This classic screened at the Hyde Park Picture House in a good quality 35mm print was viewed by about a 100 people. Given the box office figures for art films reported in Charles Gant very informative ‘Numbers’ column in Sight & Sound the attendance was reassuring. Roy has also raised concerns about this issue on this blog. It is true to say that French films, and especially by François Truffaut, have usually performed well at the UK box office.
I first saw the film a few years after its initial release at a Film Society in a 16mm print. I and my friends were impressed by the striking visual and aural style of the film; shot in black and white Franscope. The three protagonists, Jules (Oscar Werner), Jim (Henry Serre) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) were fascinating characters beautifully played by the leading actors. And the supporting cast was excellent, including several attractive and skilled actresses: frequently the case in French films.
The film is adapted from a relatively short novel by Henri-Pierre Roché. The story commences in la belle époque, the period before World War I. This period is beautifully reproduced with fine inputs from the Costume Designer Fred Capel. The part, set in Paris, is brought to an end by World I. Here Truffaut provides a series of archive sequences of the conflict, but it is emphasised by changes to the aspect ratio – twice the footage is stretched in to anamorphic frame. After the war there are sequences in Austria and then again in France. Footage at one point of Nazi book burning shows us to have reached 1933. The film closes in a crematorium.
The film is beautifully shot in black and white widescreen by Raul Coutard. The camera is constantly on the move – with pans, tracks, circulating camera, even zooms (which on this occasion work) and a wipe. And there are frequent lap dissolves and jump cuts. In that sense it fits into the unconventionality (for the period) of the nouvelle vague. The editor Claudine Bouché has mastered an exceedingly demanding plot and set of shots. The soundtrack by Témoin contributes important aspects to the film’s impact. The music score by George Delerue is varied and inventive. Apparently the Production Design was also by Fred Capel, but he is uncredited. It is likely that some responsibility, given the use of locations, fell on the ‘continuity girl’, Suzanne Schiffman,
Props, plot references and film inserts are also noticeable. There are statues, photographs and paintings which seem significant. Apart from cinema there are references to theatre and literature. This provides a complex web of signifiers surrounding the characters. And there are visual and aural motifs – notably an hourglass which set limits on the time.
The focus of the story is the two friends of the title. Catherine is much less developed and she remains enigmatic. In a conversation between Jules and Jim she is referred t as ‘flighty’. A critic (Dudley Andrews) describes her as ‘pure woman (spontaneous, tender, cruel).’ The film, in the voice of the narrator (Michel Subor), supports this viewpoint. So the lead woman is really a male construct. This is probably the most serious flaw in the film.
This is a film that can seen and re-seen, offering discoveries at every viewing. And the quality of the style remains fresh after any number of viewings.
Seeing a film in its original format nowadays is a special pleasure. So it is worth noting for readers for whom Leeds is accessible that the Hyde Park is screening Andrei Rublev (USSR 1966 – on Feb. 22nd) in a 35mm prints, [but not Alphaville which is a DCP, my mistake].
Submarine is likely to split audiences but although I’ve heard people say that it has no likeable characters and isn’t funny, I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of very positive reviews on IMDB. I enjoyed it – though I found it more poignant than funny. I did snigger and chortle a few times but I think it is younger audiences who have found it hilarious.
Submarine is Oliver’s story – Oliver Tait, 15 year-old Welsh schoolboy, pre-occupied, pretentious, egocentric etc. He literally narrates his own story. This could be infuriating if you don’t like extensive voiceover narration (Nick doesn’t and he didn’t like the film) but it worked for me. Oliver (Craig Roberts) has two primary concerns (outside of his desire to become ‘cultured’). He wants to lose his virginity and finds himself in a relationship with a classmate, Jordana (Yasmin Paige). But in the midst of this emotional journey he also sets out to ‘solve’ the marital problems of his parents (played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins).
The novel from which the film was adapted appeared in 2008, written by Joe Dunthorne and immediately acclaimed for its original take on adolescent life. I’ve not read it but a brief glance at some of the reviews suggests that both the tone and the characters in the novel (and its first person narration) have survived the adaptation process. Submarine was Dunthorne’s first published novel after graduating from UEA’s creative writing programme. The Joe Dunthorne website carries some interesting material – including the covers of the book from various translations (e.g. in Russian, Dutch, German, Hebrew, Brazilian). This augurs well for an international film release.
When Warp Films bought the film rights their selection of a director was clearly going to be crucial and Richard Ayoade was an inspired choice. He was known to them for his video direction (see below) but to the wider public he is a TV and stand-up comedian. He has now become internationalised so there must be many outside the UK who recognise Ayoade as a supremely talented comedian and comic actor. I only know him through his incarnation of ‘Moss’ in the IT Crowd, but a little research reveals the breadth of his creativity. I hadn’t been aware that he has directed videos for several leading bands, including the Arctic Monkeys – which presumably explains the raft of Alex Turner songs on the soundtrack for Submarine.
The film offers direct references to the ‘authorial influences’ on display – J. D. Salinger, Serge Gainsbourg, Woody Allen etc. Many reviewers have mentioned Wes Anderson and the similarity to Rushmore in particular is quite marked. However, I think Ayoade is going back to what influenced Anderson and Allen – the French New Wave. The film’s titles and the use of intertitles/chapter headings are directly lifted from Godard along with the literary and cinematic referencing. But in some ways, I think that the true auteurist link is to Truffaut – not least because of the first person narration and literary adaptation, the repeated shots of Oliver running across the shore à la Les quatre cents coups and the deadly seriousness of Oliver/Antoine Doinel (Truffaut’s young alter ego in several films). The scene in which Oliver takes Jordana to a screening of Dreyer’s Jeanne d’Arc (1928) after first plying her with Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Catcher in the Rye is a wonderful pastiche of Godard/Truffaut topped off with a joke. The direct reference is to Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) in which Nana (Anna Karina) goes to a screening of the same film. Jordana, of course, has been given a version of the Louise Brooks/Anna Karina hairstyle to complete the allusion. So, Ayoade is just as clever as Oliver – but a lot more playful.
Setting and Representation
Dunthorne’s story was set in South Wales and Submarine was produced with funding from both The Wales Creative IP Fund and The Film Agency for Wales. The film was shot in a Swansea school and around Barry Island (location for UK TV comedy series Gavin and Stacey). I think this setting is important as it allows a range of locales from the funfair to industrial sites, rather comfortable suburbia to the windswept shore. The locale also becomes a little mysterious or at least ‘other worldly’ because the narrative is not set in a specific time period. ‘Sometime in the 1980s’ is one possibility but the usual indicators – cars, clothes, pop songs etc. aren’t used here to tell us the precise time period. Besides the two young leads the three adults featured are all made to look a little odd. Paddy Considine plays a pretty loopy character spouting psychobabble and wearing silly outfits with a strange haircut. The role reminded me strongly of the Patrick Swayze role in Donnie Darko (but not quite as dark). Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor) is clearly suffering from depression and his New Zealand accent adds to the strangeness of his overall appearance (I mean ‘strange’ only in the sense of the whole tone of the film). Presumably this is also part of how Oliver views his parents. I felt sorry for Sally Hawkins who is asked to play Oliver’s mother. She often seems to get unsympathetic roles (so good to see her in a positive light in Made in Dagenham). Here she is dressed in awful outfits in attempts to age her enough to be credible as the mother of a 15 year-old.
In interviews during the opening week of the film’s release, Richard Ayoade maintained a fairly lugubrious stance, stating that Oliver wasn’t a particularly pleasant young man but that the film and its comedy were more interesting because of that. I think he’s right but it is a gamble with a popular audience. The film looks like finishing its run with around £1.3 million from its UK cinema release. That’s pretty good for a film of this type and I expect it to do equally well on DVD. The US release will be June 3 – no other territories yet to my knowledge.
Press Kit (from Toronto International Film Festival)
Here’s the UK trailer:
The French movie channel Cinémoi is currently free for a two month period on Virgin cable in the UK and I’m trying to see as many films as possible. Les plages d’Agnès is Agnès Varda’s autobiographical essay about her life and work and I wasn’t sure what to expect – despite being a fan. I needn’t have worried. This is a magical film which is as much about Varda’s visual ideas as an artist as it is about cinema. The title refers to various beaches (or at least coastlines) that feature strongly in her life story plus a beach of the imagination that she creates to represent the Parisian period when she met Jacques Demy, her partner for 30 years before his death just as she finished her film about him, Jacquot de Nantes in 1990.
Agnès Varda (born 1928) left Belgium in 1940 when the Nazis invaded and ended up in the Mediterranean port of Sète in Vichy France. This is the second ‘beach’ – although she spent her time on boats and the dockside. The first beach is in Belgium. From Sète she eventually graduated as an art student bound for Paris. Art led in turn to photography and film and her first film in 1954, La Pointe Courte, was set in a fishing village close to Sète. Other beaches are near Nantes and on the coast of Southern California where she went with Demy in the late 1960s.
This is a fascinating film in terms of structure as well as ideas about cinema and art and various filmic techniques. The beach on the Île de Noirmoutier in La Vendée, Pays du la Loire, takes the place of a stage in a one woman show – complete with actors and circus performers acting out aspects of memory. One of the interesting visual devices involves mirrors and frames with a central moving image framed by smaller static images. Perhaps the standout device that I almost feel tempted to try out myself is a film of the streets and characters in Sète shot in the 1950s which is projected onto a small screen. The projector and screen are secured on a cart which is then pushed around the same streets in the dusk, which makes the black and white images clearly visible – and stunning and beautiful in the simplicity of the sequence.
We learn a lot about Varda, her love for Demy and her two children – who appeared in many of her films. We also learn about her friends including Godard, Resnais and Chris Marker and something of her politics and thoughts about being in California with the Black Panthers amongst others. As many other commentators have noted, what is so uplifting and inspiring is the sheer vitality and imagination of this remarkable filmmaker, scampering about (a “plump and pleasant person” as she describes herself) and producing beautiful and fascinating images. I think anyone despairing of cinema at a time when it seems to be losing some of its magic should watch Beaches and rejoice.
This trailer illustrates some of the points made above:
When Venicelion’s blog on Jacques Demy appeared some time ago, I started to write a comment on the politics of Demy’s but I became ill and abandoned it. However, I was recently researching for an article on Demy for The Media Education Journal and, having had the opportunity to watch some of Demy’s lesser-known works, I thought it worth revisiting the question. The starting point was Roy’s suggestion that Demy “had little in common with the politics of Alain Resnais or Chris Marker” [leftist directors in a group known as The Left Bank Group which was part of the French New Wave in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The other group were known as the Cahiers group, being based around the journal, Les Cahiers du Cinéma]. This reflects a position among many commentators that Demy’s work was “fluffy”, “lightweight” and “whimsical”, an attitude echoed in that most clichéd of oxymorons frequently applied to Demy: bitter-sweet. Many of Demy’s biggest fans share this view of the director and recently in The Guardian, an article about the best 50 films for children suggested that Les Parapluies de Cherbourg/The Umbrellas of Cherbourg was suitable for six-year olds! I feel that Demy reputation requires defending as much from his defenders as his detractors.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Although less overtly political than Resnais and Marker, in many of his films Demy shared the political leftism of the others in the Left Bank Group (including his wife Agnes Varda). In his most successful film, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964), he implicitly criticises the Algerian War at a time when the heavy political censorship in operation made it very difficult to refer to the conflict at all. The war separates a young couple by conscripting Guy, a 20-year-old garage mechanic; he is wounded in an ambush and he returns, limping and embittered, to find his girlfriend who was carrying his baby, gone. His disillusion is shown in the sequence where he limps around the town revisiting places he had visited with Genevieve before he left for Algeria.
The idea of social class permeates the film. Even in the “happy“ opening section, when working-class Guy suggests they get married and run a petrol station, Genevieve, daughter of the petite-bourgeoise proprietor of a chic umbrella shop, remarks, “What a strange idea”. When he is away in Algeria, she gives in to the subtle pressure of her mother and marries a rich jeweller. The American critic Jonathon Rosenbaum remarked about the ending:
The name of the Esso station is Escale Cherbourgeoise; this means literally “Cherbourgian Stopover,” but if we consider that escalader means “to scale or to climb” and escalier means “stairway,” we can read traces of a buried pun: “a bourgeois step up.” Guy has become comfortably middle-class, Geneviève has become upper-class, and the class difference between them seems even more unbridgeable than it was before.
The Pied Piper
Demy’s only US-based film, Model Shop (1968), flirts with the anti-Vietnam War counter-culture but his 1973 English language film, The Pied Piper, is essentially about class struggle. (The on-line journal Jump Cut referred it as a “Neo-Marxist fairy tale”). It is set in the middle ages in the town of Hamelin and the Baron, the Mayor and the Bishop – representatives of the ruling class – plot behind closed doors to increase their wealth and power while the people, kept in fear and ignorance, are outside. The main event in the film is the marriage of convenience between Franz, the Baron’s son, and Lisa, the Mayor’s daughter, a purely political and financial transaction: she hates him and he is interested only in the dowry. In this extract during the wedding ceremony the cake – ironically in the completed form of the unfinished cathedral that the church and civil authorities have been squeezing taxes from the population to build – is discovered to be full of rats. The cake falls apart and they are inside, thus linking Christianity – the ideological buttress of the ruling class – to exploitation and the bubonic plague.
Even in some of Demy’s minor pieces, commissions rather self-generated projects, such as Lady Oscar, the class struggle makes itself felt. This is a 1979 Japanese film (made in English), based on the best-selling manga “The Rose of Versailles” by Riyoko Ikeda, about a woman raised to be a man and serving in the court of Marie Antoinette. She becomes torn between class loyalty and her desire to help the impoverished as revolution brews among the oppressed lower class and she eventually joins the ranks of the revolutionaries. While Demy is not attempting a realistic historical drama and there is a strong fairytale element to the film, he is at pains to show how the aristocrats treat the poor as an inconvenience, as vermin, or as sexual playthings.
Une Chambre en Ville/A Room in Town
This 1982 film is Demy’s most overtly political film, involving a confrontation between the notorious CRS riot police and the strikers in the 1955 naval shipyard workers strike in Nantes and in which, like Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, the dialogue is completely sung. It is interesting to note that Demy frames the opening and closing confrontations in a very similar way to the scenes in Lady Oscar when the people enter the scene after the fall of the Bastille as the revolution explodes onto the streets of Paris.
Here are clips from the two films:.
Incidentally, the very idea of a group of CRS policemen singing would have been a bit much for an audience aware of the CRS’s reputation during the events of May ’68 and subsequently. Demy solves the problem by having them chant rather than sing which makes it very Brechtian in style. The fact that it starts in black and white before segueing into colour is meant I think to reference to the contemporary black and white news footage.
Perhaps the most explicit statement of Demy’s political position is, ironically, given to a baroness, the widow of an army colonel, who has come down in the world due to her late son’s debts so that she has to rent out a room to Francois Guilbaud, a metal worker who later has a love affair with her daughter. At first she disapproves of Guilbaud since he is a striker and demonstrator and even more so because of his affair with her daughter, but gradually she mellows in her attitude. The following words are the baroness’s but they are perhaps an expression of Demy’s own political creed. (In most of the film, the words are a kind of recitativo and are therefore laid out as prose rather than verse):
Does it shock you when a bourgeoise lets her hair down? You know, Guilbaud, I don’t give a shit about the bourgeoisie. I’m not one of them. I’ll tell you something: I prefer you and your comrades to the bourgeois. You’re fighting for something, fighting to survive, just like me. The bourgeois are rotting in their material wealth. They wallow in the comfort of their complacency. But I swear they won’t have me as one of their own.
(The subtitles on the DVD are, necessarily, more compressed).
I don’t suggest for a moment that Demy was a political director in the way that, for example, Loach, Costa-Garvas and Godard etc are. In Une Chambre en Ville, the love affair is mostly in the foreground, the strike in the background. Despite the fact that the narrative is punctuated by announcements by the strike leader, Demy shows little interested in the tactics or strategy of winning the strike. However, several French critics have highlighted the political in Demy’ films and not just in Une Chambre en Ville. However, I think I would go along with Gerard Vaugeois‘ caveat that, while Demy is one of the most political of French directors in French cinema, he is so “in his own way” .
The Left Bank Group and the Cahiers Group
On the whole question of the divisions in the New Wave, I wonder, from the vantage point of today, how useful it is to use Richard Roud’s distinction between the so-called Left Bank group (politically on the left) and the supposedly right wing Cahiers group (although there arguably broad stylistic differences between the groups). Some in the Cahiers group certainly adopted a right-wing stance (and continued to do till the end – see Rohmer’s L’Anglaise et le Duc /The Lady and the Duke (2001), quite a different take on the French Revolution from Demy’s). But there were also Marxists such as Pierre Kast in the Cahiers camp. In other respects the delineation isn’t clear. Jacques Rivette is in some ways closer to Resnais than to the rest of the Cahiers group. Many of the accusations of being right wing were directed at the Cahiers group because of the New Wave’s championing of Hollywood cinema in the Cold War period when American cultural artefacts were viewed with suspicion by many on the left.
The issuing of the whole of Demy’s work on DVD will, hopefully, lead to debate and reconsideration of this and other aspects of Demy’ cinema.