Alice and the Mayor is an intriguing little film that I found both interesting and enjoyable. It doesn’t appear to have been released in cinemas in the UK or US but is now streaming on MUBI in the UK. Again, as with the Indian films on MUBI, there is little in the way of extras, just one review. I wonder if it is a problem with cinephiles who don’t seem to have much interest in ‘everyday politics’? Not that this is a realist film about politics in any way but it does raise a number of questions and one or two moments did ring true for me.
The writer-director Nicolas Pariser is here making only his second feature after working as a film critic and earlier spending a fair amount of time as a postgraduate student. He reveals that the film is actually the result of melding three different story ideas and producing a final narrative that he tackles with reference to an approach associated with Éric Rohmer, Pariser’s only film tutor at the Sorbonne. Rohmer himself made a film about a Socialist mayor, L’arbre, le maire et la médiathèque in 1993.
The story is set roughly around 2014-15 during the François Hollande Presidency of France and ends with a coda set during the Macron Presidency (i.e. post 2017). The national picture is not directly relevant except that the central character of the Mayor of Lyon is a senior Socialist Party figure and therefore a potential presidential candidate. Lyon is the second or third major French city depending on how boundaries are drawn and it is interesting for me to compare it with Greater Manchester in the UK, in a similar position in terms of size and importance. Manchester too now has a mayor, Andy Burnham, a Labour Party politician. Mayors as executive (i.e. not simply ceremonial) leaders constitute a relatively new phenomenon in the UK and Burnham is now arguably the second most powerful directly elected political figure after the London mayor. ‘Paul Théraneau’ (Fabrice Luchini) probably has more direct local power in Lyon than his UK counterparts. The ‘inciting incident’ of the film’s narrative is the arrival of Alice Heimann (Anaïs Demoustier) in a new post in the mayor’s office. Slightly bewildered/bemused by what her new job might entail, Alice is informed that the mayor, a seasoned veteran of 30 years in politics, has suddenly lost the ability to think up new ideas. She is charged with stimulating his thinking as an ‘ideas woman’.
This central plot point could lead to different kinds of narratives. The casting of the talented comic actor Fabrice Luchini suggests a comedy with Alice creating mayhem with naïve, revolutionary or simply daft ideas. We are used to British and American parodies or satires of government. But though there are comic moments in Alice and the Mayor, there are also interesting references to literature, philosophy and politics which form the basis for genuine discussion. Alice is not a ‘whizz-kid’ or a ‘policy wonk’. She’s a thoughtful young woman who graduated in Lyon and has recently been studying and teaching in Oxford as a literature scholar. She isn’t pushy and is possibly a little embarrassed by her sudden elevation when the mayor begins to believe that she can really help him. Despite her embarrassment she behaves in a professional manner at all times.
Reflecting on the film after screening it, I think I can see the separate stories that Pariser has put together, or rather I can see three different stories that don’t quite match the three that Pariser mentions in the Press Notes, but I think I’m close enough. One story is about the Mayor and his relationship/friendship with Alice, one is about Alice herself as an intelligent and charming young woman who doesn’t yet know what she wants to do with her life and one is about politics as a contemporary professional practice. Pariser reveals his affection for The West Wing in his presentation of the political machinations in City Hall.
Why did I enjoy the film so much? Partly because I’ve previously enjoyed several Fabrice Luchini films and appreciated his acting skills and partly because I’m an admirer of Ms Demoustier. I knew I’d seen her before and I later realised that she has been in several films by Robert Guédiguian, the Marseilles-based director whose left politics inform his narratives, as well as playing the eponymous character in The New Girlfriend (France 2014). It’s rare these days to come across a film in which genuine political questions are raised. Alice is required to provide the Mayor with ‘notes’ each day. Concise questions, quotations and ideas to get him thinking. At one point she mentions a George Orwell quote about ‘common decency’. This is Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) in which he tries to explain what he thinks ordinary working people expect from socialism and contrasts it with the outlook of left intellectuals. Alice intends it to remind the mayor that it is very easy to become too distant from his constituents. Later on Alice talks to an old friend who remarks that some renegades in the Socialist Party have started taking ideas from Orwell and Pier Paulo Pasolini as if this is an apostasy. Alice seems to float above all of this, able to deal efficiently with most of the tasks that the Mayor sets her without becoming involved in any kind of sectarian struggle.
Perhaps the melding of three different narratives and a final coda means that it is difficult to summarise what the film is trying to say and possibly frustrating in terms of its narrative resolution. On the other hand, perhaps the film accurately conveys politics as practice as viewed by someone who approaches it from literature and philosophy? Alice gives the Mayor Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker (1778) and Bartleby by Melville (1853) with an introduction by Gilles Deleuze. But she’s also very aware of ecological issues and able to see through the vanity projects that the Mayor’s search for new ideas is in danger of encouraging. It’s a film for politicos and philosophes but also for those of us who worry about whether Alice will find her own future happiness. Socialism might be struggling in France but surely there is hope for Alice? One last point. I can’t find any stills which deal with Alice’s life outside the Mayor’s office – I think the film’s Press Office have failed on this score.
It was timely of MUBI to post this film of Swedish National Broadcast Company news footage on American Civil Rights protests. Director Göran Olsson discovered the footage whilst researching and realised it needed to be presented to a contemporary audience. He starts with an interview with a white, small businessman who reiterates the myth of the American Dream and this frames the impossibility at the time of even believing in the Dream if you were a ‘person of colour’. The Swedish journalists went to where it was at and interviewed, or filmed speaking, key campaigners for Black Power: Elaine Brown, Stokley Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Although, as Olsson says in a Film Comment interview, his film is about the Swedish point of view of the time, in order to not overly privilege this viewpoint he included a contemporary African-American view on the footage with comments from musicians Erykah Badu, John Forté (of The Fugees) and Talib Kweli and professors Angela Davis, Robin Kelley and Sonia Sanchez. As he says, these voices have a feel of a DVD commentary and it’s especially good to hear Angela Davis; the footage includes her trial for abetting murder which was such a farcical charge that (you’d hope) it had no chance of sticking.
Unfortunately what’s most striking about the documentary is how little things have changed for African Americans. The same police brutality and government connivance in repression: all in the ‘land of the free’. One difference is, of course, social media were we can readily see police violence though it is unnerving how this does not curb their brutality. The news media, in the 1960s, were probably more likely to ‘call out’ government malfeasance as the increasing corporatisation of news since the 1980s has mitigated risk taking and investigative reporting. The Swedish reporters’ ‘neutral and friendly’ demeanour comes through strongly as they were seeking the ‘truth’; though Angela Davis’ brilliant putdown, whilst being interviewed in prison on the trumped-up charges (was that phrase named after him?!), showed the inevitable limitations of their perspective. Olsson also includes footage of a tourist bus tour of Swedes in Harlem in which the racist assumptions aired are shocking today.
The ending, rightly, is bleak as heroin flooded into Harlem and so, successfully, dispersed Black radicalism; a similar policy was used in LA in the 1980s. This uses footage from Lars Ulvestam’s documentary Harlem: Voices, Faces (Sweden, 1973).
The story hasn’t ended; currently there have been more than two weeks of protest in America after George Floyd’s murder on camera by police. It would be nice to think that this will be a turning point, particularly with the Hater in Chief currently occupying the White House and the fact that the protests have extended worldwide. It was good to see slave trader Colston’s statue being plonked into the harbour in Bristol, UK, last weekend though it is likely the forces of reaction will be not far behind. That such mass protests are happening during a pandemic (though police are more likely to kill African American males than Covid19) is worrying.
Bacurau is released in the UK on Friday and is likely to make quite a splash. It’s a long film (130 mins) and has an 18 Certificate in the UK. This is primarily for the spectacularly violent killings. It’s a difficult film to classify but a film that seems remarkable timely, especially in the context of Brazilian politics. The film’s opening suggests that the narrative is set ‘a few years in the future’ but the only obvious reference to this is the decision to present a contemporary piece of technology modelled as something that might have appeared in a 1950s science fiction movie. Everything else could be happening now – and some of it probably is.
Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is heading back to her village in the sertão (the Brazilian ‘bush’ or ‘outback’) in the North East of the country, hitching a ride on a water wagon. The area’s water supply has been cut off. Teresa is returning for the funeral and wake of Carmelita, her grandmother who has died at 94 as the matriarch of the (fictional) village of Bacurau. When she arrives she pops a pill, a traditional psychotropic drug taken in the village on specific occasions. The proceedings of the wake are interrupted by a drunken Domingas (played by the veteran Brazilian star Sonia Braga), the local doctor and presumably a rival for Teresa’s grandmother. Perhaps more significantly, a visit by the local politician ‘Tony Jr.’ is met with derision. The village leaders do however take his ‘bribes’ of out of date food and distribute them. This feels like a village which is isolated and possibly under siege. It suddenly ‘disappears’ off Google Earth and then the first killings of local farmers are discovered.
Bacurau won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2019 and its writing and directing duo, Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, have themselves hinted at their main genre inspiration, the Western. They have fashioned a film which presents a region of Brazil in new ways and makes reference to Brazilian history and culture and to periods of American domination of Latin America. It also reminds us of the films of Glauber Rocha such as Black God, White Devil (1964) and Antonio das Mortes (1969), both Cinema Novo Westerns set in the sertão. Many of the references will only be accessible to some Brazilian audiences. The film’s title, the name of the village, for instance is the name of
a nocturnal bird with excellent camouflage when it’s on a branch . . . it evokes the mystery of something that is there, in the darkness, alive but unseen, and that will only be noticed if it wants to be. The same is true of Bacurau the town: it is familiar with darkness; it knows how to lay low; in fact it prefers not to be noticed. (The directors quoted in the Press Notes).
But for some reason this multiracial village, with a collectivist attitude towards helping each other, is now under threat. Where does the threat come from? Who is behind the killings? Is it Tony Jr.? Who is the English-speaking German (Udo Kier) who seems to be the ‘contract killer’ leading the attacks? My viewing companions both agreed that the battle that takes up the second half of the film is reminiscent of ‘spaghetti westerns’. It seemed to me that some scenes were modelled on Seven Samurai or it’s Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven – except that the numbers are reversed, so a small group of heavily armed foreigners takes on a larger group of villagers. The directors also show their hand with the choice of music score which includes the memorable music devised by John Carpenter for his early breakthrough, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), another famous siege movie. It’s difficult to analyse other aspects of the production when the action is so tense but my impression was of long takes and long shots. The directors speak of miles of tracks laid down to enable a mobile camera. One thing I did notice which refers back to Seven Samurai was the use of Kurosawa style wipes, used here with the CinemaScope framing more associated with Leone. (Well done Simran Hans in the Observer for reminding me.)
It’s not difficult to link the film’s main ideas to contemporary politics with Jair Bolsonaro, the right-wing President who came to power on 1st January 2019 (when shooting would have been completed) and who represents the opposite of everything that the villagers celebrate. The power of the film is to oppose the threats of politicians like Bolsonaro by reference to traditional modes of resistance. The Press Notes refer to two traditions in Brazilian culture. One is the cangaço genre which featured a form of ‘social banditry’ and was popular in 1950s and 1960s Brazilian cinema. The character of Lunga, a young man who has made his base in the disused dam embodies this kind of social bandit. The film also reflects various political divides in Brazil, including the American incursions and within Brazil the North v. South. A specific concept related to this Coronelism:
Coronelism was the political machine that dominated Brazil during the Old Republic (1889-1930), when local power was in the hands of powerful landowners, coronels, who controlled a particular area and its population’s vote. More broadly, the term applies to this model’s enduring influence in the life of the country. (from the Press Notes Interview by Tatiana Monassa)
I hope that Bacurau finds the large audience it deserves in the UK. It could be a worthy successor to Parasite in attracting audiences to films with subtitles and which explore the basic inequalities of contemporary life. And, unlike Les misérables, it has several important roles for women.
Following Crystal Swan, my second LFF choice turned out to be almost the opposite kind of film. A Family Tour is a much more serious and thoughtful film but is perhaps too low-key to catch the attention it deserves as a commentary on the lot of independent filmmakers in China. The narrative is based on events in the life of the film’s director Ying Liang. It concerns an independent filmmaker from North East China whose film has been banned in the PRC because it discusses a local criminal trial viewed as having political implications. Director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) has been forced to leave China and join her husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo) and small son in Hong Kong where father and son have the protection of birth in the SAR (‘Special Administrative Region’) whereas Shu herself must keep seeking the right to remain. She can’t go back to the mainland in case she is detained. However, Shu’s mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) is now ill with heart disease and Shu feels she must see her again.
The opportunity to meet comes when Yang Shu is invited to present her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taiwan. Her elderly mother can join a tour party in Taipei (one of the few ways in which trips to Taiwan from China are allowed) and Yang Shu and her family can book into the same hotel. They can’t however meet Mrs Chen directly. Instead they must pretend she is simply a family friend and meet her ‘accidentally’ as the tour bus visits various tourist destinations. The tour party is led by a small but ferocious woman briefed by the PRC authorities and she is keen to enforce the rules (and to receive ‘sweeteners’ from Cheung Ka-Ming). As this strange family reunion trundles around Taiwan, several different discourses about home, family, loyalty, exile and identity emerge. There is an emotional desire to see her grandson in the flesh from Mrs Chen (she has kept in touch via Skype) but for Yang Shu there is pain and anger as she learns more about what happened to her father and also a different kind of loss when Mrs Chen tells her about the changes in her home town. Cheung Ka-Ming wants to support his wife and mother-in-law, but in some ways his capacity to move between the mainland and Hong Kong makes his wife feel more isolated.
Meanwhile, the film festival occasionally intrudes and more importantly, Yang Shu’s next film, a Hong Kong production which features the Umbrella Protests in 2014, runs into problems which might be caused by the mainland authorities. I found the Variety Review of the film by Jay Weissberg to be informative and insightful. I can see that there are many interesting aspects of the narrative and that it conveys the anguish of exile and separation and the impact of learning about the past in subtle and affecting ways. It is a well-made and attractive film to watch but somehow it just felt too restrained. The problem is no doubt with me. Yang Shu is reserved and her anger is often internal, Cheung Ka-Ming is more outgoing, kind and considerate – but then he is not under pressure in the same way. I haven’t seen the previous films from Ying Liang. Reviewers suggest he has introduced some more intimate shots into his usual long shot style. The consensus seems to be that this film is a welcome development in the handling of what is quite an austere aesthetic approach and that it should have a successful run on the festival circuit.