insight into a condition that will be something more and more of us will encounter. I don’t know whether the film has yet achieved a wider international distribution beyond the francophone world but I hope it does.

Beyond the Horizon (Le milieu de l’horizon, Belgium-Switzerland 2019)

Nicole leads her husband and son

This is a hybrid drama presented as a francophone film in My French Film Festival. It is also available on UK streamers via the BFI for a few more days (i.e. BFI Player subscription, Amazon Prime and Apple) and possibly on Google and Apple for longer. Adapted by Joanne Giger from a novel by Roland Buti, this is the second feature by the Swiss director Delphine Lehericey, now living in Belgium. The film is an official Belgian-Swiss co-production. It has quite a starry cast and has won a positive critical response at festivals and subsequently gained distribution in a number of territories. I am not totally convinced by the film but it is certainly worth catching.

Gus, who watches most things

I’m calling it a hybrid simply because all the reviews and most of the promotional material I’ve seen categorise the film as a ‘coming-of-age’ story. While that is certainly an important element in the film and the narrative is focused on 13 year-old Gus, that isn’t a complete description. And apart from anything else ‘coming of age’ is a very loose concept related to individuals and occurring at very different ages. Sometimes it is sexual maturity, sometimes it is about adult responsibility, sometimes it is simply about the ending of childhood. Just as important in this case is a natural phenomenon and a couple of social issues which loom large in the lives of a family in 1976 on a farm somewhere in rural Europe. Anyone over the age of 50 will now remember 1976 as the time of the great heat wave and drought. It was a momentous year in my life in the UK but fortunately I wasn’t in a rural area and I remember the heat rather than the drought – but farming communities in Central Europe must have suffered. This film was actually shot in Macedonia.  I’m not sure why (apart from wider European funding) but it works well as a landscape for drought.

Rudi, whose communication is minimal

The family is headed by Nicole (Laetitia Casta) and Jean (Thibaut Evrard). Jean’s father Annibal (Patrick Descamps) is still alive and the children are Gus (Luc Bruchez) and Léa (Lisa Harder). There is also Rudi (Fred Hotier), a young man with some form of learning difficulty. I wasn’t sure of his status but one review I read stated he is a cousin of Gus and therefore perhaps the nephew of Nicole. At 13 Gus is still quite small as a late developer, but his hormones are starting to kick in and early on we see him stealing a magazine of nudes to add to his usual reading of comic books. He will have other experiences that are more tactile and the six weeks of summer holiday drought and heat are quite eventful. One thing is clear and that is that he is close to his mother. Luc Bruchez was appearing in his first film and the fact that he is on screen for most senes adds to his excellent début. His haircut and small stature reminded me of the Small Faces, the UK band from the mid 1960s.

Cécile, whose arrival causes changes

1976 is an important period of feminist consciousness (see films like Agnes Varda’s One Sings, the Other Doesn’t (France 1977) and Catherine Corsini’s Summertime (France 2015)). In this film Nicole meets the divorced Cécile and a relationship begins. Cécile’s arrival on the scene has an impact on most of the other family members – and many others in the area. The farm needs money and Nicole decides to work part-time at the Post Office with Cécile. Daughter Léa also responds to Cécile’s arrival but I think her story is underplayed in the film (I couldn’t find an image from the film that includes Léa).

A long shot of the Macedonian landscape as Gus finds his grandfather’s horse, thanks to his friend Mado

The males in the family do most of the actual farming and it is very difficult with crops and animals dying in the heat and drought. This is a double issue. Jean has invested in some intensively-raised poultry, not a good idea for sustainable farming, even back in the 1970s. The maize crop is ruined and the dairy cows fed on expensive stored feed are the only part of the farm generating an income. In some ways scenes reminded me of foot and mouth disease in the UK and the thousands of cattle and sheep that had to be burned. If you are upset by animals dying this probably isn’t the film for you. The other factor is the long-term economic decline of the family farm. Jean doesn’t want to work for anyone else but he hasn’t got the resources to keep the farm going. Rudi is a willing worker but Gus is reluctant and works only out of duty and family pressure. Jean is a hard worker but it isn’t enough.

Gus and his father, Jean, with a trailer of dead chickens

The cast are all very good and the cinematography by the very experienced Christophe Beaucarne is excellent. Léa is part of the school orchestra and some of the discussions about music are interesting (the Ramones aren’t allowed onto the radio for instance, so UK style punk won’t be having much of an impact). I read one review that suggested that the director consciously avoids conventional storytelling. That’s an interesting point. I felt that some characters who seemed important were not really explored and although there is a narrative climax when the rains finally come, I didn’t feel that there was any kind of conclusive resolution. I suspect that what we are meant to take from the final image is simply that after the summer of 1976 the family will never be quite the same again.

Calamity (Calamity, une enfance de Martha Jane Cannary, France-Denmark 2020)

My French Film Festival has often included an animated feature in its programme and this year it is Calamity which offers something slightly different to Josep (France 2020) and The Swallows of Kabul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in previous years. First it has a different drawn style with bold colours and strong lines but little detail in the background or characters, though it has plenty of energy. Second it is arguably a film for all ages with a mythical storyline rather than the political context of the earlier films. The film has had a theatrical release in France and Japan as well as some other European countries but in the UK it has gone straight to digital download and is widely available on streamers – more on this later.

Martha acts as mother for her siblings

It took me a while to make the direct connection between Martha, the hero of the story, and the real ‘Calamity Jane’, mainly because I didn’t know about the historical Martha Jane Cannary. The film, directed by Rémi Chayé and co-written by Chayé with Fabrice de Costil and Sandra Tosello, does not set out to be an accurate partial biopic but the broad idea of the story fits the mythologising of her life that Cannary herself embellished. We meet a young teenage Martha on a wagon train in 1863 with her father and siblings. They are a relatively poor family compared to some of the other travellers. The wagon train is led by a rather strict ‘elder’ of the community, whose teenage son Ethan becomes something of a tormentor of Martha. I recognised some of the conventions in representing the wagon train crossing the plains and the mountain ranges from classic Hollywood films such as John Ford’s Wagon Master from 1950. Martha’s train doesn’t have a professional guide or ‘wagon master’ and that means that the narrative develops partly because of the mistakes the leader makes and accidents that befall the wagons. Several scenes reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010) – but that film framed the Western landscape in Academy ratio. Calamity offers us a CinemaScope view of the landscape which references Westerns from 1954 onwards.

Martha starts to learn how to use a lasso

The plot sees Martha leaving the wagon train in an attempt to clear her name after an incident which also sees her changing into trousers rather than a skirt and eventually cutting her hair. After learning to ride and lasso horses and cattle, her adventures see her being taken to be a boy. (This reminded me of Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 Western, The Ballad of Little Jo.) Many wagon trains suffered disasters and lives were lost, especially on the Oregon trail but this narrative has a happy ending, making it suitable family entertainment. There was a moment (in a mine) when I thought it was going to become frightening but the danger was quickly overcome. One of the main features of the film is its fast pacing with frequent actions. It’s a relatively short feature of around 80 minutes plus end credits. In addition there is a lively mountain music/bluegrass score by the Argentinian composer Florencia Di Concilio and the soundtrack can be sampled on YouTube. Martha meets various characters on her travels including another renegade character, a young man not that much older than herself. At one point Martha meets a trio of trappers who I think are Native Americans but otherwise the use of colour and the drawing techniques do not necessarily attempt to denote ethnicity. It is worth remembering that the date is given as 1863, before the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the migration of freed slaves across the Missouri.

The short-haired Martha on her lone adventures . . .

I enjoyed the film which I think demonstrates strong story-telling. The film seems to have gone down well with audiences and has won prizes, including at the Annecy International Animation Festival. I’m not an expert on animation and I’m not sure I appreciate the visual style as much as some of the animation experts. I’m also not sure that I find the rebellion of a young girl fighting against gender norms to be such a novel experience as some reviewers – in some ways Martha seems like a Miyazaki hero (and what I presume Disney has been trying to achieve more recently). But if the film works to inspire young women that’s great. I think the version of the film released in Japan has a Japanese dub but one of the few English language reviewers of this film bemoans the fact that there is no English dub – and that this will restrict and possibly exclude entirely the young audiences it might otherwise find. In industry terms I think that is a fair comment. In most European countries that regularly subtitle foreign language films, provision is usually made to dub animated films with children as a target audience into the local language. On the other hand this is not a dialogue heavy film and I think young audiences will probably be able to follow the English subtitles. I discovered that the film has been available for some time on BFI Player (subscribers only) and that it is now also available on Google and YouTube to stream. The Amazon and Apple streams may be linked to BFI Player subscription offer which ends soon. The trailer below has English subs. If you have a MUBI subscription, I’ve discovered that Rémi Chayé’s previous film Long Way North (France-Denmark 2015) is available to stream currently.

All Hands on Deck (À l’abordage, France 2020)

Often with film festivals I start a screening knowing little about the film – which has both advantages and disadvantages when it comes to managing expectations. This is especially true of My French Film Festival because I buy a ticket that covers most of the films (there are a couple which are not available in the UK). I started All Hands on Deck with no idea of what I might be watching. Halfway through I thought the film was OK but a bit underwhelming. The last part was better and in the end I was pleased to have seen it. To my surprise I then realised that the director Guillaume Brac is now quite well-known internationally and is being touted as an Eric Rohmer-like filmmaker for contemporary cinema. This film screened at Berlin in 2020 and was released in France in 2021 to acclaim and recognition as a successful comedy. I realised that I had looked briefly at the collection of Brac’s films currently on MUBI but had not bothered to investigate further. It turns out that this year there are several titles from My French Film Festival also on MUBI.

(from left) Chérif, Edouard and Félix

The English title of the film is not very helpful and the French title refers to ‘boarding’ which is ambiguous so I’ll need to outline the plot. Félix (Eric Nantchouang) and Chérif (Salif Cissé) are two young African-French men in Paris. Félix is a carer who we first meet visiting an elderly woman and then on a night out where he meets a young woman, Alma (Asma Messaoudene), at an open air dance by the Seine. He learns that she is about to go on her summer holiday, staying in a house with her family in rural France. (The house seems to be in Die in Drôme department in South East France.) On a whim, Félix decides to take a week off and surprise her with a visit. He persuades Chérif to join him and they sign up for a car share journey to a campsite close to Alma’s holiday home. The car’s driver, Edouard (Édouard Sulpice), is disappointed to discover they are not the young women he was expecting. Edouard is a young white guy and socially awkward. He and Félix do not get on but Chérif is a calming influence. I think that ‘boarding’ actually refers to the adventures that follow at the campsite, possibly as ‘boarders’ who are in different ways ‘house guests’.

Félix with Alma

The Rohmer tag makes sense in terms of the dialogue-driven interactions between the three young men and a handful of other young people on the campsite. As well as Alma we meet her older sister and a couple of young men who are working at the site. Chérif also meets someone and it is his relationship which perhaps is the most affecting. Edouard has a few setbacks but he begins to socialise and turns out to be someone who can ‘come out of himself’. The one thing that I did feel in the latter half of the film was that this was not a film that wanted to use the genre conventions of the French summer holiday comedy. Apart from one rather over-bearing character there are no real ‘bad guys’ in the film and this was refreshing – though I did find the occasional outbursts and then fulsome apologies a little annoying.

Chérif and Hélena (Ana Blagojevic) at the karaoke bar

Reading the film’s Press Pack (in a Google translation) I learned that the actors are all students at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique de Paris. Brac took up a commission to make a film with the students and he began with a workshop and a simple outline from which the students had to build a character. The final script was then written by Brac and his writing partner Catherine Paillé. The most interesting questions involved the two African-French students. They were clear that they didn’t want to appear in typical roles as guys from les banlieues in Paris and they didn’t want to be in a narrative which focused on their difference/identity. Brac says he understood this but also felt that it was unrealistic and unhelpful to try to ignore their identity, especially in a tourist area in rural France. He and the students agreed that identity issues and typical characters shouldn’t be the focus of the story. I think that the film does avoid this problem but that it is indeed impossible to ignore the fact that Félix and Chérif are recognisable characters, even if they don’t behave in stereotypical ways. Personally, I found Félix a slightly annoying character and Chérif someone I would like to have met on holiday and that’s probably a win for the presentation of the characters. I can see that I should have looked more carefully at the selection of Guillaume Brac’s films that are available on MUBI and I’ll try to watch some of the others. If you come across this film it’s definitely worth a look.

Honey Cigar (Cigare au miel) France-Algeria-Belgium 2020)

Selma (Zoé Adjani) enjoys her honey cigar.

I watched this film as part of My French Film Festival 2022 and the next day it turned up on MUBI. Fortunately I enjoyed the film and I’m grateful for the chance to watch it more than once. The odd title refers to a delicacy made by a group of village women in the mountains of Algeria. It’s a cigar-shaped cylinder of thin fried pastry filled with honey and here enjoyed by a young French woman of Kabyle ancestry visiting her parent’s homeland. ‘Kabylia’ is the Berber-speaking region of Northern Algeria.

Visiting Algeria.

The making of honey cigars by village women comes towards the end of the film but we first meet the central character Selma sucking suggestively on a honey cigar in a short prologue as part of the opening titles. These titles are certainly unusual and suggest that this will be a narrative suffused with the physicality of sexual desire as experienced by a young woman. Selma is then introduced more formally as a 17 year-old being interviewed for a place at a prestigious Parisian school that should ensure her progress into a highly-paid business career. She is fluent in English and handles herself well in the interview. One of her two interviewers appears to be an American who questions her in English. The narrative is set in 1993 and the questioning refers to the Algerian Civil War. Selma is articulate in defining her ‘double identity’ of French and Algerian. She also realises that she will have to face the casual racism and ignorance of the business world typified by the American’s questions.

Selma with her mother played by Amira Casar . . .

. . . and her father (Lyès Salem).

Honey Cigar is an impressive début feature film written and directed by Kamir Aïnouz, herself French-Algerian. Selma is played by Zoé Adjani (niece of Isabelle Adjani, who I now discover is also the daughter of a man from Kabylia) in a powerful and affecting performance. In an interview on Cineuropa’s website Kamir Aïnouz tells us that the idea that underpins the narrative came to her when she repeatedly saw in her mind’s eye an image of a young woman, spread out on her bed and seemingly in pain – as if her body was tearing itself in two. Aïnouz realised that the story of this young woman was also the story of Algeria in the 1990s. The woman feels torn between two cultures, both of which seem to have designs upon her body while Algeria, still a ‘young country’ after independence in 1962 is experiencing the rise of fundamentalism and terrorist attacks. The soundtrack of the film contributes to the narrative with occasional quotations from the story of Scheherazade, the epitome of a young female rebellion against the male hegemony of an historical Muslim world, here expressed through her sexual desire.

Selma’s family belong to a successful Parisian élite living in the upmarket district of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Her father is a lawyer who travels to Algeria frequently looking after clients. Her mother is a gynaecologist who has seemingly given up work to be supportive of her daughter. The couple are secular but still traditional in terms of wishing to influence Selma’s possible decisions re marriage. But there are tensions in the parents’ marriage which will also have an impact on Selma. Towards the end of the narrative, Selma and her mother make a trip to Kabylia to meet her grandmother, still in her mountain village.

Selma with Julien (Louis Peres).

It’s interesting to see a representation of a French-Maghrebi young woman that reverses the typical relationships of a girl from les banlieues. Julien, the young man who Selma meets in her new school/college is in his final year and it is he who is from a working-class family. Selma struggles with her sexual desire and we assume that she has had a relatively sheltered life up to this point. Her experiences with Julien are contrasted with a brief but painful interaction with one of her parent’s preferred successful young men, Luka (Idir Chender), a young banker. There is also a third but underdeveloped interaction with Sélim (Jud Bengana),  the son of her parents’ friends.

Selma in Paris – but this image could be anywhere. The world is open to Selma if she wants to find it.

Honey Cigar is beautifully presented in a ‘Scope ratio with photography by Jeanne Lapoirie, one of the top current French cinematographers and with the ravishing performance of Zoé Adjani it’s always a pleasure to watch. The presentation of Selma’s family is nuanced with the father appearing at first to be ‘modern’ and outward-looking, but revealing his attachment to more traditional values in terms of his daughter’s behaviour. Meanwhile, the mother seemingly moves in the opposite direction. Her desire to keep her links to Algeria eventually may prove her to be the ‘modern’ woman. In fact, Honey Cigar is clearly a female narrative with a strong link appearing between Selma and her grandmother via her mother. We hope this will help Selma to find her own way with confidence. Honey Cigar is an impressive début feature with a great central character. It’s not perfect and I recognise some of the reviews that suggest Kamir Aïnouz has been very ambitious with perhaps too many issues to deal with, especially in the Algerian sequences. But I think this is outweighed by what she has achieved in her presentation of Selma. I hope the film gets seen widely and I heartily recommend it.

L’amant (The Lover, France-UK 1992)

My French Film Festival is back online with around a dozen features available for minimum cost. There is usually at least one archive film included and this year it is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s L’amant in a restored print from 2014. I didn’t make any effort to see this film on release. It was hyped I think and I assumed that it would not interest me as a vapid combination of heritage film and soft porn extravaganza. In 2022 it looks controversial primarily for the casting of the central character as a young teenage girl in an illicit relationship. What surprised me most about watching it now was the split in 1992 between leading critics whom I generally respect. Some were prepared to defend the film and others trashed it. These days I try to comment on what I see, how I think a film has been put together and what it might mean. So here goes.

The girl and the Chinese man meet on the ferry

L’amant is an adaptation of a semi-autobiographical novel with the same title by Marguerite Duras published in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt. An earlier novel drawing on her adolescent years in Indochina was published in 1950 and that was made into two films, one ‘international’ and the other a later French production in 2008 with Isabelle Huppert as the mother struggling to hold back the sea’s incursion into the land she had been fooled into acquiring. Known as The Sea Wall in English, elements of this story appear in L’amant. It is perhaps significant that Duras herself was not involved in the scripting of L’amant and that she wrote a second version of the story, published as L’amant de la Chine du Nord in 1991. The Duras connection might have been a stumbling block for some reviewers and one American reviewer claimed that L’amant was full of ‘arthouse banalities’. I’m not sure I understand that but it does say something about what happens when a French literary adaptation arrives in the US as a big budget English language film distributed by MGM.

Jean-Jacques Annaud (born 1943) is a French director who trained at IDHEC but who began his career in advertising before developing a portfolio of ‘big pictures’ mostly as English-language productions set in various spectacular locations. Claude Berri who produced L’amant was one of the major figures in French cinema as a producer, director, writer and actor. His biggest success as a director was the pair of Maurice Pagnol adaptations, Jean de Florette and Manon des sources in 1986. In industry terms, these were two names to be trusted with a big budget film shot mainly in Vietnam.

The couple’s first intimate encounter in the car

The Duras story sees a young teenage girl, known only as ‘The Girl’ who is heading back to Saigon to a large hostel for girls where she stays in order to attend a lycée in the city. She leaves behind her mother and two brothers in the town of Sa Đéc in the Mekong Delta. On the ferry she meets a wealthy and attractive ‘Chinese man’, who is also unnamed in the story. He offers her a ride in his chauffeur-driven car. There is an attraction between them and eventually over the next few weeks he will persuade her to visit his ‘bachelor room’ where they begin a physical affair. The man is close to an arranged marriage and the affair with the girl is a taboo for him as well as for the girl. But the story will not end with the girl’s eventual return to Paris as there is a brief coda. As the film begins the year is 1929 (when Duras was 15). When she gets into the car, the girl says she is 17. The man says he is 32 (which would have been Tony Leung Ka Fai’s actual age when he made the film). Annaud searched extensively in casting for the girl. Jane March had started modelling work at 15 in England. She was 17 when Annaud found her and she turned 18 at the start of the film shoot. The script included many scenes in which she would be naked and despite the use of body doubles she would later claim that Annaud had exploited her. Tony Leung was already a star in Hong Kong cinema in 1991 (a year when eleven of his films were released). Jane would have had the support of her mother (who had some Vietnamese-Chinese ancestry according to IMDb) but I don’t know if she was in Paris where the bedroom scenes were filmed or in Vietnam for the location shoot. Tony Leung’s time on set may have been limited because of his other films in production. IMDb suggests that Annaud spread rumours about ‘real’ sex on set to generate news stories. It looks like a potential case for investigation in the current circumstances. I haven’t seen anything else about the case so I can’t comment. The film was heavily cut in the US to get an R classification. In the UK it received an ’18’ rating with fewer cuts (or perhaps the submitted film was shorter). The version I watched online was a few minutes longer than the UK DVD releases. I’m not sure the cuts are that important. The early 1990s were a time when soft porn in mainstream cinema was still part of the offer. We live in a different world now where presentation of sex in the mainstream cinema is perhaps less common but much more explicit. What is presented in The Lover didn’t strike me as pornographic and I note that in France it has a certificate for ‘Tous public’. The debate about pornography v. eroticism is interesting, but I’m going to focus on other aspects.

The girl is a good student and destined to be a writer

What kind of film is it? The romance dominates the narrative but since both families are to some extent involved in the romance, this is also a form of family melodrama. It’s also a colonial melodrama, complicated by issues of race and class, though it involves a wealthy Chinese family rather than the directly colonised Vietnamese. It is also a form of ‘heritage’ picture, the French genre similar to the British idea of a heritage drama – wrapped up in nostalgia, costumes, beautiful houses etc. Finally it’s a literary adaptation and specifically a narrative associated with Marguerite Duras, a then still living figure associated with high culture. That’s a complicated mixture, largely ignored by most critics and reviewers. Berri and Annaud insisted on shooting in Vietnam, despite the cost of importing equipment and facilities. There is some use of matte work I think? Special effects work is not my forte and I’m not sure about how it’s done but there are several uses of long shots/aerial shots of the Mekong with steamships from France that maintain the colonial communities, otherwise Indochina is represented by street scenes, a dancehall, the Chinese district (Cholon), the lycée and the boarding house and towards the end of the film, a Chinese wedding. Vietnamese characters feature only as servants, stall-holders, waiters etc.

Walking through Cholon

The colonial melodrama is to a certain extent stifled or deflected by the main focus on the French-Chinese couple. Tony Leung gives a sensitive performance. His character puts up with the casual racism displayed by the girl and he doesn’t really become enraged until he meets the family and particularly her older brother. That anger is transferred to a rough sex scene with the girl but she in turn uses it as part of her fantasy exploring how it must feel for prostitutes. The sexual relationship between man and girl is intelligently explored and involves the possibility of love, the strength of tradition and the exploration of adolescence. My disappointment with the film is more concerned with the missed opportunity to deal with the colonial imagination of the girl and her family (which is seriously affected by the economic position of the mother and the events which make up the main narrative in The Sea Wall). We do learn something about the Chinese family, though only really via the dialogue. The Chinese man explains how the family migrated from China, selling their property and business to the Japanese in Manchuria. The historical background of this narrative seems to look forward to the collapse of the French influence in the region twenty years later and the complicated Chinese-Vietnamese relationships during the same period.

The couple visit the abadoned land the mother couldn’t protect from the sea

Overall, I did enjoy the film and I don’t think it deserves the critical mauling it got in both the US and UK, especially using the charge of ‘bad acting’ – I thought that both March with her brief background experience in modelling and Leung with his already celebrated career triumphs in Hong Kong were very good. I realise that when the film came out my knowledge of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema was still fairly limited but I hope I might have recognised the performance skills of ‘Big Tony’ (to distinguish him from Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who is probably better known in the US/UK because of his work in arthouse and major international productions). I was impressed by Big Tony’s English accent. I suppose, however, that it is a little odd to see a relationship between a young French girl and a Chinese man in Indochina conducted in British English and perhaps it does distance the relationship from its French colonial setting? The film was scripted by Annaud’s regular collaborator Gérard Brach. The music is by Gabriel Yared and the cinematography by Robert Fraisse. And I almost forgot that there is narration by Jeanne Moreau, presenting the the thoughts of the novelist, i.e. ‘the girl’ thinking back as the older woman in her Parisian writer’s room. Voiceover narration is always divisive for critics but it worked for me. Here’s a short clip from the film, when the couple meet and share the car ride to Saigon.